Category Archives: Meaning of Life – Death

Death is an Ultimate Evil

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 2, 2016, and  in “Church and State: Challenging Religious Privilege in Public Life,” June 2018.)

The story of Ivan Ilyich indicates an inseparable connection between death and meaning. The precise connection is unclear, but surely it depends in large part on whether death is the end of our consciousness. While beliefs in immortality have been widespread among humans, such beliefs are extremely difficult to defend rationally.

If death is the end of an individual human life, the question naturally arises whether this is a good, bad, or indifferent thing. The argument of Epicurus states that being dead cannot be bad for someone, and thus the fear of death is misplaced. Deprivationists argue that we can be harmed by things we don’t experience, but it is hard to see how someone can be harmed if that someone is non-existent. But even if the deprivationists are correct, their view implies the counter-intuitive conclusion that we should regret that we did not exist before birth. In reply, deprivationists try to explain this asymmetry by pointing out that most of us do care more about the future than the past. After considering the arguments, Barry says that death probably is bad for us and nihilism a real possibility. Nonetheless, he concludes that we give life subjective meaning by reflecting about our life and death.

Rosenbaum replies that being dead cannot be bad for the dead person—the Epicurean arguments is sound—and fears about death, while explainable, are unfounded. Hanfling stakes out the middle ground, acknowledging the pall that death casts over life while accepting the Epicurean view as palliative. In the end, we just do not know the role death plays regarding the meaning of life. Pitcher defends the claim that a dead person can be wronged and harmed, with the caveat that this harm is to be understood as affecting the ante-mortem rather than post-mortem individual. However, it is not clear that this undercuts the Epicurean argument since it is addressed to the post-mortem individual. Luper defends the badness of death by the simple observations that few would reject the offer to live longer, and most believe they could accomplish more if they had more time. These observations make it clear that almost everyone does think that death is an unmitigated disaster, and the Epicurean argument is of limited value.

Benatar relies on an asymmetry to claim that it is better never to have been born, and it would be a good thing if the human race became extinct. Despite its philosophical subtlety, it is hard to believe that Benatar believes his own argument. Can one really prefer eternal nothingness to the possibility of a good life? If I prefer to remain alive, I am not implicitly accepting that life is better than non-life? Does it really make sense to dedicate a book to the parents who harmed you by bringing you into existence? Still, Benatar’s arguments are persuasive enough that Leslie cannot find any knock-down arguments against them, although he cautions us against accepting philosophical prescriptions that, if followed, will result in the death of the species. Surely we ought to tread carefully here despite the power of Benatar’s claims.

These considerations lead to another question. If life is worth something, as most of us generally believe, then why not have as much of it as we like? Lenman rejects immortality for multiple reasons, primarily because immortals would no longer be human. It is easy to see how young philosophers would advocate such a view, thinking that they have enough time to do what they want, but few older, healthy persons could think such a thing. (Lenman wrote this piece when quite young.) For them aging causes the smell of death to be more real, powerful and putrid. As for losing our humanity, that was gained in the course of our long evolutionary history and we will, hopefully, transcend it.

Bostrom picks up the argument here, arguing forcefully that death is evil. Some tell us we will be born again or that death is good or natural, but all such explanations are cases of adaptive preferences. If we cannot do anything about death, we adapt and say we prefer it; but when we can do something about it, almost everyone will rejoice. When the elixir is real, you can be sure it will be used. At the moment we do not know how to prevent death, but we have some scientific insights that could lead in that direction. If some individuals still want to die when death is preventable, we should respect their autonomy, but for those of us who do not want to die, our autonomy should be honored as well. Thus we agree with Bostrom; we should rid ourselves of the dragon—death should be optional.

At the moment, however, death is not optional. Given our predicament—the problem of life that we discussed in the introduction—we have little choice then but to face death stoically, bravely, optimistically. The optimistic attitude prescribed by Michael and Caldwell violates no principles of reason and is practical to boot. A similar kind of optimism was captured in a famous passage from William James essay “The Will To Believe,”

We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. … If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.[1]

A comparable viewpoint was relayed to me in a hand-written letter (remember those?) in the mid-1990s from my friend and graduate school mentor, Richard J. Blackwell. Replying to my queries about the meaning of life he wrote:

As to your “what does it all mean” questions, you do not really think that I have strong clear replies when no one else since Plato has had much success! It may be more fruitful to ask about what degree of confidence one can expect from attempted answers, since too high expectations are bound to be dashed. It’s a case of Aristotle’s advice not to look for more confidence than the subject matter permits. At any rate, if I am right about there being a strong volitional factor here, why not favor an optimistic over a pessimistic attitude, which is something one can control to some degree? This is not an answer, but a way to live.

This seems right. We really have nothing to lose by being optimistic and, given the current reality of death, this is a wise option. But that does not change the fact that death is bad. Bad because it puts an end to something which at its best is beautiful; bad because all the knowledge and insight and wisdom of that person is lost; bad because of the harm it does to the living; bad because it causes people to be unconcerned about the future beyond their short lifespan; and bad because we know in our bones, that if we had the choice, and if our lives were going well, we would choose to on. That death is generally bad—especially so for the physically, morally, and intellectually vigorous—is nearly self-evident.

But most of all, death is bad because it renders completely meaningful lives impossible. It is true that longer lives do not guarantee meaningful ones, but all other things being equal, longer lives are more meaningful than shorter ones. (Both the quality and the quantity of a life are relevant to its meaning; both are necessary though not sufficient conditions for meaning.) An infinite life can be without meaning, but a life with no duration must be meaningless. Thus the possibility of greater meaning increases proportionately with the length of a lifetime.

Yes, there are indeed fates worse than death, and in some circumstances, death may be welcomed even if it extinguishes the further possibility of meaning. Nevertheless, death is one of the worst fates that can befall us, despite the consolations offered by the deathists—the lovers of death. We may become bored with eternal consciousness, but as long as we can end our lives if we want, as long as we can opt out of immortality, who wouldn’t want the option to live forever?

Only if we can choose whether to live or die are we really free. Our lives are not our own if they can be taken from us without our consent, and, to the extent death can be delayed or prevented, further possibilities for meaning ensue. Perhaps with our hard-earned knowledge, we can slay the dragon-tyrant, thereby opening up the possibility for more meaningful lives. This is perhaps the fundamental imperative for our species. For now, the best we can do is to remain optimistic in the face of the great tragedy that is death.

[1] William James, Pragmatism and Other Writings (New York: Penguin, 2000), x.

 

Oswald Hanfling on Death and Meaning

Oswald Hanfling (1927 – 2005) was a German philosopher who worked until his death at the Open University in the United Kingdom. We have summarized his book, The Quest for Meaning, in a previous post. In that book he also takes a stand on the issue of death and meaning which we summarize below.

Hanfling accepts as obvious the claim that meaning is affected by our knowledge of death, and agrees that “death casts a negative shadow over our lives.”[i]  Moreover, while the naturalness of death may provide some consolation from our anxiety, it does not show that our apprehension about death is misplaced. Still, Epicurus’ sound argument should mitigate our worries and provide consolation. Death is not totally bad.

But are there any overriding reasons to regard death as mostly evil? Hanfling does not think such reasons are convincing. For while I may wish to fulfill some goal and regret that I cannot, I will not be harmed after my death by the fact that I didn’t fulfill that goal. Or though one might argue that death is bad because life is good, it is unclear whether life in general is good. Similarly one might argue that merely having experiences is a good in itself, but this does not hold up either, as we are not comforted in times of misfortune by being said to have the benefit of existence. Even the fact that we generally desire life does not show that it is good. Hanfling concludes that arguments from the goodness of life to the badness of death are unsound—there are no convincing reasons to think that death is primarily bad. But none of this shows that a life without death would be meaningful; they do not show that death is necessary for meaning. Death is not necessarily good either.

In the end death is a somber prospect and not something we look forward to, but it is neither a definitive blessing nor a curse. Death makes a great difference to us, but we cannot come to any simple conclusions about the meaning of death. “Death, like life itself, is not amenable to such conclusions.”[ii]

Summary – The thought of death is unpleasant, but we cannot determine the implications of death for meaning.

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[i] Oswald Hanfling, The Quest for Meaning (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), 63.
[ii] Hanfling, The Quest for Meaning, 84.

Summary of Vincent Barry’s, Philosophical Thinking about Death and Dying

Vincent Barry is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Bakersfield College, having taught there for thirty-four years. He received his M.A. in philosophy from Fordham University and has been a successful textbook author. In his college textbook, Philosophical Thinking about Death and Dying, Barry carefully considers the question of the relationship between life, death, and meaning.

Is Death Bad? – One of Barry’s main concerns is whether death is or is not bad for us. As he notes, the argument that death is not bad derives from Epicurus’ aphorism: “When I am, death is not; and when death is, I am not.” Epicurus taught that fear in general, and fear of the gods and death, in particular, was evil. Consequently, using reason to rid ourselves of these fears was a primary goal of his speculative thinking. A basic assumption of his thought was a materialistic psychology in which mind was composed of atoms, and death the dispersal of those atoms. Thus death is not then bad for us since something can be bad only if we are affected by it, but we have no sensation after death and thus being dead cannot be bad for us. Note that this does not imply that the process or the prospect of dying cannot be bad for us—they can—nor does Epicurus deny that we might prefer life to death. His argument is that being dead is not bad for the one who has died.

Epicurus’ argument relies on two separate assumptions—the experience requirement and the existence requirement.[i] The experience requirement can be summarized thus:

  1. A harm to someone is something that is bad for them.
  2. For something to be bad for someone, it must be experienced by them.
  3. Death is a state of no experience.
  4. Therefore death cannot be bad for someone.

The existence requirement can be summarized thus:

  1. A person can be harmed only if they exist.
  2. A dead person does not exist.
  3. Therefore a dead person cannot be harmed.

As we will see, counter-arguments attack one of the two requirements. Either they try to show that someone can be harmed without experiencing the harm, or that someone who is dead can still be harmed.

One noted philosopher who attacks the Epicurean view is Thomas Nagel. In his essay “Death,” Nagel argues that death is bad for someone who dies even if that person does not consciously survive death. According to this deprivation theory, death is bad for persons who die because of the good things their deaths deprive them of. However, if death is bad because it limits the possibility of future goods, is death not then good in limiting the possibility of future evils? So the possibility of future goods does not by itself show that death is bad; to show that one would have to show that a future life would be worth living, that is, that it would contain more good than bad. But how can any deprivation theory explain how it is bad for us to be deprived of something if we do not experience that deprivation? How can what we don’t know hurt us?

In reply Nagel argues that we can be harmed without being aware of it. An intelligent man reduced to the state of infancy by a brain injury has suffered a great misfortune, even if unaware of, and contented in, his injurious state. Nagel argues that many states that we do not experience can be bad for us—the betrayal of a friend, the loss of reputation, or the unfaithfulness of a spouse. And just as an adult reduced to infancy is the subject of a misfortune, so too is one who is dead. But critics wonder who it is that is the subject of this harm? Even if it is bad to be deprived of certain goods, who is it that is deprived? How can the dead be harmed? There apparently no answer to this question.

And there is another problem. While the deprivation argument may explain why death is bad for us, it follows from it that being denied prenatal existence would also be bad. Yet we do not ordinarily consider ourselves harmed by not having been born sooner. How can we explain this asymmetry?

Epicurus argued that this asymmetry could not be explained, and we should feel indifferent to death just as we do to prenatal existence. This sentiment was echoed by Mark Twain:

Annihilation has no terrors for me, because I have already tried it before I was born—a hundred million years—and I have suffered more in an hour, in this life, than I remember to have suffered in the whole hundred million years put together. There was a peace, a serenity, an absence of all sense of responsibility, an absence of worry, an absence of care, grief, perplexity; and the presence of a deep content and unbroken satisfaction in that hundred million years of holiday which I look back upon with a tender longing and with a grateful desire to resume when the opportunity comes.[ii]

In reply, deprivationists argue that we do not have to hold symmetrical views about prenatal and postnatal experience—claiming instead that asymmetrical views are consistent with ordinary experience. To see why, consider the following. Would you rather have suffered a long surgical operation last year or undergo a short one tomorrow? Would you rather have had pleasure yesterday, or pleasure tomorrow? In both cases we have more concern with the future than the past; we are less interested in past events than in future ones. Death in the future deprives us of future goods, whereas prenatal nonexistence deprived us of past goods about which we are now indifferent. For all these reasons Barry concludes that death is probably bad and a fear of death rational. But does death undermine meaning?

The Connection Between Death and Meaning – Tolstoy and Schopenhauer claimed that death makes life meaningless; Russell and Taylor believe that death detracts greatly from the meaning of life, and Buddha argued that death undermines the good things of life. All thought death conflicts with meaning in some sense. Opponents argue that death makes life meaningful. No matter what side they are on, all these thinkers believe that death is the crucial element for determining the extent to which life is, or is not, meaningful.

While there are many arguments that death makes life meaningless, there are also many philosophical arguments, in addition to religious ones, that death makes life meaningful. These latter arguments all coalesce around the idea that death is necessary for a life to be truly human. They take a variety of forms.

  1. Death as necessary for life – There is no development in life without death. Death is happening to you because the universe is happening to you; while you live you are slowly being destroyed. The universe produces life through death so that, while death may be bad for you individually, it is good for the whole.
  2. Death as part of the life cycle – Without the life cycle, our experience of being human would be altered. Death is the goal of life, we are programmed to die; it is part of the continuum of life.
  3. Death as ultimate affirmation – Facing death we realize the ultimate value of life; so death has meaning in revealing this value. In addition, life is valuable because it is fleeting, fragile, and temporary.
  4. Death as a motive for commitment and engagement – Without the finitude of life we would be less motivated to do worthwhile things, and besides immortality may be boring.
  5. Death as a stimulus to creativity – Some argue that the nearness of death focuses them to be creative as never before. Others argue that death literally promotes creativity, which emanates from our desire to overcome mortality.
  6. Death as socially useful – Death is necessary to limit overpopulation. Many disagree, arguing that if we lived longer or were immortal we would worry more and be more concerned about the world we live in.

In opposition to all those who think death does or does not give meaning to life are those who argue that life has or lacks meaning independent of death. In other words, they argue that life gives or does not give meaning to death, thereby turning all our previous considerations upside down. But how does a life give or not give death a meaning?

Death and the Meaning of Life – Barry argues that things close to us provide clear answers about meaning—caring for our families, our work, or some cause that is important to us. But when we move to the larger picture and ask about the meaning of everything, we are perplexed. Some speculate that individuals are related to something larger, like a god or a universal plan of which they are a part, and that this gives their lives meaning; others that they create or discover meaning in the world without positing a supernatural realm. Such views, as we have seen, are divided between theistic and non-theistic positions. The main problem with the former position is that most contemporary philosophers doubt religious stories are true; the basic problem with the latter is that we are probably mistaken when we imbue an indifferent universe with meaning. Even the notion of progress is insufficient to ground meaning. Such concerns lead Barry to re-examine nihilism.

As we saw previously there are multiple responses to nihilism—we can reject, accept, or affirm it. Yet none of these responses appear adequate; the challenge of nihilism cannot be fully met. Where does this leave us? Barry concludes that though life has no meaning in the objective sense, it still can be meaningful subjectively; it still can be worth living. While persons differ as to how to give their lives meaning and value, Barry maintains that all meaningful lives are examined ones. And that is why the life of Ivan Ilyich lacked meaning—he had not examined his life or his death. Meaningful lives are those that include deep thinking about death and dying. So it seems that death is at least good in this regard. As Barry puts it:

Yes, an individual life can be worthwhile even though life itself may have no ultimate meaning. But only if that life is examined, still resonates the venerable admonition of Socrates borne on the face of the dead Ivan Ilyich—which is to say, only if that life includes philosophical thinking about death and dying.[iii] 

Summary – It is uncertain if death is a good or bad thing. The connection between death and meaning is that thinking about death can make a life subjectively meaningful.

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[i] John Martin Fischer, ed., The Metaphysics of Death (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), 15.
[ii] Charles Neider, ed., The Autobiography of Mark Twain (New York: Perennial, 1990) ch. 49.
[iii] Vincent Barry, Philosophical Thinking About Death and Dying (Belmont CA.: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007), 250.

Summary of Tolstoy’s, The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Leo Tolstoy’s short novel, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, provides a great introduction to connection between death and the meaning of life. It tells the story of a forty-five year old lawyer who is self-interested, opportunistic, and busy with mundane affairs. He has never considered his own death until disease strikes. Now, as he confronts his mortality, he wonders what his life has meant, whether he has made the right choices, and what will become of him. For the first time he is becoming … conscious.

The novel begins a few moments after Ivan’s death, as family members and acquaintances have gathered to mark his passing. These people don’t understand death, because they cannot really comprehend their own deaths. For them death is something objective which is not happening to them. They see death as Ivan did all his life, as an objective event rather than a subjective existential experience. “Well isn’t that something—he’s dead, but I’m not, was what each of them thought or felt.”[i] They only praise God that they are not dying, and immediately consider how his death might be to their advantage in terms of money or position.

The novel then takes us back thirty years to the prime of Ivan’s life. He lives a life of mediocrity, studies law, and becomes a judge. Along the way he expels all personal emotions from his life, doing his work objectively and coldly. He is a strict disciplinarian and father figure, the quintessential Russian head of the household. Jealous and obsessed with social status, he is happy to get a job in the city where he buys and decorates a large house. While decorating he falls and hits his side, an accident that will facilitate the illness that eventually kills him. He becomes bad-tempered and bitter, refusing to come to terms with his own death. As his illness progresses a peasant named Gerasim stays by his bedside, becoming his friend and confidant.

Only Gerasim shows sympathy for Ivan’s torment—offering him kindness and honesty—while his family thinks that Ivan is a bitter old man. Through his friendship with Gerasim Ivan begins to look at his life anew, realizing that the more successful he became, the less happy he was. He wonders whether he has done the right thing, and comprehends that by living as others expected him to, he may not have lived as he should. His reflection brings agony. He cannot escape the belief that the kind of man he became was not the kind of man he should have been. He is finally experiencing the existential phenomenon of death.

Gradually he becomes more contented and begins to feel sorry for those around him, realizing that they are too involved in the life he is leaving to understand that it is artificial and ephemeral. He dies in a moment of exquisite happiness. On his deathbed: “ It occurred to him that his scarcely perceptible attempts to struggle against what was considered good by the most highly placed people, those scarcely noticeable impulses which he had immediately suppressed, might have been the real thing, and all the rest false.”[ii]

Tolstoy’s story forces us to consider how painful it is to reflect on a life lived without meaning, and how the finality of death seals any possibility of future meaning. If, when we approach the end of our lives, we find that they were not meaningful—there will be nothing we can do to rectify the situation. What an awful realization that must be. It was as if Kierkegaard had Ilyich in mind when he said:

This is what is sad when one contemplates human life, that so many live out their lives in quiet lostness … they live, as it were, away from themselves and vanish like shadows. Their immoral souls are blown away, and they are not disquieted by the question of its immortality, because they are already disintegrated before they die.[iii]

Now consider an even more chilling question. What difference would it make even if a life had been meaningful? Wouldn’t death erase most, if not all, of its meaning anyway? Wouldn’t it be even more painful to leave a life of meaningful work and family? Perhaps we should live a meaningless life to reduce the pain we will feel when leaving it? But then that doesn’t seem right either.

Summary – Confronting the reality of death forces us to reflect on the meaning of life.

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[i] Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich (New York: Bantam Books, 1981), 37.
[ii] Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Chapter XI.
[iii] Soren Kierkegaard, “Balance between Esthetic and Ethical,” in Either/Or, vol. II, Walter Lowrie, trans., (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1944).

Summary of Kai Nielsen’s “Death and the Meaning of Life”

Kai Nielsen (1926 – ) is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Calgary. Before moving to Canada, Nielsen taught for many years at New York University. He is a prolific author and a well-known contemporary philosopher.

In a 1978 essay, “Death and the Meaning of Life,” Nielsen argues that for intellectuals in the modern world belief in an afterlife is virtually impossible to hold. Nonetheless, he wants to resist the common view that death renders our lives meaningless. He claims to feel no terror or dread when contemplating death, despite the fact that he is convinced it means his utter annihilation. He admits to enjoying life and not wanting to die but, powerless to prevent the inevitable, he “takes rational precautions against premature death and faces the rest stoically … Death should only be dreadful if one’s life has been a waste.”[i] He also wonders why must we “suffer angst, engage in theatrics and create myths for ourselves. Why not simply face it and get on with the living of our lives?”[ii]

Of course, critics claim that life is meaningless without an afterlife, gods, and morality. Concerning morality Nielsen argues that things are right and wrong independent of gods. To support this claim he summons Plato’s famous argument against equating the god’s power with what is right. The key is that naked power does not imply goodness—we do not want to reduce morality to power worship. “The crucial thing to see is that there are things which we can recognize on reflection to be wrong, God or no God, and that we can be far more confident that we are right in claiming that they are wrong, than we can be in claiming any knowledge of God’s or God’s order.”[iii]

Furthermore, the absence of a god and an afterlife does not mean that life is pointless. True there may be no meanings of life, but that does not mean there are no purposes in life. It may be that the cosmos does not grant the former but that hardly denies us the latter. And the goals and ends that we seek in this life are sufficient “to make life meaningful in the sense that there are in our lives and our environment things worthwhile doing, having or experiencing, things that bring joy, understanding, exhilaration or contentment to ourselves or to others.”[iv] That such things are not eternal does not make them meaningless.

He admits that critics will argue that something is missing in this account—namely an objective meaning independent of the success of our subjective projects. This had led some to postulate hope in an afterlife that fulfills their aspirations and has led others to abandon hope altogether. Nielsen advocates a different position. Why not hope that through our strivings we can make this world a better place: “a truly human society without exploitation and degradation in which all human beings will flourish?”[v] Such hope is consistent with both secular and religious ideals and is far more intellectually respectable than positing other worlds to give life meaning.

Summary – We find subjective meaning by making the world better, even if there is no objective meaning.

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[i] Kai Nielsen, “Death and the Meaning of Life,” in The Meaning of Life ed. E.D. Klemke (Oxford University Press, 2000), 154.
[ii] Nielsen, “Death and the Meaning of Life,” 155.
[iii] Nielsen, “Death and the Meaning of Life,” 156.
[iv] Nielsen, “Death and the Meaning of Life,” 157.
[v] Nielsen, “Death and the Meaning of Life,” 158.