Pollyanna über alles: A critique of antinatalism

Antinatalism is the view that it is wrong to bring new conscious beings into existence. Here I present and refute what seems to be the most popular arguments for it, as presented by David Benatar.

The title of this post is a reference to the many ways Benatar refers smugly to his hypothetical critics, even though he himself criticises hypothetical critics of addressing his arguments smugly. I will not do that and confine my cheesy remarks to these introductory remarks. What follows is an argument from non-self-deluded, cheerful Pollyannaist optimist.

Before starting, some considerations about this post. Unlike my usual articles, which involve  extensive literature reviews up to the day before of publication, this one has only a few sources. Specifically, the book linked above, and Sarah Perry’s book  Every cradle is a Grave (reviewed here). The reason for that is my laziness that I am quite sure that I am right in this matter, and so I hope to be able to convince everyone of my position without having to go through the full literature review. My reaction to anti-natalism is close to Bryan Caplan’s, but I will offer some more detailed arguments for my rejection.

This of course leaves me more open than usual to potential critics, so I will be more willing than usual – and typically I’m very willing – to address any critique of the arguments presented here, and to amend this post the number of times that is necessary.

The arguments for antinatalism that I will consider are two. I will first define varieties of antinatalism and what they entail

  • Universal a priori antinatalism (UAPR): Bringing any new life into existence is wrong (or, weakly, not good), regardless of the goodness or badness of those lives. This is defended using the asymmetry argument, which I shall later present.
  • Universal a posteriori antinatalism (UAPO): Bringing any new life into existence is wrong (or not good) given that every life that will come to be will be awful, even though there is no metaphysical necessity that it will be. So it happens that specific features of our world make that true. This is defended in the book by mentioning a few cases of suffering and bad things, and by arguing that who thinks otherwise is deluded.
  • Individual a posteriori antinatalism: Bringing some specific new life into existence is wrong, and this varies on a case by case basis. For example, if we expect a life in particular to be awful, then it is morally wrong to bring that life into existence. But if the life is not awful or good, then there is no problem. This is not defended in the book, and it quite wouldn’t count as antinatalism in the eyes of Benatar, but is the closest version of antinatalism to the average person’s beliefs.

I. The case for UAPR

The asymmetry argument is as follows. Benatar typically talks about pleasure and pain, but I happen to think that the moral (dis) value of those things is overrated, and thus expand the definition -without loss for his argument- to include anything we might consider good or bad.

  1. The presence of good things is good
  2. The presence of bad things is bad
  3. The absence of bad things is good even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone
  4. The absence of good things is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation

The two first premises seem uncontroversial. Benatar says that there is nothing logically incoherent in rejecting 3-4, but he supports them by saying that accepting them explains a series of other asymmetries that are commonly accepted. Also, rejecting it, says he, leads us to accept terrible conclusions.

 

 

  1. Image result for benatar asymmetry

The four asymmetries that support the Asymmetry are:

  1. Procreational duties: We have a duty to avoid bringing miserable people into existence, but we have no duty to bring into existence happy people
  2. Prospective beneficence: It is strange to cite as a reason for having a child that that child will be benefitted. But is is not strange to cite as a reason for not having that child that the child will suffer.
  3. Restrospective beneficence: When a suffering child has been brought into existence, it makes sense to regret having done so for the sake of that child. But when one does not bring a happy child into existence, one cannot regret that for the sake of that child
  4. Distance suffering and absent happy people: We are sad for distance people who suffer. But we are not sad  for absent happy people on uninhabited regions

It can sound weird to say that the absence of pain is good, given that there is no one to enjoy that absence of pain -if that is even possible- so Benatar says (p. 30) that such judgement is made with reference to the potential interests of a person who either does or does not exist. As an example, if there is an existing person in pain, the absence of such pain would have been good even if the way to achieve it was not to have that person in the first place.

Now, as to why the Asymmetry explains the asymmetries, consider asymmetry 1. The idea here is that bringing someone into an awful existence would be bad (For that hypothetical person), while bringing someone into a nice existence wouldn’t be good (for the hypothetical person). The fact that the first case would be bad gives us a duty not to bring that person into existence, but in the second case, as the absence of good things is not bad (for that hypothetical person), there is no duty. It wouldn’t be wrong, to be sure, to bring into existence a life that has zero bad things. But we wouldn’t have a reason to do it, no matter how many good things happened to that person. And as soon as a tiny bad thing happened to that person, that whole life would not be worth starting.

Benatar then says that the Asymmetry is the only plausible explanation. He considers and dismisses others.

For example, what if the asymmetries are due to the fact that we have duties to avoid harming others, but no duties to benefit others? But then, many people think we have some positive duties to do good, but those duties do not include bringing happy people into existence. Other possible explanation is that the reason why we don’t have  duty to bring happy people into existence is that it involves a substantial cost (pregnancy, plus raising the child). Benatar finds this problematic, saying that absent those costs, we would have the duty to create more happy people. And he says that such a duty cannot be justified with recourse to the preference of potential people. The reason being that there is yet another asymmetry (‘of procreative moral reasons’): that the interests of potential people do serve as grounding of a reason to avoid bringing into existence unhappy people, but that such interests do no serve the equivalent purpose for happy people.

Benatar further defends the Asymmetry by considering two symmetric alternatives: the case where the absence of pleasure is bad (and the absence of pain is good), and the case where both absences are neither good or bad.

In the first case, he rejects it saying that if we accepted it, we would have to regret not bringing happy people into existence, for their sake. But it is not regrettable, and thus this symmetry is not tenable.

In the second case, Benatar just seems to beg the question:

Avoiding the pains of existence is more than merely ‘not bad’. It is good. Judging the absence of pleasure to be ‘not good’ is also too weak in that it does not say enough. Of course the absence of pleasure is not what we would call  ood. However, the important question, when the absence of pleasure involves no deprivation for anybody, is whether it is also ‘not bad’ or whether it is ‘bad’. The answer, I suggest, is that it is ‘not good, but not bad either’ rather than ‘not good, but bad’. Because ‘not bad’ is a more informative evaluation than ‘not good’, that is the one I prefer.

Thus, more formally,

  1. The Asymmetry is true, so
  2. The good things in potential people’s lives is not good for them
  3. The bad things in potential people’s lives is bad for them
  4. Hence, there is nothing good in coming into existence and there will be bad things.
  5. Hence, it is better to never have been born (there are no good reasons to bring people into existence), and
    1. The extintion of the human race in particular and sentient life in general is good in so far as no more people are brought into existence
    2. The pro-death position in abortion, that abortion is morally mandatory in the early stages of pregnancy, is correct

Note that these arguments are meant to apply to any possible life. A world of perfect bliss and happiness and meaningfulness, that contains the mere possibility of someone somewhere experiencing a minor itch is not worth bringing into existence, from UAPR’s perspective.

Should we, in addition, commit suicide? Not necessarily. Benatar makes a difference between lives worth starting and lives worth continuing.

One of the implications of my argument is that a life filled with good and containing only the most minute quantity of bad—a life of utter bliss adulterated only by the pain of a single pin-prick—is worse than no life at
all. The objection is that this is implausible. Understanding the distinction between (a) coming into existence being a harm and (b) how great a harm it is, enables one to see why this implication is not so implausible.

Benatar presents a related argument from another author:

She [Shiffrin] says that in the absence of evidence of a person’s wishes to the contrary, it is permissible, perhaps obligatory, to inflict a lesser harm on that person in order to prevent a greater harm. By contrast, it would be wrong to inflict a harm that would yield a greater (pure) benefit.40 Thus, we take it to be acceptable to break an unconscious (non-consenting) person’s arm in order to prevent a greater harm, such as death, to that person. (This is the ‘rescue case’.)

However, we would condemn breaking that person’s arm in order to secure some greater benefit, such as ‘supernormal memory, a useful store of encyclopedic knowledge, twenty IQ points worth of extra intellectual ability, or the ability to consume immoderate amounts of alcohol or fat without side effects’.41 (Call this the ‘pure benefit case’.) Since all existers suffer harm, procreation always causes harm. Professor Shiffrin is prepared to grant (for the sake of argument?) that ‘being created can benefit a person.’42 However, in accordance with the asymmetry just mentioned, we may not inflict the
harm in order to secure the benefit.

Although existing people can sometimes authorize our inflicting harm in order to secure some benefit for them, we can never obtain the consent of those whom we bring into existence before we create them. Nor can we presume hypothetical consent, she argues. There are four reasons for this.43 First, the person is not harmed if we fail to create him or her. Secondly, the harms of existence may be severe. Thirdly, the harms of life cannot be escaped without considerable cost. Finally, the hypothetical consent is not based on the individual’s values or attitudes towards risk.

II. Why UAPR is wrong

If you found the above unnecessarily obscure and convoluted, you are not the only one. It surely is not Rawls-level obscure and convoluted, but it is so nonetheless. This does not disqualify Benatar’s arguments, it only makes it more difficult to understand and criticise them.

There are two ways of showing why UAPR is wrong. The first one is to offer a positive case for non-UAPR, and the other one is show where the arguments for UAPR go wrong. The first argument is an argument ad myself:

  1. My life is nice
  2. Not bringing me into existence wouldn’t have allowed me to have such a good life, or a life at all
  3. If you can cause me to exist by pressing a button – a small cost to yourself – you ought to do it. Failing to do so will mean that I wouldn’t enjoy my life
  4. Hence, there is one life that is worth starting, and for which we have a duty to start it
  5. But this contradicts UAPR
  6. Hence, UAPR is wrong

The above argument can also be used with a life that we know will be like mine, but that doesn’t exist yet. This argument doesn’t refute all versions of antinatalism. UAPO is still tenable, as perhaps my case is weird and most other people are indeed miserable.

The antinatalist will criticise my premise 1 with arguments for UAPA, saying that my life is not that good. I’ll answer that later. The second premise will be criticise by means of the Asymmetry, so to it I turn. Premise three seems trivially true if one accepts even a minimalistic conception of positive duties.

My critique of the Asymmetry is twofold. First, note that the literal presentation of the Asymmetry is misleading. That is, when Benatar says that ‘The absence of pain is good’ he does not mean that there is anything good in an empty piece of vacuum. The literal presentation, I say, means that the absence of bad or good things is neither good or bad. It isn’t anything. It is not good and not bad. Those categories do not apply to that which is empty.

But Benatar actually means something different with that. He means that for a potential person, good things wouldn’t be good, but that bad things would be bad. Of course, I reject this, and Benatar says in a later paper that indeed there isn’t anything logically wrong in rejecting this, but he says that we shouldn’t, the reason being supposedly weird consequences.

We certainly can (logically) state that just as the absent pains in Scenario B are good, so the absent pleasures are bad. The problem, I have suggested, is that we should not claim this. Among the reasons for this is that we would then not be able to make all the value judgments we do in the four asymmetries that I say are explained by the basic asymmetry.

So then, we must turn to the sub-asymmetries.

Regarding the first asymmetry,

While we have a duty to avoid bringing into existence people who would lead miserable lives, we have no duty to bring into existence those who would lead happy lives.

I disagree that there anything special regarding a duty not to bring people into existence. Duties are mostly negative (To avoid harming), and a few are positive (beneficence). This stems from the idea that we ought not interfere with the life-plans of other and let them live their lives as they want. However, there is no pre-existing life-plan to interfere with in the case of unborn people. But if a new person is generated such that the person comes to regret its existence, then we would have wronged that person, for we would have put that person through a life that was not asked for, so it would still be wrong.

That said, if we accept that we have a broad duty of beneficence (to do good to others), then one way of discharging that duty is bringing more people into existence. Creating people who will be satisfied with their lives is a good thing.

But that duty is weaker than a duty of non-maleficence, of not harming, so an asymmetry remains. But here we have gotten rid of an specific asymmetry for procreation, which is explained by the general asymmetry between negative and positive duties. Benatar has a reply to this:

Speaking about duties rather than reasons, I noted that ‘‘for those who deny that we have any positive duties, this would indeed be an alternative explanation of the one I have provided. However, even of those who do think that we have positive duties only a few also think that amongst these is a duty to bring happy people into existence’’ (Benatar 2006, p. 32).12 In other words, the explanation that we have stronger reasons to avoid suffering than to cause pleasure is a less satisfactory explanation because it is open to only some rather than all people who accept the asymmetry of procreational duties.

Unfortunately, his argument fails. First, one can say that we have no specific duty to create new people, although it is disputable the extent of this intuition is as limited as Benatar says. Many people think bringing new life into existence is a duty. But the fact that we don’t think there’s a specific duty to bring new people into existence is no reason to claim that such a thing doesn’t fall under the broad umbrella of a duty of beneficence. We similarly think that we have no duty to give me money, although doing that falls within a duty of beneficence (There is a link to Patreon in the right hand panel if you want to discharge your duty that way)

But more importantly, the specialness of procreation is that it involves a very high cost (pregnancy and raising the kid). If creating people with a good life was as easy as pressing a button, we would have very strong reasons to do so. It would even be wrong not to do it.

Benatar has considered this argument:

It is usually thought that our positive duties cannot include a duty to create lots of pleasure if that would require significant sacrifice on our part. Given that having children involves considerable sacrifice (at least to the pregnant woman), this, and not asymmetry, is the best explanation for why there is no duty to bring happy people into existence. The problem, though, with this alternative explanation is that it implies that in the absence of this sacrifice we would have a duty to bring happy people into existence. In other words, it would be wrong not to create such people if we could create them without
great cost to ourselves.

Altough I don’t see this as a problem.

The problem, though, with this alternative explanation is that it implies that in the absence of this sacrifice24 we would have a duty to bring happy people into existence. In other words, it would be wrong not to create such people if we could create them without great cost to ourselves. But this presupposes that the duty under discussion is an all-things-considered duty.

However, the interests of potential people cannot ground even a defeasible duty to bring them into existence. Put another way, the asymmetry of procreative (all-things-considered) duties rests on another asymmetry—an asymmetry of procreative moral reasons. According to this asymmetry, although we have a strong moral reason, grounded in the interests of potential people,25 to avoid creating unhappy people, we have no strong moral reason (grounded in the interests of potential people) to create happy people

But this is just begging the question! Why can the interests of a future person ground a reason to avoid their potential suffering but not ground a reason to give them a life? Benatar doesn’t explain here. He sort of handwaves in the direction of the second asymmetry:

It is strange to cite as a reason for having a child that that child will thereby be benefited. It is not similarly strange to cite as a reason for not having a child that that child will suffer.

But it doesn’t seem strange to me. Problem solved. Part of the motivation for having a child, pace Benatar is, and ought to be, altruistic.

We move onto the next asymmetry

When one has brought a suffering child into existence, it makes sense to regret having brought that child into existence—and to regret it for the sake of that child. By contrast, when one fails to bring a happy child into existence, one cannot regret that failure for the sake of the person.

Here we should move away from the trap of using emotional language in moral evaluations (regretting), so I rephrase it:

When one has brought a suffering child into existence, it makes sense to have the belief that having brought that child into existence was a bad thing—and to think that for the sake of that child. By contrast, when one fails to bring a happy child into existence, one cannot have the belief that failing to bring that child into existence is a bad thing, for the sake of the person.

Now we get a bit clearer, but the argument is still defective, for it is comparing an actual case (an existing suffering child) with a potential case (a potential happy child). If a happy child is brought into existence, it does make sense to believe that it was a good idea to having brought it into existence. With a potential child, it doesn’t make sense to have a belief either way: the person doesn’t even exist.

And so we move to the final asymmetry:

We are rightly sad for distant people who suffer. By contrast we need not shed any tears for absent happy people on uninhabited planets, or uninhabited islands or other regions on our own planet.

Again, let’s purge this of emotion to make it  interesting to someone who is never sad like me:

We think that the suffering of distant people is bad. By contrast we do not think the absence of happy people on uninhabited planets, or uninhabited islands or other regions on our own planet is bad.

But this is yet another case of an unfair comparison: an actuality with a potentiality. If we consider the full list of cases, we see that existing suffering is bad, and existing good things are good. For things that do not exist, we have nothing to say. If anything, that if there is an empty space, we have reasons to avoid creating beings that will suffer to populate it, and reasons to create beings that will have lives worth living.

Thus I reject the last three asymmetries and I explain the first once by means of a general duty of beneficence, and the fact that such a duty depends on how costly it is to us to benefit others.

There is one general counter argument that could be made now against me: that the reasons for bringing new beings into existence are weaker than the reasons not to bring them. Against this, I offer the following thought experiment:

Suppose you have a magic fist such that if you punch people in their arm you cause them to have greater intelligence, and be able to enjoy a range of pleasures that they weren’t enjoying before (Say, understanding quantum mechanics, learning History, and doing phlosophy). Furthermore, assume that people who have been punched in the past have all almost unanimously been glad to be punched. Is there anything wrong with you randomly punching people?

I argue that no, and in fact you have a duty -as part of a duty of beneficence – to punch people in the arm to improve their lives.

This case, however, is not totally analogous. You could obtain consent. Although in this particular case, the fact that most people are glad to have undergone the procedure could perhaps defeat consent, in a similar way to how parents impose certain rules to their kids, on grounds that they will come to see them as justified, because in the present they don’t have enough information to understand their choice. (If however, they manifested enough knowledge of the relevant information, then their consent would trump our duty to punch).

For non-beings, they consent via hypothetical consent. Had they been able to say yes, they would have. We can know this by asking people. If the number of people who regretted being born was high, then we would be in the world were UAPO is true, and so the conclusion that extinction of sentient life is an ethical duty would hold.

The argument ad myself above isn’t able to defeat UAPO, and so I would need to argue that life is actually nice. David Benatar offers a critique of this, by means or arguing that life is actually awful in chapter 3 of the book. To it I now turn.

As before, first I will present Benatar’s arguments, then offer a critique.

III. We are biased

What does then Benatar say about life?

He first makes an interesting point about the non-conmutativity of the addition in time of goods and bads.

For instance, a life in which all the good occurred in the first half, and uninterrupted bad characterized the second half, would be a lot worse than one in which the good and bad were more evenly distributed. This is true even if the total amount of good and bad were the same in each life. Similarly, a life of steadily inclining achievement and satisfaction is preferable to one that starts out bright in the very earliest years but gets progressively worse.4 The amount of good and bad in each of these alternative lives may be the same, but the trajectory can make one life better than the other.

And he also argues that there is also a non-linearity of additivity within pleasure and pain:

Another distributional consideration is the intensity of the good and the bad. A life in which the pleasures were extraordinarily intense but correspondingly few, infrequent, and short-lived might be worse than a life with the same total amount of pleasure,
but where the individual pleasures were less intense and more frequently distributed across the life. However, pleasures and other goods can also be distributed too widely within a life, thereby making them so mild as to be barely distinguishable from  neutral states.

And then an interesting remark that reveals Benatar’s negative utilitarian-leaning credentials:

Arguably, once a life reaches a certain threshold of badness (considering both the amount and the distribution of its badness), no quantity of good can outweigh it, because no amount of good could be worth that badness.

He, however, does not argue for that point beyond a minor example that is just restating  the paragraph above quoted with numerical quantities.

Next, he continues by arguing that self-assessments of the quality of our own lives is unreliable. He needs this point to argue againt my argumentum ad myself, and against the vast majority of people who deny that their lives are bad. That is, he grants that most people prefer to exist and think that it wouldn’t have been better to never have been.

there is very good reason to doubt that these self-assessments are a reliable indicator of a life’s quality. There are a number of well-known features of human psychology that can account for the favourable assessment people usually make of their own life’s quality. It is these psychological phenomena rather than the actual quality of a life that explain (the extent of) the positive
assessment.

The first of this is what he calls the Pollyanna Principle, a tendency towards optimism. This manifests itself in:

  1. Inclination to recall positive rather than negative experiences. “For example, when asked to recall events from throughout their lives, subjects in a number of studies listed a much greater number of positive than negative experiences”
  2. We think that things will go better than they actually go.

He says that assessments of well-being are skewed towards the positive end of the spectrum. That is, very few people describe themselves as not too happy. Most peope say they are pretty happy or very happy, and most people believe they are better off than the average person.

Also,

Most of the factors that plausibly improve the quality of a person’s life do not commensurately influence self-assessments of that quality (where they influence them at all). For example, although there is a correlation between people’s own rankings of their health and their subjective assessments of well-being, objective assessments of people’s health, judging by physical symptoms, are not as good a predictor of peoples’ subjective evaluations of their well-being.14 Even among those whose dissatisfaction with their health does lead to lower self-reported well-being, most report levels of satisfaction toward the positive end of the spectrum

And

Within any given country,16 the poor are nearly (but not quite) as happy as the rich are.

And

Nor do education and occupation make much (even though they do make some) difference.

Another phenomenon he mentions that counts as a bias is adaptation, or habituation.

When a person’s objective well-being takes a turn for the worse, there is, at first, a significant subjective dissatisfaction. However, there is a tendency then to adapt to
the new situation and to adjust one’s expectations accordingly.19 Although there is some dispute about how much adaptation occurs and how the extent of the adaptation varies in different domains of life, there is agreement that adaptation does occur. As a result, even if the subjective sense of well-being does not return to the original level, it comes closer towards it than one might think, and it comes closer in some domains than in others.

Yet another biasing factor is comparisons with the well being of others

It is not so much how well one’s life goes as how well it goes in comparison with others that determines one’s judgement about how well one’s life is going. Thus self-assessments are a better indicator of the comparative rather than actual quality of one’s life. One effect of this is that those negative features of life that are shared by everybody are inert in people’s judgements about their own well-being.
Since these features are very relevant, overlooking them leads to unreliable judgements.

Out of those factors, he points to Pollyannaism as the most important one, as adaptation works for both negative and positive events, and we compare ourselves with people who are better and worse off. But Pollyannaism makes it so that these two mechanisms are optimistically biased,

For example, people are more prone to comparing themselves with those who are worse off than with those who are better off.22 Thus, in the best cases, adaptation and comparison reinforce Pollyannaism. In the worst cases, they mitigate it but do not negate it entirely.

The above psychological phenomena are unsurprising from an evolutionary perspective.23 They militate against suicide and in favour of reproduction. If our lives are quite as bad as I shall still suggest they are, and if people were prone to see this true quality of their lives for what it is, they might be much more inclined to kill themselves, or at least not to produce more such lives. Pessimism, then, tends not to be naturally selected.

So to recap, the arguments he offers in support of the idea that we are optimistically biased are:

  1. Pollyannaism
    1. We recall more positive rather than negative events
    2. We expects things to go better than they do
  2. Adaptationism
  3. Factors that should make a difference in happiness doesn’t quite do so (education, wealth, etc)
  4. We tend to report our happiness relative to others, not in an absolute way. General harms are not perceived.
  5. And there is an evolutionary explanation for an optimism bias

Let us stop here and consider these claims.

IV. We are not that biased

My first critique is that even if we grant Benatar everything he is saying, the argument doesn’t follow, so a detailed empirical examination of the issue is not that needed. That is, it is true that if the levels of biases were huge, then he would be right. However, heuristically, biases regarding something as salient as good and bad lived experiences are rarely that strong.

Furthermore, these are not the only biases we have, and the fact that we have them does not disqualify our beliefs in other areas. As an example, consider optical illusions. We can argue that most people perceive those illusions in a way that is not consistent with reality. But from here we would not be justified in claiming that all perception is wrong, that between what we see and what there is there is a big gap. And on top of that, even when we perceive the illusions as such, we can make the rational judgement that our visual system is flawed in some cases, and thus say that even if you see X, what is in front of you isn’t X.

Similarly, we can try to carefully consider our lives, and try to account for the biases Benatar points out. If we still think that our lives are worth it, then we have justified to think it. If one peruses through the evidence he provides, this fails to change my mind. The burden of proof Benatar has to overcome is huge, and it fails to do it.

But for completion, I will briefly discuss the evidence he is presenting.

  • The phenomenon of habituation is not a bias. I don’t see how it could be. What matters for your welfare is your perception of it. You could be poor and happy or rich and miserable. And to take it beyond, this is a very good approach to life: to get used to the background nuisances of life, end emphasise and focus on the good things. If we can do that, we’ll be better off -typically-. This is not a call for self-delusion. The bad things have to be acknowledged before being dismissed as minor things. You will rarely find some who is more aggressively against self-delusion than me, to the point where I claim that a life built upon falsehood is mostly or totally worthless [1], and that to live a good life you need to examine anything that could lead you to believe that you are in such a situation.
  • The fact that there is a majority of positive words in human languages has been called the Pollyanna hypothesis. But note that this is not a bias with respect to reality (What we usually call a bias), but a bias with respect to neutrality. Life is generally great, and we should expect language to reflect that.
  • The Pollyanna Principle is then an extension of the above to include the fact that we recall more and more vividly positive rather than negative events (Matlin, 2016). Again, this can be partially explained by the fact that we live more positive, rather than negative, events. What cannot be explained by that is that positive events are more vividly remembered. An optimistic bias does exist, on average, but from my reading of the literature it doesn’t suffice to overcome the initial burden of proof that Benatar has to overcome to argue that life is terrible.
  • It is unclear whether depressive people are more realistic in their view of the world. The latest that we know about the matter is this meta-analysis (Moore and Fresco, 2012) where they found both depressive and non-depressive patients to be positively biased, and they found an very small advantage in favour of the depressed (Cohen’s d = -0.07). But then, even this slight bias is inconclusive, as the authors note that different methodologies yield quite different results, including that the depressed are more biased. Specifically, studies that use objective measures of reality and objective measures of depression (rather than self-report) find lower depressive realism effects. (d~-0.03).
  • There are also negative biases , which seems inconsistent with the idea of a uniform positivity bias. This negativity bias also has a proposed evolutionary explanation.
  • Casually, it seems that people are sometimes optimistic and sometimes pessimistic. Benatar gives some examples of unwarranted optimism. But in the real world, we find that people tend to think that the world in general is getting worse, and those who do know the truth have to be constantly reminding people of what reality looks like (Here, here, here)
  • Relative income does affect how we perceive our own welfare. But so does absolute income. That is, you are going to feel unwell if you can’t drink, whatever is in your surroundings. And equally, good food will remain good food regardless of the wealth others have around you. It perhaps will be seen as lower or higher status, but the experience itself won’t be much changed.

Will this be enough to prove that Benatar’s evidence is not enough?  I hope so. If it isn’t, I’ll offer one small argument to tip the scale even more towards my side.

The idea here is that it is extremely difficult to know about people’s welfare, and the best judges of it are themselves. This happens because there is no necessary emotion given a set of external circumstances. Of course, some are easy. Generally, hitting people with a hammer in the face will cause them great suffering, which we can infer both from their self report and their suffering-expressing behaviour (yelling, crying, etc.). [2]. Equally, you could take suffering you have had in the past and weave it with present good things in an achievement story. Those good things seem to be magnified by the past suffering necessary to achieve them. Benatar does agree with the fact that bad things followed by good things are better than good things. But this is because we are able to make up something meaningful out of it. Ideally, we would be able to make up meaning in every circumstance, to the extreme of Viktor Frankl. If one doesn’t want to, for whatever reason, then one can commit suicide. Suicide should be allowed to those who rationally want it. (See my discussion on Sarah Perry’s book, and the discussion of a ‘free disposal society’)

Fellow anti-natalist David Pearce agrees with Benatar’s framework, but proposes a different solution: eliminate suffering and replace it with gradients of bliss. That way, even if for them there won’t still be reasons to start a new life, at least there won’t be reasons against it either. What I say here is that if one buys Pearce’s approach, we should also buy the idea of thinking suffering out of existence. By mere act of thought, we can suffer less if we alter the way we feel. If a dear friend dies, for example, nothing negative should be felt, for example. To the loss of the friend, why add extra suffering by feeling bad? It won’t solve anything. And given that we are committed to the idea that suffering is bad, we would be irrational if we felt bad for it. Most people just say that they can’t help it. But regardless, this is just an illustration. Most people do use similar mechanisms to adapt their emotions to the world in order to live more pleasant lives. Is this a bad thing? Is this a wrong way of seeing the world? I don’t think so. There is nothing irrational or biased about feeling that one life is worth it in a -supposedly- wretched and awful world. If anything, sustaining that feeling in face of adversity makes it even more meaningful when achieved.

To close this section, I restate once more my core argument.

Our intuition that our lives are worth living is quite strong. We think that the good things vastly outweigh the bad things and that makes our lives worth continuing and worth starting. To counter this, one would need evidence of massive bias. Some bias is not enough. If we say that our life is 95% totally worth living, Benatar’s arguments would reduce that to 93 or 92%. To argue that just because we have some biases we should completely reject a strong intuition is like arguing that we should discard our belief that our memory is generally reliable because confabulation is a thing.

V. Conclusion

So far I have established two points. One, that the Asymmetry argument for antinatalism fails. And two, that life is, after all, nice (For most people).

But what about those who genuinely do regret having being born? One first response is the Caplan-Perry synthesis: You are free to reject life (in the sense that if you rationally want it, you shouldn’t be stopped), and we should all work towards a society where that option is open to people (In approved medical centers, for example). That way, those who prefer non-existence can go back to it and those who prefer existence can keep it.

Now, when thinking about bringing someone new into existence, chances of something terrible happening to that person exist. Should a future person be subjected to the mere possibility of such things just to allow the existence of other people? Because clearly, if we accept that no amount of good can compensate a given bad within a life, the fact that somewhere, at some point, someone with such a life could be born would be a reason to stop any procreation. Which is why we have to reject that.

If on the hand hand we have the cessation of all conscious life from the universe and in the other having  a minuscule minority of people who will live  awful lives, it seems clear to my that we should opt for the latter. And in addition, we should also aim for a world were the number of people who regret existing is smaller and smaller. It is fortunately the case that we are not in a world where suffering is a metaphysical necessity.

I leave this here, and wait for critiques, which will hopefully come.


 

[1] If religion was needed to sustain civilisation, down with civilisation. If self-delusion is required to live, let us end life. If an accurate image of reality requires depression, let me be depressed. That which can be destroyed by Truth, ought to be.

[2] I say this because not everyone feels as hurtful.

 

 

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8 Responses to Pollyanna über alles: A critique of antinatalism

  1. SchopenHauer Pauer says:

    Is there any way you could have serialised this post? Benatar’s book isn’t that long, you know. I might as well read that instead of your post. I hope you show more restraint in future posts, on what is a multifaceted subject, and I will ‘let you have the business’ then. ANyone who thinks Benatar is the smug one, not the avowed pollyanna’s, needs a polemical spanking, and I’m just the guy.

  2. sirhu says:

    Hey there, I will respond to some points I found pertinent.

    “My life is nice” > That’s ok. I am genuinely happy if you consider yourself to have a “nice life”. I, personally, don’t like my life.

    “Not bringing me into existence wouldn’t have allowed me to have such a good life, or a life at all” > Yes, but before existence you weren’t somewhere longing for pleasure. You couldn’t even think at all.

    “If you can cause me to exist by pressing a button – a small cost to yourself – you ought to do it. Failing to do so will mean that I wouldn’t enjoy my life”. > No, I don’t. It’s indifferent. If I do it or not, it doesn’t count as a real positive. Because a priori, you never needed that pleasure. It’s creating need that didn’t need to exist. Your need to climb a mountain doesn’t need to exist. And imposing need and risk on someone else’s behalf is unethical. If you have a good life, that’s great. But you cannot guarantee that the same thing will happen on another person. You can’t see the events that will strike that person on 20, 40, or 60 years. And that’s reason enough for you to not risk that future person’s life.

    “Hence, there is one life that is worth starting, and for which we have a duty to start it “> No life is worth starting because there is no need. Your biological need to survive and the chemical reactions that you call pleasure were never wanted in the first place. And there is no place where all the unborn babies are lamenting for not being able to taste ice cream. The ethical position is to avoid bringing risk to future people.

    As for your “magic punch” thought experiment, it’s the same situation with vaccination. That is, you inflict some harm because in the end it is worth the price. However, the situation only describes individuals that already exist. While antinatalism only adresses those that haven’t come into existence yet.

    Because, just as in the case of vaccination, the fact that a baby can not consent to be vaccinated does not prevent this from being the correct attitude to be taken, since it can save him from major future pains, which could result in a significantly reduced quality of life.

    The benefit that will come from the initial suffering never had to exist in the first place. It was never wanted. That is, the desire was first created so that the measures taken could be justified.

    It is not difficult to perceive the errors of this counterargument. Explaining in a simple analogy: The fact that your friend is asleep does not imply that it is ethical to impose a sexual intercourse upon her, since the possibility of her hating that is undeniable. And the supposed pleasure of the sexual intercourse that she will feel was never desired in the first place. She will only feel this desire if she wakes up (or if you’re brought into existence). That is, the fact that you suppose that “in the end it’s worth it”,does not make it ethical to impose that risk on another person.

    You abstaining yourself from forcing others into existence does not harm anyone. But if you do force them, risk will be always present, and the need that didn’t need to exist is what you use to justify that imposition. Ephemeral need that regenerates itself. An addiction, to be more precise. A system that was built by brute forces, not by an intelligent being. We should not try to justify this.

    Another example: suppose life is a roller coaster. Some like it, others hate it. You decide it was a good idea to force myself on this thing, since many like it. But when I say that I hate being in it and that leaving definitely is not easy (suicide is one of the most difficult acts one can do, for a number of reasons, and even if it were, it would not justify the pain imposed), you do not know what to say.

  3. “If you can cause me to exist by pressing a button – a small cost to yourself – you ought to do it. Failing to do so will mean that I wouldn’t enjoy my life”

    Why? The fact that you spectacularly fail to justify this assertion proves that your argument is nonsense. The fact that you enjoy your own life does absolutely nothing to prove that I have a duty or obligation to bring you into existence. If you were not born, you would not be losing out on any pleasure. If you actually understood the Asymmetry, you would have understood that. The fact that you do not proves you didn’t understand the Asymmetry at all, and that you lack common sense.

  4. BTW, what is this “duty of beneficience”? Did you just make it up? Because I’ve never heard of it until now.

  5. Artir says:

    Francois, sirhu, SchopenHauer,

    Thank you for your comments.
    I will wait some more days for further comments as I finish other posts and I will write a reply to these and some comments I got via email in a followup post.

  6. Pingback: I like my life, therefore antinatalism is false! | The Prime Directive

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