Ethics and Animals
In Animal Rights A Very Short Introduction, David DeGrazia argues that death is a harm because it prevents a being good opportunities it might have experienced had it kept living (DeGrazia 61). In this essay first I will explain the three most popular approaches to the positive answer to the question of whether death is a harm or not. Second I will evaluate DeGrazia's theory's strengths and weaknesses. Finally I will attempt to provide a more adequate answer to the question.
Before explaining the original question, I think it will be helpful to explain the answer to two supplementary questions. They are, "What do we mean by death?" and "What constitutes harm?"
Death can be separated into the act of dying and the state of being dead. For example, a man who was shot in the head and had half of his brain blown out and is undergoing surgery is dying, however a man like George Washington who has died a long time ago is considered to be dead. In this paper we will use the latter, the state of being death.
To explain what constitutes harm, I will first explain who can be harmed and then I will explain how one can be harmed. Beings can only be harmed if they are sentient, that is to say they have the capacity to have feelings, including sensations and emotions (DeGrazia 40). For example a rock would not be considered to be sentient as it cannot perceive feelings or emotions, but a lion or a human would be considered to be sentient as they can perceive feelings and emotions. To understand how we can be harmed, it is necessary to understand what is good or bad for us. The most accepted view to explain our interest is comparativism. Comparativism first explains that all events can be divided into four categories. Events can be intrinsically good or bad or instrumentally good or bad. For example eating a quadruple baconator is intrinsically good because it taste good, but it is instrumentally bad because it will cause you to be unhealthy. Similarly having a lot of homework is intrinsically bad because it will cause stress, but it is instrumentally good because it will help you learn the subject matter faster. Comparativism then says that the only worth events have are the comprehensive effect on a person's life. For example, event Z only has Z's over all worth in person X's life. To make it simpler lets go back to the examples above, assume these things only have an effect on each other and no other event, and assign positive and negative values. Suppose eating the baconator (+10) will taste good, but it will make you unhealthy (-20), then eating the baconator is overall bad for you. With these tools we can begin to ponder the original question.
When we think of a family member or a loved one who has died, the usual response is pain; however, there is a distinction on the pain felt by others and the pain, if any, felt by the person who has died. For example if our dog, Sally, is run over and killed by a truck, we want to hurt the person that has run over Sally because the thought of not having our dog anymore hurts us. This feeling of anger, however, is not good enough to argue that Sally has been harmed by her death. Nevertheless, one cannot help but feel an intuition that our dog has in fact been harmed. Similarly, when thinking of themselves, most people think that if they were being run over and killed by the truck, the truck would be causing them harm. This makes us want to say that death harms us. The problem with that statement is Epicurus' theory against the harm of death; it says that if death were to harm us it would need three things: a victim whom to harm, a harm to deliver, and a time in which to commit that harm. Nevertheless, death cannot harm us when we are alive since it does not exist and it cannot harm us when we are dead since we do not longer exist (Luper 3.3). This however doesn't seem right either since there are so many laws against murder and death that it seems ridiculous to punish murderers for killing if they are not causing any harm. One cannot punish them for indirectly causing harm to others. For example if I steal your wallet, I am going to be punished for stealing your wallet and the harm that has caused you, not for the way it made your life partner feel. The question arises then, how can death cause us harm?