Why You Can't Be Harmed by Your Own Death

This is a draft of a short paper I am working on for Roy Sorensen’s Advanced Metaphysics class. The final version will obviously have proper citations and a full conclusion, but I’m at the writing stage where I’d like to get some feedback.  Let me know what you think!

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Imagine a girl named Susie dies in a car accident at a young age. Although it is undoubtedly tragic for someone to die so young, a question arises: if death is the final end of existence, is there a sense in which Susie herself, and not just her grieving relatives, was harmed by her death? That is, besides the pains associated with the dying process, was it bad for her to die? One standard response that has been given is that Susie’s death is bad for her because it deprived her of goods that she might have had if she led a longer, more fulfilling life. Call this the “Deprivation Thesis”. The Deprivation Thesis states that Susie’s death was not just bad for her grieving relatives, but bad for her. According to one version of the Deprivation Thesis, we can determine that Susie’s death was bad for her by making a simple comparison between what happened in her actual life (early death) and what happened in a near possible world (long life). Since she might have experienced 50 more years of well-being in the near possible world, Susie’s early death is bad for her because it deprived her of all that well-being.

In this paper, I will argue that there is at least one sense in which Susie’s death was not bad for her for the simple reason that once she died, there was no subject around to, so to speak, “soak up” the badness associated with death. Call this the “Harmless Thesis”, which could also be called the “No Subject Thesis”. Perhaps the most famous defender of the Harmless Thesis is Epicurus, who said

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.

According to the Harmless Thesis, the finality of death is never subjectively bad for the person who dies because once you are dead, there is no one around to be subjectively affected by the state of being dead. According to the version of the Harmless Thesis I will be defending, the only agents subjectively affected by death itself (and not just the dying process) are friends and family members who are in grief because they lost a loved one, as well as any other sentient being whose well-being was directly or indirectly affected by the death. In my own case, I don’t want to die young because, in part, my significant other would likely be devastated, and if I have a child, I don’t want to leave that child fatherless before he or she is an autonomous adult. But since I believe the Harmless Thesis to be true, I have no good reason to fear or be worried by the state of death itself for death cannot possibly affect me because “me” is no longer around to be affected.

An immediate objection to the Harmless Thesis is that I am assuming something like hedonism to be true, where hedonism is the idea that in order for something to be bad for me, it has to have some affect on my intrinsic mental states. Some thinkers have argued against hedonism on the following grounds: if pleasure is the only thing that matters, then I should have no objection to being lobotomized so as to be in a permanently infantile state of pleasure. Since most people would not want to revert to such a state, then intrinsic pleasure cannot be all that matters for living a good life. Likewise, since (apparently) most people wouldn’t want to be put into an experience machine where “fake” pleasure is generated by stimulating the brain in particular ways, experienced pleasure cannot be all that matters. These objections to hedonism all rest on the idea that there is more to well-being than just intrinsic mental states. What matters, according to these anti-hedonic theories of well-being, is that we achieve things, that we have our preferences fulfilled, etc. According to this brand of anti-hedonism, we should be horrified by the prospect of a life of infantile pleasure. So pleasure is not all that matters to living a good life. Accordingly, it doesn’t matter that Susie is no longer capable of experiencing displeasure once dead. Her life “went bad” because of the fact that she was deprived of a full life insofar as her preferences were never satisfied and she was unable to achieve lifelong goals. Therefore, her death harmed her, despite her not being around to be subjectively affected by her death. Call the thesis that well-being is tied into intrinsic mental states Internalism, and call the opposing view Externalism.

The internalist can respond to the infantile pleasure case by distinguishing between simple pleasure and complex pleasure. It is not just brute, infantile sensory pleasure that matters to adults. Take the pleasure of playing and studying chess. The pleasure of winning a chess game against a tough opponent is not the same as infantile pleasure. The adult chess player who reverted to an infant would be missing out on the capacity for complex pleasure, and would thus be harmed. But wait a second. If adults can be harmed by being deprived of well-being in virtue of losing the capacity for complex pleasure, can we not say, in contrast to the Harmless Thesis, that people are harmed when they are deprived of the capacity to feel any pleasure, simple or complex, as in the case of death?

I do not think the analogy works, because in the case of death, there is no subject around to experience simple or complex pleasure, whereas in the case of the infantile adult, we can point out the subject who is currently being harmed. The Deprivation Theorist might respond that I am contradicting myself, since from the perspective of the infantile adult, everything is peachy. Therefore, if I am committed to hedonism and Internalism, I have to say that the adult’s life is going pretty well. But I don’t think I am committed to that if there is a legitimate distinction to be made between simple and complex pleasure. Being deprived of complex pleasure would be a bad thing if prior to losing the capacity you really enjoyed complex pleasure and wanted to continue experiencing complex pleasures. But in the case of death, there is no subject around who is being deprived of anything, which is not the case for the infantile adult. The only adult who wouldn’t be harmed by lobotomy would be the adult who wants to only experience simple pleasures, but I imagine this is rare.

The key here is to realize that for sophisticated versions of Internalism, intrinsic mental states can be as complex as you wish. And so long as you are around to be deprived of complex pleasures, you can be harmed by lobotomies. But once you cease to exist, you can no longer be harmed, for there is no “you” around anymore to be harmed. Therefore, deprivation only works if there is a subject who is being deprived. But once there is no longer a subject, there can no longer be any harms. Death is therefore not harmful to the person who dies. It is only the process of dying which is harmful, for the dying process affects the intrinsic mental states of the organism. And death also affects the intrinsic mental states of family and friends and others whose lives will be affected by the death. So it is no objection to the Harmless Thesis that death is a bad thing. But once we ask the question, “Yes, but bad for whom?” it becomes clear that it cannot be bad for the person who died, but only for the people who are left in the wake of the tragedy. The loss of potential life is therefore not experienced by the person who dies, but by those still alive.

It might be objected that death is a harm because it can be an appropriate object of worry, thus leading to suffering. According to versions of four-dimensionalism, posthumous events really do exist. And since posthumous events exist, and can therefore be objects of genuine mental reference, it would be intelligible for someone to have a mental state of fear in regards to their posthumous state of nonexistence. Accordingly, the view that death is a harm is intelligible even if we hold Internalism to be true, since the intrinsic mental states of suffering are intentionally directed at posthumous nonexistence. My response to this is simply to claim that yes, it is possible to be harmed by thoughts of death, but this is, strictly speaking, irrational if you accept the Harmless Thesis to be true. So although in practice death harms humans because we have negative intrinsic mental states directed at our posthumous nonexistence, this is irrational if we hold the Harmless Thesis to be true. And we know humans are irrational in regards to all sorts of things. But this is no objection to the truth of the Harmless Thesis. All humans could, as a matter of contingent fact, suffer enormously from thoughts of death, but this would not be enough to show that death actually harms us. Moreover, since it is perfectly rational to fear death out of concern for the grief of those who love you, one could still think death is an evil while believing the Harmless Thesis to be true, but not because you think you are going to be personally harmed by death.

But would it not be bad if the entire human race was obliterated by a comet? Even though there would be no one around to feel grief, it seems like everyone would be harmed by being killed by the comet because the comet deprived everyone of future pleasures. This seems to be a counter-example to the Harmless Thesis but here I am willing to bite the bullet. If we thought that it would be bad for the human species to suddenly end, we could always ask, “Bad for whom?” It is only from a detached, objective perspective that we can think it tragic the human race ended because we are capable of thinking “What a waste of potential”. We could even imagine an alien utilitarian observing the event from a distance also thinking “What a waste of potential”. But I hold to the Harmless Principle in that it would not be harmful to the humans for everyone to die. In order for the cataclysmic event to be harmful, there would have to be some subject capable of having their intrinsic mental states changed in response to the event, such as the alien utilitarian.

Nevertheless, there is a distinct sense in which our imagination allows us to think of the “wasted potential” of the human race such that we can also imagine the wasted potential of Susie’s early death. But I think that there is a distinction to be made between harms as imagined and harms as experienced. It is because of the human power of imagination that we think it tragic that Susie died so young, because we can imagine how her life might have went if she had not been killed in the car crash. But I do not believe that imagination alone is enough to support the claim that Susie herself was harmed by her death. It was everyone around her after her death that was actually harmed, just like it was the alien utilitarian who was harmed by the death of all humans on account of feeling the anguish of observing such a tragic event.

I thus think that the tragedy of death can be distinguished between the experienced reality of death. It is no objection to the Harmless Thesis that we unanimously think Susie’s early death was tragic, just like we would think it tragic if the human species suddenly ended. The tragedy comes from the fact that we can imagine how Susie’s life might have gone if she didn’t die. If we are utilitarians who value pleasure, we might think it would have been objectively better had Susie not been killed, for she would have spent the next 50 years experiencing simple and complex pleasures, as well as giving pleasure to all her friends and family (and maybe even pleasure to millions if she was planning on being a cancer scientist). But this question of being “objectively better” is entirely distinct from the question of “Who is harmed by death?”

In asking the question, “Is Susie’s death bad?” we can thus distinguish between two different ways to ask “Bad in what sense?” Objectively, we can hold it was bad for Susie to die because her death had an affect on the overall well-being of the universe in virtue of affecting the total calculus of intrinsic mental states. Subjectively, we can hold it that her death was not bad for her, but bad for everyone who loved her, or was affected by her death. It is only on the objective sense that the Deprivation Thesis makes sense, since it is sensible to imagine how Susie’s death deprived her of well-being. But subjectively, it does not make sense at all to think Susie’s death was bad for her, for there was no subject to be harmed by nonexistence.

We thus have two different senses of “bad”. From a God’s eye utilitarian view, Susie’s death certainly led to a deprivation of universal well-being in terms of there being one less subject capable of experiencing simple and complex pleasure, as well as changes in the well-being of her friends and family. But from Susie’s own perspective, she was not harmed by her death, because once dead, she is no longer capable of having her intrinsic mental states changed.

This might sound like I have conceded the main point to the Deprivation theorist in holding that there is at least one sense in which Susie’s death was bad. But I think that it is the subjective sense which is important for the development of a “therapeutic philosophy”. One should want to avoid early death because it would be a tragedy from a utilitarian perspective. But one should not fear early death on account of some worry about being personally harmed by death. One might fear early death on account of worrying about the painfulness of the dying process, or worrying about the wake left behind in your family. But death itself, as seen from the “inside”? Sweet nothingness.

Accordingly, we can now interpret the “badness” of the infantile adult in two ways: objectively and subjectively. Objectively, we can see that it is a tragedy because there is a deprivation of complex pleasure and this affects the universal calculus assuming we value complex pleasures. Subjectively, we can see that the infantile adult doesn’t mind from their internal perspective. Objectively, we can imagine that the pre-infantile adult is deprived of complex pleasures; subjectively, the infantile adult doesn’t know what they are missing, and hence, are content. However, there is a sense in which the subjective realm tracks the objective deprivation since we could track the shift in subjectivity from the ability to experience both simple and complex pleasures to the ability to only experience simple pleasures. So there is a deprivation on the subjective level too, although the infantile adult doesn’t complain.

But as I mentioned before, subjective deprivation only works so long as there is a subject capable of being deprived of something. But once you are dead, there can be no subjective deprivation, only objective deprivation. But objective deprivation does not harm the subject in question, but only harms those whose intrinsic mental states are affected by the imagination process. This is in keeping with the thesis that harms have to be realized in a subject capable of experiencing mental states.

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6 responses to “Why You Can't Be Harmed by Your Own Death

  1. I think you’re still reducing happiness to pleasure (or the lack of pain). Complex pleasure is still pleasure and I’m not convinced that the good of being alive can be reduced to this. Certainly pursuing pleasure as a route to happiness and a meaningful life seems to fail.

    Also note that where people (or mice) have been hooked up to a machine that stimulates the pleasure circuit in the brain they do in fact lose interest in everything else including sex and food, and will resist being removed from the machine. (Ref Linden, David J. 2011. Pleasure. One World).

    Thomas Metzinger (The Ego Tunnel) makes the point that the survival instinct is very strong, but that self-consciousness makes us aware of the certainty of death creating a dissonance. So we perceive dying as a bad thing, because it goes against our desire to survive, but we don’t/can’t know that being dead will *be* a bad thing.

    This is all very interesting as I am trying to come to terms with the tension between traditional afterlife beliefs and a rationalist observation which makes surviving death seem pretty unlikely. I observed in a debate with one eternal afterlife enthusiast that his view that he would live forever seemed to be behind his fear that death was the end of life: an eternalist belief seemed to cause distress with respect to death. By contrast the nihilist fails to fully live because they either commit suicide (quick or slow) or end up being hedonists pursuing pleasure.

  2. I’m suspicious of the assertion that harmful things can only happen to live, subjective beings (or whatever such category you have created). I think in plain language we often talk of non-living things being harmed. For example, I can harm a pool table if I am not careful with my stroke, I can harm a reputation by spreading rumors, I can harm a dead body by mutilating it, I can harm the economy by running a Ponzi scheme. If I were grading this essay I would want some part that dealt with such claims in some way.

    • This is nonsense. Harm, as in suffering, can only happen to living things. Of course, you can destroy a rock, but since it cannot feel its own demising you are not hurting anything, just objectively transforming a rock into smaller bits of the same rock. The question of harm is subjective, only exists because of the subject. Rock being smashed by a hammer is just an objective instance, that outside of a subjective frame, doesn´t quite mean anything. Meaning is related to subjective, and to suffering, and to harm, and to the living.

      • Well look, Rafael, I’m not saying that you are wrong. I’m merely saying that there are quite common statements that many (especially, perhaps, plain-language philosophers) might say are counter to your claim. Nobody at a party would object if I claimed that a pool table were harmed when gauged by a drunkard’s poor cue skills. That is clearly an acceptable use of the word “harmed” in plain English, and from that one might conclude that inanimate objects can be harmed.

        If I were grading this paper, I would want to see such an objections dealt with. The paper simply assumes that harm can only happen to subjective living beings, it doesn’t argue the point, or give me any other reason to agree. If that point is granted, the rest of the paper falls out fairly obviously. The question, then, for a graduate level philosopher, is how to justify the initial claim. Simply repeating it like a mantra, or appealing to its obviousness, will not do (IMHO).

      • I know this paper is already turned in… but I just ran across a similar paper, so I thought I would pass along the link:

        http://reading.academia.edu/GalenStrawson/Papers/287275/I_have_no_future_2007_

  3. Hi. I guess it’s a bit late to comment on that one but I’ve just got here…

    I’m very found myself of that Epicurus’s thesis, to which I’ve been committed since the first time I read it. However, I’d have two comments, because I feel that your commitment to it is maybe a little too easy.

    First, although I think you are right to distinguish between the hedonist claim and the claim that the existence of the subject is required for something to harm it, I don’t think you can really (and neither can I) deal with the infantile adult case. For, though a subject indeed still exists, it is doubtful that it is the same subject as before, if he/she has really been lobotomized. I’m committed here (and I think you’re bound to be so) with David Lewis’s thesis in Identity and Survival : if you think that what constitutes the subject to be harmed is basically mental states (may them be unconscious), then you have to hold that the existence of one specific subject through time is isomorphic with the continuity and the inter-relatedness between its mental states. Therefore, i think you should claim that no harm is made to the former subject in the very existence of the lobotomized latter. The case is really the same as death : the “harm” is only objective, from a viewer’s, or God’s point of view, or subjective for relatives and friends or for an irrational subject, in the past, considering the future. If there is no way for any previous perspective of the subject to connect with the present impoverished mental states, I can’t see how you could hold that a subject is being harmed. And it is almost the same if the person still remembers the previous perspectives, but cannot feel them as his/hers. The immediate problem is that, although I maintain it would be an objective loss, it becomes very difficult to make things matter every time a personality change is at stake.

    Second, I’d turn to the objective side of the argument. My point concerns also the holders of the “Deprivation thesis”, and is inspired by Meillassoux’s perspectives in Spectral Dilemma and The Divine Inexistence : if death possibly is, in any circumstance, a loss, then it should be a loss in every circumstance, always and everywhere. In fact, every death is arguably an early death, and if Susie’s early death is tragic, then every death should also be tragic. I mean that if the problem in death isn’t subjective, then it’s tragicness proliferates. For example, you made the point that “according to one version of the Deprivation Thesis, we can determine that Susie’s death was bad for her by making a simple comparison between what happened in her actual life (early death) and what happened in a near possible world (long life). Since she might have experienced 50 more years of well-being in the near possible world, Susie’s early death is bad for her because it deprived her of all that well-being”. And you seem to maintain that although not subjectively for Susie, it still might be objectively true. But then again, there is also a possible world where Susie lived 100 years longer, 1000 years longer, or for ever, in well-being or whatever state you think is worthy of humanity (morality, contemplation, etc.). You may answer that we shouldn’t worry about that because in those worlds the laws of ours don’t apply, but I’d say : that’s precisely the tragedy ! The event of her death occurred, instead of the event of laws’ change. Let’s put aside the general question of “loss of potential” (it would lead us too far to regret that a maximal sum of potentialities isn’t realized in our world), and focus only on subject-related loss : a human person is arguably worthy of immortality since we cannot see a limit to what he/she is capable of, through an unlimited time.

    I hope I’m not talking too foolishly, I’ve made my points clear, and my English isn’t too bad (I’m French).

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