Death is Bad

By John G. Messerly, Ph.D. | 17 February 2014
Reason and Meaning

(Photo: Jofre Ferrer / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Our previous entry ended with the tentative conclusion that death is probably bad for us despite arguments to the contrary. What then do we do, assuming death is inevitable? (In my next entry I will suggest it might not be inevitable after all.) We really have nothing to lose by being optimistic and, given the current reality of death, this is a wise option. William James suggested as much in his essay “The Will to Believe,”

We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. … If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.

But even such stirring words do not change the fact that death is bad. Bad because it puts an end to something which at its best is beautiful; bad because all the knowledge and insight and wisdom of that person is lost; bad because of the harm it does to the living; bad because it causes people to be unconcerned about the future beyond their short lifespans; and bad because we know in our bones, that if we had the choice, and if our lives were going well, we would choose to go on. That death is generally bad—especially so for the physically, morally, and intellectually vigorous—is nearly self-evident.

But most of all, death is bad because it renders completely meaningful lives impossible. It is true that longer lives do not guarantee meaningful ones, but all other things being equal, longer lives contain the possibility of more meaning than shorter ones. (Both the quality and the quantity of a life are relevant to its meaning; both are necessary though not sufficient conditions for meaning.) An infinite life can be without meaning, but a life of no duration, a non-existent life, is by definition meaningless. A happy, healthy, well-lived finite life of twenty years may contain a lot of meaning, but an identically well-lived life would be more meaningful if it were lived for another twenty or forty or eighty or ten-thousand years. While there are no guarantees, the possibility of greater meaning—the total meaning of a life—increases proportionately with the length of a lifetime.

Yes, there are indeed fates worse than death, and in some circumstances death may be welcomed even if it extinguishes the further possibility of meaning. Nevertheless, death is one of the worst fates that can befall us, despite the consolations offered by the deathists—the lovers of death. We may become bored with eternal consciousness, but as long as we can end our lives if we want, as long as we can opt out of immortality, who wouldn’t want the option to live forever?

Only if we can choose whether to live or die are we really free. Our lives are not our own if they can be taken from us without our consent, and, to the extent death can be delayed or prevented, further possibilities for meaning ensue. Perhaps with our hard-earned knowledge we can slay death, thereby opening up the possibility for more meaningful lives. This is perhaps the fundamental imperative for our species. For now the best we can do is to remain optimistic in the face of the great tragedy that is death.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

John G. Messerly received his PhD in philosophy in 1992. He has taught at St. Louis University and The University of Texas at Austin. He is currently an Affiliated member of the Evolution, Cognition, and Complexity Group localized at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium, and an Affiliate Scholar of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

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