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.

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