The Philosophy of Death

Purpose of Course  showclose

This class provides an in-depth introduction to the philosophical problems surrounding death.  It takes its starting point in the fact that everyone, eventually, will die.  This is one of the few facts that human beings can be absolutely sure about.  Given this certainty, however, death still presents us with many difficult and pressing questions. What does it mean to die in the first place?  Who or what is the “person” that dies?  Is it merely a physical body, or is it also something like a soul, and, if so, does the existence of a soul indicate that there is some hope of immortality?  Moreover, what should our attitude toward death be?  Should we think of it as a good thing or a bad thing?  And what effect should it have on the way we live our lives?  At some point in our lives, we all grapple with these questions.  This course uses the doctrines and arguments of a number of prominent philosophers concerning death as a means to investigate these and other questions.  The course is organized around the lectures of Shelly Kagan, Professor of Philosophy at Yale University, who develops his own philosophy of death over the length of the course.  Its major purpose, aside from familiarizing you with the writings of major philosophers on the subject of death, is to teach you how to think about death philosophically—to decide for yourself what you believe about death and to provide careful and convincing arguments for those beliefs.

This course is divided into three long units.  The first unit covers metaphysical questions about death, i.e., questions about what death is, what persons are, and the existence of the soul.  This unit includes material about the positions of dualism and physicalism, various arguments for the existence of the soul, as well as a close reading of Plato’s Phaedo, one of the most influential arguments for immortality.  The second unit deals with questions about how we ought to value death.  We will address the views that personal identity is rooted in the soul, in the body, and in the “personality” (understood as a cluster of psychological properties).  We will also consider the possibility that death has little or nothing to do with the death of the “person,” but can be accounted for in purely physical terms.  We will conclude the unit with a look at Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich.  In the third unit, we cover topics such as the (alleged) badness of death, how the fact that we will die should influence the way we live, and whether it is ever appropriate to bring about our own death prematurely.  We will consult with several important contemporary philosophers, as well as with the great Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne, the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, and the late existentialist Walter Kaufmann.

Course Information  showclose

Welcome to Philosophy 201: The Philosophy of Death.  Below, please find general information on this course and its requirements.

Primary Resources: This course is composed of a wide range of free online materials.  However, the following course content is most heavily relied on:

Requirements for Completion: In order to complete this course, you will need to work through each of the three units and all of its assigned materials.  You will also need to complete:

  • The Final Exam

Note that you will only receive an official grade on your Final Exam.  However, in order to adequately prepare for this exam, you will need to work through the readings and web media for each unit.

In order to “pass” this course, you will need to earn a 70% or higher on the Final Exam.

Your score on the exam will be tabulated as soon as you complete it.  If you do not pass the exam, you may take it again.

Time Commitment: This course should take you approximately 50 hours to complete.  Each unit includes a “time advisory” that lists the amount of time you are expected to spend on each subunit.  These should help you plan your time accordingly.  It may be useful to take a look at these time advisories and to determine how much time you have over the next few weeks to complete each unit, and then to set goals for yourself.  For example, Unit 1 should take you 17 hours.  Perhaps you can sit down with your calendar and decide to complete subunit 1.1 (a total of 5 hours) over two days, for example by completing 1.1.1, 1.1.2, and part of 1.1.3 (about 2.5 hours) on Monday night; completing the remainder of 1.1.3, 1.1.4, and 1.1.5 on Tuesday night; etc.

Tips/Suggestions: Finally, you will find it useful to use the following “Philosophy: Glossary of Technical Terms” throughout this course.

Reading: University of Aberdeen: “Philosophy: Glossary of Technical Terms”

Link: University of Aberdeen: “Philosophy: Glossary of Technical Terms” (HTML)

Instructions: You may choose to peruse this glossary, but you do not need to read this entire glossary straight through.  Instead, save it as a bookmark in your web browser for consultation throughout this course.

Terms of Use: Please respect the copyright and terms of use displayed on the webpage above.



Learning Outcomes  showclose

Upon successful completion of this course, the student will be able to:
  • Discuss the philosophical issues connected with death: what it is, whether it is good or bad, and its significance in terms of the way we choose to live.
  • Explain the inter-relatedness of questions about death and questions about personal identity and the “self.”
  • Differentiate between dualist and physicalist conceptions of death and specify the particular consequences of each approach.
  • Describe the multiplicity of cultural, religious, and philosophical views about death and the soul.
  • Discuss major philosophical arguments for and against the immortality of the soul.
  • Articulate major theories of personal identity, and provide reasoned criticisms of these major theories of personal identity.
  • Explain and evaluate the view of death presented in literary works such as Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
  • Discuss in a philosophical way certain value-theoretic questions about death: whether it is inherently good or bad, whether it presents us with obligations to live our lives in a certain way, and whether it is permissible to end life prematurely.
  • Describe the existentialist view of death and the notion that it gives life meaning by restricting its shape and scope; explain the various ways in which this limiting feature of death has been interpreted.

Course Requirements  showclose

In order to take this course, you must:

√    Have access to a computer.

√    Have continuous broadband Internet access.

√    Have the ability/permission to install plug-ins or software (e.g., Adobe Reader or Flash).

√    Have the ability to download and save files and documents to a computer.

√    Have the ability to open Microsoft files and documents (.doc, .ppt, .xls, etc.).

√    Be competent in the English language.

√    Have read the Saylor Student Handbook.

√    Have completed ENGL001 and ENGL002 as part of the “General Education Program.”

Unit Outline show close


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  • Unit 1: The Metaphysics of Death  

    There are two ways we can begin to think about the nature of death.  One way is to suppose that human beings are composed of a body and a soul. This is known as a dualist view.  If we possess a soul, then we can imagine that while the body dies, the soul may continue to exist in some fashion.  Of course, having a soul is no guarantee that this is true, but it does appear to be a necessary condition for surviving the death of the body.  The other way we can think about death is to start out with the assumption that there is no such thing as the soul.  This view, known as physicalism, asserts that human beings are entirely physical or that they depend so completely on their physical bodies that, once the body dies, there is nothing to sustain our consciousnesses (or our “selves”).  In this unit, we will attempt to determine which of these views is the most plausible.  We will consider a wide range of arguments for and against the existence of the soul, as well as arguments for and against the idea that the soul is immortal.  In order to answer these questions, we will consider a number of related topics, such as whether we can really imagine existing without a body, the nature of near-death experiences, and whether computers can have free will.  We will also become intimately acquainted with Plato’s arguments for the immorality of the soul in his dialogue, Phaedo.

    Unit 1 Time Advisory   show close
    Unit 1 Learning Outcomes   show close
  • 1.1 What Is Death? What Are Persons?  
  • 1.1.1 Introducing the Questions  
    • Lecture: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Course Introduction” Lecture

      YouTube: Link: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Course Introduction” (YouTube)
       
      Also available in:
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      Instructions: Watch this YouTube video lecture introducing the course (46 minutes).  Alternatively, you may select the Flash or Quicktime video link that is appropriate for your Internet connection to launch the video.  You can also hear the lecture as an .mp3 file, or read the transcript.  Feel free to skip the end of the lecture, where Professor Kagan lays out the grading requirements, because we will be using different assessments.  Professor Kagan distinguishes the philosophical questions about death from those that are sociological, psychological or therapeutic, and outlines the content of the course.  He also presents a useful summary of “common views” about death that will be scrutinized during the course.
       
      Terms of Use: This video is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License. It is attributed to Shelly Kagan and Yale University.

  • 1.1.2 What Is a Person? The Dualist View  
    • Reading: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Professor Scott Calef’s “Dualism and Mind” Article

      Link: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Professor Scott Calef’s “Dualism and Mind” (HTML)
       
      Instructions: Read this article for a general outline of the dualist view of what a person is.  Dualism is the view that persons are composed of both a body and a soul.  Depending on the discussion at hand, terms like “consciousness” or “mind” may be substituted for “soul,” and “physical substance” (or “material”) for “body.”   For instance, one might think that whether we have a soul in addition to a body depends on whether consciousness is just a property of the brain, or whether it is something “extra.”
       
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  • 1.1.3 What is a Person? The Physicalist View  
    • Reading: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Professor Daniel Stoljar’s “Physicalism” Article

      Link: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Professor Daniel Stoljar’s “Physicalism” (HTML)
       
      Instructions: Read this article for a general outline of the physicalist view of what a person is. Physicalism is the doctrine that everything in the universe, including persons, is wholly made up of only one “type of stuff”—namely, physical material.  As such, it is a special version of monism, a metaphysical view which has just as interesting and elaborate a history as does dualism.  If physicalism is true, then there can be no possibility of human beings surviving the death of their bodies.  If the soul, or consciousness, or whatever you might call the part of us that does the experiencing, is wholly dependent on the physical body, then it will disappear as soon as the body dies. 
       
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    • Lecture: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “The Nature of Persons: Dualism vs. Physicalism” Lecture

      Link: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “The Nature of Persons: Dualism vs. Physicalism” (YouTube)
       
      Also available in:
      Quicktime, Flash, MP3, Transcript (HTML)

      Instructions: Watch this YouTube video lecture about the nature of persons (42 minutes).  Alternatively, you may select the Flash or Quicktime video link that is appropriate for your Internet connection to view the lecture.  You can also hear the lecture as an .mp3 file, or read the transcript.  In this lecture Professor Kagan tries to get clear on the question “Could I survive the death of my body?”  To do so he introduces several possibilities including dualism, (the view that souls and bodies both exist, alongside one another), physicalism (the view that the only things that exist are physical), and idealism (the view that the only things that exist are “mental”), and outlines the major consequences of each view for the question of the soul’s survival.
       
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  • 1.1.4 Many Versions of the Soul  
    • Reading: New Advent’s The Catholic Encyclopedia: Kevin Knight’s “Soul”

      Link: New Advent’s The Catholic Encyclopedia: Kevin Knight’s “Soul” (HTML)
       
      Instructions: Read this encyclopedia article about the concept of the soul.This article surveys the diversity of ways in which the soul is understood in many different philosophical, cultural, and religious traditions, but focuses on Christian notions of the soul.  Also, notice the Hindu inclinations towards mind/body dualism and the ancient Greek conflation of “soul” with “mind,” as well as “being alive.”  When we ask the question, “Does the soul survive the death of the body?”, can we be sure that we all understand that question in the same way?  Is there perhaps a common “minimal” conception of the soul?
       
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  • 1.2 The Existence of the Soul  
  • 1.2.1 The Soul as “The Best Explanation”  
    • Lecture: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Arguments for the Existence of the Soul, Part I” Lecture

      Link: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Arguments for the Existence of the Soul, Part I” (YouTube)
       
      Also available in:
      Quicktime, Flash, MP3, Transcript
       
      Instructions: Watch this video lecture about the “best explanation” argument for the existence of the soul (46 minutes).  This lecture is also accessible via Yale University’s Open Yale Course website at: Philosophy of Death with Professor Kagan (Adobe Flash and Quicktime).  Alternatively, you may select the Flash or Quicktime video link that is appropriate for your Internet connection to launch the video.  You can also hear the lecture as an .mp3 file, or read the transcript.  In this lecture, Professor Kagan considers a number of ways that one might go about arguing for the existence of the soul.  He starts with the idea that the soul is something we cannot, strictly speaking, see.  But scientists prove the existence of things we cannot see all the time—things like gravity, atoms, and germs.  Perhaps we can agree that souls exist because we “need” them in order to explain other facts about the activity of bodies.  On the other hand, maybe everything about the soul can be explained in physical terms—just like smiles can (arguably) be explained purely by reference to the physical parts of the mouth.
       
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  • 1.2.2 What is Free Will?  
    • Reading: University of Tennessee, Martin’s Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Kevin Timpe’s “Free Will”

      Link: University of Tennessee, Martin’s Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Kevin Timpe’s “Free Will” (HTML)
       
      Instructions: Read this encyclopedia article about the concept of free will. You may wish to explore any of the hyperlinks embedded within the text that you are unfamiliar with or curious about as this will deepen your understanding of the topic.  This article provides an overview of the various positions that philosophers have adopted on the question of free will.  As we will see in the next lecture, free will is the basis for one argument for the existence of the soul.  But do we have free will?  Or might our actions be determined by external forces?  And are these two basic options even mutually exclusive?  
       
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  • 1.2.3 The Soul as the Source of Free Will  
    • Lecture: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Arguments for the Existence of the Soul, Part II” Lecture

      Link: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Arguments for the Existence of the Soul, Part II” (YouTube)
       
      Also available in:
      Quicktime, Flash, MP3, Transcript
       
      Instructions: Watch this video lecture about the free will argument for the existence of the soul (49 minutes).  This lecture is also accessible via Yale University’s Open Yale Course website at: Philosophy of Death with Professor Kagan (Adobe Flash and Quicktime).  Alternatively, you may select the Flash or Quicktime video link that is appropriate for your Internet connection to launch the lecture.  You can also hear the lecture as an .mp3 file, or read the transcript. In this lecture, Professor Kagan continues his line of reasoning from about “best explanation” arguments for the existence of the soul.  The hypothesis is that the possession of a soul is what sets human beings apart from physical objects, even really sophisticated ones like chess-playing computers.  But why should we think that a person is fundamentally different from a computer?  One answer is that, unlike computers, human beings have free will.
       
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  • 1.2.4 Near-Death Experiences as Evidence of the Soul?  
    • Reading: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Professor William Hasker’s “Afterlife” Article

      Link: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Professor William Hasker’s “Afterlife” (HTML)
       
      Instructions: Read Section 4 of this article (“Empirical Support for Survival? Parapsychology and Near-Death Experiences”) about the question of whether human beings, in whatever form, might survive death.   This article introduces the idea that reports of near-death experiences might supply evidence of an afterlife (and, by extension, a soul).  Experts are divided on just how such evidence should be interpreted.  A great number of people report having near-death experiences, and there is a certain amount of coherence among their accounts, but variations in detail, as well as comparisons with other related experiences, suggest that such reports do not furnish evidence of an afterlife.
       
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  • 1.2.5 How Should Near-Death Experiences be Explained?  
  • 1.2.6 Descartes’ Argument for Dualism  
    • Reading: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Professor Justin Skirry’s “René Descartes (1596-1650): Overview” Article

      Link: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Professor Justin Skirry’s “René Descartes (1596-1650): Overview” (HTML)
       
      Instructions: Read the front matter and sections 4 (“The Mind”) and 7 (“Mind-Body Relation”) of this encyclopedia article about Descartes.  Descartes argued, in essence, that the mind and body must be two distinct things, because it is so easy to imagine the mind existing without the body.  In fact, according to Descartes, if we limit ourselves only to our most basic and unshakeable beliefs, we will see that we identify ourselves purely with our minds and the activity of thinking—and not at all with the body.  This argument has been extremely influential because of its first-person formulation: anyone can try out the experiment and decide whether he or she thinks Descartes is right.

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  • 1.3 Plato’s Arguments for the Existence of the Soul  
  • 1.3.1 Evaluating Descartes’ Argument for Dualism and Introducing Plato  
  • 1.3.2 Plato: Metaphysical Reasons for Embracing Death  
    • Reading: Plato’s Phaedo

      Link: Plato’s Phaedo (PDF)
       
      Also available in:
      HTML
      ePub format on Google Books
       
      Instructions: Read Plato’s Phaedo dialogue in its entirety.  This reading will cover subunits 1.3.2-1.3.6.  In the Phaedo, Plato dramatizes his mentor Socrates’ final day of life, during which he speaks with several of his friends about death and the nature of the soul.  Plato relates, through Socrates, a number of arguments for the soul’s immortality, and presents these as reasons why the philosopher should be cheerful in the face of death, and not disappointed or afraid. 
       
      Terms of Use: This material is in the Public Domain.

  • 1.3.3 The Soul and the Forms  
    • Lecture: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Plato, Part II: Arguments for the Immortality of the Soul” Lecture

      Link: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Plato, Part II: Arguments for the Immortality of the Soul” (YouTube)

      Also available in: 
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      Instructions: Watch this video lecture about Plato’s theory of forms and how it lends support to the idea of an immortal soul (47 minutes).  This lecture is also accessible via Yale University’s Open Yale Course website at: Philosophy of Death with Professor Kagan (Adobe Flash and Quicktime).  Alternatively, you may select the Flash or Quicktime video link that is appropriate for your Internet connection to launch the video.  You can also hear the lecture as an .mp3 file, or read the transcript.  Plato’s first argument for the immortality of the soul is an extension of his general theory of forms.  Plato argues, basically, that human beings have two kinds of knowledge: knowledge of the sensible world, which we get through our sense organs (i.e., our bodies), and knowledge of the forms, which we get through our souls.  Because the souls are “more like” the forms than our bodies are, our souls must also be unchanging and eternal.  Professor Kagan also discusses Plato’s related “argument from recollection,” in which he lays out his curious theory of memory and reincarnation.  If the soul existed before we were born, would that fact not strongly suggest that it will exist after we die?  
       
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    • Reading: Wikipedia’s “Theory of Forms” Article

      Link: Wikipedia’s “Theory of Forms” (PDF)
       
      Also available in:
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      Instructions: This is an optional assignment.  Read this encyclopedia article for an overview of Plato’s theory of forms.  This article explains Plato’s basic framework for thinking about reality and the objects of knowledge (the forms).  It may be helpful to consult it since, in the Phaedo, Plato takes for granted that we already know something about what forms are.
       
      Terms of Use: The article above is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0 (HTML).  You can find the original Wikipedia version of this article here (HTML).

  • 1.3.4 Some Background on Plato’s Idea of the Soul  
    • Reading: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Professor Hendrik Lorenz’ “Ancient Theories of the Soul” Article

      Link: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Professor Hendrik Lorenz’ “Ancient Theories of the Soul” (HTML)
       
      Instructions: Read sections 1-3 of this encyclopedia article about how the ancient Greeks conceived of the soul.  This article provides some helpful background knowledge about the idea of the soul that Plato inherited from Greek culture, as well as an overview of the idea of the soul as it appears in his dialogues Phaedoand Republic.  Some of his ideas, such as reincarnation and the idea that knowledge is recollection, are rooted in Plato’s culture, while other aspects of his view, such as the soul’s relation to the forms, are wholly his own.
       
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  • 1.3.5 The Soul’s Simplicity  
    • Lecture: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Plato, Part III: Arguments for the Immortality of the Soul (cont.)” Lecture

      Link: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Plato, Part III: Arguments for the Immortality of the Soul (cont.)” (YouTube)
       
      Also available in:
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      Instructions: Watch this video lecture about Plato’s “argument from simplicity” for the immortality of the soul (50 minutes).  This lecture is also accessible via Yale University’s Open Yale Course website at: Philosophy of Death with Professor Kagan (Adobe Flash and Quicktime).  Alternatively, you may select the Flash or Quicktime video link that is appropriate for your Internet connection to launch the video.  You can also hear the lecture as an .mp3 file, or read the transcript.   In order for something to be destroyed, it must be possible to break that “something” into parts.  According to Plato, the soul has no parts and therefore cannot be destroyed.  In this lecture, Professor Kagan considers this argument for the soul’s immortality, as well as a number of convincing counter-arguments.  Should we believe that invisible things cannot be destroyed?  How would we know?  Simmias’ analogy of the soul with a harmony is raised as a counterexample.
       
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  • 1.3.6 Being Alive as an Essential Property of the Soul  
    • Lecture: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Plato, Part IV: Arguments for the Immortality of the Soul (cont.)” Lecture

      Link: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Plato, Part IV: Arguments for the Immortality of the Soul (cont.)” (YouTube)
       
      Also available in:
      Quicktime (Low Bandwidth/Slow Connection)
      Quicktime (High Bandwidth/Fast Connection)
      Adobe Flash
      Transcript (HTML)
      Mp3
       
      Instructions: Watch this video lecture about Plato’s “argument from essential properties” for the immortality of the soul (50 minutes).  This lecture is also accessible via Yale University’s Open Yale Course website at: Philosophy of Death with Professor Kagan (Adobe Flash and Quicktime).  Alternatively, you may select the Flash or Quicktime video link that is appropriate for your Internet connection to launch the video.  You can also hear the lecture as an .mp3 file, or read the transcript.  In this lecture, Professor Kagan considers Plato’s final argument for the immortality of the soul.  Plato argues that being alive is an essential property of the soul, like being physical is an essential property of a pencil.  That is, if it is not physical, it is not a pencil, and similarly, if it is not alive, it is not a soul.  Professor Kagan concludes that since none of the arguments for the soul have been convincing, we must now attempt to confront death from a physicalist point of view
       
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  • Unit 2: Personal Identity and the Nature of Death  

    What is death, exactly?  Many would say that death occurs when a person ceases to exist.  If this is true, then in order to understand death we first need to understand what a person is.  In this unit, we will consider three theories of personal identity—that is, three theories about what makes a person “the same person” from one day to the next.  Specifically, we will address the views that personal identity is rooted in the soul, in the body, and in the “personality” (understood as a cluster of psychological properties).  We will also consider the possibility that death has little or nothing to do with the death of the “person,” but can be accounted for in purely physical terms.  We will conclude the unit with a look at Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich.  Tolstoy’s book raises a number of questions about death that are usually identified with “existentialist” schools of thought, e.g., How do people ordinarily think about death?  Do people really believe they are going to die?  Is it true that everybody dies alone?  How do our attitudes toward the fact of death affect the meaningfulness of our lives? 

    Unit 2 Time Advisory   show close
    Unit 2 Learning Outcomes   show close
  • 2.1 Personal Identity  
  • 2.1.1 Personal Identity and the Possibility of Immortality  
    • Reading: Professor Dave Beisecker’s Summary of John Perry’s A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality

      Link: Professor Dave Beisecker’s Summary of John Perry’s A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality (HTML)
       
      Instructions: Read this summary of John Perry’s book about personal identity and the possibility of immortality.  This reading is a brief summary of the arguments developed by John Perry in his Dialogue.  The premise of Perry’s work is that a terminally ill patient, Gretchen Weirob, challenges her friends Sam Miller and Dave Cohen to prove to her that surviving death is at least a conceivable possibility.  Perry approaches the problem of immortality by examining what it means to be the same person from one day to the next.  The key to deciding whether we might survive death must be found in whatever it is that makes us our personal identity continuous in time.
       
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  • 2.1.2 Personal Identity: The Soul Theory  
  • 2.1.3 Overview of the Problem of Personal Identity  
    • Reading: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Professor Eric T. Olson’s “Personal Identity” Article

      Link: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Professor Eric T. Olson’s “Personal Identity” (HTML)
       
      Instructions: Read this encyclopedia article for an understanding of the problem of personal identity and the major proposals for solving it.  This article provides a general overview of the problem of personal identity—that is, the problem of how we can account for the fact that someone maintains the same identity as a person across time.  The article covers a number of possibilities, including psychological and somatic approaches.  Although the terminology in this article is sometimes very different from the language Professor Kagan uses in his video lectures (“Somatic Theory” = “Body Theory” and “Psychological Theory” = “Personality Theory”), the substance of the positions discussed is the same.
       
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  • 2.1.4 Personal Identity: The Body Theory and the Personality Theory  
  • 2.1.5 John Locke’s Theory of Personal Identity  
  • 2.1.6 Understanding Locke’s Personality Theory of Identity  
  • 2.1.7 Personal Identity: The Personality Theory  
  • 2.1.8 Surviving Death: It Is All about Personality  
    • Lecture: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Personal Identity, Part IV: What Matters?” Lecture

      Link: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Personal Identity, Part IV: What Matters?” (YouTube)
       
      Also available in:
      Quicktime, Flash, MP3, Transcript

      Instructions: Watch this video lecture about personal identity and surviving death (49 minutes).  This lecture is also accessible via Yale University’s Open Yale Course website at: Philosophy of Death with Professor Kagan (Adobe Flash and Quicktime).  Alternatively, you may select the Flash or Quicktime video link that is appropriate for your Internet connection to launch the video.  You can also hear the lecture as an .mp3 file, or read the transcript.  In this lecture, Professor Kagan settles on what seems to be a satisfactory, revised version of the personality theory of personal identity.  His theory depends on what he terms the “no-branching rule,” which means that personality can account for personal identity as long as there is no “splitting” or copying of the personality into different bodies.  Professor Kagan then refocuses the discussion on a new question: instead of asking “What are the conditions for surviving death?”, we should ask: “What matters in surviving death?”  In other words, what is it we want when we want to survive death?
       
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  • 2.2 The Nature of Death  
  • 2.2.1 What Is Death?  
    • Reading: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Professor David DeGrazia’s “Definition of Death” Article

      Link: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Professor David DeGrazia’s “Definition of Death” (HTML)
       
      Instructions: Read this encyclopedia article discussing several alternative definitions of death.  Surely knowledge of what death is means knowledge of when death has occurred and when it has not.  In this article, Professor DeGrazia discusses a number of possibilities for determining the moment of death, mostly cast in terms of biological functioning.  The fact that each view is problematic also prompts him to consider other views, such as the idea that death is a “cluster concept,” rather than a neat and simple condition.
       
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  • 2.2.2 What Matters about Death and What Death Is  
    • Lecture: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “What matters (cont.); The Nature of Death, Part I” Lecture

      Link: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “What matters (cont.); The Nature of Death, Part I” (YouTube)
       
      Also available in:
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      Instructions: Watch this video lecture about what it is we are after when we ask whether we can survive death (47 minutes).  This lecture is also accessible via Yale University’s Open Yale Course website at: Philosophy of Death with Professor Kagan (Adobe Flash and Quicktime).  Alternatively, you may select the Flash or Quicktime video that is appropriate for your Internet connection to launch the video.  You can also hear the lecture as an .mp3 file, or read the transcript.  Having decided that the personality theory of personal identity is the correct one, Professor Kagan argues that what really matters about death does not ultimately have so much to do with personality in a technical sense.  In other words, it is more important that the person who survives death be like me, than that he be me.  Although this sounds strange at first, the rationale is that although an extremely old version of oneself might technically be the inheritor of one’s personality, it will have been so greatly transformed that it no longer resembles the original person.
       
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  • 2.2.3 Living without Believing We Will Die: Tolsoy’s Ivan Ilyich  
    • Reading: Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich

      Link: Leo Tolstoy’s The Classical Library’s version of Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” (PDF)
       
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      Instructions: Read all chapters of this novella by Leo Tolstoy to learn about what becomes of our lives when we fail to acknowledge the fact of our death.  Tolstoy’s 1886 novella is a realistic portrait of a man who, because of a fatal accident, is forced to confront his own impending death.  The fact that Ivan will die is both inescapable and, somehow, unbelievable.  The unwavering necessity of his death finally leads Ivan to reevaluate the way he has lived his life and to realize that death is a death sentence, so to speak, only so long as we are able to avoid coming to terms with it.
       
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  • 2.2.4 A Physicalist Definition of Death  
    • Lecture: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “The Nature of Death (cont.); Believing You Will Die” Lecture

      Link: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “The Nature of Death (cont.); Believing You Will Die” (YouTube)
       
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      Instructions: Watch this video lecture about how to construct a physicalist definition of death and what it means to believe we will die (44 minutes).  This lecture is also accessible via Yale University’s Open Yale Course website at: Philosophy of Death with Professor Kagan (Adobe Flash and Quicktime).  Alternatively, you may select the Flash or Quicktime video link that is appropriate for your Internet connection to launch the video.  You can also hear the lecture as an .mp3 file, or read the transcript.  In this lecture, Professor Kagan settles on a physicalist definition of death in terms of a person’s “P-functioning,” or the sum of physical and biological processes that gives rise to conscious personality.  On its own, however, P-functioning does not furnish a sufficient definition of death, since we have to make exceptions for people who are asleep or in comas.  This leads to a discussion of one important question that is raised by Tolstoy’s novella: Do people really believe they are going to die?
       
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  • 2.2.5 Overview of Existentialism  
    • Reading: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Professor Stephen Crowell’s “Existentialism” Article

      Link: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Professor Stephen Crowell’s “Existentialism” (HTML)
       
      Instructions: Read this article for a detailed overview of existentialism.  Existentialism was an influential movement in philosophy from the late nineteenth to the mid twentieth centuries.  It shifted the focus away from questions about the nature of reality and knowledge to questions about the meaning of life and existence.  The concept of death took on greater significance for existential philosophers, who sought to understand how human beings really understand the reality of their own deaths.  For most existentialists, recognizing that we will die is an essential part of living “authentically.” 
       
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  • 2.2.6 The Ordinary Attitude toward Death  
    • Lecture: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Dying Alone; The Badness of Death, Part I” Lecture

      Link: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Dying Alone; The Badness of Death, Part I” (YouTube)
       
      Also available in:
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      Instructions: Watch this video lecture about how we ordinarily think about death and the idea that we all die alone (50 minutes).  This lecture is also accessible via Yale University’s Open Yale Course website at: Philosophy of Death with Professor Kagan (Adobe Flash and Quicktime).  Alternatively, you may select the Flash or Quicktime video link that is appropriate for your Internet connection to launch the video.  You can also hear the lecture as an .mp3 file, or read the transcript.  In this lecture, Professor Kagan argues that, fundamentally, nobody really believes that he or she is going to die.  Otherwise, we would behave like Tolstoy’s character Ivan Ilyich and live in a perpetual panic about our deaths.  He also considers the common idea that we all die alone (which is also important to many existentialist views) and argues that it is not true, or, at least, that it needs a more precise interpretation. 
       
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  • Unit 3: The Value of Death  

    Whether or not we really understand what death is, there remains the question of what our attitude toward it should be.  Most people tend to regard death as a bad thing, and their emotional attitude toward it is usually sadness, anxiety or fear.  But do we really have good reasons for thinking that death, in and of itself, is bad?  Perhaps it is only the aspects of life leading up to death that are dreadful.  Would we be better off if we never died, but just went on living forever?  In this unit, we will cover three closely related topics: the (alleged) badness of death, how the fact that we will die should influence the way we live, and whether it is ever appropriate to bring about our own death prematurely, by committing suicide.  We will consult with several important contemporary philosophers, as well as with the great Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne, the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, and the late existentialist Walter Kaufmann.

    Unit 3 Time Advisory   show close
    Unit 3 Learning Outcomes   show close
  • 3.1 Is Death Bad?  
  • 3.1.1 Death Is Bad Because Life Is Good  
    • Reading: Professor David Banach’s version of Professor Thomas Nagel’s “Death” Article

      Link: Professor David Banach’s version of Professor Thomas Nagel’s “Death” (HTML)
       
      Instructions: Read this article arguing that death is bad because it amounts to a cessation of what is good in life.  In this article, the contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel argues that death must be considered a bad thing, since when we die, there no longer remains the possibility of experiencing the goodness of life.
       
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  • 3.1.2 Death Cannot Be Bad Because Only Things in Life Can Be Bad  
    • Reading: University of Massachusetts, Amherst: Professor Fred Feldman’s “Brueckner and Fischer on the Evil of Death” Article

      Link: University of Massachusetts, Amherst: Professor Fred Feldman’s Brueckner and Fischer on the Evil of Death (PDF)
       
      Instructions: You will need to select the correct title from the “Recent and Forthcoming” list and download the .pdf file.  Read this article on whether or not goodness and badness can reasonably be applied to death.  In this article, Professor Feldman asks whether value terms can be appropriately applied to death.  For instance, pricking oneself with a pin is bad, because it introduces pain into one’s life.  But death seems to present a special case.  Since death is, by definition, not part of life, how can it possibly be bad?
       
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  • 3.1.3 The Badness of Death: The Deprivation Account  
    • Lecture: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “The Badness of Death, Part II: The Deprivation Account” Lecture

      Link: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “The Badness of Death, Part II: The Deprivation Account” Lecture (YouTube)
       
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      Instructions: Watch this video lecture about the idea that death is bad because it deprives us of the good things in life (52 minutes).  This lecture is also accessible via Yale University’s Open Yale Course website at: Philosophy of Death with Professor Kagan (Adobe Flash and Quicktime).  Alternatively, you may select the Flash or Quicktime video link that is appropriate for your Internet connection to launch the video.  You can also hear the lecture as an .mp3 file, or just read the transcript. One account of why death is bad is that it means that we are being deprived of the good things in life.  This means that there is nothing inherently bad about death itself.  Rather, death is bad only in contrast to the goodness of life.  This line of reasoning raises some difficult questions, however.  Is the badness of death the same as the badness of nonexistence?  And if death is bad because it deprives us of the goodness of life, exactly when is it bad?
       
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  • 3.1.4 Michel de Montaigne Against the Badness of Death  
    • Reading: Michel de Montaigne’s “That To Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die” Essay

      Link: Michel de Montaigne’s “That To Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die” (PDF)
       
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      Instructions: Read this essay by Michel de Montaigne responding to various reasons why people are afraid of death.  You will need to scroll down about one third of the page to find the right essay. In this essay, the late sixteenth century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne argues that all of the reasons people have for being afraid of death are the result of the way it is understood during life, and that there is nothing intrinsically bad about death itself.  The title of the essay comes from a quotation by Cicero; it refers to the idea that philosophy can help prepare us for death and alleviate our fears of it because, when we philosophize, we practice disengaging from worldly concerns.
       
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  • 3.1.5 The Badness of Death and the Badness of Eternal Life  
    • Lecture: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “The Badness of Death, Part III; Immortality, Part I” Lecture

      Link: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “The Badness of Death, Part III; Immortality, Part I” (YouTube)
       
      Also available in:
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      Instructions: Watch this video lecture discussing various contemporary views as to whether death is bad (51 minutes).  This lecture is also accessible via Yale University’s Open Yale Course website at: Philosophy of Death with Professor Kagan (Adobe Flash and Quicktime).  Alternatively, you may select the Flash or Quicktime video link that is appropriate for your Internet connection to launch the video.  You can also hear the lecture as an .mp3 file, or read the transcript.  In this lecture, Professor Kagan discusses various problems with the deprivation account of the badness of death, touching upon the views of several contemporary philosophers.  Can death be considered bad when the person it has happened to does not exist?  And if death is bad because it means being deprived of the good things in life, should we also say that the state of affairs prior to birth is bad?  Perhaps it is a mistake to derive the value of death by comparing it with life.  What if the real “opposite” of death is not life as we know it, but eternal life?
       
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  • 3.1.6 Jonathan Swift on the Badness of Immorality  
    • Reading: Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Part III, Chapter X

      Link: Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Part III, Chapter X (PDF)
       
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      Instructions: Read this chapter from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels satirizing a society of immortal beings.  In this chapter from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the traveler, Gulliver, is told about a society of immortals.  Gulliver is jealous, thinking that immortality would furnish innumerable advantages.  He is shocked to learn, however, that the immortals (called Struldbrugs) are a bored and dissatisfied lot who spend their days lamenting the fact that they cannot die.  Swift’s tale helps us to imagine life without the possibility of death, and makes a case for the goodness of death.
       
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  • 3.1.7 The Badness of Eternal Life Reconsidered  
    • Lecture: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Immortality, Part II; The Value of Life, Part I” Lecture

      Link: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Immortality, Part II; The Value of Life, Part I” (YouTube)
       
      Also available in:
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      Instructions: Watch this video lecture about the potential perils of immortality (49 minutes).  This lecture is also accessible via Yale University’s Open Yale Course website at: Philosophy of Death with Professor Kagan (Adobe Flash and Quicktime).  Alternatively, you may select the Flash or Quicktime video link that is appropriate for your Internet connection to launch the video.  You can also hear the lecture as an .mp3 file, or read the transcript.  In this lecture, Professor Kagan asks whether it would be desirable to live forever.  If we were immortal, we could eventually do everything we want to do.  But by the same token, we would eventually have already done everything we wanted to do.  Are there any activities we would enjoy doing for all eternity?  If not, perhaps immortality would turn out to be tremendously tedious.  Then again, what if we could devise a way to experience pure pleasure for all eternity?   
       
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  • 3.2 The Value of Life  
  • 3.2.1 Death as the Source of Value in Life  
    • Reading: Taimar Khan’s Alifbébé: Walter Kaufmann’s The Faith of a Heretic (excerpt)

      Link: Taimar Khan’s Alifbébé: Walter Kaufmann’s "The Faith of a Heretic (excerpt)" (HTML)
       
      Instructions: Read this selection about the effect that death has on the meaningfulness and value of human life.  Walter Kaufmann was a German-American philosopher responsible for popularizing the existentialist philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Jean Paul Sartre during the mid twentieth century.  According to Kaufmann, life is valuable because of—not in spite of—death, and the most valuable lives are those that are lived in vivid awareness of death’s approach.  This text is accessible through Taimar Khan’s website.
       
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  • 3.2.2 The Value of Life as Dependent on its Shape and Contents  
    • Lecture: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “The Value of Life, Part II; Other Bad Aspects of Death, Part I” Lecture

      Link: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “The Value of Life, Part II; Other Bad Aspects of Death, Part I” (YouTube)
       
      Also available in:
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      Instructions: Watch this video lecture about how the value of a life might be determined (51 minutes).  This lecture is also accessible via Yale University’s Open Yale Course website at: Philosophy of Death with Professor Kagan (Adobe Flash and Quicktime).  Alternatively, you may select the Flash or Quicktime video link that is appropriate for your Internet connection to launch the video.  You can also hear the lecture as an .mp3 file, or just read the transcript.  In the previous lecture, Professor Kagan left off with the question of whether life would be worth living if we knew that it was not real—that is, if we knew that we were simply hooked up to a kind of Matrix-like “experience machine.”  In this lecture, he adds a number of additional considerations.  If life is like a container for good and bad experiences, should the container itself be considered valuable in the final calculation?  What about the order of the experiences?  Is a “rags-to-riches” life better than a “riches-to-rags” life, even if they both contain the same amount of good and bad experiences?
       
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  • 3.2.3 More Reasons Why Death Is Bad and Thoughts on Whether It Should Change Our Behavior  
    • Lecture: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Other Bad Aspects of Death, Part II” Lecture

      Link: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Other Bad Aspects of Death, Part II” (YouTube)
       
      Also available in:
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      Instructions: Watch this video lecture about the badness of death and its consequences for behavior (50 minutes).  This lecture is also accessible via Yale University’s Open Yale Course website at: Philosophy of Death with Professor Kagan (Adobe Flash and Quicktime).   Alternatively, you may select the Flash or Quicktime video link that is appropriate for your Internet connection to launch the video.  You can also hear the lecture as an .mp3 file, or just read the transcript.  In this lecture, Professor Kagan discusses a number of additional reasons for thinking that death is bad, including its inevitability, its ubiquity, and its unpredictability.  He also raises two interesting questions about how our knowledge of death should influence the way we life.  First, should we allow that knowledge to influence the way we live at all?  And second, knowing that thinking about death affects the way we live, should we make a constant effort to recognize it, or should we try to think about it as little as possible?
       
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  • 3.2.4 Some Existentialist Approaches to Death  
    • Reading: Taimar Khan’s Alifbébé: Walter Kaufmann’s “Death without Dread” Essay

      Link: Taimar Khan’s Alifbébé: Walter Kaufmann’s “Death without Dread” (HTML)

      Instructions: Read this essay surveying a number of existentialist thoughts on death.  In this reflective essay, Kaufmann traces philosophical and poetical thinking about death through a range of thinkers.  The views that Kaufmann finds most compelling are largely at odds with the norm in contemporary western culture, which he believes has fallen into a complacency about death (i.e. most Westerners vaguely associate death with old age, not realizing its power to give meaning to every part of our lives).
       
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  • 3.2.5 An Epicurean Argument Against Fearing Death  
    • Reading: Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things: “Folly of the Fear of Death”

      Link: Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things: “Folly of the Fear of Death” (PDF)
       
      Also available in:
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      ePub format on Google Books (pg 160)
       
      Instructions: Read Lucretius’ poem arguing that fear is an inappropriate response to death.  Lucretius was a follower of Epicurus, who lived during the first century B.C.  Through the use of moving poetical images, Lucretius argues that it is inappropriate to be afraid of death.  As the dissolution of the body and the soul, death is absolutely neutral; it is neither good nor bad.  If someone is afraid of death, Lucretius’ advice is to consider the neutrality of his or her nonexistence before her or she was born and to see that death is exactly the same condition.
       
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  • 3.2.6 Is Fear an Appropriate Attitude Toward Death?  
    • Lecture: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Fear of Death” Lecture

      Link: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Fear of Death” (YouTube)
       
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      Instructions: Watch this video lecture about fearing death (48 minutes).  This lecture is also accessible via Yale University’s Open Yale Course website at: Philosophy of Death with Professor Kagan (Adobe Flash and Quicktime).  Alternatively, you may select the Flash or Quicktime video link that is appropriate for your Internet connection to launch the video.  You can also hear the lecture as an .mp3 file, or read the transcript.  On the surface, fear of death seems natural enough.  But the object of our fear, for many of us, is not death itself, but the process of dying—sickness, injury, and the letting go of the things we love in life.  To determine whether fear is an appropriate attitude toward death itself, Professor Kagan defines three conditions for fear and concludes that perhaps the most appropriate response to death is not fear, but gratitude for life.
       
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  • 3.2.7 Death as Motivation… But for What?  
    • Lecture: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “How to Live Given the Certainty of Death” Lecture

      Link: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “How to Live Given the Certainty of Death” (YouTube)
       
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      Instructions: Watch this video lecture about the different possibilities for living in recognition of death (46 minutes).  This lecture is also accessible via Yale University’s Open Yale Course website at: Philosophy of Death with Professor Kagan (Adobe Flash and Quicktime).  Alternatively, you may select the Flash or Quicktime video that is appropriate for your Internet connection to launch the video.  You can also hear the lecture as an .mp3 file, or read the transcript.  It is widely agreed that the fact of death should have some influence on the way we live our lives.  But what exactly should that influence be?  Acknowledging that we shall soon return to dust, should we, like Schopenhauer, convince ourselves that becoming dust is a noble end?  Should we, like Holderlin, aim to achieve some lasting accomplishment before we die?  Or should we, like the Buddhists, greet death as liberation from human suffering?
       
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  • 3.3 Suicide  
  • 3.3.1 David Hume on the Permissibility of Suicide  
    • Reading: David Hume’s “On Suicide” Essay

      Link: David Hume’s “On Suicide” (PDF)
       
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      Instructions: Read this essay by David Hume arguing for the permissibility of suicide in certain instances.  In this posthumously published essay, the eighteenth century philosopher David Hume refutes a variety of popular and traditional injunctions against suicide.  He argues that as long as the particular case meets certain requirements, there is nothing about suicide itself that should be viewed as a transgression against others, ourselves, or God.
                 
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  • 3.3.2 Is Suicide Rational?  
    • Lecture: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Suicide, Part I: The Rationality of Suicide” Lecture

      Link: YouTube: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Suicide, Part I: The Rationality of Suicide” (YouTube)

      Also available in: 
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      Instructions: Watch this video lecture about the rationality of suicide (45 minutes).  This lecture is also accessible via Yale University’s Open Yale Course website at: Philosophy of Death with Professor Kagan (Adobe Flash and Quicktime).  Alternatively, you may select the Flash or Quicktime video link that is appropriate for your Internet connection to launch the video.  You can also hear the lecture as an .mp3 file, or read the transcript.  In this lecture, Professor Kagan attempts to distinguish when, if ever, it can be considered rational to end one’s life prematurely.  This is fundamentally different from the question as to whether suicide is right or wrong.  Are there any circumstances in which a person would be better off dead?  What about terminally ill patients who suffer great physical and psychological pain?  Or is the question of rationalizing suicide itself fundamentally incoherent? 
       
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  • 3.3.3 Overview of the Philosophical Problems Related to Suicide  
    • Reading: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Professor Michael Cholbi’s “Suicide” Article

      Link: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Professor Michael Cholbi’s “Suicide” (HTML)
       
      Instructions: Read this encyclopedia article for an understanding of the history of philosophical thinking about suicide and the major issues it raises.  Philosophical thinking about suicide has long been entangled with religious doctrine and popular morality.  In fact, it is controversial whether suicide should ever be divorced from such considerations.  This article provides an overview of the ways in which philosophical approaches to suicide have distinguished themselves from one another as well as a summary of the issues of rationality and morality they have tried to address.  This text is accessible through the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy website.
       
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  • 3.3.4 More About the Rationality of Suicide  
    • Lecture: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Suicide, Part II: Deciding under Uncertainty” Lecture

      Link: Yale University: Professor Shelly Kagan’s “Suicide, Part II: Deciding under Uncertainty” (YouTube)

      Also available in: 
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      Instructions: Watch this video lecture about the rationality of suicide (50 minutes).  This lecture is also accessible via Yale University’s Open Yale Course website at: Philosophy of Death with Professor Kagan (Adobe Flash and Quicktime).  Alternatively, you may select the Flash or Quicktime video link that is appropriate for your Internet connection to launch the video.  You can also hear the lecture as an .mp3 file, or read the transcript.  The question of whether suicide is ever rational is complicated by the fact that death itself is unpredictable.  Although we have more or less complete information about the quality of our lives in the past and present, there remains the chance that our lives will improve drastically in the future.  How, then, could it be reasonable to bring our lives to a premature end?
       
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  • 3.3.5 The Morality of Voluntary Euthanasia  
    • Reading: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Professor Robert Young’s “Voluntary Euthanasia” Article

      Link: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Professor Robert Young’s “Voluntary Euthanasia” (HTML)
       
      Instructions: Read this encyclopedia article about the morality of mercy killing.  This article outlines the major arguments for and against the moral acceptability of euthanasia.  The author adopts a “for” stance, specifying the precise conditions under which releasing someone from a life of suffering would be the right thing to do.  The author also carefully considers several common objections against euthanasia.
       
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  • 3.3.6 Is Suicide Moral?  
  • Final Exam