What’s wrong with dying?

Shelly Kagan has a new book out on the topic and an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. I don’t think it is behind any wall or requirement, and it is interesting to read. And quite puzzling.

Kagan favors the deprivation view:

Maybe nonexistence is bad for me, not in an intrinsic way, like pain, and not in an instrumental way, like unemployment leading to poverty, which in turn leads to pain and suffering, but in a comparative way—what economists call opportunity costs. Death is bad for me in the comparative sense, because when I’m dead I lack life—more particularly, the good things in life. That explanation of death’s badness is known as the deprivation account.

Dying is bad for you, on this view, because you are deprived of the good things in life. But there is a huge problem right on the surface: If you are not around, then how can you be deprived? It seems you can’t.

Most of the article discusses this problem; Kagan concludes that not all the puzzles can be resolved.

Now, let me admit that I know there is a lot of writing on this that I haven’t read. So I mean be rushing in, etc, etc. Still, for various reasons I have recently read a great deal written by women with terminal illnesses, particularly stage 4 cancer (which I am not anywhere near having, in case you wonder). Any stage 4 cancer is terminal; it can’t be cured and it will kill you if nothing else does. In what I have read it is very clear what the women hate about the thought of dying. The awful thing about dying for most of these women is that they are integral parts of social groups, particularly families, that they care a great deal about, that they put a large amount of energy into, and that will be harmed by their death, or even destroyed.

Even women who lament that they will not see their youngest daughter graduate, or their son get married, are often not thinking, “O, that’s a good time I won’t have.” Rather, their thought is more about how their child will have a large gap in the normal social surrounding. Other grads get photographed with both parents; theirs will stand out as not having a mother.

Is this true for all of us? It might seem not. A young person might not give a fig about children, or her parents for that matter. What is most important is winning academic recognition, perhaps. Having the honor of receiving the Nobel Prize, or an Oscar. Such desires might be much more self-regarding than those of nurturing one’s family. Still, it may be that these desires are less about one’s own experience and more about the social world one is invested in.

For myself, the thought of death right now is most frightening because I will leave someone who does actually need me to be around, and who is helped a lot by my presence in the world. I expect we vary on this, but I’m pretty sure I’d be close to indifferent to survival if all my social world was somehow evaporated. Or so it seems right now.

I am saying this, I should say, after 4 weeks in Oxford where we’ve had, it seems, about 3 sunny days. Perhaps during a period of fine weather, I’d feel the emotional ebullience that leads to the thought: Not me! I can’t go! Take all my friends, but I must be left (along with enough good food, music, art, etc). Death is too awful.

I just don’t know that we should expect to find that rational. What do you think?

Or, to put the point simply: if we think of the goods that accrue individualistically, then death means one doesn’t get any more, but then one isn’t around to experience the lack. If, however, we think of the good socially, one’s death can be very destructive to things one has spent significant parts of one’s life on. One might not feel the destruction and loss, once dead, but it will be there unless, as many people do (I think) one goes to some lengths to see that such things will survive one’s death.

How not to cope with one’s own bias in grading

For a lot of people, knowledge that one is biased about a group of people, or even an individual, is little help in grading fairly. Quantifying one’s standards is also of limited help. Most of us can just tell when a paper exhibits genuine understanding or insight, but rules for detecting it are very likely to be elusive. The human mind often operates with intuition and insight best, and, as people working with those who lack insight in an area of life find, using rules and reason can be very limited.

So what to do? Removing names from papers is not always possible or, with small groups, effective.

One thing one might try is to compensate by systematically awarding higher grades than one’s biased judgment indicates. E.g., “This feels like C work to me, but I’ll give it a B- because it is too likely that I’m being biased.” Clearly, one should worry about doing this when it will harm other students; e.g., in a competition. But otherwise, can it do harm? Unfortunately, yes, it can.

It turns out that students of groups liable to be targets of bias know when they are getting graded up because of their race or ethnicity. They experience it as a kind of invalidating practice that puts them further outside the normal practices of the majority. Or so this interesting article from the Atlantic argues.

So what to do?

Citing the original report and a researcher, the article says:

So how can this problem be solved? Harber and his colleagues found that teachers who have greater social support at school are less likely to show a positive feedback bias toward black students. The theory is that teachers with support feel less anxious about their performance and can concentrate on being fair graders.

But this comment seems odd, because it does not seem to be addressing a context in which anonymous grading can actually be helpful. The problem discussed seems to be more general that the one we started with, though I don’t think that’s a reason for dismissing the idea that inflated feedback can be damaging.