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How Bad is Death?

From: Canadian Journal of Philosophy
Volume 37, Number 1, March 2007
pp. 111-127 | 10.1353/cjp.2007.0007

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

I Introduction

A popular view about why death is bad for the one who dies is that death deprives its subject of the good things in life. This is the 'deprivation account' of the evil of death. The deprivation account might be considered the 'received view' concerning the evil of death. But the deprivation account entails that there need be no relationship between the disvalue of someone's death and the quality of the life that preceded it. It is often thought that a person's death is less tragic, or less bad, if she has lived a good life or accomplished great things. In The Ethics of Killing, Jeff McMahan argues that a deprivation account should discount the evil of death, and other misfortunes of deprivation, for previous gains in life. In what follows, I defend a version of the deprivation account against McMahan's argument. I argue that McMahan's attempt to adjust the disvalue of a death in light of the quality of the life that preceded it leads to unacceptable results. I show that we can make sense of intuitions that pull us towards McMahan's view by noticing that the truth of an attribution of badness to a death depends in part on conversational context.

II The Token Comparison View

Let me begin by stating a version of the deprivation account. McMahan refers to this sort of view as the 'Token Comparison View,' so I will follow his terminology.

The Token Comparison View (TCV): The overall value, for a person x, of the event of x's death = the value for x of x's actual life minus what the value of x's life for x would have been had that actual death not occurred.

TCV entails that a person's death at a particular time — an event token — is bad for her if her life would have been better on the whole had that event token not occurred. This would be the case if her death deprived her of an intrinsically good future, though as will be seen shortly, there may be other ways for a death to count as bad according to TCV.

Some points of clarification are in order. First, TCV is a view about the value of a death for the person who dies — not for the world, or for any other person. A person's death might be bad for her yet good for the world, or vice versa. Second, I make no assumptions here about what things are good or bad for people. TCV is designed to be compatible with any substantive theory of welfare. Third, and relatedly, since TCV evaluates a death by appeal to the values of whole lives, it is compatible with the view that the value of a death depends in part on its effect on global features of the life, such as its 'narrative structure' or 'shape.' Fourth, TCV requires us to compare the values of two lives: the life a person actually lives, and the life she would have led had her actual death not occurred. I will assume that we can understand this idea in terms of possible worlds; what a life would have been like had a death not occurred is understood as what that life is like in the 'closest' or most similar possible world in which that death does not occur (Lewis 1986).

Finally, TCV is a view about the badness of death; but there are different ways of talking about that badness. For example, in comparing deaths, McMahan sometimes says that one is 'worse' than the other; sometimes he says that one is more 'tragic.' He also frequently calls death a 'misfortune.' We might wonder whether these amount to the same thing. I take it McMahan uses 'worse,' 'more tragic,' and 'a greater misfortune' more or less synonymously: 'we may conclude that a death is worse or more tragic to the extent that the following characterizations are applicable to it' (McMahan 184, my emphasis); 'the pace at which the badness of death diminishes with age will accelerate. Eventually a point will be reached at which death will scarcely be a misfortune at all' (McMahan 185, my emphasis...



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