In my studies, I recently stumbled upon a lecture given in 2013 by Shelly Kagan of Yale University. The title of the lecture is (I think falsely) Why is Death Bad for You? and can be found at the link.
I’m not going to summarise the whole lecture and I don’t expect many of my readers to be familiar with the premise either. I do want to discuss one particular section of the discourse, that of which I have a major objection. This is in reference to the modest version of the existence requirement when discussing the ontology of death and its juxtaposition to life.
Whether Kagan personally subscribes to the modest or bold approach to the existence requirement isn’t relevant here. The issue is that the modest perspective is placed seemingly in equal esteem to the logically far superior bold approach. The bold view, I might add, that of Epicurus, is a valid and sound argument with no obvious flaws and is the only righteous view to have on the topic. While seemingly everything that falls into the category of philosophy is subjective, with the caveats Kagan sets in place pertaining to our inability to survive death, I fail to see any grounds by which one could rationally side with the modest version of the existence requirement.
In discussing the modest approach to the existence requirement of death, Kagan essentially states that life is good and that death is therefore bad because we’re no longer getting any more of the good stuff (life). He suggests we’re therefore deprived from goodness and that this is inherently a bad thing. I’m going to explain how this is a completely fallacious idea.
Before I do, I want to mention I agree that, at least for most of us, life is a good and positive thing. We have a great time in life and enjoy it while we have it. Of course, there are exceptions and there will be some people who will endure short lives full of suffering. I must make it clear that I’m not trying to argue that enduring a bad life legitimises death as good because of its liberating nature. I can fully entertain the idea that death is a positive and freeing thing if your life is a negative or bad enduring. But I will in fact dispute even the legitimacy of this by suggesting death can not possibly be inherently good or bad and that, by the same principle, it may not even be correct to suggest death is neutral.
So to go back to Kagan’s statement that death is bad because it deprives us of what is good (continued life). We must now look closely at what this badness is and how it manifests. Indeed we refer to things like pain, suffering, and emotional discontentedness as bad. Kagan suggests death will instantiate this badness in some way. But he never mentions how this badness can possibly manifest.
Certainly, it cannot manifest when someone is dead. When someone dies, according to Kagan’s own philosophy, they become non-existent and are now a non-entity incapable of any experience at all. Badness cannot manifest in any of its typical forms such as pain, suffering, unhappiness, etc. because these occurrences only happen in the real, tangible world and to transient, living beings who exist. How can the badness of death manifest to someone who is non-existing? To say that we could experience badness when we’re dead is a categorical error, that is to suggest something in a state of non-existence could possibly have the property of badness or suffering. So we can now logically infer, an emotional state of goodness, badness, or neutrality can only be attributed to someone who exists (or is alive) and would thereby be capable of instantiating these aforementioned properties. Thus, this badness must manifest during the person’s life or not at all.
Now certainly this badness does come to fruition during our life right? Badness may manifest in the form of anxiety toward death, depression, or other states of sadness on one’s deathbed, perhaps after having been diagnosed as terminally ill. However, with further scrutiny, it becomes apparent that this manifestation of badness isn’t a result of death. It can’t be since we’re still alive! How can something that hasn’t occurred yet (and we don’t know when it will) cause anything!? It is merely a psychological phenomenon one may experience as they contemplate their impending death and react to such thoughts.
One of the arguments pertaining to why death is bad was that we don’t get a chance to carry out our plans. This would be so if, after death, we had the any mental faculty remaining to reflect on how we were hard done by death. This thought is an impossible thought to have since we no longer exist and therefore cannot have it. And realistically, it’s such a thought that can only be had in hindsight, that is, this lack of fulfilment because we didn’t achieve what we would like to have achieved. And more importantly, the entity of “me” or that which was formerly “me” has now dissipated entirely.
In the seminar, a questioner brought up a similar point and Kagan responded by saying that for there to be no badness in death, we must therefore side with Epicurus. At this point Kagan says, “are you prepared to go there?” But strangely enough, this wasn’t a serious statement and he expressed this as though it would have been preposterous for the questioner to do such a thing! But my question now becomes, what’s so abominable about death not being a bad thing? In fact, my argument doesn’t support death as being inherently good, bad, or neutral. It cannot have such corporeal properties because it is the literal expression of non-existence.
Death simply just is. And that is the most accurate way of describing it. It’s inevitable, yes. And it cannot be good, nor can it be bad. It cannot cause relief to suffering and it cannot deprive us of anything. These are things only of relevance to existent beings.
For anything to be bad, it absolutely must manifest within something existent. Something in a state of non-existence cannot be deprived of experience because it is a non-entity now and has no property or attachment to experience, former experience, or any of its characteristics.
Epicurus is right in saying death is nothing to us. In fact, death really never happens to us at all, for when we die, we are not loitering around in spirit grieving over our own death with those who continue living around us (our corpse). We, according to Kagan’s metaphysical philosophy (that I agree with, by the way), become non-existent immediately. The entity of that particular human being disappears forever. So if we only have experience when we are alive, it is reasonable to say, as Epicurus did, we never experience death.
But I digress. I hope to have expressed at least with some degree of clarity why there is not and cannot be any badness surrounding death. This badness of death cannot manifest when we’re alive or dead and therefore is false. Anyone living under the pretence that death is bad or negative is terribly mistaken and on the same tangent, the modest version of Kagan’s existence requirement is false.