On the Value of Death

Jacoby Carter, Wilberforce University

I will begin this paper by confessing that I have not as yet come to any concrete determination as to the axiology of death. Death, according to Thomas Nagel “…is the unequivocal and permanent end of our existence,…” properly understood, death, within the context of this discourse is not a transition from temporal human existence to a nonhuman, suprahuman, ephemeral etc. mode of being; consciousness does not survive death in any way. Nor is death a particular state of existence, instead, it is a constant void incapable of being conceptualized.

Evaluating Death’s Axiology: Nagel’s Shaping of the Discussion

It is Nagel’s aim, given the above qualifications to discover whether death is intrinsically good, evil or void of any axiology whatsoever. I understand Nagel to believe that if death is an evil, it is an evil only insomuch as it is an irrevocable prevention of the ability to achieve human potentialities. Conversely, if death is a good, it is because it brings about a permanent end to adversity. In subsequent argumentation Nagel drops this line of argument and goes on to contend that life is intrinsically good, that is to say human existence embodies concepts such as “…perception, desire, activity and thought, ” which are so basic that they are ” constitutive of human life .” Nagel does not intend here a complete enumeration of value laden phenomena, instead, he endeavors to show that the opportunity to achieve future possibilities is inherently good, regardless of the positive or negative content of these possibilities. Further, my comprehension of Nagel’s position is that setting aside negative or positive experiences, what remains is not value neutral ” …it is emphatically positive .” The reason being, that the mere ability to have either positive or negative experiences is paramount to the content of those experiences. Nagel goes on to further shape the discussion by positing two observations: (1) the value of life transcends mere organic existence, and (2) the value of life is increased by time.

Nagel does not attempt at all to situate the axiology of death in the manner of existence it relegates human persons to. Rather, he attempts to head off discussion of the state of death, which he regards as little more than speculation. As I understand him, the condition of death is an unimaginable phenomenon in so much as it is an unconscious abyss which necessarily lacks any content. Hence, what people respond to in expressing an aversion to death is not the state of being dead, rather, it is a response to the projection of conscious mental constructions upon an incomprehensible state.

Nagel contends that there are three problems one encounters in determining the value of death. First, one must consider whether the deprivation of potential goods is in fact harmful. Second, there are problems assigning the alleged misfortune of death to a particular subject. Last, is the reconciliation of perceptions about “…posthumous and pre-natal non-existence .”

In further clarifying the first problem, I ascertain Nagel’s contention to be that it cannot be the case that an individual must have knowledge of or even experience a phenomenon for it to be harmful. For Nagel, a crucial element of this discussion has to do with time. He asks are the simplest goods and evils a person may possess at a given time, so solely because of her condition at a given time? Nagel contends that often historical information must be known of an individual before an assessment can be made of the phenomena affecting her. Such phenomena as deterioration, deprivation, and damage, may render her experiential state inconsequential. Further, to attach a temporal component to the assigning of value to certain occurrences would require fundamental changes in “…ideas of human value .” Nagel maintains that the wrong done to an individual need not be temporally or conditionally assignable to a particular entity.

It therefore seems to me worth exploring the position that most good and ill fortune has as its subject a person identified by his history and his possibilities, rather than merely by his categorical state of the moment – and that while this subject can be exactly located in a sequence of places and times, the same is not necessarily true of the goods and ills that befall him .

Nagel’s response to the third problem; the reconciliation of the value of pre-natal and posthumous non-existence, is that the time after death is a deprivation of potentialities, whereas, the time before birth is not. A discussion of pre-natal non-existence and its relationship to posthumous non-existence seems at best to be a covering of bases which lacks any relevance to the current discourse. For this reason it will not be considered other than to clarify Nagel’s total position.

In continuing his argument, I understand Nagel to maintain that in order to properly value death, one must consider the extent to which a being can reasonably expect to experience future possibilities. The cessation of life being good or bad will hinge upon the reasonableness of the expected good or bad potentialities. Death which prohibits the realization of positive potentialities is bad. On the other hand, death which eliminates the possibility of future pain and misery is good.

Moreover, Nagel contends that the life of human persons does not take place entirely within the confines of time and space. By this I understand him to mean that phenomena of relevance to the lived experience of a person need not reveal themselves to a subject physically or mentally. Nor does he require that the subject have any experience of such phenomena to legitimize there existence. According to Nagel, one’s lived experience has value, so to does the potential to realize certain conditions, thus, the axiology prescribed to death must account for this range of possible worlds. In addition to his previous position Nagel maintains that human persons do not intrinsically appreciate the idea of natural limits. Human persons are able to conceptualize a continued existence analogous to their past experiences should they be able to live indefinitely. Nagel denies that inevitability makes death any less unfortunate, for him the fact that something is bound to happen does not effect its axiology. Here Nagel concludes his article, neglecting to make any concrete conclusions concerning the value of death.

A Response to Nagel’s Argument

The contention that life’s axiology is grounded in the opportunity to actualize future experiences, regardless of the nature of those experiences, and the elimination of this possibility being evil, seems to undermine the significance of experience. The value of life is grounded in more than impending possibilities; the substance of such possibilities is equally relevant. The value of life is fundamentally changed through the process of living. A person’s life is enriched and diminished by the nature of her experiences. The ability to pursue an individual’s developmental interest adds tremendously to the quality of their existence. Through the pursuit of the arts, education, travel, religion etc. human persons are able to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of life. Conversely, human persons can not only fail to actuate positive potentialities, but there is also the possibility of encountering phenomena which diminishes a person’s existence.

It is Nagel’s contention throughout his article, that if death is an evil, it is so because it denies human persons the opportunity to live out future potentialities. I respond first by evaluating the concept of future potentialities. Future potentialities are a necessary negation of a person’s present condition. One’s immediate circumstances being what they are, there arises an endless number of possible futures. Insomuch as, a thing which a subject is capable of doing is not being done presently, it at least has the potential of being a future endeavor. Yet, such a potentiality is void of metaphysical significance. For future possibilities – which are simply the range of conceivable phenomenon that one can possibly experience in the future – do not warrant axiological consideration. Future potentialities in this regard lack the necessary dialectical relationship to immediate experience. By this I mean that possible phenomena must synthesize with temporal experience to become actual, and thus, valuable. Of what significance is the axiology of a concept which does not exist concretely? Or put another way, if a phenomenon does not affect me directly or indirectly, why be concerned with its value? Such consideration challenges the contention that life is valuable for the possibilities that it offers and nothing more. Rather, life’s value is grounded in the nature of the lived experiences of human persons. Future potentialities then, because they lack experiential manifestation, cannot be used as the ground for life’s axiology. I argue that Nagel has failed to appreciate what I deem as the necessity of concreteness in valuing human existence. Thus, the denial of future potentialities is not sufficient to make death an evil.

Future potentialities are little more than quasi-forms situated somewhere between mere abstraction and physical manifestation. Yet, unacknowledged is the metaphysical assumption that these impending likelihoods actually exist. For these prospective occurrences in no way alter the life or understanding of the person they are attributed to, and further there is no particular assignment of some possibility or possibilities (x) to some subject (y) in the future(z). (x) has no specific value or qualities which can be known to affect (y) in (z). The only relation of (y) to (x) is the notion that at any possible point in (z) some (x) will be experientially connected to some (y). Yet, it defies reason to think possible outcomes have ontology prior to there experiential relation to some metaphysical entity.

In dealing with the second of his stated problems concerning death, Nagel continues in his failure to appreciate temporal assignability in valuing a phenomenon though in a different way. Nagel writes:

When a man dies we are left with is corpse, and while a corpse can suffer the type of mishap that may occur to an article of furniture, it is not a suitable object for pity. The man, however, is. He has lost his life, and if he had not died, he ould have continued to live it, and to posses whatever good there is in living…One must be content just to state that his life is over and there will be no more of it. That fact, rather than his past or present condition, constitutes his misfortune, if it is one.

Not wishing to deny the ontology of potential harm altogether, it must be assessed what the nature of an ill is that does not entail some temporal connection to its recipient. The urge is to argue that ills which cannot be attributed to a particular subject, at a particular time, in a particular state of mind are not harmful. That is, if I have no knowledge of an ill and if that ill has no bearing on my physical condition or state of mind can it be considered damaging? For surely to be unconscious of an ill but to have that ill effect an individual’s physical condition or state of mind is detrimental.

The problem with Nagel’s conceptualization of harm is that it lacks ontology. If a harm lacks manifestation in the lived experience of a being it cannot rightly be said to exist. While potential ills do posses a theoretical relevance that is void of any particular applicability; that is, the ability to conceptualize harmful phenomena outside of temporal, mental and physical applicability is a useful tool for understanding the abstract universality of an ill, there must be however, a grounding of detrimental occurrences in the experience of a subject, though the harm need not be known to the subject, but must merely effect her adversely.

Returning the disputation to the axiology of death, one is then faced with the argument that future potentialities lack metaphysical merit and insomuch as death is an evil because it is the “…unequivocal and permanent end of our existence…” the denial of a phenomenon which lacks ontology cannot be used as a justification for considering death an evil. Nagel displays a dialectical confusion which fails to realize that outside of an experiential manifestation in the present, future potentialities are none other than necessary negations to present realization. For it is only when potential is grounded in immediate actualization that a phenomenon enters the realm of existence.

As was previously established by Nagel, death is not a physical condition, instead, it is an unconscious void such that it lacks metaphysical conceptualization. After death the deceased individual cannot be said to exist, moreover, to speak of her as though she still exists is irrational. At best, it is the extrapolation of some possible event or events from a person’s former existence. Further, any misfortune that one wishes to attribute to a particular subject is no longer possible because that subject does not exist. Thus, death cannot be said to adversely effect any subject because a deceased subject lacks to necessary ontology to be qualitatively assessed. Persons are not resurrected from unconscious non-existence by the mental constructions of the living.


Naturally, as a human being, I embody a certain uncomfortable predisposition regarding this phenomenon, but to elevate this intuitive perception to the level of a concrete value judgement is not an ideological commitment I am as yet ready to make. I reject Nagel’s contention that the axiology of death is to be determined by the denial of future potentialities. As I have argued, future potentialities lack the necessary ontology to qualify their denial as an evil. Operating within the parameters that Nagel has instituted – that death is permanent and irrevocable, and does not represent a transformation or transcendence of ephemeral earthly existence – and denying the contention that death is evil only insomuch as it represents an ability to actualize future potentialities, it seems more appropriate to maintain that death is void of any axiology. Death is a inevitable natural phenomenon; it is neither good nor evil. The confusion about its axiology arises from a desire to elevate the natural disaffection of human persons to this phenomena to an axiological assessment. Unfortunately, a distaste for the phenomenon of death is not a sufficient justification for considering it an evil.

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