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The Epicurean Argument

Part of the Philosophy and Medicine book series (PHME, volume 73)

Abstract

The Epicurean argument has provided the classical objection to the widely held view that death can be a harm to the person who dies. To attain the central aim of this book, first of all, I want to refute Epicurus in this chapter.

Keywords

Standard Interpretation Tertiary Period Irreversible Cessation Compound Concept Existence Requirement 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    See Harry S. Silverstein, ‘The Evil of Death’, in The Metaphysics of Death, ed. John Martin Fischer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), p. 95.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    For a discussion of Epicurus’ philosophical background, see J. M. Rist, Epicurus: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972). See also P. H. De Lacy, ‘Epicurus’, in Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 3, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan, 1967).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Epicurus, ‘Letter to Menoeceus’, trans. C. Bailey, in The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers, ed. Whitney Jennings Oates (New York: Modern Library, 1957), pp. 30–31. Epicurus, in this argument, apparently raises two reasons to support his conclusion death is nothing to us: (1) When we are, death is not come, and (2) When death is come, we are not. However, reason (1) is not strong enough to support Epicurus’ conclusion, because the expectation of death may be a harm or misfortune for the living. Perhaps this is a rhetorically provocative and somewhat exaggerated way of expressing his basic idea about death. Anyhow, reason (1) is entirely irrelevant to the argument. Therefore, I will follow most philosophers, especially Rosenbaum, and ignore it.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    See Jeff McMahan, ‘Death and the Value of Life’, in The Metaphysics of Death, ed. John Martin Fischer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), pp. 233–234; and Joel Feinberg, ‘Harm to Others’, in The Metaphysics of Death, ed. John Martin Fischer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), p. 171.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    This reconstruction is based on Rosenbaum’s text which I have slightly modified. In his reconstruction of the Epicurean argument, Rosenbaum presupposes that there is a tertiary stage intervening between dying and death (being dead). However, it is not clear whether such a stage exists. Even if it exists, the characteristics of this stage are still unclear. According to Rosenbaum, this stage is roughly the time at which a person becomes dead. However, it is not clear that it is a stage of a person’s life. It is not clear that it takes time or, if so, how much time it takes. It may be a mere moment in time separating dying from death (being dead). Most importantly, it is not clear whether or not there is a subject left during this stage; nor is it clear, if there is a subject, what the characteristics of this subject are or in what sense it is a subject. Given this, to simplify our discussion, in my reconstruction of the Epicurean argument, I suppose that there are only two stages in one’s history: dying and death (being dead). See Stephen E. Rosenbaum, ‘How to Be Dead and Not Care: A Defence of Epicurus’, in The Metaphysics of Death, ed. John Martin Fischer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), pp. 120–122.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Fischer, McMahan, Silverstein, and William Grey, for example, also (broadly speaking) accept this reconstruction. See ‘Introduction: Death, Metaphysics, and Morality’, in The Metaphysics of Death, ed. John Martin Fischer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), pp. 1–30; Jeff McMahan, ‘Death and the Value of Life’, in The Metaphysics of Death, ed. John Martin Fischer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), pp. 233–266; Harry S. Silverstein, ‘The Evil of Death’, in The Metaphysics of Death, ed. John Martin Fischer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), pp. 95–116; and William Grey, ‘Epicurus and the Harm of Death’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 77 (1999), pp. 358–364.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Usually, there are difficulties in interpreting classic works. It might be found that there are inconsistent notions or even theories in a classic author’s works. This is partly caused by the usage of vague language, missing parts of the author’s works, loss in translation, or even the existence of spurious works. It might prove very difficult to have a completely precise understanding of what Epicurus really meant by this argument. However, the philosophical importance of these issues extends beyond the question of the historical accuracy of interpretations of the Epicurean argument and the philosophical insights which it contains. In the light of this, I accept Rosenbaum’s reconstruction of the Epicurean argument as appropriate, even though he may misunderstand Epicurus’ original intentions. I provide only a very slight revision of Rosenbaum’s argument.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    John Woods also draws a clear distinction between ‘death’ and ‘dying’. He says: The fear of death is not the fear of dying, with which it is sometimes confused. To fear dying is to fear living through the usually rather trying concluding episodes of one’s existence. To fear death is to fear the circumstance of one’s nonexistence, not the experience of its approach. Fear of death is fear of the void... John Woods, ‘Can Death Be Understood’, in Values and the Quality of Life, eds. William R. Shea and John King-Farlow (New York: Science History Publications, 1976), p. 161.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    ‘Introduction: Death, Metaphysics, and Morality’ in The Metaphysics of Death, ed. John Martin Fischer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), p. 4.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Kaufman also makes this point. He says, ‘It is clear that Epicurus is talking about being dead, not the process of dying, which can be awful and hence rationally feared.’ Frederik Kaufman, ‘Death and Deprivation; or, Why Lucretius’ Symmetry Argument Fails’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 74 (1996), fn. 1.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    See Stephen E. Rosenbaum, ‘How to Be Dead and Not Care: A Defence of Epicurus’, in The Metaphysics of Death, ed. John Martin Fischer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), p. 121; and ‘Introduction: Death, Metaphysics, and Morality’ in The Metaphysics of Death, ed. John Martin Fischer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), pp. 3–4.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Stephen E. Rosenbaum, ‘How to Be Dead and Not Care: A Defense of Epicurus’, in The Metaphysics of Death, ed. John Martin Fischer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), pp. 122–123.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Ibid., pp. 120–121.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Julian Lamont, ‘A Solution to the Puzzle of When Death Harms Its Victims’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 76 (1998), p. 210.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 15.
    Epicurus, ‘Letter to Menoeceus’, trans. C. Bailey, in The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers, ed. Whitney Jennings Oates (New York: Modern Library, 1957), pp. 30–31.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    See Stephen E. Rosenbaum, ‘How to Be Dead and Not Care: A Defense of Epicurus’, in The Metaphysics of Death, ed. John Martin Fischer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), p. 124.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
  18. 18.
  19. 19.
    Step (C) in the standard interpretation of the Epicurean argument can be found at the beginning of this section.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    See Jeff McMahan, ‘Death and the Value of Life’, in The Metaphysics of Death, ed. John Martin Fischer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), pp. 233–234.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Ibid., p. 234.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Here, I suppose Epicurus would have chosen to make his view reasonable and consistent. It is for this reason that I assume that we need to specify a more precise necessary condition in the Epicurean argument.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    See Harry S. Silverstein, ‘The Evil of Death’, in The Metaphysics of Death, ed. John Martin Fischer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), p. 96.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Epicurus, ‘Letter to Menoeceus’, trans. C. Bailey, in The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers, ed. Whitney Jennings Oates (New York: Modern Library, 1957), p. 30.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    When I claim that ‘P can experience a state of affairs (or event)’ is a more precise necessary condition than ‘P exists when a state of affairs (or event) occurs’, I do not mean that the latter is not a precise necessary condition for that state of affairs (or event) being a harm (or bad thing) for P. What I mean is that: the reason for ‘P exists when a state of affairs (or event) occurs’ to be a necessary condition for that state of affairs (or event) being a harm (or bad thing) for P is based on the supposition that ‘P can experience a state of affairs (or event)’ is a necessary condition for that state of affairs (or event) being a harm (or bad thing) for P. Put it another way, ‘P can experience a state of affairs (or event)’ is a more precise statement of necessary condition for that state of affairs (or event) being a harm (or bad) for P.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Someone might argue that ‘P exists when a state of affairs (or event) occurs’ is a necessary and sufficient condition for ‘P can experience the state of affairs (or event)’, so it is claimed that ‘P can experience a state of affairs (or event)’ is not a more precise necessary condition for the state of affairs (or event) being a harm (or bad thing) for P than ‘P exists when the state of affairs (or event) occurs’. To this challenge, I have the following response: (1) It is very difficult to judge whether, in the Epicurean argument, ‘P exists when a state of affairs (or event) occurs’ is a necessary and sufficient condition for ‘P can experience the state of affairs (or event)’. However, it is clear that ‘P exists when a state of affairs (or event) occurs’ is a necessary condition for ‘P can experience the state of affairs (or event)’. Thus, ‘P does not exist when a state of affairs (or event) occurs’ would exclude the possibility that ‘P can experience the state of affairs (or event)’. (2) ‘Experience’ is conceptually more relevant to ‘harm’ or ‘bad’ than ‘existence’. Therefore, even if ‘P exists when a state of affairs (or event) occurs’ is a necessary and sufficient condition for ‘P can experience the state of affairs (or event)’, I can still claim that conceptually ‘P can experience a state of affairs (or event)’ is a more precise necessary condition for the state of affairs (or event) being a harm (or bad thing) for P than ‘P exists when the state of affairs (or event) occurs’. It is in this sense that I claim: ‘P can experience a state of affairs (or event)’ is a more precise necessary condition for the state of affairs (or event) being a harm (or bad thing) for P than ‘P exists when the state of affairs (or event) occurs’.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Stephen E. Rosenbaum, ‘How to Be Dead and Not Care: A Defence of Epicurus’, in The Metaphysics of Death, ed. John Martin Fischer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), p. 123.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    This weaker sense of ‘possibility’ in (3) is identified by Fischer which he calls the ‘narrow’ sense of possibility. See John Martin Fischer, ‘Death, Badness, and the Impossibility of Experience’, Journal of Ethics 1 (1997), p. 347.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    P. H. De Lacy, in explicating the philosophy of Epicurus, writes, ‘The feelings of pleasure and pain that accompany sense experiences are the ultimate good and evil; all statements about good and evil are meaningful only by reference to these feelings.’ This can be seen to support the conclusion I reach about the Epicurean argument. See P. H. De Lacy, ‘Epicurus’, in Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 3, ed. Paul Edwards, p. 3.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Maybe I should put (4) as: ‘P experiences and feels a state of affairs (or event) as bad when the state of affairs (or event) occurs’ is a sufficient and necessary condition for the state of affairs (or event) being a harm (or bad thing) for P; whereas ‘P experiences and feels a state of affairs (or event) as good when the state of affairs (or event) occurs’ is a sufficient and necessary condition for the state of affairs (or event) being a good thing for P. However, to refute the Epicurean argument, it is enough to put (4) as: ‘P experiences and feels a state of affairs (or event) as bad when the state of affairs (or event) occurs’ is a sufficient condition for the state of affairs (or event) being a harm (or bad thing) for P; whereas ‘P experiences and feels a state of affairs (or event) as good when the state of affairs (or event) occurs’ is a sufficient condition for the state of affairs (or event) being a good thing for P.Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    ‘Death’, in Thomas Nagel, Mortal Questions (London: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 3.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    Cf. Steven Luper-Foy, ‘Annihilation’, in The Metaphysics of Death, ed. John Martin Fischer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), p. 274.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    Cf. ‘Death’, in Thomas Nagel, Mortal Questions (London: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 4.Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    George Pitcher, ‘The Misfortunes of the Dead’, in The Metaphysics of Death, ed. John Martin Fischer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), p. 165.Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    Cf. Julian Lamont, ‘A Solution to the Puzzle of When Death Harms Its Victims’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 76 (1998), p. 207.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. 36.
    Jeff McMahan, ‘Death and the Value of Life’, in The Metaphysics of Death, ed. John Martin Fischer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), p. 235.Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    Ibid., pp. 240–241.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    The Epicurean argument is also discussed by David Hume (1711–1776). See James Boswell, ‘An Account of My Last Interview with David Hume, Esq.’, in Private Papers of James Boswell (Isham Collection), p. 229.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jack Li
    • 1
  1. 1.Fooyin Institute of TechnologyTaiwan

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