The idea that death gives meaning to life is widespread but does not reflect careful reasoning, and is often a desperate rationalization of human mortality. As a consequence, life extensionists have not been at great pains to defeat “pro-death” arguments. A (secular) philosophical position that is harder to refute is that we should not fear death because we cannot experience it. This is the classical argument of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 B.C.):
Accustom yourself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply awareness, and death is the privation of all awareness; therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life an unlimited time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. For life has no terror; for those who thoroughly apprehend that there are no terrors for them in ceasing to live. Foolish, therefore, is the person who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect. Whatever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer.
Many philosophers have felt uncomfortable with such reasoning and have gone out of their way to refute it. This should not be surprising since humans are “hardwired” for survival. An outlook on death that seems strongly at odds with our evolved survival instinct is bound to be challenged. Epicurus’ position on death has further been challenged as nihilistic. For example, if death is not bad because it cannot be experienced by the person himself, on what moral grounds should we refrain from killing a person, provided the method is instantaneous and the individual in question is not known by others who can mourn his death?
In the collection “The Metaphysics of Death,” many contributors feel pressed, sometimes venturing into fairly obscure arguments, to refute the Epicurean position. But as Stephen Rosenbaum points out in his contribution “Epicurus and Annihilation,” the position of Epicurus on death is often misunderstood. Epicurus did not argue that we should not fear the process of dying or the prospect of dying.
One can prefer life over death without committing to the view that death is bad for a person. Although our survival instinct usually prevents us from looking at it in such a way, in real life we have an ongoing “choice” between life or death. Although death cannot be experienced as being bad, we generally have good reason to prefer life over death, provided life is experienced as positive or has the potential to become positive. Although life extensionists would prefer to have stronger arguments against the Epicurean view on death, a preference for good experience over no experience can do the work just fine.