Ethical Realism

September 22, 2013

Is Death Bad? Is Grief Appropriate?

Filed under: ethics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 9:12 pm
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I will discuss two related philosophical questions related to death: One, is death bad? Two, how should we feel about death?

Is death bad?

I don’t think it makes sense to say that death is bad in isolation of all other considerations, but such a thought seems to make some sense to us. Why? Perhaps because we want to live, and we think there’s something good about living. I am sympathetic to the view that human life (and the life of other animals) has positive intrinsic value (are good just for existing). I wrote about this issue in detail here, but I will give a quick summary of my view. I don’t think brain dead bodies that we could say still have some life have intrinsic value because what has value seems to be our consciousness and experiences we have. A life form without consciousness or experiences doesn’t have the type of value I have in mind. So, a mind that can’t possibly have any experiences and is always empty wouldn’t have this value either.

Perhaps one of the better reasons to think conscious lives that have various experiences have intrinsic value is to consider that choosing to live a life that lacks certain other valuable things still seems rational. For example, a life with more pain than pleasure can still be worth having. A person who has such a life can rationally value their life, and we shouldn’t think such a person is rationally required to commit suicide. Imagine that Susan has a somewhat painful job at being a care giver of people with dementia. She might not enjoy her job because people with dementia are often incapable of caring for themselves and can be quite difficult to deal with (in addition to being ungrateful). In this case Susan’s life has more pain than pleasure in it. But at the same time she does help people and has a sense of purpose in her life. She feels like her job is worth doing, and the families of those she cares for appreciate her work. She also spends some time with friends and enjoying herself. I would say her life is worth living, even if she knows she will never have more pleasure than pain in her life. It would be counterintuitive to insist that she is rationally required to commit suicide just because she knows she will experience more pain than pleasure. (I believe this example is actually something that could happen. Go here for more information.)

I also think it’s wrong to kill an innocent person who wants to live, doesn’t contribute to society, and will experience more pain than pleasure. What if Susan gets dementia, can no longer contribute to society, will experience more pain than pleasure, and requires the help of others to live, but still wants to continue to live anyway? Perhaps she is willing to live in pain because she values her life more than the pain she experiences on occasion. If life has no intrinsic value, then I would expect that it would be morally permissible to kill Susan in this case. However, I think it would be morally wrong to kill her precisely because I think her life does have intrinsic value.

Nothing said here requires us to deny that suicide can be a legitimate option in at least some cases. Given the option to die rather than be tortured, it might be better to die. The pain and suffering of being tortured could be of greater importance than the value of living for such a person.

My assumption that death is a bad thing might require us to assume that death is non-existence. If we still have experiences after the body is destroyed, then we aren’t really dead. We would have an afterlife. We might not have a good reason to fear the destruction of the body if we assume the mind can still exist and have experiences. I wonder if those who claim to believe in an after life are being truly consistent when they think that the destruction of the body is a bad thing or feel bad about another person’s death. If we survive the destruction of the body, then what’s so bad about the destruction of the body?

Perhaps life is not intrinsically good, but much of what I say might still make sense anyway. In that case it might be rational to want to live a mostly painful life for some other reason that I have failed to properly identify. Some people might argue that death is only bad insofar as it conflicts with our personal projects and interests (rather than being about intrinsic values). I do not deny that our personal projects and interests are relevant to the badness of death. However, I think it can be perfectly rational to value the lives of strangers and nonhuman animals that we have no personal interest in. It also seems appropriate to want to care about them insofar as they seem to have intrinsic value. Given the choice of raising children to only care about loved ones or to also care about strangers, I think it would be better to raise children to also care about strangers. I think that position is intuitive and the best explanation for why it’s right seems to be that the life of all people and animals have intrinsic value.

The point I want to make is that it does make sense to prefer to be alive than dead assuming that life has intrinsic value. We could say that death is bad insofar as it conflicts with this preference (when the preference is rational). However, there are various considerations that would determine if and when a particular death really is bad. For example:

  1. Murder is a clear example of a bad death, but in that case the malicious act is the focus. Murder is bad insofar as it’s an immoral act. Even so, murder is only immoral insofar as there is some legitimate value to being alive. If being alive was always horrible, then killing people would be a good thing.
  2. Death is especially bad when people commit suicide while viewing their life in a skewed way (thinking that their life will never get better when it will). Someone’s life is lost in this way who should have preferred to live because things would have gotten better. (On the other hand a person’s life might not be worth living and we might empathize with the decision to commit suicide.)
  3. Death is especially bad when life is cut short. The younger a person is, the more life we think the person has been denied. (On the other hand a person who lives a very long life might actually live longer than the normal person, and we could say that person was lucky. We might also think that such a person had a good chance to live life fully and have a wide range of experiences.)
  4. Death is a necessary part of the world insofar as we have limited resources to support a limited number of lives, and death is less bad considering how important it is to make room for more lives. Given limited resources, it is plausible to think that the intrinsic value of a person who lives a full life of two hundred years might be somewhat lower than the lives of two other people who live a full life of one hundred years of age, and that a world of people who lived twice as long might only have enough resources to support half as many lives.

How should we feel about death?

My current hypothesis is that feeling bad about people dying is appropriate in general for at least one reason—it makes sense to grieve for loved ones and feel bad when we find out that innocent people are killed insofar as it really is a bad thing (because it conflicts with our rational preferences). I agree with the Stoics that evaluative judgments can inform us about what emotions are appropriate. It makes sense for us to feel bad about knowing we are about to be tortured (perhaps while fearing what is to come). It also makes sense for us to feel good about knowing we help others because helping them is a good thing (and it makes sense for those we help to feel appreciation towards us). On the other hand it would not seem appropriate to feel good about knowing you are about to be tortured or to feel bad about knowing you help others.

Even so, the Stoics and Epicureans denied that death was bad. I think it can be rational to prefer to live than die in general (and that others live than die in general); and pleasure and pain are not the only relevant considerations. (A life that experiences more pain than pleasure can still be worth living.) Such a rational preference seems to be a good enough reason to say that death is bad.

The Stoics tell us that virtue is the only good and vice is the only evil, but even they admit that some preferences are rational. They would say that harming someone should make us feel guilty, but they deny that it is appropriate the grieve for the loved one (because the death is said to be indifferent rather than bad). The Stoics deny that rational preferences can be a reason to say something is bad (and can make it appropriate to feel bad), but I see no reason to agree with that. It seems perfectly rational to feel something based on our rational preferences. And if life has intrinsic value, then our preference to live (and for others to live) can be rational.

Epicurus tells us that being dead isn’t a bad thing because there’s nothing intrinsically bad about nonexistence. It’s no more bad for us to be dead than the period of time before we were born. I agree with that, but my point is not that death is a bad thing in and of itself. It’s only a bad thing insofar as we have a sufficient reason to prefer to live—and I think it is quite plausible that we do have a sufficient reason to prefer to live in general. Epicurus also seemed to assume that our preferences aren’t a good reason to feel good or bad in this instance, and yet I still see no reason to agree with that.

I hypothesize that how we should feel about death should also be appropriately proportioned to the importance and badness of the death. It seems appropriate to feel worse about the recent death of ten loved ones than a single loved one, to feel worse about finding out that ten strangers die from a traffic accident than that only one died, and to feel worse when a ten year old child dies than a one hundred year old adult. This makes sense insofar as the lives of ten people is greater than the life of one person; and that the life of a child is cut short, but the one-hundred year old has already been fortunate to live so long. Some people also seem to disproportionately grieve over the death of loved ones—they might grieve for several years and allow the grief to ruin their lives. Perhaps people like that should be reminded that the death of a loved one is not the end of the world—there is still value in the lives of those who are alive right now. It is no more appropriate to grieve for a loved one than it is to appreciate the loved ones who are currently alive. I would certainly rather be appreciated while I’m alive than grieved after I die. Additionally, one can always make more friends or appreciate the value of strangers. What’s the point of being grieved if you were never appreciated in the first place?

I have said that it makes sense to feel bad about death insofar as it conflicts with our rational preferences, but our rational preferences are not necessarily limited to beliefs about intrinsic values. If some objective belief about value were the only consideration, then we should feel just as bad about finding out a stranger dies as about the death of a loved one. I think it is appropriate to have emotions based on our personal projects and emotional connections. The problems everyone has in the entire world would be overwhelming and could appropriately make anyone depressed who thinks too much about them, but I believe it is generally a better idea not to be overly concerned about everyone else’s problems because it would cause pointless endless suffering to ourselves. It seems like a better idea to be more concerned about problems closer to home at least insofar as they are more likely to be problems that our emotions can motivate us to find solutions for and will generally not be overwhelming to us.


I am sympathetic to the view that life has intrinsic value (at least when it is capable of having experiences), and this view can help make sense of how we see death as a bad thing. Additionally, it seems to be a more intuitive view than the alternative that I considered (that death merely conflicts with our personal preferences) precisely because of various counterintuitive considerations. For example, I think it makes sense for us to care about strangers who we have no personal interest in. The view that death is bad insofar as life has intrinsic value can also be combined with a view of emotions—that it can be appropriate to feel bad when considering that something bad happened, and to feel good when considering something good that happened.

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  1. The death of my father: When someone close to you dies, the very fabric of your life is ripped to shreds. Is philosophy any consolation?
  2. The Epicurean View of Death (PDF)
  3. Epictetus on the Irrationality of Fearing Death and Reasons for Suicide
  4. Seneca on Death

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