Thursday, July 7, 2016

Can the lack of something be of value?

Been thinking more about the metaphysics of value recently.

Now, I don't have very many readers, and even less commenters (wattup ABM), but those who happen to stumble on this little blog every now and then will know that I have a bit of a long-going obsession (think like years - before this blog even existed) with Benatar's asymmetry argument for antinatalism. For those unfamiliar to my beliefs on this: I'm an antinatalist but I reject Benatar's asymmetry. Please don't lynch me.

So naturally this entry has a relation to Benatar's asymmetry, go figure.

Despite not being convinced by the asymmetry, I continue to feel a bit compelled by it. Perhaps it's because it's been on my mind for a few years now (i.e. deeply-rooted thought patterns) - but there was something about it that just didn't feel right. It wasn't necessarily the lack of consistence in regards to counterfactuals, but something else. And I think this something else is one of the premises that Benatar takes as self-evident:

That the lack of something can be valuable (or disvaluable). But can it be?

Take an example: I currently have a minor headache. I may casually say that it would have been good if I didn't have a headache. But what I think this really means is that it would be good to get rid of the headache. That is, the action of taking away the bad would be good - but the state of affairs in which I do not have a headache would not be good. In which case, the state in which I do not have a headache is not good in itself but only better than one in which I do have a headache.

Let's look at another example: you can choose between two different scenarios (and you have to make a choice): a state in which a hundred people experience headaches, or a state in which ninety-nine people experience headaches. We would all presumably pick the latter scenario - it has less pain. But the point I wish to emphasize here is that this state of affairs isn't really good either. It's still got a lot of pain. Is the absence of one person's headache really good, or is the state just less worse? Is there actually good in this state of affairs? As far as I can see, there's only bad - the pain of ninety-nine headaches. There's no free-floating good there.

Compare this to the asymmetry presented by Benatar: can we really say that the lack of pain in non-existence is a good thing? Is there actually a value to the lack of pain?

What seems to be the case is that value is pleasure (or perhaps pleasure accompanies value, but you get the point dammit), and disvalue is pain (or perhaps...well, you know). And what also seems to be the case, after the previous analysis above, is that the absence of pleasure is not bad and the absence of pain is not good - the absence of value or disvalue results in a kind of value-void. No value, anywhere. Cosmic neutrality.

Furthermore, as a general rule, we have a duty to strive for the best possible world. A world can be bad but still better (or less-worse) than another world. Just as a world can be good but still worse (or less-good) than another world. So I think a key here is that better =/= good (and worse =/= bad). However, the action of creating a worse situation when there are better alternative is bad.

If the lack of pain is truly a good thing in itself (and the lack of pleasure a bad thing in itself), then we would be obligated to kill ourselves. It would be in our best interests and the overall global interest. It would be a good thing to get rid of pain but it wouldn't be a bad thing to get rid of pleasure. We didn't consider the benefits/harms of existence when evaluating birth, so why should we consider them now?

The answer is that we should consider them, since value can only be accompanied by the existence of what is valuable or disvaluable.

So I think that this finally is the kernel that I have managed to uncover regarding my suspicions of the asymmetry. Ever since I made contact with the asymmetry, I had begun to think that non-existence was superior to existence, no matter what, simply because no pain exists in non-existence. I saw the table in front of me as in a better state than I was because it wasn't experiencing pain. And pleasures were seen as unimportant and useless. Sleep was seen as the best thing for me, for no matter what amount of pleasure I felt while awake, sleep cured me of all the little aches and pains of life. In other words, I had (and still continue to have) a kind of "longing" towards non-existence, but not out of Cioran-esque existentialism but out of a strange, rather authoritarian belief that non-existence was for the best. I blame most of this on my anxiety, since anxiety distorts cognition for the worse.

But I can see how to some people, including myself at times, non-existence seems like a benefit. They wish the pain to end. They wish the angst and anxiety to end (in my case). They wish their problems to end.

But I also think that it is mistaken to think that the lack of any of these issues is genuinely a good thing. The lack of these things, while alive, allows us to pursue the good - i.e. pleasure - through various activities. The removal of these bads is good in the deontological sense but the lack of these bads is not good - what is good is value-void that gives rise to good (pleasure) so long as a sufficient amount of bad (pain) is not present.

Additionally, I don't think it's legitimate to say that those who do not have children are doing a good thing by not having children (since they are maximizing the good of the lack of pain). Those who have children are arguably doing a bad thing, sure, and they shouldn't do it because it leads more often than not to a net-negative state, but not because there's something inherently good about non-existence that existence would "tarnish".

Similarly, me-not-murdering-my-neighbor is not good. It's expected that I don't murder my neighbor, and a good thing that I don't only because I allow my neighbor to continue to live and so we can go out to coffee later and experience pleasure from each other's company (not in that way, get your head out of the gutter). The thing doing to good here is pleasure, and the proxy for this is the lack of me-murdering-my-neighbor.

But perhaps I'm wrong about all this. If you agree with or find issues with anything I have said, I 100% want to know. Peace.

No comments:

Post a Comment