This is the ninth installment in a series on David Benatar's The Human Predicament (Oxford UP, 2017).
We now take up the Lucretian symmetry argument insofar as it bears upon the question whether being dead is bad. That is what Benatar maintains. Being dead is bad for the one who is dead even though to be dead is to be nonexistent. Our predicament is not Silenian. Death does not liberate us from our predicament; it is part of our predicament. Our predicament is an existential vise: we are squeezed between life which is objectively bad for all, no matter how fortunate they are, and death which is also objectively bad for all.
The symmetry argument, roughly, is that if it wasn't bad for us before we were born, then it won't be bad for us after we are dead. But we need to be a bit more precise since it is obvious that we existed before we were born. Each of us had a pre-natal existence, but none of us on naturalist assumptions had a pre-vital existence. So "the argument claims that because our pre-vital nonexistence was not bad, neither is our post-mortem nonexistence." (118) The crucial assumption is that the two periods of nonexistence, the pre-vital and the post-mortem, are axiologically or evaluatively symmetrical.
One way to reject the argument is highly implausible. One accepts the symmetry but claims that because our pre-vital nonexistence was bad for us, so is our post-mortem nonexistence. The other way to reject the argument is by rejecting the symmetry thesis. This is the tack Benatar takes.
His view is that a person's pre-vital nonexistence and post-mortem nonexistence are axiologically asymmetrical, and that only the latter is bad. One might think, however, that if the deprivation argument works for one's post-mortem nonexistence, then it should also work for one's pre-vital nonexistence. According to the deprivation argument, being dead is bad for a dead person because it deprives him of goods he would otherwise have had. Why then doesn't one's pre-vital nonexistence deprive one of goods one would have had had one been alive earlier?
The following example is mine, not Benatar's. Plato knew Socrates. Some of Plato's disciples, however, were too young to have known Socrates. They missed out on the experience of a lifetime. Was it bad for those disciples, in the pre-vital period of their nonexistence, not to have known Socrates?
Benatar makes a plausible case that the answer is in the negative. One argument makes use of Frederik Kaufman's distinction beyween 'thin' and 'thick' persons. I won't discuss this argument. The second argument is that death is bad for the one who dies not merely because it deprives but because it annihilates. Pre-vital nonexistence, however, cannot possibly be the product of annihilation. Correspondingly, while one who exists has an interest in continuing to exist, one who has not yet come into existence has no interest in coming into existence. Therefore, pre-vital and post-mortem nonexistence are axiologically asymmetrical. One who has died and has been annihilated is in a bad way because of his annihilation. But one who has not yet come into existence is not and cannot be a subject of the bad of annihilation.
The Lucretian symmetry argument therefore fails. So while it wasn't bad for us during the pre-vital phase of our nonexistence, this fact has no tendency to show that it will not be bad for us during the post-mortem phase of our nonexistence.