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. 

The Paradox of Personal Identity

What makes us who we are? Our bodies? Our minds? Our moral character? “The most natural theory of personal identity,” writes the philosopher Richard Swinburne, is that it is “constituted by bodily identity” (Personal Identity, Oxford, 1984). There are obvious problems with this theory, though. The brain, seems more important than the rest of the body. A person can lose an arm or a leg and still be obviously the same person. Damage to the brain is different. A person who suffers severe memory loss, or a dramatic personality change, as a result of a brain injury or degenerative brain disease is not so obviously the same person they were before. 

“The traditional alternative to a bodily theory of personal identity,” continues Swinburne, “is the memory-character theory.” According to this theory, it’s the continuity of our memories and our character that constitutes our selves. But which is more important, memory or character?

Our sense of self is closely connected with our memories, or more specifically, with the personal narratives we construct based on those memories. If the memories go, then so do the narratives. If we reach a point where we can no longer remember who we were, then the person we were is gone. There’s still a person there, of course, but it is, in an important sense, a different person, a new person, a person with no past. 

Recent work in “personal identity theory” has shifted its focus from memory to character, or more specifically, to moral character. Research done by Nina Strohminger, a psychologist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and Shaun Nichols, a philosopher at the Sage School of Philosophy at Cornell showed that the extent to which someone suffering from Alzheimers seemed different to those close to them was determined almost entirely by changes in their moral character rather than by memory loss (“Neurodegeneration and Identity,” Psychological Science, Vol. 26 [9] 2015 pp. 1469-1479). 

The primary aim of Strohminger’s and Nichols’ study, they explain, “was to determine the influence of neurodegenerative symptomatology on third-person judgments of personal identity” (p. 1470). But a theory of personal identity that locates that identity outside a person’s own sense of self is deeply unsatisfying.

Here’s the puzzle. It makes sense to suppose that character is constitutive of who we are. On closer examination, however, it seems neither necessary nor sufficient for personal identity. Or more correctly, whether it’s either necessary or sufficient would appear to depend on one’s perspective. So long as people retain a critical mass of the memories that make up their personal narratives, their characters can change and even change dramatically, without threatening their sense of self. That is, character can change without any corresponding change of personal identity from the first-person perspective. If people’s characters change enough, however, they will seem like different people to others, which is to say they will seem like different people, from the third-person perspective.

Conversely, people can experience such profound memory loss that they no longer have a coherent personal narrative and hence completely lose their sense of self. Memory loss does not necessarily affect character, however. So these same people who are no longer the person they were from the first-person perspective, may remain recognizable as the same person to others, which is to say, from the third-person perspective.

So it appears the judgment of whether a given person is “the same person” after significant memory loss as they were before depends on the perspective from which one makes the judgment. Someone whose personality remains recognizably the same will appear to be the same person from the third-person perspective, which is to say from the perspective of people who knew them before, even if they have entirely lost their own sense of who they used to be. On the other  hand, a person can retain their subjective sense of self even after personality changes that make them effectively unrecognizable to others.

So it seems that just like electrons will appear to be either waves or particles depending on how one observes them, so can we appear to be either the same person we have always felt ourselves to be, or an entirely different person depending on who’s doing the observation, ourselves or someone else.

But which perspective are we to take as definitive? The first person or the third person? Philosophers, as Thomas Nagel observed so compellingly in The View From Nowhere (Oxford, 1989), are biased in favor of objectivity, which is to say, they are biased in favor of the third-person perspective.

Do other people really have the final say, though, on who we are?