Poking Holes in Nagel.

Underpinning Thomas Nagel’s philosophy on death is the belief that it is the loss of life which is evil about the state of being dead because being alive and having conscious experience simply is a positive state to be in, regardless of life’s fortunes and misfortunes (and even if the negatives outweigh the positives – e.g., enduring a life of extreme, painful torture). He maintains this position without really justifying it and if one disagrees, this ought to be the first point of contention.

In Nagel’s paper on death[1]  he starts out by trying to establish whether death is ‘an evil’, and how great this evil may be, and of what kind. In turn then, we are obliged to ask for a clear definition of what we mean by evil – contained therein is the implicit assumption that evil is an existing concept and this is something which might need to be challenged on a separate basis.  The fact that Nagel believes death is a ‘thing’ ( an entity perhaps), rather than the lack of a thing or the cessation of existence (which is a crucial aspect to my argument surrounding the concept of death), is evidenced by the fact that he thinks we can attribute this said characteristic to it (evil). According to this then, in a similar manner we could for the sake of argument say that evil is ‘good’, ‘indifferent’, or even ‘extremely good’. This postulates a certain (corrupted) type of thinking about what ‘death’ actually is – an assertion that it is in fact a state of being, but when we say it is ‘good’ or ‘evil’, we are making a moral claim about a material matter which is of course, soon to be non-material (once the body disappears, etc.) – which is then non-existence. For this argument, both Nagel and I are not engaging in a discussion of the afterlife.

Expanding and continuing on this theme, Sam Harris makes the plausible claim (which Nagel doesn’t primarily disagree with) that for changes in the Universe to matter, they have to matter at least potentially to some conscious system/being. Concepts of good and evil and indeed experience itself depend on minds. Agreeing with this motion, it seems we can say that independent bodies (friends, family, etc.) can experience evil, by virtue of their being conscious, when people die (through the form of say, grief, anguish, pain), and so death will be a bad thing for them in this regard, but Nagel makes his position easier to refute by claiming he ‘will not discuss the value that one person’s life or death may have for others, only the value it has for the person who is its subject’. This has to contradict the idea that for changes in the Universe to matter they have to be a conscious being, for the value of death to the individual subject themselves is firstly, knowledge which is unattainable by us (and therefore it seems hard to make a claim about it for each person as Nagel does) and secondly non-existent – by virtue of the very nature of being dead, the lack of being as I have so emphasised – so how could it ever be of ‘value’ to them? To me, it makes sense to say that in the indifference of the natural universe, we cannot put any moral value or claim to the state of being dead. I acknowledge that this is a fundamental difference of understanding of what death is between my school of thought and Nagel’s.

Nagel makes an analogy between the popular saying ‘what you don’t know can’t hurt you’ and thought that whether anything can be bad simply as a depravation of goods (i.e., dying). It makes sense to think of death this way – of course it is truly a shame if a man’s reputation is slandered once he is 6ft under, but this has no bearing on the goodness or badness of events on behalf of the individual who is dead. The person who fails to execute a person’s will once they have died is doing a moral disservice to the deceased (and arguably, themselves) but we wouldn’t say the dead cares or is somehow morally affected. To me it is true that the person’s doesn’t seem to be harmed (in a recognisable way that we would define harmed – e.g., feeling a pain or anguish or is personally damaged) when he is unaware of being betrayed behind his back – unless it affects him later, i.e., he finds out (but this is not the question). It therefore seems to me that Nagel’s attempt to argue against the notion that ignorance is bliss rather fails – I think most people, intuitively, would believe it to be true, as long as that ignorance prevails (for their lifetime). It is hard to say that one has been truly harmed, damaged or hurt, if they are not aware of the fact.

It is a plausible thought of Nagel’s that it is the discovery of betrayal makes us unhappy because we feel it is bad to be betrayed (and not the other way around), but the moral burden is therefore on the person who did the betraying (regardless of whether the individual discovered it or nor). If the person discovered they had been betrayed, they would express displease at the ethics of the person who did it – there was a wicked, moral intention behind it. This feeling would not exist without the other person doing the betraying and it is a reflection of that person. The victim wouldn’t care as much if the consequences of the betrayal were non-existent or tiny. This is in a nutshell the justification of a victimless crime. But when talking about death, the indifference of the natural universe cannot be used as a convincing analogy with the betrayer in the same way, simply because of the neutrality of the physical order of the World. In summary, this is the main empirical fact which leads me to believe it is wrong to ascribe moral notions or claims onto non-existence (what used to be the subject, the person), i.e. aiming to justify that death is always a bad thing, as Nagel does. Epicurus sums up my position and what I believe to be the most rational way of thinking about it; ‘Death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not’.


[1] * From Nagel, T (1979), Mortal Questions, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.1-10

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