Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Benatarian Asymmetry



South African antinatalist philosopher David Benatar, author of Better Never to Have Been, asserts that coming into existence is always a harm because (a) suffering is an inevitable part of life,(b) a nonexistent person is not harmed by not having pleasures (c) there is no reason to bring a happy person into existence.   Therefore, whatever pleasures a  person may enjoy in life come at the price of experiencing pain.  From this, he concludes that the pain aspect of life is gratuitous.

He backs up this claim by asserting there exists an “asymmetry” between pleasure and pain. The differences in our value judgments toward pleasure and pain are sound only with regard to their presence – but not to their absence.  These judgments are based on the perspective of the person actually experiencing the pain or pleasure, as opposed to an outside observer making judgments for that person.  However, this is not relevant for the question “Is it good or bad to come into existence?”, for only the person experiencing the pleasure or pain can rightfully judge whether their own life is worth living.

The asymmetry argument has four premises, divided into two parts: symmetrical and asymmetrical.  

Before further discussion proceeds, it is important to say that masochism is not relevant here, for it is actually a form of pleasure, albeit it bears pain’s disguise.  Therefore, it is inappropriate to discuss it in the context of pain as used by Benatar.  With that said, here is the argument.

(1)    The presence of pain is bad 
(2)    The presence of pleasure is good

This is the symmetrical part of the argument, which is noncontroversial.  However, these value judgments apply only to their presence. It says nothing about their absence. 

Hence, we come to the second - the asymmetrical - part of Benatar’s argument, which implicitly addresses “What ifs” – counterfactuals (alternate scenarios) that could well have happened (or not), but did not (or did). Again, these judgments are based on the standpoint of the interests of the person in question.  

(3)    The absence of pain is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone 
(4)    The absence of pleasure is not bad unless there exists somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation
 
The asymmetrical part of the argument addresses at least two scenarios at the same time: “What if a person who does in fact exist did not exist?”  (in point 3) or vice versa (in point 4). [1]  The phrasing also implicitly addresses people who do in fact exist as well. In other words, (4) says the absence of pleasure is a bad thing only for people who do exist. Conversely, if nobody exists who can’t experience pleasure, then the absence of pleasure is not a bad thing.

Some object that it is nonsensical to say that the absence of pain is a good thing for nonexistent people, for nonexistent people cannot benefit from a good thing.  Benatar responds that (3) talks of counterfactual scenarios.  Also, an actual nonexistent person would have felt pain had they come into existence.  In the latter case, it is good that that person did not feel the pain; even if only because of their not coming into existence.


SUPPORT FOR THE ASYMMETRY

Benatar contends his asymmetry explains other asymmetries: 

*We have a duty to avoid bringing suffering people into existence but none to bring happy people into existence. We have no duty to bring children into existence if it either (a) unduly burdens us or (b) would clearly be bad for the child.  Otherwise, if having children involves no sacrifice on our part, why not simply have as many children as possible? In either case, we are not taking the interests of the child into account because we are not considering how their lives might turn out.

*A child’s potential interests are a reason not to have children, yet it makes no sense to say a child’s potential pleasures are a reason to have them.  The last part of the claim is discussed under the next point (Retrospective Judgments); the first part of the claim draws from the fact that children should not be brought into a harmful environment. Furthermore, there is no assurance the child would actually benefit from a living existence.

*Retrospective Judgments.  It is said “Hindsight is 20/20” (perfect vision, for non-American readers).  We can and do regret that a child was brought into a bad existence, because the child suffers from it.  On the other hand, if child who would have been happy is not brought into existence, the child cannot suffer from that lack of happiness simply because it cannot do so.  Therefore, we cannot regret failure to bring a happy child into existence for the child’s sake; we can only regret it for ourselves because we don’t enjoy the presence of that child.  

*Asymmetrical judgments about distant suffering and suffering in uninhabited parts of the earth (or universe for that matter).  For example, we may feel sorrow for people who suffer in distant lands, but we do not feel sorrow for (obviously non-existent) people who otherwise would have inhabited an uninhabited island, or even non-existent intelligent Martians.[2]  We regret suffering but not absent pleasures.

Positive utilitarians (those who believe utility increases happiness) would say “the more happy people, the better”.  However, Benatar counters with the famous distinction between making people happy and making happy people.  Positive utilitarians are consistent within their philosophy when they insist that we “make existing people happy”, but are not so if they insist on “making (i.e., creating) happy people”.  

The above counterclaim leads to many ethical difficulties.  Among these is assuming that people are made to enjoy happiness, which implies that happiness must (in the moral sense) exist for its own sake.  This overlooks the fact that happiness is merely a means to achieve a desired end. That end is contentment, not happiness for its own sake. After all, if no people exist, then happiness is not very useful.  Thus, happiness is less important than people themselves.   If we assume happiness to be more important than people, then people are merely bottles with which to fill with happiness, no matter how much pain they inevitably receive along with the happiness; as opposed to independent entities with their own will, opinions, and desires that deserve to be respected. 

Thus, Benatar show there is strong evidence supporting his asymmetry, namely due to its great explanatory power regarding other, less controversial, asymmetries.  
   
Point (4) is sound because If we assume the absence of pleasure is bad in and of itself, then we presuppose the following: (a) we are sorry for the nonexistent child’s sake, as opposed to our own, that it did not come into existence; which in turn presupposes (b) a non-existent child suffers from having no pleasures.  Point (b) clearly is not true, thereby undercutting the logic of (a).  In this case, it is difficult to see how the absence of pleasure in and of itself is bad.

In addition, there are other well-established notions suggesting that we have a duty to not commit harm, yet have no duty to do good to provide them with pleasures beyond what they need to survive.  For example, we have a duty to help desperately needy people but no duty to give them a lump sum of money equivalent to a twenty-year salary of a typical corporate employee.[3] In non-material matters, we also we have a duty to not rape people, yet we don’t have a duty to give them sex if they want it.  

SYMMETRICAL JUDGMENTS ABOUT THE ABSENCE OF PAIN AND PLEASURE 

Consider the same argument, but suppose the absence of pleasure (Point 4) is judged bad; which is symmetrical to “the absence of pain is good”.  In this case, we rewrite this point “The absence of pleasure is bad even when there is nobody around for whom this lack is a deprivation”.   Recall this deals with “good” and “bad” from the perspective of the person in question, not from our own perspective.  In this case, if nobody were around, then “nobody” could be deprived.  If there is no deprivation, then nothing bad happens.  To argue this is to imply that a nonexistent person suffers from not experiencing pleasure.  While it is true that we can regret a person’s nonexistence of those children, the regret is only on behalf of ourselves and not the said children.

Alternate judgments of Points 3 and 4 do no better.  In this case, we rewrite this as (3)“The absence of pain is not bad, even if the person does not exist” and (4) “the absence of pleasure is not good, even when there is nobody around for whom this lack is not good”.  Here, “not bad” does not mean “good”, nor does “not good” mean “bad”.  The lack of pleasure appears to be an almost neutral state for the nonexistent, for “not good” is not the same as “bad”.  By contrast Benatar states merely calling the absence of pain “not bad” is not informative enough, for it implies the lack of pain can be merely “not bad” understates how bad pain in and of itself is.[4] Therefore, the absence of pain is a good thing .  Even sticking “not good” onto the absence of pleasure will not work, for as Benatar says,  

If pain is bad and pleasure is good, but the absence of pain is good and the absence of pleasure is not good, there is no asymmetry between pleasure and pain

EXISTING VERSUS NEVER EXISTING

To claim that “good” is an advantage over “not bad” is to treat the non-existent and existent in the same way.  It also confuses relative bad with intrinsic, absolute bad. “Good” is better than “not bad” only if a person exists.  If the person does not exist, then is irrelevant if their don't experience “good”.  Indeed, the absent pleasure is simply “not bad”. This is because nonexistence cannot create the conditions necessary for a sense of deprivation (objective deprivation or not).  Hence, it makes more sense to focus on whether the pain intrinsic in living is a better state of affairs than the lack of pain intrinsic in nonexistence.




BIBLIOGRAPHY
Benatar, David: Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence.

NOTES
[1] Hypotheticals (i.e.“What ifs”) are a widely accepted form of reasoning because they are a crucial part of planning ahead and preparing for what is plausibly possible.  After all, failure to ponder about how your proposed actions may affect the future well-being of others is considered incompetent at best and criminally negligent at worst. For example, hypotheticals are crucially important in strategic planning by corporations and by governments (e.g, land use rezoning, disaster planning, changes in foreign policy, war, etc.).  The same goes for passing or repealing laws.  Therefore, dismissing a hypothetical simply because it is a hypothetical is to deny that different situations often lead to different results; clearly an absurd position to begin with.
[2] While there may still be some dispute as to whether Mars actually had life in any form shortly after its complete formation, conditions on Mars almost certainly were more conducive to creating and sustaining life then than they are now.  If Mars actually did have life, then the argument is even more relevant to the antinatalism issue, for we can now ask “Had intelligent Martians actually come into existence, would they really be better off living?”.  
[3] Even assuming one receives an enormous compensation package for reasons of being the victim of gross neglicence (e.g., faulty product, false arrest, etc), it is still realistically conceivable that the victim could say “No level of compensation is enough to truly make up for my suffering, for no amount of money can reverse the damage of those precious years.”
[4] Income levels (or in this case the lack thereof) illustrate the difference between “good”, “bad” and “not bad”. The typical middle class family would not consider their inability to afford a Beverly Hills mansion a bad thing; not a good thing, to be sure, but merely “not bad”.  By contrast, an impoverished person not earning income adequate to avoid late rent payments is not merely “not good”, it is “bad”.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hello, I have a question about antinatalism. If people are happy with their lives in general (I'm not entirely sure if this is true or not), why would it still be wrong to procreate if the benefits of life outweigh the suffering?

filrabat said...

Hi Anon,

The reason is that childbirth imposes their definition of "life worth living" onto another person, particularly because we cannot know whether that person will find life worth living by his or her own standards. Thus, having children is gambling with the well-being of another person (whether psychologically or, in the extreme cases of war zones and the like, physically).

Also, forcing one to play The Game of Life*, with all it's rules and playing conditions, is akin to forcing someone into a legally binding contract whose terms they profoundly disagree with.

*Not, or course, to be confused with the old Milton-Bradley board game.

Sagredo said...

"We have a duty to avoid bringing suffering people into existence but none to bring happy people into existence."

Benatar's asymmetry is rooted in his concept of "duty": that is, we have a duty to avoid bad consequences, but not to cause good consequences. To utilitarians, however, concepts such as "duty" and "necessity" aren't very meaningful: instead there are, symmetrically, good actions and bad actions.

"A child’s potential interests are a reason not to have children, yet it makes no sense to say a child’s potential pleasures are a reason to have them."

I don't see why not, I think it makes very good sense.

"We can and do regret that a child was brought into a bad existence, because the child suffers from it."

The symmetry here is, we can and do appreciate that a child was brought into a good existence, because the child enjoys it. The symmetry is between joy and suffering, not between presence and absence.

"For example, we may feel sorrow for people who suffer in distant lands, but we do not feel sorrow for (obviously non-existent) people..."

Again, the symmetry here is that we feel joy for people who enjoy in distant lands.

"However, Benatar counters with the famous distinction between making people happy and making happy people. Positive utilitarians are consistent within their philosophy when they insist that we “make existing people happy”, but are not so if they insist on “making (i.e., creating) happy people”."

Not so, utilitarians can construct it as follows:

1. It would be ethically neutral to create a person who neither enjoyed nor suffered, since only joy and suffering give utility.

2. It is good to add joy to an existing life.

3. Putting the two together, it is good to create a life full of joy.

filrabat said...

Benatar's asymmetry is rooted in his concept of "duty": that is, we have a duty to avoid bad consequences, but not to cause good consequences. To utilitarians, however, concepts such as "duty" and "necessity" aren't very meaningful: instead there are, symmetrically, good actions and bad actions.

That does not apply to Negative Utilitarianism, which at least permits a concept of duty and necessity, if not implies or mandates it. Even if we leave utilitarianism aside, there is still the fact that we do have moral obligations to others – starting with the most basic one: “pain is bad, even if it is sometimes unavoidable to accomplish a good”. From this follows the corollary “Do not cause pointless, unnecessary, and/or unavoidable harm to others”. Sure, we can argue about which harms are either pointless and/or unavoidable, but the basic principle remains the same. Even so, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to throw this principle aside without embracing moral nihilism.

San: I don't see why not, I think it makes very good sense.

How does it make sense to say a child’s potential pleasures are a reason to have them? What need is there for a nonexistent person to experience pleasures? Also, how will they suffer from not experiencing those pleasures? Last but not least, we cannot know whether the birthed person themselves will judge their own life as worth commencing, even if they merely tolerate life for the sake off their family and friends (to prevent their anguish from suicide). It’s not a matter of whether we think their lives are worth living – it’s a matter of whether they think their own lives are worth living (or even commencing).

San: The symmetry here is, we can and do appreciate that a child was brought into a good existence, because the child enjoys it. The symmetry is between joy and suffering, not between presence and absence.

Actually, the symmetry (such as it is) is about the presence and absence. Pleasure and pain are not two sides of the same coin, nor are they opposite ends of a sliding scale (like temperature is). They are separate entities (like temperature and precipitation, to continue the weather analogy). Any BSDM fan (or any other kind of masochist) will say they can experience pleasure and pain simultaneously. In fact, masochism would be impossible otherwise. Therefore, it’s hard to see how there can be a symmetry between joy and suffering.

As for the child with a happy life, we can only know that for past and presently existing children. We cannot know with future children because we cannot have plausible foreknowledge of the future for any one particular person, who is the subject of the issue here and not future people as a whole.

filrabat said...

Again, the symmetry here is that we feel joy for people who enjoy in distant lands.

My previous response likewise applies here. There is no symmetry between joy and suffering. At most there may be a symmetry between existence and nonexistence, contrary to your claim.

San: Not so, utilitarians can construct it as follows:

1. It would be ethically neutral to create a person who neither enjoyed nor suffered, since only joy and suffering give utility.

2. It is good to add joy to an existing life.

3. Putting the two together, it is good to create a life full of joy.


Even assuming Benatar is wrong here, I have at least two objections.

1. By that premise, future space probes with human like intelligence and abilities (minus ability to feel pleasure and pain) would have no utility. Therefore, under that premise you have to say that those probes lack utility. After all, they won’t feel any kind of pleasure or pain; they’ll just perform preprogramed instructions, gather data, and transmit it back to earth and nothing more. So, in reality, it’s absurd to say they will have no utility (they will be made to explore the solar system, after all). If they won’t have a use, then why will we build them at all?

2.The key word is existing. Only existing life needs joy. If the life does not exist, then there is no good in adding joy (as if we could add joy to something nonexistent).

3. Because neither premise stands up under scrutiny so far, I will assume your (3) is merely a faith-based assumption (not in a religious sense, but faith-based nevertheless, for it is not axiomatic).

sagredo said...

In my experience, joy is not merely something needed for relief of suffering, but is an absolute positive, regardless of any needs. So it makes no sense to speak of "needing" joy, or looking for needs to justify something. Joy without any reference to needs is a justification. Joy and suffering really are opposite sides of a coin.

Pleasure and pain are slightly different words: they are associated, but can also describe physical sensations. For instance, the masochist finds joy (instead of suffering) in the physical sensation of pain.

So I'm not much convinced by negative utilitarianism. It takes utilitarianism and unjustifiably chops off the positive part of it.

filrabat said...

PART ONE resp to Sagredo

Sagredo: In my experience, joy is not merely something needed for relief of suffering, but is an absolute positive, regardless of any needs.

Filrabat: Joy is not necessary, even if suffering were present. The only “need” (so to speak) we have is a negative need – the need not to suffer. Any joy received as a result of suffering is merely curative or compensatory. Any other joy received is just Lady Luck smiling on you. In any case, you feel joy is a positive good only because you exist. Non-existent people neither need joy, nor suffer from a lack of it. Therefore they don’t need to be created. I don’t suffer from an inability to afford a home in a wealthy neighborhood because I neither need nor desire to live in such places. All I really need is to have a dwelling that is not substandard housing. All this makes it meaningless to say that residency in a wealthy neighborhood is an absolute positive. Likewise, it’s nonsense to say that non-existent people suffer from a lack of joy. Just as I (a non-existent wealthy person, in a manner of speaking) do not need to live in an expensive house, truly non-existent people do not need joy.

filrabat said...

PART TWO of response to Sagredo

Sagredo:Joy without any reference to needs is a justification.

Filrabat: I have several problems with this one.

* It assumes joy is more important than people’s rights. If we assume that, then it should be good to create a person whose life is 20 years joy and 60 or 70 years of sheer misery. Most people would find such a life not worth living, with probably the majority saying even a life evenly split between misery and pleasure one not worth living. Many would even say that a life of 60 years joy and 25 years misery may not be worth living. This is what you get when you assume people are bottles with which to fill with happiness. If that’s the case, why not be like the Duggars and simply create as many children as you can, or at least as many as you can afford to raise?

* It’s not justifiable without the other’s permission to put them in a position where they can suffer (perhaps very badly), even if that is the only way the person can experience any kind of joy.

This is especially true if we can neither obtain prior permission, nor guarantee the person thinks the gamble is worth it to that person him or herself - even if we think he or she will benefit from the risk. To say “Well sorry, life’s like that” is to miss the point. The point is that we should not start new life (certainly human life) in the first place, especially if we can’t obtain prior permission from the yet-to-be-born person.

* Presumes adequate foreknowledge of that person’s future – namely that the person will, in fact, live a good life by his or her own criteria and standards.

It’s essentially gambling. Unlike blackjack chips (or even the green paper or digital credits they represent), people do care which side of the table (or in which pocket or bank account) they’re pushed to. So unless you can prove that person will, in fact, have a life worth living (by his or her own standards, not the parents or mainstream society’s), then procreating does bring about the possibility of unwarranted consequences for the person born.
Consider a financial planner who goes against a client’s wishes to invest in low-risk, low yield bonds; yet who, in the presumed best interest of his client, invests in futures contracts instead (very high risk, potentially very high yield). Most people would get pissed at their FP and even report him to his professional organization for ethics violations, and possibly could qualify as a criminal act as well. I see no substantial difference between the financial planners actions and those of someone choosing to bring more people into this world.

filrabat said...

PART THREE of response to Sagredo

*filrabat: Presumes others will find joy plus suffering is better than no joy at all.

In this case, this is presuming a potential future existent (PFE) will inevitably appreciate being forced to live in a situation whose rules of operation (inevitable pain, suffering, unfairnesses, injustices, inequalities, etc) they find highly objectionable, or may even suffer from being in that situation. This is akin to forcing someone to play a sport whose rules they find highly objectionable on moral grounds, even if they don’t suffer substantial physical injury from it. They could not consent to nor request being brought into a realm which operates under this set of rules and circumstances. Therefore, they should not be forced into even if they get benefits from the new situation they could not possibly get otherwise. The unethical financial planner scenario should make this clear.

To reiterate, presuming joy is a substantive good despite any bad that comes about (and it can very well come about) is to justify creating people who may well suffer greatly by their own standards, even if they do have joyful moments in their lives. This remains true even if they do benefit overall from their living existence. After all, the story could have turned out very differently save for some lucky breaks (this is what makes procreation a gamble with another’s well-being).

Sagredo: So it makes no sense to speak of "needing" joy, or looking for needs to justify something.

Addressed above. Again, the non-existent don’t either benefit from joy nor suffer from the lack of it. If only existent people can experience joy and existence inevitably brings about potential for serious, non-trivial suffering (by the born person’s standards, not yours nor anybody else’s), then, as show above, it does make sense to ask whether it’s wise to create a situation in which the potential person will one day become actual existent.

Sagredo: Joy and suffering really are opposite sides of a coin.

Even were this true (I also disagree with this), then we’re back to the issue of creating people so that they can feel joy – along with all the ethical issues I just discussed.

Sagredo:Pleasure and pain are slightly different words: they are associated, but can also describe physical sensations. For instance, the masochist finds joy (instead of suffering) in the physical sensation of pain.

This is confusing the source of the pleasure or pain with the pleasure or pain itself, analogous to confusing the source of a happiness (a “significant other” or drugs) with the happiness itself. With masochism, pain is just a means to an end; the end is happiness. This makes masochism a form of pleasure, although it bears pain’s disguise. However, not all of us are masochists and hence do not derive necessary pleasure from pain. Likewise, the good that can only come from a bad is not the bad itself. The strength in the muscles resulting from working out not the pain and soreness that’s an inevitable part of the training, or even a different aspect of that strength. After all, being strong and being sore/in pain are two entirely different things. Hence pain and pleasure are not two sides of the same coin – they are two different things despite that pleasure often comes about only via inevitable pain.

Sagredo: I’m not much convinced by negative utilitarianism. It takes utilitarianism and unjustifiably chops off the positive part of it.

For reasons listed above, I find negative utilitarianism of considerable merit – especially when forcing other people to partake in risks when they have no say-so about whether they want to.

Anonymous said...

As someone who tends to agree with Antinatalism my questions on the following still remain.

1: when people talk about leaving the unborn alone and do the right thing by not birthing them into existence into the human world, (which I agree with by the way and have never had children) who are the unborn? are they a form of intelligent consciousness or not? if a form of intelligence exists does it have any choice regarding existing as a human entity (or any other for that matter)just as human beings (appear) to have a choice in having a baby?

Also what form of consciousness if any does a human being revert to at death? Personally as I am already here living as a human being and feel it was against my will to be here I worry about where I may be going back (if any)and what amount of conscious free will I may have and if I have the intelligence to discern it.

I would prefer to be nothing to not exist in any form and this has nothing to do with happiness or sadness or the life I have already lived it is something I feel very deeply about and always have, I cannot explain it.

Does anyone else feel the same way?

fil rabat said...

Leaving the unborn alone…are they a form of intelligence – The overwhelmingly vast majority (if not actually 100% exactly) of antinatalist do not believe the “Unborn” are conscious entities inhabiting some nether-void before they are transported into the mind/body/whatever of an actual newly existent infant in our realm.* Such a claim would almost certainly require a supernatural belief system to support it (there may well be some tiny fraction of ANs who do believe this, but this is something one has to either take or leave). The phrase as I see it is merely a shorthand for “potential person”, who never existed and does not exist, but who COULD exist in the future.
*For my own notion of what would be an appropriate image of this (were I to believe this), think of a Star Trek type transporter beaming that “unborn” from the nether-void into a baby (or single fertilized egg, early fetus, late fetus, or at whatever point one considers a human life to begin).

What form of conscious if any does a human being revert to at death? -- Again, this ultimately depends on what one’s view of religion is. Most antinatalists are non-theists of one form or another (though not all). Therefore, most do not believe a human reverts to anything other than non-conscious matter that eventually will decay and become part of the soil it’s buried in (even the casket will eventually decay, given enough time). So most antinatalists will say both consciousnss and free will end at death and will never return.

Lance Bush said...

"If we assume happiness to be more important than people, then people are merely bottles with which to fill with happiness"

That's exactly what I think. I simply reject (4). It's a bad thing when there is less pleasure in the world, and I don't care about people for their own sake. If this entails that people have an obligation to produce more babies, then I simply accept that fact, and if that seems counterintuitive, so much for my intuitions...and, at any rate, the alternative (antinatalism) seems even more counterintuitive anyway.

fil rabat said...

First, I take "happiness" to mean "surplus benefit" - more good than a person needs to make his or her life a Net Positive. That means happiness is important only to the extent that without it, people's lives would be an overall Net Negative.

Also, how can pleasure's absence be a bad thing if nobody is around to experience it?