Thursday, November 24, 2016

Potential avenues for sentio-centric antinatalism

Sentio-centric antinatalism ("efilism") is, I take it, the belief that sentient life needs to end as swiftly, efficiently, and ethically as possible. Those currently alive may be allowed to live out the rest of their lives (although YouTube commentators continue to surprise me), but procreation is strictly out of the question. The purpose being, to minimize suffering by eliminating its source. Life just ain't worth it.

This belief is reasonable, I think, if one is honest and compassionate.

What is not reasonable are some of the methods commonly advocated to accomplish the sentio-centric antinatalist goal, which end up justifying harm impositions anyway: blowing up the world with thousands of nukes, putting chemicals in the water and air to sterilize organisms, altering the orbit of the Earth and smashing it into the Sun, etc. There are a couple of reasons why this is so, but in my opinion they all rest upon the aesthetically-displeasing or even downright scary nature of these options. How many of us would actually be willing to press the big red green button, and how many of us would "chicken out" so to speak and hesitate? How many of us would actually be able to explain our reasoning to other people:
"I'm sorry, but I have to kill you in order to ensure the prevention of future unrequested harm impositions."
Am I wrong with the above quote? Is this not what many of these antinatalist methods advocate, the imposition of harm to remove the possibility of a future greater amount of harm imposition?

For some reason this brings no joy to me.
Maybe I suffer from akrasia, and just don't have the guts to accept that annihilation of the world in a violent manner would be for the best. I mean, after all, I am a utilitarian. It would be pretty out of place for me to start utilizing terms like "intention" and "innocence".  But this highlights an important point, I think:

Previously I made a post about antinatalism's relatively poor PR problem. This is one of the problems I see with the future of antinatalism. I myself am an antinatalist and find some of these "solutions" to be repellent. As in, I am not sure if I could support someone who was publicly advocating blowing up the world for the sake of sentient welfare. For whatever reason it puts me off. If it puts me off, how many not-currently-antinatalists are going to be put off themselves?

Some antinatalists might see talk of blowing up the world as more tongue-in-cheek and hypothetical than a legitimate option. To which case I have to say a few things:
  1. Why is it tongue-in-cheek? Why are you not actually actively doing something about it? (Akrasia involves not just belief but action as well...)
  2. Why do you think this will never happen? (Presumably because the public will never accept blowing up the world as a legitimate path)
  3. If the public at large will be put off by talk of ethical Armageddon, then why are you advocating it?
Talking about blowing up the world is thus counter-productive and only satisfies the urge to express antinatalism, not communicate it. If destroying the world in a fiery explosion is what ought to happen, then we need to figure out a way of convincing people that this is what needs to happen and breaking down the emotional barricade that exists in probably most people. Simply telling other people to stay calm in the face of a proposition like this is unreasonable.

Rational self-preservation may be an instance of akrasia in utilitarian ethics. My experiences, in virtue of personal ownership alone, are no more important than anyone else's experiences. This ethical failure on each of our parts must be taken into account when we think about how we are to implement antinatalism. It may be for the greater good to destroy the world, but I doubt I'll be able to just stand idly by when my life is threatened like that. Call me a selfish pussy or whatever you want, that's not going to help. I already struggle with the guilt associated with the tension between rational self-interest and ethical altruism. It's in our nature to want to continue to live, and I'm considering seeing this as one of the excusable rights each one of us have when faced with an ethical dilemma. You cannot expect me to kill myself for the benefit of sentients at large, even if the overall outcome would be better. Maybe destroying the world isn't a problem for those who are suicidal, but considering I am not overtly suicidal (as of now), this is problematic.

So what would be the method I would like to see implemented for sentio-centric antinatalism? Here are a couple of chronological moves:
  1. First, there needs to be a gradual rise in awareness of suffering in nature by an enforced biology education in high school, the removal of censorship in nature documentaries, and the outlawing of zoos. This is the educational aspect, which fertilizes the soil for the next phases.
  2. Then, there must be a subsequent vocalization of antinatalism in various outlets and in various ways. The best way to convince people of anthropocentric antinatalism is to argue that long-lasting happiness is impossible (a "lighter" argument than the more straightforward and accurate, yet difficult to accept, LIFE SUCKS AND WE'RE ALL FUCKED)
  3. Next comes the side-lining of irrelevant and expensive activities in order to focus on the artificial intelligence (AI) research program. I have my doubts regarding strong AI, so the possibility of AI suffering may be null. 
  4. With the development of advanced AI comes the opportunity for all of us to peace out. We can program the AI to multiply themselves (non-harmful reproduction, as they will not feel) and gently lead the rest of the organic kingdom into extinction in a more refined manner than we could. Meanwhile human existence is phased out.
  5. The final result is an empty planet, populated by unfeeling AIs, who constantly stand vigilant in the case that sentient life emerges again. These AIs will also act as a method of communicating antinatalism to potential visiting extra-terrestrials after our own voluntary extinction, in the case E-Ts actually exist.
I think this is a far more reasonable, effective, and aesthetically-pleasing rough plan than many of the apocalyptic "alternatives" suggested by other antinatalists. If taken seriously and patiently, I think this could actually happen, and has certain advantages as well. All without the scary explosions.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Conceivability and morality

As a precursor, this is the result of a bit of obsessional thinking. But I think it is still important.

We can conceive of a lot of things.

One thing I have recently conceived of is what I call the Worst Imaginable Scenario (in the world we live in). The Worst Imaginable Scenario (WIS) goes like this:
Worst Imaginable Scenario (WIS): Every single person who existed, exists, and will exist has already been in existence since the beginning of time, residing in a Platonic realm of unimaginable suffering. Birth into the world we live in currently is the only sweet release any one of us ever gets to experience. Not everyone gets this chance, either; some are left behind. When we die, we get transported right back into this transcendental Hell for all eternity.
Ignore the metaphysical problems this arises and the fact that it is definitively the product of a neurotic mind, and focus on the ethical problems this raises. If WIS were the case, then it seems like we would have an obligation to have as many children as possible to minimize how much torture ultimately happens. Torture is inevitable; our only choice would be to minimize how much happens in the long run.

Compare this to a wholly different scenario, the Drunk-Driving Dilemma (DDD):
Drunk-Driving Dilemma (DDD): You live in a rural mountain town, and are heavily intoxicated but want to drive home from a party. It is very late at night and although you can conceive of getting into an accident, you brush this aside as a very low probability given the remoteness and small population size of your community. You decide to drive home drunk and in the process hit a car with a family on a vacation, severely injuring every single passenger.
DDD seems to be a case of clear irresponsibility and wrong-doing.

Now, what if the WIS is not known to be the case, but simply conceivable (which it is, I am capable of imagining a great many things including WIS). Do we still have an ethical obligation to have as many children as possible, simply out of the conceivability of WIS?

The tension here arises when we see conceivability as an important measure for ethical obligation in situations like DDD but not in situations like WIS.

Probably most of us, myself included (when I'm not obsessive), would scoff at WIS. Just because we can imagine something doesn't mean it exists! In fact most of us would probably argue that it's just obvious that people don't exist before they are born. Like, duh...

Yet just because we can't imagine ourselves getting into a car accident due to intoxication, doesn't mean it won't happen!

In both cases, ignoring the conceivability of something has the potential of harming others.

This seems to lead to the conclusion that the way we see ourselves ethically has to, in part, depend upon probability and likelihood.

Of course, it could be argued that the sheer conceivability of unconceivable pain disqualifies any talk of likelihood.

But we can also conceive of a lot of other things as well. Perhaps by typing the letter "s" into my keyboard, a trillion people suddenly come into existence and are tortured. Conceivable? Yes. Likely? No. Therefore I shouldn't worry about pressing the letter "s".

However, what this also means is that, without further considerations, we shouldn't see your decisions in DDD as morally problematic, as the probability of getting into a car accident were presumably quite low. Which, without any other considerations, seems wrong. If you don't have a good reason to go out drunk driving, then it doesn't seem like you should go drunk driving!

Another example clarifies this point: what about our decisions regarding those whom we are not sure are capable of being sentient? For example, it might be doubted that insects are capable of feeling anything. How are we to assess this uncertainty? If we just ignore that they might be able to suffer, we come across as insensitive and cruel. But if we focus on mitigating encounters with insects as to prevent (conceivable) suffering, we fall back into the same problem as before; we'll treat insects with respect because they might feel pain, but we won't usher people into worldly existence simply because we doubt they actually exist before they are born? What's the cut-off here?

In this case, it seems that our doubt of insects' ability to suffer is more a product of prejudice and bias than reason. The jury is still out on the possibility of insect suffering, but it seems like a pretty good idea to be precautionary and treat them as if they can suffer.

But once again we're back at the same problem: why not be precautionary and take seriously the WIS?

There does seem to be a difference between these two cases, in that insect suffering is something we are not sure of (agnosticism), yet the suffering of unborn people is something we are pretty sure is non-existent. Thus the difference is once again one of probability.

But how sure are we actually? Say, for example, we end up with pretty conclusive results that lead us to believe that insects cannot, in fact, feel anything and that our treatment of insects are thus morally unimportant. Little do we know that insects actually can feel pain and can suffer.

Oops. Ockham's Razor isn't always reliable.

To attempt to solve this issue, I will present a principle that I call the Ethical Qualification of Investigative Capability:
Ethical Qualification of Investigative Capability (EQIC): that which cannot be conceivably investigated is not morally important.
The key word here is conceivably. For without it, it would mean that if just because were aren't physically able to investigate the consciousness of insects, we then are not obligated to treat them fairly. Which is quite short-sighted. The conceivability of investigation condition limits the scope of our ethics, then. Just because we can conceive of something doesn't mean it is automatically ethically important - we must additionally be able to conceive of a way of investigate this conceivability.

Taken to the extreme, the only things that fail to meet the standard of EQIC would be those things that are metaphysically impossible for us to investigate. Such things are thus like black boxes whose contents can only be pie-in-the-sky speculated upon and cannot be accessed by any means whatsoever, whether that be logical syllogism, empirical observation, or whatever. Insects, therefore, are not black boxes in that we can see how they might be able to be investigated.

Thus, the conclusion is that, from a welfare-centered view, we ought to see the value of a something as seen from the point of view of the universe as additionally seen through the eyes of value-beings. What reality is actually like is important, but only insofar as observers can actually conceivably know about it. The focus goes from an universal objectivity to an inclusive, yet limited, objectivity.

This also means that we must accept what I had argued for in a previous post: immanent axiology. All value must be constrained to actual existence, since we can't exactly investigate the nature of non-existence. With the addition of EQIC, this constrains all value to immanent existence that we can conceivably investigate.

A weaker version of EQIC can be formulated, the:
Ethical Qualification of Pragmatic Investigative Capability (EQPIC): that which cannot be conceivably investigated, or that which cannot reasonably be investigated without disproportionate risk or effort on our part is not morally important.
Thus the addition of a pragmatic element has us consider the impact such an investigation would have on us in classic consequentialist input/output terms.

Our treatment of things that do not fulfill this requirement is thus indeterminate: we do not know how to treat these things. There may be a ghost next to me who is horribly tortured every time I play a certain song - then again, they might be horribly tortured every time I play a different certain song.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Space: The Final Frontier ... of nothing really important

LOOK! A ball of rock! Amazing!
This is more of a polemical post.

When I was younger, I was hell-bent on becoming an astrophysicist. Space and its contents, from stars to planets to black holes and nebulae, were captivating and inspiring.

It wasn't until later that I realized that I actually didn't really like the strictly scientific aspects of astrophysics, but rather I liked the common philosophical tropes associated with it and the related space-related scientific fields: exploration, survival, mathematical beauty, and of course a heavy dose of teenage edgelord pretentious nihilism which can only be seen as a shitty fan-fic abomination of an erotic three-way between Jean-Paul Sartre, Carl Sagan, and Richard Dawkins entitled The Cringe.

What are the major plot points of The Cringe? Well, they are (spoilers):

  • A naive belief in the inherent value to scientific inquiry, nevermind the costs ("science or bust!")
  • A schizophrenic nihilism, in which the Universe is Absurd and irrational but somehow the people within it are perfectly rational and meaningful
  • A socially sexy bandwagon devotion to the New Atheist movement and their obnoxiously ignorant equivocation of theism and organized religion, and the hypocritical monopolization of the transcendental universals of Reason and Science as the only route to Truth (i.e. what is entertaining enough to warrant a PBS television show narrated by Morgan Freeman)
  • A baseless belief that, despite all the suffering in the world and the utter pointlessness of the universe at large, we ought to rejoice in our collective existences and praise the powers that be that have accidentally, coincidentally, and carelessly puked out our genetic information (cue the violins)
  • An even more baseless belief that humans are somehow "destined" to explore the stars and rise to cosmic greatness (cue the drumroll)
  • And the wholly gratuitous notion that the Universe is something special and beautiful and worthy of being studied for its own sake as if it is were a god itself (cue the choir)

To summarize it in a more precise manner: the emergence/continuation of a positive aesthetic of the universe at large from a cosmic nihilistic perspective is contradictory in that it slices reality down the middle, separating the Universe from Humanity, the Absurd vs the Meaningful, the Scientific Image vs the Manifest Image (Sellars), in an entirely unnatural and non-existent dualism. It is a sexy nihilism, a nihilism for those who like to pretend to be all deep and angsty but don't have the balls to see their nihilism all the way through, a nihilism that people actually enjoy aligning with cause it makes them look suave and rebellious.

Another ball of rock! WOW!
Actual nihilism  consistency is to recognize that you cannot simultaneously accuse God of being malignant for allowing harm yet accept or even praise those who have the intra-worldly omnipotent power to control harm but fail to do so (namely, biological parents), nor accept that if the world is so bent out of shape as to warrant disbelief in a benevolent God it is reasonable to still continue to see the world and its various processes (including evolutionary natural selection) as good. Such is the shallow philosophy of popular science.

Humans are addicted to all things new: call this neophilia. First it was fire. Then it was agriculture and husbandry. Then came a sequence of metallurgical evolutions. Then came the neighbor's wife. Then came new continents and people (to subjugate). And now we come to space, the final frontier for exploration and all things new. 

At first, the exploration of space was out of political necessity but advertised as pure scientific curiosity. Then the curiosity took full control. But it was always motivated by some kind of need - we need more space, we need more resources, etc. Had Earth provided everything we needed, including stimulating experiences, we wouldn't need to escape the boring dullness in search of the novel.

But what awaits us out there in space? If space is indeed so harsh and extreme, why do we feel this entitlement to navigate it? And why do we think anything will be any different half a light-year away? We'll still have to pay taxes, attend to our needs, and die. And don't forget about the monotonous nature of the universe:

Look, it's another planet! Just as round as the last thousand! Look, it's another star! Just as bright as those before! Look, it's another fucking asteroid, another fucking solar system, another fucking nebula! Woooo, a giant cloud of toxic gas, how incredibly amazing and inspiring! An INFINITE expanse of repetition and unoriginality! Incredible! Excelsior!

The whole popular stellar-exploratory rhetoric depends upon some vague notion that we'll find something worth something out there in space. But what if we don't? What if all we find is dust and rocks? What if exploration confirms our underlying suspicion: that there isn't anything remotely or inherently special or impressive about the universe at large, but just an infinite expanse of combinations and configurations? That the universe is unfathomably wide yet nauseatingly shallow, a real-life No Man's Sky?

Now, I'll admit, if I had the chance to go to the Moon or to Mars or whatever I would probably take it. These places are different, new, and interesting. But after a while I would probably get really fucking bored with it all. You can only twist reality so much until you have to just accept the fact that, yeah, Mars is a big ball of rock and Jupiter is a big ball of gas and the Sun is a big ball of unimaginably hot plasma. And then it's on to the next big thing of intrigue. All that money, all that time, all that effort, just to see a bunch of balls of different stuff.

No, it's not necessarily the end-goal that makes the process of exploration "important", it's the process itself of exploration that gives it its appeal. To build engineering marvels, cross millions of miles of space, etc. It's the anticipation of impressiveness that makes exploration seductive.

If we do happen to find something rather interesting (a unique configuration of atoms), we can be pretty damn sure that sooner or later the bureaucracy is going to catch up with the explorers and find a way to monetize whatever it is. First comes curiosity of the unknown, then comes the commodification of it.

The whole point of exploration is to escape what is currently the case. To get the fuck out of there and find some better situation. The hope for a pleasant future in a far-off land is inevitably crushed by the bullshit from behind being dragged along. Let's not spread that to other places, hmm?

Almost all of the universe is toxic to organic life. Shouldn't this tell us something? Like maybe we aren't meant to go beyond Earth? That the universe is not meant to house creatures like us? We habitually call the rest of the universe strange, but what if it is us who are the strange ones, the ones that don't belong?

What the fuck is so important as to warrant us to spread the human race to its maximum flexibility?

Civilization may thrive but only at the expense of its constituents.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Existential literalist axiology

Say Jane develops a brain tumor that cannot be removed and causes her to experience unrelenting physical pain. She cannot live a productive life and must stay in bed for the rest of her life. Most people, it seems, would say that Jane would be "better off dead," and that her escape from her pain would be a good thing despite her no longer existing.

But can Jane really be better off not-existing? Does this actually make any coherent sense?

I don't think it does, and I believe this does not have as much of an impact on our axiological judgments than it seems to commonly be said, and in fact leads us to a more well-founded axiology. Strict literalism is not as problematic as it may seem.

So say we pull the plug, and Jane dies. One month later we learn that the data surrounding Jane's condition was accidentally messed up with an actually terminally ill patient, and that had Jane gotten a surgery on her brain, she could have recovered in less than a week and led a productive and relatively comfortable life.

Suddenly it doesn't look like Jane was actually better off dead. She missed out on a potentially nice future: in Jane's case, it was between non-existence and a relatively enjoyable existence. Surely a personally-enjoyable existence would be better than not existing at all?

What we have here, then, is an inconsistency - non-existence becomes the better option so long as no "good" future in which one exists is possible. But as soon as this does become possible, the value "switches" to favoring existence, because someone actually exists.

To put it another way: Jane exists and is in great pain. We have two options: mercy kill her, or help her recover. Both outcomes result in Jane not experiencing any pain, but clearly they are not morally equivalent. We would not mercy kill someone if there is a chance they could get better and continue existing.

The reason for the difference here seems to me to be the existential condition of Jane. Had Jane not existed, she could not be in a better state, because she would have existed (however it can still be better for Jane to continue existing, because she would exist).

The apparent trouble arises when we wonder what we should do if Jane had no other options between a life of misery and non-existence. If we can't apply a "better" value to the non-existence of Jane, then what justifies the intuitive belief that Jane ought to no longer exist, for her own sake?

Existential literalism has not sunk quite yet, though. Instead of focusing on "better" or "worse" relationships in these sorts of conditions, we ought to focus on "worthiness" values. Such worthiness conditions will inherently depend on a positive existential condition of the subject. Is Jane's life of continual misery "worth" continuing? No, because the future she has in store has little to no redeeming qualities. Would Jane be "better off" dead? No, because she wouldn't exist. But this, I claim, has no relevance here: we should focus on getting Jane into a better situation and out of a worse situation, and if we cannot accomplish the former then the latter changes from getting out of a worse situation to eliminating situations entirely.

It's a difficult idea to explain, so reiterate it another way: we should not be focusing on removing the bad because its absence would be good, but rather, we should be focusing on removing the bad because it is bad. The act of removing the bad is good right. Bad is not just the absence of good or some second-rate value of sorts, it is a positively negative value.

And this works well with the scenario described above, in which we can either mercy kill Jane or help her recover. We should focus on removing the bad and adding the good, which explains why we shouldn't mercy kill Jane; for although we would be removing the bad, we would not be adding the good that we could be. That is not the best course of action, and it would be wrong to not take it (for additional reasons as well, of course).

Thus the existential literalist position holds value as wholly immanent in existence. Indeed it seems to be the case that looser axiologies are rather ad hoc: we don't kill terminally-ill people because they would be in a better state, but because they don't have a life worth living. It is not until the person has died that people start coping by saying "they're in a better place now" (as if the person is now in some peaceful, happy slumber or playing basketball with Jesus), because the reality is that they are not in a better place, they aren't even anyone anymore. Which makes scenarios like these that much more tragic, because there is no happily-ever-after conclusion. Jane either lives a life of horrible pain, or doesn't live at all. That doesn't look like a good scenario to me.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Does suffering matter or do people matter?

Been thinking about this a lot recently. I'm not sure if this is just a confusion of words or a legitimate metaphysical problem.

Typically a utilitarian (or anyone for that matter) would argue that suffering is important. But perhaps we ask him why suffering is important. And they respond that suffering is important because people are important, i.e. suffering is bad for someone.

Say we ask him what makes people important. He would respond by saying people matter because they can suffer.

But this has gone full circle: suffering matters because people matter, and people matter because suffering matters.

So which comes first, people or suffering? When we talk of suffering, we are referring to a negative valenced emotional state of a sentient organism, or a kind of condition of an organism.

But surely someone would be a bit insulted if they were told that it is not them that is being valued but the experience itself that is being valued, as if suffering has been abstracted from the experiencer. But the only reason I can see as to why the experiencer themselves would be important is because they can suffer. It's the same circle.

Perhaps a way out would be to identify persons with their experiences in a bundle theory of sorts. So when we say we find suffering important, it means that we find a negative valenced experience, necessarily paired to a self-model, to be important. Like they cannot be separated, a person just is their emotional vista. Suffering is always suffering of a person; it is their suffering. Thus the feeling of ownership of a negative experience is bad.

Give me your thoughts.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Antinatalism has a serious PR problem

I can't be the only one who thinks this. Antinatalism, regardless of its validity, has a serious public relations problem.

Those select few professional philosophers who advocate antinatalism (or similar positions) are not (to my knowledge) actively involved in spreading the view to the wider public. What is argued for in professional philosophy is not always easily digestible by the public; indeed it is true that common-sense morality is often in conflict with the more exclusive and refined morality of professional philosophers. What makes sense to the average person may be utterly baseless philosophically. (And so professional philosophers, for the most part, tend to constrain their base of operations to the philosophical community. This is a criticism of philosophy as a whole, not just ethics.)

But there's a relatively small "community" (if you could even call it that) on the internet that advocates antinatalism (myself being a part, albeit a lesser known one). And while the points being made by those advocating antinatalism may be valid and important, the manner in which it is presented to the audience is usually less than appropriate.

By "less than appropriate", I mean to say that generally internet antinatalism is expressed more than it is communicated. This cannot, I think, be reasonably denied if one spends enough time perusing the community. A vast majority of antinatalists are focused on expressing their personal distaste with life, or how much they hate their parents, or how much they wish they could die or blow up the planet or kill all the "breeders". In other words, it is a depressive circlejerk.

Then there are those who focus too much on comparing dick sizes than doing actual philosophy. I have run into a few of them myself, unfortunately. It's always sad to realize that am associated with some of these people simply because we hold similar ethical views.

Previously I had said how I wished to become part of the YouTube antinatalist community. I'm not entirely sure if I want to. There is no unity there, no common ground, no rules for basic conduct. It's an every-man-for-himself, an "you're either with me or you're against me" gish gallop. I am not simply complaining about the atmosphere not being to my own personal tastes. I am concerned that this sort of toxicity is fundamentally getting in the way of progress, and that those on the fence about antinatalism may be put off (more like scared off) by this toxicity.

It is fine to express one's emotions. I do it myself on this blog. But the point I wish to argue here is that antinatalism, if it is ever going to catch on, must move beyond the aesthetic nature of suffering and into the ethical nature of suffering. Emotionally-charged outbursts and cliche narratives are not the basis of a sound ethical argument.

Perhaps one could argue that the time for respect is over. That parents don't deserve to be respected. Or that it is perfectly justifiable to call the opposition a bunch of selfish cunts, scum of the earth, and that it is perfectly okay to act like a child over the internet. Or that it's not our jobs to cater to the stupidity of the masses.

But this is exactly what expressing antinatalism is. Those who call parents selfish cunts, or make thousands of videos on the horrible, terrible reality of life, etc are fundamentally not concerned with actually spreading antinatalism. All that matters to them is that they get their daily release. YouTube in particular is a cathartic echo chamber. Those who practice this are primarily concerned with the aesthetic nature of suffering, not the ethical nature of suffering. It's "enough" to just rant about suffering.

If merely holding a belief was all that mattered, then the world probably would be a lot better than it actually is. Unfortunately, this is not how the world works. Belief is not all that is needed for change, and if you never put your belief into practice then it won't be surprising when you realize that you have so much to rant about. Ranting and raving about the same stuff becomes a habit.

To reiterate, if you believe that the presentation of antinatalism doesn't matter, then you are fundamentally not concerned with actually communicating (and implementing) antinatalism, but rather are focused on expressing antinatalism. This disconnect is precisely what I claim to be the biggest challenge facing the future of antinatalism. Antinatalism will never take off if we all keep acting so goddamn immature.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Imposing harm vs exposing to harm - epistemic and libertarian standards

Here I will argue that there is no reasonable difference between imposing harm on someone and exposing someone to (significant) harm, and that this equivalency helps reinforce a liberty-based argument for antinatalism.

It is a less-common argument from the natalist side: parents aren't imposing harm so much as they are exposing their children to harm. Thus the blame is not on the parents but on the environment. The parents merely put children in a situation that is dangerous.

However, exposing someone to harm (henceforth "exposition") becomes identical to imposing harm on someone (henceforth "imposing") when neither an epistemic standard and a libertarian standard are met.

For say a medieval king calls upon his vassals to wage war against his nemesis. His vassals, in turn, enlist men (against their will - conscription) to fight in the army. The men go to war and many are horribly injured or die. But the king manages to overthrow his enemy. The act of conscription and the subsequent loss of human welfare is post hoc justified as merely an exposition of harm, not an imposition of harm, and that the victory over the enemy justifies the loss of welfare.

Clearly this is bullshit. The king obviously imposed harm upon his men. They did not consent to becoming soldiers (they were conscripted), and the king knew that many of these men would be injured or killed. The king did not merely expose his army to the enemy, he forced his men to be exposed to the enemy.

And that is the difference between imposition and exposition of harm. An exposition of harm becomes identical to an imposition of harm when:
  1. The dangers are reasonably high to warrant consent (the epistemic standard)
  2. No consent was given (the libertarian standard)
It might be objected that the epistemic standard has no role here, and that it is only the libertarian standard that is important. I would argue that this places a wholly unreasonable constraint on our actions. Did I ask you if I could tap you on the shoulder in order to ask for your consent? Did I ask for consent when I jokingly tossed a baseball at you? Do I violate some universal principle when I ask someone out on a date? It doesn't seem so. What seems to be the case is that it is permissible to break the libertarian standard if the epistemic standard is met: if I can reasonably believe that you will not mind something happening to you, then the road is clear. To assume otherwise is to place more value on a principle rather than welfare.

But I would also add a caveat: don't break the libertarian standard unless you have a good reason to. Permissibility only exists when there is reason to break a standard. As risk goes up, so does the requirement for consent. Thus the epistemic standard is actually more like a predictive libertarian standard - meeting the epistemic standard means that we can be reasonably certain that, had we asked for the other person's consent, they would have given it.

If we apply this reasoning to the phenomenon of birth, we get the result that, depending on the empirical reality of life, birth may be an imposition or exposition of harm. This coincides with my belief that many an argument is twofold: formal and material. The material argument (or the empirical observations) is what satisfies (or fails to satisfy) the formal argument. And this applies to ethics. 

So we have the epistemic and libertarian standard (the formal argument, or the premises), which are then applied to the empirical reality of life. Thus we come to the conclusion that all lives inevitably have strong, defining negative features, features that we can reasonably assume any rational person would not wish to experience. These defining features are structural and/or too severe to ignore as trivial. Therefore, the epistemic standard has not been met: we cannot be reasonably sure a potential future person will want to experience life in all its ups and especially its downs, and therefore we must appeal to the libertarian standard. But in fact, a potential person does not exist, so no consent can be given. And therefore the conclusion is that one should not break this libertarian principle, and abstain from having children.

Thus, the parents of the child with cancer are responsible for this child's unfortunate condition. For obviously the child would rather not have cancer. And we might imagine an ideal possible person, who exists before birth, and who would not have any of the various attachments to life a living person does, apart from the basic desires for pleasure and avoidance of pain, and it seems to me that, if asked, this ideal possible person would not consent to having cancer.

But in any case, the child need not wish to die or wish they had never been born at all for the parents to realize that it is fundamentally their fault that their child has cancer in the first place, and that their child's supposed happiness (which, in these sorts of situations, tends to be more of a coping mechanism than true happiness) is not a justification for the violation of consent at the moment of conception.

The test for the epistemic standard is thus whether we can imagine ourselves feeling sorry for the other person, or if we can imagine the other person wishing something had not happened. And regardless of what the outcome actually ends up being (luck is not reasonable), this standard is what we must oblige by. If something could be sufficiently harmful to someone, then we must have consent. In the absence of consent, we must abstain.

But perhaps it could be argued that the pleasures of life have a cancelling role in our calculus. For birth brings not only pains but also pleasures, and so it could be argued that the pleasures could be sufficiently greater than the pains of life to make birth permissible, or perhaps even recommended.

The denial of this point, at least to me, is theoretically problematic. It establishes what I see to be problematic in (non-consequentialist, typically) ethical discourse: the need to outlaw certain actions in all cases. Thus is it often argued that murder just is wrong, or that eating meat just is wrong, or even that birth just is wrong, and that it is universally wrong to do these actions across the board.

It is important, I think, that we recognize that strict, rigid codes are inflexible and prone to disassembly. It is a fact that we murder other people (war, death penalty, etc) and that we eat meat (when we are starving, for example). The morality of this could also be debated, but it stands that in the everyday, we often simultaneously condemn an action while also making an exception.

It is also important to note that although we can conceive of a possible world that grants its inhabitants sufficient pleasures as to compensate for the pains, we do not live in such a world. This is what makes the negative structure of life such an important part of the antinatalist argument. Without the negative structure, any old schmook could easily argue "nuh-uh" and claim that life is perfect and that the pleasures outweight the pains by a marathon and a half. Thus, it is the formal argument that sets the stage (so to speak), while it is the material argument (the negative structure of life) that provides the force of the antinatalist argument.