On Fearing Death

Many of my philosophical interests stem from my fear of death. For instance, I’ve thought a lot about the philosophy of religion, because there’s a central part of me that wants God to exist. I want God to exist because I want heaven to exist. And I want heaven to exist because I want to go there. I don’t want there to be nothing after I die. Nothingness scares the heck out of me.

Philosophers have talked a lot of death. Lucretius, for example, argued that it’s irrational to fear death because post-mortem nonexistence is analogous to pre-birth nonexistence, and since we don’t fear the latter, we shouldn’t fear the former. This is referred to as The Symmetry Argument.

I have found this to be unconvincing, because fear is a forward-directional emotion. I fear death because it’s in the future. I don’t fear things in the past.

Let's take going to the dentist as an example. Now I fear going to the dentist. In fact, I’d even say that I have a phobia. So if I have a dentist appointment next month, it's a certainty that I’m going to be afraid of it. But this doesn't mean that I’d be afraid of the last time I went. Of course I wouldn't be. It already happened! So even if post-mortem nonexistence is the same state as pre-birth nonexistence, the fact that death is in the future makes the difference.

Assuming that Lucretius’ argument fails, it means that it’s not irrational to fear death. But from that it doesn’t follow that fearing death is rational. So is it? I think so.

Fearing death is rational because it’s rational to fear things that are bad for you. And death is bad for you. (There’s a technical distinction between death as a state and as a transition, but I’m going to leave that out.) The reason why I think death is bad for you is because it robs us of future goods. If I die today, it means that I won’t continue doing philosophy and experiencing all the other things that I think are good.

However, I do think that death could be good for someone. Like if you’re a captured spy and you’re going to be slowly tortured to death, then killing yourself may be good for you. What determines if death is good for you or not is how it would affect your total amount of well-being. Your total amount of well-being is determined by your total positives minus your total negatives. What a positive and negative looks like depends on what theory of well-being you adhere to. Anyway, if dying at a particular time lowers your total amount of well-being compared to what it would be if you were not to die, then death is bad for you. Likewise, if dying at a particular time raises your total amount of well-being compared to what it would be if you were not to die, then death is good for you.

In my case, since my life is going well, death would be bad for me. Thus, I don’t want to die today or tomorrow. I don’t want to die for a really long time. That said, I may live till the day when continuing living would lower my total amount of well-being. If that day comes, then death would be good for me. And perhaps on that day, I’ll stop fearing it.