“In the end, those who were carried off early no longer need us: they are weaned from earth’s sorrows and joys, as gently as children outgrow the soft breasts of their mothers.” – Rainer Maria Rilke, The First Elegy

I decided to make some of the papers I wrote for my college philosophy courses public. This is the third and final paper for PHIL 176 “Death” at Yale University, I took it in spring 2018 while I was on a year-long visiting program at Yale.


PHIL 176 is one of the best courses that I have taken in my undergraduate career. It is a great introductory-level philosophy course that taught me the basics of how one should think about philosophy, and gave me a taste of the major branches of modern philosophy. It is also available online on Open Yale Courses, and I strongly recommend everyone to watch the videos, at least the first few. The professor, Shelly Kagan, also wrote a book on the same topic, if you prefer reading to watching. Below is a short description from Open Yale Courses:

There is one thing I can be sure of: I am going to die. But what am I to make of that fact? This course will examine a number of issues that arise once we begin to reflect on our mortality. The possibility that death may not actually be the end is considered. Are we, in some sense, immortal? Would immortality be desirable? Also a clearer notion of what it is to die is examined. What does it mean to say that a person has died? What kind of fact is that? And, finally, different attitudes to death are evaluated. Is death an evil? How? Why? Is suicide morally permissible? Is it rational? How should the knowledge that I am going to die affect the way I live my life?

The writing prompt suggested two topics that I was not particularly interested in, so I discussed with the TA and got the permission for a custom topic. The writing assignments were great challenges to me as a visiting computer science student with minimal English writing skills and even less experience in writing liberal arts papers (on the other hand my peers were Yale students). I did terribly for the first paper and got an B-, but the second one got better with an A-, then this one got an A. As Shelly is known to be a harsh grader, I consider this to be one of the greatest achievements of my undergraduate career.

On a side note, I wrote almost all of my college notes and papers in Pandoc Markdown, then render them into PDFs or .docx files for grading based on the course requirement. Now with awesome projects like Jekyll and MathJax, publishing papers like this is as easy as simply copying over the markdown content. Below is almost an exact plain text copy from my note repo (with several style adjustments).

Table of Contents

  1. 1. Introduction and the Deprivation Account
    1. 1.1. Comparative Badness and the Missed Spring Break Example
    2. 1.2. In the Context of Death
    3. 1.3. Example: Ice-Cream and Newspaper
  2. 2. Requirements of Comparative Badness
    1. 2.1. The Necessity of The First Three Requirements
    2. 2.2. The Necessity of the Fourth Requirement
    3. 2.3. Applying the Requirements to the Context of Death
  3. 3. Potential Objections
    1. 3.1. Jack Still Wants Ice-Creams
    2. 3.2. About Desire and Joy
  4. 4. Conclusion

1. Introduction and the Deprivation Account

In this paper, I will show that deprivation account fails to show that death is comparatively bad because it cannot be generalized from the “Missed Spring Break” example to the context of death, due to the requirement of desirability.

The deprivation account proposes that the badness of death originates from missing out the good things that could have happened in life if the person did not die. The following sections will start off by explaining the background of deprivation account, give an example showing the importance of the desire requirement, then formulate the detailed requirements for comparative badness and show why deprivation account fails.

1.1. Comparative Badness and the Missed Spring Break Example

Among all the things that are considered to be bad, most of them can roughly be put into two categories – intrinsically bad or instrumentally bad. Things like pain are usually recognized to be intrinsically bad as they are “bad in themselves”, there is something about themselves that we would want to avoid. On the other hand, there are things that are not bad in themselves that are still considered to be bad, like losing your job. It is bad because that means you will likely become poorer and therefore have a lower life quality (for example, having no money to buy painkillers when you are having a toothache), causing something intrinsically bad to happen, and these things are considered to be instrumentally bad.

However, consider an example (given by Shelly in class): It is the last class before spring break, everyone is having some great plans to have lots of fun during the spring break. Suddenly a magical gas spreads into the classroom and puts everyone to sleep. By the time everyone wakes up, the spring break is already over and those fun planned did not happen. It is natural to consider the event “being put to sleep by the magical gas and therefore missing out spring break” is bad, but what kind of bad is it? First, nothing intrinsically bad happened, people were just in dreamless sleep with neither pain nor joy. And there was nothing causing something intrinsically bad to happen, people just had less fun than planned, so this cannot be instrumentally bad. To offer a better explanation, the deprivation account proposed a third kind of badness – comparative bad. It is the kind of badness that comes from things that could have been better. In this example, people could have had lots of joy, but the magical gas made them miss that, therefore it is comparatively bad.

1.2. In the Context of Death

Given the deprivation account and the concept of comparative badness, we can naturally apply that to the case of death. Even though after death there cannot be intrinsic badness (because the person does not even exist), and therefore cannot be instrumental badness as well, death can still be bad because there could have been many good things in life if the person did not die. Therefore death is like the magical gas in the previous example, and following this reasoning, we can conclude that death is comparatively bad.

However, there is something that only exists in the missed spring break example but not in the case of death – desire for the thing that was missed. After the missed spring break, everyone still wants the fun things (that could have happened), but in case of death, there is no such desire after death. People could not have wanted anything without existence. To better illustrate the importance of this difference, consider the following example.

1.3. Example: Ice-Cream and Newspaper

Jack is an avid ice-cream lover. One day, as usual, he was on his way to get ice-cream on Chapel street, and unexpectedly came across a newspaper article which reveals that the production process of all ice-creams is extremely harmful to the cows, environment and they are all produced in sweat factories. He was shocked and no longer wants ice-creams. Later that day, when Jack told his friend John about this, John was astounded by such atrocity. “How dare the newspaper do such bad things to you! If they didn’t publish that article you could have had so much joy having ice-creams for the rest of your life!”, John said.

In this example, it is intuitive to say that John’s point does not make sense, as after reading the newspaper, ice-cream is not something that Jack still want anymore, and he cannot “miss out” something that he does not want.

2. Requirements of Comparative Badness

We can now formulate the requirements for something to be comparatively bad as the following: For event $E$ to be comparatively bad for person $P$ (and $T$ being the thing missed out), it must satisfy all of the following requirements.

  1. $T$ must be good (either intrinsically or instrumentally) for $P$
  2. There was some non-negligible chance for $P$ to get $T$
  3. But $P$ didn’t get $T$ because of $E$
  4. $P$ still wants $T$ after $E$ happened

In the following sections, I will show why each one of the requirements is necessary.

2.1. The Necessity of The First Three Requirements

The first three requirements are trivial, because:

  1. If $T$ is not even good, then missing it must not be a bad thing.
  2. If there was no reasonable chance of getting $T$ in the first place, we cannot say that we “missed” it due to $E$.
  3. If it isn’t $E$ that caused the person to miss out $T$, then we should blame the event that caused $P$ to miss out $T$ instead of $E$

2.2. The Necessity of the Fourth Requirement

The fourth requirement could be controversial, based on the ice-cream example, we can prove the necessity of requirement 4 in the following way:

  • Premise 1: Thing $T$ is good for person $P$ if and only if $P$ can obtain joy (or avoid pain) from $T$ (either directly or indirectly)
  • Premise 2: $P$ can obtain joy from $T$ if and only if $P$ has a desire for $T$
  • Premise 3: Therefore, if $P$ does not desire $T$, then $T$ cannot be good for $P$
  • Premise 4: Given requirement 1, if $P$ no longer has the desire for $T$, then the event that removed the desire from $P$ is not comparatively bad

Note that, like Premise 1, Premise 2, 3 and 4 should also be true for the converse case of avoiding pain where $P$ does not want something bad to happen and $T$ helps preventing that. For example, Jack doesn’t want to suffer from a toothache, therefore he takes some painkillers.

Therefore if we agree that joy (or pain avoidance) is the only intrinsically good thing (Premise 1 is true) and agree that desire is the foundation for joy (Premise 2 is true), then Premise 3 must also be true. And as the first requirement for comparative badness demands the thing to be good, then we can conclude that: If the desire $D$ is eliminated by an event $E$, then $E$ is not comparatively bad because “we missed out opportunities to satisfy $D$”. For example, we should not blame reading the newspaper article because Jack no longer wants ice-creams.

2.3. Applying the Requirements to the Context of Death

After establishing the requirements for something to be comparatively bad, we can apply these to the case of death. After death, the person no longer desires for those worldly joys like the fun during spring break, therefore arguing death is bad because the person would be missing out “the good things in life” does not make sense. Therefore we can conclude that death is not comparatively bad.

3. Potential Objections

3.1. Jack Still Wants Ice-Creams

For the ice-cream example, one could argue that Jack still wants ice-creams, if there is an ice-cream produced without harming cows, environment, and workers, he would still want to eat it and enjoy the process, therefore the desire is not really eliminated.

Here we need to distinguish between two distinct desires:

  1. The desire for ice-creams produced while harming cows, environment, and workers

  2. The desire for ice-creams produced without harming cows, environment, and workers

Even though both of them are a desire for ice-creams, but the difference in the type of ice-cream matters. Jack no longer has the first kind of desire, but he may still have desires of the second type, and the example was talking about removing the first type of desire.

3.2. About Desire and Joy

There are many cases where the patient doesn’t want to take certain pills but the pills are still considered to be good for the patient, so desire is not a necessary condition for goodness.

This objection ignores the overall consequence of taking pills. Even though the act of taking pills may be directly unpleasant for the patient, its badness is outweighed by the effect of curing the disease which would be indirectly avoiding a larger amount of pain, and we should be considering all of its direct and indirect consequences when we are judging the goodness/badness of an act.

4. Conclusion

In conclusion, I have argued that comparative badness would require the desire for the thing that was missed afterward, hence the deprivation account fails to show that death is comparatively bad.