Death: What you don’t know can’t hurt you

 When does something count as being good for, or bad for, an individual? A theory that gives the necessary and sufficient conditions for what is good for an individual is called a theory of well-being.

For subjectivists, a state-of-affairs counts only as being good for a person when it causes them pleasure or enjoyment, or perhaps satisfies some desire that person has. In other words, some state-of-affairs can only count in favor of a persons well-being given the subject themselves approves, in some way or other, the state-of-affairs in question. Such a conception of well-being has merit as it captures a number of intuitions we have. For example, it seems that the person who is in the best position to judge whether their life is going well or not is the person who is living that life. Next, subjective theories can make sense of the plural amount of lives that we judge to be good lives. A person who lives on the beach and spends the remainder of their days surfing and fishing and a person who lives the life of a high roller with excessive riches both seem to be good lives. And the explanation for why we take both lives to be high in well-being is because for each respective individual, they enjoy their life or desire it as it is.

Questions about death and its goodness or badness tend to lead to questions about the value of life and what is it in life that is good of bad for people. The overwhelming amount of students (perhaps 95%) agreed with these subjectivist notions; that something can only be good or bad for you insofar as you have a pro-attitude towards it. They were lead to hold this conclusion primarily based on this reasoning:

Death cannot be bad for you because you will be dead and are not aware of anything.

So my students embraced a ‘what you don’t know can’t hurt you’ mentality towards a theory of well-being, and took that to mean that, unless you know about a state-of-affairs, it cannot be bad for you.

There are a number of counter-examples in the literature of well-being that are considered by many to be defeaters or at the very least to bring such extreme subjectivism into question. One counter-example is betrayal or being deceived, as both seem to be bad for you in the relevant sense without you necessarily knowing about the betrayal or deception. For example, suppose some man died under the impression his wife and children loved him, his community respected him and he left behind a successful company. Or so he thought. In reality however, his wife had numerous affairs, his children pretended to love him so that they could have access to the car, his community only acted as if they respected him for his generous financial contributions and his business partner had been embezzling funds and the company will soon go bankrupt.

A life such as the one of the deceived husband appears to not be a particularly good life, and certainly not a life high in well-being. However, my students stuck to their ‘what you don’t know can’t hurt you’ guns and this left me a little perplexed. Very well; there is more than one way to skin a cat.

Next, cases of servitude and brainwashing are also thought to be counter-examples to the subjective thesis my students had been drawn to. For example, suppose that women in particular cultures are considered second class citizens and that their only function or purpose in life is to serve their masters: their husbands. Or that of a slave whose only purpose is to serve his master? Can such lives be good lives for the person whose life it is? A few students, noticeably the women, began to question the validity of the extreme subjective position they had been led too. However, once again, there were some students who held fast, reasoning that because these facts did not affect the person then it cannot be bad for them.

Very well. One last-ditch effort. Since what is good for us must ‘touch upon us’ in some sense, it seemed to me only one other alternative case could possibly upturn the ‘what you don’t know can’t hurt you’ thesis. If I could construct a case where the body was damaged, but the mind was unaffected, then this appeared to be a case that upended my students’ position

And such cases are rampant. Anybody who has hurt themselves during physical activity such as sports can attest to some event where they were physically hurt but did not realize until later. To say that this injury is not bad for you until you notice it (further still, when the injury is bad for you would be the moment you notice the injury, as opposed to when the injury actually happened) is a little strange.

But, again, my students resisted the case. Why? They doubted one could hurt oneself physically without noticing mentally. At this stage, I simply appealed to personal experience; I can certainly remember numerous times throughout my youth (when I was most active) where I hurt myself (sometimes seriously) without realizing until after the fact. I again appealed to the idea that I am not alone in sharing such an odd experience. If there were students who did agree with me, they did not make themselves known, as those who disagreed were loud.

So I constructed a ridiculous case that analytic philosophers are so often accused of as having no input on the ‘real world’. Ironically, this somewhat did the trick.

Suppose you are watching a movie and have been put on anesthesia. Your attention is focused on the movie and you can no longer feel physical sensations. But suppose while all this is happening somebody cuts off your leg. You do not feel the leg being removed due to the anesthesia, nor do you notice the leg having been removed because you are distracted by the movie. If my students are correct – that what you do not know cannot hurt you – then it seems that having your leg cut off is not bad for you until (or unless) you notice it is missing. But perhaps more entertaining: the person who amputated your leg has done nothing wrong to you until (or unless) you notice the leg is gone.

And when the students began to see the error they made, they also began to backtrack the cases, and come to an understanding about how death can be bad for you, even if you are no longer conscious of the badness that has befallen you.

I have never had to work so hard to motivate a problem in my life.

Grief and its role in the Value of Death

Throughout much of human history across creeds and cultures death has been considered, for lack of a better term, bad. Whether death itself is bad, relationally bad, or extrinsically bad, there nevertheless seems to be something negative or undesirable about it. Intuitively, I take death to be bad in some sense and I presume the majority of people both past and present (and future) to share this intuition. And the aforementioned would explain why so much of human thought has been fascinated with death: what it is, why it is important, and what lies on the other side (if there is one).

misty mort 3Further still, for those that do not believe in an afterlife, an explanation for those that do accept a life after death would be that those people view death as bad and are attempting to mitigate the evil they see in death, or at the very least make death not as scary or not as bad as it otherwise would be. If people did not think death was bad, then it seems hard to explain why one would need to postulate a life-after-death.

But if my tutorial classes are anything to go by, it appears my presumption that people presently take death to be bad is wrong: according to just over half my students death is not ceteris paribus bad, but to ask such an idea is nonsensical. That is, death is not bad (nor good), but simply sits outside the purview of value judgment. For the other half the goodness or badness of death depends on circumstances. Nobody took death to be bad (or good), and nobody was undecided. What perhaps was more interesting was that nobody could understand what the problem exactly is; why ask questions about death? The problem of death for my students was poorly motivated.

I found this to be striking. I hope I am not alone in that. Sure, I might be wrong and my students might be right, but this is hardly obvious and there seems to be good reasons to support the view that death is bad or that we as a majority treat it as a bad thing.

Now, it is important to note the difference between death being bad for the person who has died and death being bad for the people it has left behind. Most, if not all, students believed death is bad for those left behind rather than for the one who had actually died. I am not entirely sure how death can be bad for people who have not died, especially when these same students thought that death was value-neutral, but nevertheless this was their position. Putting that perplexing contradiction aside, students generally thought the evidence of why death is bad for those affected by another dying was grief: we grieve for those who have died because we have lost something. In particular, we grieve because we have lost a relationship with the deceased. Death is bad because it denies the living of something and we grieve for that loss.

Now while I did not agree with my students for the majority of our discussions on the topic of death, I at least understood how they could hold or have come to such positions. But this particular one – that we grieve because we lose a relationship – struck me as incredibly bizarre. I thought we grieved because we feel bad for the person who has died, not that I have lost something. It grieves us that such badness has befallen a person we care about; we take it that something bad – perhaps the greatest of evil – has happened to the person.

In simple terms: when I grieve it is not because I feel for myself, it is because I feel bad for the other.

If we did not think death was bad (or evil) why would we grieve? Grief seems to me to be extremely good evidence to support the widespread intuition that not only is death bad but that death is bad for the individual to whom it befalls (even if such intuitions are mistaken, this is good motivation for the problem of why is death bad in the first place). However, once again, my students did not agree: they thought that when we grieve we grieve over the loss of our relationship with the departed, rather than the departed themselves. I other words, I grieve for what I have lost, rather than what the departed have lost.

The Punished Son – Jean Baptiste Greuze, 1778

I honestly do not know what to make of such a suggestion, other than it strikes me as supremely selfish. But let me make it clear: I am not doubting that we feel anguish at something we have lost, nor do I doubt that our relationship plays an important part about whom we do, or do not, grieve over. But it is certainly not how I experience grief over a lost one, and I do not think my students suggestion makes sense of much of the linguistic data expressed by those in the throes of grief. For it seems clear to me that our personal loss is not the focal point of our thoughts in grief, nor does it take a primary position in it.

A family who has lost their mother will grieve because the mother has lost something, namely their life, and all the goods that life allows us to experience. I should make it explicitly clear that while I agree with my students that when we grieve to grieve over our loss, ‘I have lost my mother,’ but it seems this does not take precedence over the feeling of anguish over the losses suffered for someone we care about. Death is bad for those left behind, but it is additionally bad for the person who has died.

But in light of this my students deny this: when they grieve, they say, they have grieved over their own personal loss, not thinking (or caring) about the dead themselves.

I still do not know what to make of this. Perhaps I have failed to properly explain the point, or maybe my students are solely concerned about themselves and see others as only having value inasmuch as they add to their own personal enjoyment? Or maybe they are being completely honest. Maybe they simply miss the point? Or maybe I am crazy and have a completely warped sense of grief and its role that it plays in death.