Why should we mourn the death of a bad person? I was recently struck by an interesting philosophical conversation on death that emerged far outside of the philosophy classroom—on Twitter. Hip-hop fans were grappling with the murder of rapper XXXTentacion, born Jahseh Onfroy. Onfroy was a popular rapper with a reputation for horrific violence. Onfroy’s ex-girlfriend accused him of brutally assaulting and imprisoning her while she was pregnant in 2015. Onfroy also once confessed to assaulting his gay cellmate at a juvenile detention center for staring at him.
Reactions to Onfroy’s murder in Twitter and Reddit’s hip-hop communities ran the gamut from sorrowful condolences to messages of good riddance. In Los Angeles, fans blocked roadways and swarmed cars during a vigil for Onfroy. Onfroy’s death forced many to confront the question: How should we regard Onfroy’s death if he truly lived a morally abhorrent life?
Philosophers have different views on whether death is bad. Ancient Greek philosophers like Lucretius believed that death is not bad if there is no afterlife: You are not around after death to experience any badness. Contemporary philosophers sometimes disagree. Thomas Nagel claims that death is bad because it deprives us of future experiences, of seeing our grandchildren grow up, of seeing Beyoncé in concert, and so on. Other philosophers, like Bernard Williams, suggest that death is bad if it thwarts certain kinds of desires we have (which he calls ‘categorical desires’). It would be bad to die while writing your novel, for example, if you have the desire to finish it.
These views may not seem as attractive when we consider the death of someone living a morally vicious life. A serial killer’s death would deprive him of future pleasurable experiences too—of his seeing Beyoncé in concert, for example. Yet it is difficult to say the serial killer’s death is bad on this account. Likewise, bad people sometimes die without having satisfied their categorical desires. Adolf Hitler died without satisfying his desire for world domination, but we do not thereby claim that Hitler’s death was bad.
The musician Jidenna’s tweets about Onfroy’s death contain the skeleton of an interesting philosophical argument. I have not seen this argument arise in the philosophy classroom. Responding to others, Jidenna claimed, “…remember this…if Malcolm X was killed at the age of 20, he would have died an abuser, a thief, an addict, and a narrow-minded depressed & violent criminal.”
Even if Onfroy committed heinous crimes without remorse, his death is bad. Onfroy’s death is not necessarily bad because it deprived him of future pleasurable experiences or because it thwarted his current desires. Onfroy’s death is bad because it deprived him of the opportunity to morally redeem himself and to bring significant good into the world. This is an interesting take on why the death of a morally vicious person is bad. This view emerged because Jidenna and millions of other hip-hop fans were very publicly trying to absorb the death of a notorious figure.
Various religious texts already stress the importance of turning to a righteous life before death. For example, in Christianity it is important to repent before death because there seems to be no opportunity to do so afterward. According to the Quran: if you do not sincerely repent for your sins during life, you will receive punishment after death. Jidenna demonstrates that the significance of moral redemption resonates with us even without mention of an afterlife. A person’s death is bad when it deprives them of the ability to become morally good.
This is not to say that we should admire Onfroy like we do Malcolm X (as Jidenna himself clarified). We should not ignore the allegations against Onfroy nor award more attention to his death than to the plight of his victims. Nevertheless, many interesting philosophical questions arise once we take this view seriously. Is the death of a bad person worse if the person is highly likely to redeem himself? This question is relevant to Onfroy’s death as certain commentators, like Hannah Giorgis writing for The Atlantic, doubted that Onfroy was likely to make amends any time soon. Are certain crimes so heinous that a person could never redeem himself (the crimes Onfroy is accused of may fall into this camp)? Jidenna and hip-hop fans have made it possible and salient to explore these philosophical avenues.
Erica Shumener is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh. She likes examining philosophical arguments outside of the classroom and university setting.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, July 8th, 2018.
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