Global Health Priorities
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Death in secular societies

Death is a classical topic in philosophy. In a new article, PhD-candidate Carl Tollef Solberg, Research Assistant Preben Sørheim, and Associate Professor Espen Gamlund gives a diagnosis of contemporary philosophers’ views on death – and some prescriptions on how we should treat death in a secular societies.

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How should we, as members of a secular society, think and feel about death? Fewer of us now believe in some form of an afterlife. Instead, many if not most believe that death is followed by permanent non-existence. But thinking that we just cease to exist when we die confronts us with two conflicting views on how we should treat death.

The first view, inspired by the Hellenic philosopher Epicurus, holds that death cannot be bad for the decedent. On this view, death can only be bad for friends, family and the society.

The second view, inspired by American contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel, holds that death is, in fact, bad for the decedent. This is because death deprives us of the good life one would have had, had one not died.

A review is presented on the development of this debate about death and it’s badness. The authors show that contemporary philosophers have either sided with Epicurus or Nagel. In recent years, however, a clear support for Nagel’s view has emerged. To a large extent, contemporary philosophers now hold that death is bad for the decedent. The current debate largely revolves around developing the most plausible version of the disvalue of death for those who die.

This discussion about death is tied to the issue of priority setting in health. We place a high price on postponing deaths. But precisely which deaths is most important to avoid? In this debate, there are two conflicting views. The first view holds that the worst death happens right after an individual has begun to exist. This usually implies that the worst death is somewhere is late fetal life or right after birth. The second view holds that the worst death happens somewhere between the age of five and twenty. This is because older children and adolescents are more connected to their future than late fetuses and newborns.

Citation: Solberg, Carl Tollef, Sørheim, Preben & Gamlund, Espen. ”En tapt fremtid. Den filosofiske debatten om døden som et onde.” Arr – idéhistorisk tidsskrift 2 - 2016. (in Norwegian.)