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Life in relation to the value of death

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 1428 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Explain Nagel’s argument of the deprivation of life in relation to the value of death. Explain Nagel’s position on whether death should be regarded as positive or negative. Do you think Nagel provides good arguments for his view? If so, defend Nagel against possible objections. Otherwise, criticize his argument by providing sound objections to his view.

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What is death?  Death is the cessation of the connection between the body and the mind.  Death occurs not only when the heart stops beating but also when the subtle consciousness leaves the body to go to the next life.  Some people may believe that death is bad because it’s a deprivation of life and others may believe that death is good because it rids us from life.  In my response I will be exploring Thomas Nagel’s point of view of death and will be giving my own arguments in response to his article “Death”.  Thomas Nagel’s Death depicts the nature of death itself by formulating and exploring 2 distinct hypothesis or positions.  The first position is that death deprives us from all the goods in life which would make death somewhat evil.  The second position he explores shows that death is merely the cessation of all awareness and existence.

In the first position, Nagel discusses that life may not be the accumulation of good or bad experiences i.e. life has a value greater than that measured by the existence of the organic body.  Life is inherently valuable, but not primarily based on mere existence.  To make his point more convincing, Nagel uses the example of surviving in a comma and missing out on life.  In a coma situation, death would actually be good because there are no further life experiences gained and death would just be a way to relax.  Moreover, “like most goods”, good in life can be increased over time and life would become more valuable.  Nagel’s second position is that death is simply a state of non-existence and is not evil.  My disagreement to this position holds three counterarguments.  First, death’s evil is not quantitative, and so does not increase as one is dead, as good does during life.  Moreover, a temporary absence of awareness in life (such as a comma) would be a great loss by itself.  There is no point in life if one is not going to be aware of it. Finally, we do not generally bemoan the period of time before we were born as being a misfortune, as we do the period after we cease living.  Holding this belief would be a contradiction, and would not make logical sense.  Life is good because we have the awareness to experience everything it has to offer.  Death is only bad because it deprives us of what life has to offer, not because the actual state is bad for us. 

Additionally, Nagel effectively observes that we must examine the circumstances surrounding a death, and the relevant history of the specific person who dies.  This is important if we take into consideration the state of the person at the moment of death.  Nagel gives an example, of a very intelligent man who had an injury that caused him to “regress to the mental capacity of an infant”.  Even though the man may never be aware of his condition, it is a terrible misfortune to his family and friends.  This situation is unfortunate because he was deprived of all the things he could have accomplished had he not ended up in the situation he was in.  However, the man can be happy in his state, but I agree that what happened to this man is somewhat of a tragedy because of the loss of his life as an intelligent man.  “Death is bad because it robs you of what could have been” (Shtayyeh, 2011)

Three problems arise in Nagel’s discussion.  The first is “what you don’t know can’t hurt you”.  People who think in this way would say that it is not harmful for a person to be mocked behind his/her back as long as he/she doesn’t know about it i.e. not experiencing evil is not bad.  Neither I nor Nagel agree with this view.  We consider ourselves to have been injured when someone acts against our wishes or interests, even when we are not aware of his/her actions.  The second problem deals with whether death is harmful or not.  As Nagel strongly stresses, harm can be done to or experienced by a person before death and because there is nothing after death no harm is done, so when is death itself experienced as a harm? The third problem deals with prenatal existence and nonexistence.  Nagel objects and asks how can the period of non-existence after our death be bad, if the period before our birth is not bad?  I object to this claim because not being born is not the same as dying.  Dying deprives us from the experiences we should have gained had we not died, whereas not being born means there’s nothing you missed out on in life because you weren’t supposed to have a life in the first place!

In my opinion, the argument that Nagel makes that death is bad is very effective and successful due to his willingness to address opposing views from the beginning of the argument, and so he carefully and successfully establishes the boundaries and restrictions of his argument. For example, Nagel chooses to ignore the debate over whether we are immortal in some way and define death as the absence of any “conscious survival”.  However, he is also equally concerned with the restriction of the valuation of life to one’s subjectivity instead of viewing it in an objective sense. Effectively, this removes complications that may come from an “objective” viewing of the valuation of life from the perspective of others. Having carefully framed his argument with its boundaries, Nagel presents his key argument with regard to the asymmetry in our understanding of the significance of death versus life.

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According to my understanding of the text, Nagel believes that death is an evil only because it prevents humans from living out future potentialities.  Future potentialities are basically the endless possibilities of the future.  In Nagel’s argument, future potentialities lack the connection to immediate experience.  For an occurrence or happening to be possible it needs to be real and must synthesize with chronological experience to be valuable.  What I mean is, if the occurrence or happening doesn’t affect me neither directly nor indirectly, of what significance does it become and why be concerned with its value?  Nagel would probably respond to this by saying: life is only valuable for the possibilities that it offers nothing more, nothing less.  I strongly disagree because life’s value is based on lived experiences, real experiences.  Future potentialities, because they lack experiential manifestation, they cannot be sued as the foundations of life’s axiology (study of values).  Basically, Nagel has failed, in my opinion, to appreciate what I understand as the building blocks in valuing our lives and therefore the denial of future potentialities is not sufficient to make death an evil or a bad thing.

Naturally, I have a certain uncomfortable tendency regarding the phenomenon of death, however, to elevate and properly conclude this intuitive perception to the level of a concrete value judgment is not an ideological commitment I am as yet ready to make. I reject Nagel’s contention that the axiology of death is to be determined by the denial of future potentialities. As I have argued, future potentialities lack the necessary ontology to qualify their denial as an evil. Operating within the parameters that Nagel has instituted – that death is permanent and irrevocable, and does not represent a transformation or transcendence of ephemeral earthly existence – and denying the contention that death is evil only insomuch as it represents an ability to actualize future potentialities, it seems more appropriate to maintain that death is void of any axiology. Death is a inevitable natural phenomenon; it is neither good nor evil. The confusion about its axiology arises from a desire to elevate the natural disaffection of human persons to this phenomena to an axiological assessment. Unfortunately, a distaste for the phenomenon of death is not a sufficient justification for considering it an evil. 


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