Is there ever a time when betrayal isn’t bad for you? Maybe betraying my chunky friend by eating his cookie will be seen as good. Unfortunately, it is entirely about perception. While our definitions of what’s good and bad may vary, the fact that we have them will not. A betrayal postmortem is a betrayal just the same, the dead man is just not alive to see it.
“The discovery of betrayal makes us unhappy because it is bad to be betrayed — not that betrayal is bad because its discovery makes us unhappy,” (Nagel). If a son were to break a promise to his dead father, he will have hurt his father. The father will not know… because he’s dead, but he will still be hurt. “What you don’t know can’t hurt you,” is an example of our ideas of human values trying to find footing. Something can be bad for a man without it being positively unpleasant to him.
If an adult male’s mind is reverted back to that of an infant, we would view it as a tragedy. Regardless of the man not knowing what he has lost, we determine the value of his transition. “If we consider the person he was, and the person he could be now, then his reduction to this state constitutes a perfectly intelligible catastrophe,” (Nagel). Just like death, his accident is bad by comparison to how he once was. Death is not intrinsically or instrumentally bad. The badness derives from it comparatively being worse than living.
When the son breaks the promise to his father, no badness is done to the father. He’s dead, he can’t know what his son is doing anymore… Except that it is not the discovery of betrayal which causes suffering, but the betrayal itself. Before this class I could have easily assumed that since the dad has no consciousness, nothing bad can happen to him. Thanks to Nagel, I now know that even after you die, life can get worse. If the dad were to continue living, his son’s betrayal would certainly be bad for him. There are relational properties of a betrayal that, unless we eliminate the temporal relationship between the subject of a misfortune and the circumstances which constitute it, delegate a badness to a broken promise.
“The value of life and its contents does not attach to mere organic survival,” (Nagel). The value in our passions and relationships still exist after we die. They will have superseded us alongside people’s memories of us. Epicurus and Lucretius say that nothing good or evil can happen when you are dead because you can’t have a headache after death. They fail to differentiate different types of goods and evils. Nagel points out that they are merely focusing on the individuals, but there are more values at stake.
Nonrelational properties concern the subject: his or herself. For example, to be five feet tall or to have a headache. Relational properties revolve around situations with other people, self, and future selves. “They are features between a person, with spatial and temporal boundaries of the usual sort, and circumstances which may not coincide with him either in space or time,” (Nagel). Long after we’re gone, all we will have is relational properties. We may not be aware of them, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. “A man’s life includes much that does not take place within the boundaries of his life,” (Nagel). Promises are relational properties.
Breaking the promise is an injury to the dead man. Think of time as just another type of distance. If evil derives from the contrast between reality and hypothetical alternatives, “a man is the subject of good and evil as much as he has hopes which may or may not be fulfilled, or possibilities which may or may not be realized, because of his capacity to suffer and enjoy,” (Nagel). We cannot feel pity for any wrongdoing that happens to a corpse, but to a man we certainly can. Disregarding his present position, his misfortune lies in the fact of betrayal. If there is a loss, someone must suffer it, even if the loss itself doesn’t have specific spatial and temporal location. His broken promise is bad because betrayal is bad, not because of his condition.
“It is arbitrary to restrict the goods and evils that can befall a man to nonrelational properties ascribable to him at particular times,” (Nagel). These are boundaries that are consistently crossed by the misfortunes of betrayal. The badness of his betrayal gets muddier in Nagel’s interpretation of Shelly Kagan’s Deprivation Account. “Life is worth living even when the bad elements of experience are plentiful, and the good ones too meager to outweigh the bad ones on their own. The additional positive weight is supplied by experience itself, rather than by any of its consequences,” (Nagel). If death is bad because we miss out on the experience of life, then what is bad about the betrayal is not only the act, but the fact that the father cannot witness it.
It’s crazy to think that breaking the promise is worse for the father when he can’t experience it, instead of when he can, because then why would we ever try to hide things from each other? This is a head-first attempt at abolishing the idea that lying can sometimes be good. We often try to “not tell the whole truth,” in order to protect our friends, but more often than not it’s a detriment. If we can calculate a singular moment where the son chooses to break his promise, that moment isn’t just bad because he broke his promise, but because his dad is not around to experience it. If the father were to be alive and experience his son’s wrongdoing, it would certainly be bad, but it wouldn’t be worse than not living to see it at all.
While we have all an expiration date, the sense of our own experience does not embody a natural limit. Our future is open-ended, containing a mixture of goods and evils that were important to us when we once lived. “Having been gratuitously introduced to the world by a collection of natural, historical, and social accidents,” (Nagel), we are subjects of life creating more accidents to give life meaning. Our bodies may die, but our philosophies and the idea of ourselves will live on. As long as we are not forgotten, we are not dead.
Nagel, Thomas. Mortal Questions. Cambridge University Press, 1992