Is Death a Tragedy?



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Milosz Pawlowski

Central European University,

Budapest

Is Death a Tragedy?

1 Death is commonly regarded as a tragedy that happens to all of us. This tragedy, however, apparently defines what we are: mortal intelligent beings. And so immediately a doubt may arise: whether something which seems to be not only a natural but a necessary feature of our life can be called a ‘tragedy’? It surely is not a tragedy in an Aristotelian sense of an extraordinary misfortune – if a misfortune it is at all!

This is just one of many ways of approaching the phenomenon of the deep ambivalence of death. In the final chapter of The Rationality of Emotions, de Sousa draws our attention to two different ways in which our attitudes to death are ambivalent. First:


(1) Our fear of death is both irrational (axiologically) and rational (strategically).
Secondly, death is ambivalent because it is a basic tragedy of life. This technical notion is explained in the following way:
I understand the word ‘tragedy’ as implying a necessary conflict in which both sides are right and wrong at once, and no escape into a third alternative is possible. Each of these sources of the deepest level of ambivalence presents us with a necessary condition of a fundamental good, where that condition itself conflicts directly with the enjoyment or perpetuation of that good.1
From this characterization of tragedy, together with some further remarks de Sousa makes in the same chapter, we can derive two further claims about the ambivalence of death:
(2) Death is valued and disvalued at the same time.2

(3) Death is an evil but also a precondition of a good human life.


Now, I think that none of these claims is actually sound. In arguing against this account of death as a basic tragedy of life I shall appeal to the theoretical model of emotions developed by de Sousa himself. I find it very useful in discussing the issues of death and fear of death. Providing a framework in which discussion can be fruitfully carried out is one of the most valuable contributions a philosopher can make to any field.

2 With regard to fear of death my intuitions are just the opposite of those upheld by de Sousa; fear of death seems to me axiologically rational but strategically irrational. Suppose that it is an inevitable result of “engineering constraints” of evolution – though this is not beyond doubt as de Sousa observes in Perversion and Death.3 But it is quite clear that on particular occasion this fear is not useful. Take a member of a rescue team in mountains or at the sea. Fear of death could only interfere with her work and put both her and the people she helps in greater danger. In general, in human adults the awareness of risk and decision to avoid it are quite enough to ensure their safety; a specific emotional component of fear is not needed. Finally, fear of death interferes with the attainment of tranquillity and can lead to all sorts of irrational behaviour, that Lucretius was particularly fond of picturing.4

The idea of ‘paradigm scenario’ is a particularly useful tool for showing how and why fear of death can be thought axiologically rational.5 It seems to me that there are three central types of paradigm scenarios for fear, which select three different motivating aspects of the object or the situation which is feared.


1) Pain-paradigms.
We learn not only to avoid but to experience fear with regard to things capable of producing pain or other unpleasant experiences. Fire is an example of the thing which we need to learn to fear. Insects provide another good example.
2) Harm-paradigms.
The paradigmatic cases of harm relate to our biological nature. It is primarily the interference with the normal functioning of an organism which counts as a harm. Of course the harm need not happen to us; very often we learn on the example of animals. To give a few central examples of harm:
- deprivation of adequate nourishment

- going blind

- loosing a limb

- being killed or dying


The last example is of course controversial. But I take it as a matter of fact that many of us killed some small animals in our childhood and on this occasion we were told that it is wrong to harm them.

Harms are usually accompanied by pain. It would be wrong, however, to think that it is the reason why we are afraid of them. Consider painlessly becoming blind and loosing legs. Suppose also that no physical suffering is incurred indirectly by this event. We might hope that in the future the life of the handicapped really will be as easy and comfortable as that of other people. Still, if such thing happened to me, this would be a great harm. I would be deprived of the capacity for certain experiences (seeing) and for performing certain actions (running). Harm typically involves the loss of such capacities.


3) Loss-paradigms.
I will start with an example which seems to me particularly illuminating (perhaps it is only my highly personal scenario). This is a situation when we were lost. It often happens in childhood that one gets separated from a parent in an alien place, experiencing total disorientation and numbing terror. If that was not enough, upon being found one may be scolded or even punished for getting lost.

It should be noted, that the child who gets lost – at least for the first time – may not think of the loss of the parent as only temporary. Loosing parents, and the way home (and so loosing home itself, our place in the world) and everything which was familiar is either put in no temporal perspective at all, or even imagined to be permanent.

Now, due to the intrinsic negative features of this experience (terror and panic) and due to the feedback we receive from our parents, we learn that separation from and the loss of others and of one’s place in the world is a most frightening thing.

So as the next paradigm case we might take the loss of a dear person – or a pet –

either through separation or death (this, again, is a tendentious, but genuine example). This is something we might be threatened with. Or, having experienced it, we develop a fear that this sort of thing might happen again.

Loss, as I understand it, does not imply previous possession of the object. I may loose chances or prospects as well. It might be said, that it is still something I had before I lost it. But this loss will in fact be experienced as a loss of the object involved. Consider desire and anticipation. Suppose I want to have a birthday party and I am looking forward to it. Then, for some reason, it is cancelled. I will experience this as a loss, and a loss of nothing else but my birthday party. When the outcome is not certain, I may fear that my desires and anticipation wil not be satisfied.


It has been notoriously claimed that one’s own death does not fit any of the above paradigms. This is in fact the essence of Epicurean claims. First, death is not painful, for it is the absence of sensation. Secondly, since it is not painful, it is not a harm – and in any case, there is no one to be harmed any more. Along the same lines, Lucretius argues that death involves no loss: for there is no one who lost anything; and the praemia vitae are not missed by the deceased person.6 And when things are not missed there is no loss, we might say.
That death is not painful is certainly right. But to say that death is neither a harm nor loss seems puzzling and altogether implausible. The first obvious reason is that death is simply often included in our paradigm scenarios for fear, as I have noted before. And this is no accident. If the crippling of some bodily function and consequent loss of some capacities for experience and action is a harm, how come that loosing all of them is not a harm? And if loosing some crucial elements of our life (relations to others, place in the world, memories, particular emotions) is a serious loss, how can it be that loosing everything is no loss at all? The suggestion that death is not fearful seems absurd because there seems to be a logical link between the evaluation of all these particular harms and losses and the evaluation of death. One can argue that particular harms and losses are frightening inasmuch as they bring death closer or approximate it. To quote from Perversion and Death: “Phenomenologically, the centrality of the fear of death relates to an awareness that if the threat of death did not lie behind other forms of harm, then those other harms could not be absolutely serious”.7 So it might be argued that even illnesses and injuries which do not actually entail the permanent loss of any capabilities (thus resulting in a partial loss of the biological life) are frightful because they entail the risk of death (or at least because they make the prospect of death vivid in our minds). Similarly for personal losses. The more serious a loss, the closer it is to being equivalent to the loss of our life. Think of someone who says ‘I can’t imagine my life without him’. ‘Life’ does not mean here simply our biological life, but our meaningful life as persons. Again it is not improper to say that we partly loose our life and so that we partly die. And the frightfulness of the loss of a part is directly proportional to how “big”, significant part of our life it is. So if we are afraid of


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