Reasons and the Fear of Death by R. E. Ewin (Roman & Littlefield) (PAPERBACK) Death, violent or otherwise, is a matter of widespread concern with ongoing debates about such matters as euthanasia and the nature of brain death. Philosophers have often argued about the rationality of fear of death. This book argues that that dispute has been misconceived: fear of death is not something that follows or fails to follow from reason, but instead lies at the basis of reasoning and helps to show why people must be cooperating beings who accept certain sorts of facts as reasons for acting. Within the context of this account of reasons, it gives a new understanding of brain death and of physician-assisted suicide.
It is common among philosophers to assume that good reasoning is simply a matter of obeying the laws of logic, moving from one statement to another in the approved fashion, with the idea of reasonableness not really being applicable to the content of the premises. A particular desire, it is often similarly assumed, can be irrational if it is inconsistent with some other desire on which we place more importance, but not simply in terms of its own content. In the case of practical reasoning, especially with the rise of economic theory, self-interest is often taken to provide the content for the premises. In this book, I want to question the correctness of both of these assumptions. I shall do so specifically through a consideration of the way in which fear of death is related to reasons for acting.
Philosophers, these days, usually treat appeal to reason as appeal to the laws of logic. Appeals to reasons, though, in the sense in which that word readily takes a plural, is appeal to statements with content, and it is the content that is usually taken in our ordinary lives to determine reasonableness. Hence the difference between the title of this book and the title of the next chapter. While philosophers have concerned themselves to a large extent with Reason, I want to suggest that reasons are what matter, and why they are reasons is what philosophers need to explain. Understanding how the content of the premises can be reasonable or unreasonable, in the case of practical reasoning, is not a matter of seeing that those premises follow from, or are shown to be probable by, yet other premises from which they are derived. It is, rather, a matter of understanding the roles played in the lives of human beings by various beliefs and, even more fundamentally, by various concepts. We could not be the sociable species that we are (and that we must be, given our physical limitations) if it were not the case that we had certain sorts of concepts and that certain sorts of facts were reasons for us to act. Preferring the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of one's little finger really is unreasonable, and not simply because one's finger would inevitably be scratched in the destruction of the whole world.
Two things started me on the argument that I have presented in this book. One was what Thomas Hobbes had to say about death.' He recognized that people could deliberately risk death (and thought that some did so far too readily when they engaged in duels rather than putting up with insults), but gave the avoidance of death a pivotal role in his moral and political theory. The other was reading through arguments philosophers have presented to show the irrationality of fearing death, and considering how ineffective such arguments are likely to be in easing the worries of people in an intensive-care unit faced with the prospect of their own imminent deaths. Fear of death is not something we arrive at as the conclusion of a train of reasoning as we might arrive at a fear of economic recession as the conclusion of a train of reasoning starting from facts about official interest rates. Because it is not reached as a consequence of a train of reasoning, pointing out fallacies in possible arguments to establish the rationality of fearing death does not touch that fear. Arguments intended to establish the rationality of fearing death make the same sorts of assumptions as do the arguments to which they are responding. Fear of death is prerational; it fits into the story of reasons in a position other than that it seems to be given in the standard debate. To put the point in the form of a slogan so crude as to be misleading in several, though not all, respects: fear of death is something we reason from, not to. It does not appear as a premise in our reasoning, a fact that needs to be emphasized, but it informs the concepts with which we reason. It explains why certain sorts of facts are reasons for people to act. My claim concerning the traditional debate about the rationality of fearing death is not that anybody got the answer wrong, but that the relationship between death and reasons (and more generally the nature of practical reason itself) has been misunderstood. As a result, the traditional debate does not lead to the throwing of any light on issues such as the appropriate criteria for recognizing death (a matter of some urgency when other lives can depend on the transplantation of organs) or the propriety of assisted suicide.
Consideration of the role of death avoidance in the concepts with which we reason about what to do leads to a more general account of practical reasons and how they operate, which, in turn, explains why moral reasons are reasons for people. For a species to survive and evolve its members must also survive, at least for a reasonable length of time. Evolution thus tends to select for inclinations to deathavoiding types of behavior. People being what they are-not particularly strong, not particularly fast, unable to flap their wings and fly to escape danger-individual people had little chance of survival among the terrors of the natural world. Hence they had to evolve as a species that could cooperate or they could not have had the security required for survival. Only after they had evolved could they form pacts in a calculating way; in order to get to that stage, they had to possess the inclinations that led to cooperation. Sociable attitudes and emotions are important to us, not only in the lives we lead today but to us as a species because they enabled us to evolve. Those attitudes and emotions, and others such as fear and anger, involve taking certain sorts of facts as reasons for acting: the attitudes to those who are our friends involve taking the fact that one of them is in need as a reason for helping, just as the fact that a dangerous snake is coiled up against the other side of a log onto which I have just stepped is a reason not to continue and step down on that side. In order to live we need to be able to distinguish between, for example, nourishing food and poison. Because we need to be able to draw such distinctions, we have to be able to classify things in that sort of way. Concepts are usefully thought of as the discriminatory abilities that thinking beings have to form and use such classifications. We could not have evolved without developing those concepts or discriminatory abilities, and they play a crucial role in our practical reasoning.
Reason and emotion tend to be taken as separate things, even though as separate things that must be somehow intertwined. The concentration on reason rather than on reasons encourages the approach of treating it as though it were a separate faculty. Rightly or wrongly, this is how Hume has often been read, and his influence has been great, as is to be expected of a great thinker. But reasoning is an activity of people, and reasons emerge from a complex of emotion, cognition, and other aspects of people. Fear is, in part, a matter of seeing an aspect of the world as a reason for acting in a certain sort of way. Reasons, through their content, reflect the nature of people and their relationship to the world in which they live. And the world in which people live is, in very important ways, a social world. People live together with other people, and it is no accident that they do so; we are a social species and could not survive infancy without others.
Thomas Hobbes caught the idea with his account of the role of laws of nature in his account of how people must live. These laws of nature, he said, properly understood, were not laws "but qualities that dispose men to peace." 2 As such qualities, though not if considered as policies adopted by purely self-interested individuals, Hobbes's laws of nature are concerned with the sorts of facts that people must be inclined to take as reasons for acting. That one made a covenant, for example, must be taken as a reason for doing what one covenanted to do; one must be trustworthy. Hobbes's claim was that the laws of nature were necessary if people were to be capable of living relatively peaceful lives together and thus not to be wiped out in the war of each against all. In his detailed account of the laws of nature, Hobbes made some claims about such matters as primogeniture in which I do not wish to follow him. Nevertheless, as a parallel to his general claim, I suggest that the relevant inclinations to accept certain sorts of facts as reasons for acting is necessary to our having evolved as cooperating beings. As creatures lacking the ability to take to the air when danger threatens, lacking great strength and great speed, not having very sharp teeth and very powerful jaws, we could not have survived and evolved had we not developed the capacities required for cooperation. We are not a species of asocial individuals: left to its own devices, a newborn human, unlike a newborn Great White shark or a newborn tiger snake, will simply die. Our being the sort of species that we are, I shall argue, requires that certain sorts of facts be reasons for us to act.
Despite the worries that some philosophers have had about the reasonableness of fearing death, I shall argue, the fact that something threatens our lives is one of those facts that must provide us with a reason for acting even if that reason for acting is not always overriding. And, I shall argue, it is not simply a matter of a threat to my life providing me with a reason for acting: the same sort of story explains why we tend to regard human life in general as valuable and thus why the fact that an action (such as throwing a lifebuoy to a drowning child) would save somebody's life is a reason, not necessarily overriding, for performing it. Hence, in a war, the tendency to remain distanced from people who are to be killed so that they can be thought of as though they were mere statistics, or to vilify them in ways that suggest they are less than human. That this is being done is sometimes recognized even in the peculiar horror of a civil war that pitted family members against each other. Mary Chesnut saw that falsehoods were being reported and concluded that reports from her own side were not to be trusted in the matter:
The Northern papers say we hung and quartered a Zouave; cut him into four pieces; and that we tie prisoners to a tree and bayonet them. In other words, we are savages.
It ought to teach us not to credit what our papers say of them. It is so absurd an imagination of evil. We are absolutely treating their prisoners as well as our own men: we are complained of for it here. I am going to the hospitals for the enemy's sick and wounded in order to see for myself.
The need to demonize our opponents in war, to distance ourselves from anybody whose life we must threaten, is an expression of the value that people place on human life.
Recent debate about the fear of death has taken it that the fear of death is to be assessed as rational or irrational depending on whether it can be shown to follow from a piece of logical argument. Certainly fear of death in particular cases can be rational or irrational: if one suddenly realizes that a runaway truck is about to run one down, then fear of death is quite rational, whereas for most people fear of death at a kitten's exposing its claws would be quite irrational. If the issue is one of fearing death in general, though, I want to try to show that fear of death is in a very important sense pre-rational, comparable in that respect to something such as sexual desire. The fear of death informs many of the concepts that we develop and from which we reason; fear of death in general is not something that we need to reason to. Various reactions are built into us, such as a child's fear of falling, and various inclinations are built into us, such as hunger that inclines us to eat. Those reactions and inclinations are such that they serve to keep us alive even though preservation of our life is not what is aimed at when the child tries to avoid falling or sucks and takes in milk. That sort of inclination is common throughout the animal kingdom, and without it the various species would not have survived and evolved. People, as rational creatures, learn to fear various things, too, as they learn what can threaten them. That is a development of the immediate fear reaction. Without that fear, and without learning to discipline it so that worthwhile risks can be taken, our species could not have evolved. And fearing something, seeing it as dangerous, is seeing aspects of it as providing reasons for acting in certain ways.
I shall, in my argument, call on the work of Julius Kovesi, and especially on the distinction between formal and material elements of concepts as he drew it in Moral Notions, a book the appearance of which was greeted in Bernard Mayo's Mind review with the claim that it "decisively and permanently" altered the state of moral philosophy. Unfortunately, most philosophers seem to have remained unaware of Kovesi's work. His distinction between the formal and material elements of concepts is therefore not widely known and might be misunderstood, so I have devoted a chapter to explaining it. It is not Aristotle's matter-form distinction. Kovesi claimed that it was Plato's Theory of Forms, but I think he failed to recognize his own quite considerable originality. We have to be able to classify, to draw distinctions necessary to our lives, and the formal element of a concept deals with the principle of the relevant classification. It explains why we classify as instances of the same sort of thing items that can differ in many respects: a white triangular surface supported by three legs, a round brown surface supported by one leg and a rectangular black surface supported by four legs can all be tables. In some cases, all of which count as inadvertence, there might be no material properties common to the different cases. Kovesi's distinction between formal and material elements seems to me most fruitful, and I hope to show its fruitfulness as I take this argument through to show how consideration of the formal element of the concept of a human life can contribute to debate about the appropriate criteria for brain death and to debate about assisted suicide.
In chapter two I shall survey and discuss a number of the recent contributions to the debate about the rationality of fearing death. This debate has, to a large extent, taken as its focus remarks made by Lucretius, and I have adopted that starting point in this chapter. Lucretius, I think, can reasonably be regarded as a straw man here; scholarly work on his writings tends to attribute to him a much more sophisticated view than the debate often takes him to have adopted. Like those whose views I have considered, I have taken death to be the end of a life and not merely a gateway to another, but I do not think that questions are begged in doing so. Particularly when we get to such issues as the appropriate criteria to adopt for brain death, and when organs may be taken for transplant (if that is to be allowed), those who see the end of a life as merely the beginning of another life will still need an account of when that transition point is reached. My conclusion is that the debate has been unsatisfactory, largely, I think, because it has got the problem wrong.
At the end of chapter two I shall touch on Kovesi's distinction between formal and material elements of concepts, and that distinction is explained in more detail in chapter three along with some consideration of the relationship between concept formation and rationality. Kovesi's point is that analyzing or explaining a concept is a matter of explaining why the instances that come under it do come under it, and, in particular, why instances that have no significant material elements in common can still come under the same concept. This, to take over Kovesi's terminology, is a matter of giving the formal element of the concept, and the formal element explains why the (possibly quite various) material elements of the different instances all serve to make them instances of the same sort of thing, all coming under the one concept. Why is custard on a waistcoat dirty when custard in a bowl is not? We have our reasons for judging something to be dirty, and the evidence we give to establish dirtiness might vary quite a bit from case to case. Our reasons for judging something to be dirty, that is to say, can vary depending on the circumstances. What the formal element of the concept does is to explain why those reasons are reasons when they are reasons-why custard in the bowl does not make the bowl dirty when dessert is being served but does when the washing up has been done. So the formal element explains why the various material elements all count as bringing the various instances under one concept, and what does that is the role that the classification plays in human lives, the function that it serves in those lives. And beyond the formal and material elements we have the recognitors, the signs we take as showing that the material elements are present. The appearance of a red flag at the mine might be a recognitor of the imminence of an explosion. Failure of the eyes to move toward an ear into which icy water has been poured is one recognitor of the death of a person.
The point of chapter three will be largely methodological, but it will conclude with a discussion of Roger B. Dworkin's proposal that we should dispense with the concept of death for legal purposes and use instead a number of disparate concepts formed in terms of the particular problem to be solved. That is, he suggests that if the issue is one of whether somebody has died so that his will should go to probate, the concepts involved are quite distinct from those involved when the issue is one of whether somebody whose spouse has not been seen for seven years may remarry. Given Kovesi's account of the formal element of a concept in terms of what role the concept plays in our lives, Dworkin's view might be mistaken for an application of it. I have tried to make Kovesi's distinction clearer by showing what is mistaken in what Dworkin says.
In chapter four I shall argue that rationality is, in an important way, species dependent and that our evolution as humans depends on its being the case that certain sorts of facts provide us with reasons for acting. The view I shall present is certainly not anything resembling the claim that reasonableness or ethics requires us to pick the path of evolution and help it along. Rather, I shall argue that the evolution of our species depends on the fact that people, by and large, tend to respond emotionally to certain sorts of situations in particular sorts of ways, to form certain sorts of attachments, and to take certain sorts of attitudes. The inclinations and emotional reactions in question, I shall be arguing, are essential to the species; we could not have evolved without these, and those few unfortunate people who lack them are dependent on a context of others of us who do not. These emotions, attachments, and attitudes involve (in part) accepting certain sorts of facts as reasons for acting. For humans, such facts are reasons for acting. That we form certain, concepts and thus make various distinctions contributes to our survival even if our, survival is not what we are aiming at, and sometimes only because our survival is not what we are aiming at. Kovesi's formal/material distinction helps to make that point and to show that what I say cannot be reduced to any form of Rule Utilitarianism. The formal element of the concepts in play here is, in part, the contribution of those. attitudes, emotions, and so on to making our existence possible. This enables us to make sense of a human nature that, while not universal, must be common and must establish norms. Here, with the necessity of the norms, we get the idea of reason with content that must be reasons for people. Rationality or reasonableness thus appears, not simply as a matter of logical procedures, but as working from a basis o reasons that have a certain content, allowing of the judgment that particular desire could be unreasonable.
The argument of chapter four also shows that the role of preference for kin it evolution need not be what it has often been taken to be: given that kin have, though most of human history, tended to be nearby, what is required to pass on genes can t achieved simply by an inclination to form social ties with those around us. T genetic relationships are not readily discernible and were not known about until quit recently suggests that they cannot be the intentional focus of the relevant inclinations, and I have taken up some of the implications of this fact for moral reasoning. And the importance of sociable inclinations, necessary to the formation cooperative relations without which we could not survive, explains also why it is people tend to place a value on human life in general and not merely each person value his or her own life. That is to say, the emotions and inclinations that are part human nature, those the lack of which in our species would have precluded o evolution, do not have to be selfishly directed. The content of the reasons for actin that come with them does not have to be selfish. We are a social species and coulld not survive otherwise; private good and general good, as Butler pointed out, are n' as clearly different as they are sometimes taken to be. And part of the formal element
of these concepts, still, is the contribution they make to our evolution and the possibility of survival.
That point about whether the passing on of genes requires kin preference is taken further in chapter five, where I shall argue that the question is not how concern is extended from our kin to a wider circle, but how it comes to be limited in the way that it is. That is part of my attempt in this chapter to bring together the argument of the previous three in order to show how it is reasonable to fear death and how the emotional structures that provide reasons for acting can be shown to place reasonable limits on the extent to which we should act from those emotions or inclinations, including the fear of death. The capacity for fear is necessary to us. Without it we could not survive. But if any threat, no matter how small it was or no matter how worthwhile what was to be gained by overcoming it might be, were sufficient to prevent us from acting, then, again, we could not survive. That is, as part of my consideration of reasons for acting I deal here with the relationship between courage and the capacity to feel fear. One thing that emerges from this is that what is required is a more complex emotional structure, not reason entering from outside as a policeman to limit what the emotion might otherwise push us to do.
Chapter six will draw out the implications of my conclusion that the formal element of a human life is that it is the life of a person and that the formal element of the concept of a human death is that it is the end of the life of a person. It is not merely a matter of applying my earlier argument that death is an analogical concept, so that the death of a person is not the same as the death of a rose. I shall be concerned there to argue against attempts to explain the death of a person simply in terms of the end of the functioning of an organism. The relevant organism, I shall argue, can be picked out only in terms of the life of a person, and, persons being a social species, the relevant features there are the capacities required for social interaction: perception, understanding, and others. The President's Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research, in its Report Defining Death, distinguished four different levels of concepts of death. The basic concept of death, the report states, is "basically a philosophical matter." It continues: "These abstract definitions offer little concrete help in the practical task of determining whether a person has died but they may very well influence how one goes about devising standards and criteria." In fact, I shall try to show, it is not merely that philosophical work on the basic concept of death might influence one's views about the physiological tests to be applied, but that there is no reasonable way of picking out those physiological tests except in the light of such philosophical work. The philosophical work deals with the formal element of the concept of a human death, and it is the formal element that determines what the material elements are. The clinical tests at the most detailed level provide the recognitors. If we are to discuss death seriously, we cannot simply remain at the level of arguing about the techniques for identifying death; we have to go further back to an argument about what sorts of techniques are appropriate and why they are. We are dealing with the death of a member of a social species, something the mark of which (though not all members of the species exercise it to the same degree) is its capacity for sociality. In terms of that fact we identify the material elements of its death, the physical state that will constitute its death, and in terms of that we work out the appropriate signs that that physical state has earlier been reached.
I shall argue in the next few chapters that fear of death is always reasonable, though desire for death can also be reasonable. Furthermore, I shall argue that, humanity being a social species, we must place some value on others' lives as well as on our own. That being so, euthanasia might seem to pose a problem. It does, I think, pose a problem, but in chapter seven I shall take up the much more limited issue of assisted suicide which was, for a very short period, legal in the Northern Territory of Australia. At the time, it was claimed to be the only instance in history of legislation's being in place to protect assistance in suicide, though the practice has been tolerated elsewhere. In 2000 it was effectively legalized in the Netherlands. I shall consider the debate that preceded the Northern Territory legislation and try to show where confusion arose in it, before going on to argue that consideration of the formal element of the concept of a human life does imply that great weight be given to the idea of autonomy, but that whether giving great weight to autonomy implies allowing assisted suicide depends on what autonomy involves. Autonomy, I shall argue, is a procedural matter when it is considered in the relevant sense. I distinguish two significantly different senses of the word, and I think that arguments based on autonomy frequently involve a fallacy of equivocation between the two. There is no guaranteed content of autonomy in the relevant sense of that word. But my argument does pick out features that will have to be given importance in the public policy debate about assisted suicide. My own view favors allowing assisted suicide, but that conclusion is not entailed by the arguments presented here. I shall argue that the specific content of autonomy depends on the sort of life the community wants, and my view in favor of assisted suicide would be one argued for in terms of what form of community life is to be preferred, a matter to be settled by political debate.
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