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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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)
- 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).
- 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.