Death and betrayal are analogously “bad”
In this essay, I show that Nagel’s argument that death and betrayal are analogously “bad” even if the victim is unaware of the loss and/or wrong they have suffered can possibly object the claim that death is not bad for the person that has died is somehow flawed. To this end, I start with an account of Nagel’s position on the goodness of life and badness of death from the perspective of deprivation. Then, I argue it is plausible to think that Nagel’s objection conflates a life-life comparison with a life-death comparison, making it seem as though the loss of life is analogous to betrayal or any other loss an agent may experience over the course of their lives.
Nagel is a scholar who has expended remarkable effort trying to reject the premises used to arrive at the Epicurean conclusion explained above. Notably, Nagel inspires a positive interpretation of the theory of deprivation by asserting that death is bad for the person that has died. To die is bad because “life is a good and death is the corresponding deprivation or loss” (p. 180). According to Nagel’s deprivation approach, death is bad for those who have died because it deprives them of the goods that would have been available to them in a counterfactually longer life. Death is bad because of the desirability or appropriateness of what it takes away. This is contrary to the notion that death is bad because of any positive attributes.
The deprivation hypothesis raises three main problems about loss in general, and about death in particular. To start with, there may be doubt whether there is any evil that comprise simply in the absence or deprivation of potential goods, and that which does not depend on somebody’s concern with respect to that deprivation. Secondly, there is a special difficulty in the case of loss of life, especially how and when the assumed misfortune may be assigned to a specific subject. As long as an individual exists, he is yet to die, and when he dies, he no longer exists. So, if death is a misfortunate, there seems to be no specific time when it can be assigned to a subject. Thirdly, there is the problem regarding the asymmetry between our views about prenatal and posthumous non-existence. How can the latter be bad if the former is not? If there are rational objections to considering death as an evil, then they apply to several other presumed evils as well. For instance, it is claimed that:
If a man is betrayed by his friends, ridiculed behind his back, and despised by people who treat him politely to his face, none of it can be counted as a misfortune for him as long as he does not suffer as a result (p. 180).
Supposedly, awareness causes suffering. Similarly, a loss (say death or betrayal) is only bad if the victim is aware of the misfortune. The popular remark, “what you don’t know won’t hurt you” (p. 180), is one of the major objections to the argument that “death is bad for the person that has died”. However, for Nagel, people can be harmed by things (say death or betrayal) that they are unaware of. Nagel argues that is would be simplistic to assume that the subject of a particular harm must be an individual who exists at the point when the harm takes place, and that the subject must feel harmed. To Nagel, an individual’s subjective experience (or feeling) is not the absolute determinant of a harm. Rather, a harm could depend on the history of associated experiences as well as the possibilities that were open to those experiences. Nagel opines that, “any death entails the loss of some life that its victim would have led had he not died at that or any other earlier point (p. 182). So, it would be harm/bad to be deprived of the possibility to live past the age at which an individual dies.
My conviction is that Nagel’s objection to the claim that “death is not bad for the person that has died” is somehow flawed is informed by two reasons. First, I believe that death is not bad for the deceased in any reasonable sense from a deprivation point of view. How could posthumous deprivation or loss of life be considered a harm, yet the prenatal deprivation is not? If we consider death to be annihilation of life, then death means permanent non-existence and loss of conscious experiences or feelings. Therefore, the dead cannot feel or experience the badness of death. One of the major premises that are provided in support of the claim that, “death is not bad for the person that has died”, is the experience or expression argument. This argument is basically expressed as follows, “what you don’t know won’t hurt you” (p. 180). Simply, this means that we perceive something as good or bad only after experiencing its goodness or badness. It is naturally viewed that, “something cannot harm you if you are not aware of it, or cannot experience its impact”. But of course the dead are unaware of their death, or the dead cannot subjectively experience any impact of death. Considering the two premises, it would be reasonable to conclude that death is neither good nor bad – it is nothing at least to the person that has died.
Secondly, it can be acknowledged that there are things that are either good or bad even if they cannot be experienced. For example, lying, stealing, infidelity, betrayal, loss of senses, disease prevention, and asymptomatic diseases. For instance, having a tumor is bad for us even if the tumor has not been detected. Furthermore, a vaccine is considered to be successful if the person to whom it was administered to do not show the symptoms of the disease being prevented. Therefore, the goodness of preventive vaccine is manifested by absence of a certain disease. Similarly, it can be argued that death can be a good or bad thing even when we may not felt its goodness or badness. However, it is reasonable to argue that the deceased will never experience the badness of death, contrary to Nagel’s claim that people can be harmed by things that they are unaware of. This is the case even if we consider death to be a deprivation of some life, principally because the harm to the person that has died (permanently unconscious) would not be experienced by the subject under any possible condition.
Perhaps, the second reason in support of the fact that Nagel’s objection is somehow flawed is the strongest. The reason is best conceived as the conflation of a ‘life-life” comparison with a “life-death” comparison, which gives the impression that the loss of life is similar to betrayal. The problem is that a dead person is inexistent and thus cannot be literary considered to have lost or deprived of anything whatsoever. More is better when comparing the goodness experienced during a lifetime – life-life comparison. However, it would be illogical to accept a life-death comparison. This is because, in the absence of the subject, no logical subject-relative value comparison can be made. Therefore, it would be simplistic (or even illogical) to conclude that death is bad compared to continued life. Precisely, in case of loss of life, the deceased is not there to experience the badness of death.
Nagel’s argument fails to acknowledge that events in both space and time can equally generate feelings that drive value. This way, the temporality assumption does not have to be accepted. That is, an event and value must not have co-existed at some point in the agent’s life in order to generate feelings. This means that death (unlike betrayal) can be logically understood as bad for the dead without confining or isolating the event at a specific, proximate point in time. Specifically, it is imperative to understand that the badness of death (unlike betrayal) is atemporal as it does not apply to any specific moment in human life.