PHIL 176: Death
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PHIL 176 - Lecture 17 - The Badness of Death, Part II: The Deprivation Account
Chapter 1. Introduction: The Central Badness of Death [00:00:00]
Professor Shelly Kagan: Last time we made the turn from metaphysics to value theory. We started asking about what it is about death that makes it bad. The first aspect of the badness of death that we talked about was the fact that when somebody dies, that’s hard on the rest of us. We’re left behind having to cope with the loss of this person that we love. Nonetheless, it seems likely that if we want to get clear about the central badness of death, it can’t be a matter of the loss for those who remain behind, but rather the loss, the badness of death, for the person who dies. That, at any rate, is what I want to focus on from here on out. What exactly is it about my death, or the fact that I’m going to die, that makes that bad for me?
Now, I want to get clear about precisely what it is we want to focus in on here. Now, one thing that could be bad, obviously, is the process of dying could be a painful one. It might be, for example, that I get ripped to pieces by Bengali tigers. And if so, then the actual process of dying would be horrible. It would be painful. And clearly it makes sense to talk about the process of dying as something that could potentially be bad for me. Although similarly, I might die in my sleep, in which case the process of dying would not be bad for me. At any rate, I take it that most of us, although we might have some passing concern about the possibility that our process of dying might be a painful one, that’s not, again, the central thing we’re concerned about when we face the fact that we’re going to die.
It’s also true, of course, that many of us find — here, right now, while we’re not actually dying — the prospect of dying to be unpleasant. So, one of the things that’s bad about my death for me is that right now I’ve got some unhappy thoughts as I anticipate the fact that I’m going to die. But again, that can’t be the central thing that’s bad about death, because the prospect of my death — it makes sense for that to be a painful one or an unpleasant one, only given the further claim that death itself is bad for me. Having fear or anxiety or concern or regret or anguish or whatever it is that maybe I have now about the fact that I’m going to die, piggybacks on the logically prior thought that death itself is bad for me. If it didn’t piggyback in that way, it wouldn’t make any sense to have fear or anxiety or dread or anguish or whatever it is that I may have now.
I mean, suppose I said to you, “Tomorrow something’s going to happen to you and that thing is going to be simply fantastic, absolutely incredible, absolutely wonderful.” And you said, “Well, I believe you and I have to tell you, I’m just filled with dread and foreboding in thinking about it.” That wouldn’t make any sense at all. It makes sense to be filled with dread or foreboding or what have you only if the thing you’re looking forward to, anticipating, is itself bad. Maybe, for example, it makes sense to dread going to the dentist, if you believe that being at the dentist is a painful, unpleasant experience. But if being at the dentist isn’t itself unpleasant, it doesn’t make sense to dread it in anticipation.
So again, if we’re thinking about the central badness of death, it seems to me that we’ve got to focus on my being dead. What is it about my being dead that’s bad for me? Now, if we pose that question, it seems as though the answer should be simple and straightforward. When I’m dead, I won’t exist. Now previously, in the first part of the class, we spent some time saying that, look, on certain views, there’ll be a period of time in which you might be dead, but your body might still be alive. Or you might be dead, but even though your body still exists, it’s not alive, but you exist as a corpse. Put all that aside. Go to the period beyond any of that murky stuff in the short-term and just, for simplicity, let’s suppose with the physicalists that once I die, I cease to exist. All right.
Chapter 2. The Deprivation Account of Badness in Death [00:04:35]
So, don’t we have the answer to what’s bad about death right there? When I’m dead, I won’t exist. Isn’t that the straightforward explanation about why death is bad? Now, what I want to say, in effect, is this. I do think the fact that I won’t exist does provide the key to getting clear about how and why death is bad. But I don’t think it’s quite straightforward. I think, as we’ll see, it actually takes some work to spell out exactly how death, how nonexistence, could be bad for me. And even having done that, there’ll be some puzzles that remain that we’ll be turning to in a little while.
So, the basic idea seems to be straightforward enough. When I’m dead, I won’t exist. Isn’t it clear that nonexistence is bad for me? Well, immediately you get an objection. You say, how could nonexistence be bad for me? After all, the whole point of nonexistence is you don’t exist. How could anything be bad for you when you don’t exist? Isn’t there a kind of logical requirement that for something to be bad for you, you’ve got to be around to receive that bad thing? A headache, for example, can be bad for you. But of course, you exist during the headache. Headaches couldn’t be bad for people who don’t exist. They can’t experience or have or receive headaches. How could anything be bad for you when you don’t exist? And in particular, then, how could nonexistence be bad for you when you don’t exist?
So it’s not, as I say, altogether straightforward to see how the answer “Death is bad for me, because when I’m dead I don’t exist,” how that answers the problem, as opposed to simply focusing our attention on the problem. How can nonexistence be bad for me? The answer to this objection, I think, is to be found in drawing a distinction between two different ways in which something can be bad for me.
On the one hand, something can be bad for me, we might say, in an absolute, robust, intrinsic sense. Take a headache, again, or some other kind of pain — stubbing your toe or getting stabbed or whatever it is, being tortured. Pain is intrinsically bad. It’s bad in its own right. It’s something we want to avoid for its own sake. And those — ;Normally, things that are bad for you are bad intrinsically. They’re bad by virtue of their very nature. There’s something about the way they are that you don’t want those that are bad in their own right.
But there’s another way of something being bad for you that it’s easy to overlook. Something can be bad comparatively. Something could be bad because of what you’re not getting while you get this bad thing. It could be what the economists call bad by virtue of “the opportunity costs.” It’s not that it’s intrinsically bad; it’s bad because while you’re doing this, you’re not getting something better.
How could that be? Let’s have a simple example. Suppose that I stay home and watch something on TV — Deal or No Deal. I watch this on TV and I have a good enough time. How could that be bad for me? Well, in terms of the first notion of bad, something being intrinsically bad, it’s not bad. It’s a pleasant enough way to spend a half an hour, or however long the show is on. On the other hand, suppose what I could be doing instead of watching a half an hour of television is being at a really great party. Then we might say, the fact that I’m stuck home watching television is bad for me in this comparative sense. It’s not that it’s, in itself, an unpleasant way to spend some time; it’s just that there’s a better way to spend time that I could be doing, in principle at least. If only I’d gone. If only I’d been invited. If only I remembered, what have you. And because I’m foregoing that better good, there’s something bad, comparatively speaking, about the fact that I’m stuck at home watching TV. There’s a lack of the better good. A lack is not intrinsically bad, but it’s still a kind of bad in this second sense. To be lacking a good is, itself, bad for me.
Similarly, suppose I hold out two envelopes and I say, “Pick one.” And you open up the first one, you pick the first one, and you open it up and you say, “Hey look, ten bucks! Isn’t that good for me?” Well, of course, ten bucks is intrinsically good. Anyway, well, it’s not intrinsically good, it’s only good as a means to buy something. But it’s sort of good. It’s worth having for its own right, because of what it can get you. But if unbeknownst to you, the other envelope had $1,000 in it, then we can say, “Look, it’s bad for you that you picked the first envelope.” Bad in what sense? Because you would have been better off, had you picked the second envelope. You would have been having more good, or a greater amount of good.
Well, nonexistence can’t be bad for me in our first sense. It can’t be that nonexistence is intrinsically bad, worth avoiding for its own sake. That would only make sense if nonexistence was somehow, for example, painful. But when you don’t exist, you have no painful experiences. There’s nothing about nonexistence in and of itself that makes us want to avoid it. Nonexistence is only bad for me in this comparative sense, because of the lack. When I don’t exist, I’m lacking stuff.
What am I lacking? Well, of course, what I’m lacking is life and more particularly still, the good things that life can give me. So, nonexistence is bad by virtue of the opportunity costs that are involved. Famously, W.C. Fields on his tombstone says, “Personally, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.” What’s bad about being dead is you don’t get to experience and enjoy any longer the various good things that life would offer us. So nonexistence does point to the key aspect about death. Why is death bad? Because when I’m dead I don’t exist. But if we ask, why is and how can it be the case that nonexistence is bad? the answer is, because of the lack of the good things in life. Because when I don’t exist, I am not getting the things that I could have otherwise gotten, if only I were still alive. Death is bad because it deprives me of the good things in life.
This account is nowadays known as the deprivation account of the evil or badness of death, for obvious reasons, right? The key thought is, the central bad about death, about nonexistence, is that it deprives you of the goods of life you might otherwise be getting. That’s the deprivation account. And it seems to me that the deprivation account basically has it right. Eventually, I’ll go on to argue that there are other aspects of death that may also contribute to its badness, aspects above and beyond the one that gets focused on by the deprivation account. But still, it seems to me the deprivation account points us correctly to the central thing about death that’s bad. What’s most importantly bad about the fact that I’ll be dead is the fact that when I’m dead, I won’t be getting the good things in life. I’ll be deprived of them. That’s the badness of death according to the deprivation account.
Chapter 3. Epicurus: “When Does Death Become Bad?” [00:13:22]
Now, if we accept the deprivation account, if we try to accept the deprivation account, we face some further philosophical puzzles. Puzzles that many people have thought are sufficiently overwhelming that we, despite the initial plausibility of the deprivation account, have to give it up. First objection is this. Look, if something is true — a quite general point, it seems, about metaphysics — if something is true, there’s got to be a time when it’s true. If I make some claim about a fact, there’s got to be a time when that fact is true. Here’s a fact. Shelly’s lecturing to you now about the badness of death. When is that fact true? When was that fact true? Well, right now. Here’s another fact. Shelly once lectured to you about the nature of personal identity. When was that fact true? Well, we can point to a period of perhaps a week or two last month when I was lecturing to you about personal identity. Things that are facts can be dated.
All right. That seems right. But if it is right, then immediately we’ve got a puzzle. How could death be bad for me? If death was bad for me, that would be a fact. If my death is bad for me, that would be a fact and we’d ask, well, when is that fact true? We might say, well, it’s not true now. Death isn’t bad for me now. I’m not dead now. Maybe death is bad for me when I’m dead? But that seems very hard to believe. I mean, when I’m dead, I don’t exist, right? How could anything be bad for me then? Surely you’ve got to exist. So, there’s a puzzle about dating the badness of death.
Now, it may be that this puzzle about time and the date of the badness of death is what Epicurus had in mind. There’s a passage that I’m going to read to you in a moment from Epicurus. This passage has puzzled people, it has puzzled philosophers ever since. Epicurus seems to be putting his finger on something puzzling about death, though it’s difficult to pin down exactly what it is that’s bugging him. So we’re going to try an interpretation or two. But first, here’s the passage from Epicurus. “So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.”
You see, it’s not altogether clear what Epicurus is bothered by there, but one possible interpretation is this puzzle about the timing of the badness of death. Death can’t be bad for me now, because I’m alive. Death can’t be bad for me when I’m dead. I am no more; then how can things be bad for me then? But if death has no time at which it’s bad for me, and if anything that’s true, any fact has to have a time when it’s true, then the purported fact that death is bad for me can’t really be a fact. All right.
How could we respond to this objection? Well, one way of course is to accept the objection and say, “You’re right. Death isn’t really bad for me.” And some philosophers have indeed accepted that very conclusion, maybe Epicurus. Most of us want to say, “No, no. Death is bad for me.” So we need a better answer to the, “Oh yeah? When is it bad for you?” objection. Two possible responses. One possible response would be to grab the bull by the horns and say, “Death is bad for me. Facts do have to be dated. Let me tell you when it’s bad for me.” The other possible response is to grab, as it were, the other horn and say, “You know, death is bad for me and I agree that I can’t date it, but you’re wrong to assume that all facts have to be datable. There are some things that are true that we can’t put a date on.”
Let’s start with the second. Could there be some things that are true that we can’t put a date on? Well, here’s one I think, maybe. Suppose that on Monday I shoot John. I wound him with the bullet that comes out of my gun. But it’s not a wound directly into his heart. He simply starts bleeding. And he bleeds slowly. So he doesn’t die on Monday. He’s wounded and he’s dying, but he doesn’t die on Monday. On Tuesday, let’s suppose that I have a heart attack and I die. John’s still around — bleeding, but still around. On Wednesday, the loss of blood finally overtakes him and John dies. All right? So, I shoot him on Monday, I die on Tuesday, John dies on Wednesday.
Now, I killed John. I take it we’re all in agreement about that. If I hadn’t shot him, he wouldn’t be dead. I killed him. When did I kill him? Did I kill him on Monday, the day I shot him? That doesn’t seem right. He’s not dead on Monday. How could I kill him on Monday? Oh, he died on Wednesday. Did I kill him on Wednesday? Well, how could that be? I don’t even exist on Wednesday. I died myself on Tuesday. How can I kill him after I’m dead? So I didn’t kill him on Monday, didn’t kill him — rather on Wednesday. I didn’t kill him on Monday, didn’t kill him on Wednesday when he dies. When did I kill him?
Well, maybe the answer is there’s no particular time at all when I killed him. But for all that, it’s true that I killed him. What makes it true that I killed him? What makes it true that I killed him is that on Monday I shot him and on Wednesday, he died from the wound. That’s what makes it true. But when did I kill him? Maybe we can’t date that. Suppose we can’t. If we can’t, then there are facts that you can’t date, like the fact that I killed John. If there are facts that you can’t date, maybe here’s another one. My death is bad for me. When is that true? Can’t date it, but for all that, maybe it’s true. So maybe we shouldn’t accept the assumption of the argument that all facts can be dated.
Of course, the thought that all facts can be dated is a very powerful one, and no doubt, many of you are going to go home and start trying to come up with an adequate answer to the question, when exactly did Shelly kill John? And come up with an answer, maybe, that you can even accept.
At any rate, maybe we should accept the thought that all facts can be dated. In which case, if we’re going to want to insist that my death is bad for me, we’d better be able to come up with a date. Well, maybe we can. When would it be plausible to claim my death is bad for me? Well, not now. My death can’t be bad for me now. I’m not dead. But it’s not 100% clear that the other alternative isn’t acceptable. Why not say, “My death is bad for me when I’m dead”? After all, when is a headache bad for me? When the headache is occurring.
Chapter 4. The Existence Requirement: Is It Necessary? [00:21:21]
Now, according to the deprivation account, the badness of death consists in the fact that when you’re dead, you are deprived of the goods of life. So when is death bad for you? During the time perhaps you’re being deprived of the goods of life. Well, when are you deprived of the goods of life? When you’re dead. When does the deprivation actually occur? When you’re dead. So perhaps we should just say, “Well, you were right, Epicurus,” if this was Epicurus’ argument. “You were right, Epicurus. All facts have to be dated, but we can date the badness of death. My death is bad for me during the time I’m dead. Because during that time, I’m deprived of, I’m not getting, the good things in life that I would be getting if only I were still alive.”
Well, that’s a possible response to the objection. But of course, it just immediately raises a further objection. How could it be that death is bad for me then? How could it be that death is bad for me when I don’t exist? Surely, I have to exist in order for something to be bad for me. Or, for that matter, for something to be good for me. Don’t you need to exist in order for something to be good or bad for you?
Well, this points our way to a different possible interpretation of Epicurus’ argument. The argument would be (A) something could be bad, or for that matter, good for you only if you exist; (B) when you’re dead you don’t exist; so (C) death can’t be bad for you. Put that up on the board. [See Figure 17.1] (A) Something can be bad for you only if you exist. (B) When you’re dead you don’t exist. So, conclusion, (C) death can’t be bad for you. Maybe that’s the argument that Epicurus had in mind. Let’s hear Epicurus’ — the quote from Epicurus again. “So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.”
Again, the passage from Epicurus isn’t altogether clear, but maybe he’s got in mind something like this argument. Maybe Epicurus thinks look, (A) something can be bad for you only if you exist; (B) when you’re dead you don’t exist; so (C) death can’t be bad for you.
Well, what should we say? It’s pretty clear that (B) is true. When you’re dead you don’t exist. And so the conclusion, (C) death can’t be bad for you, looks like it’s going to follow, once we accept (A). Call (A) the existence requirement. Something can be bad or, for that matter, good for you, only if you exist. That’s the existence requirement for bads and goods.
If we accept the existence requirement, it looks as though we have to accept the conclusion, death can’t be bad for you. What should we say? Maybe what we should say is, reject the existence requirement. In the ordinary case, pains, being blind, being crippled, what have you, losing your job — in the ordinary case, things are bad for you when you exist. In the ordinary case, in order to receive bads, you’ve got to exist. But perhaps that’s only the ordinary case; it’s not all cases. Perhaps we should say, look, for certain kinds of bads you don’t need to even exist in order for those things to be bad for you.
What kind of bads could be like that? Well, of course, deprivation bads would be exactly like that. To lack something, you don’t need to exist. Indeed, the very fact that you don’t exist might provide the very explanation as to why you’ve got the deprivation, why you’ve got the lack. Not all lacks might be like that, right? Remember the television case. You existed while you were being deprived of the great party. You existed while you were getting the mere $10 instead of the $1,000. So, sometimes deprivations coincide with existence. But the crucial point about deprivations is you don’t even need to so much as exist in order to be deprived of something. Nonexistence guarantees that you’re deprived of something.
So perhaps we should just reject the existence requirement. Perhaps we should say, when we’re talking about lacks, when we’re talking about deprivations, (A) is wrong. We should reject the existence requirement. Something can be bad for you even if you don’t exist. The existence requirement is false. Well, that would be a possible way to respond to this second possible interpretation of Epicurus’ argument. It would be a way to retain the thought that I take it we want to have, that most of us share, at least, that death is bad. We’d be able to retain that thought by rejecting the existence requirement.
Well, easy to say that, but there are some implications of rejecting the existence requirement that may be rather hard to swallow. Think about exactly what it’s saying. It’s saying something, for example death, nonexistence, can be bad for somebody even though they don’t exist. That’s why my death can be bad for me even though I won’t exist. But if death can be bad for somebody even though they don’t exist, then death could be bad for somebody, that is to say, nonexistence could be bad for somebody, who never exists. Take somebody who is a possible person, but never actually gets born.
It’s sort of hard to think about somebody like that. So let’s try to get at least a little bit more concrete. I need two volunteers. I need a male volunteer from the audience. Good. Okay, you’ll be the male volunteer. And I need a female volunteer from the audience. Come on, it won’t hurt. I need a female volunteer. Okay. What I’d like you to do after class is go have sex and have a baby. Okay.
Now, let me just suppose that this isn’t actually going to happen. Sorry. Or sorry, I don’t know. Let’s consider, though, the possibility never to be actualized, the possibility that they would have sex and have a baby. His sperm joined with her egg, form a fertilized egg. The fertilized egg develops into a fetus. The fetus is eventually born. It’s the fetus that we got by mixing egg 37 with sperm 4,000,309. There’s a person that could have been born. But let’s suppose, never does get born. That particular person who could have been born, let’s call Larry. Okay. Larry is a possible person. It could happen, but won’t happen. It could exist, but won’t exist. Now, how many of us feel sorry for Larry? Probably nobody. After all, Larry never even exists. How can we feel sorry for Larry?
Now, that made perfect sense when we accepted the existence requirement, (A), something can be bad for you only if you exist. Since Larry never exists, nothing can be bad for Larry. But once we give up on the existence requirement, once we say something can be bad for you even if you never exist, then we no longer have any grounds for withholding our sympathy from Larry. We can say, “Oh my gosh! Think of all the goods in life that Larry would have had, if only he’d been born. But he never is born, so he’s deprived of all those goods.” And if death is bad for me, by virtue of being deprived of the goods of life, then nonexistence is bad for Larry, by virtue of his being deprived of all the goods of life. I’ve got it bad. I’m going to die. Larry’s got it worse. We should really feel much sorrier for Larry. But I bet none of you feels sorry for Larry, this never-to-be-born-at-all person.
Chapter 5. Should Death Be Bad for the Loss of the Unborn Person? [00:32:48]
Now, it’s important in thinking about this, that we not slip back into some version of the soul view, especially some version of the soul view where the souls are prior existents. You might imagine — there’s a scene in Homer, I think, where some sort of sacrifice is being made and all the dead souls go hover around, longing to be alive again, to savor the food and taste and smells of life, right? If you’ve got this picture of the nonexistent, merely potentially possible but never-to-be born individuals as somehow really already existing in a kind of ghost-like state, wishing they were born, maybe you should feel sorry for them. But that’s not what the story is at all on the physicalist picture that I’m assuming. Nonexistent people don’t have a kind of spooky, wish-I-were-alive ghost-like existence. They just don’t exist, full stop. So once we keep that in mind about Larry, it’s very hard to feel sorry for him.
Of course, look, since I’ve been going on about how he’s deprived of all the good things in life, maybe some of you are feeling sorry for Larry. So it’s worth getting clear about just what it would mean to take seriously the thought that it’s bad for merely potential people never to be born. How many merely potential people are there? I want you to get a sense of just how many there are. Not just Larry, the unborn person that would exist if we mixed whatever it was, you know, egg 37 and sperm 4,000,029, whatever the number was. Not just Larry, who’s a potential person who never gets born, that would have to be an object of our sympathy, there’s a lot of merely potential, never-to-be-born people.
How many? A lot. How many? Well, I once tried to calculate. Well, as you’ll see, the calculation is utterly off the back of the envelope, sort of rough and completely inadequate in ways that I’ll point out. But at least it’ll give you a sense of just how many potential people there are.
Let’s start modestly and ask: How many possible people could we, the current generation, produce? Now as I say, I made this calculation some years ago. It doesn’t really matter how inaccurate it’s going to be. As we’ll see, it’s very rough, but it makes the point. How many people are there? How many possible people, rather, could there be? Well, suppose there were 5 billion people. Roughly half of them are men, half of them are women.
What we want to know then is, how many possible people could the 2.5 billion men make altogether with the 2.5 billion women? The crucial point in thinking about this is to realize that every time you combine a different egg with a different sperm, you end up with a different person, right? If you combine an egg with a different sperm, you get a different genetic code that develops into a different person. You combine that sperm with a different egg, you get a different person. You know, if my parents had had sex five minutes earlier or five minutes later, presumably some other sperm would have joined with the egg. That would have been not me being born, but some sibling being born instead of me. Change the egg, change the sperm, you get a different person. So what we really want to know is, how many sperm-egg combinations are there with roughly 5 billion people in the world?
Well, let’s see. [See Figure 17.2] There’s 2.5 billion women, [writing] billion women. How many eggs can a woman have? Well, fertile periods, round numbers, it’s not really going to matter, precision, roughly 30 years, roughly 12 eggs a year. So that’s how many eggs. Actually, I discovered some time after having done this calculation that the number of possible eggs is far greater. A woman actually ovulates and gives off this many eggs roughly during her fertile period. But there’s many, many other cells, I gather, that could have developed into eggs. So that’s a much, much larger number of potential eggs. But this will do. 30 years, 12 eggs a year.
How many men? Roughly 2.5 billion men. Each man has a much longer period in which he’s able to produce sperm. Let’s just be round numbers here, 50 years. How many times a day can the man have sex? Well, certainly more than once, but let’s be modest here and just say once a day. So that’s 365 times a day — a year. 365 days a year. 365 days, I guess that should be. I wrote it too big. I don’t have space left for the last number. Each time the man ejaculates, he gives off a lot of sperm. How much sperm? A lot. As it happens, I looked this up once. Round numbers, 40 million sperm each time the man ejaculates. So this last number has got to be times 40 million sperm. Okay, so we took all the men that exist now and all the women that exist now and ask: How many merely possible people? You know, most of these people are never going to be born, of course. But we’re talking about possible people.
How many possible people are there? There’s 2.5 billion times 30 times 12 times 2.5 billion times 50 times 365 times 40 million. That equals — I’m going to round here. That equals approximately 1.5 million billion billion billion people. That’s 1.5 x 1033. That’s how many possible people we could have, roughly speaking, in the next generation, of which obviously a miniscule fraction are going to be born. There’s — If you’re going to feel sorry for Larry, you’ve got to feel sorry for every merely possible person. Every person who could have been born that never gets born. And there’s 1.5 million billion billion billion such people, such possible people.
And of course, the truth of the matter is, we barely scratched the surface here. Because now think of all those people and think about all the possible children they could have. We got this number starting with a mere 5 billion people. Imagine the number we would get if we then calculated how many possible grandchildren we could have. I don’t mean that we could actually have all of those people at the same time, but for each one there is a possible person that could have existed. You quickly end up with more possible people than there are particles in the known universe. And that was just two generations, right? Three generations, you’re going to have more. Four generations, you’re going to have more. If we think about the number of possible people, people who could have existed but will never exist, the number just boggles the mind.
And then, if we say we’ve gotten rid of the existence requirement and so things can be bad for you even if you never actually exist, then we have to say of each and every single one of those billions upon billions upon billions upon billions upon billions of possible people that it’s a tragedy that they never get born, because they’re deprived of the goods of life. If we do away with the existence requirement, then the tragedy of the unborn possible people is a moral tragedy that mere — that just staggers the mind. The worst possible moral horrors of human history don’t begin to even be in the same ballpark as the moral horror of the loss, the deprivation for all of these unborn possible people.
Now, I don’t know about you, when I think about it, all I can say is it doesn’t strike me as being a moral catastrophe. I don’t feel anguish and sorrow and dismay at the loss, at the lack, at the deprivation for the untold billion, billion, billion, billions. But if we give up the existence requirement and explain the badness of my death via the deprivation account, we do have to say this is a moral tragedy, the fact that the billions upon billions are never born.
Well, if we’re not prepared to say that’s a moral tragedy, well, we could avoid that by going back to the existence requirement. But of course, if we do go back to the existence requirement, then we’re back with Epicurus’ argument. Something can be bad for you only if you exist. When you’re dead, you don’t exist. So, (C), death can’t be bad for you. And now we’ve really got ourselves in a philosophical pickle, don’t we? If I accept the existence requirement, we’ve got an argument that says death isn’t bad for me, which is really rather surprising. I can keep the claim that death is bad for me by giving up the existence requirement. But if I give up the existence requirement, I’ve got to say it’s a tragedy that Larry and the untold billions, billions, billions, billions — it’s a tragedy that they’re deprived of life as well. And that seems unacceptable. What should we do? What should we say? Well it seems to — suggestion, yeah?
Professor Shelly Kagan: Good. The suggestion is that the key here is to think about the claim that I’m using deprived in two different senses. That when we worry about my death, I’m losing something — namely, life — that I’ve had. But in the case of Larry and the untold billions, they never had life. And so they’re not deprived of it in that same sense. I think it’s a very promising suggestion. And indeed, I’m not 100% sure I’ve got exactly where you want to go with this in mind, but I think there’s a way of taking that thought and sort of carving a middle path.
The problem effectively was this. If we don’t throw in any existence requirement, we have to feel sorry for the unborn billion, billion, billions. That doesn’t seem acceptable. If we throw in the existence requirement, (A), something can be bad for you only if you exist, we end up saying death isn’t bad for me, because I’m not existing when I’m dead. But maybe there’s a more modest way of understanding the existence requirement. Or to put the point in slightly different terms, maybe we can distinguish between two different versions of the existence requirement, a bolder and a more modest version.
Let’s see. Here’s the modest version. [writing] Something can be bad for you only if you exist at some time or the other. Bolder claim. Something can be bad for you only if you exist at the same time as that thing. All right. [See Figure 17.3] These are two different ways of understanding what the existence requirement requires. The modest version is called modest because it’s asking less. It says something can be bad for you only if you exist at some time or the other. The bold existence requirement adds a stronger requirement. It says something can be bad for you only if you exist at the very same time as the thing that’s supposed to be bad for you. There’s got to be a kind of simultaneity. If something’s bad for you, you had better exist at the very same time that that bad thing is happening. That’s bolder than the modest requirement. The modest requirement doesn’t require that you exist that the same time as the bad thing. It only requires that you exist at some time or the other.
Chapter 6. Conclusion [00:49:41]
One more minute, we’ll finish up. Suppose we accept the bold claim. For something to be bad for you, you have to exist at the very same time as the bad thing. Then death can’t be bad for you, because you don’t exist at the time of death. Suppose, however, that we accept the modest requirement. For something to be bad for you, you have to exist at some time or the other. Well, since I do exist at some time or the other — after all, I exist right now — death can be bad for me. Admittedly, I won’t exist when I’m dead. But that’s okay. The modest existence requirement doesn’t require that I exist at the very same time as the bad thing. The bold one did, but the modest one doesn’t. So the modest one allows us to say that death is bad for me.
But notice, and this is the crucial point, it does not say that nonexistence is bad for Larry, because Larry never exists at all. And so he doesn’t even satisfy the modest existence requirement. In short, with no existence requirement, we have to say the unexistence of the billions and billions is bad. That seems unacceptable. With the bold existence requirement, we have to say death isn’t even bad for me. That seems unacceptable. But if, instead, we accept the modest existence requirement, we’re able to say, nonexistence is not bad for Larry, but death is bad for me. And so that’s the view that it seems to me we should be looking at. Okay.
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