Why is death a comparative evil?

Maryan asked:

Why is death a comparative evil?

Answer by Craig Skinner

I take it you mean why is death an evil compared to possible alternatives in which there is no death.

I will answer on two levels.

First, is a world with death in it (such as ours) worse than possible worlds without death. I conclude that our world, death notwithstanding, is better than the alternatives.

Secondly, is the death of an individual person bad for that person. I conclude that it often is because it deprives the person of a life worth living, even though she doesn’t experience the loss.

As to alternative worlds, I don’t consider a heaven-on-earth world of eternal joy for us all as a possibility, otherwise we would already be living in it courtesy of a benevolent, almighty god. So I wont pursue the idea.

A lifeless world would avoid death. And would be better than our world if you think that life is a vale of tears in which suffering outweighs joy. David Benatar, in his excellent book Better Never to Have Been, argues this case very well, concluding that the sooner sentient life is extinct the better. You can form your own view on this. Mine is that, absurd though life may be, maybe a fluke in a cold, unfeeling universe, we simply find ourselves alive, and should make what meaning of it we can while it lasts, and this is better than never having been born. But I accept that this optimistic view may simply be an evolved part of my human nature rather than rationally justified.

A natural world with life in it, but no death, could contain only primitive replicators which live indefinitely. There could be no evolution, no trees, bees or chimpanzees, certainly no consciousness. The price of the evolution of creatures such as us is the death of countless generations of our ancestors, unicellular at first, then multicellular, later fishy, and so on. In short, in any natural world, death is the inevitable price we pay for being here.

Some feel that biotechnology will make death (barring accidents) optional for humans (or maybe only for rich ones) as body repair mechanisms become understood and we can keep ourselves young indefinitely. Would you go for it, or would you choose natural ageing and death? If you are young, you may have the choice one day.

So, in conclusion, I think our world, with death in it, is better than lifeless or persisting-primitive-life worlds. Death is not a comparative evil.

Turning now to death of a person. Clearly this is usually a bad thing for loved ones left behind who lose a son, sister, friend or whatever, although sometimes death is welcomed by all if it ends suffering from a terrible illness.

But is death a bad thing for the person who dies? Again, it isn’t if it ends persistent and increasing suffering from an incurable illness.

So, is death a bad thing for a person who dies in the midst of life as it were.

There are three possible reasons why it might be:

1. The dead person goes to Hell.

2. Nonexistence, in itself, is bad compared to existence.

3. Death robs the person of life worth living.

Let us deal with each.

1. Traditional Christian doctrine holds that some of us suffer eternal torment after death. So, for the unrepentant sinners among us, death would indeed be a bad thing. I will assume that death for all of us means permanent nonexistence.

2. Lucretius argued that nobody complains about the vast ages of nonexistence before his birth, so why complain about it after death. The situation is symmetrical. In each case we simply don’t exist. I agree. Nonexistence, in itself, is not bad for us.

3. This is the reason usually cited. The fallen soldier will never see his children grow up, or be able to pursue his dreams etc. I agree. Death often does rob a person of a life worth living, and this is bad for the person, even though the person (having died) does not experience this loss. My view here entails that something can be bad for a person even though it does not involve bad experiences for that person. But I have no problem with this. If somebody dents my reputation by lying about me, this is bad for me even if I know nothing about it.

Anyway, for my part, whilst the Grim Reaper isn’t actually knocking on the door, I fancy I see him lurking in the shrubbery, so best close and get on with living.


Determinism and Laplace’s demon

Andrew asked:

I have a question about determinism. Laplace imagined that an intelligence with perfect knowledge of the state of the universe and the laws that govern it at one point in time would be able to know the past and future with absolution. It would be able to see the one way in which the predetermined future would unfold.

What if a computer existed which could do just this, and it foresaw a disaster which could be averted if someone knew about it in advance? If the computer predicts the disaster, then people will know about it and be able to stop it from happening. The computer’s prediction will be made false. If the computer predicts no disaster, then the disaster will happen because no one will know to stop it. The prediction will be false again. This seems to undermine the idea that such an ‘intelligence’ would be able to make absolute predictions. Is there a way out?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

You seem not to have noticed that you answered your own question. Laplace’s determinism is impossible, therefore it is false.

This is the short, dogmatic answer. For a long answer, you would have to read a stack of books. But the shortened version of any such a book would merely come to the same conclusion, namely that the impossibility rests on the need to collect and evaluate information which, in this case, cannot be compressed into a shorter time than the events being predicted. So by the time that your computer has arrived at its prediction, it would already have occurred.

A fairly readily comprehensible model may help you here. Laplace’s proposition effectively amounts to making a graph of the lifeline of the universe from a single atom. On the assumption (a big assumption!) that atoms are immortal, you can then trace its career from beginning to end, including its interaction with all other atoms of the universe. Now Laplace surmised it is not necessary to include the full lifeline in this graph, because it is a mechanical picture of interaction, and one push-and-shove is much the same as every other. The universe in this picture therefore resembles a big machine where from the moment that you have determined one complete work cycle in which the atom is involved, the ripple effect through the entire ensemble will spread itself out in a deterministic and determinable process. Accordingly the comprehensive knowledge of one complete work cycle confers on the knower the exact processes through all future work cycles.

Of course, this theory was framed before the second law of thermodynamics was discovered. Therefore it is altogether innocent of the principle of entropy. The second law, i.e. the need to collect information, spells out that the amount of work done by this ‘intelligence’ cannot escape being part of the entropical relation. But the ‘intelligence’ cannot assess its own part in this, because it cannot (so to speak) stand outside of itself to measure its own entropy-producing work without falling into infinite regress. And so there is an end to ‘total knowledge’.

Although it is not exactly the same, the hope expressed by Laplace is similar to asking this intelligence to write down every possible number. You might wish to check the Web for the meaning of the ‘Dedekind Cut’. Once you understand what this involves, you’ll never fall for intellectual trap of total determinism again!


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Jürgen has talked about one notion of determinism, which relates to the theoretical possibility of prediction. However, arguably, there is another, more metaphysical sense in which we can express the (unprovable) hypothesis that the universe is, in fact deterministic. On the assumption of the truth of determinism, there is no nomologically possible world qualitatively identical with the actual world at the moment of the Big Bang, but which differs from the actual world at subsequent times. On the assumption of the falsity of determinism, there is at least one such possible world.

Why does this matter? Let’s say I’m deciding whether or not to answer Andrew’s question about Laplace. If determinism is true, then given the fact of the Big Bang (concerning whose precise details which we can only speculate), and the laws of nature (whatever these may precisely be), then there is only one logically possible world: the world where I write my answer (as I am doing now). If determinism is false, then given all these things, there are possible worlds where I go for a beer instead — as I was tempted to do, but resisted the temptation.


Existentialist view of free will and responsibility

Bonsu asked:

The existentialists, such as Sartre, claim that if there is a human nature, it is formed by a Homo Sapiens as it lives its life and is done so by the choices it makes. Relate the concepts of free will and responsibility to this claim.

Answer by Tony Fahey

The first thing that should be said is that the term ‘existentialism’ is not specific to any one thinker, or to any specific school or system, but a rather movement that includes a diverse range of philosophers with diverse backgrounds in philosophy. For example, there is Heidegger who, for a time at least, was a Nazi, Kierkegaard, a devout Christian, Nietzsche, an atheist, and Sartre, a communist and later a Marxist. However, notwithstanding such a mixed bag, it can be shown that central to each of their philosophical approaches was the view that existence precedes essence. That is, first we exist, and after that our essence, our nature, is defined by the choices we make.

In relation to Jean-Paul Sartre and existentialism, it is in his treatise Being and Nothingness that the Sartre presents his version of existentialism. According to Sartre being human consists of two modes of existence: being and nothingness. A human being exists as an ‘in-itself’ (en-soi), an object or a thing, and ‘for-itself’ (pour-soi), a consciousness. The existence of an ‘in-itself’ is ‘opaque to itself… because it is filled with itself’, whereas the ‘for-itself’, or consciousness, has no fullness of existence, because it is no-thing – its essence is determined by the choices it freely makes whilst it exists.

More than anything Sartre wanted to endorse the existentialist view that one is what one chooses to be, that one has no essence, no human nature, and no character that that on did not confer on oneself. To believe that one’s essence – one’s nature, is either given at birth or formed in some way from one’s early environment is to fall into what Sartre calls ‘Bad Faith’ (mauvaise foi). Bad Faith is a state of self-delusion: the condition of pretending to oneself that one has no option than to be that which one has become. According to Sartre, the function of Bad Faith is that it allows one to abdicate one’s responsibilities.

Some examples of bad faith include: a clergyman who, in his heart, knows that he has lost his faith, but continues to behave as though he were still a believer; a wife who no longer has any affection for her husband, but continues to behave as though she is a devoted wife; a business man or academic who convinces himself that his role is of such importance that he is obliged to work a ten or twelve hour day six or even seven days a week, or a defence lawyer who, notwithstanding the fact that he knows, beyond a shadow of doubt, that his client is guilty, continues to plead his innocence. In each of these cases each person refuses to face the fact that the situation in which each of them find themselves can be other than it is.

According to Sartre then, because consciousness is ‘no-thing’, we become aware that we are free to choose that which we desire to be. In other words, we accept that we are responsible for who or what we have become – and for who or what we can become in the future. This is the condition of human freedom – of fee will. To move forward, to perform an action, we must be capable of detaching ourselves from the world of existing things and so contemplate that which does not exist. The choice of action is also the choice of oneself. In choosing oneself one does not choose to exist: existence is given, and one has to exist in order to choose. It is from this that Sartre derives the phrase that encapsulates his understanding of existentialism: ‘existence precedes and commands essence’. Turning Descartes’ famous cogito on its head, rather than ‘I think, therefore I am’, for Sartre it is more the case that ‘I am, therefore I think, and because I think, I am free to choose’.


Removing life support from a patient in persistent vegitative state

Bindhu asked:

Interview a hospital administrator to share their philosophy and worldview in relation to the ethical dilemma in Terri Schiavo case and summarize these.

Answer by Craig Skinner

There are no hospital administrators (in Britain) for me to ask. And there is no ethical dilemma.

I’m unclear why a hospital administrator view would be especially helpful. Anyway, since the 1980s, British hospitals have been run by general managers, and the switch from administration to management was a key improvement in the health service. But that’s another story.

As for the Terri Schiavo case, it was the USA equivalent of England’s Tony Bland case, with added razzmatazz, media frenzy, and prolonged duelling by lawyers (14 appeals plus hearings, motions, suits and emergency laws). But, in essence, it was a straightforward Persistent Vegetative State (PVS) case in which useless, invasive medical treatment was finally withdrawn on the grounds that, had the patient been able to say so, she would have declined such treatment.

The facts are as follows:

Mrs S lived with her husband and her parents. Aged 27 years, she developed an eating disorder (bulimia). Bad enough to seriously lower her body potassium and cause cardiac arrest producing severe permanent brain damage and PVS (no cerebral cortex to support consciousness or thought, no prospect of improvement). Able to breathe without a machine, she needed a stomach tube surgically inserted through her skin for food and water.

After 8 years, and every effort, there was no improvement (brain scan showed mostly liquid rather than brain tissue in her head).

Her husband felt that she would not want the invasive feeding tube keeping her alive in her hopeless state. But, rather than he himself suggesting its removal, he asked the court to decide.

The court’s duty here was simply to decide what the patient would wish. A patient (of sound mind) has a right to decline treatment, even if it would be life-preserving. And many do. For example many cancer patients decline another round of chemotherapy, feeling that the small chance of living a bit longer is not worth the inevitable bad side-effects. Mrs S could not say what she wished. Nor did she have a ‘living will’ to give any directive to the court. So the court had to take evidence from family members, doctors and others, and form its best judgment as to what the patient’s view would have been and what was best for her. The verdict was that the tube should be removed, letting her die in peace.

The parents appealed, citing new evidence as to what she would have wanted and new treatment that might help, but the court was unimpressed by the alleged evidence and confirmed its judgment. After further wrangling, the tube was eventually removed allowing her to die.

In essence, then, the court respected the patient’s autonomy (right to choose), although it could only judge her wishes on the basis of evidence presented (as courts do and should do, they can do no other).

Rather similar was the Bland case. Here a young man was crushed in a football stadium disaster, suffered brain damage leading to a PVS, needed a ventilator to breathe for him, and the court ruled that ventilator support should be stopped.

Although there was no dilemma in these cases (in my view), a number of philosophical and ethical issues are relevant to them.

First, what is it that we should be striving to preserve? A person or a human being? By a ‘person’ I mean a self-conscious agent, aware of itself as itself, able to decide things and lead a life (Locke’s famous definition is as good as any). Of course all persons are humans (so far – future computers may be persons; and persons elsewhere in the universe wont be humans), but not all humans are persons. Thus, a newly fertilized egg is human but isn’t even a single human (sometimes it produces twins), let alone a person, and in any case most of us think that early embryos aren’t persons. That’s also how the law sees it (abortion is legal). Similarly I think that if I enter a PVS, I am no longer a person, although still a human being. I agree that personhood is what matters about human life. I am comfortable about abortion and wouldn’t wish to linger in a PVS. Some go further. Singer, for example, thinks an adult chimp has a better claim to personhood than a very young baby.

But note that in the cases we have been discussing the courts looked on the patients as persons, and respected their autonomy (right to decline treatment), rather than simply regarding a human in a PVS as a non-person (although I think such a human is indeed a non-person).

Secondly, is there a moral difference between stopping a treatment that sustains life (passive euthanasia) and giving a lethal injection (active euthanasia)? After all the courts didn’t rule that Mrs S and Mr B get lethal injections, rather that life-sustaining medical support be stopped.

I doubt there is much difference. In either case we know the patient will die. But I suppose it comforts some to think that stopping treatment, rather than actively killing the patient, allows God to take the life (or otherwise, should he feel a miracle is called for). In another famous brain damage case, ventilator support (breathing machine) was withdrawn after a court judgment only for the patient to carry on breathing on her own for many months before dying of an infection, and nobody suggested a lethal injection.

In short, the doctor’s duty to the patient is to offer the best, appropriate treatment, and to respect the patient’s wishes (whether expressed or surmised). An old adage doctors learn is:

First, do no harm, but neither strive
officiously to keep alive.


Question from a fan of Diogenes

Robert asked:

I am a huge fan of Diogenes. I would like to know why he chose Athens instead of retreating quietly into the hills. Any speculation is welcome.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

If you wish to make a spectacle of yourself, you don’t chose a mountain retreat! Since you admire him, you may be disinclined to accept my opinion that he was a consummate hypocrite. But some time later, he got into a conversation with a wealthy man, who probably wondered the same as you do, why this man affected such a contemptible public exposure for himself. He received an offer to educate the latter’s children in affluent, comfortable circumstances and immediately abandoned his tub. So there is your answer. Make of it what you will.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

There’s a great image of Diogenes by the Victorian painter John William Waterhouse (1849–1917) which I have reproduced at http://follydiddledah.com/image_and_quote_6.html, juxtaposed (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) with a quote from the essay by Karl Marx ‘On Money’ from the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. I’m a fan, because I believe that philosophers should actively seek to cause offence, and whatever else you think about him, Diogenes certainly succeeded in doing that. He was obnoxious, and also fearless. He told Alexander the Great to ‘get out of my sunshine’. The dog philosopher who pissed and shat in the street. Like the audience watching Nietzsche’s tightrope walker, we can enjoy the colourful spectacle without putting ourselves at any risk.


The difference between concepts and propositions

Phillip asked:

What is the difference between a concept and a proposition and in what ways do they differ in their applications in philosophy?

Answer by Nathan Sinclair

Concepts and Propositions are related to each other in something like the way railway carriages are related to trains. A train is a sequence of carriages joined by connectors, a proposition is a combination of concepts joined by logical connections. The ways concepts can be combined are more complex than the ways carriages can be connected, but still concepts are parts of propositions. Propositions are true or false, whereas concepts are true of, or false of (other things).

Whether there are such things as concepts or propositions is disputed by philosophers. But it is agreed that if there are concepts then there are propositions.

The last truly dominant account of philosophy and reason took the existence of concepts to be fundamental. According to that view, philosophy was conceptual analysis, the objective of which was to produce, for any statement, another statement which expressed the same proposition, but which displayed the conceptual structure of that proposition more clearly and explicitly.


Answer by Helier Robinson

A concept is a combination of a word, spoken or written, and an idea which is its meaning. A proposition is a combination of ideas. And a statement is a combination of concepts which expresses those ideas. For example, the statement ‘All equilateral triangles are equiangular’ states the proposition that relates the ideas in the concepts of triangle, equilateral, and equiangular.


Nagel’s example of the infant and the brain-damaged man

Wesley asked:

Explain Nagel’s example of the infant and the brain injured man.

Answer by Nathan Sinclair

I assume you mean Nagel’s imaginary example of a person who suffers brain damage and is turned into a ‘big baby’ (this is found in Nagel’s essay ‘Death’ in Mortal Questions).

In the example someone painlessly suffers an injury which leaves them with the mental life (desires, beliefs, attitudes etc) of a 3 year old baby. Before the injury their life was pleasant enough, the injury itself was painless (suppose it happened while unconscious), and after the injury the person is cared for, they are treated well and their desires are met about as well as most three year olds, their nappy changed, food provided, interesting toys to play with and pleasant and attentive carers.

The point is that at no stage does the person suffer an unpleasant experience, but Nagel expects that we will find such an injury to be a disaster for the person who suffers it. If this is correct then there are bad (and presumably good) events that can happen to people that do not involve good and bad experiences, or indeed any non-relational properties – thus you can’t tell just by how someone is in isolation how well or badly off they are, you have to include their.relationships to other people and things, even relationships which they are unaware of.

In short, what they don’t know (or mind) can hurt them.