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date: 27 October 2021

Introduction: Philosophy of Death

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses the theme of this book, which is the philosophical aspect of death. The book answers questions about what death is and why it matters that help define the growing interdisciplinary subfield of philosophy of death. It analyzes the views of ancient Greek philosophers including Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus about death; investigates how death is related to various concepts including disintegration of personality, personal identity, and pleasure; and explores the concept of immortality, the wrongness of killing, and the significance of death for animals.

Keywords: philosophy of death, disintegration of personality, personal identity, pleasure, immortality, wrongness of killing, animals, Greek philosophers

The philosophy of death spans many subdisciplines of philosophy. It is “intersubdisciplinary.” Perhaps in part for that reason, philosophy of death is not typically recognized as a distinct subfield of philosophy. If you look at Brian Leiter’s Philosophical Gourmet Report specialty rankings in philosophy, you will not find a specialty ranking for philosophy of death. If you are on a search committee in a philosophy department, you might have no applicants who list philosophy of death as an area of specialization or competence. Yet many philosophers are working on the philosophy of death even if they don’t think of their work in that way. As we will see, what we say about many well-known questions of philosophy will have implications for what we think about death.

The first philosophical question to ask about any X is “what is X?” Thus our handbook begins with the question “what is death?”—or, as Cody Gilmore puts it, “when does a thing die?” (chapter 1). It is natural to say that to die is to cease to be alive. But there seem to be cases in which a thing ceases to be alive without dying. These include cases of suspended animation, where life processes stop but could be restarted, and fission, where a living being divides into two new living beings. One of the main challenges in understanding death is to understand the difference between cases where fission involves death and cases where it does not. Gilmore provides a novel account of this difference; he suggests that fission entails death unless it involves what he calls “generative division.”

Among the oldest philosophical questions are questions about personal identity. What is a person? What are the persistence conditions for people? The answers (p. 2) to these questions bear on the question of what happens to us when we die. Most nonphilosophers seem to believe that each person has a nonphysical soul that continues to exist after the death of the body, perhaps in heaven, hell, or purgatory. But this view is not widely held by philosophers, because the existence of a nonphysical soul is usually thought to be problematic. The most popular views about what we are include the view that we are, fundamentally and essentially, animals—the biological view—and the view that we are essentially psychological entities—the psychological view. If the biological view is true, then what we say about our persistence conditions should mirror what we say about the persistence conditions of other biological organisms such as trees. If we are essentially psychological entities, and our persistence conditions are determined by relations of psychological connectedness over time, it would seem we go out of existence at or before biological death (unless, perhaps, another organism stands in the appropriate psychological relations). Fred Feldman defends the view that we continue to exist after death, either as dead people or as dead things that were once people (chapter 2). Eric Olson gives objections to this view, but concludes that all views about what happens to us when we die are beset with problems (chapter 3). In chapter 4, Dean Zimmerman argues that the view that it is possible to survive one’s death is defensible on a variety of metaphysical views (which is not to say that we in fact do survive our deaths).

Philosophical questions about time have been thought to be relevant to questions about death. In various ways, it has been thought to matter whether the past and future are real. If the future is not real, perhaps we should not be afraid of our future deaths, since they are not real. If the past is not real, perhaps death cannot be bad for us, since once we die and are purely past, we will in no way exist to be the subject of harm. Ted Sider argues that we need not adopt any particular view about the metaphysics of time in order to hold that death is bad (chapter 5). According to Sider, we must be careful to distinguish whether we are making ordinary claims, such as that the table is hard, or claims about fundamental reality, such as that there are no tables but only simples arranged tablewise. The claim that death is bad is an ordinary claim, while views about the reality of the past and future are views about the underlying nature of reality; the ordinary claim about death could be underwritten by a variety of metaphysical views but might not be undermined by any of them. Lars Bergström suggests another way in which facts about time might affect how we should think about our deaths (chapter 6). If time is not linear but circular, then we will, in some sense, live again one day. Perhaps accepting this view about time should to some degree temper our sadness about our deaths.

As Gareth Matthews and Phillip Mitsis explain in chapters 7 and 8, the great Ancient Greek philosophers (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus) typically argued that we should not fear death, because it is not bad for us. Most of these arguments do not strike contemporary philosophers as compelling. For example, Socrates’s suggestion that death is like a dreamless sleep (how refreshing!) seems hard to take seriously. But Epicurus’s arguments, and those of his Roman admirer Lucretius, have continued to engage us; a few are convinced by them, and even those who (p. 3) think them unsound have different views about where they go wrong. Two arguments have received the most attention. The timing argument goes like this: there is no time at which death could harm me, since, as I go out of existence at the moment of my death, I do not overlap in time with my own death; thus death cannot be bad for me. The symmetry argument goes like this: there is no reason to be afraid of my own future nonexistence, because future nonexistence is no more to be feared than past nonexistence, and I neither fear nor have any reason to fear (or have any negative attitude toward) my own past nonexistence. Roy Sorensen and Jens Johansson address these arguments at length in chapters 10 and 11, and they are also addressed in several other chapters.

Epicurus seemed to think that since a person goes out of existence when she dies, death cannot be bad because the dead person can have no painful experiences. But those who think death is bad are not moved by this line of reasoning. The standard way to account for the badness of death is to endorse some sort of deprivation account. According to the deprivation account, death is bad for someone if, and to the extent that, it deprives that individual of a more valuable life. Thus it is possible for death to be bad without involving any painful postmortem experiences. Deprivation accounts are defended in the two papers that did the most to restart the contemporary philosophical discussions of death: Thomas Nagel’s “Death” (1970) and Bernard Williams’s “The Makropulos Case” (1973). John Broome provides a careful statement of the deprivation account in chapter 9.

Some have wondered whether the fact that death deprives its victim of the goods of life is sufficient for death to be a genuine misfortune for its victim. Kai Draper has argued that other mere deprivations, such as failing to find Aladdin’s lamp, do not seem like genuine misfortunes, because it is inappropriate to feel bad about them. In chapter 13 he takes up the question of what attitude it is appropriate to take toward one’s death. Christopher Belshaw also argues that mere deprivation is insufficient for death to be a misfortune. Rather, he says (chapter 12), the victim must also have had a desire to live.

There is another desire-based view of the badness of death that has found a number of adherents. Joel Feinberg and George Pitcher claimed that death is bad in virtue of the fact that it frustrates the interests, that is, the desires, of the deceased (Feinberg, 1984; Pitcher, 1984). When death frustrates an interest, it is bad for the individual who had that interest, and moreover, it is bad for her at the time she had the interest. Thus we would seem to have an answer to the timing problem: death is bad for its victim at times before she died. This view enables us to account for posthumous harm in the same way we account for the harm of death: events occurring after one’s death can frustrate interests one had while alive. Steven Luper defends a version of this view of posthumous harm in chapter 14.

Williams’s 1973 paper sparked much interesting discussion of immortality: would it be a good thing to live forever? Williams claimed that one would eventually run out of reasons to live, and then death would cease to be a misfortune. His arguments for these claims were suggestive but cryptic. John Fischer and Connie Rosati criticize those arguments in chapters 15 and 16. Fischer argues that a certain (p. 4) sort of immortal life might well be worth having, while Rosati appeals to facts about agency to explain why we want to extend our existence.

One reason we might care about these questions about the badness of death is that we care about justifying the claim that killing is wrong, and the wrongness of killing seems to have something to do with how bad death is for the victim. If death weren’t bad, we might think our attitudes toward murder were unjustified. But it seems wrong to say that the degree of wrongness of killing someone depends on how bad it is for that person to die, because even if death would not be very bad for its victim (perhaps because he is very old and does not have long to live anyway), it would still be seriously wrong to murder that person. Matthew Hanser attempts to explain this in chapter 17 by appeal to a respect-based view of the wrongness of killing.

While killing another person is normally seriously wrong, there are some cases of killing about which it is not so obvious what to say. What, if anything, might make it permissible to kill fetuses, nonhuman animals, combatants, murderers, or the terminally ill? Some of these topics are taken up in the final four chapters.

Sometimes there is controversy over the wrongness of killing certain individuals at least in part in virtue of controversy over whether death is bad for those individuals. For example, it is sometimes argued that death is not bad for nonhuman animals or human fetuses in virtue of the fact that they lack relevant desires, or have insufficient psychological connectedness over time. Don Marquis and Alastair Norcross criticize these arguments concerning animals (Norcross, chapter 20) and fetuses (Marquis, chapter 18).

Sometimes there is little controversy that death is bad for an individual, but there are reasons to think that killing that individual might be justified in any case. Frances Kamm takes up the case of killing in war (chapter 19), while Torbjörn Tännsjö considers the case of killing convicted murderers (chapter 21).

In various ways, and from different perspectives, all these essays might be thought to answer one or both of the following questions: what is death, and why does death matter? These are the questions that define the growing intersubdisciplinary field of philosophy of death.


Feinberg, Joel. 1984. Harm to Others. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Nagel, Thomas. 1970. “Death.” Noûs 4: 73–80.Find this resource:

Pitcher, George. 1984. “The Misfortunes of the Dead.” American Philosophical Quarterly 21: 183–188.Find this resource:

Williams, Bernard. 1973. “The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality.” In his Problems of the Self, pp. 82–100. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource: