Epicurus on Death

Epicurus famously said:

Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.

When I teach this gem in Introduction to Philosophy, I like to run the argument as follows:

1) If my death is bad for me, it is either bad for me when I’m alive, or it is bad for me when I’m dead.

2) My death is not bad for me when I’m alive–after all, I’m alive!

3) My death is not bad for me when I’m dead–after all, I’m dead!

4) Therefore, my death is not bad for me.

I know enough logic to know that 1-4 represents a valid argument.  Whether the argument is sound is, of course, a separate question, which I’ll come to shortly.  First, though, it’s important to realize that Epicurus’ death argument was not merely sophistical.  His intentions were, well, deadly serious.  Epicurus wanted to convince his fellow Greeks that they should not fear death or live in dread of their inevitable end.  In other words, Epicurus offered his death argument in service of his larger project of educating people on how to live a life of peace, tranquility, and happiness.  So when I teach Epicurus in Intro, I like to continue the argument as follows:

5) If something is not bad for me, then I should not fear it.

6) My death is not bad for me.

7) Therefore,  I should not fear my death.

I love teaching this argument.  It offers a wonderful example of how a fairly simple line of reasoning can lead to profoundly counter-intuitive conclusions.  Am I convinced?

I’m not convinced.  In fact, I have to think that death is bad for the person who dies, because I think that killing someone is prima facie seriously morally wrong, and that it would be very difficult to make sense of the prima facie serious moral wrongness of killing if death wasn’t bad for the person who dies.  In other words, the following argument strikes me as even more intuitively compelling than Epicurus’s argument:

1*) If death is not (generally speaking) bad for the person who dies, then killing a person–i.e., intentionally bringing about that person’s death–is not prima facie seriously morally wrong.

2*) But killing a person–i.e., intentionally bringing about that person’s death–is prima facie seriously morally wrong.

3*) Therefore, death is (generally speaking) bad for the person who dies.

I should be clear that I don’t think that the badness of death is the whole explanation of why killing is prima facie morally wrong, but I think it is an indispensable part of any plausible account of the wrongness of killing.  (I just don’t see how you could claim on the one hand that bringing about a state of affairs is prima facie seriously immoral while claiming on the other hand that there is nothing bad about S.)  So where does that leave me?  It leaves me, I think, with a conviction (my death will be bad for me) that I do not yet understand.

Most attempts to make sense of my not-unusual conviction about the badness of personal death introduce the concept of comparative badness–that is, X might be bad for me neither in-itself (like pain), nor because X leads to bad things (like abusing the drug, ecstacy), but rather because my death signals the end of my life, which, we may assume, was very good for me.  As many philosophers say, death is bad for me because and insofar as it deprives me of the good things I would have experienced/enjoyed had I continued living.  Seems obvious, right?

As some proponents of the Deprivation Account of the Badness of Death acknowledge, however–the best proponents, like Don Marquis and Shelley Kagan–there are still plenty of Epicurean puzzles lurking in the vicinity.  The principal worry amounts to this: if we take seriously the Epicurean proviso that in order for X to be harmful/bad there must a subject-of-harm/someone for whom X is bad, then we will not completely get around the puzzle simply by distinguishing between different senses of harm (intrinsic, instrumental, comparative, etc.).  What seems necessary is to give up on what Kagan calls the Existence Requirement, or the idea that only existing things can be harmed, and that comes with its own intuitive costs that I won’t get into here.

I won’t get into it here because the point I really want to make is this.  I find myself wanting to disagree with Epicurus about the badness of death–that is, I want to reject (4)–but I want to agree with Epicurus about the irrationality of fearing my death (that is, I want to accept 7).  Basically, I want to say that Epicurus has convinced me of what he set out to convince me of, just not in the way he had intended.

If I were Epicurus,  I’d avoid all the controversy surrounding the questions about how and whether death can be bad for the person who dies, and insist, instead, on the principle that it is in some cases irrational to fear things that are very bad for you.  Suppose my personal death is one such case.  It would follow, then, that it is irrational to fear my death regardless of whether is bad for me or not.

So I’m looking for examples which confirm my principle, and a certain type of example readily comes to mind.  It would be very bad for me if I were to contract the bubonic plague, or slowly, while conscious, be devoured by a crocodile.  Likewise, it would be bad for me if that Powerball ticket I purchased and lost turned out to be the winner.  Nonetheless, it would be irrational for me to fear these things.  They are so improbable.

But does the principle obtain in cases where, like personal death, the very bad thing is not improbable, but rather certain to occur?  I’m inclined to say ‘yes,’ and that my personal death is the best example here.  That is, I’m inclined to say that Epicurus was right that it is irrational for me to fear my personal death.   But he was wrong that my death will not be bad for me.  It will be bad for me, when it happens–at least, so I hope.  But anyway–that’s no reason to get too morbid or worked up about it.

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One Response to Epicurus on Death

  1. Carolyn Richardson says:

    Here’s a next question: why is it irrational to fear my own death? Maybe it’s because my death is inevitable. Maybe fear is rational only where what’s feared is within the realm of possibility, yet not certain. Why? Maybe because fear is essentially tied to action, and so to trying to avoid what is feared. Many maybes…

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