In Defense of Deprivationism

Date of Award

May 2016

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Ben Bradley


categorical desires, death, deprivation, Epicureanism, ethics, normative ethics

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities


Death generally seems bad for those who have died. Is it? If so, what makes it bad? In this dissertation, I defend a deprivation view of the badness of death, according to which one’s death is bad for her when (and because) it deprives her of good life she would have had were her actual death not to occur. In the first two chapters of the dissertation, I show that deprivationism's main competitors (i.e. Epicureanism and Categorical Desire Views respectively) are untenable. In chapters three and four, I show how deprivationism can be made immune to the problems often regarded as devastating for the view. In the final chapter, I turn from questions about the badness of one’s own future non-existence to related questions about the badness of the future non-existence of all human life. After discussing some new philosophical issues raised by Samuel Scheffler in his Death and the Afterlife, I address those issues from the perspective of a deprivationist. In this brief introduction, I outline the central elements of each chapter.

Chapter 1:

Perhaps death’s badness is an illusion. Epicureans think so and argue that agents cannot be harmed by death when they're alive (because death hasn’t happened yet) nor when they're dead (because they do not exist by the time death comes). In the first chapter, I argue that each version of Epicureanism faces a fatal dilemma: it is either committed to a demonstrably false view about the relationship between prudential reasons and well-being or it is involved in a mere verbal dispute with deprivationism. I first provide principled reason to think that any viable view about the badness of death must allow that agents have prudential reason to avoid (or seek) death if doing so would increase their total well-being. I then show that the Epicurean views which accommodate this desideratum are involved in a mere verbal dispute with deprivationism. After that, I show that Epicurean views which do not preserve this link are subject to reductio arguments and so should be rejected.

Chapter 2:

In the second chapter, I argue that categorical desire views of the badness of death are false. Such views hold that death is bad when (and because) it thwarts people’s categorical desires, which are self-regarding desires that are not conditional upon being alive. I show that categorical desire views are subject to two serious problems. First, they entail that it is not bad for someone to not be resuscitated after dying a bad death. Second, they cannot account for cases in which it is good to prevent people from coming into existence or cases in which it is good to prevent them from continuing to exist. I then argue that revising categorical desire views to avoid these problems requires adopting a form of deprivationism.

Chapter 3:

Even once the alternatives to deprivationism have been ruled out, a number of interesting questions remain. If earlier-than-necessary death is bad because it deprives individuals of additional good life, then why isn’t later-than-necessary conception bad for the same reason? Deprivationists have traditionally argued that conception is not bad because it is impossible to be conceived earlier, but death is bad because it is possible to die later. In the third chapter, I demonstrate that this proposed solution does not work by showing how it is possible to be conceived earlier in the same relevant senses it is possible to die later. I then offer a new solution to this asymmetry problem by separating the potential badness of each type of event (i.e. conception and death) from the degree to which these events should be salient. Even if both types of events are equally bad, certain contingent facts about our death give us reason to, in a way, be more concerned with our earlier-than-necessary deaths more than our later-than-necessary conceptions.

Chapter 4:

In the fourth chapter, I show that deprivation accounts cannot accommodate the commonsense assumption that an agent should lament her death if and only if it is bad for her. Call this the Nothing Bad, Nothing to Lament Assumption (NBNL). To illustrate the problem, imagine that a healthy, happy person is struck and killed by a car today. Suppose that if she did not die from being hit by the car, she would have died from an aneurysm one millisecond later. Assume that the millisecond of extra life would not have contributed to her total well-being. According to deprivationism, this person’s death was not bad for her because she would not have had a better life if she did not die when she did. Furthermore, if NBNL is true, then this person’s death is not even lamentable. So, deprivationism coupled with NBNL leads to absurd conclusions. This means that we must either reject deprivation accounts of the badness of death or reject NBNL. I show that a commitment to an incontrovertible moral principle entails that, contrary to commonsense, we should reject NBNL.

If death isn’t necessarily lamentable when it’s bad for us, then when (if ever) is it lamentable? In the second part of the fourth chapter, I develop a positive account of appropriate attitudes toward death. Specifically, I argue that each person should have two distinct attitudes toward death. The first kind of appropriate attitude is determined by how well an agent P fares relative to her subjectively justified beliefs about her expected quality and quantity of life. The worse P fares relative to her subjectively justified beliefs, the more she should, in one sense, lament her death and vice versa. The second kind of appropriate attitude is determined by the amount of good P was subjectively justified in believing was metaphysically possible for her to have obtained had P not died when she did. The more metaphysically possible good that death precludes, the more P’s death is, in one sense, lamentable.

Chapter 5:

In his Death and the Afterlife, Samuel Scheffler provides a compelling argument that people would see less reason and be significantly less motivated to pursue most of their life’s projects if they were to discover that there is no collective afterlife (i.e. future generations of humans continuing to exist after they die). Although Scheffler focuses on how people would react to learning there is no collective afterlife, people’s imagined responses are presumed to be, for the most part, appropriate. In this chapter, I focus on issues concerning how people ought to react to learning there is no collective afterlife. Answers to this question leads to surprising conclusions that challenge some of the normative claims Scheffler seems disposed to endorse.

This paper has two central aims. First, I attempt to show that negative attitudes toward the lack of a collective afterlife are warranted for two reasons that have been heretofore overlooked. Interestingly, such reasons leave open the possibility that it can be appropriate to lament the lack of a collective afterlife even if is not bad, all things considered, for anyone. Second, I argue that the lack of a collective afterlife need not be bad, all things considered, for most people. This is because there could be a sufficient number of meaningful projects available to people that would compensate for the loss of pro tanto value caused by the lack of a collective afterlife. These considerations lead us to the somewhat paradoxical conclusion that the lack of a collective afterlife need not negatively affect the total value of anyone’s life, yet it may still be appropriate to lament the fact that there is no collective afterlife.


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