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How might a person who does not subscribe to any organized religion and does not

How might a person who does not subscribe to any organized religion and does not believe in an afterlife find meaning in his or her death—that is, the cessation of his or her personal existence? Or, perhaps another way to ask the same question: if there is no afterlife—no continuation as a soul, consciousness or personal identity upon the cessation of physical life—how might one’s life continue to have meaning after death? And if we only live on in the memories of friends and loved ones, or perhaps in some other concrete contribution to culture or society, are not these too ultimately ephemeral?

Good question(s)! I suggest the idea of a person living on in the memories of others is somewhat problematic, especially given that (assuming you are correct) death involves a person ceasing to be. But it may be that your life still has meaning in at least two ways: while you would not live on in others' memories, the significance of your life and the values you had might well live on with others. Of course if modern astronomy is correct all life on earth will end in about 4 billion years, so this bit about living on indefinitely will be a bit tricky. A second way to approach your question would be to refer to the point of view of the universe or the point of view of some ideal observer. This is also a little problematic, however, as it seems that the universe cannot (literally) have a point of view and if the ideal observer is merely hypothetical (viz. there is no God) and so this might also be a difficult foundation to secure meaning. Perhaps thre is a third option: four dimensionalism. According to this account, all moments are equally real. On one version it will always be the case the you are having a meaningful life in 2010. The wikipedia entry for 'four dimensionalism' is reliable, so check that out as a third option. Of course you might also take another look at the prospects of the soul in a theistic framework, but that can be the subject of another exchange.

Is it morally wrong for a person with a serious illness and reduced lifespan to

Is it morally wrong for a person with a serious illness and reduced lifespan to reproduce, knowing that in all likelihood the child will have to experience the loss of a parent in adolescence? Assume that the other parent is healthy and prepared for life as a single parent. Can the reproduction be morally justified on the basis of it being less of a wrong to bring into existence a child who will likely lose a parent early on than for one person to deny the other the opportunity of experiencing parenthood? Obviously we are talking about two different recipients of potential harm here but I am focusing on the idea of a general moral wrong. i.e. which is the greater wrong?

You ask whether it's "less wrong" to create the child than for one adult to deny the other the chance of parenthood. That makes it sound as if the only possible wrong on the adults' side is the willing adult being denied parenthood. Wouldn't it also be wrong for the unwilling adult to be forced into parenthood? In any event, if the two adults go ahead with procreation, on grounds that it's "less wrong" to make the child, that seems like the wrong way to start the parent-child relationship. A parent's gain, in becoming a parent, shouldn't be at the child's expense. To start off the relationship on the right foot, they have to believe that giving life to the child-to-be is right, not merely "less wrong."

Might it be right, under these circumstances? That's a very hard question. The crux of it is whether it's fair to the child to be given a life that will foreseeably include early loss of a parent. You might say it's fine, on grounds that in all probability the child will still have a life worth living. But by that the standard, it would be fine to create children who will foreseeably lose both parents, or suffer even worse setbacks. We ought to create only children with reasonably good prospects, but what does "reasonably good" mean, and why is that the standard? An excellent and very accessible book on these issues is Choosing Children, by Jonathan Glover.

A comment about the book Eric Silverman recommended: Benatar's view is that it's always harmful to children to be brought into the world, and not just harmful when the child's prospects are lower than normal. He'd say it was wrong for the parents in your example to have children, but also wrong for everyone else. Glover, by contrast, thinks most of the time childbearing is fine, and tries to sort out the hard cases like the one you describe.

Is the death penalty a viable option under the premise that assuming we have

Is the death penalty a viable option under the premise that assuming we have apprehended the guilty party, the guilty party, when executed, will never be able to kill again and therefore society has been made that much safer?

I think that the problem with that argument is that we can get nearly the same level of safety by sending the killer to jail for life. And given the imperfections of the justice system, there's a chance that we could execute an innocent person which is much worse than sending an innocent person to jail for a few years. Perhaps, if we were absolutely certain someone was guilty of murder and we had good reason to think that the death penalty had a significant deterrent value in preventing future murders it could be justified. But the deterrent value of the death penalty has been questioned in recent years.

We have no evidence whatsoever that the world will not wink out of existence

We have no evidence whatsoever that the world will not wink out of existence tomorrow, or the day after that, or some other time in the future. Even if it doesn't, we accept that we may all die at any time, even if the chance of it is low for someone young and healthy who doesn't take many risks. Isn't it logical to live each day as if it may be our last? It would not be conducive to the running of a functional society, but nuts to that. One could argue that we must weigh the probability of death or non-existence in the near future and enjoying the present against the probability of it at a much later date and the value of planning and laying the groundwork for things to come. The problem is that it is impossible to compute these probabilities. We can attempt to guess at them, but we are very likely to underestimate the probability of death thanks to the "Black Swan" problem.

Suppose you just bought a lottery ticket for a drawing tonight. There's not much chance that you'll win, but you could. There is a chance. So would it be rational for you to act, right now, as if you're going to win? Obviously not.

Likewise, it doesn't seem rational for you to act, right now, as if you're going to die. What would it mean to act that way? No need to study -- who cares about my future career prospects? No need to show up at work -- who cares if I get fired? No dentist appointments -- who cares if my tooth is going to rot, eventually? No need to save money, no need to go buy food for tomorrow, no need to answer all those emails in my inbox (that last one sounds esepcially tempting at the moment). Caring about oneself means caring about oneself as a whole, a person who exists through time, and thus if you have no special reason to think that you're going to die today, it would seem to be rational to care about one's life as a whole. That's not to say one shouldn't take pleasure in the moment --we might all be a little better off if we took more pleasure in the moment -- but it's also to suggest that you continue going to the dentist, and the grocery store, and that you show up for work and/or school.

I hope this helps, but off course, if you've already decided to live each day as your last, you're probably out hang gliding or something and not checking back in with AskPhilosophers to see whether anyone has answered your question!

Why do we consider the death penalty immoral in a situation where a sadist (a

Why do we consider the death penalty immoral in a situation where a sadist (a very immoral person) commits heinous crimes and is sentenced to life imprisonment where he is protected from lynch mobs, given access to education, therapy (which has proved not only to be non effective in rehabilitating sadists but frees them from responsibility for their actions), medical care, food, clothing, televison, gym, etc. all at the taxpayers expense and one of his victims (a child) who has survived the trauma and torture inflicted is sentenced to a life of physical and psychological disability, in later life unable to work or pay for his ailments and who lives in constant fear that the sadist will be released and come and get him again? Is it possible that our reluctance to inflict the death penalty is out of fear but that we simply rationalize this as morality as that is the more palatable excuse. Are we just moral cowards? Wouldn't we all be relieved if the sadist suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack? And if...

Thank you for your message. I'm not sure exactly what you have in mind when you presuppose, in your first sentence, that "we" consider the death penalty immoral in the situation you describe. So far as I can tell, at least in the U.S., a good many people consider the death penalty in such a situation moral. But to continue the line of thought you begin, let's see whether it might be possible to make sense of those people who consider it immoral in that situation.

1. You're right that the sadist might get a lot of benefits at taxpayer expense. On the other hand, it's well known that at least given the current difficulty of prosecuting a death penalty case, and all the hurdles that must be got over after that, lifelong incarceration is actually less expensive than the death penalty. As a result, if your argument rests on the financial considerations, a life sentence is clearly the best option for such a person.

2. You ask whether reluctance to inflict the death penalty is out of fear, and that all moral argumentation is simply rationalization. Of course that's possible, but I have no idea how we would go about settling such a question short of subjecting each person offering this moral argumentation to rigorous psychotherapy. I think that unless you're able to provide evidence of which I'm not aware, you'd have to agree that there's no current way to know the answer to your question. Of course that means that we shouldn't accept any suggestion, whether you're making it or not, that moral argumentation really *is* motivated by fear. The same goes for your rhetorical question whether we are really just moral cowards. My answer would simply be: I don't know, do you?

3. One can be relieved that a dangerous and morally evil person has died, while still valuing his life. Consider another case: A very old and ailing relative might finally pass away, and all of those who were caring for her might find her passing a relief, both because it relieved her suffering and lessened their burden. But I think they would be offended, and rightly so, by someone suggesting that they didn't value her life. Of course they did; it is just that their valuing it didn't mean they wanted it to go on forever no matter its quality. So too, just because I might be relieved that the sadist is dead, doesn't mean that I don't value his life. More generally, many people will say that a person's life has value no matter how evil they are or have been. I'm not saying that those people are definitely correct, but when you describe the sadist's life as one "we obviously do not value at all," I would suggest that view is not obvious; many reasonable people will even deny it.

So I hope you'll consider whether the issues here might be more complex than your question suggests. I should stress that I would share all the repugnance and horror at the sadist that you do; as would most everyone else. I am only stressing, in my reply, that those who would refrain from inflicting the death penalty in such a case might have more to be said on their behalf than you perhaps envision.

Mitch Green

Is death without afterlife really all that bad? I mean, it could be worse, right

Is death without afterlife really all that bad? I mean, it could be worse, right? Of the plethora of possibilities the human mind can imagine, quiet, peaceful oblivion seems to me like not such a terrible thing.

I'm not sure that it's right to describe death without afterlife as "quiet peaceful oblivion." If there is no afterlife, and you cease to exist at death, then there is no you to experience the peace and quiet. If you've ceased to exist, then you have no experiences at all. It's precisely for this reason that philosophers like Epicurus claim that we should not fear death; on his view, all good and evil consists in sensation, and death is the absence of sensation. So, says Epicurus, "death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing ot us, since so long as we exist, death is ot with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist."

In short, if you're looking for a quiet, peaceful oblivion, I don't think death is the right place to look...

Do the dead have rights?

Do the dead have rights? Example: suppose my father dies and leaves me his house in his will, on the condition that I never sell the house to anyone outside the family. If I were to take the house, and later sell it to someone outside that family, it is not clear that my father is harmed (he is dead!). Yet it seems wrong. Why?

Of course, you might think that although his body is dead, his soul lives on somewhere and would be horrified at what you did and so would be harmed. Otherwise, I suppose it would be relevant to ask whether you had agreed to his demand, since if you did and then reneged on it, you would be at fault. Let us suppose this is not the case. It does seem to me to be possible to harm a dead person, not directly perhaps, but in the sense that you dishonour their memory by going against their wishes.

Even on utilitarian grounds this might be problematic, since it might create generally a disinclination for people to trust their descendants to uphold their wishes, and so might discourage passing property from one generation to another. The father could use the value of the house while he was alive and then it passes to the institution that financed him on his death. Not that there is anything wrong with this, but he would not in his last years have the feeling that his property would remain in the family, which he apparently regards as an important thing. If one thinks that familial relationships of the traditional kind are worth preserving, then there are problems in going against the (acceptable) wishes of the dead.

Is, say, necrophilia ethically wrong? Arguably the ultimate societal taboo,

Is, say, necrophilia ethically wrong? Arguably the ultimate societal taboo, necrophilia is something which the vast majority of people -- myself included -- consider disturbing and repulsive. It seems, however, that if we deem it morally objectionable we are left in a precarious situation, as we are forced to acknowledge that certain sexual behaviors without victims are wrong in and of themselves. If we accept this fact, what's to stop a person from deeming gay marriage wrong on the same grounds? Where could we possibly draw the line? Having read some of the responses posted on this site, I have recently accepted the position that a person can be harmed even after their death. So, when I am speaking of necrophilia here, let's assume the person gave their consent before dying.

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.

This question is about suicide/death. Is it even possible to hold a preference

This question is about suicide/death. Is it even possible to hold a preference between the alternatives of life and death, assuming materialism is true? When a person dies, his or her brain shuts down, hence their consciousness ceases (from everything we know). It seems impossible therefore to properly conceive of what it is like to be dead. Isn't it therefore illogical to state "I would rather be dead"?

Your question makes me wonder how many people who commit suicide do so with the belief (1) that their consciousness will cease (their identity will end) and how many do so with the belief (2) that their consciousness (and identity) will continue but in a better existence (e.g., heaven). Though this seems like an impossible survey to do (no way to ask the dead!), we could ask people who survive attempted suicides what their goal was (or if they had a goal at all). Perhaps the research has been done. For some reason, I've always assumed that most people who commit suicide (other than terrorists) do so with belief 1 rather than belief 2. And some people may avoid suicide even in the face of despair because they have the belief (3) that their consciousness will continue in a worse existence (e.g., hell), as Hamlet reminds us: "the dread of something after death, The undiscovered country."

Of course, it would not be illogical to say "I would rather be dead" if one believed (2), that dying tranports them to a better world (and "I would rather not be dead" obviously makes sense for someone who believees 3). So, the question is whether it makes sense for someone who believes 1, that his or her consciousness will cease with the death of the body, to say it.

First of all, I don't think it is right to say it is impossible to conceive what it is like to be dead. On this view, there is nothing it is like to be dead. And it seems we can conceive of that--it's presumably the (lack of) mental state we undergo in dreamless sleep (or under anesthesia). We can conceive of it; we just can't experience it consciously.

Now, does this impossibility mean that it is illogical to say "I'd rather be dead"? It doesn't seem so to me. One might mean, "What I consciously experience is so miserable that it would be better for my consciousness to cease." (I hope anyone who feels that way would seek help from friends, family, professionals, and help-lines before he or she believed it to be true, especially since miserable experiences can often give way to much better experiences with time.) If I say that, I am not saying that I will be better off (that things will be better for me) when I lack consciousness, since I will no longer exist. Rather, I am saying that things will be better when I lack consciousness and no longer exist. (It's easy to see how there could be utilitarian arguments for suicide.)

Another way to see the point is to recognize that we have current preferences for states of affairs that we know will exist only after we are dead. For instance, I prefer there to be a viable environment for my great-grandchildren. And I am willing to give up satisfying some of my preferences for my current self to satisfy that preference (though we really are not built to do so and it's hard to get ourselves to do it!). I also put away some of the money I could spend on stuff for me to purchase life insurance, which I know would only be useful if I were dead. I prefer that my family have that money even though I believe that I won't experience them using it. Similarly, it seems one could prefer to have no experiences at all to having bad experiences, even though one believes that he or she would not experience having no experiences.

When, for example, a man has his heart broken by a woman he loves, why does it

When, for example, a man has his heart broken by a woman he loves, why does it sometimes feel like a mini death? Is there perhaps some sort of a parallel between breaking up and dying, between the end of a relationship and the end of life?

Sure, I think there's a parallel, particularly if you consider that a person is not an isolated, self-contained entity, but rather a being-in-relation. Your identity is defined partly by your relationships with particular others, and the more intimate the relationship, the more it contributes to your identity. Intimacy is a matter of sharing first-person perspectives (what the world looks like from your eyes is shared with your intimate, and what the world looks like from hers is shared with you) as well as plans, goals, projects, etc. In fact, in a truly intimate relationship, you'll adopt the plans, goals, projects, etc. of your intimate as your own.

When the relationship ends, especially if it is ended unilaterally, all of this that had been part of you is to some extent alienated, which would suggest that your identity is changed. The person you were, in intimate relation with that particular other, doesn't exist anymore. So it is, in an analogous sense, a death. But it's not as complete or final as death, because you can -- and likely will -- enter into other intimate relationships which will make their own unique contributions to your identity.