Sunday, July 24, 2016

Teleological end-states and procreation

Been thinking about this for a while: how important is (apparent) teleology in ethics?

Teleology is the study of perceived end-states, or goals, or "functions" of systems in the world. Thus, a teleological system has an end-state, goal, or telos. This telos need not be the product of a silly intelligent-designer, but can merely be a natural, emergent force within certain constraints in which the system inhabits.

I am of the (tentative) belief that teleology does in fact occur in nature, but not in the intelligent design sense. It's just a fact of the world: things have a telos. Functional aspects of a system emerge from habitual processes. It's perfectly compatible with a naturalistic view of the world, especially in biological and cybernetic systems.

What I'm more concerned about here in this post, however, is not the metaphysical status of teleology in nature, but rather the importance teleology may have on ethical decisions. In particular, procreative ethics.

Heidegger famously said that we are beings-towards-death; that is to say, the telos of a human being is death. That's what we're aimed at at the metaphysical level. From the very beginning, we are dying.

The universe itself is "dying". This goes back to a previous post I made on Scarcity and Fatigue.

Now, if the universe was not susceptible to the inevitable entropic heat death, and if humans did not die, then I would likely not have any real issues with birth. For a stable universe would allow a civilization to flourish without end, and the immortality of people would inevitably lead them to a higher-state of being, one filled with bliss, understanding, and peace.

What about suffering? Again, if we did not die, but instead were directed towards a future of eternal bliss, then the suffering would not matter. Nobody would be instrumentalized (since nobody would die and everyone would participate in the blissful future), and everyone would be alright with the suffering that did occur because they would know it would be entirely worth it in the end - for once the blissful end-goal was accomplished, none of the suffering experienced in the past would matter, because it would be gone. The little bit of suffering that one would feel would be entirely worth it, just as the four-years of grueling college is worth it once you start raking in the moneys.

If this seems unreasonably utopian (it is), you have to remember that the reason people feel suffering and are instrumentalized is because other people put their survival before the survival of others. In other words, the ever-present threat of annihilation causes us to put ourselves before others, to create social classes in which the lower classes are systematically exploited, to go to war against each other, etc.

In fact, any non-accidental suffering is directly caused by an avoidance of death. Even more, all pain evolved as a means to keep the organism alive. The lack of resources (Scarcity), and the rather need to avoid death (Fatigue), leads to suffering. Suffering is a direct result of any resource-deprivation.

It stands, then, that any birth results in death.

Why is death bad? Death is bad because it eliminates the ego, and eliminates any possibilities for future enjoyments and dreams. Death is bad for the individual - therefore the avoidance of possible enjoyments by not-procreating is not "bad"(there's nobody there), but the elimination of possible enjoyments by dying is bad, since there's somebody there.

And if death is a good things because it eliminates any possibilities for future sufferings, then this places all blame upon the source - birth. Now, contra Benatar, the avoidance of these sufferings for unborn-people is not "good", however, pace McMahan, the possibility for great suffering (that would make death a good thing), is a bad thing that ought to be avoided. This would constitute a reason for not giving-birth. Therefore, although it is bad to give great suffering upon other people, it's not "good" not to. There's no need to give ourselves a pat-on-the-back for not having children - we're not doing anything good, we're just not doing anything bad, just as me not-murdering-my-neighbor is not good, it's just not bad. Not doing bad does not necessitate doing good, just as not doing good does not necessitate doing bad. And non-existence does not even coherently stand as a state of affairs, let alone a state of affairs that can be of value, thus any claims that Benatar is talking about states of affairs (he's not) fail in virtue of being incoherent.

Attachments are not bad in themselves, they are only bad when they are used inappropriately, i.e. an attachment to a pet that will only live a few years. Unfortunately, any true attachment in life leads to suffering, especially the attachments towards life itself, since life is ultimately transitory and ephemeral, culminating in death.

So in conclusion, death (pace Heidegger) is the final state, the telos of any organism, including the human being, and life is merely a means-to-an-end (to death); that is to say, the very process of life is a process of dying. Any highlights your life may have are entirely transitory and have no relevance on whether or not it was worth being born in the first place, since these highlights are not the telos of your existence, but rather, death is. Everything goes out the windows when you die. The telos of any organism is one in which the organism doesn't even participate in.

And since we should make ethical decisions based upon the final end-state resulting from the decision (including who gets to experience the state and what this state is like), we should not have children because the final end-state is one that either results in a loss of all good, or one that results in the relief of all bad, neither which seem to be good.


  1. "and everyone would be alright with the suffering that did occur because they would know it would be entirely worth it in the end - for once the blissful end-goal was accomplished, none of the suffering experienced in the past would matter, because it would be gone"

    Stunned to read this on here of all places. You're not just saying you, as an individual, would be alright with something like this, you're speaking on the behalf of humanity by casually assuring readers that everyone else would be alright with it too. How could you possibly think you know this?

    Offer me an eternity of eudaimonia in exchange for spending 10 minutes in the worst Torture Chamber ever devised, and guess what follows? My answer will be "No thanks, now get the fuck away from me, brutalist". You really expect me to believe that you and *everyone* else of sound mind would sign up for that? You're that desperate for the eternal high?

    I did link you to Brian Tomasik's video on extreme suffering and reversible utility functions, right?

    If not:

    Pay particular attention to the 4:00 - 11:00 bit, as the arguments in this part strongly undermine what you're assuming in this post.

    "just as the four-years of grueling college is worth it once you start raking in the moneys"

    Even when we ignore the massive post-secondary tuition+interest part (#1 source of personal debt in the U.S. is student loan debt, for the record), this still rings false. At least if you ask me & an increasing number of people I speak with about this. One of the smartest decisions I ever made during my youth was sidestepping college/uni. Equally wise was my decision to stop wasting precious free time on any homework (makework) assignment from Grade 9 onwards. Had some epic times as a result of this added freedom I incorporated into my life. Right now I make nowhere near what I'd be making had I obtained formal scholastic credentials, but honestly, I still make more than I could ever spend fruitfully (hence all the EA talk). Sure, attending college/uni means you're significantly increasing your chance to earn 6 figures. But guess what? Just earning 52K a year already puts you in the Global 1% of income earners. Not too shabby, and I'm actually around there. If I had sacrificed years 18-22 on prepping myself for tests (rote memory regurgitation performance), piece of paper wouldn't come close to serving as an equalizer for all that lost time. I highly doubt the current millennial crop of graduates disagree, if they think about it honestly... rather than in Sunk Cost Fallacy terms.

    Sorry for the rant, but I found this to be a disappointing post. Uncharacteristic even.

    1. Don't apologize, I appreciate the comment. Legitimate criticism is always welcome.

      Perhaps I ought to modify the argument a bit, so that pain below a certain threshold would be acceptable. We often go through little pains for a greater benefit - but sometimes this pain is too intense for us to even consider going through, even if the outcome is one of great pleasure and overall benefit. If unborn fetuses existed in some ethereal realm, and we asked them if they wished to be born and saying that if they are born, they will experience a headache or two but go on to live forever in perfect bliss, would all say yes (assuming they aren't suspicious of our intentions). Who wouldn't?

      I should have added this into my original post, but the teleological end-state is one of the justifications for religion-sanctioned births. Go through the trials and turmoil on the planet, and arrive at heaven later. Religion is, ultimately, a quest for the ideal hero and a psychological mind-game that promises adherents a REDEMPTION.

      If there was in fact a utopian redemption right around the corner of death, it would make all of our lives much more meaningful and most of them would be worth it. All of the day-to-day menial grinding at work and the aches and pains of life would just be a necessary component of our redemption. Those born wouldn't even question why they were being born - they would clearly understand that the end-goal of eternal bliss is good for them.

      This, of course, is just a fantasy, and the real end-goal is death. None of our trials mean anything in the productive sense. We live, we die, and that's all. From the very second you are conceived, you are en route to death.

      So the larger point I was trying to make is that people make more people out of a desire for a child, and an expectation that this new person will grow up to be a successful businessman or actor or politician or something like that. What they ignore is that each and every birth condemns someone to death. A successful career, a rich paycheck, a happy family, all of that is not the end-goal of any life. The end-goal of life is death, and the loss of anything good that might have been a part of the life.

      And if we did in fact ask an unborn fetus if it wished to be born after showing them what life would be like, I highly doubt any fetus would want to be born.

    2. I think the unborn fetus would decline the birth if the offer is made, as Rawls would have it, behind a Veil Of Ignorance. If we ignore Rawlsian pre-natal conditions and say the unborn fetus is assured that it would be born to western opulence & good genetics instead of in Bangladesh & with bad genetics, I just don't see the absence of eternal paradise playing a strong role in the decision. If the psychology of the unborn is anything close to human psychology, and the unborn is guaranteed stellar post-natal conditions, it will probably choose birth regardless of guaranteed death.

      I'm also left wondering if you think The Singularity, pulled off to perfection, changes anything here. There's ever increasing talk of an "intelligence explosion" which can bring about immortality via post-humans. Even if AI remains benevolent all the way through, I'm still retrospectively ruling "no" on abiogenesis.

    3. The problem I see with the Singularity, or any sort of techno-utopia, is that it fails to account for entropy. Entropy is the source of the arrow of time. Entropy is a bitch. There will be no infinite lifespans of pleasure. It is physically impossible (as far as we know) to reverse entropy, and it's fruitless to theorize that we "might" be able to figure something out. Sooner or later we would face the threat of entropy, and suddenly all that pleasure that was experienced becomes nothing more than a wistful memory.

      By abiogenesis do you mean birth or the actual beginning of life on earth? If the latter, I agree, I would not rule it acceptable to start life from scratch.

      In regards to the potential stellar post-natal conditions being something an unborn fetus would choose: I don't know if it would choose life. This is obviously going into the fringes of what can even be considered intelligible. But if we're going to talk about unborn fetuses then we ought to also be able to talk about the state the unborn fetus is in: peace. There's no anguish or dissatisfaction in non-existence. The unborn fetus is chillin in neverland - is it moral to instill a desire in this fetus? Would the fetus prefer to stay chillin? So we would need to make sure that the hedonistic pleasure that is experienced in life outweighs the discomfort of dissatisfied desires. Is it right to give someone an opportunity if they weren't previously in a bad state?