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Friday, May 12, 2017

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“Mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of men...”
― Jorge Luis Borges, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

I was talking to somebody about anti-natalism recently and they made an interesting observation. They said that anti-natalism is based on an "inverted morality" and is therefore untenable. I asked them what they meant, and they explained that our aversion to pain and suffering is evolutionarily hardwired for the express purpose of our survival, as individuals and as a species. He concluded, therefore, that to advocate extinction as a solution to suffering is contrary to the reason why we are averse to suffering in the first place. How would you respond to this?

I also came to a few conclusions of my own regarding Benatar's arguments. He claims that he is talking about "states of affairs" rather than actual persons, but I think this is a semantic diversion. Before I continue, I would just like to make it clear that I believe anti-natalism is correct in its raw appraisal of the human condition, and that the quality of life in this non-anthropocentric universe is very bad, especially when compared to an imaginary hypothetical universe that was designed by us, for us. However, unfortunately there seems to be an asymmetry within his asymmetry, so to speak. He says that failing to create new people is not bad because non-existent people will never be deprived of the paltry amount of good in the world, but if we accept that, then it also means that non-existent people are not spared the overwhelming negativity of life. We have not saved anyone, as there is nobody to be a beneficiary of our ethical choice not to procreate. For instance, if I decide not to stab a stranger, then that person has (unknowingly) benefitted from my choice to refrain from action. I can point them out specifically as the person who has benefitted from my ethical decision, because they already exist. But if I choose not to procreate, who has benefitted from my inaction? Nobody has.

Now, I am familiar with the analogy "what about preventing the birth of a fetus that we know will be deformed or damaged? isn't that good?" My answer to this analogy is that, although the majority consensus would be that to abort is the moral thing to do, we are actually in error. It might be the moral thing for *us* to do, but it has not been good for anyone other than ourselves. The potential person (the fetus) has not benefitted. The only people that benefit from this suffering being avoided are ourselves, as we do not have to witness it and feel guilty for allowing it to exist. As such, the motivations for aborting cannot be considered philanthropic, but are rather self-centred. Again, the reason I say it cannot be called philanthropic on our part is because nobody benefits. We benefit at the thought of not bringing suffering into existence, but that's as far as it goes.

Alas, the problem as I see it is that, while non-existent pleasure for non-existent people is "not bad", following the same logic, non-existent suffering for non-existent people is "not good." I think this is the major flaw in his otherwise perfect thesis. It is true that one cannot have a child for that child's sake, but it seems equally true that one cannot *not* have a child for that child's sake. He also says that life is always an imposition, but an imposition on who? The person doesn't exist yet, so who are we imposing life on? It implies that a person and their life are two separate things, which we know they are not. I'd also like to point out that, while nobody laments all the non-existent people who could be experiencing pleasure, it is also the case that nobody praises all the non-existent people who are not experiencing suffering. It cuts both ways.

I did want to take my thoughts to Benatar himself but I have no idea how to do that. I'm told that you run a very strict ship here, but I would appreciate it if you did allow this post to be seen, as it took me a fair bit of concentration to write it.

Perhaps I'm being impolite in the eyes of most philosophers today, but still:

I don't know early life is (typically) negative on balance.

Even if it is, I don't know we don't know that afterlife is, probably enough, awaiting certain people. I mean afterlife that is on balance much more positive than their earthly life was negative. Plausible arguments do exist. So I'd say: Don't be snobbish and read your Swinburne seriously, e.g. his Was Jesus God? (OUP 2008). In fact, his kinf of ramified (not purely philosophical) natural theology may be the most direct way to rebut antinatalism. Most people abhor it, though.

Finally, I don't know knowledge must be indisputable. Probably knowledge may be enough even in grave matters.

PJ,

Striking Borges simile. The anti-natalist will say that copulation is worse than mirroring because mirror images do not suffer. The Christian natalist will say copulation is better because it produces new souls to enjoy the bliss of heaven.

Vlastimil,

Which is better known (or more reasonably believed): that earthly life (whether human or human and animal) considered on its own terms and apart from a redemptive afterlife has an overall negative value or that it has an overall positive value?

I say the former. But everything changes when the right sort of afterlife is brought into it. If earthly miseries are redeemed in eternity, then I say this life is (instrumentally) good, as prelude, as vale of soul-making.

So we may agree in the end.

But if I were a naturalist (and thus an atheist) I would say that procreation is probably morally wrong at least in most cases.

Atheists ought to be anti-natalists.

Of course there is the problem of hell to be dealt with . . . .

The whole problematic is extremely complicated.

1) Nietzschean vitalism: isn't this just an abdication of thought and philosophy? Life lives, so keep the show on the road, even though we don't know where the road ends or what the show is about!

2) Imago Dei. There are Christian anti-natalists, who refuse to procreate because they fear they may subject a soul to sin and ultimately hellfire.

Plus there are some who think desisting from procreation will hasten the Kingdom of God, the most famous being Augustine:

"But I am aware of some that murmur: What, say they, if all men should abstain from all sexual intercourse, whence will the human race exist? Would that all would this, only in "charity out of a pure heart, and good conscience, and faith unfeigned"; much more speedily would the City of God be filled, and the end of the world hastened."

'On the Good of Marriage' Section 10. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: First Series, Volume III St. Augustine: On the Holy Trinity, Doctrinal Treatises, Moral Treatises

It may also be worth recalling Jesus' comment about Judas, 'it would have been best for that man never to have been born'. So if I take the Bible seriously, even Jesus subscribes to a variety of AN!

3) Meaning. What criteria are we employing in order to judge we have discovered it? If I am convinced my life is meaningful then does that give me carte blanche to procreate? Even if I am convinced life is meaningful that is no guarantee any progeny of mine will arrive at the same conclusion. The prudence argument could still stand even if I resolve the issue to my own satisfaction.


Simon,

Your comments are excellent. I will say something now and more later when I have more time.

>>He concluded, therefore, that to advocate extinction as a solution to suffering is contrary to the reason why we are averse to suffering in the first place. How would you respond to this?<<

We should distinguish between damage to an organism and the suffering that typically accompanies damage and signals further damage. Suffering is a sentient state, a mode of consciousness. Damage can occur without sentience. It is conceivable that evolutionary processes, including copulation and predation, might have taken place 'in the dark,' i.e., without consciousness. On that scenario when one animal eats another animal alive, the eater experiences no pleasure or satisfaction of any sort, and the eaten experiences no pain or horror.

When my hand is too close to a hot object, I feel pain and I withdraw my hand. But when a robot withdraws its 'hand' from a destructively hot object, it feels nothing. So why must pain as a sentient state accompany aversive behavior?

An anti-natalist could say this: aversive behavior is hard-wired for survival purposes, but it is conceivable that that behavior not be accompanied by pain qua sentient state. And that would have been a better state of affairs.

It would seem that one could coherently advocate extinction as a solution to the problem of pain while also granting that aversive behavior is hard-wired for survival purposes.

Dear Bill

Thanks for the article. I would very like to know your opinion on my special version of antinatalism, which I called "slight catholic antinatalism". Its basic thesis is this: catholics should at least discourage non-catholics (either by means of convincing, or by political means - changing the laws) from procreating because, based on experience, there is very strong probability that the children of non-catholics won´t end up as catholics and so will most probably go to hell. I´ve heard about a statictic that more than 80 percent of children of parents resides at their parent´s faith or philosophical conviction, so statistics are not very positive concerning the conversion to catholic faith during life and so probability that the children of non-catholics would become catholics during life is low. There is also one - yer, very little and slight - historical precedent for banning non-catholics from procreating: familiant laws of catholic emperor Carl VI., which limited jews concerning the procreating (by means of so called numerus clausus, only firstborn jewish son was allowed to wed etc). So, what do you think about this idea and how would you criticize it?

Bill,

As for your first question. I just don't know. E.g., most of the time, I simply don't know whether what's happening to me is good or not, even in terms of dis/pleasure.

Empirical assessments aren't terribly helpful. Check Dan Haybron's paper "Do We know How Happy We Are?" (2007)

By the way, I concede that the worst things that could (realistically) happen to me are worse than the best things are good. But they still may be improbable.

In my opinion, it's all in the balance of realistic (not in principle possible) probabilities of harms and benefits. And not only in this life, but also in afterlife. Whenever the given balance is good, it is okay to be, or procreate. I submit, controversially, it may be easier to argue for a probable enough, overwhelmingly good afterlife than to decide how good this, earthly life is.

The problem is hell a hassle for the supernaturalist. Agreed. Swinburne has some thoughts in his book I mentioned above. Shawn Bawulski, too, in his discussion with Kenneth Himma.

I'm a typo-man today.

Of course I meant, "... (not JUST in principle possible) ...", and " ... the problem OF hell is a hassle ...".

I used to be an extreme anti-natalist but have abandoned this due in large part to the logic Simon presents above. The main argument for anti-natalism, it seems to me, is from consent, i.e. how could you "force" someone to be born in this vale of tears? The problem with this is that there are no human beings waiting in the wings to be born that human parents forcibly pluck from some blissful state and then send screaming into the world. You can't force non-existent entities to do anything, because they don't exist. The lack of consent is therefore only apparent, not real, and so parents have done nothing morally wrong. Besides, I think intentions matter when it comes to moral evaluation, and the vast majority of parents do not have children because they want to subject their children to suffering. Perhaps they are naive and foolish in not fully realizing the consequences of their decision, but they are not immoral. This would be akin to the distinction between manslaughter and murder. If I accidentally killed someone, that's tragic, but not morally wrong, since I didn't intend to. In the same way, that human beings are born into this world of suffering is tragic, but it's not morally wrong that they are, since parents don't intend to cause their children to suffer. "Birth" is just a brute natural fact, like digestion. It makes little sense to pass moral judgment on it.

However, just because an act is not wrong does not thereby make it right. In the absence of any convincing reason to have children, I am thus a kind of "practical anti-natalist." This would be a different distinction than BV's, as I'm suggesting there is theoretical anti-natalism (procreation is wrong) and practical anti-natalism (there is no good reason to procreate). I'm curious if anyone has any thoughts on this.

As an added point, it seems to me that there is even greater reason to refrain from procreating if one is a Christian. A new soul may indeed become an added member of heaven but it may also become a denizen of hell. No sane gambler would take such a bet, it seems to me. Obviously, careful theologians will say that we may still hope that all men are saved, even though hell's reality must be affirmed as a possibility. Nevertheless, even the mere possibility is surely reason enough not to procreate. On the naturalist view, human beings are born, suffer for several decades, and then die. With their death, they don't have to suffer any longer, for they have passed into oblivion. The possibility of an eternal hell changes the stakes considerably. It is also interesting to note that Jesus himself invokes the basic anti-natalist sentiment when he tells Judas that it would be better for him not to have existed. What is one to make of that? Is Judas's own creator really admitting that he ought not to have created him? Can God do things he laments?

Moreover, does Christianity posit a duty to procreate? Many Christians seem to take the "be fruitful and multiply" verse as amounting to this, but then we see that some of the Church Fathers interpreted it allegorically, while Jesus and Paul lived celibate lives and recommended others to do the same, inspiring the development of monasticism.

(Also, FYI, there's a belligerent troll over at Rightly Considered who posts as "JS," but that's not me, just in case there was any suspicion.)

Simon says,

>>However, unfortunately there seems to be an asymmetry within his asymmetry, so to speak. He says that failing to create new people is not bad because non-existent people will never be deprived of the paltry amount of good in the world, but if we accept that, then it also means that non-existent people are not spared the overwhelming negativity of life. We have not saved anyone, as there is nobody to be a beneficiary of our ethical choice not to procreate. For instance, if I decide not to stab a stranger, then that person has (unknowingly) benefited from my choice to refrain from action. I can point them out specifically as the person who has benefited from my ethical decision, because they already exist. But if I choose not to procreate, who has benefited from my inaction? Nobody has.<<

Very intelligent and very interesting. I take you to be affirming the following symmetry: Had I not come into existence, I would not have suffered the harms of existence; but equally, had I not come into existence I would not have been spared the harms of existence. I have to exist both to suffer harm and to be saved from harm. (And I have to exist both to enjoy benefits and to be denied benefits.)

You are assuming that there can be an absence of harm only if it is some definite individual's absence of harm. I am tempted to affirm this assumption. If the assumption is true, then I have to exist to be free of harm; but before I came into existence, I did not exist; hence, it cannot be said that the absence of harm is good which is the absence of harm which would have resulted had my parents never met. (Or had their respective gametes never have 'hooked up.')

>> He [Benatar] claims that he is talking about "states of affairs" rather than actual persons, but I think this is a semantic diversion.<<

I think I know what you mean. A possible world can be thought of as a maximal consistent state of affairs. So consider a world W in which there are no sentient beings. An extreme anti-natalist would say that W is a good state of affairs and indeed better than any world containing sentient beings. But then we have an axiology which allows goods that are not goods of persons or sentient individuals.

One lesson to be drawn from all this is that to get to the bottom of anti-natalism we have to go into the metaphysics of modality and the metaphysics of existence. And this muddies already troubled waters.

Would it have been better had I never existed? The question seems to presuppose for its very sense/intelligibility that there are possible worlds in which I do not exist. But then we must assume transworld identity, right?

If so, what am I in worlds in which I do not exist? An uninstantiated haecceity property?

I am very flattered, not only that my comment was posted but that you think what I have to say is insightful. It just seemed really obvious to me, but I have Asperger's and articulating my thoughts verbally is very difficult. Thank you for the praise, but your comments make me feel inadequate, as you clearly comprehend much more than I do. You use some words I'm not familiar with, but learning new words is fun. I participate in several different arenas of discussion and debate, such as religion and atheism. My favourite advocate of atheism is Justin Schieber, who articulates what I've always thought about god but could never communicate adequately. Do you know him?

My biggest hate is reserved for cognitive relativism, whether expressed by proles or academics. It's unfalsifiable and self-refuting, and I have no tolerance for it. I put my trust firmly in evolutionary psychology and although I have no problem affirming highly controversial things such as the existence of biologically distinct human races, I like to keep things very non-political. Politics is a social garnish, a superficial distraction to the big questions in life. I have no interest in petty power struggles between different political or economic ideologies.

Do you think I will find more material to my liking on this blog? Do you cover any of these issues here? I used to hang around various alt-right sites but it soon became apparent to me that it wasn't a suitable environment for me to be in. I was exiled from one site, who I had contributed content to, for bringing anti-natalism to the alt-right's attention. I was subsequently banned for "promoting discord" and lowering morale with my probing questions about the ethics of creating new white people. I only mention race here because a lot of these alt-right types are white nationalists who don't care about people in general, unless they're white of course, so I had to frame my questions under a racialist lens. I'm actually glad to have moved away from all that.

Simon also says,

>> It is true that one cannot have a child for that child's sake, but it seems equally true that one cannot *not* have a child for that child's sake. He also says that life is always an imposition, but an imposition on who? The person doesn't exist yet, so who are we imposing life on? It implies that a person and their life are two separate things, which we know they are not.<<

Your point seems to be the following. Before a child is brought into existence, it is nothing at all. So there is nothing that could be harmed or benefited by being brought into existence. Only an existing child can be harmed or benefited. So the parents do not wrong or harm the child by bringing it into existence.

I think this commits you to saying that before Socrates came into existence, there was no de re possibility that Socrates, that very individual, be brought into existence; at best there was the possibility that the properties we associate with Socrates come to be instantiated.

Agree?

I'm not entirely sure I understand what you're saying about Socrates, but I think I do. I probably would agree if I was on the same page, so yeah, let's say I agree. You're pretty smart anyway, so you should know. So, are you familiar with Justin Schieber?

Simon asks:

>>Do you think I will find more material to my liking on this blog? Do you cover any of these issues here? I used to hang around various alt-right sites but it soon became apparent to me that it wasn't a suitable environment for me to be in. I was exiled from one site, who I had contributed content to, for bringing anti-natalism to the alt-right's attention.<<

You won't like this site if you tilt Left. I'm a conservative but I do have serious problems with the alt-right. I am working on a post that discusses some of their ideas at the moment.

I cannot imagine alt-righties being sympathetic to anti-natalism unless it was directed against the birth of non-whites and Jews.

I don't know who Justin Schieber is.

Jakub writes,

>> I would very like to know your opinion on my special version of antinatalism, which I called "slight catholic antinatalism". Its basic thesis is this: catholics should at least discourage non-catholics (either by means of convincing, or by political means - changing the laws) from procreating because, based on experience, there is very strong probability that the children of non-catholics won´t end up as catholics and so will most probably go to hell.<<

Suppose that it is morally wrong to procreate, as Benatar maintains. It does not follow that procreation should be legally prohibited. (I believe Benatar would agree with what I just wrote.) Not everything immoral should be illegal, and if one values limited government, and is aware of how easily power is misused by government, one will want to keep the sphere of the illegal as small as possible.

Which is better known or more reasonably believed: that there ought to be a legal right to procreate, or that it is morally wrong to procreate?

I'd say the former.

Besides, one cannot target special groups for birth prevention, especially not for the reason you give, namely, that non-Catholics are likely to end up in hell. Do we know there is a hell? Do we know who goes there? Do we know that *extra ecclesiam salus not est,* where the *ecclesia* in question is the RC church? We know none of that. I would speculate that Bergoglio is more likely to end up in hell than the Protestant Tim McGrew. How could such shaky beliefs be legitimately employed to deny to certain groups the right to procreate?

Good Day MavPhil,

Here is something to consider as well in light of the anti-natalist sentiments under discussion: namely, if it is moral / rational to be anti-natalist for the reasons that you gave above, then would it not also be moral / rational to be pro-suicide for the same reasons?

Consider the following argument:

1) There is an objective 'fact of the matter' as to whether or not human life is on balance of positive or negative value.

2) Absent any redemption 'from above,' the value of life for most humans is on balance negative, that is, the harms of existence outweigh the benefits of existence.

3) We do know that our continued existence in the world will continue to bring us physical, mental, and spiritual suffering; at the same time, human beings are social animals who live with others, and thus we know that our continued existence in the world will inevitably bring physical, mental, and spiritual suffering to other people throughout our lifetimes.

4) It is morally wrong to subject people to harms when it is not known that the harms will be compensated by a greater good.

5) To continue to live is to subject both ourselves and others to such harms.

6) The only way to truly and surely stop subjecting ourselves and others to such harms is to cease to exist.

Therefore:

6) It is morally wrong to continue to live and morally good to commit suicide.

Now a number of objections could be marshalled against this argument, as they can be for any argument, but I think a solid case could be made for this line of reasoning.

However, I would contend that the argument's conclusion is absurd, and thus there is something wrong with the argument itself.

Now, what is interesting to consider is whether what is wrong with the argument is Premise 2, which is the "atheistic-naturalist" or "deist" premise.

Thus, perhaps this could be formulated as an argument against naturalism / deism:

1) If naturalism / deism is true, then the most moral action for human beings to take is to kill themselves.

2) But it is absurd that the most moral course of action that humans can take is to kill themselves.

3) Therefore, naturalism / deism is false.

Anyway, something to think about.

Cheers.

Damian Michael
www.damianmichael.com

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