Dr Tim Burkhardt
Snider Scholar in Residence
Bruce D. Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization
University of Colorado Boulder
"B-B-B-Bad to be Born: Epicureanism and the Badness of Birth"
Lucretius noticed that our fear of death is not matched by a similar loathing of birth, even though prenatal and posthumous nonexistence seem relevantly similar. This thought inspires the contemporary symmetry argument, which claims that birth and death are prudentially symmetrical: if either of the two can be bad for us, then so can the other. Together with the claim that our births cannot be bad for us, this entails that our deaths cannot be bad for us either-a conclusion which most philosophers of death reject. Their most common criticism of the symmetry argument is that birth and death differ in prudentially relevant ways. Some think the difference lies in the impossibility of being born substantially earlier than one was, whereas it is not impossible to die substantially later. Others claim that the difference lies in our temporal biases: we prefer to have goods in our futures rather than our pasts, and whereas our births deprive us of past goods, our deaths deprive us of the preferred future ones. My position is different: I reject both premises of the symmetry argument but accept its conclusion. In order to defend this position, the bulk of my talk will be concerned with sketching an account of how and when our births can be bad for us. I will then offer a brief explanation for why this account does not produce similar implications when applied to death. In doing so, I reach the surprising conclusion that our births can be bad for us even though our deaths cannot be. I close by suggesting that the prudentially relevant difference between birth and death is due to features which are far more obvious than those to which philosophers of death usually appeal.