Can You Harm a Dead Man?
On the assumption of mortalism
It would be pleasant to think that when one is dead one will be wholly out of harm's way. But is that true? Here is some Epicurean-type reasoning:
1. Death is annihilation of the person. After your death there will be a corpse with your name on it, but you will no longer exist. (Materialist/mortalist assumption)
2. A harm is a harm to something or someone: for there to be a harm, there must be a subject of harm. (Conceptual truth)
3. Nothing is a subject of a harm at a time at which it does not exist. (Plausible principle)
4. No dead person is a subject of harm.
Assuming that (1) is accepted, the only way of resisting this argument is by rejecting (3). And it must be admitted that (3), though plausible, can be reasonably rejected. Suppose I promise a dying man that I will take good care of his young and healthy dog after he dies. But I renege on my promise in order to save myself the hassle by having the dog euthanized. Epicurus in hand, I reason, "There is no harm to my dead friend since he no longer exists, and there is no harm to the dog because its transition to nonexistence will be quick and painless. Caring for the mangy mutt, however, is a harm to me for years to come."
Thomas Nagel would disagree and call my reneging "an injury to the dead man." ("Death" in Mortal Questions, Cambridge UP, 1979, p. 6) For Nagel, "There are goods and evils which are irreducibly relational; they are features of the relations between a person, with spatial and temporal boundaries of the usual sort, and circumstances which may not coincide with him either in space or in time." (p. 6)
Failing to do what I promised a man I would do after his demise is plausibly viewed as a harm and thus an evil to the man. I have disrespected his wishes and violated his interests. If so, being dead is a circumstance that does not temporally coincide with the life span of the one who will die. In general, a thing can have properties at times at which it does not exist provided it once existed. For example, Frege's posthumous fame is a property he now possesses even though he no longer exists.
A Nagelian rejection of (3) is respectable and plausible as a means of turning aside the Epicurean argument. But it is scarcely compelling. For the Epicurean can simply insist that there are no relational harms. After all, there is something metaphysically murky about maintaining that a person who is nothing is yet the subject of a harm or injury simply on the strength of his having once existed. If you are now nothing, then you are now nothing: why should your once having been something be relevant?
So it looks like a stand-off, an impasse or aporia. The considerations for and against (3) seem to cancel each other.
One consideration in favor of (3) is presentism, the doctrine that the present time and its contents alone exist. If the present alone exists, then past individuals do not exist at all. If so, they cannot be subject to harms. A consideration contrary to (3) is our strong intuition that harms and injuries can indeed be inflicted upon the dead. The dead, if nonexistent, do not have desires, but we are strongly inclined to say that they have interests, interests subject to violation. (The literary executor who burns the manuscripts entrusted to him; the agent of Stalin who deletes references to Trotsky from historical documents, etc.)
But suppose the dead are subject to harms. If so, then they are presumably also subject to missing out on various goods that they would have enjoyed had they lived longer. Suppose a happy, healthy, well-situated 20-year-old full of life and promise dies suddenly and painlessly in a freak accident. Almost all will agree that in cases like this being dead (which we distinguish from both the process and the event of dying) is an evil, and therefore neither good nor axiologically neutral. It is an evil for the person who is dead whether or not it is an evil for anyone else. It is an evil because it deprives him of all the intrinsic goods he would have enjoyed had he not met an untimely end.
This suggests that, contra Epicurus, one can rationally fear being dead. What one rationally fears when one fears one's being dead is a future state of affairs in which one cannot enjoy goods that one would have enjoyed had one lived longer.
This makes sense but is also raises thorny questions. One concerns the oddness of this state of affairs. Not only does it involve a counterfactual; who or what is the subject of this future state of affairs? There won't be one!
A second question concerns whether or not states of affairs can be said to be good or bad if they do not involve living beings. If I understand Philippa Foot, her view is that good and bad are grounded in living organisms and in nothing else where, roughly, goodness is proper functioning, and evil a natural defect or lack of proper functioning. If so, there cannot be any good or bad states of affairs whose subject is a dead animal.
One last consideration. The argument above presupposes that to exist = to be. But that is not obvious. Suppose one holds that, while everything that exists, is, not everything that is, exists. Accordingly, there are things that do not exist. And so it might be held that when a person ceases to exist he does not cease to be. He remains in being, but not in existence. He does not become nothing; remains available to be the subject of various harms and violations. This way out of the difficulty gives rise to problems of its own. They cannot be discussed here.