Shelly Kagan's Lectures on Death: Lecture 16 Transcript

March 8, 2007

For the original transcript, as well as audio and video versions of this lecture, see the Open Yale Courses website.


All right, where are we? For the first half of the course, we've been engaged in metaphysics, broadly speaking. We've been trying to get clear about the nature of the person, what we're composed of, so that we could then try to get clearer about the nature of survival and identity of persons, so that we could think about the nature of death, metaphysically speaking. What happens when we die? And as you know, I've defended the physicalist conception, according to which all we are are just bodies capable of doing some fancy tricks, capable of P-functioning. And details aside, death is a matter of the body breaking, so that it's no longer able to engage in P-functioning. As we saw, depending on the particular details of which theory of personal identity you accept--the body view, the brain view, the personality theory of personal identity--we might have to say slightly different things about whether the death of my body means I no longer exist, whether we should distinguish the death of the body, the death of the person, and so forth.

But those details aside, roughly speaking, the following is true. When the body breaks, I cease to exist as a person. And even if we can hold out the logical possibility of my being resurrected--or my continuing to exist with a different body as long as it's got my personality, if you happen to accept the personality theory--even though there is the logical possibility of surviving my death or coming back to life, I see no good reason to believe that those logical possibilities are actual. As far as I can see, when my body dies, that's it. As a fan of the body view, I believe I'll still exist for a while. I'll exist as a corpse. But that's not the kind of thing about existence that mattered to me. In terms of what mattered to me, what I wanted was not just that I exist, but that I be alive, indeed be a person, indeed be a person with pretty much the same personality. And the truth of the matter is, when my body dies, that's all history. That's where we're at in terms of the metaphysics.

We could summarize this by saying, when I die, I cease to exist. That's a little bit misleading, given the view I just sketched where even though I'm dead I still exist for a while as a corpse. But those issues won't concern us in what we're about to turn to. Let's just suppose that, for the sake of avoiding those complications, that when my body dies, it gets destroyed. And so the very same moment will be the end of my body, the end of my existence, the end of my personhood. Let's suppose that my personality doesn't get destroyed any sooner than the death of my body. We've got the end of my existence. Here I am going along. The atomizer comes along, blows me up. Then simultaneously, we've got the death of my person, the death of my body, the end of what matters to me, the end of my existence. Death is the end. And even though these things can come across--can come apart slightly under certain scenarios, those details won't matter for what we're about to turn to.

Well, what are we about to turn to? We're about to turn to value theory. We spent the first half of the semester, you might say, trying to get clear about the metaphysical facts. And now that we've done that as best we can, we want to turn to the ethical or value questions. How good or bad is death? Why is--I take it, we all believe death is bad. Why is death bad? How can death be bad? So this is the big continental divide for the course. The first half of the class was metaphysics. Now we turn to value questions.

And the first question we're going to be focusing on is just this, the question of the badness of death. How and in what ways is death bad? I take it, most of us do believe that death is bad. That's why we wish--maybe some of us believe, but at the very least the rest of us, many of us hoped--there were souls, so that death wouldn't have to be the end. If death is the end, that seems to be horrible. So we're going to turn to questions like this. How and in what ways is death bad? And then we're going to turn to the question, is it really true that immortality would be good? And eventually, we'll turn to some other value questions about if death really is the end, should we be afraid of death? I take it that fear of death is quite common. But we can actually evaluate different emotions and think about whether these emotional responses are appropriate or not, so we can ask whether or not fear of death is appropriate. We'll turn eventually to the question, how should we live in light of the fact that death is the end? And the last question we'll turn to is, could it ever make sense to kill ourselves? So these are the kind of moral or value questions we'll be concerned with until the end of the term. But the first one is simply, is death bad, as we typically take it to be, and, if so, what is it about it that makes it bad?

So again, I'm going to suppose here on out that the metaphysical view that I've been sketching is right; that physicalism is true. The death of my body is the end of my existence as a person. Death is my end. Well, if that's right, 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 it be bad for me that I'm dead?

It's easy to see how you might think, how you might worry about the badness of death, if you thought you would survive your death. Now, if you believed in a soul, then you might worry about, well, gosh what's going to happen to my soul after I die? Am I going to make it up to heaven? Am I going to go to hell? You might worry about how badly off you're going to be once you're dead. The question makes perfect sense. But it's often seemed to people that if we really believe that death is the end--and that's the assumption that I'm making here on out--if we really believe death is the end, how can death be bad for me? How could anything be bad for me once I'm dead? If I don't exist, it can't be bad for me.

Well, sometimes in response to this thought, people respond by saying, "Look, death isn't bad for the person who's dead. Death is bad for the survivors." John's death isn't bad for John. John's death is bad for the people who loved John and now have to continue living without John. John's death is bad for John's friends and family. When somebody dies, we lose the chance to continue interacting with the person. We're no longer able to talk with them, spend time with them, watch a movie, look at the sunset, have a laugh. We're no longer able to tell our troubles with them and get their advice. We're no longer able to interact with them. All that's gone, when somebody dies.

And the claim might be, that's the central bad of death. Not what it does for the person who dies. It's not bad for the person who dies. It's what it does for the rest of them, the rest of us.

Now, I don't in any way want to belittle the importance of the pain and suffering that happen for the rest of us when somebody that we care about dies. Indeed, let me take a moment and read a poem that emphasizes this thought, because this is certainly one central, very bad thing about death. It robs us of our friends--we, the survivors--it robs us of our friends and loved ones. Poem. The poem is called Separation, by the German poet, Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock. This is in one of the essays you'll be reading later in the semester by Walter Kaufmann--he quotes it--Death Without Dread. The poem, as I say, is Separation.

You turned so serious when the corpse
was carried past us;
are you afraid of death? "Oh, not of that!"
Of what are you afraid? "Of dying."

I not even of that. "Then you're afraid of nothing?"
Alas, I am afraid, afraid…"Heavens, of what?"
Of parting from my friends.
And not mine only, of their parting, too.

That's why I turned more serious even
than you did, deeper in the soul,
when the corpse
was carried past us [Kaufmann 1976]

The poem is called Separation. According to Klopstock, the crucial badness of death is losing your friends. When they die, you lose them. And as I say, I don't in any way want to belittle the central badness of that. But I don't think it can be at the core in terms of what's bad about death. I don't think that can be the central fact about why death is bad. And to see this, let me tell you two stories. Compare them.

Story number one. Your friend is about to go on the spaceship which is going to do the exploration of Jupiter or whatever. And they're going to be gone for years, years and years. It takes so long that by the time the spaceship comes back, 100 years will have gone by. Maybe it's not Jupiter. It's farther away. Worse still, after about 20 minutes after the ship takes off, all radio contact between ship and earth will be destroyed. It won't be possible, because of the speed. It's not going to Jupiter. It's going to some other planetary system. So, all possibility of communication will be destroyed. Now, this is horrible. You're losing your closest friend. You will no longer be able to talk to them, share the moments, get their insights and advice. You'll no longer be able to tell them about the things that have been going on. It's the same kind of separation that Klopstock was talking about. Horrible, and it's sad. That was story number one.

Story number two, just like story number one, the spaceship takes off, and about 15 minutes later, it explodes in a horrible accident and everybody on the spaceship, including your friend, is killed. Now, I take it that story number two is worse. Something worse has taken place. Well, what's the worse thing? We've got of course the very same separation we had in story number one. I can't communicate in the future with my friend. They can't communicate with me. But we had that already in story number one. If there's something worse about story number two, and I think it's pretty clear there is something worse, it's not the separation. It's something about the fact that your friend has died. Now of course, this is worse for me, as somebody who cares about my friend, that he's died. But the explanation of what's bad for me, in his having died, is the fact that it's bad for him to have died. And the badness for him isn't just a matter of separation, because that we already had in number one. We couldn't communicate with him. He couldn't communicate with us.

If we want to get at the central badness of death, it seems to me, we can't focus on the badness of separation, the badness for the survivors. We have to think about how is it, how could it be true, that death is bad for the person that dies? That's the central badness of death and that's the one I'm going to have us focus on. How could it be true that death is bad for the person that dies? That's the question we turn to next time.



"Separation" by Friedrich Klopstock, translated by Walter Kaufmann, from EXISTENTIALISM, RELIGION AND DEATH by Walter Kaufmann, copyright © 1976 by Walter Kaufmann. Used by permission of Dutton Signet, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Lecture 17 Transcript

March 27, 2007

For the original transcript, as well as audio and video versions of this lecture, see the Open Yale Courses website.

Professor Shelly Kagan: Last time we made the turn from metaphysics to value theory. We started asking about what it is about death that makes it bad. The first aspect of the badness of death that we talked about was the fact that when somebody dies, that's hard on the rest of us. We're left behind having to cope with the loss of this person that we love. Nonetheless, it seems likely that if we want to get clear about the central badness of death, it can't be a matter of the loss for those who remain behind, but rather the loss, the badness of death, for the person who dies. That, at any rate, is what I want to focus on from here on out. What exactly is it about my death, or the fact that I'm going to die, that makes that bad for me?

Now, I want to get clear about precisely what it is we want to focus in on here. Now, one thing that could be bad, obviously, is the process of dying could be a painful one. It might be, for example, that I get ripped to pieces by Bengali tigers. And if so, then the actual process of dying would be horrible. It would be painful. And clearly it makes sense to talk about the process of dying as something that could potentially be bad for me. Although similarly, I might die in my sleep, in which case the process of dying would not be bad for me. At any rate, I take it that most of us, although we might have some passing concern about the possibility that our process of dying might be a painful one, that's not, again, the central thing we're concerned about when we face the fact that we're going to die.

It's also true, of course, that many of us find--;here, right now, while we're not actually dying--the prospect of dying to be unpleasant. So, one of the things that's bad about my death for me is that right now I've got some unhappy thoughts as I anticipate the fact that I'm going to die. But again, that can't be the central thing that's bad about death, because the prospect of my death--it makes sense for that to be a painful one or an unpleasant one, only given the further claim that death itself is bad for me. Having fear or anxiety or concern or regret or anguish or whatever it is that maybe I have now about the fact that I'm going to die, piggybacks on the logically prior thought that death itself is bad for me. If it didn't piggyback in that way, it wouldn't make any sense to have fear or anxiety or dread or anguish or whatever it is that I may have now.

I mean, suppose I said to you, "Tomorrow something's going to happen to you and that thing is going to be simply fantastic, absolutely incredible, absolutely wonderful." And you said, "Well, I believe you and I have to tell you, I'm just filled with dread and foreboding in thinking about it." That wouldn't make any sense at all. It makes sense to be filled with dread or foreboding or what have you only if the thing you're looking forward to, anticipating, is itself bad. Maybe, for example, it makes sense to dread going to the dentist, if you believe that being at the dentist is a painful, unpleasant experience. But if being at the dentist isn't itself unpleasant, it doesn't make sense to dread it in anticipation.

So again, if we're thinking about the central badness of death, it seems to me that we've got to focus on my being dead. What is it about my being dead that's bad for me? Now, if we pose that question, it seems as though the answer should be simple and straightforward. When I'm dead, I won't exist. Now previously, in the first part of the class, we spent some time saying that, look, on certain views, there'll be a period of time in which you might be dead, but your body might still be alive. Or you might be dead, but even though your body still exists, it's not alive, but you exist as a corpse. Put all that aside. Go to the period beyond any of that murky stuff in the short-term and just, for simplicity, let's suppose with the physicalists that once I die, I cease to exist. All right.

So, don't we have the answer to what's bad about death right there? When I'm dead, I won't exist. Isn't that the straightforward explanation about why death is bad? Now, what I want to say, in effect, is this. I do think the fact that I won't exist does provide the key to getting clear about how and why death is bad. But I don't think it's quite straightforward. I think, as we'll see, it actually takes some work to spell out exactly how death, how nonexistence, could be bad for me. And even having done that, there'll be some puzzles that remain that we'll be turning to in a little while.

So, the basic idea seems to be straightforward enough. When I'm dead, I won't exist. Isn't it clear that nonexistence is bad for me? Well, immediately you get an objection. You say, how could nonexistence be bad for me? After all, the whole point of nonexistence is you don't exist. How could anything be bad for you when you don't exist? Isn't there a kind of logical requirement that for something to be bad for you, you've got to be around to receive that bad thing? A headache, for example, can be bad for you. But of course, you exist during the headache. Headaches couldn't be bad for people who don't exist. They can't experience or have or receive headaches. How could anything be bad for you when you don't exist? And in particular, then, how could nonexistence be bad for you when you don't exist?

So it's not, as I say, altogether straightforward to see how the answer "Death is bad for me, because when I'm dead I don't exist," how that answers the problem, as opposed to simply focusing our attention on the problem. How can nonexistence be bad for me? The answer to this objection, I think, is to be found in drawing a distinction between two different ways in which something can be bad for me.

On the one hand, something can be bad for me, we might say, in an absolute, robust, intrinsic sense. Take a headache, again, or some other kind of pain--stubbing your toe or getting stabbed or whatever it is, being tortured. Pain is intrinsically bad. It's bad in its own right. It's something we want to avoid for its own sake. And those--;Normally, things that are bad for you are bad intrinsically. They're bad by virtue of their very nature. There's something about the way they are that you don't want those that are bad in their own right.

But there's another way of something being bad for you that it's easy to overlook. Something can be bad comparatively. Something could be bad because of what you're not getting while you get this bad thing. It could be what the economists call bad by virtue of "the opportunity costs." It's not that it's intrinsically bad; it's bad because while you're doing this, you're not getting something better.

How could that be? Let's have a simple example. Suppose that I stay home and watch something on TV--Deal or No Deal. I watch this on TV and I have a good enough time. How could that be bad for me? Well, in terms of the first notion of bad, something being intrinsically bad, it's not bad. It's a pleasant enough way to spend a half an hour, or however long the show is on. On the other hand, suppose what I could be doing instead of watching a half an hour of television is being at a really great party. Then we might say, the fact that I'm stuck home watching television is bad for me in this comparative sense. It's not that it's, in itself, an unpleasant way to spend some time; it's just that there's a better way to spend time that I could be doing, in principle at least. If only I'd gone. If only I'd been invited. If only I remembered, what have you. And because I'm foregoing that better good, there's something bad, comparatively speaking, about the fact that I'm stuck at home watching TV. There's a lack of the better good. A lack is not intrinsically bad, but it's still a kind of bad in this second sense. To be lacking a good is, itself, bad for me.

Similarly, suppose I hold out two envelopes and I say, "Pick one." And you open up the first one, you pick the first one, and you open it up and you say, "Hey look, ten bucks! Isn't that good for me?" Well, of course, ten bucks is intrinsically good. Anyway, well, it's not intrinsically good, it's only good as a means to buy something. But it's sort of good. It's worth having for its own right, because of what it can get you. But if unbeknownst to you, the other envelope had $1,000 in it, then we can say, "Look, it's bad for you that you picked the first envelope." Bad in what sense? Because you would have been better off, had you picked the second envelope. You would have been having more good, or a greater amount of good.

Well, nonexistence can't be bad for me in our first sense. It can't be that nonexistence is intrinsically bad, worth avoiding for its own sake. That would only make sense if nonexistence was somehow, for example, painful. But when you don't exist, you have no painful experiences. There's nothing about nonexistence in and of itself that makes us want to avoid it. Nonexistence is only bad for me in this comparative sense, because of the lack. When I don't exist, I'm lacking stuff.

What am I lacking? Well, of course, what I'm lacking is life and more particularly still, the good things that life can give me. So, nonexistence is bad by virtue of the opportunity costs that are involved. Famously, W.C. Fields on his tombstone says, "Personally, I'd rather be in Philadelphia." What's bad about being dead is you don't get to experience and enjoy any longer the various good things that life would offer us. So nonexistence does point to the key aspect about death. Why is death bad? Because when I'm dead I don't exist. But if we ask, why is and how can it be the case that nonexistence is bad? the answer is, because of the lack of the good things in life. Because when I don't exist, I am not getting the things that I could have otherwise gotten, if only I were still alive. Death is bad because it deprives me of the good things in life.

This account is nowadays known as the deprivation account of the evil or badness of death, for obvious reasons, right? The key thought is, the central bad about death, about nonexistence, is that it deprives you of the goods of life you might otherwise be getting. That's the deprivation account. And it seems to me that the deprivation account basically has it right. Eventually, I'll go on to argue that there are other aspects of death that may also contribute to its badness, aspects above and beyond the one that gets focused on by the deprivation account. But still, it seems to me the deprivation account points us correctly to the central thing about death that's bad. What's most importantly bad about the fact that I'll be dead is the fact that when I'm dead, I won't be getting the good things in life. I'll be deprived of them. That's the badness of death according to the deprivation account.

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