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Being and Knowing, Fairweather
12 October 2015
The Fear of Death is Rational
Epicurus has an ancient and famous argument for why one should not fear one’s own death.
(1) Your death is the annihilation of your own consciousness
(2) It is impossible to be harmed by anything after your consciousness has been annihilated
(3) It is irrational to fear what cannot harm you
(C) It is irrational to fear your own death
It is important to note that “death” here does not refer to the process of dying, but to the
state of being dead. Epicurus would not deny that we are justified in fearing death because it is
often associated with pain. Epicurus, (or perhaps the translator), refers to “death” rather than “the
state of being dead” or “deadness,” probably because the former makes for a more radicalsounding conclusion.
(1) In the state of being dead your consciousness does not exist
(2) It it impossible to experience harm without consciousness
(3) It is irrational to fear what cannot harm you
(C) It is irrational to fear the state of being dead
Suddenly, the conclusion does not seem as radical, because we do not typically speak
about fearing the state of being dead, but it is a more careful reconstruction of the argument.
Another reason the argument may feel trivial, at least for some people, is that it takes as its first
premise a very large assumption, that death is the annihilation of consciousness. This contradicts
a belief that many people hold, that there is life after death or that the soul continues to exist after
the body dies. So the argument says nothing about the rationality of these people. This brings to
light an interesting idea; perhaps the fear of death, which so many rational people have, is
explained by their non-acceptance of (1). This is not to say that they outright deny (1). But
perhaps almost everyone, consciously or subconsciously, is somewhat or even slightly skeptical
of death as annihilation. Even the slightest skepticism could cause a magnitude of fear because it
attaches to the infinite eternity of after-death.
However, I do not want to argue for such a thesis in this paper because Epicurus’
argument was written in a society that mostly did hold (1) to be true (at least in conscious
thought). We can allow that there are at least some people who do genuinely believe in death as
annihilation, and if premises (2) and (3) are true, then at least for those people who do certainly
believe that death is annihilation, the fear of death is irrational. Since we are already assuming
one premise, we should be especially critical of the others. I contend that (3) should be called
into question because fear is not limited to what can harm you, nor is it limited to what affects
ourselves and not others. Lucretius argued in support of Epicurus by pointing out the how
asymmetrical it is that we fear non-existence before birth yet fear non-existence after death. To
me, however, rather than provide evidence for Epicurus’ view, Lucretius has made it more
plausible that we are fearing more than just personal harm. I agree with Epicurus that the state of
death should not be feared in virtue of its potential for harm or pain, but I contend that the fear of
missing out and fear for others are rational fears, and that the fear of death is therefore rational
insofar as it is based on them.
The fear of missing out is such a popular notion that it even has its own acronym
(FOMO) that is used in internet memes and on social media. Fred Feldman explores such a
concept in Confrontations with the Reaper, arguing that a person can be deprived of benefits by
being dead, and that such deprivation is bad. To illustrate the point, he tells the story of a student
who chose college A, which does not have a philosophy degree, over college B, which does. In
college A he earned a degree in economics and had a satisfying career, but had he chose college
B, he would have discovered his love and talent in philosophy and been much more happy.
Feldman remarks, “Some things are bad for us even though they are not themselves painful
experiences, and they do not lead to any painful experiences....the thing that is bad for the person
is bad for him or her because it deprives the person of pleasures he or she otherwise would have
experienced” (Feldman, ch 8). Depending on how we define harm, this may or may not be harm,
but Feldman explains that regardless, it is bad for us. And if we love ourselves, it is perfectly
reasonable and rational to fear what is bad for ourselves.
Feldman also distinguishes between the incorrect causal hypothesis that “if something is
extrinsically bad for a person, then it is bad for him or her because it leads to later intrinsic bads
for him or her,” and the intrinsic and extrinsic value-linking principle, which states that
“something is extrinsically bad for a person if and only if he or she would have been intrinsically
better off if it had not taken place” (Feldman, ch 8.) When we replace the problematic causal
hypothesis in our reasoning with the linking principle, it becomes clear how being deprived of
benefits is intrinsically bad. Saying it is irrational to fear one’s own death because it cannot harm
you is like saying that it is irrational to fear choosing the wrong major because earning a degree
cannot harm you. Although one is still better off with a degree than they had been previously, it
is still rational to fear missing out on the benefits that one would have received otherwise,
because it is rational not only to fear what can harm you, but also what is bad for you. Therefore
FOMO negates Epicurus’ third premise, that it is irrational to fear what cannot harm you.
There exists yet another way in which rational fear is not limited to personal harm. We
can reasonably fear harm to others, and we can also reasonably fear missing chances to impact
others. Human beings have a large capacity for love, and this extends to others. Just as our love
for ourselves makes it rational to fear harm to ourselves and what is bad for ourselves, so our
love for others makes it rational for us to fear harm and what is bad for them. It is not hard to
imagine how other people would experience pain from our deaths. This is often what first comes
to mind when we think about death. But less obvious is that we are also concerned with what we
can do for others. Just as we can rationally have the fear of missing out for ourselves, so we can
have it for other people. It is the fear of them missing out on what we could offer, whether that be
love, friendship, guidance, or contributions to society as a whole. It can extend to strangers, i.e. a
scientist doing research, an artist giving inspiration, a local grocery store owner with quality
products, an event organizer who likes to bring people together. It can extend to pets. How has
my existence made it better for other beings than my not existing, and how much potential for
positive impact have I actualized thus far? These are questions many of us concern ourselves
with. So if we love others and believe in our ability to help them, then it is perfectly rational and
reasonable to fear the state of being dead, a state in which we have no such ability.
Thus, we do not need to accept Epicurus’ conclusion, because it is based on a false
premise. His conception of rational fear is far too limited. We can cite at least two instances of
rational fear beyond personal harm, and these are the fear of missing out for ourselves, and fear
for others, whether that be fear of harm to them or fear of them missing out on you.
Fred Feldman, Confrontations With the Reaper: A Philosophical Study of the Nature and Value
of Death (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).