22
On Choosing Death

Philip E. Devine

A celebrated Epicurean argument runs as follows: since death is annihilation, since (in Aristotle's phrase) "nothing is thought to be any longer good or bad for the dead," 1 it follows not that death is the greatest of all evils but that death is no evil at all. Fear of death is irrational, because there is nothing of the appropriate sort—no state or condition of ourselves as conscious beings—to be afraid of in death. 2 This Epicurean argument supports the common contention that death may sometimes be an object of rational choice.

I wish to discuss critically this view, and to attempt to support the claim (for which the testimony of sensitive persons is overwhelming) that there is something uncanny about death, especially one's own. 3 I do not want to deny that a suicide can be calmly and deliberately, and in that sense rationally, carried out. But then someone might calmly and deliberately do something blatantly foolish or even pointless, and it is sometimes rational to act quickly and with passionate fervor. But if, as seems plausible, a precondition of rational choice is that one know what one is choosing, either by experience or by the testimony of others who have experienced it or something very like it, then it is not possible to choose death rationally. Nor is any degree of knowledge of what one desires to escape by death helpful, since rational choice between two alternatives requires knowledge of both. The issue is not whether pain (say) is bad, but whether a certain degree of pain is worse than death. It might seem at least that progressively more intense misery gives progressively stronger reasons for killing oneself, but the situation is rather like this. If one is heating a metal whose melting point one does not know at all, one knows that the more heat one applies, the closer one gets to melting the

____________________
From The Ethics of Homicide ( Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1978), pp. 138-43. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

-238-

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