Syracuse University Magazine

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Ben Bradley

Understanding Outlooks on Death

Philosophy professor Ben Bradley makes a career out of studying, teaching, and writing about death—a subject most people would rather not consider too closely. But for Bradley, questions about death are, in a word, interesting. “The main questions I’ve been lately thinking about have to do with rational emotions concerning death—the different kinds of emotions people have concerning death, and whether it makes sense to have them,” says Bradley, chair of the Department of Philosophy in the College of Arts and Sciences. “For example, existential terror or angst at the thought that at some point in the future you won’t exist—what should you think about that? That’s one of the things I’m thinking about—how to make sense of that kind of feeling of terror.”

A prominent philosophy scholar with expertise in ethics and philosophy of death, Bradley joined the SU faculty more than a decade ago. In June 2014, he was named the inaugural Sutton Distinguished Chair in Philosophy, established by Anita Sutton ’60 and Allan D. Sutton ’55. “It was an honor to be named the Sutton Chair,” says Bradley, who is also director of the philosophy department’s integrated learning major in ethics. “Unfortunately, the humanities have experienced drastic funding cuts over the years. This fund, established by two passionate SU alums, serves as a reminder that the humanities are not only a critical piece of a solid liberal arts education, but more importantly a central part of society.” 

Originally from New Jersey, Bradley earned a Ph.D. degree at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and has held academic positions at Princeton University, Western Washington University, Virginia Tech, and Illinois Wesleyan University. He is a frequent contributor to such scholarly journals as Philosophical Studies, Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy, Utilitas, and Ethics, and has published three books exploring topics related to well-being and philosophy of death. Additionally, he has been recognized for his excellence in the humanities, receiving the Laurance S. Rockefeller Fellowship at Princeton’s Center for Human Values in 2011 and a Syracuse University Excellence in Graduate Education Faculty Recognition Award in 2013.

His current research is supported by a $94,000 grant from The Immortality Project at the University of California, Riverside—a project that, according to Bradley, has “sparked an interesting and necessary conversation about how people view and even prepare for the afterlife” and has also “given philosophers, scientists, and theologians the financial tools to study mortality.” Funded by the John Templeton Foundation, the grant allows Bradley and two of his graduate students to study death, rational emotion, and meaningfulness. “Through our research, we’re exploring what emotions and attitudes are fitting or appropriate to have toward one’s own death, and toward the possibility of radically extended or immortal life,” Bradley says. “Death is never an easy topic to discuss, but it is my hope that our research will uncover why we feel the way we do and shed further light on how the meaningfulness of life can explain the rationality behind certain emotions toward death.” —Amy Speach

Photo by Steve Sartori