Tuesday, May 17, 2016

A further exposition of Cabrera's criticism of Benatar's asymmetry

I found some time to make a few diagrams that I believe accurately shows Benatar's misuse of counterfactuals in his asymmetry, as argued by Cabrera (see last post). I believe this is a very important issue that people with reservations against birth need to address, because Benatar is seen as like the Jesus of antinatalism, but a flawed argument is a flawed argument regardless. So, let us begin.

First, we have Benatar's asymmetry, here:

 Notice the addition of the arrow and comment - for whom is the absence of pain good? This is the crux of Cabrera's criticism of the asymmetry. This fatal flaw can be further shown here:
 Quite intuitively, the absence of pleasure in non-existence does not seem to be a bad thing. This is why the arrow and comment referring to the absence of pleasure (bad for whom) is obvious. The absence of pleasure cannot be a bad thing - there is nobody there to experience the lack of pleasure.

However, the absence of pain has the same arrow and comment - but if the absence of pleasure is not-bad, then how can the absence of pain be good? For whom is it good?

This is further shown by the next diagram, in which the stick-figure faces represent the use of counterfactuals (if we had a child, then the child would experience x):
 Finally, we have the revision we need, which shows both the absence of pleasure being not bad and the absence of pain being not good; in other words, non-existence is neutral, and only better in comparison to an existence filled with pain (bad). Non-existence by itself is neither good nor bad, it requires a comparison to actual existence to have any value.
As said in the picture above, Cabrera identifies another failure in Benatar's asymmetry. If fundamentally relies upon a negative evaluation of life. And perhaps this is why it was so successful to begin with - perhaps our lives really are pretty shitty.

But can you imagine Benatar creating his asymmetry in a land of sugar and spice and everything nice, where practically no pain existed and death was not a thing? I find it hard to believe that he would have an issue with childbirth in this alternate, possible world. The asymmetry quite literally would not apply, for the pleasure experienced in life would outweigh the pain avoided by remaining in non-existence. This shows that Benatar relies on the apparent fact that the world is quite nasty - and he spends a large portion of his book describing how horrible our lives are. If his asymmetry could stand independently of itself (which Benatar argues it can), he shouldn't have felt the need to include this pessimistic worldview.

As it happens, however, his pessimistic worldview is quite accurate. Since there is nothing wrong (nor good) in staying in non-existence, and because life has at least the potential of being quite unfortunate, it stands that we must abstain from birth. Nothing will be lost if we do so, and what pleasure is inevitably avoided is far less than the amount of pain avoided.

So, it seems that the lack of pleasure being not-bad in regards to non-existence stems from our emphasis on pain: it is not that it is not-bad that pleasure (and an entity to feel it) is non-existent, but rather that pleasure inevitably brings along with it great pains. The asymmetry is not in regards to non-existence and existence, but within existence itself - there is an asymmetrical relationship between the pleasure of existence and the pains of existence. There are far more pains than there are pleasures, and pleasure without pain seems impossible while pain without pleasure is possible and in fact rather common.

However, without the existence/non-existence asymmetry, any appeal to antinatalism based on a evaluation of life's values is inevitably subjective. This is why I believe Benatar created his asymmetry - it would function as a global heuristic, applied to every single life on the planet. In other words, Benatar knew that the human race could not be trusted to objectively rule existence in a negative light. Antinatalist would require an analytic heuristic to get it off the ground - and it seems to have done its purpose somewhat, even if it is ultimately flawed.

Monday, May 9, 2016

An Abuse of Counterfactuals: Julio Cabrera's Criticism of Benatar's Asymmetry

I was recently directed by an individual elsewhere on the internet to (a philosophical paper written by Julio Cabrera), which aims to criticize the antinatalistic asymmetry of David Benatar.

At first, I was a bit skeptical, because there have been numerous attempts to attack Benatar's asymmetry, and all of them have failed miserably (even if we're charitable). But to my surprise, I found this paper to be extremely compelling, and I realized that many of the points that Cabrera brought up had been subconsciously mulling around in the back of my mind but I hadn't been able to piece the problems together in the way that Cabrera has done. It truly is unfortunate that non-English-speaking philosophers tend to be passed over, as Cabrera is, in my opinion, a top-notch, original thinker.

There are many points that Cabrera brings up. The most striking and important is that he claims that there is no asymmetry at all.

A refresh of Benatar's argument: pleasure for the existing is good, pain for the existing is bad, absence of pleasure for the non-existent is not-bad, and absence of pain for the non-existent is good. Therefore, it is claimed, birth is always a harm.

Cabrera finds fault, though, in Benatar's apparent use (or abuse) of counterfactuals (if...then). Benatar applies the counterfactual to the potential, non-existent person in the case of the absence of pain, but in the absence of pleasure, he does not apply the counterfactual. Instead, in the case of the absence of pleasure, he uses an "empty" placeholder for a potential, non-existent person.

It is this misuse of counterfactuals that makes Cabrera argue that there is actually no asymmetry at all, and that if Benatar is going to use counterfactuals for the absence of pain, he must use counterfactuals for the absence of pleasure as well. Therefore, the absence of pain is good, while the absence of pleasure is bad, and therefore, there is a symmetry instead of an asymmetry.  If the absence of pain is good, then the absence of pleasure must be bad. If the absence of pleasure is not-bad, then the absence of pain must be not-good.

There are other points brought up in the paper that are also interesting. It should be said, however, that the author himself is in fact an antinatalist and a rather extreme pessimist (re: negative ethics and the critique of affirmative ethics), who was operating under such a guise for around thirty years prior to the publication of Benatar's controversial book.


To my knowledge, Benatar has not responded to Cabrera's criticisms. I believe that Cabrera is entirely correct in his critique of the abuse of counterfactuals. The Benatarian asymmetry leads to absurd conclusions, in which even if the life of an individual could be envisioned and known to be "good" and "worth living", it would be immoral to conceive them because they might stub their toe. As a quick heuristic, the Benatarian asymmetry may be useful, but as a rigorous model I think it fails to hold.