PHIL 176: Death

Lecture 16

 - Dying Alone; The Badness of Death, Part I


Professor Kagan puts forward the claim that Tolstoy’s character Ivan Ilych is quite the typical man in terms of his views on mortality. All of his life he has known that death is imminent but has never really believed it. When he suddenly falls ill and is about to die, the fact of his mortality shocks him. In trying to further access how people think about death, Professor Kagan explores the claim that “we all die alone,” presents a variety of arguments against it and ends by considering whether the primary badness of death could lie in the effects on those who are left behind.

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PHIL 176 - Lecture 16 - Dying Alone; The Badness of Death, Part I

Chapter 1. Ilyich’s Reaction to Death: Typical, but Why? [00:00:00]

Professor Shelly Kagan: — Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich is surprised to discover that he’s going to die. It’s the sort of thing he’s given lip service to, no doubt, over the course of his life. But when he finally gets ill and comes up to the fact of his mortality, that his body is going to sicken and eventually die, the fact of his mortality seems to shock him, seems to surprise him. We might say, on one level he believes that he was mortal. He’s believed it all along. But at another level, at some deeper level, it comes as a surprise to him. He never really believed it.

Now, I take it that we find Ivan Ilyich a perfectly believable example. That is, we think it’s conceivable that somebody could, at some level, not really believe they’re going to die. But I also take it that Tolstoy means to be putting forward more than just a claim that there could be such a person. “Look how bizarre he is. Let me describe him for you.” But rather, the suggestion is meant to be that Ivan Ilyich’s case is rather typical. Maybe all of us are in his situation, or at least most of us are in his situation. Or, at the very least, many of us are in his situation. That’s a stronger claim, though I think it’s not the sort of claim that’s unique to Tolstoy, that all of us or most of us or many of us at the fundamental level don’t really believe that we’re going to die.

Chapter 2. Near-Death Experiences as Reminders of Mortality [00:01:34]

You might ask, what kind of evidence could be offered for that? Offering a realistic scenario, a realistic description of such a person — Ivan Ilyich — doesn’t give us any reason to think that most of us or many of us are in his situation. So, is there any reason to think that? You might ask, what kind of argument could be offered for a claim like that?

What we’d be looking for, I take it, would be some kind of behavior on our part that calls out for explanation. And the best explanation is to be had — This is how the argument would go. The best explanation is to be had by supposing that those people who behave this way — Let’s suppose many of us who behave this way. The best explanation of that behavior is to be found by claiming that at some level, at some fundamental level, we don’t really believe what we claim to believe. We don’t really believe what we give lip service to.

Take somebody who perhaps suffers from some sort of compulsion to wash his hands. We ask him, “Are your hands dirty?” He might say, “No, of course not.” And yet, there he is, going back to bathroom, washing his hands again. You might say, the only way to explain the behavior is to say that at some level, he really does believe his hands are dirty, despite the fact that he says they’re not. Well, in the same way, if we could find some behavior on our part that calls out for explanation, that the best possible explanation would be that at some level we don’t believe we’re going to die, then we might say, look, this gives us some reason to think that we don’t really believe we’re going to die, even though we say we believe it.

Suppose, for example, that if you really did believe, fundamentally, unconsciously, all the way down — however we should put it — if you really did believe you were going to die, the horror of that would lead you to start screaming and just keep screaming. Of course, this example reminds us again of Ivan Ilyich, who screams and screams and screams almost till his death. Well, suppose this was true. Suppose that if you — Suppose we believed — we had good reason to believe — if you really took seriously the thought that you were going to die, you couldn’t stop screaming. But of course, nobody here is screaming, from which we can conclude none of us really do believe, fundamentally, deep down, that we’re going to die. That would be a good argument if we had good reason to believe the conditional, the if-then claim. If only you really truly believed you were going to die, you would scream and scream and scream. That’s the crucial premise. And of course, we don’t have any good — as far as I can see — we don’t have any good reason to believe that crucial premise.

You might ask though, is there some other behavior, something else that should tip us off, could tip us off, as to whether or not we really do or don’t believe that we’re going to die? Well, here’s the best that I can do. This strikes me as the most plausible contender for an argument like this. As we know, there are people who have brushes with death. They might be, for example, in an accident, and come close to being killed, but walk away without a scratch. Or suffer a heart attack and be on the operating table for some number of hours and then, thanks to cardiac surgery or what have you, be resuscitated. When people have these near brushes with death, it’s easy to believe that the fact of their mortality is more vivid. It’s more before their mind’s eye. It’s something that they now really truly do believe. And the interesting point is many people who have this sort of experience, for whom their mortality has become vivid, they often say, “I’ve got to change my life. I need to spend less time at the office and more time with my family, telling the people that I love that I love them, doing the things that are important to me, spend less time worrying about getting ahead, making money, getting the plasma TV,” whatever it is.

Let’s suppose that this is true of all of us, or at least most of us. When we find the fact of our mortality is made vivid, when we really truly can see that we’re mortal, then we change our priorities, stop giving all the time and attention to trying to get ahead in the rat race and spend more time with our loved ones doing what’s important to us. Suppose that claim were true. Well, armed with that claim, we might notice, well look, of course, most of us do spend a lot of time trying to get ahead, trying to earn a lot of money, don’t spend the bulk of our time doing the things that we really truly think are most important to us, don’t tell our friends, don’t tell our family members how much they mean to us, how much we love them. What are we to make of that fact? Well, maybe the explanation is, although we give lip service to the claim that we’re mortal, at some more fundamental level, we don’t truly believe it. The belief’s not vivid for us. We don’t believe it all the way down.

Well, this is an argument — at least it seems to me — that has some chance of being right. I’m not at all convinced that it is right. But at least it doesn’t seem to be the sort of argument, unlike some of the arguments I’ve considered last time about oh, nobody believes they’re going to die because you can’t picture being dead or what have you. This argument, I think, has some possibility of being right. It does seem as though people who have brushes with death change their behavior in significant ways. The fact that we don’t behave in those other ways gives us some reason to believe that perhaps at some level we don’t completely or fully or fundamentally believe we’re going to die. As I say, I’m not sure whether that argument’s right. But at least it’s an argument worth taking seriously.

Chapter 3. “Everyone Dies Alone”: Common Belief, but Necessary Truth? [00:08:11]

Let me turn now to a different claim that sometimes gets made about death. This is the claim — not that nobody believes they’re going to die; that’s the one we’ve been talking about for the last lecture or so — but instead, the claim that everybody dies alone. This sounds like one of those deep insights into the nature of death. It’s got that kind of air of profundity about it that philosophy’s thought to have or aspires to have. Everyone dies alone. This is telling us something deep and important and interesting about the nature of death.

Now, as it happens, this is one I’m going to be completely dismissive of. I think, as far as I can see, that the claim “we all die alone,” however we interpret it, just ends up being implausible or false. I give it such a hard time each time I teach this class, that I’m often tempted to just drop it from the discussion altogether. Even though, if you’ve done the reading of the Edwards paper that I assigned, you have a series of quotes from Edwards in which people say things like, they die alone. I sometimes come away after this discussion thinking, “Why am I wasting our time? Nobody really believes this, that we all die alone.” Last year I was virtually ready to drop it and then, I kid you not, that very afternoon, I came across a quote. I’ll share this with you in a second. Somebody saying, “Oh, we all die alone.” And then I think it was two days later, a week later, I came across another quote of somebody saying, “Oh, we all die alone.” It made me think, “Oh, I guess this is a common enough thought.”

So here are the two quotes. But I think once you start looking for them, you find them everyplace. This first one is from the folk singer Loudon Wainwright III, from his song Last Man on Earth. “We learn to live together and then we die alone.” We die alone. Interesting claim. It seems to say something important about the nature of death. Here’s another quote. This is from the children’s book, Eldest by Christopher Paolini, the sequel, of course, to the bestseller Eragon. “ ‘How terrible,’ said Eragon, ‘to die alone, separate, even from the one who is closest to you.’” The answer given to Eragon, “Everyone dies alone, Eragon, whether you are a king on a battlefield or a lowly peasant lying in bed among your family, no one can accompany you into the void…” Everyone dies alone.

As I say, this is a common enough view. Two quotes. I could certainly produce others. Everyone dies alone. The trick — The question we’re going to ask is, can we find some interpretation of that claim under which, first of all it ends up being true, secondly, it ends up being a necessary truth about death? Suppose everyone happens to die on Monday, due to some cosmic coincidence. It might be sort of interesting, but it wouldn’t tell us something deep about the nature of death, if people could just as easily die on Tuesday. If it happened to be that everybody dies in a room by themselves, that would be interesting. We might wonder what causes it. But it wouldn’t be some deep insight into the nature of death. We’re going to get a deep insight if it’s a necessary truth about death that everyone dies alone.

So it’s got to be true. It’s got to be a necessary truth. And, of course, it’s got to be an interesting claim. If, when we interpret the claim “everyone dies alone,” that just ends up being a slightly pretentious way of saying everyone dies, we might say, oh yeah, that is true and it is a necessary truth, but it’s not especially surprising. It’s not some deep surprising insight into the nature of death. We all knew everyone dies. You take that familiar fact and you wrap it up in the language “everyone dies alone.” If that’s all you’re saying, you’re not saying anything interesting. When people say, “You know, everyone dies alone,” you’re supposed to be gaining some deep insight into the nature of death.

Finally, “everyone dies alone” is supposed to say something special about death. It better not be that everyone does everything alone, because — in whatever the relevant sense of alone turns out to be — if everyone does everything alone, then of course that might be interesting. It might be very important and insightful, but you’re not saying anything especially interesting about death when you say everyone dies alone, if it’s also true that everyone eats their lunch alone.

So, all this is, is just, as we begin to ask ourselves, what could it possible mean when people say “everyone dies alone”? we’re looking for something that’s true, necessary, interesting and, if not unique to death, at least not true of everything. I put these conditions down because, of course, what I want to suggest is although the sentence “everyone dies alone,” the claim that everyone dies alone, is one of these things that people say, they’re not really thinking very hard about what they mean by it. Because once you actually push people, to pin them down, what do you mean by it, you end up with something that’s either just not true, or not interesting, or not necessary, or not particularly unique to death.

Chapter 4. Deconstructing the “Dying Alone” Statement [00:13:53]

Take a possible interpretation. The most natural, straightforward, literal, flat-footed interpretation. To say that somebody does something alone means they do it not in the presence of others. Somebody who lives by himself goes to sleep. If there’s nobody else in the bedroom, he’s sleeping alone. On that straightforward interpretation, to say that everybody dies alone, what we’re saying is that it’s true of each one of us that he or she dies not in the presence of others. If that was true, it would be sort of surprising, striking. We might wonder whether it’s a necessary truth. But at least there’d be something interesting there.

But of course, it’s not true. We all know full well that sometimes people die in the presence of others. We read earlier this semester Plato’s Phaedo, which describes the death scene of Socrates. Socrates drinks the hemlock and dies in the presence of his friends and disciples. Socrates does not die alone. And of course, we know that there are many, many other cases in which people die in the presence of their friends, family, loved ones. It’s just not true, given that interpretation, to say we all die alone. So if that’s what the claim means, it’s false. Our challenge is to find some other interpretation of the claim.

All right, second possibility. When people say “everyone dies alone,” they don’t mean to be saying you die, but not in the presence of others. They mean to be saying rather, even if there are others around you, even if there are others with you, dying is something that you’re doing alone. They aren’t dying. Socrates’ friends and disciples are not dying. He’s the only one dying. And so everyone dies alone in that sense. Well, that’s an interesting claim, if it’s true, but it’s not true. We could certainly have battlefields in which many people are dying along with others. There is Jones dying, but he’s not dying alone. There’s Smith dying at the same time right next to him. If that’s what people mean when they say “everyone dies alone,” then that’s clearly false as well. I presume that’s not what people meant either. But then what was it that they did mean?

Well, we could do better. We could say, look, when Socrates dies, he’s dying alone in the sense that he’s doing it by himself. He’s not doing it in cooperation with anybody else, in coordination with anybody else. On the battlefield, even if Smith and Jones are both dying, it’s not like this is some sort of cooperative, joint undertaking. You could be walking down the sidewalk and Linda could be walking down the sidewalk and even though you’re both walking down the sidewalk, you’re not walking down the sidewalk together. In contrast, you can walk down the sidewalk with somebody. Say, “Hey, let’s go to the library.” And you walk down the sidewalk together. Walking is something you can do with others, in the sense that it can be a joint activity, a joint undertaking.

Perhaps the claim then is that dying is not something that can be done in that way as a joint undertaking. Even if you’re in a room or a battlefield where people are dying at the same time as you, to your left and your right, dying is not and cannot be something that is a joint undertaking.

Well, that might be a proposal about what people mean when they say “everybody dies alone.” And if it is, all I can say is, again, it just seems to be false.

Now admittedly, dying as a joint undertaking is far rarer than dying alone. But for all that, we were looking for some deep insight into the nature of death. Everyone dies alone. Everyone must die alone. That’s only going to be true if dying as a joint undertaking is impossible. But it’s not impossible. You could have, for example, some sort of suicide pact. There have been cases, gruesome as they may be, in which entire groups of people drink poison together so as to die not alone, but die together, die as part of jointly dying, dying as a group. Or you could have, once told that this sort of thing happens, a couple in love who together jump off the cliff, committing suicide together, dying not alone but with each other as part of a joint undertaking. It certainly seems possible. I take it cases like this actually do occur. So if somebody comes along and says “No, no, everybody dies alone, and dying as part of a joint undertaking is impossible,” they’re just saying something false.

These joint undertakings are like, well, you might think of them analogous to playing chamber music with a string quartet. It’s something you’re doing with others. It’s not just a coincidence that they’re doing it at the same time. All these people happen to be playing the violin, viola, or what have you next to you. No, no, we deliberately coordinated with one another so as to together produce this music. It seems possible in the case of string quartets. It seems possible in the case of joint suicide pacts as well.

Well, a fan of the claim that we all die alone might come back and say, “Well, in the case of the string quartet, although it’s true that I am playing with others, somebody could take my part. Somebody else could play the second violin part for me. Whereas, in contrast, when I die, even if I’m dying with others, nobody can take my part.” So perhaps that’s what the claim is meant to be when people say, “everybody dies alone.” Nobody can die your death for you. Nobody can take your part. Now if that’s what they mean, then — a small observation — they didn’t express themselves very clearly. It seems to me rather a long distance from the thought, “nobody can die for me, nobody can take my part,” to the claim, “everybody dies alone.” That seems a rather misleading, unhelpful, way of making your point. But let’s just bracket that complaint.

It is true that nobody can take my part? Certainly people can take my part in the string quartet. Is it true that nobody can take my part in terms of my death? Not so clear it is true. I don’t know how many of you have read Tale of Two Cities. If not, I’m about to spoil the plot for you. Here’s at least a strand of the story. The hero of the story is in love with a woman who — alas and alack — does not love him. She loves another man. This other man — alas and alack — has been condemned to death during the French Revolution. Now as it happens — this is a novel — as it happens, our hero looks rather like the other man. And so as the other man is being carted off to the guillotine to be killed, our hero takes his place. Hence, the famous speech, “Tis a far, far better thing I do today.” Our hero sacrifices himself so that the woman he loves can have the man that she loves. Well, for our purposes, the romance isn’t crucial. For our purposes, the crucial point is to see that what seems to be going on there is our hero is taking the place of somebody else who’s about to die. Just like somebody could take my place in the string quartet, it seems that somebody could take my place at the guillotine.

In the American Civil War, there was a draft, but you could avoid it by hiring somebody to take your place, if you were rich enough. Well, you’re in some battle, or rather, your troop is in some battle, and people are being killed left and right. Well, I suppose it doesn’t strike me as an implausible thing to say that if everybody in the troop got killed and you would have gotten killed had you been there, but instead, the person you hired to take your place gets killed, then he took your place. He substituted for you in the death. So again, we don’t have any clear, true interpretation of the claim that nobody can take my place, even with regard to dying.

Well, easy to imagine the fan of this view coming back yet again and saying, “Although it’s true that our hero takes the place of the other man on the guillotine, what ends up happening, of course, is that our hero dies his own death. He doesn’t take over the death of the other man. The death of the other man doesn’t take place until 20, 30, 40, whatever it is, years later. Nobody can take my place at my death. Because, of course, if they take my place, they end up living or going through, rather, their death not my death. My death is something that only I can undergo. Now again, that’s an interesting claim if it’s true. At least it seems to be an interesting claim. It seems to say something interesting about death.

Again, I want to just notice that it’s a rather odd thing to try to express that point in the language “everyone dies alone.” But just bracket that. Have we at least found something interesting, necessary, unique to death when we say, “Nobody can die my death for me. I am the only one who can undergo my death”? Each of us must undergo his own death and nobody else’s death. Nobody else can undergo their death for them, somebody else’s death for them. Well, that does seem to be true and it seems to be a necessary truth. But we’re not quite done. Is it saying something deep and interesting about the nature of death? Is it something that’s fairly unique to the nature of death? That nobody can die my death for me. Actually, I don’t think it is.

Consider getting your hair cut at the barber. Now of course, somebody else can take your slot. All right, there’s somebody who comes along and says, “Oh, I need to get to a date. I’m going to be late. Would you mind my having your appointment, using your appointment?” “Oh, I’m willing to wait. It’s okay,” right? So you might say, in some loose sense they’ve gotten your haircut. But of course, as it ended up, they didn’t really get your haircut. They got their haircut. Think about haircuts. Nobody can get my haircut for me. I’m the only one who can get my haircut. If somebody else tries to get my haircut, they just end up getting their own haircut.

Of course, it’s not just special about haircuts. Talk about getting your kidney stones removed. Nobody else can get my kidney stones removed for me. I’m the only one who can get my kidney stones removed for me. Think about eating lunch. Nobody can eat my lunch for me. If somebody else tries to eat my lunch, they end up — it becomes their lunch. They’ve eaten their lunch for themselves. Nobody can eat my lunch for me except for me. If you think about it, it’s true about just about everything. Maybe indeed everything. If you emphasize the word “my” enough, nobody can do much of anything for me and still have it be my such and such. In short, even though it’s true that nobody can die my death for me, this isn’t some deep insight into the special nature of death. It’s just a trivial grammatical point about the meaning of the word “my.”

Chapter 5. Weaknesses in Interpreting “Dying Alone” as Observation of Human Psychology [00:27:59]

All right, remember where we’re at. We’re looking for interpretations of the claim “everyone dies alone.” And by now we’ve gone rather far afield in the search for an interpretation of that claim. But we have not yet been able to find a claim, an interpretation, which is true, interesting, fairly special about death, as opposed to trivially true about everything, and giving us some relatively interesting insight into the nature of death. I can’t see it for the claim “everyone dies alone.” At least not if we try to take these claims fairly literally or take them to be metaphysical claims about the nature of death.

But maybe I’ve just been flatfooted here in thinking that this is some sort of claim about not being with others, or things I do by myself. Maybe the claim “we all die alone” is intended as a kind of metaphor. It’s not that we all really do die alone. It’s that when we die, it’s as though we were alone. It’s like being alone. Maybe the claim “we all die alone” is a psychological claim, that the psychological state we are in when we die is similar to loneliness. It’s similar to the feeling of being alone that we have in various situations.

Now, that would be interesting if it was true. Is it true that when we die we all die having this feeling of loneliness, or perhaps feeling of alienation? It’s easy enough to imagine somebody who is surrounded by other people as he’s dying. And yet, for all that, feels removed, distant, alienated from the others, feels lonely even in the crowd. Is that true of all of us?

Remember, we’re looking for a claim that says, that makes it true, that everyone dies alone. Is it true that everyone dies feeling distant and removed? Maybe it was true of Ivan Ilyich. Ivan Ilyich progressively grows more and more distant from his family and friends who, indeed, remove themselves psychologically from him. He faces his death with a feeling of alienation and being alone. It’s a metaphor, but still an important insight into his psychology. The question we have to ask is, “Is that true of everybody? Is it true that everybody dies alone in this psychological sense?” It doesn’t seem to be true.

First of all, notice the obvious point that sometimes people die in their sleep, unexpectedly. They weren’t ill. They just die of cardiac arrest while they’re sleeping. Such a person presumably is not feeling lonely or alienated while he dies. Well, you might say, “Okay, what we meant was anybody who’s awake while they’re dying, dies alone.” That’s not true either. You’re crossing the street, talking to your friend, engaged in lively discussion. So lively, you don’t notice the truck that’s about to hit you. The truck hits you, you die, painlessly and immediately. Well, were you feeling alienated and distant during your final moments? No, it doesn’t seem right either. So it certainly doesn’t seem true to say that everybody dies feeling these psychological feelings of loneliness.

Well, maybe what we should have to do is revise the claim yet again. Everybody who dies awake, realizing that they’re dying, facing the fact that they’re dying, they all, we all of whom that’s true, we all die alone, as long as we realize we’re dying. That would take care of the sleep case. That would take care of the truck case. Is the claim true then? It would still be interesting if it was true, even given those restrictions. But it doesn’t seem true then either. Again, just recall Socrates. Socrates is engaged in philosophical discussion with his friends, knows he’s about to die. He’s drunk the hemlock. He’s sitting there saying goodbye to everybody. He doesn’t seem alienated. He doesn’t seem to be feeling distant and alone. It just doesn’t seem true that everybody who knows they’re going to die and is facing their death feels lonely.

Another example of this is another philosopher, David Hume, whom we’ll be reading at the end of the semester. We’ll be reading his essay on suicide. Hume died, had an illness. He was quite sociable to the end. He used to bring people in to sit around his deathbed talking about various matters with him. He was cheerful and pleasant to the end. And there’s, as far as I can see, no reason at all to believe that he was feeling lonely, feeling distant, feeling alienated from the people who were keeping him company. So the psychological reading doesn’t do any better, as far as I can see.

Well, maybe there’s some other interpretation, and I invite you to reflect on the question. Is it true that we all die alone? Is there some way of understanding that claim where it’s true, a necessary truth, fairly special and unique, if not altogether unique, at least fairly special about death, showing us some deep insight into the nature of death — as opposed to some trivial insight about the way the possessive first person pronoun “my” works? I can’t find it. So despite the fact that the claim “we all die alone” is one of these things that one hears, I think it’s just nonsense. I think it’s people talking without giving a moment’s thought to what they meant when they said it.

Chapter 6. Introduction to Value Theory: Is Death Bad? [00:34:56]

All right, where are we? For the first half of the course, we’ve been engaged in metaphysics, broadly speaking. We’ve been trying to get clear about the nature of the person, what we’re composed of, so that we could then try to get clearer about the nature of survival and identity of persons, so that we could think about the nature of death, metaphysically speaking. What happens when we die? And as you know, I’ve defended the physicalist conception, according to which all we are are just bodies capable of doing some fancy tricks, capable of P-functioning. And details aside, death is a matter of the body breaking, so that it’s no longer able to engage in P-functioning. As we saw, depending on the particular details of which theory of personal identity you accept — the body view, the brain view, the personality theory of personal identity — we might have to say slightly different things about whether the death of my body means I no longer exist, whether we should distinguish the death of the body, the death of the person, and so forth.

But those details aside, roughly speaking, the following is true. When the body breaks, I cease to exist as a person. And even if we can hold out the logical possibility of my being resurrected — or my continuing to exist with a different body as long as it’s got my personality, if you happen to accept the personality theory — even though there is the logical possibility of surviving my death or coming back to life, I see no good reason to believe that those logical possibilities are actual. As far as I can see, when my body dies, that’s it. As a fan of the body view, I believe I’ll still exist for a while. I’ll exist as a corpse. But that’s not the kind of thing about existence that mattered to me. In terms of what mattered to me, what I wanted was not just that I exist, but that I be alive, indeed be a person, indeed be a person with pretty much the same personality. And the truth of the matter is, when my body dies, that’s all history. That’s where we’re at in terms of the metaphysics.

We could summarize this by saying, when I die, I cease to exist. That’s a little bit misleading, given the view I just sketched where even though I’m dead I still exist for a while as a corpse. But those issues won’t concern us in what we’re about to turn to. Let’s just suppose that, for the sake of avoiding those complications, that when my body dies, it gets destroyed. And so the very same moment will be the end of my body, the end of my existence, the end of my personhood. Let’s suppose that my personality doesn’t get destroyed any sooner than the death of my body. We’ve got the end of my existence. Here I am going along. The atomizer comes along, blows me up. Then simultaneously, we’ve got the death of my person, the death of my body, the end of what matters to me, the end of my existence. Death is the end. And even though these things can come across — can come apart slightly under certain scenarios, those details won’t matter for what we’re about to turn to.

Well, what are we about to turn to? We’re about to turn to value theory. We spent the first half of the semester, you might say, trying to get clear about the metaphysical facts. And now that we’ve done that as best we can, we want to turn to the ethical or value questions. How good or bad is death? Why is — I take it, we all believe death is bad. Why is death bad? How can death be bad? So this is the big continental divide for the course. The first half of the class was metaphysics. Now we turn to value questions.

And the first question we’re going to be focusing on is just this, the question of the badness of death. How and in what ways is death bad? I take it, most of us do believe that death is bad. That’s why we wish — maybe some of us believe, but at the very least the rest of us, many of us hoped — there were souls, so that death wouldn’t have to be the end. If death is the end, that seems to be horrible. So we’re going to turn to questions like this. How and in what ways is death bad? And then we’re going to turn to the question, is it really true that immortality would be good? And eventually, we’ll turn to some other value questions about if death really is the end, should we be afraid of death? I take it that fear of death is quite common. But we can actually evaluate different emotions and think about whether these emotional responses are appropriate or not, so we can ask whether or not fear of death is appropriate. We’ll turn eventually to the question, how should we live in light of the fact that death is the end? And the last question we’ll turn to is, could it ever make sense to kill ourselves? So these are the kind of moral or value questions we’ll be concerned with until the end of the term. But the first one is simply, is death bad, as we typically take it to be, and, if so, what is it about it that makes it bad?

So again, I’m going to suppose here on out that the metaphysical view that I’ve been sketching is right; that physicalism is true. The death of my body is the end of my existence as a person. Death is my end. Well, if that’s right, how can it be bad for me to die? After all, once I’m dead, I don’t exist. If I don’t exist, how can it be bad for me that I’m dead?

It’s easy to see how you might think, how you might worry about the badness of death, if you thought you would survive your death. Now, if you believed in a soul, then you might worry about, well, gosh what’s going to happen to my soul after I die? Am I going to make it up to heaven? Am I going to go to hell? You might worry about how badly off you’re going to be once you’re dead. The question makes perfect sense. But it’s often seemed to people that if we really believe that death is the end — and that’s the assumption that I’m making here on out — if we really believe death is the end, how can death be bad for me? How could anything be bad for me once I’m dead? If I don’t exist, it can’t be bad for me.

Well, sometimes in response to this thought, people respond by saying, “Look, death isn’t bad for the person who’s dead. Death is bad for the survivors.” John’s death isn’t bad for John. John’s death is bad for the people who loved John and now have to continue living without John. John’s death is bad for John’s friends and family. When somebody dies, we lose the chance to continue interacting with the person. We’re no longer able to talk with them, spend time with them, watch a movie, look at the sunset, have a laugh. We’re no longer able to tell our troubles with them and get their advice. We’re no longer able to interact with them. All that’s gone, when somebody dies.

And the claim might be, that’s the central bad of death. Not what it does for the person who dies. It’s not bad for the person who dies. It’s what it does for the rest of them, the rest of us.

Now, I don’t in any way want to belittle the importance of the pain and suffering that happen for the rest of us when somebody that we care about dies. Indeed, let me take a moment and read a poem that emphasizes this thought, because this is certainly one central, very bad thing about death. It robs us of our friends — we, the survivors — it robs us of our friends and loved ones. Poem. The poem is called Separation, by the German poet, Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock. This is in one of the essays you’ll be reading later in the semester by Walter Kaufmann — he quotes it — Death Without Dread. The poem, as I say, is Separation.

You turned so serious when the corpse
was carried past us;
are you afraid of death? “Oh, not of that!”
Of what are you afraid? “Of dying.”

I not even of that. “Then you’re afraid of nothing?”
Alas, I am afraid, afraid…”Heavens, of what?”
Of parting from my friends.
And not mine only, of their parting, too.

That’s why I turned more serious even
than you did, deeper in the soul,
when the corpse
was carried past us [Kaufmann 1976]

The poem is called Separation. According to Klopstock, the crucial badness of death is losing your friends. When they die, you lose them. And as I say, I don’t in any way want to belittle the central badness of that. But I don’t think it can be at the core in terms of what’s bad about death. I don’t think that can be the central fact about why death is bad. And to see this, let me tell you two stories. Compare them.

Story number one. Your friend is about to go on the spaceship which is going to do the exploration of Jupiter or whatever. And they’re going to be gone for years, years and years. It takes so long that by the time the spaceship comes back, 100 years will have gone by. Maybe it’s not Jupiter. It’s farther away. Worse still, after about 20 minutes after the ship takes off, all radio contact between ship and earth will be destroyed. It won’t be possible, because of the speed. It’s not going to Jupiter. It’s going to some other planetary system. So, all possibility of communication will be destroyed. Now, this is horrible. You’re losing your closest friend. You will no longer be able to talk to them, share the moments, get their insights and advice. You’ll no longer be able to tell them about the things that have been going on. It’s the same kind of separation that Klopstock was talking about. Horrible, and it’s sad. That was story number one.

Story number two, just like story number one, the spaceship takes off, and about 15 minutes later, it explodes in a horrible accident and everybody on the spaceship, including your friend, is killed. Now, I take it that story number two is worse. Something worse has taken place. Well, what’s the worse thing? We’ve got of course the very same separation we had in story number one. I can’t communicate in the future with my friend. They can’t communicate with me. But we had that already in story number one. If there’s something worse about story number two, and I think it’s pretty clear there is something worse, it’s not the separation. It’s something about the fact that your friend has died. Now of course, this is worse for me, as somebody who cares about my friend, that he’s died. But the explanation of what’s bad for me, in his having died, is the fact that it’s bad for him to have died. And the badness for him isn’t just a matter of separation, because that we already had in number one. We couldn’t communicate with him. He couldn’t communicate with us.

If we want to get at the central badness of death, it seems to me, we can’t focus on the badness of separation, the badness for the survivors. We have to think about how is it, how could it be true, that death is bad for the person that dies? That’s the central badness of death and that’s the one I’m going to have us focus on. How could it be true that death is bad for the person that dies? That’s the question we turn to next time.

[end of transcript]


“Separation” by Friedrich Klopstock, translated by Walter Kaufmann, from EXISTENTIALISM, RELIGION AND DEATH by Walter Kaufmann, copyright © 1976 by Walter Kaufmann. Used by permission of Dutton Signet, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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