Friday, January 25, 2013

The Lucretian Symmetry Argument (Part Two)



(Part One)

This series is about the Lucretian symmetry argument against the badness of death. According to this argument, death is like the pre-natal state of non-being (PNNB) in all important respects. And because PNNB is neither bad for us, nor something we should be worried about, it follows (by analogy) that death is not bad for us, nor something we should be worried about.

This argument is defeated if there are significant disanalogies between the two states. In part one, we considered one such disanalogy. This came from the work of Brueckner & Fisher (B&F) and is summarised in the following argument:


  • (6) We care about our future experiences in a way that we don’t care about our past experiences; more precisely: we prefer to have positive experiences in the future, and negative experiences (if necessary) in the past. 
  • (7) Death deprives us of future positive experiences; PNNB only deprives us of past positive experiences. 
  • (8) Therefore, death deprives us of something we care about, but PNNB does not. Adding the premise that deprivation is bad for us, we get a significant disanalogy between death and PNNB, one that undercuts the original Lucretian argument.


In this post, we’re going to consider a recent critique of B&F’s argument. The critique comes from the work of Fred Feldman — who is himself a firm believer in the badness of death — and focuses on how the conclusion (premise 8) of B&F’s argument is to be interpreted. Since this means we’ll have to refer to different versions of the principle throughout the remainder of this post, I will hereinafter call it the Asymmetry Thesis or AT for short.

Here’s the structure of the remainder of the post. In the first section, I follow Feldman and disambiguate two versions of the AT: (i) a de re version; and (ii) a version. In the second section, I consider Feldman’s critique of the de re version, and in the third section I consider his critique of the de dicto version. I also add, in this section, two more critiques to mix, ones that Feldman himself makes of B&F. I then conclude by addressing B&F’s response to Feldman.


1. De Re and De Dicto versions of the Asymmetry Thesis
The de re and de dicto distinction is widespread in philosophy but I don’t think I’ve ever brought it up on this blog before. Partly, that was because I didn’t know too much about it in the early days, and so tended to studiously avoid mentioning it, afraid that my ignorance would be revealed through my mishandling of this imposing latin terminology. But as it turns out the distinction is not too difficult to grasp, or at least not too difficult for the purposes of this particular blog post.

So what is it? Take the following sentence:

S1: John wants to marry the most beautiful girl in Ireland.

The italicised portion of the sentence can be understood in two different ways. In the first instance, “the most beautiful girl in Ireland” might be taken refer to a very specific girl in the real world that I want to marry. My current girlfriend for example: who I happen to think is the most beautiful girl in Ireland. In the second instance, the phrase may taken to refer to whichever girl it happens to be that matches that general description.

The first way of understanding the sentence corresponds to the de re interpretation; the second way of understanding the sentence corresponds to the de dicto interpretation. The etymology of the words is helpful here. “De re” means “of the thing”, whereas “de dicto” means “of the word”.

With any luck, this makes the distinction tolerably clear. There are many arcane and fascinating discussions we could get into about it, but there’s no need to do so now. As long as you appreciate the difference between the two interpretations of S1 you should be fine.

Anyway, Feldman holds that the Asymmetry Thesis (AT) can be interpreted in a de re sense or in a de dicto sense. To see this, consider first the original version of the AT from B&F’s argument.

Asymmetry Thesis: Death deprives us of something we care about, but PNNB does not.

Feldman’s claim is that the “something” in the AT can be understood to either: (a) refer to a specific thing (or things) that the person who dies happens to care about; or (b) refer to the general category of things that the person would care about and that they might have experienced, if they did not die. Here, once again, the first of these corresponds to the de re interpretation and the second to the de dicto interpretation.

Let’s formulate both interpretations a little more precisely (both of these are lifted from Feldman’s article):

Asymmetry Thesis (dr): When death is bad for a person D, it is bad for D because there are certain pleasant experiences, such that his death deprives D of those experiences, and D cares about those experiences. (Contrariwise, PNNB is not so bad for D because even though there are some pleasant experiences such that D’s PNNB deprives D of those experiences, D does not care about them).
Asymmetry Thesis (dd): When death is bad for a person D, it is bad for D because D cares about the fact that if he dies, he will be deprived of some pleasant experiences (though he may not know what these will be) that he otherwise would have enjoyed. (Contrariwise, PNNB is not bad for D because, even though it deprives D of pleasant experiences, he does not care about the fact that if he is born late he will be deprived of some pleasant experiences.)

It would be worthwhile getting comfortable with the distinction between these two versions of the thesis before moving on. Otherwise, let’s proceed.


2. Problems with the De Re Version
We start with Feldman’s critique of the AT(dr). In his opinion, the AT(dr) does a poor job of explaining why death is bad. To be more precise, he feels that the AT(dr) is vulnerable to a number of counterexamples. Consider the following:

SIDS Case: James is 6-month old baby. He is healthy and has a loving family. If all goes well he can expect to have a “wonderful life filled with pleasant experiences”. But, unfortunately, all does not go well. James dies in a suspected SIDS case aged 6-months and 2 days.
Car Crash: Eleanor is a young woman (aged 20) who is about to complete her college degree. She doesn’t know it yet, but in her future lies a wonderful career and a serene retirement, provided she can avoid dying in a car crash in the next 20 minutes. This, alas, she does not do.

Both of these cases undermine the AT(dr). This is because the deceased in both cases share a fundamental property that excludes the applicability of the AT(dr) account of death’s badness. The property in question is ignorance. Neither James nor Eleanor are aware of the specific positive experiences that death deprives them of, but surely this doesn’t make their deaths less bad. And yet, since the AT(dr) holds that death is only bad if the subject is actually aware of the specific experiences of which they will be deprived, it would follow that the AT(dr) is false.

As a critique of B&F’s argument, this is an interesting one. Why? Because it actually works from the position that death is indeed (contra Epicurus and Lucretius) bad for the one who dies. Thus, it only defeats B&F’s argument on the grounds that it offers a faulty account of the badness of death; it does not thereby support the symmetry argument. The goal, presumably, would be to replace the AT(dr) with a better account of the badness of death, one that could also defeat defeat the symmetry argument.

Now, I have to say this is a slightly odd way of arguing about this topic. To presume that death is bad (which is what is being presumed by Feldman’s analysis of SIDS and Car Crash), in this particular dialectic looks like being dangerously close to begging the question. This problem will recur later in the discussion when we look at B&F’s response to Feldman. For now, let’s proceed to Feldman’s critique of the AT(dd).


3. The Problems with the De Dicto Version
The critique of the AT(dd) actually follows very similar lines. The idea behind the AT(dd) is that the person need not be aware of the specific experiences that death will deprive them of in order for it to be deemed bad, but rather they need only have the general concept of some positive future experience that death might deprive them of. This is what differentiates it from the AT(dr).

But the SIDS case again provides a counterexample. The six month old child does not have the general concept of future positive experiences, so according to the AT(dd) his death is not bad. But doesn’t it seem odd to suggest that his death is not bad because he lacks the necessary conceptual machinery?

Another counterexample might work here too:

Suicide: Mike is 40 years old and suicidal. He believes there is no hope left for him: he has lost his job, his marriage has broken up, and he believes his continued existence will be nothing but misery. What he doesn’t realise is that in about six days time, he will undergo a dramatic reversal of fortune which will lead to incredibly powerful and rewarding experiences in the future. Unfortunately, Mike commits suicide just before this happens.

The problem is that Mike has a mistaken set of beliefs about his future prospects. He doesn’t actually care that his death might deprive him of some non-specific positive experience because he doesn’t believe that he will have any such experiences. But it still seems like his death is, all things considered, bad for him. This runs contrary to the AT(dd). Or so Feldman believes.

Perhaps the problem here is that the AT(dd) is, like the AT(dr), indexed to the psychological characteristics of the one who dies. Thus, lack of mental development or mistaken beliefs undermine its account of the badness of death. We could solve this by coming up with a de dicto version of the AT that is not conditioned upon the makeup of the person who dies. But what would this look like. Feldman suggests the following:

AT(dd2): When death is bad for a person D, it is bad for D because other people care about the fact that if D dies, D will be deprived of some pleasant experiences (though they may not know what experiences these will be) that D would otherwise have enjoyed. (And PNNB is not bad for contrary reasons).

The problem with this version is that it seems downright implausible. For if the other versions of the AT fail because they are indexed to the psychological peculiarities of the one who dies, then so too must this version fail because it is indexed to the psychological peculiarities of other people. Those other people could just as easily be mistaken or ignorant about possible futures.

This, then, is the main part of Feldman’s critique of B&F. He does, however, have two other observations that warrant some discussion here.

The first is that B&F’s argument is problematic in that it conflates axiology and psychology (I mentioned this problem in part one). It assumes that the fact that D does not care about something (e.g. PNNB) supplies us with reason to think that that something is not prudentially bad. But why should we accept this? Prudential axiology seems like it could be separate from our psychological quirks. Indeed, if we go back to the inspiration for B&F’s argument — the Parfittian thought experiments about our bias to the future — we find that Parfit was actually using those thought experiments to cast doubt on our general view about personal well-being. Perhaps, Parfit suggested, we are wrong to be biased toward the future. Maybe we should adopt a temporally neutral perspective on what is good or bad for us? If so, the symmetry argument may still stand, but lead to the opposite conclusion, namely: that PNNB is, contra Lucretius, bad for us.

The second problem is that B&F’s argument may simply beg the question against Lucretius. The Lucretian argument was explicitly designed to counter the asymmetric psychological attitudes that everyone has toward death. Lucretius knew that people worried about death, and that death lay in the future. He just didn’t think this attitude was rational. One of the goals of the symmetry argument was to offer a defeater for this attitude. All B&F have done is re-asserted the fact that we have asymmetric attitudes and used that to defeat the argument. Surely more is needed?


4. Brueckner and Fisher’s Response
B&F have offered a short response to Feldman’s critique. The response leaves a lot to be desired, but if you’ve been following the basic logic of Feldman’s critique you can pretty much guess where it goes. The essence of Feldman’s critique was this: the AT, in all its forms, conditions the badness of death on the attitude of some actual person or group of persons. The person who dies, in the one instance, or a non-specified group of “other people” in the other instance. But since both groups of people may suffer from psychological quirks or incapacities that result in them failing to “see” what it is rational to care about in the future, the AT fails to explain the badness of death when those quirks or incapacities are present.

Well, in that case, why not simply avoid conditioning the badness of death on the attitudes of actual people? Why not, instead, condition it on the attitudes of some hypothetical, idealised, “rational” person? That’s what we do in ethics all the time: if real people don’t have the attitudes we would like them to have, we imagine idealised people who do. David Boonin does this when responding to Don Marquis’s “Future Like Ours Argument” about the ethics of abortion.

It should come as no surprise to learn that this is what B&F do too with their revised de dicto version of the AT:

AT(dd*): When death is bad for an individual D, it is bad for D because it is rational for D to care about the fact that if D dies, D will be deprived of some pleasant experiences (though D may not know what experiences these will be) that D would otherwise have enjoyed. (Contrariwise, PNNB is not bad for an individual because, even though it deprives him or her of pleasant experiences, it is not rational for an individual to care about the fact that if he or she is born late he or she will be deprived of some pleasant experiences.)

The use of the word “rational” is key here. With it, B&F make the appeal to an idealised perspective on our psychological attitudes. No longer are they focusing on what someone does care about, instead they are focusing on what the person should care about, if they were being rational.

They claim that this version of the AT is immune to the counterexamples posed by Feldman. For instance, look at the case of the six month-old child. Clearly, it is in the child’s interest to have food, even if the child lacks the ability to conceptualise the fact that this is good. Why is that? Because from the idealised perspective of the rational person, obtaining nourishment is good. The same reasoning applies, a fortiori, to the case of the SIDS baby: their death is bad for them because, from the idealised perspective, it deprives them of something they ought to care about if they were rational.

B&F suggest that this revised version of the AT advances the case against the Lucretian symmetry argument. In a technical sense, they are correct: they have supplied a new principle that avoids Feldman’s critique and this could be used to rebut the Lucretian argument (following the method I laid down in part one). Further, they argue that this doesn’t simply beg the question against Lucretius, because his argument was purely about asymmetric attitudes toward death, not about asymmetric attitudes toward life in general. They claim that AT(dd*) is not simply being posited without support but that it is being derived from the more general rationality of asymmetric, future-biased attitudes toward life.

But is this persuasive? One clear problem is that the rationality of this more general attitude is not fully established. B&F acknowledge this in a footnote, and at the very end appeal to an article that one of them has written (Fischer) that vaguely sketches a defence of it. This defence relies on the claim that a future-biasing in our desires is rational because it is evolutionarily advantageous. To quote from the authors: “there would appear to be a clear survival advantage to any creature who cares especially about future good experiences, as opposed to past good experiences.”

I haven’t read Fischer’s earlier piece, but I’m quite familiar with this style of argument and I find it highly circumspect, particularly in this context. For one thing, I don’t see any strong reason to think that evolutionary goals are either constitutive of, or correlative with rational truths. Indeed, I think one could plausibly argue that the exact opposite it true. But in addition to this, I think the appeal to evolutionary goals is suspicious in this context. Why? Because evolution as a process is (at least partly) biased against death. Which suggests to me that the survival advantage of future-biasing may simply be feeding off the asymmetric attitude that evolution has toward death. Which means that B&F’s argument is circular: the AT(dd*) is defended by appeal to the general rationality of asymmetric attitudes toward the future, which are in turn defended by appeal to survival advantage, which is essentially an asymmetric attitude toward death in another name.

Or so it seems to me.


4. Conclusion
So where does that leave us? Probably more confused than we were when we started out. So let’s try to distill the main threads of argument.

In part one, we saw how the Lucretian argument challenges the badness of death by drawing an analogy between it and PNNB. B&F rejected this by appealing to the fact that we seem to care about the future in a way that we don’t care about the past. They claimed that this meant that death deprived us of something we care about, but PNNB does not. This was their “asymmetry thesis” (AT).
In this post we have encountered the problems arising from this thesis. Starting with Feldman, we saw how the de dicto and de re versions of the AT are vulnerable to various counterexamples. These counterexamples exploited the fact that the AT seems to condition the badness of death on the actual attitudes of particular people. B&F reply to Feldman by reformulating the AT so that it relies on the attitudes of a hypothetical, idealised, and rational person. But as I have just argued, their defence of this thesis leaves something to be desired.

None of which means that the Lucretian argument is sound. If nothing else, we are still left with the live possibility, hinted at by Parfit, that the argument simply proves that PNNB is bad for us.

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