It seems that the majority of human beings think of death as a bad thing because it is something undesirable, something unpleasant, something that has a negative impact. One issue raised and discussed by Nagel is that nothing can have a negative impact on us if we do not exist any longer. In other words, it is not rational to think that death will have a negative impact on us when we no longer exist to feel that impact. Of course, Nagel is basing his argument on the hypothesis that death is the end, that is, the termination of life in every sense, without any possible return to the world.
Evidently, Nagel still insists on the fact that death is bad, at least because of the deprivation it will force on us of the potential goods that we could have enjoyed had we remained alive.
When we exist as living creatures, even when our life is full of pain and misfortune, we still enjoy our life, thus achieving a utility out of it. It is true that living in full misfortune is not a happy event by any chance, but the fact that we have hope for the better and for improvement is in itself a source of pleasure, and thus, making life despite all its unpleasantness, good. The fulfillment of our desires is not in itself the goal of our existence. Rather, it is pleasure and happiness that we seek. If upon fulfilling our desires and dreams we discover that we have not become any happier, then the utility that we have gained by achieving the desire is equal to nil.
On the other hand, if we achieve happiness through having a hope, even when we are going through the worst of misfortunes, then we definitely are feeling the ultimate pleasure and goal of life. Accordingly, even if in our status we remain at the level of hope rather than accomplishment, we are actually achieving utility out of our hope, because whether hope becomes fulfilled or not, it will produce pleasure for us, which in turn is a utility. This is definitely in contrary to what Amaryta Sen argues about the value of utilities when arguing that “It is the fulfillment of desires that can be reasonably seen as being utility” (p.79).
But what happens when we die. Some may argue that if we die after we have accomplished every dream and purpose in life, then death will not be bad, but rather, it will be good because then we will die without feeling sorry for leaving some goal unaccomplished. This argument is obviously far away from commonsense. The reason is that the accomplishment of all dreams and desires is impossible. At any given moment of life, man will always have dreams and hopes, even when a moment ago he had thought that he had accomplished everything. Thus, at any moment that death will come, it will deprive us from accomplishing some hopes and dreams.
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Let me assume for a minute that the accomplishment of all purpose of life is possible. In such a case, what good would life yield if we go on living with nothing to accomplish, to desire, or to fulfill? Obviously nothing. Let us return to the real world where the absolute accomplishment of every goal and objective is impossible. Many argue on their deathbeds that they are happy with death because it has been timed with that instant in their lives when they feel that they have accomplished all. But don’t these people have anything to say to those who would stay after them? Don’t they leave wills which they wish to be carried out? Don’t they have commands which they wish to find carried out?
Definitely they do. But then, it is their death that will prevent them from accomplishing all these goals, and hence death proves itself to be bad.
Kristina Onassis, a billionaire lady, committed suicide because she did not think that there is anything worthy in life to stay alive for. For Kristina and many like her, life was simply unpleasant and unbearable, but how did she know that death was good in contrast to such a bad life? She could not have known. She could have very well taken refuge in a mountain and lived as a nun for the rest of her life, away from the society that caused her pain. Some may argue that she actually ended her life because she could not bear the emptiness, and because she hoped that she would end all the pain through death. But through death she also ended the pleasure of having hope and through existence as well.
Death is not evil in itself, but it is definitely bad because it deprives us of the possibility of continuing our dreams and hopes. This is not to mention the fact that it deprives us the ability to achieve our desires. One might argue that when we die, we no longer need those desires, since we will no longer exist. This is true, but then, who can argue that our death is not a loss for us? Isn’t our life all what we have? Indeed it is, and death is evidently a deprivation of all what we have, which is by definition bad since it prevents us from achieving any pleasure or utility.
Nagel argues that our non-existence before our birth is not similar to our non-existence after death. This is definitely true. The reason is that before our birth, our non-existence does not deprive us of anything at all. It is true that this non-existence will not make us witness some of the pleasures that might take place at that time when we are non-existent, but then, our non-existence will be followed by our existence which is a source of pleasure, whereas death is followed by nothingness which represents the absence of pleasure, and hence it is bad. This is in conformity with Unamuno’s argument that “Once dead, we lack even the opportunity to regret the ending of sensation” (p. 78).
On the other hand, when we contemplate death, we know very well that we are going to miss a lot of pleasure in the future after our death, and we are aware of this. Therefore, our non-existence after we have become existent and after we have become aware is bad, especially that it involves the thought and feeling of potential deprivation.
It may be argued that we are not going to live forever anyway, so why should we think of death as bad rather than the inevitable? This is true, but it is still important to be aware of the fact that the inevitable is not in itself an anti-thesis to the bad. In other words, if something is inevitable, this does not mean that it is good. In life, we are aware that there are certain inevitable or unavoidable accidents that happen, but we know that these are bad for us because they deprive us of pleasure and at the same time, they cause us a lot of harm. As Unamuno argues, “if the Epicureans say that the absence of pain can be a good thing, why shouldn’t they add that the absence of pleasure can be a bad thing?” (p.79). Thus, regardless how good death might appear to be, it is essentially bad because what comes after it is nihilism from which no pleasure can be derived.
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Death philosophy write up
To sum up, we know very well that death is inevitable and unavoidable. We also know that death, whether painful or fast, will deprive us of our ability to achieve our dreams or even to have these dreams. Therefore, there is no reason for us to think of death positively, for even if our life is miserable, in life we can still live hope, no matter how scanty it is, whereas in death, all these are simply brought to an end, and our life no longer persists. Perhaps death itself as an act will not mean anything to us, especially that we do not feel anything at the very moment when we are detached from life forever, but the fact that we think of death is sufficient to disturb our ability to think, hope, desire and feel pleasure in a proper way.