Monday, November 26, 2012

The Question of Antinatalism

Picture a barren winter landscape with not a person in sight. You might find it hard not to mitigate the desolation by imagining, perhaps on the outskirts of that expanse of snow and bare trees, a cabin with smoke emanating from its chimney, thus indicating that this hypothetical absence of humanity is only partial, that all is not lost for us. We recoil from the thought of a universe with absolutely no human beings in it; more precisely, what bothers us is the thought that there might be a time after humankind. This is to say that we can tolerate reflecting on the time before human history and even on the age of Earth before the rise of mammals, since we know in the back of our minds that those ancient periods laid out the conditions for our emergence; moreover, we can even ponder the lifeless void, the billions upon billions of star systems that currently have no inhabited planets, because we know that simultaneously there’s this one planet that we call home. But try imagining our universe as it would have been had humans never evolved or else picture our planet after the apocalyptic end of our species. No cabin on the outskirts and no potential for our reemergence; no hope for our eventual triumph, but just the final end, the last breath and the last heartbeat before the universe soldiers on without us and the tree still falls with no one to hear it.

There’s a group of people who, for moral reasons, would actually prefer a world with no people in it. They even have a strategy for bringing that world about: we should cease procreating so that we intentionally die out as a species. These grim folks are called antinatalists, “antinatalism” meaning the opposition to human birth. There are roughly two kinds of antinatalism (AN), what I’ll call the misanthropic and the compassionate kinds. Both kinds prescribe the termination of human life by stopping the procreative replenishment of our species. But while the misanthropic antinatalist is motivated by contempt for human nature, the compassionate sort is opposed to suffering and thus takes the suicide of our species to be only a dire means towards the elimination of that mental state. (Compassionate antinatalists are often called “philanthropic,” but this is a confusing name, since although the Greek roots of that word mean love of people, the English word implies a concern for human advancement, whereas an antinatalist’s compassion is perfectly tragic.) Moreover, both kinds of AN have a moral defense: the misanthrope wants to extinguish humans because of our wickedness or our morally significant deficiencies, while the lover of people wants to eliminate, once and for all, the evil of human suffering.

An Arch-Villain’s Doomsday Scheme

You’re likely already familiar with the outlook of misanthropic AN, from comic books and pulp science fiction: the cartoon super-villain is a classic misanthrope, or hater of humans, often building a doomsday weapon to destroy humankind, leaving himself as the planet’s sole possessor. But the cartoon villain typically allows his plan to be foiled, whether by hiring buffoons for henchmen or by giving away the details of his plan to the hero in a gratuitous monologue, to fulfill the subtextual logic of sadomasochism: the dominator needs victims to satisfy his sadistic impulses, so to finally kill off all weaklings and rivals, by way of a sadistic frenzy, is to err on sadistic grounds. Sadism is a form of parasitism. But the misanthropic antinatalist isn’t sadistic; instead, she’s opposed to human nature and thus to all people including herself. Thus, the misanthrope would participate in her scheme by not sexually reproducing, as opposed to hiding her children in the last generation so that they could inherit the world. Mind you, the sadist too, after cleansing the planet of everyone else, would likely commit suicide for having foolishly failed to maintain the parasitic ideal of sadism. Indeed, the misanthrope and the cartoon villain have much else in common, especially if the super-villain justifies his actions by regarding himself as superhuman: both have contempt for humans in general, both have a plan for our extinction, and although the misanthropic antinatalist’s plan isn’t particularly invasive, the misanthrope needn’t be merely an antinatalist. That is, if you think all human beings are depraved and worthy of death, you needn’t tiptoe around the issue by, say, writing pamphlets to convince people to hate themselves, to doubt the chance of human progress, and thus to refrain from procreating; instead, you might take the bull by the horns and devise a coercive doomsday scenario. After all, if people are evil or so myopic that we lack the right to propagate our species, our freedom and rationality needn’t be respected.

Is there any rational justification, though, of misanthropic AN? Calling everyone “evil” or “weak” seems just to empty these words of meaning, rendering them weasel words, since there’s sufficient variety of human behaviour to warrant distinctions between evil and good, weak and strong people; of course Ghandi wasn’t as bad as Hitler, for example. Perhaps humans are all evil compared to a race of angels, and weak compared to a species of super-powerful aliens, but even so we would all fall short to different degrees. Now, weakness isn’t necessarily a moral failing, and so pity for us might be more appropriate than contempt. Here, then, misanthropy has something in common with the Christian notion of original sin. The Christian says we have morally relevant innate weaknesses, such as our finitude and our animal instincts, since these inevitably cause suffering. When we blame suffering on physical or biological processes, though, we tend to childishly personify the latter. If we’re not responsible for the type of bodies that are bioengineered for us, there’s no sense in condemning that body type as the cause of all the evil of which we’re capable. We can understand cause and effect without moralizing them. Moreover, once you reduce the badness of some event to some cause of the event other than the choice of the person who’s morally responsible, you once again empty the word “bad” of meaning, since there’s no principle for halting the reduction. For example, the Christian is forced to condemn God for creating our body type or for putting the serpent in Eden along with Adam and Eve; in this case, Christianity leads to self-contradiction, since now the morally perfect person must be “responsible” for original “sin”--except that this contradiction lies only on the surface, since the words used in the formulation are emptied of content.

In any event, what of the misanthropic antinatalist’s reasoning? There doesn’t seem any sense in preferring a world without people, since such a world would be morally neutral; only people, our actions, and the results of those actions are subject to a conventional normative evaluation. If you’re struck by nature’s general undeadness, and so you think in pantheistic terms, you can anthropomorphize the natural development of forms, but still it’s hard to see how a humanless world would be better than the alternative; pantheism should replace conventional moral categories with such standards as awe and horror. The mindless creativity of pantheistic nature is terrible, with or without people, and if humans aren’t sufficiently noble, nature is nevertheless bound to evolve worse people elsewhere. Exterminating some of nature’s handiwork would hardly tip the moral balance against the monstrous creativity of the cosmos; even were humans the only sentient, language-using creatures ever to evolve, ending our life cycle wouldn’t punish natural forces, just as beating up a zombie would perform no retaliatory function.

Instead, the misanthrope’s point would seem to be just that we should eliminate what’s wrong as much as possible, just as you might wash away a stain from a shirt. But this analogy raises a problem, which is that we clean a stained shirt for the purpose of looking presentable in public, whereas the termination of our species could serve no purpose at all, since no one would survive to take advantage of the cleansing. Perhaps the misanthropist reasons that natural forces would remain, and our extermination would make space for the emergence of a superior species. But this would be preposterous overkill, since neither space nor time is limited in the universe. There are trillions of star systems and of years in which natural forces can conduct their experiments, and there’s no reason to think Earth or this relatively puny age in which we live is cosmically special. Nature will dispose of us at her leisure or we’ll do so unintentionally, at any rate, so there doesn’t seem any need to rush matters or to make a concerted effort and ban human birth. The misanthropic antinatalist seems to think that every moment in which humans draw breath is one in which our abominable activities are suffered to continue, but there’s no one keeping score or suffering our vices besides us, and with our demise would be lost as well the only known source of thanksgiving for the last of our follies.

The misanthropist here would fail to live up to the grandeur of her apparent role model, the cartoonish super-villain, since she’d think like a bean-counting bureaucrat, pretending she’s tallied up nature’s resources and the degree of our worthlessness, and so can prescribe our extinction only to make natural creativity more efficient. Note that in Star Wars, for example, the technocrats are only the henchmen, not the evil geniuses themselves (Darth Vader and the Emperor). Hatred of humanity would seem to require a more sinister and demented vision than just that of a balanced equation. Although the Architect in the Matrix trilogy is indeed such a bloodless bureaucrat, the arch villain shown at the end of the third movie, who represents the will of the AI machines, loses its temper, shouting that the machines need nothing, thus demonstrating the requisite insanity for an evil genius. The villain Davros in Doctor Who has a truly hideous agenda of annihilating not just all life but every particle in existence, thus abolishing all of Creation. In one of Brian Lumley’s Necroscope novels, the villains plot to destroy the world as a means of forcing God to reveal himself. These schemes have at least an instrumental logic, since they use destruction in the service of a twisted ideal. The misanthropic antinatalist would need some such ideal for the extinction of our species to be somehow worthwhile. Assuming one of our contemptible features is our theism, the misanthrope can’t appeal to God as the benefactor of our demise, and natural forces wouldn’t thank the antinatalist nor would they need her help in their grand cycle of creation and destruction. As far as I can tell, then, misanthropic antinatalism isn’t so much a rational viewpoint as it is an emotional venting of a melancholy character or mood.

Killing with Kindness

The second kind of AN might be more compelling since it’s based on the standard moral disapproval of unnecessary pain. The idea is that this suffering is wrong, and people suffer so much that out of compassion for the sufferers the unborn would become, we should decline to have children even though this would mean the end of humanity and possibly even of all highly intelligent life in the universe. All that matters in the hedonic calculus is the maximization of happiness and the minimization of harm, and so if human suffering is unavoidable and overwhelming, the argument runs, we should take radical measures to prevent the misery we’d otherwise inflict on our descendants.

There’s an obvious objection to this argument, which is that, as long as we’re morally concerned with happiness and harm, we might as well check whether harm really is so overwhelming that all human life is effectively hell on Earth and ought to come to an end. It turns out, of course, that unnecessary pain overwhelms joy and other positive or neutral mental states only for a small minority of people. Even poor people living in huts and eating grubs tend not to be miserable, and indeed studies show that they can be happier than the wealthy whose lives are more stressful. Almost everyone experiences a mix of pleasure, pain, and neutral sensations; extreme pleasures and pains are relatively rare, and so if anything, agony, despondence, and other excruciating pains are experienced less than tolerable and preferable mental states. In fact, compassionate AN presupposes that this is so, since compassion is shown only to creatures who can appreciate the favour, which means creatures who have the intelligence to recognize and benefit from the gesture and thus also to extricate themselves from dangerous situations, thus sparing themselves many unnecessary pains. Indeed, there must be much in our life that makes it worth living; otherwise, we wouldn’t deserve the antinatalist’s compassion. This provides us with the likeliest reason why most people don’t kill themselves. Only those who really do experience more pain than anything else are motivated to struggle with their instinctive will to live and to see the continuation of our species. The rest of us are content to be preoccupied by our daily routines in which we pass the time feeling nothing like joy or anguish. Thus, the compassionate antinatalist’s premise seems false: human life is not generally so bad that we’re morally obligated to spare our descendants the torture of living.

In his book, Better Never to Have Been, the philosopher David Benatar makes the most rigorous case available for compassionate AN. Benatar argues that merely coming into existence is always a great harm and that procreating is therefore immoral. To support this radical point of view, he anticipates the above response and argues in Chapter Two that pleasure and pain are asymmetric: while there would be neither unnecessary pain nor pleasure in the world we’d leave behind were we to take the antinatalist’s advice, stop having children, and thus extinguish our species, the absence of the pain would be good while the absence of pleasure would not be so bad. In other words, he argues, eliminating harm is more important than promoting pleasure. Were this so, compassionate antinatalism might indeed nullify the above objection, since then even were the experience of harm rare, the pains we do tend to feel might suffice to make the act of procreation immoral.

But as DeGrazia argues in his scholarly reply to Benatar’s book, Benatar’s arguments in favour of his asymmetry premise are not compelling. For example, Benatar says that the absence of harm when there’s no person around in the first place would be counterfactually preferred, meaning preferred by anyone who would have been put in the position that would have caused the harm. But the exact same reasoning applies to pleasure: given the standard moral ideal which the compassionate antinatalist assumes, anyone would prefer to promote pleasure just as much as she’d prefer to eliminate harm. So there’s no significant asymmetry here. In the possible world with no people in it, the absence of pleasure would be as bad as the absence of harm would be good; in other words, our positive mental states are as morally important as our negative ones. And without the asymmetry, Benatar’s argument is refuted by the commonsense objection given above, about the fact that pain tends not to be the principal part of human experience and so a general ban on human birth would be grotesquely disproportionate to the threat’s scope.

Happiness is Unbecoming

I’d add that the standard moral preference for happiness should be replaced by the existential standard that puts a premium on such harms as angst, dread, and horror, since these are prerequisites of personal authenticity (see Happiness is Unbecoming). So even were we to concede that human life is first and foremost harm, it doesn’t follow that having children is immoral. On the contrary, just as we have an existential obligation to remind people of the harsh facts of natural life, so that they can deal authentically with those facts instead of ignoring them, we might be obligated to have children even knowing that this increases the total level of suffering, since the suffering has a positive existential role. From an aesthetic perspective, our suffering is tragically heroic and thus redeemed. Anxiety and alienation are made inevitable by the curses of reason and of consciousness, and we don’t deserve a heaven free from harm, because we’re pitiful and often despicable creatures. Thus, from an existentialist’s moral perspective, suffering stoically and enhancing our tragedy by helping to repopulate our kind are better than fleeing from that responsibility and depriving the universe of our magnificent ordeal. In fact, the recommendation that we commit to the extinction of our species is the very stuff of existential inauthenticity. Just as the flight to cognitive delusions makes for an inauthentic individual, so too a species that kills itself off by renouncing its ability to reproduce is collectively inauthentic. “Inauthentic” here means a failure to live up to the existentialist’s moral standard, by grappling with the philosophical problem of our existence. The reasons for our horror are inexhaustible and so we need to grapple continually with life’s meaninglessness, which requires more and more generations.

My point is that the existentialist effectively grants the compassionate antinatalist’s premise, about the magnitude of our suffering, but denies her conclusion, since the existentialist rejects the moral principle that happiness ought to be our highest goal. Thus, the compassionate antinatalist’s argument is logically invalid. Given precisely the inevitability of severe harms in human life, such as the fears of death and of our aloneness, we ought not to pretend that happiness is our highest purpose. On the contrary, happiness is the aim only of existentially inauthentic people. And so let the newborns descend into our torture chamber! We will have all the more opportunities to live up to the aesthetic ideal and bravely turn our lives into dramatic works of art. Harm, in the sense of unnecessary, unjust pain, is mitigated if it’s redeemed by artistic use. We shouldn’t give up the chance to endure hardship, but should adopt the existential standard of authenticity and so psychologically overcome the harms. Note that just because harm has a positive existential role doesn’t turn the harm into a benefit or the suffering into pleasure. Suffering from our awareness of our existential predicament gives us the opportunity to be authentic, but this isn’t exactly an advantage; an authentic person’s life remains a tragedy even if we can tolerate to look upon it because of the grace with which the person faces her plight head-on.

A Slippery Slope to the Evil Genius

There’s another problem with compassionate AN. The argument is supposed to be that we have a duty not to inflict harm on anyone, including our children, and since harm is of paramount importance, we shouldn’t procreate even if this entails something as monumental as the end of humanity. The compassionate antinatalist’s reasoning here is utopian in the sense that she’s willing to accept a necessary evil (the extinction of our species) for the sake of a greater good (the absence of harm). This reasoning can be parodied: if the antinatalist is so compassionate and can’t bear to see anyone suffer, why prevent only the unborn from suffering by not allowing them to come into existence in the first place, when she can stop those who are already living from suffering by, say, killing them in their sleep? Why not suffocate infants to spare them future misery, when the antinatalist believes that babies would have been better off had they never been born? Granted, killing isn’t the same as not procreating, but the antinatalist seems to stand on a slippery slope here, since her willingness to allow our species to die out betrays the representation, at least, of such extreme compassion for sufferers and hatred for suffering, that killing as a necessary evil would be adding a mere drop to the sea of necessary evil in which the antinatalist already swims. The antinatalist tolerates the effect of our collective death as a species, so why not tolerate our individual deaths? And if we won’t take matters into our own hands and commit suicide, why should the antinatalist care were someone else to do the dirty work? In her ideal scenario, in which human beings are no more, there would be no judges, juries, or prisons, and nothing for social laws to regulate. The compassionate antinatalist certainly won’t want to cause anyone harm, but killing can be done painlessly and even if killing causes a moment of pain, that moment would be a necessary evil to prevent the much greater pain in the person’s future. Killing one person would harm the dead person’s friends and relatives, but this widening harm could be cut short by killing those friends and relatives in turn.

In short, compassionate AN seems in danger of reducing to a functional, if not to a psychological, equivalent of misanthropic AN. Whereas the compassionate antinatalist would prefer not to kill, whereas the misanthrope should leap at the chance of launching a doomsday weapon, compassion can be so extreme that it drives the antinatalist to adopt the misanthrope’s method as a necessary evil. All that stops the compassionate antinatalist, I think, are the practical concerns: she knows there aren’t enough antinatalists to make our current generation the last one, and so she’ll be concerned about harming herself and her friends and relatives, by getting caught and sent to prison as a murderer. This explains why compassionate antinatalists tend not to be murderers, and yet my point is about the highly instrumental logic of compassionate AN. This version of AN seems unstable, in that it tolerates the worst means imaginable, namely the end of our species, to achieve an alleged greater good. Again, then, the arguments in favour of compassionate AN notwithstanding, what distinguishes the two varieties of AN seem to be matters of character or mood. The misanthrope hates people while the compassionate person loves people and hates the harm that comes to them. But the latter kind of antinatalist should act as though she stands with the misanthrope in hating people, because she’s willing to talk seriously about our planned extinction, which is, after all, also the cartoon super-villain’s goal.  

The Horror of Parenting

However, I don’t think AN should be dismissed in its entirety. At least, there’s a limited form of AN that follows from the existential and cosmicist ideas in which I’ve been trafficking in this blog. My argument for this limited form is just that existentialists, cosmicists, mystics, ascetics, philosophers, omega men and women, mentally disturbed introverts, and other enlightened folks and outsiders would likely make for poor parents and thus shouldn’t procreate, for their sake and for that of their potential children (unless they give their children up for adoption).

Instead of supporting this argument with more abstract, blanket assertions, allow me to testify from personal experience. I have a nephew who’s one and half, with whom I visit on a weekly basis so that I’ve had a snapshot view of his development. He’s an adorable, bright little guy with an infectious laugh. He loves cheesy macaroni, which he eats by holding all of his fingers in his mouth at once, and setting his bare feet on the table when he’s eating to get a rise out of his mother. He has many toys and if you blow soap bubbles for him he’ll cry before letting you stop, and he’ll need you to succeed, because he hasn’t the knack for blowing slowly and steadily through the small plastic hoop; instead, he invariably blows slightly at the wrong angle, still smiling afterward and crying out “bubbie!” which is his word for “bubbles,” even when his efforts produce no bubbles. If you time it right, though, you can blow bubbles at the same time and he won’t know the difference; he just wants to see the bubbles and doesn’t have any interest yet in taking credit for the skill required to make them happen. My nephew has a Wheaten Terrier who looks like Falkor from the movie, The Neverending Story, and who likes to snatch food from my nephew’s hand, which makes him cry. In short, my nephew has a normal, Western middleclass upbringing, and whenever I see him he brings a smile to my face. But I can’t help but also feel sickened by the juxtaposition of such flagrant innocence and the undeadness of the world that throws up such children, rudely betrays the memory of their innocence by toying with them as they grow up, and eventually receives their corpses to nourish other creatures--perhaps centuries from now--in their similarly foolish endeavours.

I recall when my nephew was enjoying a bubble bath before going to bed. He had tired himself out playing with his large Lego blocks, pushing around his toy truck, and banging away at his xylophone. He mostly babbled, as he still does, but he knew some words and when he sat in the tub, playing with his plastic water toys with a guileless grin on his face, he exclaimed that he was happy; that is, in between his babbling, he actually said “I’m happy!” My heart sank even as I kept up a fake smile. Imagine the naivety required, first of all, to be overjoyed as a result of having a bubble bath, but also to reassure the smiling onlookers who encouraged him, with such an unambiguous indication of how great he was feeling. He was wonderfully happy and why wouldn’t he have been? But he gave me flashbacks of when I was much younger and happier in my ignorance. I recalled that I also loved blowing soap bubbles in the backyard, watching them float away in the breeze. And now I’m compelled to write about the horror of human life. My nephew was delirious sitting in his bathtub, but how foolish such glee seems from a philosophical perspective! What disappointments and miseries will my nephew suffer as an adult so that if he retains a memory of that brief moment of bliss, he’ll be forced to yearn nostalgically for a return to innocence?

How perfectly absurd is human childhood! A child’s life is a microcosm of an adult’s, except that instead of being manipulated by the child’s parents and by their carefully-controlled environment, an adult is duped by natural forces and by mass culture. A child is comically selfish and helpless just as an adult is in the wider world. A child is pitifully naïve, just as most people are about where they stand in nature. Children are distracted by toys just as are adults. Recently my nephew needed an early diaper change and afterward his father brought him down to the main floor. My nephew was wailing all the way, tears flowing down his chubby cheeks. The biblical Job couldn’t have cried any harder over the shambles of his life. What had happened was just that my nephew’s routine had been broken and he thought he was being taken away from his toys and forced to go to sleep, to face the darkness of his room alone, without his parents to watch over him. His father put a pacifier in his mouth and he immediately quieted. He waddled over to his toys where I was sitting, the tear tracks staining his cheeks, his eyes red, and the pacifier still in his mouth, and he picked toys out of his toy drawers and handed them to me one by one, as though he hadn’t yet gotten over the trauma of having his diaper changed and of facing an early bedtime, and needed more time to collect his thoughts but could use my help warming up his toys for him.

What’s my point? Just that I don’t have the strength to raise a child, to stomach being nauseated by pity every moment I’d be forced to confront such transparent horror in my child’s ridiculous naivety and then in his loss of innocence, in his being barred from Eden to wander and toil as a godforsaken adult. And while I’m pretty philosophical I’m hardly enlightened, so it seems the more philosophical you are, the less you should be a parent. Years ago I played a computer game called Black and White, which allows the player to run a simulated city through an avatar animal which you train as might a parent train her child. The avatar might defecate in a bush, and you’d have to choose whether to spoil the creature or beat it; the creature develops differently depending on the choices you make in its formative period, growing into either a virtuous hero or a monstrous villain. I remember thinking that that game must simulate some aspects of being a parent, and that real parenthood must take all the greater toll on the parents’ stamina. I’m not talking about the physical endurance needed to stay up at all hours to accommodate a crying baby or to work hard to earn enough to pay for the child’s food and toys. No, I’m referring to the mental walls that must collapse when you’re forced to recognize the existential analogy between child and adult, and thus to be disheartened by your child’s every foolish act, realizing that adult games, be they political, religious, or sexual, are no less silly and futile. In fact, my nephew’s parents do seem continually exhausted, although they’re not particularly philosophical. So how much more emotionally unbearable must be childrearing for the sensitive introvert, the melancholy atheist, or the detached mystic?

My argument for AN, then, is that the more enlightened people, who lack the upbeat attitude sustained by delusions, should not have children--for their good and for that of their potential offspring. They’ve made their bed by waking up to reality and they should lie in it by forgoing the perverse privilege of conjuring fresh versions of themselves to be tortured as adults in their parents’ stead. The enlightened are fit to renounce natural processes, not to partake in them as though they were existentially clueless animals. But this is only a limited justification of AN. For one thing, as I say elsewhere, the existential cosmicist is rewarded when less philosophical people procreate and keep society going, since the antics of the deluded masses provide the material for grim comedy which cheers up the more philosophical minority. Thus, we need that steady stream of babies.

45 comments:

  1. Isn’t any philosophy which claims that life should not be self-negating? How can a philosopher who argues against the existence of everything human-created, including philosophy itself, expect to be taken seriously? This reminds me of the liar’s paradox, and seems equally absurd.

    I suspect that these antinatalists are people who have lived very comfortable lives and haven’t come to grips with the fact that suffering and struggle are inseparable from pleasure and peace. As is written in the Tao Te Ching:

    “Under Heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness.
    All can know good as good only because there is evil.

    Therefore having and not having arise together.
    Difficult and easy complement each other.
    Long and short contrast with each other;
    High and low rest upon each other;
    Voice and sound harmonise each other;
    Front and back follow one another.”

    I doubt you will find many antinatalists in the places where suffering is most common, because suffering seems to make people value life, while absence of pain makes people suicidal. These people need to grow up, embrace life’s struggles and develop a more Stoic outlook, or put themselves out of their misery. In any case, they need to stop unloading their psychological problems on the rest of us and calling it philosophy!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, as pessimistic and melancholy as I am, the idea of overkilling suffering by ending our species doesn't feel right to me. There likely are personal issues that lead people to seriously consider antinatalism, but here we should be wary of committing the genetic fallacy. As postmodernists love to point out, there are personal causes of every philosophy, including life-affirming ones. The question is whether we can reduce the epistemic value of a philosophy to the philosophy's psychological, social, or other causes. Sometimes, when a theory is so bizarre that it has nothing going for it besides, say, a glaring trauma suffered by its chief proponent, which the theory obviously rationalizes, we might take the psychological route in evaluating the theory. But the reason I'm interested in antinatalism is because it's an extreme form of asceticism, and there are ways of deriving such antihumanism from mystical assumptions about the relative unreality and poverty of the apparent world.

      Anyway, thanks for your comment and thanks for pulling out the Tao Te Ching. ;)

      Delete
    2. I'm glad somebody pulled out the the Tao Te Ching. It's not just a book of empty platitudes. It's typical for our minds to take sides and I have to remind my self not to take these philosophies too seriously. When you had that experience with your nephew, wouldn't it be beautiful to have this experience without relating it to the existential? It drives me mad that thought can destroy such a joyful experience. I have to take SIDES with the Zen masters in matters such as these. If I stick with concepts I'm gonna drink too much and the whole world can go to hell for all I care!! X-D

      Have you ever read The Road by Cormac MacCarthy? It's a powerful story. Just a random recommendation.

      If you want to be free,
      Get to know your real self.
      It has no form, no appearance,
      No root, no basis, no abode,
      But is lively and buoyant.
      It responds with versatile facility,
      But its function cannot be located.
      Therefore when you look for it,
      You become further from it;
      When you seek it,
      You turn away from it all the more.
      - Linji

      Delete
    3. I see your point about thoughts spoiling our daily experience (the curse of reason). But as I said, my nephew does bring a smile to my face. Existentialism isn't in the foreground of my mind when he's around, playing with his toys. But given the nature of what happening in that case, and given what I know as opposed to what I'm ignorant of, existential cosmicism is in my mind's background, as it were. After all, what's joyful about a baby wailing like the house was on fire, because he needed an early diaper change and thought he had to go to bed? It wasn't joyful; it was pitiful, which reminded me of how pitiful also are we adults in our more sophisticated playpens.

      Even getting lost in our abstract thoughts so that we can't enjoy our experiences is pitiful. The flip-side of the Buddhist's detached compassion towards everyone's Atman (deep consciousness) is the Buddhist's contempt for the pseudo-reality in which most of us are trapped, and our superficial consciousness (ego), with which most of us identify, is part of that merely apparent world of independent things (multiplicity). Therefore, the Buddhist has contempt for most people.

      Thanks for your thought-provoking comment, Stephen. Oh, and yes, I have read that book and I also saw the movie. I also just saw Life of Pi (and I read the book). My next blog entry will be on Life of Pi's existential argument for God's existence.

      Delete
    4. Sean Strange, what we're saying is that there is no really good and unselfish reason to continue breeding, that breeding actively causes a being who didn't ask to exist in the first place (if they did, pronatalists would have a case) to suffer and die, and that we should, therefore, stop breeding.

      Of course we wouldn't be able to say what we say if we didn't exist. Your point? That's just basic common sense, not a paradox. That's like saying we shouldn't make an effort to stop rape because some people were the product of rape. Yeah, we have morals, and since we're here we're going to speak up. Focus on the arguments instead of trying to use weird philosophical tricks to discredit the very valid points we make.

      Antinatalists come from every culture and time period and not all of us have cushy lives. Our lives aren't relevant to our arguments, anyway. Most people, including us, cling to life (we'd be dead if we didn't) because nature wires us that way, but that isn't relevant to our arguments, either.

      Also you've got it backwards: Pain is what makes people suicidal. It's scary that you think humans have the ability to just magically make ourselves suicidal by being bored or whatever. Suicide is not that dang easy. Humans will do everything we mentally can to avoid suicide because it is fucking terrifying. I wish suicide on no one but it is always a possibility for EVERYONE because EVERYONE can end up receiving more pain than they can handle.

      Antinatalists are fine the way we are. We are logical and morally intelligent people. We are EXTREMELY aware of what life is like. We are aware of how life functions. We know how pleasure and pain mesh. We know how people cling to life because we're wired to. We take the time to think about OTHER people instead of what we want. (The whole point of antinatalism) We don't need to do anything, especially because we aren't hurting anybody by expressing our valid POVs and arguments.

      The ones who are manically afraid of the human race ending (which is going to happen whether they like it or not) need to get over THEIR psychological issues. They need to get over their "need" to play God with other people's lives. They need to get over their "need" for (false) immortality by breeding. They need to get over their fear of suffering and dying in old age (when you breed you get a free caretaker while pretending that you aren't afraid of life). They need to get over their delusion that life is a contest/race/game/movie/performance piece.

      There is absolutely no need to continue the species. There is absolutely no need for suffering and death. None. Let's just put an end to the breeding factory and enjoy ourselves until we die out. What's so hard about that? There's nothing hard about it.

      Delete
    5. Thanks very much for your comment. You're right that personal attacks here are unnecessary and unhelpful since they can be made on either side.

      I think you need another reason against suicide, though, besides saying that we're wired to want to live. Although we are so wired, it's just the naturalistic fallacy to infer that we therefore should continue to live. Also, we're wired to want to reproduce, so this case against suicide is especially hard for an antinatalist to make. I think, then, the antinatalist needs an especially good argument against suicide, since she emphasizes the suffering and horror of life. I do too on this blog, and I'm working up to explicitly addressing the problem of suicide. But let's not pretend that it's obvious why we shouldn't kill ourselves, assuming antintatalists and existential cosmicists are all pretty melancholy folks.

      Also, when you say there's no need to continue the species, I wonder what your response would be to transhumanism. After all, transhumanists (extropians, etc) want to use technology to eliminate suffering and even death. Thus, an antinatalist might be in favour of continuing our species by having kids, just so that the technology can be invented to end the very things that the antinatalist loathes. This would be a long-term project and so would require some sacrifices in the short-term, but it would also give a great purpose to life. The main criticism of transhumanism is that it's naive about what technology can do. But then again, people once thought that the idea of airplanes is preposterous.

      Delete
    6. Humans are not "wired to want to reproduce". We are wired to want to have sex. Big difference. Suicide can be complex. Why don't people who say they are "better never to have been" just commit suicide? Because it is an individual's decision for one. Many antinatalists have friends and family that would be deeply hurt if they were to off themselves. Number two: Some ANs feel obligated to try to prevent as much harm while they are alive. They can't do that if they are dead.

      I don't think transhumanism is necessary because there is no need to make a need. The continuation of our species via reproduction is a notion in one's head. It is not a "real need" like a car ran over my foot and I need to tell the driver to get it off because I'm in excruciating pain.

      Delete
    7. What you say is plausible, but the more reasons you can think of against suicide or the destruction of our species, the more reasons you have against AN. If an antinatalist has friends and family who would be hurt if he were to kill himself, he has a reason to think his birth wasn’t entirely bad or bad on the whole. If the person doesn’t care about his social network or see any value in it, he loses that reason against suicide.

      Delete
    8. Yes, I do think there are plausible reasons against suicide. However, those reasons don't necessarily conflict with ANism. The discontinuation of our species via non-procreation is not suicide. People who don't reproduce live out their own life and when it's over it's over for them. Someone who is AN may think his/her birth was an unfortunate occurrence but may or may not believe it was entirely bad in a certain context. I would agree. Some ANs realize that they can be productive and make the world a little better than they found it. Also, I think that suicide is a different topic than AN. As far as I can tell, antinatalist philosophy is about the ethicality of creating new life forms or rather about objecting against procreation. While suicide is about existing already and deciding to end one's life through one's own volition.

      Delete
    9. Yes, you're right about the focus of AN, but the reasons given against further reproduction can have implications of their own, such as a prescription of suicide. It's possible that antinatalists don't appreciate what their beliefs entail. When you say an antinatalist may think his birth was "unfortunate" I think you're understating the matter. Anyway, if there's a version of AN that works for you, that's OK by me.

      Delete
  2. Imagine if a few days after your visit with your nephew, he was violently raped and strangled. Do you think his life up to that point, would have been worth that experience?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Your comment inadvertently reaffirms my suspicion that antinatalism is more an emotional venting of a melancholy mood than a rational set of ideas. Anyone who would ask someone to imagine what you said they should imagine, to try to win a sort of gotcha game doesn't have his or her priorities straight.

      But your question itself is premised on a crude Benthamite notion of quantifiable value. You're asking whether a great harm coming at the end of a child's life overwhelms the good the child does beforehand, so that we could calculate that the child might as well not have been born. And the reason you pick the child is that a child has lived for only a few years, so it seems the value of her life is generally less than an adult's. Unfortunately, none of these calculations is remotely legitimate, since there's no serious way of quantifying the relevant values. The math is bogus and so your question is meaningless.

      However, if we take a more extreme example, of someone who suffers from all sorts of afflictions and maladies, like Job, so that clearly his suffering is greater than his pleasure, such a person might indeed have been better off not having been born. It's conceivable that someone might do more harm than good throughout their life. Take Hitler, for example. These are extreme cases, though, so they don't show that our species as a whole does more harm than good or that the average child is worse off for having been born.

      Incidentally, I argue against suicide here:

      http://rantswithintheundeadgod.blogspot.ca/2013/11/enlightenment-and-suicide.html

      Delete
  3. This is an excellent answer, and one of the best I've heard from anyone opposed to antinatalism. I should point out though, that the arguments of those opposed often sound like emotional venting as well. Sorry for asking such a provocative question, but I was hoping to elicit a good response. I agree that myself and other antinatalists are attempting to create a value equation for human existence. This might see futile to some, it does make some sense to me though. If a restaurant that serves 1000 people per week, gives someone food poisoning and they die, the restaurant is shut down at least temporarily to figure out what happened.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree that a pro-human life position is likely fueled by emotion. The question for me is ultimately an aesthetic one. Which is the nobler, more romantic course of action, to struggle on with tragic heroism or to give up entirely and deprive nature of further victims. There's some romance (in the old sense) in asceticism and I agree we should detach from some of our natural instincts. But since we're all going to die anyway, we can do more damage against nature, against the cause of most of our woes, by living in a more supernatural, anomalous, and ascetic way, as opposed to taking these pieces off the game board altogether.

      Some degree of ascetic renunciation seems to me the essence of tragic heroism for the philosophical naturalist, but this requires the continuation of melancholy life. Mass asceticism, driven by the grim determination to wage war against the world, instead of relying on delusions to be happy, would make for the better *story* than mass suicide or the voluntary termination of our species.

      Delete
    2. I'm certain nature will not run out of victims anytime soon, just check out the ratio of births to deaths.

      http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/

      Delete
    3. BTW, here is a very good new blog that deals with this subject. It has two guys, one pro AN, one against AN. I apologize if you are already familiar with it.

      http://ludditecontro.blogspot.com/

      Delete
  4. Is there a position between pronatalism, that all lives are worth starting, and antinatalism, that no lives are worth starting? This intermediate view would support prenatal testing and selective abortion to avoid lives of suffering. It would also encourage the poor to not have children so that those children do not suffer from deprivation. This view would selectively support the starting of lives that could meet all human capabilities described by the capabilities approach to human welfare.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Of course, theoretically there is such a middle position. But I'm sure you're aware it would amount to eugenics and the problem would be that those with the power to decide who would be allowed to reproduce would inevitably become corrupted by that power, so that the rules would eventually be biased and unfair. The Nazis decided that so-called inferior races shouldn't be allowed to breed. And why should poor countries be penalized when a major cause of their poverty is the past imperialism of the rich countries?

      Delete
  5. My biggest obstacle in embracing the Nietzschean tragically heroic embracing of suffering for the sake of existential authenticity is the feeling of betraying one's own suffering when one turns it into art. In the words of Peter Wessel Zapffe: "To write a tragedy, one must to some extent free oneself from – betray – the very feeling of tragedy and regard it from an outer, e.g. aesthetic, point of view." Is there dignity in this betrayal of oneself by oneself? Is there a way to see it not as a betrayal? Also, what to make of the fact that many tragic heroes (I'm thinking of the likes of Woody Allen, Emil Cioran, etc.) regard their art not on lofty existential terms but on mere escapist, survivalist terms as the result of pure cathartic necessity?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. An interesting question: Does the artist trivialize her suffering by sublimating it? Then again, the idea of betraying suffering assumes that suffering has a truer purpose. But suffering has no purpose. Physical pain may have the elementary function of warning us about some danger, but far from having any objective purpose, suffering due to losses and inequalities and the travails of social interactions is just the sort of brute inhumane fact that shows us that our life is absurd. The artist often takes her task to be that of creating for the sake of creation, and that turns the artist into a cipher for undead natural forces. Nature creates with no end in view, although there is indeed some end to the universe which we can think of as inevitable and thus destined, that being likely the annihilation of all things. When artists create not as utilitarians or Buddhists, who use art as an instrument for feeling better, but just for the love of art itself, they imitate the blind, undead god.

      But that’s not quite my ideal. I talk of existential rebellion, but art shouldn’t be seen just as a tool for achieving this or that end. I suppose I’m thinking of this in something like Spinoza’s sense of “blessedness,” the perspective from eternity from which we can see everything in its place, from God’s viewpoint, as it were. From that most objective, mystical perspective, everything becomes art for art’s sake; everything is ultimately the product of undead natural forces, including our artificial microworlds (languages, cultures, social systems, cities, nations, etc). See the linked articles below for more on this, but the key point is that scientific objectivity overlaps with the aesthetic perspective.

      So my point about art is the mystical, pantheistic one that everything is ultimately art: creations that serve no purpose that vindicates the horrific process of their creation. The best purpose is that of tragic heroism, of intentionally thwarting natural creativity out of disgust for the horror of god’s undeadness. The point is that if we’re bound to make our lives into art, we might as well inform our art (i.e. life’s choices) by our esoteric, existential knowledge of what’s really going on all around us. We might as well create as illuminated creatures, not as duped sheep. There’s no escape from the creative process, but we can strive to be original rather than to perpetrate clichés.

      Delete
    2. Does the existential rebellion involve a self-betrayal? Yes, ascetic renunciation betrays the undead natural forces within us, for the sake of fulfilling our potential to be godlike creators and not just art objects crafted by nature, demagogues, or oligarchs. We should create first higher selves to serve as platforms for original works of art that showcase our spirituality, if you like, which is to say our mystical, esoteric, existential knowledge. We should turn our back on our robotic side, on our natural instincts, to some extent, detaching from our impulses so that we can be originators of worlds with which we can thumb our nose at the ironically undead divinity of nature.

      Successful artists are often overtaken by their egos. I’ve written about what I call Woody Allen’s curious intellectualism (linked below), and Cioran strikes me as a bit of a postmodern obscurantist. So I’m not sure I’d trust their false modesty. If Allen thought so little of art, why has he made so many movies? I’m sure you’re right that many artistic existentialists seek catharsis, but Allen’s and Cioran’s works nevertheless stand in opposition to the horror of life’s absurdity. Ideally, the artist should create with the mystical viewpoint in mind, but art happens in many ways—indeed in all naturally possible ways. Allen knows life is absurd and the body of his work expresses that insight regardless of how petty his conscious motives may be.

      http://rantswithintheundeadgod.blogspot.ca/2013/11/life-as-art-morality-and-natures.html

      http://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2014/05/26/science-nihilism-and-the-artistry-of-nature-by-ben-cain/

      http://rantswithintheundeadgod.blogspot.com/2012/05/woody-allens-curious-intellectualism.html

      Delete
  6. Dear Benjamin,

    there are other (ethical) issues here that you seem to not recognize (which is fairly logical since you are largely combating human-centric antinatalism, as opposed to sentiocentric antinatalism: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sentiocentrism).

    The most basic premise, from my understanding is this: "As a Negative Preference Utilitarian, I only disvalue individuals' suffering insofar as the particular individual disvalues it. If you as an individual despise risk-averseness & would like to extend your existence, you should be given an immortality pill. I'd be all for that. But that's where it ends; the individual. Just because you're suffering from thanatophobia & such pills haven't been actualized yet doesn't mean you get to play creator & pretend that you're not implicating others [you impose life, and therefore suffering and death, without consent]; some of whom would rather not play. Don't force-feed life-pills into the mouths of those who want none of it." (taken from the comment section of the article linked below)

    I would suggest this blog post for further consideration (I've only been exposed to such ideas for a few days now and have little background in philosophy): http://antibullshitman.blogspot.ca/2014/11/vhemt-is-worse-than-humancentric.html

    ReplyDelete
  7. Something else:

    Since you seem to appreciate naturalistic fallacy, you could excuse your decision to give birth to life by referring to a metaphysical/aesthetic/religious concept such as 'transhumanism,' 'continuing the struggle', 'the beauty of life' etc. But this means imposing your own, potentially flawed, conceptions on a lifeform that might not grow to share them and might not see the point to it all, and suffer as a consequence. It seems selfish.

    (obviously this applies to humans where giving birth is, at least nowadays, a choice rather than a biological imperative, as it is with animals)

    I look forward to your reply,

    Nick

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't share a number of assumptions made by this sort of antinatalist, including utilitarianism, libertarianism (the right to liberty encompasses only effects on the acting individual), inherent (objective) rights of sentient beings, or even the pre-Nietzschean assumption that moral (as opposed to aesthetic) discourse is consistent with naturalistic atheism.

      The antinatalist's basic point, though, is that we do harm when we bring life into the harsh world, since we play God and presume that the offspring will share our values. The problems with this are the ones I raised in my YouTube responses to Inmendham: the offspring implicitly consents to having been born by not killing itself. We have the freedom to commit suicide if life is overwhelmingly bad for us. When we choose not to do so, we're implicitly conceding that we're glad to have been born, however difficult our life might be. The plain fact is that pleasures and pains are mixed in everyone's life, and it's utterly impossible to calculate which outweighs the other; moreover, it's a category error in the first place to quantify mental states like pleasure or pain. It's well known that poor people can be as happy as rich ones, because the brain evolved a mechanism for finding a happiness equilibrium, so that even a life filled with suffering might not seem so bad as long as the suffering person has even a little respite. (This is just one reason the concept of hell is dubious.) We learn to adjust so that it doesn't take much to make us generally pleased to be alive: a pizza slice here, a little sex there, binging on your favourite TV show, seeing a Ferrari drive by, etc etc.

      It may well be selfish to have children, especially when you indoctrinate them as in the case of what Dawkins calls the child abuse of filling a child's head with religious nonsense. That selfishness of most parents is offset by the benefit for the species, which requires additional generations of gene-carriers. Moreover, even if the child rebels and rejects the parents' values, the child grows into an autonomous adult and has the freedom, once again, to commit suicide if life is such an imposition. A minority actually take that route, which shows that the freedom is real, but most people don't and that fact is devastating to antinatalism. I don't recall if Inmendham responsed directly to this point. If he did, it wouldn't have been worth remembering because it would have been pathetic like the rest of his case for antinatalism.

      Notice that unlike the determinist Inmendham, you grant the freedom involved in having children, to make the act of having children morally bad. But that commits you to taking equally seriously the moral status of the choice not to commit suicide. Inmendham's reductionistic, psychologically egoistic determinism makes nonsense of all his talk about the moral wrongness of pain.

      Delete
    2. "A minority actually take that route, which shows that the freedom is real, but most people don't and that fact is devastating to antinatalism".

      Devastating to antinatalism? That characterization seems to fall prey to the "majority is right" meme, which I think offers its own devastating blow. Are you prepared to take responsibility for the sins of "the majority" for all time? On the other hand, I suppose you won't necessarily do that since it is now apparent that "slaves" chose their predicament since it is a truism that freedom is real? And in fact, any complaint we have at any time is an accusation on ourselves for not doing exactly what we already knew we wanted. BTW, what's your take on suicide prevention communities? Are they the modern corollary to "slave" owners?

      Delete
    3. You're right that the majority who choose not to kill themselves could conceivably be wrong about that apparent estimation of the value of their life. But who is in a better position to know whether a person's life involves more pain than pleasure, than the person living it? Most people choose to go on living because, all things considered, they think their life is worth it. Yes, we also have an instinct to survive, so this choice isn't absolutely free. But unlike the other animals, we do have some self-control, so our mass, ongoing act of non-suicide does represent some informed decision about the value of our life.

      The logic here needn't be the might-makes-right fallacy. The point is that we're familiar with all the pains and pleasures of our life, and most of us implicitly believe the latter outweigh the former, as evidenced by the fact that we're free to kill ourselves and the vast majority of us don't. Therefore, the antinatalist's contention that our pains outweigh our pleasures, making our life not worth living and making procreation immoral, is evidently false.

      Delete
  8. I'll start by saying that I really don't care whether or not people have children. There are about 350,000+ births everyday and only about 150,000+ deaths. So from a population standpoint alone we could use far less births. Choosing not to commit suicide is hardly good barometer for how much people "love life." This would be like saying that people who stay in bad marriages is proof that being married is better than not being. People do many things out of a feeling a responsibility and obligation to others, not just themselves. Just speaking for myself, I have no desire to commit suicide unless I become chronically ill, which of course will eventually happen. At the same time, I would have been perfectly fine not being born. This makes sense to me, but it might not to others. There is also the issue of accessibility to quick/painless forms of suicide. If tomorrow a pill were available, that was inexpensive and easy to access, that would painlessly end ones life, I'm pretty sure we would see the suicide rate tick up just a tad.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree that the choice not to commit suicide is complicated by such factors as a feeling of responsibility to others. Another complication is the fact that we adjust to our circumstances, as studies of worldwide happiness have shown, so that regardless of whether we're homeless or wealthy, we feel about the same level of happiness. We reach an equilibrium with our circumstances: sometimes we're overjoyed and sometimes we're sad, but we become accustomed to the norm.

      This complication likewise counts against antinatalism, because however much suffering there may be in life, it doesn't prevent us from being happy as long as there's enough variety in our circumstances for an average to emerge, allowing us to adjust our expectations for our happiness. Whether life is worth living depends on whether pain always overwhelms pleasure. The fact that even homeless people can adjust their expectations so that their suffering is contextualized by the middle ground, when circumstances are neutral, shows that we're seldom overwhelmed. We adjust easily as part of our survival mechanism. Whatever the Buddhist may say about suffering and craving, we don't feel like we're suffering all the time unless we happen to be trapped in a torture chamber. So since we can adjust pretty easily, where again is the immorality in having kids?

      Delete
  9. "So since we can adjust pretty easily, where again is the immorality in having kids?" My first three sentences cover this. The act of having children itself might not be immoral. Continuing to have children when we have trouble feeding/caring for/educating the children who are already here might be. Since most people have decided it's the responsibility of the state to provide most of these things, the state needs to decide how many children should be born. The Chinese model is a good one.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ah, I didn't read your comment closely enough, since I assumed you were arguing for antinatalism. People talk of the inalienable right to having kids. There are no natural rights, though, given the naturalistic fallacy. And you're right that it might be irresponsible to have kids if you can't take care of them. Of course, a problem with the Chinese system is that no one's smart or innocent enough to decide which kids should or shouldn't be born.

      Delete
  10. "But who is in a better position to know whether a person's life involves more pain than pleasure, than the person living it"?

    Very true. I'm sympathetic to AN on the possibility that we affect others' fate in ways in which we and they can't know. I know that it's problematic as well because in order to be certain, extreme isolation, which would compel suicude in my estimation, would be required. Needless to say, the only solution to this paradox is for those who know that freedom is real, is to kill or forcibly drug those who are locked in determinism, should they become unruly or simply ignore them, lest they become themselves hypocrites.

    "Yes, we also have an instinct to survive, so this choice isn't absolutely free. But unlike the other animals, we do have some self-control, so our mass, ongoing act of non-suicide does represent some informed decision about the value of our life".

    Or it is ongoing instinct? I think those of us who declare that we are free are liars unless freely abandon the mythology of instinct.

    "Therefore, the antinatalist's contention that our pains outweigh our pleasures, making our life not worth living and making procreation immoral, is evidently false"

    To be frank, I think it's the antinatalits' pain, but due to being locked in determinism, they cannot act without approval from those who declare that we are free.

    ReplyDelete
  11. "Since most people have decided it's the responsibility of the state to provide most of these things, the state needs to decide how many children should be born"

    I can't argue with that either. The interesting thing about AN in my opinion is that like all extremist platforms, it really is a call for balance! Having said that, do you think it's immoral for well off people to not adopt?

    ReplyDelete
  12. If you had asked any antinatalist, they could have pointed out the very obvious fallacies in your entry. For example:

    "n any event, what of the misanthropic antinatalist’s reasoning? There doesn’t seem any sense in preferring a world without people, since such a world would be morally neutral; only people, our actions, and the results of those actions are subject to a conventional normative evaluation"

    This is a variant of the Non-Identity Problem, which has been addressed in many places, including my blog:
    https://francoistremblay.wordpress.com/2011/08/11/the-non-identity-problem/
    The main problem is that the evaluation you are referring to would apply to states of affairs, not to individuals. We would be comparing a state of affairs without humans with a state of affairs with humans. The fact that one of the states has no humans in it has no relevance whatsoever on it having a moral value or not.

    "For example, Benatar says that the absence of harm when there’s no person around in the first place would be counterfactually preferred, meaning preferred by anyone who would have been put in the position that would have caused the harm. But the exact same reasoning applies to pleasure: given the standard moral ideal which the compassionate antinatalist assumes, anyone would prefer to promote pleasure just as much as she’d prefer to eliminate harm. So there’s no significant asymmetry here."

    The same reasoning does not apply at all. Your statement about pleasure implies that non-existence is deprived of whatever pleasure it could have if it existed, which is absurd. That which does not exist cannot be deprived of pleasure.

    "This reasoning can be parodied: if the antinatalist is so compassionate and can’t bear to see anyone suffer, why prevent only the unborn from suffering by not allowing them to come into existence in the first place, when she can stop those who are already living from suffering by, say, killing them in their sleep?"

    Because people who are alive have values and desires, which cannot be destroyed without infringing on those people's rights. That which does not exist cannot have values or desires.

    Again, these are all basic points which would have been addressed easily, if you had done any research at all. Your response is not sophisticated, or interesting, in any way.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, the counterfactual world in which there had never been persons would be morally neutral, assuming that morality is subjective, because in that case the moral status depends on the existence of some subject. Thus, like Inmendham, you’ve got to argue that morality is objective. Good luck with that.

      You want to compare the state of affairs (i.e. the world) in which there are people and thus in which there’s such a thing as morality, to the state of affairs in which there are no people and thus in which morality is as senseless as talk of ghosts and goblins is in our present state of affairs (in which there are no such things).

      What you can say is that some of us might currently prefer the possible world in which there are no people, to our actual world in which people abound. But this would be only a subjective and indeed an idiosyncratic judgment. Moreover, its merit would be undercut by the antinatalist’s hesitation to commit suicide.

      Regarding Benatar’s asymmetry argument, it’s not my point but DeGrazia’s, so take it up with him and his scholarly article which contains the research you’re looking for. And it’s Benatar who appeals to the counterfactual of what a nonexistent person would prefer. Are you sure you read his book? The absence of harm is good, Benatar says, “when judged in terms of the interests of the person who would otherwise have existed” (31). And part of DeGrazia’s response runs as follows:

      “But maybe Benetar is suggesting not that merely possible persons have interests but, rather, that absence of harm is impersonally good—as determined by what the possible subject’s interests would have been—while absence of benefit is not impersonally bad. But why should we believe this? After all, we can specify an impersonal bad, specifically the absence of benefit, by reference to what a possible subject’s interests would have been, just as we can specify an impersonal good by reference to what a possible subject’s interests would have been” (322).

      In short, we can use counterfactuals to show there’s no such asymmetry. So much for Benatar’s case for antinatalism.

      You haven’t really grappled with my slippery slope argument. Yes, the mother who is soon to give birth has moral rights, as you say. But those rights can be weighed against those of her unborn child and against all the thousands of possible descendants. Thus, the antinatalist has a choice to make: respect the mother’s rights as superior to those of thousands of unborn people or take matters into his hands and slay the mother on behalf of those descendants whose suffering would thus be prevented by this act of sacrificially killing the mother. Do you see the point now?

      If you assume that nonexistent people have no moral status, on what basis could you assert as an antinatalist that the world with no people in it would be better than the actual world in which there are people who suffer? In the empty possible world, the nonexistent people would have no moral status because, as you say, “That which does not exist cannot have values or desires” and thus those nonexistent people would have no rights to infringe.

      So what would make that lifeless world good or bad? You want to say it would be good because it would have no suffering. But suffering is bad only when there’s a person there to suffer who would prefer to feel pleasure to pain; suffering isn’t bad in the abstract, as a thing in itself. When there are no such people at all, there’s no basis for rendering the moral verdict either way. Thus, such a world would be amoral (morally neutral). It would be neither good nor bad, not better than our actual world.

      Delete
    2. Personally I don't like using the asymmetry argument, because there is no amount of suffering that humans won't endure. If the earth was covered with sewage, humans would continue to procreate. I give you Africa as exhibit A. I visit several environmental blogs, written by people who have dedicated their life to the subject. They all agree, that without a dramatic reduction in the population, the quality of life for those living is certain to become dismal. Of course the very biosphere is likely already beyond the point of no return, and probably has been for sometime. I would rather question people, on why they believe humans need to exist. Why is my unborn child in an inferior state? Your argument can be turned around, to suggest that we must be compelled to give birth! Since you say that people prove existence worthy, (1 person dies of suicide every 40 seconds BTW) by not commuting suicide, and that most people are better off being born than not, maybe it should be illegal not to procreate! After all, we're doing a disservice to the unborn, by not brining them into existence. How do you feel about abortion?

      Delete
    3. I'm going to be reading some of Derrick Jensen's environmental books soon, so I'm with you on the premise about overpopulation. When the planet can no longer support our population, though, our numbers will thin out one way or another.

      My point isn't that everyone's right to live is equal. Some people matter more than others. In particular, those I call alphas and omegas (psychopathic avatars of nature's monstrosity, and introspective, enlightened social outsiders) have high value because of their greater personal authenticity, whereas betas (the vulgar multitude of unenlightened followers or worker bees in the dominance hierarchy) may be more animal than human, psychologically and spiritually speaking.

      Still, it's everyone's *potential* to confront their existential predicament that's decisive with regard to the questions of suicide and antinatalism. A universe with intelligent life in it is more interesting and indeed miraculous (anomalous and therefore sacred) than a universe understood by no one.

      Elsewhere, I've discussed the question of whether we all have an obligation to procreate (see the link below to the article, "Should we Procreate to Honour our Ancestors?" I think you may find it interesting). One point I like to make is an elitist one. Our species is divided into castes, owing to the rarity of enlightenment (of living with a worldview that's relatively free of delusions). The beta masses are a domesticated herd that's fit to procreate rather like how cattle are raised to do manual labour or to offer up their wool or meat. Their function is pre-assigned by their masters.

      Not everyone need procreate to keep our species going. Enlightened individuals benefit from the continuation of our species because they're poised to find comedic value in the mischief the masses get up to. (I say this at the end of the above article on AN too.) Quoting from the linked article:

      "The proliferation of creatures by sexual reproduction can be likened to a Ponzi scheme. The fooled majority are those who in nonhuman species have no conception of their existential situation or, in the case of humans, who are misled by theistic delusions into believing that living things are precious...

      "How, though, can the existentialist profit from nature’s Ponzi scheme? Some charlatans exploit people’s gullibility as cult leaders, televangelists, or politicians, literally stealing from them and setting up classic mini Ponzi schemes within the greater one that perpetuates our species as a whole. I reject that option as distasteful. A more minor but aesthetically more refined payoff for the secular insider is schadenfreude, amusement at other people’s expense. The value of life is that in the minds of insiders, our tragedy can be transmuted into a comedy, and the profit for sophisticated observers who exploit the victims of the evolutionary Ponzi scheme is their extraction of humour from the haplessness of their more ignorant fellows. Insiders should laugh inwardly, if not also outwardly, at the expense of adult humans who, despite their godlike cognitive powers, act like hallucinating children."

      Note: it's a little confusing since I speak there of "insiders," meaning the outsiders I referred to before I quoted from that article. It's a question of perspective. They're insiders with respect to the reality about which they're enlightened, but they're outsiders with respect to the games played by delusional exrtoverts, theistic peasants, and capitalistic drudges.

      http://rantswithintheundeadgod.blogspot.ca/2011/12/should-we-procreate-to-honour-our.html

      Delete
    4. This is a great response Ben. I like to goad you on this topic occasionally, because at times you do come up with a pretty fleshed out argument. I have learned over time that viewing life as a comedy helps a lot. I think the problem us philosophical types have, is that we judge the world by observing the behavior of the herd, and not focusing on things like art, philosophy etc. The behavior of the herd can be depressing, so schadenfreude can be useful. That is one of the few things I disagree with Schopenhauer on. Our options as thinkers aren't great, a depressive life, suicide, or just to laugh at the whole damn mess! The older I get, the more I lean toward the third option.

      Delete
  13. I think you are wrong about suicide. If I had the option to never have been born (say there was some button I could push to magically make it so) I would readily accept that option. However, I would not attempt suicide for several reasons.

    First and foremost, I know for certain that my suicide would cause immense suffering to the circle of people who love and care about me. Because I am a negative utilitarian, causing suffering to many people for many, many years for selfish reasons would be unethical. I know you are not a negative utilitarian but you should take into account that most antinatalists are because this means suicide would not be an option for them on ethical grounds alone.

    Second, I don't know if you have ever attempted suicide but it is not so easy. Human beings do not have a magic "off" switch and even the best tried-and-true methods are not without risk. Medical literature abounds with people who have put a gun in their mouth with the hope that they are about to finally be free of their suffering only to end up brain damaged in a medical ward. You risk more suffering, some of it extreme and permanent, when you try to commit suicide. This is obviously not the case for never having been born.

    Lastly, and this reason might not apply to all people, but I was exposed to many religious precepts when I was a child and some of them I have not been able to shake (not for lack of trying). One such precept is that suicide is an unforgivable sin that results in a person being damned for all of eternity. Because I cannot escape my lingering fears of damnation, the choice to commit suicide is not open to me because I believe there is a chance that it could result in eternal torture. I don't think any rational agent would risk eternal torment to escape finite suffering. If I had never been born I would not have the threat an eternal damnation lingering over my head when I make decisions (including the decision about whether or not to commit suicide). Clearly, the threat of hell would not apply in the scenario where I hit the "never existed" button but would apply in the suicide scenario.

    In short, I do not consent to existing because I would hit the button to never exist if it was an option, but I still would not commit suicide for ethical, practical, and spiritual reasons. To me, this signifies that not committing suicide is not equivalent to consenting to be born.

    ~OneComentPerThread

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Freezing is one of the safest/surest ways to commit suicide. Of course you have to be committed, and make sure no one can "save" you.

      Delete
    2. As I say above in response to another comment, I agree the choice of suicide would be complicated by these and other factors. But the antinatalist has to say that the pain in life outweighs the pleasure, so having children is immoral, because it would have been better if none of us had been born and sentience hadn't have evolved.

      So we're faced with the choices to have children or not and to commit suicide or not. Those choices are complicated, and the utilitarian antinatalist has to weigh the pros and cons in terms of calculations of pleasure and pain ratios. In particular, do the pains of suicide (the sorrow our death would cause to loved ones, etc) outweigh the benefits in terms of the absence of pains our nonbeing would bring? If life is mostly painful, our continuing to exist adds to that misery so that if we cease to exist, we cease to add to that grotesque sum. This, too, must be figured into the antinatalist's calculation. The fact that most antinatalists don't kill themselves indicates, to me, that they don't really believe sentient life is overwhelmingly painful. If it were that clear-cut, they'd feel more pressure to end their life and thus their agony and the suffering they inevitably cause others.

      Delete
    3. If a pill were available tomorrow, that people could take, and simply go to sleep and not wake up, there would be millions of corpses within days. Anyone with even a hint of awareness knows this. It's a very dark reality, which is why most don't want to think about it, including yourself.

      Delete
    4. " I agree the choice of suicide would be complicated by these and other factors."

      These factors do not simply complicate suicide but are examples of why people would not commit suicide even if the suffering in their life outweighed the pleasure. The majority of the population on earth are followers of an Abrahamic religion and almost all the sects of Abrahamic religions teach that there is a realm of torture that awaits anyone who commits suicide because it is a grave offense. This isn't merely a fly in the ointment when it comes to your claim that most people would commit suicide if they really believed the pain in life outweighed the pleasure.

      If one believes that committing suicide will result in continuous torture that will be more extreme than the suffering you are going through now, you will continue to live even if the suffering in your life outweighs the pleasure.

      " If life is mostly painful, our continuing to exist adds to that misery so that if we cease to exist, we cease to add to that grotesque sum. This, too, must be figured into the antinatalist's calculation."

      If your suicide would result in extreme suffering for your loved one's, and the suffering you are going through is not as extreme (even though your life is largely bereft of pleasure), then the negative utilitarian will still calculate that the moral thing to do is to continue to live. Inflicting a suffering of great intensity on multiple people is more unethical than enduring a life of moderate suffering that is largely anhedonic. If I live my life then I will suffer but the people who care about me will suffer less than if I killed myself. The people who do not care about me will largely not be affected either way.

      Also, once you throw a hell belief into the mix then the moral calculus becomes clear. The situation becomes one where committing suicide will increase my personal suffering by great magnitudes while causing my loved ones to suffer as well. I don't know about world statistics but it is true that most people in America believe in hell so, even if the suffering in their lives outweighed the pleasure, it follows that most of them, even if they were not negative utilitarians, would still not commit suicide for fear of hell.

      ~OneComentPerThread

      Delete
    5. As I say in my debate with Inmendham, I don't think the moral calculus is at all clear, since I don't think pains or pleasures can be easily measured. At best, we have an idea of minor or major pains or pleasures.

      But when it comes to factoring in a belief in hell, it's not clear there can be any actual calculation here, since this theological type of faith-based belief isn't the same sort of thing as a belief that you're currently undergoing physical pain if, say, you've just cut your finger. Many religious people say they believe they'd go to hell if they killed themselves, but they don't really believe it. They say this to fit into a social club. Moreover, this is a doctrine in only some religions such as Catholicism. Most fervent Catholics in the world live in impoverished and largely illiterate countries and they can't be expected to know the finer points of Catholic doctrine. The upper-class Catholics may be aware of subtle Church doctrines but they're much more cynical about the Church, since they're aware of the pedophilia scandals.

      The upshot is that no one knows how exactly how the factors come into play in the decision to kill or not to kill yourself. If someone has no hope at all, nothing to look forward to and no pleasures in life, his choice would be pretty clear and he'd be likely to take his life at some point. But most people have a mix of pleasures and pains. Our happiness expectations adjust to our circumstances, which is why impoverished people can be happier than wealthy ones. So it's not just their refraining from committing suicide but their contentment that counts against antinatalism. If you're more or less content in life, which is roughly why you don't commit suicide, you have to be OK with having been born, which means you can't be generally opposed to people having children.

      Delete
    6. I agree that if suicide were pain-free, the suicide rate would be much higher. Harari points out in his book Homo Deus that the actual suicide rate is higher than the number of people killed in all wars and even higher, I believe, than the number of those killed in car accidents. So it's already quite high.

      However, not all those suicides are due to rational calculations of how much suffering or pleasure there is in life. Some are due to mental illness, some are irrational cries for attention, while others are mistakes the person would have regretted if she would have survived the suicide attempt.

      However, I agree that the world is capable of inflicting horror sufficient to compel someone to have a rational desire to end her life. What I deny is that suffering is the primary or default mental state. If Buddhists think life is suffering, they're using "suffering" as a weasel word. They call every time your craving goes unfulfilled a case of suffering. But sometimes anticipation is the whole point and a kind of sophisticated pleasure in itself.

      Delete
  14. In countries like the Netherlands where assisted suicide is legal, suicide is now a leading cause of death. I believe it is the 16th leading cause of death there, ahead of Leukemia, and many other cancers. What say you?

    ReplyDelete