Friday, December 23, 2016

On the rationality of preventative, insurance-based suicide

"Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance."  Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre

Typically addiction is used to describe things like drug abuse or media consumption. But should addiction be applied to life continuation as a whole? In order to do so, there has to be some reason why life continuation would be an overall bad for a person's well-being.

Take this example:

  1. Steven needs milk from the store.
  2. Steven drives to the store.
  3. On the way, a drunk driver collides with Steven's car, and a piece of metal impales Steven.
  4. Steven dies in agony.

Biological persistence can be an overall detriment to a person's well-being. Take the example above. Is getting milk from the store worth potentially getting impaled? Had Steven not gotten the milk, he wouldn't have been impaled. But what would have made Steven not need the milk? Perhaps Steven could be a vegan. Or perhaps Steven has a change in appetite. Or perhaps Steven could have killed himself and thus not had any more desires that expose him to the dangers of the world.

But Steven's story is hypothetical, right? A quick Google search leads me to believe that automobile-related impalements are not the work of an imaginative brain.

Another Google search brings up the random statistic that 0.0164% of scuba divers die. The primary cause of death is suffocation, usually by insufficient gas or getting entangled. It seems to be a combination of inexperience, as well as pure bad luck. What is important to note is that every single one of those part of the 0.0164% statistic didn't expect to drown that day. huh.

I have a personal story as well. Since 2013, there have been 207 public school shootings in the United States. I went through a school shooting at my high school during this time frame that resulted in the death of an innocent student and the death of the perpetrator by a self-inflicted gun shot wound to the head. I remember thinking during the shooting how surreal it all was. I never would have expected it to happen to my high school - it's always the other schools that get shot up. As of today I have recovered from the experience, but I would never, ever voluntarily go through that traumatic experience ever again. Ever. 

People like to think that these sorts of things make you stronger, and indeed they do, for those who survive and aren't crippled. Yes, it was the will of the almighty cosmos that I went through something like this, because, in the end, it made me stronger. What a crock of bullshit. 

Nietzsche was incorrect. What doesn't kill you has a possibility of severely damaging you and making you wish it had finished you off.

Life: an accident waiting to happen
My conclusion from all this is that life continuation is one hell of a risk. Not only do we have statistics for horrible tragedies, but what is arguably worse is that we don't have statistics for many other things. Every time you walk out of your door, you are exposing yourself to danger. Cognitive inadequacy limits our appreciation of this fact. Why is it that danger has to be practically right in front of us in order for us to register it? Because long-term risk management is not conducive to reproduction.

How ironic it is that the greatest pleasures in life come at such a steep risk.

If we were truly rational creatures, we would realize that our unconscious will-to-live is analogous to being dragged across a cheese grater. It is manipulative in that it exposes us to dangers and harms that we otherwise would not choose to expose ourselves to. Epicureans are kidding themselves; we don't continue life for its pleasures, we continue life because we have no other realistic alternative. We are not in control. 

Tolstoy hit the nail on the head when he articulated four categories of human existence:
  1. Those who are blind to the human predicament (the ignorant fools)
  2. Those who understand the human predicament but see pleasure as a reason to continue (the Epicureans)
  3. Those who understand that human predicament but also understand that pleasure cannot be a true reason to live but continue to live anyway (the weak)
  4. Those who understand everything the weak do, but have the guts to kill themselves (the strong)
Why is it that people will voluntarily insure themselves against catastrophes that may not ever happen, but don't insure themselves against the catastrophes that cannot be covered by money? The cognitive bias of "that will never happen to me" effectively keeps people from questioning their own behavior. If it can't be fixed or prevented, just don't think about it. It is short-sighted and biased reasoning, meant not to service our welfare but to make sure we don't question our own fate.

This is tough to swallow. It's easy to get wrapped up in the moment and forget about the contingent nature of well-being. All of these possibilities are legitimate threats - but why worry about them? There's nothing you can do - except there actually is, it's just that practically nobody wants to consider it. Suicide as a preventative measure is a perfectly rational and reasonable response to the threats exposure to the world brings. In fact it seems like it's the only option with a 100% guarantee of effectiveness.

But nobody, including myself, can actually consider suicide as a rational decision if we're not currently suffering tremendously. In existentialist terms, humans are capable of transcendence - we are able to look beyond the immanent and see things how they could be. But we are nevertheless still immanent, and so the dynamic between transcendence and immanence emerges, with transcendence pushing forward and immanence pulling back. In the case of the rationality of suicide, we can transcend beyond our immediate experience and see how many risks and threats there are in the future, but are pulled back to immanence by the instinctual, irrational urge to persist.

Bet this guy wished he'd died earlier...
There's more. I will not deny that pleasure is intrinsically good for people. But neither will I deny that pain is intrinsically bad for people. So when the cost of pleasure gets too high, or when the stakes accompanying existence are unreasonable, pleasure becomes a good-turned-bad. Just as we may feel pain while climbing a mountain (a bad-turned-good), the pleasure we feel as we systematically expose ourselves to a greater amount of harm cannot actually be truly good for us. That is when pleasure becomes manipulative and addictive. The fact that it is difficult to see the sorts of things we typically enjoy doing as goods-turned-bad is a consequence of them being addictions. Recall the analogy of the cheese grater. Pleasure are goods-turned-bad because the strength of the desire for pleasure is not matched by the actual content. On the other hand, we have a disturbingly small fear of pains are are unimaginably bad.

The environment we live in that seduces us into continued existence can only be see as a web of toxicity. We live in a society that essentially indoctrinates us into continued existence. We do not act in our best interests by continuing existing. (EDIT: nor do we usually act in our best interests when we attempt suicide without a sufficient and present harm either, as we will force ourselves to experience much trauma with no success. In other words, we are incapable of acting in our best interests by killing ourselves because our own instincts won't let us kill ourselves. It is no use attempting to fight instincts as powerful as these. Thus life-continuation is irrational and yet attempting to quit life cold-turkey is also irrational.).

Some people might find my words dangerous. Am I actually recommending people kill themselves? Perhaps. What I am not advocating is the blind and instinctual journey through a strange world filled with risks, threats, and uncompensated pain.

What should we do, then? If we live in a world of threats of significant harm that cannot be compensated by any pleasure (terminal pain), is it possible to have a reason to live?

I would argue that there can be only one genuine reason to live: ethics. Ethics is not about self-interest. It's not about maximizing your own welfare. It's about treating others well, caring for their well-being. The life of a person dedicated to an ethical cause is one of altruism and selflessness. Some people might accuse those people of tooting their own horn, but given what I have already articulated, there is no rational reason to live that doesn't ignore certain aspects of life. Those who follow the ethical path of life are those who are not living for themselves (as this is irrational given what we know of the human predicament), but are living for the sake of others. The concept of a Buddhist bodhisattva comes to mind. The bodhisattva has achieved nirvana but sticks around anyway to help everyone else achieve nirvana. Similarly, the enlightened ethicist knows that continued existence is a net harm (or at least an irrational risk), but sticks around anyway to maximize their utility to others. Suicide may be the rational option, but ethics isn't about what's best for you personally. It's about something greater than yourself. 

And perhaps the "heroism" involved in selfless ethical life can be enough to keep the self-esteem of those committed to it high enough so they can continue to actually be productive.

What the enlightened ethicist also realizes are their own needs. So long as they are alive, they must tend to their own needs. Thus, nothing really changes all that much in terms of self-interested behavior, except that the self-interested behavior is not the purpose of life but rather a necessary requirement in order to maintain a maximally ethical life.

I will not pretend that I came up with all this by myself. I am heavily indebted to Buddhist ethics, the Argentine philosopher Julio Cabrera and his excellent book on "negative hyper-ethics", as well as Leo Tolstoy's A Confession, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race by Thomas Ligotti, and Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea. I highly recommend checking these resources out. However, the synthesis of these works are of my own efforts.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Interventionist Policies Regarding Wild Animal Suffering: Philosophy, Science, and Pragmatics

I wrote this essay for a required composition class at university around a month or so back. Now that the semester has ended I have decided to upload the essay in pdf form. If, for some reason, this is somehow interpreted by my university administration as a form of plagiarism or academic dishonesty, I encourage the admins to compare the date of publishing with the date the assignment was originally due. I am also happy to confirm my identity to those who are skeptical of my authenticity, as I have deleted my personal information from the title page.

As the title suggests, the paper focuses on the ontology of wild animal suffering and the ethical implications it brings with it.

The link to the essay can be found here:

Please tell me if you have trouble accessing the essay.

(And for those who are curious: I received a 90% on this).

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Antinatalism and relationships, appreciation

When I think of friendship and love, or relationships in general, I see them as social ties between separate parties. A key element, it seems to me, in "genuine" or "authentic" relationships would be the mutual appreciation of the other person's existence. The small group of friends I have in real life are all pleasant people to be around; they are generally nice, helpful, and funny. I enjoy spending time with them and deep down I would say that I am glad that they are alive. I don't just like them because they make me laugh but because I like who they are as people.

But I am also an antinatalist. Which means that I don't look to highly on the phenomenon of birth.

Depending on what kind of antinatalist I am, then, will significantly alter how I can view relationships in general.

For, let's say I believe that everyone would be better off never have existing, as the South African philosopher David Benatar and other comparative value antinatalists believe. This would seem to lead to a problem with relationships: on one hand, you enjoy the company of others and are glad they are alive, yet on the other hand you simultaneously believe it would have been better for them had they never existed. There seems to be a tension here. You cannot ethically believe that it would be better for your friend had they never existed, but simultaneously be glad that they are alive to be your friend; as that would lead to the conclusion that you value their company in an instrumental and malicious way, since you would rather them exist to be your friend rather than the comparatively-better alternative of never existing at all. It seems difficult to appreciate someone's existence while simultaneously believing it would have been better for them had they never existed at all.

Perhaps relationships are purely instrumental in nature. Perhaps the idea of altruistic and genuine relationships is an illusion and that therefore there is no tension involved. People are pieces of shit and we shouldn't be surprised when we pretend to appreciate others' existences while really all we are doing is using them for our own benefit.

But this cynical perspective strikes me as wrong. I do not (usually) see my relationships are purely instrumental. Ethical egoism, to me, is sort of analogous to a crowbar being used on a locked door. It's shoved in there and forces the door open. Similarly, benevolent and altruistic acts are psychoanalyzed and egoism is shoe-horned into the scene. In any case, it seems like a minor point, and undermines attempts at altruistic ethics (like antinatalism) as well.

If existence was good for someone, then being glad that this person is alive would be perfectly fine: you would desire "Good" to settle itself in this person. But if existence is always bad for someone (as long as there is at least a single bad experience), then being glad that this person is alive would be quite malicious. We see this obviously in cases when people try to convince others not to kill themselves, not for the suicidal persons' benefit but for their own benefit. They want this person to stick around despite their own suffering. Clearly instrumentality. The suicidal person becomes an object to be hoarded.

Perhaps it might be argued that, although it would be better for this person had they never existed, the fact is that they now exist and thus the circumstances have changed. Essentially this leads to the conclusion that it is better never to have been, but as soon as you come into existence it is (usually) now better for you to continue to exist. Presumably this is because we have a desire to continue to exist, as I believe David Benatar argues. This, I think, has an assortment of problems, but most notably the issue that the desire to continue to exist effectively becomes irrational and based upon fear.

This may be true. But it also means that we cannot actually see the continuation of life as good for this person, as comparative value theorists may wish to do. We already make evaluations for other people all the time. We can already know that it would be best for a person to get immunization shots instead of no shots at all, despite what they personally believe. We can already know that it would be better for a girl to get out of an abusive relationship, even if she doesn't realize how abusive it is. The fact is that not everyone knows what is best for them. And if it would have been best for someone to never exist, then it would seem to follow that it would be best for this person to discontinue existing, even if they themselves don't want to discontinue existence.

The key here is what I see to be fairly self-evident: if something is worth starting for someone, then it itself or its consequences are worth continuing for this same person. And if something is not worth starting, then it's not worth continuing either. All of this is ceteris paribus; there are, of course, some things that are (not) worth continuing in virtue of external, independent reasons. But I am referring to the worthiness of something in-itself, not its instrumental value or relationships to other concepts. Perhaps comparative value theorists will argue that the complicated mass of relations in daily life effectively makes suicide a difficult and unwise decision, something that we shouldn't do if we still have economic investments and relationships. But, again, this is appealing to external obligations, not worthiness in-itself.

The consequences of accepting comparative value antinatalism results in the instrumental use of other people in relationships. An even better example than friendship is that of love. In love affairs, people love who each other are on a deeply personal level. And, obviously, in order to be x, one must come from not-x; one must be created in order to exist in the world of material, concrete entities. It seems hard to love something and yet simultaneously wish it had never been created, for its own benefit. The same thing applies to great works, like those of a philosopher. Comparative value theorists have a difficult time avoiding instrumentality here as well: it would have been better for this philosopher had she never existed, but it sure is nice that she did actually exist, considering what she produced!

Now, there are alternative routes to antinatalism. I myself place most of the argument on concepts of liberty and risk, but also empirical facts about life. In my case, the product of a wrong decision can nevertheless be good. The Holocaust was a horrible tragedy, but produced great works of art, literature and philosophy. It does not follow that just because the Holocaust was a horrible tragedy means that I cannot appreciate the products of the Holocaust.

What I cannot do is see these pieces of art and whatnot as retroactively justifying the Holocaust. This would be, once again, an instance of instrumentality.

If this looks suspiciously similar to the position comparative-value antinatalists have, it's because it is. The difference, however, is that comparative-value theorists are attempting to apply value to two different, contradictory things at the same time (the pleasures of life cannot justify the beginning of life [birth] but can somehow justify the continuation of life), while a rights-based, immanent-value antinatalism like my own attempts no such thing. Rather, it applies value solely to those things that exist (or will exist), and understands birth to be an unwarranted violation of consent; birth is wrong because the consequences might be overall bad for someone.

To restate this point: it's not that birth is wrong because the alternative (non-existence) is better, but because the consequences of birth might be unreasonably bad (immanent, dual value). While comparative-value theorists end up bundling everyone together in the same schema, my version of antinatalism can recognize that existence might actually be a benefit for some people, but that this potential benefit does not justify the risk involving incredible harm to a person.

Risk-based, value-immanent antinatalism can successfully appreciate the various benefits of life without condoning the act of life-creation, and without falling into unethical instrumentality of other people. It is a more-metaphysically conservative (but just as ethically demanding) antinatalism that can recognize that some people may have lives worth living (and starting) but nevertheless demands that we also recognize the very real fact that many people have lives that are not worth starting or continuing.