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Shelly Kagan’s “What is Death?”

Among the top three Ivy League lectures, the first is “Justice” by Professor Michael Sandel at Harvard University, the second is “Death” by Professor Shelly Kagan at Yale University, and the third is “Happier” by Professor Tal Ben-Shahar at Harvard University.

These lectures engage in logical reasoning about philosophical concepts, providing opportunities for us to reflect on the kind of life we should live.

“Shelly Kagan: Death”

Professor Shelly Kagan has been teaching philosophy (social thought/ethics) at Yale University since 1995.

He presented a lecture on “Death” at Yale University, which was selected as the “Best Lecture for 17 Consecutive Years.” Although more time has passed, one might still consider it among the best lectures for an even longer period.

“A book containing philosophical reflections on death”

The book contains Professor Shelly Kagan’s lectures on “Death,” providing a structured exploration of the topic. It encourages deep understanding of death and reflection on the kind of life we should lead.

While the book utilizes philosophical concepts to convey profound ideas, it doesn’t rely solely on difficult philosophical concepts. Instead, it employs understandable explanations and analogies to unfold the discussion.

The book begins with various questions:

  • “Do I continue to exist after death?”
  • “Is there life after death?”

To answer these questions, it delves into questions such as:

  • ”Who am I?”
  • “What kind of being is a human?”

“Soul: Does it really exist?”

The author discusses two main views on humans: dualism, which posits that humans consist of both body and soul, and materialism, which views humans as purely physical beings with consciousness being a function of the body.

The book critically evaluates these views to determine which one is more plausible.

“Best Explanation as Inference”

To address ambiguous situations, the book employs the technique of “Best Explanation as Inference,” which seeks to prove the existence of something through inference when it can only be explained in a particular way.

The author critically examines dualism, concluding that there is no need to accept the existence of the soul. Materialism also undergoes similar scrutiny, resulting in a “draw” between dualism and materialism due to their lack of complete logical armor.

Nevertheless, Professor Shelly Kagan believes it’s premature to accept the existence of the soul.

“Nature of Death”

The book also explores the essence of “Death.” It argues that the perspective of death can vary between a bodily view and a personal view, where death is seen as the end of functions of the body or the end of cognitive functions such as thinking, loving, conversing, and consciousness.

“Why is Death Bad?”

The author engages in reasoning to explain why death is considered bad. It concludes that death is bad only for the living because the cessation of existence, or non-existence, cannot be categorized as good or bad. 

Ultimately, the negative aspect of death lies in the relative opportunity cost incurred by the living, hence termed as the “Deprivation Theory.”

“When is Death Bad?”

The book examines when death becomes bad. It refers to the writings of Epicurus, who stated that death is bad only when one exists. This aligns with the previous argument.

“What is the value of life?”

If we have thought about what death is, then we must also think about what kind of life we should live based on that understanding.

The question arises: How should we live? It’s a question of what values we should pursue in our lives.

In this regard, hedonism comes into play. Hedonism posits pleasure and pain as the only intrinsic goods and evils, respectively. Pleasure is seen as inherently good, while pain is inherently bad.

The concept of the “vessel theory” is introduced as a metaphor for life. The vessel theory can be broadly divided into two categories. First, the neutral vessel theory views the value of life as “0” and examines the contents of life. The numerical value would be represented as “+” if the total sum of good things outweighs the total sum of bad things, and “-” if the opposite is true.

Second, the value-laden vessel theory regards life itself as inherently valuable and assigns additional value beyond its contents. This theory is further divided into the moderate and fantastic versions. The moderate value-laden vessel theory acknowledges that the total sum could be “-” as well, while the fantastic version implies that the total sum can only be “+”.

In the end, depending on how much value we attribute to life, its value can be either “+” or “-“.

Even if we consider the value of life as “0”, if the total sum of good things outweighs the total sum of bad things, it could still be valued as “+”, highlighting the importance of living a life filled with “good things”.

“Attitude towards death”

Death is characterized by inevitability, variability, and unpredictability, and it has a reciprocal effect with life. With these attributes of death in mind, the discussion unfolds.

The author suggests that we can approach the question of how to live in light of death from three perspectives:

  1. Denial of death
  2. Acknowledgment of death
  3. Ignoring death

However, denying or ignoring death is not an appropriate attitude. Instead, by acknowledging death, we can contemplate how we should live.

It’s a common saying, but since the time for rectifying mistakes is short and precious, we should live cautiously, striving to minimize errors.

There are countless valuable things in the world, but time is insufficient to do them all. Though we may want to do everything, it’s impossible. Hence, the necessity of choice and focus.

“Is suicide always wrong?”

Professor Shelly Kagan further explores the act of suicide, not simply labeling it as inherently bad.

He examines suicide through the lenses of rationality and morality. From a rational perspective, suicide can sometimes be deemed rational.

Similarly, from a moral standpoint, he scrutinizes whether certain conditions might make suicide morally justifiable. Utilitarianism considers the consequences, valuing actions that maximize overall happiness. However, deontological ethics argues for considering both consequences and the process, with an emphasis on not harming innocent individuals.

Moreover, according to the moderate consent theory, harm to innocent individuals might be permissible in certain circumstances, potentially justifying suicide.

“Reflecting on death and how to live”

Life and death are opposite yet interconnected concepts. Professor Shelly Kagan’s exploration of “death” likely serves as a reflection on how we perceive the opposite concept of “life”.

What is truly desirable in life? In this one life we have, what kind of life can we live without regrets, one that feels fulfilling?

Contemplating how we should live, what values or philosophies we should adhere to, is an essential aspect of determining the direction of our lives. Thanks to Professor Shelly Kagan, we can spend meaningful time reflecting on “life” while considering “death”.

As a conclusion to the book, here’s a brief passage from the epilogue:

  • Death may come too soon,
  • But having the opportunity of life is fortunate.

“Death” by Shelly Kagan:

  • Author: Shelly Kagan
  • Publication Date: February 24, 2023
  • ISBN13: 9788901269092
  • Yes24 Link: http://app.ac/yj6wj2a53