This post is the second part in a brief series looking at the infamous Epicurean argument that death is not bad for the one who dies. The series is working off Aaron Smuts’s recent article “Less Good but not Bad: In Defense of Epicureanism about Death”. In the article, Smuts defends the innocuousist position, which holds that death is not prudentially bad because it is an experiential blank, i.e. it cannot be bad because no positive or negative experiential states are associated with it.
The argument that Smuts uses to defend this conclusion is called the Dead End Argument (DEA). This was outlined in full in part one. The DEA relies on a number of controversial premises, but the most controversial is the so-called causal hypothesis which states (numbering taken from the DEA in part one):
(4) Causal Hypothesis: An event is extrinsically bad if and only if it leads to intrinsically bad states of affairs.
The causal hypothesis is based on the idea that if an event is not in itself intrinsically good or bad, it can only derive its goodness or badness from its causal contribution to an event or state of affairs that is intrinsically good or bad. This is controversial because it contradicts a popular thesis about the badness of death, the so-called Deprivation Thesis. We’ll be refining this thesis later in this post, but for now the following formulation will do:
Deprivation Thesis: Life is prudentially good because it is associated with enjoyable and pleasant experiences. The state of non-being (death) is bad because it deprives you of those states.
The deprivation thesis depends on a counterfactual claim. This is inimical to the causal hypothesis. The deprivation thesis tells us that death is bad, even if it is an experiential blank and even if an experiential blank is not intrinsically bad, because it deprives us of something that would have been valuable if it had been the case, namely: continued existence. In this post we will look at some of the arguments advanced by defenders of the deprivation thesis. In the next post we’ll look at Smuts’s responses to these arguments.
1. Joe College and the Taliban Girl
The most popular way to defend the deprivation thesis and reject the causal hypothesis is through the use of thought experiments. These thought experiments are designed to pump our intuitions about when something is extrinsically (or intrinsically) good or bad. Reflection on those intuitions is supposed to reveal the flaws in the causal hypothesis. We’ll be looking at three such thought experiments here. Two suggesting that the causal hypothesis has the wrong account of extrinsic badness, and one looking at the other side of equation and suggesting that the causal hypothesis has the wrong account of extrinsic goodness.
We start with the two dealing with extrinsic badness. Consider the following (from Feldman a defender of the deprivation thesis):
Joe College: Joe is admitted to two colleges (A & B). If he goes to A he will study accounting, become a moderately successful accountant and live a reasonably good life. If he goes to B, he will study philosophy, discover a passion for the subject, and pursue a highly successful and fulfilling career at a top university. His life would be better if he went to B rather than A.
Suppose Joe decides to go to A. Was this a bad decision? Feldman think it undeniably so. In fact, he thinks that because going to B would have been better than going to A, going to A is extrinsically bad: it leads to a worse state of affairs. This, in effect, is the counterfactual claim at the heart of the deprivation thesis and it contradicts the causal hypothesis. Under the causal hypothesis, Joe’s choice of A is not extrinsically bad because Joe’s subsequent life is not bad, indeed it is reasonably good.
To emphasise the point raised by the Joe College thought experiment, consider another thought experiment:
Taliban Girl: Suppose there is a girl living in a repressive, fundamentalist Islamic culture that forbids teaching women how to read. If she is raised in this culture, she will remain illiterate but will otherwise live a reasonably good life. If she had been raised elsewhere, and taught to read, she would have developed a love for poetry, become a great poet and have lived a much better life.
Supposing she is raised in the fundamentalist culture, is her life bad? Again, it seems like it is. The fact that things would have been better if things were different seems to make the life she lived bad, even though the positive aspects of the life she did live outweigh the negative aspects (i.e. the illiteracy). This contradicts the causal hypothesis. The two possible lives are illustrated in the diagram below, and the badness of the illiterate existence is highlighted.
|Taliban Girl - Thought Experiment|
There are lots of problems with the two thought experiments. Many of which will be raised in subsequent parts. But granting their plausibility for now, Feldman thinks they support the following account of extrinsic badness (this is labelled EI, for some reason that is not revealed in Smuts’s article):
EI: Something is extrinsically bad for a person if and only if he or she would have been intrinsically better off had it not taken place.
This thesis explains the intuitive reactions to the Joe College and Taliban Girl thought experiments, and replaces the causal hypothesis.
2. Denying Anaesthesia
But EI only looks at half the picture. If the causal hypothesis claims that an event is only extrinsically bad if it causally contributes to an intrinsically bad state of affairs, it stands to reason that the symmetrical position is also true, i.e. that an event is extrinsically good if and only if it contributes to an intrinsically good state of affairs. As Smuts puts it, any defence of the causal hypothesis that appealed to an asymmetry between good and bad, would be ad hoc.
But there is a seemingly compelling counterexample to the causal hypothesis when it is applied to extrinsic good. Consider:
Denying Anaesthesia: Suppose a person is undergoing surgery that will alleviate some serious condition. The surgery clearly leads to an intrinsically good state of affairs. But the surgery itself can be performed in two ways: (a) with anaesthetic; or (b) without. If it is performed without anaesthetic, the person will not die, but will be in considerable pain. If it is performed with anaesthetic, this is avoided.
|Denying Anaesthesia - Thought Experiment|
Now the question: is it extrinsically good (better) to administer anaesthetic, even if it is not absolutely essential to the success of the surgery? It seems obvious that it is. But, bizarrely, the causal hypothesis denies this. According to the causal hypothesis, performing surgery with or without anaesthetic is extrinsically the same since both lead to the exact same outcome. Administering anaesthetic does not causally contribute to an intrinsically better state of affairs so it can’t be extrinsically good.
This, as I say, seems bizarre and wrong. And developing a thesis that accounts for why this is would be desirable. EI doesn’t do this since it only looks at extrinsic bad, so a broader thesis is needed. Bradley, another defender of the deprivation account, offers one such thesis. He calls it the OVT (Smuts does not say why, but I’m guessing it stands for “Overall Value Thesis”):
OVT: The overall value of a state of affairs P for a subject S at
is equal to the intrinsic value of T for S at W, minus the intrinsic value of T for S at the nearest world to W at which P does not obtain. (Where W = a world, and T = a time)
OVT fully embodies the counterfactual claim at the heart of the deprivation thesis. It claims that the value of a state of affairs can only be assessed by comparing it to the value of the state of the nearest possible world in which that state of affairs does not obtain. This supplies all we need for a deprivationist argument for the badness of death. For sake of completeness, let’s spell out that argument here (with numbering continuing from part one):
- (8) OVT is true: the overall value of a state of affairs P for a subject S in a particular world at a particular time is equal to the value of the world at that time to S, minus the value of the nearest possible world at that time to S, in which P does not obtain.
- (9) If you die at time T, you cease to exist and cease to have anymore positive experiences (call this state of affairs P1).
- (10) In the nearest possible world in which P1 does not obtain, you do not die and continue to have positive experiences (call this state of affairs P2).
- (11) The value of P2 (for you) exceeds the value of P1 (for you).
- (12) Therefore, dying is overall bad for the person who dies.
As I believe I have mentioned elsewhere, this is pretty much the canonical view about death. But Smuts thinks it is wrong. He does so because EI and OVT, which are used to support this deprivationist argument, lead to absurd conclusions. We’ll start looking at those absurd conclusions the next day.