Wednesday, June 1, 2016

A theory of ethics: a fusion of consequentialism and deontology, with affirming thoughts regarding antinatalism

The absence of pleasure is not-bad, and the absence of pain is not-good. The absence of pain is only good (and the absence of pleasure is only bad) when utilizing counterfactuals. By doing so, we put the interests of possible beings into consideration.

Would they want to experience [insert medical condition here]? Would they want to experience desire and endless striving? Would they want to experience death? Would they want to experience the limitless sufferings of Hell (if it exists)? Of course not - in which case, the absence of these negatives is good only because they have been avoided.

Would they want to experience [insert joyous occasion here]? Would they want to experience orgasms? Would they want to experience the limitless omega-sequence of Heaven (if it exists)? Of course they would – in which case, the absence of these positives is bad only because they have been avoided.

So this is the logical symmetry. But something doesn’t feel right. Is the absence of pleasure really a bad thing? Logically, it must be a bad thing. But intuitively, it’s not. We don’t feel compelled to give someone pleasure, but we certainly feel compelled not to give someone pain.

But hold on, again!  This isn’t quite right, either. For what if you could, at a press of a button, bring millions of people into existence that experience limitless joy. You only have five minutes to do this, and then your chance is over. It’s intuitive that by not pressing the button, you’d be preventing these individuals from experiencing pleasure. You might even feel a bit of guilt for not allowing these people to experience this joy. By not pressing the button, you have taken away all chance of their happiness.

Now of course, nobody is actually there to experience this deprivation. Objectively nothing has changed. The universe continues on like nothing has changed.

Let’s take this issue from another angle. Say if you press a button, millions of people will be thrown into the pits of Hell to suffer forever. Obviously you would not press this button. The absence of pain here, though, is objectively neutral. Nobody exists to be saved of this horror. The universe continues on like nothing has changed. There is no sigh of relief, except by those already existing.

Still, something seems a little funny. I will attempt to explain more:

No sane individual will argue that it is not-bad to bring great suffering into existence. Quite clearly, we would be extremely guilty for throwing even just one person into the pits of Hell forever.

But presumably we will also be willing to accept that it is a bad thing to exclude potential happy people from existence.

Now for my more fleshed-out argument.

I am of the opinion that, ceteris paribus, we have a duty to bring pleasure into existence. By itself, without any other variables, we have a duty to bring as much pleasure into existence. Of course, no scenario is without variables. To bring pleasure into existence would require me to do work and take time out of my own day (spent experiencing pleasure, myself). Since when do I have to ignore my own desires and give pleasure to other people?

But again, there’s another catch. If my existence is acting as a preventative wall against pleasure, then I have a duty to eliminate my resistance. For example, say I park my car in the middle of an intersection (for no important reason), and there is a group of people trying to get across to get ice cream. I am preventing them from getting their ice cream. As a good fellow of society, it’s my duty to get out of the way so other people can experience pleasure, just as it’s other people’s duty to maintain a low resistance to other people’s desires (so long as they don’t conflict with their own non-harmful desires).

In a nutshell, what this all means is that we have a duty, ceteris paribus, to not prevent (obstruct) the pleasure of other people, but we have no duty to give pleasure to these people (unless we have no more important obligations - namely, the pursuit of one's own desires).

So let’s turn to the negative side, that of pain and suffering. It’s the mirror of pleasure. We have a duty, ceteris paribus, to not impose pain upon another individual. But we have no duty to prevent pain from being imposed upon another individual (unless we have no more important obligations - namely, the pursuit of one's own desires).

Now, how do we evaluate obligations? Ta-dah! Consequentialism! 

If I’m a SWAT team member who has their vehicle in the middle of the intersection during an armed robbery at a bank, I am indeed preventing people wanting ice cream to get this ice cream. But I’m also preventing pain from occurring (in the bank), and since it’s my job as a hypothetical SWAT team member, I have a duty to prevent this suffering. The people wanting ice cream also have a duty to put aside their desires for ice cream for the greater good.

If I’m a potential parent, wondering if I should have a child, then duties still apply. I have no obligation to bring pleasure into existence, because this would require me to set aside a ton of time and effort raising this child. But I do have an obligation to not bring pain into existence (unless for good reason), and birth is a completely unnecessary activity (spawned from the primal desires of people) and thus does not have good enough reasons to support its actualization.

I’d also like to point out how this duty and calculus-based system recognizes heroism and sacrifice. To be a hero means to go beyond the expected duty for the sake of the greater good. And to be a sacrifice requires one to go beyond the expected duty for the sake of the greater good. Let’s look at some examples:

Say I am the same SWAT team member during the bank robbery. Say I rush in courageously and save the bank, but in the process get shot in the leg. I would be a hero for doing this. This is typically why we see soldiers and rescue-workers as heroes (even if they haven’t done anything particularly heroic).

Say I am a parent who brings a child into existence in a world in which not much suffering exists at all, perhaps just a few aches and pains and a few disappointments (if that). To bring such a child into this possible world of beauty and pleasure is not necessary at all, and yet I took time out of my life to raise this child and give them a pleasurable existence. Clearly, this is a sacrifice because I could have abstained from having a child in this near-perfect world.

But like most of you will probably sense, this world that we live in is not perfect. Suffering abounds. Pleasure is intrinsically contingent. The sacrifice of the parent is not really something to be praised, then. Although it is a sacrifice indeed, it’s also quite ethically dubious, as the parent would have imposed a sufficiently large amount of pain unto another person without the appropriate amount of pleasure.

We have no way of knowing the exact amount of pleasure or pain experienced by a person. It’s entirely subjective and variant. But we can know that birth is ethically dubious by at least two ways (assuming my prior ethical stance):

1.)    Life has structural problems, chinks in its very being. Schopenhauer identified this to be the Will, Buddhists identify this as tanha, Cabrera identifies this as moral disqualification. We can also see how pleasure is not a fundamental structure to life – it is a contingent phenomenon that depends on the aforementioned structural issues.
2.)    We have a duty to take into account the worst case scenario. The worst case scenario, in this world at least, is always worse than the absence of the best case scenario. The best case scenario is not even remotely common or easy to obtain, while the worst case scenario is, in comparison, easier and far more common.

I hope I have given an intuitive and easily-applicable ethical system, as well as a persuasive case for antinatalism.


  1. Then there's the argument from opportunity costs:

    We're looking at $270,000 (U.S) on average to raise a minor from infancy to adulthood. ANs usually bring up adoption as more suitable compared to initiating biological parenthood, but if a couple adopts a foster child in the West, even adoption pales in comparison to the amount of good the $270,000 would've done had it been reallocated to famine relief via EA.

    This is paramount, especially within the context of the "Best vs. Worst Case Scenario" prioritization you present in the post.

    1. Interesting, I hadn't considered the monetary cost of birth. I'm not entirely sure if I agree with the overall argument, as it seems to hinge upon an Effective Altruism which I have my irks with. In my argument above, I noted that we have a duty to prevent suffering so long as we do not have other, more important things to do, most notably our own (reasonable) desires. Whether or not birth can be seen (independently of the pain/pleasure dichotomy) as a reasonable desire can certainly be debated though. But it's enough to say we do indeed respect the priority of reasonable desires, as otherwise I wouldn't be typing this post or eating some chips right now and would instead be tirelessly working day and night reducing the suffering of the world, as would you.

    2. Belated reply here:

      "as would you"

      It's funny because I actually read your post and left that comment while I was at work, earning more than I need to get by, which is in line with "earning to give" and William MacAskill's "80,000 Hours" project.

      That said, I'm not a 24/7 workaholic and will probably never be a 24/7 workaholic. EAs don't recommend working tirelessly day and night because the drastically overworked EA would be surrendering something of comparable value to himself. No single EA's life has to be ruined in order to for significant improvements to occur at the hands of the EA movement in general, as the last 6 or so years of EA impact has shown.

      Now, say a particular moral martyr wants to go the non-stop self-sacrifice route and manages to alleviate even more serious harms by levelling himself down significantly through tireless work. There's no sense in pussyfooting around the facts; said martyr had a stronger and better impact compared to the average EA and certainly compared to the average non-EA. Are you prepared to say that such a person is morally indistinguishable from, say, you or me? I have no issues pointing out that he's morally better, just as I have no issues pointing out that someone who refuses to donate anything is morally worse. I think the problem here is the lazy assumption that the moral martyr's betterness makes the rest of us non-martyrs moral criminals by comparison. Obviously, no serious EA believes this. Nonetheless, there is a better-to-worse ratio in terms of impact, and treating such differences as amoral differences makes no sense. Once you do, you might as well be throwing welfare consequentialism out the window.

      Is pointing out that "We're not moral saints" really that obnoxious? Seems very strange to me.

      "But it's enough to say we do indeed respect the priority of reasonable desires"

      If the reasonable desire ties into avoiding moral fatigue, then I'm on board with catering to reasonable desires. Moral fatigue often causes well-intentioned people to end up doing less in the long run. If alcoholism is best treated by sobriety rather than by moderation, then a non-alcoholic who enjoys alcohol needs to keep consumption in moderation in order to not collapse into an all/nothing choice between alcoholism and sobriety. Same with effective charity vs. moral fatigue.

      But if a 'reasonable desire' is something else... perhaps a method for rationalizing geographic/birth-luck advantages and rejecting impartial-concern, then we're back to the original value-clash we had a few weeks back, which I'm doubtful we'll resolve.

      As for other irks you have with EA, note that EA has been receiving mainstream coverage and this resulted in much debate. I recommend Chappell's response to common objections:

      Also, I found this debate/conversation fruitful in terms of covering other common criticisms: