- Most of us think it’s a bad thing to die. I certainly don’t want to die any time soon, and you probably don’t either. There are, of course, exceptions. Some people actively want to die. They might be unbearably lonely, or in chronic pain, or gradually sliding into senile dementia that will destroy their intellect without remainder. And there might be no prospect of improvement. They wake up every morning disappointed to find that they haven’t died in their sleep1. In these cases, it might be better to die than to continue a life not worth living. But most of the time death is unwelcome, and we do all we can to avoid it.
- Death is bad not only for those left behind. If I were to die today, my loved ones would be grief-stricken, my son would be orphaned, and my colleagues would have to mark my students’ exams. That would be terrible for them. But death would be terrible for me, too. Much as I care about my colleagues’ wellbeing, I have my own selfish reasons for staying alive. And this isn’t peculiar to me. When people die, we feel sorry for them, and not merely for ourselves at losing them – especially if death takes them when they’re young and full of promise. We consider it one of the worst things that can happen to someone.
- This would be easy to understand if death were followed by a nasty time in the hereafter. It could be that death is not the end of us, but merely a transition from one sort of existence to another. We might somehow carry on in a conscious state after we die, in spite of the decay and dissolution that takes place in the grave. I might be doomed to eternal torment in hell. That would obviously be bad for me: it would make me worse off than I am now.
- But what if there is no hereafter? What if death really is the end – we return to the dust from which we came and that’s it? Then death can’t make us worse off than we are now. Or at least not in the straightforward way that burning in hell could make us worse off. To be dead is not to exist at all, and there’s nothing unpleasant about that. No one minds being dead. The dead never complain, and not merely because their mouths have stopped working. They are simply no longer there to be unhappy.
- Sub-title: "Even without a hereafter, dying gets a bad rap. But why exactly is it no good – because of what happens, or what doesn’t?".
- For the full text, see Aeon: Olson - Why is death bad?
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