When is enough enough? Oh my friend, what a hard, hardquestion - a question that when being raised says a lot about life itself. Though I worry about a person being in decent fettle trying to resolve such a question --for me it would be when the pain got so relentless and all consumingthat it devoured my ability to love others – to care about anything outsidemyself – when the pain permanently nailed me to my self.
I suspect that your suspicion is partially correct: there is the intuition that someone who is doing worse than average and worse than most is unfortunate. But two other factors come in as well.
There is the fact that only a very small percentage of those who reach age 15 fail to reach 16 -- whereas a rather substantial percentage of those who reach age 95 fail to reach age 96. And people perceive it as more unfortunate to be among a very small fraction who suffer harm than to be one in a larger fraction. (If you're among 20 people worldwide to catch some infectious disease, you'll feel very unfortunate, much more so than if you got a cold along with 3 billion other people.)
And there is the further fact that life beyond the 95th birthday tends not to be all that good -- the person who dies at 15 is losing many probably very good years of life whereas the person who dies at 95 is losing just a few bad ones. (If you lose $5000 you'll probably feel a lot more unfortunate than if you lose just $1.)
Now you ask whether the first factor should matter. To test this, let's recreate the world so that the other two factors are absent. So imagine the world modified as follows. Once human beings reach adulthood, they do not age and remain in full possession of their faculties. However, people do die, as they do now, from various diseases and accidents. Let's say that persons have a 1.5% chance of dying each year. In this case life expectancy would be 67 years, just about what it is now. The big difference would be that people's life expectancy would be entirely independent of their age: even those who have already lived 100 years, or 1000 years, still have a life expectancy of 67. (About one third of all people would live to 100, and about 4 in a million would live to 1000 - just in case you're curious.)
Now in this imaginary world the other two factors do not come into play. The person dying at 15 and also the person dying at 95, they both had the same 98.5% chance of reaching their next birthday. And both had, just before their death, a life expectancy of 67 good years ahead of them.
In this imaginary world, then, the only difference is that one ended up with more of a good thing (95 good years of life) than most while the other ended up with much less (15 years of good life). And I don't see a good reason to deny that this matters. Suppose Bill Gates decided to give his money away, running a lottery over US citizens with a similar distribution of dollars as the distribution of life years in my imaginary world. So US citizens are receiving $67 on average, and most are receiving over $45. Would you not feel unfortunate if the lottery assigned you only $15 (and fortunate, maybe, if it assigned you $95) under these circumstances? Most would.
BTW, Bill Gates actually has enough money to fund this give-away, twice over.
We might think of this on three levels. First, is it permissible for a liberal state to outlaw necrophilia? The argument for an affirmative answer could appeal to various public health reasons as well as to the fact that this practice may give considerable offense to others even while the cost of abstention is relatively small and borne only by a few. This argument might run roughly parallel to that justifying the permissibility of outlawing nudity or defecation in public places. The case of gay relationships is substantially different for two reasons: the cost to gay people of not having the opportunity of a romantically fulfilling and socially recognized relationship is enormous and, with roughly three percent of all people being gay, the number of people who would be (and have been) bearing this cost is substantial.
Second, is there something ethically wrong with practicing necrophelia? Taking ethics in the broad sense, its concern is the good life for human beings. A good life centrally involves close personal ties, friendships, and romantic relationships with people who we regard as our equals and with whom we engage in a wide range of communicative interactions. Compared to such interactions, necrophilia is an inferior activity, a waste of time. But so are many video games and TV shows. And it's surely not a serious failing for people to take a little time out here and there for something dull or silly.
Third, is it more narrowly morally wrong to practice necrophelia, would doing so wrong other people? Setting aside the wrong one might do to others by endangering public health and/or by violating the laws of our common legal system, and assuming the free and informed prior consent of the person now deceased, it is hard to see who might be wronged if the act is performed in a private setting.
I agree then with what you are suggesting: the strength of our reaction to necrophelia cannot be explained by reference to our modern moral-ethical thinking. It is presumably related to religious commitments, aesthetic tastes, and even biological responses.
A further consideration is that, given that many people have strong wishes -- whether rationally grounded or not -- that their corpses and probably those of their loved ones be treated in certain ways, it would be highly upsetting to many if they were to become aware that such treatment quite possibly wouldn't be provided. In other words, even if you can't harm someone after they are dead, you can harm the living by treating the dead in ways of which the living disapprove.
Of course, murder is not a victimless crime! But how can that be, Alex asks, if the victim no longer exists in order to suffer the harm that has been done to him? If you must exist in order to have interests, then how can a dead person’s interests suffer as a result of his death?
To see the harm that is suffered by a murder victim, let’s think first about what it means to be harmed. If I were to harm Harry, what sort of thing would I have to do him? Intuitively, when I harm Harry, my actions make him worse off than he would have been had I not acted as I did. So when I spread vicious gossip about Harry, I have harmed him because, had I not spread the vicious gossip, his reputation would have been intact, and he would have been well-respected in his community, loved by his family, and able to complete more easily certain projects about which he cares deeply, projects that require the good will and cooperation of others. Because of my vicious gossip, Harry is now a social outcast, unloved and unaided.
So let’s try out this definition of harm:
X harms Y if and only if X’s action A makes Y worse-off than Y would have been, had X not performed A.
But now, it seems, we have a problem. If I kill Harry, how can we compare the state that Harry would have been in, had I not killed him, to the state that he’s now in, namely, dead? Since he is dead (and we’ll suppose, non-existent), he’s in no state at all. How can we compare this "non-state" to his state he would have been in had he been alive?
The answer to this puzzle, I think, is this. If Harry had survived, he would have attained all of the goods that generally come with living– pleasure, deep relationships with others, philosophical knowledge . . . (complete this list with whatever you count as genuine goods). Of course, had he lived, it’s likely that he would have had some hard times, too– some pain, frustration, heart-break, and so forth. But so long as his life would have been worth living for him, the goods that he would have had, had he survived, would have outweighed the bads that he would have had, had he survived. When I kill Harry, I prevent him from attaining these goods.
When we attempt to figure out the harm that Harry has suffered when I kill him, we should not compare Harry’s state after his death to the state that Harry would have been in, had I not killed him: for the reasons that I give above, such a comparison is impossible. Instead, when we attempt to figure out the harm that Harry has suffered when I kill him, we should compare the totality of goods that Harry would have had over the entirety of his life, had I not killed him, to the totality of goods that he had actually attained in the life that I cut off. If his life would have been worth living, then I did indeed harm Harry when I killed him: I deprived him of all of the goods that he would otherwise have had, had I not killed him.
Here are three reasons to consider.
First, because they want to be respected. Sure, being dead, they do not want this now. But they did want it when they were alive -- just as you now want to be respected after your death. Imagine you have a certain deeply embarrassing secret that only your best friend knows. You very strongly want no one else to know. This fact gives your best friend a weighty reason not to tell others, even when she can do so in a way that you will never find out about. This reason may disappear when you change so that you no longer mind others knowing. But it persists when you die without having changed your mind -- or so one could hold.
Second, because respecting the dead makes their lives better. The quality of our lives depends not merely on our mental states but also on our contributions to the world. These contributions can continue when we die: composers, artists, and novelists enrich many lives even after they die, and this in turn makes their own lives more valuable. Not respecting the dead, e.g. by obliterating their work or memory, can cut off such posthumous contributions and thereby reduce the value of the dead person's life (relative to what it otherwise would have been).
Third, because respecting the dead is a practice from which the living benefit. Here I am not referring to the benefit of ourselves being respected after we die (else I would just be repeating points 1 and 2). Rather, I am thinking of how we living would alter our conduct, in ways that are bad for all of us, if we believed that, once dead, we would no longer be respected. For example, we would expend much worry and effort on trying to ensure that our assets go where we want them to go. If a last will and testament cannot ensure this (because it would not be respected), then many will dispose of their assets before they die, often becoming very poor or dependent on support from friends, family, or the state. So you benefit now from the fact that you and others live in the secure knowledge that your/their last will is going to be respected. You benefit in that you need not worry about or implement the proper disposition of your assets now and also in that you need not deal with the additional poverty and other problems that would result from others' early disposition of their assets.
Note that the above reasons cover different (albeit overlapping) aspects of what "respecting the dead" might mean. They do not all support exactly the same conclusion.