Saturday, March 2, 2013

On Shelly Kagan's "Is death bad for you?"

Or: for whom is death bad?

Last year, Yale philosophy professor Shelly Kagan posed something of a puzzler.  If we use the classic Epicurean formulation that death is nothing to fear since its presence means one's absence (and therefore there is no being any longer in existence for whom death impacts), and one's presence means its absence.  And yet, Kagan's puzzler goes, we still regard death as a bad thing, something to be avoided and/or dreaded.  An additional part of the puzzler goes something like this: If nonexistence is a bad, and death is to a living being what pre-birth nonexistence was, then never being born is also a bad for those that might have lived.  And yet we don't have the same attitude toward that sort of nonexistence that we do toward death, i.e., the cessation of living activities.  I refer the reader to a fuller statement of the puzzler in the link provided above.

I think I have an answer to the puzzler, and it goes something like this: All else being equal, a sentient existence is preferable, for a sentient being, to nonexistence.  So let's say an animal dies, and we ask, for whom is this death a bad thing?  One might be tempted to offer this answer: The death is in some way retroactively bad for the animal that once existed.  But what is that supposed to mean?  How is something retroactively bad?  Then, you are pushed in the direction of formulating the point in a nearly-identical but more helpful way: A future death is (or would be) bad for the sentient being currently existing.  That is to say, a permanent cessation of one's sentient existence is bad for the being that one is, right now - and is therefore the reason most folks tend to avoid it.  Certainly, as a nonexperience, it is not a bad that can be experienced; the bad involved here is the cessation of one's sentient existence, which is a bad whether or not one has met that fate yet.  Further, in order for something to be a bad, it has to be a bad for an existing sentient being - and so the puzzler as it concerns nonexistent beings doesn't have applicability in this analysis.

Finally, as to how something can be a bad if one never experiences it, let's liken this bad in this regard to a broken leg.  A broken leg is a bad, even if one never happens to suffer a broken leg.  Because it is a bad, it's something we usually try to avoid (although we might risk suffering one engaging in activities we might find sufficiently rewarding otherwise - and we can never get rid of risk in life, anyway, and we do in fact incur some non-zero-percent risk of death in our every existing moment, a risk we incur because life is worth living and the ongoing risk is worth it).

Does this definitively resolve Kagan's puzzler?  I think it does, but seeing as how definitiveness can often be so elusive, and given my sneaking suspicion that I might be overlooking something on this subject, my thinking on the subject certainly isn't over with. ;-)  We also want to factor in, over and above sentience, the value and quality of the cognitive life of the being - i.e., the idea that there is value in high-level intellectual activity that may well be worth some non-trivial risk of suffering, physical-pain-and-pleasure-wise.  We are unique among animals in our ability to (intellectually) ponder our own deaths, for example, which brings us some degree of discomfort, but which comes with the territory of intellectual living (the examined life).  As to this "Schopenhauer-ian" notion often going around in philosophical circles that we'd be better off having never been born: that would of course depend on whether human existence characteristically involves a negative balance of happiness vs. suffering - something that's denied in traditional eudaimonist ethics which point to a satisfactory mode of living usually made possible through virtuous activity (which is rooted in the perfection or excellent use of one's intellectual capacity, at least in an Aristotelian version of eudaimonism).

To be continued . . . ?

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