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LIFE, DEATH, AND ETHICS

LIFE, DEATH, AND ETHICS

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FRED FELDMAN



discover that there are websites containing lists of “famous dead people.”

Ordinary language is filled with talk that suggests that people go on existing after

they have died (Feldman 1992, 2000, 2001).

Some philosophers, however, insist that these familiar forms of speech should

not be taken seriously. Perhaps common-sense thought about the metaphysics of

death is simply wrong. Furthermore, they point out that there are other familiar

forms of speech that suggest that common-sense metaphysics presupposes the

termination thesis. For example, we often say that we have found “the remains”

of a deceased person, rather than that we have found the person himself (now

dead) (Johansson 2005).

According to the termination thesis, when a person dies he literally ceases to

exist. On one version of this view, at death the person goes out of existence and

a new entity – her corpse – comes into existence in her place (Rosenberg 1998).

Other even more radical views have been defended. Consider a case in which a

person first loses her capacity to distinguish herself from others; then falls into a

coma; then lingers near death for a while; then dies and is buried; and then years

later her body disintegrates. Some apparently want to claim that the person went

out of existence when she lost her “first-person perspective” (Baker 1999, 2000).

On this view, if a person becomes seriously and permanently mentally deranged,

she is “gone.” Even if her body is walking around, eating and drinking, and

talking, the former person is no longer in existence. Others claim that the person

goes out of existence when she falls into an irreversible coma. Yet others would

say that the person persists through these psychological changes, but goes out of

existence when she dies (Olsen 1997, 2004; Johansson 2005). And yet others

would say that since the person is her body, the thing that was the person goes

on existing as a corpse until that body disintegrates (Feldman 1992, 2000, 2001;

Mackie 1999).

The termination thesis figures prominently in the debate about the evil of

death.



The Epicurean argument

A substantial portion of the philosophical literature on death is stimulated by

a line of argument due to Epicurus and subsequently defended by Lucretius.

Epicurus said:

death is nothing to us. For all good and evil consists in sensation, but

death is deprivation of sensation. … So death, the most terrifying of ills, is

nothing to us, since so long as we exist death is not with us; but when death

comes, then we do not exist. It does not then concern either the living or

the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.

(Epicurus 1994: 29)



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In a related passage Epicurus said that “the wise man” does not fear the

cessation of life. This has been taken to mean that it is irrational to fear

death.

Some have maintained that the argument essentially presupposes the “experience condition” (Silverstein 1980; Rosenbaum 1993). In its simplest form, this

principle asserts that something is an evil for a person only if the person

experiences it. The argument, under this interpretation, might go like this:

(1) No one experiences his own death.

(2) If no one experiences his own death, then his own death is not an evil for

the one who dies.

(3) If his own death is not an evil for the one who dies, then it is irrational for

anyone to fear his own death.

(4) Therefore, it is irrational for anyone to fear his own death.

Critics have been quick to point out a variety of familiar counter-examples to the

experience condition. For example, it might be bad for me to be secretly

betrayed by my supposed friends, even if I am never aware of the betrayal

(Fischer 1997). Thus, premise (2) is objectionable.

A weaker form of the experience condition would not be refuted by examples

of this sort. We might maintain that something can be evil for a person only if

the person could have experienced it. Although I did not actually experience any

acts of betrayal, it seems reasonable to suppose that such acts could have been

experienced. One’s own death, on the other hand, could not have been experienced. This generates a slightly modified version of the argument:

(1) No one can experience his own death.

(2) If no one can experience his own death, then his own death is not an evil

for the one who dies.

(3) If his own death is not an evil for the one who dies, then it is irrational for

anyone to fear his own death.

(4) Therefore, it is irrational for anyone to fear his own death.

But further reflection makes it clear that even in this weaker form, the

experience condition remains problematic. Part of the trouble emerges when we

reflect on fundamental theories of welfare. If a simple form of preferentism is

true, then a person’s welfare is ultimately determined by the extent to which her

desires are satisfied. Anything that frustrates a person’s desires would therefore

count as being bad for her. In typical forms, this theory conflicts with

the experience condition even in the revised form. Suppose a seafarer desires to

be buried at sea (the burial to take place after he dies, of course!). Suppose that after

he dies, he is buried on land. The imagined form of preferentism implies that

being buried on land was bad for this seafarer, since it served to frustrate one of



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his desires. However, since he was dead at the relevant time, he did not and

could not have experienced that burial.

Some theories of welfare imply that the ultimate determinants of a person’s

welfare are things that the person must experience. Sensory hedonism is a

familiar example of such a theory. If this theory is true, then a person’s

welfare is ultimately determined by his own experiences of pleasure and pain.

Such a view would imply that nothing can be an ultimate determinant of a

person’s welfare unless he could experience it. But even this theory leaves room

for unexperienceable evils. Consider a “silent stroke.” By definition, the

victim of a silent stroke is not aware of the stroke when it occurs. But of course

even a hedonist can acknowledge that the occurrence of the stroke may be a

great evil for the victim. The stroke itself is extrinsically bad for the victim in

virtue of its consequences. If the victim is worse off in terms of pleasure and pain

as a result of the stroke, then (though he does not experience the stroke

itself) the stroke is still declared to be bad for him. Thus, premise (2) is still open

to doubt.

The experience condition seems, then, to be indefensible (Fischer 1997).

Furthermore, the Epicurean texts do not make any explicit mention of it. Thus,

some philosophers have sought a different interpretation of the argument.

Some commentators have understood the argument to turn essentially on

certain features of harm. They have said that something can harm a person only

if it harms him at a time. They take it that Epicurus’s point was that death cannot

harm a person at any time before he dies (since it hasn’t yet happened); nor can

death harm a person at any time after he dies (since he does not exist at those

times). Thus, the argument may look more like this:

(1) His own death cannot harm a person before he dies (because it has not yet

occurred).

(2) His own death cannot harm a person after he dies (because the victim does

not then exist).

(3) If (1) and (2) are true, then there is no time at which his own death can

harm a person.

(4) If there is no time at which his own death can harm a person, then his own

death is not an evil for the one who dies.

(5) If his own death is not an evil for the one who dies, then it is irrational for

anyone to fear his own death.

(6) Therefore, it is irrational for anyone to fear his own death.

While it is obvious that in some cases a person is harmed because he has

actually received certain evils (on a hedonistic assumption, this would always

ultimately be understood to be some sort of pain), it should also be obvious on

reflection that in other cases a person is harmed because he has failed to receive

certain goods. This might happen, for example, in a case in which a person is



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harmed because he never got an education, or the opportunity to vote, or the

chance to travel freely. In the case of these “harms of deprivation,” the identification of a precise date of the harm seems far more problematic. Precisely

when, we may ask, did the uneducated person suffer the harm of not getting an

education? Thus, there is doubt about the notion that every harm must have a

date. So premise (4) is questionable.

Others have in effect rejected premise (2). They have suggested that a person

may suffer the harm of early death at many times after he has died. For example,

one may claim that the victim of an early death is harmed at all post-mortem

times when he would have been happy if that early death had not taken place

(Bradley 2004, 2009; Feit 2002). It is reasonable to suppose that if his early death

actually harmed him, then there must be such times.

Another suggestion is that harms of deprivation have a kind of “universal”

occurrence. Suppose a person would have been happier if he had lived longer.

Then since every time is a time when it is correct to say that he would have been

happier if he had lived longer, we can say that every time is a time when he is

harmed by dying young. This yields another way to defend the rejection of premises (1) and (2) (Feldman 2002). Many find this implausible (Bradley 2009,

forthcoming).

According to a standard version of the “deprivation approach,” a person’s

death may be bad for her, and worthy of fear, because her death deprives her of

all the goods she would have enjoyed if she had lived longer (Nagel 1979).

One difficulty for those who adopt the deprivation approach concerns the

rationality of emotions. If we focus on “positive” harms, such as sufferings of

pain, we might think that there is no problem about the rationality of our

fear or hatred of harms. Thus, it might be quite rational for a certain prisoner to

fear being sent to a foreign country to be tortured. After all, it might turn

out to be a horrible experience. Some deprivations seem to be suitable objects

for fear. For example, if someone threatens to steal my car, or to kidnap my

child, then I may reasonably fear the threatened loss. But other instances of

deprivation seem troublesome. Suppose I know quite well that I will not be

granted magical powers, such as the power to fly. Suppose I believe (correctly, let

us imagine) that as a result of not being able to fly, I will miss out on a remarkable sequence of very enjoyable experiences that I would have had if I had been

granted the power to fly. Thus, not being granted the power to fly deprives me

of some great goods. Yet it would be completely irrational for me to fear this

deprivation, or to allow myself to fall into despair because of it. The question,

then, is this: How are we to distinguish between (a) deprivations (such as those

resulting from early death) that seem to merit a strong emotional response and

(b) deprivations (such as those resulting from the failure to be given magical

powers) that do not seem to merit a strong emotional response? Why is fear

rational in one case but not in the other (Draper 1999, 2004)? This puzzle has not

yet been satisfactorily solved.



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Lucretius and the mirror of time

In a widely quoted passage in On the Nature of Things, Lucretius says:

Look back at the eternity that passed before we were born, and mark

how utterly it counts to us as nothing. This is a mirror that Nature holds

up to us, in which we may see the time that shall be after we are dead. Is

there anything terrifying in the sight – anything depressing – anything

that is not more restful than the soundest sleep?

(Lucretius 1965)

It seems pretty clear that Lucretius means to be presenting an argument here;

and it seems pretty clear that the argument somehow involves the notion that

there is nothing terrifying about the long stretch of non-existence that a person

“suffered” before she was born. It also involves the notion that the long stretch

of non-existence that a person will suffer after she dies is somehow the “mirror

image” of that prenatal time. The conclusion is not precisely stated, but some

have taken it to be this: it is irrational for a person to fear her own death.

Let us assume that the argument can be understood in this way:

(1) It would be irrational for a person to be emotionally upset about her

prenatal non-existence.

(2) If it would be irrational for a person to be emotionally upset about her

prenatal non-existence, then it would be irrational for a person to be

emotionally upset about her post-mortem non-existence.

(3) Therefore, it would be irrational for a person to be emotionally upset

about her post-mortem non-existence.

Replies to this argument take several forms. Some have (in effect) rejected (2).

They have said that post-mortem times are not the mirror image of prenatal times.

The failure of symmetry (it has been alleged) makes it irrational to fear prenatal

non-existence, but allows it to be rational to fear post-mortem non-existence.

One alleged difference between these two periods of time might be this: whereas

those post-mortem times are times at which a person might have existed (after

all, the person could have survived his disease; he could have died later), the

prenatal times are not times at which the person might have existed (because he

could not have been born earlier than he in fact was born) (Nagel 1979).

This sort of reply seems to turn on indefensible metaphysical assumptions

about time and personal identity. As several critics have pointed out, even if a

person essentially arose from the union of a specific sperm and egg, still it is

metaphysically possible that that sperm and egg could have combined at an earlier date. This is especially clear in cases involving frozen sperm and egg that are

chosen for in vitro fertilization. Such fertilizations may occur earlier or later, at



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the discretion of parents and doctors. If earlier fertilization had happened, the

person would have come into existence earlier (Feldman 1991: 222; Breuckner

and Fischer 1993: 215).

Others (e.g. Parfit 1984) have pointed out that we seem to care deeply about future

harms and benefits, but to be nearly indifferent to past harms and benefits. The

“amnesiac patient” example illustrates this. Suppose you wake up in a hospital.

Your memory is a blank; you have no idea how you got there. The nurse informs

you that either you had a very painful operation last night but have forgotten it as a

result of some amnesia-inducing drugs, or else you will be getting a somewhat

less painful operation later today. If you have the operation later today, you will get

an amnesia-inducing drug and as a result you won’t remember the pain afterwards. It seems perfectly natural for you to prefer that the painful operation be

in the past and forgotten. This suggests that, other things being equal, we prefer

that our pains be in the past – “over and done with.” A corresponding thought

experiment would suggest that we prefer that our pleasures be in the future.

These thoughts suggest a different way in which the future and the past are not

mirror images of each other. We fear dying prematurely because we care about

future pleasures. Failing to receive those pleasures seems to be contrary to our

welfare. On the other hand, we don’t care about having been born late because

we don’t care about any pleasures that we lost as a result of being born later than

we might have been (Fischer 2006a, b; Breuckner and Fischer 1986, 1993).

Critics may acknowledge that in fact we do have the temporal bias that Parfit

describes; but they may go on to say that this does not constitute a refutation of

Lucretius’s point. The point, after all, concerned the rationality of our attitudes.

Lucretius seems to have claimed that in light of the metaphysical symmetry of

past and future, there is no justification for our asymmetrical attitudes. He

reminded us that it would be irrational to fear past non-existence. He wanted to

know how, given the metaphysical symmetry of past and future, it could

be rational to fear future non-existence while it is irrational to fear past nonexistence. Merely pointing out that in fact we do have these asymmetrical attitudes seems not to be a reply at all (Kaufman 2009/1999).

A different sort of reply to Lucretius would involve rejecting premise (1). Perhaps

we can agree that most of us are indifferent to the pleasures we lost as a result of being

born too late. But we might claim that there would be nothing irrational about it if

someone were distressed about these lost pleasures. Perhaps the bias toward the

future is common but unjustified. Maybe it would be reasonable to be unhappy

about all lost pleasures, whether past or future (see also McMahan 2006).



The conquest of death

Whether the fear of death is rational or not, it appears that this is a fear that

people have experienced throughout history. Some religious traditions seem



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almost to be built upon this fear, since those traditions claim that true believers

will gain a chance to evade death. For some it seems obvious that an eternal life

would be vastly preferable to a short life followed by an endless stretch of nonexistence.

Of course, no reasonable person would prefer an eternal life of suffering in

hell. But what shall we say about an eternal life filled with typical earthly pleasures and pains? Would this be better than a finite life followed by nonexistence? Those who fear and hate death apparently would prefer to go on living

their ordinary lives no matter how old they may become. But is this preference

rational?

Bernard Williams (1973) claimed that it is not obvious that eternal earthly life

is an attractive prospect. After a sufficiently long time, the victim of eternal life

would become bored. He would have done everything that a person with his

tastes and preferences could possibly enjoy doing. It would be no fun to have to

do it again. On the other hand, if he were to change his tastes and preferences,

further enjoyment might be possible, but then it would be unclear whether the

original person had survived. For with the imagined dramatic change in tastes

and preferences, the previous person would have been transformed into a

new person. Thus, if a given person retains his identity long enough, he will

eventually become bored. Eternal life for a persisting person is thus seen to be

unattractive.

Critics have pointed out two main problems with Williams’ argument. First, it

appears that Williams has underestimated the individual’s capacity for growth.

Surely a person can retain his identity while gradually coming to enjoy new

experiences (Fischer 1994; Rosenberg 2006). Second, there seem to be some

pleasures that enhance the value of life even when they have been repeated

thousands of times. Surely a person might enjoy (for example) a fresh sexual

encounter every day forever. Thus, while Williams may be right to point out that

not every eternal life would be desirable, he seems to have gone too far when he

claimed that every such life would have to become painfully boring.



The ethics of killing

Suppose we think, following Epicurus, that early death cannot harm a person.

Suppose we think, following Lucretius, that early death is no more to be feared than

late birth. Then we seem to put ourselves into an odd position with respect to killing.

For if we can kill a person painlessly, and if his death will not make others

unhappy, it is not clear why there would be anything wrong with killing him.

But this result is in direct conflict with a deeply entrenched component of

common-sense morality. We all find something intuitively plausible about the

idea that killing another person is morally impermissible. Of course, we recognize that there are some circumstances in which it may be morally permissible to



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kill another person – as, for example, in cases of justified self-defense when there

is no other way to save oneself from a vicious criminal assault. Some philosophers maintain that while it is generally wrong to kill others, it may be morally

permissible to kill oneself in order to avoid unremitting, pointless suffering.

Others seem to think that it may be morally permissible to kill (or to allow to

die) a person who has fallen into a horrible state in which continued existence is

of great disvalue. This is especially compelling in the case of someone who

repeatedly and emphatically has asked for help in ending his life. There are also

questions about killing enemy combatants in a justified war and questions about

executing convicted murderers, rapists, and traitors. But in the standard case

not involving any of these exceptions, it seems wrong to kill people. This gives

rise to a profound question: Precisely when (if ever) is it morally permissible to

kill a person? To answer this question, it seems that we must answer a yet more

fundamental question: When it is morally wrong to kill a person, precisely why

is it wrong?

Some philosophers proceed as if they think that these questions about the

morality of killing can be studied more-or-less in isolation, but a more reasonable assumption is that one’s view about the morality of killing should be a

corollary of one’s view about the morality of behavior in general. If we don’t

know what makes actions in general wrong, it’s hard to see how we can know

what makes acts of killing wrong.

Act consequentialism of the simplest variety is the view that an action is

morally right (permissible) if and only if no alternative would lead to a better

outcome for all affected. This theory offers a simple explanation of the wrongness of killing, when it is wrong. According to the theory, it is wrong to kill

someone (when it is wrong) precisely because killing him leads to an outcome

that is on the whole worse than the outcome of some alternative course of

behavior. Familiar examples involving killing have been thought to prove this

view untenable. Consider a case in which several decent people are in need of

organs for transplantation. If they get those organs, they and their friends will be

happier. Suppose a healthy but not very happy person is available. Suppose he

has very few friends. If he is killed and his organs are transplanted several others

will be happy. Very few will be made unhappy. In this case, act consequentialism

seems to imply that it would be morally permissible (even obligatory) to kill the

innocent victim so as to keep several others alive. This implication is widely seen

as repugnant, and so the act consequentialist approach has been rejected.

More extreme objections have been raised. It has been thought, for example,

that act consequentialism implies that there is a moral obligation to kill any

person whose unhappiness is dragging down the collective welfare level. It may

appear that the community as a whole would be better off with such people out

of the way, provided that it is possible to kill them painlessly (Henson 1971).

The theory also seems to imply, somewhat implausibly, that we have a moral

obligation to bring new people into existence whenever the community as a



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whole will be better off with such people in existence. This obligation would

persist even in cases in which the introduction of the new people would decrease

the welfare of everyone already in existence, provided that the total welfare of

the community as a whole (including the new people) would be increased. In

response to cases of this sort, some have been moved to consider “personaffecting” forms of consequentialism. On these theories, the utility of an action is

determined by the pleasures and pains of people who would exist whether the

action is performed or not. Thus, the hypothetical pleasures of people who

would be brought into existence if the action were performed, but who otherwise would never exist, would be disregarded. This sort of view faces new difficulties of its own. It seems to permit the creation of a new person who

would lead a miserable life, provided that his introduction would make already

existing people happier. Other versions of the person-affecting form of consequentialism have been proposed, but all are currently controversial (Arrhenius

2003; Roberts 2003).

Advocates of the deprivation approach may claim that acts of killing are

wrong (when they are wrong) because they inflict serious harms of deprivation on

their victims. This view is open to many objections. Suppose an innocent victim

is being brutally attacked by a vicious killer. Suppose the victim can defend himself

only by killing his attacker. But suppose that the attacker would be harmed by

being thus killed. Surely in such a case it would be morally permissible for the

victim to defend himself, even though such defense would impose a serious

harm (early death) on the attacker. Harm to the one killed cannot be the sole

determinant of the normative status of acts of killing.

Some have suggested (perhaps following Kant) that every person, merely in

virtue of the fact that he is a person, deserves a certain sort of moral respect.

Killing anyone is thus morally wrong because it inevitably involves a violation of

that demand for respect.

When formulated in this stark way, this view seems to violate some very

intuitive general principles about moral obligation in general. Consider a case in

which some agent has a choice of killing one unfortunate person or another. He

can’t avoid killing someone or other. The view in question would then imply

that the agent is doomed to do something morally wrong no matter what he

does. Each alternative involves a violation of the alleged demand for respect.

This seems to conflict with the well-grounded moral intuition that there is always

something that morality permits. Perhaps morality permits whichever act would

involve the smaller total amount of disrespect for humanity.

In some cases morality seems to require killing. For example, in an otherwise

just war, military decision-makers may correctly see that on balance far more

lives will be saved if a certain target is destroyed. They may foresee that innocent

civilians will die as an undesired and unintended result of their attack. Yet for all

that, it may still be the morally right thing for the military decision-makers to do.

This seems to show that the moral status of an act of killing depends upon



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considerations beyond mere harm to the victim or respect for the victim’s

humanity.

We may imagine an eclectic view. Suppose we say, first, that harm to the

victim constitutes one reason to avoid killing someone; but suppose we say, in

addition, that harm to the community as a whole constitutes another reason to

avoid killing someone. And suppose we say, furthermore, that potential violation of the demand for respect of persons is yet a third source of reasons to

avoid killing. Each of these considerations, we may say, constitutes some defeasible reason to avoid killing. Each consideration may thus be seen as helping to

make such acts of killing prima facie wrong. In any specific case, the overall

moral status of an act of killing would be determined by the weights in that case

of all of these factors (and perhaps others) somehow taken together (McMahan

1988, 2002).

While this approach may have the virtue of accommodating a variety of

intuitions about the morality of killing, it confronts a serious objection. The

view seems hardly more than a restatement of the problem rather than a solution. It reminds us that we have conflicting pre-theoretic intuitions about the

morality of killing. It then tells us that the actual moral status of any act of killing is somehow determined by some unexplained interactions among the factors

that pre-theoretically seemed relevant. This seems to leave us with precisely the

problem with which we started. We still don’t have any general account of what

makes acts of killing all things considered wrong when they are wrong. We still

don’t have a helpful explanation of what makes acts of killing morally right in

those unusual cases where they are morally right (if any).

It seems, then, that moral philosophers have not yet managed to explain clearly

and precisely why it is wrong to kill people in those cases in which it is wrong.

See also Later ancient ethics (Chapter 5); Utilitarianism to Bentham (Chapter 13);

John Stuart Mill (Chapter 16); Consequentialism (Chapter 37); Contemporary

Kantian ethics (Chapter 38); Respect and recognition (Chapter 47); Ideals of

perfection (Chapter 55); Rights (Chapter 56); Ending life (Chapter 60); Population

ethics (Chapter 61); War (Chapter 67).



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