Thursday, June 23, 2016

A direct response to Francois Tremblay's post(s)

This will be a direct response to a post Francois Tremblay made that was supposed to clear up confusion regarding Benatar's asymmetry. Unfortunately, Tremblay has perma-banned me after calling me a piece of shit and garbage, so I can't post this to his blog directly. Perhaps he'll see this post and bequeath us with his reaction. :)

From his post:

"My simplified argument highlights the justification for Benatar’s statements:


(1) If a person exists, then
[th]eir pain is a bad thing.
(2) If a person exists, then
[th]eir pleasure is a good thing.
(3) What does not exist cannot suffer (therefore this non-existing pain is a good thing).
(4) What does not exist cannot be deprived of any pleasure (therefore this non-existing pleasure is not a bad thing).

Or to be more specific:

(3) In a state of affairs where person X does not exist, no one is experiencing the suffering that person X would otherwise have experienced.
(4) In a state of affairs where person X does not exist, no one is being deprived of the pleasure that person X would otherwise have experienced.

However you formulate it, (3) is always better than (1), and (4) is always no worse than (2)."


I have no qualms with (1) and (2). Obviously, the existence of pleasure is a good thing and the existence of pain is a bad thing.

But I have issue with (4) being equivalent to (2). He goes into it later, but essentially I disagree with his anti-frustrationism and believe that (2) can be better than (4), thus making (4) worse than (2) but not bad-in-itself.

Look at (3). Notice how Tremblay sees the lack of suffering as an impersonal good. It's just a brute fact that the lack of suffering is good. Now look at (4). Notice how Tremblay uses the word deprivation. There is no impersonal bad here. Tremblay is being inconsistent with his use of impersonal values.

So we can instead write it like this:

(3) In a state of affairs where person X does not exist, no one is experiencing the suffering that person X would otherwise have experienced.
(4) In a state of affairs where person X does not exist, no one is experiencing the pleasure that person X would otherwise have experienced.

In this formulation, (3) is the same, while (4) has been changed. And, interestingly enough, (4) implies that the lack of pleasure is a bad thing. Just as (3) imbues a feeling of relief, (4) imbues a feeling of regret.
If this doesn't convince you, imagine you are in a scenario and can choose between two possible worlds: a world in which a person experiences a limitless omega sequence of pleasure, and a world in which nobody experiences a limitless omega sequence of pleasure. Imagine there are no other factors involved here, and forget that this situation seems to be highly implausible.

Clearly, anyone would pick the world in which a person experiences a limitless omega sequence. It seems to not only be good for the person experiencing it but also impersonally good. And it seems as though it is also impersonally bad if nobody experiences a limitless omega sequence.

Now imagine you are in a similar situation here, except the person who will experience the limitless omega sequence will be subjected to the tiniest, most insignificant pin-prick before experiencing the endless bliss. Is the lack of this tiny pin-prick of equal value of good compared to the good of the limitless omega sequence? I suspect not. Was the person harmed? Of course - they felt the pin-prick. Does the person care? No - they're now experiencing limitless, exponential pleasure.

Now, if Tremblay wishes to claim that it is just a brute fact that the lack of suffering is a good thing, then that is what he wishes to claims (despite the various issues with it discussed above and below). However, it's not entirely clear why we should accept this position, or why we should believe impersonal goods trump personal goods, or why we should believe the value amount between impersonal goods (lack of suffering) and personal goods (existence of pleasure) are equal.

The superior position is to admit that there is nothing right or wrong about non-existence, whereas there exists the potential for wrong-ness in existence in virtue of its definition (just as there is the potential for right-ness in existence). 

Let's continue:


"Julio Cabrera wrote a paper called “Quality of Human Life and Non-existence (Some criticisms of David Benatar’s formal and material positions)” (PDF here). His main objection is that by transposing the counter-factual formulation of (3) to (4), we can get the following proposition, which contradicts the Asymmetry:


'Of the pleasure of an existing person, (4) says that the absence of this pleasure would have been bad even if this could only have been achieved by the absence of the person who now enjoys it.'

But with my rephrasing, you can now see that Cabrera is wrong in his transposition. The absence of this pleasure cannot be bad, because no one is being deprived of it. Cabreba continues:


'Claim (4) says that this absence is bad when judged in terms of the interests of the person who would otherwise have existed. We may not know who that person would have been, but we can still say that whoever that person would have been, the avoidance of his or her pleasures is bad when judged in terms of his or her potential interests”.'

In the absolute, Cabrera is right, the absence of pleasure is worse than the presence of pleasure given a potential person’s interests. But we are comparing two states of affairs, not examining a state in the absolute: in the comparison, (4) cannot be worse than (2) because pleasure in fulfillment of a need is not any better than the absence of need in the first place."



First, it's not entirely clear why we should favor the value of a state of affairs over the value of a potential person's interests. Also, I have no idea what "a state in the absolute" is supposed to mean.

Second, Tremblay is still failing to see the full extent of the use of counterfactuals. Take a look at my own version:


(A) Benefits (such as pleasure) require persons
(A*) The lack of a benefit is a detriment
(B) Detriments (such as pain) require persons
(B*) The lack of a detriment is a benefit
(1) The existence of a benefit is a good thing
(2) The existence of a detriment is a bad thing
(3) The lack of a benefit is bad only if there is is a person who can experience this detriment
(4) The lack of a detriment is good only if there is a person who can experience this benefit
(5) The value of a state of affairs depends on the persons and their benefits/detriments who compose the state of affairs

Impersonal values are only brought into play when one utilizes counterfactuals as a comparison: impersonal values therefore do not actually exist. When we look at a desert island, we (initially) see a desert island. We can obviously say that it is a good thing that there's no suffering going on, on this island. But we can equally and genuinely say that it is a bad thing that there's no pleasure going on, on this island. Notice, however, that if the existence of pleasure depends on the existence of an obscene amount of pain, then this pleasure cannot possible be a good thing. Thus, once again, the asymmetry is between the actual amounts of pleasure and pain in existence, not in a comparison between non-existence and existence.

In his formulation, Tremblay claims that the lack of pain (4) cannot be worse than the existence of pleasure (2) because of a thing called anti-frustrationism. To quote:


"To explain this, Benatar uses the concept of anti-frustrationism. Suppose we give Kate a pill that gives her the desire to see the tree closest to the Sydney Opera House be painted red. This desire is frustrated because that tree is not actually painted red. Now suppose we go to the Sydney Opera House, paint the tree closest to it in red, and show Kate the result. Now we are back to where we were before: the manufactured desire, fulfilled, now gone. The upshot of this is that an absence of need is no worse than a fulfilled need, and better than a frustrated need."

But this is an over simplification. Not all goods are dependent upon needs. I can be surprised by a song I like, or given ice cream that I didn't pay for and previously did not want. I enjoy these experiences. It's not just a relief, it's a positive experience. And this positive experience would presumably play a part in the value of a state of affairs.

For example, I can desire to put a stop-sign at the end of my street to increase safety. Initially I presumably was frustrated by the amount of car accidents. So I petition to get a stop sign and my wish is granted. Anti-frustrationism would claim that as soon as the stop sign is planted, all I experience is a relief. good... I might mutter as an anti-frustrationist. But I wouldn't simply be relieved of desire, I would be elevated into a higher experience. I would be proud of my accomplishment, experience political efficacy and feel powerful, experience joy. I returned to the initial state without desire and then went above and beyond.

To continue:

"But when we say “pleasure is better than pain,” we are not claiming that it is better relative to anyone or anything. We’re simply stating that it is an objective fact that the experience of pleasure is objectively better than the experience of pain. You may reply that no evidence has been presented for that statement, and that it must be better for someone. Well, anyone who disagrees with the statement is free to disbelieve the Asymmetry, but humans are programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain."

I deny that it is an objective fact that the experience of pleasure is better than the experience of pain. The fact that humans are programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain is only because pleasure and pain are good and bad (respectively) to humans themselves. We don't seek pleasure because it's an actual objective moral good, we seek it because it makes us feel good. And we don't avoid pain because it's an actual moral objective bad, we avoid it because it makes us feel bad.

Therefore, the experience of pleasure is better than the experience of pain for the individual, but not in the objective "state of affairs" sense. We care about a state of affairs that has a lot of pain in it, not because we are concerned with the value status of this state of affairs, but because we are concerned about the individuals within this state of affairs. We say that pleasure is better than pain (or pain is worse than pleasure) because we know what pleasure and pain feel like and are glad (or sad) that someone is experiencing pleasure (or pain).

It's also not entirely clear if pleasure or pain is always a good or bad thing in the objective sense. If we really are going to take Tremblay's word here and say that it is objectively a good thing that pleasure exists, then he has to admit that the pleasure a rapist experiences is good, and even better than the pain the victim feels. And I certainly hope he agrees that this pleasure is not good at all because it's not deserved and comes at the expense of another person's suffering. So thus it is more complicated then originally stated, and requires a certain amount of subjective decision to come to an overall value of a state of affairs.

Next: 

"The good, by definition, cannot be good relative to a person. One person saying “abortion is good” and another saying “abortion is bad,” if both individuals are merely expressing a relative position which is only true insofar as they are concerned, has the same weight as one saying “chocolate ice cream is good” and another saying “chocolate ice cream is bad.” It must either collapse into nihilism or be relabeled as mere preference. Likewise, stating that “pleasure is good for person X” cannot sustain a logical argument because it is not in itself relevant to anyone else but person X. It is not a viable ethical position."

I have to question why it is not a viable ethical position to assign values to individual preferences. We are all human beings, and likely have the same preferences (pain=bad, pleasure=good). Morality would have evolved out of a need for a cohesive social group. If we can all recognize that pain=bad and pleasure=good for everyone in the society, then we can create a social rule to take this into account.

So instead we can say "Pleasure is good for human beings", and since all X's are human beings, we can then say "Pleasure is good for all X's."

We can sustain this by knowing that to a specific human being, pleasure is a good thing, and that it is in the best interests of the community to have all members experience what they consider to be a good. Those who have good experiences that come into conflict with other's good experiences are punished by the law.

And we don't even need to say "It is good that all X's are experiencing pleasure" in the objective state-of-affairs sense. It's enough to say that what we find good is also good in other people, and that it is also a good thing to us personally (re: compassion and empathy) to see other people experience the good.

Thus, a potential state of affairs is good/better just if the observer desires it to be the case. And a potential state of affairs is a bad/worse state just if the observer does not desire it to be the case.

Tremblay has this odd idea that ethics has to deal with the objective picture of the world. and as an anti-realist I cannot say that I agree with him that ethics has anything to do with an objective value of the world since I believe there is no objective value to the world. There are no "impersonal" goods or bads.

To end, let's recap. Tremblay said:

"In the absolute, Cabrera is right, the absence of pleasure is worse than the presence of pleasure given a potential person’s interests. But we are comparing two states of affairs, not examining a state in the absolute: in the comparison, (4) cannot be worse than (2) because pleasure in fulfillment of a need is not any better than the absence of need in the first place."

Again, it's by no means evident that the analysis of state of affairs should be taken more seriously than an analysis of a potential person's interests. Why shouldn't we take seriously a potential person's interests? And I've already discussed why anti-frustrationism is insufficient.

In addition, here's a quote from Tremblay's other post regarding Elizabeth Harman's apparent failure to debunk the asymmetry:


"Procreation is bad because the state of affairs where any person P does not exist contains less suffering (P’s suffering) than the state of affairs where P does exist.

In that specific form, I can’t disagree: no matter what the conditions are, the existence of any specific person is always a bad thing."

I will explain why this fails:

Since anti-frustrationism is insufficient, it stands that the existence of pleasure can be better than the lack of pain just if there is a sufficiently large amount of pleasure that effectively counters the pain (let it be known that I am not arguing we live in any such situation, only that it is a conceptual possibility).

Furthermore, since I reject any objective evaluation of a state of affairs, I also reject his view that a state of affairs can be objectively better or worse than another state of affairs.

The final statement in italics above also logically leads to pro-mortalism (pro-suicide) which Tremblay accepts. However, it logically has to go beyond pro-suicide to forced killings, because he is focused on the objective value of a state of affairs. He specifically said that the existence of any specific person is always a bad thing. If it's a bad thing, then it ought to be removed. And he can't appeal to personal interests here, because personal interests were not used when arguing for the asymmetry (states of affairs were). Thus, the conclusion is that it is not only immoral to bring someone into existence but also immoral to continue to live.

Additionally, I would like to point out how Tremblay is still falling into the counterfactual issue:

He states that the lack of pleasure is not a bad thing because there is nobody there to experience the deprivation, but then states that the lack of pain is a good thing because there is nobody there to experience the pain. Thus he is applying a brute factual value to the lack of suffering but not to the lack of pleasure.

First, since the experience of deprivation of pleasure is a bad, and since there's nobody there to experience this deprivation, Tremblay has to believe the lack of pleasure is a good thing. It's a good thing, according to Tremblay, that nobody is experiencing the deprivation of pleasure, pleasure that could have been good as well if actualized.

Second, like I showed above, if pleasure and pain are benefits and detriments, and the absence of them are detriments and benefits (respectively), and the value of a state of affairs depends on benefits and detriments, then the lack of pleasure means a lack of benefit but without anyone there to experience the detriment, and the lack of pain means a lack of detriment but without anyone there to experience the benefit.

Thus, a birth is only bad if the detriments outweigh the benefits. Let is be known that a person flourishing despite their detriments would nevertheless be experiencing an overall benefit, and thus creating a positive value of the state of affairs, if we are to take Tremblay's notion seriously.

To quote from myself above:

>Thus, a potential state of affairs is good/better just if the observer desires it to be the case. And a potential state of affairs is a bad/worse state just if the observer does not desire it to be the case.

The lesson from this is that we evaluate the value of a state of affairs based upon what we personally would like to see as the state of affairs. I don't wish to see the Holocaust, or the Sacking of Rome, or a lion eating a gazelle. I wish it were the case that these events did not happen or do not happen in the present or future. I also wish to see much pleasure in individuals, to see great works of art, and to be able to read philosophy. But my wish to not see the Holocaust, etc. is larger than my wish to see pleasure in individuals, etc. In which case, my wish to not see the Holocaust, etc. effectively trumps my wish to see pleasure in individuals, etc. If I were God and could choose which scenario to make into reality (life or no-life), I would pick no-life because no-life is better than life in virtue of the fact that life has more suffering than pleasure. 

Thus, it can be clearly seen why the asymmetry, although being inconsistent and logically flawed, is nevertheless intuitive. There exists (at least the potential of) vast amounts of pain and suffering on Earth. Pain seems to be structurally imbued within life. Whereas pleasure is not guaranteed and is ephemeral and oftentimes disappointing. Another very important thing to point out is that the worst-pain-possible is always more intense than the best-pleasure-possible.

Here a quote by Peter Zapffe seems relevant: "[...] if a desert island is no tragedy, why is a deserted universe?" In other words, there's nothing wrong with non-existence. There's nothing right about it, either...but there's everything wrong and right about existence. This quote pumps the intuitions in that a deserted island seems peaceful compared to all the crap that happens in our lives. It makes non-existence seem almost righteous in comparison to the rather mediocre nature of life. But notice how this is not analytic in the fashion of Benatar. Zapffe isn't claiming that it is a transcendental fact that it is good that there is no suffering. Zapffe's statement applies to this particular world, but perhaps it doesn't apply to all worlds. Perhaps in other hypothetical worlds, there exists a sufficient amount of pleasure to make existence entirely worth it. Perhaps in these hypothetical worlds, pleasure is a guarantee. Perhaps in these worlds, pleasure is a necessary component of existence instead of pain (in our case). In which case, what would be wrong about bringing these joyous people into existence?




2 comments:

  1. Wait, he actually perma-banned you and called you a piece of shit & garbage over technical disagreements on a nuanced thing like the asymmetry?!

    I often wondered whether it's fair to lump him into the Irascible Ideologue camp, but this settles it. What a delicate creature.

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    1. Tremblay is one of the most intolerant and dickish people I have had the pleasure to meet - and I've met a LOT of mean people over the years. He graduated from just being the average internet jerk to full-on internet bullying and abuse, to not only myself but other people who didn't get down on their knees and suck his ideological, pretentious dick.

      To be precise, he didn't ban me per se over the technical disagreements but because I was playing "psychological games" with him - which was actually me just pointing out how absolutely contradictory his ideas and behavior were.

      Like, if you're going to explicitly say that you think giving harm upon an individual goes against the ethical way we should treat other human beings, and then go on and call me a piece of shit and garbage, how do you reconcile this?

      Lemme know if you're ever over at his blog - I'll bring popcorn.

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