Life & Culture

The philosophy of our endings

In his latest Jewniversity column, David Edmonds profiles Shelly Kagan, philosopher of death


Very old abandoned Jewish cemetery near the village of Trstin, Slovakia

Is death bad?

That’s a question that seems so dumb that only a philosopher could ask it. But Shelly Kagan — who deserves the rather ghoulish title of World’s Greatest Philosopher of Death — shows that it’s far more complicated than it at first appears.

Of course, when some people say death is bad, they mean the process of dying is bad. And obviously dying can be painful. Being chewed up by a lion, for example, might not be a nice way to go. But it is possible to die painlessly in sleep. And what Professor Kagan is interested in is whether death itself is bad. If so, why?

Religious believers reject the notion that death is the end of existence. But most philosophical discussion of death assumes that it is. Now, one way my ceasing to exist might be bad is that it’s bad for those I leave behind (assuming they’ll be at least one or two people who’ll miss me). But that doesn’t seem to capture the badness of death.

To use one of Kagan’s examples, compare the following scenarios. In Scenario One, my best mate is going on a spaceship for 100 Earth years in order to explore the outer reaches of the universe. I will be long dead by the time he returns. Scenario Two is identical except the spaceship explodes on take-off and my friend is killed instantly. In both cases, I’m separated from my best friend. But Scenario Two seems worse.

Perhaps death is bad because it deprives me of the things I enjoy about life. This seems the most plausible answer to Professor Kagan’s question, and is known as The Deprivation Account. I enjoy all sorts of things — like playing with my kids, watching TV and eating Kit Kats. When I die I cannot, among other things, eat more Kit Kats. That is surely cause for regret.

But this solution leads to further puzzles. I am deprived by events all the time and yet regret does not always seem appropriate. Not winning the lottery this week means I can’t take advantage of a £10million windfall — but it doesn’t make much sense to say I regret not winning the lottery.

Shelly Kagan explores the possibility that regret makes more or less sense depending on the probability of an event occurring. A 5-year-old is very likely to make it to the age of 6. The death of 5-year-old is a tragedy. But the death of a 105-year-old is not a misfortune in the same way; a 105-year-old is much less likely to make it to 106.

Whether death is bad is only one puzzle about death. If death is bad, when is it bad? Not when I’m alive, because when I’m alive I’m not yet dead. And not when I’m dead, because then there’s no “me” for it to be bad for.

And here’s another intriguing question. How would life change if we never died? Would this be desirable? Does life only have meaning because it comes to an end? What aspects of life would still be rewarding in a world without death?

Professor Kagan has answers to many of these puzzles, and if you go online you can watch his enormously popular Yale lectures on death. He’s a brilliant lecturer —and has breathed new life into the philosophy of death.

Shelly Kagan nearly became a rabbi. He grew up with four siblings in Skokie, a town with a big Jewish population and many Holocaust survivors.

His mother was born in the US, his father in Russia. They were comfortably off. His father owned a drug store, and his mother was an elementary school teacher, with a variety of off-beat hobbies, including belly dancing.

The young Kagan was living in Skokie during the famous legal battle, when some neo-Nazis sought the right to demonstrate. He agreed with the line taken by the American Civil Liberties Union (the ACLU) that the Nazis had a right to march — to which a fellow synagogue congregant replied, “sure, and I have the right to hit them over the head with a baseball bat”.

He describes himself as “a committed and involved liberal Jew” and credits his Jewish upbringing for his interest in ethics. But he would not have entered academia had his plans to become a rabbi not been thwarted. He was turned down by the Reform seminary. That was a bad day for God, but an excellent one for philosophy.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive