Should We Be Afraid of Death?

In his influential paper of 1970, tersely

entitled Death, the great philosopher Thomas

Nagel asks the question: if death is the

permanent end of our existence, is it an evil?

Either it is an evil because it deprives us of

life, or it is a mere blank because there is no

subject left to experience the loss. Thus, if

death is an evil, this is not in virtue of any

positive attributes that it has, but in virtue of

what it deprives us from, namely, life. For

Nagel, the bare experience of life is

intrinsically valuable, regardless of the balance

of its good and bad elements.

The longer one is alive, the more one

'accumulates' life. In contrast, death cannot be

accumulated—it is not, as Nagel puts it, 'an

evil of which Shakespeare has so far received a

larger portion than Proust'. Most people would

not consider the temporary suspension of life

as an evil, nor would they regard the long

period of time before they were born as an

evil. Therefore, if death is an evil, this is not

because it involves a period of non-existence,

but because it deprives us of life.

Nagel raises three objections to this view, but

only so as to counter them later on. First, it is

doubtful whether anything can be an evil

unless it actually causes displeasure. Second,

in the case of death, there does not appear to

be a subject to suffer an evil. As long as a

person exists, he has not yet died, and once he

has died, he no longer exists. Thus, there

seems to be no time at which the evil of death

might occur. Third, if most people would not

regard the long period before they were born

as an evil, then why should they regard the

period after they are dead any differently?

Nagel counters these three objections by

arguing that the good or evil that befalls a

person depends on his history and possibilities

rather than on his momentary state, and thus

that he can suffer an evil even if he is not here

to experience it. For example, if an intelligent

person receives a head injury that reduces his

mental state to that of a contented infant, this

should be considered a serious ill even if the

person himself (in his current state) is unable

to comprehend it. In other words, if the three

objections are invalid, it is essentially because

they ignore the direction of time. Even though

a person cannot survive his death, he can still

suffer an evil; and even though he does not

exist during the time before his birth or

during the time after his death, the time after

his death is time of which he has been

deprived, time in which he could have

continued to enjoy the good of living.

The question remains as to whether the non-

realisation of further life is an absolute evil, or

whether this depends on what can naturally be

hoped for: the death of Keats at 24 is

commonly regarded as tragic, but that of

Tolstoy at 82 is not. 'The trouble,' says Nagel,

'is that life familiarises us with the goods of

which death deprives us … Death, no matter

how inevitable, is an abrupt cancellation of

indefinitely extensive goods.'

Given the sheer pain of this conclusion, it is

hardly surprising that philosophers and

theologians throughout the ages have sought,

more or less unsuccessfully, to undermine it.

Death not only deprives us of life, but also

compels us to spend the life that it deprives us

from in the mostly unconscious fear of this

deprivation. And, as I argue in The Art of

Failure , it is precisely this unconscious fear

that holds us back from exercising choice and

freedom. In short, death is an evil not only

because it deprives us of life, but also because

it mars whatever little life we do have. While

we may be able to somewhat postpone our

death, there is absolutely nothing that we can

do to prevent it altogether. In the words of the

ancient philosopher Epicurus, 'It is possible to

provide security against other ills, but as far as

death is concerned, we men live in a city

without walls.' All that we can do is to come to

terms with death in the hope of preventing it

from preventing us from making the most of

our life.

Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of

Madness , The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-

Help Guide , Hide and Seek: The Psychology

of Self-Deception , and many other books.

Kofi Oppong Kyekyeku

I am a Ghanaian Broadcast Journalist/Writer who has an interest in General News, Sports, Entertainment, Health, Lifestyle and many more.

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