DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N011-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 11, 2021, from

5. The evil of death

If we cease to have experiences at death then we cannot experience pain or any other sort of misfortune while dead. How then can death harm us? And if death cannot harm us, how can it be reasonable for us to fear death? Lucretius claimed that it would be more reasonable for us to view death with the same calm indifference with which we view the infinite stretch of time prior to our creation. These are ancient questions: they were discussed by Plato and by Epicurus and his followers, just as they are still discussed today (see Plato §§7, 13; Epicurus §2).

Dualists who believe that our souls continue to live after our bodies die have an easy reply to these questions. They can say that we do not cease to have experiences at death. If we go to hell, we will suffer eternal torment. Thus, death can harm us and (if we have been bad) it is quite reasonable for us to fear death. Our deaths will mark the beginning of the worst and longest period of misery we will ever experience.

The questions about the evil of death are more puzzling for materialists and others who accept the notion that the dead cannot experience pains or other misfortunes. How can such a person explain the evil of death? Some, such as Thomas Nagel, reject the principle that we cannot be harmed by something that we do not experience. They cite the harms of deprivation: suppose a person suffers a brain injury and is reduced to the mental state of a contented infant – they may experience no pain, and may not be aware of any misfortune, yet they have been seriously harmed simply by the deprivation of their mental capacities. According to a more extreme view, a person may be harmed by falling into nonexistence. Consider a girl who dies painlessly in her youth. Suppose that if she had lived, she would have been quite happy. Her death therefore seems to deprive her of a lifetime of happiness. Some (for example, McMahan or Feldman) see this as a grave harm – though of course a harm of which the victim has no conscious experience. These philosophers claim that it may be reasonable for us to view death as a great evil – even if we will have no experiences while dead. Perhaps the fear of death is not entirely irrational.

Citing this article:
Feldman, Fred. The evil of death. Death, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N011-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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