Is death bad?

What’s wrong with death? It’s obvious that something about it is very troubling, but less than clear what that is.

Of course, one might be afraid of dying a painful death, but of course, the problem here is the pain and not the death. Even a painless death bothers us.

Another option might be to say that nonexistence is  bad, but then we have to answer the question of why our nonexistence before our birth doesn’t bother us, but our non-existence after death does. Why the asymmetry?

An obvious response is that death deprives of further life, which is good. The deprivation is the problem. Thomas Nagel takes this line in Mortal Questions, and says that behind every feeling of pleasure and plain lies the raw fact of  existence. In other words, the ups and downs of existence are just features or facets of life, which is essentially good. The ending of this good is what bothers us. The problem then, as Nagel points out, is that it’s hard to say that death’s deprivation is bad because it happens in an instant. Who is death bad for? As Nagel puts it “So long as a person exists, he has not yet died, and once he has died, he no longer exists; so there seems to be no time when death, if it is a misfortune, can be ascribed to its unfortunate subject.”

Nagel solves this difficulty by allowing that goods and bads need not coincide with the individual in time in order to be ascribed to that person. Rather some bads are relational. It’s bad to die because it cuts off who we would have been had we lived longer. It cuts our relationship to various potential selves.

I’m tempted by a slightly different response, which is that death is not always bad, and that it is most of the time only because it comes at the wrong time. It comes too early, interrupting our projects, or it comes too late, letting us languish in boredom and obsolescence. Sometimes though, it comes after a glorious sacrifice, or the completion of a life’s dream. In these rare instances, death is a punctuation mark that prevents a well constructed life from being a fragment or a run on.

On the other hand, the asymmetry with birth can easily be explained on this view. Birth, unlike death, always comes at the right time. Indeed, it always comes at the exact time that will result in our existence by definition.


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