Wednesday, February 6, 2008

A Fundamentalist Christian Analogy...Pt. 3

You know, I've decided to brush off the rest of this essay; because, frankly, it's already gotten tiresome, and, besides, I think everyone knows where I was going with it. My point is simply that, to emotionally acquiesce to this doctrine of heaven and hell, one must cut at least some of the strings that tug at one's own conscience, and personal sense of morality. Of course, there are the pseudo-rationalizations. But in the end, I find these sometimes glib, more often clunky loopholes insincere, as in fact the proponents of such word games would never apply them to everyday, commonsensical situations. In fact, the cop-outs people use to justify their own deific ass kissing in the face of their regular moral standards usually boil down to cowardice, in my book...a matter of saving their own skins, no matter what.

Having said that, I wouldn't say the real-life situation is so cut-and-dried. After all, people really DO enjoy their lives, at least in some respects, and at least some of the time. But life is colored all too simplistically by the optimists, and the risks entailed in bringing new life into the world are real, and sometimes horrific. But we are taught to underplay the role of unhappiness in the world, and to play up the 'beauty', and 'wonder' of it all. Even supposedly rational, objective scientists like Richard Dawkins and the late Carl Sagan do (did) this, and they should know (have known) better.

The math is really easy from where I sit. On the life side, there is the possibility of all those good things which some might call the 'good life'; but there's also the downside. The pain, the terror, the tragedies large and small which touch almost every life at one time or another, and which, more often than some would like to admit, subsume a life. And there is death; most likely nothing at the actual culmination, but a helluva dark ride on the way, with all the inherent fears and ailments that come along for the ride.

Then there is non-existence. Yes, admittedly there IS the lack of the good life, but then...there's no one to care about that, is there? And on the plus side, there's absolutely, one hundred percent lack of suffering, ever, ever, ever...and that's a PLUS in my book! To mourn a life that never was, is to mourn a figment of the imagination. Should we then encourage unbridled childbearing for as long as the woman is able, so that no potential human ever gets left out? And if not, why not?

Let's look at this another it patently immoral for any fertile woman to forbear having children? If not, why some, and not others? Why not all? Antinatalists are often caricatured as human haters, who would love nothing more than to exterminate all life. I'd like to turn the tables on the procreationists a bit here. What if the antinatalist idea actually got through to the populace of fertile women, to the degree that all childbearing aged women put their collective foot down, and refused to breed? What attitude would this engender in the procreationist camp (I guess that would be the men, and infertile women)? Would they simply submit to the will of the refusers, and to the dying out of the species? Or would there be forceful measures applied for the 'good of all'? Maybe not a particularly relevant question to the subject at hand, but an interesting one, nonetheless. Speaks to motives and pre-suppositions, I think.

Anyhow, enough of the religious angle for now...though I DO have some thoughts vis-a-vis abortion and the possibility of hellfire. It's a subject that Chip over at The Hog has already touched on, but I might have a little something to add, if nothing more than re-iteration (an ofttimes necessary thing!).

And on a personal note:

This whole experience is proving to be very cathartic for me. The subject is quite deeply felt here, and it's something I've given a lot of thought to over the years. Believe it or not, I understand the quick dismissals, and have some sympathy for them. But, in the end, the antinatalism stance is the right one, and I'm bound to stay the course (at least, until I've seen some persuasive arguments from the other side, which have not yet been forthcoming). Of course, most people consider the subject marginal to the point of invisibility...I mean to change that in my own, small way. Ciao for now...

Oh! And, don't have children!


Chip said...

"To mourn a life that never was, is to mourn a figment of the imagination."

And yet, famously, R.M. Hare very nearly does:

your host said...

Thanks, Chip. I gave the article a preliminary look see, but I'm having some wireless problems the last couple of days, so I'll refrain from commenting until I've had a chance to go over it in more detail, and do some ruminating. I'd consider myself pro abortion (as opposed to pro choice, just to give you a heads up on where I'll likely be coming from.

Chip said...

For the record, I think Hare's abortion argument is a mess, albeit a useful one.

While I can never summon a shard of compassion over the plight of exterminatd fetuses, I think Benatar is too quick to dismiss arguments from potentiality, especially in a context where the moral thing so clearly implies a legal thing, with attendant inductive strands begging consideration of unintended consequences and precedent.

I don't believe rights exist in nature, nor do I believe rights can be derived from nature, but if legally reified rules are to be useful in defending individuals against aggression, the question of how to define an individual - or "person" - will always be tricky, and crucially relevant. Without going into the reasons, I think it's safer and far less problematic to posit a legal right against aggression that doesn't stop at the birth canal, or at some arbitrarily assigned point of gestational development. A million years ago, I wrote at some length about this for the print incarnation of The Hoover Hog, but I've come to disagree a lot of what I said then. Keep meaning to revisit the arguments and sort it all out for the final installment of my "Initial Harm" series, but I don't think my heart is in it. Most days, I can't even get exercised over infanticide.

Interestingly, my lukewarm opposition to legal abortion seems more deserving of the anti-rationalist critique that Matthew deploys against antinatalist reasoning.

Sorry to go on.

Great stuff, by the way.


your host said...

As I consider what you've said, I can't help thinking about the ultimatly arbitrary context in which all these conversations take place. It makes me respect Alan Watts all the more, with his insights about artificial line drawing, and misunderstood border issues. If we are to take the scientific worldview seriously, then all this is just a blind, indivisible continuum of quantum something-or-other that we divide up rather capriciously, making everything we say more or less...static. In this sense, I have some resonance with Matthew; only, he goes further, and posits a positive value for the baseline, rather than a neutral one. In this way, he reinitiates the 'conceptual' framework of existence that he ostensibly echews. Perfectly understandable in the light of most peoples' need to overlay an idealistic philosophy on an uncaring universe (though I'm not too sure he knows he's doing that).

You know, I once heard Watts do the same thing, arguing rather desperately that the universe MUST be worthwhile, or it would have killed itself off by now. From what I know of him (and I've been a fan since I was a teenager), he was fairly unhappy a lot of the time (though he was also pretty good at integrating that unhappiness), and this rather hopeless grasping at straws by a pretty straight shooter is indicative, in my opinion, of how dire the situation is, such that even brilliance is ofttimes tempted to run to the existential medicine cabinet, and partake of such escapist placebos now and again.

That said, who knows what myteries lurk outside our sensory driven conceptual grids? Maybe there truly is a Reality that makes all this make sense. But that's not an argument, it's simply an assertion. But let's say for the sake of argument that the idealists are right, and that, eventually, everything winds up in a neat little package. Why is this a reason to continue breeding? If life is truly diminished by the absence of an extra child, then the same argument could be used to bemoan the absence of an infinity of children. And, in that sense, life is doomed to always be diminished. But, if life is good right now, what does the addition of more people add to that basic goodness?

Of course, as far as I can see it, life is a mixture of good and harm, and the real risk of harm for a person brought into this world, far outweights the POTENTIAL good of people who DON'T EVEN EXIST, and will never miss anything. The math is exceedingly simple to me.

Thanks for your continued input, Chip, and for the support. After I've laid the framework from as many possible angles as I can think of, I'd like to try and explore some of the more obscure side-effects, and maybe even prove myself wrong here. Hey, it could happen! hehehehehe! But until then...


Chip said...

"all this is just a blind, indivisible continuum of quantum something-or-other that we divide up rather capriciously"

For some reason, this reminds me of Palindromes, by Todd Solondz -- a film that seems obliquely consonant with the pessimistic, antinatalist currents you're stirring. Seen it?

your host said...

Not yet...thanks for the tip!

TGGP said...

And on the plus side, there's absolutely, one hundred percent lack of suffering, ever, ever, ever...and that's a PLUS in my book!
This might be pedantic, but isn't null neither positive nor negative (though it is even!)? It might be relatively positive compared to a negative, but so is a lesser negative which is still on the whole negative. Since the idea of a "util" unit or objective degrees of "goodness" strikes me as silly, I suppose any way you judge the aggregate would come off to me as arbitrary though.

Regarding your hypothetical birth-strike, it seems to me that the equilibrium position might still result in eventual human extinction but not an immediate cessation of all births. In practice we don't actually consider a human life (or more accurately, avoidance of death) to be infinitely valuable. Presumably there are some men who will greatly wish to have children. I think it is likely that they will be willing to offer enough to some anti-natalist women to overcome their objections to another miserable life being brought into being, perhaps by using the offer of the pro-natalist men to alleviate the suffering of the already existing.

I used to be a fundamentalist Christian (I discussed that here), but even then I didn't care much about abortion. I still consider it murder, but figure that "murder happens" to paraphrase the profane saying. I used to describe myself as "weakly pro-life", but I've been drifting towards the pro-choice camp, even extending towards infanticide. I've ceased to be concerned with as much with individual rights (not surprising given that I don't believe in them) that some sort of platonically ideal rights-enforcing authority will ensure, and more with taking decentralization as far as it can (I don't trust any authority to look after my interests and the larger/more powerful it is the more frightened I am of it) and contractarian based rules. If I am not willing to invade Iraq to stop Saddam from gassing Kurds, it's just a few (admittedly large) steps away from declining to kick open Andrea Yates' door if she wants to drown her toddlers. Among the least desirable rules are those which people have the inclination and ability to flout, and both drug use and abortion seem similar in that respect. Fetuses are not part of any contract and can't really put up a fight if they don't like the rules they live under. I'm not a fetus, none of my friends are fetuses (fetusi?), so I am as indifferent to the mass-murder of them as Adam Smith's enlightened gentleman is to the inhabitants of China.

the universe MUST be worthwhile, or it would have killed itself off by now.
Doesn't make any sense to me. Why attribute agency to the Universe? If you anthropomorphize reality it looks like this.

your host said...

Since the grading system here is established on personal values (or predilections...take your pick), and since it is MY book...*smile*.

In my mind, murder is a legal term, with perhaps some emphasis based in emotion to decide the fuzzy cases. I have no problem with abortion, since the morality of my antinatalism stance is rooted in experiential harm, not legalistic harm. Having said that, I'm well aware that decisions to avert harm in one arena might well support or instigate harm in another. It's all interesting, but also quite complicated, and sort of beyond the spirit behind this particular blog. My default position is this: stop the births, and eventually the harm goes away through attrition. Of course, I'm just putting this stuff into the air, with not a lot of hope to do more than generate a little thought. However, I also believe it's a good idea from a purely selfish standpoint, and since, in this case, that particular selfishness ultimately lines up with the greater vision of eliminating suffering through non-breeding, there is a certain satisfaction in knowing that I'm accompishing slightly more than nothing at all. Eventually, I'll try to address the personal benefits to individual lifestyle, as well as to individual conscience.