In Feldman’s Epicurus and the Evil of Death, the author presents an Epicurustic view that death should not be interpreted as the greatest misfortune, and that such a view is totally irrational. The basic premise of this Epucurianistic view is that once we are dead, we can no longer feel pain. Death therefore is of no concern to the dead as they can no longer experience the misfortunes that befall the living such as pain and suffering. Therefore, by writing this paper, my aim is to argue on the irrationality of fearing death. I will thus state and explain the argument that it is not rational to fear death. I will then critically evaluate the assertion that since one ceases to exist when dead and hence cannot feel pain, then being dead is not a bad thing. Finally,
I address various rebuttals that are likely to follow my assertions.
- The Hedonism Argument
Here, I will start by examining Epicurus’ arguments against the evil of death:
- Each of us ceases to exist upon death
- If (1), then we cannot feel pain while dead
- If at all the dead are immune to pain, then being dead in itself is not a painful experience
- If being dead in itself is not a painful experience, then death may not after all be a bad thing for the dead
- Thus, death is not a bad thing for the dead
Premise 1 is trivial and hence does not require an interpretation. This is because when one dies, he/she ceases to exist. Premise two hinges on the Hedonism doctrine. The doctrine identifies pleasure and pain as the only good and bad thing, respectively, for a person. With respect to premise 2, pleasure and pain are attributed to the living and as such, the dead cannot feel pain. This then forms the basis for our argument on premise 3 that because we cannot feel pain while dead, then being in a state of death is not in itself a painful experience.
There appears to be a direct association between the fourth premise and Epicurus’s hedonism namely, that pleasure and pain are both attributed to the good and bad things in a person. Since the dead are immune to both of these things, it cannot therefore be a painful experience. Some may be inclined to assert that not existing also means missing out on important life events and not experiencing pleasure. Others may also argue that because death at times brings to an end what might have been a good life, it is thus not a good thing. However, Epicurus might simply argue that at the pint of death, we cease to exist and cannot feel pain and as such, there is no point in dreading something that we will not experience.
- Against Hedonism
In trying to appeal to reason and convince people not to fear death, two arguments are useful. The first argument is based on an analogical (symmetry) context:
- There is a direct similarity between our pre-vital non-existence as well as post-mortem non-existence
- Therefore if we possess rational fear about our pre-vital non-existence, then it is also rational to also fear our post-mortem non-existence
- Fearing our pre-vital non-existence is not a rational thing
- Therefore, it is irrational to fear our post-mortem non-existence
The second argument to rationality holds that there is no rationality in fearing time or event that we are not likely to experience in our existence.
- At a given time t1 a subject S may only rationally fear events happening at another given time t2 only if the subject shall exist at that time
- When we die, we cease to exist
- Therefore, it is irrational to fear death.
Epicurus is of the opinion that before coming into existence (at birth), we had no sensory experience, and have no recollection of our non-existence. This being the case then, there is no point in fearing our non-existence upon death, as it will be like was the case before life, when we did not exist. Some people may however feel inclined to counter Epicurus’ arguments by arguing on the need to fear non-existence upon death since there is a difference between not existing after having existed and existing after having not existed.
Trying to draw a distinction between these two forms of non-existence appears quite absurd. I am inclined to argue that it is nearly impossible to qualify non-existence. In a state of non-existence, one cannot recall the things that they accomplished in life, a life that you are no longer part of. Being in a state of non-existence following death differs from non-existence prior to being born because death involves loss of life that the victim could have experienced but for having died. However, from an Epicurus point of view, one could front a counter-argument to the effect that after death, we are not able to experience life’s deprivations and as such, they are no longer a bother to us. In other words, there is no rationality in fearing time or an event which we shall not experience. Whereas we might be prompted by certain anxieties about the future to do go things that will carry on even after we die, on the other hand, dreading things in the future that may never happen or that we may not experience, is in itself an irrational thing. Such is the case with fearing death. It is equally hard to justify an experience that we will not experience.
Death is seen as an evil thing as it deprives us of the pleasure of enjoying further life and things that we may have wished to enjoy. Some philosophers have identified two types of badness in an effort to disapprove Epicurus’ argument. These are: intrinsic and extrinsic badness. Intrinsic badness is a form of positive badness such as anxiety and pain, often experienced in conscious awareness. For instance, a toothache is an inherently painful experience and for this reason, is viewed as being intrinsically bad. However, not all things are bad in such a direct manner. Other events or things are extrinsically bad due to their impact on the overall intrinsic badness or goodness of our lives, and not because they are bad in themselves. Epicurus has assigned value to such things as vice, friendship and virtue because they hinder or promote pain and pleasure. However, Epicurus does not promote the idea that death is extrinsically bad, something that other philosophers views as being erroneous.
- A Response to the Counter-argument
In this section, I shall endevour to explore a war in which one can counter Epicurus’ view on fear of death. In an attempt to offer a counter-argument to Epicureanism, I intend to make use of dualism. This is a view regarding the mind-matter relationship. Dualism identifies mind and matter as two ontologically distinct entities. Dualism views the body as a separate entity from the soul or mind and for this reason, there is the possibility that we could experience something after we die. While this may not be a very convincing argument, granting the argument that the body and soul exists apart from each other only slightly damages Epicureanism. We cannot however rely on a rational argument to make additional claim regarding the soul after death. Even if we argue that the soul is alive even after death, many of Epicurus’ arguments would still be valid. For example, the soul would still be immune to physical pain in the absence of the body seeing as it would not be a physical object. As such, it would be irrational to fear pain following death.
Moreover, the soul, being disconnected from the physical body, means that one is not in a position to experience the pleasures and pains in life in a meaningful way. We would also not be in a position to communicate and relate with those who are still alive, and neither could we be able to see what we might be missing in life. Our brain stores the memories of our experiences in life and without it we cannot recollect events or even tell if something has gone wrong. Should some immaterial elements of ourselves pass quietly in the world that we have left behind after our death, this is still not a rational reason to fear the state that we are in. If at all we did not fear death before granting the soul immaterial status, there is also no sense in fearing it now.