Problems with Hedonism: III

 

In this post I want to look at a common reply folk hedonists give to cases of pervasive deception, which turns on a distinction between ‘fake’ (or false) happiness and ‘real’ (or true) happiness. Before getting to that, let me reiterate the problem of pervasive deception. The most noted of such cases is Nozick’s experience machine:

Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading a book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprograming your life’s experiences? (Nozick 1974, p. 42)

Another is the deceived Husband:

Imagine a man who dies contented, think he has achieved everything he wanted in life: his wife and family love him, he is a respected member of the community, and he has founded a successful business. Or so he thinks. In reality, however, he has been completely deceived: his wife cheated on him, his daughter and son were only nice to him so that they would be able to borrow the car, the other members of the community only pretended to respect him for the sake of charitable contributions he sometimes made, and his business partner has been embezzling funds from the company which will soon go bankrupt. (Kagan 1994, p. 331)[1]

Pervasive deception is often levelled at hedonism because it is commonly thought to demonstrate how counter-intuitive hedonism actually is. We might assemble the point to look something like this:

P1. If hedonism is true, then all that is required to live a good life is happiness/pleasure/enjoyment (Hedonist clause)

P2. But in cases of pervasive deception, a happy life based on lies and deceit is not a good life for the person living it (anti-hedonist intuition)

C. Therefore, hedonism is false.

So, the reply to this objection is that a person in the machine, or the deceived husband, is that they were not really or truly happy. The idea seems to be that happiness necessarily requires that it be about facts to qualify as real. Since this distinction relies on happiness needing to be qualified, I’ll call it qualified hedonism.

While most folk hedonists can’t articulate qualified hedonism much further than that, I think Fred Feldman offers a more substantial version of the idea, with his attitudinal hedonism. In several works, most notably Pleasure and the Good Life, Feldman argues that pleasure (or enjoyment) is not a feeling, but rather an attitude: a propositional attitude.

By this, Feldman means that enjoyment is about something, and can be expressed as sentences involving some propositional fact. For example, we might express ourselves like, ‘I enjoy that I am riding a bike,’ or, ‘I am happy that I am drinking a coffee.’ Since propositional statements have a truth value, it is possible for them to be false. And if a propositional statement is false, then there is nothing to be happy – or enjoy – about them.

Now, Feldman himself noted that we should not assume that “attitudinal pleasure is always directed toward truths. Perhaps the most we can say is that if you take pleasure in some state of affairs, then you must at least think that it’s true,” (Feldman 2002, p. 4) but it seems to me that no other analysis of pleasure will suit the qualified hedonism. With that said, we should understand qualified hedonism as Feldman describes, except that the proposition must not just be believed, but additionally must be true for the person to be happy.

Qualified hedonism, understood this way, captures the reply nice: the deceived husband was not actually, because the propositions he was happy about – a loving marriage, successful business, etc. – were in fact, false. Since the propositions truth value was zero, the deceived husband was, in fact, not happy at all.

So, what are the problems with qualified hedonism? To begin, it does not seem that such a theory properly captures our intuitive notion of pleasure. Pleasure, happiness or enjoyment have a qualitative feeling – there is something ‘it is like’ to be happy, or enjoying something. The idea that such a feeling is ‘false’ or ‘real’ seems mistaken, as phenomenologically there is no difference between the two. And there is no difference between them, then how can they be different?

There are two ways a qualified hedonist might respond. They might say that there is a phenomenological difference between false and real happiness, but this doesn’t seem right. After all, when we are happy about something and then find out that something is not true, we do not say that, before, we were not really happy – we instead just stop being happy. I assume that the saying’ ignorance is bliss’, is partly based upon the folk-observation that ‘false’ and ‘real’ happiness is phenomenological indistinguishable.

Or, they might say that pleasure is not a feeling at all. By abandoning pleasure or enjoyment as a kind of internal felt experience (like an emotion) they avoid this problem. But this does not seem satisfying. After all, it is incredibly counter-intuitive to suggest pleasure or enjoyment is not a felt experience.  To say ‘I am happy that I won the race,’ yet have no emotive or felt content accompanying that statement intuitively contradictory to the very statement itself.

But if the qualified hedonist accepts that false and real have no experiential difference, then it isn’t entirely clear to me what ‘false’ and ‘real’ matter. Isn’t just happiness – actual or no – enough? Even then, qualified hedonists are abandoning hedonism because they are sneaking in an extra necessary condition: which is that the relevant facts must obtain independent of the individual’s beliefs. If that is the case, then qualified hedonism is really a pluralist theory of welfare: (a) happiness, and (b) the relevant facts must obtain – independent of how the person feels. This, as mentioned in a previous post is abandoning the purely subjective notion of welfare, and monist theory of value, which held up hedonism in the first place.

Following on from that, it seems qualified hedonism is just another name for a desire-satisfaction theory of well-being, rather than a hedonist one. After all, the fact that qualified hedonists require that happiness be a pro-attitude towards a true proposition seems to be saying something quite similar to the idea that pleasure is a desire that has been satisfied (see problems with hedonism II).

One final problem I have is the idea that happiness – if understood as an emotion – could be real or false. It seems to me no other emotion can be understood sensibly as real or false, so why happiness can be seems post-hoc and unmotivated. For example, suppose you walk into a room with Jane and John, and Jane is throwing a chair against a wall, yelling at John. When you ask John what is the matter with Jane, he replies, ‘she is angry because she thinks that I was cheating on her with Mary, but I’m not.’ Is Jane angry? I think it pretty obvious she is. If we ask ourselves, is she ‘false’ angry or ‘real/true’ angry, this question makes no sense. Not only does it not make sense, but we would not express the situation with these kinds of terms. Instead, we would say that Jane is angry, but not for the right reasons – her reasons for being angry are unwarranted.

And, when Jane finally realized her beliefs were wrong, she would not say ‘I wasn’t truly angry’, but rather say that she was, but not for any justifiable reason (and she’d feel bad about it, and hopefully apologize). The same I think, can be applied to other emotions that could be understood as propositional attitudes, e.g. ‘I am sad that I drank all my coffee’ (even if the proposition is false), or ‘I am jealous that she has a new car’ (even if the proposition is false).

Why should we think that happiness is an exceptional case amongst these phenomena? I suggest it isn’t, and the only reason ‘real’ happiness is proposed is in ad-hoc reason to save hedonism.


Works Referenced

Kagan, S. 1994. “Me and My Life,” in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series vol. 94, pp. 309-324.

Feldman, F. 2002. “The Good Life: A Defense of Attitudinal Hedonism,” in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 65, pp. 604-628.

——— 2004. Pleasure and the Good Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Nozick, R. 1974. Anarchy, State and Utopia, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd).

Nagel, T. 1970. “Death,” in Nous Vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 73-80. 

 


[1] Original example attributed to Nagel (1970, p. 76).

 

 

 

Problems with Hedonism: II

In the previous post I suggested that Hedonism, as a theory of welfare, was not a sure thing as it fails to predict our intuitions on a number of thought-experiment cases. Most notably, Hedonism appeared to fail because it was overly narrow in scope as to what constitutes what is ‘good for’ an individual. Due to happiness being the sole constituent of well-being, it appeared Hedonists are forced to admit that a life in a matrix-like machine, or that of a slave or obedient housewife, or degrading/deplorable life is a good life, so long as that person is ‘happy’. But saying such lives are good lives to live seems wrong, and Hedonism is (arguably) not equipped to agree.

Before getting into proposals as to why Hedonism fails, and the defences Hedonists hoist up against such attacks, I want to sketch out a more technical reason we might reject Hedonism as a theory of well-being.

Hedonism is often conceived as being a subjective mental-state theory of welfare. That is, ‘happiness’ or ‘pleasure’ or ‘enjoyment’ or whatever we wish to call it, is something (a) only the individual themselves can decide they have, or experience, it (hence, subjective), and (b) that it happens exclusively ‘in the head’ (hence, mental-state).

The problem starts with a perennial problem since Hedonism’s inception: what is pleasure? After all, pleasure is caused by numerous things and activities, and the pleasure experienced during these events is substantively different from others. For example, the pleasure of exercise, and the pleasure of eating, the pleasure of making love, or the pleasure of writing about philosophy, are obviously different in their content and the experience that accompanies it. Nor does it appear that there is any identifiable, essential condition that all these (and more) experiences share. But if pleasure is neither a single identifiable kind or single constituent, of mental-state, then what is it for a mental-state to be pleasurable?

A common reply is that a mental-state is pleasurable if it is desired. That is, to say a mental-state is pleasurable is to say it is preferred over other possible mental-states. While this is not the only analysis of pleasure/happiness/enjoyment, it is certainly common particularly amongst folk persons. After all, there are a collection of folk wisdom that we generally agree to be true that seem to point in this direction: ‘different strokes for different folks,’ ‘one person’s trash is another’s treasure,’ etc. People often chalk up differences in pleasure as differences in preferences: whatever works for you, as long as you prefer it (i.e., makes you happy) is all that matters.

So we might summarize the folk hypothesis of pleasure as a kind of preference mental-statism: an individual is well-off insofar as they have the various mental states that they desire.

But here in lies the problem, as happiness/pleasure is no longer doing the theoretical work. Rather, it is desires and preferences – and the satisfaction of those – that is doing all the theoretical work required of a theory. What is the point of even invoking the concept of pleasure at all, when we could just talk about people’s preference and desires? The answer, it seems, is no point at all!

But further problems arise for endorsing pleasure as a kind of mental-state preference. First off, if preferences are doing all the work, then it is not entirely clear why these preferences have to be about just mental-states; people have preferences that sit outside of just their mental-states – they prefer certain states-of-affairs to obtain in world. Such a position would be rejecting the ‘subjectivism’ that hedonists so heavily cling to.

However let us put that issue aside for another post, and just consider what happens if we can pull apart pleasure and preference, and if we can, what results.

While the hypothesis is that pleasure just is a kind of a preference for a particular mental-state, it seems conceptually possible that people prefer things other than pleasure, including the lack thereof, or even the mitigation of pleasure. Here, I am not talking about masochism – deriving (sexual) pleasure from physical or emotional pain (e.g., humiliation etc.) – as those who are masochists do so because they derive pleasure from their pain. I am talking about a person who forgoes pleasure because they prefer something else, e.g., the ascetic. Those who choose or prefer to live to a ‘higher calling’ that immediately goes against their pleasure is not only a conceptual possibility, but a reality.

How are preference mental-statists to understand this? If preference is doing the work, then we must be forced to admit that pleasure is not a part of the good life. But, if we resist this path, then our only option is to say that preferences do not matter. At least, preferences unrestricted. We might say that happiness is good for a person regardless of whether they desire it or not, or that pleasure is something you ought to prefer/desire.

But this is not a good place for a Hedonist to be. If they choose the former route, then not only does preference mental-statism fail as a theory of pleasure, but the hedonist has all but abandoned pleasure as the sole prudential good. However, if they choose the later they abandon preference mental-statism, which was their theory of pleasure in the first place. Further still, both later positions result in a rejection of subjectivism, as they seem to suggest that pleasure/happiness is objectively good for a person whether they want it or not.

None of these positions should look appealing to a Hedonist, as each of them will cause her to reject her conception of Hedonism.

In the next post, I’ll consider a common reply folk Hedonists have to the thought experiments from ‘Problems with Hedonism I’, which is that those people (e.g., the slave, housewife etc.) are not really or truly happy.

 

Problems with Hedonism: I

In the previous entry I detailed the idea that happiness is what makes for a good life and gave various reasons to support such a view. In this entry were going to question whether happiness really is the necessary and sufficient condition of a good life.

Most (but certainly not all) people accept happiness as being necessary for well-being; however many question whether it is solely sufficient. There appear to be many counter-examples in the literature that are considered defeaters of Hedonism (at least in its simplest form).

Probably the most famous of these counter-examples is Nozick’s experience machine, as found in Anarchy, State and Utopia. Here, Nozick describes the following scenario:

“Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s experiences?”

– Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974), p.42.

Nozick draws the conclusion that we do not just want experiences, but also want to do certain things and be a certain kind of person. In other words, we do not just care about our internal experiences; we care about how the world actually is and what we actually do in it.

But perhaps you are comfortable with getting in the machine. You might reason that some people do value things simply for the experience of them, and if you can cut out the middle-man, then why not simply jump to the experiences? If a person chooses of his or her own volition to get into the machine because doing so will result in happiness, then what exactly is the problem?[1]

A similar counter-example can be found in Nagel and Kagan’s work:

“Imagine a man who dies contented, thinking he has achieved everything he wanted in life: his wife and family love him, he is a respected member of the community, and he has founded a successful business. Or so he thinks. I reality, however, he has been completely deceived: his wife cheated on him, his daughter and son were only nice to him so that they would be able to borrow the car, the other members of the community only pretended to respect him for the sake of the charitable contributions he sometimes made, and his business partner has been embezzling funds from the company which will soon go bankrupt.”

– Kagan, Me and My Life (1994), p. 311.

(Original example from Nagel, Death (1970), p. 76.

It is hard to imagine why we would think the life of the deceived husband was a good life merely because he was happy. It appears as though it is not just a matter of being happy, but also that certain relevant states-of-affairs must obtain. We might however ask why states-of-affairs matter. The natural answer for most people is that the deceived husband wasn’t experiencing true happiness but, rather, false happiness. We’re happy for reasons and if those reasons are true then our happiness is real, and if those reasons turn out to be false then our happiness is fake.[2]

But even if we granted such an argument, it isn’t clear it helps Hedonism avoid these issues. For example, we tend to be happy because of reasons such as satisfying goals or preferences. If we don’t satisfy these preferences or achieve these goals we generally aren’t happy. So, a general lesson we might draw is to not have preferences or goals that are difficult to achieve or satisfy. If that is the case, perhaps we should aim low:

Giving up on your dreams and settling does not seem like a good life, even though your adjusted preferences might result in happiness. In fact, giving up the life you want to settle for what you have seems somewhat tragic.

slaves2
If happiness is all that matters, then what’s the problem?

But adjusting the bar does not have to be a conscious effort, for some of us might have the bar placed considerably low already. We can imagine a slave who is told that he is nothing but dirt and lives only to serve his master. Serving the master is the sole function of a slave. What if this slave accepts this, and working hard for his master results in his happiness? It seems that, if happiness is all that matters, and if one is happy about things as they are then this is true happiness. Surely the life of a slave is not a good life.

Or suppose women in a particular society are second-class citizens told only to be subservient to their husbands; if a woman is happy with such a life; is her life a good one?

The natural response is to suggest that these people do not have full information or that somehow the lack of autonomy results in ‘false’ happiness (whatever that means). But what if someone is fully autonomous and free?

[…] Porky is a bestialist’s beastialist. He uses his inherited wealth to construct a stately porcine pleasure dome, including heated mud rooms and cool misting stations. He spends the bulk of his life engaging in hideous acts of bestiality with his collection of prize hogs. He has them oiled and waxed daily by a retinue of expert servants. To increase his pleasure he spares no expense and overlooks no details. He had the front teeth removed from all of his pigs to enhance the tenderness of their warm mouths. His days are spent getting what he wants and liking what he gets from his harem of sows.

– Smuts, A Life Worth Living (2013), p. 15

(Feldman, Confrontations with the Reaper (2004), p. 40; original example Moore Principia Ethica, p.95)

This particular entry has focused on counter-examples believed to undermine Hedonism. In the next entry, we’ll look at some more technical philosophical arguments that seem to undermine Hedonism.

——

[1] This suggestion however trades on the requirement that choices be of a person’s own volition. This means that a good life actually has two necessary requirements: A) that a person is happy, and B) that their happiness results from choices they have made free from influence. Hedonism does not accept B), as for Hedonists happiness is the only thing that matters, and the suggestion made here is that two things matter, namely happiness and freedom. I will discuss this finer point in another entry.

[2] But even then it is hard to understand what is meant by ‘real/true’ or ‘fake/false’ happiness. We shall explore this issue in a future entry.

Hedonism: A Happy life is a good life

What do you think makes for a good life? An intuitive answer to this question is happiness: a happier life is a better one. In philosophy we call this theory Hedonism and a person who holds this view a Hedonist. Hedonism comes in many forms and varieties so it’s not just a single theory, but a family of theories that share the following claim: what is ultimately good for an individual is happiness and what is ultimately bad for an individual is unhappiness.

2016-03-04-1457104413-8985709-Happiness
One of the many pics you can find in google images simply by typing ‘happiness’

I wouldn’t be surprised if you agreed. If the internet and social media are anything to go by, many MANY people agree with happiness being the only thing that truly makes life better. Just think of all those motivational posters and pictures with inspiring quotes that people like, upload or comment on; all to do with happiness and being happier. And in discussions I’ve had with others about well-being many have taken Hedonism as the obvious answer. So obvious, in fact, they take it as a truism and it’s not hard to see why.

It certainly explains a lot of our behaviour and life choices as happiness seems to serve as a fundamental part in practical reasoning. Happiness is a reason giver; we do things that make us happy and don’t do things that make us unhappy. If something makes us happy we take that a reason to continue, and conversely if something makes us unhappy we take that a reason to stop. If someone makes us happy we take that as reason to keep them in our lives, and if someone makes us unhappy we take that as reason to terminate the relationship.

Hedonism also explains intuitions we have about good lives. Think about differing lives, HappyLife_seriessuch as a person who surfs and lives on the beach living a quiet life, and another who lives the high-life and pressure as a wall-street stockbroker. Which life is better? Well, it depends, doesn’t it? What we really need to know is, ‘how happy are they?’ Suppose that both are happy and content with how their life is. It seems then most people would be ready to say that both of these lives are good for the person whose life it is. In other words, Hedonism seems to explain the plurality of lives we deem good. Further, Hedonism can explain why identical kinds of lives can be good for one person and bad for another.

Take the Stockbroker’s life. Suppose Jane and John live identical stockbroker lives, the only difference is Jane enjoys her life while John is incredibly unhappy and wishes he were surfing and living on a quiet beach. I think most people would have the intuition that Jane is better off than John, and it seems that the deciding factor of such an intuition is how happy, or unhappy, each are with their state-of-affairs.

 Finally, it seems Hedonism lies behind the old expression, ‘I just want you to be happy.’ We want a lot of different things for the people we care about but ultimately we want them to live happy lives. Imagine two parents wanting a particular kind of life for their child. To be educated, married with children and have a good respectable job with a high salary. But suppose this child does not want these things because they do not result in happiness; instead as they grow up they choose to pursue less lucrative work and pursue their passions and live a bachelor/bachelorette. Now, the parents may frown upon these choices but, ultimately, they will, hopefully, come to the conclusion that their child knows what is in their own best interests and explain to their child, ‘We just want you to be happy; that’s all that matters to us.’

happiness wordle

Unsurprisingly, Hedonism is controversial in philosophy and there appears to be many reasons for rejecting it.

 

 

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-by-greuze
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.