PHL 415--Week 3

Thomas Nagel’s Death


Nagel's General Argument


1. Conscious existence ends at death.

2. There is no subject to experience death or the after effects.

3. Death deprives a person of life.


Therefore 4, Death deprives a person of conscious existence and the ability to experience.

5.  The ability to experience is open ended and future oriented.

6.  If a person cannot permanently experience in the future, it is a bad or an evil. (asymmetry justification)

7.  A person is harmed by deprivation. (talking behind one's back example)


Therefore 8, death is an evil and a person is harmed even though the person does not experience the harm.


Asymmetry Justification--There is an asymmetry between the time before we were born and the time after our deaths. The time before we were born cannot be changed and there was no exposure to experience. However, once we are born, we experience, and thus the time after our deaths is a deprivation of possible experiences.

                 Birth                          Death

Time-------à|            LIFE              |-------àTime

    A                                                                B



Death is an evil because it deprives us of possible experiences during Time B.


Adapted and edited from David Banach’s, Death


I. Definitions


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

                B. Evil—deprivation of some quality or characteristic.


II. 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)


III. 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. (Nagel's position) “ 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)


IV. If death is an evil, it is not because of its positive features, but because of what it deprives us. 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.


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 misfortune. “…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 plants.”(5)


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 to us in our absence makes 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. The asymmetry problem.


“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, Keats’ death deprived him of many years of life which were allowed to Tolstoy; so in a clear sense Keats’ 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) Thus, death is an evil for each one of us according to Nagel.




PHL 415--Week 3

Lucretius, Nagel, and Fischer/Brueckner


                                                    Birth                          Death

                                   Time-------à|            LIFE              |-------àTime

                                   A                                                                B



Lucretius thinks that it is irrational to have different attitudes towards A and B. He thinks they are the same and thus thinks they are symmetrical.


                                                     Birth                          Death

                                   Time-------à|            LIFE              |-------àTime

                                   A                                                                B



Nagel thinks that it is rational to have different attitudes towards A and B because A and B are different; and thus thinks they are asymmetrical. Nagel supposes that one cannot be born earlier; thus, we can't be deprived in that way of experiences and the only way we can be deprived is through our death.


Fischer/Brueckner believe, following Nagel, that it is rational to have different attitudes towards A and B; and thus they think they are asymmetrical. However, they think Nagel's reason does not work because it may be logically possible for one to be born earlier. If this is the case, then Nagel's reason for supporting the asymmetry does not hold. In its place, they offer their own reason for supporting the asymmetry. Drawing upon the work of Derek Parfit who claimed there is an asymmetry between past and future experienced bads, the reasoning goes like the following:


Fischer/Brueckner General Argument


0) Deprivation of life is bad. (unstated given Nagel's argument)

1) There is an asymmetry between past and future experienced goods.

2) We are indifferent to the past, specifically pre-natal non-existence.

3) We are partial to the future, specifically future experienced goods like pleasure.

4) Death deprives us of future experienced goods.


Death is a bad/evil thing because it deprives us in a way that pre-natal non-existence does not.


and thus, the asymmetry between A and B is justified.


F/B's point is simple. Our attitude towards things in the past is very much different from our attitudes towards things in the future. This is a natural explanation of the asymmetry between A and B.