Philosophy and death

Charles 2 Comments

Posted by Vale

Yale University is starting to experiment with free open access video based learning.

One of the courses it’s offering is run by Shelley Kagan who is Clark Professor of Philosophy at the University. It’s all about death. This is the course introduction:

There is one thing I can be sure of: I am going to die. But what am I to make of that fact? This course will examine a number of issues that arise once we begin to reflect on our mortality. The possibility that death may not actually be the end is considered. Are we, in some sense, immortal? Would immortality be desirable? Also a clearer notion of what it is to die is examined. What does it mean to say that a person has died? What kind of fact is that? And, finally, different attitudes to death are evaluated. Is death an evil? How? Why? Is suicide morally permissible? Is it rational? How should the knowledge that I am going to die affect the way I live my life?

There are 26 lectures published as videos online. You can find them here.

If you are a reader rather than a watcher. Professor Kagan also asks the question ‘Is Death Bad for you’ in an essay published in the – online – Chronicle of Higher Education. This gives you a flavour of the discussion:

People sometimes respond that death isn’t bad for the person who is dead. Death is bad for the survivors. But I don’t think that can be central to what’s bad about death. Compare two stories.

Story 1. Your friend is about to go on the spaceship that is leaving for 100 Earth years to explore a distant solar system. By the time the spaceship comes back, you will be long dead. Worse still, 20 minutes after the ship takes off, all radio contact between the Earth and the ship will be lost until its return. You’re losing all contact with your closest friend.

Story 2. The spaceship takes off, and then 25 minutes into the flight, it explodes and everybody on board is killed instantly.

Story 2 is worse. But why? It can’t be the separation, because we had that in Story 1. What’s worse is that your friend has died. Admittedly, that is worse for you, too, since you care about your friend. But that upsets you because it is bad for her to have died. But how can it be true that death is bad for the person who dies?

You can find the essay here. Worth reading.


  1. Charles

    Maybe because we know, as we decline, how sweet life (can) be! But that’s still, really, about dying, a process. About non-being, the logic holds (for me, anyway.)

    Thanks for the link Vale, good stuff on the free course videos. ‘course, philosophers do have to work their way round all sides of a question, but it’s good brainwork.

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