Introduction to the Philosophy of Death

by François Blom-Peters

This summer I had the opportunity to attend the 3rd Meeting of the International Association for the Philosophy of Death and Dying (IAPDD). There I discovered a curious and unknown corner of philosophy that I would like to share with you.

(Please note: I am very new to this field and could only attend half the conferences so this is a rather partial presentation!)

One of the main issues under discussion at the meeting was whether death is harmful. In other words[1]: is death bad? The question might raise some eyebrows: of course it is! What kind of trivial nonsense are philosophers up to again? But after a brief moment of surprise, one remembers that philosophers have been arguing for a negative answer since the beginnings of philosophy. Indeed, if the soul is immortal, as Plato believes and death its liberation from the body, then death isn’t necessarily something bad (as long as you follow eternal life’s terms and conditions of course). Socrates’ cheerful attitude at the time of his execution (as recounted in the Phaedo) epitomizes the philosopher’s expected attitude before death. Even more, not only should death not be feared, it should be hoped for: “For I deem that the true votary of philosophy is likely to be misunderstood by other men; they do not perceive that he is always pursuing death and dying; and if this be so, and he has had the desire of death all his life long, why when his time comes should he repine at that which he has been always pursuing and desiring?”[2].

However, there isn’t much glory in arguing against the immortality of the soul nowadays. But our philosophers have another target: Epicurus. The atomist famously argued that death isn’t any evil for us, since when we are dead we do not exist – therefore we cannot be affected by anything – and when we are alive … we are not dead – so death does not affect us. Ergo, we have nothing to fear about death, and we can live happily until we die.

The latter view fits much better our naturalistic sensibilities. However, something about it doesn’t feel quite right. For sure, death is nothing in itself – when we are dead we are not and that’s it. Still, death is not nothing; or it’s not just anything. Even without considering the many side-effects of dying (pain, anguish, harm to others, unfinished series…), even considering an especially enjoyable death at the peak of ecstasy… one might feel that something has gone wrong, that something has been lost.

This intuition is the basis of the deprivation theory of the harm of death, according to which death is harmful/bad indirectly, through the fact that it robs us of … something? What is being lost exactly isn’t absolutely clear yet: future happiness? potential happiness? future mental states? future events? our essential becoming? friends? money? pleasures? … But the general idea is that we loose opportunities in some sense.

In order to defend that theory against Epicurus’ argument, philosophers must answer a question: when does death deprive us of anything? Before or after we die? I don’t know anything about priorism, but subsequentism, for instance, might be somehow justified by the fact that we can put some value on life before death, and then by comparison, on whatever comes after it. So that, even though one’s “well-being” after death, so to speak, is in fact null (as Epicurus affirms it), it can still be compared to one’s well-being before death – unlike the well-being of a shoe, which is both null and incommensurable with a living person’s well-being. Of course, this presupposes that “well-being” is the most relevant unit of measurement for measuring the value of life and death, something not everyone would accept.

Could death harm us precisely when it happens? Since we are talking of deprivation, it doesn’t seem possible: deprivation supposes a prolonged state of loss. But maybe death doesn’t deprive us at any particular time. Maybe the mere fact that we must die is itself an evil that diminishes the value of our lives, the sharpest sword hanging over our heads.

Note that until now we have only been talking about death in the abstract, as something that “just happens”. But in reality death doesn’t just happen, it’s the end of a process – which can be long, painful, humiliating … or not. Should we take that into account when evaluating the harm of a specific death? Should it be the only thing to take into account – is there only a harm in dying and not in death? …

If death and/or dying is bad, is immortality something we should strive for? Coming from the deprivationist side, immortality does looks like a great solution to the threat of dying. We now march towards the other end of the philosophy of death.

But first, some preliminary remarks have to be made. We can talk of two kinds of immortality. Either in a religious sense, through Resurrection or some other kind of liberation of the immortal soul. Or in a more secular sense, through … not dying in the first place. As I already pointed out, we are here more concerned with the latter sense. But not dying can also be understood in various ways: are we talking of an absolute “immunity to death”? Or a slightly more realistic indefinitely prolonged life? Or a transfer of consciousness into a fresh body? Are we vulnerable to illness, wounds? Do we age? Can we kill ourselves at will? Do we have to periodically renew our subscription to the eternal life? Do we even know that we are immortal, or do we just keep on living without seeing the end of it? Note that in all cases except for the absolute immunity to death, the probability of dying someday isn’t likely to be zero: in a life potentially as long as that of the universe, it is likely that something goes wrong at some point.

That said, is an indefinitely long life desirable? A positive answer at least presupposes one thing: that life itself is desirable. After all, who would regret not being born? … But leaving that aside, most arguments against the desirability of immortality rest on the idea that without death, life loses its interest and/or meaning. What can you do after 10 000 years of living, once you have tried everything? Isn’t boredom the end of endless life? Even just considering the fact that nothing you can do is liable to fail – since there will always be another time to do it – doesn’t that take out all the fun out of trying?

But we first have to remember that absolute immunity to death isn’t the only kind of immortality. If your immortality is partial (e.g. you can die of wounds), what could be more thrilling than risking it in battle, or just for the fun of it? More generally, life isn’t a mere sum of singular experiences – done this, done that, what else to do…? At least I don’t think it should be. Instead we should try to give these experiences a sense – wonder what they teach us. As mortals, experience seems to tell us that death is the end of all things. Some infer from that the meaninglessness of all life. Some find solace and purpose in that idea. Most don’t care. Would it be so different if we were immortals?

Another argument for the undesirability of immortality is that, without death, life wouldn’t make sense in the temporal sense. It wouldn’t be “temporally meaningful”. Our mortal lives have a beginning, an end, and a direction. But if there is no endpoint, how do we give the events of our life their special place? Of course, things still happen along the order of time: one thing follows the next according to the laws of causality. This is a standard definition of time in physics. But a “meaningful life” isn’t a mere sequence of events, at least we don’t want it to be. And it seems that death, by giving life its precarity, also gives these events a special value, since every event costs time and time isn’t infinite. In other words, death makes things count. Consequently, every event receives a kind of uniqueness: within your limited time, it is for that specific experience that your time was wasted or not. Without death, things don’t matter – there is always enough time to do them.

However, death isn’t the only thing that gives life precarity. For sure, most things we do can be tried again, or simply given up without much regret. But some things might only happen once or never – if that opportunity is missed, there is no trying again. Maybe something unique disappears. Maybe you hesitate when you have to act, and your life is forever tainted by that single moment. Maybe death is better than eternal failure and remorse.

So death isn’t the only thing that makes your time valuable and special: the whole structure of opportunities in which we lead our lives does. For sure, death is a very particular kind of event, and it certainly changes our perspectives on life. But it doesn’t give life meaning per se, it only gives it a specific kind of meaning. And as I already remarked, that meaning (or meaninglessness) isn’t fixed.

***

Is death bad? Is immortality good? Although quite central, these are only some of the questions that were discussed during those three days. Should we grieve for the death of others? Should we give more or less value to the death of someone according to the prospects it closes? Isn’t that “value of death” the same thing as the value of life? Is preventing death the best thing you can do? Is bringing death to yourself, to another … the worst thing you can do? What if you plan the death of your future self – is that murder or suicide?

Those interested in these topics might want to read S. Luper’s The Philosophy of Death (2009), or the SEP’s entry “Death”, by the same author. For more classical readings, Plato’s recollection of the death of Socrates in the Phaedo opens more than two thousand years of literature on the subject …

***

[1] Although it may be disputed that harmful = bad.

[2] Phaedo, 64A.


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