Luper-Foy, Williams, and Velleman:
Guarding Against Death and Disappointment
Essay First Submitted for PP 470S: Metaphysics of Death.
Wilfrid Laurier University. 2012.
A major theme of the discourse on death in philosophy can be seen as the question of what does death mean to us, and what can be done about our inevitable demise while we are still alive. The various interpretations and stances on the issue can often be traced back to two common ancestors. The first is the stoic indifference first proposed by Epicurus, and later adopted by many forms of stoic philosophy, arguing that death is nothing to be feared as it means annihilation of any sensation good or bad, and that we should concern ourselves with living pleasurable lives while we can enjoy them. The second view on death, and a direct counter to the Epicureans, was proposed by Thomas Nagel, stating that death is always a great evil for those who suffer it, as it brings an end to our capacity to enjoy life and meaningful pursuits. While the Epicurean or Nagellian arguments have dominated the topic of death, both have proven to be deeply problematic and ultimately insufficient to properly account for death’s value, and perhaps most importantly, how to cope with its inevitable onset. Fortunately, the accounts of Steven Luper-Foy and J. David Velleman provide an effective framework for a favourable resolution of the two disparate view points. Luper-Foy’s re-examination of the Epicurean’s indifference towards death, and his proposed Neo-Epicureanism allow for a meaningful, life affirming existence without resorting to the hedonistic framework of traditional Epicureans. When combined with Bernard Williams’ views on the futility of immortality to provide us with an infinitely good life, and Velleman’s narrative view of life, the Nagellian insistence on the universality of the evil of death is also overcome. While neither view can fully prescribe a way around some form of evil or misfortune in death, they provide a stable, relatively easily achievable means to regard and approach our deaths, that can offer us at least a highly probable chance of transforming our deaths from a matter of total indifference or horrific evil, into a relatively benign, and even potentially positive event.
The first true comprehensive examination of the concept of death was provided by the Greek stoic philosopher Epicurus, and despite modern revisions, has remained instantly recognizable due to its unconventional attitude towards the value of death. Epicurus’ major claim, which is shared by all contemporary iterations of his philosophy on death is that death itself means nothing to us, because at the point of death we as subjects cease to exist, and thus no harm is capable of befalling us. Thanks to Epicurus’ hedonistic attitude towards pleasures, he regards the only true evil that can befall a person to be pain, both physical and mental, and that the major purpose of achieving a good life is the elimination of the pains and discomforts of existence through the acquisition of pleasure. The hedonistic view has been one of the area’s commonly attacked by opponents to Epicurus, but the reliance on arguments that quote the deprivation of the goods of life as the source of evil in death ultimately fail to effectively counter the Epicurean because the comparison between the goods of life and death is not a comparison between two equally experienced states. Instead, life is the realm in which we experience the goods and evils of the world as a subject, and is thus capable of being evaluated as good or bad for us, whereas death deprives us of a subject, making valuation of any kind impossible. This point is one that is often used to point out what many consider to be the most worrying consequence of the Epicurean approach. The impossibility of valuation relative to death, while not logically problematic for many aspects of life, means that it is impossible to make any kind of meaningful comparison between life and death, and thus impossible to make a choice between a potential life-or-death choice, such as in the case of suicide. The Epicurean in general can also be said to maintain a very simplistic picture of life, which may be one of the reasons why their view of death appears so robust. The combination of atomistic annihilation and hedonistic attitudes towards valuation means that not only is death a non-issue for the living, but even arguments based on desire frustration such as those used by Nagellian’s are futile. Luper-Foy however, believes that this view of desires is not an existence that we would ever want, and that it fundamentally lacks the life affirming features that would make an Epicurean life essentially meaningless.
Luper-Foy’s criticism of the Epicurean theory of death is based in his analysis of the types of desires one can have, and the conclusion that given the traditional structure of Epicurean beliefs and their purported indifference, it is impossible for them to have meaningful lives in the same way that non-Epicureans can. He finds that, while modern Epicureans are at least capable of judging death as being a means to escape an unbearable life (a void is still preferable to a state of constant or extreme suffering), there is no case in which death can be considered to be a negative when compared to life. However, Luper-Foy points out that in the case of death, the evil comes from the thwarting of desires, and thus while death may not inflict any pain upon us, it has the capacity to remove or destroy our ability to realize our pleasures. Traditional Epicureans can provide a counter to this assertion through the hedonistic belief that the good of life is limited to the elimination of pains and the satisfaction of our basic needs, and that anything beyond this leads only to unhappiness due to the excessive complications it brings on. This view does not seem to be reflective of an especially complex life though. In particular, the concept of a hedonistic person in Epicurean terms seems to lack anything beyond desires of bodily, and at most social maintenance. Further, Luper-Foy points out that, in order to have this attitude, Epicureans cannot have any sort of desires that would be thwarted by death, which seems to rule out completely many goals and desires that would serve to make our lives meaningful beyond self perpetuation as individuals. The Epicurean must therefore be able to account for a way of living a meaningful life while being able to treat death with indifference if their model is to remain viable, something Luper-Foy believes is impossible.
The Epicurean model is capable of formulating nearly all of the same sorts of desires as a non-Epicurean, with the exception of desires whose thwarting by an early death would cause us pain. Unfortunately, it is these desires that are consequently indispensable for a meaningful life. Luper-Foy differentiates four major categories of desires: escape, independent, dependent and conditional. Escape (the desire to die), independent (desires that do not require the individual’s action or influence for their satisfaction), and conditional (desires that hold only if we are alive) are the only desires that true Epicureans can hold, none of which provide reasons to continue living. As such, the source of Epicurean attitude towards death has direct consequences for their attitudes towards life; death poses no threat to them because their lives contain nothing that can be be threatened by death. While they can maintain lives of relative similarity to others, Epicureans can only maintain them based on basic desires with extremely limited temporal and emotional ranges. Even desires such as the welfare of children must be limited either by making them independent, or making them conditional so that that care only extends so long as the parent is alive. Luper-Foy insists that this price is too high for the majority of people to be willing to pay, as it means that people will regard life with the same indifference as death, so that it can never be regarded as preferable. This seems a safe assumption, as the traditional Epicurean view’s price of indifference towards life is not an especially hidden consequence in even Epicurus’ original writings. Despite his insistence that the good of life comes from mental calm and philosophical contemplation, and not “one drinking party after another, or... sexual intercourse with women and boys...”, Epicurus does not appear to take into account much beyond basic maintenance desires that are purely conditional. Luckily, Luper-Foy offers a new model of Epicureanism that seeks to correct this flaw, though he is not optimistic about its chances for general success.
The problems of the Epicurean model appear to be insurmountable, to the degree that makes it impossible to fully satisfy the desire for a truly indifferent view of death without sacrificing the value of life. Luper-Foy recognizes this and proposes a modification to the Epicurean view that instead makes death, at the very least a lesser evil, while not sacrificing the value of life relative to fulfilling desires. This neo-Epicurean view is based on the understanding of the inevitability of death, and insists that the best course of action is to “Epicureanize our desires” before we die. This involves ensuring that the person will not form long term dependent desires that go beyond their means to complete within their lifetime, and leave only conditional, independent, and escape desires remaining when their death approaches. The major issue that is immediately raised by this however, is timing ones life and formulating their desires so as to Epicureanize at the right time relative to their death while resisting the temptation to formulate new, unattainable desires. These issues cause Luper-Foy to suggest that those who can Epicureanize their desires effectively are in the minority. This is due to numerous issues such as untimely sickness, accidents, and the natural inclination to assume greater longevity than we have that prevent us from being able to Epicureanize our lives prior to death. However, this may be a premature diagnosis, as the framework of Luper-Foy’s own argument provides the grounds for the necessary modification to make the model workable.
The structure of desires proposed by Luper-Foy allows for the conversion of dependent and conditional desires to independent desires through completion or other removal of personal
contingency on their completion. This is not the only course of action though, as Luper-Foy points out that independent and dependent desires are capable of being conditionalized. If this is possible, then it seems reasonable that other similar conversions and combinations of desires is possible. Since dependent desires become independent when completed, then it seems possible that an independent desire with a large scope could be broken down into multiple, steplike dependent and conditional desires. For instance, if one has a goal of solidifying a significant social or political change, they could maintain the eventual change as an independent goal, while breaking it into key actions/movements that they wish to effect (dependent desires) that they see as completable given a reasonable lifespan. Upon the completion of these desires, they would re-evaluate their position and lifespan, and create any subsequent desires relative to their remaining time as dependent or conditional desires. The advantage of this model over the late life Epicureanizing Luper-Foy suggests as the only tolerable option, is that it is already used by the majority of people for their long term goal-making strategies. The only perhaps unconventional part of the model is taking into account lifespan as a primary concern. While this may not fully eliminate the problem of timing relative to one’s death, Luper-Foy’s model does not do this fully either, and if Epicureanization is a primary concern from the beginning, it eliminates the all too probable issue of misjudging when one should begin Epicureanization in later life. Further, it helps to guard against formation of unrealistic desires at the earliest stages, and allows us to maximize the impact one can have on desires that cannot be realized in their lifetime, but they hope will be completed by others in the future. While not all desires necessitate this complex hierarchical structure, this modification provides the final step to overcoming the issues presented by the purely hedonistic Epicurean and the necessity to live solely within ones lifespan. There may not be a model that fully satisfies the dual criterion of a meaningful life and an indifference towards death, but Luper-Foy’s Neo-Epicurean represents an excellent attempt that requires only slight modification to be fully viable.
While the modern Epicurean’s main concern is with ensuring that we are at least as indifferent to death as it is possible to be, the Nagellian cannot be satisfied in the same way. The position as originally formulated by Thomas Nagel concludes that death as annihilation, and thus deprivation of bodily experience and the goods of life, is always evil, no matter what the circumstances. The basis of this argument is that death as an evil is not temporally bound to direct experience of pains as hedonistic Epicureans assert, and in the case of death, time can be seen as “just another type of distance.” Due to this distinction, Nagel asserts that if our lives can contain evils and pains that do not occur in the same location as we are (the deaths or injuries of family members that are in different parts of the world), the evil of death becomes based in the cessation of the goods of life and our ability to experiences them beyond the point of death. One critical feature of Nagel’s argument however, is that the goods of life as inherently infinite, and that death is always an evil because it is always depriving us of some kind of good. While Luper-Foy’s arguments relies on a similar deprivation argument in order to counter the Epicurean assumption that death is a matter of total indifference to us, he regards the true Nagellian position as an extreme that is both unnecessary and unfortunate for those who accept it. The Nagellian position as it stands presents two major assumptions. The first assumption is that there is an infinite amount of good and meaningful desires to be had in every individual, while the second is that death in general should be regarded as an evil of deprivation even if we complete all our desires, because life has an inherently positive value.
The first counter to the Nagellian model of death comes from Bernard Williams’ examination of immortality, and his conclusion that, even though death can be an evil of deprivation, life is certainly not as infinitely positive and meaningful as Nagel seems to suggest. Williams distinguishes between two types of desires that are similar, though simplistic compared to Luper-Foy’s formulation of types of desires, where categorical desires fulfill the same function for Williams as dependent desires do for Luper-Foy, giving a person a reason to live through a meaningful goal to aim and move towards. Initially, Williams’ argument follows similar lines to Nagel’s own, stating that since most of us have some form of categorical desire which can be frustrated by death, there are indeed reasons to fear death based on deprivation arguments. However, Williams rejects the assumption that immortality can avoid the same kinds of problems as of death’s disruption of our desires and maintain our ability to explore our endless potential for positive experiences and meaning. This is because an immortal life is incapable of fulfilling the two necessary conditions for a meaningful life: the immortal persons identity be continuous, and we must have reasons that compel us to continue living. The first condition is made difficult to satisfy by the changing nature of personal identity and that, after a certain point in an immortal life, one self would be so distanced from another that this identity would be lost. The second condition fares no better, as no single desire can truly sustain a set individual overtime (as is necessitated by the first condition for individual immortality), leaving boredom as a serious and potentially inescapable issue for the immortal. While Williams insists that it is extremely difficult for us as mortal beings to be able to imagine this state, there seems to be significant evidence in favour of it from within our natural lifespan further undermining Nagellian claims of the boundless nature of the goods of life.
The downsides of an immortal life seem to be counterintuitive at first glance, especially given the means Williams uses to argue for their negative influence. Both Nagel and Williams agree that the goods of life can be enhanced by longer experience of them, though Williams clearly does not consider the goods of life to be the same sort of thing as Nagel. Unlike Nagel and his contemporaries however, Williams emphasizes that the goods of life are based more on personal drive and significance for individual meaning rather than strictly the accumulation of goods Nagel appears to imply. This is critical because the problems immortality poses for Williams are present on the level of personal meaning. While it does not seem impossible to imagine that people such as Einstein, or Leonardo Da Vinci would have benefitted greatly if they had lived beyond their natural lifespan, the question of whether these people would have been able to continue with the same momentum indefinitely seems highly unlikely. Within natural lifespans there are numerous instances of people who simply have no drive to continue living for lack of a compelling reason to continue. While there is no upper limit to the creativity and drive for meaning within the human race as a collective, the individuals capacity does appear to have some kind of upper limit. Thusly, though some may benefit from an additional set of years or decades, even centuries, there does not appear to be anything that could sustain a good or pleasurable life to the degree that would justify Nagellian claims that there is no limit to the goods that are possible in life. Similar to the conclusions reached by Luper-Foy, Williams believes that the best solution to the problems of an indefinite life is simply to be able to die prior to our lives becoming unbearably dull. Luckily, Velleman provides a framework from which to consider life, not as a potentially indefinite length cut short by death, but as similar to a story where the inevitability of death can be considered as the final chapter, and thus is capable of being a capstone in a fruitful and personally meaningful existence.
Velleman’s conception of death is drawn from a narrative view of the structure of life, which has direct bearings on the meaning of death for both those who die and those who survive them. Life on Velleman’s account is not the summation of the moments of well being while subtracting the pains and tragedies, but the placement of events relative to contexts within a persons life can give them meaning beyond their superficial value at a given moment. Thus, the value of moments within a life are not as simply evaluated as how much joy or benefit one brings us, nor even when that occurs relative to another, but what the person values as an individual, and how it fits into their idea of an ideal life. Velleman applies this view to the case of death by denying that a case of a terminally ill patient taking an experimental treatment or choosing euthanasia is not strictly a question of whether this will give him more time and if that time will be more enjoyable, but which of these options “would make a better ending to his life story.” This seems to be a direct response to Luper-Foy’s final assertions in his paper, that the best way to minimize agony and decay in later life, once we have achieved all dependent desires is simply to euthanize ourselves before life becomes too tedious to bare. However, unlike the calculus based model, Velleman’s emphasis on the narrative view may give Nagellian’s frustrated by the onset of death and its impeding their goals and hopes solace that Luper-Foy’s model cannot. The idea of our lives as a story rather than a calculus relative to desires superficial benefit of harm, can allow for even a temporally premature death to have a meaning and satisfaction that a temporally full life cannot.
In order to counter the Nagellian assumption that life’s value comes in a steady acquisition of positive moments and benefits, Velleman insists that the major focus of our lives should be the pursuit of a good life as a narrative whole, including what would be the best way for us to die. On the narrative view of the self, the actions taken at the end of ones life can have a serious lasting impact on their legacy, both in the way that the individual perceives is, as well as how those that continue after them perceive the legacy. While epicureanizing our desires may be enough to satisfy Epicureans, and Nagellians will most likely admit at least that Williams is correct insofar as our deaths are inevitable and thus our capacity to experience good is not infinite in that respect, they will not be truly satisfied that death should not be feared. In particular, premature death can surely still be seen as evil from the Nagellian point of view. However, on Velleman’s account, this need not be the case in every instance. If a person is involved in some kind of life threatening situation, and because of their moral inclination is compelled to save the lives of others at the cost of their own, this persons life would naturally be considered heroic in most peoples eyes. The heroes own morality would also ensure that, if they had lived with the knowledge that others had died because they had been chosen to save themselves, then they too would regard their sacrifice as the best possible end their story could have had. A less extreme example would be those dying at a young age of a terminal illness, but working to inspire changes to ensure the same does not happen to others. In this case, the approach of death gives them an impetus to move forward in a way they would not have had otherwise. In other cases, people may be comforted knowing that, even if they die, they did so striving towards something they believed in, turning traditional conceptions of desire frustration into a positive, heroic last stand. Though these instances do not cover all areas of potential frustration for a Nagellian, it is clear that when life is viewed as a personal journey, edification of desires can come in many ways, and that the valuation of death itself is far from the black and white picture painted by Nagel’s original argument.
The traditional divide in the philosophy of death has centered almost exclusively around proving death to be a matter of great personal evil, or a matter of total indifference to the individual. Epicurus initially attempted to show that death as the absence of subject was nothing to us, as it was a state that no-one would experience, while Nagel attempted to argue that this feature was precisely the reason that we are justified to fear death. However, ultimately both accounts fail to prove that, in the dichotomous sense they attempt to argue, that death is a strict matter of evil or indifference. Luper-Foy’s neo-Epicurean model of valuation based on desires both frustrated and unperturbed by death, shows that it is capable to work within an Epicurean mindset without sacrificing meaningful desires in our lives. Williams and Velleman offer key insights into resolving the total dread brought on by the potential desire frustrations that Nagellians feel is ever present and intractable. Williams’ investigations into the inevitability of death, and the frustrations of an immortal life show that the benefits of continued existence are not infinite as the Nagellians suggest, though there is no denying that some could benefit from an extended lifespan. Velleman in turn attempts to counter remaining fears of death by stating that death should be regarded as something akin to the last chapter in a story, and that the story itself is not only the principle area we should invest in, but that death can in fact be more than a negative or even neutral point. Overall these accounts have highlighted two major factors in the issue of death, the first being that, unlike the classic dichotomy of Epicurus versus Nagel, there is no single answer to the question of death relative to personal value. As Velleman states, the value of death, like the value of life for the individual who lives it, is uniquely tied to their situation and attitude. This leads directly to the second important implication, which follows directly from Velleman’s model, namely that death can be regarded as a positive beyond situations of terminal illness and serious pain. If our lives values are taken to be more than a calculus of positive and negative moments within them, then a death that would be considered a terrible evil for the person who suffers it on any other account can be seen as personally enriching and overall positive for the completion of the story of their lives. Even desire frustration in this sense can be overcome, though this may be far from the standard experience for the majority of people. Ultimately, the matter of death can only be made better for a limited number of people, and even if that number did constitute the majority of people, there will always be some for whom death will not hold positive benefit.
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