Playing a little game of life and death

Every once in a while, I encounter a piece of writing that reminds me why I ended up as a philosophy major all those years ago — playing around with the logical implications of words and ideas can be a lot of fun.

There’s danger in becoming too enamored of the wordy argument, and that’s the principal reason that most of the time these days I prefer empirical evidence. But not today.

If you don’t relish going round and round with problems like “Everything I say is a lie,” this isn’t the article for you. See you next time.

In “Is Death Bad for You?”, a thoroughly enjoyable little article in the Chronicle Review, Yale philosopher Shelly Kagan begins: “We all believe that death is bad. But why is death bad?”

The answer may be that it isn’t, or that it is, or that it isn’t in some senses yet is in others, and here we go round the Maypole — I told you that it was going to be fun!

If death is bad for you, there has to be a “you” for whom it is bad. But if you’re dead, there’s no you. (Like Kagan, I accept as a core principle that the end of physical life is the end of life.) If there’s no  you, who, then, is dead? Not you. You don’t exist. One of the least often contemplated facts about death is that, while you may be unhappily aware that you are going to die, even very unhappily aware that you are about to die in the next few moments, you will never know that you have died. If you’ve died, you’re not here. If you’re not here, you don’t know anything. So while you certainly know that you will die, you will never know that you have died.

Death can’t be bad for you now, because you’re not dead yet. Maybe death is bad for you because that means that you have been deprived of the rest of your life. But you’ve died, so you don’t have a rest of your life of which to be deprived. You get the idea. Once you’ve died, all bets are off. You can’t be deprived of the life you could have had because the fact that you’ve died means that you lived your entire life, and you weren’t deprived of anything.

Besides, isn’t not existing in the future the same as not existing in the past? You didn’t exist for all the billions of years before your birth. Why don’t you resent or regret that missed time? And if you don’t care that you didn’t exist in the past, because you weren’t here and didn’t really miss anything, why do you care that you won’t exist in the future, when you won’t be here and won’t really miss anything?

One of Kagan’s most enjoyable speculations considers the imaginary scenario in which an asteroid will collide with Earth next January 1st and wipe out all life. (No, not the Mayan asteroid — the latest calendar discovery puts paid to that theory.) Should someone who is now 30 years old resent the end of his life more than someone who is now 50? “If only I’d been born 20 years earlier, I’d have had a longer life.”

But didn’t both people live their entire lives? Does the relative shortness of your life make your death worse? What about a 10 year old child. Is her death worse than the death of a 90 year old?

If length of life is the criterion for determining the negativity of death, what about all of those gazillions of gazillions of potential people who were never born? What about the unborn descendants of the Neanderthals, for example? They were never born. Or the countless potential lives wasted thanks to the biological fact that there are bajillions of sperm cells that never fertilize an egg? All of those people with a life span of 0. They’ve been deprived of much more than has the 10 year old child — they’ve been deprived of everything. Yet, since they were never born, they’ve been deprived of nothing. So length of life is not a good yardstick for measuring the negativity of death.

We don’t feel sorry for the never-born. Even the most stridently anti-abortion crusader, who may also oppose all forms of birth control, never appears to regret the loss of potential life that occurs whenever a young man or woman joins a celibate order of Catholics. Doesn’t the celibate priest destroy the potential lives of every child he could ever father, and isn’t that more lives than even the busiest abortion doctor could render never-born?

Kagal deals with some of these ideas, and with several others, in his short essay. Try it, you’ll like it.

Unless, that is, everything I say is a lie.

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