We all believe that death is bad. But why is death bad?
In thinking about this question, I am simply going to assume that the death of my body is the end of my existence as a person. (If you don’t believe me, read the first nine chapters of my book.) But if death is my end, 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 being dead be bad for me?
People sometimes respond that death isn’t bad for the person who is dead. Death is bad for thesurvivors. But I don’t think that can be central to what’s bad about death. Compare two stories.
Story 1. Your friend is about to go on the spaceship that is leaving for 100 Earth years to explore a distant solar system. By the time the spaceship comes back, you will be long dead. Worse still, 20 minutes after the ship takes off, all radio contact between the Earth and the ship will be lost until its return. You’re losing all contact with your closest friend.
Story 2. The spaceship takes off, and then 25 minutes into the flight, it explodes and everybody on board is killed instantly.
Story 2 is worse. But why? It can’t be the separation, because we had that in Story 1. What’s worse is that your friend has died. Admittedly, that is worse for you, too, since you care about your friend. But that upsets you because it is bad for her to have died. But how can it be true that death is bad for the person who dies?
In thinking about this question, it is important to be clear about what we’re asking. In particular, we are not asking whether or how the process of dying can be bad. For I take it to be quite uncontroversial—and not at all puzzling—that the process of dying can be a painful one. But it needn’t be. I might, after all, die peacefully in my sleep. Similarly, of course, the prospect of dying can be unpleasant. But that makes sense only if we consider death itself to be bad. Yet how can sheer nonexistence be bad?
Maybe nonexistence is bad for me, not in an intrinsic way, like pain, and not in an instrumental way, like unemployment leading to poverty, which in turn leads to pain and suffering, but in acomparative way—what economists call opportunity costs. Death is bad for me in the comparative sense, because when I’m dead I lack life—more particularly, the good things in life. That explanation of death’s badness is known as the deprivation account.
Despite the overall plausibility of the deprivation account, though, it’s not all smooth sailing. For one thing, if something is true, it seems as though there’s got to be a time when it’s true. Yet if death is bad for me, when is it bad for me? Not now. I’m not dead now. What about when I’m dead? But then, I won’t exist. As the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus wrote: “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.”
If death has no time at which it’s bad for me, then maybe it’s not bad for me. Or perhaps we should challenge the assumption that all facts are datable. Could there be some facts that aren’t?
Suppose that on Monday I shoot John. I wound him with the bullet that comes out of my gun, but he bleeds slowly, and doesn’t die until Wednesday. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, I have a heart attack and die. I killed John, but when? No answer seems satisfactory! So maybe there are undatable facts, and death’s being bad for me is one of them.
Alternatively, if all facts can be dated, we need to say when death is bad for me. So perhaps we should just insist that death is bad for me when I’m dead. But that, of course, returns us to the earlier puzzle. How could death be bad for me when I don’t exist? Isn’t it true that something can be bad for you only if you exist? Call this idea the existence requirement.
Should we just reject the existence requirement? Admittedly, in typical cases—involving pain, blindness, losing your job, and so on—things are bad for you while you exist. But maybe sometimes you don’t even need to exist for something to be bad for you. Arguably, the comparative bads of deprivation are like that.
Unfortunately, rejecting the existence requirement has some implications that are hard to swallow. For if nonexistence can be bad for somebody even though that person doesn’t exist, then nonexistence could be bad for somebody who never exists. It can be bad for somebody who is a merely possible person, someone who could have existed but never actually gets born.
It’s hard to think about somebody like that. But let’s try, and let’s call him Larry. Now, how many of us feel sorry for Larry? Probably nobody. But if we give up on the existence requirement, we no longer have any grounds for withholding our sympathy from Larry. I’ve got it bad. I’m going to die. But Larry’s got it worse: He never gets any life at all.
Moreover, there are a lot of merely possible people. How many? Well, very roughly, given the current generation of seven billion people, there are approximately three million billion billion billion different possible offspring—almost all of whom will never exist! If you go to three generations, you end up with more possible people than there are particles in the known universe, and almost none of those people get to be born.
If we are not prepared to say that that’s a moral tragedy of unspeakable proportions, we could avoid this conclusion by going back to the existence requirement. But of course, if we do, then we’re back with Epicurus’ argument. We’ve really gotten ourselves into a philosophical pickle now, haven’t we? If I accept the existence requirement, death isn’t bad for me, which is really rather hard to believe. Alternatively, I can keep the claim that death is bad for me by giving up the existence requirement. But then I’ve got to say that it is a tragedy that Larry and the other untold billion billion billions are never born. And that seems just as unacceptable.
Hmm. Maybe we’ve been misinterpreting the existence requirement. Maybe it demands less than we realize. Let’s distinguish between two versions of the existence requirement, a bolder and a more modest version. Modest: Something can be bad for you only if you exist at some time or another. Bold: Something can be bad for you only if you exist at the same time as that thing.
If we accept the modest requirement, then you needn’t exist at the very same time as the bad thing. So death can be bad for me. But the modest version does not say that nonexistence is bad for Larry, too—because Larry never exists at all! In contrast, we can feel sorry for a child who died last week at the age of 10 because we can point out that she did exist, if only briefly. So the modest existence requirement allows us to avoid both extremes. But it, too, has some counterintuitive implications.
Suppose that somebody’s got a nice long life. He lives 90 years. Now, imagine that, instead, he lives only 50 years. That’s clearly worse for him. And if we accept the modest existence requirement, we can indeed say that, because, after all, whether you live 50 years or 90 years, you did exist at some time or another. So the fact that you lost the 40 years you otherwise would have had is bad for you. But now imagine that instead of living 50 years, the person lives only 10 years. That’s worse still. Imagine he dies after one year. That’s worse still. An hour? Worse still. Finally, imagine I bring it about that he never exists at all. Oh, that’s fine.
Wait. How can that be fine? But that’s the implication of accepting the modest existence requirement. If I shorten the life someone would have had so completely that he never gets born at all (or, more precisely, never comes into existence at all), then he doesn’t satisfy the requirement of having existed at some time or another. So, although we were making things worse and worse as we shortened the life, when we finally snipped out that last little fraction of a second, it turns out we didn’t make things worse at all. Now we haven’t done anything objectionable. That, it seems, is what you’ve got to say if you accept the modest existence requirement.
Of course, if we didn’t have an existence requirement at all, we could say that it is indeed worst of all never to have been born. But if you do say that, then you’re back to feeling sorry for Larry and the unborn billion billions.
Then there’s a puzzle raised by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who thought it a mistake to find the prospect of my death upsetting. Yes, as the deprivation account points out, after death we can’t enjoy life’s pleasures. But wait a minute, says Lucretius. The time after I die isn’t the onlyperiod during which I won’t exist. What about the period before my birth? If nonexistence is so bad, shouldn’t I be upset by the eternity of nonexistence before I was born? But that’s silly, right? Nobody is upset about that. So, he concludes, it doesn’t make any sense to be upset about the eternity of nonexistence after you die, either.
It isn’t clear how best to reply to Lucretius. One option, presumably, is to agree that we really do need to treat those two eternities of nonexistence on a par, but to insist that our prebirth nonexistence was worse than we thought. Alternatively, we might insist that there’s an asymmetry that explains why we should care about the one period but not the other. But what is that difference? Perhaps this: When I die, I have lost my life. In contrast, during the eternity before my birth, although I’m not alive, I have not lost anything. You can’t lose what you never had. So what’s worse about death is the loss.
But in that prenatal period, although I don’t have life, I’m going to get it. As it happens, we don’t have a name for that state. It is similar to loss but not quite like it. Let’s call it “schmoss.” Why do we care more about loss of life than schmoss of life? It’s easy to overlook the symmetry, because we’ve got this nice word “loss,” and we don’t have the word “schmoss.” But that’s not really explaining anything, it’s just pointing to the thing that needs explaining.
Thomas Nagel, a contemporary philosopher, suggests that although it’s possible to imagine living longer, it isn’t actually possible to come into existence earlier. The date of my death is a contingent fact about me. But the date of my birth is not.
But does that answer Lucretius’ puzzle? In some cases, I think, we can easily imagine the possibility of having come into existence earlier. Suppose we’ve got a fertility clinic that has some sperm on hold and has some eggs on hold. Perhaps they keep them there frozen until they’re ready to use them. And they thaw a pair out in, say, 2025. They fertilize the egg, and eventually the person is born. That person, it seems to me, can correctly say that he could have come into existence earlier.
If that’s right, then Nagel is wrong in saying it’s not possible to imagine being born earlier. Yet, if we imagine somebody like that and we ask, “Would they be upset that they weren’t born earlier?,” it still seems as though most people would say, “No, of course not.” So Nagel’s solution to our puzzle doesn’t seem adequate.
Fred Feldman, another contemporary philosopher, offers another possible answer. If I say, “If only I would die later,” what am I imagining? Instead of my living a “mere” 80 years, I would live to be 85 or 90 or more. But what do I imagine when I say, “If only I had been born earlier“? According to Feldman, you don’t actually imagine a longer life, you just shift the entire life and start it earlier. And of course there is nothing about having a life that takes place earlier that makes it particularly better. So, Feldman says, it’s no wonder that you care about nonexistence after death in a way that you don’t care about nonexistence before birth. When you imagine birth coming earlier, you don’t imagine more goods in your life, you just imagine them taking place at a different time.
But while that helps, I don’t think it completely solves the puzzle, because we can in fact imagine cases in which the person thinks that if only she had been born earlier, she would have had a longer life. Say astronomers discover that on January 1, an asteroid will land on Earth and wipe out all life. Someone 30 years old might reasonably think to herself that if she’d only been born 10 years earlier, she would have lived longer.
When I think about the asteroid example, I wonder if symmetry is possibly the right way to go here after all. Maybe in a case like this, the relevant bit of prenatal nonexistence is just as bad as a corresponding bit of post-mortem nonexistence.
There’s one more answer to Lucretius that’s been proposed, by yet another contemporary philosopher, Derek Parfit. Recall that even though nonexistence before birth doesn’t involve loss, it does involve schmoss. So it would be helpful if we had an explanation of why we care more about loss than schmoss. Parfit’s idea, in effect, is that this preference is part of a quite general and deep pattern humans have of caring about the future in a way that we don’t care about the past. So perhaps that’s what we should tell Lucretius.
Unfortunately, while our asymmetrical attitude toward time may explain our indifference to our prenatal existence, we might still wonder whether it gives us any kind of justification for it. The fact that we’ve got this deep-seated asymmetrical attitude doesn’t necessarily mean it’s rational.
So is death bad for you? I certainly think so, and I think the deprivation account is on the right track for telling us why. But I have to admit: Puzzles still remain.
Shelly Kagan is a professor of philosophy at Yale University. This essay is adapted from his book Death, published last month by Yale University Press. Copyright © 2012 by Yale University Press.