Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A marathon of a post: [insert title here - to be determined]

Thanks to scihub, I was able to read a piece published on Springer by David Benatar entitled "Still Never Better To Have Been: A Reply to (More of) My Critics", which, as the title suggests, is a comprehensive article defending the author's procreative asymmetry and negative outlook on birth against the criticism of other philosophers. This piece has always held my interest as it focuses on some of the criticisms that I had personally found to be worthy of discussion, but unfortunately I had never been able to get around the rather large forty-some-dollar paywall just to read a single article.

The piece is interesting not only because it addresses concerns others have against Benatar's position but also because it helps clear up any misconceptions anyone has had regarding the asymmetry in particular. Yes, I personally had misinterpreted some points, and I feel like practically everyone else misinterpreted these points as well, natalist and antinatalist alike. As it stands, I don't think this alters the truth-value of the asymmetry (I still consider it to be an ad hoc articulation of antinatalism) but certainly it clears up some much-needed fog.

So let's get down to it. I won't focus on Benatar's cross-examination of others' criticisms since I don't particularly buy into many of the criticisms anyway, apart from Harman and Brown's (Harman's criticism is mirrored in Cabrera's paper on the asymmetry). Additionally, I won't focus too much on his material argument, since I basically agree with it and especially like his focus on the psychological aspects of people.

First off, Benatar writes:
"Some of those who have responded to my argument seem to be uncertain what exactly I am claiming when I argue that the absent pain of non-existent people is good and that absent pleasure of non-existent people is not bad. More specifically, they wonder whether these are impersonal evaluations or whether they are judgments about what is good (and not bad) for the person who would otherwise have existed (see, for example, Harman 2009, p. 780). An impersonal evaluation, as it is usually understood, makes no reference to the interests of a particular person. Instead it is an evaluation that something is good or bad without being good or bad for somebody."
Indeed, this is how I interpreted it to be about and what many, most, if not all others have interpreted it as being about. An impersonal value is the value of a state of affairs, not the value of an experience as it is experienced by a person.  Benatar continues:
"To clarify what I had hoped would already have been clear, I am not making an impersonal evaluation. I am concerned instead with whether coming into existence is in the interests of the person who comes into existence or whether it would have been better for that person if he had never been. I am interested in whether coming into existence is better or worse for that person rather than with whether, for example, the world would be better if he exists"
Interesting. Impersonal evaluations of states of affairs are not being used. Instead, as Benatar explains, he is instead talking about the value of possible worlds (modal states of affairs) based on the interests of a person who exists in only one of them:
"Thus, we can claim of somebody who exists that it would have been better for him if he had never existed. If somebody does not exist, we can state of him that had he existed, it would have been better for him if he had never existed. In each case we are claiming something about somebody who exists in one of two alternative possible worlds.
This line of thought applies not only to the locution that it is always better never to come into existence. It also applies to related locutions, including claim (3) of the basic asymmetry—that the absence of pain is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anybody. The judgment that it is good could be made impersonally, but I am making it with reference to the interests of the person who would exist in an alternative possible world. Similarly, when we claim that we avoid bringing a suffering child into existence for that child’s sake, we do not literally mean that nonexistent people have a sake.10 Instead, it is shorthand for stating that when we compare two possible worlds and we judge the matter in terms of the interests of the person who exists in one but not the other of these worlds, we judge the world in which he does not exist to be better"
 I must say that I am a little confused as to the meaning of this, but I think it means something along the lines of this:
Had a person existed in a possible world in which they did not exist, this state would have satisfied his interests.
For example, if a child is to be born only to be thrown into the mouth of a volcano, then the possible world in which he does not exist implicitly satisfies the obvious preference for not being thrown into a volcano - although the child does not exist we can still say that it is good for the child that he was not born and thus thrown into a volcano. If I am understanding this correctly, then this is exactly what Jeff McMahan identified as non-comparative personal value (in McMahan's case, he was/is more focused on arguing against the Epicurean denial of non-comparative personal values in regards to the harm of death).

Continuing, Benatar writes:
"Some literalists might resist such a move. They might insist that for one possible world to be better than another for somebody that person must exist in both possible worlds. The problem with this approach is that it exhibits a procrustean insistence that unusual cases—which cases of bringing people into existence certainly are— must conform to more typical cases in which we make judgments about what is better for somebody. This sort of dogmatism is exactly what gives rise to the nonidentity problem, which is, after all, a problem. The way to resolve this problem, to employ Ludwig Wittgenstein’s analogy of the fly, is to find the way out of the linguistic bottle (Wittgenstein 1953, §309). More specifically, I suggest, we must recognize that procreational cases are different from ordinary cases and that our language has to take account of those differences."
This is an extremely important point that requires a quick segue. Ludwig Wittgenstein was famous for his meta-philosophical perspective of "quietism", in which he argued that philosophical debates are not substantial at all but rather linguistic and conceptual puzzles that should be resolved by a therapeutic approach to the whole game. According to Witty, we know everything already, we just need to disentangle it all so it's coherent and reasonable.

Benatar's utilization of Witty makes him almost look like a moral particularist: if this is true, then he does not believe that there is one single ethical scheme that can be applied across the board; thus his claim that post-natal values are not to be applied to pre-natal values without problems emerging. I'll have more to say about this later.

The most important point that I found in the article was said right when Benatar went into his cross-examination of the criticisms of his asymmetry. Benatar points out that the most common criticism of his asymmetry is to deny it entirely - that is to say, provide a symmetry. This was the route of Harman and Cabrera, and myself as well. But this is wrong-headed, if not understandable, according to Benatar, because:
"The mistake in this objection is that it misconstrues my basic asymmetry as a logical rather than axiological claim. We certainly can (logically) state that just as the absent pains in Scenario B are good, so the absent pleasures are bad. The problem, I have suggested, is that we should not claim this. Among the reasons for this is that we would then not be able to make all the value judgments we do in the four asymmetries that I say are explained by the basic asymmetry."
If I am interpreting this correctly, then Benatar straight up said that his asymmetry argument is not logical. Instead, the asymmetry is an axiological (value) claim, supported by four additional asymmetry claims.

According to Benatar, then, the asymmetry is correct because it is the best-explanation for four other highly-intuitive asymmetries, which are as follows:

  1. The asymmetry of procreational duties: While we have a duty to avoid bringing into existence people who would lead miserable lives, we have no duty to bring into existence those who would lead happy lives. 
  2. The prospective beneficence asymmetry: It is strange to cite as a reason for having a child that that child will thereby be benefited. It is not similarly strange to cite as a reason for not having a child that that child will suffer. 
  3. The retrospective beneficence asymmetry: When one has brought a suffering child into existence, it makes sense to regret having brought that child into existence—and to regret it for the sake of that child. By contrast, when one fails to bring a happy child into existence, one cannot regret that failure for the sake of the person. 
  4. The asymmetry of distant suffering and absent happy people: We are rightly sad for distant people who suffer. By contrast we need not shed any tears for absent happy people on uninhabited planets, or uninhabited islands or other regions on our own planet.

I'll have more to say about this later. For now, it is enough to present Benatar's claim that the four aforementioned asymmetries are true because of Benatar's own asymmetry, which he has claimed is widely-accepted. And in fact his asymmetry is supported itself extraneously as being true by the truth of these four other asymmetries. I'm not sure if this is circular but let's continue.

Because of this, Benatar argues that the next source of criticism, that there are alternatives to his asymmetry that support the ones above, fail because they aren't as parsimonious or they straight up don't support all four asymmetries above.

From then on, Benatar goes into his cross-examination of his critic's views. This is where I shall offer my own criticism:

The most obvious criticism, in my opinion, is that Benatar has failed to prove anything because of his dependency on intuition instead of logic. Of course, this is nowhere near a knock-down argument, since Benatar might not hold that ethics is logical. He might be an intuitionist, or an anti-realist of some flavor, and support the view that what we find ethical is what we find intuitive (i.e. compelling in the sense of satisfying Moore's open-ended question), and not necessarily logical.

If this is true, then logical arguments aren't going to sway the asymmetry. However, it's not exactly clear whether or not intuitions are a great source of information either. Again, Benatar or anyone else of his views on this might argue that intuitions aren't good for evaluating, say, the metaphysical structure of reality (as our intuitions might not match the actual structure of reality due to our epistemic condition) but are perfectly acceptable in the field of ethics, since intuitions might be the only factor involved in ethics in the first place (i.e. ethics becomes the study and assembly of normative intuitions).

Again, fine, this might be a possible response. Unfortunately Benatar did not clarify his views on this so this is more speculation than anything.

However, I think it's evident that a reliance on intuitions alone somewhat lessens the thrust of Benatar's argument. If Benatar were able to formulate his asymmetry logically, then it would be virtually undeniable. Yet his reliance on intuitions opens him up to attack by pointing out instances in which the intuition is not consistent.

Furthermore, Benatar makes two incredibly strong claims:

  1.  That coming into existence is always a (serious) harm and thus giving birth is immoral (I won't disagree with this), because of his asymmetry and material argument (I will disagree with this)
  2. That his asymmetry is the backbone of the four other asymmetries mentioned above (I will disagree with this)
Now, Benatar makes it seem as though the latter claim leads to the former claim; that is to say, his evaluation of these four asymmetries led to his formulation of his asymmetry, which led to his antinatalist conclusion.

However, this doesn't seem to be the case, since Benatar uses a second argument for antinatalism: his material, empirical evaluation of life and its general tendencies. Again, this is more speculation but I suspect that he already had antinatalist preconceptions from his material argument, and formulated his formal argument to support them. Because in any case, antinatalism by itself solves the many population/procreative ethics problems by flat-out rejecting them, whether that be by the formal argument or the material argument. 

In any case, the second incredibly strong claim mentioned above is just that: an incredibly strong claim. Essentially, Benatar is claiming that his asymmetry is the best, and the only, way of explaining all four other asymmetries in a unifying and parsimonious way. Again this leads me to wonder if this is the justification for his asymmetry: when no other options are seen, the asymmetry wins. This is one of the reasons why I consider intuitions in general to be suspect: intuitions by their nature are immediate, they latch on to things as a heuristic for action. Yet that's just what they are: a heuristic. Intuitions really shouldn't be seen by themselves as a guide to truth. They merely keep us from going in totally blind. This also means that Benatar's conclusion that the asymmetry is correct in virtue of there being no opposition is perhaps a bit too rushed.

Indeed, there are other methods of dealing with all four asymmetries in a parsimonious way, as well as solving many procreative/population ethics problems: one notable example is a dissertation that I am currently reading (which I will make a post about in the future), by Johann David Frick, entitled 'Making People Happy, Not Making Happy People': A Defense of the Asymmetry Intuition in Population Ethics. (Note that the Asymmetry intuition is that which was first examined critically by McMahan and is not identical to Benatar's asymmetry.) Frick provides an articulation of his view, in which we have standard-related-reasons for doing things; if we cannot satisfy the standard, then we should not do it. Another potentially fruitful route is taken by Brain McLean, who argues for linguistic disablers in regards to the nature of pleasure, which was picked up by McMahan beforehand. McLean also argues against Benatar's asymmetry but this is not the time nor the place to evaluate whether he was successful in his attempt (in any sense I entirely disagree with both Frick and McLean's apparent natalism).

So there we have at least two robust frameworks that support all four asymmetries above without utilizing Benatar's asymmetry. They are relatively parsimonious (simplicity is a pragmatic virtue but not an epistemic virtue anyway), and are additionally more dependent on logic than intuitions alone. Whether they hold water in the end is still up for grabs, but what matters is that Benatar's claim that his asymmetry is the only way to support all four asymmetries at once is false. 

But let's take a look at the four asymmetries and see if they hold water themselves. Benatar argues they are quite common beliefs. I tend to agree with him on that, but I disagree that commonality and immediateness, the properties of intuitions, are immutable and truth-apt. Let's take a look (my responses are below each asymmetry).
  1. The asymmetry of procreational duties: While we have a duty to avoid bringing into existence people who would lead miserable lives, we have no duty to bring into existence those who would lead happy lives. 
It seems to me that we have this intuition not because we realize that non-existence is somehow better for the non-existent, but because we know that bringing a child into existence is a difficult, burdensome sacrifice. Not wanting a child yet being forced to have one would be coercion and a violation of someone's preferences. Surely the preferences of the already-existent are more important than the non-preferences of the non-existent. Fascist governments didn't give out incentives to have children because people knew that the non-existence of pain was good, they did so because people didn't want to have children. This also means that the desires of prospective parents don't justify a miserable existence for their child (which would be instrumentalization, a core and practically immutable ethical belief).
2. The prospective beneficence asymmetry: It is strange to cite as a reason for having a child that that child will thereby be benefited. It is not similarly strange to cite as a reason for not having a child that that child will suffer. 
I don't know if I can agree with this. Again, this goes back to the sacrifice of having children. If it didn't take effort to have children and raise them, why wouldn't you have happy children?
3. The retrospective beneficence asymmetry: When one has brought a suffering child into existence, it makes sense to regret having brought that child into existence—and to regret it for the sake of that child. By contrast, when one fails to bring a happy child into existence, one cannot regret that failure for the sake of the person.
I can't agree with this. Certainly we can imagine how fantastic someone's life might be and regret the loss of this potential. Furthermore there's another asymmetry that Benatar misses: when one has brought a happy child into existence, it makes sense to be glad that one did. But when fails to bring a miserable person into existence, one cannot feel relief. (Yet clearly we can feel relief...so why can't we feel regret?)
4. The asymmetry of distant suffering and absent happy people: We are rightly sad for distant people who suffer. By contrast we need not shed any tears for absent happy people on uninhabited planets, or uninhabited islands or other regions on our own planet.
At the same time, we need not throw parties for absent suffering people on uninhabited planets, and we are rightly glad that distant people are having a ball.
Perhaps I'm an odd specimen and have different intuitions than Benatar and what he claims to be most people. Yet this is an example of how a reliance on intuitions is unsteady: I straight up don't find his asymmetry to be intuitive after logical analysis. It's only intuitive given the position I am in right now. Yet Benatar claims that his asymmetry is applicable to every possible world and every person, including worlds and people which and who may not have these intuitions!

Benatar himself states:
"My critics have attempted to find a way for us to resist the basic asymmetry by saying that we could explain the other asymmetries in different ways. I do not think we can, but whether or not I am correct, it can still be argued of the basic asymmetry that it solves otherwise intractable problems in moral theory about population. If there are two hypotheses and one solves problems while the other causes them, it is surely a virtue of the one that it solves them. It is a reason to prefer that hypothesis. By contrast, the fact that an hypothesis upsets people is no reason to reject it. The heliocentricity hypothesis upset a lot of people by shattering human pretensions. That was no reason to reject it. I do not see why a moral hypothesis that shatters other human pretensions—pretensions about the great importance of human continuity—should be discarded because it upsets those who harbour those pretensions."
Unfortunately, the same can be applied to Benatar's own asymmetry. The geocentricity hypothesis was intuitive and yet it was wrong. Benatar's asymmetry and the four asymmetries beforehand are also intuitive, yet that doesn't mean they are right. Indeed as I've already shown there's some reasons to think that they are wrong. Of course, intuitions are going to have a role in ethics, mostly by means of regulating the scope of our beliefs, but it's a totally different matter to claim that intuitions are the only means to doing ethics. Intuitions that a hypothesis is correct is necessary for us to accept it, but this is not to be seen as the only reason for accepting it. They're only necessary components for a hypothesis to succeed.

In any case, Benatar's reliance on intuitions does not necessarily allow him to escape logic here. For intuitions may not be inherently logical but they certainly can be applied logically. Regardless of what Benatar is referring to when we says the absence of pain is good, it stands that we can logically (and intuitively) say that the absence of pleasure is bad (in the noncomparative personal way) - and if we cannot, then perhaps a better response is to find out why this is the case instead of stopping analysis at bare intuition alone. Indeed it does seem as though missing out on a great life would be "bad" for this potential person, just as it seems as though avoiding a horrible life would be "good" for this potential person.

Furthermore, intuitions, as being immediate and unreflective, are inherently shallow in scope. Relying on intuitions alone keeps you from analyzing why you have these intuitions in the first place and finding out when, if anytime, do these intuitions not work. This was the route taken by Campbell Brown, whom Benatar responded to and Brown responded back.

Reflecting upon our intuitions leads us to wonder if they are actually accurate. We can initially and intuitively believe that the non-existence of pain is good - yet after analysis we can come away wondering if it really is good. And we can further come away wondering why we cannot apply this same intuition to pleasure. Benatar would seem to advise against this, because he argues that these intuitions hold up other intuitions - yet intuitions are intuitions and therefore can be analyzed. Because of this intuitions are a bad source of justification for any non-pragmatic view.

Benatar's dependency on intuitions here thus makes me wonder whether he is arguing that it is better to never have been, or if it merely seems like it would have been better never to have been.

Additionally, there is another point that I hadn't said elsewhere before: by labeling non-existence as good, Benatar fundamentally shows himself as an affirmative thinker, despite his negative inclinations. Labeling non-existence as good implicitly assumes that there is a good outcome possible in this mess. While the negative philosopher would argue, as I do, that the neutral value of non-existence is what makes the whole thing that much more tragic: life is shit, and there's no redemption to be found in non-existence. Non-existence is better than existence but it sure ain't something to brag about either. There are only right and wrong actions, but never (or hardly ever) any sufficiently good outcomes.

The rest of the paper concerns Benatar's specific responses to his critics' views. I am not particularly interested in them too much as of right now, although I was personally disappointed at Benatar's rather quick dismissal of Harman's paper, and especially at his neglect to address her argument that our intuitions about the non-existence of pain as good as being that of right action instead of goodness. I was also disappointed at what I felt to be rather ad hoc justifications against applying antinatalism in the global scale, such as the utilization of "natural rights" in the legal sense, as if the legal sense isn't connected to the moral sense.

This turned out to be quite a long post.

15 comments:

  1. A bit off topic.

    Here is a brief commentary by Benatar.

    "There is a much greater difference between what we know and what there is to be known, than there is between what we know and knowing nothing. In other words, on the vast spectrum from knowing nothing to knowing everything, we fall very close to the ignorance pole. Similar things might be said about aesthetic appreciation. The range of colours, sounds and smells we can perceive is limited and thus as rich as our aesthetic appreciation may seem to us, it is grossly retarded"


    Do you agree with him that.... "as rich as our aesthetic appreciation may seem to us, it is grossly retarded"

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  2. "we know that bringing a child into existence is a difficult, burdensome sacrifice." That's true, but if we could create happy people without any burdens, would it really make a difference? If we could, wouldn't we have a duty to bring happy lives as much as possible? I think this relates to "making people happy, not happy people". I haven't read the paper, but I remember reading an example that relates to it.

    "Imagine two planets, one empty and one inhabited by 1,000 beings suffering a miserable existence. Flying to the empty planet, you could bring 1,000,000 beings into existence that will live a happy life. Flying to the inhabited planet instead, you could help the 1,000 miserable beings and give them the means to live happily. If there is time to do both, where would you go first? If there is only time to fly to one planet, which one should it be?"

    Not only does suffering hold a much bigger urgency than pleasure does, but does it really make a difference from the happiness perspective? It all comes back to deprivation or not being a deprivation.

    "when one has brought a happy child into existence, it makes sense to be glad that one did. But when fails to bring a miserable person into existence, one cannot feel relief. (Yet clearly we can feel relief...so why can't we feel regret?)"

    I don't think it makes sense, honestly. I believe that entails a duty to create happy people. Imagine someone was forced to procreate a life that would suffer. If the person who was trying to force the bringing of this new life fails, couldn't relief from the absence of a future life's suffering follow? I don't think it makes sense to feel regret from the pleasure perspective because there is no one asking to be born, or the experience sunsets.

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  3. "Additionally, there is another point that I hadn't said elsewhere before: by labeling non-existence as good, Benatar fundamentally shows himself as an affirmative thinker, despite his negative inclinations. Labeling non-existence as good implicitly assumes that there is a good outcome possible in this mess. While the negative philosopher would argue, as I do, that the neutral value of non-existence is what makes the whole thing that much more tragic: life is shit, and there's no redemption to be found in non-existence. Non-existence is better than existence but it sure ain't something to brag about either. There are only right and wrong actions, but never (or hardly ever) any sufficiently good outcomes."

    Yes, I agree with this. There's no literal relief from not existing. Only an escape of a possible worse off state of affairs. Which doesn't stop it from being a better solution (suicidal people would tell us otherwise, but it could be argued that this is an extreme case). I have thought much about this, and I have come to the same conclusion as you do.

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  4. Slash -

    "I don't think it makes sense, honestly. I believe that entails a duty to create happy people."

    But having a duty to procreate, although unintuitive, is not an argument against the *intrinsic* value of coming into existence (or not).

    The problem here is that Benatar's asymmetry is said to be supported by additional asymmetries. But I think this has it all in reverse, because the asymmetry is focused on the value of coming into existence for the person themselves while the other supportive asymmetries are impersonal.

    The value of coming into existence *for the person themselves* has got to be independent of the methods and agents who bring the person into existence. Saying "we do not have a duty to bring happy people into existence" is not, from what I can tell, an argument against the value of coming into existence for the person who comes into existence.

    Hypothetically, we can say that coming into existence can be good for someone, but this does not mean we have to bring them into existence. They're two separate issues.

    "I think this relates to "making people happy, not happy people"."

    Yes, this is Narveson's asymmetry, which Benatar incidentally cites as well.

    If we look at non-existence in the literal sense, as I do and which you also approve of, we are left with the notion that non-existence cannot be good or bad for anyone. I do not think this is problematic, however, because what is really doing the work when we evaluate lives is the actual existence of things like pleasure and pain. Since nobody is being deprived of pleasure when they are unborn, we need not worry about them. But when we consider making a child, we need to worry about their welfare, because although they are not a person right now, they will be if we go through with the act of creation.

    Nevertheless, the predominant habit of idealizing non-existence is, I think, a symptom of our existential condition. We can't help but picture non-existence as comfortable and worry-free, like a endless, deep sleep. But I think this has an even more important implication: it means that we largely do not care that much about pleasure. To be brief, I would say pleasure is "conditionally good" while pain can be both conditionally and absolutely bad. The equilibrium position we strive to maintain is one that is not filled with extreme emotions like pleasure all the time. It is also the position that is closest to our idealization of non-existence. Curious.

    I think Narveson's asymmetry is probably more accurate than Benatar's asymmetry, although I'm not placing any bets right now... Narveson's doesn't try to prove that coming into existence is always a harm, no matter what, but it does set the stage, so to speak, for antinatalistic thinking. But both of them excellently show how intuitive it is to favor pain over pleasure. I think this has to do a lot with the structure of our phenomenal lives, a la Heidegger's "care" structure. Dasein *is* care.

    I'm rambling now, but I will say that if my critique of Benatar's argument works, it is really just a minor victory. I don't think the asymmetry by itself can achieve what it sets out to. At most, I think it captures a general tendency of human evaluations to favor pain over pleasure. That's all. It's not the primary reason why someone would become an antinatalist. Trying to prove coming into existence is always a harm in the way Benatar does is, in my opinion, a little shallow and seems like a cheap trick almost.

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    Replies
    1. "But having a duty to procreate, although unintuitive, is not an argument against the *intrinsic* value of coming into existence (or not)."

      Well, what do we mean when we say there is a duty to procreate? Not that we need to procreate so that new lives will suffer, right? Then, we probably want to say that there is a positive for them to experience. But we know we don't need to feed something if we don't create the hunger in the first place.

      So when you refer to intrinsic value of existence, what is it based on? To someone who suffers, it would be hard to argue that there is an intrinsic value to that experience, just because they now exist.

      My point is that it makes no sense to be glad for bringing someone into existence. We can be glad we increase the happiness of those who already exist, but it's indifferent when creating happy people.

      "Hypothetically, we can say that coming into existence can be good for someone, but this does not mean we have to bring them into existence."

      Yes. Then, does it make sense to be glad about it?

      "Nevertheless, the predominant habit of idealizing non-existence is, I think, a symptom of our existential condition. "

      To this, maybe we could cite Freud's Death Drive, or perhaps Mainländer's will to die?

      "it means that we largely do not care that much about pleasure. To be brief, I would say pleasure is "conditionally good" while pain can be both conditionally and absolutely bad."

      I think pleasure has a tendency to lose it's attraction over time. It's easier to get tired of a pleasure than it is to "get used", or ignore a pain. The rule is to move constantly to the next source of pleasure, not to remain inert. Since the sources of enjoyment are scarce, but to feel pain, we must simply do nothing or bump our heads against the wall.



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    2. Slash -

      "Well, what do we mean when we say there is a duty to procreate? Not that we need to procreate so that new lives will suffer, right? Then, we probably want to say that there is a positive for them to experience. But we know we don't need to feed something if we don't create the hunger in the first place."

      No, of course I am not implying that we need to procreate so that new lives will suffer. I am arguing that something can be good for someone without it being a normative requirement of others to establish this good. Supererogation.

      Your example of hunger is an example of deprivation, as you have said before. It is true that you would not have to feed anyone if you didn't make them hungry in the first place. Nobody needs to feel hunger.

      But say, again hypothetically, that the positive consequences of a deprivation were enough to *subjectively* outweigh the negative deprivation. So much that the person experiencing the positive would not even consider complaining about the deprivation, and would feel lucky to have the opportunity to experience the positives. The deprivation doesn't even have to be at the very beginning, either.

      The issue, I think, is that someone like Benatar or Fehige see positive experience as entirely reactionary to a deprivation. This is the case in normal life, most of the time. But why not see pain (not pleasure) as reactionary to pleasure (as unintuitive as that may be)? Why not let pleasure stand independently from its deprivation? Why not let pleasure be something to be pursued for its own sake, as the highest good a person can attain?

      Setting up an unconditional asymmetry like Benatar (and basically Fehige as well) try to do does the equivalent, in my opinion, of de-valuing pleasure as something that has worth only in terms of its costs.

      "My point is that it makes no sense to be glad for bringing someone into existence. We can be glad we increase the happiness of those who already exist, but it's indifferent when creating happy people."

      I'll question this. Why shouldn't we be glad that there is another person experiencing great pleasure? And why should our own mood here have anything to do with whether or not it is good for another person to experience pleasure?

      Say a person can either not exist or exist in a pleasurable heaven indefinitely. Clearly it seems better to exist in this case. Now say in order to exist in a pleasurable heaven, one must undergo a minor deprivation. Is it *really* reasonable to believe the person would be better off never existing, just because of a small ache? What about the pleasurable heavenly existence? Doesn't this have at least *some* relevance? What's so great about non-existence?

      I want to emphasize that I'm not actually advocating having children. Basically all of this is abstract hypothetical reasoning that has little to no consequence in our real world evaluations. I don't actually think pleasure is able, or should, be seen this way in the world we live in. I just have my doubts that something like Benatar's asymmetry can do what it tries to do. It doesn't feel right. This is why I said it is intuitive but nevertheless feels like a cheap trick. Similar to ontological arguments for the existence of God or solipsistic idealism. There is something missing in the formulation that allows the argument to be internally consistent but isn't really proof of anything at all.

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    3. "The issue, I think, is that someone like Benatar or Fehige see positive experience as entirely reactionary to a deprivation. This is the case in normal life, most of the time. But why not see pain (not pleasure) as reactionary to pleasure (as unintuitive as that may be)? Why not let pleasure stand independently from its deprivation? Why not let pleasure be something to be pursued for its own sake, as the highest good a person can attain?"

      I think pleasure can't stand independently because in a inert state, we experience pain. Be it from hunger or boredom. In fact, if you take away many possible stimuli, it can cause brain damage (https://braindecoder.com/post/what-solitary-confinement-does-to-the-brain-1228561742).

      Pleasure doesn't grow like grass (pain) does. It needs to be chased over and over again, while a negative always comes first. This negative may or may not be aggravating. But the point is that pain can come not only by failing to satisfy hunger (in many forms), but also from external factors.

      "Why shouldn't we be glad that there is another person experiencing great pleasure?"

      It's not easy to answer, but I still seem to be reluctant to this. It's like adpoting a child and making it happier, and giving birth to another child and giving it a happy life.

      I think there's an important distinction there... In the first one, the receptor already exists, so we can be glad to increase it's welfare. But in the case of giving birth, we are creating a receptor first, and then saying it's a good thing?

      Correct me if I am wrong, but isn't this similar to parents who first create a living being with needs and desires, and then boast that they care about it? Of course it's good that they do, but there's nothing really altruistic about it. I say this because while it's can be a positive state (in the example you mention), there was no need for that...

      And yes, it doesn't matter, in the end, what we feel. But it's only this way that we can make judgments.

      "Is it *really* reasonable to believe the person would be better off never existing, just because of a small ache?"

      Probably not. It could be argued that Benatar exaggerates in this point. But following the assymetry, it does make sense to say that yes, no one is benefited by coming into existence.


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  5. Thanks a lot for this post, both for helping me discover scihub and Cambrera (I think it was you somewhere) and your analysis.

    A few points I want to make that might be helpful, since we have very similar views and conclusions (you don't have to answer, I understand this post is somewhat old and it might be too much hassle to revisit Benatar if you haven't engaged his thought lately):

    I don't think his argument is circular. I agree that it's very likely that he first formulated his basic asymmetry and then the 4 others like you say, but that's irrelevant since he is stating that his basic asymmetry is based on the 4 other ones. I am not sure if he means that his basic one is correct only because it explains the 4 other ones but based on the answer you quoted (where he says that it is axiological), I believe he is. It's pretty clear that an alternative to his basic asymmetry that he will accept has to explain the 4 others in a better or simpler way. But in any case I am pretty sure that when he is saying that the basic asymmetry is widely accepted, he means that the 4 other ones are widely accepted.

    I don't think you did a good job trying to refute the 4 asymmetries, especially since you stated reasons (for 1,2,4) that are already covered in the book (at the very pages he introduces them) without providing any additional comments to his refutals, but even if you did, it probably wouldn't be enough. In Every Conceivable Harm, Benatar refutes David Spurrett's tries by responding that most philosophers that engage in ethics accept them and (my explanation now) their collective opinion matters more than your rational analysis since we are talking about intuitive "common sense" conclusions that are implied in their thinking. What I believe he is saying is that even if they are "wrong" views, they are wrong in a consistent way that reveals the basic asymmetry in our minds. You have to show that philosophers who engage in ethics do not have these intuitions or to somehow show that these 4 asymmetries do not lead to his basic asymmetry to have a relevant argument.

    Brown's response offers nothing new either. Benatar already admitted that a world full of pleasure and a single needle pinch is worse than non-existence. It's incredibly counter-intuitive but he means it, it's in the very foundation of the asymmetry. It's not a bug, it's a feature.

    But I agree with the rest of your analysis. Now that his basic analogy is axiological or simply the best explanation of the 4 intuitive asymmetries, it seems less valuable. I am not familiar with the 2 alternative explanations you provided but if they can explain the 4 asymmetries in a consistent way, then they are enough evidence to abandon his deeply counter-intuitive basic asymmetry, without needing to disprove the 4 others. I also really agree with your claim that he only proves that it seems like it would have been better never to have been with the asymmetry, although he can argue that this could be considered enough for ethics.

    Is he labeling non-existence "good" though? He is saying that non-existence is good only when the alternative of existing is an option. Only when a world where both pleasure and pain exists. His labeling is dependent on this specific world. From the perspective of the unborn who doesn't "know" anything about the possible worlds it's still neutral. But yes, from our perspective when judging the potential births, non-existence is good which is counter-intuitive. That's the asymmetry.

    I will probably write a goodreads review and I might link your post. I don't see why you would have a problem with that, but if you do, say so and I won't.

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    1. 1/2

      Stratos -

      I have sort of moved on from this specific issue but I'm fine with going back and reviewing some points.

      What I find to be most difficult when discussing Benatar's asymmetry is how it seems to be defined inconsistently, especially by those who claim to "understand" it.

      On one hand, there is the view that the asymmetry pertains the person themselves. I believe this is the view that Benatar himself argues for. The title of his book "Better Never to Have Been, the Harm of Coming into Existence" seems to apply to people, for it seems to me that only people can be harmed. The asymmetry, from this view, is argued to show that the person themselves is always harmed by coming into existence.

      The other view is that Benatar is talking about some third-person evaluation of the states of affairs in which a person exists and does not exist. As I said before, I don't think this is what Benatar argues for (he seems to have explicitly said so, see above post). Regardless, there are a proliferate amount of people who think this is what he is arguing for and therefore cause a whole lot of confusion. From this view, the value of a state of affairs in which a person exists is always less than that in which a person does not exist.

      The latter interpretation is problematic not only because Benatar explicitly denies it to be his view but also because he explicitly says his asymmetry is not dependent on some kind of consequentialist view - and the utilization of states of affairs is paramount to consequentialism. Benatar isn't arguing that adding more people into the world makes the world go worse *per se* - he's arguing that adding more people into the world is bad for these people themselves.

      Now, anyway, the reason I brought up those four supporting asymmetries was because Benatar asserts that rejecting his asymmetry requires one to reject the other four asymmetries, which are said to be intuitive. And I agree, they are intuitive. But I don't know if they hold water through-and-through: Benatar wishes to argue that coming into existence in all possible worlds that have any form of pain in them is bad. But certainly there are possible worlds in which are intuitions are different, intuitions that would go against his asymmetry.

      So maybe Benatar is simply arguing that any human being as it exists in our world is always harmed by coming into existence. But this is relatively less powerful of an argument.

      Finally, I think the biggest issue with the asymmetry in general is that it's not actually as intuitive as it seems to be. When Benatar talks about the absence of pleasure not being a bad thing (because nobody is being deprived of pleasure - this is where people start misinterpreting him), he is effectively asserting anti-frustrationism (the satisfaction of preferences is good, but giving preferences to people is neutral).

      However, I believe Benatar is inconsistent when he fails to apply this to the absence of pain. For according to Benatar, the absence of pain is good regardless of there being anyone to appreciate or desire this. So on one hand we have pleasure being dependent on someone's existence, but pain not. And yet both pleasure and pain are connected to preferences.

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    2. 2/2

      So, I believe, if we are to grant that non-existing people have a "preference" not to experience pain (it is good that they are not experiencing pain), then shouldn't we also grant that non-existing people have a "preference" to experience pleasure? Benatar thinks this is *incoherent* - but this is false. It's perhaps implausible given our circumstances, but not *incoherent*.

      And even if we take the third-person perspective, it is also not incoherent to feel saddened that someone who could have led a great life and loved every second of it failed to be born. In fact, we see this a lot when babies are miscarried - the prospective parents are saddened that their child will not live the life that was "promised" to them (even if this is a far-fetched optimistic belief).

      There's other issues as well. Benatar claims his asymmetry does not lead to pro-mortalism, but I honestly cannot see any other conclusion. If it is always bad to come into existence, then this must mean it is always bad to continue to exist. Think about when we go to sleep. While sleeping, are we not similar to those who do not exist? Is it always bad for us to wake up? (I myself might say yes, but not on Benatar's grounds). Or what if a "person" is really just a series of individual, different conscious selves - is it always bad for the "me" one moment ahead of the "now" to come into existence? It seems, at least to me, that if it is bad to come into existence in such ways, it's because of reasons apart from Benatar's asymmetry.

      So then, back to the four supporting asymmetries: if we reject Benatar's asymmetry because of the reasons stated above, then Benatar argues that we have to reject the four supporting asymmetries. But we already have reason to doubt Benatar's original asymmetry. Whether or not this actually requires us to reject the four other asymmetries seems irrelevant. And I doubt his asymmetry is the reason we have these other asymmetrical intuitions. It is not too dissimilar to the analogy of rejecting the geocentric model of the universe and being worried about the resulting conflict with current astronomical models. I believe we have reason to believe that some people, hypothetically, can be better off existing than not existing, and this is sufficient grounds to reject the asymmetry.

      When you end up getting extremely unintuitive conclusions about pinpricks and stubbed toes, that might be evidence that the original thesis is problematic. All things considered, I am not an antinatalist because I'm worried about people getting an itch. I'm an antinatalist because I'm understand life is much more than just minor inconveniences. The asymmetry seems to me to be basically unnecessary and almost like a cheap trick. Life is bad for those who experience it - there's no need to utilize comparative claims to non-existence. You either exist, or you don't, and in our case, we exist amidst suffering and death. We don't need to see non-existence as good to see existence as bad, and in fact doing so seems to me to simply be a symptom of our general condition anyway.

      If we insist on referring to non-existence, as I believe we will inevitably do, then I think a better argument that Benatar's asymmetry would be: given the overall negative structure/nature of phenomenal existence as a temporal whole, *had* someone "existed" before they were born, they would prefer not to be born.

      If you want to link my post, I guess that's cool. I don't really care one way or the other.

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      I think it's impossible to understand what he is saying without reading the article you linked and I doubt most people managed to find it. I will try to explain what I believe Benatar says.

      It is pretty clear now that he is talking about persons and not state of affairs, as you correctly identified. What I think you miss is examining what his comments about the basic asymmetry being axiomatic and the fly make to his asymmetries. I don't know if that was his original thinking or not, but now that he admitted that his basic asymmetry can't be explained logically (because of the counter-factual abuse), anyone who says that he "gets" it logically, is simply wrong. The basic asymmetry can't be explained by what we consider as logic. He claims that deciding between existence and non-existence is a special case that needs special rules. You actually wrote all that in your original post but you are still trying to understand it as an ordinary case in your last reply.

      Now saying that logic is not enough and we need a new system is an extraordinary claim that needs justification. He believes that this justification is provided by the 4 asymmetries. Can these 4 be justified by logic? It's less clear but I think he would say no. They seem to suffer from the same logical inconsistencies you pointed out and that's why they lead to the similarly logically inconsistent basic asymmetry. But they are intuitive, they are the way that people, including philosophers think about this subject. That's his justification. Not that they are correct, only that they are widespread. Most of the time (unfortunately not all the time, so I might be wrong) that someone tries to reject one of the 4 asymmetries, he is trying to show that the rejection will lead to a non widespread belief. If you want to attack him via those you have to show that all for of them are not widespread or have different explanations, like you tried to do with the miscarries, but for that particular case it can easily be said that the parent is sad because of his loss and not the prospective happiness of the child.

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    4. 2/2

      A better line of attack, might be asking him why should we accept intuitive asymmetries that lead to an non-intuitive result. Why the result has priority over the asymmetries, similar to what you said with the heliocentric argument. I think a plausible line of defense is to say that these asymmetries are like the planets, it's some phenomena that we observe and a heliocentric hypothesis is our best theory right now. If all I am saying is indeed what he is trying to say, then in a way Benatar is a psychoanalyst that diagnoses childhood traumas. The poor patient (humans) try to say that they are fine (there is no asymmetry) but he sees that their behavior and way of thinking says otherwise.

      So in your sleep example, (besides saying that there is already a person) he can simply say: "Are there widespread beliefs that reveal some kind of asymmetry with regard to sleep?" If the answer is no, the argument is not very relevant. In general I think you try to disprove him the wrong way, backwards. You are trying to formulate logical arguments that are independent from how humans appear to see the world through these 4 asymmetries. Of course you can say that you are the one who explains how everyone sees the world (births are good) but you can't explain the 4 asymmetries. The problem we try to solve is explaining the asymmetries, not finding the best independent way to evaluate existence and non-existence. Benatar's conclusion doesn't make sense. Almost everyone agrees on that, at the very least because of the pinpricks.

      So this is my reading of him. I still can't decide if I agree with him or not but I am leaning towards the latter. It's an intuitive argument and we can claim that it just reveals humans' confusion with non-existence. If we could think with strict logic in these 4 asymmetries, then doesn't the problem disappear? Is it really that every person that is brought to existence is harmed or that humans are confused when dealing with potential persons? We could change the latter beliefs instead of the former to avoid the inconsistency. Ethics can be considered what humans instinctively value but it's clear that they value giving birth more than being consistent with counter-factuals concerning non-existence. I agree with you that it seems like a cheap trick and it's not how I imagine non-existence either. It's better if we focus on "material" kind of arguments that actually make sense, even if they are not very popular.

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    5. Stratos -

      It seems like we agree in many respects.

      I especially agree that, even if Benatar's asymmetry is not *logical*, it is still extremely intuitive in some respects. The trouble comes with figuring out why it is intuitive when it is not logical.

      Perhaps Benatar could argue that it *just is* the case that the absence of pleasure is neutral in value, and that this has nothing to do with logic or being consistent with counterfactuals. But I don't think that is correct, as we can actually think of pleasure in a different way.

      It does seem as though Benatar is doing psychoanalysis when he says people would be better off never being born, even if they say otherwise. This is fine to do but only if there is an appropriate reason, and I don't think the asymmetry is that reason.

      In regards to the four supporting asymmetries: the issue I have with him using them is that they seem to be irrelevant to the truth of the asymmetry. We can see Benatar as believing his asymmetry to be a sort of "fulcrum" in which the other four asymmetries (and more) latch on to. It is a "hinge" belief to use Wittgenstein's terminology. The problem, though, I think is that these are used to justify the hinge. For example, a counterargument Benatar uses is to ask that if we reject his asymmetry, then it seems as though we may feel morally compelled to make as many people as possible, because non-existence is "bad" for these unborn people. But even if this moral extreme follows, how is this itself enough to show that non-existence can't be bad for anyone? In other words: why should our hesitance to bring people into existence for their own sake determine the intrinsic value of coming into existence for these people themselves?

      For say there was an omnipotent being who created every possible person with a "good" life in all world s at all possible times, without breaking a sweat, of course (because they are omnipotent). How should we see the value of existence for these people? It seems to me that the value of someone's existence intrinsically is separate, to some degree, from our obligation to them. So, for instance, we may believe that it is wrong to bring a person with a life not worth living into existence, but morally neutral to bring a person with a life worth living into existence (Narveson's asymmetry). Yet, in the latter, it is still intrinsically good for this person to come into existence, even if it wasn't an obligation for us to cause this to happen.

      Really, I think Benatar's argument is simply an extension of Fehige's anti-frustrationism (Benatar cites Fehige's work in his book). Personally I've found Fehige's anti-frustrationism to be extremely compelling, although I'm not sure if I totally agree with it. The conclusion is the same as well: an existence with any frustrated preferences is always worse than never existing at all, the rub being that existence cannot provide any benefit or advantage.

      Going back to the original point about intuitions and logic: it seems that much of ethical reasoning is "anaesthetic" in nature. We care more about preventing suffering than promoting happiness. It's just a basic ethical intuition that suffering is more important than happiness. So this is probably a deep motivation for something like Benatar's asymmetry - but is this ethical intuition representative of the actual value of coming into existence (for value is not equivalent to ethics)? Is it not the case that our valuing in general is NOT anaesthetic, even if our ethics is?

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    6. Well, Benatar considers your arguments in page 32 of the book. He accepts that the first asymmetry is explained by Naverson's asymmetry but he shows that when people think in the terms of this asymmetry they don't do it with regard to their procreational duties but with regard to the value of the birth. And even if Naverson's asymmetry explains this one, we still don't feel sad about the missing happiness of the not-born, so we still have to find a unifying theory that explains all four asymmetries or we somehow have to reject the others or find a reason to judge each asymmetry differently. It's more of an inference to the best explanation if you like those titles. It's frustrating but you have to play by the rules if you want to say that he is clearly wrong.

      I will read Fehige's thoughts soon. It's not enough if just the conclusion makes sense or not, we are too biased. I am currently reading Julio Cabrera's book and I am in love with it because he starts with ontology (and I already know that he will reach the darkest possible result). These are much stronger arguments than glorified behaviorism. That starts too late in the world.

      I don't know if you read it but Cambrera says that in front of pain no moral system can stand. If I torture someone he will do or say absolutely everything to stop the pain (and almost everyone will agree he was justified to do so) and even though torture is an extreme example, pain from illness, a very common phenomenon is not extreme at all, so it's actually correct to base our ethics on pain and suffering. But even without this example, I am not sure I understand why you say that our value it's not anesthetic. I mean, in general maybe it's not but relieving someone from pain, definitely has priority over making someone happy.

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    7. Stratos -

      In regards to the asymmetries, if Benatar says we feel this way towards the value of birth itself and not our procreational duties (i.e. value of birth -> procreational duties rather than procreational duties -> value of birth) then this is not so problematic. It must simply be a symptom of the human condition.

      I have read Cabrera's book several times now. I found it confusing the first time around, but after spending time reading Heidegger and 20th century phenomenology I found it to be fairly easy to understand and very lucid. I really enjoyed reading it.

      In fact I found inspiration from his book and am writing a book of my own that is loosely based on Cabrera's negative ethics project. It's around 130 pages long as of now. Not sure when I'll be done with it. Maybe I'll see if I can't contact Cabrera himself and ask if he won't take a look at it. We'll see I suppose. It's funny how a project like mine sets out in part to show how life is meaningless yet offers me a sense of meaning. If you want to read the draft as its coming along, shoot me an email and I'll give you viewing access.

      Finally, remember there is a difference between ethics and value. We can value something without finding it ethical to value it. Ethics in general seems to be prescriptively anaesthetic, but our valuing things in general is not. Certainly it is not the case that the only good we ever experience is the relief or prevention of a bad. I value, say, a cool shower on a hot summer day, but this seems to be effectively oblique to ethics in general.

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