Essay:Death gives life value

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Death gives life value[edit]

The main claim set out in this essay is that what gives life value are the experiences of a person, and these experiences are influenced by the knowledge that death is inevitable. While taking a hedonistic position, it will be acknowledged that some unpleasant experiences have the ability of adding value to life, and it will be demonstrated how this position is not in contention with the classic view of hedonism. This essay begins by defining the terms instrumental, personal and intrinsic value before clarifying what is meant in the philosophical sense of the word ‘person’. The concept of hedonism is outlined before introduction of Nozick’s thought experiment which is used as a common argument against hedonism. Despite accepting - to a degree - Nozick’s claim regarding knowledge, his position remains unconvincing. This is highlighted in Hewitt’s defence of hedonism that is offered as a counter-argument to Nozick, and is shown to be more convincing. To show how the Epicurean view of death is not accurate, the deprivation view is presented and indicates why being dead is a comparatively bad thing for the person in question. Although acceptable in specific instances, this view is not entirely free from criticism which can be illustrated using the idea of immortality, of which Williams’s (1973) firm rejection is briefly discussed. A possible solution, more grounded to reality is proposed and is one that reinforces the assertion that this essay makes throughout: life derives value through a person’s experiences that are caused by having knowledge that one day they will cease to exist. Other key terms and concepts will be clarified and explained.

Defining value[edit]

A main position of this essay is that life is not intrinsically valuable, rather it gains instrumental value through the lived experiences of a person. It would be prudent to briefly define what is meant by having 1) instrumental 2) personal, or 3) intrinsic value. In saying that something has:

1) Instrumental value is to say that the thing in question serves as a means to an end e.g. money has an instrumental value in that it is used as a means to buy goods and services.

2) Personal value is subjective and can be something valued in itself by one or many people, but not necessarily everyone e.g. a parent who places value on their child’s first drawings, yet a stranger may not feel the same.

3) Intrinsic value is something of value existing in and of itself, it does not gain value in how it is perceived, or the relation it has with anything else existing outside of it e.g. in a world empty of people, it would still be a tragedy if a historical work of art was destroyed (Belshaw, 2014, p.23-7).

Since it is not entirely convincing that in the last example there is indeed a loss, this is the reason for the continued claim that life has no intrinsic value, but instead value is gained by a person having experiences. To clarify, person refers to those possessing memories and desires, the ability to rationalise, think critically, and who is self-aware. This means that to be a human being without a functioning mind, is not the same as being a person or having 'personhood', meaning that those in a coma with no hope of recovery can be excluded from being regarded as persons (Belshaw, 2014, p.68). This is somewhat suggestive that until a certain age, infants can be excluded from having personhood. However, since this essay will now focus on the experiences of persons in the fullest sense there is no further need to contemplate what constitutes as non-persons.

The Hedonistic position[edit]

Here, hedonism will be briefly outlined before presentation of Nozick’s thought experience against hedonism’s main assertion that happiness (pleasure) is the final value of life. Later, Hewitt’s position illustrates why Nozick’s criticism of hedonism is not convincing since there are also hedonistic reasons for rejecting his main claim. We can accept Nozick’s point that knowledge is important, while still maintaining support for Hewitt’s counter-argument and for hedonism in general. In introducing ‘normative hedonism’, it is the position that while we ought to seek pleasure, it does not necessarily mean advocating for hedonism in the strictly traditional sense – we ought to only seek pleasure and avoid pain (Barber, 2014, p.22). Rather, it will be shown that we give value to life not only through experiences that are pleasurable, but a degree of value can actually come through painful experiences. The terms pleasure, pain, good and bad will be used interchangeably.

Nozick begins by arguing that if hedonism is correct in that pleasure is the final value, then if it were possible to plug into a machine that has the power to let us “live” any pleasurable experience we want, then we would not hesitate. Yet, Nozick points out that we would not in fact be living these “experiences” in the full sense of the word, but would be floating in a machine that manipulates reality to the point we cannot realise that this is an illusion. What this appears to show is that if a hedonist was to decline plugging in, they would be in direct conflict with the core tenets of hedonism – pleasure as the final value. For Nozick, plugging in “[…] is a kind of suicide” (Nozick, 1974), before concluding that what we value more than pleasure is a deeper connection with reality. It seems that Nozick is fundamentally arguing is that knowledge is the final value, and it can be conceded that to a degree he is correct in stating its importance, but this does not diminish the role of hedonism. The reason for this is that in Hewitt’s counter-argument against Nozick, which will be presented next, it is highlighted that the latter’s dismissal of hedonism hinges on a false assumption, meaning that we can still accept Nozick’s position towards knowledge without having to relinquish the idea that experiences are what give life value.

Refuting Nozick[edit]

Hewitt’s main argument here is that there are hedonistic reasons, both egoistic and altruistic that are based on the intrinsic value of pleasure and disvalue of pain, which explains why a hedonist is justified in declining plugging in. Hewitt (2010) believes that both pleasure and pain have an instrumental role in that they act as indicators of the instrumental goodness or badness of other things. This is taken as evidence against hedonism, but Hewitt states that this ignores that hedonists accept indication for the desirability of other things, which consists in the ability to produce future pleasure or reduce future pain. This indicates pleasure and pain have an instrumental value in serving as motivation for us to take action. Essentially not only do we need to have knowledge that our current behaviour will lead to bad experiences in the future, but in some cases we actually need to have painful experiences in the present that alerts us into taking action and to stop negative behaviour. For instance, in the egoistic sense, the over-consumption of sweets lead to toothache which motivates us into visiting the dentist for a check-up. At present this may be an unpleasant experience since pain is intrinsically bad, but this painful experience has an instrumental value by preventing future pain e.g. tooth decay, the need for a root canal etc. Hewitt (2010) addresses altruistic reasons by drawing on examples of the need to be able to experience emotional pain such as shame or the discomfort that follows from the disapproval from others. This can lead to emotional growth and a desire to maintain a high level of social cohesion. The strongest argument from Hewitt appeals to utilitarianism, meaning we seek to maximise the greatest amount of pleasure, while minimising pain across the greatest number of people. For Hewitt, plugging into Nozick’s machine is a selfish act in that it ignores the opportunity to maximise the highest amount of pleasure among the many, which has the power to negate the pleasure one individual would have gained by plugging in.

Hewitt (2010) states that when we re-frame things other than pleasure as having intrinsic value e.g. relationships, we increase their instrumental hedonistic value. The reason being is that if one was to obsess over whether or not a blossoming relationship is going to bring future pleasure on instrumental terms, one would be hindering the opportunity for such a relationship to evolve in the fullest aspect. Hewitt concludes that although hedonism holds that the only intrinsically good and bad things are pleasure and pain, it does not prevent us from adopting a non-hedonistic view if at that time it is the most viable way of maximising pleasure. Should being self-consciously hedonistic prove to have a self-defeating quality, there is no contradiction when hedonism tells us not to self-consciously hedonistic since it does not promote being self-consciously hedonistic (Hewitt, 2010). Hewitt’s counter-argument against Nozick is convincing, as we can while agree that there are enough convincing hedonistic reasons to decline plugging into the experience machine. Over-all this strengthens the hedonistic position of this essay in that what gives life value is having good experiences, and if necessary, enduring bad experiences if it promotes pleasure, or reduces pain in the future.

The Deprivation view of death[edit]

The next claim that will be presented is the deprivation view, which holds that the badness of death is that the state of being dead (non-existence), deprives a person from having the pleasurable experiences they would have had, had they continued to exist. This is a strong challenge to the Epicurean view of death stating that because death is the lack of sensation it is of no concern since death has clearly not occurred when a person exists, and when death does occur that person is devoid of all sensation whether good or bad. Being free of pain in death for Epicureans indicates then that death cannot be a bad thing (Belshaw, 2014, p.54). While there is reason to accept the badness of being dead in the comparative sense put forth by the deprivation view, it will be shown that this claim is not without challenges which is illustrated using the notion of immortality, before the contention from Williams (1973) on such a possibility is presented. The reason for this is that the following claims lay the foundations upon which the main assertion of this essay is built: we give value to life through experiences, along with our knowledge of the inevitability of death that serves as motivation, and commits us into acting towards having experiences.

Firstly, regarding the Epicurean claim of death not being bad in an intrinsic sense does not seem wrong since when a person does not exist they do not have experiences, or feel pain. So the state of non-existence in of itself is not something that we ought to avoid. Secondly, there does not seem to be anything wrong with this view in an instrumental sense since non-existence does not lead to later pains or discomfort. Lastly however, non-existence can be seen as a bad thing in the comparative sense in that it deprives a person from having the things that life provides e.g. pleasurable experiences (Kagan, 2012). To clarify, the subsequent claims here will not refer to whether or not the process of dying is a good or bad thing, the concern solely rests on the state of non-existence. In addition to this, it will be the notion that for the person in question being dead is bad because had they not died, they would be having pleasurable experiences. For example, it is easy to imagine it being a tragedy if an active and healthy young person dies at the age of thirty, but had they not died they would have continued to exist for another fifty years, while having many pleasurable experiences.

It is difficult to disagree with the deprivation view in this sense, however, an issue is that it follows logically that there must come a point in time when these experiences end, and that the person is no longer being deprived of anything good. For instance, it is not often that a person will have good experiences right up until the moment of death, so in the case of the person who died at thirty, at what point can it be said that death is no longer depriving them of good experiences, and in effect can no longer be said to a bad thing? It can also be argued that there would come a point when death is depriving a person of having bad experiences, and that presumably this is a good thing. It would be true in the case of the thirty year old being spared from death, and living to eighty but they are no longer capable of living independently and perhaps slowly succumbing to a deteriorating condition such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. If the deprivation view of death is followed, it would be hard not to agree with the claim that there inevitably comes a point where the deprivation aspect of death is not as bad as it once was. This does not subtract from the badness in the cases when a person dies and is being deprived from the good experiences they would have had if they still existed. On that we can still agree, but it does highlight an issue if one rigidly maintains the deprivation view.

The banality of immortality[edit]

The final part of this essay introduces an extreme case against the deprivation view, by introducing immortality as a contrast to this point along with the view on the matter from Williams (1973). A possible solution to the problems that immortality brings will support the main assertion of this essay: what gives life its value are the experiences of a person and one who is motivated by the knowledge they have that death is inevitable. Rather than dying too soon, we can imagine a scenario in which advances in medicine result in being able to live forever minus the limitations of old age. A person retains the physical and mental capabilities of a typical, healthy thirty-five year old. Now a person is free from the worry of dying suddenly and missing out on the opportunities of adding value to life by having pleasurable experiences as they have eternity in which to enjoy themselves. Such a scenario seems perfect for the hedonist, but it becomes clear that immortality is not as desirable as it seems. The fact that we know that our time is limited and death is unavoidable, is what propels us into seeking experiences in order to give life value. If we no longer had to worry about death, we would of course enjoy the freedom this brings, yet it is possible that this freedom will lose its appeal. It could be in 100, 1000 or 10,000+ years, but it is inevitable that the enjoyment that these experiences once brought, would at some point become stagnant, unexciting and valueless.

Williams (1973, p.90) describes the repetitive nature of personal relations as being “inescapable”, while arguing that when our categorical desires – wanting something unconditionally – are fulfilled, we would need to keep changing them since they cannot be repeatedly fulfilled, or we will risk becoming bored, but eventually we would grow unfulfilled. These desires differ from conditional desires – wanting something based on certain assumptions (Belshaw, 2014, p.69). Williams (1973) believes that a person’s identity is connected with categorical desires, and given an infinite amount of time a person’s identity would continually change. A thing which he finds rather unappealing. For Williams, the choice that eternal life leads us to is:

1) Achieve all our categorical desires and find new ones or risk eternal boredom.


2) Find new categorical desires that greatly differ from our identity.

One response to Williams is that we may forget previous categorical desires and develop them again, but we could imagine a similar version of immortality in which after a vast amount of time, the mind of a person (P1) is painlessly erased during sleep (they retain executive functioning e.g. the ability to walk, talk, read etc.). Upon waking they cannot recall their previous categorical desires, beliefs, memories etc. Physiologically speaking, this new person (P2) resembles P1 in every sense, but they are a completely different person and as previously stated: a person includes those possessing memories and desires. It could be argued then that P1 is now in a state of non-existence, leading to the claim that they are being deprived of having an infinite amount of pleasurable experiences which was established as being a bad thing. One way of resolving this problem that somewhat resembles reality, is to envisage a person of having the ability to choose when they die, but not how they die. Unfortunately the latter could still be a painful process. Keeping in mind that now a person will not die too soon or live too long, it does not seem unwarranted to believe that the point at which the majority of people (persons), will choose to die would be after they had reached a point in time where they felt they have experienced all that life has to offer, and that they were able to live a life of value through experiences. This reiterates the point that the direct consequence of having knowledge that death is inevitable is what motivates a person into giving life value by having experiences.


To conclude, this essay set out to argue that what gives life value are the experiences a person has and that motivation for experiences comes from direct knowledge of the fact that death is unavoidable. It did this by arguing in favour of the hedonistic position, yet acknowledged and showed how experiences of pain also bring value to life without undermining the common assumption that hedonists ought to always avoid pain. Nozick’s experience machine was presented as an argument against hedonism, and although a degree of support can be given in his favour for knowledge being of importance, it does not stand up against Hewitt’s defence of hedonism which was offered as a counter-argument. Acceptance of the deprivation view of death was given, but it was shown that valid criticism against it could be made. In response, the idea of immortality was posed, but along with the criticism from Williams (1973), was shown to be unappealing for a number of reasons. The final point that suggested a person if given the option and the ability, would choose to die satisfied after feeling they had experienced all they could in life. This was used to reinforce the over-all thesis statement of this essay which was that a person having experiences is what gives life its value, and these experiences are driven by the knowledge a person has of the fact that they will one day die.


Barber, A. (2014) Reason in Action, Milton Keynes, The Open University

Belshaw, C. (2014) The Value of Life, Milton Keynes, The Open University

Hewitt, S. (2010) ‘What do our intuitions about the experience machine really tell us about hedonism?’, Philosophical studies, Vol. 151, No. 3, pp. 331-349 [Online]. Available at: (Accessed 26th May, 2022)

Kagan, S. (2012) ‘Death’ in Belshaw, C. (ed.) (2014) The Value of Life, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 178-179

Nozick, R. (1974) ‘Anarchy, State, and Utopia’ in Barber, A. (ed.) (2014) Reason in Action, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp.145-146

Williams, B. (1973) ‘The Makropulos case: reflections on the tedium of immortality’, in Williams, B. (ed.), Problems of the Self: Philosophical Papers 1956-1972, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 82-100 [Online]. Available at:

Submitted by M.G.Douglas