Thomas Nagel – Death

Thomas Nagel’s Death explores the debate concerning the nature of death itself: is death a bad thing? Nagel explores this question by formulating 2 distinct hypotheses. The first of these is the postion that death deprives us of life, which is the only thing (or state) we have, which would make death a certain evil. The other position holds that death is merely the cessation of all awareness and, consequently, existence.

Nagel discusses the conditions of position one, saying that life may not be the accumulation of good or bad experiences, hence life has a value that is not simply measured in existence of the organic body. This means that life itself, or the act of having life is inherently valuable and good, but is not solely based on mere existence. Nagel here uses the example of surviving in a coma and missing what goes on during said coma; this experience would not be desireable in this point. Another point in the first position is that good in life can be increased over time.

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The second position, being that death is simply the state of non-existence and thusly not evil in itself, has three points. The first is that death’s evil is not something that has quantity, and thusly does not increase as one is dead, as good does during life. The second point holds that a temporary absence of awareness in life (such as a coma) would not be a great loss by itself. The third point is especially intriguing; it posits that we do not generally bemoan the period of time before we were born as being a misfortune, as we do the period after we cease living.

Holding this belief would be a contradiction, and would not make logical sense. After explaining his two possible postions on the question, Nagel introduces three objections, mostly to the first position. The first of these holds that death can only be considered evil if the person (subject) is actually aware of the deprivation of their life. But, how can someone who has no cognition nor awareness (existence, as it were) feel that deprivation at all? The second objection is more or less the same.

In death, there is no subject left, so with no subject left to feel a misfortune, how can there possibly be a misfortune? Lastly, the third objection, which restates the idea positted above, that the period after our death cannot be “bad” if the period before our birth is not “bad” as well. Nagel then elaborates and replies to his objections. On the first point, Nagel states that a subject’s good or ill fortune depends on the person’s experience, not simply their existent state at the moment.

Misfortune can happen to a subject even if they are not around to experience it, and to illustrate this, Nagel gives three instances: 1) we find ourselves hurt and wronged when someone acts against our wishes, even when we are not aware of this, 2) when we discover that we have been wronged, we are unhappy, because the situation is a misfortune, not simply because we became unhappy upon discovering it, and 3) we think of someone who is in a coma as suffering a misfortune, but they may be quite content with their new condition, as an intelligent man who has become mentally like a child may be.

We consider the person to be unfortunate because we think of how they were before, not as they are now. Nagel uses the example of a mole and eyesight; since the mole has no sight, and is not accustomed to that good, how can we bemoan that fact if it never knew sight to begin with? The same can be said of the subject and death. The second response holds that even though the subject is not aware of their death, it may still be considered a misfortune, because death has deprived them of the good they would be enjoying if they were still alive.

The third reply is that the time after death is time that death deprives us of, but the same cannot be said of the non-existence before birth. This last statement is used to illustrate the disparity in the concept of death as evil. Nagel uses the example of a mole and eyesight; since the mole has no sight, and is not accustomed to that good, how can we bemoan that fact if it never knew sight to begin with? In the end, Nagel does not come to a definite conclusion; he posits that death may or may not be considered a misfortune depending on the subject.

For example, a premature death would be unfortunate, because the deprivation that death presents takes away from so much good that the subject has yet to experience. Additionally, Nagel asserts that the way we see death is determined by the point of view we take; first, he uses the case of the possible human life span, which is not much more than 100. Using this objective stance, we can only feel deprived of those years that we have but that we do not get to enjoy.

Secondly, and using subjective point of view, man’s life experience, not his existence, is seen as open-ended by Nagel. We cannot see a definite reason why normal experience cannot continue indefinitely. Taking this view, death is the negation and cessation of an indefinite good. In conclusion, Nagel’s end is that if death is an evil, it is an evil of deprivation, meaning that it is not the presence of something bad, but rather the absence of something good. Section II I personally agree with Nagel’s conclusion.

His argument that death is not the presence of evil, but the absence of good, is a logical one, at least in the sake of argument. Of course, this is excluding the possibilty of an afterlife, and we are speaking strictly in atheistic terms. Nagel views death as the cessation of experience of life, and the good that life can bring, and the only evil that we may see in death is in that fact, as in a premature death where the subject has yet to live a full life as opposed to a subject of 82, or 806.

Nagel’s conclusion is simply this: if death has any evil attached to it, it is the evil of ceased life experience. Now, as to the question of pity, death warrants pity on one condition and does not on another. Nagel’s position is that if death prohibits good possible experiences that could have happened if the subject were to have continued living, then it is bad, and does call for pity. However, if death prohibits bad possible experiences, it is good, and pity is not necessary.

Now, speaking personally as a theist, I cannot reconcile Nagel’s view with mine. But, speaking strictly in terms of an argument, and if i were to say I was an atheist, I would fully agree with it. The reasons being are as follow. If there is no possible afterlife, then there is no need for a soul, and thusly, no reason for experience after death. That being said, death would understandably be seen as a cessation of life exeriences, as without a soul, that is all we would have.

From that point, as far as whether death is evil or not, I agree with Nagel again. The only negative I could see in death (keeping in mind that there is no hell or otherwise for punishment) would be the impossibility of continuing the experience. And again, if those experiences would be bad, it would be a good death, and pity would not be present so much as relief for the person. Conversely, if the subject had good experiences and mostly good experiences for the future, it would be a great loss, and a great source of pity.

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