Philosophy of Death (Fall 2014)

Philosophy of Death

FYS 100-32 | CRN# 11632 | MR 12-1:50 | Gaige 303 | Fall 2014

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. In this course we will try to answer the question: Is death an evil? We will also examine the inverse question: Would immortality be desirable? Although it seems obvious that it would be good to live forever, philosophers have presented a few serious problems that cast doubt on the value of immortality. In addition we will ask whether it is possible to survive the death of our bodies. Independent of death's harmfulness, we will consider reasons to think that it might add meaning to our lives.


There are six required books for this course:

  1. David Benatar, ed., Life, Death and Meaning: Key Philosophical Readings on the Big Questions (Rowman and Littlefield, 2004). {ISBN-13: 978-0742533684} (*Try to buy a used version of the first edition on Amazon for cheap. If you can't find a used copy for under $25, don't buy it.)

  2. Samuel Scheffler, au., and Niko Kolodny, ed., Death and the Afterlife (Oxford, 2013). {ISBN-13: 978-0199982509}

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

  4. Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Other Stories, Trans. Pevear & Volokhonsky (Vintage, 2009). {ISBN-13: 978-0307268815} (*Make sure to buy this version only.)

  5. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Trans. Andrew George. Penguin Classics, 2003. {ISBN 0140449191}

  6. 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}

There are three recommended books:

  1. Fred Feldman, Confrontations With the Reaper: A Philosophical Study of the Nature and Value of Death (Oxford, 1992). {ISBN-13: 978-0195089288 }

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

  3. Michael Cholbi, Suicide (Broadview Press, 2011) {ISBN-13: 978-1551119052}

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


There will be two different forms of coursework: (best 20 out of 25) 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 and closed-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%).

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. (I'm not in the business of excusing absences. So I don't need a note from your doctor. But please talk to me if something major comes up that dramatically effect your attendance.)

Tardiness Policy

If you are more than 5 minutes late, I will not accept your daily quiz and you will be marked absent. Come to class on time. If you are more than 10 minutes late, you will not be admitted to class.

Leaving Early Policy

No matter the reason, if you leave early, I will not accept your daily quiz and you will be marked absent. It doesn't matter if you have a court date, a doctor's appointment, or if you have to get to work. If you leave early, you will be marked absent.

Classroom Etiquette Policy

Pay attention; don't have distracting side conversations with other students; don't read newspapers or do crossword puzzles in class; don't sleep; don't text; don't sigh loudly with displeasure. This kind of behavior is disruptive. Be civil. Be courteous. This isn't high school. If your behavior is disruptive, I will ask you to leave. If I have to ask you to leave twice, you will receive an F in the class.

Laptop Policy

Laptop use is prohibited. The same goes for tablets, smart-phones, and even dumb-phones. Consider this rehab for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and inane social media addiction. You should print the articles posted on Blackboard and bring them to class.

*Phones should be put in your bag or purse. Don't try to text under the desk. Just don't do it.

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

* The readings for each class are nested under the date. You should do the readings before class. There will be a quiz every class after the first meeting.

  • C01 (R: 9/4): Introduction

Topic I: The Badness of Death

  • C02 (M: 9/8): Getting Out of the Way

    • Readings

      • Epicurus, "Letter to Monoeceous" [BB]

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

  • C03 (R: 9/11): The Case for Materialism

    • Readings

      • Edwards, "The Case Against Reincarnation" (Immortality, Introduction, pp.14-19) [BB]

      • Lucretius, "Mortality and the Soul" (On the Nature of Things, Book III, pp.72-96) [BB]

  • C04 (M: 9/15): Mistaken Imagining, Banquets, and the Mirror of Time

    • Readings

      • Lucretius, "Mortality and the Soul," (On the Nature of Things, Book III, pp.97-105) [BB]

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

    • Further Reading

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

  • C05 (R: 9/15): The Deprivation Account

    • Readings

      • Nagel, "Death" [BB]

  • C06 (M: 9/22): On Not Winning the Lottery

    • Readings

      • Suits, "Why Death is not Bad for the One Who Dies" [LDM]

    • Further Reading

      • Smuts, "Less Good but not Bad" [BB]

      • Rosenbaum, "How to Be Dead and Not Care: A Defense of Epicurus" [MD]

  • C07 (R: 9/25): The Prayer of Bokomon

    • Readings

      • Kagan, "Living in the Face of Death" [BB] (pp.282-303)

    • Further Reading

      • Walter Kaufmann, “Death” [BB]

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

      • Nagel, "Birth, Death, and the Meaning of Life" [BB] (sec. 'Death' pp.223-231)

  • C08 (M: 9/29): The Crabs at Sam Woo's

    • Readings

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

    • Further Reading

      • Feldman, CWR, Ch. 9, "More Puzzles about the Evil of Death"

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

      • Brueckner and Fischer, "Why Death Is Bad" [MD]

      • Parfit, excerpt from Reasons and Persons [MD]

  • CXX (R: 10/2) **NO CLASS**

Topic II: Immortality

  • C09 (M: 10/6): Tiresias or Boredom

    • Readings

      • Williams, "The Makropulous Case" [LDM]

    • Further Reading

      • Steele, "Could Body-Bound Immortality be Liveable?" [BB]

  • C10 (R: 10/9): The Spice of Life

    • Readings

      • Fischer, "Why Immortality Is Not So Bad" [LDM]

    • Further Reading

      • Fischer, "Contribution on Martha Nussbaum's The Therapy of Desire" [BB]

      • Wisnewski, "Is the Immortal Life Worth Living?"

      • Burley "Immortality and Boredom: A Response to Wisnewski"

  • CXX (M: 10/13) **Class meets on Wednesday instead.**

  • C11 (W: 10/15): After Many a Summer

    • Readings

      • Overall, "From Here to Eternity" [LDM]

      • Tennyson, "Tithonus" [BB]

    • Further Reading

      • James Tiptree, "Painwise" [BB]

      • Momeyer, Confronting Death

  • C12 (R: 10/16): The Same Old Song

    • Readings

      • Temkin, "Is Living Longer Living Better?" [BB]

    • Further Reading

      • Borges, “The Immortal” [BB]

      • Smuts, "Immortality and Significance" [BB]

  • C13 (M: 10/20): New Soul's Day

    • Readings

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

    • Further Reading

      • Williams, “The Self and the Future” [BB]

  • C14 (R: 10/23): Minds and Metamorphoses

    • Readings

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

    • Further Reading

      • Van Inwagen, "The Possibility of Resurrection"

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

  • C15 (M: 10/27): Malkovich? Malkovich!

    • Readings

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

    • Further Reading

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

      • Parfit, "Personal Identity" [BB]

Topic III: The Meaning of Life

  • C16 (R: 10/30): The Fear of Death and Desire for Immortality

    • Readings

      • Epic Gilgamesh, part I - Tablets I-VI [BB]

  • C17 (M: 11/3): A Kind of Immortality

    • Readings

      • Epic of Gilgamesh, Part II - Tablets VII-XII [BB]

  • C18 (R: 11/6): Bubbles, Blips, and Moths

    • Readings

      • Taylor, "The Meaning of Life" [LDM]

  • C19 (M: 11/10): The Final Outcome Argument

    • Readings

      • Craig, "The Absurdity of Life Without God" [BB]

    • Further Reading

      • Nagel, "The Absurd" [LDM]

  • C20 (R: 11/13): Meaning Without God?

    • Readings

      • Wielenberg, "God and the Meaning of Life" [BB]

  • CXX (M: 11/17) **NO CLASS**

  • C21 (R: 11/20): How Not to Live

    • Readings

      • Tolstoy, "The Death of Ivan Ilych" [IL]

  • C22 (M: 11/24): Subjective Attraction Meets Objective Attractiveness

    • Readings

      • Wolf, "Happiness and Meaning: Two Aspects of the Good Life" [BB]

    • Further Reading

      • Smuts, "The Good Cause Account of the Meaning of Life" [BB]


Topic IV: The Death of Others

  • C23 (M:12/1): Asteroids and Infertility

    • Readings

      • Scheffler, Death and the Afterlife, Lecture 1 [DAL]

  • C24 (R: 12/4): That Others Should Live

    • Readings

      • Scheffler, Death and the Afterlife, Lecture 2 [DAL]

  • C25 (M: 12/8): Friendship and Alvy Singer

    • Readings

      • Wolf, "The Significance of Doomsday" [DAL, pp.113-129]

      • Scheffler, "Responses" [DAL, first part of the response, pp.177-190]

  • C26 (R: 12/11): When Loved Ones Die

    • Readings

      • Moller, "Love and Death" [BB]