Why Lament a Bad Death?

Travis Timmerman argues against the assumption that our death is lamentable only if it is bad for us.

Everyone dies. How should we feel about this? More specifically (and egocentrically), I may ask how I should feel about my death. Should I lament it and if so, why? Now, in asking these questions, I am concerned with which attitudes and emotions are fitting or appropriate concerning my own death, not with whether it is prudent to lament my own death. It might be imprudent to lament death because it would result in my feeling unhappy, just like it might be imprudent to lament being robbed of all of my worldly possessions. Nevertheless, it is still appropriate to lament being the victim of such a robbery. Perhaps the same is true of being a victim of death. Whether it is, and why, will be the focus of this short article.

Some may think that these questions do not merit serious discussion because their answers are patently obvious. How should I feel about my death? Well, assuming there is an afterlife, I should have a positive attitude towards my death if it will mark the beginning of an eternity of bliss. Alternatively, if my afterlife is going to consist of nothing but constant agony, I should have a negative attitude towards my death. But those answers do not address the questions I am asking. If there is an afterlife, then I continue existing after my bodily death. I do not really die; only my body does. Here I am not concerned with which attitudes I should have towards my mere bodily death. Rather, I want to know how I should feel about the death of me, which I’ll understand to entail the permanent cessation of my existence. For these reasons, I will now set aside any talk of the afterlife.

Some people might try to answer the questions asked at the outset by claiming that I should lament my death if it is painful for me, but not otherwise. However, this response also fails to address the questions I am asking. To see why, it will be helpful to make the distinction between death and dying. I’ll use the term dying to refer to the process that brings about one’s death. Dying may be very painful, completely painless or even pleasurable. For instance, the process of dying for someone who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) will be excruciatingly painful, whereas the process of dying for someone who overdoses on heroin may be pain free (and even pleasant). I’ll use the term death to refer to the moment in time a person becomes dead. The moment a person ceases to exist cannot be experienced. It is quite clear, and so philosophically uninteresting, that we should lament dying if it is painful. My question is how we should feel about death, which is neither painful nor pleasant.

Finally, people might point out that my death is lamentable because it is bad for (some) people who survive me. For instance, my death will cause my loved ones to mourn my loss and consequently suffer. This is certainly lamentable, but it is also a separate issue from what concerns me in this article. I want to know whether my death is bad for me (not others) and, with respect to these egoistic concerns, which attitudes are fitting or appropriate to have about my death. I think it obvious that my death (and anyone else’s) is lamentable if it is bad for others. What is not obvious is whether my death is bad for me and, if so, whether this gives me egoistic reason to lament it.

A good way to start talking about how we should feel about death would be by determining whether death is bad for us and why. Most philosophers who have thought about these questions have said that death is usually bad for us, and that what makes it bad is that it deprives the person who is dying of more good life. This is called the deprivation view of the badness of death. On this view, the more good life death prevents a person from having, the worse death is for that person.

There is much to be said in favour of the deprivation view. It nicely accounts for our intuitive judgements about standard cases of death. Consider, for instance, a case in which an otherwise healthy ten year old boy contracts the Ebola virus and dies shortly thereafter. His death intuitively seems very bad for him and one good explanation of why we are disposed to make this judgement is because this child presumably would have lived a good life for many years to come had he not succumbed to Ebola.

Compare this young boy’s death with that of a ninety year old man who is also killed by Ebola. The young child’s death seems much worse for the child than the elderly man’s death is for the elderly man. If the elderly man did not die of Ebola, he probably would have died relatively soon after. Again, the deprivation view gets the intuitively right result: the child’s death is worse for the child than the elderly man’s death is for the elderly man. Why? According to the deprivation view, this is because the amount of good the child’s death deprives the child of is much greater than the amount of good the elderly man is deprived of by his death. Simply put, the child’s death prevents him from experiencing decades more good life, while the elderly man’s death only prevents him from experiencing a few more years of good life.

The explanatory power of the deprivation view also extends to common sense judgements about when death is good for the dying. Quite generally, death is usually considered to be good for the dying in cases where the dying persons’ quality of life, were they to continue living, would be worse than death. For instance, imagine a person who, in the final stages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, initiates physician assisted suicide. Intuitively, this person’s death is good for him because it prevents him from experiencing any more of the overwhelming agony caused by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. It doesn’t prevent him from experiencing any good life.

At this point, the deprivation view probably seems relatively straightforward and perhaps even clearly true. But, as with any substantive philosophical position, it can lead to surprising, and radically counterintuitive, conclusions. Here is one way the deprivation view does just that.

If our death is inevitable, each person’s death pre-empts some other possible death that would have happened had the person in question not died at the time she did. Sometimes, a person’s death pre-empts a different death that would have happened a very short time later. In other words, sometimes if a person didn’t die at the time she did, she would have died moments later. According to the deprivation view, such a person’s death is hardly bad for them. This implication can be radically counterintuitive.

To see this, consider the following standard example. Two assassins, who each work independently, have been hired to kill the same person: Trevor the target. Now, imagine that each assassin happens to find Trevor at the same time and each fire a single bullet into his heart. The first assassin’s bullet hits Trevor, and kills him, a single second before the second bullet hits Trevor. If the first assassin had not been hired to kill Trevor, Trevor would have died by the second assassin’s bullet one second later.

According to the deprivation view, Trevor’s death is hardly bad for him, since it only deprives him of a single second of good life. This will strike many as radically counterintuitive. One reason why is because it is generally assumed that one should lament death (or anything for that matter) if and only if it is bad for them. If Trevor only has egoistic reasons to lament things that are bad for him, then (assuming the deprivation view) he should not lament his death. But this is absurd. Surely it is appropriate for Trevor to lament his death. Rational negative attitudes towards death do not track the amount of good of which the victim is deprived. Consequently, either the deprivation view is false or it is appropriate for Trevor to lament his death even though it is not bad for him.

At this point, most will probably be inclined to reject the deprivation view. Surely Trevor’s death is bad for him and is not made any less bad by the second assassin! But I will argue that this is not so. Rather, I think the deprivation view is correct and that Trevor should lament his death even though it is not bad for him. To make this argument, I will appeal to the following plausible principle about harm. All other things being equal, if you are in the position to prevent one of two harms, you should prevent the greater harm. For instance, suppose you can either prevent a person from being lightly pricked with a needle or another person from being stabbed with a knife. If you had to choose which harm to prevent, you should prevent the stabbing because it is worse for a person to be stabbed than for a person to be lightly pricked.

Now consider a new case where there is just one assassin who shoots and kills an innocent individual named Amanda. Suppose Amanda and Trevor’s life mirror one another in all of the relevant respects. They are the same age, equally healthy, have the same number of loved ones who will mourn their loss to the same degree and so on. Finally, suppose you are in a position to prevent only one of the assassins from shooting their victim. So, you can either prevent the assassin from shooting Amanda or prevent the first assassin from shooting Trevor. Whose death should you prevent: Trevor’s or Amanda’s? The answer should be obvious. You should prevent Amanda’s death because if you prevent her death, she will live many more years of a good life whereas if you prevent Trevor’s death, he will be killed one second later by a different assassin.

The reason I think we are inclined to make this judgement is because we are inclined to act in accordance with the aforementioned principle about harm. We prevent the greater harm by preventing Amanda, rather than Trevor, from dying. Preventing Amanda’s death allows her to live a long and happy life while preventing Trevor’s death only allows him to live one more second. If this is right, then the problem is not with the deprivation view, but with the assumption that we have egoistic reason to lament something if and only if it is bad for us. Consequently, we must reject the idea that we should lament our death if and only if it is bad for us.

If my death is not lamentable because it is bad for me, then what, if anything, makes it lamentable? This question turns out to be rather difficult to satisfactorily answer. Here are a few possibilities. In light of the assassination cases just considered, one might think that a victim’s attitude towards her death should track how his life could have gone (had he not been assassinated) instead of how his life would have gone. Even though Trevor would have died one second later than he actually did if the first assassin didn’t shoot him, he could have lived many more years of a happy life had he not been shot. This could happen because the second assassin could also have chosen to not shoot Trevor or the second assassin might have missed or his gun could have malfunctioned or a number of other things could have happened that would have allowed Trevor to live a long and happy life. Perhaps the fact that Trevor’s death precluded the possibility of him living those many extra years of happy life is enough to make it appropriate for Trevor to lament his death.

Then again, perhaps it is not. Death precludes many possibilities, some of which seem too farfetched to warrant lament. It is (metaphysically) possible for Trevor, or anyone, to live a good immortal life. On this understanding of the relevant possibilities, death cuts off indefinitely extendable possible goods. So, if we should lament our death to the degree to which it deprives us of (metaphysically) possible goods, then there may be no limit to how much we should lament our deaths. This is counterintuitive. Moreover, this view also entails that everyone’s death is equally lamentable, which is quite implausible. The correct account will allow that, at least in most cases, a 90 year old man’s death is worse for that man than a 10 year old boy’s death is for that boy. More generally, we need an account which doesn’t entail that agents are necessarily forming irrational attitudes if they lament their deaths to different degrees.

One might think that the issue with the first proposal is that the sense in which it’s possible to live a good immortal life is not the kind of possibility we should be concerned with. Perhaps the laws of nature make it (nomologically) impossible for humans to live good immortal lives. Nevertheless, it is possible, given the actual laws of nature, for Trevor to have lived many more years of a good life. So, maybe we should lament our death to the degree to which it deprives us of possible goods we could experience, holding fixed the laws of nature. Unfortunately, this proposal is too broad in some respects and too restrictive in others. It is too broad because it entails that it is appropriate to lament being deprived of some possibilities that don’t warrant lament. For example, my death precludes the possibility of me winning the lottery and reaping the benefits of being a billionaire. My winning the lottery certainly doesn’t violate any of the laws of nature. Nevertheless, this possibility is too remote to warrant lament.

This proposal is also too restrictive because it doesn’t allow people with certain serious diseases to lament their death. For instance, it might not have been possible, given the laws of nature, for someone with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy to have been born without that disease. Likewise, it might not be possible, given the laws of nature, for such a person to live to be 80 years old (the life expectancy of people living in the United States and the United Kingdom). But just because the laws of nature preclude the possibility of some people living to be 80 years old does not mean that those people have no reason to lament dying young.

To avoid these problems, we need to develop an account according to which the appropriate attitudes towards death track how one’s life could have gone, tempered by realistic expectations. To do this, it will help to appeal to two principles. One captures how one’s life could have gone in the relevant respect, while the other captures the way in which appropriate emotions towards death are constrained by certain realistic expectations. Consider the latter principle first.

The Expectation Principle: The degree to which one ought to lament her death is partly determined by how well her life fares relative to her (justified) beliefs about the amount of good life she will live. Crudely put, the idea is that the degree to which my death is lamentable (for me) is determined, in part, by when I can reasonably expect to die. Suppose, for example, that my evidence indicates that I will live at least until I am 80. However, it turns out that I am actually going to die in my 20’s. The fact that I die sooner than I could have reasonably expected gives me some reason to lament my death. Alternatively, suppose my evidence indicates that I am going to die in my 20’s from some unknown disease. However, it turns out that doctors discover a miracle cure, which allows me to live until I am in my 80’s. The fact that I get to live many more years of a happy life than I could have reasonably expected gives me reason to not lament my death.

Still, the Expectation Principle in itself is not enough. If it were the sole determining factor of the attitudes we should have towards our death, it would entail that people who know all the facts about their death have no reason to lament it. This is an unacceptable consequence. It is perfectly appropriate for a teenager who knows that he is going to die from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy in his 20’s to lament his death.

To generate the intuitively right results, we need to supplement the Expectation Principle with a principle that concerns the possible lives death precludes.

The Possibility Principle: The degree to which one ought to lament her death is partly determined by the amount of good one (justifiably) believes was (metaphysically) possible for her to have obtained had she not died at the time she did. Having The Possibility Principle tempered by the Expectation Principle avoids the aforementioned problems. It doesn’t entail that everyone’s death is equally lamentable because people’s evidence about how long they can expect to live differs radically. Nor does it entail that death is infinitely lamentable because (as of now) no one can expect to become immortal. Finally, it allows that it is still appropriate for people to lament their death even when they know all of the facts about when they are going to die. Such deaths can be lamentable because death precludes the possibility that they will live many more years of a happy life, even if they would not have lived many more happy years had they not died at the time they did.

Of course, I have only offered the bare bones of my positive view in this article. My primary aim in writing this short piece was negative. I wanted to demonstrate that we should reject the assumption that our death is lamentable if and only if it is bad for us. My positive aim was more modest. I wanted to provide the first steps towards developing the correct account of the attitudes we should have towards our own death. I concluded that that the attitudes appropriate to have towards our own death should be determined by both The Possibility Principle and The Expectation Principle. Many details remain to be worked out, yet I am optimistic that once they are, they will further illuminate which attitudes are appropriate to have towards our death.

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Travis Timmerman is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Syracuse University. He specialises in death, normative ethics and metaethics. Work on thie paper was sponsored by the Immortality Project at the University of California Riverside, funded by the John Templeton Foundation.


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