On death and the existence requirement

So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.

That’s ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, well, philosophizing about death. There are a couple of different interpretations of what specifically he had in mind, but what appears clear is his opinion that we should not worry or care about death. It should be “nothing to us.” But that’s not how most people feel about their own mortality.

Before we go any further, you may be wondering (appropriately) why I’m randomly writing about death. I can’t seem to get away from ideas related to death in a number of things I’ve been doing lately.

I recently enrolled in a Stanford continuing ed course on the meaning of life and week 3 was all about the meaning of death. I’m also reading an introductory philosophy book that has a chapter on Epicurus, and briefly, his thoughts on death. Finally, my parents are visiting from India, and we’ve been watching The Good Place. The show's premise is centered on the afterlife and explores concepts surrounding death. These unexpectedly related events have made ideas about death particularly salient to me right now.

Back to Epicurus and what he meant. One interesting interpretation is offered by Shelly Kagan, a philosophy professor at Yale who teaches a course on—you guessed it—death. He suggests that Epicurus’ argument about death and why we shouldn’t care about it or consider it bad rests on this idea: something can be bad for someone only if they exist.

More specifically, (a) something can be bad for you only if you exist, (b) when you’re dead you don’t exist, so (c) death can’t be bad for you. So if we want to claim that death is in fact bad for a person, we’d have to reject (a) or (b), or both.

Some may argue that when you’re dead, you don’t just cease to exist and that some part of you lives on. That’s the basic concept of mind-body dualism in which the mind (or the soul) and the body are seen as distinct and separable. But there’s little evidence to support this view, and I accept the claim that when you die, you no longer exist.

That leaves the assertion that something can be bad for you only if you exist, or what Shelly Kagan calls the existence requirement. To make the case that death is bad for an individual, we have to examine and refute the existence requirement.

Kagan proposes that perhaps Epicurus is being too stringent with his existence requirement. His bold version of the existence requirements suggests that something can be bad for you only if you exist at the same time as that thing. But Kagan wonders if something could be bad for you if you exist at some time or another.

Death, arguably, is one of those things. With a bold existence requirement, it’s not bad for me right now because I’m still alive, and it won’t be bad for me when I’m dead because I’ll cease to exist. But with a more modest existence requirement, a future death can be bad for me because I do exist at some time i.e. I exist at this moment in time.

Death will deprive me of the existence that I currently have and value. Therefore, I consider it bad, even though I won’t experience the eventual lack of existence.

We consider premature deaths bad because it involves the deprivation of something we think of as good. I'd argue that all deaths, in a way, are premature. What we consider premature versus acceptable is also up for debate. Let’s leave that debate for another time.