Source: The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life's Biggest Questions (1 edn, 2017). pp. 137 Bottom - 138 Top.

  In addition to asking what attitudes toward death are appropriate, we might ask what attitude we ought to have. Some might think that we ought to have those (and only those) attitudes that are appropriate. However, it is possible for an attitude toward death to be appropriate and yet be an attitude that one ought not to have. [emboldening mine] For example, it might be entirely appropriate to be deeply depressed about the appalling fact that one is going to die, and yet there might be strong, prudential reasons not to become this morose. One might simply make one’s life worse by adopting an appropriate attitude.

I still can't distinguish between the 'appropriate' vs. unwelcome saddening attitude. Even if I judge appropriateness as variable (and not binary), mustn't adopting a more Panglossian attitude be less appropriate, as it self-deceives?

  • 1
    I'd say the whole issue is moot if we do not know what death is. We will have no idea what response is appropriate. We might be depressed about death and we might be looking forward to it, it would all depends on what we believe or know about death.
    – user20253
    Apr 16, 2018 at 11:11
  • have you read the sentence immediately after the one you bold? in reality, that's "how", and you will have to engage with that, if you don't believe it.
    – user38026
    May 22, 2019 at 14:05

4 Answers 4


I'm not sure that there is an 'appropriate' attitude towards death - beyond the propositional attitude of belief that it will happen. I think the writer is making a rather simple thought seem subtle and profound. Namely, this. If I am going to die quite soon, this may induce sadness that I will never do or see any number of things again. I may become sullen and gloomy and this is appropriate in the sense that it is an intelligible reaction. Others can readily understand it. Yet it does me no good : it is bad enough that I am going to die quite soon without my compounding the situation with negative emotions. Prudentially I would be better off with the bare thought that I'm soon to die. Adding sullenness and gloominess to this thought makes my remaining time worse than it need be.

This is true enough but emotions can't be switched on or off at will. I can't decide to be sullen and gloomy or decide not to be. I could, of course, take a heavy course of anti-depressives to take my mind off things but I don't think this is what the writer has in mind.


I think the author is equating "appropriate" with the saddening, burdensome realization of the badness and finality of death.

I think the author wants to justify taking something other than this perfectly rational attitude, and I think his words should cause us to think of what we all mean by "appropriate" and "ought".

Of course there are many examples in literature and history of people who died honorably and not suddenly, not "appropriately" realizing something about their own death but indeed handling it in a way a good person in their situation "ought" to have done.

Would it have been appropriate for Socrates to get really pissed off and curse everybody, violently lashing out until the hemlock was forced down his throat (if his guards didn't use their swords first)... or to simply escape and get out of the country?

Yes! It was totally unjust for Socrates to serve a death sentence! Nobody owed him anything and it would have been appropriate, in a sense, for him to lash out and fight to the very end. This is how Saddam Hussein was until the day he died.

But this is only true if Socrates had cared about his ego more than his ideas. For Socrates to achieve his purpose, he needed to submit to death honorably as a testament to the unjust sentence that he served. Then and only then would the authorities take him seriously enough to reconsider their thinking, since they believed that Socrates was a dummy and that his ideas would die with him.

  • What does 'true-true' mean please?
    – user8572
    Nov 27, 2018 at 21:13
  • seems like sort of a typo, @Greek-Area51Proposal. I'll change it to "perfectly rational". Nov 27, 2018 at 21:24

If we cannot take control over our attitude and emotions surrounding our impending deaths then philosophy is weak and barely worth the effort we put into it. Socrates' belief in the power of philosophy was proven in his genuine nonchalance regarding his own demise. This detachment not only demonstrated the power of his mind to be rational but also the power of true philosophy in itself as a science that trains us to be rational. What is philosophy for, if not to overcome the irrational leanings of emotions (or even, animal instinct for a survival we cannot truly gain)? It doesn't matter what one's religion is (what one's beliefs are concerning the afterlife). The bottom line is that NOBODY knows for sure what will happen upon dying. Even people who've had "near death experiences" can't be sure that they will have the same experiences next time they "die." So death and our attitudes towards it is a fundamentally PHILOSOPHICAL issue. The problem that most modern philosophers encounter when applying their minds to death is working with the unknown factor. But why can't philosophy, as a science, deal with a topic that has a factor that is permanently defined as unknown and unknowable? Mathematics can do this! In fact, philosophy CAN deal with this situation but the ego is unwilling to because this level of rationality might expose the ego's irrationality. The ego is only willing to play with philosophy as long as its power is not questioned. The ego's power is based on its promise to provide us with the highest level of individual security. We go along with the ego because it wields this fear tactic so effectively. But philosophy can see through its sleight of hand to see that the ego's stance is irrational: to fear death and see it negatively is irrational because such an attitude detracts from our quality of life and THERE IS NO PROOF either way. If we say that sadness is justified concerning death because it is right to fear what will happen to surviving family members, that sadness, when examined closely, depends on a negative assessment of death relative to those family members. So we don't want to die because we don't want our loved ones to die. Thus, with a little sharp edged philosophical inquiry we can see that depression/sadness itself rests upon this irrational negative position re:death. Remember that this position is irrational because there is no proof to support either being negative or positive about death but the choice to be positive improves our lives (gains us happiness). What is the philosophical support for remaining angry about life because of our certain deaths? There is none. It is only the ego that resists this move towards living our lives totally rationally or philosophically just as Socrates did and demonstrated right to the last minute of his life.

  • If you have references that take a similar view this would give the reader a place to go for more information. It also would be helpful to break the text into smaller paragraphs. Click enter twice to get the paragraph break. Welcome! May 22, 2019 at 13:55
  • Thank you. I have actually written my own book on this philosophical topic (called The Scorpio Ring of Fire) because I couldn't find other authors on this topic (outside of Plato's Apology). I would love to find more myself. Outside of the field of philosophy however I would reference Carlos Castaneda's The Teachings of Don Juan but that kind of reference is not generally accepted within philosophical circles, I believe.
    – user38256
    May 22, 2019 at 17:36

Although clinical narcissism and high self-esteem serve to keep fear of death away from the consciousness, it's not uncommon to feel sad and anxious from death.

If we are honest with ourselves, there is not a single reason (from a neutral rational perspective ) for us to fear death: reasons like i won't see my family again or my family needs me etc, all these reasons are from a perspective of a living man, dead people do not feel sad or worried about living people.

If we can't find a single rational reason for why we fear death, then it must come from our biology: it's programmed in our flesh as instinct.

  • This presupposes a belief in no afterlife. If one has religious or other reasons to think death may not be the end, it's rational to fear what might happen after death. Nov 27, 2018 at 21:56
  • @DavidThornley, I don't see that this is contingent on "no afterlife": suppose the dying person had small children and felt anxious that their quality of life would be impacted. Nov 27, 2018 at 22:00
  • @elliotsvensson The attitude of not caring what happens after my death can be irrational in many ways. If you believe in an afterlife, you might be afraid of it. If, as you say, you have young children, you don't want to leave them alone. You might be involved in important work that is likely to be finished before your death, but not if you die prematurely. Lots of reasons. Nov 30, 2018 at 3:30

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