It seems to me that all morality is based on the belief that death is a bad thing. If we believed that death was desirable - for whatever reason - most everything would break down. But isn't it true that views on death are culturally determined - at least to some extent? Any thoughts would be appreciated.

Thoughts on everything are culturally determined, including lying, stealing, murder, sex etc. so the fact that culture affects our thinking is not that relevant to understanding how morality works. I wonder why you think that death is so significant for morality. It seems to me that one might take a welcoming attitude to death without it having any relevance for one's attitude to morality. Do most people think that death is a bad thing? I just don't know, and why should not someone decide to welcome death for one reason or another (boredom with life perhaps) while holding firm to his or her general ethical attitudes?

I don't really have any firm views on this issue -- though I am inclined to agree that morality need not have any particular link to attitudes to death -- but the question did just happen to remind me of the following passage from Herodotus (Histories, 5.3-4):

"The Thracians have many names, each tribe according to its region, but they are very similar in all their customs, save the Getae, the Trausi, and those who dwell above the Crestonaeans. As for the Getae, who claim to be immortal, I have already given an account of their practices. The Trausi, who in all else conform to the customs of other Thracians, do as I will show at the times of birth and death. When a child is born, the kinsmen sit around it and lament all the ills that it must endure from its birth onward, recounting all the sorrows of men. The dead, however, they bury with celebration and gladness, asserting that he is rid of so many ills and has achieved a state of complete blessedness."

It's something to think about.

In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates explains to his friends why, in the face of his imminent execution, he is in a good mood. His whole life, he reports, has been a preparation for death (64a-b): after he dies, his soul will be separated from his body, and he will finally be able to attain the only thing of genuine value– knowledge of the forms (65b-e, 66b-67b, 69a-b). If Socrates is right, Cebes rightly asks, why shouldn’t we all commit suicide? (61b) Because, Socrates rather lamely responds, we are the property of the gods, and they should decide when we die (62b-c). Without such a view about the property rights of the gods, Cebes’ question is difficult for a person like the Socrates of the Phaedo to answer. We might think that suicide would be wrong because in death we are unable to meet our responsibilities to others, but what sense can one make of these responsibilities, if they, too, would be better off dead?

Despite what Socrates suggests about the extraordinary virtues of philosophers who are convinced by his doctrine, it seems to me that if it really were true, as the questioner suggests, that death is more desirable than life, then our whole moral system would be out of wack. Sure, the philosopher who is aiming for death would be bold in battle since he wouldn’t fear death, and so might be in some sense extraordinarily courageous (68d-69a). But what possibly could motivate him to fight for the lives and well-being of his fellow citizens, if, in fact, death would be a blessing to them? Wouldn’t he be benefitting his enemy and harming his friends if he were to kill in battle his fellow citizens’ potential killers? And what sense could one make of the virtue of justice, if there are no genuine goods in this life to distribute more or less fairly?

I think, though, that despite Socrates’ many arguments for the immortality of the soul and the promise of knowledge of the forms in the afterlife, we have no good reason to believe that (except in cases of terrible suffering) death is anything other than a loss, one of the greatest losses one can suffer, and that for this reason, our moral codes rightly demand that we work hard to protect human life. (For further thoughts on the harm of death, see Question 1596.)

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