Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Back with some more thoughts on antinatalism - a reply to Francois Tremblay!

I spent some time over at Francois Tremblay's blog The Prime Directive having a discussion with him about antinatalism, specifically Benatar's asymmetry, on several of his threads. I thought at first that the discussion was going to go well, but we had some disagreements (that I believe were mostly misunderstandings on BOTH our parts) that unfortunately led to the dissolution of discussion. So Francois, if you are reading this right now, I apologize for any annoyances I may have brought with me and I hope you will understand that I was not intentionally trying to anger you.

Anyway, an interesting view he brought up was that the asymmetry can be expanded from outside of the interests of potential persons and into the value of states of affairs. I'm not entirely sure if this analysis works, though.

Before I begin, I would like to quote Tremblay as saying this to another user:

"All I am saying is, you’re overcomplicating the argument, which is what people do because they can’t deal with the simplicity and directness of AN arguments."

There is absolutely no correlation between simplicity and directness and being right. In fact, if something is too simple it can be easy to overlook important aspects (that I will mention below). And directness can certainly make people uncomfortable but does not qualify as evidence of a theory being right. So let's not get ahead of ourselves and assume something is right just because it is simple and direct.

So, to begin, Tremblay says this:

"Nonexistence does not have properties, including welfare. We are talking about the whole state of affairs, not just properties in isolation. The fact that a certain sum of suffering has been removed from the world is the good thing."

I'm not entirely sure what this means, but I suspect that by state of affairs he means something "outside" of non-existence, perhaps as from an observer's perspective. (Let us not forget that states of affairs are not an uncontroversial ontological item)

From this analysis I believe that Tremblay is of the view that a state of affairs can have a value in itself. If the state of affairs includes beings that suffer, that is a bad thing and makes the overall state of affairs of negative value. I'm not sure how "world" and "state of affairs" differs here, but perhaps if Tremblay is reading this he can explain.

Now, I'm not sure if this was a mistake on his part, but if a certain SUM (remember that now) of suffering being removed from the world is a good thing, then a certain SUM of pleasure being removed from the world is a bad thing. And I take it to be quite obvious that pleasure is something entirely different than just the appeasement of desire. It goes up and beyond the neutral state and into a state of good. Deprivationalism and/or anti-frustrationism is appealing but I don't think it's solid.

Anyway, [in response to another user], Tremblay says: "That cannot be the case because, again, non-existence cannot be deprived of pleasure. You seem to equate non-existence with some kind of neutral state or mathematical zero. It is not. But most importantly, what we’re comparing, again, are states of affair. Like I say in the entry, no one is being deprived of the non-existing pleasure. So how does your analysis make any sense?"

and: "Suffering is bad, and the absence of suffering is good. Pleasure is good, but the absence of pleasure is not bad."

and: "No… both evaluations are made on the same basis. To wit:“(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).”"

I believe I see how Tremblay is using states of affairs here. He is arguing that in virtue of its constituents, a state of affairs has value, and this value is important. A state of affairs can be bad or worse than another state of affairs, and according to Tremblay we need to take this into account.

Now, Tremblay may deny that this is the case, but Benatar is not focused on states of affairs. He is focused on arguing that coming into existence is always a harm. Harm affects individuals, not states of affairs. Additionally, if Benatar were focused on states of affairs, then he wouldn't have dedicated a large portion of his book to a material argument attempting to show how bad our lives are. He clearly is concerned with the well-fare of the individual, not the overall states of affairs. It's entirely fine if Tremblay wants to make his own argument based upon Benatar's, but it is quite evident that Benatar is not using state of affairs in the way Tremblay is.

Anyway, let's take a look at the above quoted passage more closely:

Notice how Tremblay uses "deprived" in (4) but does not use it in (3). However, we can change things up a bit:

(3) What does not exist cannot be relieved of suffering (therefore this non-existing pain is not-good)
(4) What does not exist cannot be deprived of any pleasure (therefore this non-existing pleasure is not-bad)

or we can say this:

(3) What does not exist cannot suffer (therefore this non-existing pain is a good thing)
(4) What does not exist cannot feel pleasure (therefore this non-existing pleasure is a bad thing)

Tremblay seems to be committed to the idea that the lack of suffering is a good thing even if it does not benefit anyone, while also believing that the lack of pleasure is not-bad since it does not detriment anyone. This is also Benatar's view.

Which at the surface seems plausible, but falls apart under analysis. He (and Benatar) essentially have to believe that they can spontaneously create goodness just by thinking about all the potential people who are non-existent. This "good" is just "floating" around in non-existence.

Furthermore, it's not entirely clear that non-existence counts as a state of affairs. If non-existence has no properties, then it's difficult to see how any state of affairs can encompass this. And if non-existence is good in itself (because it lacks suffering) is ceases to be non-existent because it has a property that exists. So Tremblay is committed to the idea that the unconscious cosmos is good-in-itself in virtue of the fact that nobody exists to feel suffering. 

This is absurd for a couple of reasons:

First, we usually don't rejoice when we find out there is no life on Mars that can experience suffering. If we are antinatalists (as both Tremblay and I are) and not those starry-eyed biologists from NASA, then we would find this to be good only in comparison to what could have been the case. Thus, the lack of suffering is not a good-ness but only a good (to be more precise: a better)

Second, it reeks of anthropomorphism. This universe is absolutely massive and I highly doubt that any form of human value of pain/pleasure extends to the universe as a whole, independently of the mind. In addition to the argument-from-human-puniness, what makes more sense is that the Kantian phenomenal world that we experience on a daily basis can be given a value, but the noumenal world cannot be accessed and therefore we have no way of knowing if there is any value independent of our own minds.

Third, it leads to pro-mortalism. Now, Tremblay has come right out and said quite explicitly that he is pro-suicide. He is entitled to his opinion, but I find this to be repugnant. By pro-mortalism, I interpret this as meaning encouraging of suicide. And if I am interpreting his position correctly, he is a pro-mortalist because he believes it is in our best interests (or maybe that of state of affairs, he hasn't been clear about this) to kill ourselves. Presumably this comes directly from the asymmetry, in which pleasure is argued to offer no benefit (advantage) to the person in comparison to non-existence, while pain offers a detriment (disadvantage) to the person in comparison to non-existence.

To expand upon the third issue requires me to explain what I believe to be the single-most damning argument against Benatar's asymmetry: the equivocation of the degrees-of-value of the lack of pain with the existence of pleasure as necessarily equal.

A quick note: Tremblay has stated herself that he believes pain and pleasure to be independent of each other and do not "cancel each other out". I don't think I agree. In fact, pain seems to cancel pleasure out quite easily. But we also make decisions based upon an evaluation of pleasure and pain, and commit to a decision if the pleasures outweigh the pains.

Now, let me explain what I mean by the equivocation:

In Benatar's original asymmetry, Benatar states that the lack of pain is a good thing while the presence of pleasure is a good thing. He makes these values equal. He then goes on to say that since non-existence has nothing bad about it, but existence does (pain), there is only a harm in coming into existence and no benefit (since non-existence only has good, while existence has good and bad).

But I believe it to be a mistake to make the good of the lack of pain equal to the good of pleasure. Without this equalization, Benatar's asymmetry fails.

For we can imagine a world in which there is so much suffering and so little pleasure that the amount of suffering vastly outweighs the amount of pleasure. In an abstract utilitarian sense, we might say that a person existing in this world will experience 400(-)s and only 2(+)s. Assuming Benatar is right that the lack of (+)s is not-bad, then the lack of 400(-)s equals a gain of 400(+)s. Therefore, it is quite clear that there is an advantage to staying in non-existence: there is more good.

However, we can also imagine a world in which there is so much pleasures and very little pain that the amount of pleasure vastly outweighs the amount of pain. In an abstract utilitarian sense, we might say that a person existing in this world will experience 400(+)s and only 2(-)s. Again, assuming Benatar is right that the lack of (+) is not-bad, then the lack of 2(-)s equals a gain of 2(+)s. 
2(+)s < 400(+)s, therefore the birth is permissible. Do I think we live in such a world? No. But regardless of this, it's a conceptual possibility.

Without the use of amounts of good/bad, it is impossible to differentiate between two states of varying amounts of good. They're both good no doubt, but one is better in virtue of the fact that is has more good.

The greatest lesson we can learn from Benatar's asymmetry is not that birth is always a harm and immoral, but that birth is purely unnecessary. There is nothing wrong with not having a child, but there is everything wrong with bringing upon an individual (against their consent) a sufficient amount of pain.

So Benatar is in all likelihood correct that the lack of pleasure is not-bad. I'm still not entirely convinced but I suspect that the lack of pain is a good. But the flaw in Benatar's reasoning here is to assume that the values of good in the existence of pleasure and the non-existence of pain are equal, when they are not.

This also explains why the asymmetry does not lead to pro-mortalism: because existence can have a sufficient amount of pleasure to be greater in good than the good derived from not experiencing pain. 

It also would explain why we would be opposed to blowing up an entire world (filled with both happy people and suffering people). If we accept the ultimate conclusion of Benatar's asymmetry, then there is no difference between killing only those who are suffering and killing everyone (including those experiencing pleasure). Quite evidently, this is wrong.

We can presumably accept that even if there is pain in a life, if the person experiencing the pain can live despite this pain and enjoy life, then they would contribute to the overall value of the state of affairs.

Instead of the asymmetry (or perhaps in addition to it), we need reasons to believe that pain exceeds (or has the potential to exceed) pleasure in the important sense, so much that coming into existence is a bad thing. I outlined some of these reasons in my previous blog post.

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