In Defense of “Death”

Article by Gloria Choi, Pomona ‘21


        In “Death,” American philosopher Thomas Nagel considers whether death is an evil—in other words, whether it bestows a misfortune on its subject. He ultimately concludes  that death is an evil because it takes away the potential for all the good that life has to offer. Nagel frames his argument against questions of whether death is in itself an evil, and if it is, to what extent it is an evil.1 Nagel attempts to answer these questions in order to find an answer to the larger philosophical problem: is it rational to fear death? This question is significant because it can drastically change the ways in which people view their mortality. If it is rational for me to think death is an evil, I may live in heightened fear of the inevitable evil that will strike me once I die. I agree with Nagel that death is an evil, but I think his concept of death is complicated by the uncertainty of whom the misfortune applies to. I will explain how Nagel defines what he understands to be the evil of death and then uses this definition to answer three questions that he asks in his attempt to solve the larger philosophical problem. I will then evaluate the strength of his argument and describe what I believe Nagel’s critics overlook in their objections to his argument.

Nagel's View: Death's Evil as the Loss of Good

         Nagel tries to solve the problem of death’s evil by first defining what he means by the ‘evil’ of death and then providing a defense for this definition. Nagel defines the evil of death not as the state of being dead but as the loss of access to all the good that life has to offer. He puts forth this definition of the evil of death by stating, “if death is an evil, it is the loss of life, rather than the state of being dead, or non-existent, or unconscious, that is objectionable.”2 Nagel defends this definition of death’s evil by invoking two views that people commonly hold on death. First, Nagel claims that it is not considered more unfortunate for one person to be dead for longer than another person, but it is considered more fortunate for one person to live longer than another person. Nagel writes, “If it is good to be alive, that advantage can be attributed to a person at each point of his life. It is a good of which Bach had more than Schubert, simply because he lived longer. Death, however, is not an evil of which Shakespeare has so far received a larger portion than Proust.”3 Here, Nagel demonstrates that the evil of death is not measured by how long someone has suffered the state of being dead, but by how long they had to live and participate in the joys that life can offer. The second way that Nagel defends his definition of the evil of death is by positing that “people who are averse to death are not usually averse to unconsciousness (so long as it does not entail a substantial cut in the total duration of waking life)”, so their fear of death likely does not stem from the state of being dead.4 Nagel’s definition of why death can be considered an evil serves as a foundation for his examination of the extent to which death—or more accurately, the loss of life—brings misfortune to its victims and thus can be considered an evil.

Three Problems with Nagel's View

         Nagel identifies “three types of problems” to investigate the extent to which the loss of life can be considered an evil. First, Nagel writes, “it may be doubted that there are any evils which consist merely in the deprivation or absence of possible goods, and which do not depend on someone's minding that deprivation.”5 Here, Nagel wonders if a misfortune can exist if the person, who is dead and therefore does not have any opinions or experiences, does not mind this misfortune.

    Second, Nagel questions who actually endures the evil of death and when they endure it, writing, “there are special difficulties, in the case of death, about how the supposed misfortune is to be assigned to a subject at all.”6 Lastly, Nagel considers “the asymmetry… between our attitudes to posthumous and prenatal nonexistence. How can the former be bad if the latter is not?”7 In his last question, Nagel borrows from Lucretius, a Roman philosopher, who asks why nonexistence after death should be considered an evil if nonexistence before birth is not considered an evil. In my assessment of Nagel’s solution, I will analyze Nagel’s response to each of these three questions.

         The third question that Nagel considers while determining the evil of death is a question posed by Roman philosopher Lucretius. Lucretius argues that “it must be irrational to fear death, since death is simply the mirror image of the prior abyss”, questioning how posthumous nonexistence can be considered an evil if prenatal nonexistence is not.8 Nagel offers an objection to Lucretius by referring to Nagel’s own definition of the evil of death. Nagel argues, “It is true that both the time before a man's birth and the time after his death are times when he does not exist. But the time after his death is time of which his death deprives him. It is time in which, had he not died then, he would be alive.”9 Nagel’s definition of death’s evil plays a crucial role in his objection to Lucretius because posthumous nonexistence is a time during which a person loses access to all the good things possible through life. According to Nagel, the loss of potential life makes posthumous nonexistence more unfortunate than prenatal nonexistence. Although a critic might say that this lost potential could also be fulfilled if Person A were to be born earlier, Nagel points out that Person A “could not have been born earlier” because “anyone born substantially earlier than he was would have been someone else.”10 Born earlier, Person A would not exist, and a new person, Person B, will have been born at a different time, possibly to a different family, place, and culture. Nagel’s objection to Lucretius is strong because it is consistent with the definition of the evil of death that Nagel previously establishes. Furthermore, it elucidates a fault in Lucretius’s argument and addresses a difference that Lucretius fails to consider.

        Nagel’s responses to the first and second question are not as straightforward as his response to the third question. In the first and second questions, he asks 1) whether something can be an evil if the person doesn’t mind it and 2) if the evil does exist, who the subject is that endures it and when they endure it. In Nagel’s own words, “[t]here is doubt both as to who [evil’s] subject is, and as to when he undergoes it.”11 Earlier, I defined ‘evil’ as the negative valence that could be placed on death if I determine that death presents its victims with misfortune. However, does the victim that suffers this misfortune actually exist? I think it is not certain that the victim is completely non-existent. Nagel uses an example of an intelligent man who suffered a brain injury that caused him to revert to the mental condition of his infant self.12 Nagel claims that the evil of death lies in the lost potential of the man and that “[t]he intelligent adult who has been reduced to this condition is the subject of the misfortune.”13 Critics may say that when the man becomes an infant, the man no longer exists; he has been replaced by the infant, and therefore, the ‘death’ of the intelligent man cannot be a disservice to him, because he no longer exists. Nagel mentions this problem, stating, “in any case, who is there to pity? The intelligent adult has disappeared, and for a creature like the one before us, happiness consists in a full stomach and a dry diaper.”14 

My View

    My response to this criticism is that I am hesitant to agree that the intelligent man is unequivocally non-existent after his injury. The intelligent man’s ‘death’ and ‘rebirth’ into the mental condition of the infant is the result of severe brain damage. If the man is said to be a completely different person after this brain damage, does this also mean that less severe brain damage will also change who a person is, to a lesser degree than that sustained by the intelligent man? How severe does the brain damage have to be to constitute the ‘death’ of one being and the ‘rebirth’ of another? If the intelligent man were to undergo an injury that caused him brain damage which erased only the memories and skills that he acquired in the past week of his life, as opposed to the entire span of his life from infancy to adulthood, has he still become a different person, even if this person is similar in most ways to the person he was before his injury? If there is reason to believe that the intelligent man is not completely ‘dead’ or non-existent, there may also be reason to believe that the misfortune of this situation is not entirely without a person to be attached to. In this case, I might still be able to say that the intelligent man suffered misfortune, avoiding the criticisms that say that the intelligent man no longer exists and that it is therefore not possible to attach misfortune and the evil of death onto him. These boundaries are unclear, and defining them more clearly will allow me to explore more deeply the extent to which I can argue that death is an evil.


         Nagel identifies the reasons to fear death if we are to understand death as the loss of all the good that can be experienced in life. By addressing the flaw in Lucretius’s proposed ‘asymmetry’ between posthumous nonexistence and prenatal nonexistence, as well as clarifying the ways in which people do not fear the state of being dead but actually death’s accompanying lack of potential for good, Nagel curates a strong defense for why the evil of death is the loss of life. Using this foundation, I further probe the problem of death to argue that, disregarding permanent, physical death, there are still unanswered questions about the ‘death’ of a person that may complicate the rationale behind this fear. While death’s evil is an inescapable reality, the answer to the question of who exactly suffers this evil is still unclear. Nevertheless, Nagel’s argument for the evil of posthumous nonexistence illuminates the rationale for fearing death.


1.  Thomas Nagel, “Death,” Noûs 4, no. 1 (February 1970): 74-75,
2.  Ibid.
3.  Ibid, 75.
4.  Ibid.
5.  Ibid, 75 - 76.
6.  Ibid, 76.
7.  Ibid.
8.  Ibid, 79.
9.  Ibid.
10.  Ibid.
11.  Ibid, 76.
12.  Ibid, 77.
13.  Ibid.
14.  Ibid.