Reflections 2009

In Defense of Epicurus, a Brash Attack on Peter Carruthers; Or, Why Carruthers’ Argument that Death is a Harm to the Deceased Fails

Tyrus Fisher

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Photograph by Sydney Ngo

“Death is nothing to us… For all good and evil consists in sensation, but death is deprivation of sensation… [Death] does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more” (Bailey 124-125). –Epicurus

In a chapter of The Animals Issue: Moral Theory in Practice, entitled “Utilitarianism and the Harm of Killing”, Peter Carruthers argues that, given a utilitarian point of view, death is a harm to the deceased (Carruthers 74). In this paper I will argue that from the very point of view outlined by Carruthers, death does not cause the deceased any harm.

I interpret Carruthers’ argument as follows:

P1. Death is the end of existence [D ó ~E] (Carruthers 75).

P2. The end of existence prevents further utility [~E à ~ U] (Carruthers 75).[1]

P3. That which prevents utility causes harm [~U à H] (Carruthers 76).


4. Death causes harm [D à H] (Carruthers 76).

Rendered as such this argument is valid, the salient moves being a succession of modus ponens. Also, as rendered, the argument is plausible from a utilitarian perspective and these utilitarians are explicitly targeted by Carruthers in this argument (Carruthers 75). So, from inserting these plausible, maybe even true, premises into the valid form above we reach the conclusion that death causes harm[2]

My first move is to allow that the argument above may be sound, in which case Carruthers has established that death, on a traditional utilitarian account, is harm. However, the argument fails to establish what Carruthers set out to establish in the first place, that death is a harm to the deceased (Carruthers 74). Carruthers’ argument plays on an ambiguity in the word “harm”. The harm that is properly the subject of Carruther’s argument is not the sort of thing that can be predicated of a person who has died if, as premise one of Carruther’s argument states, death is the end of existence.        

Traditionally, when considering the utilitarian calculus, we imagine that “the good” or “the bad” is additive and could, in principle, be tallied to determine the sum total of “good” or “bad” in the world. That is, we talk as if “the good” and “the bad” exist out in the world and given the proper knowledge we could, “add it up”. This conception is useful for considering the morality of actions but it leads us to a different conception of harm than that which we predicate of individuals. The sort of harm that Carruthers’ argument speaks to is the conception of harm invoked when we say things like, “Embezzlement of tax dollars is a harm to us all”. Notice that under this conception of “harm” the person who embezzled the tax dollars might not have experienced a net increase in harm but the sum total of harm in the world may have increased. Let’s call this type of harm, harm-sub-one.

The conception of harm above can be contrasted with the conception of harm that can be predicated of an individual. As in the sentence, “The vicious rumors harmed George by preventing him from getting the Peace Corp promotion”. Call this type of harm, harm-sub-two. This latter conception of harm refers to the frustration of an individual’s desires. This type of harm can be predicated of an individual whereas the former type cannot.

A closer look at the distinction I am drawing here is in order. These two conceptions of harm are related. In fact, harm-sub-one is the sum of all the instances of harm-sub-two. Nevertheless, Harm-sub-one and harm-sub-two can be shown to be distinct. Imagine, for instance, that the person who got the promotion instead of George is more effective in her role in the Peace Corp than George could have been and thereby causes the net balance of harm to decrease in the world more than it would have if George had gotten the promotion. Here we see that an instance that causes an individual to experience harm-sub-two might still cause a decrease in harm-sub-one. This is enough, I think, to show that these two conceptions of harm are distinct.

The task now is to demonstrate why harm-sub-two cannot be predicated of a person who has died and therefore, by premise 1, has ceased to exist. This can quickly be argued as follows: If someone has ceased to exist, then the desires that this person had no longer exist. It is impossible to frustrate desires that don’t exist. Therefore it is impossible to harm, i.e. frustrate the desires of, a nonexistent person because nonexistent persons have no desires to frustrate.

 There is a temptation to reply to this argument by saying something like, “Anything that frustrates my desires is a harm to me. I have desires like, say, becoming a philosopher, and death will prevent me from becoming a philosopher. Therefore, death is a harm to me”. The point to make here is related to the assertion that “death frustrates my desires”. It is not the case that death frustrates desires, instead death eliminates desires. This is because to say that death frustrates my desires is to say, in part, that there is someone that exists such that he or she can have desires that can be frustrated, which is inconsistent with premise one of Carruthers’ arguments.

Another objection to my account here proposes that if we consider the universe from a “four-dimensional-space-time” point of view, then a person does not actually cease to exist. Thought of in this way, we can predicate harm of a person even after she or he is dead. The problems with this are at least two-fold. First, this reply is not likely to sway many people since nobody actually experiences the world in this way. But this is really an observation about the rhetorical effectiveness of the reply rather than its correctness. The more serious problem with this reply is that it too is in direct conflict with premise one of Carruthers’ argument. For, if we consider people to be “four-dimensional space-time worms” then death is not the end of existence.

So then, I have argued here that the argument put forward by Peter Carruthers which tries to establish that “death is a harm to the deceased” fails despite being valid and proceeding from plausible premises because Carruthers equivocates on “harm”.

Works Cited 

Carruthers, Peter. The Animals Issue: Moral Theory in Practice. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Epicurus. “Principal Doctrines in Epicurus: The Extant Remains. Translated by Cyril Bailey. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926.

[1] I use the term “utility” here, rather than happiness, because Carruthers makes a point of mentioning that different forms of utilitarianism define “the good” in different ways. In particular, Carruthers notes that Singer counts preference as the ultimate moral good (Carruthers 82)

[2] There are, of course, situations we can imagine in which a person wants to die and only good things will come from this person’s death. But to introduce the phrase “sometimes cause harm” or “probably cause harm” would needlessly complicate the logic here. The oversimplification I have made is not problematic since my claim is that death is never a harm to the deceased and, a cogent argument for the claim that death is never a harm would also be a cogent argument against the weaker “sometimes” claim.

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