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Is death intrinsically bad?

June 2007

Is death intrinsically bad? I'd say no, but I've been thinking that a large amount of Christian (and fundamentalist) ideology depends on this point—

  • Abortion is obviously bad because it causes us to be active agents of death.
  • Evolution is bad because it needs death in order for 'survival of the fittest' to work at all. Creationism, on the other hand, is a system without death (at least until the Fall.)
  • The Rapture is good because it allows us to escape even the 'first' death—Jesus comes back for us before we die, allowing us to bypass the whole dying process.
  • Progress is good because it allows us to extend our lives, therefore fighting off death for a short while.

On the other hand—

  • War is fine when it's not happening to 'us,' or when it's in retaliation for deaths inflicted on us.
  • Killing and eating animals is fine, as long as we are sufficiently distant from—and unaware of—the killing process. (Although before the Fall everything was vegetarian.)
  • It's tragic but permissible for a mother to die in childbirth, because it's better to be passive observers of death than active agents (which raises a whole separate issue as to whether inaction is in fact a form of action.)

A lot of these issues take on a different light when you approach them with the idea that death is a natural and normal (even necessary) part of life.

stan_ commented:

A lot of these issues take on a different light when you approach them with the idea that death is a natural and normal (even necessary) part of life.

  • No they don't... But they do if you get rid of the Christian idea that the way you live your life effects what happens after you die.

eonsim commented:

Interesting, I'd certainly agree that death is natural, normal and in many cases essential/necessary. However I do not consider that that makes it necessarily "good" from an individuals point of view. As far as I see it the loss of any sentient is bad. Death has both it's up and downs from a species point of view it is mixed, you loose experience, in exchange for lesser resource use, and less mental lockdown to previous ideas/greater flexibility. For an individual (ignoring the potential of an afterlife) in good health it offers nothing, while for one in bad health it can offer release. The annoying thing from my point of view is though that aging as such is not necessary for an organism if it can manage it's population correctly (balancing non age related deaths vs birth), and is capable of expanding to new habitats (something that we are currently capable of).

Fraser commented:

You're right, Matt: I think a lot of Christians need to be more consistent here. If life is so important, they should be pro-life across the board, ie anti-abortionists don't have much of an argument for supporting the death penalty. And I do think they should consider the implications of eating meat.

For myself, I don't think natural death is intrinsically a bad thing, but I question what right I (or anyone) have to decide who dies when. I consider that to be playing god. (which, Daniel Quinn points out, results in all sorts of trouble). Of course, this raises problems that I'll have to keep ruminating on: do I have the right to eat meat when it's not necessary for my survival? Should doctors perform an abortion in order to save the life of the mother? (I'd say 'yes', but I haven't yet worked out the argument for 'why').

stan_ commented:

"anti-abortionists don't have much of an argument for supporting the death penalty"

  • yes they do, the baby is an innocent third party but the murderer isn't, also Christians support the death penalty 'cos the Bible states it (although the required conditions of for example two eye-witnesses isn't reflected in legislation)

Fraser commented:

"...anti-abortionists don't have much of an argument for supporting the death penalty" - that statement is contingent on my earlier statement, "If life is so important...". I was specifically referring to the subset of Christians who argue against abortion on the basis that foetuses are alive, but still support their country having a death penalty for certain crimes. It was probably a bad example, since I have no idea of how many Christians fall into that subset.

Nato commented:

Perhaps it may be appropriate to quote from my favourite book of the bible, Ecclesiastes (Chapter 3):

1 There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven:

2 a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot,

3 a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build,

4 a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance,

5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain,

6 a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away,

7 a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak,

8 a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.

Nato commented:

[Also, I don't know whether this is relevant here, but you seem to have narrowed your definition of 'fundamentalist' Christian to be bush, and anyone who supports him? I raise this point because I am aware of 'fundamentalist' Christians who would argue that a lot of Americans aren't true Christians, but are just following a culture of Christianity. Just a (probably misguided) observation]

Matt commented:

I don't know that that's true, Nato. I know a large number of Christians to whom those positions and ideologies are incredibly important and rigid. I mean, I grew up with all but the 'war is fine when it's other people' position (and that was because all of my grandparents served in WWII.)

You're probably correct in that it does describe that group of people who supports Bush as a 'strong Godly leader,' but they're only a subset of the people who fit this group. I mean, anti-abortion/pro-creation (heh)/pro-rapture is almost the holy trinity of a pretty large part of Christianity, and I don't think it's at all restricted to the U.S.

Tim B commented:

Of course, though natural and inevitable (in the end) death is NOT a "part of life" it is its end... and that makes a difference, unless one does accept deep down the Christian (or other religion of your choice) view of another life...

IDIEEASY commented:

"Progress is good because it allows us to extend our lives"

On the other hand, alot of fun-duh-mental christian groups don't believe in doctors/medicine (even ones that aren't too wacky). If you cant play god with shortening life, then you cant do it with extending either.

"Killing and eating animals is fine, as long as we are sufficiently distant from—and unaware of—the killing process."

Abstraction in programming is usually a good thing, why not extrapolate to life? I find its better to not think about stuff so much. Thats how I stopped being vegetarian. Now I get to eat meat, tasty tasty meat, as much as I like and I dont feel bad about it because i stopped thinking about it! (did i also mention that its delicious?)

era commented:

While death itself is not intrinsically bad, pain and suffering are. And because pain and suffering often lead to death, and are subsequently caused by death, it is safe to say that death is consequentially bad. This isn't to disagree with your point, but it is worth pointing out why people other than fundamentalists and Christians think death is bad.

Nato commented:

Era, nice point, I think I mostly agree with you, but I'm not 100% sure pain and suffering are intrinsically bad. Why do you think it is intrinsically bad?

stan_ commented:

"Abstraction in programming is usually a good thing, why not extrapolate to life? I find its better to not think about stuff so much. Thats how I stopped being vegetarian. Now I get to eat meat, tasty tasty meat, as much as I like and I dont feel bad about it because i stopped thinking about it! (did i also mention that its delicious?)"

  • that's pretty much my view on pornography and pre-marital sex (and lust in general), except i'm a vegetarian and vegan because an animal is actually unconsensually harmed and not in a position to defend itself

Nato commented:

As an example, when you go for a run, you might encounter pain; this tells us to stop, because we've overworked something. I don't know if that's bad? Also, what about the soreness you get after a game, where you get to sit down on a couch, and enjoy your tiredness?

Matt commented:

What about the good feeling of pushing through pain to another level of fitness? Or take leprosy as an example of what happens when we don't have pain. Pain is just a symptom of 'something wrong.' I'm not so sure that we should think of symptoms as intrinsically bad; unpleasant, maybe, bad, maybe not.

era commented:

I was actually hesitant to use the word "pain", for the reasons you both raise. Your examples seem to capture pain well, but I would be hesitant to further label them as examples of suffering. Therefore, I will instead propose that only suffering is intrinsically bad.

This has an unfortunate consequence though. Because suffering is an awareness that your situation is inferior to what it otherwise could reasonably be, suffering requires a high level of sentience and cognising. This would imply that chickens cannot suffer, and if it is only suffering that is bad, then there is no reason not to torture them. Again this situation would possibly apply to severely handicapped people (aka, vegetables). But there does seem something wrong about these sorts of situations which only involve pain.

I think a more plausible understanding of the situation would be that pain is intrinsically bad, but that it does not carry much weight. This would explain why it is often outweighed when evaluating the situation from a wider point of view. So for example, the pain you experience while exercising is bad, but it is outweighed by the benefits of being healthy.

I've never really be sure how to answer questions about why something is intrinsic. I'm sure there is an explanation, but i get stuck at the 'it just is' level of thought.

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Paul H commented:

Suffering is bad? This overlooks the huge potential suffering has for building and developing character. Much personal and spiritual growth follows periods of suffering. Masking pain and suffering is an unhealthy modern Western response to something which, if handled right can be a positive (if not enjoyable) experience.