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The Philosophical Study of Death



Metaphysical Issues:

Ethical Issues:

Social Issues:

Factual Issues:

Why do we fear death?

One of the Persistent Philosophical Puzzles About Death. Is Death Bad for the Person Who Dies?

Epicurus (3rd century BC. Greek philosopher) says No. The reason is that the dead person has no bad experience once dead, and something can only be bad for you if it leads to bad experiences. He used this to say it is irrational to fear death.


Consider a different kind of case: someone cheating on you.  Even if you never find out that you were cheated on, some would say that you had been harmed. If they are right, then this is a counterexample to premise (1).

Those who believe in an afterlife would disagree with premise (2).  They would say that in the afterlife, you can have knowledge and experience.

Other philosophers have disagreed with Epicurus. They think that death can be bad for the person who dies because it deprives her of opportunities to do what she wanted and to have more life worth living.

Another test case -- the spiteful enemy:

An enemy makes sure that you do not get into a better college/job and that you never find  out about his action. Has your enemy succeeded in harming you?  Some would say yes, because even though you do not know that you had been deprived of opportunity, your life is still worse than it could have been.  This measures the quality of life by comparing how it is with how it might have been (not with how you thought it might have been).

It is worth noting that you do experience the effects of your enemy's action (going to a less good school, getting a less good job than you might have), even if you don't know about the action itself (your enemy making sure you don't get the place in the better college or the better job).  That is to say, you experience the harm, but you don't know that it is harm, because you didn't know the cause of it.  Does this make premise (1) more or less defensible?  It suggests that we might formulate a more careful version of premise (1) which avoids the problem case of the spiteful enemy.

Premise (1a) could be used in Epicurus' argument that death is not bad for you just as well as premise (1).  When you are dead, if there is no afterlife, then you experience neither being dead nor the effects of being dead.

The Death System

The function or role of death in our society.

"the interpersonal, sociophysical and symbolic network through which an individual's relationship to mortality is mediated by his or her society" (Kastenbaum, p. 59)

We can get clearer about this by

(i) studying our own society

(ii) imagining what our society would be like without death

(iii) comparing our society with other societies

"Official" views about death

The actual treatment of death

Public and personal symbols of death

The Hiding and Avoidance of Death

Death in the Modern World: Who, How, and When

Important Terms to Know: (Chapter Four of Kastenbaum)

Some Relevant Facts

The mortality rate has nearly halved in the US this century.
Between 1940 and 1990, the infant morality rate went from 47.0 to 8.5 (per thousand), more than a factor of five
In 1900, the leading causes of death were pneumonia, influenza, and tuberculosis.  Now none of these is in the list of the top five major causes of death in the U.S.
The major causes of death in the US are now heart disease and cancer.
AIDS has been one of most rapidly increasing causes of death this decade, especially for younger people.
Suicide is one of the top ten major causes of death in the US.
Note that murder is not in the top ten list.

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