Must a Hedonist Believe That Death is Nothing to Us?
In answering this question, I will attack Epicurus’ argument that death is “nothing to us” on the basis that some goods and evils may arise independent of sensation. I shall outline Epicurus’ line of reasoning, assess the validity of his conclusions and examine the hedonistic thesis so fundamental to his argument. I will consider possible objections Epicurus could present to vindicate his original claim and show them to be unfounded.
Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher and hedonist, presents an argument twofold to back up his claim that death is nothing to the person who dies. He states that good and evil imply a capacity for sensation and that as “death is the privation of all sentience” it follows that death is indeed “nothing to us”. Further to this he asserts that when we are alive we are not dead and when we are dead we do not exist so death cannot be a harm because of the impossibility for anyone to experience it.
Essentially, Epicurus is arguing that pleasure and the attainment of pleasure is the purpose of every human life. He defines it as the “absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul”. Pleasure is the guiding principle behind every choice we make and it is how we judge every good thing in the world. If all we care about are the pleasures and pains we experience and if, as Epicurus does, we are to assume there is no experience after death it would then follow that death is not bad because there will not be anything unpleasant to experience within it. The second strand of his argument relates to there being no subject after death since we do not ourselves exist, this links to the afore mentioned contention in that there is no one to experience any pleasures or pains when we are dead.
Epicurus’ argument on first reading appears to be deductively valid, in that, if we are to believe that good and evil correlate to pleasure and pain (the hedonistic thesis) and that to experience pleasure or pain is reliant on sensation and that there is no sensation after death then it stands to reason death is neither a pleasure or a pain, good nor bad but nothing. However, Epicurus fails to account for comparative evils. His definition of the bad is intrinsic: bad in itself (as is his definition of the good). By dying, the dead person is denied of the goods or pleasures he may have gained in the future if he were still alive. For example, a person may have written an absolutely brilliant novel but before it was published died. The novel went on to receive countless awards and praise from critics as well as ordinary readers who enjoyed the book (for now we ignore non-experiential goods). The author, because he was dead, could not experience the pleasure he would have gotten if he were alive from knowing so many people loved his work. Here, death was a comparative bad for the author, since he was dead, he was unable to experience the intrinsic good of the pleasure he would have felt in knowing he had made some people happy for a time and been in some way the cause of a little good in their life. Thus if we allow for comparative goods and evils it seems that death can itself be good or bad for the person who dies and Epicurus’ argument is logically invalid because its premises (that something is only good if it is a pleasure i.e. must be experienced through sensation) do not follow onto the conclusion. His second thought train regarding the absence of a subject is however, valid. It can be put into the Modus Tollens form of argument i.e. if p then q, not q therefore not p (where p is ‘something is good/bad for a person’ and q is ‘a person exits when something happens’), but unsound as again it does not account for comparative good/bad.
Examining comparative harm a little closer, it is clear that death must always be good or bad for the person who dies because life could always have been better/worse if the person could have experienced a little more of it. Thus, death is never “nothing to us”.
Epicurus also fails to take account of non-experiential goods. As a hedonist, Epicurus is only concerned with pleasure and pain i.e. goods and evils that are purely experiential. Accepting Epicurus’ assumption that there is no afterlife, it is still possible for a dead person to be harmed after they have died. Going back to our example, it could be argued that actually good was done unto our author: praise and feelings of good will towards the author and his work, although not a pleasure (experienced), is a good both of achievement and for reputation. This view of non-experienced goods is perhaps a little hard to swallow for some. Another common example brings to light this difficulty. If Rembrandt’s paintings were destroyed now, many years after his death would Rembrandt be harmed? To answer ‘yes’ would be to acknowledge non-experiential goods and bads, to answer ‘no’ deny them. The case for Rembrandt being harmed can be thought about in a number of ways; first, the act itself is what is harmful to Rembrandt, it is disrespectful to him. Second, the paintings can be considered extensions of Rembrandt because they are things he has created, they have emerged from him and his psyche and so by destroying them we demonstrate that his creativity is nothing anymore. Third, the paintings can be thought of as Rembrandt’s legacy or reputation or perhaps even as a display of character their destruction is a statement against the things Rembrandt stood for and valued, what he achieved in his life no longer matters to us. In short, the paintings are a part of Rembrandt’s personal identity and as a consequence their destruction is a harm to him even though he cannot directly experience this harm or have any knowledge of it. The case against is self-explanatory, he cannot be harmed from something he cannot experience or have any knowledge of. Recognizing the existence of non-experiential goods again is indicative that death can be good or bad for the one who dies in that, as in life, they can be harmed or be subjected to good (that the dead person can do nothing about the actions/thoughts of others after they have died is irrelevant), rejection of non-experiential goods (as Epicurus, a hedonist, would) does not discount the theory that death can be good or bad.
Towards comparative harm Epicurus has a response. Epicurus was quite revolutionary for his time in his denunciation of fate and man’s reliance on chance instead of relying on their own faculties of reason. He believed that true pleasure (the goal of human life) was a tranquil life rid of unnecessary desire and governed by nature’s law not the rule of Gods. Once this ‘state’ has been achieved i.e. the tranquil mind, life cannot be improved upon, life’s purpose has been realized. Therefore, for Epicurus death cannot be a comparative harm, as the person who died could not have had a better life even if it had been extended. This particular hedonistic thesis does not advocate the notion that pleasure and pain are aggregative and should be added up throughout the whole duration of a person’s life, but seems to point to different levels of pleasure and good, the highest and most reasonable is the ultimate aim of human life. This view would endorse Epicurus’ original argument that death is “nothing to us” even if we were to buy into the idea of comparative harm. However, the response is not wholly satisfactory. Surely if one was to die before they were able to apprehend the tranquil mind, death would be a comparative bad because if the person’s life was extended it could have been improved upon. So for this instance death would be bad for the person who dies.
In conclusion, Epicurus, a hedonist, argues death is nothing to the person who dies, because death is the deprivation of sensation and pleasure and pain, the only good and evil, are purely experiential and so reliant on sensation. Considering comparative harms, a dead person can be harmed or have good done towards them after death if the goods/bads/pleasures/pains they would have experienced had they not died when they did were to be counted. This means that even for a hedonist death can be good/bad for the person who dies; Epicurus’ hedonistic argument is invalid. Further, some people argue a person can be harmed when they are dead, a hedonist does not think this. His response that death is not a comparative harm because the dead person has reached a tranquil state and will experience no more pleasure/pain thanks to the attainment of this state fails, everyone who dies does not achieve this tranquility he describes so surely for them death is a comparative harm. Even for a hedonist, death is never “nothing to us”.
•Epicurus: Letters, Principal Doctrines and Vatican Sayings, ‘Letter to Menoeceus’ and ‘Principal Doctrines’.
•T. Nagel (1970): ‘Death’ in Noûs 4, pp. 73-80.
•F. Kamm (1993): ‘Why Is Death Bad?’, in her Morality, Mortality, Vol. I, Chapters 1-3. Oxford University Press
•Steele, Katie. 2008. ‘Is Death Bad For The Person Who Dies?’ lecture series at the LSE for PH103. October 9th, 16th and 23rd.