Sunday, December 23, 2007

Death's Deprivations

Galen Strawson writes:
When I... suppose that my death is going to be a matter of instant annihilation, completely unexperienced, completely unforeseen, it seems plain to me that I – the human being that I am now, GS – would lose nothing. My future life or experience doesn’t belong to me in such a way that it’s something that can be taken away from me. It can’t be thought of as possession in that way. To think that it’s something that can be taken away from me is like thinking that life could be deprived of life, or that something is taken away from an existing piece of string by the fact that it isn’t longer than it is. It’s just a mistake.

I find this very puzzling. Surely if the piece of string had the opportunity to be longer, but we cut it short, then something -- the extra length -- is "taken away" from it in virtue of this.

Perhaps Strawson is assuming mereological essentialism, such that if an object were to have additional parts, it would ipso facto be a different object. It would then be metaphysically impossible for anything to be longer than it actually is. But this is surely not true of persons, or the kind of (perhaps metaphysically 'loose') identity we care about. We are not time-of-death essentialists: my Grandad could have lived an extra day, and he would still have been the same guy (in any sense that matters). If that extra day would have contained many joyful experiences that would have enriched his life, then it seems clear that death harmed him by depriving him of these experiences.

So I wonder what Strawson would make of the following simple argument:

(1) One is harmed by an event if said event makes one's life go worse than it otherwise would have.
(2) Death deprives one's life of certain experiences that it would otherwise contain.
(3) Experiences may enriched our lives, and so depriving us of experiences may make our lives go worse than they otherwise would have.
Thus: (C) Death can harm us.

He seems to want to deny premise 2, what with all his talk about how we don't "own" our futures. But that seems indefensible. Consider:

(i) My Grandad could have lived an extra day (were it not for his dying when he did).
(ii) If he had lived an extra day, he would have had certain additional experiences, which he did not actually have.
Thus: (iii) My Grandad's death meant that he did not have certain experiences that he would otherwise have had. [i.e. premise 2 above.]

What step of this argument could the death apologist possibly deny?


  1. I expect that the death apologist would deny (1), as long as it retains its implicitly externalist view of well-being. It is not true (the apologist would continue) that all life-worsening events are harms: some events are life-worsening, but are not experienced by the person whose life is worsened. Death is such an event: our lives are diminished, but we are not around to experience the diminishing. Hence that event should not be factored into an evaluation of the life that we (the dead ones) had.

    I'm also puzzled by the string example. The crucial feature of human life, that makes it susceptible to the argument just given, is the difference between an "outside" view and an "inside" view. I'm not sure if you can capture that difference with a piece of string.

  2. —GS: thanks for this — this is my second ever contribution to a blog
    —RC: ‘…surely if the piece of string had the opportunity to be longer, but we cut it short…’.
    —GS: the ‘if’ case is exactly what’s meant to be excluded by my phrasing. Your next comment recognizes my intention (although there’s no mereological essentialism in the air) because it says, in effect, that
    —RC: the fixed piece of string is not a good/acceptable metaphor for a human life.
    —GS: True, very reasonable objection — but it is a good metaphor for what I have in mind. What’s centrally in question is a certain metaphysics of the self or person. This is the real point of disagreement, but again it’s not mereological essentialism, it’s that the self exists only in the present (perhaps this isn’t said in the piece? — can’t recall)
    —RC: ‘If grandad’s extra day would have contained many joyful experiences that would have enriched his life, then it seems clear that death harmed him by depriving him of these experiences’
    —GS: This is exactly what I deny. There isn’t really anything of which we can say that it would have persisted in such a way that it could have been deprived in this manner.
    Again it’s my metaphysics of the self/person that makes me deny premiss 2 in your first argument. There isn’t anything that can be deprived in the way imagined in the conclusion, although ‘a human life’ can be naturally thought of counterfactually as something that could have contained more and better.
    My problem with your second argument is similar. It is that ‘he’ doesn’t refer to something that can ‘have additional experiences’. It does of course refer to something that can have additional experiences if it is taken in the normal way to refer to a human being as ordinarily conceived of. Happy New Year (addressed to your present self who will not be there!)

  3. Ah, thanks for the clarification! I now take you to be denying premise 1: on your view we cannot understand harm in terms of detrimental impact on a whole life, because the subject of a harm is just a momentary self. The rest of the life is not really theirs at all, but involves a different self at each moment. You can thus ruin (the rest of) my human life without harming me, understood as a merely momentary self, at all.

    I'm happy enough to grant your metaphysics, at least insofar as I agree that the momentary self does not endure through time. But I'm wary of drawing normative conclusions from this. For what I care about is my life as a whole, not just my momentary self. If I'm making any "mistake" here, it's evaluative, not metaphysical. But I don't see that you've offered any argument to suggest that a momentary self must be mistaken to value their whole human life rather than just their presently existing ego.

    Further, if we accept a preference-satisfaction theory of welfare, then even my present momentary self is harmed by thwarting my desires about my human life.

    So even granting all your metaphysics, your conclusions still don't follow unless we also assume hedonism and other questionable normative theses (i.e. that we ought to care about our momentary selves rather than our human lives).

  4. There are various ways to look at life which I think should also be considered. The view that life isn’t a singular event that one evoluture experiences, but rather a continuum of lives maintained through progeny, or we could take the ultimate utilitarian view that as long as life includes more pain than pleasure, the sooner it is over, the less suffering on the whole there is. Not much future in that argument though. I guess the fact that we can even ask these questions at all suggests that existence is a value to be held on to, however arbitrary we judge certain lives values to be. As usual we need to assess our own judgment as to what constitutes a life worth living, is it a long life, or is it a good life? I’m nearly 50 and I do not want to die, but I don’t dread it either, I view it as one possible way to answer some burning metaphysical questions I have.


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