Death's Distinctive Harm
Blatti (Stephan)
Source: American Philosophical Quarterly 49 (2012): 317-30
Paper - Abstract

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Author's Abstract

    Despite widespread support for the claim that death can harm the one who dies, debate continues over how to rescue this harm thesis (HT) from Epicurus's challenge. Disagreements focus on two of the three issues that any defense of HT must resolve: the subject of death's harm and the timing of its injury. About the nature of death's harm, however, a consensus has emerged around the view that death harms a subject (when it does) by depriving her of the goods life would've afforded had she continued living. This deprivation view of death's harm (DV) derives some of its credibility from the general deprivation theory of which it is an instance: mortal harm is subject to the same kind of analysis plausibly given of other non-mortal harms. Furthermore, note that the weak formulation of HT — asserting only that death can inflict harm, not that it always or necessarily does — accommodates the intuition that instances of rational suicide and justifiable euthanasia present cases in which death fails to harm. DV is equipped to explain how in these cases the harms involved in continued existence outweigh the goods of which death deprives the subject. I agree that suicide can be rational and that euthanasia can be justifiable. Likewise I accept both HT and DV as far as they go. But they do not go far enough. Specifically, I argue here that death harms even those who die as a result of rational suicide or justifiable euthanasia; that death's harm is neither undifferentiated nor wholly contingent, but multifaceted and partly necessary; that the necessary part of death's harm is distinctive, inflicting a peculiar restriction on the autonomy of one who dies; and, regarding the timing and subject issues, that this restriction harm is inflicted on the antemortem subject prior to her death.

Author's Introduction1
  1. The Harm Thesis (HT) states that death can harm the one who dies. The Epicurean rejection of this claim relies on the following familiar argument: before death there is no harm (i.e., prior to its occurrence, death inflicts no injury on its eventual victim); after death there is no victim (since, it is assumed, death brings about the subject’s nonexistence, and thus there exists no postmortem subject to whom a harm could accrue); therefore, HT is false: death cannot harm the one who dies. “The most awful of evils,” as Epicurus notoriously put it in his "Epicurus - Letter to Menoeceus", “is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.” Indeed, insofar as one’s fear of death is predicated upon a fear of harm to oneself, Epicurus held, the falsity of HT exposes such fear as irrational. Again from the Letter: “He speaks idly who says that he fears death, not because it will be painful when present but because it is painful in anticipation. For if something causes no distress when present, it is fruitless to be pained by the expectation of it.”
  2. In most contemporary discussions of death, philosophers resist the Epicurean argument and endorse HT, and this stance will be adopted here as well. But anyone who endorses HT confronts several challenges implicit in that argument. The present discussion will address two of these challenges. The first concerns timing: if HT is true, when is death’s harm incurred? The second concerns harm: if HT is true, what is the nature of the harm brought about by death?
  3. About the timing issue there has been considerable controversy, with apparently all conceptual space now occupied. To wit, each of the following answers to the timing question has been defended recently: at all times (eternalism) (Feldman 1992); before death occurs (priorism) (Luper 2007); at the moment death occurs (concurrentism) (Lamont 1998); after death occurs (subsequentism) (Bradley 2009; Feit 2002); at some indeterminate time (indefinitism) (Nagel 1970; Silverstein 2000).
  4. About the harm issue, by contrast, there is remarkable consensus: when bad, death’s badness consists in depriving us of life’s goods. According to this view, death harms the one who dies solely by preventing her from attaining those of life’s goods she would have enjoyed had she continued living: positive experiences, healthy relationships, significant projects, etc. In the 1970 article that has become the locus classicus for this view, Nagel argues that one can be harmed by something unexperienced, that deprivation may constitute a harm of this sort (i.e., unexperienced but harmful nonetheless), and that death’s harm is an instance of this species of harm. Since then, and notwithstanding various intramural disputes about how best to formulate it, the deprivation view (DV) has come to be regarded as the standard view, enjoying broad support amongst supporters of HT. Consequently, even advocates of opposing answers to the timing question nevertheless share a common commitment to the deprivationist answer to the harm question: eternalists are deprivationist eternalists, indefinitists are deprivationist indefinitists, subsequentists are deprivationist subsequentists, etc.
  5. Our primary focus in what follows will be the deprivationist answer to the harm question. Although we should accept DV as far as it goes, it will be argued that its analysis of death’s harm is incomplete. The objective, therefore, will be to isolate this lacuna and to characterize the aspect of death’s harm that cannot be accounted for by DV. But we will not ignore the timing question. For what we shall discover is that, whereas DV can be paired with any of the available answers to the timing question, the hitherto overlooked dimension of death’s harm jibes with one answer in particular. The discussion unfolds in three steps. |..||.|In section 1 we consider the priorist answer to the timing question, see how it works with DV, and entertain a couple of misgivings. |.|Section 2 presents DV in greater detail, highlighting its advantages and drawing out the respects in which it is incomplete. |.|Section 3 offers a proposal for how to understand the aspect of mortal harm that DV overlooks. This account accords with priorism and avoids the objections raised in section 1.


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Footnote 1: I extracted this before I found the author’s abstract!

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