Most people believe that death is bad for the one who dies. Much attention has been paid to the Epicurean puzzle about death that the rests on a tension between that belief and another—that death is the end of one’s existence. But there is nearby puzzle about death that philosophers have largely left untouched. This puzzle rests on a tension between the belief that death is bad for the one who dies and the belief that that death is not the end of one’s existence. Many philosophers have responded to the Epicurean puzzle with the deprivation account of the badness of death, which seeks to make sense of the badness of death given that there is no life after death. This paper focus on the other puzzle, and advances the argument that the deprivation account can also make sense of the badness of death given that there is life after death.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus in Saunders (1966)
One exception is Cyr (2016).
A 2015 study from the Pew Research Center - https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/10/most-americans-believe-in-heaven-and-hell/ - found that 72 percent of Americans believe in heaven. And, according to Haraldsson (2006), 52 percent of those in Nordic countries, 58 percent of those in Western Europe, and 47 percent of those in Eastern Europe believe in life after death.
comes to a similar conclusion. He argues that we can make sense of the badness of death of one who is “paradise-bound” if (i) one endures “purgatorial fire” before entering paradise, (ii) there is a temporal gap in one’s conscious experience between death and paradise, or (iii) there are different levels of paradise, one which is better than the other. The argument advanced in this paper does not depend on these conditions.
Chang (2001), pp. 3-5
The traditional classification of theories of well-being includes hedonist theories in addition to objective list theories and desire satisfaction theories. For the sake of simplicity, I will set aside hedonist theories. See Woodward (2012) for a helpful overview of the traditional tripartite classification.
In Section 4.3, I discuss what makes a good thing central, as opposed to merely relevant, to one’s well-being.
I will not address the worry, raised prominently by Williams (1973), that it would be bad to live forever – he argues that that an everlasting life would be boring and pointless. See Kagan (2012) for a similar argument and Fischer (1994) for a response. Those who agree with Williams are invited, instead, to assume that one’s existence in the afterlife is finite but much longer than the average earthly human life.
See Rabenberg (2014) for a critical overview of philosophical accounts of harm.
This claim could be qualified: harmful events cause one to do non-negligibly worse along some dimension of well-being which one would have otherwise done better. This qualification allows us to say that stubbing one’s toe, for example, causes one to do worse along some dimension of well-being, but the difference is so small that it doesn’t count as a harm. Alternatively, it could be thought that stubbing a toe is a harm, just a really insignificant one.
The account of harm here is based in part on a discussion of posthumous harms in Luper (2004): an event harms us, Luper writes on p. 66, “if it prevents us from having some goods and fails to provide a benefit that fully compensates for the lost good.” Luper calls this the preclusion view of harm.
See Chang (2013) for a helpful overview of incommenserability.
This claim is qualified with “typically” because it is typically, but not always, the case that people care deeply about their particular goods of life in specific.
For a defense of this idea, see chapter 1 of Nussbaum (2000), especially section IV. In developing a version of an objective list theory, she writes on p. 81, “We cannot satisfy the need for one of [item on the list] by giving a larger amount of another one. All are of central importance and all are distinct in quality. The irreducible plurality of the list limits the trade-offs that it will be reasonable to make, and thus limits the applicability of quantitative cost-benefit analysis.” A similar idea can be developed within a desire satisfaction framework. As Nussbaum indicates, it can be rational to choose to be subject to a harm – for example, if the thing that harms causes one to only somewhat worse along some dimension but also much better along another dimension.
Elizabeth Harman argues that it can be reasonable to prefer the way things are to different, superior alternatives. She calls this “reasonable attachment to the actual.” See especially Harman (2009) but also Harman (2011, 2015). If Harman is right, then it’s plausible that one would have a specific intrinsic desire for one’s particular goods of life even under idealized conditions, which is important here if idealized desires are what matter for well-being,
This claim could also be qualified: something is bad for one if it has a non-negligible negative impact on one’s well-being, which would amount to it causing one to do non-negligibly worse along some dimension of well-being. This would allow us to say that stubbing one’s toe, for example, does have some negative impact on one’s well-being but it’s so small that it’s not a harm and so doesn’t count as bad for one. Alternatively, it might be thought that stubbing one’s toe is, in fact, a harm and so is bad for one, however insignificantly. See footnote 14.
Once again, if Harman is right and it is reasonable to be attached to the way things are, preferring them to superior alternatives, then it is plausible that one would have a strong and steadfast intrinsic desire for one’s particular goods of life in specific.
The account of badness-for-one developed in what follows is loosely based on the account developed in chapter 3 of Barnes (2016), which also includes an important distinction between something being bad for one and something being bad for one overall.
Given the Epicurean assumption, the deprivation account says that death is bad overall for the one who dies whenever one’s level of well-being would have been net positive if one had continued living. This is typically the case, although exceptions are notable – for example, the death of one who would have lived with debilitating pain and without hope of relief is not be bad for one.
Arneson, R. (1999). Human flourishing versus desire satisfaction. Social Philosophy and Policy, 16, 113–142.
Barnes, E. (2016). The minority body: A theory of disability. Oxford University Press.
Bradley, B. (2004). When is death bad for the one who dies? Nous, 38, 1–28.
Bradley, B. (2007). A paradox for some theories of welfare. Philosophical Studies, 133, 43–53.
Brink, D. (1989). Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics. Cambridge University Press.
Broome, J. (2004). Weighing Lives. . Cambridge University Press.
Chang, R. (2001). Making Comparison Count. Routledge.
Chang, R. (2013). Incommensurability (and Incomparability). H., LaFolette (Ed.), The International Encyclopedia of Ethics (pp. 2591 – 2604). Blackwell.
Cyr, T. (2016). A puzzle about death’s badness: Can death be bad for the paradise-bound? International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 80, 145–162.
Epicurus (1966). Letter to Menoeceus. J., Saunders (Ed.), Greek and Roman Philosophy after Aristotle. Free Press.
Feldman, F. (1992). Confrontations with the Reaper: A Philosophical Study of the Nature and Value of Death. Oxford University Press.
Fischer, J. M. (1994). Why immortality is not so bad. International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 2, 257–270.
Haraldsson, E. (2006). Popular psychology, belief in life after death and reincarnation in the Nordic countries, Western and Eastern Europe. Nordic Psychology, 58, 171–180.
Harman, E. (2009). ’I’ll be glad I did it’ reasoning and the significance of future desires. Philosophical Perspectives, 23, 177–199.
Harman, E. (2011). Fischer and lamenting nonexistence. Social Theory and Practice, 37, 129–142.
Harman, E. (2015). Transformative experience and reliance on moral testimony. Res Philosophica, 92, 323–339.
Heathwood, C. (2016). Desire Fulfillment Theories. G., Fletcher (Ed.), The Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Well-Being (pp. 148 – 60). Routledge.
Hurka, T. (2011). The Best Things in Life: A Guide to What Really Matters. . Oxford University Press.
Kagan, S. (2009). Well-being as enjoying the good. Philosophical Perspectives, 23, 253–272.
Kagan, S. (2012). Death. Yale University Press.
Kamm, F. (1998). Morality, Mortality: Death and Whom to Save From It. Oxford University Press.
Luper, S. (2004). Posthumous harms. American Philosophical Quarterly, 41, 63–72.
Moore, A. (2000). Objective Human Goods. R., Crisp, & B., Hooker (Eds.), Well-Being and Morality: Essays in Honour of James Griffin (pp. 75 – 89). Oxford University Press.
Murphy, M. (2001). Natural Law and Practical Reasoning. Cambridge University Press.
Nagel, T. (1970). Death. Noûs, 4(1), 73–80.
Nussbaum, M. (1994). The Theory of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics. Princeton University Press.
Nussbaum, M. (2000). Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach. Cambridge University Press.
Olson, E. (2013). The epicurean view of death. The Journal of Ethics, 17, 65–78.
Parfit, D. (1984). Reasons and Persons. Oxford University Press.
Paul, L. A. (2016). Transformative Experience. Oxford University Press.
Rabenberg, M. (2014). Harm. Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy, 8, 1–32.
Rosenbaum, S. (1986). How to be dead and not care: A defense of epicurus. American Philosophical Quarterly, 23, 217–225.
Silverstein, H. (1980). The evil of death. Journal of Philosophy, 77, 401–424.
Smuts, A. (2013). Less good but not bad. In defense of epicureanism about death. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 93, 197–227.
Williams, B. (1973). The makropulos case: Reflections on the Tedium of immortality. B., Williams (Ed.), Problems of the Self. Cambridge University Press.
Wolf, S. (1997). Happiness and meaning: Two aspects of the good life. Social Philosophy and Policy, 14, 207–225.
Woodward, C. (2012). Classifying theories of welfare. Philosophical Studies, 165, 787–803.
Woodward, C. (2016). Hybrid theories. G., Fletcher (Ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Well-being (pp. 161 – 174). Routledge
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Brinkerhoff, A. Death, Deprivation and the Afterlife. Philosophia (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-021-00369-9