Robert L. Frazier ( )

Confrontations with the Reaper: A Philosophical Study of the Nature and Value of Death
Oxford University Press, 1992. xiv + 249 pp. $29.95

Books should not be judged by their covers. Nor should they be judged by their titles. This book is a case in point. Its main title might lead one to suspect that it contains a collection of woolly anecdotes of brushes with death, perhaps even purported recollections of out-of-body experiences. Nothing could be further from the truth. It actually contains exceptionally lucid and closely reasoned discussions of the nature of death, from a materialist point of view, and the (dis)value of death, from a consequentialist perspective.

In the introduction Feldman states his main theses: that death is mysterious and that it is sometimes evil. Death's mystery is due to our inability to give an analysis of its nature, and our inability to experience it. Death is a prudential evil when the person who is dead would be better off alive. It is a moral evil when bringing it about prevents a person from enjoying deserved amounts of pleasure or life. In the first part of the book (Chs. 1-7) he argues that death is mysterious; in the second (Chs. 8-13) he argues that it is (often) evil.

Feldman prefaces his examination of the nature of death with a very useful discussion of conceptual analysis and the difference between an analysis of death and criteria for death (Ch. 1). He argues that, while different criteria of death may be used for different kinds of entities, the concept of death, which is his topic, is one that applies to all biological entities.

Since death is standardly analysed as the cessation of life, the inquiry into the biological concept of death begins with a discussion of the concept of life. Feldman considers and rejects analyses of life that fall into two broad categories: life-functional theories (Ch. 2) and vitalist theories (Ch. 3). Since, according to Feldman, we cannot have a clear characterization of life, we cannot have one of death. Indeed, he argues that even if we take the concept of life as primitive, we cannot give an analysis of death (Ch. 4). He bases this conclusion on a consideration of three phenomena: suspended animation, fission and fusion. After establishing that we cannot give an analysis of death, Feldman discusses the relationship between dying and death (Ch. 5), the survival of death (Ch. 6) and, in lieu of an analysis of death, how the concept of death fits into a materialist scheme (Ch. 7).

In one of the most interesting parts of the book Feldman considers the prudential disvalue of death. He first considers the Epicurean argument that death cannot be evil for the one who dies because that person no longer exists (Ch. 8). He then considers various puzzles associated with his answer to the Epicurean argument (Ch. 9). Although Feldman employs the standard deprivation defence against the Epicurean argument, the way that he works out the defence is intriguing. He rejects the standard account of something as extrinsically bad for a person when it leads, directly or indirectly, to something intrinsically bad for that person. Instead, we should accept a counterfactual account of extrinsic badness where something is extrinsically bad for a person when that person would have been better off if it had not taken place. Death, then, is bad for a person when in the closest possible world where he does not die he has a better life than in the actual world.

Although I find this version of the deprivation defence tempting, it is not entirely persuasive. Counterfactuals are notoriously difficult to evaluate. Consider, for example, a death that results from an accident at a sawmill. It is not clear whether the nearest world where there is no fatal accident is one where there is no accident, or one where there is an accident that results in a terrible maiming, but no death (as in W.W. Jacobs's `The Monkey's Paw'). Yet which is the closest determines the counterfactual's evaluation.

From the prudential (dis)value of death, Feldman turns to the moral (dis)value of death. First he rejects standard hedonistic utilitarian arguments purporting to show that killing is wrong, concluding that the fault lies with the hedonistic axiology (Ch. 10). He then proposes an axiology that takes the intrinsic goodness of a state of affairs to be a function of the `fit' between the primary goods that people enjoy (such as pleasure and life) and what they deserve (Ch. 11). Employing this new axiology, he discusses the morality of murder, abortion (Ch. 12), suicide and euthanasia (Ch. 13).

It seems right that the introduction of fitness (or justice) into the consequentialist cauldron is necessary for a clear-headed discussion of murder, etc. However, it is less than certain that the resulting theory really is consequentialist. This is because, at least for Feldman, fitness is characterized in terms of desert, which may not be amenable to consequentialist treatment. A fuller explication of this proposed axiology would have been useful.

Feldman's book is well worth reading. It is written clearly and carefully enough to be useful to students. (It would provide an excellent core for a course in `practical ethics'.) At the same time, the inventiveness of the arguments should make it of interest to philosophers.


Robert L. Frazier