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.