Tuesday, May 27, 2008

VHEMT's Magic Button

The folks over at the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, http://www.vhemt.org/philrel.htm#button , an environmentally focused group, have posited a magic button whereby all human life can be eliminated in a single stroke. Since I don't believe in their premise that, without people, the earth was or ever will be a 'natural paradise', I'd like to expand their exercise to include the eradication of all life everywhere. Would you push it?

If your answer is 'yes', they then offer you the choice of two scenarios...

FAST: All people fall over and rot.
SLOW: Universal human infertility.

Which would you choose? From my own point of view, the first choice is the obvious, morally correct one (I'm taking for granted here that the extinction is meant to be an instantaneous, painless one). And yet, I find my finger lingering above the button; I am hesitant. Why? Perhaps the second option allows me to feel a bit less responsible. After all, playing 'G'od is a pretty big responsibility. Deism's 'g'od is more my style, I think; make the opening move, then sit back and watch nature 'take its course'.

There's also curiosity. I have to admit, I would love to be there as everything winds down, a witness to genesis in reverse. Maybe its the drama queen in me. But, considering all the potential anguish as civilization dismantles, I hope I'd have the intestinal fortitude to make the hard choice, and opt for door number 1. It would be as if all creation went to sleep at the same time, and never woke up...by far the more compassionate choice, I think.

And while we're dismantling things, I'd just like to re-iterate that VHEMT's characterization of a post-human world as being a 'natural paradise' is a load of crap. All life is a circle of killing, eating, and exploitation; punctuated by suffering and death. It should never have been. Now I'll close with a line from the film 'The Great Race', circa 1965...

Professor Fate: "Push the button, Max!"


your host said...

Below is a re-posting of Chip's comment, and my subsequent response, edited due to typos...

Chip said...
This goes to the crux of Benatar's discussion of killing-extinction vs attrition-extinction. I think he would argue that the first option - which I would characterize as "promortally countenanced omnicide" - is fraught with serious moral problems in a way that the second is not. But still, pressing either button would constitute an act of aggression under most any deontologically posited ethical system.

Obviously, the first option - instant mass murder - would rob individuals of any presumptive right to, or interest in, continued life. But since it's a one-time clean sweep to which by definition no consequence of any kind would attach (no sense of loss or mourning to consider, no resulting deprivations), and since the act itself would entail the perfect cosmic abolition of the very ethical qualia that advise against committing it, it might be that it is justifiable on sui generis grounds, or even as a perverse application of a Kantian imperative. I suppose for a pure negative utilitarian - if such a creature exists - it would be a no-brainer.

Curiously, the second option -- the "Children of Men" option -- is more defensible under prevailing formulations of a "harm principle" since it doesn’t involve killing, and since it could be argued that instantaneous mass-sterilization is merely a preventive tweak meant to keep people from engaging in the more serious harm of procreation (i.e., causing people to die by creating them) - sort of like vaccination. At the same time, it's pretty clear with a moment's reflection that the amplification of extant misery this option entails would be vast and profound (though notably far less profound than the magnitude of suffering that has already played out, or the magnitude of suffering that's likely to occur in the future). There would be great disruptions at every level of social, economic, and ecological order. Infrastructures would collapse; many people would die of starvation and formerly treatable illness; and of those final humans, many or most would be consumed with despair, loneliness, and anomie. The effect on countless animal species would likewise be terribly harsh as all of that long-evolved ecological delicacy is thrown into the ringer. Ugly stuff.

It is interesting to consider the same button options as a forced dilemma, i.e., "if you don't push either button #1 or #2 (fill in sufficiently awful consequence here)."

Short answer. I wouldn't push either, but if I had to, I'd push the first one -- the cosmic delete button.
May 27, 2008 10:48 AM

your host said...
Since my antinatalism hinges exclusively on the suffering angle(there MIGHT be some qualifying factors, though I haven't discovered them in myself yet, and I'm fairly immune to moralizing in the purely abstract sense), I HOPE I'd push the instant annihilation button, perverse curiosity notwithstanding. What you said here-

"But since it's a one-time clean sweep to which by definition no consequence of any kind would attach (no sense of loss or mourning to consider, no resulting deprivations), and since the act itself would entail the perfect cosmic abolition of the very ethical qualia that advise against committing it, it might be that it is justifiable on sui generis grounds..."

-says it all for me, Chip. To me, life is something that never should have been. And the opportunity to correct this cosmic accident without inflicting pain, thus guaranteeing the elimination of suffering once and for all, would be too much of an opportunity to pass up.

The more I think about it, the more I'm coming to believe that happiness is mainly a negative attribute i.e. it comes through the absense of suffering. It's becoming tougher as the days go by for me to distinguish between the concept of bliss, and non-existence. Does that make me a negative utilitarian? Or, perhaps, a negative idealist?

The math seems deliciously ironic, doesn't it? It seems that bliss will always fall somewhere on the negative side of the existential scale; perennially flawed and partial. Throw in the unpredictability of changing circumstances, and it goes even further into the red. I mean, sustainability is a factor, isn't it? And who or what can guarantee an everlastingness of that?

Meanwhile, the non-existence of all suffering, perfectly and unceasingly, seems like an pretty fucking awesome plus, in my ledger. Fade to black...the Cosmic Accountant's definitive wet dream. Close the books, and retire to the island of negative bliss, where the beer is calorie-free, and all the babes are wearing nothing at all.* Sweet!

*or guys, if you're of the female persuasion. Or, either/or...Christ! PC has invaded my website! Man overboard!*
May 27, 2008 11:38 AM

Curator said...

Would your decision be any different if the button in question was accessed by time travel and would prevent the creation of life? I know I'd hit that one so hard I'd leave dents, but I'm not really sure how it's different. I, too, would hesitate over the VHMT magic button, as proposed - really either option.

Re: PC - babes can be male or female, my brother. I wouldn't worry about being PC - you're obviously not a jerk, so be yourself.

your host said...

Curator! An excellent twist on the question! And of course, it really ISN'T substantively different, is it?

As for the 'babes' application- hmmm, being vociferously heterosexual, the gender neutrality of the expression never really occurred to me. Go figure.

Mitchell said...

This is certainly a test; I would absolutely prefer SLOW. Yet FAST is the ultimate preventative: no more bad things, right away, because no more things at all. We are definitely near the nihilistic edge of antinatalism here. Why stipulate that it's "instantaneous and painless"? Would "painful but quick" be any less imperative, if one accepts the premise? What if it wasn't even universal? Taken seriously, this seems to be saying not just that one has a duty not to create life, but that one has a duty to end as much life as one can, as swiftly as possible, in order to put it out of its misery or to prevent terrible possibilities from ever happening.

Curator said...

Would your life still be worth living if you were part of the final generation of human kind?

Lots of people would answer "yes." I'm all for individual choice in this one - while I wouldn't consider my own death to be a harm to me, I recognize that most people consider their own deaths to be a harm to them, and I take their preferences as seriously as I can. So if you're going to press a button, the slow button is better. Perhaps when reaching for the fast button, we're squeamish about the suffering we're causing to this generation in the slow case by forbidding procreation. But, as Benatar points out, some generation has to be the last generation; that harm is inevitable, in that it must be born by some generation. The harm of people being born between then and now, however, is preventable. The suffering caused by sterilizing everyone is serious; however, it is in some sense inevitable, and bringing it about now might be justified (in a consequentialist sense) by preventing the harm of future births. And to the degree that people would choose to live despite being a member of the final generation, there's no reason not to let them make that choice.

I think the main argument not to push either the slow or the fast button is certainty - the philosophy is in its early stages, and perhaps we can't be that sure we're right. The logical positivists were pretty convinced they were right, too.

Also I think coercion in general is wrong. I could see recognizing something like a right not to be involuntarily sterilized, grounded on bodily autonomy, even though one might use one's fertility to harm others (bear children). We don't cut off people's penises just 'cause they might use them to rape. But then I'm one of those folks who thinks people should have rights that are not subject to utilitarian calculations.

That said, I think life originating in the universe is an extremely serious harm, and I'd prevent it if I were in a position to do so. That is not exactly a new idea - Benatar mentions fairly ancient Talmud debates that conclude that it would have been better if life had not been created.

your host said...

Mitchell: Of course, the 'test' as stated is framed narrowly, in order to elicit a particular and, admittedly, rather uncomplicated response. But you're right; muddy the waters a bit with questions about 'acceptable' suffering, and suddenly the answers don't come so easily. But formalized ethical systemization doesn't really get at the problem, either. I mean, the rules can be drawn, codified, and enforced, and even inculcated into the psychological makeup of large groups; but the definitions will always be fuzzy at the edges, and there will always be opposing frameworks with their own adherents. That's all to be worked out by others, I suppose; but for me, the question is framed for a personal response, and is aimed at exploring the total mentality from which our feelings emerge.

This is why I always try to avoid setting up some kind of objective, pseudo-platonic standard against which to frame my antinatalist arguments. Because I don't believe in such standards. Rather, I try to appeal to the sense of empathy which I believe exists in most people, to varying degrees, to nurture those feelings, and expose them to the light of inquiry. I don't want to convince people that procreation is wrong in some sort of ontological sense, but that it contradicts most peoples' personal sense of morality. Only, they just don't know it, or they know it in such a way that the truth of it is easy to ignore.

Having said all that, I can answer your concerns in this fashion...

The perfect way would be the first button; instant elimination, no pain, nobody sees it coming. Instantaneous, non-suffering non-existence.

Below that level of perfection, suffering becomes involved, and the weighing of scenarios and methods makes things a lot tougher. And here's the crux- the more complicated things become, the more attitudes and decisions become a matter of personal taste, based on emotional preferences at least as much as on rationality. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that almost all of the motivational factors are embedded in emotion, period; and emotions don't generally follow a linear path... on top of which, they are often contradictory.

Here's the dilemma...how much suffering is one willing to engender, to counter-balance other present suffering, as well as to stave off future suffering? There's no objective answer here, other than to say that each person must make that decision for him/herself. Out of this aggregate will emerge policy, and legislation, but there will never be full agreement for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the ultimately arbitrary aspects of both definition and degree, especially regarding the gray areas, which often occupy a vast area of the territory.

I hope I didn't spend an inordinate amount of time avoiding your challenge, mitchell. I just don't believe that systems really settle anything in terms of pure inquiry; I think I'm pretty much a situational ethicist, and as long as there's a clear vision combined with a honed sensibility, I'm fairly comfortable with the idea of working out the details on the fly.

Again, I apologize for the length of this response. I'm not very good at framing these things in soundbites; I'm sure I'd be terrible in a radio interview. But thanks for your comment, and you are invited to challenge me at every point of the argument. I'm shooting for clarity, which requires open-ended argumentation, IMO. Take care.

your host said...

curator: I suppose I'm a de facto utilitarian, as I tend to reason backwards from my conclusions, as far as the practicalities are concerned, though through the caveat of my sensibilities. I'm a situational ethicist, at heart. I'd probably push the annihilation button immediately as an act of faith in my essential vision, before I had the chance to second guess myself. Categorical imperatives have never impressed me; I try to work out the details until I'm comfortable with their cogency, then just sort of take off by the seat of my pants.

As far as harm is concerned; well, harm in my worldview is primarily and foremost a question of bodily and mental suffering. There, I tend to prioritize, and to tell you the truth, matters like coerced sterilization show up pretty low on my list. Of course, working out the details is highly complicated, with lots of butterfly effect nuances. Prediction is always fraught with, well...unpredictability, and the possibilty for counterproductive choices is always there. That's why my focus will always tend towards persuasion by logic, along with pleading to higher humanistic sensibilities.

I know one thing- birth is where all suffering begins, and one unit of birth prevented absolutely eliminates one unit of suffering. And while I don't believe that an ultimate, guaranteed sustainable bliss will ever be realized, I DO believe that existence as we know it is a needless interruption of the state of negative bliss from which we emerge, and into which we inevitably return.

Add to this the possible existence of futuristic hell states, and the picture becomes excrutiatingly clear. Bringing children into the world is absolutely the worst thing the species can do, measured against any moral system which is derived from empathy.

Mitchell said...

Bringing children into the world is absolutely the worst thing the species can do

- but the FAST option does much more than prevent further birth, it terminates all lives already existing. It seems like we need a term for the even more extreme position that all life should be ended as soon as possible, in one gigantic mercy killing; like "pan-thanaticism".

You wrote that your reason for contemplating the SLOW option was curiosity as to the consequences, the nature of the decline. And it seems that you weighed against that, the judgement that there would likely be lots of suffering involved, and so you'd spare everyone that option by picking FAST. But in making that second choice - choosing the annihilation option over the sterilization option - that's where you jump from antinatalism to prothanatism; you're proposing not just to prevent more life, but to terminate existing life.

I would like to consider myself in the antinatal but also antithanatic camp. However, it is true that even if the world became possessed of antinatalist convictions in an instant, nature would not stop killing us, surviving would still require the regimented boredom of basic economic activity, and people would still have desires and hence frustrations. So it is one of those utilitarian thought-experiments you can torture yourself with: would you really kill everyone on Earth right now, rather than just sterilize them all (or otherwise turn them into convinced antinatalists), in order to prevent the ortherwise near-certainty that in the remaining years of human existence, there would still periodically be thousands of people buried alive by earthquake, etc., etc.?

It is all hypothetical, but these words are going out into a world that is quite real, and clarity of principle may prove to be just as important as situational flexibility, if and when this stuff begins to be of real consequence.

your host said...

mitchell: Of course, turning everyone into 'convinced antinatalists' is what I'm shooting for. Forced sterilization is a distant second, and the 'magic button' is just sort of a mind fuck (of course, that could probably be said about all of this). Like I said, I posit this only as a means for exploration of the issues. Doubtful such a cleanly managed decision will ever rest in anybody's hands. But I agree with your concerns.

Chip said...


You write:

"I think coercion in general is wrong. I could see recognizing something like a right not to be involuntarily sterilized, grounded on bodily autonomy, even though one might use one's fertility to harm others (bear children)."

I would be curious as to your thoughts on my vaccination analogy, fast and loose though it was. Would you equally recognize "something like a right not to be involuntarily vaccinated," even though the effect of this right might be a significant increase in risk to the public at large?

Right out of the gate, I can see some possibly crucial factual/conceptual distinctions, the most salient being that contagions may be borne without the benefit of voluntary human action. But when you take the harm verdict very seriously vis-a-vis procreation, well, I'm not sure...

Curator said...

Chip, thanks for bringing up the vaccination case - it's helping me clarify my thinking. I think that in order to tell whether there's a right we should recognize free from utilitarian calculations, we have to, uh, look at the world and do a utilitarian calculation. (Maybe there are first-order and second-order calculations.) I don't think we need to recognize a right if its violation doesn't really cause serious harm, especially if the violated person himself gets substantial gains from the "right's" "violation." Maybe a definition of a right could be: a freedom that is so important that the utility that might be gained from its occasional violation would be substantially outweighed by the loss of its inviolability. I don't think this is utilitarian, because it's telling you when you can't do a utilitarian calculation - even though the reason for that, weirdly, is that people are happier when certain rights are inviolable. I think the "right not to be vaccinated" would come way, way down at the bottom of a list of possible rights, up there with the "right not to have someone tap me on the shoulder." What's the harm? And it prevents substantial harm to the subject. Contrast this with circumcision or other genital mutilation - there's serious harm there, for extremely questionable "utility gains" when it's violated.

Honestly, though, I'm not sure there isn't a serious right not to be vaccinated, on various grounds, including the right to a shorter lifespan. But largely, vaccination seems grounded on preventing objectively verifiable, universally perceptible, physical suffering - and a minor infringement on bodily integrity, one that doesn't cause pain or distress or even harm to any particularly serious agent-relative value, seems justifiable. No one cries "injustice" for having been vaccinated, and the lack of a "survivors of vaccination" movement is not due to any widespread cognitive bias, unlike being glad to be born.

Curator said...

Jim - I think suffering and pain are especially important, because preventing suffering and pain are things that everyone recognizes as important - it's one of those "objective" values (or agent-neutral values, as Nagel calls them). But I don't think they're the whole story. Many people would be willing to suffer pain in order to promote some other value (competitive athletes, religious ascetics), and I think that just shows that, subjectively, they have values that are more important than being free from that pain. Continued life could be one of those values. I don't think us suicides are in any better position to forcibly kill people to "end their suffering" than people who would forcibly keep us alive "for our own good." (Benatar points out the ridiculousness of Golden Rule-type arguments given that people have different values.) I'm for plurality of value, even though, really, suffering seems like the core of everything for me.

your host said...

I've been mulling over the various positions outlined in this thread, attempting to clarify the issues in my own mind. The basic conflict seems to be this, regarding the pushing of the 'instant annihilation button...

1)"...but the FAST option does much more than prevent further birth, it terminates all lives already existing. It seems like we need a term for the even more extreme position that all life should be ended as soon as possible, in one gigantic mercy killing; like "pan-thanaticism"...Mitchell

2)"Obviously, the first option - instant mass murder - would rob individuals of any presumptive right to, or interest in, continued life. But since it's a one-time clean sweep to which by definition no consequence of any kind would attach (no sense of loss or mourning to consider, no resulting deprivations)..."...Chip

So, what we have here is 'promortally countenanced omnicide', seemingly the worst and most inclusive crime imaginable, the commitment of which would result in absolutely zero experientially negative consequences (the only sort of consequences I ultimately care about), and which would negate all future experientially (and otherwise) negative acts and consequences, forever and ever, amen.

Ok, I'm thinking that whatever I do, I'm the bad guy; the difference being that, in the first case, I'm committing a pre-emptive act against...what? A first-order categorical imperative of some sort? A natural law? God's will? While in the second case, I seem to be committing a passive crime of non-action, and of monumental scope, since I have at my fingertips the means to end all suffering forever. And by refusing to act, I'm basically giving the nod to continued suffering, including the scaling up of misery which might be achieved through transhumanism gone awry. Or, are my hands clean because of the passive nature of my non-action?


Anonymous said...

"From my own point of view, the first choice is the obvious, morally correct one (I'm taking for granted here that the extinction is meant to be an instantaneous, painless one)"

I am sincerely disgusted by this. I'd hate to think that someone would read this and associate it with the anti-natalist position. That you think this would be ethical is beyond laughable. Sperm/egg cells don't exist (as sentient beings), we aren't obligated to create them. Existing sentient beings should decide for themselves whether they want to live or die, we aren't morally entitled to make that decision on their behalf.

Anonymous said...

I'm anti-natalist and I think if one were to push the first button, they need to add another name to themselves besides anti-natalist because that goes FAR beyond anti-natalism.

Pushing the first button takes away people's consent, their RIGHT to live and die as they so choose. It's akin to someone walking up to me and shooting me in the head before I even knew what happened, killing me instantly.

While it would be too quick for me to suffer and be angry about it and it would prevent *possible* (keyword) extreme suffering in the future, at that time I wanted to live and my right to live was taken away from me.

I can understand wanting to push the second button, but wanting to push the first button is, pardon my language, all kinds of fucked up.

One person CANNOT know what is right for everyone. To think that is incredibly dangerous thinking and this is what can lead to someone harming or murdering another person for "their own good." No, it does NOT matter if people die instantly and pain-free. Again, their consent is taken away and that is fucked up.

If we anti-natalists want to sound sane and get people to actually listen to us, we need to argue from a "consent" angle, not a "suffering" angle.

The "suffering" angle argument is never-ending because there are people who actually do enjoy living because they never receive more pain than they can handle (i.e. you cannot possibly argue that they are "suffering") and the "suffering" angle truly has no correct answer.

The "consent" angle, on the other hand, does because it's a fact that no one can ever consent to being in this world and all that comes with it. There is no rational reason to breed.

We are compassionate people but we need to quit thinking that we know everything. Life and death are gray areas and will always be that way. MORALS are gray areas and will always be. What you or I think is morally right is always an opinion that has advantages and disadvantages.

We need to remember that anti-natalism is a philosophy and work on doing our part (spreading the message, not breeding, advocating for painless suicide for those who want it, etc.) until we die. What happens after we die is what happens, but playing God should never cross our minds. We are not gods. People who think that way are the cause of so many bad things that happen to humans. Let's never go down that road.

Tim Cooijmans said...

Most recent Anonymous: I wrote a response to your comment, but it was too long for a blogger comment. I put it up on my own blog here. It's longer than I wanted it to be, but I hope you give it a read and find some things to think about in it.

Maelstrom said...

Some comic relief.

"Petition to destroy the universe"


Check the signatures

"Because I no longer enjoy being alive due to my imprisonment, although I would recind my yes vote should they set me free."


Maelstrom said...

Another one:) from the other side.

"The destruction of the universe is merely a skirt for this moron to hide behind, he just wants to see the comments of the brain-dead, self-hating, cutters that think the universe should be destroyed. Life is wonderful and to hate it and be bitter is not only sad but pointless, just the like the existence of some of the waste of oxygen individuals who have seen fit to "destroy the universe". Get back in your holes and leave us normal people alone"

Karl said...

@Anonymous: Everything you say is very true. ANs should probably steer clear of magical hypothetical scenarios as anyone reading them who's not an AN will view the whole thing as a cult. I've been guilty myself of floating such hypotheticals on my own blog, but intend to knock off from now on. As you say, the core points for Antinatalism should be that there is no rational reason to procreate, and that furthermore whereas some quantity of suffering is guaranteed for every existent being, the same cannot be said for pleasure. Therefore, potential procreator, kindly explain why there should be procreation.