Is Death an Evil?
Author: Jonathan Beale (Researcher-in-Residence, Eton College)
[D]eath, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist death is not with us; but when death comes, we do not exist. It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more. –Epicurus
Is death bad for the one who dies? Of course, one’s death can be bad for others; in that sense, death is usually a tragedy. But that is not the concern of the central axiological question concerning death, that of whether it is ‘an evil’. Our question is first-personal: if death entails the cessation of experience, it seems that it cannot cause me any harm. So how could my death be bad for me?
We need to clarify the definition of ‘death’ with which we are concerned. If we believe in an afterlife, death could be a very pleasant or unpleasant prospect, depending on the destination to which we believe we are heading. But a belief in the afterlife is not a belief in death, in the sense in which death is usually defined in philosophical debates concerning whether it is an evil. In such debates, it is usually defined as ‘termination’: the complete and permanent end of one’s existence. Defined as termination, death is – to use one of the two ways Socrates described what he thought would happen at death, when he addressed the jury following the verdict that he had been sentenced to take his own life by drinking hemlock —“like a sleep in which the sleeper does not even dream”.
Epicurus on the evil of death
One of the earliest and most widely debated arguments concerning the evil of death in Western philosophy lies with the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE).
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