Jeez. Another philosopher making hard work of something simple. How Should We Feel About Death? – Ben Bradley, Syracuse University, Published online: 24 Feb 2015
What are the rational constraints on our desires and emotions concerning death? We might rephrase the question in terms of appropriateness or fittingness: what attitudes or emotions is it appropriate or fitting to have concerning death?
The first question was a reasonable one, while the rephrasing is philosophically futile. The term ‘fittingness’ is one of these profundities that is dragged out when emotionally charged woo is being concocted out of a straight forward question.
A rational attitude:
1 – Try to be blasé about the fact of death. Once it happens you are not going to care very much about it at all. This worry about the value of life not yet lived and not to be lived is childish. It’s not wanting to miss out on something you cannot have. It’s the hankering of what is actually going to be of no concern to you. It is at best an unsatisfied curiosity.
2 – My attitude now is that I would like to be around to see some amazing things happen that I will not get to see. Super duper AI. Space flight for leisure. Brain upgrades. Whatever. If extended healthy life spans were possible I’d consider it. But if they are not, then so be it. Right now I don’t hear people that died in 1900 lamenting their failure to see the new millennium. Because they are dead.
3 – Fear of dying is rational. Illness, pain, suffering – they are not nice. I’m slightly apprehensive going to the dentist – it’s not as relaxing as having tea and biscuits in my conservatory. So fearing the unknown possibility of painful ill health is natural. When you’ve seen aged grand parents and parents suffering it puts you off that bit; but reasonable good health is just fine, if not always convenient. It might be frustrating to become dependent too. There is a balance, and it’s a personal decision about where that balance lies, but there is one, sure enough, between soldiering on and calling it quits. Dying isn’t the worse thing that can happen to you. Actually being dead is as neutrally good or bad as having never been born.
Thus the question might be rephrased as: how should we feel about being permanently annihilated? For those who are certain there is an afterlife, this question will be merely of theoretical interest, but those who think annihilation is even a possibility should be interested in this question.
Are you kidding me? Philosophers are hopeless sometimes. They can come over all grandiosely sceptical and inquisitive about stuff like this, and then have a hissy fit if you suggest that we don’t have free will; or that Mary either learned something new, not having the full knowledge of red, or she already invoked a redness experience internally from the full knowledge she was supposed to have.
Look, how long you are dead when you are dead might be of the slightest interest if there was the prospect of making you undead later. If the Jesus resurrection trick became science and an evil Earth Emperor resurrected people as slaves, then it might be of interest. But, if I’m ashes I’m not me. If I’m a brain recording revived in a copy body, then that isn’t me. That poor sap has something to worry about, but not me.
If anything the very notion of being interested in what happens after death should arouse a far more pertinent question: since my physical structure changes over time there’s a sense in which the me now will not be the crumpled old man I will become with a catheter and a withered brain, so why should I worry about the future. Yes, what becomes me will suffer. But I’m not suffering now. So, those teens and twenty-somethings that feel immortal, that’s a pretty smart attitude.
Does Christopher Hitchens regret all the drinking and smoking that pretty surely brought on his early death? Well, not any more he doesn’t, if he ever did.
Of course some times we can’t help but anticipate the future. We have pension plans. But don’t let it get out of hand. Planning for funeral costs is a curtsey to your bereaved family – unless you can convince them to hand over your body to someone that will pay for it. Tell them to get rid by the most economically convenient method, I don’t know, e-bay? And if they really feel the need, have a party at their house. Planning for your possible long life isn’t an irrational idea. Worrying about being dead is pointless.
I’m into remembering people and events. Poppies, the Cenotaph, … These are good for us as a society to help us remember events in the hope we learn. They’re a sort of folk education. The paying of respects is like an act of duty, but to us and future generations, by thinking about what someone gave in order to make our lives better. This is a useful process, I think, for the living. But it does nothing for the dead.
The same with personal bereavement: it’s something for the living and their relationship with the deceased, a reminder of what we value, a time to reflect on good times, which is something we seem to enjoy doing. Incidentally, my father has a small plaque at a cemetery, but I don’t visit it. I still think about my father. Now, he was ill for most of my young life and died when I was 18. He suffered shell shock at Dunkirk and malaria in Burma in WWII, so he’s a hero to me. I have his medals. I’m feeling emotional now. But that plaque representing him means nothing to me. His ashes were scattered in the garden of remembrance, but that means nothing either. But this inadequate memory I have of the man does mean something to me. Death of loved ones is significant for us. But quite uninteresting to the dead.
A good way to start thinking about how we should feel about death would be by figuring out whether death is bad for us and why.
I tell you, I despair at the nonsense philosophers come up with. Too much time on their hands. Doing philosophy is an an awfully slow death.
Most philosophers who have thought about these questions have said that death is generally bad for us, and that what makes it bad is that it deprives the victim of more of a good life.
Oh come on! You’re having me on. This is a parody of philosophy, surely. Please tell me it is so that I can laugh with you rather than at you.
The death of Socrates by poisoning was a bit of a loss for his Greek society deprived of his witty way with questioning. But was it that much of a loss to him? Another ten or twenty years, suffering in old age and dying a possibly even more gruesome death? What about the few thousand years since then, what about all that time since he died? What about all he’s going to miss in that great year of 2525, the one we’ll all miss too? Are you regretting not being alive in 2525? Why not, if being dead is such a problem? Well, Socrates would prefer death, to the loss of his freedom to philosophise and share his ideas. So death can’t be that bad. And it was unlikely he’d reach 2525 to witness it’s fascinating events, so, good call Socrates.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am not a pessimist giving up on life. I’m a biological survival machine, just like you. If anything I’ll probably have an irrational need to cling to life if I’m approaching death rapidly and unexpectedly – the biology of survival is stubborn. But I hold no irrational mystical regard for life. I value the living for being alive as human social survival machines – I’m a Humanist, wanting the best for myself and fellow humans. While we’re alive let’s enjoy it.
But being dead is, well, uninteresting, not least to the dead.
We might go on to say something about degrees: how bad death is depends on how much of a good life it deprives its victim from having. Deprivation is a counterfactual notion: what death deprives a victim from having is what would have happened to the victim if she hadn’t died. Given optimistic assumptions about the quality of human life, death is therefore normally bad for people, and it is often one of the worst things that can happen to someone. On this picture death is instrumentally bad for a person, not intrinsically bad for her. Death is bad for someone because of its results, not in itself.
You know when you come across a new word that sounds really good, and you figure you could use it without seeming too much of a fool? That’s what I feel philosophers go through in graduate school when the discover ‘counterfactual’. I think they think it’s such a cool name for a cool idea that they just can’t stop finding excuses to use it. It just means talking about stuff that didn’t or won’t happen, but might have happened or even couldn’t possibly of happened but it’s cool to think about anyway. What sort of world would we be living in now had Germany and Japan had won in WWII? Where do we start dispelling the futility of such a question.
But yes, deprivation in death is a counterfactual, a pretty useless one. Deprivation in life? Now that’s more interesting because deprivation could be ongoing, and relieving it might actually make a portion of a lived life better. But the counterfactual to death is useless, for the dead.
Counterfactual reasoning about one’s lived life, when someone close dies, is a fair human emotional process to go through. It’s about sorting your brain out, from the programmed path it had laid down for you and your loved one, to the new path that you must travel alone. It’s about coping with drastic change. Old couples that have had a long life may grieve, and sometimes it can be so bad that the one left behind soon follows. Lots of memories.
But I cannot imagine how it is for a parent that loses a child, or a teen. There has been recent news of another young person lost to murder, and her distraught parents on the news. Awful. And the girl may have suffered. Awful. Sometimes the phrase, “they are at peace now,” can be a real consolation when the counterfactual turns from dreadful possibility to actual fact – and the phrase has meaning for both the religious, who imagine them going on to some fairy land life, and for us atheists that know simply that the end of suffering will have to be sufficient.
Once a person is dead, counterfactuals on death are nothing more than cognitive exercises for the living.
The deprivation account seems like it must be basically right. Some have argued for some bells and whistles to be added. For example, Jeff McMahan claims that the badness of death should be discounted based on, among other things, (1) the extent of the psychological relations that would have held between the person at the time of death and the person at the times she would have been getting the good things death deprived her from getting (the ‘time-relative interests account’), and (2) the extent to which the victim previously enjoyed a good life (McMahan 2002).
You couldn’t make this stuff up outside a bizarre fantasy, unless you’re a theologian or a philosopher.
How should we feel about death? This seems pretty simple too. According to ‘fitting attitude’ analyses of value, to be good just is, roughly, to be the fitting object of pro-attitudes, and to be bad just is to be the fitting object of con-attitudes. Given the deprivation account of the badness of death along with our optimistic assumption, it follows that death is, typically, a fitting object of a negative attitude. Of course, fitting attitude analyses of value are controversial. I don’t wish to defend such analyses. But even if value cannot be analyzed in this way, a weaker claim may still be true: necessarily, if something is bad then it is the fitting object of a negative attitude. Given the deprivation account and the optimistic assumption, this entails that death merits a negative attitude.
This is such bullshit. But then a ray of hope:
There is one way in which a negative attitude towards death is not warranted. If we want to know how we should feel about death in itself, it seems that we should be indifferent towards it. After all, nothing good or bad will happen to you while you are dead. There should be a difference between our intrinsic attitudes towards death and our overall attitudes. The attitudes that are intrinsically fitting to have towards death are the attitudes it would be appropriate to have towards death considered by itself, independent of what else death brings about or prevents.
Philosophy career advice:
- Think of some easy to answer question that has a touch of potential profundity about it.
- Figure out the simple most obvious answer.
- Spend more time conjuring up a paper that starts with some profound straw men to tear down.
- Put the simple stuff in there as your alternative way at looking at things in order to seem relatively smart.
- Publish the paper,
- Then sit back, smoke a pipe, have a beer, or a sherry, and contemplate your next great paper in a quizzical manner most befitting your status at your university.
But things are not so simple. One complication is that there are a lot of negative attitudes one might have about death: fear, dread, worry, hatred, and many more.
Look, if you are suffering a painful or otherwise miserably slow death, and the right to die isn’t recognised as a right where you live, then you have my sympathy for what you are going through, and these worries are understandable.
But if you’re healthy with some time to go, and you are still that worried about death, then you most likely have some psychological issues that are troubling you in life that are more significant than your distant death. I would advise that, if at all you can, you pull your finger out and stop being a narcissistic ass.
On the other hand, if you are genuinely suffering from depression and other bad shit, then, again, my sympathies, but get help and do put death on the back burner. Things might get better.
Anyway, on we go. At last, some thought experiments to get our teeth into. There’s nothing like a philosopher’s thought experiments for inventing unrealistic scenarios. But at least this one is pretty straight forward.
Suppose a young and healthy man named Jim steps in front of a bus and is severely injured; he quickly succumbs to his injuries. Is Jim’s death bad for him? It seems plausible to say that it is. But it might also seem plausible to say that if Jim hadn’t died when he did, he would have instead experienced a great amount of pain and suffering from being hit by the bus. So each of the following might be an appropriate account of what happened:
- Jim got hit by a bus and died. What a shame! He was so young. If Jim hadn’t died, he would have lived a long and healthy life.
- Given that Jim got hit by a bus, it’s probably better that he died. If he hadn’t, he would have been severely injured instead. He wouldn’t have wanted to live that way.
This is the kind of whimsical stuff you talk about in the pub after a funeral. It’s not a serious philosophical challenge. Note that this isn’t even a completely useful list. Add Had Jim not been hit by a bus he wouldn’t have been hit by a bus and would have been fine.. Or Had Jim not been hit by a bus he would have discovered he was due for a long and painful death through cancer … Or any number of other ‘counterfactuals’. Or is that too clear for philosophy?
Attributions of instrumental value are fundamentally contrastive. What is bad for Jim is dying rather than not being hit by the bus at all. What is not bad for Jim is dying rather than being severely injured. There is no absolute fact of the matter about whether Jim’s death, full stop, is bad for him, even though context can make an assertion of ‘Jim’s death was bad for him’ true. Context makes a particular contrast, or class of contrasts, salient.
Well, so a philosopher can figure out that suffering might be worse than death, but living a healthy life is better than death. And I presume living a healthy life is better than suffering. I feel an IgNobel Prize is due for the thought research that provoked this thought experiment and brought us this ground breaking insight.
John Broome puts the point in this way: ‘All the significant facts have been fully stated once we have said what dying at eighty-two is better than and what it is worse than. There is no further significant question whether or not dying at eighty-two is an absolutely bad thing.’ (Broome 1999, 171) Broome may be overstating things here a bit, because it is also significant what would have happened had one not died at eighty-two.
No! He’s still understating the insignificance of death to the dead. And no, it is not “significant what would have happened had one not died at eighty-two”. It has no significance at all once you are dead. The only pre-death significance it has, to that person, is a measure of how screwed up he is, worrying about what he’ll miss after death.
Given that the badness of death is contrastive…
No! The process of dying is contrastive, with regard to the contrasting deaths that might occur, including, prior to the death, the predictability of the death. There is no useful contrast to the state of being dead.
Do you suffer inordinate anguish over the counterfactual life you didn’t have before you were born? How ‘contrastive’ are you going to be with that? Oh no! I might not have been born! Damn, what should I do?
Well, actually I do regret missing out on things from before I was born. Occasionally I have had these moments of false nostalgia. I grew up in an austere part of Britain, and I saw teenage kids in American movies of the fifties, with cars, and diners serving super ice creams. But these are just little moments of irrationality poking its nose in, and they are easily dismissed. A have a nostalgia for what I foolishly imagine to be the glamorous life of a WWII Spitfire pilot, but then recover, and think I could be mistaken about how glamorous it actually was.
But aside from these momentary flights of fancy, along with wanting to be Superman, or wishing I had a pair of those X-Ray Specs I used to see on the back of DC comics, I really don’t think that in moments of rational lucidity one needs to think much about being dead at all. Dreams, lucid or not, can invoke fears that in waking lucidity seem stupid, but dreaming is an odd psychological state anyway, unencumbered by empirical sense correction.
Compared to being dead or the state of being dead, something like the prospective approach to death, going to war and anticipating dangers that could lead to your imminent death, is a perfectly natural survival process. Approaching death, with potential suffering, and being dead, are quite different things, with the former understandably arousing survival fears, but the latter being of no concern whatsoever, except to those left behind.
I do remember, when my kids were young and dependent, I went through the natural parental angst of worrying about how they will go on if my wife and I died while they were young. That unfortunate scenario becomes reality to many children, and I wouldn’t have wished it upon mine. But even so, once I’m dead I also stop worrying about the living. Even my living concern for my kids in the event of my death is only about their continued living, not about my being dead.
So, again, the only living concerns one might have about one’s own death is how it is approached and how you will provide for your dependants. And once dead these matters cease to be worries. A young dying parent could also understandably have regrets about missing their children grow up. But again, once dead that ceases to be a concern. When you are dead any worries you had will be gone, for you, and any counterfactual futures about seeing your children grow are gone with you.
There is simply nothing to concern you about actually being dead. Stop worrying about not existing.
When is a preference rational? This seems easy: it is rational to prefer P to Q iff P is better than Q.
Sounds easy when you put it like that.
Thus Jim ought to greatly prefer living a long healthy life to dying, and he should not prefer living a short life full of suffering to dying (depending on how much pain there is, maybe he should prefer death to continued life in such a state).
The ‘full of suffering’ is not about one’s concern for death but about one’s concern for living, in a state of suffering. Preferring P to Q is now about preferring non-suffering (in death or a healthy life) to suffering, and is no longer about preferring life to non-life, death.
Thinking of it in terms of the counterfactual of what life you missed prior to your birth and it becomes clear that preferring life to non-life is quite pointless, and the only reason you are falling for the death problem is that it is made murky by the route to death and the possibility of suffering.
You have changed the point of interest from preferring P (being alive and healthy) to Q (being dead), a meaningless comparison; so that now in which you are comparing P (death) to Q (suffering life) or P (healthy life) to Q (suffering life). This whole paper is just confused in what it is about.
So here is a simple part of the story about correct attitudes towards death: it is correct to prefer a particular future to death iff you would be better off given that future than if you died.
Why? If you are ruling out a suffering life, so the comparison is life and non-life, then there is no sense in which ‘better off’ has any useful meaning in this context.
When you are dead, nothing matters.
While you are alive and healthy, being alive is good, generally – since our survivalist nature makes us enjoy being alive, and it is probably contrary to evolutionary selection to make being unhappy enough to top yourself the natural state. Marvin the Paranoid Android is not how we are naturally.
But to say one state is better than the other, when in each state there is no access to the other state, is a totally hopeless up philosophical notion. It’s irrational!
In the next section the paper moves on to preference and desire, and continues to get it wrong.
Suppose S, incorrectly, prefers death to a good life. It follows that S desires to die on the condition that S lives a worthwhile life or S dies; so that desire must also be incorrect, since it is identical to an incorrect preference.
This presumption that preferring death to a good life is incorrect is incorrect in itself. It is a neutral comparison deserving no preference. It makes no sense to prefer either.
If I prefer life and decide to live on, I live on not knowing death until later. If I prefer death and can arrange a nice death then I cease to know life.
Of course we can play the counterfactual game again. So, you might say, “Oh, but once your dead there’s no going back, you’ve burnt your bridges!” Well, if you think that then the point still hasn’t sunk in. When you’re dead you don’t give a damn about burnt bridges! It doesn’t matter.
I guess there will be a lot of loose thinking inspired angst around this idea in some quarters. Maybe influenced by our natural instinct to survive, made all the more confusing by some inspired respect for life itself and a token of religiously inspired guilt at taking one’s own life. But really, if for some reason I manage to overcome the my survival instinct, then what would be the problem with me deciding to top myself? I’ve never heard a rational answer to this that wasn’t loaded with emotional BS. We can give evolutionary biological reasons for why we tend not to do this, but no other reason why we should not.
You’ll note, incidentally, that this term ‘correct’ is loaded with moral indignation about the right to choose one’s own life and death. It’s a very religious theme, with a prescription for life and a proscription of death – the religious love to control.
More confusion arises in section 5, about beliefs.
For example, suppose I do not want to go to the dentist because of the painfulness of having my teeth cleaned. But you convince me that I would be better off in the long run if I go. So I truly believe that I would be better off if I went. Still, I fail to form a desire to go. My failing to desire to go to the dentist is incorrect because it is insufficiently sensitive to my true beliefs.
This is irrelevant, because this scenario compares life with or without going to the dentist. It’s a poor analogy. In this case the failing to go to the dentist is ‘incorrect’ only if you already have a dichotomy where going is correct and not going is incorrect, as some indication of the measure of the outcomes. You have decided that not having tooth ache is good, and having it is bad, and going to the dentist will reduce the risk of the bad and increase the chance of the good, therefore the ‘correct’ path to achieving good is to go to the dentist, and the ‘incorrect’ path is not to go. The comparative states are meaningful here. If you don’t go and end up with tooth ache you can legitimately regret not going, and if you go, find some tooth decay and have it fixed, you can be pleased you did not choose not to go. Ahead of time in either case you can anticipate contemplating the counterfactual and regret not taking that other route, or be glad you did not.
But dead and not-dead are mutually exclusive comparative states. When alive you can’t know anything about what it’s like to be dead. While alive it’s pointless being glad you’re not dead, because at that time you are not dead. Right now, how many other counterfactuals should I be glad of or regret? Should I be happy I’m not a tree? How does this work? What is the point of being happy I’m not dead?
And when I’m dead I won’t be in state to regret not being alive – unlike being alive with tooth ache when I can regret not having gone to the dentist.
In section 7 we get to the conclusions.
Here, then, are some ways that you might have incorrect attitudes towards death. You might fail to be intrinsically indifferent towards death — you might have a positive or negative attitude towards nonexistence considered in itself.
That pair of statements says it all. But it needed a full paper to say it? Sadly, there’s more:
You might fail to have a pro-attitude towards the intrinsic goods of which death deprives you, or a con-attitude towards the intrinsic evils. You might prefer to die rather than live, even though living would be better for you than dying; …
… or you might prefer to live rather than die even though dying would be better for you.
This actually makes sense – you might indeed prefer that, but it is your prerogative to live in such state if you wish.
But what is important and is missed here is the right to die if dying would relieve certain suffering. But also missed, and not supported by the right to die movement, is the question: who the fuck denies me the right to die even if I simply choose to with no suffering persuading me? The reason this doesn’t crop up so much is because our survival instinct usually prevents us taking it seriously.
And we have other aspects to our humanist lives that drive us not to allow someone to be coerced into wanting a death they might otherwise not want: torturing people until they plead for death, influencing vulnerable people to persuade them that they have some duty to die … we have desires that make us guard against that, because that amounts to murder, even if the victim takes their own life in the end.
But, philosophically, since the philosopher put counterfactuals are on the table, what about the counterfactual where there is no coercion and I simply decide that I’m bored with life and and want to top myself. All the stops are pulled out to prevent me. I could get away with it, by some messy suicide.
Not to worry, this is only a counterfactual thought experiment. But the philosophical point stands. Why is it wrong, incorrect, bad, to die?
You might have an attitude towards death that is regulated by an incorrect preference or belief. Finally, you might fail to have an attitude towards death that you should have, given your correct preferences and beliefs. Perhaps there are other ways to have an incorrect attitude too.
Lots of presuppositions about what’s correct or what should be preferred, when they are irrelevant.
There is another case that is puzzling, and might challenge the entire framework within which I am working. Consider the person who feels existential terror or angst at the prospect of death. When considering that at some future time, she will no longer exist, she is filled with terror. She does not obsess about it, but contemplating a future in which she is simply not there is terrifying to her.
This isn’t puzzling at all. I’m surprised that a philosopher can’t figure this out. She simply has a problem that’s interfering with her living. As with any other phobia it’s disconcerting to be trapped by the irrational fear. That’s a psychological problem to be fixed, if she deems she needs it fixing. Do other mammals have existential angst when no imminent danger is present? Contemplating distant unpredictable death seems to be a glitch we acquired with an imaginary brain; except of course it does come along with anticipating danger and threats to survival, so maybe it’s a benefit that has simply got out of control.
Perhaps she’s read too much philosophy. Perhaps she should become a philosopher.
It is far from clear either that a finite existence cannot be meaningful, or that there is any particular link between terror and meaninglessness.
What? Look, if people can’t find enough meaning in their finite natural lives, they seem quite able to invent imaginary after lives to take up the slack. Is this need for meaning another glitch? Again, many mammals seem not to need it. Come to that, I know a few humans that are pretty fulfilled by a pint, some cigs and the occasional screw.
There needn’t be a link between terror and meaninglessness. Many people are able to scare themselves into thinking there is, so they search out religions and other mysticisms, which of course are in the business of promoting that theme.
Fuck it! Chill out. I am here by the coincidence of evolution, and that my parents screwed and this sperm and ovum came together, and I grew up and had the education I did, and went on to think about this stuff and decided being dead isn’t a big deal, even though dying might be.
The contingency and meaninglessness of our existence is liberating. I am here and this is it. When I’m gone that’s that. It’s really easy, if you just let go of this neediness for something else, something it appears you’ll never have. So much human energy seems to go into creating fake solutions to an imaginary problem, and forcing others to be bound by these existential terrors. Foolish. Wasting a very finite life, by spending a good deal of that finite life worrying about the end of that finite life.
Death, for most of us, is some uncertain but distant way off.
So, thanks to a little five year friend of mine for bringing this much brighter philosophical perspective to my attention … cue Elsa …
It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small, and the fears that once controlled us don’t need to get to us at all. It’s time to see what we can do to test the limits and break through. No right, no wrong, no rules for us we’re free!
Let it go, let it go.