Further thoughts on antinatalism

A reply to some comments and an article

I’d like to thank  SchopenHauer Pauer, sirhu, and Francois Tremblay for their comments in my previous post. Francois also wrote an article in response, which you can find here. I will address their comments in order. If you want to skip to my lenghtier reply to Francois, click here

ANyone who thinks Benatar is the smug one, not the avowed pollyanna’s, needs a polemical spanking, and I’m just the guy.

Why do I think Benatar is being a bit smug? Well, going to the book we find things like ‘The cheery will say’, optimists being deluded, and so on. I had this in mind when I was thinking about it. This is a relatively minor issue, though.

Now, to sirhu,

“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.

Indeed. But I wouldn’t also be feeling fortunate to be spared suffering.

“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.

Why didn’t it need to exist? I have needs, indeed, and if I didn’t exist I wouldn’t do anything regarding what I don’t have. But having needs and going around balancing them, satisfying them and all that is enjoyable. One has to think probabilistically: At the end, when a person dies, will that person think that everything up to that point was worth it? The extreme suffering of the one does not counteract the mild pleasure of the many. This is the key point of disagreement between anti-natalist and the rest. Bringing someone into existence is not condemning them to a life of suffering that they won’t like. It certainly open the possibility that they will have such life, and they having such life is not an intended consequence of the act of procreation. With our every action, negative consequences are imposed on others. If we drive, we create the previously non-existing risk of someone dying in a traffic accident. Banning cars is one option to avoid this risk. But then the advantages of driving are lost. On the other hand, how much risk people impose on each other can be controlled (traffic regulations). This second option seems more sensible, and more sensible I see this option with the case of procreation, only that it can be impractical or counterproductive to find in which cases procreation should be prohibited.

“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.

That is a loaded question. ‘There is no need’ and ‘were never wanted’ . In order for a need to exist or for someone to want there has to be someone. Obviously if there is no one there can be no need and no want. But this is a trivial tautology. There are, however, reasons to bring people into existence: that those people will enjoy their lives. This answer applies to the reply in the following three paragraphs about the magic punch thought experiment.

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.

Indeed it is unethical in that situation: But in that situation it is possible to obtain consent relatively easily once the person wakes up. If the person is sleeping, there is a strong prima facie evidence that that person really wants to sleep, not to have sex. When the friend wakes up, she will most likely speak against the act. This is different from the case of procreation, where the friend (That is, the person brought into existence) is quite pleased!

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.

The issue here is this: Imagine that in that roallercoaster you are the first in the queue and you don’t want to get in. You can either get in or stay there for all eternity being unborn. Behind you, is a queue of millions or billions of people who want to get in. Should they push you, should you get into the roallercoaster to let everyone get in? And my answer is yes, you should. Here not wanting to move means imposing worldwide antinatalism. In turn, the others should let you get down as easy as possible, as I have discussed in my post about Sarah Perry’s book.

Reply to Francois Tremblay

Before replying to his article, his comments:

“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.

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

How can I spectacularly fail to prove what I have not tried proving? I wonder. It seemed to me to follow straightforwardly from a duty of beneficence. This is, that one sometimes ought to act altruistically towards others, that you should be nice. Almost everyone accepts this. Except people like Ayn Rand. I assume Tremblay is not a Randian. So why does he reject weak positive duties (supererogation)? Plus this would count as a strong argument against antinatalism: If being an antinatalist entails that there are no positive duties, so worse for antinatalism!

Then, he says that I have understood but not confronted the Assymmetry, and had I understood it, I wouldn’t say that. This is nonsense: I have understood and explained the Assymmetry and its motivation, and futhermore I have refuted it. I have rejected its validity and explained why. Benatar, if Tremblay has cared reading his later work which I assumed he has, accepts that there is no logical necessity in accepting the Assymmetry, he just says that we should because of the  undesirable consequences thatsupposedly follow from rejecting it.

The mistake in this objection is that it misconstrues my basic asymmetry as a logical rather than axiological claim. 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. (Benatar, 2013)

Now, to his article. I pick relevant paragraphs or sentences and reply to them.

Now before I begin, I want to point out that Artir is not quite right in the head. What are we to make of someone who seriously writes: “someone who is never sad like me” and that “what follows is an argument from non-self-deluded, cheerful Pollyannaist optimist”? Why would anyone describe themselves in this way?

The first thing because it is true: I am never (99.99% of the time or more) sad. This is important in context if you read my post: Benatar talks about sadness, but if one doesn’t feel sadness then his argument would be outright unappealing to me. Since I think Benatar didn’t have sadness specifically in mind, I ammended his argument, and gave my lack of sadness as a reason. About Pollyannaism, it’s a playful way of stating my position. One could leave his read of Benatar’s book with the impression that optimism is for the self-deluded, and that thinking that things are great is a falsity. But here there is a person who is definately not self-deluded yet holds a highly rosy view of the world (hence the Pollyanna part) when compared to the pessimist’s.

Tremblay might have short-term memory issues, as at the end of his article states that

I do think his rebuttal to the quality of life argument so bizarre and delusional as to not deserve a response; he does explicitly call himself a self-deluded Pollyanna

But clearly there was a non in from of self-deluded, and he knew that at the beginning of the article. Minor issue.

Anyway, as I said, the rebuttal is extremely long, but I will not address most of it here. My position is that the basic argument used by Artir is absolutely wrong, and therefore there is no point in addressing the corollaries of Artir’s reasoning. So let me go straight to Artir’s argument.

This is a big, big, mistake on Tremblay’s side. The argumentum ad-myself is not my main argument. It is just one. This in turn drives other things he says in his article that are not right, like

He seems to erroneously believe that refuting the Asymmetry proves that “UAPR” (i.e. what we call antinatalism) is wrong. This, of course, is false: there are plenty of other antinatalist arguments which are not based on the Asymmetry, and Artir fails to address any of those. Again we see this obsession with the Asymmetry that so many critics seem to have, possibly because it’s the argument on which Benatar spends the most time in his book. And yet, despite this obsession, the Asymmetry still has not been logically refuted.

I am fully aware that if one has a syllogism like “A,A->B, hence B”, refuting one of the first two steps does not prove not-B. In dealing with an argument Q, one can build arguments for Q or against Q. Having a valid argument against Q refutes Q, having a valid argument for Q is incompatible with holding an argument againt Q, refuting an argument against Q does not prove Q right, and refuting an argument for Q does not prove Q wrong. Obviously.

In my post, I consider some arguments, and I consider those because they are the most popular: the Assymmetry argument, the life-is-terrible argument, and the consent argument. I give reasons to reject the arguments, on one side. Then in addition to that I give an argument against antinatalism: the argumentum ad myself. If the argument fails, then antinatalism is not vindicated.

My argumentum ad myself just attempts to prove that antinatalism is false in so much as one has an obligation to create new life in some cases. If one rejects this, one still doesn’t have an argument *against* creating new life. New life would be like vanilla ice cream, not a big part of philosophical debate: you might not like it or you might like it, but there are no reasons to force others to eat it or stop eating it. (Which is my position with suicide).

What other arguments are there for antinatalism, if we want Francois to at least concede that we have given a fair hearing to all of them.

Well in his blog he mentions the Assymmetry (discussed), consent (discussed), and anti-frustrationism, lack of purpose for procreation, ecological arguments, and life-is-bad argument (discussed).

I gave some reasons against anti-frustrationism and the lack of purpose argument, but to put it simply: Not there being a reason for something doesn’t count as a reason against something. Today I had a mango and passion fruit milkshake. Was that needed? Was there a deep reason for that? No, there wasn’t (Except in the trivial sense that I set myself a need for one, and it feels nice drinking it), but I don’t need a deep reason to do that. With procreation, it is not as reasonless: One reason is to enable someone to exist that will have a enjoyable life, other is to enrich your own life with forming a family. Yes, you can further other people’s lives and you can adopt. That is no argument against the permissibility of procreation, just an statement of alternatives.

Regarding ecological arguments, these say that human existence generates more suffering than otherwise. This doesn’t seem true to me, specially taking into account that human existance allows the existence of goods like music, the pursuit of Science and Philosophy, arts, or literature. And as I allocate far less ethical weight to lesser beings (as does almost everyone) then the arguments for ecological antinatalism are toothless. Unless one is a special sort of person: an absolutist deontologist or a negative utilitarian for whom the slightest of bad things or the possibility thereof overrules any possible good thing. Tremblay apparently falls in the first category.

Back to Tremblay’s post: He disagrees premise 3, which is a statement of minimal positive duties:

If you can cause me to exist by pressing a button – a small cost to yourself – you ought to do it.

Tremblay has not understoodmy argument, as he says that

For one thing, we do not come to exist at a minuscule cost equivalent to pressing a button. Since this is part of one of the premises, this means that his argument only proves that antinatalism is wrong if procreation comes at a minuscule cost. But it very clearly does not, therefore the argument does not refute antinatalism. Furthermore, as I said before, this argument does not refute other antinatalist arguments such as the misanthropic arguments, the risk argument, the teleological argument, the ecological arguments, the feminist arguments I’ve presented on this blog, and so on.

The thing is that if one has understood Benatar and one accepts my argument, then the Assymmetry argument fails, as the Assymmetry argument concludes that antinatalism is true, regardless of the costs of procreation. If one cares reading me carefully, I wrote that “This argument doesn’t refute all versions of antinatalism.” It only refutes the idea that a priori procreation is wrong. It can still be the case that in some cases that happen to be the case it is wrong, but I didn’t focus on those cases.

Now, regarding the duties. Tremblay rejects supererogatory duties:

I think Artir confused “duty of beneficence” with “duty to do good for others.” It is very clear that no one should believe in the latter idea, and anyone who says otherwise is pure evil: if we have a duty to provide anything that others find morally good, no matter what it is and no matter what moral evaluation we give it, that means we have a duty to do anything from having sex (i.e. being raped) to killing their enemies. I think it should very, very clear that no such duty could possibly be justified. We have a duty as a society to help others who are worse off or in danger, but we do not have a universal duty to do good to others.

Tremblay borders on Ayn Randism here, for he says that altruism is evil(!). A duty to do good to others need not be enforceable, it can be supererogatory, and it need not be universal. One can argue that one ought to give to the poor, and help your neighbours, and reject that one ought to rape because your friend really likes engaging in gang rapes. You have other duties not to harm others, and those would in that case trump the duty of beneficence. This, I think, will be generally accepted, and it is Tremblay that has to argue against supererogatory duties. He says that the only duties that can exist are negative, but he does not argue for that, then he backtracks and admits that there are positive rights. This is hopelessly confused. Rights are founded on duties. Tremblay says that human rights pertain to negative duties. But he just said that human rights include positive duties. Positive duties cannot be part of negative duties. There is no human right to be given pleasure or satisfaction. And I agree, adding the same for essentially everything. I do not believe in univeral, broad, and pervasive positive rights. A positive right is a right to force your will on others, and this should be restricted as much as possible. A positive duty is something that you ought to do. Some of your positive duties will be enforceable, those will be rights. Others may not be, those will be supererogatory.

So this is what it comes down to: “hypothetical consent.” The belief in hypothetical consent is pure fantasy, it is only an imaginary construct, but it partakes of the same psychology as the imperialists who believe that bombing some brown people into the Stone Age to “liberate” them is justified by “hypothetical consent,” because they would consent if they knew just how great it is to be bombed until you’re “liberated.” In both cases, what we have is a person with high levels of belief in their own superiority: in the case of imperialists, in their mode of government, in the case of natalists, in the greatness of their own lives.

Hypothetical consent is a very valid thing, and the counter-example that Tremblay gives is not valid: Those people can be asked. If Tremblay is unconscious and suffering from severe bleeding, can’t we save him and perform surgery on him? Tremblay has not consented to that, and typically people don’t consent beforehand to that because they can’t. But we assume that if they were able to, they would. Hypothetical consent only makes sense if actual consent cannot be obtained, and we are left to guess, and that is the case in procreation. Had I had the chance, I wold have consented to my existence. Tremblay says to this:

Either way, even if someone said “if I was able to communicate as a fetus, I would have consented to be born,” that evaluation would be based on their current life, not on a hypothetical point of view as a fetus. People want to continue to live because they have accumulated values, desires and attachments, all things which our hypothetical fetus would not have.

Yes indeed. The fetus does not have that yet, obviously… but it will have them. These sort of arguments remind me of one arguing that there is no problem is murdering someone who is sleeping. The sleeper, after all, has no desires, suffers no pain, has no preferences, and sometimes, it is not even conscious. But it will be in a few hours! The non-existent doesn’t exist. Until it does.

Artir posits that you can just omit consent completely if you want to do things to people that most people are glad to have undergone. But this is just cultural relativism, plain and simple. Suppose, for example, that most people in a society are fundamentalist Christians and believe that it is better for them to die than to become atheists and be condemned to Hell. Would it therefore be fine to not ask an atheist for consent before killing them, because that’s what most people would want done to themselves? Or to take a real life example, was it ethical to burn widows to death by sati without their consent, because that was the accepted belief of a large majority of the population? What about female circumcision?

I am not a cultural relativist. I am just stating the common sense conditions for hypothetical consent. Most people want to be saved if they are injured and unconscious. If so it happens that you are part of some religious minority that doesn’t believe in positive duties, and have a sign around your neck saying “PLEASE DON’T SAVE ME, I DO NOT HYPOTHETICALLY CONSENT” then it would be wrong to save you. But in the absence of such clear signs, one has to assume what the person would have wanted, had the person been able to consent. I said this in my previous post, Tremblay did either not read it or he didn’t understand it. Hypothetical consent is not as clear as explicit consent, and the ‘if everyone likes it so do you’ rule is a heuristic that applies only to the hypothetical case. Applying a different rule seems irrational. If in handling hypothetical consent we do not assume the most likely preference, what should we assume instead? Something must be assumed, as there is always a preference. Not doing anything equals acting on the preference to be let alone (to die, if we are in the unconscious injury case).

While childism is not the topic of this entry, Artir brings it up when he uses children as an example. The fact that we accept childism (that children are inferior and need to be controlled by parents) and see this as normal is due to the fact that a large majority of people accept it, not because it is actually valid. I don’t really want to get into the childism issue because it’s rather off-topic and would take a lot more space than I want to use to address a single example (my entries on the subject can be read in this category), but my basic point here is that it follows the same relativist pattern I’ve already highlighted. The parents’ will, or their imaginary belief that the child would consent if they were fully informed, does not trump consent, because children are human beings who have the right, like all other human beings, not to be invaded upon without some higher justification (e.g. pulling a child out of the street, or preventing a child from getting burned).

Here Tremblay provides the means to refute himself: “children are human beings who have the right, like all other human beings, not to be invaded upon without some higher justification (e.g. pulling a child out of the street, or preventing a child from getting burned).”. Yes, indeed! The issue might be in what counts a higher justification. A parent intervening to stop the child from having a diet based only on sweets is for me a higher justification. Why is it? Because most adults, when they fully understand the consequences of that, would have consented to being forced to stop their sweet diet. In the male circumcision case, I would apply a similar criteria: Ask people who have undergone circumcision at different ages, then ask them what they think about it.

Since Artir’s argument centers around the premise that we have an obligation or duty to bring about a life if that life would contain pleasures, the failure of his demonstration of “positive duties” also means that his argument as a whole fails. Therefore, as I stated at the beginning, I see no point in delving in his long rebuttal to the quality of life argument, since he does so for the sole purpose of shoring up premise 1,

If one rejects positive duties, then my argument fails, yes. This does not establish the validity of antinatalism, it just says that it is not morally obligatory to bring me and people like me into existence. Antinatalism would remain morally permissibly if one accepts my arguments against the arguments for antinatalism.

Tremblay has not engaged with my arguments against the Assymmetry, and has conceded that my life is indeed nice. Would he extent the same courtesy to most people?

To finish up, one argument for positive duties, which doubles as an argument against antinatalism due to being the premise in dispute:

Imagine that you are an engineer visiting a factory for an inspection. You have not signed anything but your contract, which says that you wil look at things, write a report, and then tell them ways to improve their processes. Of course, you are acquainted with how the machinery at the factory works.

So it happens that you see a worker about to be crushed by a machine, and the STOP button for the machine is near you. Nobody is nearby, and no one will ever know what you did. Plus you happen to be of a stoic disposition, and will not feel guilty. Do you have a duty to extent your hand and press that button, saving the worker?

Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard say no, you don’t have that duty. Me and the rest of the world say: Yes, you do have that duty. On which side is Tremblay?

Conclusion

There are several arguments for anti-natalism. I have given reasons to reject all of them. More could be brought to my attention. There are several arguments for non-anti-natalism (natalism (procreation is good or mandatory) or just that there is nothing wrong with it, or that the good outweights the bad on average).

I have offered one argument for non-anti-natalism that follows if one accepts positive duties. I don’t know if all anti-natalists reject them (I was honestly surprised to see Tremblay rejecting them).

But overall, this whole debate – I don’t plan to write more about this in a while – boils down to the question of giving infinite weight to suffering or possible suffering, and zero or little weight to the good things. Assume one only values suffering. Then, the Assymmetry argument works, the ecological argument works, and the misanthropic argument (life is bad) works. But if you see the good things as outweighing those, then it is clear than those arguments fail. Then we have the consent based arguments, and I haven’t seen a good counter-reply to them from Tremblay. If one rejects hypothetical consent, one is forced to leave unconscious injured people to die.

Ultimately, there is a choice between two future worlds: A world of nothingness (The end of suffering, at last!) and a world of ever improving -yet imperfect- lives, with good and bad things in it. The second thing (Given my expectations about the future of the world) is clearly preferable. If there is an argument that concludes that nothingness is preferable, that is an argument not against choosing the world with life, but an a reductio ad absurdum of said argument.

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1 Response to Further thoughts on antinatalism

  1. Wow. Way to dodge every single point I made with irrelevant considerations. You are a dishonest debater.

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