Antinatalism is the view that it is morally wrong to bring new people into existence (although a more universal sense of antinatalism includes all sentient beings, not just humans). The common arguments used to defend antinatalism include the position that existence is an overall harm, negative utilitarian arguments (which posit that minimising suffering takes priority over maximising happiness, which antinatalists believe implies we should refrain from procreation), environmental arguments (procreation entails a high environmental cost), and the Omelas question (which you can read about in a previous article I wrote – this argument emphasises that we should not procreate because this involves perpetuating a world full of very bad lives).
Another common argument that antinatalists put forward in defence of their position is the consent argument. According to this argument, it is impossible for would-be parents to gain prior consent from their prospective child about whether they want to be brought into the world and be subject to inevitable and unavoidable harms, and this makes procreation a morally problematic act. In this essay, I will contrast this argument with the position that existence is an overall harm, which is advanced by David Benatar, the most prominent, contemporary defender of antinatalism.
Following this comparison, and a fuller explication of the consent argument, it will be useful to delve into the major objections to this argument, as well as responses to these objections. The strength of the consent argument depends on how much moral weight one attaches to the absence of prior consent in the case of procreation – and as we shall see, philosophers writing on procreative ethics diverge on this question, each offering examples and analogies from the real world to highlight their position.
The Consent Argument vs. Benatar’s Asymmetries
Before exploring the consent argument, we should first address the view that existence is always a harm outweighing any of life’s benefits, as the consent argument is often presented as an alternative and preferable way to support antinatalism. For many philosophers (those sympathetic to antinatalism and those who aren’t), the former argument has many pitfalls that weaken the case for antinatalism.
In his influential and controversial book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence (2006), Benatar makes the case that existence is always a net harm. He argues this using various ‘asymmetry arguments’, including the ‘axiological asymmetry’ (an asymmetry in our values), which compares the value of the presence/absence of pain/pleasure for beings who exist/don’t exist. The argument is as follows: the presence of pain is bad, the presence of pleasure is good, the absence of pain is good even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone, and the absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom that absence is a deprivation. (Benatar is often criticised for narrowly focusing on pain and pleasure in this asymmetry, which appears hedonistic, but he has clarified that these are simply exemplars of harms and benefits more generally; you could place other markers of goodness and badness into the equation, such as satisfaction/dissatisfaction, knowledge/ignorance, desirable states/undesirable states, etc.).
The axiological asymmetry would imply that the only scenario in which we can have the good without the bad is abstaining from procreation. It may seem odd to think of the absence of pain of a non-existent being as good If the being in question doesn’t exist and won’t ever exist, doesn’t this mean the absence of both pleasure and pain is neutral? After all, either deprivation doesn’t affect anyone. But Benatar disputes this conclusion. He believes the axiological asymmetry which he has spelled out accords with our intuitions. For example, we do not see it as a cause for concern that sentient life – and, in turn, happiness – doesn’t exist on Mars, but if we imagine Mars was full of sentient life, we could also picture all the suffering that would entail, so part of us can feel glad about the absence of that suffering. We likewise hold the moral intuition that there is a duty to prevent suffering (e.g. terminating a pregnancy if there is foreknowledge of a severe fetal abnormality) but we don’t commonly believe there is a duty to create more happy people. Benatar’s axiological asymmetry, however, has been widely criticised, with some taking issue with the idea that the absence of pain is good even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone. If this premise fails, then so does this particular argument for antinatalism.
Benatar additionally offers ‘empirical asymmetries’ (asymmetries based on evidence and experience) to undergird his antinatalist philosophy. These asymmetries include the notion that the harms in life outweigh its benefits, or that there is an intrinsic asymmetry between pain and pleasure, with pain always felt more intensely than pleasure. But these empirical asymmetries are also highly contestable and the subject of intense criticism. For this reason, many antinatalist philosophers have sought to focus on other features of the procreative act that are morally questionable and which, in their view, offer a stronger basis for defending antinatalism. The impossibility of consent is one such feature, which we shall turn to now.
According to Asheel Singh, a senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Johannesburg, “one need not believe that coming into existence is always an overall harm in order to favour an anti-natal perspective; one need only believe that it is morally problematic to inflict serious, preventable harms upon others without their consent”. These serious and preventable harms, which are present even in the very best lives, include the experience of acute or chronic pain, loss, grief, illness, ageing, and death. Then there are, of course, very common risks in life that – again – accompany even the most privileged lives. These might include risks such as suffering from trauma, abuse, addiction, or chronic stress. Finally, there are less uncommon and rare risks that are nonetheless still severe in nature, and these also make procreation a gamble, a gamble that antinatalists are not willing to take. In any situation involving someone who already exists, if we acted in a way that would inflict these harms or risks on them, without gaining their consent, we would see this as morally problematic, even if some benefits may also accrue to the victims in the process; so is it not morally consistent to think of procreation as another such act?
Gerald Harrison, a lecturer in philosophy at Massey University, has similarly argued that it is “plausible there is a prima facie duty not to do anything that will seriously affect another without gaining his prior consent” (a prima facie duty being one that is a self-evident obligation, but one which can be potentially outweighed by other prima facie duties). In the case of procreation, the new individual is profoundly affected since they are being subjected to life’s difficulties, and his or her prior consent about this decision cannot be obtained. Harrison believes this “generates a prima facie duty not to procreate”.
In their article Better Not to Have Children, published in the philosophy journal Think, Harrison and Julia Tanner state “the fact that we cannot gain their consent does not mean that we are free to do without it”. The authors add that:
the fact that prospective parents cannot get the consent of those they plan to bring into existence doesn’t magically mean it’s OK. Quite the opposite – if you can’t get the consent of the person you’re going to significantly affect by your action, then the default position is that you don’t do whatever it is that’s going to affect them.
There are, nevertheless, cases in which we can justifiably affect the lives of others without gaining prior explicit consent. An example would be pushing someone out of the way of an oncoming truck or making children go to school. But in these cases, Harrison asserts there are clearly other prima facie duties conflicting with – and trumping – the duty not to affect others without their consent. The other duties in these cases are saving the life of a person and providing education for children, respectively. Some greater harm is being prevented through these acts.
These scenarios also differ from the case of procreation because they involve people who already exist, people who have interests that matter deeply to them. This makes possible additional duties that can trump concerns about prior consent. In the case of potential lives, on the other hand, Harrison asserts there are no “prima facie duties to create the lives in question”. By not creating a life, we have not breached a moral duty through such inaction since no life exists that could be affected. There are no interests to frustrate.
Objections to the Consent Argument
While the absence of prior consent is inherent to the procreative act, critics of antinatalism stress that this doesn’t mean procreation is inherently immoral. Singh has identified four main components of the view that procreation is all-things-considered permissible:
- It is permissible for a doctor to knowingly harm an unconsenting patient if the doctor has good reasons for assuming the patient’s consent (such as performing a life-saving operation on an unconscious patient. Some ethicists would also argue non-voluntary euthanasia is permissible in certain instances). Pronatalists (those defending procreation) could likewise rely on a notion of hypothetical consent.
- It is permissible to act on someone’s behalf if you can be reasonably sure that the person to be affected by your action will endorse your action. This argument is based on the assumption that a very high percentage of people are glad they were born (which appears to be the case – even among individuals with extreme quadriplegia, 93% are glad to be alive, according, at least, to one study from 1995). If most people endorse their parents’ decision to create them, you might then say it is highly probable that any act of procreation would be subsequently endorsed by those created, even though prior endorsement cannot be obtained.
- You may concede that parents harm their children by bringing them into existence, yet maintain that this harm is permissible if parents offer their children adequate compensation (which could be financial compensation).
- It is permissible for parents to impose the harms of existence upon their children if they have some intended benefit for them and this intention is realised.
Responses to the Objections
While all of the above objections are relevant, the first two appear to be strongest. For instance, the first two ostensibly agree with our intuition that prior consent is not always needed when acting in a way that can seriously affect the life of someone else. There are many glaring issues with the other two objections, however. In the third objection, it does not seem realistic that parents and children would agree to a situation where the harms of the child’s existence are to be compensated financially; and while there can be moral reasoning behind someone’s decision to sue their parents for non-consensually birthing them and exposing them to suffering, it is highly unlikely they will win such cases and receive the compensation they feel they deserve. It is additionally unclear if any form of compensation can adequately or meaningfully compensate the harms of existence that one didn’t consent to.
The fourth objection also falls prey to this problem: how can you show that a later benefit – however significant – justifies the harms of existence the child didn’t consent to? More troublesome is that the line of reasoning of the fourth objection would seem to justify many heinous acts. It implies we can impose harms on existing people if we intend to also benefit them through that harm and they do indeed experience that benefit. For example, we may decide to abuse or traumatise someone because we believe they will grow through this pain, but even if they do, this in no way morally justifies the action. Antinatalists often make this point in response to counterarguments which say that exposing a child to suffering is unproblematic because meaning and growth comes from suffering, and a child can’t experience or appreciate the benefits of life without being able to suffer.
Seana Shiffrin, a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a proponent of the consent argument, has responded to the first objection, which we can call the hypothetical consent objection to antinatalism. She has stated that:
four factors make the appeal to hypothetical consent problematic: (1) the fact that great harm is not at stake if no action is taken; (2) but if action is taken, the harms suffered may be very severe; (3) the imposed condition cannot be escaped without high costs; and (4) the hypothetical consent procedure is not based on features of the individual who will bear the imposed condition.
For clarification, the third factor relates to the fact that one can only voluntarily escape the harms of existence through suicide, an act that often carries significant physical, emotional, and moral costs. The fourth factor refers to how generic hypothetical consent doesn’t take into account an individual’s “attitudes toward risks and the relationship between harms and benefits” (Shiffrin, 1999). Perhaps most individuals would hypothetically consent to the risks of life, but not all would.
It should also be underscored that in the examples often given where no prior consent is involved, there is still some kind of consent at play. It is not strictly true that these people are ‘unconsenting’. In the example of pushing someone out of the way of an oncoming truck, for example, we can say implied consent is involved – the consent is implicitly granted by the circumstances of this situation. Implied consent may similarly feature in the case of saving or protecting a patient who cannot explicitly consent. If the patient is competent but cannot physically give consent, then the consent may be deemed implicit, and if the patient is incompetent (e.g. in cases like dementia) but has someone representing them who is a competent decision-maker (e.g. a family member), any decision made on their behalf would be known as substituted consent. This is based on the reasoning that the incompetent would consent to the particular decision if he or she were competent.
The salient point here is that all of these examples are disanalogous to procreation. When it comes to deciding to have children, all types of consent are impossible – there is no identifiable being that exists, and thus there is no way to say that consent could be meaningfully attached to them. From the antinatalist perspective, the sheer impossibility of consent is a crucial component of why procreation is unethical.
Harrison tackles the second objection: the notion that if we are happy to be alive and grateful towards our parents for creating us, then we cannot have been wronged. He presents cases in which we can be wronged yet still be happy about the wrongdoing. One example is as follows:
If someone hacks into someone else’s bank account and places a bet on a horse on his behalf, but with-out first gaining his consent, then that person has been wronged even if the horse wins and they are considerably better off, as a result.
In this way, there is nothing incoherent or surprising about accepting that you can be wronged (even seriously so) while still benefiting from the wrong and not wanting things to be otherwise.
Concluding Thoughts on the Consent Argument
For many antinatalists, non-consensually imposing life on someone – and the risks and harms this leads to – will always be a serious wrong. You don’t have to commit to a pessimistic view of human existence, as Benatar does, in order to demonstrate the wrongness of procreation. Non-consensually exposing new beings to inevitable and preventable harms can be sufficient to justify antinatalism. This argument doesn’t require messier considerations, such as whether most lives contain more bad than good, which is difficult – and perhaps impossible – to meaningfully measure.
Nonetheless, pronatalists might not see the lack of prior consent in procreation as a serious wrong or as necessarily immoral in the first place, which makes it easier for them to defend the permissibility of procreation. But this assumption does need to be questioned. While the impossibility of prior explicit consent may characterise actions like saving people’s lives or protecting their well-being, we have to remember these scenarios are very different from procreation: in the former cases, we are providing a benefit and helping them continue a life they have an interest in continuing; in the latter case, we are providing many benefits, but we are also somewhat responsible for the myriad and lifelong harms the new being will have to endure. The implications are arguably much larger in the case of procreation.
Moreover, in the former cases we are acting on the prima facie duty to prevent harm, which outweighs concerns of affecting the lives of others without prior consent, whereas when it comes to procreation, we cannot reasonably say we are saving the newly created person from greater harm since a non-existent being cannot suffer harm. If anything, the opposite holds true: we fulfil the prima facie duty to prevent harm by desisting from procreation. And to reiterate Harrison’s point, there also do not appear to be any prima facie duties to procreate, nor are any such duties violated by not having children. There are, therefore, significant differences between acts that benefit existing people who don’t explicitly consent to those acts and the non-consensual act of procreation, and these differences seem to bolster the antinatalist position.
“Non-consensually exposing new beings to preventable harms can be sufficient to justify antinatalism. This argument doesn’t require messier considerations, such as whether most lives contain more bad than good, which is difficult – and perhaps impossible – to meaningfully measure.”
As an antinatalist I reject the (lack) consent argument as a stand alone argument. The argument does not by itself give prospective parents any good reason to believe they will harm their offspring. Virtually no one regrets being born not even suiciders and people in starving countries. These are empirically verifiable facts.
It is as if you have to suffer from irrational fear (or feel bitter about your own life) to feel the weight of the consent argument. Or perhaps have an affinity doing highly abstract ethics not much unlike anarcho capitalism which doesen’t require messy considerations either, it’s applied autism.
I’ve seen how “unneccessary” shaming parents/prospective parents on vegan forum via the consent argument has lead to the rejection of said antinalists from the vegan community. This is also how morality works. In contrast, Benatar presents evidence so people can make their own informed decisions. And while we are at it, Benatar’s empirical qualitiy of life argument does not require more bad than good to work, “not good enough” is sufficient and it makes people think. People can disagree and still be friends.
Even speaking as an antinatalist in this particular time in history I do not feel I can reasonably claim that my parents wronged me, even though my parents made me worse off, above anything else I feel a duty to raise awareness about antinatalism above any percieved right to not be born. I understand things in a context. Someone has to do it. My number came up.
Thank you, I appreciate the comments. I’d be interested to hear what you think are the most persuasive arguments for antinatalism if you feel the consent argument is weak or insufficient.
Also, when you say “not good enough” is sufficient to support Benatar’s empirical quality of life argument, do you mean that’s what Benatar himself argues or that’s the kind of argument you feel is stronger than saying the bad outweighs the good in life? Based on what I’ve read, I was under the impression Benatar thinks that most lives contain more bad than good. For example, in one article he has written: “Considering matters carefully, it’s obvious that there must be more bad than good,” which he then goes on to justify (https://aeon.co/essays/having-children-is-not-life-affirming-its-immoral). I’m not saying I necessarily agree with him by the way, just pointing out that he uses this pessimistic view of life to support his position.
What does a “not good enough” life look like? Does antinatalism only require that a life contain a certain amount/intensity of harm?
As someone who considers procreation morally neutral, I’ll offer my opinion. Firstly, Benatar’s asymmetry as you’ve described is not convincing to me at all and even inconsistent. Absence of pain without anyone to notice it is as neutral as absence of pleasure without anyone to notice it. With the lack of Martians analogy, you say it’s good because you’re here to say it’s good. I can say it’s bad that there is no Martian art, history, literature, or science because I am here to say it’s bad. You are here to say future babies would be bad. I am here and could say future babies would be good.
If none of us were here, none of us could say anything about the goodness or badness of lack pain or pleasure. Play by the rules you set or admit that you want to say a lack of pain can be good for no one which would allow the possibility of a lack of pleasure also being bad for no one.
As you’ve stated the empirical asymmetries are very much in doubt, and what I’ve heard hasn’t convinced me either. So I’ll set them aside for now.
The consent argument also isn’t enough to sway me to antinatalism. For one, I do not think consent is necessary when dealing with a hypothetical or real infant. Surgery to save an infant’s life, vaccination, driving them around in a car. The first one especially carries high risk comparable to the horse betting analogy. I also don’t see how the continued life of that infant can be consented to if starting that life isn’t. The continued life of that infant contains harms as well, and while it can’t consent to painless euthanasia either, it seems that in the lack of consent for both options the one that reduces harm is preferable. While the reactions of the parents may stop you, what stops you if you’re alone with a baby whose family is dead and you have the option to painlessly euthanize it? The car ride also would be condemned as immoral by the consent argument. It’s an unnecessary exposure to car crash except that probability is low enough for satisfaction.
Substituted consent such as for a dementia patient could also seem like it could apply to a hypothetical infant. I don’t think the hypothetical infant needs to be asked for consent, a living infant infant can’t be asked for its consent to life either.
However, it’s valid to extend the psychology of billions of people on a hypothetical or actual infant to know with very high probability that it will want to live. If encountering a random dying unconscious adult in the street and saving them without consent (even though there is a chance they may be suicidal or suffering from a painful terminal disease) is justifiable because most people want to keep living, then giving birth to a baby is justifiable because most people want to live rather than not be born. If you can make a consent for the first based on the reasonable expectations of billions of other people, I see nothing stopping me from making the second. I don’t have access to the specific wishes of the random adult either, I don’t think prior existence is necessary, just reasonable expectation of their wishes.
In fact, saving that random adult exposes them to further harms in their life regardless of their wishes. If you want to say consent requires properties of a specific person. The consent and avoidance of harm arguments seem like they would require euthanasia in all instances where specific properties can’t be acquired, especially in random healthy infants or adults. Like the heart surgery from earlier, it seems that painless euthanasia rather than risk of further harm is required.
I find the 2nd objection to the consent argument you described to be the most convincing, and none of the arguments in your article have discredited it to my satisfaction. We can predict newborns’ wishes for life just as much as a random unconscious adult in the street.
Many antinatalist analogies also seem disanalogous to me, since they depend on an already existing person and then point out that acting in a certain way would lead to a negative in that existing person’s life. In those cases, they were positive before and less positive now. Like the horse betting analogy, while not less positive after, had a chance to be only because it was positive before.
However, nonexistence is a null condition and Benatar’s asymmetry doesn’t convince me otherwise. We are here to say a lack of a baby is good or bad. Otherwise, taking a null and bringing it a positive does seem morally permissible.
It wouldn’t be in an adult if we didn’t have very good ideas of their wishes. But in an infant? Everything we do to an infant is without its consent, and I mean actual consent as something done to it without its knowledge or permission.
Now focusing on infants might seem like I’m ignoring the harms that result to the adults they become, but I don’t consider the harms they experience as an adult to be the result of their birth. The birth was a necessary precondition, but not the cause. Disease and injury afterwards are often not the result of the birth, whose fault it is depends on the specific situation. Sometimes it’s the fault of the adult themselves.
Lastly, I find the lack prima facie duties to be an unconvincing fact. An apparent lack of prima facie duty doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Why can I not choose a prima facie duty such as preserving art, music, literature, science, along with human joy and use that as a justification for supporting procreation? I do not see the harm in this prima facie duty when the vast majority of people prefer to live rather than never have been born. I do not want to force people to conduct those activities either, I want there to be people who choose to perform them on their own.
Thanks for the lengthy response, James. Lots of interesting food for thought here. I’ll try to address these points one by one:
1) In your first point, you say you consider procreation morally neutral, but end by saying: “I am here and could say future babies would be good.” When you say you could argue future babies are ‘good’, in what sense do you mean good; good for who? Good in a moral sense?
With respect to the Martian analogy, when you say the lack of art, history, science etc. on Mars is “bad”, bad in what sense? It can’t be bad for the Martians since they don’t exist to feel deprived of these benefits. You might want to argue that this could potentially be bad for us (or civilisations on other planets) indirectly if this Martian civilisation would have benefited us in some way (e.g. became sophisticated and moral enough to save us from planetary collapse). But this seems quite unlikely and optimistic.
You might say the non-existence of potential beings can’t be good because there exist no beings to enjoy that lack of suffering but I believe Benatar is comparing our value judgements about different states of affairs here (a child brought into the world vs. a child not brought into the world). He is not arguing that non-existent beings can enjoy goods (be that well-being or a lack of suffering). I’m still not entirely convinced of Benatar’s argument here, though, as he does seem to be confusing what is good in a preferential sense with what is good in a moral sense. So not having a child could be preferentially good without being morally wrong; the flipside of this being that having a child could be preferentially bad without being morally wrong. This criticism has been raised here: https://absurdbeingblog.wordpress.com/2018/02/06/axiological-asymmetry-and-anti-natalism/. It’s definitely an issue I’d like to explore on its own.
In any case, I do believe in the moral intuition which says that preventing suffering is good, whereas the concomitant good that is lost from that decision is not bad. This is what an ethical vegan would argue when it comes to animal suffering. The animals saved from refraining to purchase animal products is good because it prevents suffering that would otherwise occur (from behaviour that is the norm: eating animal products), but it’s not bad that fewer animals are brought into the world since there are no beings who can be harmed from that deprivation. If you argue that both deprivations (suffering and well-being) are morally neutral, then you would have to argue the position of ethical veganism (or a similar argument involving potential beings) is morally neutral too, which doesn’t add up to me.
2) You ask what would stop someone arguing that painless euthanasia of an orphan is good if they take the consent argument to be true. I’ve heard this argument before with respect to antinatalism and I believe it makes the mistake of confusing lives worth starting and lives worth continuing. Non-existent beings and existent beings are conceptually and manifestly very different, with the morality surrounding both diverging. For example, for a person who could potentially exist, there are no preferences which are frustrated when a decision is made not to take action to bring that person into the world. But, in the case of the imagined orphan, this is a being that exists, that has a preference in staying alive at a most basic level, with higher-level interests that depend on a lived future: goals, aspirations, and plans.
But besides being disanalogous, I also believe it is unfair to compare the decision to non-consensually create a child with non-consensual euthanasia of an existing orphan, as the implications of the latter are much more severe. It seems clear the latter scenario is less preferable than deciding not to have a child, at least based on the interpretation of the consent argument you are conveying. You could argue for your position if you take a pro-mortalist stance (with death being good) or an Epicurean view of death (death is not bad since there is no being who can suffer the deprivation of life it entails), but those positions would have to be defended first.
3) You say it’s valid to extend the psychology of billions of existing people (a high percentage of whom are glad to be alive, which I accept) to the decision to procreate. While it may seem reasonable to think that people’s gladness to be alive means children de facto consent to their birth, you would have to defend first why it’s valid to extend this psychological tendency people have. Also, does the minority’s belief of not being glad to be alive count for nothing? Even if an antinatalist defending the consent argument conceded that only the lives of a small number are intolerable, he or she may still say the risk of procreation is not worth it, for that reason. But perhaps that risk doesn’t outweigh the potential benefits that have been lost to the parents. Although, considering adopting a child is still an option for would-be parents, I’m not sure how strong that line of argument is (you may be interested in this paper from Tina Rulli on the ethics of adoption vs. having a genetically-related child: https://philpapers.org/archive/RULPAG-3). Again, I don’t think it makes sense to think of benefits being lost with respect to an individual not brought into the world.
This argument of extending the psychology of billions is also based on the assumption that this psychology is an accurate perception of one’s quality of life. This would have to be shown first before going on to argue that procreation is de facto consent (since you are basing this on the psychological states and beliefs of the majority). At least from a Schopenhauerian point of view, everyone’s psychology is affected by the will-to-life, which causes us to passionately and irrationally cling onto the preservation and perpetuation of life, even though – as Schopenhauer argued – this is precisely why we suffer, and why suffering outweighs the good in life. By the way, I’m not saying I necessarily accept Schopenhauer’s analysis, but I use it to highlight how it’s not necessarily true that self-reports of life satisfaction mean that procreation is justified (via the consent argument or otherwise). It’s possible – and a large body of evidence supports this – that people’s biases lead to an overestimation of how good their lives are. This seems well-grounded in evolutionary theory. A positive bias benefits our survival and chances of procreating.
4) You say everything we do to an infant is without its consent, but just to clarify, I point out why this isn’t necessarily true in the article: any action we do that positively impacts an infant, we may not gain their explicit consent, but we do gain other forms of consent (e.g. implicit or substituted). But in the case of procreation, all forms of consent are impossible, making it a more unique act. I also believe it’s unfair to compare acceptable non-consensual actions affecting infants with the non-consensual action of procreation: the former may be against the child’s immediate wishes but harm is likely avoided through such actions (e.g. taking the child to the dentist, getting them vaccinated, sending them to school) whereas great harm is risked through procreation. Why take these risks?
5) You say birth is a precondition but not a cause of suffering in life. That seems like a way of dodging the issue of suffering resulting from the decision to procreate. The decision to procreate is, I would argue, a necessary event leading to the outcome of people suffering. Why is that not a cause in the chain of events? Individuals suffer because they are biologically capable of suffering and with a certain stimulus, they will suffer. But a deeper cause of that suffering is that the being was brought into the world. With that in mind, it becomes a separate question of whether that deeper cause is morally justified.
6) You can definitely choose a prima facie duty of preserving art, history, science etc. But you would then need to show why that prima facie duty outweighs the prima facie duty of preventing suffering.
Okay, I think I should clear some things up before we continue a discussion.
1) This would need to get into what the difference is between moral goods/bads and preferential goods/bads are. I’m not sure how my view on morals would be classified. Moral relativist, absurdist, something along those lines but I’m deep enough into philosophy to say. The important point is that I don’t believe in objective morals. I see no real difference between moral goods or preferential goods, so they’re ultimately the same for me.
One example to demonstrate what I mean is a religious person who may consider it their moral duty to convert others and save their souls, and immoral to leave unbelievers at risk of an eternal hell. Meanwhile another person of the same religion might just consider conversion unnecessary. It seems to me that all morals, when boiled down to their origins, derive from preferences in a similar way. I wasn’t sure what moral system you or Benatar were operating on, so that probably led to confusion.
Regarding your point on ethical veganism. It can be good for existing animals or the existing environment, but clearly those beings exist that it can be good for, and you also exist to preferentially/morally (again, no difference to me) claim goodness/badness. My point was that if Benatar wants to claim one nonexistence is morally neutral, both have to be. If he wants to claim one is good, then I can say the other is bad.
2) I don’t see the difference between a life worth continuing and a life worth starting. A person who suffers and then recovers to live a worthwhile life shows that it was worth starting because that suffering could and had been overcome.
The preferences of the nonexistent person are not frustrated, but the decision to bring a person into existence or not is not based on their preferences. It’s based on the antinatalist who wants to avoid more suffering or the pronatalist who wants to create another life.
You see, I don’t understand how nonconsensual euthanasia of an infant can be more severe from the viewpoint of the consent argument. It is still true that preserving that infant’s life brings it harm, and it seems very clear that painless euthanasia doesn’t harm it. I personally would be horrified by it, but I don’t really have any arguments against the Epicurean view of death. It just doesn’t seem defensible to say painless euthanasia harms it. If the goal is to reduce harm without consent, then euthanasia seems unavoidable.
3) I don’t consider the lone fact that most people are happy to be alive to be a good argument for procreation. Many more requirements such as financial stability are required for me. I just consider it a sufficient objection to the consent argument used for antinatalism.
Regarding the minority who’d prefer to have never been born. I consider that a separate argument because their birth was not the cause of that mindset, except perhaps in cases of genetic defects which I believe should be screened for before birth and aborted if necessary. Their environment and upbringing were the causes of the mindset. It’s an argument to treat people better, not an argument against never giving birth.
I also think I confused you when I used the fact that most people prefer to live rather than never be born. I don’t use it as a metric of quality of life.
Schopenhauer may be right in saying that everyone is “irrationally” affected by the will to live, but I don’t see why avoiding suffering is a rational desire either. I’ve seen antinatalists dismiss the will to live or reproduce as biological impulses but also conveniently ignore the fact that avoiding pain and empathy are also biological impulses. This ties into what I said earlier about my stance that moral values are really just subjective preferences. I don’t see either as objective rational moral stances. If they are, it hasn’t been proven to me.
It seems strange to me to think there’s some objective measure of how good a life is in the first place for people to under or overestimate. And as you recall, I posted on your other article a paper indicating psychological evidence that people also have a negativity bias.
4) I know that you’ve outlined other types of consent, but I don’t really agree that they count as consent. At the very least, it seems to me that with these other types of you use consent in a way that’s very different from the usual definition. In fact a few even seem to be an assumption of another person’s desires the same way I assume that a random baby will prefer to live than not be born.
The case of the random adult dying in the street indicates to me that preexistence is not really important when deciding what to do to someone who can’t give consent in that moment. With the Epicurean view of death, maybe the moral thing would be to let him die rather than save him and expose the man to future suffering. And what if that man happened to be in the minority of people who want to die? In that case, his savior both exposed him to future harm and went against his preexisting wishes.
Anyway, I suppose I’d then fall into the camp of people who say lack of consent isn’t necessarily immoral for procreation.
5) Yes, birth is necessary for suffering to happen. I don’t disagree with that. After all, a person has to be born in order for it to be possible for that person to suffer.
However, that is different from saying birth is the cause of that person’s suffering. Allow me to explain.
Let’s say a woman decides to go to a party. An adult woman who understands that rapists exist. At that party, she meets a man who rapes her.
One of the many necessary preconditions for her being raped was that she attend that party, but it would be ludicrous to blame her for her rape because she chose to go to the party. The party host holding that party was also a necessary condition, but the blame doesn’t go to them either. It goes to the rapist.
Now, no one can escape suffering, but in most cases of suffering, birth was not the cause of that case. In most specific cases, it’s not a logical chain from birth to that case of suffering. I was born, but if I break my leg that doesn’t mean it’s the result of my birth. The broken leg could have been avoided after birth.
This is partially why antinatalist arguments based on reducing murder, rape, suffering from most diseases are irrelevant to me. There are other ways to reduce them, and the presence of them alone doesn’t mean a person who experienced them should never have been born.
6) I don’t really have a defense of one prima facie duty over the other. It’s what I believe, but there’s no objective measure of the value of art, science, history, or suffering that I can use to convince you. Just as suffering alone can’t convince me those things shouldn’t be preserved. I’d like to minimize suffering while preserving them, but in a world where most people prefer to live rather than unbirth or suicide, I believe it’s justifiable to preserve them.
I think antinatalism goes too far. Suffering alone shouldn’t be a reason to say a life should or shouldn’t be started. In fact, antinatalism to me is in the same vein as the R.N Smart’s benevolent world-destroyer. Not nearly as horrific of course, but then again horror is subjective. I’ve seen antinatalists who’ve stated that they would act as the world-destroyer if they could.
Now, besides your points, I’ve been doing some reading on the nonidentity problem and thinking about it. I honestly don’t think it makes sense to say creating a person harms them. Before they’re created, they don’t exist, but when they’re created (fertilized egg, 24th week of fetal development, or birth) the probabilities of various harms were part of their existence from the moment they existed. The horse betting analogy introduced a new probability of harm to the person with the bank account, meanwhile before creation there was no person for the new probability to be introduced to. When the person was created, their probabilities were always with them.
Singh’s statement that people are still inflicted by pains after birth is valid of course, and my ideas on this aren’t fully set. However, I think it’s important to state that procreation is not the same as exposing an already existing person to new harms.
Thanks for the response, James.
1) This is a good point, as when I think about it, I struggle to differentiate between moral and preferential goods – I think this is one reason why I find Benatar’s axiological asymmetry a bit confusing and unconvincing. Benatar also claims his arguments are theory-neutral but I’m unconvinced of this as well, as to me, his arguments seem negative utilitarian. I think he has responded to this point before, saying his position is still consistent with any major moral theory. In terms of the moral theory I personally subscribe to, well, that’s something I’m still thinking about. I suppose some mixed utilitarian/deontological/virtue ethics theory can be a good guide. I’d probably also subscribe to Schopenhauer’s compassion ethics, which I think would be consistent with that.
Just to clear up your point of nonexistence being bad because Benatar claims it is good. Do you mean this is a position a person can logically accept based on Benatar’s reasoning? Or is the badness of nonexistence a position you yourself hold and so see it as a reason to reject Benatar’s reasoning?
2) I can see what you mean here, as I have also tried to see what the important differences (if any) are between lives worth starting and those worth continuing. But it still seems like there are some moral differences between the two since a life not started that could be started has no preferences, whereas a life started has preferences. I’m not saying I agree with the Epicurean view myself as I do see death as a harm, as the decision to painlessly take someone’s life frustrates preferences to stay alive, experience life, and fulfil existing interests and future plans. Do these preferences not hold any moral weight? I also believe the moral difference between potential people and existing people fits in with moral justifications for abortion (when the fetus is pre-sentient) and is also why it’s hard to justify non-consensual painless euthuanasia of people. While the latter may be painless in the immediate sense, I’m not yet convinced that this involves no harm. But I think I should look more into the Epicurean argument, just to get a better sense of it and the counterarguments against it.
In distinguishing between lives worth starting and lives worth continuing, I remember Benatar using the analogy of going to see a movie that isn’t great. If you’ve paid the ticket and you’re already there, you would probably still sit through the whole movie, enjoying some of it while disliking some parts, but the movie’s not so bad that you decide to get up and leave. But if you knew the movie would’ve been like this beforehand, you’d have decided not to bother seeing it in the first place. I don’t know how analogous this is to life, personally, as it’s a pretty drab and dull picture of life he’s painting and misses out so much. But just thought I’d throw his perspective into the mix.
3) That’s a good point to raise about whether morality is objective/rational. I don’t see it as objective, as I believe morality means nothing without the existence of moral agents or beings with interests. I suppose it can be rational in the sense of creating a moral system that is consistent with our shared subjective preferences (avoiding suffering and desiring well-being). Some antinatalists (the negative utilitarians) might argue the preference to avoid suffering is much stronger than the preference to have more pleasure (which makes not having children preferable to having them) but without an objective morality, I can see how that position becomes trickier to defend.
While I don’t necessarily believe in objective morality, I don’t think this precludes a universal morality necessarily. For example, Schopenhauer argues compassion is the basis of morality and that compassion must be universal. I still can’t think of any situation in which compassion (even towards enemies) would be unjustified. I bring this up just because I know many antinatalists believe their decision not to procreate is based on compassion, so I wonder whether seeing the issue in terms of compassion ethics could be helpful – or maybe it just results in similar problems; can you have compassion towards imagined, non-existent beings? I suppose imagining a life of suffering and the desire to prevent it is what motivates a lot of antinatalists, although imagining the joy of life is less impactful (maybe because of a negative utilitarian position or just a subjective mindset which doesn’t actually see that much joy or meaning in life).
In terms of the negativity bias, it’s definitely universal and persistent – it’s what makes the news industry so successful. The negativity bias also makes evolutionary sense. However, Benatar has claimed that the preponderance of the evidence shows the positivity bias is the more common bias, but I would have to revisit the literature on this.
4) The lack of consent aspect of procreation is definitely quite interesting and I’m still considering to what extent (if any) it makes procreation immoral.
5) I see your point here and perhaps I was mistaken to equate necessary preconditions with causes, but this may be an issue of semantics that doesn’t necessarily change the morality of procreation. Whether or not birth is a necessary precondition or cause of suffering, it is still ultimately a decision we make, one that leads to – even if it doesn’t technically cause – suffering. I don’t think saying the parents’ decision being a precondition and not a cause abdicates them of responsibility, otherwise, the decision not to abort a fetus with a severe, excruciating disability would be morally neutral.
Also, the analogy you use here doesn’t seem to fit. As you say ‘no one can escape suffering’ and I think that’s the salient point. Suffering is inevitable and unavoidable, it’s everywhere (even in the best lives), and there’s a high risk of intense suffering (especially in later years). I don’t see this as analogous with the risk of being a victim of sexual assault. In this analogy, we of course blame the perpetrator of the crime not the victim, and I wouldn’t want to argue parents are analogous to the perpetrator here since their intentions are clearly different and the outcome (procreation) is much more complex; however, I don’t see an issue with parents having moral responsibility in their decision, even if their actions are preconditions for suffering rather than direct causes (i.e. they’re not the ones designing biology to be set up for suffering, nor are they necessarily causing suffering to the child when they exist).
6) I understand if there’s no objective way to defend the preference of one prima facie duty over another, but there may still nonetheless be some reasoning behind it. Or could it be based on a moral intuition that human areas of art, science, history etc. make life more fulfilling than just the avoidance of suffering?
Thanks for raising the non-identity problem as well, I’m going to have a look into this myself and its relation to antinatalism.
1) Well, I think this is part of my confusion with what Benatar means when he says absence of pain is good. Did he mean complete absence of pain, with no people to judge it? Or did he mean the nonexistence of a specific person with a society still present to judge whether that nonexistence is good/bad?
Depending on the moral theory we use, we might decide the first can’t be good or bad because there are no moral agents to judge it. Meanwhile, in the second there clearly are.
However, if Benatar wants to claim either sort of pain absence is good, that should allow anyone else to say that pleasure absence is bad. I personally do believe nonexistence of the first type, no people at all, would be preferentially (morally?) bad.
2) In regards to euthanizing an infant, they may have a preference to stay alive but they don’t have any existing interests or future plans. That’s why I specify an infant rather than an adult or even a child. I still believe painless euthanasia of a healthy person is wrong without asking them. I share your reasons, that they have wishes and desires which would be wrong to destroy, but whether painless euthanasia harms them seems to be very difficult to argue since there is no one to experience that harm.
I’ve seen Benatar’s movie analogy in one of his articles. It doesn’t convince me because a person isn’t a completely passive agent experiencing life like a movie. They are also a director and actor. I’m not saying life is fully in their control, but they do have some agency. Not to mention with life the only choices are watch the movie or stop existing (barring religious ideas), there are no consequences meanwhile to just leaving a movie theater. A mildly entertaining movie should be better than nothingness.
3) One problem I have with the antinatalist presentation of the argument is that it’s stated as a reduction of pain vs. addition of pleasure. While there are some philosophical grounds to argue that lives are only pain/pleasure, the experience machine thought experiment should at least make us pause. I do believe that a great many aspects of life can be boiled down to pain/pleasure, even seemingly non-hedonistic motives such as honor or duty can be explained as resulting from the pain of dishonor or the pleasure of duty. However, I’m not sure it can apply to everything in life.
I lean towards saying there is more to creating a life than pain/pleasure considerations. The person made will have their own experiences, their own opinions, their own thoughts. I think that should count for more than just pleasure.
It seems that Schopenhauer is wrong in compassion being universal. I think there has been research to show that certain criminals actually have different brain structures and psychiatric evaluations of indicate that some actually lack compassion to a high degree.
I don’t think it makes sense to say antinatalism is based on compassion for the unborn. An antinatalist may feel upset at the thought of another person being born, but that person doesn’t exist and may never exist. It makes no more sense than feeling compassion for a fictional character or for the people in the timeline where the Nazis won WWII. The thought can make one sad, but I don’t think it counts as compassionate.
This is partially why some of Benatar’s statistics don’t really seem to be an appeal to compassion. Yes, atrocities happened, but many of his numbers are extrapolations. Does it really make sense to say you feel compassionate for, say, 2 million murders over the last thousand years if there were really 1.8 million?
Nobody alive knew those people personally, and they no longer exist, they’re just numbers that make people upset. Often it seems to me that the antinatalist desires to lower those numbers or reduce pain without regard for people. Especially when the argument is simplified to pain/pleasure rather than pain/lives.
And I especially can’t accept compassion as a motive for antinatalist arguments which extend to sterilizing animals to prevent future animal suffering. Those future animals don’t exist and with sterilization they’ll never exist, the destruction of natural life was done selfishly. And I believe it would be wrong.
(Minor note: Since I believe in psychological egoism, both antinatalism and pronatalism seem at base selfish. Although that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad.)
4) Another aspect of this is sort of using a hierarchical rights scale with maturing people. After all, children don’t get the right to vote. Making a child get a vaccine or strapping a baby in a car without asking would be forced drugging or kidnapping when done to an adult. This is partially why I don’t consider consent necessary for procreation.
5) I think identifying birth as a necessary precondition rather than a cause is heavily involved in the morality of procreation. It serves as a metric of just how moral or immoral procreation is.
You see, the reason why I chose the rape victim was to illustrate how extreme suffering can often be avoided after birth, so birth can’t be the cause of those cases of extreme suffering. Since everyone experiences at least some suffering, it would be fair to say birth causes that level of suffering and to assign the blame to the parents. Aging in later years, I suppose so. Death as well, but death doesn’t have to be a bad thing, and certainly death, aging and even diseases such as cancer don’t seem to be enough to say a person shouldn’t have been born. I think a person should be offered euthanasia if the pain gets bad enough, but I believe their lives still could have positive value even with those ailments.
However, barring genetic defects and events where the parents were personally involved, which cases of suffering are due to them? That time someone broke their leg? The slip and fall that someone had? Stubbing a toe? When you try to count them up, pointing at these individual cases and assigning the moral responsibility to birth seems a bit ridiculous.
Suffering alone doesn’t convince me that procreation is wrong, I can still see creating a life as a net positive. Even for lives cut short by murder and disease, I can’t say that their lives shouldn’t have been started. Those things don’t necessarily negate the good their lives had.
6) I suppose I can say that art, science, literature, etc. are great endeavors that don’t require excessive suffering and that we should work to both reduce suffering and engage in those endeavors.
However, this argument doesn’t really work with people who don’t care about them or value reducing suffering much more. Ultimately it still boils down to subjective value systems.
1) I’m not sure about that, but I would imagine he believes in the latter since I know he doesn’t believe in objective meaning, which I think would entail things only being good and bad if there are people (or other adequately sentient beings) able to judge them as so.
2) I can see why you chose this analogy, then, but the preference to stay alive is still present in this case and not in the case of a non-existent being. I also don’t think it would be fair to say the infant had no other existing interests since he or she would have other basic interests like comfort, love, and care, and the fact that they are orphaned doesn’t mean people have no duties towards fulfilling these interests. I’m with you on the pitfalls of Benatar’s movie analogy.
3) I addressed this in response to your comment of my other article, by underlining that antinatalist arguments do not depend on a reduction of life to pain vs. pleasure; these are just exemplars of harms and benefits more generally. Benatar emphasises this point as he is often (unfairly) accused of being hedonistic in his arguments. While it may, of course, be simplistic to view quality of life in any dualistic way (satisfaction vs. dissatisfaction, harms vs. benefits, risks vs. rewards), this doesn’t make this analysis worthless. I think it is worth asking if Buddhism’s assessment of life as dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) is true and if so, what actions should follow from that.
On the notion of Schopenhauer being wrong about compassion, I think the example of these criminals may be confusing nature and value. Schopenhauer isn’t saying the quality of compassion is universal but is defending it as a value and its universal application (which is why we extended it to non-human animals). Even if nothing can be done about the lack of compassion in the criminal, this wouldn’t necessarily contradict Schopenhauer’s position. He’s arguing that morality can only be based on compassion, so in the case of people without compassion, he might conclude they cannot act morally (this is up for debate, of course). Also, with those certain individuals that “lack compassion to a high degree” – do they not still have some very limited capacity for compassion? Are there any individuals who are completely devoid of compassion?
I think you can definitely empathy for fictional characters, I think we all experience that from time to time. There is some neuroscience behind that: https://writingcooperative.com/caring-for-fictional-characters-the-neuroscience-behind-it-d067bd9ee4b4. Whether compassion is possible, I’m not sure, as this has the component of desiring to help, which distinguishes it from empathy. But thinking about certain films, I’ve definitely felt a character’s distress and a desire to help. Would this not count as compassion? The way I would see the compassionate stance of antinatalism is that it involves compassion for existing people and tries to extend an empathetic attitude towards the unborn.
That’s an interesting point about numbers being a statistic, rather than a collection of suffering that an individual is able to feel at once. But that’s probably a limitation of human psychology as opposed to a limitation of antinatalism. I do genuinely believe that Benatar and many antinatalists are motivated by compassion when they make their case. While compassion may be limited (i.e. it can’t truly extend to millions – although Buddhists would disagree), I respect the desire to try to extend it as much as possible. And I do believe that people can develop compassion in a way that extends far beyond their inner circle. I think those passionately working to alleviate global suffering are motivated by this extended compassion, and that highly sensitive individuals may be more prone to thinking in terms of – and affected by – this more global view of suffering.
4) So it seems like you consider implied consent (parents providing consent on behalf of their children, i.e. to a vaccination) as justified as parents having children without any consent being involved, or that procreation may as well involve implied consent, based on the strong likelihood of that child both being glad to be alive and a certain quality of life being afforded to him or her. But again, this is an issue I’ll need to think over some more.
5) On the issue of birth as a necessary precondition vs. a cause of suffering, I found an interesting quote from Hari Singh Gour, who offered this interpretation of Buddhism in his work “The Spirit of Buddhism”:
“Oblivious of the suffering to which life is subject, man begets children, and is thus the cause of old age and death. If he would only realize what suffering he would add to by his act, he would desist from the procreation of children; and so stop the operation of old age and death.”
So it’s interesting that you say birth can be a cause of ageing and death, as at least this interpretation of Buddhism does. I suppose it’s important to distinguish between morally relevant causes and amoral preconditions. Birth may be a cause of some suffering, ageing, and death (this is consistent with Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, which say the reason we suffer is that we’re stuck in cycles of birth), whereas a precondition of being murdered may be birth, but you’re right in saying that is amoral with respect to your parents’ decision to have you. Parents cannot be held accountable for that.
6) I agree with you here. I think how you apply this maxim of reducing suffering while increasing these higher-level goods is where you and many antinatalists would differ. Antinatalists would go the route of not creating any more people – or breeding any more animals – in order to prevent/reduce suffering while personally pursuing art, science, and literature or promoting them in their own life but being fine with the idea of these goods not existing, so long as no people existed to suffer their deprivation.
I don’t see the option to reply to your latest comment, so I’ll leave it here. This will also probably be my last comment.
3) You see, some of those other dualities at base still seem to be pain/pleasure dualities by another name. Satisfaction and dissatisfaction require pleasure and pain to be satisfying or dissatisfying, and the same would go for something to be a risk or reward. Earlier I would have included the need for pain/pleasure for something to be defined as a harm/benefit.
After thinking about it more though, I do think other types of harms and benefits can be argued for, and I’d say I personally believe that creating a life and the opportunity for a new person to experience, learn, and love the world and other people is a great benefit beyond just pleasure. Of course in many situations a child doesn’t have those opportunities, which is why procreation is not always a good decision. In other situations though, I believe procreation is fine. Even good.
This is based on just a quick search of dukkha, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that life is dukkha or contains a majority of dukkha. There may be more time spent in boredom and dissatisfaction, but I don’t think the fact that they last longer is enough to say the good things in life are valued less. There is dukkha in life, but there are also many things that make life not only worthwhile but good. It seems Hindusim and Buddhism say dukkha can be overcome, and I believe that it can be as well although not necessarily by the methods described by those religions. Besides activities such as creating and admiring art, science, literature, etc. there is much good in friendships and family.
It’s uncertain whether anyone lacks compassion completely. I’ve read stories from people who interviewed criminals who seemed to lack it completely, but that’s still very uncertain.
Regarding compassion for nonexistent beings, I’d still say it doesn’t really make sense to say there’s compassion for the unborn. Antinatalism can be based on compassion for existing people or animals, but the extension doesn’t work for nonexistent beings. Feelings of sadness and despair may accompany thoughts of future beings, but I wouldn’t classify that as compassion.
I didn’t mean to say a personal connection is necessary, but I do think the existence of the subject in distress and a certain amount of knowledge of the subject is required for an emotion to quality as compassion. My point with the numbers is that they may be inaccurate. If you hear from a faulty report that there are 200 people starving in a region when in reality it’s 100 people, are your feelings really compassion for 200 people? Sadness definitely, but the dictionary definition of compassion: “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others” doesn’t seem to work when those others don’t exist. It’s just pity and concern for fictional characters. Empathy maybe, but not compassion to me.
5) Well I’d say birth is the cause of an individual’s eventual death since death can’t be avoided, but not always the cause of old age since it can be avoided after birth by the extreme choice of suicide. However, I still believe that a person’s life can be good even with some suffering, eventual aging, and death awaiting them. There are friends, family, and wonderful ideals in life too for them to experience.
Anyway, thanks for the conversation. At the very least, antinatalism has made me think about procreation a lot more carefully.
Appreciate the conversation, James, thank you. Thinking about procreation more carefully is always a plus, given how big of a decision it really is.
Okay, so I’ve been thinking about antinatalism a lot and looking at the other comments here and I think I’ve better defined my stance with respect to the consent argument. I do think that consent is not an important factor specifically for the case of a nonexistent person, not just in cases when consent is impossible because there are cases of dealing with existing people where consent is impossible.
I also don’t think an existing baby has or had some sort of “right” to consent to life before it existed that was violated. I don’t see the need to respect impossible rights.
Regarding the common argument of preventing an infant who will lead certainly a miserable life, I don’t consider consent an issue. I justify preventing that life because its life will be worse than nonexistence.
I personally think a version of Matt Hayry’s risk argument is much more convincing. There is a possibility that a child will end up with a genetic defect which will lead it to have a terrible life. This is a morally relevant cause of its suffering rather than the amoral precondition it could be in other cases.
Combined with the misanthropic argument, another human would lead to more consumption, I personally think it would be morally wrong of me to procreate. I would like to raise children, but I will look to adopt in the future.
However, if somehow the vast majority of the human race was wiped out and I was one of the survivors, I do think I would have a duty to procreate to preserve humans as creators of art, literature, and science assuming I could also still provide healthy children with worthwhile lives.
If AI existed which could preserve those endeavors instead, I would probably be a complete antinatalist.
I enjoyed the article but I wanted to offer some insight into the axiological asymmetry as a few issues came up in the article and your subsequent conversation with James above. Benatar doesn’t refer to an impersonal view when discussing the basic asymmetry, he counter factually considers the person who would’ve existed but doesn’t and compares that to the scenario where they do exist.
When Benatar says the absence of pain is good he is judging that in regards to the interests of the person who would’ve otherwise existed. If you exist you would experience pain which is bad however if you avoid that pain by not existing that’s a good thing. It’s good compared to to the alternative in which you do exist. If instead you never come to exist in the first place the absence of any good things isn’t bad as there is no one there to be deprived.
James says in the above comment that if we can claim that the absence of pain is good in non existence then we should be able to claim the absence of pleasure is also bad, creating an ordinary symmetry. This demand for symmetry however is rarely justified. To look at why Benatar constructs it the way he does we have to realize the main function of it is explanatory. It explains a whole host of other intuitions we have a hard time explaining so Benatar offers those as a proof is in the pudding kind of deal.
One of those example was the martian example you offered above, another one goes like this. Imagine we do some genetic tests and we find out we could have a child that would suffer unbearably and die shortly after. Most people would say we have an obligation to avoid that child’s life and that avoiding the pain it would have to go through would a good thing. Alternatively think if we could have a child that would be happy by ordinary standards and we fail to bring that child into existence is that a bad thing? I think most people would say no there’s really no harm done there (not bad).
In a paper Elias Muusavi writes, “Insofar as we consider harms and benefits from a purely logical standpoint, there indeed is no independent reason to treat claims (iii) and (iv) differently. Benatar, however, is making a value-based rather than logical assertion. To say that symmetry would not be logically incoherent is to say nothing about whether or not asymmetry is more in line with our values”
The only way I know of so far to reject the asymmetry is to claim that the absence of pleasure is actually a bad thing but that leads to a somewhat counter intuitive claim. Mainly that we would be obligated to have as many children as possible (provided little to no cost to us). There are a host of newer objections that may or may not be compelling but so far Benatar’s asymmetry is the best explanation we have for these judgements. It also solves a range of problems in population ethics and the non identity problem so there are good reasons for accepting it.
Anyway thanks again for the well written article!
Thanks for the comment, Joe, much appreciated. I think it’s good you’ve clarified Benatar’s axiological asymmetry here. That’s how I’ve come to understand it when listening to Benatar explain it in response to this common objection, that it’s to do with value judgements about relative counterfactual states of affairs. I agree that the asymmetry does have the strength of being consistent with moral intuitions we take for granted, like in the example you give.
“To say that symmetry would not be logically incoherent is to say nothing about whether or not asymmetry is more in line with our values.” This is a good point. I suppose it would still be possible to question what is grounding our asymmetric value judgements and our moral intuitions. But even so, I haven’t personally come across anyone arguing the opposite of the common intuitions that Benatar is pointing out, that failing to procreate and bring about very good lives would be bad or conversely that knowingly bringing into existence very bad lives could possibly be good.
I do plan on writing another article addressing Benatar’s axiological asymmetry, as I do think there are some potential issues with it, such as a possible confusion of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in a preferential vs. moral sense, and certain counterintuitive implications of the axiological asymmetry. For example, if failing to bring about the good in a life is not bad (neutral) and preventing the bad in a life is good, then we would have to judge a life that is entirely good except for a one-second experience of a pinprick as not worth bringing about. This criticism, the ‘pinprick argument’, is also levelled against negative utilitarianism. (As a side note, I’ve found it strange Benatar claims his axiological asymmetry is theory-neutral since to me it seems very much like a distinctly negative utilitarian argument, even if it might also be consistent with a Kantian, Rawlsian, or virtue ethics approach.)
I have heard Benatar address this criticism before and say that if a life could ever be this good, then it might be justified to bring it into existence, although he says this scenario is unlikely to ever materialise. I can’t remember, however, why he said it would be justified, as it seems to go against his axiological asymmetry (unless he believes the empirical asymmetry can trump the axiological asymmetry in certain cases like this one).
Thank you for the clarification, but I don’t consider the asymmetry convincing in the first place. Not just because of its implications.
Firstly, if Benatar justifies his asymmetry as an explanation of a moral intuition that there’s a duty to avoid miserable children but not a duty to produce happy children he has to take into account that the latter is much more labor-intensive. Besides the strain on a woman’s body it requires a lot of effort from the parents and support from society to create a good life.
An analogy: Most people would agree that we have a duty to help the homeless. I don’t say you have the duty to personally provide lodging for the homeless using your house.
If making a good life was as easy as pressing a button, only slightly more than refraining from procreation with no strain on society or anyone else, admittedly that still wouldn’t be enough to make it a duty to create that life but there is certainly a situation where many value systems would make it a duty.
If the human race were about to go extinct and you could create good lives by the press of a button with no (or more realistically only minor) strain on anyone or anything else, then many value systems could make it a duty to create those lives. Classical utilitarianism might make it a duty anyway even if the human race isn’t going to go extinct.
I’m not saying you have to find it compelling there are ways to reject the asymmetry but I want to acknowledge that the basic asymmetry provides an explanation not just for the earlier case I provided but a whole host of other cases. Benatar also recognizes that creating a child is labor intensive and generally involves major costs to the progenitors. The point is if you think the deprivation of a good life is bad in the case of a potential person then absent those costs we would have an obligation to bring as many people into existence as possible. Personally this doesn’t jive well with me and I imagine many others however some do opt to go this route.
That said I wasn’t exactly sure why you didn’t find it convincing from your post. As you said, even if we could create those lives with minimal cost via your button we still wouldn’t have a moral obligation to bring those people into existence. This actually agrees with the basic asymmetry Benatar outlines. I also agree it would be a duty to bring someone into existence on certain ethical views but even those who think we have a positive duty to bring about pleasure in day to day life might not agree with that same principle when applied to procreation. If you would like to expand on your criticism id be happy to respond, otherwise thanks for the comment.
You seem to be focusing on arguing against the asymmetry by saying that absence of pleasure is bad. While I personally do believe this can be the case, one can also say both absence of pain and absence of pleasure are neutral for a nonexistent subject.
Honestly, it just seems like Benatar’s is touting his own opinion in his axiological asymmetry that he thinks the rest of us should accept. I really doubt he ever sighed in relief at the nonexistence of Martian cancer patients, and for other people it certainly is possible to be upset at the lack of Martians. In fact, many people would consider it a shame if humans were the only intelligent species in the universe.
Meanwhile he’d be relieved at the lack of babies, but other people would be saddened by it. The only way absence of pleasure or pain can be good or bad when the subject of that pain doesn’t exist is from the perspective of the people who imagine a world where that subject exists. Not on behalf of the subject itself. So either absence of pleasure/pain of a nonexistent person is bad/good from the point of view of us, or it’s not bad/good at all.
I think I see you discuss with Jake that it can be bad/good from the view of the nonexistent person, but that would still lead to normal symmetry. We imagine a person would want to avoid pain which is good for them, but avoiding pleasure would then also bad for them.
In a world with billions of people, in many ethical systems there isn’t a moral duty to procreate even with the reproductive button. But when human extinction is threatened, as would be the case if antinatalist attitudes were widespread, there certainly can be a moral duty.
This has to do with sufficientarianism for me. You may be obligated to correct a system of inequality where two people working the exact same job receive different salaries such as $50,000 and $60,000. Yet do you feel that same obligation if they were earning $50 billion and $60 billion? I certainly don’t.
In a magical world with billions of people and a reproductive button, I don’t feel the need to press it. In a different magical world with a dwindling population of a few hundred people an obligation certainly does emerge.
I certainly don’t think I’ll change your mind on the asymmetry if you do in fact think that the absence of potential pleasure is a bad thing. I’ll instead try to offer some insight into why Benatar feels the asymmetry itself is justified. First I do want to note you are correct in that Benatar adopts a view that examines whether or not coming into existence is good or bad for that person. If we’re to consider a potential person that doesn’t yet exist any potential harms would be bad for them if they were to come into existence, thereby avoiding those harms would be good even if the only way to avoid that bad is by avoiding the person. In other words these value judgments are made in reference to the person who exists in one and only one of the two scenarios. The objection I imagine you would have is that if we consider this same person, it makes perfect sense to claim that the lack of any potential pleasure they otherwise would’ve had is in fact bad.
Benatar thinks we shouldn’t make this claim, the best way to demonstrate that is to examine some of the underlying cases he provides. First however I want to touch on the martian asymmetry, you’ve said you don’t find the asymmetry of distant suffering convincing, he briefly addresses a similar criticism in the book. It’s not exactly the same since you do think the absence of pleasure is bad although the response is relevant to your comment about feeling relief in regards to this absence of martian cancer.
That said I don’t think relief is the appropriate contrast to regret in this case, Benatar notes “Although we regret the suffering of distant others, at least when we think about them, we are not usually overcome with melancholy about it. Thus the important question is not whether we feel joy-the opposite of melancholy-about absent pains but whether the absent pain is the opposite of regrettable-what we might call ‘welcome’ or simply ‘good’. The answer, I have suggested, is affirmative. If we are asked whether the absent suffering is a good feature of neverexisting, we would have to say that it is.”
Moving on though I’d like to go back to the prior example about the suffering child for a moment. Previously you’ve stipulated we should consider costs to those who are bringing this child into existence in the example with the suffering child but for the moment I think we can put that aside. The basic asymmetry is focused on the being who we’re considering bringing into existence and so I don’t think this is the relevant consideration for the moment.
Imagine again that we could have a child that would suffer horribly and die prematurely, most people would think we have an obligation to avoid that life and further if you brought that life into existence you would be doing something wrong. Avoiding that life would be a good thing. Alternatively we could have a child that would have a nearly blissful life, but think if we failed to bring that child into existence would that be something that’s bad? On your account I think you would say yes, personally it appears that bringing the suffering life into existence would convict me of a serious moral failing, whereas if I fail to bring this happy being into existence there’s really no harm done. The extra weight afforded to the former case appears appropriate.
Beyond that someone could say the absence of pleasure or pain in non existence isn’t good or bad but then you couldn’t make the value judgments about the case I just described and that seems intolerable to me. I’m also inclined to believe that many people could be saddened by a lack of babies as in your example but the main reason I believe that to be so is not because of the lack of any potential happiness for the child itself. Remorse about not having children is usually remorse for ourselves having missed out on childbearing and rearing experiences.
Further in your case with a dwindling population I’m curious why you feel that we would be obligated to push the button. The way I see it a non existent person has no interest in coming into existence as they will be harmed to a non trivial degree, I’m inferring here but I would think you’re referring to a societal obligation. Assuming I’m on the mark here the question that comes to mind is, why are we justified in using this person as a means to an end? Thanks again for the thoughtful responses.
Honestly, I think avoiding a miserable life is not good for the imaginary child. I think you’ve misplaced the good (if there is any) from this case.
Let me demonstrate. I am aware that if I were to run my car into the sidewalk, I could mow down a number of pedestrians. Do I deserve praise for avoiding this action? Is it “good” somehow that I didn’t do this? I don’t think so. It’s merely “not bad”.
Now, the case with the parents avoiding creating a miserable child is a bit different. It can contain good, but the only possible source of good I see is from the parents. If they wanted to have a child but sacrificed their desires to avoid a miserable child, then they have been morally virtuous.
No good came from the imaginary child. If a couple learned that they would have a miserable child but they weren’t going to have children anyway, then there is no good here in their avoidance. Just the same as there is no good from me stopping myself from going on a murder spree.
So I don’t think it’s right to say a case of avoiding a miserable child is a good thing if you ignore the parents. It’s only a “not terrible” thing that people are relieved by and it’s incorrect to say it’s good for the child.
I also don’t use a moral system that focuses solely on harms or benefits done to a person. I think there is a duty to preserve things such as ecosystems, art, science, and literature. I also think intentions matter. If a stalker peeks on a person and is never discovered, I don’t think it’s possible to say he’s harmed them but it’s certainly wrong.
That’s why I think you can still believe it’s good without taking into account an imaginary child.
I’m not sure what Benatar is supposed to mean by feeling “welcome” at the nonexistence of suffering beings. I certainly don’t feel anything like what he describes, and this seems to be a clear demonstration of him expecting other people to agree with his opinion.
I also don’t think it’s cogent to say there are features of nonexistence. He seems to be making a mistake of imagining some being in a state called nonexistence when it’s not a state but a lack of any states whatsoever. It’s not good to be nonexistent, it’s not bad, it’s not anything at all. I do consider nonhuman considerations in my ethics, but those considerations have to exist at least in some point in time to be considered.
I agree with the aspect of Kantian ethics which states that I shouldn’t use people merely as a means to an end. But focus on the word, “merely”. They are not meant merely as a means, they are an end in themselves too.
I would not want to force people to preserve art, science, literature, etc. if they hated it. But the reality is that they don’t hate it, these things enrich people’s lives and benefit them greatly. Future people are not meant to be slaves building and maintaining the monuments of intellect. Future people are “invited” to realms of thought which they can explore further.
And these aren’t the only reasons I have to justify creating them. Art, science, literature, etc. are amazing but for most people friendships and family are much more fulfilling but these alone would make it only permissible rather than a duty to me.
I do think there is an asymmetry, but it’s not a simple binary one of good and not bad. It’s a matter of degrees. I do consider an absence of pleasure to be bad, but not bad enough to force a moral duty in most cases. I do consider the nonexistence of the miserable child good, but only because the other bad is enough to force a duty.
Note though that I do believe a normal symmetry can arise in a case of a dwindling population like I described earlier.
However, in normal cases this asymmetry is not from the perspective of the child but the perspective of the individuals considering the case of the child. We are more relieved at avoidance of extreme harm than annoyed at the avoidance of extreme benefit (although we certainly are still annoyed).
I don’t think we need to consider a person who doesn’t exist, never existed, and will never exist. Although from the point of this imaginary child, I certainly think there would merely be normal symmetry.
The judgement Benatar is making when we examine the axiological asymmetry has nothing to do with the parents. I don’t deny that the parents have some kind of stake in the potential child generally and that avoiding a miserable child would be morally good on their behalf but that’s not the question he’s trying to answer. There are multiple possible contentious issues here, one is that you seem to be suggesting that we can’t morally consider a being before they’re brought into existence and I don’t see this to be the case.
Benatar responds to this objection saying “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 non-identity 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. 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.”
While it’s not exactly the same as procreation we make this kind of judgement all the time, for example. When someone is in extremis, after they pass away it’s often said that they are “better off dead”. It’s not that they are able to experience the benefit of the absence of those harms and yet what we say makes sense. Had that person continued to exist this pain would be bad for them and so it makes perfect sense to say that they themselves are better off even though they are no longer around.
Another objection was that non existence has no features. This is evidently true but again Benatar is making a comparative judgement he is focused on the worlds value relative to the person who exists in one of the two possible cases. Benatar notes “Now it is obviously the case that if somebody never comes into existence there is no actual person who is thereby benefited. However, we can still claim that it is better for a person that he never exist, on condition that we understand that locution as a shorthand for a more complex idea. That more complex idea is this: We are comparing two possible worlds—one in which a person exists and one in which he does not. One way in which we can judge which of these possible worlds is better, is with reference to the interests of the person who exists in one (and only one) of these two possible worlds. Obviously those interests only exist in the possible world in which the person exists, but this does not preclude our making judgments about the value of an alternative possible world, and doing so with reference to the interests of the person in the possible world in which he does exist. 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.
More directly he says “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.”
That being said I don’t think I’ve misplaced any good here. All that considered I think it makes eminent sense to say the absence of any pain or pleasure is good/bad. In the case with the suffering child for example don’t you think you can say it’s better to avoid that life? It’s good to avoid the pain they would experience if they had been brought into existence from the perspective of that child. No they will not get to experience the benefit of that absent pain but not experiencing it is good compared to the other scenario in which they would be subject to it. That being said I think your evaluation of avoiding a bad is too weak, it’s not simply not bad but good. If you really believe not bad to be the correct evaluation then you couldn’t avoid that suffering child’s life based on the principle that it would be good to avoid a life of suffering.
Lets take a look at the scenario you’ve provided for a moment. In one scenario you don’t run over someone and in another you do. It seems very clear to me that the scenario in which you don’t run them over is good relative to the scenario where you do run them over. I don’t think the prominent question is whether or not you deserve praise but rather which is the preferable outcome. The former is good compared to the later.
Also when Benatar says we should feel welcome at the nonexistence of suffering beings, welcome would be the opposite of regret. Certainly if those martians did exist we would regret any suffering they had to endure thereby it makes sense to say the absence of that would be welcome aka good. I also don’t expect everyone to agree with those intuitions hes just walking people through the thought process, I’ve acknowledged your disagreement with the absence of pleasure so I’m not surprised you disagree but your initial gripe appeared to be one of wording in regards to this point.
I also don’t think you can use this dwindling population case to leverage a point against the axiological asymmetry which is trying to work out whether or not it’s in that particular persons interests to come into existence or not. There maybe other asymmetries at play here but this is not what Benatar is focusing on.
Lastly Benatar acknowledges all these potential goods you’ve listed within a life and we can argue about the relative balance of goods and bad but the major point is that if no one exists the absence of that art, music, literature, family, and friends is not bad. These things will benefit already existing people but if you’ve never existed you have no need for them.
Okay, thanks for clarifying, but I don’t think a person who doesn’t exist, never existed, and will never exist has moral consideration. I also don’t think a person who does exist had moral consideration before they existed.
The case with a person who existed and “is better off dead” is only sensible because they existed in both worlds. So I don’t see this as justification to say something is good for someone who never existed and never will exist in one world while in the other he does. The existing person had a prior interest in avoidance of pain in both worlds which was fulfilled by his death in this one.
Nonexistence for a person after they existed is not the same as nonexistence of a person before they exist. In fact, a person before they exist can’t even be said to have something called “nonexistence”. An existing person can have states that are negated, but they can’t have states before they exist. And nonexistence of a person who never exists at any point in time only deserves consideration as an interesting idea.
It seems clear to me that Benatar is insisting on an asymmetry that represents his personal opinion. He asks us to imagine two worlds, one with a miserable person and one without that person, and say that one is better than the other from the perspective of a child who somehow has interests before he exists and would prefer one world over the other.
If he wants to insist on a view like that, then it just turns into regular symmetry. Imagine a world where a child who wants to be happy before they exist, he can certainly feel that a world where they don’t exist is worse than a world where they have a happy life. If you feel comfortable ignoring the incoherence of a child who wants to avoid pain before they exist, then I see no reason to ignore an imaginary child who wants to be happy before they exist.
To me, the only reason Benatar seems to think his axiological asymmetry is valid is because he’s already assumed that happy people are delusional if they want to live and that he gets to dictate what imaginary people’s interests are.
Yes, I acknowledge that if no one exists the lack of art, science, literature is bad for no one. But if you’re insisting on a two world view with people who enjoy art, science, and literature in one world vs. an empty world then it is bad from the point of view of those potential people. They want a world with art, science, and literature.
You must acknowledge that a person who never existed as no interest in avoiding pain or pursuing happiness or stick to your two world view. I don’t see any justification for asymmetry with one or the other.
And lastly, there is a very big problem with using this two world approach. I am often capable of killing or attacking existing people nearby me. With the two world thinking, every moment I don’t attack them should be considered morally good rather than just not bad or not terrible. I don’t feel welcome when I think about how people aren’t constantly murdering each other, if you were to point this out as a welcome or good thought I’d just be confused. I don’t think this a useful definition of good, certainly not one I’d use.
No problem! I do wonder why you don’t think we should give someone moral consideration before they come into existence. Let’s postulate a scenario where you do some genetic tests and you knew your child would have some protracted disease and will suffer unspeakably and die before you conceived them. Would you still conceive them based on the notion that we can’t consider them morally? I think nearly everyone would recognize that bringing this life into existence would be a morally reprehensible act.
We make similar judgements bringing people into existence all the time, say some prospective parents live a life of poverty and are deciding whether or not to have a kid. They can imagine the life that child will have and decide whether or not it would be in that child’s interests to be conceived based on the world they would be brought into. You’re making a judgement that is going to inflict a non trivial amount of harm, I don’t see why this person wouldn’t deserve some prior consideration.
The case with the person who is better off dead I recognize that the person exists in both worlds in a physical sense however once the person dies they no longer exist in any conscious manner. We can recognize they are physically there postmortem however consciously they don’t exist so in an important way this is analogous to the procreative case. The dead person cannot experience the relief of harms just as the potential person cannot experience the relief of those same harms, in both cases we are considering the alternative scenario in which they are brought into or continue to exist and in this case judge that to be worse. You’ve said this prior person had an interest in avoiding pain, why would a future person not have an interest in avoiding that same pain? Again I don’t see why we should preclude the potential person.
The only reason I could imagine that you would make this case is if you’re assuming a kind of epicurean argument whereby the person doesn’t exist before or after their death in any relevant matter. If this is the judgement you’re making then you can’t say that the person who has died is in fact better off because there’s no second term for comparison. Also Benatar’s belief that people are deluded about the quality of their lives has nothing to do with the axiological asymmetry, the quality of life arguments and basic asymmetry are separable. You do need to combine them both to reach antinatalism but they stand on their own respectively.
The basic asymmetry appeals to our values, not everyone is going to share these same ones, the point he’s trying to make is that the asymmetry itself is based on certain intuitions that he believes many people hold. That doesn’t make the asymmetry decisive but I do think many people would accept it until they see where it leads. The way I see it I don’t think the absence of any positive pleasures if you don’t exist is bad, Benatar gives an analogy to deal with this, it isn’t perfect but nonetheless demonstrates what I believe to be the essential point.
Imagine we have two people one called Sick (S) and the other Healthy (H), S is prone to become ill, fortunately for him he is constituted in a way that allows him to recover quickly. H lacks that capacity for quick recovery but instead never gets sick, it makes sense to say that the capacity for quick recovery is good for S. S would be worse off without it but that attribute by which he recovers quickly isn’t a net advantage over H since H never has any need for it in the first place. The main point he wants to make here is that presence of benefits if we exist doesn’t constitute an advantage over the absence of pleasure in non existence. The absent pleasure is not bad compared to the alternative because there is no one to be deprived of it so non existence can never be worse.
In this last scenario I’m not sure why you’re objecting to this inference that not murdering would be good. If in one scenario you murder a person and in another scenario you don’t it makes plenty of sense to say that the scenario in which you don’t murder them is good. If we look at the two possible outcomes of this situation I don’t think there is anything mysterious or mystifying, it makes total sense.
You say many people reject Benatar’s asymmetry because of its implications, but it seems to me you only accept it because of its implications. You’re focusing a lot on how it seems to be the only way to make it morally reprehensible to knowingly have a miserable child.
A person may have a sort of moral consideration before they exist, but that’s only because actions taken before they exist can affect them after they exist. It’s a very unique standing because there is no interest in avoiding pain or pursuing pleasure before they exist, so actions can only be said to be on their behalf if they exist to be affected later and the actions are reasonably believed to be in line with their future interests.
However, that’s not even the case described with avoiding a miserable or happy child. There is no before or after they exist because they never existed and will never exist.
If a miserable child was intentionally created, that would be morally reprehensible. Avoiding moral evils is enough to justify avoiding that child. I don’t consider it morally “good”, just not evil. It doesn’t require moral consideration of a never-existent child to say so, it only requires a judgment of the intentions of the people creating that child.
Only outside observers such as us or your interdimensional interviewer can make it good or bad. Not a never-existing person. You or Benatar may like to believe you’re taking the part of interviewing a person in another world, but that’s not the case. It’s an artificial scenario of considering a never-existent person in one case but ignoring them for no good reason I see in another. I ignore them in both cases.
Since no one avoided the harms, there is no one who benefitted from avoiding those harms. Just as there was no one is harmed by deprivation of benefits when there is no one to be deprived. Benatar is contradicting himself when he says “No no, we need to interview the miserable child in the second world! This second world with the happy child’s opinion though? Who cares? He’ll never exist.” This seems like a lot of handwaving tacked on to justify something inconsistent.
I’m not sure what your point with S and H is unless you want to state that all benefits in life are only privations of evil like Schopenhauer believed. That is not my experience of benefits in life, they certainly seem to be positives on their own. And very important point, you want me to consider a scenario where both S and H exist and can be compared. That already changes a lot of things because S and H are experiencing those benefits. So it seems even less relevant.
And weren’t you insisting on interviewing two worlds? A person certainly can prefer a world where he exists to one where he doesn’t, in fact that describes most people in this world. You also seem to be focusing on comparative value when it deals with absence of pain but ignoring it in the point of absence of pleasure.
I do believe in the Epicurean view of death. Nonexistence can’t be good or bad for someone in the same way existence isn’t good or bad for a rock. A existing rock can’t experience good or bad, a nonexistent person can’t experience good or bad.
An existing person dying is a very different case from a never-existent person. It can be better for an existing person if he were dead before he dies because he has states and interests. When he dies he had states which nonexistence eliminated and nonexistence can be said to be in line with his interests. A never-existent person never had states or interests. After the existing person dies though, he can’t experience good. It’s not better “for him” but it can be better for other observers.
Murder, forcing a transition from existing to nonexistent, can still be wrong because again I include intentions in my moral values.
In fact, looking only at harms or benefits seems to be limiting. If a stalker watches a person undress in such a way that they’re never discovered, is that morally reprehensible? Can you say so based on harms if the undresser is not harmed? Or can you somehow claim that the undresser is harmed?
The reason I say a scenario of murder vs. non-murder or violence vs. non-violence is not good is because I am almost always in this scenario. This would require you to say I’m almost always acting good in my daily life. Such as me driving down a road everyday is somehow good because I’m not running people over every time.
Apologies in advance, for whatever reason I’m unable to respond to your most recent reply so this will be somewhat out of order. (in regards to the Jan 12th 11:13pm response)
It’s helpful you’ve clarified that you accept the epicurean view because that makes everything essentially a moot point. I don’t think it’s productive for us to discuss the merits of this argument, it’s old and resilient, surely we won’t resolve it here.
I also accept the asymmetry because of the implications but that’s the point, all of these underlying intuitions and implications on my view justify the asymmetry. It’s hard to accept the fact that if you told me I was going to have a child that would suffer horribly that I couldn’t say it was good to avoid that life. Why is that not a good reason to accept it?
If you don’t think avoiding a life that would be filled with unspeakable misery is good and instead is not bad I’m curious what your conception of good would be. I also don’t think it’s correct to say avoiding a miserable life doesn’t require us to consider the never existent child. You’re saying avoiding moral evils is enough to justify avoiding the life. What life are we talking about here? If you accept the epicurean view there is no one there before they come into existence so you cannot consider that person at all. This justification doesn’t work unless we can point to a victim of these evils, once they come into existence you could say it was bad but only after the fact, you couldn’t avoid that life in principle. The intentions of the people creating it have nothing to do with the axiological asymmetry.
You’ve also suggested that Benatar is conjuring the asymmetry as he evaluates pain on one side and not pleasure on the other but this demand for symmetry is rarely justified. Benatar notes this objection saying “The mistake in this objection is that it misconstrues my basic asymmetry as a logical rather than axiological claim.” Further Elias Muusavi responds to a similar criticism saying “Magnusson says that there is nothing incoherent about modifying Benatar’s claim (iv) to mirror the counterfactual person-affecting reading of claim (iii). He is right that there is nothing incoherent about it, but the claim’s coherence does not imply that it is axiologically true.”
Finally Elias concludes “To say that symmetry would not be logically incoherent is to say nothing about whether or not asymmetry is more in line with our values.” That being said if you agree with the underlying asymmetries Benatar puts forward you should accept the basic asymmetry. You’ve made it clear you don’t I just want to show why I think Benatar is right to treat each of these quadrants differently. You can rearrange the chart he provides in anyway you want but I believe Benatar’s evaluation is the most plausible.
The point I was trying to make with the S and H analogy was that being H is the better option. S has one positive and one negative attribute, H has one positive and one not bad attribute. S is analogous to an existing person and H a potential non existent person, I’m not denying that the positives are good within a life. I’m just saying that those positive benefits in S are not a net advantage over H because he never has any need for such benefits. I also agree the analogy can’t be like procreation in every way but it’s nonetheless instructive.
Looking at only harms and benefits may be limiting but I don’t believe this is the only view Benatar takes. Benatar uses multiple different criterion to evaluate a life. His empirical arguments would cover this however that is an extensive argument and probably isn’t productive for us to analyze, there I’d defer to the book. I would say in the case of the stalker their act may be morally bad although that doesn’t mean the action inevitably harms the victim, that would depend on your view. I would be inclined to say the victim has been harmed in a way as I believe something bad can befall someone even if they aren’t aware of it, harm may not be the exact term but it’s a kind of harm. Some epicureans are of the mind that conscious states are what really matter so if the victim never finds out about it then they haven’t in fact been harmed.
Also I don’t think being in a recurring scenario all the time negates the goodness of an action necessarily. If I spend all of my time driving following the rules of the road I would say I’m acting in good faith, it may be a stretch to call that morally virtuous however if the alternative is running someone over and I avoid that fate I would say that is a morally good decision.
Hi Joe, for some reason WordPress has a 10 comment limit for nested comments so that is probably why you can’t respond to the last comment directly (this seems like an annoying restriction to me, so I may look into that). Also, I just wanted to say it’s been fascinating for me to see the exchange between you and James. Lots to think about, and also it’s refreshing to see a healthy and respectful debate about a tricky subject like this one.
Okay, Benatar’s asymmetry is not in line with my values. I didn’t realize the definition of axiological beforehand so I suppose that is enough to reject it.
Lastly, I will say this. I don’t need consideration of a never-existent person to say avoiding a miserable child is not bad or even good. I can say it’s good because it follows a deontological principle: “When procreating, behave at least as well as you would have wanted your parents to for your own procreation.” Creating a miserable child intentionally is not in line with that principle. The one who has benefitted from that good is me, by being morally virtuous. Not a never-existent child.
A minor note: I don’t think it can ever be plausible to say you can benefit a never-existent person regardless of the intuitions that lead you to it. The only way it could be comparatively plausible if is you compare it to another nonsensical statement.
Sorry this will be a reply to the wrong response again I’m unable to reply to the latest post (In regards to Jan 14, 4:03 AM)
I’m happy to acknowledge this difference in values so we can set that aside and move onto the other points of contention. I’m also not denying there are other bases we can use to make these judgements such as the deontological principle you’ve outlined. I’m also not denying that you can make this evaluation within a life, so if a child exists who is miserable the epicurean could say it’s bad for them to exist. The problem I’m seeing here is that if you accept the epicurean argument I don’t think you can actually say it’s morally virtuous to not have that child.
This sort of problem arises as epicureans impose something called the existence requirement on themselves. This states that for something to be bad for somebody, he must exist at the time it’s bad for him. Epicureans say “When we exist, death is not; and when death exists, we are not.” If we consider this then before a child comes into existence we cannot consider the person in any sense of the word, they just aren’t there. If we are to imagine you had a 100% chance of conceiving a child with some kind of appalling genetic defect and you opted not to conceive, you wouldn’t be able to say there was anything good that came out of that situation.
This would include the moral virtuosity of the action because any goodness of this action presupposes the existence of this potential child which in principle the epicurean cannot consider by their own admission. The non epicurean view (Benatar’s) doesn’t inhibit us in anyway when making these kind of evaluations.
I also don’t think it’s correct to say that the comparison is implausible unless you involve another nonsensical statement. I’m thinking this critique you’ve added in your addendum probably rests on a misunderstanding, It’s evident that no one is directly benefited or harmed from the absent pains or pleasures in non existence.
Elias Muusavi comments on this same criticism saying “When Benatar claims that the absence of harm is good, he means that the absence of harm is good for someone. The obvious contention is that something cannot be good for someone if that someone never exists. But, as Benatar explains, (iii) is not making the “absurd literal claim that there is some actual person for whom the absent pain is good.” (Benatar, 2006, p. 31) Rather, the judgement in (iii) is made “with reference to the (potential) interests of a person who either does or does not exist.” (ibid., p. 30) (iii) tells us that the absence of harm is good “when judged in terms of the interests of the person who would otherwise have existed.” We do not know who that person would have been had they existed, but we can still judge that the absence of the harms she would have experienced in the counterfactual case in which she did exist is good.”
I want to add, I would concede that this comparison makes little sense if you accept the Epicurean view but since Benatar doesn’t there isn’t an issue here. Earlier I gave the example of a child born into abject poverty. The parents can reasonably decide if it’s in that child’s interests to come into existence based on the life they would have, I don’t think there’s anything unreasonable about that. Obviously if the child doesn’t exist they won’t get to experience the benefit of that lack of poverty but I don’t think there’s anything nonsensical about saying that the child avoiding this fate is a good thing.
I find the precondition of existence to be undeniable. It doesn’t matter what unfortunate answers may follow from such a stance, this can’t be changed.
If death is nonexistence, then death can not good or bad for the person who dies. Only the process of dying can be good or bad because a person exists as they die. There is no such thing as a dying process of zero time, a person has to die to be in the non-state of death.
Moral virtue can come from following principles regardless of consequences that may result. That is what makes deontology different from consequentialism. If telling the truth were a virtue, even if people are harmed by the truth, the truth-teller can still be virtuous. Likewise, a person can certainly predict that certain actions would result in miserable children. They can be virtuous in avoiding those actions whether or not there are children benefitted or harmed from their actions.
Besides, a person’s gametes exist before they make procreative decisions. One can make moral principles barring certain actions with their own gametes without considering those gametes as people.
None of these scenarios require giving people who never exist, purely imaginary people, moral consideration. And if there were a scenario which required giving purely potential people moral consideration, then that moral act would be unsupportable. At least, that’s how I see it.
(Re: March 5, 2021 / 2:21 am)
I’m not trying to examine the merits of the epicurean argument, we’re not going to resolve that here I just want to note that it’s a controversial assumption and there would be many people who disagree with your view (that’s not to say it’s wrong). An unfortunate feature of this argument is that there’s no way to prove or disprove it so I don’t see a reason to go down this road, I’m happy to accept where we differ here.
Certainly there can be a level of moral virtuosity in following some general deontological principle or one crafted specifically in regards to procreation but that’s not going to explain our intuitions around procreation (at least so far). Nor is it going to explain why someone might be benefited or harmed by being brought into existence. At the end of the day I want to know whether it’s better to bring someone into existence or not, not necessarily the moral virtuosity of the action, of course these are closely related but importantly different questions.
It seems possible to create a moral principle without considering a child specifically, something general. Then that could be applied to procreation without expressly considering that person but if we want to know whether existence or non existence is preferable in the procreative case I do think we need to consider a potential person. If you are an epicurean though I don’t think that any moral virtuosity comes from anything surrounding that potential child. The good would be like you said from following the principle that you deem as moral.
It strikes me as odd however to create a deontological principle specifically aimed at procreation while at the same time claiming that we don’t need to morally consider a potential child. If there’s no person to ever consider then I don’t see the point of making that principle in the first place. Of course creating this sort of principle is normal if your not an epicurean but in that specific case it does appear strange.
Something similar could be said about the gamete argument you’ve suggested. You could create a moral principle barring the use of your gametes and say that’s morally virtuous but not because it would spare a potential child harm. The gamete exists but I don’t think it exists in the same way that a relevant person would sometime after conception. The crucial point here is that the earliest an epicurean could consider a being is after conception but by that point it’s too late to consider the matter.
No problem Sam, I’ve discussed the topic with a few people who oppose the values that Benatar suggests but I do think that most people would agree with these intuitions until they see where it leads. I can’t personally imagine how failing to bring a happy person into existence would convict me of a somewhat serious ethical lapse. Sam Harris has an episode where he talks to Benatar about this exact point if you want to see that perspective on it.
Yes there are some counter intuitive implications of the asymmetry but the more I’ve thought about it the more I feel that maybe I was too quick to judge. It appears to me there are a few separate questions we need to ask when thinking about these matters. One is if the being is harmed by being brought into existence and second should we bring that being into existence.
If you accept the basic asymmetry then it appears that a potential being has no interest in coming into existence as it’s always a net harm as you mentioned. Now that may be in a minor harm but from that being’s perspective there is no reason to create it. If we postulate an idyllic life you could say there’s nothing bad in that life but there’s also nothing bad in non existence so there they’re equal. If however you never exist you don’t need those good things so there’s an indifference but it makes immediate sense.
That being said Benatar would concede if the harms were minor enough other considerations could prompt us to have a reason to bring this child into existence. Mainly parental or communal considerations he says. You are also correct in saying that Benatar believes this scenario to be overly optimistic and I’d wager hes probably right.
I also do think you’re right that the argument probably garners more attention from someone that is sympathetic to a negative utilitarian type of view but I don’t think that’s the only view it makes sense as you’ve mentioned. Further I want to point out his empirical arguments may be more appealing to other ethical views. That being said I’d be interested in reading the objections you have or others have to the empirical arguments David espouses as those are actually stronger than the basic asymmetry in my opinion.
The basic asymmetry only is meant to show it is a harm to come into existence, that could be only a minor harm. It has some strong implications but if the quality of our lives was on a whole good then it seems we could overcome the axiological asymmetry (at least on some views).
Ah, yes, I remember him now making that distinction: whether a being is harmed vs. whether we should bring someone into existence. You clearly know the argument very well!
I can imagine parental/communal interests justifying it in some cases – I recently just listened to a podcast with philosopher Rivka Weinberg who places quite a lot of weight on parental interests. She therefore argues procreation is not always wrong but often it is.
(Regarding the 1/13 @ 12:04 )Thanks for the reply about the comment Sam I thought the it might be an issue with my end, I’m glad to have that cleared up. Further yes me and James do disagree one some things but I think we’ve had a productive conversation, I think we’ve both come away having learned something, unfortunately these respectful disagreements are seldom had. These are important matters and they deserve as much care and consideration as we can give them.
I don’t think people are obliged to have children. But I disagree with suggesting that they are obliged not to do so either, as I think that life is, when seen comprehensively, a net positive. But I do respect people who choose to place the suffering of others before their own superficial pleasures.
One of the comments above states the following in defense of the asymmetry argument:
“Imagine we do some genetic tests and we find out we could have a child that would suffer unbearably and die shortly after. Most people would say we have an obligation to avoid that child’s life and that avoiding the pain it would have to go through would a good thing. Alternatively think if we could have a child that would be happy by ordinary standards and we fail to bring that child into existence is that a bad thing? I think most people would say no there’s really no harm done there (not bad).”
The key question above is, good or bad for whom exactly? Deciding not to bring into the world a child who would mostly suffer cannot be said to be a “good” thing from the point of that nonexistent child, who has no conception of pleasure or pain. To the extent we can say it’s “good”, it’s good from a societal standpoint, since the world would not be burdened with additional net suffering.
By the same token, not bringing into the world a child who would lead a life of mostly happiness and pleasure would indeed be a “bad” thing, if by “bad” we mean that a world without the additional net happiness is worse off than a world with the greater overall happiness.
The key point is that in both of the above scenarios, the nonexistent child has no say in forming the value judgment of pleasure or suffering — the person isn’t there to experience either. Hence, from a comparative standpoint, we cannot compare an existing person vs. a nonexistent person, regardless of whether that existing person would be (mostly) happy or suffering. What we should do instead is compare apples to apples — e.g. a world with the person having been brought into existence vs. a world without that person — and then objectively and consistently determine which world would be “better” or “worse”. There is no asymmetry here.
Re: the consent argument, the following paragraph seems to be key:
“The salient point here is that all of these examples are disanalogous to procreation. When it comes to deciding to have children, all types of consent are impossible – there is no identifiable being that exists, and thus there is no way to say that consent could be meaningfully attached to them. From the antinatalist perspective, the sheer impossibility of consent is a crucial component of why procreation is unethical.”
However, the most fundamental — and, in my opinion, strongest — objection to the above is that the ability to give consent implies the ability to withhold consent. That is to say, consent as a concept is meaningless unless the subject in question also has the ability to say no, if even implicitly. In the case of the nonexistent person, surely the person cannot consent, but neither can s/he refuse. This is trivially true because a nonexistent person is no person at all. Hence, the fact that no one consents to being born is a meaningless argument, because it is just as true that no one refuses to be born. At best, the consent argument neither cuts against nor in favor of the antinatalist position. It is simply not a relevant consideration at all.
There may be other valid arguments for antinatalism, but consent is just not one of them.
When Benatar examines these questions he compares the counterfactual case where they don’t exist to the case in which they do exist. Benatar In Still Better Never to Have Been notes ” 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.”
That being said if we look back at the case of the child who would suffer unbearably it makes perfect sense to say it’s a good thing we avoid that life. If they had existed they would live a life replete with suffering, they won’t benefit directly from our decision to not bring them into existence however non existence compared to the alternative is good.
To be clear, you can go down this route if you like but then you can’t make the value judgements about the case I just described and that seems intolerable to me. Another example might be looking at the end of life, say someone is suffering from a terminal condition, their life is nothing but suffering. It again makes total sense to say that this person would be better off dead, even though they won’t consciously be able to experience the benefit of not suffering those harms. Death is better compared to the alternative.
I’m also not sure how much I agree with your assessment of the consent argument, I don’t see how not being able to obtain consent gives us a free pass to do whatever we want. This won’t be analogous in every way but think of a person in a coma, if some urge came over me to assault this person, certainly I should abstain. I wouldn’t use his lack of ability to consent to this beating as a justification for the assault in the first place. If anything it seems appropriate to afford more weight to these cases not less, this person is at my mercy therefore it seems appropriate to err on the side of caution.
I’ve already mentioned that I do think we can consider the person before they’re born so I’ll give another case that hopefully sheds some more light on the consent argument. Imagine we could breed humans into a world patently worse than ours, some kind of hellscape perhaps where there is just nothing but suffering. Surely you wouldn’t use the fact that someone can’t consent to being born as a rationale for bringing more people into this sort of world.
I wholly agree that if the person who comes into existence would lead a life of (mostly) horrible suffering, then it would have been better for that person not to have come into existence at all. This is true both from the standpoint of the person who did come into existence and is in fact suffering, as well as from the standpoint of the world that has been burdened with greater net suffering as a result of that person existing. What we cannot say, however, is that this is true from the standpoint of the nonexistent person. That is the basis of my argument against asymmetry. If it were true that the person would lead a life of great happiness and negligible suffering, then to have been born would be better from the standpoint of that existing person, and for the world as a whole as well. But to say that the nonexistent person is “no worse off” in that situation, as the argument from asymmetry would have it, is nonsensical to me. The nonexistent person is not some separate entity with its own moral worth or agency or concept of pleasure and pain — the nonexistent person is simply the absence of a person, nothing at all.
Regarding the consent argument, I of course agree that an inability to either consent or withhold consent (e.g. a person in a coma as you mentioned) does not give us a free pass to do whatever we want. I certainly would not want the world to somehow normalize taking advantage of incapacitated persons, and that is one of many good reasons not to assault the person in a coma. I also agree that we have some kind of moral obligation not to bring a person into existence if we knew that the person and/or the world would experience net suffering as a result. I just reject the notion that consent or lack thereof plays any role in this moral analysis.
I would agree with that. I don’t believe any sane person would want to bring another person into existence in a place which is literally hell. But far from “hell”, I and many others see that there are many good things of life, including relationships, art, and just something as simple as enjoying nature, which are worth a lot more than what we often realise. I believe that we need not be biased towards only positive things to realise that life can be (and is, in my view) a wonderful gift. One such example is this time, merry Christmas everyone and may the next year be a great one for you all!
And yeah, I do believe that the consent argument makes little sense, since the very concept of “consent” is invalid with something that doesn’t exist. But we can still infer that life would be good for others based on our own empirical and rational reasons. Of course, people may oppose this position, but I hope we can move towards a better future of joy, hope and truth for all!
A great article! I don’t agree with this philosophy, but I think it’s efforts to alleviate suffering are indeed commendable. I personally believe that one cannot obtain consent from “non-existent beings” and also that life is, on average, overwhelmingly positive despite moments of despair. That doesn’t mean that the bad things don’t matter or we can ignore them, but that there is much good in the world we may or may not often see.
I think you are correct that we mostly agree, the way I see it we’re just disagreeing on terminology. To clarify, it’s not that there is a person who is directly benefiting from the absence or presence of pain and pleasure in non existence, clearly there isn’t anyone there. Benatar considers the case in which they would exist and compares that to the case where they don’t exist. When you say it would’ve been better for that suffering person to not to come into existence, this is exactly the same judgement Benatar is making. What he’s saying is, non existence is preferable compared to the alternative state where that person would exist. This person cannot experience the benefits of that absent suffering if they don’t exist, but certainly if they did exist that suffering would be bad, thereby avoiding that is good.
Further with the case that you mentioned about the person who can’t be worse off on account of not existing, again there is no one to be worse off and that’s the point. If you exist any pleasure you have is good for you but if you had never existed in the first place you cannot be deprived of any absent goods, non existence can never be worse from that perspective.
Here’s a quote from the book that hopefully better explains it, claim (3) meaning the following – the absence of pain is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone. ” Claim (3) says that this absence is good when judged in terms of the interests of the person who would otherwise have existed. We may not know who that person would have been, but we can still say that whoever that person would have been, the avoidance of his or her pains is good when judged in terms of his or her potential interests. If there is any (obviously loose) sense in which the absent pain is good for the person who could have existed but does not exist, this is it. Clearly (3) does not entail the absurd literal claim that there is some actual person for whom the absent pain is good.”
Feel free to correct me if i misunderstood anything, also I think we both understand where we see differently on the consent argument, so thanks for the considerate comments.
This was an enlightening exposition. However, I don’t believe that a person who doesn’t exist is even a person. The whole “state of affairs” argument doesn’t make sense because suffering is inextricably linked with an actual person. Without a person, I don’t see how the non-existent state could be termed better in any meaningful sense. But if one grants this, there is a seemingly fundamental difference in our approach, because I do believe that not creating people who could experience joy is immoral. On a personal level, this isn’t that big of a deal. But if everyone starts doing so, it would be a problem.
Sure, one could argue that creation entails interests. But I don’t believe that all interests are bad, particularly when they are fulfilled for many people. The very reason someone would say that non-existence is “better” than existence is because they have a heightened interest of not suffering and preventing suffering. While this interest being frustrated is a negative, I believe that our interests that do get fulfilled is a positive which is more potent than the interests which aren’t met. One could go as far as to say that to not create anyone is a genuine harm to them, even if they aren’t actually harmed by it, because they cannot experience potentially good things. But that’s not a position I would necessarily take. In conclusion, I believe that a world with fulfilled and frustrated interests is better than a world (or state of affairs) with neither, even if it comes with the alleged “benefit” of no sufferring. Lastly, and I know this is a contentious issue someone who places a more negative value to life wouldn’t agree, I don’t believe that all pain and suffering is sufficiently bad. Thanks to both of you for the informative comments!
I think in your exposition you’re actually saying a few contradictory things so I’ll try to address both and then hopefully you can point me in the right direction if need be. In the first part of your critique you seem to be pushing a sort of epicurean line whereby if there is no conscious being there then we cannot consider their interests. It’s not that this is wrong but I just want to note this is a controversial assumption and certainly we won’t be able to settle this matter.
I do want to say though in the case for example with the person who is suffering and is in extremis we couldn’t say it would be better for that person to die. Personally I have a hard time accepting this and it’s just one reason I reject this epicurean premise where death cannot be bad for the person who dies. This would apply equally to bringing people into existence since as you said there’s no one there before they exist, Benatar however is able to make this comparison as he believes we can consider them counter factually.
I know you said you don’t necessarily believe that not creating a person is a harm to them but you seem to imply that you do believe that in a way when you say that a world with fulfilled and frustrated interests is better than a world with neither. The only reason I could imagine that would be the case is that you believe the absence of any pleasure in non existence would be bad. The reason I thought this was contradictory was because in this case you can consider the person that doesn’t exist, that being said this runs opposite to the epicurean line that you mentioned earlier. I’m not sure which one you actually believe.
I’m also not sure what you mean when you say that all pain and suffering isn’t sufficiently bad, I can certainly grant there are different degrees of pain and suffering but the point im trying to make is, if you don’t exist you don’t need any benefits so we don’t need as much to defeat the harms that the person would suffer. Thanks as well for your input.
Thanks for the detailed reply!
I didn’t know that my view was close to the Epicurean one (my apologies, I am not a philosophy student, I just like reading it from time to time). But I think I would agree that in a few select cases, particularly ones with intense mental, physical and moral suffering befalling one a person, death might be better, if they fully understand and accept what that means. But that doesn’t mean that death is “good” in all senses. I believe there’s a fine balance between this, and a lot also depends on the situation. For instance, a life cut-short would be bad, but that bad would not just be because of death, but also because they couldn’t enjoy further goods. However, that death doesn’t mean that there entire life wasn’t worthwhile, because I believe that even in short lifespans, people can do and experience tremendous goods, but I understand it is hard to put an exact numerical value on such subjective things.
And yeah, I do believe that to call non-existence as a “harm” would be bizarre, just that I place calling it “better” in the same category. I am still not quite sure of my beliefs regarding such things, and I wish to investigate different viewpoints, so once again, apologies for any unintended contradictions. What I wanted to imply that if we do take the state of affairs argument, I believe that a world with good things (let’s say +10) and suffering (-5) is still +5, on average. Whereas I place non-existence to have no value, not even 0. Of course, I don’t have some mathematical formula for good and bad things, considering the sheer complexity of human emotions. And regards not all sufferring being bad, I wanted to suggest that we shouldn’t be black and white in our approach towards pleasure and pain. E.g. The pain of leaving your family to serve the military is often complemented by the love and satisfaction one feels serving their country. I believe that love counts for something greater than suffering, because it is good. And since all these debates are essentially concerned with the idea that life is primarily negative (or at least mostly negative) and there life shouldn’t exist, I wanted to suggest that contrary to that, there’s a lot more good in the world which suggests that life should prevail. There are many other things I also have in mind, but I wouldn’t want to make this an endless thread. So, thanks once again and may you have a wonderful day!
Upon further contemplation, I wanted to add that I did not want to say that I believe that a person is “harmed” when they aren’t born. But I do believe that a “state of affairs” with both suffering and happiness (once again, those terms can be more interrelated than we realise) is better than one without any of those. I suppose this is where we differ on how significant are those happy moments, but to me, there are certainly something which transcend and sometimes stem from my sorrows. All in all, I just hope I can do the right thing and follow the truth, wherever it leads to.
According to the asymmetry argument as put forth by Prof. Benatar, one should never be in favor of bringing a person into existence; even in the extreme case in which that person would lead a life of 100% happiness and 0% pain, the argument states, one should be morally “indifferent” on whether to bring him/her into existence.
Now imagine, if you would, a scenario where we knew that a person, if born, would greatly increase the net well-being of the world — for instance, by developing a cure for cancer or for Alzheimer’s. Let us also stipulate that the person would lead an extremely happy and fulfilling life, with minimal discomfort. In this case, this person would reduce suffering and increase happiness not only for the currently living, but for countless lives in future generations as well.
Despite all this, a believer in the asymmetry argument would be compelled to decide against bringing this person into existence, claiming that a scenario in which that person is never born is “not worse off”, and that the minor discomfort the person may have experienced in life tilts the balance against his/her existing at all. This is an utterly absurd claim, according to which it is morally virtuous or preferable to effectively condemn an untold number of cancer / Alzheimer’s patients to immense — and preventable — suffering.
One might argue that the scenario of nonexistence is still “not worse off” if we were to only consider the person in isolation, and ignore the rest of society’s well-being. I disagree even with this isolated analysis, for reasons I’ve stated in prior posts. The salient purpose of my current post is to demonstrate that when we do extend our analysis to include the well-being of society — and I’ve seen no good reason not to do so — the above example makes it clear that the asymmetry argument can and does lead to an indefensible conclusion.
I’ll wrap up with a couple loosely related thoughts. I believe that there is partial merit to the anti-natalist position, and that more would-be parents should at minimum think more deeply about the ethical consequences of introducing new lives into the world. That said, arguments such as those based on asymmetry are in my view incorrect and unhelpful, and run the risk of relegating the position to the fringes.
In regards to this communal argument I’d say two things, one is that I think having a child in hopes that they would cure cancer or Alzheimer’s is in my view, overly optimistic. In your example you’ve postulated that we could know ahead of time that they would cure these diseases and so I think there is a serious question there and that answer will depend on your views, but certainly we could never actually know that they would cure these diseases. In my view this is too far removed from any actual procreative scenario.
Even if we we’re to accept this rationale though this would be a crude attempt at justifying what Benatar calls a procreational ponzi scheme. We have this aging population that needs younger people to run the old age homes and run society, provide food, water, healthcare, make advances in science, whatever else there maybe. As with all ponzi schemes it will eventually go bust and I don’t think this justifies the infliction of serious suffering on the subsequent generations in the first place. Humanity will eventually go extinct one way or another. I think the relevant question really is, are we entitled to use these people as a means to our ends? Further there’s also no guarantee any potential child will do good, think of the parents who bred people like Hitler, Stalin, Pol pot or Genghis Khan, I think this argument goes both ways.
Beyond that you’re mixing these two arguments together and I don’t think you can use this communal aspect to leverage a point against the axiological asymmetry which is trying to work out whether or not it’s in that particular beings interests to come into existence or not. It doesn’t matter who they will help in a sense, the point is they will be harmed where they otherwise wouldn’t have been. It’s a separate question about whether or not we should bring them into existence regardless of that being’s interests. In your case with the person curing Alzheimer’s and what maybe a version of an idyllic life Benatar would concede it maybe acceptable to bring that person into existence. Some kind of communal interest could override that being’s interests in avoiding existence if the harms were negligible enough.
Back to the asymmetry for a moment, I agree that on the face of it it may seem counter-intuitive to state that a life isn’t worth starting if it had only a pinprick of harm but I think this objection moves too quick. I’ll give you an analogy Benatar uses, it isn’t perfect but no analogy is. Say we have two people Sick and Healthy, Sick gets sick but has some capacity for quick recovery, that attribute is good for Sick, he would be worse off without it. Healthy never gets sick but lacks that capacity for quick recovery, Benatar wants to say the lack of that attribute in Healthy isn’t bad since he never has any need for it. I think we should view procreation in a similar manner, if you don’t exist you don’t need any positive benefits.
Further if you really think the very positive constitutes an advantage over non existence and that this missing pleasure is something that’s bad then it appears we would be morally obligated to bring as many people into existence as possible. Provided existence is good on balance and that there were minimal costs to the progenitors and I don’t think that will sit well with many people.
Just to be clear this part of the argument is really a question about whether or not a being is harmed by being brought into existence. It’s really just intended to show that coming into existence is always a net harm, that maybe a negligible harm. You need to combine the asymmetry with Benatar’s empirical arguments about quality of life to reach the antinatalist conclusion.
“In your case with the person curing Alzheimer’s and what maybe a version of an idyllic life Benatar would concede it maybe acceptable to bring that person into existence.”
I mean, I certainly hope so. You’ve said my scenario is overly optimistic and we couldn’t actually know what a person would do once brought into existence. Sure — but that is the nature of thought experiments. We make certain assumptions and stipulate them as true for the sake of the scenario we are considering, and then see if a moral position can hold up under scrutiny. And yes, the argument does go both ways if we consider the next Hitler or Stalin: I would say that it would be morally correct to choose not to bring that person into existence.
You’ve also raised the communal Ponzi scheme argument, and for now I will just say that even if we grant humanity will someday go extinct, it does not follow that we should therefore intentionally make ourselves go extinct sooner. The Ponzi scheme argument crucially depends on a set of assumptions, chief among them the asymmetry argument.
And once again, I must fundamentally disagree with the notion underpinning asymmetry: namely, that lack of suffering is good, but lack of well-being is not bad. I argue that lack of well-being is indeed bad, from the standpoint of the person who would have existed and been deprived of the well-being. Crucially, I do not consider suffering or well-being, or the lack thereof, from the standpoint of the non-person. Why? A “non-person” literally means the absence of a person. A non-person has no interests, no moral agency, no capacity for pain or pleasure.
Really think on this if you would, because this is the crux of the error in the asymmetry argument. It tries to smuggle in the interests of the non-person into the analysis, when in fact a non-person can have no interests. Even when we ignore the so-called “communal” considerations and focus only on the individual interests and/or capacity for pleasure/pain, such interests and capacity only come into being after the person is brought into existence, not before.
This is why, when you say things like “communal interest could override that being’s interests in avoiding existence”, I must remind you that a nonexistent being has no interests in either avoiding or desiring existence. To the extent a being has interests, it only happens after it is born. And after a person is born, even Benatar agrees that greater weight should be given towards sustaining the person’s existence rather than prematurely ending it.
Finally, regarding the following:
“Further if you really think the very positive constitutes an advantage over non existence and that this missing pleasure is something that’s bad then it appears we would be morally obligated to bring as many people into existence as possible. Provided existence is good on balance and that there were minimal costs to the progenitors and I don’t think that will sit well with many people.”
I’m not in favor of forcing anyone to have children, either on a legal or ethical basis, so no, I do not think it’s a moral obligation to have kids. However, if we lived in a world where having additional children necessarily led to a happier society (I’m assuming things like overpopulation, pollution, disease, etc. are not an issue), then one could say that it is morally virtuous to choose to procreate.
I’m not sure I agree the ponzi scheme portion of the argument is contingent on the asymmetry being upheld but I don’t feel like that’s at the heart of the issue so I’ll leave that aside for now. What’s I think confusing is that you’re saying two contradictory things, you’ve stipulated that the lack of well being is indeed bad from the standpoint of the person who could exist but doesn’t. You’re also saying that you do not consider suffering or well-being from the standpoint of the non existent person.
I want to be clear either of these routes are possible to explore but you can’t go down both of them at the same time. I also don’t know why you don’t think we can consider the person who could exist but currently doesn’t. If you were going to have a child and you knew that child would suffer horribly and die prematurely don’t you think you would be able to say it’s good to avoid that life even if that child wasn’t able to experience the benefit of avoiding that pain directly? Clearly the non existent person itself cannot have interests in the sense that an existing person can but we can make the judgement on its behalf, it seems very straightforward to me that avoiding this life is good.
Yes, once the person is born they have an interest in continuing to exist but Benatar explicitly says they have no interest in coming into existence in the first place. Hopefully I’ve clarified this point, I think the main objection you have is “that lack of suffering is good, but lack of well-being is not bad so I’ll address this now and then you can correct me if you have a different point of contention.
We can of course claim that the lack of well-being is bad creating a normal symmetry but this demand for symmetry is rarely justified. Benatar notes in Still Better Never to Have Been. “The suggestion here is that it would ‘‘be bad, for the non-existent person we might have created, that his pleasure not occur, because it would have been good for him if it had occurred’’ (Harman2009,p. 782). The mistake in this objection is that it misconstrues my basic asymmetry as a logical rather than axiological claim.
Further he says “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.”
All that being said you should just ask if you agree with the four underlying asymmetries and if you do you should accept the basic asymmetry. These asymmetries are as follows: The asymmetry of procreational duties, The prospective beneficence asymmetry, The retrospective beneficence asymmetry, The asymmetry of distant suffering and absent happy people. Here’s just one of them that we’ve touched on. “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.”
I’d be happy to further explain the others one should you want to hear them also again feel free to correct me if this isn’t the main point of disagreement.
For the sake of focusing on the core issue, I will limit this post to addressing the following: “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 first part of the above statement could be construed in two different ways, i.e. that we have a duty to avoid bringing into existence (1) people who would lead *inordinately* miserable lives, i.e. a life of net suffering, or (2) people whose lives would contain *any* suffering, no matter how minor.
Interpretation (1) aligns with my own view. Interpretation (2) is the anti-natalist position, with which I disagree.
(2) is also begging the question to the extent that you’re using (2) to argue for the anti-natalist position itself. It is circular. You might also notice that if (2) is the interpretation intended by Benatar, then the second part of the statement (claiming no duty to bring happy people into existence) becomes completely superfluous.
I’m not sure why you think it’s begging the question, Benatar points out these asymmetries and rightly acknowledges that most people would agree with them until they see where it leads. The overall point is most people wouldn’t agree that we have any positive duty to bring any happy people into existence, we recognize the avoidance of these harms is generally much more important, especially considering there isn’t a person who needs any of these benefits.
Pointing that out doesn’t mean Benatar’s argument is circular, we should be asking if these intuitions are generally well accepted and if they are we should look for a reason that explains why that is, aka the basic axiological asymmetry. You’re free to reject any premise of it you just haven’t clarified what exactly you were taking issue with.
I have stated previously that one has no duty to bring into existence those whose lives would be disproportionally one of happiness and well-being. But my reasons for this position do not rely at all on an asymmetry of values in the way that Benatar posits. For one thing, one cannot be said to have a duty to bear children when one does not have the ability to do so by oneself. It requires another willing partner, or a willing sperm donor, etc. to bear children. Hence, any given individual cannot have a duty to create children because an individual alone is incapable of having children.
Then, you might say, let’s extend the moral duty not to each individual, but only to couples who are capable of having children together. Even then, you’d argue, the couple has no moral duty to procreate. I’d agree — but again not because of any asymmetry. I tend to think of bearing children, even if we knew they would lead mostly happy lives, as a fairly low priority in the grand scheme of things. Life is plentiful, and to the extent we have a moral duty to maximize well-being, I can think of many other, more effective things an individual (or a couple, for that matter) could do in this regard. Adopting an existing child(ren) and giving them a better life is one. Donating or contributing in some sufficient way to a good cause might be another. In general, working to reduce suffering for those who currently exist may be a better way to spend your time and efforts and is likely to lead to greater overall well-being.
So let me put it this way: I think it would be morally virtuous for all of us to do what we can to help maximize well-being in this world. And all things considered, there are probably lots of better ways in which we could help in this regard, other than by bearing more and more happy children. That is not to say that nobody should ever bear children if doing so would be a net positive; after all, a small positive contribution is better than no contribution. But having children is pretty far down the list of moral virtues even in the best case, and certainly does not rise up to the level of a moral duty.
Notice that nowhere in the above argument is it necessary for me to rely on asymmetry. I still maintain that great suffering is worse than smaller suffering, and that little to no pleasure is worse than great pleasure. There are big and small ways that an individual and society at large could suffer; we should try to minimize such suffering. There are also big and small ways that an individual and society could experience well-being; we should try to maximize the same.
First thing. When I was a kid in the 70s, nobody cared what kids thought or felt. A neighbor asked what would I like from their grill but before I could answer my dad stepped in and said, “he’s a kid. He doesn’t have preferences. He will eat what he’s told to eat”. And my dad decided that instead of chicken or steak, I deserved a hot dog which I hate but ate and thanked the host profusely for fear of a beating. That’s how people got around the bringing pain into a child’s life issue, they didn’t care. Apparently people used to have kids only for the parent’s entertainment or urges but has nothing to do with bringing a new and a lied member of the family into the world. Back when I grew up it was inappropriate to tell parents about a child molesting church leader, the molester child was expected to keep their mouth shut and be embarrassed that they allowed the leader to molest them, all done to make being molested by a church leader the kid’s fault. People had kids in the 70’s for someone small and a weak to kick around when they got angry about work or whatever.
In support of natalists, a small enough amount of pain can bring happiness. Pain can also add spice to life, the pain of pulling up that last ledge to climb a cliff, running a marathon and getting your best time, doing your deepest free dive at 160ft deep. Pain is intrinsic to most life forms, and it‘s meant to increase life span to increase the likelihood of reproduction.
That said, pain can grow to such an extent it performs no useful function and destroys any quality of life and in most cases those who are suffering the greatest amount of pain aren’t allowed assisted suicide because people would rather others suffer unGodly pain to make their own pain seem small in comparison or simply because most humans are rank sadists.
That is the problem why humans should not procreate. Most humans have a sadist steal a mile wide and one of the greatest joys sadists get is from inflicting the worst kinds of pain and suffering on others for entertainments sake. Sadists inflicting pain on the meek is not about correcting aberrant behaviors, it’s about raw sadism, performing evil on the meek to tickle the sadists’ Sadist Bone, Putin Pink. Putin is the Kingpin of the world’s largest child sex trafficking cartel yet most religious natalists adore Putin precisely because Putin is a monster who inflicts death, terror and despair on the meek. Far too many humans are rank sadists, evil to the core. Far too many of the rest of humanity are pathetic cowards who allow elitist evildoers to perpetrate every heinous crime imaginable with infinite impunity.
Why would anyone bring kids into THIS world? I can imagine a society that treats it’s members and it’s environment with morality and conscientiousness, but humankind isn’t such a society. We see the damage of 7 billion humans living in the planet at the same time so the value of human life is exceedingly low. If only one out of 8 couples had one child, then the worlds eltists wouod bend over baxkwrds to take care of the children because who will make the burgers for the Trumps? Who will clean the golden commodes if not the peasantry.
So, from a perspective of value, it’s far better to make children exceedingly rare and then those children would become exceedingly valuable. Natalists are frightened that the value of peasant lives might reach the same level of importance as elitists lives are and then the elitists wouldn’t be any more special than the peasant children. And that is the key to living a life which a typical human would desire, the amount of societal value of that specific life and right now, human life is virtually worthless.
Think of how many people were deliberately murdered by COVID spreaders deliberately going out into the public without masks or vaccines shouting COVID laced spittle tirades into the faces of the public. If humans were an endangered species those who deliberately spread a deadly illness for the joy they derive by inflicting death, terror and despair on mankind would be brutally punished. 800,000 Americans dead more than the number of Rwandans killed during the Rwandan genocide, murders for the entertainment value of spreading the terror of a pandemic. This is not a world where children are loved or valued, they are instead more likely to be exploited, sold into sexual slavery, or labor slavery or whatever. Natalists thrive on the suffering of others while they only pretend to be good and conscientious people. I have asked almost all the natalists I know how they feel about Cosby drugging and raping children and the usual response is “the liberals are being so mean to Bill Cosby. He’s America’s Dad!” So, between a child’s right to not be raped is trumped by the elitist’s urge to rape a child and it’s so obvious and ingrained to Natalists that they can’t understand why everyone doesn’t feel as they do, that of course sadistic child raping elitists matter infinitely more than peasant children.
Humans as a species don’t decide to have kids based on what kind of life they can provide for those children. Having children is almost always an act of selfishness and an act to make sure the value of human life never raises. Their world view of elitists trampling on the meek is viewed as an entitlement or a right both of which are predicated on having lots of children and the more unwanted those children are the easier it is to exploit them. Trump was very glad that the children he raped at Epstein’s were at risk youths or Trump wouldn’t have been able to rape that kid. If kids were extremely rare and Trump was caught raping any child of any skin color, he’d probably be put to death. But, since there are no shortage of children, millions of at risk children are sold as sex toys for perverted narcissistic sociopaths like Trump, Gaetz, Q, Cosby, Roy Moore, all of whom wear their pro-life hypocrisy on their sleeves, the worst of the worst claiming they are pro-life. Imagine poor Trump unable to find any children to rape because every child born was valued. That’s not the world we live in because of Natalist’s love of abusing the meek. How else is a child rapist going to prove their pro-child bonified’s if not pro-natalism? It makes all the sense in the world that child raping elitists and their sadistic sycophants want as many babies born as possible in order to exploit those children for the elitists’ prurient urges. Not a single Natalist seems to have the slightest problem that their leaders, Trump, Moore, Gaetz, Cosby rape children but these hypocrites know it’s evil because some of the most evil of natalists of all perpetually falsely accuse young women of color of doing to kids what natalist leaders in America do to kids in spades.
One only has to look at the failure of mankind to be good stewards of the environment means we don’t deserve to have offspring. I think we have trashed out the planet well enough that we don’t need any more help from a new generation and those who have children to clean up their parents’ messes, that’s the worst act of evil of all. Trash the planet and then have babies to be slaves to clean up the disgusting mess of the planet that the parents made, the ultimate in abject irresponsibility.
Natalists tend to be unapologetic and snarky sadists to the core. No honest person is under the illusion that todays society is a good place to raise children. So, anyone who supports procreation is doing so knowing that they are the ones chiefly responsible for making life hell on Earth. Humans just aren’t moral enough to deserve to reproduce. And even if we were, we would need to be sure to control the population such that every child is deemed precious by its rarity, such that we have enough resources that our kids won’t face annihilation.
I believe humankind is at once too evil and too cowardly to be good parents. There are exceptions of course but, let’s get real. We see all the evil out there, all the terrorist emboldening lies, the heat waves, floods, droughts, all self inflicted all to further pamper already infinitely over-pampered elitists, to add another zero to a fossil fuel exec’s investment fund, the rest of humanity be damned. If only natalists were moral and responsible people, then I could support natalism but they are generally the polar opposite and everyone knows it.