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I am a student at Lafayette College and last weekend, we celebrated Marquis de

I am a student at Lafayette College and last weekend, we celebrated Marquis de Lafayette's 250th birthday. Is such a celebration valuable to Marquis himself, even when he is dead? Since we are all going to die, should we all try to make an effort to be remembered by future generations? To whom is that valuable? Thank you.

My hometown is Bethlehem, PA, and I spent plenty of time around Lafayette and downtown Easton growing up, so I had to respond to this. I hope things are well there with you.

I agree with my colleague Amy Kind that people can harmed (or benefited) even if they're unaware of it, and so in a sense even the dead can be harmed (or benefited). A colleague of mine used to speak of harm in terms not of experience but interests, and one of the the interests that some people have might be described as a narrative interest--that is, an interest in the story of their life. Most of us, I think, have an interest in our reputations. Some of us maintain an interest in producing a reputation that endures after we've died. Such an interest might, I think, be something not terribly admirable--a product of vanity and excessive pride or ambition. But an interest in an enduring reputation might be morally virtuous to the extent it, say, sustains a family name or enhances the reputation of a good institution (perhaps a college or a nation) to which one was connected. So, celebrating the Marquis's memory not only in a strange way benefits him. It also benefits France, the United States, his descendants, etc. (But, of course, harm and benefit aren't exactly the terms you used. As to whether or not the celebration is "valuable" to him, I'd have to say that strictly speaking it's not.)

Now, should we all try to be remembered by future generations? Generally, no. Having a famous ancestor is a good thing for many people and institutions, but hardly necessary. Institutions are for the most part fully well capable of flourishing whether or not any famous dead people are connected to them.

Having said that, it is nevertheless, important to recognize this: regardless of whether it benefits the Marquis to celebrate him, it's a good thing for us to remember past people who have made valuable contributions to our present condition. I might go so far, in fact, to say that the cultivation of an historical memory of this sort is a key ingredient of to civilization. There are lots of reasons for celebratory historical memory being a good thing for us. The dead often present useful role models, they serve as better reminders of important principles and values than abstract ideas, they can inspire and motivate us, and remember them contributes to a sense of self-worth and identity.

So, don't be concerned very much with being remembered and celebrated yourself, but do turn to the past and dig up someone to remember and to celebrate.

And Go Leopards!

What is the definition of Death?

What is the definition of Death?

You can find an interesting discussion of the definition of 'death' in Peter Singer's "Rethinking Life and Death." There is a helpful discussion in the first chapter about "The Ad Hoc Committee of the Harvard Medical School to Examine the Definition of Brain Death." This committee proposed in 1968 to "redefine" death so that a person who has suffered irreversible loss of all brain function counts as dead, even if the person is still breathing with the help of a respirator. While this proposal met with little resistance, people are much less inclined to say that someone in a persistent vegetative state is dead--even if there is an irreversible loss of consciousness.

Why is it thought morally right to kill an animal to end their suffering yet

Why is it thought morally right to kill an animal to end their suffering yet morally wrong to kill a human to end their suffering?

There's clearly an enormous amount that could be said about this, but here are a few thoughts.

Suppose that some person is suffering, and to avoid certain complications, suppose that there's no "cure" for their pain. Now suppose that the person actually wants us to take his life. (Imagine that he isn't in a position to do it himself.) Then it's not just obvious that it is wrong, all things considered, to kill him. That's why there's a serious debate about euthanasia.

That said, there are important differences between typical human beings and most other animals: humans don't just have immediate desires and aversions; humans have self-concepts which include plans, desires and values that bear on their own futures. Most animals, or so we believe, don't have any such things. We normally think that people's views about their own futures count -- that it's wrong simply to ignore them. In particular, if someone is suffering but doesn't want to die, we think that carries tremendous weight. Most animals, or so we think, don't have the capacity for the relevant thoughts. They don't have a conception of themselves as being who have potential futures about which they have plans, wishes and desires.

That's at best a contingent fact, and it may not be true of all animals. If a creature has a conception of its own future and has desires about the course of that future, then that makes a moral difference -- or so we normally think. And so it may well be that even in the case of some non-human animals, killing a creature in order to end its suffering is wrong.

None of this is meant to address all the issues that your question raises. Other panelists may well have things to say on matters that I haven't even raised. But the normal human capacity to be able to think about one's future is surely relevant to sorting all this out.

Why are philosophers interested in the topic of death?

Why are philosophers interested in the topic of death?

I recommend taking a look at Fred Feldman's book Confrontations with the Reaper: A Philosophical Study of the Nature and Value of Death (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992). It covers many of the issues mentioned by Mitch Green. But make sure you read the Preface, where Feldman explains the circumstances that motivated him to take up the issue.

Concerning our moral obligations to other people, what is the distinction

Concerning our moral obligations to other people, what is the distinction between killing and letting die? For example, if I'm at the beach and there's a child playing in the water, I think I can safely say that everyone would agree that it would be wrong for me to go in to the water and drown the child. But say I see the child drowning, and there's no one else around, and I could easily jump in and save him without risking my own life, would it be wrong for me to stand there and do nothing as he drowns? I'm not so sure what one's moral obligation is in this case. Personally, I would feel awful about letting the child drown and would certainly try to save him, but maybe not everyone would, and I'm hesitant so say they've done something wrong by doing nothing. In other words I don't know if I would support a law punishing such behavior.

I would like to distinguish two questions: (1) In any given case, is the mere difference between killing and letting die morally significant? and (2) From the point of view of public policy, should we draw a distinction between killing and letting die?

I am convinced by the arguments that James Rachels provides in "Active and Passive Euthanasia," New England Journal of Medicine 292 (1975) against the moral significance of the distinction between killing and letting die per se. Through an examination of different cases, Rachels argues persuasively that when you hold all other factors equal (consequences, motive of the agent, consent of the person whose life is at stake), the mere difference between killing and letting die is morally insignificant. We tend to believe that there is a significant difference between this act (killing) and omission (letting die), because in most cases, these other factors are not equal. Usually people who kill have malicious intent and create significant harm; and usually people who fail to prevent deaths that they could have prevented have no malicious intent. Especially in a medical setting, those who fail to prevent death usually do so, because their patients judge that the benefits of prolonging their lives are not worth the costs. But, as Rachels argues, when considering the actions of a malevolent uncle and his young nephew whose death promises a big inheritance to the uncle, it makes no moral difference whether the uncle drowns his young nephew or merely fails to prevent him from drowning in the bathtub.

However, because instances of killing and instances of letting die tend to be correlated with other morally relevant factors, from the point of view of public policy, it may well be morally justified to draw a distinction between killing and letting die, especially when we are considering whether to punish individuals who do one or the other. Overall, the policy that draws this distinction (and holds killers morally responsible for their acts but does not hold the morally indifferent responsible for their omissions) may have better consequences than a policy that does not draw such a distinction.

If we assume that there is no afterlife, what reason do we have to comply with a

If we assume that there is no afterlife, what reason do we have to comply with a person's wishes as regards treatment of their corpse? In particular, it is striking to me that we should respect a person's wish not to extract their organs after death; what reason could we possibly have to heed the wishes of someone who no longer exists, especially when the donation of their organs could literally save the lives of several people?

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.

Is inheritance of wealth ethical?

Is inheritance of wealth ethical?

Yes, that's because inheritance underwrites certain virtues and social goods--for example, (1) it stimulates productivity among those who create wealth, (2) it provides financial security, (3) it binds families together, (4) it produces general social stability.

But note that it's also the case that it's ethically sound to limit inheritance and to tax inheritance. That's because doing so mitigates the vices of inheritance and produces vitrues of its own. Among the vices of inheritance are (1) the cementing and even magnifying of social inequalities of power and priviledge, (2) intensifying class-based prejudice and hostility, and (3) dulling incentives to create wealth among inheritors. Among the goods that limiting and taxing inheritance produces are (1) a stronger democracy through greater equality of social goods and social power and (2) improved general welfare through the gathering of revenue to underwrite goods provided by government such as educatiion, healthcare, national defense, healthcare, and scientific inquiry.

First, congratulations for the website.

First, congratulations for the website. I'll try to phrase my question in an intelligible way: How do we realise, if we ever really do, that we are mortal? Indeed, until we are dead, at which point we are not conscious anymore, we have no affirmative knowledge of the fact that we are mortal. Is it an inferrence made from our observation of the world, and of the idea that we are no different? Or is it something that is culturally acquired by social influences - in which case I should maybe seek answers from social anthropologists? Could then it be considered more of a presumption than a realisation? And yet it is holds such a grip on people that it would be hard to suppose it is a mere presumption. Thank you. Olivier

I suppose it is both an observation from our experience of the world and also socially influenced. Freud suggests that we cannot really think of ourselves as dead; even when we imagine our funeral taking place, we are still sort of there watching, and so alive and conscious. As you say, we cannot actually experience no longer being alive, outside of movies anyway, but there are many things I cannot experience yet believe are true. Since I cannot swim I cannot experience moving across the top of water, but I believe it happens to people. I have even seen it happen. The same is true of mortality.

It seems to me that all morality is based on the belief that death is a bad

It seems to me that all morality is based on the belief that death is a bad thing. If we believed that death was desirable - for whatever reason - most everything would break down. But isn't it true that views on death are culturally determined - at least to some extent? Any thoughts would be appreciated.

In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates explains to his friends why, in the face of his imminent execution, he is in a good mood. His whole life, he reports, has been a preparation for death (64a-b): after he dies, his soul will be separated from his body, and he will finally be able to attain the only thing of genuine value– knowledge of the forms (65b-e, 66b-67b, 69a-b). If Socrates is right, Cebes rightly asks, why shouldn’t we all commit suicide? (61b) Because, Socrates rather lamely responds, we are the property of the gods, and they should decide when we die (62b-c). Without such a view about the property rights of the gods, Cebes’ question is difficult for a person like the Socrates of the Phaedo to answer. We might think that suicide would be wrong because in death we are unable to meet our responsibilities to others, but what sense can one make of these responsibilities, if they, too, would be better off dead?

Despite what Socrates suggests about the extraordinary virtues of philosophers who are convinced by his doctrine, it seems to me that if it really were true, as the questioner suggests, that death is more desirable than life, then our whole moral system would be out of wack. Sure, the philosopher who is aiming for death would be bold in battle since he wouldn’t fear death, and so might be in some sense extraordinarily courageous (68d-69a). But what possibly could motivate him to fight for the lives and well-being of his fellow citizens, if, in fact, death would be a blessing to them? Wouldn’t he be benefitting his enemy and harming his friends if he were to kill in battle his fellow citizens’ potential killers? And what sense could one make of the virtue of justice, if there are no genuine goods in this life to distribute more or less fairly?

I think, though, that despite Socrates’ many arguments for the immortality of the soul and the promise of knowledge of the forms in the afterlife, we have no good reason to believe that (except in cases of terrible suffering) death is anything other than a loss, one of the greatest losses one can suffer, and that for this reason, our moral codes rightly demand that we work hard to protect human life. (For further thoughts on the harm of death, see Question 1596.)

In what sense is being put to death a punishment? How we can talk about things

In what sense is being put to death a punishment? How we can talk about things like "suffering" or "loss" if a person is dead (i.e., not conscious)?

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.