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Lecture 6
Understanding Death
(Adapted from Anthony Flew’s Dictionary of Philosophy, and
Thomas Nagel’s Moral Questions)
Instructor: Scott Dixon


death—the cessation of life. This includes many current definitions including: death as the cessation
of neural activity; death as the cessation of blood circulation; death as the cessation of a combination
of bodily functions—respiration, brain function, etc...

suicide—the intentional act of taking or ending one’s own life. It is important to note the intent of the
act. If a person does not intend to end one’s own life, it is not suicide. In those cases without intent it
might be considered an accident or a tragedy.

The Philosophical Significance of Death
There are many interesting questions surrounding the concept of death. Metaphysically, what counts
as someone or a thing, being ‘dead’? If the body is dead, does that imply that all is gone and nothing
remains? Or, is there a soul or spirit that survives, thus bodily death is not as significant? Does
consciousness survive or end with death? Epistemologically, is the neural definition the correct one
or is the combination of bodily functions the correct one? Ethically, is death something that should
be embraced or avoided? Or, should we be agnostic on it?

The Philosophical Significance of Suicide
The concept of suicide contains a myriad of philosophical questions. Is one entitled to take one’s own life?
Do we have obligations to others that preclude us from taking our own lives?  If we survive the body, as
the dualist would argue, can we be punished or rewarded for ending it? Is suicide a nobel act like the
contemporary suicide bombers believe?  Should suicide be avoided at all costs as in contemporary
cases of active euthanasia, leaving the person clinging to every moment of life?

The Readings
The Nagel piece, Death deals with both topics, although suicide indirectly. Nagel offers a contemporary
look at death, which is an interesting alternative to other conceptions.

Epictetus thinks that death is not something to be avoided, nor embraced—one should be indifferent
(V,XIV, XVI). It should govern how one lives his/her life (XXI). Suicide is an alternative for those that are
fully rational, that is, one should know enough to justify ending his/her life. The Stoics in general had
a wide range of views on suicide, some accepted it, others wanted no part of it.

Camus is against suicide because it is an acceptance of the absurdity of the situation (64). You must
recognize and struggle against the Absurd (54).  Death for the atheistic existentialists is the end—
there is no afterlife. Death is something to be acknowledged as not of one’s own free will and as
something that one can do a whole lot about (55).

Ayer offers no explicit thoughts on suicide, but he does on death. We can understand that when Ayer
argues for a bodily-continuity theory of personal identity, conjoined with his materialistic metaphysical
stance, when the body dies, so does consciousness, (127). On suicide, Ayer would probably appeal
to psychology for an explanation—it is not a philosophical problem.

Lecture 6: Epictetus on Death/Suicide
(adapted from Preston and the Enchiridion)

“The adherent would be provided with certain practical thought experiments or physical activities designed
to implant and reinforce the desired principles into his mind (or spirit). Among many examples from Epictetus
are the following:

1) Examining passers-by, making an observation about them, and then asking yourself whether the content
    of that observation lies within the moral purpose. If it does not, it is to be abandoned.
2) Applying the same technique to news that is reported to us.
3) While kissing your child goodnight, whisper to yourself “tomorrow you will die.”
4) Going through the inventory of “things” in one’s life by starting with the most trifling (e.g., a cup) and
    advancing to the most treasured (e.g., one’s child). With each item, consider it carefully and then “cast
    these things away from you.”
5) Anticipating possible unpleasant aspects of intended activities so as to diminish the effect of the
    aspect should it occur (e.g., anticipating being splashed and jostled at a public bath).

The point of all such exercises is to train oneself to adopt certain attitudes and make certain judgments.
The nature of the training is designed such that through constant repetition, the desired response becomes
second-nature to the adherent.” (Preston 16)

V. Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinions about the things: for example,
death is nothing terrible, for if it were, it would have seemed so to Socrates; for the opinion about death
that it is terrible is the terrible thing. When, then, we are impeded or disturbed or grieved, let us never
blame others, but ourselves, that is our opinions.

5. "What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about the things. For example, death
is nothing dreadful (or it would have appeared dreadful to Socrates), but instead the judgment about death
that is dreadful--that is what is dreadful. So, when we are thwarted or upset or distressed, let us never blame
someone else but rather ourselves, that is, our own judgments."

Socrates views on death from the Apology.
“Death is one of two things: Either it is annihilation and the dead have no consciousness of anything, or it
is really a change—a migration of the soul from this place to another. Now if there is no consciousness but
only a dreamless sleep, death must be a marvelous gain…If death is like this, then I call it gain, because the
whole of time, if you look at it in this way, can be regarded as no more than one single night.”

“If on the other hand death is a removal from here to some other place, and if what we are told is true, then
all dead are there, what greater blessing could be than this, gentlemen? …one will find true judges there who
are beyond our reaches of so-called justice, and what of Homer and Orpheus? How much would you give to
meet them? I would die ten times over if this account is true…And above all gentlemen I should like to spend
my time there questioning and examining and searching people’s minds to find out who is wise among them,
and who only thinks he is.”

You too gentlemen of the jury, must look forward to death with confidence, and fix your minds on this one
true belief, which is certain—nothing can harm a good man in either life or death…”

So, Socrates views on death are: 1) It would be the best night’s sleep ever, so why not embrace it.
2) If the soul did live on, he would be with greatness and be able to do what he did on earth with these
great ones, for he was a virtuous man as well. For Socrates then being sentenced to death for crimes
he didn’t commit was a good thing. Death held no grip on him and Epictetus’ point is that if anyone had
a right to view death as a bitter end—an innocent man being sentenced to death, Socrates did—but he didn’t.

XI. Never say about anything, I lost it, but say I have restored it.  Is your child dead? It has been restored.
Is your wife dead? She has been restored. Has your estate been taken from you? Has this then not also
been restored? But he who has taken it from me is a bad man. But what is it to you, by whose hands the
giver demanded it back? So as long as he may allow you, take care of it as a thing which belongs to another,
as travelers do with their inn.

11. "Never say about anything, "I have lost it," but instead "I have given it back." Did your child die? It was
given back. Did your wife die? She was given back. "My land was taken." So this too was given back. "But
the person who took it was bad!" How does the way the giver(God/cosmos) concern you? As long as he
gives it, take of it as something that is not your own, just as travelers treat an inn."

What is restoration/giving back? You are returning it back to nature and the cosmic soul. You are returning
your wife or child back to nature. You’ve lost nothing, you’ve only returned what wasn’t yours.

XIV. If you wish your children and your wife and your friends to live forever, you are silly; for you would have
the things not in your power to be in your power, and things which belong to others to be yours…

14. "You are foolish if you want your children and your wife and your friends to live forever, since you are
wanting things to be up to you that are not up to you, and things to be yours that are not yours…"

Death is not in your power, you cannot control the lifespan of your loved one’s, so you must adopt the proper
    attitude towards it.

XXI. Let death and exile and every other thing which appears dreadful be daily before your eyes; but most of
    all death: and you will never think of anything mean nor will you desire anything extravagantly.

21. "Let death and exile, and everything that is terrible appear before your eyes everyday, especially death;
    and you will never have anything contemptible in your thoughts or crave anything excessively."

From Preston, we know that 5 explains why Epictetus wants us to concentrate on death. By anticipating it,
    it loses its control over you. The more you consider it, the less you will be affected by it.

XXVI. We may learn the will of nature from the things in which we do not differ from one another; for instance,
when you neighbor’s slave has broken his cup, or anything else, we are ready to say forthwith, that it is one
of the things which happen. You must know, then, that when your cup is also broken, you ought to think as
you did when your neighbor’s cup was broken. Transfer this reflection to greater things also. Is another man’s
child or wife dead? There is no one who would not say, this is an event incident to man (or this is a common
event for all men). But when a man’s own child or wife is dead, forthwith he calls out, Woe to me, how wretched
I am. But we ought to remember how we feel when we hear that it has happened to others.

26. "Is it possible to learn the will of nature from the things in which we do not differ from each other. For
example, when someone else's little slave boy breaks his cup we are ready to say, "It's one of those things
that just happen." Certainly, then, when your own cup is broken you should be just the way you were when
the other person's was broken. Transfer the same idea to larger matters. Someone else's child is dead, or
his wife. There is no one would not say, "It's the lot of a human being." But when one's own son dies,
immediately it is, "Alas! Poor me!" But we should have remembered how we feel when we hear the same
thing about others."

This is an example of Preston 4. You go through an inventory of what you hold dear. You start with the
most minimal thing and go to the thing of greatest importance. What this teaches you is stoic detachment.
You detach yourself emotionally from the situations. You take a rational perspective—the cup is the same
as my child which is the same as my wife. You don’t cry when you break a cup, thus you shouldn’t cry when
your wife dies. Notice the switch here from the first person (Woe to me…) to the third person perspective
(But we ought to remember how we feel…). Epictetus wants us to adopt a third person perspective on our
events. Stoic detachment then is just assuming a third person perspective on events and making a judgment
from that perspective.

XVI. When you see a person weeping in sorrow either when a child goes abroad or when he is dead…take
care that the appearance do not hurry you away with it, as if he were suffering in external things. But
straightway make a distinction in your own mind, and be in readiness to say, it is not that which has happened
that afflicts this man, for it does afflict another, but it is the opinion about this thing which afflicts the man. So
far as words, then, do not be unwilling to show sympathy (sympathize with him verbally), and even if it happens
so, to lament with him. But take care that you do not lament internally also.

16. "When you see someone weeping in grief at the departure of his child or the loss of his property, take
care not to be carried away by the appearance that the externals he is involved in are bad, and be ready to
say immediately, "What weighs down on this man is not what has happened (since it does not weigh down on
someone else), but his judgment about it." Do not hesitate, however, to sympathize with him verbally, and even
to moan with him if the occasion arises; but be careful not to moan inwardly."

Epictetus is often charged with having a theory that doesn’t allow compassion. However, this passage clearly
shows that he did. He says to grieve with the man if necessary, but don’t let the grieving affect you internally.
You would then be letting an external affect you. If the man were to change his opinion about death, he wouldn’t
need to grieve…

“But, to sum it all up: remember that the door has been thrown open. Do not become a greater coward than
the children, but just as they say, ‘I won’t play any longer,’ when the thing does not please them, so do you
also, when things seem to you to have reached that stage, merely say, ‘I won’t play any longer,’ and take
your departure; but if you stay, stop lamenting.” (Epictetus, Discourses, I.25. pp. 153-155).

These are Epictetus’ thoughts on suicide. When you have reached the point where life is no longer pleasing
to you, the correct act is to either end your life or stop complaining. What Epictetus thought was that if you
are a rational person, a philosopher, and you had enough knowledge to know that dying was better than living,
suicide is justifiable. In other words, you need to do it for the right reason and not the wrong one—externals
are ruling your life.

Lecture 6: Thomas Nagel’s, Death
(adapted and edited from David Banach’s, Death)

I. The Problem of Death.

If we believe that death is the permanent end of our conscious existence, is it a bad thing?

“”If death is the unequivocal and permanent end of our existence, the question arises whether it is a bad
    thing to die.”(1)

II. Two possible positions.

    A. Death deprives of us life which is essential quality we all we have. Therefore, it is the greatest of all
        losses  because we lose something essential to our being.

    “ is all we have and the loss of it is the greatest loss we can sustain.”(1)
    B. Death is the end of the subject. It is a mere blank, without a positive or negative value. There is no
        subject left to experience the value.

    “ …and that if we realize that death is not an unimaginable condition of the persisting person, but a mere
        blank,  we will see that it can have no value whatever, positive or negative.”(1)

III. Definitions

    A. Death—permanent death, unsupplemented by any form of conscious survival.

    B. Evil—deprivation of some quality or characteristic.

IV. If death is an evil, it is not because of its positive features, but because of what it deprives us of.
    Namely, the essential quality of life.

    A. Life has value apart from its contents. When we take away all the good and bad experiences in life
        what is left over, the bare experience of life, is valuable in itself.

    “There are elements which, if added to one’s experience, make life better; there are other elements which,
        if added to one’s experience, make life worse. But what remains when these are set aside is not merely
        neutral: it is emphatically positive…The additional positive weight is supplied by experience itself, rather
        than by any of its contents.”(2)

        1. The value of life does not attach to mere organic survival. Surviving in a coma does not appeal to us
            as a form of living.

        2. The good of life can be multiplied by time. More is better than less. The quantities need not be
            continuous. Much like Camus' point about the quantity versus quality of experiences.

    B. The state of being dead, or nonexistent, is not evil in itself. It cannot be what makes death bad.

    “…But if death is an evil, it is the loss of life, rather than the state of being dead, or non-existent, or
            unconscious,  that is objectionable.” (3)

            1. Death is not an evil that one accumulates more of the longer one is dead.

            “Death, however, is not an evil of which Shakespeare has so far received a larger portion than
                Proust. If death is a disadvantage, it is not easy to say when a man suffers it.” (3)

            2. We would not regard a temporary suspension of life as a great misfortune in itself.

            “If it ever happens that people can be frozen without reduction of the conscious lifespan, it will be
                inappropriate to pity those who are temporarily out of circulation.” (3)

            3. We don't regard the long period of time before we were born, in which we did not exist, as a great

              “…none of existed before we were born (or conceived), but few regard that as a misfortune.” (3)

V. Three objections.

    A. It can be doubted that anything can be an evil unless it causes displeasure. How can a deprivation of
        life be an evil unless someone minds the deprivation?

    B. In the case of death there is no subject left. How can it be a misfortune if there is no subject of the
        misfortune? Who suffers the misfortune?

    C. How can the period of nonexistence after our death be bad, if  the period before our birth is not bad?

VI. Replies to the objections.

    A. The good or ill fortune of a person depends on a person’s history and possibilities rather than just their
        momentary state. Therefore a terrible misfortune can befall a person even though they are not around to
        experience the misfortune.

     “Often we need to know his history to tell whether something is a misfortune or not; this applies to ills like
    deterioration,  deprivation and damage. Sometimes his experiential state is relatively unimportant—as in
    the case of a man who wastes his life in the cheerful pursuit of a method of communicating with asparagus

        1. We consider ourselves to have been injured when  someone acts against our wishes or interests,
            even when we are not aware of his or her actions.
            “Loss, betrayal, deception, and ridicule are on this view bad because people suffer when they
            learn of them.”(5)

        2. The discovery of wrongs done us in our absence make us unhappy because they are misfortunes.
            They are not misfortunes only because they made us unhappy when we discovered them.

             “For the natural view is that the discovery of betrayal makes us unhappy  because it is bad
                to be betrayed— not that betrayal is bad because its discovery makes us unhappy.”(5)

        3. We consider a person who has suffered a severe brain injury, to have a grave misfortune,
            even though they may be quite happy in their new condition. We recognize this only when we
            consider the person he could be now.

            “Such a development would be widely regarded as a severe misfortune, not only for his friends
            and relations, or for society, but also, and primarily for the person himself….there is some doubt,
            in fact, whether he can be said to exist any longer.” (5-6)

    B. Although the person as a subject does not survive his or her death, it can still be the subject of the
        misfortune.If he or she had not died, it would have gone on enjoying whatever good there is in living.

        “He has lost his life, and if he had not died, he would have continued to live it, and to possess whatever
        good there is in living.”(7)

    C. The period of time after death is time that death deprives us of. This is not true of the period of
        non-existence before birth. This explains the differences in our attitudes towards these two periods
        of  non-existence.

          “Therefore any death entails the loss of some life that its victim would have led had he not died at
          that or any earlier point. We know perfectly well what it would be for him to have had it instead of
         losing it, and there is no difficulty in identifying the loser.” (8)

    D. The direction of time is important.

     “Distinct possible lives of a single person can diverge from a common beginning, but they cannot
     converge to a common conclusion from diverse beginnings. (The latter would represent not a set of
     different possible lives of one individual, but a set of distinct set of possible individuals, whose lives have
     identical conclusions.) Given an identifiable individual, countless possibilities for his continued existence
     are imaginable, and we can clearly conceive of what it would be for him to go on existing indefinitely.
     However inevitable it is that this will not come about, its possibility is still that of the continuation of a
     good for him, if life is the good we take it to be.” (8)

VII. The question still remains whether the non-realization of the possibility for further life is always a
    misfortune, or whether this depends on what can naturally be hoped for.

    A. Perhaps we can only regard as a misfortune those deprivations which add gratuitously to the inevitable
    evils we must endure. In this case, only premature death would be a great evil.

         “Even if we can dispose of the objections against admitting misfortune that is not experienced, or
        cannot be assigned to a definite time in that person’s life, we still have to set some limits on how
        possible a possibility must be for its non-realization to be a misfortune (or good fortune, should the
        possibility be a bad one). The death of Keats at 24 is generally regarded as tragic, that of Tolstoy at
        82 is not. Although they will both be dead forever, Keat’s death deprived him of many years of life which
        were allowed to Tolstoy; so in a clear sense Keat’s loss was greater.”(9)

    B. Whether we see death as a deprivation depends upon the point of view we take up.  Nagel’s point is
        whether  or not we consider something from a personal or impersonal point of view.
        1. Observed from the outside, objectively, a human being cannot live much more than 100 years.
        From this point of view, we can only feel deprived of those years which are allotted to beings of our type,
        but which we do not live long enough to enjoy.

           This is an impersonal POV. Remember the Tolstoy and  Keats example.

       2. When looked at in terms of our own experience, subjectively, our life experience seems open ended.
        We can see no reason why our normal experiences cannot continue indefinitely. On this view death, no
        matter how inevitable, is the cancellation of an indefinitely extendible good. The fact that death is inevitable
       does not affect how it feels in our experience to look forward to the end of our experience.

            This is a personal POV.

           “If there is no limit to the amount of life that it would be good to have, then it may be that a bad
            end is in store for us all.” (10)