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The Concept of Death

The word “death” is, of course, ambiguous. It is customary to distinguish death, an event by which a life ends, from dying, which is a process, and from being dead, which is a state (e.g, Luper 2009, 41-44; Rosenbaum 2010, 176-77).

By characterizing death as an event, philosophers such as Stephen Rosenbaum have become tangled in the question of whether or not death, as an event, takes time. On the one hand, Rosenbaum writes that “death is roughly the time at which a person becomes dead... . [D]eath is the portal between the land of the living and the land of the dead; the bridge over the Styx” (2010, 176-77). Yet on the other hand he says that it is not clear whether death is “a part of a person’s lifetime, although it may be a (very) small part. Also, it is not clear that it takes time or, if so, how much time it takes” (177).

Treating death as an event also generates some unnecessary metaphysical quandaries about the badness of death. For example, in treating death as an event, some philosophers have been moved to ask when death is bad. Thus, Geoffrey Scarre thinks that one’s death is bad before it occurs:

The view that death harms the ante-mortem person involves no metaphysically objectionable notion of backwards causation. The claim is not that what happens in the future can causally affect what has happened in the past, but that a person who was going to die young was harmed all along by his impending demise, unapparent though this may have been at the time. (2007, 94)

But this view has a surprising implication: if one is harmed all along by one’s impending early demise, then it is better to die at twenty than at thirty. The longer a person lives, the worse her death must be, because there is that much greater time in which her impending death is harming her. Yet it is hard not to see the deaths of the twenty-year-old and the thirty-year-old as about equally bad (in the absence of other circumstances, such as irremediable suffering).

Moreover, if the harm of one’s future death occurs throughout one’s life, then it would seem that the death of a ninety-year-old is worse than the death of a fifty- year-old. This implication contradicts our usual, and sensible, assumption that, provided one’s life has afforded a reasonable range of opportunities and experiences, death in old age is not as bad as death in middle age.

These errors result from asking axiological questions about death as an event. Instead, what is philosophically interesting is not so much death as an event but death as the end of the life of a being. In this respect, death is not an event but a terminus, not something that takes time but rather something that divides two times. This, I contend, is the sense of “death” we are using when we philosophize about the inevitability of death or about dealing with death. We are not speaking of a discrete event, but rather of the fact that life has an end.

Thus, questions about the value of death are questions about the axiology of the fact that life ends; they cannot be answered separately from questions about the value of various lengths of life. Because death in this sense is the end of life, the value of death is relational: its value is determined by its relationship to the quality and length of the life it terminates. What makes death bad, when it is bad, is the fact that it terminates something of value, the life that it ended. Therefore, in order to know whether or not death is bad for an animal, we must investigate what, if anything, makes an animal’s continuing existence valuable.

 
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