Table of contents
The Metaphysics of Death book is a collection of seventeen essays that deals with the metaphysical, as opposed to the moral issues pertaining to death. For example, the authors investigate (among other things) the issue of what makes death a bad thing for an individual, if indeed death is a bad thing. This issue is more basic and abstract than such moral questions as the particular conditions under which euthanasia is justified, if it is ever justified.
Though there are important connections between the more abstract questions addressed in this book and many contemporary moral issues, such as euthanasia, suicide, and abortion, the primary focus of this book is on metaphysical issues concerning the nature of death: What is the nature of the harm or bad involved in death? (If it is not pain, what is it, and how can it be bad?) Who is the subject of the harm or bad? (if the person is no longer alive, how can he be the subject of the bad? And if he is not the subject, who is? Can one have harm with no subject?) When does the harm take place? (Can a harm take place after its subject ceases to exist? If death harms a person, can the harm take place before the death occurs?) If death can be a bad thing, would immorality be a desirable alternative? This family of questions helps to frame the puzzle of why—and how—death is bad.
Other subjects addressed include the Epicurean view that death is not a misfortune (for the person who dies); the nature of misfortune and benefit; the meaningless and value of life; and the distinction between the life of a person and the life of a living creature who is not a person. The author will seek to explore some of the different theories that encompassed the metaphysics of death, give succinct analyses of each with refutation then come to a conclusion.
Key terms: death, dying
In 399 BCE, Socrates was sentenced to death for, among other things, refusing to acknowledge the official deities of Athens, radicalizing youth, and generally honking off the people in charge. But even when he faced his own imminent death, he remained calm and unafraid. He was a philosopher after all, and fear was no match for his ability to argue. Socrates did not think we could know if there is an afterlife or not, but he thought there were really only two possibilities, and as far as he was concerned, neither of them was anything to be afraid of.
Here is his argument. Either death is a dreamless sleep, or death is a passage to another life. Dreamless sleeps are nice, not scary. Socrates said he could use the rest, and a passage to another life sounds good because he would get to hang out with rational people from the past who have already died, therefore, either way, death is nothing to fear. Socrates' idea of the afterlife was Hades, which he seems to have pictured as being a lot like Athens, except that no one had any physical bodies, only disembodied minds, and frankly, he thought that sounded awesome, because bodies can be a real pain. They just need to be fed and require rest, just so much upkeep.
So, in the afterlife, Socrates imagined he would get to have endless philosophical conversations, and continue learning new things, with the greatest thinkers of the past. And they would not have to take a break to eat or sleep. Now, Socrates recognized that, although his favourite activity, philosophizing, did not require a body, some things do, and if all of your favourite pastimes are physical, you might find the afterlife disappointing. That is why Socrates recommended spending your life looking after your mind, cultivating that part of you that you will get to keep forever - if there is an afterlife. If you do that, when the time comes for you to die, you will actually see death as a benefit, because you would not be troubled by bodily things, while your mind will be in top form.
But what if there is not an afterlife? What about that 'dreamless sleep' that Socrates spoke about? Is not total annihilation of the self, like, the scariest thing there is? Ancient Stoic philosopher Epicurus did not think so. He lived about a hundred years after Socrates, and he rejected belief in an afterlife altogether. Instead, he said we are just our bodies and nothing more. But still, he still did not find death scary. Here is his argument.
Death is the cessation of sensation. Good and evil only make sense in terms of sensation. So, Death is neither good nor evil. Epicurus was convinced that things are only evil, or bad, if they feel bad. And he did not mean only physical feelings, anyone who is ever had a broken heart will tell you that it is a lot more painful, and harder to heal, than a broken leg. But a broken heart is still a sensation - you need a body to experience it - so as a materialist - someone who believed that You equals Your Body - death just meant nonexistence. And there was nothing scary about that, because, well, there would not be any you to have any feelings about not existing.
He argued that fearing nonexistence is not only stupid, but gets in the way of enjoying life. You are alive, and experiencing sensations so, he said, make those sensations as great as possible, and do not worry about when those sensations are going to stop. Moreover, he said that death cannot be bad for you at any time. Because once it arrives, you are gone. The thing that eventually kills you, that's going to be bad for you, before your death, but that is not death. When you think about it, you and Death are never present at the same time. And if there is no 'you' when death is present, then there is no time in which death is bad for you.
Contemporary American philosopher Thomas Nagel points out that some people dread death because they will miss out on things that they want to experience. If you die right now, you would never get to finish the video game you are in the middle of, or read the next John Martin Fischer book, or see humans land on Mars; which would suck, but think about it like this: interesting things were going on way before you were born. And you missed it.
I am going to make some assumptions about your age and say that you were not listening when Orson Welles terrified the nation with the War of the Worlds. You did not march on Washington. You totally missed Woodstock. So, Nagel asks: If you do not feel some sort of deep sense of loss at what you missed before you were even alive, why should you feel loss at what you will miss after you die? Now, Nagel does point out that if we believe that life is essentially good, then there is something to mourn when a life is cut short.
Since humans can live, on average, for about 80 years, someone dying at the age of 20 is a tragedy, because that person missed out on 60 possible years of good times. But I should pause here to talk about what you really value about life, because that will also have an impact on what you think about death in general, or about the death of a particular person.
If you say that life is just always, inherently, good, then you are said to place a high value on the sanctity of life. It does not matter what the content of that life looks like, or what the person is like. The fact that they are alive is just good. So, losing it would not be good. But, if you think that quality of life is what is important, then you are going to want to distinguish between lives that are full of good experiences, and those that are not.
So in these terms, some deaths might actually be positive or valuable - like, if they bring about an end to a terrible, painful existence. Now, of course, it might make sense to be afraid of dying itself, because the process of dying can be painful and drawn out and involve saying a lot of difficult good-byes. But maybe Socrates and Epicurus have convinced you that fearing your own death is absurd.
Well then what about the death of others? Is it equally silly to fear the death of the people you love? Probably so, say some philosophers, because what you are fearing is not actually death; what you are afraid of is being left behind, alone, when a loved one dies. And this is a good place to hear from ancient Chinese Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi. He lived about the same time as Epicurus, and believes that there is no reason to fear the death of your loved ones.
He asked, 'why would you fear the inevitable?' We know that death is going to happen, to everyone, and we also know that it is a part of the life cycle. And we do not see any other parts of that cycle as being bad. Would not it be silly, he said, if we mourned the loss of our babies when they became toddlers, or our children when they became teens? We celebrate every other life milestone, with birthday parties, bar mitzvahs, and graduations, to mark the passage of time and the changes that have come. Sure, your parents might shed some tears when they pack you off to college, but they also knew that day was going to come - when you would move away from them and onto your own life. So death, according to Zhuangzi, is just one more change - why treat it differently?
Instead, he said, you should celebrate the death of a loved one just as you celebrated every other life change that they experienced. You should think of their death as a going away party for a grand journey. In his view, mourning can actually seem selfish. When it is time for the people you love to move on, Zhuangzi said, the last thing you should do is hold them closer.
Chris Belshaw claims that “a desire for life is necessary if death is to be bad.' He qualifies this claim in an important way, as we will see. But if Belshaw is right, the deprivation account of death’s badness is false, and the argument fails. Further, if cows lack a desire to live, then death is not bad for them. Do cows desire to live? According to PETA’s website, “cows value their lives and do not want to die.” It is unclear what the basis for this claim is, but the website also recounts a story about a cow that jumped over a fence while being led to the slaughterhouse, and ran a long way away. It was then given sanctuary by an animal rights group. Does this cow’s quest for freedom show that the cow wanted to live? I think this is a reasonable explanation of the cow’s behavior. Behavior can only constitute prima facie evidence of desires, but as Mary Midgley argues, given what we know about similarities between the biological and social characteristics of humans and other animals, “reasons must be found for refusing to say” that animals lack the mental states humans have.
While I am intrigued by the question of whether cows have desires and which ones they have, I am more interested in the claim that a desire to live is necessary for death to be bad. Belshaw offers no argument for the claim. Of course, desire-based views of value are popular, so the claim might be motivated by some such general view about value. But even if a desire-based view of value were true, death could still be bad for an individual that lacked a desire to live. If that individual had other desires that would be frustrated by death, death could be bad for her. So why think that this one particular desire is necessary?
Here, I am not saying that a premature death is bad for a person because he wants or would want his life to be longer. Rather, I am saying that because a person can want his life to be longer, the judgment that a premature death is bad for him satisfies the requirements of internalism. To cite a person's actual or potential desires as evidence that a value judgment is compatible with internalism is one thing; to cite those desires as the value judgment's truth-makers is quite another. This does not imply that it is rational to preoccupy oneself with ones own death or to focus one's attention upon it constantly. Something is 'experienced as bad by a person' roughly speaking, insofar as that thing causes unpleasant experiential episodes in the person and perhaps the person believes that the thing is causing such experiences.
Nagel points out that the Epicurean argument assumes that if death harms its victim, it must harm him at a particular time. Nagel argues that this assumption is false. My claim is that although the assumption is indeed false in application to persons (which is the application that Nagel has in mind), it is true in application to lower animals.
- Belshaw, Christopher. (2009) Annihilation. McGill-Queen’s University Press
- Belshaw, Christopher. (2012) “Death, Value, and Desire,” in Bradley et al., The Oxford
- Handbook of Philosophy of Death, pp. 274-296.
- Dolgin, Elie. “There’s No Limit to Longevity, Says Study That Revives Human Lifespan Debate.” Nature 559, no. 7712 (June 28, 2018): 14–15. doi:10.1038/d41586-018-05582-3.
- Gordon, Pamela. “Epicurus and Epicureanism.” The Encyclopedia of Ancient History (October 26, 2012). doi:10.1002/9781444338386.wbeah09101.
- Hoffert, Brian. “Beyond Life and Death: Zhuangzi’s Great Awakening.” Journal of Daoist Studies 8, no. 1 (2015): 165–178. doi:10.1353/dao.2015.0008.
- People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). 'The Hidden Lives of Cows.' http://www.peta.org/issues/animals-used-for-food/hidden-lives-of-cows.aspx (accessed October 27, 2019).
- Midgley, Mary. (1983) Animals and Why They Matter. Athens, GA: University of
- Georgia Press.
- Nagel, Thomas. Mortal Questions. New York, 1979
- “The Life and Death of Socrates.” Socrates : A Guide for the Perplexed (n.d.). doi:10.5040/9781472598400.ch-002.
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