MORALITY AND THE HUMAN CONDITION, #26–Is Death a Bad Thing For the One Who Dies?

By Robert Hanna

“The Human Condition,” by Thomas Whitaker


Table of Contents

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


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

Suits argues that a dead human person can neither know, appreciate, or in any possible way experience, any effects of death.

As Suits puts it, “death is a singularity for each of us.”[ii]

Thus death is the terminal limit of a life, not a part of a life.

But the only way a human person can be harmed is by actually suffering pain (primitive intrinsic harm) or prospectively suffering pain (derivative intrinsic harm) of some sort.

Therefore, a human person like us cannot be harmed by death.

So Lucretius was correct when he said that “death is nothing to us.”

Moreover, death is not a deprivation on any reasonable understanding of what deprivation is.

Deprivation is failing to get some good things that were in some sense expected, and then knowing, appreciating, or somehow experiencing the failure to get these things.

But the dead human person never feels deprived either primitively or derivatively, precisely because they never feel anything at all.

If we have interests and they are defeated or frustrated, then we suffer pain and are harmed.

But death is not the defeat or frustration of our interests: it is merely the permanent disappearance or permanent vacating of our interests.

And if we do not have any interests, then they cannot be defeated or frustrated.

Hence we cannot be harmed by the permanent vacating of interests caused by death.

And therefore the deprivation account does not show that death is bad in any recognizable sense for the deceased.

While Nagel’s deprivation account relies on an actual-life vs. a counterfactually-longer-life comparison, this comparison does not entail that death can be bad for the human person who died, because the human person who dies has an actual life, not a counterfactual life.

Counterfactual comparisons can show something about someone who dies, but they are nothing for the human person who dies.

Thus death is never anything for the person who dies, either a bad thing or a good thing.

And as a consequence, death is never a bad thing for the one who dies.

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

The fundamental problem with both views is that neither Nagel nor Suits distinguishes carefully between

(i) the state of being dead, deathS, and

(ii) the process of dying, deathP.

On the one hand, then, I think that Suits is absolutely correct about deathS.

Since deathS has no subject or first-person, then deathS is neither a good thing nor a bad thing for the real human person who dies.

Hence deathS is never a bad thing for the person who dies.

So Nagel is wrong about deathS.

But on the other hand, when we consider deathP, things come out somewhat differently.

First, it’s true that sometimes more life will inevitably lead to person-destroying suffering, e.g., degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Similarly, sometimes more life will inevitably lead to some irremediably or irreparably monstrous evil or evils being freely committed by that person, e.g., Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment shortly before he axe-murders the old lady pawnbroker and her sister.

And again, sometimes more life will inevitably lead to the irremediable or irreparable self-destruction of someone’s own integrity, e.g., an otherwise decent person shortly before he freely succumbs to some terrible temptation — say, knowingly and without being forced, allowing an innocent person to be tortured to death by others, simply in order to move ahead in the Nazi command-hierarchy, or simply in order to receive some sum of money by a Mafia payoff, etc. — and irrevocably compromises himself.

Then in all such cases, an earlier deathP would be a good thing for the person who dies.

So Nagel is wrong that deathP is always a bad thing for the person who dies.

On the contrary, deathP is sometimes a good thing for the person who dies.

Second, for the purposes of our argument here, we can suppose that it’s true, as I argued in section VIII, that we’re morally obligated to pursue principled authenticity.

And we can also suppose further that an authentic principled human life is necessarily a finite or terminating life with an internal narrative structure and closure.

Then if you’ve failed to achieve or realize principled authenticity, at least partially and to some degree, by the time you die, then deathP is a bad thing for the human person who dies.

So Suits is wrong that deathP is never a bad thing for the one who dies.

On the contrary, deathP is sometimes, and indeed all-too-frequently, a bad thing for the human person who dies.

But is it the case that human persons like us must die?, or, on the contrary, is human immortality possible?

That’s what we’ll critically investigate in the next and final section.


[ii] Suits, “Why Death is Not Bad for the One Who Died,” p. 79.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Tuesday 25 August 2020

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