Wednesday, May 04, 2011


I'm looking again at the 'symmetry argument' used by the Epicureans as part of their contention that death is not to be feared.  Death is not to be feared, they say, because post mortem non-existence is a mirror image of pre-natal non-existence and since pre-natal non-existence is not harmful (precisely: they say that it was not harmful, sc. at the time before birth) so too death, post mortem non-existence is not harmful.

The literature on this argument is pretty tangled so I'm trying to sort out a taxonomy of views.

Here is what I have so far.  I'm trying to find some labels for the different possible views.

Symmetry of pre-natal and post mortem non existence? Pre-natal non-existence a possible harm? Post mortem non-existence a possible  harm?
EpicureansY N N
'Symmetrists'Y Y Y
'Asymmetrists' N N Y
??? N Y N

The stance taken by the Epicureans and their modern defenders is clear. The other two major camps in the more recent debate, however, agree with one another that death can be harmful and in this regard they disagree with Epicurus; but they then each retain one of the other two claims made by the Epicureans and deny the other. Their differing respective stances on the symmetry or otherwise of the two periods of non-existence accompany different conclusions about pre-natal non-existence. Those I shall call the ‘asymmetrists’ offer a package which combines the generally accepted anti-Epicurean claim that death can be harmful with a premise that the Epicureans do accept, namely that pre-natal non-existence cannot be harmful. They therefore need to identify some relevant different between the two periods of non-existence. The ‘symmetrists’, in response, reject the proposed distinction between these two periods and, while therefore accepting the Epicurean symmetry premise, conclude against the Epicureans that it is possible for pre-natal non-existence to be harmful. Note that these two camps are not here distinguished in terms of whether we do or should take a symmetrical attitude or not to these two periods, but rather in terms of whether, irrespective of the attitudes we do or should take, the two periods are indeed alike in terms of their potential for harm. Symmetrists on this count may therefore accept that we do have asymmetrical attitudes to the two periods while thinking that the two are in fact symmetrical in terms of their harmfulness.

A question: the fourth possibility is one which denies the symmetry and thinks that pre-natal non existence is a possible harm while post mortem non existence is not.  Has anybody ever held this view?  (I imagine not: it would seem to hold that we had better make as many babies as we possibly can as soon as we can since any delay to coming into existence is a possible harm but we need not worry too much about them afterwards since death is not a possible harm.)  What can I call it?


Chris said...

Would you include among those who hold that pre-natal non-existence is harmful also those who hold some kind of metempsychosis?

If so, I imagine you could find all sorts of variations on the positions you're parsing out here. The obvious example is something along the lines of harms from a past life.

James Warren said...
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James Warren said...

I am assuming for the moment that both post mortem time and pre-natal time are periods of non existence of the thing whom we are considering as a subject of potential harm. So this is compatible with all sorts of odd stories about souls etc. pre-existing life or surviving death provided just that the soul is not the person.