death

Is death really so bad? Yale’s Shelly Kagan explores one of our deepest fears…

While skimming the comment sections of a post by Jerry Coyne, I was turned onto this debate between philosopher Shelly Kagan and Christian theologian William Lane Craig. A little more study revealed this may be one of the few debates WLC has ever “lost” with an atheist, and I have to agree that he seemed taken off his game a bit by the informal setting and by Kagan (see a brief review here). I’m not sure I was convinced by Kagan’s argument that an atheist can have any kind of “objective” morality in the sense Craig is advocating for, though I am also not convinced that humans need objective morality, and finally I’m unconvinced that objective morality under theism is any more tenable (Why, for instance, is something good solely because God says it is? What if He were to say rape was good, would that make it objectively moral?).

In any event, I was sufficiently intrigued by Kagan to look up some more material, and found the video below that centers on death, given right across the street at Southern Methodist University. His main points can be summarized in this article, but for an even briefer taste, here are some of the questions he explores:

  • Why is death bad? (not the process or prospect, but death itself)
  • Is death intrinsically bad (like pain), or instrumentally bad (like losing your job and that leading to poverty), or is it comparatively bad (watching TV when you could be at a great party)?
  • If death is bad for you, when is it bad for you? It can’t be bad when you’re alive. Can something be bad for you if you don’t exist?
  • If you reject the existence requirement, can’t it be bad not to exist? If so, what about all the potential people who will never be born? Are we committing a great moral crime by not spending all our time trying to bring as many people from nonexistence into existence as possible?
  • And so on…

I have almost no background in philosophy, so I’m trying to ease myself in and Kagan’s a perfectly accessible and entertaining teacher to do that with. Additionally, his popular course at Yale, “Death”, is available for free on Yale’s Open Course site. I’m planning to check it out in the near future…provided I don’t die…which would or wouldn’t be bad for me?

Advertisements