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PHIL201: The Philosophy of Death

Unit 3: The Value of Death   Whether or not we really understand what death is, there remains the question of what our attitude toward it should be.  Most people tend to regard death as a bad thing, and their emotional attitude toward it is usually sadness, anxiety or fear.  But do we really have good reasons for thinking that death, in and of itself, is bad?  Perhaps it is only the aspects of life leading up to death that are dreadful.  Would we be better off if we never died, but just went on living forever?  In this unit, we will cover three closely related topics: the (alleged) badness of death, how the fact that we will die should influence the way we live, and whether it is ever appropriate to bring about our own death prematurely, by committing suicide.  We will consult with several important contemporary philosophers, as well as with the great Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne, the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, and the late existentialist Walter Kaufmann.

Unit 3 Time Advisory
This unit will take you approximately 19 hours to complete. ☐    Subunit 3.1:  6.5 hours

☐    Sub-subunit 3.1.1:  0.5 hour

☐    Sub-subunit 3.2.2:  1 hour

☐    Sub-subunit 3.2.3:  1 hour

☐    Sub-subunit 3.2.4:  1 hour

☐    Sub-subunit 3.2.5:  1 hour

☐    Sub-subunit 3.2.6:  1 hour

☐    Sub-subunit 3.2.7:  1 hour

☐    Subunit 3.2:  6 hours

☐    Sub-subunit 3.2.1:  0.5 hour

☐    Sub-subunit 3.2.2:  1 hour

☐    Sub-subunit 3.2.3:  1 hour

☐    Sub-subunit 3.2.4:  1 hour

☐    Sub-subunit 3.2.5:  0.5 hour

☐    Sub-subunit 3.2.6:  1 hour

☐    Sub-subunit 3.2.7:  1 hour

☐    Subunit 3.3:  5.5 hours

☐    Sub-subunit 3.3.1:  0.5 hour

☐    Sub-subunit 3.3.2:  1 hour

☐    Sub-subunit 3.3.3:  1 hour

☐    Sub-subunit 3.3.4:  1 hour

☐    Sub-subunit 3.3.5:  1 hour

☐    Sub-subunit 3.3.6:  1 hour

Unit3 Learning Outcomes
Upon successful completion of this unit, the student will be able to:

  • Explain how one’s philosophical attitude about death affects one’s philosophical attitudes in life.
  • Argue for or against the moral and philosophical appropriateness of ending one’s own life.
  • Describe how philosophers such as Montaigne, Hume, and Walter Kaufmann frame contemporary attitudes about death.

3.1 Is Death Bad?   3.1.1 Death Is Bad Because Life Is Good   - Reading: Professor David Banach’s version of Professor Thomas Nagel’s “Death” Article Link: Professor David Banach’s version of Professor Thomas Nagel’s “Death” (HTML)
 
Instructions: Read this article arguing that death is bad because it amounts to a cessation of what is good in life.  In this article, the contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel argues that death must be considered a bad thing, since when we die, there no longer remains the possibility of experiencing the goodness of life.
 
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3.1.2 Death Cannot Be Bad Because Only Things in Life Can Be Bad   - Reading: University of Massachusetts, Amherst: Professor Fred Feldman’s “Brueckner and Fischer on the Evil of Death” Article Link: University of Massachusetts, Amherst: Professor Fred Feldman’s Brueckner and Fischer on the Evil of Death (PDF)
 
Instructions: You will need to select the correct title from the “Recent and Forthcoming” list and download the .pdf file.  Read this article on whether or not goodness and badness can reasonably be applied to death.  In this article, Professor Feldman asks whether value terms can be appropriately applied to death.  For instance, pricking oneself with a pin is bad, because it introduces pain into one’s life.  But death seems to present a special case.  Since death is, by definition, not part of life, how can it possibly be bad?
 
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3.1.3 The Badness of Death: The Deprivation Account   - Lecture: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “The Badness of Death, Part II: The Deprivation Account” Lecture Link: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “The Badness of Death, Part II: The Deprivation Account” Lecture (YouTube)
 
Also available in:
Quicktime, Flash, MP3, Transcript

 Instructions: Watch this video lecture about the idea that death is
bad because it deprives us of the good things in life (52 minutes). 
This lecture is also accessible via Yale University’s Open Yale
Course website at: [Philosophy of Death with Professor
Kagan](http://oyc.yale.edu/philosophy/death/) (Adobe Flash and
Quicktime).  Alternatively, you may select the Flash or Quicktime
video link that is appropriate for your Internet connection to
launch the video.  You can also hear the lecture as an .mp3 file, or
just read the transcript. One account of why death is bad is that it
means that we are being deprived of the good things in life.  This
means that there is nothing inherently bad about death itself. 
Rather, death is bad only in contrast to the goodness of life.  This
line of reasoning raises some difficult questions, however.  Is the
badness of death the same as the badness of nonexistence?  And if
death is bad because it deprives us of the goodness of life, exactly
*when* is it bad?  
    
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3.1.4 Michel de Montaigne Against the Badness of Death   - Reading: Michel de Montaigne’s “That To Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die” Essay Link: Michel de Montaigne’s “That To Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die” (PDF)
 
Also available in:
HTML
 
Instructions: Read this essay by Michel de Montaigne responding to various reasons why people are afraid of death.  You will need to scroll down about one third of the page to find the right essay. In this essay, the late sixteenth century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne argues that all of the reasons people have for being afraid of death are the result of the way it is understood during life, and that there is nothing intrinsically bad about death itself.  The title of the essay comes from a quotation by Cicero; it refers to the idea that philosophy can help prepare us for death and alleviate our fears of it because, when we philosophize, we practice disengaging from worldly concerns.
 
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3.1.5 The Badness of Death and the Badness of Eternal Life   - Lecture: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “The Badness of Death, Part III; Immortality, Part I” Lecture Link: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “The Badness of Death, Part III; Immortality, Part I” (YouTube)
 
Also available in:
Quicktime, Flash, MP3, Transcript

 Instructions: Watch this video lecture discussing various
contemporary views as to whether death is bad (51 minutes).  This
lecture is also accessible via Yale University’s Open Yale Course
website at: [Philosophy of Death with Professor
Kagan](http://oyc.yale.edu/philosophy/death/) (Adobe Flash and
Quicktime).  Alternatively, you may select the Flash or Quicktime
video link that is appropriate for your Internet connection to
launch the video.  You can also hear the lecture as an .mp3 file, or
read the transcript.  In this lecture, Professor Kagan discusses
various problems with the deprivation account of the badness of
death, touching upon the views of several contemporary
philosophers.  Can death be considered bad when the person it has
happened to does not exist?  And if death is bad because it means
being deprived of the good things in life, should we also say that
the state of affairs prior to birth is bad?  Perhaps it is a mistake
to derive the value of death by comparing it with life.  What if the
real “opposite” of death is not life as we know it, but eternal
life?  
    
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3.1.6 Jonathan Swift on the Badness of Immorality   - Reading: Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Part III, Chapter X Link: Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Part III, Chapter X (PDF)
 
Also available in:
HTML
Google Books (start p. 245)

 Instructions: Read this chapter from Jonathan Swift’s *Gulliver’s
Travels* satirizing a society of immortal beings.  In this chapter
from Jonathan Swift’s *Gulliver’s Travels*, the traveler, Gulliver,
is told about a society of immortals.  Gulliver is jealous, thinking
that immortality would furnish innumerable advantages.  He is
shocked to learn, however, that the immortals (called Struldbrugs)
are a bored and dissatisfied lot who spend their days lamenting the
fact that they cannot die.  Swift’s tale helps us to imagine life
without the possibility of death, and makes a case for the goodness
of death.  
    
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3.1.7 The Badness of Eternal Life Reconsidered   - Lecture: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Immortality, Part II; The Value of Life, Part I” Lecture Link: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Immortality, Part II; The Value of Life, Part I” (YouTube)
 
Also available in:
Quicktime, Flash, MP3, Transcript

 Instructions: Watch this video lecture about the potential perils
of immortality (49 minutes).  This lecture is also accessible via
Yale University’s Open Yale Course website at: [Philosophy of Death
with Professor Kagan](http://oyc.yale.edu/philosophy/death/) (Adobe
Flash and Quicktime).  Alternatively, you may select the Flash or
Quicktime video link that is appropriate for your Internet
connection to launch the video.  You can also hear the lecture as an
.mp3 file, or read the transcript.  In this lecture, Professor Kagan
asks whether it would be desirable to live forever.  If we were
immortal, we could eventually do everything we want to do.  But by
the same token, we would eventually *have already done* everything
we wanted to do.  Are there any activities we would enjoy doing for
all eternity?  If not, perhaps immortality would turn out to be
tremendously tedious.  Then again, what if we could devise a way to
experience pure pleasure for all eternity?     
    
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3.2 The Value of Life   3.2.1 Death as the Source of Value in Life   - Reading: Taimar Khan’s Alifbébé: Walter Kaufmann’s The Faith of a Heretic (excerpt) Link: Taimar Khan’s Alifbébé: Walter Kaufmann’s "The Faith of a Heretic (excerpt)"(HTML)
 
Instructions: Read this selection about the effect that death has on the meaningfulness and value of human life.  Walter Kaufmann was a German-American philosopher responsible for popularizing the existentialist philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Jean Paul Sartre during the mid twentieth century.  According to Kaufmann, life is valuable because of—not in spite of—death, and the most valuable lives are those that are lived in vivid awareness of death’s approach.  This text is accessible through Taimar Khan’s website.
 
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3.2.2 The Value of Life as Dependent on its Shape and Contents   - Lecture: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “The Value of Life, Part II; Other Bad Aspects of Death, Part I” Lecture Link: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “The Value of Life, Part II; Other Bad Aspects of Death, Part I” (YouTube)
 
Also available in:
Quicktime, Flash, MP3, Transcript

 Instructions: Watch this video lecture about how the value of a
life might be determined (51 minutes).  This lecture is also
accessible via Yale University’s Open Yale Course website at:
[Philosophy of Death with Professor
Kagan](http://oyc.yale.edu/philosophy/death/) (Adobe Flash and
Quicktime).  Alternatively, you may select the Flash or Quicktime
video link that is appropriate for your Internet connection to
launch the video.  You can also hear the lecture as an .mp3 file, or
just read the transcript.  In the previous lecture, Professor Kagan
left off with the question of whether life would be worth living if
we knew that it was not real—that is, if we knew that we were simply
hooked up to a kind of *Matrix*-like “experience machine.”  In this
lecture, he adds a number of additional considerations.  If life is
like a container for good and bad experiences, should the container
itself be considered valuable in the final calculation?  What about
the order of the experiences?  Is a “rags-to-riches” life better
than a “riches-to-rags” life, even if they both contain the same
amount of good and bad experiences?  
    
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3.2.3 More Reasons Why Death Is Bad and Thoughts on Whether It Should Change Our Behavior   - Lecture: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Other Bad Aspects of Death, Part II” Lecture Link: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Other Bad Aspects of Death, Part II” (YouTube)
 
Also available in:
Quicktime, Flash, MP3, Transcript

 Instructions: Watch this video lecture about the badness of death
and its consequences for behavior (50 minutes).  This lecture is
also accessible via Yale University’s Open Yale Course website at:
[Philosophy of Death with Professor
Kagan](http://oyc.yale.edu/philosophy/death/) (Adobe Flash and
Quicktime).   Alternatively, you may select the Flash or Quicktime
video link that is appropriate for your Internet connection to
launch the video.  You can also hear the lecture as an .mp3 file, or
just read the transcript.  In this lecture, Professor Kagan
discusses a number of additional reasons for thinking that death is
bad, including its inevitability, its ubiquity, and its
unpredictability.  He also raises two interesting questions about
how our knowledge of death should influence the way we life.  First,
should we allow that knowledge to influence the way we live at all? 
And second, knowing that thinking about death affects the way we
live, should we make a constant effort to recognize it, or should we
try to think about it as little as possible?  
    
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3.2.4 Some Existentialist Approaches to Death   - Reading: Taimar Khan’s Alifbébé: Walter Kaufmann’s “Death without Dread” Essay Link: Taimar Khan’s Alifbébé: Walter Kaufmann’s “Death without Dread” (HTML)

 Instructions: Read this essay surveying a number of existentialist
thoughts on death.  In this reflective essay, Kaufmann traces
philosophical and poetical thinking about death through a range of
thinkers.  The views that Kaufmann finds most compelling are largely
at odds with the norm in contemporary western culture, which he
believes has fallen into a complacency about death (i.e. most
Westerners vaguely associate death with old age, not realizing its
power to give meaning to every part of our lives).  
    
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3.2.5 An Epicurean Argument Against Fearing Death   - Reading: Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things: “Folly of the Fear of Death” Link: Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things: “Folly of the Fear of Death” (PDF)
 
Also available in:
HTML
ePub format on Google Books (pg 160)
 
Instructions: Read Lucretius’ poem arguing that fear is an inappropriate response to death.  Lucretius was a follower of Epicurus, who lived during the first century B.C.  Through the use of moving poetical images, Lucretius argues that it is inappropriate to be afraid of death.  As the dissolution of the body and the soul, death is absolutely neutral; it is neither good nor bad.  If someone is afraid of death, Lucretius’ advice is to consider the neutrality of his or her nonexistence before her or she was born and to see that death is exactly the same condition.
 
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3.2.6 Is Fear an Appropriate Attitude Toward Death?   - Lecture: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Fear of Death” Lecture Link: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Fear of Death” (YouTube)
 
Also available in:
Quicktime, Flash, MP3, Transcript

 Instructions: Watch this video lecture about fearing death (48
minutes).  This lecture is also accessible via Yale University’s
Open Yale Course website at: [Philosophy of Death with Professor
Kagan](http://oyc.yale.edu/philosophy/death/) (Adobe Flash and
Quicktime).  Alternatively, you may select the Flash or Quicktime
video link that is appropriate for your Internet connection to
launch the video.  You can also hear the lecture as an .mp3 file, or
read the transcript.  On the surface, fear of death seems natural
enough.  But the object of our fear, for many of us, is not death
itself, but the process of dying—sickness, injury, and the letting
go of the things we love in life.  To determine whether fear is an
appropriate attitude toward death itself, Professor Kagan defines
three conditions for fear and concludes that perhaps the most
appropriate response to death is not fear, but gratitude for life.  
    
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3.2.7 Death as Motivation… But for What?   - Lecture: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “How to Live Given the Certainty of Death” Lecture Link: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “How to Live Given the Certainty of Death” (YouTube)
 
Also available in: 
Quicktime, Flash, MP3, Transcript

 Instructions: Watch this video lecture about the different
possibilities for living in recognition of death (46 minutes).  This
lecture is also accessible via Yale University’s Open Yale Course
website at: [Philosophy of Death with Professor
Kagan](http://oyc.yale.edu/philosophy/death/) (Adobe Flash and
Quicktime).  Alternatively, you may select the Flash or Quicktime
video that is appropriate for your Internet connection to launch the
video.  You can also hear the lecture as an .mp3 file, or read the
transcript.  It is widely agreed that the fact of death should have
some influence on the way we live our lives.  But what exactly
should that influence be?  Acknowledging that we shall soon return
to dust, should we, like Schopenhauer, convince ourselves that
becoming dust is a noble end?  Should we, like Holderlin, aim to
achieve some lasting accomplishment before we die?  Or should we,
like the Buddhists, greet death as liberation from human
suffering?  
    
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3.3 Suicide   3.3.1 David Hume on the Permissibility of Suicide   - Reading: David Hume’s “On Suicide” Essay Link: David Hume’s “On Suicide” (PDF)
 
Also available in:
HTML
 
Instructions: Read this essay by David Hume arguing for the permissibility of suicide in certain instances.  In this posthumously published essay, the eighteenth century philosopher David Hume refutes a variety of popular and traditional injunctions against suicide.  He argues that as long as the particular case meets certain requirements, there is nothing about suicide itself that should be viewed as a transgression against others, ourselves, or God.
           
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3.3.2 Is Suicide Rational?   - Lecture: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Suicide, Part I: The Rationality of Suicide” Lecture Link: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Suicide, Part I: The Rationality of Suicide” (YouTube)

 Also available in:   
 [Quicktime, Flash, MP3,
Transcript](http://oyc.yale.edu/philosophy/phil-176/lecture-24)  

 Instructions: Watch this video lecture about the rationality of
suicide (45 minutes).  This lecture is also accessible via Yale
University’s Open Yale Course website at: [Philosophy of Death with
Professor Kagan](http://oyc.yale.edu/philosophy/death/) (Adobe Flash
and Quicktime).  Alternatively, you may select the Flash or
Quicktime video link that is appropriate for your Internet
connection to launch the video.  You can also hear the lecture as an
.mp3 file, or read the transcript.  In this lecture, Professor Kagan
attempts to distinguish when, if ever, it can be considered rational
to end one’s life prematurely.  This is fundamentally different from
the question as to whether suicide is right or wrong.  Are there any
circumstances in which a person would be better off dead?  What
about terminally ill patients who suffer great physical and
psychological pain?  Or is the question of rationalizing suicide
itself fundamentally incoherent?   
    
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3.3.3 Overview of the Philosophical Problems Related to Suicide   - Reading: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Professor Michael Cholbi’s “Suicide” Article Link: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Professor Michael Cholbi’s “Suicide” (HTML)
 
Instructions: Read this encyclopedia article for an understanding of the history of philosophical thinking about suicide and the major issues it raises.  Philosophical thinking about suicide has long been entangled with religious doctrine and popular morality.  In fact, it is controversial whether suicide should ever be divorced from such considerations.  This article provides an overview of the ways in which philosophical approaches to suicide have distinguished themselves from one another as well as a summary of the issues of rationality and morality they have tried to address.  This text is accessible through the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy website.
 
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3.3.4 More About the Rationality of Suicide   - Lecture: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Suicide, Part II: Deciding under Uncertainty” Lecture Link: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Suicide, Part II: Deciding under Uncertainty” (YouTube)

 Also available in:   
 [Quicktime, Flash, Transcript,
MP3](http://oyc.yale.edu/philosophy/phil-176/lecture-25)  

 Instructions: Watch this video lecture about the rationality of
suicide (50 minutes).  This lecture is also accessible via Yale
University’s Open Yale Course website at: [Philosophy of Death with
Professor Kagan](http://oyc.yale.edu/philosophy/death/) (Adobe Flash
and Quicktime).  Alternatively, you may select the Flash or
Quicktime video link that is appropriate for your Internet
connection to launch the video.  You can also hear the lecture as an
.mp3 file, or read the transcript.  The question of whether suicide
is ever rational is complicated by the fact that death itself is
unpredictable.  Although we have more or less complete information
about the quality of our lives in the past and present, there
remains the chance that our lives will improve drastically in the
future.  How, then, could it be reasonable to bring our lives to a
premature end?  
    
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3.3.5 The Morality of Voluntary Euthanasia   - Reading: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Professor Robert Young’s “Voluntary Euthanasia” Article Link: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Professor Robert Young’s “Voluntary Euthanasia” (HTML)
 
Instructions: Read this encyclopedia article about the morality of mercy killing.  This article outlines the major arguments for and against the moral acceptability of euthanasia.  The author adopts a “for” stance, specifying the precise conditions under which releasing someone from a life of suffering would be the right thing to do.  The author also carefully considers several common objections against euthanasia.
 
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3.3.6 Is Suicide Moral?   - Lecture: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Suicide, Part III: The Morality of Suicide and Course Conclusion” Lecture Link: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Suicide, Part III: The Morality of Suicide and Course Conclusion” (YouTube)
 
Also available in: 
Adobe Flash, Quicktime, Transcript, MP3

 Instructions: Watch this video lecture about the morality of
suicide (48 minutes).  This lecture is also accessible via Yale
University’s Open Yale Course website at: [Philosophy of Death with
Professor Kagan](http://oyc.yale.edu/philosophy/death/) (Adobe Flash
and Quicktime).  Alternatively, you may select the Flash or
Quicktime video link that is appropriate for your Internet
connection to launch the video.  You can also hear the lecture as an
.mp3 file, or read the transcript.  The issue of whether suicide is
right or wrong is typically thought to depend on the general moral
outlook to which we subscribe.  Utilitarians argue that there are
instances in which it can be the right thing to do, such as when it
brings an end to severe and certain suffering, and when few other
people will be negatively impacted by the person’s death. 
Deontologists, on the other hand, claim that human life is
intrinsically valuable, and that suicide amounts to a failure to
respect that value.  
    
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