In his influential paper of 1970, tersely entitled Death, the great philosopher Thomas Nagel asks the question: if death is the permanent end of our existence, is it an evil? Either it is an evil because it deprives us of life, or it is a mere blank because there is no subject left to experience the loss. Thus, if death is an evil, this is not in virtue of any positive attributes that it has, but in virtue of what it deprives us from, namely, life. For Nagel, the bare experience of life is intrinsically valuable, regardless of the balance of its good and bad elements.
The longer one is alive, the more one ‘accumulates' life. In contrast, death cannot be accumulated—it is not, as Nagel puts it, ‘an evil of which Shakespeare has so far received a larger portion than Proust'. Most people would not consider the temporary suspension of life as an evil, nor would they regard the long period of time before they were born as an evil. Therefore, if death is an evil, this is not because it involves a period of non-existence, but because it deprives us of life.
Nagel raises three objections to this view, but only so as to counter them later on. First, it is doubtful whether anything can be an evil unless it actually causes displeasure. Second, in the case of death, there does not appear to be a subject to suffer an evil. As long as a person exists, he has not yet died, and once he has died, he no longer exists. Thus, there seems to be no time at which the evil of death might occur. Third, if most people would not regard the long period before they were born as an evil, then why should they regard the period after they are dead any differently?
Nagel counters these three objections by arguing that the good or evil that befalls a person depends on his history and possibilities rather than on his momentary state, and thus that he can suffer an evil even if he is not here to experience it. For example, if an intelligent person receives a head injury that reduces his mental state to that of a contented infant, this should be considered a serious ill even if the person himself (in his current state) is unable to comprehend it. In other words, if the three objections are invalid, it is essentially because they ignore the direction of time. Even though a person cannot survive his death, he can still suffer an evil; and even though he does not exist during the time before his birth or during the time after his death, the time after his death is time of which he has been deprived, time in which he could have continued to enjoy the good of living.
The question remains as to whether the non-realisation of further life is an absolute evil, or whether this depends on what can naturally be hoped for: the death of Keats at 24 is commonly regarded as tragic, but that of Tolstoy at 82 is not. ‘The trouble,' says Nagel, ‘is that life familiarises us with the goods of which death deprives us ... Death, no matter how inevitable, is an abrupt cancellation of indefinitely extensive goods.'
Given the sheer pain of this conclusion, it is hardly surprising that philosophers and theologians throughout the ages have sought, more or less unsuccessfully, to undermine it. Death not only deprives us of life, but also compels us to spend the life that it deprives us from in the mostly unconscious fear of this deprivation. And, as I argue in The Art of Failure, it is precisely this unconscious fear that holds us back from exercising choice and freedom. In short, death is an evil not only because it deprives us of life, but also because it mars whatever little life we do have. While we may be able to somewhat postpone our death, there is absolutely nothing that we can do to prevent it altogether. In the words of the ancient philosopher Epicurus, ‘It is possible to provide security against other ills, but as far as death is concerned, we men live in a city without walls.' All that we can do is to come to terms with death in the hope of preventing it from preventing us from making the most of our life.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, The Meaning of Madness, The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide, Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception, and other books.