Sunday, July 17, 2016

Does morality demand our very best?; On precautionary cyanide capsules

Been chewing on this one for a while.

What is the difference between fulfilling our moral obligations and going above and beyond as a moral saint?

Figureheads, such as Catholic saints or Buddhist buddhas are examples of who we "should" strive to be. They are the moral saints, the ones who were devoutly dedicated to improving the world and helping those around them.

It's one thing to say that we ought to strive to be like them...but is it another thing be obligated to be a moral saint?

When the National Science Foundation gives away millions of dollars to prospective theoretical physics programs, are they committing a moral wrong? From a certain point of view, perhaps one of the Effective Altruism movement, they would be; that money could be going to charities around the world instead of researching some particle that doesn't concern very many people outside of the researchers and the pop-science magazines.

At the same time, however, the scientific results produced from these programs seem to be valuable in their own right. Despite not being immediately applicable to a starving child in Guinea-Bissau, the discovery of the Higgs Boson or dark matter, or the triumphant theory of evolution, or the findings of the cognitive science programs, all seem to be valuable.

Of course, if we're negative utilitarians, none of this is valuable. Too bad.

Luckily I'm not really a negative utilitarian. Pain and suffering are priorities, but pleasure is also a factor in evaluations, if not a less demanding one.

Perhaps it's the case that we don't have obligations to other people that go beyond our reasonable abilities. That is to say, we shouldn't feel guilty for not throwing every loose dollar we have at charities. We deserve comfort and entertainment just as much as anyone else - it's when this becomes excessive and overly-indulgent that it becomes problematic.

The tricky part here is figuring out when our indulgences become unjustified. To those firmly in the EA camp, there's likely a very little thresh-hold. Those unwilling to give up their possessions and pursuits are being selfish and naive, and they should feel guilty for being this way.

At the same time, though, I don't think we shouldn't expect perfection. Everywhere we look is mediocrity. Even when we try hard, things tend to come out mediocre. Maybe it's time we take down the notch a bit and expect the less-than-perfect-but-not-horribly-bad. The manageable. Seen in this light, a lot of the world's inhabitants are living manageable lives, even the animals in the wild. Of course there will be extremes, and that is where we must get involved. Maybe I'm wrong about this, but I suspect that most sentient organisms on the planet are living manageable lives, at the very least.

This shouldn't prevent us from trying to be perfect. If you want to make a perfect piece of art, go for it. If you want to discover a new particle, go for it. If you want to be a moral saint, go for it. But maybe it's not a requirement to be perfect or to try to be perfect. Maybe it's just enough to be a decent person.

This seems to be especially poignant when we realize that nobody asked to be born and thus have responsibilities thrust upon them, responsibilities to people they don't even know who live millions of miles away from them.

Another thing that perhaps is important to note is that not everyone in need wants to be helped. Perhaps helping them will only result in paternalism or regret.

Hence why I have increasingly come to believe that there is no gold-encrusted moral code that applies to every situation imaginable. This may be needed for the state and its judicial and foreign affairs departments, but in everyday ethics, it's far more difficult operate in the world in a strict moral code. It's not moral relativism, it's just taking every situation at face value and evaluating them as such. We need a general transcendental value system (pain=bad, pleasure=good), but any specific value systems are going to need to be enacted here and there.

This, of course, has a certain connection to my own antinatalism, which I have also increasingly come to believe isn't a good term for my beliefs. Antinatalism seems to imply the support of the political institutionalization of a law - the state-sanctioned impermissibility of birth.

In some sense, I am supportive of this. But only in certain cases, usually the extreme ones. If you have a seriously bad genetic disorder, don't fucking have a kid. It won't make you're life better, it'll just make another miserable person that adds to the overall disvalue of the world.

But in the other sense, the world and its inhabitants are largely mediocre, and it's far too optimistic for my liking to believe that anything major is ever going to change by our own hand. Do I condone birth? No. Should I condemn it? Eh..."whatever"... you might as well expect the Sun to disappear tomorrow. What also is the case is that sometimes a life can in fact make up for the inherent crappiness of life in general. It's a possibility. Parents who believe their children will be the next Bill Gates or some shit are a bit delusional...but every now and then there's a success story. So it's some small condolence to myself to know that there's a chance things will turn out alright, even if it's not really a good reason to have a kid in the first place.


On a different tangent, somewhat related to one of my previous posts on how not give a fuck, are the possession of cyanide teeth (i.e. suicide pills) a rational response to the existential predicament of a human being?

Today may be the day you're driving down the road and get impaled by a metal rod in a freak accident. You're in excruciating pain and know that you will die. The next minute or so of your life is filled with absolutely pointless, overwhelming pain. Might you be better off by biting down on a cyanide capsule and ending it quicker?

Elsewhere on the internet, you will find antinatalists and other pessimists discussing the rationality of precautionary suicide - that is, killing yourself so you don't experience really bad episodes of pain. It's pretty self-evident that the worst-case scenario is larger in magnitude and intensity than the best-case scenario, and there's always a chance that a worst-case scenario will occur. So although the avoidance of good scenarios is a bad, the prevention of really bad scenarios would make up for it. Everyone seems to believe that they have a good reason to live: all those future pleasures in their various forms that they'll experience. But nobody seems to realize that they have a good reason to die, if not a better reason to die: all those future pains in their various forms that they'll experience.

In my opinion, precautionary suicide may or may not be rational. At the very least, it's certainly difficult to get oneself motivated enough to kill themselves in order to help a potential future-them, especially if they're in a decent state.

The best thing seems to be to die in one's sleep. You won't even know you're gone.

The next-best thing seems to have some easy way out, such as a cyanide capsule. This means you're able to experience the pleasures currently at hand, but as soon as things take a turn for the absolute worst, you can exit quickly.

This, of course, is largely connected to my belief that there's no real rational reason to live. People live out of a habitual comfort. They don't usually live because of some over-arching reason or purpose. The meaninglessness of existence isn't enough to warrant suicide, it's the meaninglessness+suffering that seems to warrant suicide in some if not all cases. You're unable to do a precautionary suicide because of three reasons:

  • You're currently in the drunken state of pleasure, and are under the spell of Pollyannianism
  • You have a Pollyanna belief that the future is going to turn out well for you
  • You aren't currently suffering enough to motivate a suicide
I'll admit that I don't particularly enjoy holding this view. It sucks. But I cannot see any other option that doesn't involve self-delusion.

From Sartre's Nausea:

"What if something were to happen? What if something suddenly started throbbing? Then they would notice it was there and they'd think their hearts were going to burst. Then what good would their dykes, bulwarks, power houses, furnaces and pile drivers be to them? It can happen any time, perhaps right now: the omens are present. [...]"


  1. The fact is we’re basically just biological machines propagating our genes, and to make us avoid or seek certain certain situations, we’re “programmed” with an alarm and reward system. For humans, this current balance of pain and pleasure seems to be where the indifferent forces of evolution have calibrated it. Apparently, any lesser amount of pain wouldn’t have been an incentive enough to keep our ancestors from avoiding harm, and no more pleasure was needed to seek certain life-sustaining activities.

    Actually, even the will to live and the fear of death must be only instincts programmed into our brains by evolution. Given the cruel asymmetry of pain and pleasure in our lives, it has always been a puzzle for me why more, even most people don’t commit suicide as soon as possible. Apparently these life-sustaining instincts are immensely powerful, since we’re still here even though a reasonable calculation would end up so far below zero.

    Consider this: The Urbach–Wiethe disease destroys the amygdala and affects its victims so that they experience no fear. If this condition became more common and extended to the abstract fear of dying, would that erode our survival instinct and make the suicide rates skyrocket?

    I would say yes. We mostly keep breathing because of our fear of pain and non-existence.

    1. I would say pleasure motivates us to live, whereas pain forces us to live (for the most part).

      If I experience a horrible episode of pain, but later survive and live a decent, enjoyable life, I would argue that this episode of pain was "worth it". Perhaps it's not worth starting a life, but as soon as the pain subsides, the pain is gone, and you are free to go about your business.

      If a heaven were to proven without a doubt to exist, and if it was known that everyone went to heaven no matter what, then I would argue that it would be permissible to have a child, and a good thing to live in general. The final outcome is that of an overwhelming positive, and nobody gets instrumentalized and left out. Unfortunately, heaven likely does not exist, and even if it does, we have no way of knowing of its existence.

      The main issue I have though is with pain that either never subsides, such as a chronic injury, or with an injury so great that you're final moments are lived in great pain. The moments in which none of your memories of pleasurable times matter one bit, because you're in so much excruciating pain, and you can't do anything about it.

      Perhaps a cyanide capsule isn't the only rational option. Perhaps a lot of these extremely painful episodes last but a short time. If they last a long time, then either a cyanide capsule is to be recommended, or state-sanctioned medical suicides.

  2. In his still-influential book, Life’s Dominion: An Argument About Abortion, Euthanasia, and Individual Freedom, Dworkin proclaims his support for “a régime of law and attitude that encourages each of us to make mortal decisions for himself.” But he does not carry this proclamation to its logical conclusion. That would entail legalizing physician-assisted suicide for healthy young adults — the very adults our society values most — as well as for the terminally ill.

    Do you recoil at this?

    Are you healthy?

    Do you think that your health makes your life more valuable than a terminally ill person’s?

    Do you think that his life should get less protection from suicidal desires?

    If so, the disability-rights movement has a bumper sticker for you: “I support the right to die. You go first.”

    1. "Do I recoil at this?"

      No, although I inherently recoil from the thought of my own death. Sometimes I think I would be doing a service to myself by dying, and other times I quite enjoy life. Like most people, it's a bipolar existential condition.

      I do think, though, that it probably wouldn't be a bad thing if I died in my sleep. That's the best way to go imo.

      "Are you healthy?"

      Physically, yes. Psychologically, no, I have some neurotic tendencies.

      "Do you think that your health makes your life more valuable than a terminally ill person’s?"

      Yes, because I can accomplish more than a bed-ridden terminally ill patient. But we shouldn't put this into practice because the social fallout would be quite tremendous.

      "Do you think that his life should get less protection from suicidal desires?"

      Yes, since he is terminally ill.

      "If so, the disability-rights movement has a bumper sticker for you: “I support the right to die. You go first.”"

      I don't get it.