Nagel’s Question-Begging Argument on the Badness of Death

Epicurus argued that death could not be bad for the person whose death it was, because the person ceased to be in death, hence there was no subject to whom it could be ascribed as an evil. That is, Epicurus famously observed, in his “Letter to Menoeceus,” that “when we are, death is not …, and when death is…, we are not.” Thomas Nagel argues that the Epicureans were wrong, that death is precisely bad “for the person who is its subject” (Mortal Questions, p. 2). I will argue that Nagel’s position on the subjective badness of death is question begging.

“I shall not discuss the value that one person’s life or death may have for others,” explains Nagel, “or its objective value, but only the value it has for the person who is its subject” (p. 2). He acknowledges that it is unclear “how the supposed misfortune [of death] can be assigned to a subject at all” (p. 4). Hence part of his objective is to show how death can be assigned to a subject in a way that makes it clearly an evil for that subject.

Things can be bad for a person, argues Nagel, completely independently of that person’s awareness of them. He claims, for example, that proponents of the view that “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” are wrong. He uses the case of a betrayal of which one is unaware to support this claim.  Many would argue that so long as one is unaware of the betrayal, and it has no negative repercussions, then one is unhurt by it. “[T]he natural view,” argues Nagel however, “is that the discovery of betrayal makes us unhappy because it is bad to be betrayed – not that betrayal is bad because its discovery makes us unhappy” (p. 5). 

In fact, however, the badness of the betrayal here has to be understood in an objective rather than a subjective sense. That is, betrayal is generally considered to be bad in an objective sense, or in a sense that is independent of any specific subject. In that sense it is bad to be betrayed independently of whether the person who has been betrayed is aware of it. What is at issue is whether it is bad in a subjective sense independently of the relevant subject’s awareness of it. Nagel simply assumes it is, based on what he asserts is “the natural view.” Unfortunately, as most philosophers and psychologists are aware, that a way of thinking is “natural” to human beings, does not alone prove it is correct. A betrayal arguably does become bad, in a subjective sense, only as a result of its discovery.

“A man’s life,” continues Nagel, “includes much that does not take place within the boundaries of his body and his mind, and what happens to him can include much that does not take place within the boundaries of his life” (p. 6). But, again, that is precisely what is at issue. That is, people who subscribe to the view that death is the end of the subject would dispute that anything could “happen” to a person once that person was dead. Things may indeed happen to a person’s reputation after their death. Someone presumed to be a benefactor of humanity while alive, may be exposed as a corrupt exploiter of humanity after their death. The claim, however, that damage to a person’s reputation that happens after their death is something that happens to them, rather than merely to their reputation is question begging. Neither Epicurus, nor any contemporary thinker would dispute that people live on, in a metaphorical sense, after their death. The issue is whether this metaphorical sense of the continuance of the subject would support the claim that death would be an evil for it.

“It is true,” observes Nagel, “that both the time before a man’s birth and the time after his death are times when he does not exist. But the time after his death is time of which his death deprives him” (p. 7). But again, that is precisely what is at issue. It is certainly true that had the man in question not died when he did, he would have lived longer, but that’s nothing more than a tautology. To infer from this tautology, as Nagel does, that “the time after his death is time of which death deprives him” (p. 7, emphasis added) is question begging. That is, proponents of the view that death is the end of the subject clearly understand the subject as a concrete sentient being, and death cannot deprive such a being of life because once death is, this being is not. Death, on this view of the subject, cannot deprive the dead of life because they no longer exist to be deprived of anything.

In Nagel’s defense, what would appear to be his somewhat idiosyncratic understanding of the nature of the subject is not actually so idiosyncratic. Nagel’s view that while the 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” (p. 5) and that hence such goods and ills can continue to befall him after his death has been popular throughout history. Many individuals from the past were concerned about possible posthumous damage to their reputations, etc. It is arguably only in the last century that the Epicurean equation of the subject with an organic, sentient being became popular. And some people appear to continue incoherently—i.e., despite their professed adherence to the Epicurean view of the subject—to be concerned with such things. 

My point here is not that the conclusion of Nagel’s argument that death is a subjective evil is mistaken, but that the argument itself is question begging. That is, Nagel mentions Lucretius in the course of the essay, hence it is clear he is arguing against the Epicurean position that death is not an evil. The problem with Nagel’s argument is that it involves a tacit rejection of the Epicurean view of the nature of the subject. Nagel simply assumes without argument that the subject is an abstract, or immaterial entity an entity which it makes perfect sense to ascribe evils not only of which they are contingently unaware but of which they are necessarily unaware because they no longer possess sentience. There is no question that it is possible to interpret human beings in the concrete, materialistic manner the Epicureans do, and in the abstract, immaterial manner Nagel does. The question is which subject is the relevant subject so far as the badness of death is concerned. 

Identity Pleas and Excuses

J.L. Austin famously recommended the study of excuses to moral philosophy. Austin distinguished two main types of excuses: justifications that draw on explicitly normative standards to justify one’s action as right after all, and qualified admissions that seek to mitigate due punishment by citing extenuating factors. But when put on the spot in real life situations, the accused, rather than citing extenuating factors, sometimes asks for an exemption from an applicable moral rule. When an exemption is requested, the validity of the rule is granted, but the accused asks that the rule not be enforced. 

Sometimes the request to be exempted from a particular moral rule is made with reference to the kind of person the accused is. I shall call such requests identity pleas. Identity pleas seek a dispensation to be exempted from some applicable rule henceforth. They seek continued toleration – a pass to continue living in the breach. As such, identity pleas are more difficult to place within moral theory than excuses. A Kantian moral theory, with its emphasis on exceptionless universal rules, cannot admit their existence at all, based as they are on the assertion of idiosyncrasy. But they do exist in the context of real relationships, the preservation of which sometimes involves overlooking admitted incorrigibility.  

Country music provides ample examples of identity pleas, as in the following song lyrics from three generations of misbehaving Hank Williams: 

Sometimes it’s hard, but you’ve gotta understand, when the Lord made me, he made a ramblin’ man. — Hank Williams, Sr. 

If I get stoned and sing all night long, it’s a family tradition.  — Hank Williams, Jr.

I can’t help the way that I am, ‘cause the whiskey, weed, and women had the upper hand. — Hank Williams III

Regrettably for Hank Sr., his wife did not in fact understand, and kicked him to the curb. But the failure of his plea does not detract from the pertinence of the example: Hank acknowledged that his behavior fell short of settled standards for marital relations – standards he did not seek to challenge – but instead begged his wife to tolerate his rambling ways because of the kind of person he is and cannot help being. 

While Hank’s wife lost patience, others make a different choice upon receiving similar pleas. Hillary Clinton claimed not to be the sort of woman Tammy Wynette sings about in “Stand By Your Man,” but she famously chose to overlook her husband’s pattern of infidelity, presumably with open eyes. Real people make these kinds of choices – the choice whether the flaws of the people in their lives are worth putting up with. Moral rules do not dictate these choices. 

Once you notice that there is such a thing as an identity plea, you start to see them frequently. Dispensations are often tacitly given without being asked for. For example, family ties bind people together despite significant differences in values. Many workplaces have a person whose quirks become well known and tolerated, such as the curmudgeon who is called gruff rather than rude, as their behavior merits by normal standards. “Don’t mind him,” the new employee may be told. 

So do identity pleas represent a category wholly divorced from excuses and moral evaluation? Not entirely. Identity pleas function as excuses when their proper reception can be justified on moral grounds. In these cases, they are more than bare requests for toleration. For example, people with some kinds of disabilities are unable to achieve perfect social propriety, such as a person with Tourette’s syndrome who interjects profanity at inopportune moments. In cases such as these, there is happily now a stable consensus that one should tolerate such infelicities. Failure to offer dispensation in cases such as these is considered a moral failure on the part of any individual intolerant enough to do so, and is indeed illegal in the context of employment.

Here we have a case of moral standards settling that a dispensation is in order, precisely because of the type of individual who has violated the rule. In situations such as these, the person making an identity plea has a legitimate excuse for their behavior, and it would be wrong to deny the request. 

At this point, it may be suspected that the example of disability provides the key to understanding identity pleas across the board, showing them to be a subclass of excuse rather than a disjoint category. In particular, it may be thought that the issue is always ultimately whether the individual making the plea is factually unable to abide by established norms, whether due to a documented disability or a more idiosyncratic quirk in their personality. In that case, it might be argued, Hank Sr.’s plea was rightly rejected because he was merely unwilling, not literally unable, to change his ways.

I believe, however, that such a suggestion is misplaced. Pleas like Hank’s are often enough accepted despite the absence of evidence that the behavior in question is based in genuine incapacity as opposed to stubbornness or weakness of will. 

How, then, shall we understand the relationship between identity pleas and moral theory? I suggest the key is to acknowledge, to a degree that Kantian morality does not, that ongoing relationships of various kinds form the backdrop of evaluation where identity pleas (and exceptions more generally) are made and evaluated. I don’t know to what extent Hank’s mother put up with his antics. Different parents take different approaches to wayward children, some cutting them off for minor offenses and others sticking with them despite appalling failures to reciprocate (as Hank III documents in his song “I’m the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised”).

There are standards with respect to identity pleas, but also wide latitude for discretion. This discretion exists in the space of intimacy and attachment, and differs by type of relationship (child, spouse, friend, employer, teacher, etc.). Abstract moral rules and appeals to rights do not form the basis of our more intimate relationships and do not dictate whether they are worth continuing despite breaches of normally applicable standards, whether in the past or anticipated in the future. Here, the moralism inherent in the consideration of excuses loses its centrality, as each person confronts the decision of what kind of person to be, and to be with.

Scott Kimbrough

Getting Gettier Wrong

Edmund Gettier showed in “Is justified true belief knowledge?” that it’s possible to have what most people would consider a justified belief that is true by accident, or a belief where the “justification” is not related to the truth in the way we intuitively feel it ought to be in order for the belief to amount to knowledge. This insight gave rise to a variety of attempts to develop theories of belief justification that would avoid what came to be known as “the Gettier problem.” Alvin Plantinga argues he has developed such a theory, though he refers to his theory as one of “warrant” rather than “justification.“ Plantinga argues that Gettier problems relate to anomalies in the cognitive environments in which beliefs are formed and that his theory of warrant avoids such problems by taking the cognitive environment into account in a way that standard theories of justification do not. It’s clear, however, that Plantinga’s ”warrant” does not avoid the Gettier problem. I argue that Platinga’s purported solution to this problem is based on a misunderstanding of the problem. The problem does not, in fact, concern the cognitive environment in which beliefs are formed in the way Plantinga argues it does.

Plantinga argues that knowledge is possible only if one assumes some kind of pre-established fit between the way our minds work and the nature of objective reality. This fit is part of what Plantinga calls God’s “design plan” (2011, piii), a plan that involves “a match between our cognitive powers and the world” (2011, xiv). A belief has warrant, according to Platingua, “if it is produced by cognitive faculties functioning properly (subject to no malfunctioning) in a cognitive environment congenial for those faculties, according to a design plan successfully aimed at truth” (1993, piii).

“Gettier problems,” observes Plantinga,

come in several forms. There is Gettier’s original Smith owns a Ford or Brown is in Barcelona version: Smith comes into your office, bragging about his new Ford, shows you the bill of sale and title, takes you for a ride in it, and in general supplies you with a great deal of evidence for the proposition that he owns a Ford. Naturally enough you believe the proposition Smith owns a Ford. Acting on the maxim that it never hurts to believe and extra truth or two, you infer from that proposition its disjunction with Brown is in Barcelona (Brown is an acquaintance of your about whose whereabouts you have no information). As luck would have it, Smith is lying (he does not own a Ford) but Brown, by happy coincidence, is indeed in Barcelona. So your belief Smith owns a Ford or Brown is in Barcelona is indeed both true and justified; but surely you can’t properly be said to know it. (1993, 32).

Plantinga examines several similar examples where a person forms a true belief based on what is, in fact, some kind of deceptive practice. These examples include one, which he credits to Carl Ginet, that involves a belief that one is looking at a comparatively fine example of a barn where the comparison is based not on real barns but on barn facades that the local inhabitants of rural Wisconsin town have erected in an effort to make themselves look prosperous. Another involves a belief that horses have recently been on a particular bridle trail in Yellowstone National Park based on the sight of horse manure placed there by “a wag with a perverse sense of humor” (1993, 32). Each example functions effectively like the first in that the crucial element in the example is that it involves an attempt to deceive.

The problem, according to Plantinga is that “credulity is part of our design plan. But it does not work well when our fellows lie to us or deceive us in some other manner, as in the case of Smith, who lies about the Ford, or the Wisconsinites, who set out to deceive the city-slicker tourists” (1993, 33). That is, there’s a problem, according to Plantinga, with “the cognitive environment.” That environment is supposed to be free of deliberately deceptive elements.

If we turn to what Gettier actually says, however, we see that neither of the counterexamples he presents to the definition of knowledge as justified true belief involves any reference to deliberate deception. Plantinga describes Gettier’s “original Smith owns a Ford or Brown is in Barcelona version” as one in which Smith lies about owning a Ford.

But Smith doesn’t lie in Gettier’s example. No one lies in that example. In fact, it is not Smith, but Jones who owns a Ford in Gettier’s original example. Smith, in this, the second of Gettier’s two examples, has reason to believe Jones owns a Ford. Why does Smith believe this? “Smith’s evidence,” writes Gettier, “might be that Jones has at all times in the past within Smith’s memory owned a car, and always a Ford, and that Jones has just offered Smith a ride while driving a Ford” (1963, 122). There’s no reference to Smith lying in Gettier’s original example despite Plantinga’s claim that there is. It just happens that Jones no longer owns a Ford, but has been driving a rented Ford.

Each of the purportedly Gettier-type counterexamples to knowledge as justified true belief that Plantinga presents, involves either lying or some other form of deliberate deception.
“[A] true belief is formed in these cases,” writes Plantinga, “but not as a result of the proper function of all the cognitive modules governed by the relevant parts of the design plan. The faculties involved are functioning properly, but there is still no warrant; and the reason has to do with the local cognitive environment in which the belief is formed” (1993, 33). That is, the local cognitive environment involves deliberate deception.

Plantinga acknowledges that “credulity is modified by experience,” that “we learn to believe some people under some circumstances and disbelieve others under others” (1993, 33), but he fails to specify what sorts of circumstances provide the proper cognitive environment for credulous belief formation. In fact, as Richard Greene and N.A. Balmert point out, Plantinga fails, in general, “to provide us with a criterion by which we can identify the proper cognitive environment for a particular cognitive module” (1997, 137).

It isn’t possible avoid the Gettier problem the way Plantinga argues his theory of warrant does by pointing out that God designed us generally to believe what other people say or do because no one lies, or indeed engages in any other form of deception, in either of Gettier’s examples. The “local cognitive environment” in Gettier’s “Jones owns a Ford or Brown is in Barcelona” example is free of any element of deception. The problem Gettier points out with the traditional definition of knowledge as justified true belief does not appear to have anything to do with the “local cognitive environment,” unless contingency is considered inappropriate to that environment, since it just happens that Jones no longer owns a Ford and that Brown is in Barcelona. But contingency is a feature of almost every cognitive environment, and certainly to every cognitive environment where the beliefs formed concern the nature of objective physical reality.


Gettier, E. 1963. Is justified true belief knowledge? Analysis 23, 121-23.
Greene, R. and Balmert, N.A. “Two notions of warrant and Plantinga’s solution to the Gettier problem. Analysis 57, 132-139.
Plantinga, A. 1993. Warrant and Proper Function. Oxford University Press.
Plantinga, A. 2011. Where the Conflict Really Lies. Oxford University Press.

More “Constancies” in Visual Perception

Mortar and Pestle, oil on canvas mounted on board, M.G. Piety 2020

Philosophers, psychologists, and neurologists interested in the nature of visual perception long ago noticed a phenomenon that has come to be known as “size constancy.” Size constancy, according to the American Psychological Association, refers to the perception of an object “as being the same size despite the fact that the size of its retinal image varies depending on its distance from the observer.” That is, as objects approach us or recede from us their image on our retina increases or decreases in size respectively.

Size constancy is only one aspect of what the APA refers to as “perceptual constancy.” Other aspects include what they refer to as “brightness constancy,” “color constancy,” and “shape constancy.” Each of these aspects of perceptual constancy has presented a challenge to visual artists who wish to work in the realist tradition. Shape constancy is addressed in teachings on “perspective.” A building may appear square to an observer but artists need to learn that as it recedes in space the lines that comprise the outline of the receding portion move closer together.

“Brightness constancy” and “color constancy” are less well understood. In fact, these designations are arguably misnomers. “Brightness” can be correctly predicated only of objects that actually emit light, but most objects don’t do that. “Value” refers to where on a scale of darkness or lightness a color, including black, falls, hence “brightness constancy” is more properly identified as “value constancy.” “Color constancy,” by the same token, is more properly identified as “hue constancy” in that “colors,” as generally understood, can be broken down into multitudes of subcategories artists refer to as “hues.” Red, for example, can be broken down into a variety of hues, some falling under the category artists refer to as “warm” because they are closer to the yellow part of the spectrum (e.g., cadmium red and vermilion) and others under the category artists refer to as “cool” because they are closer to the blue part of the spectrum (e.g., alizarin crimson).

In fact, value and hue constancy overlap. The artist Frank Arcuri explains to his students that natural light is cool and that this means it “washes out” color, so the portion of an object on which light falls most directly will have a lower hue saturation than the surrounding area. Areas of an object that are lit directly are thus both lighter in value and different in hue. As the object turns away from the light the color saturation increases becoming first warmer and then, eventually also darker.

Objects are also always illuminated by both direct light and the light reflected off other objects. This reflected light is influenced by the color of the objects off which it bounces so even what appears to an untrained eye as a purely white object will, in fact, have portions where it is not purely white. The difficulty is that such objects will appear purely white to most observers because the brain “corrects” for these tiny variations in hue to produce a visual impression of a uniformly-colored object.

Artists have been told for generations to “paint what you see.” It should be clear now, however, that such advice is counterproductive. What the untrained eye “sees” is something like an interpretation by the brain of the information provided to the visual cortex. Visual perception is a far more complex process than is generally appreciated. This process by which the brain produces it needs to be deconstructed by those who wish to learn how to paint realistically and this is not an easy task because the brain does its “interpretations” automatically.