Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Benefits, Harms, and the Permissibility of Bith

What did I say? Looks like it's time for another excursion into the realm of procreative ethics! (h8rs gun h8). This time, however, I will be constructing instead of deconstructing.

The view that (currently) makes the most sense to me regarding harms and benefits is:

  1. A harm is anything that makes a person feel bad or worse
  2. A benefit is anything that makes a person feel good or better
  3. The act of taking-away a benefit harms a person
  4. The act of taking-away a harm benefits a person
  5. A lack of harm simpliciter is not a benefit
  6. A lack of benefit simpliciter is not a harm
  7. Harms and benefits can only be applied to persons
Thus, there is no benefit of not feeling a harm if you do not currently exist. And there is no harm of not feeling a benefit if you do not currently exist. Both of these statements are true because there is no harm or benefit to be taken away, because there is no person to experience these harms and benefits and in fact these harms and benefits don't begin to exist until a person begins to exist. This does not preclude the utilization of counterfactuals and possible persons. Read that again. This does not preclude the utilization of counterfactuals and possible persons.

An evaluation of the ethics of birth (and any important action for that matter) must take into account the various harms and benefits associated with this action.

An interesting idea that crossed my mind the other day was the morality of harming a single person for the benefit of the whole, without the consent of the singular person. This strikes me as immoral, plain and simple. 

The trouble with these kinds of actions is that a person is being used as a means-to-and-end and not as a person themselves. In other words, they are being instrumentalized, used as a "stepping-stone" to achieve a purpose that is apparently greater than themselves. Any sort of benefit that was brought upon a group by the sacrifice of an individual (against their will and without their participation in the benefit) is invalidated. It is not good in the abstract sense.

The key idea with this that I found the most interesting is that if the person is not being instrumentalized, then I believe it to be acceptable to harm a person for their own benefit, so long as the benefit is greater than the harm.

What does it mean for a benefit to be greater than a harm (or vice versa)? A few things come to mind:

  • The person appreciates the benefit far more than they are unappreciative of the harm
  • The benefit is greater in magnitude of pleasure than the magnitude of pain associated with the harm
  • The benefit lasts for a greater amount of time than the harm does
  • The benefit occurs during or after the harm
When making decisions that impact other individuals without their consent, what do we need to have? A couple things come to mind:

  • A reasonable need to perform the action
  • A reasonable belief that the benefits will in fact outweigh the harms

Now I will return to the issue of benefits and harms for potential persons and benefits and harms simpliciter

First, though, I should state that I consider a person to be an entity capable of self-identification, qualitative experiences and rational reasoning abilities. 

Now, for the first example, imagine a person is dying. By dying, they will both be benefited and harmed because the harms and benefits of life (respectively) will be removed.

For the second example, imagine a possible, unborn person. By being born, they will be both benefited and harmed by the various benefits and harms of life. By not being born, they do not experience any benefits or harms. A possible person only avoids benefits and harms when in a comparison to existence. It's not good-in-itself (i.e. simpliciter) that the possible person is not experiencing a harm.

Therefore, the final remark here is that nobody is harmed nor benefited in non-existence, while everyone is harmed and benefited in existence. What matters here in the debate about procreative ethics is how much harm accompanies existence in comparison to how much benefit accompanies existence.

Thus, to return again to Benatar's asymmetry, we can see how it does not by itself lead to an antinatalistic conclusion even if the asymmetry is accepted. For pleasure is still a benefit to a person. The absence of pain is beneficial only to the extent that there exists a certain amount of pain avoided. But the presence of pleasure (a benefit) can be greater than the absence of pain (a benefit), theoretically.

Let's see how this actually plays out:

Take a look at how the benefits of life outweigh the harms of life:

  • Is it true that the person appreciates the benefits far more than they are unappreciative of the harms? 
    • It's not entirely obvious that this is the case. For many people, life is a burden.
  • The benefit is greater in magnitude of pleasure than the magnitude of pain associated with the harm 
    • This is doubtful, and there are many other asymmetries between pleasure and pain: injury is swift, recovery is slow, pain is guaranteed, pleasure is contingent, the worst-case scenario invalidates the best-case scenario, pain often invalidates pleasure but pleasure rarely invalidates pain, etc.
  • The benefit lasts for a greater amount of time than the harm does
    • This is also doubtful. The hedonic treadmill prevents us from maintaining a constant feeling of pleasure. Benefits are easily invalidated by even the smallest of pains, while pains are difficult to invalidate by pleasure alone.
Take a look at the reasons for making decisions that impact other people and how these reasons stand in the case of birth:
  • Is there a reasonable need to perform the action (of giving birth)?
    • There doesn't seem to be. Birth doesn't solve any problems for the person being born - it only creates problems for the person. And there's nothing wrong with not having children.
  • Is there a reasonable belief that the benefits will in fact outweigh the harms of life by giving birth?
    • See above. It is doubtful that the benefits of birth outweigh the harms, and thus birth is of a net harm.
  • Is it true that the benefit occurs during or after the harm?
    • ​This is certainly not the case.

In conclusion, I believe that important decisions must be justified by reasons, and these reasons are based upon harms and benefits. In the case of birth, the reasons for birth are staggeringly poor in comparison to the reasons against birth.

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