The Badness of Death is Not a Universal Moral Certainty

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This paper investigates whether ‘Death is bad’ is morally certain, such that contrasting attitudes of either one’s own death or the deaths of others leads necessarily to immoral consequences. I argue that ‘Death is bad’ is not universally certain because of the ability to point to familiar examples where death is not thought of as necessarily bad. In this paper, I argue that this is a fundamental issue for Nigel Pleasants’ influential Wittgensteinian account of moral certainty in relation to death. I begin by sketching a picture of Pleasants’ account, as well as Mikel Burley’s Epicurean challenge to the conceptual link Pleasants sees between ‘Death is bad’ and ‘Killing is wrong’ as moral certainties. I agree with Burley that ‘Death is bad’ cannot be conceptually tied to ‘Killing is wrong’ such that to doubt that ‘Death is bad’ is to doubt that ‘Killing is wrong’. Though I think there are issues with Burley’s Epicurean alternative, his initial criticism of Pleasants’ account offers an opportunity to reassess the nature of ‘Death is bad’ as a moral certainty in its own right. However, I argue that it cannot be thought of as a universal moral certainty. To this end, I consider two examples of thinking about death where death is either seen as not that bad, or even good. Rather than a single fixed attitude towards death – a necessary consequence of Pleasants’ hinge account – I argue there are a variety of ways we may meaningfully think about death.
Original languageEnglish
JournalEthical Perspectives
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 22 Jun 2023
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


  • Ludwig Wittgenstein
  • moral certainty
  • badness of death
  • Nigel Pleasants
  • Mikel Burley
  • hinge propositions


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