Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Death & Dying: A Selected Bibliography

Our latest bibliography in the Directed Reading series covers "death and dying" from vantage points provided by religious worldviews, philosophy, science and medicine, as well as from the humanities in general.

Although most of the great philosophers have touched on the problem of death, few have dealt with it systematically or in detail.—Robert G. Olson
Even those who think that death is a continuation, and not an ending, can benefit from contemplating the implications of annihilation. That annihilation would be bad for them explains why it is important to live forever: it is the only way to avoid the evil of annihilation. If, on the other hand, annihilation would not be bad for them, the question arises as to why they value the prospect of immortality.—Steven Luper

Death...the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.—Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus

The Epicurean argument that "death is nothing to us:"
1. An event can be good or bad for someone only if, at the time when the event is present, that person exists as a subject of at least possible experience, so that it is at least possible that the person experiences the event.
2. The time after a person dies is at a time at which that person does not exist as a subject of possible experience.
3. Hence the condition of being dead is not bad for that person.
4. It is irrational to fear a future event unless that event, when it comes, will be bad for us.
5. [Therefore,] it is irrational to fear death.—Martha Nussbaum

That fear of Acheron must be hurled out headlong, that fear which shakes human life at its very foundations, covering everything over with the blackness of death, and which does not leave any pleasure fluid and pure. —Lucretius, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), III. 37-4.

Look back at the eternity that passed before we were born, and mark how utterly it counts to us as nothing. This is a mirror that Nature holds up to us, in which we may see the time that shall be after we are dead. —Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, III. 972-975.

1. It is not bad for us that we once failed to exist.
2. Our posthumous nonexistence is like our pre-natal nonexistence in all relevant respects.
3. If two things are alike in all relevant respects, and one of them is not bad for us, then the second is not bad for us either.
4. So it is not bad for us that we will fail to exist once more. —Steven Luper, formulating the argument above from Lucretius

The bad consequences of the fear of death [are] of four kinds: dependence upon religion; inability to enjoy other pleasures (culminating in the extreme case, in a total hatred of life); pointless frenetic and anxious behavior, together with the subjective feeling of a great weight or burden; and, finally, various forms of harmful and immoral behavior aimed at siezing a kind of worldly immortality in the form of money, power, and reputation. —Martha Nussbaum on the principal nefarious effects of the fear of death according to Lucretius

As Lucretius and his mentor Epicurus suggested, fearing what it will be like to not exist after we die is as silly as revulsion at the thought of what it was like to not exist before we were born. However, we might have a different reason for not objecting to our vital non-existence: it was followed by our existence! Nor would we worry about post-vital non-existence if it, too, were followed by existence. [....] But temporary nonexistence is not the same as permanent nonexistence; it becomes permanent by virtue of what happens (or not) in the future; since nonexistence might be temporary, the prospect of nonexistence per se is not upsetting. It is the permanence of nonexistence that worries us. Unlike the temporary nonexistence that is now behind us, the death before us is likely to make us nonexistent permanently.—Steven Luper

While life is good, it seems more would be better (even if each additional year is less valuable than its predecessor), and the better more life would be, the worse death is. This reasoning commits us to the harm thesis: death is, at least sometimes, bad for those who die, and in this sense something that 'harms' them. Even after our lives are over, it seems that we have a stake in what happens in the world, for posthumous events can advance (and others can impede) the projects we undertake while alive or our directives concerning what will be done to our property after we are dead. If this view is correct, we must accept the posthumous harm thesis, according to which events occurring after we die can harm us. —Steven Luper

Seneca said that to overcome the fear of death we must think of it constantly. The important thing, however, is to think of it in the proper manner, reminding ourselves that we are but parts of nature and must reconcile ourselves to our allotted roles. [....] The fear of death displays a baseness wholly incompatible with the dignity and calm of the true philosopher, who has learned to emancipate himself from finite concerns. Essential to the Stoic outlook was the Platonic view that philosophizing means learning to die; that is, learning to commune with the eternal through the act of philosophic contemplation.Robert G. Olson

Philosophers as different—and of different times and places—as Condorcet, Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell understood death as the natural and proper terminus of life such that we can joyfully if not calmly (cf. ataraxia) face death if we've lived a good or fulfilling life, what the classical Greek philosophers characterized as a life suffused with eudaimonia. For Condorcet and Russell, eudaimonia in fact crowds out the fear of death, while Nietzsche, like the Stoics, found therapeutic value in the constant awareness of death (cf. the Latin maxim, Memento mori, the precise meaning and implications of which changed under the impact of Christianity). For Heidegger, to deny the lucid awareness of death is to live inauthentically or, after Sartre, in bad faith. Indeed, the cultivation of this awareness accords a significance or urgency to life that would otherwise be lacking.

So-called 'Irish wakes' and the euphemisms of the funeral business notwithstanding, the traditional Judeo-Christian view of human mortality is insistent that death is both terrible and terrifying.—John Donnelly

But if death is an evil, it is the loss of life, rather than the state of being dead, or nonexistent, that is objectionable.—Thomas Nagel

[It is a] generally accepted fact that human beings naturally tend to fear dying. It is to be expected that men will try to avoid the fear and repress it, if possible. One way of doing this would be to convince oneself that one was immortal through one's works, so that death was not really or fully the end of one's existence. It would be hard to convince oneself of such a claim on a conscious level, just because of its literal falseness. But such belief in one's immortality could perhaps survive on an unconscious level where it would be less subject to rational scrutiny, and perhaps be capable of counteracting one's fear of death. The unconscious delusion of one's immortality (or living on) through one's works can, if we adopt Freudian teminology, be thought of as an unconscious defensive mechanism of the ego that protects us from conscious fear about death by repressing that fear and counterbalancing it in such a way that it for the most part remains unconscious. —Michael A. Slote

It is well known that the fear of dying is a prime source of much of human religiosity. Belief in an afterlife of the traditional religious sort is one way that men can assuage their anxiety about dying. What is perhaps not so well known is how the fear of dying can give rise to (and explain) certain attitudes and activities of people who are not in any ordinary way religious, and perhaps also certain attitudes and activities of religious people that are not generally associated with religion.—Michael A. Slote

There is a famous long passage in the Pensées where Pascal talks about diversion, its role in human life, and its sources. Men 'cannot stay quietly in their own chamber' alone and meditating, for any length of time. We need or think we need diversion and activity and cannot be happy without diverting ourselves from ourselves because of the 'natural poverty' of our feeble and mortal condition, so miserable that nothing can comfort us when we think of it closely. [....] The vanity of our lives consists, for Pascal, in the fact that when we divert ourselves (from ourselves), we typically deceive ourselves about our motives for behaving as we do. [....] But why, in the end, should we not want to think about ourselves? Pascal suggests that the reason is that thinking about ourselves makes us think of our feeble and mortal condition. He also says about man: 'to be happy he would have to make himself immortal; but, not being able to do so, it has occurred to him to prevent himself from thinking of death.' Presumably, then, Pascal thinks there is a connection between thinking about oneself and thinking unpleasant thoughts about one's death; and this seems to be quite plausible. For at least while we are absorbed in things outside us, we do not think of ourselves, or thus, it would seem, of our death; whereas if and when one does think about oneself, one might very easily think about one's death. It would seem, then, that the explanation of our diverting ourselves from (thinking about) ourselves is that this at least to some degree enables us to avoid thinking anxiously about our mortality.—Michael A. Slote

  • Donnelly, John, ed. Language, Metaphysics, and Death. New York: Fordham University Press, 2nd ed., 1994.
  • Luper, Steven. The Philosophy of Death. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  • Nussbaum, Martha C. The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.
  • Olson, Robert G. "Death," in Paul Edwards, ed. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan & The Free Press, 1967: 307-309.
I would like to thank Daniel Goldberg of the Medical Humanities Blog for posting the first draft of this bibliography at his blog in 2007.