(New York: Cambridge U. Press, 1979) pp. 1-10.
If death is the unequivocal and permanent end of our existence, the question arises
whether it is a bad thing to die.
There is conspicuous disagreement about the matter: some people think death is
dreadful; others have no objection to death per se
, though they hope their own will be
neither premature nor painful. Those in the former category tend to think those in the
latter are blind to the obvious, while the latter suppose the former to be prey to some
sort of confusion. On the one hand it can be said that life is all we have and the loss of
it is the greatest loss we can sustain. On the other hand it may be objected that death
deprives this supposed loss of its subject, and that if we realize that death is not an
unimaginable condition of the persisting person, but a mere blank, we will see that it
can have no value whatever, positive or negative.
Since I want to leave aside the question whether we are, or might be, immortal in
some form, I shall simply use the word 'death' and its cognates in this discussion to
death, unsupplemented by any form of conscious survival. I want to
ask whether death is in itself an evil; and how great an evil, and of what kind, it might
be. The question should be of interest even to those who believe in some form of
immortality, for one's attitude towards immortality must depend in part on one's
attitude toward death.
If death is an evil at all, it cannot be because of its positive features, but only because
of what it deprives us of. I shall try to deal with the difficulties surrounding the natural
view that death is an evil because it brings to an end all the goods that life contains.
We need not give an account of these goods here, except to observe that some of
them, like perception, desire, activity, and thought, are so general as to be constitutive
of human life. They are widely regarded as formidable benefits in themselves, despite
the fact that they are conditions of misery as well as of happiness, and that a sufficient
quantity of more particular evils can perhaps outweigh them. That is what is meant, I
think by the allegation that it is good simply to be alive, even if one is undergoing
terrible experiences. The situation is roughly this: There are elements which, it added
to one's experience, make life better; there are other elements which if added to one's
experience, make life worse. But what remains when these are set aside is not
: it is emphatically positive. Therefore life is worth living even when
the bad elements of experience are plentiful, and the good ones too meager to
outweigh the bad ones on their own. The additional positive weight is supplied by
experience itself, rather than by any of its consequences.