On Death, Fear of Death, Immortality


Giovanni Martino


On Death, Fear of Death, Immortality

Because I think there is no life after death and that it is generally better to be alive than to be dead, I fear death. What for me used to be a sacred religious mysteriousness makes now room for a pitch-black horror. But then I find myself wondering about that famous quote of Epicurus saying that “death is nothing to us”, in his Letter to Menoeceus:

“Accustom yourself to the belief that death is of no concern to us, since all good and evil lie in sensation and sensation ends with death […] he is foolish who says that he fears death, not because it will be painful when it comes, but because the anticipation of it is painful […] Death, the most dreaded of evils, is therefore of no concern to us; for while we exist death is not present, and when death is present we no longer exist.”

That is a beautiful passage! If Epicurus is right, we have an incredible consolation: we need not worry about our inevitable dying. In what follows, I will try to dissect the claims arising from this argument. The reader will bear with me if my analysis will often be dry, and if the issues will revolve around what is perhaps the shallowest aspect of death – the fact of death – rather than the possibility of death as an aspect reflected in life. Yet I believe many of our attitudes could change depending on how we stand on this question. So it is one all the more worth asking.  

Martha Nussbaum sets out Epicurus’s argument with precision: 

  1. An event can be good or bad for someone only if, at the time when the event is present, that person exists as a subject of possible experience.
  2. The time after a person dies is a time at which that person does not exist as a subject of possible experience.
  3. Hence the condition of being dead is not bad for that person.
  4. It is irrational to fear a future event unless that event, when it comes, will be bad for one.
  5. It is irrational to fear death.

What I take to be relevant in the argument is the act by which our life ends, death, and what follows, being dead – not the process of dying. Death and being dead make for a special case of harm as they are unique and cannot be compared with other forms of harm. 

I want to briefly outline a defence of points (1) and (4) in Epicurus’s argument, and then analyse them more deeply below. 

So, (1) says that for something to be good or bad for someone, that person has to exist as a subject of possible experience. Maybe we can show that something can be (good or) bad for us even if we don’t experience it? This is what Thomas Nagel thinks. Suppose I mailed a letter to a distant friend. Unbeknownst to me, this friend died before reading the letter. That she didn’t read the message is bad for me whether I know it or not. Nagel distinguishes objective badness, a badness about facts, from subjective badness, a badness about mental states. If something bad happens to me I am unaware of, it can still be objectively but not subjectively bad for me. It follows that, as I cannot be said to be aware of it when it happens to me, death is objectively bad for me.

This simple argument however perhaps misses the point made by Epicurus. Epicurus holds that in the case of death not even objective claims are possible since badness cannot be referred to a person – how can someone be said to experience death as a fact happening to her? As Rosenbaum says, “We can grant that what one does not consciously experience can hurt one without granting that what one cannot experience can hurt one”. Since you cannot experience death (as you are dead!), it cannot hurt you. Thus, the counter-argument goes, death cannot be bad for us.

What about our fear for death? “One does not experience by imagining”, says Rosenbaum so that fear of death is unjustified because we cannot really experience death, we can only imagine it. Still, imagination can clearly cause experiences such as painful memories or anticipations. I seem to be justified in grieving a friend’s death or in being anxious before a painful surgery, and likewise in fearing death, or the bogeyman for that matter. However, the fact that we fear death through imagination does not mean we can really imagine death to harm us painfully. Epicurus’s point is not that we cannot fear death, but that we shouldn’t. In brief then, because death cannot be painful, we shouldn’t fear death either.

Now let’s see if these points can withstand further criticism, starting with the fear of death in point (4). 

Fear of death is unjustified

To recap:

(4) It is irrational to fear a future event unless that event, when it comes, will be bad for one.

It could be said that what we fear is not really death, but its consequences, i.e. the fact that it deprives us of life. We fear that, when dead, we would be missing out on something good. But it’s easy to see how from the point of view of the dead person there is no missing out, because there is simply no possible experience she can further have, so she is not in the position to fear missing out on it.

If one were justified in fearing something they would never experience, then the same would be true of all sorts of fantastic evils happening to oneself. I could fear that the earth will eventually be engulfed by the sun turning into a red giant, but my fear would be unjustified given that this event will not affect me as I won’t exist when it will happen. So, we come back to a restatement of (4), that only the fact that I will experience the badness of something justifies me fearing it. For the same reason, we are justified in anticipating dental pain before the dentist but not in anticipating death. “For the former, there are two bad experiences, the anticipation and the pain of the root canal; for the latter, there is only one bad experience, the anticipation of being dead” (Rosenbaum). It is then fruitless to be pained by the expectation of death which causes no distress when present, especially if based on comparisons with painful experiences. Hence fear of death as deprivation of life is unjustified. Therefore, (4) appears to be valid.

Death is bad

(1) An event can be good or bad for someone only if, at the time when the event is present, that person exists as a subject of possible experience.

How about (1)? While fear is plausible only if grounded in subjective experience – as a psychological experience – judgment is not. Value judgments (i.e. when we decide whether to us something is good or bad) outlive people and can be taken on by others precisely because they can be expressed on things we do not have to necessarily experience, like thinking that it would be good if we kept on living. The fact that this will not be the case does not matter: the judgment is still justified – whereas the fear wouldn’t be. So, it is now plausible to say that death harms us by depriving us of a good, namely our life.

According to Martha Nussbaum, death is bad because it terminates a person’s “temporally extended” plans. She writes that this is something which has a fundamental importance for us. Nussbaum thinks we are goal-oriented individuals having “sheer pleasure of going on living, seeing what happens next” on either what we are currently doing or what we might do later. This is true with love, friendship, watching films, etc. “whose pleasing succession in the project of life death interrupts”.

The Epicurean response would once again be that value judgments are invalid from the point of view of the person who is harmed by death. When is death bad for me? Certainly not when I’m dead.

However, harm does not require incurring pain, but can simply “consist in being deprived of goods” (Luper) and you don’t need to exist in order to be deprived of something: nonexistence guarantees you are deprived of something, i.e. “enjoying pleasant activities”, thus making “my life as a whole worse than it would have been had I not died, even if I’m not worse off at any time during my life. Death is an injury to my life as a whole” (Luper). If this is true, then we can refer this badness to someone, that is, to us before our death. Because life as a good “can be attributed to a person at each point of his life” (Williams), death is bad for me all the time it prevents me from living. Premises (1) - (3) in Epicurus’s argument seem to neglect this, perhaps because they are couched in terms of mere perceptual and subjective experience while playing down the harm of deprivation. However, we have seen how judgment is detached from mere perceptual experience and so (3) is ambiguous, in that death obviously is not bad for the dead person (what the argument seems to refer to), but it is bad for the living person (what the argument seemingly does not refer to). Accordingly (1), and therefore (3), do not hold.

The symmetry problem

The symmetry problem, as posed by Lucretius, is the following: since prenatal nonexistence does not bother us, we have no reason to be bothered by posthumous nonexistence. In other words, why would interruption of life matter only on the one end of life and not at the other? We can analyse this problem again in terms of fear vs. value judgments. 

We exist as subjects of possible experience once we are born and before we die. Therefore, just as fearing death is unjustified so is fearing pre-natal nonexistence. However, if death is bad by depriving us of life, the same must be true of pre-natal nonexistence. Nevertheless, we don’t fear pre-natal nonexistence. Does this mean it is not bad? This is one of the possible interpretations of Lucretius’s argument.

Nagel writes that “unless good and ill can be assigned to an embryo it cannot be said that not to be born is a misfortune”. Nagel thinks we don’t have reasons to think that pre-natal nonexistence is bad since before we are born we are merely possible people. This makes us incapable of experience, and therefore incapable of judgment. Once again, I think this claim cannot be applied to value judgments.

We have seen that even if value judgments need to be referred to a person to hold ground (just like fears), they don’t have to refer to a psychological state (unlike fears) and thus can point to conditions one cannot possibly experience.

One might reply that my argument can be used to criticize abortion since it gives weight to the interests of possible people. This is not true. I believe we have an interest in living only once we develop the capacity to feel pain – because we automatically also have an interest against pain and harm in general. In abortion, the interest of an embryo is potential and does not count yet as a person’s interest. Only an actual interest has weight when making value judgments. Hence it seems consistent to say that abortion is permissible while pre-natal nonexistence is bad. 

Therefore, the fact that we don’t fear pre-natal nonexistence does not mean it is not bad, as Lucretius’s argument may suggest, nor that post-humous nonexistence (death) is bad. Just as it would be good to live longer in the future, so it would be good to live longer in the past – with, interesting sudden memories of conversations with our great-grand parents.

True, most people fear death but no one fears pre-natal nonexistence. I believe this is because while the perceived immutability of the past blocks the sentiment of fear, the possibility of living longer in the future makes difficult to detect the boundaries of one’s experience, and hence understand death as something we cannot experience. This is in line with Parfit’s claim that we have an irrational bias towards the future and give less weight to past nonexistence than to future one. 

Fearing death is unjustified, but if death is bad, then we are justified in developing preferences to avoid it. Even if death were inevitable, it would still be bad, though arguing for its badness would be free of practical aims. But the fact that this has practical consequences is crucial. What would be the point of, say, take medication for long-term diseases in order to live more, or more generally, what would be the point of curing people if we did not think that life is a good that death takes away, and therefore that death is bad?

Mortality is bad

Bernard Williams contends that mortality gives meaning to life which death takes away. He claims that while death is an evil, mortality is good because “an endless life would be a meaningless one”. According to Williams, while most of our desires are conditional on being alive (if I am alive, I’ll do x), there are some, he calls categorical desires, which give reasons to continue living (I want to stay alive, so I’ll do x). As death normally frustrates the satisfaction of our categorical desires, it is bad. However, immortality would, inevitably, eternally routinize the pursuit of the same projects, ultimately to deprive us out of boredom of categorical desires. Hence, we would put an end to our existence either by killing ourselves or by consenting to psychological death through a memory-reset (or if anything eternally live lives in boredom). 

Williams argues that our limited character and inclinations would generate repetitiveness and boredom. We can strengthen his claim by granting that even lives unrestrained by specific individual traits would lead to repeated experiences. If universe is finite, its possibilities and combinations are qualitatively finite as well, therefore a time will come when one has done everything in every possible way (though repeatable ad libitum). Lucretius writes that “no new pleasure is procured by the prolongation of life […] even if you should be destined never to die”. Exhaustion of our life goals would undermine our motivation and we would get bored. Mortality is then good, argues Williams, insofar as it spares us the inevitable exhaustion of our categorical desires. In support of Williams, Moore argues that what gives meaning to life is our choosing it every time rather than choosing it in advance, and that eternal life, life not being at stake anymore, would lose the “continual generation of […] new interpretations” necessary for constant positive choice and expose its meaninglessness outside the interpretations we give it.

By contrast, Nussbaum holds that mortality is not necessary for meaningful projects, as “most of what we value in human love and friendship does not require death” but “the possibility of overcoming difficulties” and an immortal life would still abound with limits and struggles to overcome them, like pain and weakness. Many challenges and sufferings are unnecessary, like mourning or diseases, and our decrying them is not a “morbid inability to come to terms […] with how things are” (Moore), but recognizing they are unnecessary in having a meaningful life. No one would choose to contract a life-long disease even if it made our life meaningful through overcoming its challenges, because life could be meaningful in other ways. Similarly, fighting for civil rights may make one’s life meaningful by colouring it with understanding, challenge and appreciation, yet it would be odd to desire the rights one is fighting for to be neglected so that one’s life were meaningful. 

Even granting that immortal life would keep pleasurable challenges (competitive sports, or say, setting speed records), I think certain categorical desires matter not because of a challenge they pose, but just because they don’t pose a challenge. In both cases we experience the pleasure of repetition, and there’s no reason to think their endless repetition would bore us. As unachievable categorical desires, they give satisfaction while making us crave for more. When I meet friends, I don’t desire novelty. I can alternate several enjoyments forever (like sailing, hanging out with friends, reading poetry, etc.) without desiring novelty.

A last objection to immortality is Lucretius’s “population argument”: the consequence of immortality is either an overpopulated world (perhaps without enough resources for everyone) or one in which having children is not allowed. In a finite universe, populating other planets will only postpone the problem. The choice would be between a world where there is no unnecessary suffering – like death and grief for loss – and one where it is preserved for future people to suffer it. It seems to me that in the second case idolatry of life would replace benefitting who lives, reversing means and ends.

To conclude, I support Epicurus’s claim that we shouldn’t fear death because “death is nothing to us”. I think however that death is bad for who lives by depriving them of life. I also think that mortality is bad by being an unnecessary evil in our lives.

The works I refer to are:

· Epicurus, “Letter to Menoeceus”, in J. Saunders (ed.), Greek and Roman Philosophy after Aristotle, 1966, (New York: Free Press).

· Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe, Latham, reg. trans., Penguin Classics, 1951.

· Luper, S. (2014), “Death”, in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,, (retrieved: 17/12/2017).

· Moore, A. W. (2006), “Williams, Nietzsche, and the Meaninglessness of Immortality”, in Mind, Vol. 115, 458.

· Nagel, T (1970), “Death” in Noûs 4(1):73-80, reprinted in Nagel, T. (1979), Mortal Questions, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

· Nussbaum, M. (2013), “The Damage of Death: Incomplete Arguments and False Consolations,” in J.S. Taylor (ed.), The Metaphysics and Ethics of Death, (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

· Parfit, D. (1984), “Different attitudes to time”, in Parfit, D. (ed.) Reasons and Persons, (Oxford: Clarendon Press).

· Rosenbaum, S. (1986), “How to Be Dead and Not Care: A Defense of Epicurus”, in American Philosophical Quarterly, 23 (2): 217-25: reprinted in Fischer 1993, 119-134.

· Williams, B. (1973), “The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality”, in Williams, B. (ed.), Problems of the Self, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).