Death (Spring 2008) - Syllabus

Philosophy 3210 | R 2:40-5:30 PM | Anderson Hall 706

Instructor: Dr. Aaron Smuts | | office hours: 714 Anderson Hall, 2:30-3:30 T


Epicurus argued that we should not fear death, since it could not cause us harm: where death is, we are not; where we are, death is not. Although this argument may seem patently absurd, it and similar arguments have been difficult to refute conclusively. In this course we will try to answer the question: Is death an evil? In order to answer this question we will first need to know what “death” is. We will explore several major puzzles surrounding the value and nature of death. We will also examine the inverse of the harm question: would immortality be desirable? Although it seems obvious that we would like to live forever, philosophers have presented a few serious problems that cast doubt on the value of an immortal life. Independent of its harmfulness, we will consider reasons to think that death might add value to our lives. In addition we will ask whether it is possible to survive the death of our bodies. In closing, we will ask what attitudes are appropriate to take toward death.


Much of the reading will come from articles posted on Blackboard. In addition, there are three required books for this course:

  1. Fred Feldman, Confrontations With the Reaper: A Philosophical Study of the Nature and Value of Death (Oxford, 1992). ISBN: 0195089286
  2. John Martin Fischer, The Metaphysics of Death (Stanford, 1993). ISBN: 0804721041
  3. John Perry, A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality (Hackett , 1978). ISBN: 0915144530

I also recommend two other collections:

  1. Jeff Malpas and Robert Solomon, eds., Death and Philosophy (Routledge, 1998).
  2. David Benatar, ed., Life, Death and Meaning: Key Philosophical Readings on the Big Questions (Rowman and Littlefield, 2004).


There will be three forms of coursework: quizzes, papers, and examinations. Each week I will give a short quiz at the beginning of class that will require one or two sentence answers. Early in the semester there will be a very short (1 page) paper followed a couple of weeks later by a short (2 page) paper. These will be used to hone your philosophical writing. About 2/3 of the way through the course, we will have a take-home midterm. You will also be required to write a longer term paper of 10 pages.

Quizzes (10%) + Paper 1 (10%) + Paper 2 (15%) + mid term (25%) + term paper (40%).

Attendance Policy

If you miss 3 or more classes, you will receive a 0 for your quiz grade. If you miss 6 or more classes, you will receive an F for the course.

Academic Honesty

Plagiarism--claiming someone else’s ideas or written work as your own--will not be tolerated. Anyone caught cheating will be given a failing grade in the course.

Schedule (tentative)

    • Week 1 (1/24) Introduction: Death, Survival, Harm, Immortality
    • 1. Feldman, CWR, Introduction
      • 2. Feldman, CWR, Ch. 1

Topic 1: The Nature of Death

    • Week 2 (1/31) Life
    • 1. Feldman, CWR, Ch. 2
      • 2. Feldman, CWR, Ch. 3
    • Week 3 (2/07) Death and Dying
    • 1. Feldman, CWR, Ch. 4
      • 2. Feldman, CWR, Ch. 5
      • Paper #1 Due

Topic 2: The Survival of Death

    • Week 4 (2/14) Immortality of the Soul
    • 1. Plato, Phaedo
    • Week 5 (2/21) Death and Personal Identity
    • 1. Perry, A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality. All nights.
    • Week 6 (2/28) Death and Personal Identity, cont.
    • 1. Perry, A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality. All nights.
      • 2. Williams, “The Self and the Future.” (Blackboard)
      • 3. Parfit, “Personal Identity.” (Blackboard)

Topic 3: The Harmfulness of Death

    • Week 7 (3/06) Epicurus' Argument
    • 1. Epicurus, "Letter to Menoeceus" (Blackboard)
      • 2. Feldman, CWR, Ch. 8.
      • 3. Nagel, "Death" (MD)
      • Paper #2 Due
    • Week 8 (3/13) Spring Break
    • Week 9 (3/20) The Harm Thesis and Some Puzzles
    • 1. Williams, “The Makropulos Case,” in MD (first 10 pages)
      • 2. Rosenbaum, "How to Be Dead and Not Care: A Defense of Epicurus" (MD)
      • 3. Nagel, "Death" (MD)
      • 4. Feldman, CWR, Ch. 9.
    • Week 10 (3/27) Posthumous Harm
    • 1. Soll, “On the Purported Insignificance of Death” (Blackboard)
      • 2. Luper, “Posthumous Harm” (Blackboard)
      • 3. Pitcher, “The Misfortunes of the Dead” (MD)
    • Week 11 (4/03) The Harmfulness of Death
    • 1. Bradley, "When Is Death Bad for the One Who Dies" (Blackboard)
      • 2. Brueckner and Fischer, "Why Death Is Bad" (MD)
      • 3. Parfit, excerpt from Reasons and Persons (MD)
      • Outline + Abstract Due
    • Week 12 (4/10) Lucretius' Asymmetry Argument
    • 1. Kamm, “Why Is Death Bad and Worse Than Pre-Natal Non-Existence?” (Blackboard)
      • 2. Feldman, “F. M. Kamm and the Mirror of Time” (Blackboard)
      • 3. Frederik Kaufman, "Death and Deprivation; or Why Lucretius' Symmetry Argument Fails" (Blackboard)
    • Midterm Due

Topic 4: Immortality

    • Week 13 (4/17) The Desirability of Immortality
    • 1. Williams, “The Makropulos Case” (MD)
      • 2. Fisher, “Why Immortality Is Not No Bad” (Blackboard)
      • 3. Nagel, "Birth, Death, and the Meaning of Life" [optional] (Blackboard)
    • Week 14 (4/24) The Desirability of Immortality, cont.
    • 1. Smuts, “Wings of Desire: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality”(Blackboard)
      • 2. James Tiptree Jr., “Painwise”(Blackboard)
      • 3. Borges, “The Immortal”(Blackboard)

Topic 5: Attitudes Toward Death

    • Week 15 (5/01) Attitudes Toward Death
    • 1. Freud, “Our Attitude Toward Death” (Blackboard)
      • 2. Tolstoy, “The Death of Ivan Ilych” (Blackboard)
      • 3. Kaufmann, “Death” (Blackboard)
      • 4. Kaufmann, “Death Without Dread” [optional] (Blackboard)
    • Week 16
    • (5/08): (NO CLASS: Last day of classes M 5/05)
      • Term Paper Due

End of Classes

    • Week 17 5/08-5/14 (Final exam week)