Sunday, July 31, 2016

On our duties to others and ourselves


Say a society exists in which there is little to no pain of existence for the inhabitants. In fact, there is so little discomfort that giving birth is hardly any effort at all - it's almost as easy as blinking! Your daily life is not affected at all when you introduce yet another perfectly happy person into your perfect world - they pop into existence instantaneously and immediately begin to experience bliss.

I am going to make a tentative* argument here and say that these inhabitants of this perfect society do indeed have a duty to bring more happy people into existence. It would be a bad thing to not bring these potential happy people into being, both for their own sake and for the impersonal good.

This may sound absurd, but remember, life in this society is perfect, endless, and requires practically no effort, if any at all. It is so easy to introduce a happy person into this world that you really would have no excuse not to. Why wouldn't you bring happy people into existence? What reason would you have to not bring a happy person into existence if this required little more than a thought?

Compare this idealistic world to the real world, in which life is by no means easy or perfect. In the real world, we seem to have a sense that there is no need to make happy people, whereas there is a need to not make miserable people. What is different here that makes this so?

The first obvious difference is that the utopian society had no miserable people. So there would be no duty to not make miserable people, since that wouldn't even be conceivable. Or if there was a duty not to make miserable people, it wouldn't be applicable to this perfect world. Whereas in real life there are miserable people everywhere you look.

The second issue is that giving birth and raising a child in the real world takes a tremendous amount of effort. Which is an important point: is the potential happiness of a possible person more important than the happiness of the parent individual and their community? Shouldn't we care more about who already exists rather than someone who might exist? In the perfect utopia, nobody was not-happy, so nobody already-existing had to be placed into priority.

This clearly goes into the social meme that parenting is a great sacrifice - the parents could have done some other stuff and had fun if they didn't have a child, but they decided to have a child and "give the child a life". And it's true. I'll concede the point even though I don't support birth - raising a child, let alone multiple children, is a massive commitment (which unfortunately so many prospective parents don't understand).

But the point of the second issue is that we seem to not feel any duty to create more happy people because we have more important duties to people who already exist, and to create happy people takes effort, effort that would have been put to use towards the other duties we have to people who already exist.

What about our duty to not make a miserable person? That's easy, literally. You just have to not make a miserable person. It doesn't take effort, apart from maybe buying a condom or getting an abortion, both of which are negligible efforts in comparison. The effort it would take for you to prevent a miserable person from coming into existence does not compare to the actual misery of this person.

However, what seems to be the case is that there is a priority of duties: we have a priority not to make miserable people and the duty to make happy people is either much less or non-existent.

So priority is an important aspect of our ethical duties. Thus our duties can be ranked as follows by kind and priority:

  1. Duty to other people who already exist
  2. Duty to ourselves, since we already exist
  3. Duty to possible people who do not exist
1.) before 2.) implies that the greatest good for the greatest number is more important than our own personal dreams and desires. 2.) before 3.) implies we have a duty to ourselves before possible people - therefore we aren't guilty for not having happy children if we're not interested in it, and also that we aren't guilty for having a child if this child's personal suffering is outweighed by the utility this child provides for yourself and the community.

This might seem a bit troublesome. If our duty to possible people is less important than our duty to other people who already exist, then this means that it might be acceptable to give birth to one miserable person in order to benefit the vast majority (instrumentalizing this one person). I've flirted with the deontological idea that we shouldn't instrumentalize other people, but while I haven't made up my mind, I'm beginning to see it as rather ad hoc, like a black sheep in my otherwise largely consequentialist leanings.

Or, at least, the instrumentalization of a person so that the majority will experience a great reduction in suffering seems to me to be right. However, using this one person so that the majority will feel great pleasure at the expense of this one person is wrong, because the great pleasure of the majority wasn't needed. But the reduction of suffering was needed.

If this still seems unethical, remember that all that exists is the here-and-now. You aren't pulling a potential person from some blissful nirvana of non-existence. What matters more is what is happening right now, here, where all the suffering is.

I'll admit, this still seems a bit awkward, as if there had to be a better way. I align myself largely with the thought of Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas thought Ethics was First Philosophy, and that this was the case because our immediate phenomenological experience is that of the Same and the Other. The Other forces upon us duties to it - Levinas called our ethical duties a kind of "persecution". Whether we want to or not, we feel compelled to serve the Other.

So if the person born complains that they were born not for themselves but for those who already exist, it's the way it is. We would have to.

But scenarios like this are highly implausible, so it's not really worth stressing over. If we really get to the stage in which we have to rely on possible people to save us, we've screwed up somewhere. We could do it without them, in most cases. 

However, an example may prove the point: you live in the early 1900s (thanks to time travel) and have the choice to bring one person into existence who will not have a decent life but will later go on to assassinate Adolf Hitler, thus preventing World War II and the Holocaust. Your bringing this person into existence is not so everyone else can feel great pleasure, it's so that millions of people don't die horrible, miserable deaths. Hopefully the person born will also understand that this was needed and realize that the world isn't charming. 

Another possible example would be the highly-unlikely collective agreement to cease all life. We might have one or two more generations so that we can get all the technology ready to make sure we do a thorough job.

What still needs to be answered, though, is why suffering has priority over pleasure, and why it's okay to instrumentalize people for a reduction in suffering but not in an increase in pleasure.

I'm not entirely sure why this is the case, but it's so deeply intuitive that I find it rather impossible to see how it could be wrong. It's just so obvious that the reduction of pain is more important than the construction of pleasure. It feels deeply wrong to me to place emphasis on pleasure and ignore pain.

One possibility is that the phenomenologies of pain and pleasure are different. 

Pain is pressing. It requires our attention, immediately. It engulfs our entire awareness and focuses our attention to it. It is difficult to control our reactions to pain.

Whereas pleasure is intoxicating. There's no need to have pleasure in the sense that there is a need for there not to be pain. It's not pressing, it's supererogatory.

Other, more metaphorical, phenomenological ideas are that pain is a burden, whereas pleasure is light as a feather, or that pain is intense while pleasure is "fluffy", or that pain inhibits normal life while pleasure merely distracts normal life.

The bottom-line is that pain is of priority and pleasure secondary.

So we can make another (idealized**) hierarchy of duties:
  1. Reduction of pain in others
  2. Reduction of pain in oneself
  3. Prevention of pain for possible others
  4. Increase of pleasure in others
  5. Increase of pleasure in oneself
  6. Facilitation of pleasure for possible others
Notice also how the prevention of pain for possible others also inadvertently reduces the pain in others (in most cases), since you're preventing them from even being an actual other that requires pain to be reduced. The best way to reduce pain is the avoid it in the first place.

EDIT (addition): Also notice how the worst case scenario is is worse than the absence of the best case scenario. In other words, the worst case scenario might be 10,000 (-)s, and the best case scenario might only be 100 (+)s. The risk does not seem to be worth it.

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*Please note that I wrote this at 2 am in the morning so if anything sounds crazy that might be why.
**Ethics does not cater to what we can do or are willing to do. If this makes everyone morally deficient, so be it.

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