By Ben Davies
One of the uncertainties around death is how it could be bad for us. This problem relates to Epicurus’ observation that ‘when death is, we are not’; since death simply is the annihilation of the self, it doesn’t seem as though it could be bad for us in the ordinary way that stubbing my toe or losing my phone are bad for me. One facet of this is the timing puzzle: when is my death bad for me?
With ordinary bads, I can locate times at which they are bad for me. A typical example is the stubbed toe. It starts being bad when I stub it, or perhaps when I notice that I have stubbed it, and continues to be bad until the pain subsides. Being dead isn’t like that, because it has no experiential quality. It seems as though there are five possible answers to when death is bad for us (six, if you count ‘never’). These are that death is bad for us
(1) before it happens, maybe beginning with our birth (priorism);
(2) at the time it happens (concurrentism)
(3) after it happens (subsequentism)
(4) at all times (eternalism) and
(5) at no time (atemporalism).
I want to make a brief, incomplete case for concurrentism. This option has been given rather short shrift (in the recent Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Death, Johansson devotes just eight lines to rejecting concurrentism), but I think dismissals may rest on a misunderstanding of the position.
Note that we are considering the badness of the event of my dying, not the fact that I am going to die, not my being dead, and not the process of dying. So for concurrentism to be correct, death has to be actually bad for me as it occurs; it is not enough that it is true, or made true, that ‘death is bad for me’ when my death occurs. Perhaps critics assume that this kind of mistake is being made by all concurrentists (not that there seem to be many of us). I don’t think it is.
Here’s my account. Death is bad because it involves a significant loss. Without getting into other issues around variable badness, I think it is the most significant loss any of us will ever face, because it involves losing everything: your capacities, your inclinations, your possessions, relationships and mundanities, i.e. the rest of your life. So I think the appropriate comparison isn’t really with an experiential bad like stubbing one’s toe, but with my other prosaic example, of losing my phone.
When is it bad for me that I have lost my phone? Well, obviously there is an experiential element to this fact. There is that moment when I go to call someone and have that infuriating realisation that my phone is gone. So clearly losing my phone is bad for meafter I lose my phone. But let’s tell a story about my missing phone. I lose it as precisely 530pm, as it falls from my pocket on my way home. I don’t go to use it until 6pm. Is it bad for me that I’ve lost my phone in that half hour between my losing it and my experiencing the loss as bad (let’s say ‘suffering the loss’)? I think so, because my phone is a useful (albeit not irreplaceable) capacity. It’s bad for me that I have lost the capacity to make calls, even if at any moment I don’t want or need to make a call. Now most of these moments, most of the half hour, is still a point after the event ‘Ben loses his phone’. But the first moment when it is bad for me that I have lost my phone, when I no longer have the capacity to easily make calls, is the time at which I lose my phone.
My death will not be much like losing my phone. There is no experience of loss, and there is no time after the event at which I will lack capacities even though I don’t realise it – I won’t exist. But if death is the loss of all my capacities, then here is a way in which it is like losing my phone: there is a point of loss. There is a point at which I both lose my final capacity, and the chance to ever have any capacities again. And that’s when death is bad for me. Losses are bad for you at all times when they involve a lost capacity. For most losses, that includes the time of the loss, and all times after at which you lack the relevant capacity. Since death lacks this latter element (since you no longer exist to lack the capacity) it is bad, and only bad, at the time it occurs.
P.S. There is a complication that I haven’t fully worked out, and which I am willing to admit may undermine the whole argument: at my last moment of existence, I haven’t yet lost all my capacities. So perhaps there is no ‘moment of loss’. This might be problematic