Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Is procreative policy feasible?, and other thoughts

The political implications of antinatalism have interested me for a long while now. What would a society look like that adopted antinatalism as a matter of legal policy?

Many (or even most) people who see issues with birth don't have any particular practical political strategy to reinforce their beliefs, or never go beyond the purely theoretical.

In fact, the vast majority of pessimistic thinkers wrote about the harm of birth and the violence of life but never acted upon these beliefs in a public way. They were/are content with seeking refuge (salvation) in an isolated asceticism, removing them from society in general (abandoning the problem). Some of them even make YouTube videos every other day (Inmendham, for example), complaining about life and pretending that these vlogs are a positive force to be reckoned with when in reality it's nothing more than a depressive circlejerk, accomplishing nothing of substantial worth other than distracting themselves from their own miserable lives. I won't pretend that my own blog doesn't fall into this category, though, as if I'm not utilizing this blog for my own benefit.

Without a practical strategy to put into motion, though, antinatalism becomes yet another idealistic philosophy that never gets put into practice, similar to the European Left and their utopian yet entirely impractical immigration policies, or your run-of-the-mill anarchist who senses (with good reason) the threat of government yet fails to recognize the impotence of a crowd, or the religious Christian who never does anything outside of holding a belief.

If holding a belief was all that mattered, life would be a whole lot easier. Unfortunately, belief is merely a requirement for non-coercive action.

But is an antinatalist political policy even feasible? Is any procreative-related policy feasible?

The woman's right to abortion has been gaining ground, yet is still stagnated in states like Texas and Alabama. Contraceptives continue to be shunned by the religious with annoying efficacy. Birthday parties are held every single day around the globe. And any sort of procreative policy oftentimes immediately conjures up images of Nazi eugenics or Chinese communist birth policies. Hell, Peter Singer still gets death threats related to his views on infanticide.

If these views can't even be adopted consistently by the leading superpowers, how the hell is an extreme view such as antinatalism ever going to be adopted?

Some people might not like me calling antinatalism "extreme", but I think it's wrongheaded to pretend it's just as convenient of a position as any other. Given the current state of affairs, antinatalism leads to conditional extinctionism. Taken up front, it leads to a radical switch of perspective on the cosmic level. It's not exactly a topic for a family dinner. This is why I get uncomfortable when other antinatalist claim antinatalism is "no big deal" - it's a big deal.

Before I even get into potential policy here, it's worth noting the potential repercussions of even publicly advocating antinatalism:

  1. There is a very real chance that some religious nutjob will murder you
  2. It is a guarantee that you will personally suffer social discrimination
  3. There is a chance that a religious group will decide to spite you and have more children then they would have had had you never spoken up
  4. There is a chance that presenting antinatalism to the public as a legitimate option will backfire and cause a regress in social progress, i.e. the banning of abortion and/or contraceptives
  5. There is a very likely chance that you will be laughed at, ridiculed, and eventually ignored
  6. etc
Given these preliminary difficulties, someone who was considering bringing antinatalism to the political sphere would need to be reasonably certain that they have a reasonable amount of political efficacy, so that the benefits obtained from introducing the idea of the general public outweigh the potential and inevitable fallout.

In addition to all this, there also exists the possibility of martyrdom (assuming we have little political efficacy, which I think we unfortunately do). In fact, being a consequentialist when first discovering antinatalism caused me to actually consider a rather unsettling possibility: that I might have an obligation to drop-kick a pregnant woman in the stomach, or press the red button to destroy the world. In both cases there is an initial trauma/harm that would, under a strict consequentialist framework, be mitigated by the harm that would be avoided. For let's say the pregnant woman gives birth. There now exists a person who in all likelihood will grow up and have children of their own, and onward the dominoes fall. Getting involved in such a situation would indeed cause some harm but overall would prevent an entire stream of genetic material from ever having to suffer, viz. one generation of organisms suffer for the perceived benefit of the rest of the lineage of organisms. To an antinatalist, it would be akin to stepping in to prevent a rape, or calling the police when you see a burglar.

Such thinking genuinely disturbed me, and still does. Usually I try to appeal to alternatives, such as getting involved in political policy and spreading the word (things that I so conveniently am not doing). However, this doesn't seem to quite cut it either:

For imagine how many generations of suffering you would have prevented if you had gotten involved and drop-kicked a pregnant lady. Sure, you might get locked up in prison for your entire life, or maybe even get executed, but this would be a martyrdom for the cause, so to speak. The ends would perfectly justify the means. Even focusing on helping others in the here-and-now-and-proximate-future might not outweigh the amount of suffering avoided by an aborted family chain.

I can't be the only one who thinks this is fucked up.  Maybe there might be an underlying reason as to why literally anyone would find this to be appalling.

Life is generally more mediocre than it is a nightmare. Drop-kicking a pregnant lady who lives in a first-world country with a profitable husband and a reliable income would be kind of like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and the consequences to yourself would likely far outweigh the consequences of having a child.

Still, though, life has the potential to be very bad. Parents are thus responsible for creating the possibility for very bad things to happen - by proxy, parents cause rapes, murders, thefts, and other violations. And since the doing vs allowing distinction does not seem to even exist, it would seem to be the case that anyone who consciously allows parents to create this habitat are part of the problem as well. For a state of affairs to obtain, there needs to be necessary and sufficient conditions - and one of these conditions is the lack of any frustrating variables (such as a violent antinatalist). Is a life sentence in prison comparable to the potential of utterly horrific pain?

So we are at a dilemma here: do we accept our lack of political efficacy and thus seriously consider the possibility of martyrdom, or we reject one or more of the premises. Maybe we have more political efficacy after all. Maybe there is a doing vs allowing distinction after all, although I can't see how there could be. Maybe consequentialism is insufficient, though I'll take my chances. Maybe we actually have more of an obligation to ourselves than others, although this puts the entire antinatalist position into jeopardy. Maybe there's some other reason. I don't know, and it bothers me.

But let's assume we have a sufficient amount of political efficacy. What then? Could a full-on antinatalist policy ever have a chance of being enacted?

To be quite blunt, I think it highly unlikely that we're ever going to get anywhere close to policy of non-birth. At the very best, we'll get incentives to not have children for poorer folks. So to answer the initial question (what would an antinatalist society look like?), I would answer that the question is somewhat ill-founded in that an antinatalist society is, for all intensive purposes, impossible or utterly impractical - i.e. a pipe dream, not even worth considering. Continuing to believe that antinatalism has a legitimate chance of getting off the ground just wastes time and energy, time and energy that could be put elsewhere. Adopt antinatalism as a personal philosophy, advocate it to close friends, but more importantly move on - it's never gonna happen.

Which is why I think we ought to look at alternative, less extreme choices. Support the right to abortion, support contraceptives, support stem cell research, get involved in the community. The thought experiment of drop-kicking a pregnant lady continues to haunt me, but I know I'd never actually do something like that, just like how I doubt I'd have the guts to push that shiny red button. Sheer lack of will, or some other reason, I'm not sure. But certainly I'm not going to sacrifice the potential to do much good just because I'm too proud to align myself with any organization that isn't explicitly antinatalist.

I suppose it's of some consolation that the thrashing will eventually end thanks to entropy, thus erasing all memory of our existence. Maybe it all doesn't matter anyway. idfk.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Altruistic childbirth?

It came to my attention the other day, the scenario in which having a child results in a profound benefit to everyone else who is already alive.

Some reject these kinds of ideas out of disgust of using another person as a means to an end, i.e. instrumentalizing them. Those with concerns regarding birth tend to focus on the child only, and not on the surrounding environment in which the child is brought into. As a rule (-breaking) consequentialist (fuck the system!), aka a partial rule consequentialist, though, instrumentality is not an automatic strike-out; neither are concerns regarding consent (for example, a government drafting its citizens to avoid invasion). Rule-breaking partial consequentialism is similar to rule consequentialism except in that it allows the breaking of these rules when certain scenarios present themselves - it is act consequentialism in disguise.

Being an rule-breaking consequentialist also means that I cannot favor certain actions over others without reflection on their consequences within the context of the situation. Whereas pure rule consequentialist would be able to favor certain actions despite the apparent immediate consequences, because as a general rule of thumb, these actions promote the most happiness/reduce the most suffering. A rule consequentialist would argue that an act is (im)moral based upon the rules (which are based on generalized consequences), not on the immediate consequences themselves. But I am not a pure rule consequentialist, so this does not necessarily apply to my thinking.

Before a person is conceived, there already exists a world filled with people of awareness, who feel pleasure and pain. These people are of moral importance, because they have awareness and are therefore subject to welfare.

Given that I am a rule-breaking consequentialist, then, the proposition that one ought to have a child (despite being against having children) to bring about an overall better state of affairs is not automatically rejected.

An additional caveat: in addition to being an act consequentialist, I'm also a pragmatist of sorts. In other words, idealistic "head in the clouds" beliefs do not substitute actually doing something, and idealistic expectations do not substitute pragmatic utility. A better state of affairs need not be a good state of affairs - but our actions should be oriented as to produce the best possible state of affairs. This is also why I am a partial rule consequentialist, since pure act consequentialism is almost unanimously rejected as being untenably clumsy and inefficient. Rules are heuristics that are meant to be broken if the situation calls for it.

Furthermore, the concept of instrumentality is, in my opinion, a disguised way of remarking how suffering is of greater priority than pleasure. Thus, in my opinion, a person brought into the world only to make those who are already existing in a better state than the person brought into the world would be in, would be wrong and also constitute a poor state of affairs.

But what if I, as an antinatalist, believed that if I brought someone into the world, that I could raise them (i.e. trained/conditioned them) to publicly advocate an antinatalist policy and reduce the amount of suffering in the world tenfold? Would I do this? What if this was all it took - just one more generation of my genetic material that would result in a Zapffean Last Messiah? Would I conceive?

I don't think I would, for a few reasons, the concept of free will (in the phenomenological sense), input/output, and most importantly a healthy dose of skepticism.

I like to believe that I have control over my life. I like to believe that I continue to exist, not because of a soup of chemicals in my brain but because of certain reasons. One of these reasons is to help other people who are in need - thus I like to believe that my existence is in some sense contributing to the betterment of the world. This choice exists within a context: the romantic "prison" of life. But the important part here is that I have the experience of freely choosing how I live my life. I choose to help others not only because I feel obligated to but also because I more or less enjoy helping others (to an extent).

However, how does the output compare to the input? That is to say, am I contributing more as an output than I am personally suffering as an input? Is the personal cost to myself balanced by my contributions?

Disappointingly and unfortunately, no. My own contributions will never match those of my interests - I will always place more emphasis on the latter than the former, and so will everyone else. This does not mean I shouldn't try, but let's be real here and accept our human limitation of narcissism.

Having a child for altruistic reasons essentially boils down to imposing a responsibility on someone else that they cannot possibly have consented to (or likely would have wanted to consent to), and generally speaking (rule consequentialism), violating someone's consent results in them not doing what you wanted them to do. They instinctively rebel. Choice tends to result in greater dedication; imposition, not so much.

Can you imagine the conversation I would eventually have with my potential child when he asks me why I had them? Talk about awkward, more so than it already tends to be.

Therefore, on top of creating a person who will, all things considered (as a generalization), be a disappointment in their productivity, you will also have created a person that likely won't appreciate being used as a means to an end, and thus will accomplish even less had they had the choice! They will end up as just one more variable in the statistic.

The moral action need not coincide with our own desires. For the virtuous man, perhaps this is the case, but for everyone else, morality can end up becoming a persecutory logical counterfactual (pace Levinas). It's hard to be decent, even harder to be good, and impossible to be perfect.

All in all, altruistic childbirth would likely result in the creation of another sufferer, one whose suffering is likely not going to be compensated by what they contribute to the rest of the world. They would become what practically everyone else is: a leech. Thus, nothing substantial is likely to be gained, and there is much at risk: 1.) personal suffering of the sorts written about by the classical pessimists, and 2.) catastrophic suffering of the likes of Hitler (i.e. "playing with fire", worst case scenario is always worse than best-case scenario). Therefore, my rule-breaking partial consequentialism would not advocate breaking the rules in this scenario.

Furthermore, there is a much more pragmatic option here: adoption. There will always be a surplus of extra children so long as antinatalism is not a popular opinion. Give a child who is already existing a manageable life, and explain to them your philosophical beliefs, and you not only will have helped another person out tremendously but you will have a greater chance of creating a productive person without nearly as much risk.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Ignoring suffering for self-indulgence

Recently I have adopted a neat little personal slogan, which I think captures my intuitions about a lot of ethical issues quite well:

"If you care about suffering, you will do something about it."

Of course, this is also rather vague in prescription - to what extent should you go to do something about suffering?

I have mulled about this general idea for a long while now, I basically have come to realize that I see no way of justifying self-indulgent actions while others are worse off.

For me (and I think for most everyone else who isn't lacking in compassion and empathy - i.e. sociopaths, psychopaths, selfish individuals, most politicians, etc.), it seems wrong to ignore someone who just broke their leg down the block and is screaming in pain as their femur extends out of their leg at a gross angle. Almost everyone, I think, would feel obligated to aid this person, and also expect others to do the same in such a situation. You could at least call 9-11.

But this also leads to a very slippery slope - at what point do you no longer have a reasonable obligation to help someone? What if this person lived two blocks down, would you still need to help them? What if they lived in a different city, and you saw them through binoculars? What if you theoretically could help them if you drove your car over to the city - is your annoyance with driving a few miles really comparable to the pain this individual is in?

We cannot help those whom we do not know need help. But, in fact, we know a great deal of people, even if it is impersonal, that require aid. And we also know of general facts of society and life in general - the poor get fucked by the rich, the prey gets its neck torn out by the predator, we never seem to be satisfied and in fact often feel pain, etc. And so if we do not know of anyone who needs help, certainly it is possible for us to go out and find those who need help, for we know that someone, somewhere, is in need. We need not sit here and wait for those in need to find us.

This is, of course, largely a consequentialist argument. But I think it is a very strong argument, for at the very least we can appeal to egoism and show how, if we were in extreme pain ourselves, we would like it if someone helped us. I'm sure anyone's reluctance to help someone in need pales in comparison to the pain this person is experiencing.

So in general I think there really is no other position to take other than to accept that those who are worse-off than we are should be sought out and helped to the best of our abilities - in other words, if the cost of us helping them is reasonably lower than the relief the victim experiences, we have a moral obligation to do so.

I've made my own pessimistic views known. But definitely one thing I disagree strongly with when it comes to living as a "pessimist" is the general tendency to advocate isolation, asceticism, and/or the intellectually self-centered, self-indulgent life advocated by these cherished melancholic thinkers. It just doesn't make any sense - if you really believe that there is this much suffering and decay in the world, the worst thing you could do is to propagate this suffering and decay. Having a negative outlook and yet continuing to live an affirmative life is logically contradictory. And, I think, a legitimate understanding of suffering (by compassion and empathy) leads to the dissolution of the doing/allowing distinction, which leads to the conclusion that standing idly by is equivalent, or at least no-more praiseworthy, than intentionally causing harm.

This leads to uncomfortable/guilty conclusions that I think modern ethicists have made an entire speculative field out of to try to mitigate: essentially much of modern ethics ends up being apologetics for not doing enough, or being a lazy, selfish individual, i.e. justifying inherent human dispositions as if they are on par with our apparent moral obligations.

Some of these conclusions would be as follows: the complete abandonment of non-effective-utility intellectual enterprises, including but not limited to much of theoretical physics, evolutionary biology, astronomy, psychology, as well as much or all of the arts and humanities, and especially professional sports and entertainment. For when placed on utility scales, they are largely worthless and exorbitantly wasteful in that they self-indulge while ignoring the plight of others. It also means a radical change in lifestyle, including but not limited to: veganism (or at least vegetarianism), ethically-mandatory political action, and most of all the complete abandonment of one's own personal desires in order to help others.

If you think this is too much to ask for, you need only imagine yourself in the situation of a person in need. And to tell yourself that you are "lucky" for being better off is incredibly selfish.

But I'm under no delusions that this is actually feasible. We are human beings after all, and won't be motivated to abandon all our dreams and desires for moral duty. But I think it's something rather important, and saddening, to point out how incredibly narcissistic we all are, how incredibly immoral we are, at the expense of everyone else. Because once we identify a problem, we can at least try to be better.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Eudaimonia or bust

I know, I know, I'm beating a dead horse.

But I'm wary of suffering-focused ethics, those in which the elimination/prevention of suffering is the only acceptable course of action and intention. According to negative utilitarians, for example, it would be better to avoid a pinprick than to allow this tragedy alongside an unfathomably large amount of pleasure.

Suffering-focused ethicists might accuse me of being empty of compassion or any number of things, but I find that suffering-focused ethics is far too narrow-minded to be even reasonable. It is clear, to me at least, that there are legitimately good things that are not simply the absence of suffering - in fact I'm rather skeptical that the absence of suffering can be a good thing simpliciter.

Eudaimonia, or flourishing, can only occur when someone is not suffering. Since, intuitively, it seems as though it would be a legitimately good thing for there to be people who experience eudaimonia (pro tanto), it follows that we should make it so that there are people who experience eudaimonia. At this particular point, I don't care about the attached strings, hence the pro tanto epithet. Therefore, in order to make people who experience eudaimonia, we would need to make sure they do not experience suffering.

In other words: the focus of our choices should be guided by an analysis of which situation is the best, and the best situation is that in which the requirements for eudaimonia are fully met.

This severely narrows the landscape of what constitutes a "good" state of affairs, however does not limit quite so much the landscape of what constitutes a "good" or "right" action. This is because pleasure by itself is not enough to call a state of affairs good, however pleasure can be a feature that makes state of affairs better than another. Again, the best choice of action need not result in a genuinely good state of affairs, only the best possible state of affairs.

For example, if you had the choice between two states of affairs (SoA for now on), SoAa and SoAb, such that SoAa has one person suffering and SoAb has one person barely above manageable levels, the best choice of action would be to choose SoAb. However, if you had a choice between SoAb and SoAc, such that SoAc has nobody existing, the best choice of action would be to choose SoAc, because SoAb is not a good state of affairs in-itself (since it has no eudaimonia), and therefore worse than the neutral state of affairs of SoAc.

This means that a good state of affairs can only be so if it is a perfect state of affairs, and a perfect state of affairs is one that has eudaimonic persons, or no persons at all.

Now, within this narrow category of perfection, eudaimonic persons hold precedence over nothing, since the existence of persons means that agential value exists. Therefore, the only good state of affairs is that in which eudaimonic persons exist and nothing else.

This reasoning can be captured by the following diagrams:

Notice in the second diagram how, as eudaimonia decreases, the more likely it becomes that the best course of action to take is that which results in nothing.

I think this captures our intuitions fairly well. If it isn't perfect, it's not worth it. Mediocrity doesn't cut it, especially not in ethics. It also explains why brute hedonism is not worthy enough for the entire picture.

Furthermore, I think it also helps explain something that I've been struggling to explain for a while now: why we place more emphasis on suffering than pleasure, or why we prioritize suffering. I think that if you are not currently in a eudaimonic state (or unconscious - a state of nothing-ness), you are suffering. You might be in the middle of an orgasm, but this orgasm will ultimately be unfulfilling. A eudaimonic person is not going to be eudaimonic because of basic sensual pleasures (like orgasms or sweets). It is a more complex psychological state.

So just giving people free chocolate on the street, or a surprise back massage, is not really a good thing unless it relieves them of a pain (which is oftentimes does) - because the only good is eudaimonia. And that's also why we prioritize suffering over pleasure: because the absence of suffering is a requirement for pleasure, and pleasure is a requirement for eudaimonia. A eudaimonic person is in no need of assistance - they are self-sufficient. 

It stands, then, that the requirements for eudaimonia are the presence of certain (desired) pleasures and the absence of any and all suffering. Or, in other words, eudaimonia requires the satisfaction of basic needs in some way.

If these basic needs cannot be met, or there is reasonable doubt that they can be met, then the best possible course of action is to abstain from attempting to bestow eudaimonia.

What defines suffering? A key component of suffering would seem to be pain, of some sort. We can describe pain as a kind of intrusion  - indeed all experiences seem to be intrusive in some sense. What makes pain, pain, is that it is motivating quality that results in the subject experiencing varying levels of discomfort and an inability to relax. Therefore, suffering could be described as any sort of unsolicited motivational intrusion - an enslavement.

What defines eudaimonia? Eudaimonia would be the result when the needs of an individual are met and are continuing to be met by the subject itself by its own conceived free will. Once again, the eudaimonic person is self-sufficient. The eudaimonic person is not motivated to meet these needs by anxiety or fear of pain but because they have the desire to independently of pain. The needs are present, and they are happy to oblige. The eudaimonic person is also one who derives a non-negligible amount of legitimate pleasure from the satisfaction of these needs, instead of mere relief. Therefore, the eudaimonic person must have parallel desire-orientation to their needs.

To summarize: to exist as a conscious person means to have concerns (needs and desires), and eudaimonia requires the satisfaction of these concerns. Eudaimonia is the only good, because eudaimonia is the only experience that is perfect in nature. By establishing the satisfaction of these concerns, you are removing all possibility of suffering. Therefore, establishing eudaimonia necessitates the elimination/prevention of suffering. Therefore, the priority of ethics should be the establishment of eudaimonic persons by the process of eliminating/preventing suffering (by satisfying concerns).

Note again how if eudaimonia is an unlikely or impossible state to achieve for an individual (or the costs of such a feat are too high), then alternative routes should be taken, namely: nothing-ness. Personally I do believe that eudaimonia is a highly reactive and transitory experience, one that pops up here and there within a sea of suffering. In my view, at least, the perfect good (eudaimonia) is either unattainable or highly unlikely. Please also note that this is focused primarily on the eudaimonia of an individual - the affects of this eudaimonia on other people are not addressed here.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

On the role of death in ethics

"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents." - H. P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu

It's interesting to see how prevalent death is in the ethical literature. Off the top of my head, there's:
  • the various incarnation of the Trolley problem (at least one person dies)
  • the debate about abortion and the legality of killing a fetus
  • the ethics of killing animals, whether that be for sport, entertainment, cuisine, etc.
  • the ongoing debates on immigration policy (which oftentimes decide whether or not refugees will die)
  • the possibility of a just war (in which combatants and/or civilians will be killed)
  • the permissibility (or lack thereof) of the death penalty
  • the limits of self-defense (whether or not it is acceptable to kill someone to defend yourself)
This is not an exhaustive list. Death is strikingly prominent in ethical discourse.

What is also prominent and intuitively obvious is that pain seems to be more important than pleasure. I have made previous posts on this before; pain is prima facie of ethical priority.

From a biological, evolutionary perspective, pain is a subconscious adverbialist orientation towards a certain kind of stimulus: notably tissue damage. What we feel as "pain" is the command to "GTFO NOW" - in other words, any experience of pain can be described as essentially the wish to cease experiencing certain stimuli - to "disapprove" of stimuli as a subconscious motivational complex.

The opposite can plausibly be said of pleasure: pleasure is a subconscious adverbialist orientation towards a stimulus: notably the satisfaction of concerns. Concerns come in a wide variety but can be more or less reduced to two (overlapping) kinds: needs and desires. The experience of pleasure can then be described as essentially the wish to continue to experience certain stimuli - to "approve" of stimuli as a subconscious motivational complex.

Because of pain's inherent connection to tissue damage, and because of tissue damage's inherent connection to the morality of the organism, it stands that pain is inherently connected to death (and pleasure inherently connected to life). What is painful is what puts the organism at risk, and what is pleasurable is what puts the organism in reassurance and stability.

However, all systems are entropic, and therefore predisposed to fatigue. In biological systems, this results in inevitable death. From the very moment of conception, we are in a state of decay - a metaphysical directedness-towards-annihilation.

As so much psychological, anthropological, and even philosophical data has shown, humans have an innate fear of death and a drive to continue to exist. The fear of death coincides with pain (which coincides with death), and the drive for persistence coincides with pleasures (which coincides with life).

In fact, it's impossible to experience pleasure, comfort, or be generally happy during the moments when one fully understands ones mortality. Consciousness - the ego - cannot imagine it's own non-existence. This was picked up by thinkers like Freud, Becker, Zapffe, Lovecraft, and others.
"Illusions commend themselves to us because they save us pain and allow us to enjoy pleasure instead. We must therefore accept it without complaint when they sometimes collide with a bit of reality against which they are dashed to pieces." - Sigmund Freud
Therefore, is stands that pleasure, in relation to our metaphysical fatalism, is misleading, whereas pain is enlightening. Pleasure is misleading because it puts our guard down against death - in the phenomenological sense, it is almost certainly intoxicating (we are "addicted" to pleasurable feelings, no question about that). Pain is enlightening because it reminds us of our mortality.

This is perhaps one of the main reasons why we place pain on a higher priority than pleasure in ethics: because we are inherently fearful of death, and pain reminds us of our own immanent mortality.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Julio Cabrera's Negative Ethics

Generally, Western philosophy has assumed that living the good life was possible. Aristotle's virtue ethics, Stoicism's virtuous man, Epicureanism's happy man, Kant's dutiful man, Bentham and Mill's "greatest good for the greatest number", Peirce's "brotherhood of love", the various social contract theories, and in general the overall affirmation of life. To these theories, although life may be filled with hardship, it's nevertheless good because good can be done while alive

But is this the case? Can we actually live a moral life? Is the Good Life even attainable?

One lesser-known contemporary philosopher who thinks this is not the case is the Argentine philosopher Julio Cabrera. Pulling from Heideggerean ontology, as well as the works of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche (very much so the previous two), Levinas, Bentham, and several others, Cabrera published a book in which he describes what he calls "negative ethics".

If Nietzsche asked what would happen if we abandoned ethics, Cabrera asks: what would happen if we fully embraced ethics?

Negative ethics stands in opposition to what he calls "affirmative ethics", of the kind mentioned before. Whereas affirmative ethics asks "how should we live?", negative ethics asks "should we live?". Thus, affirmative ethics are second-order ethics.
Cabrera, as might be expected, thinks that to live is inherently problematic. Although he recognizes and agrees with much of the general pessimism and nihilism of his predecessor inspirations (he spends an entire section praising Schopenhauer), he argues that this is not the sole, not even the primary, reason for adopting the stance that life is problematic.

For Cabrera, there is one overarching concept in ethics, including affirmative ethics, what Cabrera calls the Fundamental Ethical Articulation (FEA): the respect for others' autonomy and the non-manipulation and non-harm of others.

The issue with affirmative ethics, as Cabrera sees it, is that it generally accepts the FEA but nevertheless ignores it by trying to compromise. Affirmative ethics is largely the act of compromise, and Cabrera criticizes it for not considering why it has to compromise in the first place. Why is it that morality has to compromise? Why is it that we have to compromise on when an abortion is acceptable? Why is it that we have to compromise on our policy towards the environment? Why is that we have to compromise by killing each other in war? Why is it that moral agents have to make unsettling moral choices, such as in the theoretical Trolley problem or the real-life scenario of M.A.D?

Affirmative morality must do this because it takes life as a good thing.

But Cabrera argues that this is misguided and quite unethical. The reason we have to make all these compromises and difficult decisions is because life itself is unable to accommodate the ethical. Moral agents are morally disqualified. Every action we do has some impact on other people, either indirectly or directly. The FEA requires us to put others before ourselves, and being creatures who irrationally continue to live, we are unable to fulfill the FEA. Life itself in all its glory, horror, and drama cannot even come close to fulfilling the FEA. It is structurally insufficient.

In this sense, Cabrera is similar to Levinas in that they both feel our ethical obligations are to other people first and foremost. Levinas even goes on to argue that this ethical obligation is a kind of "persecution" - but it's nevertheless an obligation we must fulfill.

From this, it's pretty obvious that Cabrera is against birth. Although taking inspiration from him, Cabrera criticizes Camus for believing that the only important philosophical question was suicide, when in reality it is both suicide and the decision to make another conscious moral agent.

In regards to suicide, Cabrera does not deny it as a valid option, but neither does he usually support it. The only suicide that he supports, in his view (and from my understanding), is one that is made out of an understanding that one's very existence is an overall detriment to other people, similar to the Stoic view on suicide. He argues that Hume was the only real historical philosopher who argued that suicide might be a valid and moral action, and criticizes Christianity, Kant, Schopenhauer, Camus, and others for ignoring this and thinking suicide was either blatantly immoral or irrational.

Cabrera argues that pleasure exists, and pleasure is good. But this goodness necessarily exists within a certain context - a context of pain, tedium, and moral disqualification. Any pleasure either harms other people or is a reaction to our existential state.

"The negative human being has a greater familiarity with the terminality of being; he neither conceals it nor embellishes it, he thinks about it very frequently or almost always, and has full conscience about what is pre-reflexive for the majority, that is, all we do is terminal and can be destroyed at any moment. 
Negative life, in this sense, is melancholic and distanced (but never distracted or relaxed), not much worse than most lives and much better than them in many ways, a life with neither hope nor much intense feelings, neither of deception nor even enthusiasm. And, above all, without the irritating daily pretending that “everything is fine” and that “we are great”, while we sweep our miseries under the carpet. Therefore, it is usually a life without great “crisis” or great “depressions” (by the way, depression is the fatal fate of any affirmative life); negative lives are anguished lives, poetic and anxious, and almost always very active lives. 
In the Critique, I have already written that a negative life shall emerge, basically, on four ideas: (a) Full conscience about the structural disvalue of human life, assuming all the consequences of it; (b) Structural refuse to procreation (a negative philosopher with children is even more absurd than an affirmative one without them); (c) Structural refuse to heterocide (not killing anybody in spite of the frequent temptation to violence); (d) Permanent and relaxed disposition for suicide as a possibility."
Being that his work was originally written in Portuguese and/or Spanish, it's sometimes difficult to understand what Cabrera has to say, especially since he takes inspiration largely from the Heideggerean ontology, which is already difficult to fully understand if one does not know German.

Overall, I think it's a valuable piece of philosophy, one that was long overdue even if it may have its flaws. It's too bad he's not an anglophonic philosopher.

What do you think? Is the Good Life possible? What do you agree/disagree with Cabrera on?

Links to his work can be found here (luckily in English):



Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Disentangling intuitions about duty (harms and benefits)

1.) If we neglect our duties to not impose suffering, someone is harmed. (Bad)

2.) If we observe our duties to not impose suffering, nobody is harmed. (Seemingly good)

3.) If we neglect our duties to establish enjoyment, nobody is harmed. (Seemingly neutral/acceptable)

4.) If we observe our duties to establish enjoyment, someone is benefited. (Good)

It seems as though preventing harms is more important that establishing benefits. In other words, harm seems to the priority value here, the one that acts as a motivation for our actions.

An analogy would be of pushing an inflatable beach ball under the water. When you let go of the beach ball, it rushes up to the surface of the water. As soon as it reaches the surface, however, it stops. It doesn't keep rushing up into the air, through the clouds and into outer space.

Similarly, we feel the need to rush to the aid to other people when they are in distress, but do not feel the need to indulge them with enjoyment. It's as if we don't have a duty to benefit (independent of reducing harm) anyone, at all. An actual positive, good state of affairs seems to be just as acceptable as a neutral state of affairs!

I continue to struggle to explain why this is the case. Why is it that we seem to only have a duty to not harm someone and yet not have a duty to benefit someone? It seems a bit ad hoc to be honest, yet quite intuitive!

For example, 3.) could be re-written as: "If we neglect our duties to establish enjoyment, nobody will be harmed benefited".

Written like that, it seems to invoke a feeling of guilt somewhat. Nobody is benefited, that sucks. But we don't usually say it like that. It feel awkward, like it's forced into the equation. Perhaps logically speaking, we should say it like that, but that doesn't change the fact that it doesn't really invoke a motivational feeling in the way harm does. The impersonal good of the lack of harm is intuitively provocative and easy to accept, whereas the impersonal bad of the lack of benefit is not as intuitive and difficult to accept.

Pain seems to be more pressing than pleasure (which is intoxicating). There seems to be a need to reduce or prevent suffering, whereas there doesn't seem to be a need to increase or allow enjoyment. It's as if our moral obligations stop at ground zero: neutrality.

Most perplexing is that 2.) and 3.) have the exact same outcome: nobody is harmed, and yet 2.) seems to imply that this is good whereas 3.) seems to imply that this is neutral. What the hell is going on here?!

It's really confusing. Harm seems to be the motivating factor behind our moral decision. But I can't see why this is the case, or how it's not logically ad hoc. Why does harm take priority over benefit? We feel guilty for harming another, but not guilty for not benefiting someone (because they're not harmed). Why is this the case? Why does it seem that the potential for harm is the underlying force behind our moral decisions?

Perhaps it has to do with a comparison of our current experiential state and the experiential state of another person, whether that be possible or actual. For example, if I heard someone screaming down the street, went outside and saw that they had broken their leg, I would feel compelled to help them. I'm not suffering as much as they are. I can sacrifice some comfort for their sake.

However, if it was I who had a broken leg, and then saw someone get a paper cut from an envelope in their mailbox, I wouldn't feel compelled to help them. In fact I'd actually kind of expect them to help me, and would be thoroughly pissed off if they didn't. (Why didn't you help me, you asshole?!)

Similarly, if I see that I can benefit someone without too much effort on my part, I will. In fact, I'll feel awkwardly guilty for not benefiting them - I could have made them happier but refused to do so. But if it took an arm and a leg just to make someone feel enjoyment, I wouldn't feel any obligation to give them this enjoyment.

So there seem to be an inherent tension between a moral action and the costs of this moral action. If it's "too much to ask for", I don't particularly find too much of a duty. Ditto if the outcome of the moral action does not outweigh the costs of the action.

Or perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the worst-case scenario is greater in magnitude to the best-case scenario. We can still recognize that the best-case scenario is good in-itself, but that it pales in comparison to the worst-case scenario. For example, the worst-case scenario would be 10,000 (-)s, whereas the best-case scenario would be a measly 100 (+)s.

Going back to the conflict between 2.) and 3.) (as they have the same outcome) - 2.) seems to be using the statement "nobody is harmed" in the reason-giving sense, whereas 3.) uses the statement in a permissibility sense. But this still seems ad hoc. The moral philosopher Jeff McMahan picked up on this and has written some things about it, but IIRC never managed to find an explanation as to why this is the case. I think I might have at least touched on some of the underlying reasons that would explain why something like this is not logically valid and yet supremely intuitive.