Tuesday, June 4, 2024

The Epicurean argument on death

The Epicurean argument is that death considered as cessation of existence does us no harm, since it doesn’t harm us when we are alive (as we are not dead then) and it doesn’t harm us when we are dead (since we don’t exist then to be harmed).

Consider a parallel argument: It is not a harm to occupy too little space—i.e., to be too small. For the harm of occupying too little space doesn’t occur where we exist (since that is space we occupy) and it doesn’t occur where we don’t exist (since we’re not there). The obvious response is that if I am too small, then the whole of me is harmed by not occupying more space. Similarly, then, if death is cessation of existence, and I die, then the whole of me is harmed by not occupying more time.

Here’s another case. Suppose that a flourishing life for humans contains at least ten years of conversation while Alice only has five years of conversation over her 80-year span of life. When has Alice been harmed? Nowhen! She obviously isn’t harmed by the lack of conversation during the five years of conversation. But neither is she harmed at any given time during the 75 years that she is not conversing. For if she is harmed by the lack of conversation at any given time during those 75 years, she is harmed by the lack of conversation during all of them—they are all on par, except maybe infancy which I will ignore for simplicity. But she’s only missing five years of conversation, not 75. She isn’t harmed over all of the 75 years.

There are temporal distribution goods, like having at least ten years of conversation, or having a broad variety of experiences, or falling in love at least once. These distribution goods are not located at times—they are goods attached to the whole of the person’s life. And there are distribution bads, which are the opposites of the temporal distribution goods. If death is the cessation of existence, it is one of these.

I wonder, though, whether it is possible for a presentist to believe in temporal distribution goods. Maybe. If not, then that’s too bad for the presentist.

1 comment:

Ben Stowell said...

Do harms need to be experienced to count as harms?

Or: Are harms worse if they are experienced?

I'm familiar with Thomas Nagel saying someone can be harmed after death by leaving a bad legacy, or by being gossiped about, or cheated on, or ripped off, without knowing it.

How can someone be harmed by a lack of something? Are unborn persons harmed by lacking good experiences of life?

Maybe: To be harmed is to lose status while being impoverished is to have never gained status. (Unpack "status" according to your theory of well-being.) So Alice is never harmed by lacking the 5 more years of conversation needed to live a full life, only impoverished. Likewise, the unborn aren't harmed by not being born, only impoverished. Death is still a harm, because the one who dies loses what they had going for them.