Torture and Incoherence: A Reply to Cyr


John Martin Fischer and Anthony L. Brueckner have argued that a person’s death is, in many cases, bad for him, whereas a person’s prenatal non-existence is not bad for him. Their suggestion relies on the idea that death deprives the person of pleasant experiences that it is rational for him to care about, whereas prenatal non-existence only deprives him of pleasant experiences that it is not rational for him to care about. Jens Johansson has objected to this justification of ‘The Asymmetry’ between the badness of death and pre-natal non-existence on the grounds that what it is actually rational for us to care about is irrelevant to the question of whether the event is bad for us. Taylor Cyr has recently argued that Jens Johansson’s objection to Fischer’s and Brueckner’s position relies on an incoherent example, and is thus unsuccessful. I argue that Cyr’s attempt to defend Fischer and Brueckner in fact illustrates that their position is incoherent, and that Johansson’s objection therefore succeeds.

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  1. 1.

    Fischer’s and Brueckner’s position has developed over the course of several articles (Brueckner and Fischer 1986; Fischer and Brueckner 20122014a). I will address what I take to be the central position defended in their most recent work.

  2. 2.

    This view is developed in Feldman (2011) and Fischer and Brueckner (2012).

  3. 3.

    This point is emphasized in Johansson (2014).

  4. 4.

    I will not address a further refinement of BF*(dd)* which accommodates counterfactual attitudes, because Brueckner and Fischer are admittedly reluctant to endorse this version of the view on the grounds that ‘‘[t]he traditional puzzle about the asymmetry between prenatal and posthumous nonexistence begins with consideration of the rationality of attitudes that we actually have’’. (Fischer and Brueckner 2014b)

  5. 5.

    Jens Johansson’s criticism, discussed below, is not aimed at this version of the deprivation approach in the main text of Johansson (2013). The view he criticizes is a less sophisticated, earlier version of BF*(dd)*, and it does not include a rationality condition. However, Johansson suggests (correctly to my mind) that a deprivation approach stated here, which includes a rationality condition, and which is equivalent to BF*(dd)*, cannot avoid his objection. He writes,

    Again, compare with pain and goodness: even if, for some reason, it is not actually rational for a person to care about a painful torture, it is still good for her to avoid the torture, at least provided that, if she had been tortured, it would have been rational for her to care about it and she would have been on balance worse off. Surely the analogous thing holds for pleasure and badness (Johansson 2013: 63, fn. 9).

    Henceforth, I will proceed assuming that Johansson’s objection is directed at AD.

  6. 6.

    This example is based Cyr’s (2014: 337) adaptation of Johansson’s original thought experiment (Johansson 2013: 62).

  7. 7.

    Emphasis added.


  1. Brueckner, A.L., and J.M. Fischer. 1986. Why is death bad? Philosophical studies 1993: 221–229. Reprinted in The metaphysics of death, Ed. J. M. Fischer, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993: 221–229.

  2. Cyr, T. 2014. Rationally not caring about torture: A reply to Johansson. The Journal of Ethics 18: 331–339.

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  3. Feldman, F. 2011. Brueckner and Fischer on the evil of death. Philosophical Studies 162: 309–312.

  4. Fischer, J.M., and A.L. Brueckner. 2012. The evil of death and the Lucretian symmetry: A reply to Feldman. Philosophical Studies 163: 783–789.

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  5. Fischer, J.M., and A.L. Brueckner. 2014a. Prenatal and posthumous non-existence: A reply to Johansson. The Journal of Ethics 18: 1–9.

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  6. Fischer, J.M., and A.L. Brueckner. 2014b. Accommodating counterfactual attitudes: A further reply to Johansson. The Journal of Ethics 18: 19–21.

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  7. Johansson, J. 2013. Past and future non-existence. The Journal of Ethics 17: 51–64.

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  8. Johansson, J. 2014. Actual and counterfactual attitudes: Reply to Brueckner and Fischer. The Journal of Ethics 18: 11–18.

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Correspondence to Duncan Purves.

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Purves, D. Torture and Incoherence: A Reply to Cyr. J Ethics 19, 213–218 (2015).

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  • The asymmetry
  • Anthony L. Brueckner
  • Taylor Cyr
  • Death
  • Deprivation approach
  • John Martin Fischer