Thomas Nagel begins his collection of essays with a most intriguing discussion about death. Death being one of the most obviously important subjects of contemplation, Nagel takes an interesting approach as he tries to define the truth as to whether death is, or is not, a harm for that individual. Nagel does a brilliant job in attacking this issue from all sides and viewpoints, and it only makes sense that he does it this way in order to make his own observations more credible.
He begins by looking at the very common views of death that are held by most people in the world, and tells us that he will talk of death as the “unequivocal and permanent end to our existence” and look directly at the nature of death itself (1). The first view that Nagel decides to discuss is the view that death is bad for us because it deprives us of more life. Most people are in the view that life is good; even though some experiences in life can be bad, and sometimes tragic, the nature of life itself is a very positive state. Nagel also adds that when the experiences of life are put aside, this state is still positive, and not simply “neutral” (2).
Nagel goes further to point out some important observations about the value of life. Mere “organic survival” cannot be said to be a component of value (2). Nagel gives the example of death and being in a coma before dying. Both of these situations would be equally bad situations. Another observation is that “like most goods” the value can become greater with time (2).
Looking now at what is bad about death instead of what is good about life, Nagel presents some obvious thoughts regarding this point. Life is good because we have the conscious ability to experience and appreciate all that life has to offer. So death is bad because it deprives us of these experiences, not because the actual state of death is bad for us.
The next point that Nagel makes is that there are certain indications that show how people do not object to death simply because it “involves long periods of nonexistence” (3). It is said that people would not look at the temporary “suspension” of life as a terrible misfortune, because the fact that it is temporary tells us that this will ultimately bring the state back to that of conscious life. Also, we do not look at the state being before we are born as a misfortune, or deprivation of life, because that life has not yet begun and, (as Nagel states later), he refutes the possible argument that the person could have been born earlier and had more life, with the fact that if that person was born substantially earlier, he would cease to be that person, but instead someone else entirely.
Nagel discusses next three problems. The first is a view that there are no evils that are not rooted in a person consciously “minding” those evils. Nagel puts this view in to easier terms by saying that this is the same as saying “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” (4). There are several examples that can illustrate this theory. People who think this way would say that it is not a harm for a person to be ridiculed behind his back, if he doesn’t know about it. If he doesn’t experience the evil, it is not bad for him. Nagel thinks this view is wrong. The natural discovery here is that it is bad to be betrayed, this is what makes the whole situation unfortunate; not because the discovery of this betrayal makes us unhappy.
The second problem is that which has to do with who the subject of harm caused by death is, and when exactly this occurs. Harm can be experienced by a person before death, nothing can be experienced after death, so when is death itself experienced as a harm? The third problem deals with posthumous and prenatal existence.
Contemplating the good or bad aspects of death, Nagel observes that we must look at the possible circumstances surrounding a death, and the pertinent history of the person who dies. This is important because we miss a lot that is important to the argument if what we take into consideration is exclusively the state of the person at the moment of death. Nagel gives an example of a very intelligent man sustaining an injury that causes him to regress to the mental capacity of an infant. His needs can be fulfilled like those of an infant and be kept happy as long as simple needs are met. His family and friends would look at this as a terrible misfortune, even though the man himself is not aware of his loss. This situation is unfortunate because of the deprivation of what might have been had he not been injured in this way. He could have gone on to accomplish great things for the world and his family, and live out his life through old age as an accomplished and acclaimed individual. This would have lead him to great happiness, but it can be observed that this same man in a state of mental capacity to match that of a child is also happy, but Nagel agrees that what happened to this man is a tragedy because of the terrible loss of the life the intelligent man could have led. This situation can relate to death in this way of thinking about deprivation. Death is bad because it robs you of what could have been.
After making these observations, Nagel states that “This case should convince us that it is arbitrary to restrict the goods and evils that can befall a man to non-relational properties ascribable to him at particular times” (6). There are endless circumstances and happenings going on that affect a person’s fortune or misfortune. Many of these never coincide directly to the person’s life. We must consider that there is no way to pinpoint the exact position of a misfortune in a person’s life, nor a way to define the origin. People have dreams and goals in life that may or may not be fulfilled. There is no way to find all of the circumstances and possibilities that go into whether or not these hopes and dreams are eventually fulfilled, but Nagel tells us that we must simply accept that “If death is an evil, it must be accounted for in these terms, and the impossibility of locating it within life should not trouble us” (7).
There are some who view the time before birth and the time after death as the same. We exist in neither, though Nagel argues that there is a difference. This whole essay has expressed exactly his view that though we do not exist in either case, death deprives us of time that we could have been living our lives.
Nagel makes an interesting observation about whether we can assign as a misfortune an event or aspect of life which is normal to all humans in general. We all know that we all will die and that the maximum amount of life is somewhere around 100 years. So is it still plausible to say this is a misfortune? He also gives the example of moles, which are blind. It is not a misfortune for a mole to be blind because they are all blind, and they will never know sight and be able to appreciate it. But Nagel also presents the example of a situation in which everyone goes through six months of pain and anguish before dying. Everyone knows that this is going to happen, but does that make the event any less of an event to dread and fear?
We are brought into this world and brought up with aspects of our lives that we appreciate. The deprivation of these things that we learn to appreciate is a misfortune, because we have learned to live with these privileges. It is unfathomable for a human being to grasp the concept of a finite life, in the truest meaning of understanding. We do not think of our lives right now as a set out plan or a finite sequence of events. We do not live day to day thinking of what we should do according to how much time we have left. Our lives are essentially an open-ended sequence of good and bad circumstances and possibilities. Death is the abrupt interruption of this sequence that we cannot help but be in the mindset will never end. This is how death is a deprivation, and ultimately, a bad thing for a person.
In conclusion, Nagel offers a good argument in his essay on death about death itself being a harm. Whether a person believes in the immortal life or not, it must still be considered that dying deprives you of the goods and experiences of life. This view seems unavoidable. A person who dies at age 92 has lived a full life to the best of his ability and has experienced more than someone who dies at age 32. The person dying at age 32 had many things that he wished to accomplish and experience in his life, and since the event of death has taken away all possibility of any of these goals coming to pass, and undermines all the work that he has put forth up to that point in pursuit of his goals, death is a terrible tragedy for him.
Nagel, Thomas. Mortal Questions. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979.
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