Special thanks to Kristy Coventry and Pearson Bolt for editing.
Death is the end of life we can account for. For some it is a terrifying and sudden end, yet others believe in an afterlife of some sort. Is death evil? Of course, it is biologically determined but there are claims that it is a consequence of sin and other metaphysical factors, which will be discussed later. So the question to address is as such; what is the nature of death?
When thinking about death, it is easy to fall into a sort of existential dread at the thought of the afterlife. Whether it be Hell or ceasing to exist, the ideas are endless. In Kierkegaard’s work, The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary he shares that “Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eyes happen to look down the yawning abyss becomes dizzy.” Further on in the paragraph, he expands on this, “Hence, anxiety is the dizziness of the freedom, which emerges when the spirit wants to posit the synthesis and freedom looks down into its own possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself” (Kierkegaard 1844). This “dizziness of freedom” is the dread one has in realizing the possibility and freedom to choose anything. While having the option to do something is nice, the multitude of choices can be jarring. This is certainly the case when you have so many choices and you are left wondering what is best. Many readers understand this (in context) as Kierkegaard’s advice to use one’s existential anxiety and dread to one’s own advantage. However, like most philosophy, this can be applied elsewhere.
One of the most daunting things about death is the lack of clarity on what happens. Specifically, being unsure about the continuity of the consciousness is like staring into the abyss. Is there a bottom of this yawning abyss or are we going to just end? The problem is this fear of the unknown and believing that death is a bad thing. If we believe that death is defined by the end of existence, particularly that of the consciousness, then it carries a severe weight. The severity is the fact that your consciousness will cease to exist, and this is a terrifying thing for people to consider. If there is no end and we go on, is it possible to experience pain? If so, we are left to wonder if we will and what we have to do to avoid it.
With all the uncertainty people have, the morality and nature of death are incomprehensible at worst and muddled at best. That comes back to a question in the first paragraph, is death evil? Well if there is no afterlife then it has no effect, thus it is not evil. Thomas Nagel writes extensively on the contrary. His immensely thoughtful article from Mortal Questions (which inspired this work) conveys his opinion on the topic.
Nagel completely disregards the metaphysical possibilities in his work. In doing so, the pain and damages presented by the existence of Hell are nullified. Rather he focuses on the absence of life being the true evil behind it. The deprivation of good from untimely death is the evil of it. To summarize his essay titled Death, I will share something from the conclusion of his paper, “Having been gratuitously introduced to the world by a collection of natural, historical, and social accidents, he finds himself the subject of a life, with an indeterminate and not essentially limited future. Viewed in this way, death, no matter how inevitable, is an abrupt cancellation of indefinitely extensive possible goods” (Nagel 1979). Another problem with death is posthumous suffering.
Many people who have subscribed to religious thought fear repercussions after death. Christians (Protestant, at least) believe that death is the consequence of sin and thus we will die one day. After death, there is the possibility of Hell and eternal damnation. This makes death a very uncertain prospect and a toss-up on the destination. Eastern religions (like Hinduism, Buddhism, and even Taoism) believe that life continues after death in a few ways, like enlightenment and reincarnation. Religions that believe in reincarnation focus on good karma (actions) to achieve enlightenment. If one doesn’t move up, they are forced to be born again in another body. This can cause anxiety as to whether or not the person who is the subject is going to be enlightened or reborn. With this, there is a reasonable fear of death.
It should be pointed out, this fear of death is more often than a temporal one, the fear of untimely death is far more prevalent because of the fear of missing out (FOMO as my girlfriend calls it). Untimely death at the young age of 16 is a tragedy to some and it is surely sad but does the person who passed away actually mind? The disservice in this circumstance are that which hurt those around this person, as well as the things they will never experience. Arguably, this only matters to the people who know the deceased is “missing out”. If I was biking home and got hit by a Ford F-150 and died on impact, I would have no idea that I was dead, nor would I know of the experiences I’m missing. For family and friends it is a great sorrow but for some death might be a release.
Life is arguably as “evil” as the death that ends it. Take the example of The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus, the father of absurdism. He explains the original myth; Sisyphus was punished by the gods to push a boulder up a mountain every day. The catch is that no matter what Sisyphus tried, he could never make it to the top. Camus uses this as a metaphor for the mundane life many of us lead, for some this is immensely depressing. Absurdism is the recognition of our pointless existence in a purposeless and chaotic universe. This is a dreadful thought and Camus addresses it by saying we should find ways to enjoy the absurd and mundane existence. However, for some even this isn’t enough.
Without getting into specifics, life can be very difficult. This is especially true for those who are marginalized and impoverished, but even for those who are materially wealthy, life can be immensely hard. This existence is as evil as the death of one who enjoys life, so is it selfish to expect someone to live when they hate doing so?
Death can the end to either a wonderful life or the release from a terrible one and to attribute a nature and morality to something that is inherent to life is a fool’s endeavor. Even for those who are religious, death is the possibility for a new beginning and meeting the salvation or enlightenment that they strive for. Like Camus’ explanation of The Myth of Sisyphus, those who believe in an afterlife should be optimistic in the face of death because if they follow their tenets, they should openly accept their earthly ending.
If we recognize that the beauty of life is its brevity, then we should learn to appreciate what we have and be grateful by not hoping for more. Life is a mixed bag of good experiences and bad. If there was a definite nature or morality of the determined end of life, it would be purely subjective to the person who dies, not to the act.
Kierkegaard, Søren, 1813-1855. The Concept of Anxiety: a Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin. Princeton, N.J. :Princeton University Press, 1980.
Nagel, Thomas, 1937-. Mortal Questions. Cambridge [Eng.] ; New York :Cambridge University Press, 1979.