“Is ‘Less Good’ Bad?”

                                At the outset on the discussion on the potential badness of death, we hit a known psychological barrier.  We are preprogrammed as evolutionary extant beings to avoid death.  This is best evidenced by our natural fear of a host of things that trigger our “fight, flight, or freeze” instincts: heights, spiders, snakes, darkness, and water (among others).  Death lurks around each of these images and we are the wiser for taking heed the warning that fear offers.  Our rationality, however, helps us to conquer these various fears at a super-primal level (indeed, many rock climbers would tell you fear is that which is most likely to get you killed).  So, too, will we attempt to conquer the mystique of what those fears have in common and overcome this instinct to immediately label death as intrinsically bad.  It is not much of a leap, frankly, given our equally-potent senses of vengeance and mercy.  In this essay, I will describe and defend (to limited effectiveness), the deprivationist account of when death can be bad for you.  Shelly Kagan offers a deprivationist view that I argue will ultimately ask us to determine if “less good” can be claimed to be categorically bad.  The answer to the question[1] dictates everything.

                Kagan begins by exploring the nature of badness.  He presents many paths for a thing to be bad.  Something can be intrinsically, instrumentally, or comparatively bad.  We will return to this comparative argument, but will grant much until such time we are ready to counter it.  He uses a few examples to establish that in some instances, that which is bad can only be so comparatively.  In the instance of having watched TV instead of going to a party or picking an envelope that has 10 bucks in it (good), instead of the one that has 1000 (comparatively bad – you “effectively” lost 990 smackaroonies)[2].  In this instance, he has only demonstrated that something can be both intrinsically and instrumentally neutral (or good) but comparatively bad.  He does this without ruling out other possibilities that the categorical badness of something can vary within these three types (for instance, cleaning my room is comparatively bad to cleaning my house but it is instrumentally good in creating a feeling of happiness and accomplishment).  This is the foundation he launches from.  (Kagan, Chapter 10, pp. 210 – 212) 

                With the pieces in place to justify a comparative badness, he introduces an argument from Epicurus.  In it, he breaks the classic philosopher’s[3] argument into two premises: that a) something can only be bad for you if you exist and b) when you are dead, you most certainly do not exist.  The conclusion is that death cannot be bad for you because it happens at the moment you cease to be.  In our reading, several thinkers consider this temporal nature of death and Kagan is certainly one of them. He is able to effectively dismiss Epicurus’ claim with his afore-mentioned comparative badness.  If you have died, you are no longer enjoying things you would otherwise enjoy.  Epicurus’ response would be “but you do not exist, so who gives a toss? Let’s drink beer.”[4]  Kagan deduces that we must address one of Epicurus’ two proposed premises and sets his sights on the first (as denying “when you are dead you do not exist” would require some metaphysical – and probably postmodern – gymnastics).  He proposes we split Epicurus’ first premise into two: the modest and bold existence requirements.  The bold is identical to the classicist’s whereas the modest states “something can be bad for you if you existed at some time or other.”  (Kagan, Chapter 10, p. 221-222) To ground, this argument becomes “death can be bad for you if you existed at some time or other.”  We are now firmly in the territory of possibility.

                A brief detour here to acknowledge that death can also be comparatively good.  Surely a life full of unending misery and suffering (by any account of intrinsic goodness or badness) is bad.  Death, when applied to this person in this context, surely is a good thing and comparatively so.  A state of nonexistence is comparatively better to a state of total negative value of life and is one of many effective arguments for physician-assisted suicide.  This detour has only further acknowledged that we are still operating within the realm of possibility, not the realm of absolutism.  At the very least we have proven that death is not intrinsically bad given its capacity to be good under applicable circumstances.  This is in keeping with all the philosophers we have examined.

                To briefly summarize the other two possibilities (can death be instrumentally or comparatively bad?), we can enjoy some ridiculous story-telling.  I enjoy coloring books with vulgar words in them.  If I die, I will no longer be able to elaborately decorate extended middle fingers – thus, death can be instrumentally bad.  I also hate seeing my brother’s ugly children, but I have to every single day.  His baby’s face is so awful I go into anaphylactic shock.[5]  If I die, I will never have to see his demon spawn ever again.  Death can be instrumentally good.  In the above scenarios, the comparative approach also works – if I were alive I’d be coloring in a vulgar suggestion on how to spend your time, by comparison I am not doing that which brings me great joy.  Death can be comparatively bad.  I will not make you suffer through the example of my brother’s grotesque children again.[6]  Death can be comparatively good (very, very good).

                As an instrument, we have ultimately described death as an amoral, imprudent tool (not unlike a hammer or a pop singer).  We can further extend that this instrument can deprive one of something, good or bad.  A hammer can slam nails into the wall and so deprive me of a feeling of cold wind with this sweet hut I built.  It can also slam into my thumbnail and deprive me of happiness (and, temporarily, my intelligible vocabulary)[7].  Death, likewise, can be an instrument that can deprive me of something for good or evil.  This act, the deprivation of something good, is at the center of Kagan’s argument.  Let us return to it now.

                If we are to continue with Kagan’s account, it seems we must accept that getting “less good” is actually “bad.”  There are plenty of examples that challenge this assertion.  Regardless of the moral consequences, if I slap Robin Thicke[8] across the face I feel incredibly good.  But if someone forces me instead to throw darts at his album cover (comparatively not as much fun), is what I am experiencing “bad?”  It is certainly “less good,” but I struggle to make the leap that less, in this instance, is bad.  Further, it’s hard to arbitrarily decide when a significant good-bad gap constitutes my having undertaken an evil.  Surely some extreme suggests an obvious bad – if the envelope had a cure for a terrible disease I was sure to die from and the other had a lollipop.  But if my choice reflected a cherry Jolly Rancher candy or an apple candy (I would argue both have no actual discernible value), it’s hard to say that selecting the one I prefer less is bad.  But, we can summarize this argument back within the realm of possibility (not universality).  If death can deprive me of a possible good (coloring in the words I say when the hammer hits my thumb) and being deprived of a good can be bad – air is good, depriving me of it would be bad – then death can be bad.

                                Before we continue, let us consider another, more basic interpretation of what is at work here.  Can we make death universally bad or, at the very last, lend some universal bad considerations to it when calculating it’s badness?  In other words, when is death always bad?  I see no fault in trying.  Let us examine something it is depriving us of: namely life.  This line of reasoning will address the second challenge Kagan takes on: Lucretius’ puzzle of non-existence.  Recall, Lucretius states that it is useless to lament the time after we die as we do not lament the time before birth.  This “asymmetry” is irrational and so we must either be in eternal mourning for all of the time we missed before birth or drop the mourning for time after death.

                Both Kagan and Frances Kamm address this argument (we will effectively be deploying a version of Kamm’s “Willhavehadism”)[9], though Kagan takes a mathematically ridiculous exercise examining all of the “Larry’s” that did not exist.  We are not placing any value on the actual state of nonexistence and so will avoid clarifying Kagan’s position any further.[10]

                In drawing a parallel to Kamm’s, we have to place value on the opposite of death, namely life.  For that, let me propose a few premises for consideration.  Life can be defined as a consequence of being born – and as such it is a state of being that belongs to an individual.  Belonging, in this sense, is best described by the adequate phrase “I have life” – it implies ownership such as intangible things can be owned. We “have” thoughts, rights, and goals in addition to life.  This act of living is (presently) temporary.  This temporality is well-defined by that which nature allows.  The expiration of this life, moral considerations notwithstanding, is known as “natural death.”  Thus, life as you have it begins at birth and ends at “natural death.”  For all intents and purposes, natural death is the longest amount of time one can survive with unmodified cell biology.  Death of any kind is the cessation of life but “premature death” is a death so exacted before “natural death.”  Is “natural death” an evil?  I think we can apply several prior conclusions to this and say, without equivocation, that it can be.  The same, it must be said, of premature death.[11]

                If we are to determine that death is absolutely bad, we would have to suppose that life could go on in an intrinsically good state indefinitely.  Let us suppose this then and see where this gets us.  We create a world not unlike Nozick’s Experience Machine only it’s real life.  The technology of life is so robust, you can actually decide to be and do whatever you want and have it happen within the real world, within reason. We will again avoid any arguments for or against subjective or objective theories of what is IIGFY or the metaphysical problems of everybody wanting to win the Super Bowl.  If life still has an expiration date and you still expire at that time, is death itself bad or are we confusing this with the decline in the real world being bad?  At the moment of your death, you will still be having a great experience due to the advances of life technology.  If the decline could be avoided, it would appear we have reached a universe where death is both comparatively and instrumentally bad. That is, unless the experience of death itself is somehow a positive state of being in which case you are now just in a state of “less good” which we argued previously is not necessarily the same as “bad.”

                The deprivation account (specific to death’s badness) hinges on the prospect that the state you enter, non-existence, is comparatively bad to the state you were in, existence.  In order to make the leap from “can” to “is” in this scenario (death can be bad versus death is bad) we need only consider the comparative loss and decide if it can be universalized.  Clearly it cannot as we can make a very, very simple argument to counter it.  Namely: a) a life can be good and, b) a life can be bad and c) death can instrumentally deprive me of life.  Therefore, death can instrumentally deprive me of a good or a bad.  This was our best chance to prove the intrinsic badness of death.[12]

                So let us return once more to Kamm’s argument for “Willhavehadism” as we start to entertain various “shape-of-life” considerations.  Kamm would likely disagree with the overall shape of the argument above.  In it, we are prioritizing the extant value of surviving life without any consideration for what the quality of that life is.  Kamm’s view, stated bluntly, is that she thinks it worse to die at 20 (with only five additional years left) than to die at 50 (with a full 20 additional years left).  We are certainly taking on board a different sort of claim here, but the crux of it is evaluation of a premature death in the face of another, “scheduled” premature death.  (Kamm, p. 774, para. 1)  Kamm’s position can be further elaborated (and bolstered).  Say the 20-year old has five years of exciting “bucket list” activities lined up when they are tragically killed.  Say the 50-year old was their inspiration and has already completed said bucket list of activities (plus the other general enjoyments one gets in life from ages 20-50).  In this telling, Kamm believes the deprivation account will still consider the 50-year old’s loss to be considerably worse, considering he had 20 more years of life in him.  I find this to be an oversimplification and strangely rigid.  What if the 20-year old existed in immense pain and only had five years more of pain to endure and the 50-year old just turned his life around after battling years of alcoholism?  Deprivationism (by admittedly modifying Kamm’s position – so noted from course materials Arneson, Triton Ed., More Death Notes, p. 1, para. 4), using Kamm’s idea of “Willhavehadism,” can still account for a shape-of-life consideration.  Deprivationism can consider each potential moment of a life, down to whichever reducible unit one desires, and place value on it to be judged as comparatively bad.  In this way, it holds no priority per se between the 20- and 50-year old people but instead opts to inspect their specific comparative losses and hold judgment.  It is this flexibility that I believe is the beauty of Kagan’s deprivationist view.  Applied to each case, it would come to the same conclusions as Kamm.

                A final consideration supported by Jeff McMahan against the deprivation account[13] asserts the importance of psychological connectedness.  In an example Ben Bradley utilizes, a 3-year old with a bright future and a 23-year old graduate student with a bright future both share the constant of living uninterrupted until the ripe old age of 80 (I believe comparing human beings to edible fruit is intrinsically bad).  In the above example, McMahan believes death for the 23-year old is worse.  We are also able to believe that both the 3- and 23-year old would have enjoyed similar levels of life enjoyment from 3-23. (Bradley, Chapter 4, pp. 113-115) What does our nuanced deprivationist view say about the McMahan case?[14] By McMahan’s standards, the student has a much clearer idea and closer relation to who or what he is to become and so life is worse to lose at this late stage of the game.

                While this seems tricky on the surface, I feel this is a subjective trick and a trivial game of “hide the ball,” with regard to the author’s prioritizing mental attitude (and, to some degree, a desire satisfaction view of intrinsic goodness).  Near-ness to a life goal is a strange hook to hang your hat on and yet we are to believe that this is the deciding factor.  It would seem you must create a particularly finite set of counterfactual circumstances to lend credibility to this view.  Even in this extremely controlled case, we are assuming the two participants in this exercise have near the same level of experience and so even the 3-year old would eventually feel the same connectedness as the young adult.  We are taking the value of the derivative of their life-shape and somehow applying it to the larger life equation.  This seems trivial in nature and if we carry this logic out (again, the subjects have the exact same life trajectory), it seems we can only arrive at a conclusion that suggests both deaths are equally tragic and can never regard the 23-year old’s death as more so unless we change the circumstances of the 3-year old’s in some way, in which case the experiment seems to fall apart. The deprivationist would conclude that if the counterfactual were true and both would live exactly equal lives yet both died as stated, the 3-year old clearly enjoyed less than the 23-year old up to that point. 

Perhaps if we tweak the scenario and both lived a terrible life of abject misery but, just moments before the 23-year old would have died, life trajectory (derivative of the shape of life) was highly positive, we can perhaps argue that the 23-year old’s death is more tragic – having suffered far more and then had a sudden burst of positivity flashed before it expired.  Even still, the deprivationist could consider this connectedness and weigh it against the shape of life up to that point.  From here, we are arguing for value preference.  If you think having hope after years of misery outweighs all of the experience of those years of misery, then I contend you are in the minority.  But we are discussing subjective values now and the conversation is becoming less grounded.

                In ending this discussion, we return to the only argument I proffer as legitimately counter to the deprivationist view.  Deprivationism, so considered by Kagan, contends that something can be comparatively bad for you – if what you are denied is better than that which you are given.  In the case of the badness of death, you are denied access to that which is good and are given a scenario wherein there is no longer any experience – good or bad.  Kagan submits that this comparative difference is bad, but I am not entirely convinced that it is.  The nature of how we interpret the experience of death (non-existence) is ultimately that which decides if death is bad for you.  If we think that all of life’s experiences have some positive value rather than negative value, we can perhaps frame this discussion more legitimately.  If we imagine a 0 on the scale of “life quality” is the worst possible misery for someone and 1 as “roasting at a slightly lower temperature and, as a result, slightly less pain” then yes, we can make an argument that anything less than some value is bad.  If we say the scale goes from 0 to 100 and death sits at 50 as it consists of neither suffering nor pleasure, then the deprivationist view holds.  However, if we assume that death is a value of 0 and we acknowledge that whether you feel a 10 on the happiness scale or 15 is good for you and the difference (-5) is not actually bad, then we can see at least a hole in the deprivationist armor.  As holes go, however, you could fly the Enterprise through it.


[1] 42.

[2] Money.  Cash.  Scrilla.  Paper.  Green.  Cheddar.  Smackers.  Dollars.

[3] So used flexibly.  The term “natural philosopher” was a scientist in the late 1600’s, so we will refer to Epicurus as such only in the context of this conversation.  For all intents and purposes, he was just a cool dude with suspect hair.

[4] I highly doubt Epicurus was a wine guy.  Too aloof.

[5] Completely false.  I do not see my brother or his ugly children all that often.

[6] Also false, his kids are adorable.

[7] “$%&#!” he exclaimed as he threw the hammer across the room.

[8] From his seminal hit “Blurred Lines” released in 2013, it may be logically inferred by Mr. Thicke’s own reasoning that he “knows he wants it.”

[9] Kamm describes “Willhavehadism” as a way of examining the badness of death by what the subject will have had up to that point.  For instance, a 20-year old with only 5 years to live who dies is more tragic than a 50-year old with 20 years to live who dies because of the amount of life they will have had up to that point.

[10] It is in affect an extended moral plea to address Lucretius’ proposition of non-existence – if we feel bad for all of those that have died, how on earth can we justify all of the people (Kagan calculates a number with several zeros on the end) that could have, but did not, exist.

[11] My brother’s alleged ugly children and my coloring book proved regardless of my age, death – either natural or premature – can be bad (or good).

[12] By universalizing its application. Not happening, folks.

[13] This is responded to by Ben Bradley, using an entirely different network of deprivationist principles.  We do not address these but instead look to this argument and apply it to our simple deprivationist account.

[14] We will avoid any of Ben Bradley’s direct criticisms for purposes of brevity.