Philosophy Death
by
Steven Luper
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0028

Introduction

This article concerns contemporary philosophical discussions of death. The philosophy of death attempts to determine what it is for people and other living things to die, how and the extent to which death and posthumous events benefit or harm those who die, and the morality of killing. The issues that arise might loosely be classified as metaphysical, prudential, and moral. The metaphysical issues concern what death is, and, by extension, what it is to be alive, what you and I are, and what the persistence conditions of living creatures are. (The former issues are covered under the Nature of Death, while the latter are covered under Life and Persistence over Time.) The prudential issues concern how and the extent to which death, posthumous events, and coming to be affect the welfare of those who die (covered under Mortal Harm and Posthumous Harm), and the time when those effects are incurred (covered under the Timing Issue). Finally, the moral issues concern how the prudential significance of death and posthumous events bear on the moral permissibility of killing. When killing is wrong, it is wrong primarily (even if not exclusively) because death harms its victims or because death is imposed on its victims without their consent, which is inconsistent with the respect they are due. Philosophers of death attempt to work out whether and how the harmfulness of dying and consent to being killed bear on the wrongness of killing. (These moral issues are covered under Killing.)

General Overviews

Rosenberg 1983 is a clear and valuable (if now slightly dated) discussion of the full range of issues in the philosophy of death. McMahan 2002 argues that you and I are minds; the author develops and expands upon the view of welfare offered in Parfit 1984 (cited under Life and Persistence over Time), and he applies these views to the ethics of killing. Among his conclusions is the claim that people die just when their brains irreversibly lose the capacity for consciousness. Belshaw 2009 and Luper 2009a cover much of the same territory as McMahan 2002 but take different approaches to welfare and the harmfulness and wrongness of killing. Belshaw defends the closest continuer view of personal identity developed by Nozick (Nozick 1981). He defines death as the irreversible breakdown of an organism as a whole and argues that fetuses and nonhuman animals are not harmed by death because they lack categorical desires. Luper 2009b argues that death may be bad for its victims (since it can make their lives as wholes worse than they otherwise would have been), even if it never leaves them worse off. The author also develops a version of preferentialism, the idea that having unfulfilled desires is bad for us, and priorism, the view that death and posthumous events may harm their victims retroactively. Feldman 1992 considers several possible accounts of life and death before concluding that they are indefinable. Feldman sets out a hedonist account of welfare and argues that death may harm its victims by depriving them of pleasure. Bradley 2009 discusses the prudential significance of death. The author expands upon Feldman’s approach, considering hedonism and the idea that death harms those whom it deprives of pleasure. Following Feit 2002 (cited under the Timing Issue), Bradley also develops subsequentism, the view that death may harm its victims after they have died.

  • Belshaw, Christopher. Annihilation: The Sense and Significance of Death. Stockfield, UK: Acumen, 2009.

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    Good discussion of many of the relevant issues. Interestingly, Belshaw defends Nozick’s closest continuer theory of personal identity.

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    • Bradley, Ben. Well-Being and Death. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

      DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199557967.001.1E-mail Citation »

      Expands upon Bradley 2004 (cited under the Timing Issue), which, like Feit 2002 (also cited under the Timing Issue), is a defense of the view that death is bad for its victims posthumously.

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      • Feldman, Fred. Confrontations with the Reaper: A Philosophical Study of the Nature and Value of Death. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

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        A clear and influential discussion of death and its harmfulness to those who die. Feldman argues that death is bad for those whom it deprives of pleasure, and that, since life cannot be defined, death is indefinable.

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        • Johansson, Jens. Mortal Beings: On the Metaphysics and Value of Death. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 2005.

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          A useful discussion of the nature and value of death. Defends animalism (the view that we are animals) and the view that it is bad for us that we did not exist before we were born.

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          • Luper, Steven. “Death.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2009a.

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            A brief overview of the contemporary discussion of the nature and significance of death.

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            • Luper, Steven. The Philosophy of Death. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009b.

              DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511627231E-mail Citation »

              Offers an account of life and death; argues that death is harmful to those who die both prior to its occurrence as well as timelessly and defends an account of why killing is directly wrong—wrong in view of its impact on its victims.

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              • McMahan, Jeff. The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

                DOI: 10.1093/0195079981.001.0001E-mail Citation »

                Suggests that reasonable egoistic concern for the future can be detached from the assumption that we will remain in existence, offers an account of what we are and when we die, and explores its implications concerning the morality of killing.

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                • Nozick, Robert. Philosophical Explanations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

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                  In this book Nozick makes many contributions, among them his closest continuer theory of personal identity.

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                  • Rosenberg, Jay F. Thinking Clearly about Death. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1983.

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                    Rosenberg discusses, clearly and concisely, the nature and significance of death, and he addresses related moral issues, such as the permissibility of suicide.

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                    Anthologies

                    Many collections of essays treat the morality of killing in general, as well as abortion, euthanasia, and suicide in particular. These are not reviewed here. Collections of essays on the nature and prudential significance of death include two that bring together previously published essays and three that consist of previously unpublished work. Of the former, two are recommended. The better of these is Fischer 1993. Those who are new to the study of the philosophy of death will find this collection of pivotal essays to be indispensable. The second collection is Benatar 2004, which includes some of the selections in Fischer 1993 but which also has several essays on the meaning of life. Benatar 2004 will appeal to undergraduate students. Readers looking for philosophical discussions of the possibility of life after death can consult Donnelly 1978. Collections of new essays are found in Bradley, et al. 2013; Taylor 2013; and Luper 2014.

                    • Benatar, David, ed. Life, Death, & Meaning: Key Philosophical Readings on the Big Questions. 2d ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.

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                      Covers several topics in the philosophy of death: death, suicide, and immortality. Also covers related topics, such as the value of creating people, the meaning of life, and “optimism and pessimism.”

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                      • Bradley, Ben, Fred Feldman, and James Johansson, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Death. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

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                        Excellent collection of previously unpublished essays covering the spectrum of issues in the philosophy of death, including ethical issues.

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                        • Donnelly, John. Language, Metaphysics, and Death. New York: Fordham University Press, 1978.

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                          This collection is rather dated, but it has useful material on the nature of the self (or soul), the possibility of immortality, and the role death plays in existentialist thought.

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                          • Fischer, John M., ed. The Metaphysics of Death. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993.

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                            An excellent collection of highly influential essays concerning the nature of death and its significance. Among these is Nagel’s “Death” (Nagel 1970, cited under Mortal Harm), to which a great many later essays refer.

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                            • Luper, Steven, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Life and Death. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

                              DOI: 10.1017/CCO9781139149129E-mail Citation »

                              An excellent collection of accessible, previously unpublished essays covering the spectrum of issues in the philosophy of death, including ethical issues.

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                              • Taylor, James S., ed. The Metaphysics and Ethics of Death: New Essays. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

                                DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199751136.001.0001E-mail Citation »

                                An excellent collection of previously unpublished essays discussing the prudential significance of death and posthumous events and the bioethical implications of death.

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                                Background to the Contemporary Debate

                                Different sources contribute to the background of the contemporary discussion of death. References to three types of materials are cited here. First are key works by historical figures: Epicurus (Epicurus 1966), Lucretius (Lucretius 1951), Aquinas (Aquinas 1925), Hume (Hume 1826), and Kant (Kant 2001). Second are materials that help clarify how death is understood legally; one of these is President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research 1981, a study that helped shape the understanding of death in current law in the United States, and the other is Pallis 1983, an essay explaining how death is understood in the United Kingdom. Finally, Maltsberger and Goldblatt 1996 is a collection of key psychological studies that may bear on the rationality of suicide.

                                • Aquinas, Thomas. “Whether It Is Lawful to Kill Oneself?” In The “Summa theologica” of St. Thomas Aquinas: Index to Biblical, Patristic and Other Authorities Quoted in the “Summa theologica.” By Thomas Aquinas, 1462–1464. London: Burns Oates and Washbourne, 1925.

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                                  Says that suicide is wrong principally because God forbids killing and because we are obligated to serve society. See Part 2, Question 64, A5. A great many of the theorists who condemn suicide do so on similar grounds.

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                                  • Epicurus. “Principal Doctrines and Letter to Menoeceus.” In Greek and Roman Philosophy after Aristotle. Edited by Jason L. Saunders, 49–58. New York: Free Press, 1966.

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                                    Epicurus is the chief proponent of the view that death is never bad for those who die. He defends this view on the grounds that death does not cause people to suffer; rather, people are harmed only by what causes them suffering.

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                                    • Hume, David. “On Suicide.” In The Philosophical Works of David Hume. Vol. 4. By David Hume, 556–567. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1826.

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                                      Partially reprinted in Benatar 2004 (cited under Anthologies). Classic defense of the moral permissibility of suicide. Argues against many familiar criticisms of suicide, such as those offered by Aquinas.

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                                      • Kant, Immanuel. Lectures in Ethics. Edited and translated by Peter Heath. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

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                                        In “Duties towards the Body in Regard to Life” and “Suicide,” Kant argues that suicide is wrong because those who kill themselves use themselves as mere means (to their own happiness—or to the avoidance of unhappiness). Kant also hints that people have value as subjects that trumps the value of their welfare, so suicide is wrong even if beneficial.

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                                        • Lucretius. On the Nature of the Universe. Translated by Ronald E. Latham. New York: Penguin Classics, 1951.

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                                          A follower of Epicurus, Lucretius repeats many of Epicurus’s arguments against the harmfulness of death but adds the symmetry argument: roughly, death is not bad for us since it amounts to nonexistence, and nonexistence was not bad for us before we came to be.

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                                          • Maltsberger, John, and Mark Goldblatt, eds. Essential Papers on Suicide. New York: New York University Press, 1996.

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                                            Psychologists tend to assume that suicide is the product of mental illnesses; they ask what causes people to take their lives and what treatment will prevent it. This is a collection of pivotal essays about suicide in the psychological literature.

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                                            • Pallis, Christopher. “ABC of Brain Stem Death.” British Medical Journal 285 (1983): 1487–1490.

                                              DOI: 10.1136/bmj.285.6353.1487E-mail Citation »

                                              A defense of the brain stem death criterion of death by one of its chief proponents. In the United Kingdom and many other countries, authorities accept the brain stem criterion, according to which an individual is dead just when that individual’s brain stem is dead.

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                                              • President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research. Defining Death: Medical, Legal, and Ethical Issues in the Determination of Death. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1981.

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                                                A report by the committee that shaped current policy in the United States concerning death. According to the commission, “an individual who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all function of the entire brain, including the brain stem, is dead.” Available online.

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                                                Life and Persistence over Time

                                                It seems reasonable to say both that a creature dies just when its life ceases and that it dies just when it ceases to exist. However, these views may conflict and both face objections. To understand death, then, we must grasp how it is related to life and to the persistence over time of living beings in general and people in particular. Here the philosophy of death intersects with the theory of personal identity and the theory of life. For help with the latter, it is natural to turn to biology; however, biologists tend to offer explanations of the origin of life without saying what living things are or what it means to be alive. Some works, such as that by N. W. Pirie, claim that life is indefinable (Pirie 1937). Nor have philosophers reached agreement about what it is to be alive. According to Aristotle, something has the property alive just if it has any of the typical capacities of living things; according to him, these were nutrition, appetite or desire, growth, reproduction, perception, motion, and thought (De Anima 2, 413a22–5). However, nonliving devices, actual or possible, can do many of these things. Vitalists, such as Henri Bergson, claim that life is some sort of mysterious stuff or force and that living beings are alive because they contain some form of this inscrutable force (Bergson 1998). But for a good while, vitalism was dismissed on the grounds that it lacks any explanatory value. In recent years philosophers have tended to analyze the property alive in terms of a creature’s capacity for self-maintenance. However, this idea obviously needs refinement, as nonliving mechanisms are found that can engage in forms of self-maintenance such as self-repair, and there is disagreement about what that refinement should be. Van Inwagen 1990 defines organisms in terms of lives, rather than the other way around. As for theories of the persistence of people, these fall into two main groups, depending upon whether it is assumed that we are animals or some sort of thing that has psychological persistence conditions. Olson 2007 defends animalism. Parfit 1984 is authored by the leading proponent of the view that we are creatures with psychological persistence conditions. Baker 2000 suggests that, while we have psychological persistence conditions, and not the persistence conditions of animals, we are nonetheless constituted by the organisms we call our bodies. Lewis 1976 suggests that if a human being were ever to divide somewhat as an amoeba does, then that human being was, all along, two persons. Johnston 2011 suggests that our persistence conditions are in part determined by our own attitudes, making it possible to survive death.

                                                • Baker, Lynne Rudder. Persons and Bodies: A Constitution View. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

                                                  DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139173124E-mail Citation »

                                                  Argues that although we are creatures with psychological persistence conditions, and not organisms, an organism (that was once a fetus) nevertheless constitutes us when it develops the requisite psychological attributes. Similarly, a statue is not one and the same as a bit of bronze, but the latter constitutes the former.

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                                                  • Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution. Translated by Arthur Mitchell. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1998.

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                                                    One of the best known (yet still otiose) attempts to explain what life is in terms of some sort of force or impulse, which Bergson calls élan vital. Originally published in 1911.

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                                                    • Johnston, Mark. Surviving Death. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.

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                                                      Defends the view that our persistence conditions are “Protean,” in that they are determined in part by our own attitudes, making it possible to survive death.

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                                                      • Lewis, David. “Survival and Identity.” In The Identities of Persons. Edited by Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, 17–40. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

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                                                        Defends an important way of understanding what happens to the identity of a person who splits like an amoeba. Call the person who splits Origin, and the persons who result from Origin’s division Lefty and Righty; according to Lewis, Origin survives as Lefty and also as Righty, yet Lefty and Righty are different persons.

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                                                        • Olson, Eric T. What Are We? A Study in Personal Ontology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

                                                          DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195176421.001.0001E-mail Citation »

                                                          Here Olson, a leading proponent of animalism, expands upon his earlier work and critically discusses several possible views of what we are. In the last chapter he sets out objections to animalism itself.

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                                                          • Parfit, Derek. Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

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                                                            What is prudentially important in survival over time is psychological continuity with a future self. This we could have even if we split like an amoeba, so identity is not what matters in survival. Parfit also argues that it is prudentially important to further the interests we now have, not to make our life as a whole better.

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                                                            • Pirie, N. W. “The Meaninglessness of the Terms Life and Living.” In Perspectives in Biochemistry. Edited by Joseph Needham and David E. Green, 11–22. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1937.

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                                                              Here Pirie, a biochemist, offers an influential defense of the claim that life cannot be defined, as the capacities associated with being alive are also possessed by things that are not alive.

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                                                              • van Inwagen, Peter. Material Beings. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.

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                                                                Van Inwagen takes a life to be a certain sort of event, which he clarifies by example, and he says that an organism is anything whose activities constitute a life. On this view it immediately follows that organisms cease to exist when they cease to live.

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                                                                • Weber, Bruce. “Life.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2008.

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                                                                  A good overview of the literature devoted to the attempt to define life.

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                                                                  The Nature of Death

                                                                  A definition of death tells us what death is: the conditions such that, necessarily, death has occurred if and only if these conditions are met. Some theorists define an individual’s death in terms of the loss of that individual’s life. Others define it in terms of the end of that individual’s existence. Examples of the former include Rosenberg 1983, which states that “an organism dies when it loses its power to preserve and sustain its self-organizing organization permanently and irreversibly,” and Bernat (1981), which defends a closely related view: death occurs just when the integrative functioning of an organism as a whole irreversibly ceases. Theorists who define death as the end of one’s existence tend to understand death differently depending on what those theorists think that we are. Theorists who believe that we are organisms will say that death occurs just when an organism ceases to exist. Theorists who think that we are minds or creatures with psychological persistence conditions tend to say that death occurs just when these entities cease to exist. For example, McMahan 2002 states that, since we are minds rather than organisms, you and I will die just when our brains irreversibly lose the capacity for consciousness. Lizza 2006 argues that death is the loss of an essential property. Many theorists question the proposition that the cessation of one’s existence must coincide with the cessation of one’s life. Rosenberg 1983 argues that some creatures cease to exist without dying; for example, when amoebas divide, they cease to exist, but no death occurs. Some theorists, including Fred Feldman (see Feldman 1992, cited under General Overviews) and David Mackie, even claim that we can survive death as corpses (Mackie 1999). Even with a definition of death firmly established, it may be difficult in practice to establish that death has occurred. For the latter, a criterion for death is needed, which would specify a set of conditions with two features: first, all and only those who are actually dead meet the conditions, and second, there are tests that physicians may perform to determine whether the conditions hold. In recent years the brain death criterion has been adopted in the United States. It says that we die when our brains as wholes irreversibly cease to function. Many other countries, including the United Kingdom, have adopted the brain stem criterion, according to which the demise of the brain stem marks death. Both criteria have been questioned. Critics say that some dead human beings do not meet the criteria. Other critics, such as D. A. Shewmon, say that some live human beings meet the criteria (Shewmon 2001). If we are animals, it is tempting to say that we can survive brain death since the rest of us can be kept alive using life-support machines. If we are minds or some sort of creature marked by psychological attributes, it is tempting to say that we can cease to exist even though our brains live on. Finally, some critics, such as Robert M. Veatch, suggest that in defining death we ought to be influenced by our views as to the appropriate timing of actions, such as the retrieval of organs, that typically are taken only after death has occurred (Veatch 1975).

                                                                  • Bernat, James, C. M. Culver, and B. Gert. “On the Definition and Criterion of Death.” Annals of Internal Medicine 94 (1981): 389–394.

                                                                    DOI: 10.1001/archinte.94.3.389E-mail Citation »

                                                                    Defends the current brain death criterion of death. Influenced current legislation in the United States.

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                                                                    • Lizza, John P. Persons, Humanity, and the Definition of Death. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

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                                                                      Defines death as the loss of an essential attribute.

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                                                                      • Mackie, David. “Personal Identity and Dead People.” Philosophical Studies 95 (1999): 219–242.

                                                                        DOI: 10.1023/A:1004239225105E-mail Citation »

                                                                        Argues for an animalist account of our persistence conditions, and suggests that, like other animals, we can persist as corpses.

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                                                                        • McMahan, Jeff. The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

                                                                          DOI: 10.1093/0195079981.001.0001E-mail Citation »

                                                                          Argues that, since people are minds, death occurs just when their brains undergo irreversible loss of consciousness.

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                                                                          • Rosenberg, Jay F. Thinking Clearly about Death. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1983.

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                                                                            Rosenberg analyzes death as an organism’s irreversible loss of the capacity to sustain the structure by which it organizes itself. He suggests that ceasing to exist does not entail death, as an amoeba ceases to exist but does not die upon dividing.

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                                                                            • Shewmon, D. Alan. “The Brain and Somatic Integration: Insights into the Standard Biological Rationale for Equating ‘Brain Death’ with Death.” Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 26 (2001): 457–478.

                                                                              DOI: 10.1076/jmep.26.5.457.3000E-mail Citation »

                                                                              Argues against the brain death criterion on the grounds that death occurs when an organism as a whole irreversibly ceases to function yet a great deal of functioning can persist after brain death.

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                                                                              • Veatch, Robert M. “The Whole-Brain-Oriented Concept of Death: An Outmoded Philosophical Formulation.” Journal of Thanatology 3 (1975): 13–30.

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                                                                                Veatch notes that the moral permissibility of various actions, such as organ retrieval, hinge on a determination of when death has occurred. He argues that the appropriate timing of these actions should be a determining factor in defining death.

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                                                                                • Youngner, Stuart J., Robert M. Arnold, and Renie Shapiro, eds. The Definition of Death: Contemporary Controversies. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

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                                                                                  A useful collection of essays about the definition of death and about the criteria by which it may be detected.

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                                                                                  Mortal Harm

                                                                                  Theorists such as Stephen Rosenbaum, who consider death to be harmless (Rosenbaum 1986), tend to assume two things: that only experiences of some sort are intrinsically good or bad for us (for example, pleasure is the sole intrinsic good, while pain is the sole evil), and that we are benefited or harmed only by events that cause us to have these experiences (such events being extrinsically good or bad for us) or by the experiences themselves (which are intrinsically good or bad for us). Assuming that death eliminates the capacity to experience anything, it neither benefits nor harms us. This view was challenged by Thomas Nagel, who denied both assumptions, saying that some goods and evils are never experienced, and events can harm us by depriving us of goods or benefit us by depriving us of pain (Nagel 1970). Borrowing Nagel’s idea of a deprivation harm or benefit, theorists such as Fred Feldman who think that death may harm its victims usually accept comparativism, the view that an event is overall bad (good) for us just when, and to the extent that, it makes our life worse (better) than it otherwise would have been (Feldman 1991). In turn, how well off we are—our welfare level—is determined by the sum of our intrinsic goods (which boost our welfare level) and our intrinsic evils (which lower it). But difficulties remain, one of which is that comparativism seems open to criticism. For example, Draper 1999 notes that it is difficult for comparativists to avoid the conclusion that not finding a magic lamp harms us. Another difficulty is the task of working out an account of welfare that is congenial to comparativism. Hence, the philosophy of death intersects with the theory of welfare (or well-being). Following Parfit 1984 (cited under Life and Persistence over Time) we might say that there are three sorts of accounts of welfare: hedonist accounts, which analyze welfare in terms of pleasure; desire-satisfactionist (preferentialist) accounts, which analyze welfare in terms of the fulfillment of desire; and objective list accounts, which analyze welfare in terms of a list of objective goods. Any of these views can be used in combination with comparativism to support the possibility that death may harm or benefit those it annihilates. Even if we can work out how and to what extent our welfare is affected by death, related issues remain. One is how our coming into existence affects our welfare. A problem confronting theorists who address this issue, such as David Benatar (Benatar 2006), is that those who never exist also never have any welfare level. A second issue was posed in the ancient world by Lucretius: we appear to have asymmetrical attitudes concerning our prenatal nonexistence on the one hand and our posthumous nonexistence on the other (Lucretius 1951, cited under Background to the Contemporary Debate). Few people wish that their existence began earlier than it did; are such people guilty of some sort of rational inconsistency if they wish that their existence would end later than it will? Parfit 1984 and Fischer 2009 offer useful discussions of the rationality of our asymmetrical attitudes. A third issue is this: would immortality be in our interests? As Williams 1973 suggests, even if death comes too soon for most of us, we might well have reason to welcome our mortality.

                                                                                  • Benatar, David. Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

                                                                                    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199296422.001.0001E-mail Citation »

                                                                                    Argues that coming into existence can harm us, but ceasing to exist cannot. Concludes that no one should be brought into existence.

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                                                                                    • Draper, Kai. “Disappointment, Sadness, and Death.” Philosophical Review 108 (1999): 387–414.

                                                                                      DOI: 10.2307/2998466E-mail Citation »

                                                                                      Criticizes the comparativist view that events are bad for us insofar as they make our lives worse than they would be if the events had not occurred. Not finding a magic lamp is no misfortune, but it makes our lives worse than they would be if we had found a lamp.

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                                                                                      • Feldman, Fred. “Some Puzzles about the Evil of Death.” Philosophical Review 100.2 (1991): 205–227.

                                                                                        DOI: 10.2307/2185300E-mail Citation »

                                                                                        Elaborates upon Nagel’s suggestion that death is bad for us because it deprives us of good life. Since he means to refute Epicurus, Feldman here assumes that hedonism is correct. Feldman elaborates upon this essay in Feldman 1992 (cited under General Overviews). Reprinted in Fischer 1993, pp. 307–326, and in Benatar 2004, pp. 223–243 (both cited under Anthologies).

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                                                                                        • Fischer, John Martin. Our Stories: Essays on Life, Death, and Free Will. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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                                                                                          A collection of essays by Fischer on death, the meaning of life, and free will. Fischer argues (contrary to Epicurus) that death may be bad for those who die even if it is an experiential blank. He responds to Lucretius’s symmetry argument, and he rebuts Williams’s claim that immortality cannot be desirable (Williams 1973).

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                                                                                          • Nagel, Thomas. “Death.” Noûs 4.1 (1970): 73–80.

                                                                                            DOI: 10.2307/2214297E-mail Citation »

                                                                                            Nagel’s seminal essay may be the most-cited contemporary contribution to the philosophy of death. Nagel argues that death is bad for its victims because it deprives them of good life. Rebutting Lucretius’s symmetry argument, Nagel says that we could not have been born earlier than we were, but we could have died later. Reprinted in Nagel’s Mortal Questions. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1979) and in Fischer 1993 (cited under Anthologies), pp. 59–70.

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                                                                                            • Rosenbaum, Stephen E. “How to Be Dead and Not Care: A Defense of Epicurus.” American Philosophical Quarterly 23.2 (1986): 217–225.

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                                                                                              To defend Epicurus’s view that death is harmless, Rosenbaum appeals to the principle that only those things that can be experienced can harm us. Rosenbaum defends his principle against Nagel, saying Nagel gave examples of harms we do not experience, not harms we cannot experience. Reprinted in Fischer 1993, pp. 119–134, and in Benatar 2004, pp. 175–191 (both cited under Anthologies).

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                                                                                              • Velleman, David. “Well-Being and Time.” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 72 (1991): 48–77.

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                                                                                                Suggests that our overall welfare (how good our lives are as a whole) is determined by the narrative unity of our lives, while how well off we are at a particular time is determined by what our experiences are like at that time; reprinted in Fischer 1993 (cited under Anthologies), pp. 329–357.

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                                                                                                • Williams, Bernard. “The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality.” In Problems of the Self. By Bernard Williams, 82–100. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

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                                                                                                  Suggests that through our categorical (unconditional) desires we are attached to projects or relationships that are definitive of the self. Also, living on is worthwhile only while we are propelled into the future by our categorical desires. If we live long enough, we will cease to have categorical desires; hence, immortality is undesirable. Reprinted in Benatar 2004 (cited under Anthologies), pp. 345–363.

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                                                                                                  Posthumous Harm

                                                                                                  That death may harm those who die is less controversial than the suggestion that a posthumous event might harm them. Some theorists, such as Joan Callahan, think that death may harm us; but since it annihilates us, it leaves us immune to being harmed by posthumous events (Callahan 1987). Even comparativists can deny that posthumous events ever harm a person who has died. They have only to adopt hedonism, for nothing that happens after we have died can possibly cause us to have more or less pleasure or pain than we otherwise would have had. However, accounts of welfare other than hedonism may leave open the possibility of harmful posthumous events. Here are two examples: According to achievementism (Keller 2004, Portmore 2007), achieving things is intrinsically good for us, and failing is intrinsically bad. On this view, perhaps posthumous events may benefit or harm us by affecting whether we succeed with our projects. A second example: according to preferentialism, it is intrinsically good for us to fulfill our desires, and it is intrinsically bad for us that our desires (or perhaps some subset of these) go unfulfilled. Now, death itself ensures that most of our final desires will be unfulfilled, but there may well be exceptions, such as the desire for a good posthumous reputation or the desire that our book be published. Posthumous events might thwart such desires and therefore be bad for people while they are alive, still desiring what they do. Nevertheless, this way of thinking about harmful posthumous events faces objections. One of these is that it is not clear when we incur harm for which a thwarted desire is responsible. Suppose I desire to win a prize next week, and later you rig the contest, ensuring I will lose. Your action makes it the case that I do not get what I want. But when is it that I incur harm? When “I will win next week” is false, as Pitcher 1984 says? Or when you make “I will win next week” false? If the latter, it appears to follow that posthumous events cannot harm us. By the time they make it the case that I do not get what I want, I am long gone. Another worry is the charge that (not) fulfilling past desires (desires I no longer have) does not affect my interests. Given this charge, as Vorobej 1998 suggests, it does not matter whether my desires are (not) fulfilled posthumously, as then they are past desires. As Luper 2004 suggests, this charge may be rebutted if we appeal to priorism. However, Bernstein 1998 challenges priorism, as well as the possibility that posthumous events harm us, on the grounds that posthumous events cannot affect our intrinsic properties.

                                                                                                  • Bernstein, Mark H. On Moral Considerability: An Essay on Who Morally Matters. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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                                                                                                    Rejects the possibility that posthumous events may benefit or harm us on the grounds that harm and benefit entail changes in our intrinsic properties, and posthumous events cannot produce such changes. Goes on to reject preferentialism since it supports the possibility of posthumous harm. Defends an account of moral considerability.

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                                                                                                    • Callahan, Joan. “On Harming the Dead.” Ethics 97 (1987): 341–352.

                                                                                                      DOI: 10.1086/292842E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                      Critical of the possibility that the dead can be harmed. Suggests that posthumous events cannot harm us until they occur, and by then we are beyond harm.

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                                                                                                      • Keller, Simon. “Welfare and the Achievement of Goals.” Philosophical Studies 121.1 (2004): 27–41.

                                                                                                        DOI: 10.1023/B:PHIL.0000040377.50002.88E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                        Keller argues that achieving goals is intrinsically good for us. This view may support the claim that posthumous events can be extrinsically good or bad for us, as they can affect whether we accomplish what we set out to achieve.

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                                                                                                        • Luper, Steven. “Posthumous Harm.” American Philosophical Quarterly 41 (2004): 63–72.

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                                                                                                          Responds to Vorobej 1998 by noting that future events can affect our welfare now by making it the case that what we want to hold true does hold true. Hence, even if fulfilling past desires does not affect our welfare now, it may well affect our welfare in the past.

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                                                                                                          • Pitcher, George. “The Misfortunes of the Dead.” American Philosophical Quarterly 21.2 (1984): 183–188.

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                                                                                                            Defends the priorist view that posthumous events can harm their victims prior to their occurrence. Posthumous events may harm us by bringing it about that something we desire fails to hold. Reprinted in Fischer 1993 (cited under Anthologies), pp. 119–134.

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                                                                                                            • Portmore, Douglas W. “Desire Fulfillment and Posthumous Harm.” American Philosophical Quarterly 44 (2007): 27–38.

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                                                                                                              Argues that achievements, including ones produced by posthumous events, may benefit us by redeeming past sacrifices, or harm us by rendering sacrifices pointless. Portmore also criticizes preferentialism, arguing that things that are good for us are not good for us because we desire them, but because they are objectively good for us.

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                                                                                                              • Vorobej, Mark. “Past Desires.” Philosophical Studies 90.3 (1998): 305–318.

                                                                                                                DOI: 10.1023/A:1004264421281E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                Argues that death is not harmful since the only desires it thwarts are past desires, and we lack reason to fulfill our past desires.

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                                                                                                                The Timing Issue

                                                                                                                One thorny issue that the philosophy of death addresses is this: assuming that death or posthumous events may harm or benefit us, at what time, if any, do we incur the benefit or harm? Here the philosophy of death overlaps with the theory of time. On one view of time, sometimes called presentism, only what presently exists is real. Presentism is consistent with concurrentism, the view that death can affect us at the very moment it occurs, but presentism may imply that death cannot affect us at any other time and that posthumous events cannot harm us at all. Another view of time, which Silverstein 1980 calls “four-dimensionalism,” says that past, present, and future events are ontologically on a par even though they exist at different temporal locations, much as different objects may have different spatial locations. Some theorists, including Theodore Sider, would call this view “eternalism,” and reserve the term “four-dimensionalism” for a different idea, namely, the position that objects have temporal parts—that is, objects “perdure” (Sider 2001). The view that Sider calls “eternalism” is congenial to several possibilities about the timing of mortal harm, and several possibilities have been defended. Lamont 1998 defends concurrentism. Some works, such as Feit 2002 and Bradley 2004, say that mortal harm is incurred after death occurs (subsequentism); some, including Pitcher 1984 and Luper 2007, that mortal harm may be incurred before death occurs (priorism); some that the time it is incurred is indeterminate; and some that death harms its victims in a timeless way. Similar questions arise about the time we incur harm for which posthumous events are responsible.

                                                                                                                • Bradley, Ben. “When Is Death Bad for the One Who Dies?” Noûs 38.1 (2004): 1–28.

                                                                                                                  DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0068.2004.00460.xE-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                  Elaborates upon Feit’s defense of subsequentism, the view that death harms its victims after it occurs. Suggests that our posthumous welfare level is zero; if we would have had a positive welfare level at time T had we not died, then dying is bad for us at T.

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                                                                                                                  • Feit, Neil. “The Time of Death’s Misfortune.” Noûs 36.3 (2002): 359–383.

                                                                                                                    DOI: 10.1111/1468-0068.00376E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                    Defends subsequentism, refining Feldman 1991 (cited under Mortal Harm). According to Feit, “when death is bad for the person who dies, it is bad for her at all and only those times during which she would have been alive, had she not then died.”

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                                                                                                                    • Lamont, Julian. “A Solution to the Puzzle of When Death Harms Its Victims.” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 76.2 (1998): 198–212.

                                                                                                                      DOI: 10.1080/00048409812348351E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                      Defends concurrentism, the view that we incur mortal harm at the time we die, on the grounds that an event harms us at the time it ensures that we will not retain or attain some good otherwise available. Criticizes priorism on the grounds that it presupposes determinism.

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                                                                                                                      • Luper, Steven. “Mortal Harm.” Philosophical Quarterly 57 (2007): 239–251.

                                                                                                                        DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9213.2007.482.xE-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                        Argues against subsequentism on the grounds that dead people, like rocks and the number two, cannot have a welfare level. Defends priorism.

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                                                                                                                        • Pitcher, George. “The Misfortunes of the Dead.” American Philosophical Quarterly 21.2 (1984): 183–188.

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                                                                                                                          Defends the priorist view that death can harm us prior to its occurrence. Death and posthumous events can harm us while we are alive by making things true that negatively affect our interests; we are harmed during such time as our well-being is lower than it otherwise would have been. Reprinted in Fischer 1993 (cited under Anthologies), pp. 119–134.

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                                                                                                                          • Sider, Theodore. Four-Dimensionalism: An Ontology of Persistence and Time. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

                                                                                                                            DOI: 10.1093/019924443X.001.0001E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                            Defends four-dimensionalism, the view that objects are spread out over time; at the different times they exist, they have different temporal parts. Also defends eternalism against presentism.

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                                                                                                                            • Silverstein, Harry S. “The Evil of Death.” Journal of Philosophy 77.7 (1980): 401–424.

                                                                                                                              DOI: 10.2307/2025537E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                              Suggests that we can make sense of the harmfulness of death if we adopt four-dimensionalism as our theory of time. (The view Silverstein calls “four-dimensionalism” others call “eternalism.”) Given four-dimensionalism, we who are alive and exist are related to an event that also exists (timelessly) and that harms us, namely our deaths. Reprinted in Fischer 1993 (cited under Anthologies), pp. 95–116.

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                                                                                                                              Killing

                                                                                                                              Even if killing a subject is prima facie wrong (or right), it might be permissible (or impermissible) due to overridingly important considerations. And when killing is prima facie wrong, presumably the main reason is that it has some sort of objectionable effect on the individual who is killed. But precisely what is the objectionable effect? Both of the following have seemed salient to theorists: first, as Kantians emphasize, killing people is inconsistent with respect for its victims; second, as utilitarians emphasize, killing harms its victims. Theorists who say that killing animals is prima facie objectionable, and who think that suicide, euthanasia, and abortion can be permissible (for example, Rachels 1986 and, perhaps, Marquis 1989), tend to emphasize the latter since, on prominent views of harm, being killed may not be against the interests of those who die, and might instead benefit them. Theorists who are not opposed to killing animals or fetuses but who object to killing other human beings (for example, Velleman 1999) tend to emphasize the former. However, it seems impossible to explain the wrongness of killing entirely in terms of only one of these factors. Consider the importance of showing an individual respect: are only human beings due respect, and not nonhuman beings? If so, presumably this is not simply because of species membership; that position is chauvinistic (Singer 1993). And as for human beings, are all of them, including fetuses and the persistently vegetative, due the same respect? If so, what makes them worthy? If we cite moral agency, the capacity for self-determination, or the capacity for self-awareness, we may be able to exclude all nonhuman beings. However, some human beings, such as fetuses, infants, children, and the persistently vegetative, lack self-awareness and are not moral agents. Do we want to say that none of these is worthy of respect and that killing them is permissible? Suppose, on the other hand, that we appeal to the fact that killing harms its victims. Not all killings are equally harmful; should we say that some killings are more wrong (since more harmful) than others? Shall we say that all killings that benefit their victims are permissible? This position will be rejected by the many people who think that killing any human being is as prima facie wrong as killing any other. But even theorists who reject this equality principle might object to killing people without their permission, even if killing them benefits them. Such theorists presumably will appeal to the importance of respect for self-determining beings. Their view is consistent with Quinn’s position in Quinn 1984, which is roughly that killing competent, self-aware beings is wrong insofar as they do not consent to being killed, and killing the incompetent is wrong insofar as it harms them. On this view, killing any competent, self-determining being is as wrong as killing any other, and permissible upon request, but the wrongness of killing the incompetent varies depending on whether and the extent to which it harms them. This view is compatible with the position that killing animals (which are not competent, self-determining beings) is not objectionable, as it fails to harm them, as the author of Cigman 1981, among others, has argued.

                                                                                                                              • Cigman, Ruth. “Death, Misfortune, and Species Inequality.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 10.1 (1981): 47–64.

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                                                                                                                                Argues that death is bad for people since it thwarts their categorical (unconditional) desires but not for animals, as they lack categorical desires; concludes that killing animals is not objectionable.

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                                                                                                                                • Marquis, Don. “Why Abortion Is Immoral.” Journal of Philosophy 86.4 (1989): 183–203.

                                                                                                                                  DOI: 10.2307/2026961E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                  Argues that killing one of us is wrong if it deprives us of good life, so it is seriously wrong to abort fetuses that otherwise would have good life.

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                                                                                                                                  • McMahan, Jeff. The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

                                                                                                                                    DOI: 10.1093/0195079981.001.0001E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                    Adopts and develops Quinn’s view that the competent are due respect and the incompetent ought not to be harmed. Argues that death does very little harm to fetuses and nonhuman animals because the “prudential unity relations” that bind them to their futures are weak.

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                                                                                                                                    • Quinn, Warren. “Abortion: Identity and Loss.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 13.1 (1984): 24–54.

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                                                                                                                                      Seminal discussion of the idea that killing fetuses is seriously wrong as it deprives them of good life. Suggests, however, that fetuses might not be full-fledged organisms or human beings. Says that killing competent adults is wrong insofar as it does not respect them as self-determining beings and killing the incompetent is wrong insofar as it harms them.

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                                                                                                                                      • Rachels, James. The End of Life: Euthanasia and Morality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

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                                                                                                                                        Rachels argues that killing is prima facie wrong because it harms the victim.

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                                                                                                                                        • Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

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                                                                                                                                          Singer argues that it is a mistake—a kind of chauvinism—to appeal to species membership or the like as grounds for denying that a creature is due moral consideration. Also argues from marginal cases: if dogs lack considerability because they lack desires (or self-determination, etc.), so do human infants.

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                                                                                                                                          • Velleman, David J. “A Right of Self-Termination?” Ethics 109.3 (1999): 606–628.

                                                                                                                                            DOI: 10.1086/233924E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                            Argues against the permissibility of suicide on the grounds that people have intrinsic value as subjects and this valuable being is destroyed in the act of suicide. According to Velleman, our subject value trumps all considerations of welfare.

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