Professor Martha Nussbaum on the Rationality of Fearing Death
Nearly everyone fears death. Is this a rational response, or just something irrational, perhaps created by culture or biology? Unsurprisingly, this is one of the oldest questions in philosophy. Epicurus famously argued that this fear is irrational, because death cannot be good or bad for someone who is, after all, dead. Philosophers ever since have considered this argument, and many have claimed that it is incorrect or incomplete in some way. Professor Martha Nussbaum is among those who have thought and written about this issue, and she presented her recent work, titled “The Damage of Death: Incomplete Arguments and False Consolations” at this week's Works in Progress (WiP) talk at the law school. In the paper, Prof. Nussbaum does argue that Epicurus has missed something, and offers two “false” consolations before identifying a more appealing one that has its own roots in classical philosophy. Discussions at the WiP talk focused on Prof. Nussbaum's direct responses to the Epicurean position, though the paper delved further into the implications of its incompleteness.
Before discussing Prof. Nussbaum's points, it is worth explaining Epicurus' position in a little more detail. Essentially, Epicurus argues that death cannot be either good or bad for a person, and that fear of death is therefore irrational. He argues that at the time of death, a person cannot be the subject of any possible experience. Any event at such a time can therefore be neither good nor bad for that person. Since death, therefore, cannot be a bad event, it is irrational to fear it. Of course, this argument assumes that there is not an afterlife – that is, a “you” that is the subject of possible experience after death, but for purposes of this philosophical debate it is assumed for purposes of argument that no such afterlife exists.
Prof. Nussbaum's response is that the Epicurean position is incomplete, but not necessarily for the reasons others have claimed. Some have analogized death to other events that they claim can cause harm even if the subject is unaware of them, such as a betrayal that one never discovers, or the loss of some mental capacity. Since, they suggest, these are bad events, death must be also, and fear of it is therefore irrational. These analogies aren't completely accurate, however – they don't apply to death since, as Epicurus identified, death is unique in that it extinguishes the subject of any experience. Instead, Prof. Nussbaum writes that the best argument against the Epicurean position is one originally made by David Furley – that death interrupts projects that extend over time, making at least some of them empty and futile. Death in the future interrupts and alters the intended result of activities the person undertook in life, at a time when that person can clearly experience a bad event.
As Prof. Nussbaum anticipates in her paper, an Epicurean might respond to this position by arguing that death only harms those who have made foolish plans instead of living for the moment, in a way that death cannot interrupt. But this position is much weaker, since such a life “not loving anyone, not caring about justice, etc.” would be hard to square with most ideas about the good life.
In that sense, a very wide range of things would qualify as “projects” - anything that can be interrupted by death in a way that is frustrating for the living would be sufficient to make death something rational for mortals to fear. Some commenters at the WiP questioned Prof. Nussbaum on this point, and she went as far as to claim that something as simple as “seeing what happens next” might be a project, the interruption of which we should consider a bad event. In any case, Prof. Nussbaum argues, anyone leading a life we would recognize is involved in projects that sudden death would interrupt. This, she argues, is a harm that makes fear of death rational.
Other commenters wondered whether this debate is somewhat beside the point – isn't fear of death a good thing, in that it causes us to behave more cautiously, wisely, or compassionately? Prof. Nussbaum responded that it certainly might be true that fear of death might have positive effects, or even that mortality itself could be beneficial for individuals. Nevertheless, the debate on the Epicurean position is not about whether fear of death is beneficial, but whether it is rational. However much fear of death makes us wiser, more careful, or otherwise changes our behavior in positive ways, that has no effect on whether the fear is rational.
Prof. Nussbaum went on to discuss the implications of her position. The most interesting of these was a brief discussion of animal rights. If one adopts the position that interrupted projects are the source of the harm caused by death, then when one asks the question of whether it is immoral to kill animals, it becomes immediately necessary to consider whether they have projects, relationships, or other endeavors that can be interrupted. If animals can form family bonds, care about their offspring, develop skills, etc., then their death would be bad for them in the same sense that human death is bad for us (assuming the Epicurean argument isn't complete). If, on the other hand, a given animal is simply an automaton with no ability to plan for or consider the future, than its death would not be bad (for that individual animal), for the same reasons articulated by Epicurus. This might mean that killing of some animals would be more morally problematic than others.
In her paper, Prof. Nussbaum also considered possible consolations that might be available to us if we conclude that fear of death is in fact rational. The first of these that she considered is one she argued in favor of earlier in her career, and therefore termed the “Young Martha” in the paper. It is a familiar argument – that mortality makes friendship, love, and other components of human life we consider essential possible. Without death and the risk it implies, life seems empty. Prof. Nussbaum rejects this position, however, as she has become convinced that “the relevant thing is limit and struggle, not mortality”. Just because you are immortal does not mean that all resources are unlimited, or that there will not be sufficient goals to strive for. Even if overcoming adversity is required for life to have meaning, there is no particular reason that this adversity has to be death.
Another possible consolation Prof. Nussbaum offers, based on the work of Bernard Williams, is that humans have certain “categorical desires” that provide them with reasons to continue living and that in an immortal life, these would eventually be satisfied. To put it a different way, we'd eventually be bored to death. Prof. Nussbaum rejects this consolation as well, arguing that there is no reason to assume that there is a finite limit to the amount of interesting, useful, and rewarding things to do in the world – infinite time does not necessarily imply eventual boredom. As she points out, “the main cause of burnout in current life is surely too little time . . . not too much.”
Finally, Prof. Nussbaum considered a consolation that was identified by Lucretius – essentially, death is required for the experiences of teaching and learning, the energy of youth, and, ultimately, the experience of reproduction itself. Without death, and assuming that immortality is not restricted to a select few, either the Earth would become unsustainably overcrowded, or humanity would have to give up these experiences. Prof. Nussbaum further argues that those granted immortality are, in a sense, parasites – they are the last children, and have profited from their parents and teachers, yet will never pass on that knowledge. Death, however terrible, is therefore necessary for much of what we value in human experience. Even if one doesn't think mentoring and parenting are all that valuable (or at least not valuable enough to refuse to give them up in exchange for immortality), one can imagine that a world without new blood would rapidly become intellectually and experientially sclerotic, a pale imitation of our constantly-changing world. What if an immortality serum had been discovered a century ago? Would technology, philosophy, and art still have advanced (or simply changed) as much as they have? It seems unlikely – and it is almost certain that none of us would have been born. On the other hand, I wonder if the wars of the 20th century would have occurred without the tinder of youth to fuel their flames. In any case, the only way out of this dilemma is in the realm of science fiction – the discovery of other inhabitable worlds.