Death #1 – Facing Death & What Makes Life Worthwhile

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Area: Literature/Language Arts
Grade Level: High School & Beyond
Topics: death/dying, ethics
Estimated Time Necessary: 1-2 hours - can be continued over multiple sessions

Lesson Plan

Objectives:
Discuss attitudes towards death and what makes a good life.
The aim of this session is to discuss attitudes toward life and death. Do we want to have foreknowledge of death? How do we assess our lives from the perspective of the end of life? What would we consider to be a good death?

This lesson plan can be read in conjunction with “Chapter 2. Death” (pp. 29-43) in the freely available teaching resource Coping: A Philosophical Guide (Open Book Publishers, 2021) with discussion questions (pp. 122-3) and additional teaching materials (p. 119). 

1. Foreknowledge

I suggest the following opening question for discussion: Would you prefer to see death coming, say at the end of a terminal, but relatively painless, illness, or would you prefer death to come unbeknownst to you, say, while you are sleeping or in a sudden fatal accident? What we want to know is whether students find the foreknowledge of death a good thing or not. I have found classrooms divided on this question and it is interesting to see how students offer reasons for their positions.

Here are some variants of this questions. Suppose that some oracle could tell you precisely when and how you are going to die and there is nothing you can do to change it. Would you like to know? Or, more realistically: There is a particular genetic disease in your family for which there is no cure. People with the fateful gene will die when they are young, say, typically in their mid-thirties. You have a 25% chance of being a carrier of the gene. Would you choose to get tested? Why? Or why not?

2. A Worthwhile Life

Those who want to see death coming may see a value in taking stock of their lives. Ask students to imagine themselves at the end of life. Looking back, what would make them think that their life was worthwhile?

The following leading question has the same purpose. Can you think of anyone (whether famous or not) who lived in such a way that you would say: If I were to have lived like that, then I would die easy (as in the Blind Willie Johnson gospel blues song “In my Time of Dying”)? What kind of life would you look back upon in a contented manner? And what makes such a life a meaningful or a good life?

Once there are some answers on the table, you can draw distinctions. Some students will focus on achievements, while others will focus on a particular mode of living, such as living an honest life. As to achievements, some will think that having some enduring legacy is important, others will point to things that make a difference here and now. And finally, some will want to see their contributions as grand and exceptional, while others will focus on the importance of small differences.

If you want to bring out the importance of making contributions that are enduring, here is a leading question. Suppose that people have become infertile for some unknown reasons (as in P.D. James’s novel Children of Men) and it is becoming clear that we will be the last generation on earth. How would this affect humanity? Would we live differently? Would we still be able to find meaning in our endeavors? Or you can vary the case with an incoming meteor strike that is bound to wipe out humanity in a month’s time.

If you need a counterpoint to students focusing on illustrious lives, you may ask them to reflect on Emily Dickinson’s “If I can stop one heart from breaking” and “I’m Nobody! Who are you?

3. A Good Death

Students will be familiar with stories of top athletes who died while competing at the highest level. These deaths are often reported as tragic deaths of young people whose lives are cut short. But one might ask, isn’t there some consolation in such a death that is absent when a young person dies due to disease or in a car accident? How so?   

I would expect students to say something like the athlete died doing what they liked to do best, doing something that they excelled at, that they believed in, that they stood for in life, that brought honor to their country, that brought joy to sports fans, etc.

You could compare these observations with Aristotle’s observation in the Nicomachean Ethics (Bk 3, Ch 6) that death on the battle field is the most honorable death, while dying from disease or dying by drowning as a passenger in a ship wreck are unenviable deaths. Why would Aristotle think that death on the battlefield is the most honorable death? How does it compare with what we would say about a death in a sporting event?

For an additional activity, you could connect this image of a good death with a policy debate in places where euthanasia is legal: Should people who choose for euthanasia be able to choose to be organ donors? What arguments might we envision for and against such a policy? An argument against is that people may feel pressured to ask for euthanasia by unscrupulous doctors who want their organs. An argument in favor is that some people may regard organ donation through euthanasia as a good death, because it allows them to benefit others in death.

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Resources

This lesson plan was created for PLATO by: Luc Bovens, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Artwork by Fiorella Lavado.

This work is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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