The Evolutionary Roots of the Perceived Harm of Death
As highly evolved survival machines, human beings have inbuilt mechanisms that have aided us, throughout our evolution, to avoid death and to propagate our genetic material, as all successful life forms must. These mechanisms exist as a necessity, for if we lacked them, we would have been indifferent towards the survival of our genes, which would have put us at a profound competitive disadvantage in comparison to other life forms that were strongly motivated to survive and propagate their genetic material. Therefore, if all of our ancestors lacked any kind of compulsion to steer clear of existential dangers, it is highly improbable that any of us would exist today in order to have this discussion. Homo sapiens (or any of our earlier ancestors) without a survival instinct would have been an evolutionary dead end.
Principal amongst these mechanisms is our survival instinct, which induces us to fear death above all else, and even though none of us have ever experienced being dead and therefore we lack any witness testimony to attest to the badness of being dead, we nevertheless perceive it to be the greatest of all harms. This survival instinct is buttressed by the adaptation of suffering, which has evolved to serve as a crude warning signal to alert us to existential danger. We experience pain because something that causes us pain is likely to be a threat to our survival, which means that we are less likely to be successful at propagating our genetic material. This is coupled with the sensation of fear, which is a psychological form of suffering that also serves to warn us against existential threats in our environment.
Whilst non-sentient life forms may also evolved certain survival mechanisms; these survival mechanisms could be conceived of as more akin to a series of logic gates, or lines of computer code, which have developed to direct the behaviour of the organism towards life-sustaining ends. Such life forms behave in ways that ensure their survival, but their actions are not informed by preferences, as an organism without consciousness is incapable of harbouring preferences.
Human beings do have preferences, and this is because our experience of life is enriched with the subjective experience of value. “Value” can be defined by the vast qualitative gulf of experience between experiencing the greatest possible suffering and the highest possible pleasure. Thus, experiences which are likely to harm our prospects of survival are closely associated with negative qualia, which will negatively reinforces us in order to ensure that we avoid those experiences in the future; and those which are beneficial to our fitness will reward us with positive qualia in order to positively reinforce that behaviour to ensure that it is repeated in the future.
From Evolution To Epicureanism – What I Don’t Experience Can’t Hurt Me
Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And once it does come, we no longer exist.Epicurus
Based on our understanding of the evolutionary antecedents of the apparent badness of death, we may conclude that although the process of dying tends to be bad for us due to the fact that it tends to involve a tremendous amount of suffering, death itself is not bad for us, because it releases us from the risk of experiencing negative qualia, and obviates the need to pursue positive qualia. It could be argued that positive experiences are only valuable because they fulfil the desires of an existing being. Once the being themselves dies, then it can no longer be bad for their desires to go unfulfilled. To say that it is bad for this dead being to not be enjoying fulfilment of their needs and desires would seem to impute desires and needs either onto the universe itself, or onto the decaying corpse of the deceased.
The Epicurean account of death’s harmlessness is not broadly accepted within mainstream philosophy, which still takes our survival instinct at face value and contrives to manipulate language in ingenious ways in order to “account” for the badness of death, but do so without making any kind of controversial metaphysical claims about what actually happens to our minds after death.
If our primal brain tells us that death is bad, then many philosophers will start out by enshrining this in their work as a firmly established conclusion, and then work backwards from that conclusion to try to arrive at an explanation of exactly why death is bad for us. This essay tends to demonstrate that such attempts to account for the badness of death consist of nothing more than exercises in semantical obfuscation, cobbled together in order to affirm an axiom close to the heart of the authors – namely, the belief that life is good.
To be sure, we can be sure of the fact that death seems to be bad for us, because a potent psychological aversion to death is an integral part of the human condition. However, we cannot be sure that death is in fact bad for us, because we lack any eyewitness testimony from those who are dead, and no scientist has ever been able to ascertain that consciousness survives and continues to produce negative qualia for the deceased subject post mortem.
Opportunity Cost – Death as an Instrumental Harm
Most philosophical explanations for the badness of death attempt to evade the lack of first hand phenomenological evidence of death’s badness by inventing abstract concepts of harm. ‘Secular’ philosophers who argue that death is bad are not making any controversial metaphysical claims about what happens to our mind after death. They aren’t claiming that our consciousness is banished post mortem to a Stygian abyss where we will be tormented with regrets for the pleasures that we have missed out on in life.
The example that I am going to analyse here is the concept of opportunity cost; which states that when one dies, one is deprived of the experiences that one might have enjoyed had one continued to live.
Opportunity cost is undoubtedly a valid form of harm, and one that will be familiar to most readers. To consider an example of such, let’s imagine that your friend wins a free holiday to an exotic location abroad, and invites you to accompany them. Let’s suppose that this is an opportunity for you that is unlikely to arise again due to financial constraints, and is only available to you at present due to an unexpected stroke of luck on the part of your friend. You decide to decline the offer because it’s a 12 hour flight and you abhor flying, and your friend chooses someone else to accompany them instead. You later come to regret this choice, and realise in retrospect that the inconvenience and discomfort of flying would have been greatly outweighed by the chance to spend good quality time travelling with your friend through beautiful scenery with great weather and seeing interesting historical sites.
Thus, in the above scenario, the “opportunity cost” you pay consists of the regret that you experience, coupled with any other negative consequences that arise as a result of having declined the offer. Such examples may include failing to strengthen the bond between yourself and your friend, which leads to a weaker relationship than you may have enjoyed had you accepted the offer.
Can this concept of “opportunity cost” be applied to death? Our intuitions seem to tell us so, and this is supported by many philosophers as well. If one chooses to commit suicide tonight, then it would be argued that the “opportunity cost” that you pay for suicide constitutes the experiences of pleasure that you would have had in the future, but which you have now foreclosed upon by opting for the ‘permanent solution’ of death.
However, if we compare this scenario to the holiday scenario, we observe that the concept of opportunity cost doesn’t transfer across to a scenario in which one dies as a consequence of the choice being made. It’s true that suicide precludes future happiness; however now that you are dead, you are no longer an entity that desires and needs happiness, and therefore you are no longer capable of regretting any choice that you have made that results in failing to obtain happiness. The happiness doesn’t exist, but the absence of the happiness does not constitute a deficiency in happiness, because the body that once housed your mind is now a human-shaped clump of rapidly decaying organic matter. It doesn’t need or desire happiness, and the mind that once did need and desire happiness is no longer extant. Therefore, one would be committing a category error to say that you are paying an opportunity cost for your choice, when you (as in your mind) no longer exists and therefore cannot perceive any value discrepancy between the two parallel worlds in which a) you chose to commit suicide, and b) you chose to continue living, and went on to experience great joys. Can one say that a chair is suffering a deprivation of joy? Nobody would claim this, because we all understand that a chair is an inanimate object that has no desire or need for experiences of happiness.
If we would reject the claim that a chair is deprived of happiness, then why would we accept the claim that a dead human is deprived of happiness? Whilst it seems difficult to find an answer to this; it has not deterred academic philosophers from attempting.
The Timing Problem
In this section of my essay, I will be responding largely to Travis Timmerman’s 2020 paper Dissolving Death’s Time of Harm Problem. You can hear more from Travis regarding death’s putative “badness” on the Brain in a Vat podcast on YouTube. This paper has been recommended to me by a learned interlocutor on Reddit as the best possible representations of deprivationist account, and my interlocutor’s (Reddit user u/__ABSTRACTA__argument) borrowed heavily from these sources. If you would like to read one of the debates with my interlocutor (there have been several very long-winded discussions on this topic with the same individual), please see the below Reddit thread, which was sparked by my earlier post on Negative Utilitarianism:
In his paper, Timmerman notes that the timing problem of death’s badness only appears to be a stumbling block for deprivationists due to the lack of precision in the formulation of the questioning, and that by “precisifying” the question that is posed to the deprivationist, then the timing problem will dissipate as easily as early morning sea mist on a warm spring morning, without any need to appeal to commit to “spooky metaphysical claims”.
Timmerman’s paper goes on to name and describe each of the schools of thought on the subject, and their particular answer to the timing problem.
To summarise, there are the “priorists” who believe that death is bad for you before you die. There are the “concurrentists” who believe that the badness of death coincides with the time that it occurs. “Subsequentists” argue that death is bad after it happens. “Atemporalists” argue that death is bad for a person, but not at any time, and finally, “indefinitists” argue that death’s badness can be temporally located, but not pinned down to any determinate point in time. Timmerman briefly explains why each of these possible accounts of badness may engender “metaphysically spooky” claims in order to be defended, before going on to provide his solution.
Timmerman’s proposed solutions purport to be “unproblematic” even to the Epicurean. To put it simply, he asserts that we can answer the question of “when is death bad for the person who dies” by comparing the actual timeline in which the person remains alive to the counterfactual timeline that would have obtained, had the individual remained alive. Would the individual have continued to accrue “wellbeing” had they continued to remain alive? If so, then their death is bad for them during the period at which it could reasonably have been expected that they would continue to have enjoyed positive wellbeing. Conversely, continuing to live may be considered to be bad for them if their wellbeing levels would be reasonably expected to deplete after a specified point. This may be true in the case of those who are terminally ill and experiencing intense suffering that, based on their prognosis, can only be expected to get worse. Thus, Timmerman’s answer to the timing problem dovetails fairly well with mainstream attitudes to assisted suicide, and the explanation for why assisted suicide is widely supported for the terminally ill, generally with the added stipulation that the individual must be within months of their expected death.
My objection to this is that it doesn’t matter what levels of wellbeing the individual would have enjoyed had they continued to live. At the moment of brain death, the individual ceases to have a welfare state at all, and therefore ceases to have the need or desire to improve upon their welfare state. Once I am dead, it does not matter that I potentially missed an opportunity to maximise the total number of wellbeing units that my life contained. Say for example, I killed myself after buying the winning lottery ticket and missed out on the millions of pounds that could have been used to greatly enhance my wellbeing. The money would have been of great use to me had I remained alive, but dying does not deprive me of the opportunity to benefit my wellbeing levels, because as soon as I am dead, I no longer need the money to mitigate against the liability that attends the burden of needing to maintain and preserve high wellbeing levels. I assert that, in fact, one is committing a category error when one claims that a dead person is worse off for not being able to maximise their wellbeing, because the concept of wellbeing can only be applied to sentient minds. The concepts of “good” and “bad” exists only for sentient beings inhabiting the material world. And yet Timmerman seems determined to apply this concept to hypothetical future versions of beings that will never actually exist.
To illustrate this; if one imagines wellbeing to be a spectrum where the worst imaginable torture is at one end of the spectrum, and the most blissful state of pleasure at the opposite end; we cannot imagine death to be a “neutral” state in the middle of the spectrum. Rather, it is not on the spectrum at all. Therefore, it can no more be bad for a corpse to be lacking in wellbeing than it can be for my chair to be lacking in wellbeing. A person may foreclose on “goodness” that they may have experienced in the future by choosing death (such as, for example, if I commit suicide the day before I was going to land a great well paying job), but this loss will not come as an opportunity cost to me, because I will not be floating around in a ghostly realm imagining the counterfactual scenario in which I’d stayed alive and enjoyed a higher standard of living than that to which I’d become accustomed at the time of my death. I would need to be capable of making the comparison whilst I was dead in order for that to constitute a deprivation.
Some may try to manoeuvre around this rebuttal by saying that one need not be aware of a deprivation in order for it to be a bad thing. Consider, for example, if someone had left a gift of money on your doorstep, which was then stolen. You wouldn’t be aware that you had lost out on the utility of that money, but it would still be a bad thing. However, the reason that it would be a bad thing for you to have lost the money is that you’d still have needs and desires needing to be satisfied, and money is always an effective way of doing so. Therefore, there is still an alternative reality that you are capable of perceiving in which you were wealthier, and thus in a better position to satisfy your needs and desires than in your present state. However, the deprivation would not manifest as an acute awareness, because you would be innocent of the fact of how close you were to being in that more advantageous position, and the fact that this was denied to you by the wrongful act of theft. In this case, it would therefore be better for you to remain ignorant of the theft in order to reduce the magnitude of the harm, but nevertheless your wellbeing levels are likely to be vitiated to some level by the act of theft, in comparison to the alternative scenario in which the theft did not occur.
Working Backwards -Accounting For the Badness of Death and Suicide Prevention
Within philosophical discourse on the subject of death’s alleged ‘badness’, there is a noticeable tendency for the author to start out with the stated premise that death is bad (or alternatively, that killing is wrong), and then the argumentation itself seems to be cobbled together post hoc in such a way as to buttress this premise. This is evident in suicide prevention advocacy as much as it is within academic philosophical discourse. If pressed to provide evidence to support the assertion that suicide is an irrational choice, suicide prevention advocates will generally point to studies which indicate that those who have attempted suicide do not reattempt in the majority of cases, with many suicide survivors reporting that they regret their attempt, or that they are happy to have survived. A case in point being the internationally renowned evangelist for suicide prevention and Golden Gate Bridge jump survivor, Kevin Hines. The validity of this evidence can certainly be disputed, given the risky nature of attempting suicide without a fully safe and guaranteed method, and also the high social costs of being seen to double down on one’s insistence that life isn’t worth living (which can, after all, include involuntary commitment to a psychiatric ward, in addition to being subject to increased surveillance and concern from one’s friends, family and community).
What is conspicuously absent from the body of evidence, however, is the testimonies of actual deceased individuals. To the best of my knowledge, there has been no study so far which has contracted the services of a professional medium such as Sylvia Browne or Derek Acorah in order to garner the testimonies of those who have been successful in their suicide attempts, in order to find out whether they regret the decision and whether death is indeed worse than life.
I’m being facetious here of course, but the point is valid: those who are alive and whom have never experienced death, or directly observed what happens to a mind (if anything) after death are not qualified to pass judgement on the badness of death. This very much includes the likes of Kevin Hines, and also includes anyone who was suicidal at an earlier point in their life and is now glad that they did not go through with it. Kevin Hines may have experienced the badness of dying as he fought for life in the icy waters of San Francisco Bay; but he didn’t experience the badness of death itself. Observing the psychological effect of your survival instinct kicking in to high gear, or even observing your own renewed gratitude for the small, everyday joys of being alive, is not the same as observing the deficiencies of these goods post-mortem. And yet, time and again, the media trots out the likes of Hines to testify that suicide is never the answer, and the voices of those who survive suicide and do in fact wish that their attempt has been successful, are muted altogether, due to being inconvenient to the life-affirming narrative that the media wishes to promulgate and due to the paternalistic perceived need to protect and cosset ‘vulnerable’ suicidal people from any kind of perspective which may validate suicide as a viable and rational option in order to address their suffering.
Even the renowned antinatalist philosopher David Benatar takes pains to distance himself from promortalism by excluding death from inclusion within his axiological asymmetry. Whilst Benatar argues that preventing birth is a good thing because it prevents future suffering, he denies that the future suffering that is foreclosed upon by death is good. This is because, in Benatar’s view, once we come into existence, we have an interest in remaining alive, and death frustrates this interest and is therefore bad. Thus, Benatar differentiates between a life worth starting (which would be no life, according to Benatar), and a life worth continuing (which could potentially include the lives of many who have already been born). The violation of the interest is considered by Benatar to be bad even when there is no awareness of the interest being violated (such as if a person was killed by deliberate Carbon Monoxide poisoning in their sleep, for example, or a newborn baby who was killed by their parent before).
Unfortunately for Benatar, it seems that he has arrived at this position based on the process of working backwards from a conclusion that has already been pre-determined (namely that death is bad) and by trying to cobble together a post-hoc rationalisation in order to buttress this conclusion. Instead of following his arrow-straight logic through to its ineluctable logical conclusion, he instead veers away from this destination, in order to appease either his own existential fears, or the moral axioms of a society that imbibes moral panic surrounding the subject of suicide with their mother’s milk.
The flaws in Benatar’s reasoning become starkly apparent in his discussion with Sam Harris on the latter’s podcast Waking Up. You can listen to the relevant time-stamped section of the discussion here. After performing well in the discussion up until this point, it is my assessment that Benatar struggles to justify his exclusion of death from his axiological asymmetry, and the structural integrity and consistency of his argument begins to unravel under the pressure expertly applied by Harris.
This is a problem that ‘moderate’ antinatalists tend to face when trying to distance themselves from those who start to veer off into more radical versions of the philosophy such as ‘efilism‘ (an outright rejection not just of procreation, but of life itself, which will be explored in more detail in a later post) and promortalism.
Although David Benatar is worthy of a lot of respect and admiration for pushing the envelope with regards to promoting antinatalism within the philosophical community and beyond (a position itself controversial enough that Benatar refuses to allow any photograph of him to be published, and refuses to appear on camera for the sake of protecting his identity), I do harbour suspicions that his disavowal of promortalism may have more to do with his unpreparedness to cross the final frontier and deal with the potential fall-out from confronting humanity’s mother of all taboos; than having a coherent and well-reasoned philosophical argument to oppose it. I feel that David Benatar failed not only to provide a coherent argument, but failed in his intellectual principles.
Similarly, I believe that many within the antinatalist community are leery of being seen to promote any kind of idea that might validate someone’s choice to commit suicide (again, harkening back to those ‘vulnerable’ people needing to be protected from the clutches of sinister Internet predators who might manipulate them into suicide by committing the unforgiveable atrocity of formulating a dispassionate and logical philosophical argument).
Suicide Prevention as Harm Reduction
Suicide prevention policies take as read the idea that death is bad for the person who dies, and hinges upon the idea that people need to be protected from this “bad” outcome, even if the protection takes the form of coercively violating their expressed desires and their bodily autonomy, such as in the case of suicidal people who are forcibly removed to a psychiatric ward, if thought to be at ‘risk’ of ‘harming’ themselves.
But instead of protecting us from the real experiential harms of dying by allowing us to access painless, fast-acting and effective suicide methods; suicide prevention advocates are intent on forcing us to perform suicide in a clandestine manner using means that are uncertain to be effective and are also guaranteed to cause us a great deal of pain and discomfort, and prolong the harmful dying process. In doing so, they deter many people from even attempting suicide in the first place, and condemn many who fail in their attempts to lives of permanent incapacitation in the form of disability, in addition to all of the problems (still unresolved) that precipitated the suicide attempt to begin with.
However, if we are going to be “protected”, each of us deserves the right to know from what it is that we are being protected. In a society in which each individual is to be treated with respect and dignity; it simply isn’t enough to gaslight us into doubting our own perception of reality and our own capacity for logical thought. Suicide prevention advocates have failed to answer this question, time and again; merely reiterating their assurances that they know what is best for us. These assurances are always tacitly reinforced with menacing threats that we will be banished to a psychiatric ward if we refuse to accede.
Simply saying that “death is bad” doesn’t provide this explanation, if opponents of death are not able to explain how the alleged harms of death will be experienced by the deceased. And if the harms are “abstract” as posited by the likes of Travis Timmerman, then it behoves suicide prevention advocates to explain exactly why I should be bothered by an alleged ‘harm’ of which I will be permanently unaware and unaffected by after death.
People generally attempt or commit suicide as a response to real harms. The reason that they choose suicide is because suicide provides (as, ironically, suicide prevention advocates never miss an opportunity to point out) a “permanent solution”, and therefore a choice that is perfectly aligned to our rational self-interest in avoiding unnecessary suffering.
You can compare and contrast this to other ‘solutions’ often sought out by the most desperately unhappy individuals in our society. Gambling, alcohol addiction, abusive relationships. All of these are maladaptive behaviours devised by desperate people looking for relief anywhere that they can find it, even if the long term consequences of their choices are likely to do nothing more than keep them entrained in a spiral of self-destruction.
For everything that suicide prevention advocates lack in evidence, they more than make up for in the fervent zeal with which they ensure that their beliefs are upheld, and the fanaticism with which they seek to banish any challenges to their faith from the public sphere. In this sense, the suicide prevention movement is very much like any other form of faith-based movement. It is reliant upon the use of social pressure to ensure that its primacy remains unchallenged. Therefore, just as Islamic nations often enforce blasphemy laws as a harsh deterrence to anyone thinking of stepping out of line, the cult of suicide prevention has its own form of blasphemy law in the form of coercive suicide prevention (up to and including Guantanamo-style torture techniques such as gastro-nasal force feeding of suicidal people who refuse the intake of nourishment), means restriction and gaslighting of the suicidal.
For more on the subject of suicide, please see my other blog posts, and in particular, my most recent post regarding the cruelty of suicide prevention, which can be viewed here.
On the subject of death, the field of philosophy appears to be reluctant to move beyond the dark ages of atavistic primitivism. Although ‘deprivationists’ may have an exquisite knack for semantical manipulation developed through the course of an education in academia, the tapestries of fine words that they weave function as no more than an ornate fig-leaf to conceal their own primordial fears and existential insecurities.
As a consequence of its refusal to challenge the sacred axiom of the goodness of life, it tacitly condones the brutalisation of suicidal people through suicide prevention initiatives which are blasphemy laws masquerading as public health and safety campaigns.
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existentialgoof – 30th January 2023