Philosophy Death
Steven Luper
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0028


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 in 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. Kagan 2012 criticizes arguments for the existence of the soul, sketches an account of the nature of death, and defends a deprivation account of mortal harm.

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

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

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

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199557967.001.1

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

  • Kagan, Shelly. Death. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.

    A highly accessible discussion of several issues related to death, including the existence of the soul, the nature of the self, the nature of death, the value of death and immortality, and the appropriateness of suicide.

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

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

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

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511627231

    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.

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

    DOI: 10.1093/0195079981.001.0001

    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.

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

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

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

    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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