The Badness of Death

What makes death bad for someone who dies?  This is on my mind for lots of different reasons--so here goes, some thinking aloud.

The question is puzzling if you even just think about the death of one individual, of one age and species, but let's be masochists and thinking about lots of deaths.

Death of a zygote after 2 days development
Death of a newborn baby
Death of a healthy young adult
Death of a very, very old unhealthy adult
Death of a healthy young cat

My gut feeling is that there's a certain Basic Badness to death (caps do so much to dignify ideas!). The Basic Badness consists of the fact that a certain conscious vantage point on the world existed for some time and then came to an end.  It seems to me this is a yes/no matter. Either the basic badness is present or it's absent.  And it's present whenever there exists a conscious vantage point. It's present in four of the cases, but not the first. A zygote has no conscious vantage point, so the Basic Badness of death is not present.  It might be sad and bad or even tragic in some way for a zygote to die--think about the miscarriage of a much wanted pregnancy.  But there is not the awfulness of termination of consciousness.

It would be foolish to say that all deaths are equally bad, just because they involve termination of consciousness. They have a certain type of badness to an equal degree, but there are other types of badness besides Basic Badness. There are two further types of badness (at least!) that make different deaths bad to different degrees.  Death doesn't just bring an end to consciousness; it also takes away future life, and that future life can vary in quantity and quality.  So in addition to the Basic Badness of death, there is also some degree of Deprivation.  A very old unhealthy adult is deprived of less, by death, than a healthy young adult.

More "compare and contrast": I would say the deprivation involved when a cat dies is less than when a newborn baby or health human adult dies--both in light of quantity and quality.  There are different "goods" possible in different lives, and not as much good in the average hour of a cat's life.  (NB: no less an animal advocate than Peter Singer says exactly the same thing.)

Next:  the Basic Badness of death is compounded also by the degree to which death Interrupts.  It's one thing to take away future years that would have been good. It's another to interrupt a project that's already under way.  Both are bad, but they're bad in different ways.  In one case, precious days are lost, in the other, someone dies with "unfinished business."

Death interrupts very little for a baby, a great deal for a healthy adult, and once again, quite a bit less for a very old unhealthy adult.  Does death interrupt for a cat, or is a cat's life lived day after day after day, with no possibility of "unfinished business"?  There isn't much chance of "unfinished business" for most house cats, but many animals can die with unfinished business. Think of a salmon killed in the middle of its journey upstream, or a beaver killed while building a dam.  But yes, on average, there's bound to be less interruption than when a healthy human adult dies.

Now let's do the math ... but how should we do it?  A zygote's death is not bad as far as Basic Badness goes, but it's maximally depriving.  Should we (1) simply add the numbers together? Is death, for a zygote, pretty damned bad, because of the deprivation?  Or should we say (2) that only deaths that are Basically Bad can be even more bad, because of additional bad-making factors?

I say (2).  I cannot make myself think the death of a zygote is bad in anything at all like the death of the other four individuals is bad.   The badness of deprivation doesn't "kick in" because there's no basic badness to the death of a zygote.

The Basic Badness of death can be worsened by deprivation and interruption, but where there is no Basic Badness, there's nothing to worsen.  The way that death brings consciousness to an end is a privileged part of the picture, with everything else playing a secondary, "compounding" role.  Why is termination of consciousness the primary thing? Perhaps--bottom line--death is not really death, unless it terminates a consciousness.  So deprivation doesn't make a zygote's death extra bad, because it's not really a death, in the funeral sense, to begin with, however much (nevertheless) it can be a grievous thing to lose a pregnancy.

At least--that's how things appear at the moment! Back to reading the death literature (I'm currently reading Death, by Shelly Kagan).


Rhys said...

If someone is temporarily unconscious -- like if they are knocked out, or they are in a stage of sleep without dreaming -- would their death then lose "Basic Badness?" If not, why not?

Like the zygote, the dreamless sleepers and otherwise temporarily unconscious don't have current consciousness -- they only have future potential consciousness. The main difference (besides that the potential future consciousness of the temporarily-unconscious-born might be coming to them sooner) is that they have past consciousness as well. But we don't seem to take past consciousness into account when someone is hooked up to life support and we know they will never be conscious again, and we're trying to figure out if there's something undesirable about unplugging them.

Also, why is it an added badness when death interrupts a project? Without a post-bodily-death limbo where you go and fret about all the things you meant to accomplish but never did, the dead are no better or worse off based on what they did or did not accomplish during their lives. Only the survivors can fret about unfinished projects of the dead.

I think you're confusing the living's attachment to the dead with the dead's attachment to their (now unremembered to them) lives. Most of us mourn the deaths of already born people more than the deaths of zygotes because we know them and so were more attached to them. The dead zygote and the dead adult are in the exact same position: non-consciousness. There's no difference for "them," because there is no them, no matter how old or how conscious they were just before they died.

Jean Kazez said...

Hi Rhys,

If someone dies while in a deep sleep, the deep sleep didn't bring a permanent end to their conscious vantage point, but death does. So the basic badness of death still pertains--there's the coming to a permanent end of consciousness in that case, as in a case where someone is awake at the time of death.

As to why interruptions are bad, if the dead person doesn't survive to feel interrupted--this is an example of the classic puzzle about death. How can death be bad for a person, if you can't affix a time to the badness? This puzzle arises on most views about the badness of bad, and not just on the view that interruption makes death worse. So I don't think that's particularly a problem for the interruption view. Any account of the badness of death (pretty much) needs to say something about the "time of badness" puzzle.

Craig Urias said...

I'll take your "at least!" as an invitation to suggest more types of badness. We could add Deprivation/Interruption compounders from the perspective of survivors. For example the death of newborn entails no Interruption for the newborn, but it sure does for the parents. For a fertile couple the Deprivation rank is perhaps medium/large, but if they are somehow unable to conceive again then it would be very large. Another example: a great artist dies young, depriving thousands/millions of the appreciation of future works ("depriving humanity", if we are poetic).

Another compounder might be sunk costs. From a cold-hearted economic standpoint it's especially hard on parents for a child to die just after finishing college -- all that money down the drain, without being "used". Maybe sunk costs is just part of Interruption from the survivors' perspective.

Wayne said...

I'm pretty sure I agree with everything you wrote here. But I just want to really tease out a troubling intuition I'm having. For some reason, I'm really concerned that the healthy young cat's life is more valuable than a zygote.

If we take this at face value, I could walk up to someone who lost a baby via miscarriage early in the pregnancy, and say, "There, there, at least it wasn't a healthy young cat. Could you imagine?" and it make sense, since the loss was LESS than the miscarriage.

Change the scenario, it would make perfect sense to say "There There, at least it wasn't a 1 year old baby." that might make more sense (Still a little cruel... but forget the cruelness).

Unknown said...

Agreed, the cat does not have unfinished business in any significant sense - no important plans she could have carried out and will not because of deaths. Still, it makes sense to speak of her interest to live (or preference to continue living). That is a conscious interest (or preference), which does not require a robust sense of the future, and one the interruption of which, though not worse for anyone (classic puzzle), still strikes me as closer to the vantage point as other unfinished business. (I think Singer's "debit view" of preferences fails to account for the badness-for of unpaid debts, while if you hold an interest-to-live view, death harms with respect to all that's been accomplished in life precisely to sustain and fulfill that interest to live.

Charles Sullivan said...

I would suggest that being conscious means having experiences, which means having interests--in not suffering.

I'm with you on the 2-day old zygote (probably less conscious than an adult sea cucumber).

But death is really death whether it terminates a consciousness or not, whether it's a rosebush of a mountain goat. The difference is that (if we caused the death) there can be no direct moral responsibility for the death of the rosebush, but there can be for the mountain goat (b/c it has conscious experience, at least).

There's nothing it's like to be a rosebush, not so with a mountain goat. We can do nothing for the "sake' of the rosebush (literally), not so for the goat. Nothing matters to the rosebush (it can't be harmed), not so for the goat. Rosebushes can be healthy or unhealthy but it doesn't (it can't) matter to them. A goat's health doesn't matter to it directly, but it does when ill-health causes it to suffer.