MORALITY AND THE HUMAN CONDITION, #25–Nagel On the Nature of Our Own Death.

By Robert Hanna

“The Human Condition,” by Thomas Whitaker


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. The Standard Conception of Morality

II.1 The Moral Question and The Meaning Question

II.2 How Ethics Relates to Morality

II.3 How Morality Relates to Rationality

II.4 Six Famously Hard Cases

III. Three Classical Challenges to the Standard Conception of Morality

III.1 Moral Relativism

III.2 Eight Logical Principles of Human Rationality

III.3 Moral Skepticism

III.4 Psychological and Moral Egoism

IV. Morality and Religion

IV.1 God and The Divine Command Theory

IV.2 Does an Essentially Rational God Exist?

IV.3 Religion and Morality

V. Three Classical Moral Theories

V.1 Aristotelian Virtue Ethics

V.1.1 Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, books 1–3: A Brief Exposition

V.1.2 Four Worries about Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics

V.1.3 Contemporary Virtue Ethics

V.2 Millian Utilitarianism

V.2.1 Not-So-Happy Little Campers: Ten Big Problems for Millian Utilitarianism

V.3 Kant’s Ethics of Persons and Principles

V.3.1 Ten Basic Ideas

V.3.2 Three Classical Worries about Kant’s Ethics

V.4 All-Things-Considered Conclusion of This Section

VI. Pascal’s Optimism and Schopenhauer’s Pessimism

VI.1 Pascal’s Optimism About The Meaning of Life

VI.2 Schopenhauer’s Pessimism About The Meaning of Life

VI.3 Pascal or Schopenhauer? Optimism or Pessimism?

VII. Existentialism, the Absurd, and Affirmation

VII.1 Two Kinds of Existentialism

VII.2 Nagel and The Absurd

VII.3 Camus and Affirmation

VIII. The Ethics of Authenticity

VIII.1 Existential Ethics and the Concept of Authenticity

VIII.1.1 What is Authenticity?

VIII.1.2 Authenticity and Radical Freedom

VIII.1.3 Inauthenticity, Freedom-Refusers, and Freedom Deniers

VIII.2 Two Important Problems for Existential Ethics

VIII.3 Sartre on Principled Authenticity

IX. The Nature of Death

IX.1 The Ambiguity of “Death”

IX.2 The Nature of Our Own Death

IX.2.1 Nagel On the Nature of Our Own Death

IX.2.2 Suits Against the “Deprivation” Account of the Badness of Death

IX.2.3 Some Critical Worries About What Nagel and Suits are Saying About the Nature of Our Own Death

X. The (Im)Possibility of Human Immortality

X.1 Williams on the Tedium of Immortality

X.2 Fischer on How Human Immortality Could Be a Good Thing

X.3 Some Worries About What Williams and Fischer are Saying About Human Immortality

X.4 Human Life Without Immortality


This installment contains sections IX.2 and IX.2.1.

But you can also read or download a .pdf version of the complete short course HERE.


IX.2 The Nature of Our Own Death

Now I’m going to explore the nature of our own death by critically analyzing two of the most important and influential discussions of the nature and value of death, Thomas Nagel’s justly famous “Death,”[i] and David Suits’s important critical reply to Nagel, “Why Death is Not Bad for the One Who Died.”[ii]

IX.2.1 Nagel On the Nature of Our Own Death

The core moral-existential question raised by Nagel’s essay is this:

If we assume that death is the unequivocal and permanent end of our personal existence, so that any question about immortality is ruled out for the purposes of argument, then is death a bad thing for the one who dies?

And Nagel’s strong concluding answer to his own question is that yes, under the assumption that the life of a human person is finite and terminating, then death is always a bad thing for the one who dies.

In turn, Nagel’s argument for his strong conclusion has ten basic steps.

First, if death is bad, this is solely because of what it deprives us of, not because of any positive features it has, unlike life.

Second, what is fundamentally good about life are certain states, conditions, or types of activity: being alive, doing certain things, and having certain experiences.

We could call this having-a-life or being-the-subject-of- a-life.

So what is fundamentally good about life is having-a-life or being-the-subject-of-a-life.

Even if the contents of a life are bad, perhaps very bad, the very fact of having-a-life or being-the-subject-of-a-life is intrinsically good.[i]

Third, these two theses imply a distinction between

(i) the essentially positive character of the goodness of life, and

(ii) the essentially negative character of the badness of death.

Fourth, as to the essentially positive character of the goodness of life, we can say

(i) that life has various benefits whether intrinsic, instrumental, or otherwise relational,

(ii) that the value of life does not attach to mere organic survival, since mere organic life in a coma is valueless, and

(iii) the goods of life can be multiplied by time — although not necessarily continuously over time, since suspended animation or cryogenic preservation of the body, together with reanimation, seems perfectly consistent with the multiplication of goods during the reanimated period — so more of the goods of life is better than less of those goods.

Fifth, as to the essentially negative character of the badness of death, we can say that death is an evil because it consists in the deprivation or loss of life, rather than in the state of being dead.

For personal nonexistence, as such, is not necessarily a bad thing.

The temporary suspension of life is entails no disvalue, so long as it does not reduce the total lifespan; and most of us are not bothered by the fact that we did not exist before we were born.

Sixth, corresponding to the first five points, here are three hard questions about the badness of death:

(i) how can anything be bad for someone without its also being an unpleasant experience for her?,

(ii) the state of being dead is without a subject or first person to experience it, so how could it ever be bad for anyone?, and

(iii) how can death be bad if pre-natal nonexistence is not a misfortune (i.e., Lucretius’s question)?

Seventh, here’s the answer to question (i).

Many goods and bads for persons are not directly attributable to the intrinsic character of their momentary or durational states of mind but instead to their entire life-histories, including various diachronic (i.e., over time) extrinsic relations to their earlier and later selves, as well as both diachronic and synchronic (i.e., at the same time) extrinsic relations to other persons, events, and things.

So, since many goods and bads are extrinsic relational and not (merely) intrinsic features of persons, then someone can suffer misfortune in a purely extrinsic relational sense even when he is not in a position to recognize that misfortune, and experience it as unpleasant — e.g., when ignorant, asleep, fainting, unconscious, in a coma, non-rational, or dead.

Eighth, here’s the answer to problem (ii).

The subject of death is the human individual, the subject of a single life, which may or may not include his or her personhood but necessarily includes his or her personhood if he or she has ever actually been a human person.

And this person is someone who can suffer extrinsic relational harms even if she is not in a position to experience those harms as unpleasant.

E.g., someone could suffer all sorts of extrinsic relational miseries (betrayal, the death of his loved ones, theft of his property, slanderous damage to his good name and reputation, the loss of his rational faculties through disease or injury, etc.) without experiencing these as harms as unpleasant.

Hence the very same subject can also suffer these extrinsic relational harms after death.

Ninth, here’s the answer to question (iii).

The time before a human individual’s actual birth is not a time when that individual could have been alive, because a human individual’s actual beginning or birth is a necessary condition of his or her individuality, so nothing can really matter to the human individual until after birth.

Therefore, only post-natal nonexistence can count as the death of the individual and be a misfortune to the individual.

Tenth and finally, the badness of death consists in the non-realization (or deprivation) of future possibilities of having-a-life or being-the-subject-of-a-life, including both intrinsic goods and extrinsic relational goods.

Hence the earlier one dies the worse it is, and the later one dies the better it is.

Even despite the fact that our lives have natural limits, since one’s own life appears from the first-person standpoint to be essentially open-ended and unlimited, and provided that there is no limit to the amount of life it would be good to have, then death is always a bad thing for the one who dies.


[i] T. Nagel, “Death,” in T. Nagel, Mortal Questions (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 1–10.

[ii] D. Suits, “Why Death is Not Bad for the One Who Died,” American Philosophical Quarterly 38 (2001): 69–84.

[iii] So, other things being equal, it is not better never to have existed. For an opposing view, see D. Benatar, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence (Oxford: Clarendon/Oxford Univ. Press, 2006), and section VI.3 above.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Saturday 15 August 2020

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