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Metaphysics of Death

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A few general observations:

Death with a capital "D" (note the striking similarity between capitalizing a non-proper noun with idealizing and the invoking of platonic forms) is somewhat an invalid concept."Death comes for us" "Death is everywhere" etc. In fact, Death is not a thing IN the universe, "death" as a concept which serves at once, to identify an absence, and identify an inevitable  process which is to occur to all living things.

Note that "death" designates an absence of something (life) where once it was present, it does not designate anything which exists.  Life exists.  Inanimate matter exists.  The fact of "death" is merely the identification that life ceases to function as life... i.e. that life's existence is finite in time.  So "death" identifies the fact of mortality, it does not identify a positive existent, it identifies the absence of function/process that is life where once it was.  The fact of mortality is a metaphysical one and forms part of the nature of all life AND the universe in general.  (Certain processes of the universe itself, because of the facts of thermodynamics, will eventually "die" along with all processes similar to life ... life could be extended for a very long time, but because of the basic facts of the universe, life cannot be extended for eternity.)

The concept "dying" is a way to identify the process of change, of the living becoming the inanimate, of the "life" of a thing going out of existence.  The process of dying/death to each living entity is inevitable, and is a metaphysical fact of reality.

Risk of early death is also a fact of reality.  Actions which risk dying early are also validly the subject of analysis given any context of reality... going tandem skydiving with a drunk unlicensed jumper, or going bowling are different in respect of the different possible outcome in reality in relation to dying.


So death identifies facts of reality and with such identification presents choices to individuals.  It should be noted that the fact of mortality, is the most fundamental fact informing the very definition of life, that life is finite, this makes the choice to live fundamental and what makes the very foundation of ethics and its standard, "life" so important.


In any sense one can say "Poison is bad", "dictatorships are bad", "initiation of force is bad"... they are implicitly statements about human action... so "Poison is bad" makes sense when reread "It is bad to ingest poison", "dictatorships are bad" should be reread as "It is bad to choose to live in a dictatorship or to choose to set up a dictatorship, or to help bring about in any way a dictatorship", and "initiation of force" can be reread as "it is bad to perform the action of initiating force".

So "death is bad" CAN be valid when reread as "Pursuing an action or actions which precipitate the process of dying or increase the risk of early death is bad"

But Death as such, and with a capital "D" is perhaps something only to toy with in an ivory tower built of floating abstractions.




Edited by StrictlyLogical
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The original question in this thread is assuming an implicit, fundamental premise: that goodness or badness is measured by the quality of one's experience (happiness or suffering, respectively), and transitively, on the likelihood of such experiences in the future.

If one were to assume this premise, which we can call "utilitarianism" (and may be of the collectivist or egoist variety), then there are three fundamentally different ways to approach the question, depending on what kind of experience you hold as having moral weight:

1. Negative utilitarianism, which holds that only suffering is what counts, morally. This is the Epicurean view and is anathema to Objectivism.

2. Positive utilitarianism, which holds that only pleasure is what counts, morally. I don't know of this view being endorsed explicitly anywhere besides in my own essay on the subject entitled "positive utiltiarian egoism" (which I still favor, but no longer endorse; for my position, see the end of this post).

3. Utilitarianism (unlabeled) of the regular variety, in which pleasures and pains are held as commensurable values, morally. This is the traditional utilitarian view held by many.

If you hold the first view, then death is an inherently good thing, as it permanently ends suffering, and puts a stopper on any continued negative experiences that could have otherwise come after.

If you hold the second view, then death is an inherently bad thing, as it permanently ends pleasure, and likewise puts a stopper on any continued positive experiences that could have otherwise come after.

If you hold the third view, then death may be a good or bad thing, depending on your evaluation of the likelihood of the overall weight of continued positive or negative experiences that may come in the future.

The second view has been represented in this thread by Boydstun:

On 10/14/2016 at 8:46 AM, Boydstun said:

But once I do become, come to live, dying is continuously largely a bad thing in that stop of life is bad, for largely, continuance of my life is good and is good for my fellows. Death of my loved ones is very largely bad for me, whatever to them in their life situation. Apart from me still living and apart from other life in the world, my coming back to not living is the end of time experienced and the end of bad or good.

There is much in agreement with Rand in this note, and this bit too is from her literature: Nothing can change the fact that we have been and been the mind and life and good and bad we were, even though all trace of our existence becomes erased and even if no mind remains in the universe. We living can love that fact. "We exist and we know that we exist, and we love that fact and our knowledge of it" --Augustine. To say "our knowledge" is to say a part of our living, in my view and in Aristotle's.

and (astutely, though perhaps mistakenly) by dream_weaver:

On 10/14/2016 at 1:28 AM, dream_weaver said:

Here's another passage that did not make the lexicon from Galt's Speech:

Our [moral] terms and our motive power are the antithesis of yours. You have been using fear as your weapon and have been bringing death to man as his punishment for rejecting your morality. We offer him life as his reward for accepting ours.

"You who are worshippers of the zero—you have never discovered that achieving life is not the equivalent of avoiding death. Joy is not 'the absence of pain,' intelligence is not 'the absence of stupidity,' light is not 'the absence of darkness,' an entity is not 'the absence of a nonentity.'


How would you tiptoe around this life? From the aforementioned "achieving life is not the equivalent of avoiding death" 'tiptoeing around' seems to cater to the 'avoiding death' side of the verbiage.

I'd add to these the following:

  • "Should man's primary concern be a quest for joy - or an escape from suffering?"

    "Philosophy: Who Needs It,"
    Philosophy: Who Needs It, 4

    "You seek escape from pain. We seek the achievement of happiness. You exist for the sake of avoiding punishment. We exist for the sake of earning rewards. Threats will not make us function; fear is not our incentive."


    "Do you ask if it's ever proper to help another man? No - if he claims it as his right or as a moral duty that you owe him. Yes - if such is your own desire based on your own selfish pleasure in the value of his person and his struggle. Suffering as such is not a value; only man's fight against suffering, is. If you choose to help a man who suffers, do it only on the ground of his virtues, of his fight to recover, of his rational record, or of the fact that he suffers unjustly; then your action is still a trade, and his virtue is the payment for your help. But to help a man who has no virtues, to help him on the ground of his suffering as such, to accept his faults, his need, as a claim - is to accept the mortgage of a zero on your values."


    "It's not that I don't suffer, it's that I know the unimportance of suffering, I know that pain is to be fought and thrown aside, not to be accepted as part of one's soul and as a permanent scar across one's view of existence."

    John Galt
    Atlas Shrugged

    "I'm not capable of suffering completely. I never have. It goes only down to a certain point and then it stops. As long as there is that untouched point, it's not really pain.
    "Where does it stop?"
    "Where I can think of nothing and feel nothing except that I designed that temple. I built it. Nothing else can seem very important."

    Howard Roark and Dominique Francon
    The Fountainhead

    "She was seeing the brand of pain and fear on the faces of people, and the look of evasion that refuses to know it–they seemed to be going through the motions of some enormous pretense, acting out a ritual to ward off reality, letting the earth remain unseen and their lives unlived, in dread of something namelessly forbidden–yet the forbidden was the simple act of looking at the nature of their pain and questioning their duty to bear it."


    "She survived it. She was able to survive it, because she did not believe in suffering. She faced with astonished indignation the ugly fact of feeling pain, and refused to let it matter. Suffering was a senseless accident, it was not part of life as she saw it. She would not allow pain to become important. She had no name for the kind of resistance she offered, for the emotion from which the resistance came; but the words that stood as its equivalent in her mind were: It does not count - it is not to be taken seriously. She knew these were the words, even in the moments when there was nothing left within her but screaming and she wished she could lose the faculty of consciousness so that it would not tell her that what could not be true was true. Not to be taken seriously - an immovable certainty within her kept repeating - pain and ugliness are never to be taken seriously." 

    Atlas Shrugged

and by Harrison:

On 10/16/2016 at 8:17 PM, Harrison Danneskjold said:

Yes [For something bad to occur, one has to experience it as bad]... However, as far as alternatives go, death is always worse than the continuation of life.


And the third view is represented by the much-beloved (though morally abhorrent) post of Nicky:

On 10/14/2016 at 3:27 PM, Nicky said:

Objectivism would...consider good those deaths which are chosen for rational reason...

2. death that is chosen for the purpose of avoiding unbearable pain due to terminal illness (euthanasia)


Objectivism as expressed by Ayn Rand in her fiction and nonfiction does not accept the fundamental premise of the question, namely: the moral weight of good and bad is not found in one's experiences in Objectivism. Objectivism is not utilitarian at all. In Ayn Rand's philosophy, existence does not precede essence; good and bad are measured with respect to one's virtue, to one's integrity, and not to the likely effects on one's merely physical survival.

Death is regarded as bad in Objectivism because Existence is Identity.

The "good" is that which has kept its integrity. From Roark in The Fountainhead:

"An honest man has to be of one piece and one faith; what constituted the life source, the idea in any existing thing or creature, and why - if one smallest part committed treason to that idea - the thing of the creature was dead; and why the good, the high and the noble on earth was only that which kept its integrity."

The "bad" is not merely physical death, but rather the morally corrupt, and the self-contradictory. Rand writes in "The Inexplicable Personal Alchemy":

"If named, the driving motive of the dissenters would be an appeal which, to them, is irresistible: “But don’t you see? It’s *true!*”—and they would speak, regardless of circumstances, regardless of danger, regardless of their audience, so long as the audience had a human form, they would speak in desperate innocence, knowing that a life-or-death imperative compels them to speak, not knowing fully why.

And, facing a firing squad, if necessary, they would still feel it, with no time to learn why and to discover that they are moved by the noblest form of metaphysical self-preservation: the refusal to commit spiritual suicide by abnegating one’s own mind and to survive as a lobotomized automaton.

While her husband was being tried and sentenced to a prison camp, Larisa Daniel said, supporting him: “I cannot do otherwise.” As a human being, she could not."

This is the Objectivist justification for why death is bad. We are by nature living beings, and through our actions we can either choose life, that is, to keep our integrity, or we can choose death, that is, to sacrifice our integrity, and to contradict our metaphysical identity.

Edited by epistemologue
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On 10/15/2016 at 0:30 AM, Harvey Meale said:

I'm not interested in discussing the ethics of death. This thread is about the metaphysics of death. Note there is a difference between "badness" in a metaphysical sense and "moral/justifiable" in an ethical sense.


Harvey Meale:

If I am understanding you correctly, you are looking for the "badness" associated with the idea that death is bad, just as some philosophies would look for the "triangularity" in a picture of a triangle.  If this is so, it is in contradiction to Objectivism.  Objectivism denies that there are "-nesses","-hoods" and "-aritys" metaphysically that we use to form concepts.  In Objectivism, concepts are formed not through what is in an object, like seeing the '-ness" in something, but rather by a process of differentiation and integration, via measurement omission within a range.  For more on this, I would recommend Rand's Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology and Binswanger's How We Know.

I hope this helps clear up this ethics vs. Objectivist Metaphysics vs. "regular' metaphysics confusion.

Edited by Jesse Abbott-Dallamora
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Another quote from Ayn Rand's letters relevant to positive utilitarianism:


You ask me about the meaning of the dialogue on page 702 of Atlas Shrugged:

“ ‘We never had to take any of it seriously, did we?’ she whispered. ” ‘No, we never had to.’ ”

Let me begin by saying that this is perhaps the most important point in the whole book, because it is the condensed emotional summation, the keynote or leitmotif, of the view of life presented in Atlas Shrugged.

What Dagny expresses here is the conviction that joy, exaltation, beauty, greatness, heroism, all the supreme,  uplifting  values  of  man’s  existence  on  earth,  are  the  meaning  of  life—not  the  pain  or ugliness he may encounter—that one must live for the sake of such exalted moments as one may be able to achieve or experience, not for the sake of suffering—that happiness matters, but suffering does not—that no matter how much pain one may have to endure, it is never to be taken seriously, that is: never to be taken as the essence and meaning of life—that the essence of life is the achievement of joy, not the escape from pain. The issue she refers to is the basic philosophical issue which John Galt later names explicitly in his speech: that the most fundamental division among men is between those who are pro-man, pro-mind, pro-life—and those who are anti-man, anti-mind, anti-life.

It is the difference between those who think that man’s life is important and that happiness is possible—and those who think that man’s life, by its very nature, is a hopeless, senseless tragedy and that man is a depraved creature doomed to despair and defeat. It is the difference between those whose basic motive is the desire to achieve values, to experience joy—and those whose basic motive s the desire to escape from pain,  to experience a momentary relief from their chronic anxiety and guilt.

It is a matter of one’s fundamental, overall attitude toward life—not of any one specific event. So you see that your interpretation was too specific and too narrow; besides, the Looters’ World had never meant anything to Dagny and she had realized its “sham and hypocrisy” long before. What she felt, in that particular moment, was the confirmation of her conviction that an ideal man and an ideal form of existence are possible.


Edited by epistemologue
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On 10/18/2016 at 1:42 PM, epistemologue said:

Objectivism as expressed by Ayn Rand in her fiction and nonfiction does not accept the fundamental premise of the question, namely: the moral weight of good and bad is not found in one's experiences in Objectivism.


On 10/24/2016 at 8:46 PM, epistemologue said:

Another quote from Ayn Rand's letters relevant to positive utilitarianism:


[One] must live for the sake of such exalted moments as one may be able to achieve or experience, not for the sake of suffering—that happiness matters, but suffering does not—that no matter how much pain one may have to endure, it is never to be taken seriously, that is: never to be taken as the essence and meaning of life—that the essence of life is the achievement of joy, not the escape from pain.



Does "joy" not refer to a certain kind of experience?

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59 minutes ago, epistemologue said:

Yes it does

I agree with Epist.


I'll add though, that it is an experience which by the nature of Man cannot be faked in a Man, or created artificially, and is tied closely to the virtues, actions, happiness, flourishing, etc. of a Man, and to the entire life and living, of and by, a man qua man. 

The experience of Joy by its nature then, IS more than momentary pleasure.

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6 hours ago, StrictlyLogical said:

The experience of Joy by its nature then, IS more than momentary pleasure.

Absolutely. The thing that makes Howard Roark tick is very different from what most (whim-worshipping) people mean by "joy".

The point is that "joy" and "exaltation" refer to certain kinds of experiences, which means that Egoism is ultimately a form of positive-utilitarianism (which, incidentally, is a very handy way of conceptualizing it).

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16 hours ago, Harrison Danneskjold said:

The point is that "joy" and "exaltation" refer to certain kinds of experiences, which means that Egoism is ultimately a form of positive-utilitarianism (which, incidentally, is a very handy way of conceptualizing it).

When Rand talks about seeking "joy" and "exaltation", these are different from moral values.

As she writes in Galt's speech, "Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values." In other words, happiness isn't the value itself, it's a result, a feeling that follows from having achieved one's values.

Moral values aren't in the experiences themselves. Moral good refers to a person's virtue and integrity.

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20 hours ago, Harrison Danneskjold said:

Egoism is ultimately a form of positive-utilitarianism

it can sound like Objectivism is positive utilitarianism from some of the quotes that have been referenced here:

"We exist for the sake of earning rewards", "live for the sake of such exalted moments as one may be able to achieve or experience", "basic motive is the desire to achieve values".

these have plural terms: "rewards", "moments", "values", that can seem to suggest a mere collection of disconnected pleasures. Objectivism goes beyond basic utilitarianism though and sees them as having an integration to them, there being a "one in the many" (Peikoff's I-type in DIM Hypothesis).

i think SL was getting at what unites them in talking about the experience of joy being tied to the flourishing *of a Man*. that's where these concepts of identity and integrity come into morality. it's expressed really well here (from Atlas Shrugged):


Every form of happiness is one, every desire is driven by the same motor—by our love for a single value, for the highest potentiality of our own existence—and every achievement is an expression of it.


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there's a paper by David Kelley that deals with this too. in his third section, on Happiness, starting on page 72, he gives an even longer list of quotes, followed by:


What I find interesting about such passages is the range of things that Rand asserts are fundamental purposes, values, commitments, and/or motivations. The list includes joy, purpose, work, existence, pride, achievement of one’s desires, one’s moral code, rectitude, virtue, happiness, realization of potential—and, of course, life. We could reduce the list to a few categories—perhaps life/existence, happiness, purpose/achievement, and virtue/pride. In any case, Rand’s ease in moving from one to another suggests that she sees them as intrinsically connected elements in the ultimate value. Those elements can be distinguished conceptually; we can analyze their multiple relationships and dependencies; but they cannot validly be treated as isolated atoms. They are structurally connected elements in the complex whole that is a life well-lived, the life we pursue as our ultimate value.


Choosing to live means choosing the life one has, choosing to continue existing as an entity with a specific identity. It means choosing to continue a life with a unique, particular content that includes the things one has done; one’s traits, beliefs, goals, and circumstances; and the core purposes that one experiences as intrinsically valuable, constitutive rather than instrumental means to the ultimate value of one’s life. In this sense, the value of a life consists in the values in that life. In short, I do not see how one can separate life from its content, including its experiential content. (Of course one can change that content, even its basic elements: one can modify or abandon a purpose, enhance a virtue, overcome a fault, etc. But one does these things with the resources one has as the person one is, in pursuit of more fundamental goals.)


If we take the primacy of existence seriously, and apply the principle to emotions as well as cognition, the object of an emotion is not external to the emotion. As a conscious state, the emotion is necessarily related to its object(s) in the world. … If we think of happiness as an ongoing, pervasive reaction to a life that is going well: One is happy about one’s life. One’s life is the internal object of the emotion, and to seek and experience that happiness is to seek and experience the value of one’s life.


Edited by splitprimary
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  • 4 weeks later...
On 10/28/2016 at 7:00 AM, StrictlyLogical said:

As for trying to respin Egoism as a type of anything else... why? Egoism says it all.

Synonyms are a good thing. The fact that we can use "Egoism" or "Rational Selfishness" or "the Objectivist Ethics" to refer to the same *thing* gives us a wider range of words to choose from, when we try to express something about *it*. It allows us to communicate with greater clarity, precision and expressiveness (and it's also a great defense against certain forms of rationalism).

There is absolutely nothing wrong with "Egoism". I want to learn new words for it (among many other things) because I want to have the best brain I can get.


On 10/28/2016 at 7:00 AM, StrictlyLogical said:

I'd avoid the term "utilitarianism" if I were you.  Look up the definition....

The first Google result mentioned the "maximum good for the maximum number" definition, which I still can't bring myself to pay much attention to.

Defining "the good" as "the most good for the most people" doesn't give us any information about this "good". The only thing it actually specifies is that it applies to hordes (not to individuals), which kind of disqualifies it as even being a moral code in the first place.

I don't see the problem with appropriating a vacuous and nonsensical definition; it's not like it meant anything useful.


The second definition was from the Wikipedia Article:

"Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that states that the best action is the one that maximizes utility. 'Utility' is defined in various ways, usually in terms of the well-being of sentient entities, such as human beings and other animals."

Which also seems to work, provided that "utility" is defined right and restricted to people in its application.


I'm sorry, but I don't see what you're trying to indicate.

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