The Lucretian Puzzle and the Nature of Time
The Lucretian Puzzle and the Nature of Time
Jens Johansson 0
0 Department of Philosophy, Uppsala University , Box 627, 75126 Uppsala , Sweden
If a person's death is bad for him for the reason that he would have otherwise been intrinsically better off, as the Deprivation Approach says, does it not follow that his prenatal nonexistence is bad for him as well? Recently, it has been suggested that the ''A-theory'' of time can be used to support a negative answer to this question. In this paper, I raise some problems for this approach.
Death; Deprivation approach; Lucretian puzzle
According to the Deprivation Approach to the badness of death, in many cases death
is overall bad for the one who dies; and when it is, it is bad for him because, and to
the extent that, he would have been on balance intrinsically better off if it had not
occurred. (Bradley 2009; Feldman 1991; Luper 2009) The term ‘‘overall’’ is there
for two reasons. First, deprivationists do not primarily aim to capture death’s
intrinsic value (if any) for the one who dies, or its extrinsic value for him, but rather
a value that combines death’s intrinsic and extrinsic value for him. Second, the
relevant sort of value is supposed to combine death’s entire intrinsic and extrinsic
value for him. The claim is thus not that a person’s death can be bad for him in a
certain specific respect, for instance by depriving him of life’s most meaningful
activities, or by making trouble for him at one particular time. The view is, instead,
concerned with death’s ‘‘all things considered’’ badness for the victim.
Despite being about something appalling, the Deprivation Approach is appealing.
In particular, in addition to giving the intuitively correct result in lots of cases in
which a person dies—for instance, it yields that death is typically a serious
misfortune for a healthy thirty-year-old, but not so much for a permanently ill
eighty-year-old—it is congenial with plausible judgments about non-death-related
evils. Typically, for example, it is overall bad for a person to be hit by a car, or to
catch a disease, or to be drugged into unconsciousness; and it is attractive to say that
this is precisely because he would have otherwise been on balance intrinsically
better off. A mark in favor of the Deprivation Approach, then, is that it makes death
relevantly similar to other overall bad things.
In this context, however, the ‘‘Lucretian puzzle’’ arises.1 If death is an evil for the
reason offered by the Deprivation Approach, then it seems that prenatal
nonexistence—that is, its not being the case that the person comes into existence
earlier and thereby lives a longer life—must often be an evil, too. For, in many
cases, if the person had come into existence earlier and thereby lived a longer life,
then he would have been on balance intrinsically better off (indeed, much better off)
than he actually is. The problem is that, intuitively, a person’s prenatal nonexistence
is not bad (let alone very bad) for him. Of course, this does not show that
deprivationists are wrong in taking a person’s death to be bad for him, but it
suggests that, if it is, their explanation of this fact is unsatisfactory.
Recently, a number of authors have argued that certain views of the nature of
time have a significant bearing on this and related puzzles. (Deng 2015; Robson
2014; see also Le Poidevin 1996) Specifically, it has been argued that some versions
of the ‘‘A-theory’’—according to which there is an absolutely present time—
provide deprivationists with a promising response to the Lucretian. I shall devote
most of my discussion to Natalja Deng’s suggestion, according to which, on some
suitable A-theoretic views, a person’s death deprives him of intrinsic goods,
whereas his prenatal nonexistence does not (Sects. 2–5). However, I shall also
discuss Jon Robson’s approach, which is based on the A-theoretic view that future
things, unlike past and present things, do not exist (Sect. 6).
We can all agree that 2017 is later than 2005, and that Donald Trump’s presidential
term occurs later than his and Melania Trump’s wedding. We can all agree that 2017
as well as 2005 is present relative to itself. And we can all agree that my utterance of
‘‘Donald Trump is now President’’ is simultaneous with a portion of his presidential
term, just as the priest’s utterance of ‘‘You are now husband and wife’’ is
simultaneous with a portion of the Trumps’ marriage. But we do not all agree on
whether ‘‘tenseless’’ facts like these are all there is to temporal reality. According to
the B-theory of time, they are. In particular, no time is absolutely present; every
time is simply present relative to itself (just as no place is absolutely here; every
place is simply here relative to itself). According to the A-theory, by contrast, there
1 So-called as it is based on some suggestive remarks by Lucretius (1940: 134). For a recent debate—
much of which has taken place in The Journal of Ethics—on the response suggested in Brueckner and
Fischer (1986), see Cyr (2014, 2016), Feldman (2013), Fischer and Brueckner (2013, 2014a, b, c),
Johansson (2013, 2014a, b, 2016) and Purves (2015).
are irreducibly tensed facts; in particular, there is an absolutely present time. As
Deng points out, it is natural to think that the A-theory, unlike the B-theory, allows
the passage of time to be an objective feature of the world. (Deng 2015: 425;
contrast Deng 2012) After all, the present moment has not always been present, and
will soon enough cease to be so; similarly, on the A-theory, not only does a
persisting thing have an absolute age, its absolute age steadily becomes higher.
Deng claims that a process ‘‘as metaphysically fundamental as A-theoretic
passage’’ can be expected to have significant axiological consequences as well.
(Deng 2015: 425) In particular, she suggests, it lends credibility to the view that
some present and future events, though no past events, are intrinsically good or bad
for a person. As is common in the debate on the Lucretian puzzle, Deng assumes a
simple hedonistic axiology; this is strategically desirable, since such an axiology is
what underlies many criticisms of the Deprivation Approach, especially from those
who deny that death is an evil. (Epicurus 1940) On this simple hedonistic view, all
basic bearers of intrinsic goodness for a person are experiences of pleasure, and all
basic bearers of intrinsic badness for him are experiences of pain. The relevant
A-theory-based view then says that the basic bearers of intrinsic goodness for a
person are his own present and future experiences of pleasure, whereas the basic
bearers of intrinsic badness for him are his own present and future experiences of
pain. Of course, each of his past experiences of pleasure or pain once was
intrinsically good or bad for him, but it lost its intrinsic value for him once it ceased
to be present.
This view, Deng suggests, provides proponents of the Deprivation Approach with
a promising solution to the Lucretian puzzle. For whereas a person’s death deprives
him of future experiences of pleasure, which on this view are intrinsically good for
him, his prenatal nonexistence only deprives him of past experiences of pleasure,
which on this view are not intrinsically good for him.2 Thus, the deprivationist
explanation of the evil of death does not, after all, commit its defenders to the evil of
For the more technically inclined, Deng takes ‘‘the (current) intrinsic value of a
[possible] world w for s’’ to be ‘‘the amount of present or future pleasure
s experiences in that world, minus the amount of present or future pain s experiences
in that world.’’ (Deng 2015: 425) The proposed principle is then:
The (current) overall value for s, of a state of affairs p = the (current) intrinsic
value for s of the closest p-world, minus the (current) intrinsic value for s of
the closest not-p-world. (Deng 2015: 426)
Given this principle, the overall value for a currently living person of his death is
negative, assuming that, in the closest world in which his death does not occur, he
receives a greater amount of pleasure minus pain at and after (what is in fact) the
present time than he does in the actual world at and after the present time. By
contrast, the overall value for him of his prenatal nonexistence is not negative, for in
the closest world in which he starts to exist earlier and thereby gets a longer life, he
2 I am using ‘‘deprive’’ in a value-neutral sense; thus, that something deprives someone of something
does not receive a greater amount of pleasure minus pain at and after (what is in
fact) the present time than he does in the actual world at and after the present time.
Deng emphasizes the difference between her approach and a related view. On the
related view, a person’s death and prenatal nonexistence are both bad for him, but
whereas it is rational for him to have negative attitudes toward his death (as it
deprives him of future pleasure), it is not rational for him to have negative attitudes
toward his prenatal nonexistence (as it only deprives him of past pleasure). (cf.
Fischer and Brueckner 2014a: 8–9) According to Deng, it is preferable not to have
to bite the bullet and accept that a person’s prenatal nonexistence is, in fact, bad for
him. In contrast to the related view, her view leaves that bullet unbitten.
As Deng notes, her proposal does not yield that it will always be the case that a
person’s death is bad for him: there will be a point after his death at which he would
have no more pleasure in store, even if his actual death had not occurred (for
instance, because he would have died a later death by then). Similarly, Deng’s
proposal does not yield that it has never been the case that the person’s prenatal
nonexistence is bad for him: the pleasure of which his prenatal nonexistence
deprives him has not always been past. In other words, Deng’s approach does not
yield an eternal value asymmetry between death and prenatal nonexistence. But the
important thing, she argues, is that her view allows us to say that a (currently living)
person’s death, unlike his prenatal nonexistence, is bad for him.
Metaphysical Versus Axiological Asymmetry
Is the A-theory true? In the present context, this is not an appropriate question.
Deng, who is not herself an A-theorist, claims only that if some suitable version of
the A-theory is true, then it offers deprivationists a promising response to the
Lucretian puzzle. Naturally, this is more interesting if the relevant A-theoretic view
is true than if it is false, but it is interesting enough so long as that view is, at least,
not very unlikely to be true. Here is a more appropriate question: Why believe that
the A-theory (in some suitable version), if true, gives rise to an axiological
asymmetry between past and future pleasure?
The most straightforward way of ruling out the intrinsic value of past experiences
of pleasure would be to deny their existence. This is what the most popular version
of the A-theory does: according to ‘‘presentism’’, present things exist, whereas past
and future things do not. But of course, if presentism rules out the intrinsic value of
past pleasure for this reason, then it also rules out the intrinsic value of future
pleasure. Indeed, if the ‘‘growing block’’ view—the A-theoretic view that past and
present things exist, whereas future things do not—is true (as Robson’s approach
assumes; see Sect. 6), the same consideration rules out the intrinsic value of future
pleasure, but not the intrinsic value of past and present pleasure. This is the reverse
of what Deng needs. As she points out, the A-theoretic view that corresponds
ontologically to her proposed axiology is, instead, the ‘‘shrinking block’’ view, on
which present and future things exist, whereas past things do not. But as she also
indicates, this view is something of an outlier in the A-theoretic family—one that
presumably fails to satisfy our ‘‘not very unlikely to be true’’ desideratum.
However, Deng suggests that other A-theoretic views might be suitable for her
purposes. Specifically, on the ‘‘moving spotlight’’ view, although past, present, and
future things all exist, one time is metaphysically special by being absolutely
present.3 Present events are those that are in the spotlight of the present, although
they have of course been future, and will become past. Future events are
continuously moving toward the spotlight, whereas past events are moving further
and further away from it. (Or, if you like: the spotlight is continuously moving away
from past events and toward future events.) In saying this, the moving spotlight
view yields a kind of metaphysical—though not ontological—asymmetry between
past and future events. Does it also yield the axiological asymmetry that Deng
proposes? Deng thinks so:
This difference … provides a rationale for assigning objective intrinsic value
only to present and future experiences. Those are the experiences still to come,
the ones we rightly look forward to or dread. The passage of time, the moving
of the spotlight, annihilates this intrinsic value even though it does not
annihilate the events themselves. (Deng 2015: 429–430)
However, there is not much of an argument here. It is not clear to me why an
experience of pleasure’s moving toward the spotlight, as opposed to moving away
from it, should be taken to indicate that it is intrinsically good for the subject. Is this
idea really more plausible than the idea that someone’s experience of pleasure is
intrinsically good for him when and only when it is in the spotlight? Is it more
plausible than the idea that someone’s experience of pleasure is always intrinsically
good for him just in case it has been, is, or will be in the spotlight? For that matter, is
it more plausible than the reverse idea that, although an experience of pleasure is not
intrinsically good for the subject until it enters the spotlight, once it has been in the
spotlight, it continues to be intrinsically good for him (much as, for example,
although an individual is not dead until his biological processes have ceased to
function, once they have done so, he continues to be dead)? Perhaps the answer is
Yes to all these questions, but that remains to be shown.
Note, furthermore, that it seems clear that a person’s future pleasure is not
intrinsically better for him now than it used to be; someone’s 2018 pleasure is not
intrinsically better for him in 2017 than it was in 2016. However, if experiences of
pleasure that move toward the spotlight are intrinsically good for the subject,
whereas those that move away from it are not, then it needs to be explained why a
future experience of pleasure is not also intrinsically better the closer it gets to the
spotlight. After all, if people who are walking forward toward a nonmetaphorical
spotlight have their faces lit, whereas those who are walking forward away from it
do not, then presumably a person walking forward toward the spotlight has his face
more lit the closer he gets to the spotlight.
It may be argued that these doubts are misplaced. For, it may be suggested, it is
simply an intuitively plausible claim that a person’s present and future experiences
of pleasure, unlike his past experiences of pleasure, are intrinsically good for him—
and absolutely so, as opposed to being merely intrinsically good for him relative to
3 She also mentions a ‘‘thinning tree’’ view (Deng 2015: 430), which I shall not discuss separately.
some time. While the moving spotlight view might not exactly provide any positive
reason to accept this claim, no such reason is needed (aside from the claim’s
intuitive appeal). What matters is only that our theory of time allows the claim to be
true; and the moving spotlight view does this, as it takes events to be absolutely
past, present, and future. By contrast, B-theorists can at most say that those of a
person’s experiences of pleasure that are present or future relative to a given time
are intrinsically good for him relative to that time, whereas those that are past
relative to that time are not.
I doubt whether the claim in question is intuitively plausible. Be that as it may,
we shall now turn to some problems for it, ones that are largely independent of the
Again, on the Dengian axiology, a person’s past experiences of pleasure are
irrelevant to the intrinsic value of a possible world for him, and therefore to an
event’s overall value for him. Here are two critical points about this.
First, in Sect. 1, I said that one virtue of the Deprivation Approach is that it is
congenial with attractive judgments about non-death-related evils, such as being hit
by a car, catching a disease, or being drugged into unconsciousness. Deng’s
approach seems to sacrifice at least some of this virtue. For with regard to events
that no longer affect the person’s receipt of pleasure and pain, Deng’s approach is
congenial with unattractive judgments about non-death-related evils. Suppose, for
instance, that a currently living person was hit by a car in the past, and that he would
have otherwise occupied a much higher hedonic level in the years that followed, but
at every present or future time occupies the same hedonic level as he would have
done at that time without the accident. It is, of course, very plausible to deny that the
person’s present and future momentary well-being levels are affected by the
accident: he is right now, and will continue to be, no less intrinsically well off than
he would have been if the accident had not occurred. This is, then, one
notable respect in which the car accident is not bad for him. But recall, from
Sect. 1, that overall badness for a person—which is what the Deprivation Approach
is concerned with—involves all things considered badness for him; and it does not
seem attractive to deny, as the Dengian will need to do, that the car accident is all
things considered bad for the person. Naturally, even on Deng’s approach, the car
accident has been overall bad for the person (namely, when the pleasure of which it
deprives the person was future); but as indicated earlier, the same holds for prenatal
nonexistence as well. Intuitively, the car accident, like his death, is a serious
misfortune for him in a way that his prenatal nonexistence is not. It belongs in the
same group as death and other overall evils, not in the same group as prenatal
nonexistence and other overall non-evils.
Second, Deng’s approach is difficult to reconcile with the rationality of certain
attitudes toward past experiences. Compare two possible scenarios: in the first one,
the person has had a long and pleasant life, but because he is about to die he has
only a small amount of pleasure (and no pain) in store; in the second possible
scenario, he has had a long and painful life, and is about to die, but has slightly more
pleasure in store than in the first scenario (and no pain). It seems to be clearly
rationally permissible for the person’s friends and family to prefer, now, for his own
sake, the first scenario to the second. Surely rationality does not require indifference
toward the past pleasure and pain of our loved ones, or regarding their past pleasure
and pain as lexically less important than their present and future pleasure and pain.4
However, if the first scenario were intrinsically worse for the person than the second
scenario—as Deng’s approach yields—it is hard to see why this preference for the
first scenario would be rationally permissible. In saying this, we need not deny that
the person’s friends and family are rationally permitted to prefer, for his sake, the
scenario that is intrinsically worse for him. For it may be argued that a strong form
of ‘‘future bias’’ is rationally permissible here, so that the person’s friends and
family are also rationally permitted to prefer the second scenario (as his future
contains more pleasure there), even if it is intrinsically worse for him. In this way,
what is intrinsically best for the person might come apart from what they are
rationally permitted to prefer for his sake. However, this does not mean that these
two factors can come apart in just any way. In particular, the appeal to future bias
cannot give us any reason to think that, although the preference for the first scenario
is rationally permissible, the second scenario is nevertheless intrinsically better for
the person. For the preference for the first scenario is evidently not due to any future
bias (again, the person’s future contains less pleasure there). It might be suggested,
instead, that the current preference for the first scenario is rationally permissible
because the first scenario once was intrinsically much better for the person than the
second scenario (for example, at a time when all the relevant experiences were in
the future). However, if the past intrinsic value of a scenario is relevant to the
rationality of current preferences, why think that it is irrelevant to current overall
value (as the Dengian view says)? That would be an odd combination of views.
Recall that, on the Deprivation Approach, in cases where death is overall bad for the
one who dies, it is overall bad for him because he would have otherwise been on
balance intrinsically better off. The Lucretian points out that if this is the
explanation, then there are also many cases in which the person’s prenatal
nonexistence is overall bad for him. Deprivationists who, like Deng, want to avoid
that consequence need to show that, whereas a person’s death makes him on balance
intrinsically worse off (in many cases), his prenatal nonexistence does not. In order
for Deng’s proposal to have any significant bearing on the Lucretian puzzle, it is not
enough to deliver just any sort of value asymmetry between death and prenatal
nonexistence; it needs to deliver this particular result. Does it?
4 This should be accepted even by those who believe that such an attitude is rationally required towards
one’s own past pleasure and pain. As is often observed, there is an intuitive difference, with regard to the
rationality of temporal partiality, between the first-person and the third-person case.
It may be instructive to begin with a view that, if true, would be promising in this
regard. Note first that, plausibly, if an event makes a person on balance intrinsically
worse off by depriving him of pleasure, then that pleasure would be intrinsically
good for him at the time at which he would receive it. Now consider the view that
this condition is satisfied by the pleasure of which a currently living person’s death
deprives him, but, surprisingly enough, not by the pleasure of which his prenatal
nonexistence deprives him. For, on this view, although someone’s future
experiences of pleasure will be intrinsically good for him when their time comes,
his past experiences of pleasure were not intrinsically good for him even while he
had them. While this view seems absurd (how could past and future pleasure differ
in this way?), it would, if true, support the thesis that the person’s death, unlike his
prenatal nonexistence, makes him on balance intrinsically worse off. By contrast,
Deng’s suggestion is not absurd; her claim is only that the pleasure of which the
person’s death deprives him, unlike the pleasure of which his prenatal nonexistence
deprives him, would be intrinsically good for him now (in addition to being
intrinsically good for him when he would receive it, just like all his pleasure). But in
return, it is more unclear in what way her claim is supposed to have any relevance to
the person’s well-being—to how intrinsically well off he is in the respective
Admittedly, on the most natural understanding of the claim, it does have such
relevance. For on the most natural understanding of the claim, the pleasure of which
the person’s death deprives him, unlike the pleasure of which his prenatal
nonexistence deprives him, would contribute positively to how intrinsically well off
he is right now. However, the most natural understanding of the claim makes the
claim implausible. (Johansson 2013: 58–59) For one thing, it is doubtful whether
how intrinsically well off a person is at a certain time can depend, even in part, on
what happens later—and especially on a hedonistic axiology. For another, if a
person’s future but not past pleasure contributes positively to how intrinsically well
off he is now, then, implausibly, a happy person who receives an equal amount of
pleasure every day gets increasingly worse off, as more and more of his experiences
of pleasure move into the past. Deng is well aware of problems like these (Deng
2015: 428), and consequently distances herself from the thesis that a person’s future
experiences affect how intrinsically well off he is now.
By doing this, however, she appears to me to also distance herself too much from
the thesis that the person’s future death, unlike his prenatal nonexistence, makes him
on balance intrinsically worse off. Plausibly, in order for the alleged fact that the
person’s future pleasure is intrinsically good for him now to make a difference to
how intrinsically well off he is on balance, it has to make a difference to how
intrinsically well off he is at some moment. (At least this is reasonable if we assume,
with Deng, a hedonistic axiology. On some non-hedonistic views, how intrinsically
well off someone is on balance is not solely dependent on how intrinsically well off
he is at moments. This is usually because, on those views, some things that help
determine how intrinsically well off a person is on balance—e.g., the ‘‘shape’’ of his
life—cannot be located at any moment. By contrast, however, pleasure can be
located at moments). As just noted, a person’s future pleasure is not intrinsically
good for him now in any way that makes a difference for how intrinsically well off
he is now; nor does it seem to make a difference for how intrinsically well off he is
at any other time at which he does not receive the pleasure. As for the time at which
he does receive the pleasure, is not all that matters to how intrinsically well off he is
at that time what intrinsic value that pleasure will have for him then (aside from, of
course, the intrinsic value that the pain he experiences then has for him then)? The
current intrinsic value of that future pleasure seems neither here nor there.
A Dengian might suggest that the person’s death (unlike his prenatal
nonexistence) makes him on balance intrinsically worse off simply in the sense
that the current intrinsic value for the person of the closest possible world in which
his death does not occur (unlike that of the closest possible world in which his
prenatal nonexistence does not occur) is greater than the current intrinsic value of
the actual world. (cf. Deng 2015: 428). But this gets things backward. The notion of
a world’s intrinsic value for the person is of interest in the present discussion only if
it captures the notion of well-being, or being intrinsically well or badly off; surely
the latter notion is prior to the former (Feit 2016: 19) We can explicate the notion of
a world’s intrinsic value for the person in terms of his being intrinsically well or
badly off—not the other way around.
Even if Deng’s view is true, then, it is questionable whether future pleasure,
unlike past pleasure, is intrinsically good for the subject now in any way that makes
a difference to how intrinsically well off he is. As a result, it is questionable whether
Deng’s view has any real bearing on the Lucretian puzzle.
As I mentioned in Sects. 1 and 3, Robson (unlike Deng) appeals to the growing
block view, the A-theoretic view that past and present things exist, whereas future
things do not. According to Robson, the growing block view helps us deal with a
number of important challenges to the thesis that death, in many cases, is bad for the
deceased. One of these challenges, he says, is the Lucretian question of how it can
be true that a person’s death will be bad for him although his prenatal nonexistence
was not bad for him.
Robson emphasizes that on the growing block view, dead people exist. True, if an
individual has died, he is not located at the present moment, and in this sense he
fails to exist now. However, he nonetheless exists simpliciter; he is still a part of
reality; presumably he exemplifies genuine properties, such as being dead. By
contrast, if an individual’s life has not yet begun, not only does he fail to exist now,
he fails to exist in any sense whatsoever; he has ‘‘no more ontological status than
leprechauns or the golden mountain.’’ (Robson 2014: 914) Alternatively put,
whereas there are individuals whose entire lives are behind them, there are no
individuals whose entire lives are before them. Further, Robson states that ‘‘it seems
obvious that one must exist, in one form or another, in order to suffer any evil.’’
(Robson 2014: 914) Thus, the growing block theorist can plausibly hold that a
currently living person’s death will be bad for him when his life is over while
denying that his prenatal nonexistence was bad for him when his life had not yet
According to Robson, this proposal also helps us deal with a related puzzle,
namely, ‘‘why at the present moment I have reason to lament the fact that I will
cease to exist upon my death but no reason to lament the fact I did not exist prior to
my birth.’’ (Robson 2014: 914) For, Robson suggests, a currently living person has
reason to lament his future death only if it will be bad for him when his life is over;
similarly, he has reason to lament his prenatal nonexistence only if is was bad for
him before his life began. On the above proposal, the first condition may well be
satisfied, but the second one is not.
Whatever our verdict on Robson’s solutions to the two puzzles on which he
concentrates, however, those solutions do not really help the deprivationist in
responding to the arguably more important puzzle with which we began (Sect. 1),
and which is the one that concerns Deng and many others. To repeat, the
deprivationist claims that a person’s death, in many cases, is bad for him, because,
in many cases, he would have been on balance better off without it. The Lucretian
challenge is then that if this is the case, then, implausibly, the person’s prenatal
nonexistence is bad for him as well.5 Saying that the person’s prenatal nonexistence
was not bad for him before his life started does not meet this objection. It would not
be reasonable for the Robsonian to suggest that the person’s prenatal nonexistence is
not bad for him precisely because it was not bad for him while it was going on. To
begin with, on Robson’s view, the reason that the person’s prenatal nonexistence
was not bad for him during that period is simply that he did not exist in any form
then. This reason evidently does not apply once the person does exist in some form.
Furthermore, it cannot hold in general on Robson’s view that if something that
occurred or obtained in the past is bad for a person, then it was bad for him already
when it occurred or obtained. Consider an event that occurred prior to a currently
living person’s lifetime, and because of which the person is much worse off overall
than he would have otherwise been, and which did not affect when his life began.
This event is bad for the person, but on Robson’s view it was not bad for him when
it occurred, as he did not exist then.
At this point it might instead be suggested that everything that is bad for a person
makes him worse off at some time than he would have otherwise been at that time.
Because, on the growing block view, a person does not exist in any form before his
life begins, he does not occupy any well-being level then, and thus is not worse off
then. By contrast, a dead person exists simpliciter and can therefore be worse off
while dead (presumably by occupying a well-being level of zero while dead).
However, both the claim that everything that is bad for a person makes him worse
off at some time, and the claim that death satisfies that condition, are highly
contested (Broome 2013; Bykvist 2015; Johansson 2012, 2014c). It would not be a
good strategy for the Robsonian to rely on them here.
So far, I have argued that Robson’s approach does not support the claim that a
person’s prenatal nonexistence is not bad for him. This point needs to be modified.
For of course, if an individual’s life has not yet begun, then Robson’s approach does
rule out that his prenatal nonexistence is bad for him. This does not help the
5 Different theorists may disagree on whether the ‘‘is’’ in these claims should, or should not, be given an
‘‘atemporal’’ reading. This makes no difference to the present points.
deprivationist, however, because Robson’s approach also rules out that such an
individual’s death is bad for him—for the simple reason that it rules that anything at
all is bad for him. Thus, Robson’s approach prevents the deprivationist from saying
that a future person’s death, unlike his prenatal nonexistence, is bad for him.
In fact, Robson’s approach, aside from giving the deprivationist no reason to
deny that prenatal nonexistence is bad for a currently or formerly living person,
appears to rule out that a currently living person’s death is bad for him. For at least
assuming that we conceive of a person’s death as a concrete event—which is
customary in the literature on death’s evil—it simply does not exist before it occurs,
on the growing block view. Not only has it not yet taken place, it does not exist in
any form at all. Further, just as a person apparently needs to exist, in some form or
another, in order for an event to be bad for him, surely the event, too, needs to exist
in some form or another: a non-existent entity cannot be bad for anyone. On the
present view, then, the event of death is not bad for a currently living person. That
is, not only is its badness not located at the present moment; it is not bad for him in
any way at all. By contrast, if an event ensures that a person’s life begins later than it
would have otherwise done, nothing in the growing block view prevents this event
from being bad for the person once he is alive. This is not the sort of asymmetry that
the deprivationist wants.
Acknowledgments For helpful comments I am grateful to anonymous refereees and to the audience at
the International Association for the Philosophy of Death and Dying conference at Syracuse University in
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