The Asymmetry Problem: Death and Prenatal Nonexistence

F. M. Kamm

in Morality, Mortality Volume I: Death and Whom to Save From It

Published in print July 1998 | ISBN: 9780195119114
Published online November 2003 | e-ISBN: 9780199872244 | DOI:

Series: Oxford Ethics Series

 The Asymmetry Problem: Death and Prenatal Nonexistence

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Examines further the question of why death is bad, but also discusses whether death is worse than prenatal non‐existence: the asymmetry thesis. This is Lucretius's question: if we are not much disturbed about our non‐existence before our creation, why are we so disturbed about our non‐existence after death. The answers given to the asymmetry problem by Thomas Nagel, Bernard Williams, and Derek Parfit are discussed. Objections to Nagel's and Williams's approach are briefly mentioned, but a fuller consideration is given to Parfit's approach (that we seem to care less about what we have already suffered than what we will suffer), with discussion of both objections and defences to these. The final section of the chapter shows how Parfit's insight can be used to modify Nagel's view about why death is bad in a way that helps to explain why death at least seems worse than prenatal non‐existence; this is designated the Nagel/Parfit proposal — that death is bad because it prevents additional goods of life, and from the perspective within life, it seems worse than prenatal non‐existence because we do not care as much about past as future goods.

Keywords: asymmetry thesis; badness of death; death; Lucretius; Thomas Nagel; non‐existence after death; non‐existence before creation; Derek Parfit; prenatal non‐existence; Bernard Williams

Chapter.  8384 words. 

Subjects: Moral Philosophy

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