Philosophy of Death (Fall 2012)

Philosophy of Death

FYS 100-23 | CRN# 11319 | TR 2-3:50 | BLDG3 015 | Fall 2012

Course Syllabus

Instructor: Dr. Aaron Smuts |


Epicurus argues that we should not fear death, since it cannot harm us: where death is, we are not; where we are, death is not. Although this argument may seem patently absurd, it has 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. We will also ask if suicide is permissible and whether it might sometimes be obligatory. 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. And we will ask what attitudes are appropriate to take toward death.


There are five 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-13: 978-0195089288 } [CWR] [buy]

  2. John Martin Fischer, The Metaphysics of Death (Stanford, 1993). {ISBN-13: 978-0804721042} [MD] [buy]

  3. John Perry, A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality (Hackett, 1978). {ISBN-13: 978-0915144532} [DPII] [buy]

  4. Michael Cholbi, Suicide (Broadview Press, 2011) {ISBN-13: 978-1551119052} [S] [buy]

  5. Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Illyich & Other Stories, Trans. Pevear & Volokhonsky (Vintage, 2009). {ISBN-13: 978-0307268815} [DII] (*buy this translation) [buy]

There are two optional books:

  1. Andrew Lawrence Roberts. The Thinking Student's Guide to College: 75 Tips for Getting a Better Education. University Of Chicago Press, 2010. ISBN-10: 0226721159. [buy]

  2. David Benatar, ed., Life, Death and Meaning: Key Philosophical Readings on the Big Questions (Rowman and Littlefield, 2004). {ISBN-13: 978-0742533684} [LDM] [buy]

Most of the readings will come from articles posted on Blackboard [BB].


There will be two different forms of coursework: (best 20 out of 26) daily quizzes and three take-home examinations. I will give a short quiz at the beginning of each class that will require one or two sentence answers. The quizzes are closed-book, but open-note. The bulk of your grade comes from the take-home exams. All assignments must be completed to pass the course.

Quizzes (10%) + first exam (30%) + late-term exam (30%) + final exam (30%).

I encourage students who are doing well to write a term paper in place of the final exam. If you chose this option, please let me know two weeks before Thanksgiving. I'll help you refine your topic and develop an outline. You must give me an abstract and a rough outline one month before the final exam period. I will not accept a term paper otherwise.

Attendance Policy

Although I record every class meeting, attendance is required. If you miss 6 or more classes, you will receive a 0 for your quiz grade. If you miss 12 or more classes, you will receive an F for the course. (There are no excused or unexcused absences. But please talk to me if something major comes up that dramatically effect your attendance.)

Laptop Policy

Laptop use is prohibited. The same goes for tablet computers. Consider this rehab for Facebook addiction. You should print the articles posted on Blackboard and bring them to class.

Academic Honesty

Plagiarism—claiming someone else’s ideas or written work as your own—will not be tolerated. The tests are not collaborative. All sources must be cited. Anyone caught cheating will be given a failing grade in the course. I am also required to report you to the Vice President of Academic Affairs. But I would report you even if it was optional. Plagiarism is a serious offense.

Class Schedule

(There will be a quiz every class on the required reading for that day.)

  • Week 1

    • C1 (T: 8/28) Introduction and Overview

      • Feldman, Introduction [CWR]

    • C2 (R: 8/30) Defining "death"

      • Feldman, Ch. 1, "The Search for Death Itself" [CWR]

Topic 1: The Nature of Life and Death

  • Week 2

    • C3 (T: 9/4) Defining "life"

      • Feldman, Ch. 2, "Life-Functional Theories of Life" [CWR]

    • C4 (R: 9/6) Defining "life"

      • Feldman, Ch. 3, "Vitalist Theories of Life" [CWR]

  • Week 3

    • C5 (T: 9/11) Death

      • Feldman, Ch. 4, "The Enigma of Death" [CWR]

    • C6 (R: 9/13) Dying and Being Dead

      • Feldman, Ch. 5, "On Dying as a Process" [CWR]

Topic 2: The Survival of Death

  • Week 4

    • C7 (T: 9/18) Death and Personal Identity

      • Perry, A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality, night 1 [DPII]

    • C8 (R: 9/20) Death and Personal Identity

      • Perry, A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality, night 2 [DPII]

  • Week 5

    • C9 (T: 9/25) Death and Personal Identity, cont.

      • Perry, A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality, night 3 [DPII]

      • {Optional: Williams, “The Self and the Future.” [BB]}

    • CXX (R: 9/27) *NO CLASS

      • Grau, "Love, Loss, and Identity in Solaris" [BB]

  • Week 6

    • C10 (T: 10/02) Death and Personal Identity, cont.

      • Davis, "Traditional Christian Belief in the Resurrection of the Body" [BB]

    • C11 (R: 10/04) Death and Personal Identity, cont.

      • Parfit, "Personal Identity" [BB]

Topic 3: The Harmfulness of Death

    • C12 (T: 10/09) Epicurus' Argument

      • Epicurus, "Letter to Menoeceus" [BB]

      • Feldman, CWR, Ch. 8, "Epicurus and the Evil of Death" [CWR]

    • C13 (R: 10/11) The Deprivation Account

      • Nagel, "Death" [MD]

      • {Optional: Smuts, "Less Good but not Bad" [BB]}

      • {Optional: Rosenbaum, "How to Be Dead and Not Care: A Defense of Epicurus" (MD)}

  • Week 7

    • C14 (T: 10/16) Is Death a Misfortune?

      • Draper, "Disappointment, Sadness, and Death" [BB]

      • {Optional: Feldman, CWR, Ch. 9, "More Puzzles about the Evil of Death"}

      • {Optional: Bradley, "When Is Death Bad for the One Who Dies" [BB]}

      • {Optional: Brueckner and Fischer, "Why Death Is Bad" [MD]}

      • {Optional: Parfit, excerpt from Reasons and Persons [MD]}

    • C15 (R: 10/18) Posthumous Harm

      • Luper, “Posthumous Harm” [BB]

      • {Optional: Pitcher, “The Misfortunes of the Dead” [MD]

  • Week 8

    • C16 (T: 10/23) Lucretius' Symmetry Argument

      • Lucretius, On The Nature of Things, ch.III [BB]

    • C17 (R: 10/25) Lucretius' Symmetry Argument

      • Frederik Kaufman, "Death and Deprivation; or Why Lucretius' Symmetry Argument Fails" [BB]

      • {Optional: Kamm, “Why Is Death Bad and Worse Than Pre-Natal Non-Existence?” [BB]}

      • {Optional: Feldman, “F. M. Kamm and the Mirror of Time” [BB]}

Topic 4: Immortality

  • Week 9

    • C18 (T: 10/30) The Desirability of Immortality

      • Williams, “The Makropulos Case” [MD]

    • C19 (R: 11/01) The Desirability of Immortality

      • Fisher, “Why Immorality is Not So Bad” [BB]

  • Week 10

    • CXX (T: 11/06) *NO CLASS – ELECTION DAY

    • C20 (R: 11/08) The Desirability of Immortality

      • Borges, “The Immortal” [BB]

      • {Optional: Smuts, "Immortality and Significance" [BB]}

  • Week 11

    • C21 (T: 11/13) Death and the Meaning of Life

      • Nagel, "Birth, Death, and the Meaning of Life" [BB]

Topic 5: Suicide

    • C22 (R: 11/15) Suicide

      • Cholbi, Ch.1 "The Nature of Suicide" [S]

  • Week 12

    • C23 (T: 11/20) The Nature and Morality Suicide

      • Cholbi, Ch.2 "The Moral Impermissibility of Suicide" [S]


  • Week 13

    • C24 (T: 11/27) The Morality and Rationality of Suicide

      • Cholbi, Ch.3 "The Moral Permissibility of Suicide" [S]

      • {Optional: Brandt, "The Morality and Rationality of Suicide" [LDM]}

      • {Optional: Feldman, CWR, Ch. 13, "The Morality and Rationality of Suicide"}

    • C25 (R: 11/29) The Morality of Suicide

      • Cholbi, Ch.4 "Is Suicide Ever a Duty?" [S]

Topic 6: Attitudes Toward Death

  • Week 14

    • C26 (T: 12/04) Fear of Death

      • Tolstoy, “The Death of Ivan Ilych” [BB]

      • Freud, “Our Attitude Toward Death” [BB, first page]

    • C27 (R: 12/06) Attitudes Toward Death

      • Walter Kaufmann, “Death” [BB]

      • {Optional: Walter Kaufmann, “Death Without Dread” [BB]