Monday, June 14, 2010

Another Review of Peter Singer's NYTimes Essay

Over at Planet Moron, people are questioning (mocking) the audacious impropriety of anyone who would dare even QUESTION the morality of bringing a child into existence. In fact, given how the phrase 'deep thinker' is peppered throughout the 'critique' as a seeming invective against those who, well...er...THINK, I'd say antinatalism's 'taboo' credentials are apparently still firmly in place. At least, on Planet Moron they are. The whole piece is basically an anti-intellectual diatribe. This attitude reminds me of a comment I read on another blog somewhere recently, where the commenter notes that people are too 'vibrant' to use their reasoning abilities when ascertaining whether or not to breed, whether 'for good or ill'.

How comfortable. We can justify any action we wish to take, simply by denouncing the very process of reasonably considering our actions. And as the first two commenters point out, if the deep thinkers don't like it, they can go kill themselves. Or so say the ostrich people of Planet Moron.

52 comments:

Rock/HardPlace said...

This reminds me of the time my wife was telling her mother about my indecision of having a child and her mother said, "well, of course, if everyone thought rationally about having children then no one would have them." Indeed. Indeed.

metamorphhh said...

Man, it's a shame that's too long to fit on a bumper sticker. Priceless!

Planet Moron said...

Even a perfunctory reading of the piece (which I would expect from someone who is presumably pro-intellectual) would reveal not an assault on the notion of whether or not to have children, but rather an assault on the notion that you don't know whether you are happy or not.

I'm actually quite fond of real intellectuals who suffer from getting lumped in with the likes of Benatar who believes himself so very intellectual, that he knows better than you do whether or not you are happy and dismisses any arguments to the contrary as "illusions."

Try running that line of reasoning by your wife and see how far you get.

Curator said...

It seems strange at first that we might ever be mistaken about our own well-being.

Rather than get all abstract about it, let me offer a single, concrete example: female genital mutilation.

A female in a society that performs genital mutilation on all its females might feel herself well off to have the mutilation performed on her. But despite the current trend toward cultural relativism, we are quite right in saying she is badly off in having her genitals sheared off.

(This might be different from a woman in a society where she had a genuine choice, as an adult, as to whether to undergo the procedure.)

Curator said...

Another way of thinking about self-deception:

Have you ever deceived yourself about your own happiness? Or been "in denial" about something?

Have you ever had a friend who seemed to be deceiving herself about her happiness? (Maybe in a bad relationship whose awfulness was clear to everyone but her?)

People are not always trustworthy about their own happiness. Still, one's own judgment is the best proxy we have for decisions that directly affect that person.

However, consider these statements:

"I was spanked by my parents and I turned out fine, so it's fine to spank my children."

"My parents sold me as a child bride and I am fine, so I'm going to sell my daughters, too."

"I was raised by a single mother on welfare and I'm happy, so I'm going to have ten children, too."

Any problem with the logic there?

Curator said...

And finally: memory engineering.

Our perceptions are not infallible - certainly not infallible enough to justify decisions substantially affecting other people, and without their permission.

Constant said...

I'm having some trouble taking seriously somebody who doesn't take Singer's anti-speciecism seriously, but anyway...

I do share the scepticism about the possibility of erring about how good or bad one feels about one's state right now. However, what Curator said rightly points into a different direction: What about being mistaken about how much bad stuff happened to you in the past? I'm pretty sure that the little girl being mutilated didn't exactly like it.

This, I think, is relevant to Benatar's antinatalism insofar as it shows that there is quite a bit of harm that is worth being prevented; in case someone might doubt it. Only you're unable to recognize all of it right now because the impressions of it have been weakened in your memory.
Maybe that's a charitable reading, but it works for me; and, it seems, against the piece of writing in question.

metamorphhh said...

Planet Moron:

"Even a perfunctory reading of the piece (which I would expect from someone who is presumably pro-intellectual) would reveal not an assault on the notion of whether or not to have children, but rather an assault on the notion that you don't know whether you are happy or not."

I'd say it's an assault on both, especially since you lead off with-

Just in time for Father’s Day, Princeton bioethics professor Peter Singer, writes a piece for the New York Times titled “Should This Be The Last Generation?” in which he questions whether or not it is moral to have children.

"In particular, the professor notes with some surprise that among the concerns prospective parents contemplate when considering having a child:

“Very few ask whether coming into existence is a good thing for the child itself.”

That is due at least partly to the fact that very few prospective parents are bioethics professors at Princeton."

As for the rest, your concerns have probably already been addressed sufficiently that I don't need to pile on. Thanks for stopping by. Glad to have you!

Planet Moron said...

Metamorphhh, I believe the parts you quote make my argument, but I won't belabor it further.

As for Benatar, he is not talking about whether or not people are in denial over some weight gain or are trying to rationalize a bad relationship. His hypothesis is that life as a whole is not worth living, a decidedly subjective judgment, and if the subjects themselves disagree, he dismisses those as invalid data points.

Good work if you can get it!

metamorphhh said...

Planet Moron:

Have you actually read the entire book? Just curious, as many folks who actually went to the trouble of posting reviews didn't trouble to read the book.

Benatar is not weighing his evaluations against some ultimately objective standard, granted. What he does is draw out the logical inferences of normative human notions regarding things like moral valuations, sensibilities, and preferences. For instance, someone says "suffering in intrinsically valuable". Benatar then confronts this poorly thought out axiom, highlighting disparities between the statement, and what we actually feel when confronted with suffering. Through this method, he demonstrates that human beings have a great capacity for building psychological webs of self-deceit as coping mechanisms for dealing with the inequities and horrors of existence.

Of course, this approach is problematic in that most people don't recognize their own coping mechanisms until they're stripped away by some tragedy or other severe life change, that causes them to shift focus. Still, it's important to do the groundwork for this reason: when considering the risks entailed in bringing any particular life into existence, we must clearly recognize what the stakes are. And to do that, we have to cast down those Pollyannish aphorisms that help us make it through each day.

That said, there's probably an easier way to cut through to the prime motivation behind philanthropic antinatalism. Can you think of ANY good reason to abstain from an instance of procreation? Can you foresee a possible life so plagued with horror that it would be better never to conceive it? Any at all? If not, then we probably don't have much to talk about. But if so, even in what you might consider to be the most rare of cases, then consider the possibility that any given life MIGHT fit that bill. Have we the right to subject a new life- without its consent- to such a risk? I say no, and that's where I take my stand. Even if the risk is tiny (and of course, the risks are NOT tiny, but substantial...a point Benatar is trying to make clear).

Is it right that I should play a game of Russian Roulette with a random child, even if the gun has ten thousand empty chambers to one loaded chamber, purely as an act of caprice? Just because I want to? But that's exactly what we're doing when we bring a new child into the world, only...well, in the end everybody bites the bullet.

Curator said...

Benatar is not weighing his evaluations against some ultimately objective standard, granted.

Respectfully, Jim, he (Benatar) is - see his distinction between sub specie humanitatis and sub specie aeternitatis on p. 81-86 and p. 199 of BNTHB.

Curator said...

As for Benatar, he is not talking about whether or not people are in denial over some weight gain or are trying to rationalize a bad relationship. His hypothesis is that life as a whole is not worth living, a decidedly subjective judgment, and if the subjects themselves disagree, he dismisses those as invalid data points.

If we can be so mistaken over weight gain or relationships, why are we infallible when it comes to the biggest question of all - the value of existence?

And Benatar dismisses nothing - he merely shows how the cheery folks are just that, data points, and that they are not infallible. He identifies and elaborates on the well-documented optimistic bias and argues that we shouldn't be so sure that existence is great and worth it simply because we feel it to be.

metamorphhh said...

Curator:

Thanks, I probably could have stated that a little better. The way I translate Benatar's take on the two kinds of objectivity is that one-sub specie humanitatis-is arrived at by evaluating the aggregate and trying to come up with some rough mean as a measuring stick, while the other-sub specie humanitatis-is a sort of idealized standard derived 'from the imagination'. When I use 'ultimately objective standard' I'm referring to a more Platonic or archetypal form of objectivity, a morality or aesthetic not derived from the tension existing between the actual and the ideal, but something that exists 'out there', autonomously, and would exist even if human beings went extinct. I'm not sure Benatar means to go that far, and from my conversations with theists and other sorts of default Platonists, I'd assume that either of Benatar's forms would be considered ultimately arbitrary.

Anyway, thanks for allowing me to clarify, and if you don't agree, feel free to let me know. Admittedly, a lot of my discourse is probably tainted by my years of anti-apologetics efforts :)

Anonymous said...

There's also the matter that your own personal litmus test for happiness is shaped by the average of your circumstances. Not completely dictated by that average, but certainly shaped by that average.

Example: African-Americans, as slaves, certainly had some happy moments. I'm sure the old pro-slavery crowd's story of the slave as a "happy darky" (pardon the un-PC term, but for historical context I will use) did indeed have a degree of truth to it. After all, they say when you're hungry even a shit sandwich tastes like a meal fit for a king.

Put more simply, the brain somehow adapts to one's personal experiences - and as such, those experiences are the reference point/standard by which we measure how good or bad our lives are.

filrabat

CM said...

Planet Moron - since your tongue-in-cheek title is THE NEW CHILD ABUSE: HAVING A CHILD, perhaps it would be fitting to throw in some statistics re:conventionally recognized child abuse, in addition to Curator's examples. Children who were abused usually grow up believing their experiences were normal. Which is relevant to something else Benatar discusses in his book: we don't view most of our negative experiences as such because they happen to everybody (or we think they happen to everybody), and when someone assesses their quality of life, it is usually done in comparative, rather than actual, terms. And yet there is a massive body of evidence that suggests that child abuse has lasting detrimental effects on its victims whether they perceived it as such or not.

Here is an oft-cited study on the subject of victim perceptions with a sample of 11,660 adults. In this study, 74% of those who had received severe
physical punishment (e.g., punching, kicking choking) as
children did not view themselves as having been abused;
49% of those who had been hit with more than 5
different types of objects did not view themselves as
having been abused; 44% of those who had received
more than 2 different types of disciplinary injuries did not
view themselves as having been abused; and 38% of those
who had required 2 different types of medical services for
their injuries did not view themselves as having been
abused.

Therefore, there is no such thing as child abuse. All those researchers who are saying otherwise are pseudo-intellectual hacks. Why can't they just let the "abused" populace go on happily experiencing an increase in the likelihood of depression, substance abuse, behavioral problems, and social difficulties? The only thing that would really make them miserable is telling them they were abused.

CM said...

Another good idea is to spend some time thinking about what you mean when you say "life worth living". Benatar's conclusion is that no lives are worth starting, but some may be worth continuing (his own, too, presumably, since he's still with us despite the heartfelt wish of his many critics).

He illustrates with an example:

Consider, for example, an
evening at the cinema. A film might be bad enough that it would have been better
not to have gone to see it, but not so bad that it is worth leaving before it finishes.

metamorphhh said...

CM, I'm really glad you've made this last point, and it's worth repeating. To go on and live your life, even to enjoy it immensely, is a qualitatively different thing from bring a life into the world that might not ultimately feel the same way you do.

metamorphhh said...

filrabat- good points. It's hard to quantify happiness; it seems to exist in many, sometimes overlapping states of relativity. And I'm not for diagnosing any particular person's happiness quotient. But we can draw general inferences about people's tendency for confirmation bias through the simple recognition that self-deception does obviously exist to some extent (I doubt any reasonable person would deny that), and by weighing peoples' beliefs about what brings happiness or suffering against actual life circumstances. Curator recommended what sounded like a good book about this some time back, though I've forgotten the title.

Chip said...

"His hypothesis is that life as a whole is not worth living..."

This just isn't accurate. Benatar is at worst/best neutral on the question of whether life is worth living for those already in its grip, and he repeatedly emphasizes in BNtHB that existent people have an interest in continuing their lives (which is one reason why philanthropic antinatalism doesn't imply a duty to kill or commit suicide). Benatar's central "hypothesis" is that creating life imposes serious harm and that life should therefore not be brought into existence. When Benatar exposes optimistic biases and focuses on objective vs relative valuations (I agree with Sister Y on the latter), his aim is to demonstrate that the normal life entails serious harm that should weigh against the presumed benefit or neutrality of bringing new people into existence. The view that life should not be imposed on those who stand to suffer and who have no say in their fate is very different from the view that life, as such, "is not worth living."

metamorphhh said...

Thanks, Chip. This is a point I like to emphasize whenever I can. If tomorrow the whole species became sterile, and there was no possibility of any more people coming into existence, I wouldn't give one whit for the self-delusions the remaining population indulged in. Hell, I'd probably encourage them, and try my best to get a little of that action myself.

But delusions translate to axioms. "I feel good" becomes "life is good", and this becomes a justification for bringing new lives into existence which might not wind up feeling so good after all. Reproduction allows the continuance of all those things we feel and believe are bad.

In the end, antinatalism is not anti-life in the sense that all present life must cease to be. That will take care of itself, eventually. Antinatalism is, as the word infers, anti-BIRTH. There is a qualitative difference between the choice to continue one's existence (as long as is possible, anyway), and choosing to bring a new life into existence sans consent. Even in the best of all worlds, I doubt it could be argued that this is the right thing to do. But given the world we have, it is without doubt the wrong thing to do.

Planet Moron said...

Anyone who introduces the concept of Platonic ideals into an Internet discussion is okay with me! (And for the record, the Platonic automobile is a Ferrari 328.)

Along those lines, Planet Moron is very big on Socratic modesty, that is, the truly wise person knows that he is not wise. That was the thrust of the piece (and you really should take my word for it, I have no reason t lie) and the thrust of much of what Planet Moron is about.

Benatar displays the worst kind of immodesty in his suggestion that he knows better than you whether or not you are happy, that he knows "life is not worth living" even before the fact. (Chip, read pages 223-224 of his book if you still believe that is a mischaracterization. I see no other way to read a man who suggests it is an act of philanthropy to spare someone the suffering of coming into existence.)

The question of whether or not bringing someone into the world causes suffering for those already here is an entirely different matter and one I don't address given the existence of the cast of Jersey Shore. But I do have an issue with anyone who argues that they are of such elevated intellect that they know better than I do whether I am happy or not.

CM said...

Planet Moron - it's great to know that you have read the book (or at least the last two pages of it).

The two pages you refer to are in the Conclusion section. This means that the arguments on which the conclusion rests were presented earlier in the book, so the author assumes you are already familiar with them. Furthermore, I don't see any statements about his superior knowledge of your level of happiness in those two pages (or anywhere).

In fact, he never says that people who say they are happy are really miserable. Here's what he actually says:

We can imagine somebody being glad, at one stage in his
life, that he came to be, and then (or earlier), perhaps in the midst
of extreme agony, regretting his having come into existence. Now
it cannot be the case that (all things considered) it is both better
to have come into existence and better never to have come into
existence. But that is exactly what we would have to say in such a
case, if it were true that being glad or unhappy about having come
into existence were equivalent to its actually being better or worse
that one came into being.
This is true even in those cases in which
people do not change their minds about whether they are happy
to have been born.
(emphasis added).

We can apply the same reasoning on a grander scale. Someone's feeling that they are happy in their life overall is not equivalent to their life being good. This is what Benatar is saying; he then goes on to show how people's assessments of their own quality of life are unreliable (i.e., they may not be wrong about how happy they are feeling when they are making the assessment, but they are likely wrong about the thing they are assessing - their quality of life), citing a whole lot of research along the way. I doubt that you are so completely unaware of the many biases and memory problems (which have been mentioned by others already) that cloud human thinking as to expect perfect and unerring objectivity and knowledge from people, especially if you are big on Socratic modesty. Benatar's demonstration of the faults of human thought processes doesn't mean he thinks his own is infallible. To the contrary, it means he is more aware of his biases than most (this awareness actually helps people think more objectively, but I digress).

The fact that people's self-assessments are unreliable is not in itself an argument in support of antinatalism. However, it means that people's self-assessments cannot be used as a valid argument against it.

Not that the aren't plenty of arguments for it. But you already know that if you have read the book, right:)?

Also, you seem to have a problem with the view that a given life is not worth living (or, more precisely, starting) "before the fact". Setting aside the fact that a positive assessment of one's life is not equivalent to its being good, what is your proposed solution to those of us who think our lives were not worth starting after the fact? Hint: telling us to kill ourselves doesn't count. Aside from a million other reasons why we might not want to do that, it doesn't undo the suffering we have already experienced.

Planet Moron said...

CM, you decide to counter my charge that Benatar believes he is better equipped to judge people's lives than those people themselves by noting that: "They may not be wrong about how happy they are feeling when they are making the assessment, but they are likely wrong about the thing they are assessing - their quality of life."

Consider me schooled!

Or that: "Setting aside the fact that a positive assessment of one's life is not equivalent to its being good..."

Really? Are you sure you want to go with that?

I have no doubt that you are sincere and have given this a great deal of thought and quite possibly consider me a fool for thinking otherwise, but then that's part of what I find so enjoyable about life.

Oh wait, I forgot, according to "a whole bunch of research," I'm probably just deluding myself!

As for, "What is your proposed solution to those of us who think our lives were not worth starting after the fact?" Not only don't I have one, I don't care to have one. I'm not interested in telling you whether or not you should or should not feel good or are or are not mistaken regarding your quality of life.

Notice the difference?

Chip said...

PM,

There is nothing in the page span you cite that overthrows the crucial distinction between "worth starting" and "worth continuing." If you want a clearer picture of why this is relevant to your (mis)characterization of Benatar's argument, track back to page 218 where he gilds the lily at the tip.

Curator said...

A concrete illustration of the difference: a child with severe, full-face Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

If a potential mother is a heavy drinker, it would probably be better for her to not get pregnant (or to have an abortion if she does get pregnant). A child with such severe problems might be better off not existing; it would be unfair to the child to bring her into existence.

On the other hand, no one is arguing that we should kill children with FAS because their lives are not "worth living."

This is why the folks at Project Prevention pay drug addicts to get sterilized, but themselves adopt and care for children born to drug-addicted mothers.

CM said...

Planet Moron -

No, I decide to counter your charge with the quotation that you chose to ignore. If you disagree with it, it would be interesting to know why.

All my consequent remarks follow from the implications of the case described by Benatar.

I don't consider you a fool at all; in fact, I think you deserve great commendation for coming here and actually engaging in a discussion with us because most people would have been satisfied with believing we are crazy and patting themselves on the back for knowing better. I do, however, think that you should try to understand people's arguments before ridiculing their conclusions. And, preferably, read the beginning of people's books and posts, as well as the end.

As for the solution, if you don't have one and don't care to, why does it bother you that Benatar has one?

zralytylen said...

In response to those who claim that there's an asymmetry between coming and going, I offer the following thought experiment:

Suppose there exists a teleporter that destroys you, records your exact information theoretic makeup, and sends this information to some other point where you can be reassembled. Someone at the other end is given the option as to whether or not you are to be reassembled. Would it be wrong to simply not reassemble you given the supposed interests in continued life? Suppose that you never existed in the first place and that the information spontaneously appears at the other end. Would it still be wrong not to reassemble you? Given that the person at the other end has no way to determine which of these scenarios is the case, what should he do?

There are probably a few trivial objects to levelled at this particular analogy but I'm sure anyone here could think of something better.

Curator said...

Interesting!

The teleportation engineer has two conflicting interests to balance:

1. The right of a living person to go on living, if he so wishes, and
2. The right of an unborn person not to come into existence.

Most living people prefer to go on living; the universality of this preference is why we tend to resuscitate unconscious people even though we can't ask them what they want.

If the soon-to-be-reassembled person is a teleportee, who chose this, then he has an interest in going on living - BUT he knew that he was sending himself into an unknown future, where the rights of others might be violated by reassembling him. I think this knowledge trumps his claim to the right to be reassembled. The teleportation engineer SHOULD NOT reassemble the person, in case it is a new, accidental, unconsenting being.

It's similar, I think, to a person "wanting to live," but taking a dose of poison in a place where he will be found prior to death, just for the thrill of it. The finder will not know whether the poison-drinker really wanted to die or not; but since evidence (drinking the poison) shows the drinker was willing to accept the risk of not being resuscitated, and it would be wrong to resuscitate a genuine suicide, he has foregone his right to be resuscitated.

Chip said...

Curator,

It didn't seem clear to me from zralytylen's phrasing that the pre-existent teleportee had prior awareness of the dilemma that would be faced by the re-assembler (or scratch-assembler, potentially) on the other end. The dilemma becomes tidier by assuming such knowledge, but why not tighten the screws a bit by assuming that:

a.) the pre-existent teleportee had no prior knowledge that his reassembly would be complicated by the possibility of assembling beings anew. (We might further assume that this technical wrinkle came late in the R&D, so that the re-assembler could not have provided good faith disclosure of the potential for creating new beings.)

b.) the pre-existent teleportee's interest in continued existence is explicitly stated by contractual arrangement with the reassembly provider.

Thinking of it this way, it seems that we are left to consider a cleaner and much more difficult problem that neatly pits an individual's autonomous interest in continuing their life against the harm entailed in bringing life into existence.

metamorphhh said...

The way I see it, the teleportee is already dead. We're not talking about his continuance, but about a new birth fashioned after the pattern of someone who no longer exists. We can consider this problem in terms of contractual law, I suppose; like honoring the disposition of a will. But then we're no longer talking about morality, but legality. As far as this-

"Suppose that you never existed in the first place and that the information spontaneously appears at the other end. Would it still be wrong not to reassemble you?"

This just seems to be a restatement of the standing question. From an antinatalist position, it would be wrong to assemble you for the same reasons it's wrong to give birth.

CM said...

I don't really see a material difference between the two cases in zralytylen's thought experiment. If the teleporteee is destroyed, so are their interests in continuing to exist. The being assembled would be a new being; a Swampman. So I would say no to the assembly of both.

But then I don't claim there's an asymmetry between coming and going (or being non-existent prior to and after one's life, rather). Only the living can be harmed, and the notion that if you shorten one's lifespan without their knowledge, they have actually been in the process of being harmed by it throughout the course of their life up to that point doesn't sound very convincing. What's harmful is the negative experiences throughout one's existence and (almost always) immediately preceding one's death.

CM said...

Ah, Jim has beat me to the punch.

zralytylen said...

"The way I see it, the teleportee is already dead. We're not talking about his continuance, but about a new birth fashioned after the pattern of someone who no longer exists."

What criterion did you use to establish that the person had died? He hadn't yet died from an information theoretic perspective; only his material self was gone. You could argue that the person's consciousness represents their existence but then it would follow that a sleeping person has no interest in waking up. The only remaining possibility is that the physical body represents existence but a) that's arbitrary and b) what if we could destroy their body without destroying their consciousness?

"I don't really see a material difference between the two cases in zralytylen's thought experiment."

The difference between the two cases lies in whether or not the presumed interests in the person's continued existence apply. If the person existed beforehand we might say that that interest existed but it makes no sense to say that someone who never existed has an interest in continued existence.

metamorphhh said...

zralytylen:

"The only remaining possibility is that the physical body represents existence but a) that's arbitrary and b) what if we could destroy their body without destroying their consciousness?"

A physical body functioning along certain parameters IS the definition of being alive as far as I can tell. This doesn't seem to be arbitrary at all, but the actual state of affairs. Either we're talking about disassembling a physical pattern, and then duplicating it later, or we're talking about physically moving a 'self' from one location to another without any discontinuation, which seems to me to defeat the specifics of the thought experiment.

"what if we could destroy their body without destroying their consciousness?"

Since I see consciousness as a certain variety of brain function, I don't see how this would work. I suppose you could hypothetically recreate the pattern of a particular consciousness in, say, a computer program; but again, this would be duplication, which for the sake of the argument amounts to bringing a new child into existence.

metamorphhh said...

All this teleporter stuff, while certainly interesting, can spin off and away from the pertinent subject matter pretty quickly. Selfhood becomes a pretty tricky subject once we get away from the pedestrian definitions, and start talking about physical processes and information theory.

For instance, take your opening scenario-

"Suppose there exists a teleporter that destroys you, records your exact information theoretic makeup, and sends this information to some other point where you can be reassembled."

Now let's change one ingredient. Let's say we record 'your' information, send this information to some other point, and then reassemble 'you'. On the moon, perhaps. But now let's suppose that the machine operator thinks you're cute, and can't bring himself to destroy your original. See the problem? Which 'you' is you? And if I decide to kill the 'you' on the moon, can the 'you' on Earth have me prosecuted, since nothing's actually happened to 'you'?

If you really want to get down to it, there are no real selves in an actual, discreet sense. There are patterns within the environment, much like whirlpools in a river, or tornadoes in the open air. The actual matter circulates in and out again, from moment to moment. Brain states are actually states of constant fluctuation. Etc.

I could go on, but I think the point is clear. This is all fodder for some great mind fucking, and I've thought and read about it a lot over the decades, but I think the subject matter demands that we stay on a bit more prosaic ground. I've written a bit more about this stuff on my anti-apologetics blog, I think, but it's way too late to dig it out now :)

Niters.

Chip said...

I disagree that the teleportee is "already dead." He's more like a traveller who sleeps on the train (if teleportation is ever realized for practical purposes, this will seem obvious). You can easily imagine that he has friends and family waiting for him at his destination. Also, I don't think it's necessary to assign qualitative difference to pre- and post-vital states of nonexistence to see how and why this gets tricky.

metamorphhh said...

Chip:

Isn't the presumption of death warranted because of the beginning sentence?...

"Suppose there exists a teleporter that destroys you..."

The problem with maintaining that the 'person' is still alive because his pattern's information is stored somewhere leads to a lot of weird conclusions. Consider my hypothetical, for instance. Where there was 1 John, now there are 2. How is this different from creating a new person? And who gets to keep all John's stuff?

There are other problems. If we are to apply personhood to the information used as a template in the duplication process, can I then download myself to a flashdrive and put myself in my own pocket? Or can I make a million of my'selfs' and steal an election?

And consider-A vastly superior alien race with FTL travelling capabilities has learned to catch the light barreling away from the Earth at 186,ooo miles per second, and has technology that captures the information contained in that light to reproduce every human being who's ever lived. Does that then mean that nobody's ever died? That they've simply been sleeping?

Now, I can't say that any of this might not be possible someday. However, such possibilities utterly redefine the parameters of the conversation regarding personhood. Ultimately, we'll be at the place where physics and some strains of Buddhism meet. In the context of antinatalism, we'll no longer be talking about people suffering, but about the existence of suffering as an unappealing aspect of the universe. Or as some Zen mucky-muck said once, "There is no one who suffers, only the suffering."

metamorphhh said...

Here's my final word on zralytylen's thought experiment. Since the teleportee has been 'destroyed' per the originally stated hypothesis, the question is whether or not it is 'right' to reassemble him at the other end of the line. I have two answers-

1. Yes, in a legal sense. It would be the same as honoring someone's will.

2. No, in the moral sense (from the antinatalist perspective, naturally). As long as the information is passively stored in some computer bank, nobody exists. I think a lot of this feels unecessarily murky only because we're talking about mysterious technology 'holding' information much like a ghost in a machine. But consider a more primitive, familiar alternative. How's about we translate all that information into a really efficient shorthand, and simply store it in a book we can keep on our desk? Do we then still insist that the original person is 'alive', awaiting duplication?

Or how about instead of a single duplication at the receiving end, we make a billion copies? Which is the original teleportee? In actuality, haven't we just created a billion more people?

Questions like these, and others I could easily come up with, illustrate the problem with identifying the hypothetical's stored information with surviving existential personhood. If we're going to shift the philosophical focus over to information theory, which is what we're talking about here, then there really are no births, no deaths, no persons. There's simply pattern interaction inside the biggest hard drive known to man i.e. the universe. The conversation would have to start over from the ground up. An interesting tangent.

Chip said...

With all due respect, Jim, I think you're overcomplicating the thought experiment, and somewhat missing the point. Captain Kirk says "beam me up," but Scotty knows that if he hits the switch there's a 50/50 chance he'll create a new person instead. The deeper problems of selfhood and consciousness (which apply without the sci-fi trappings) can be set aside by assuming that teleported people cannot be "duplicated" and that, in the social sense, there is no difference between being reassembled and waking up from a nap. Rig it this way, and you're left with the meat of the problem, which is how to value a living person's interest in continuing to live against against the harm done by creating a new person.

Chip said...

"If we're going to shift the philosophical focus over to information theory, which is what we're talking about here, then there really are no births, no deaths, no persons. There's simply pattern interaction inside the biggest hard drive known to man i.e. the universe."

But the scenario remains agent-centered. As long as there's someone making consequential decisions, I don't see why it should matter whether the existentially vital information is carried via gametes or through some hypothesized technology.

metamorphhh said...

Chip:

But the question remains, when a person has been translated to the static information in a book on my desk, can he still be thought of as an agent?

What if we could raise the dead? Should we? It's the same question, really. Looking for an objectively 'right' answer takes us into the realm of deontological axioms, a place I'm of no mind go to. If we choose to legally recognize the continuity, we go one way. If not, we go the other. Neither way is fully based in objective reality, for reasons I've stated previously. I lean towards erring in the direction of preventing experiential harm. It's the same position I take regarding abortion.

Chip said...

Fair enough. I'll only point out that doctors bring people back from the dead all the time.

metamorphhh said...

Chip:

Which brings us back to the rather ambiguous problems concerning personhood, and discontinuation of same :)

metamorphhh said...

Chip:

I AM curious as to how you'd answer my one hypothetical. If we take the information stored in our transporter machine, and constitute a billion John Does instead of one, have we created a billion new people, or has John Doe merely woken up from a nap in a billion different locations?

Chip said...

"If we take the information stored in our transporter machine, and constitute a billion John Does instead of one, have we created a billion new people, or has John Doe merely woken up from a nap in a billion different locations?"

I think the answer is that the same John Doe wakes up in a billion different locations. However, immediately after this event, owing to countless stochastic variables, the John Doe legion individuates into a billion new people.

zralytylen said...

Originally, this thought experiment was intended to demonstrate how muddied the notion of personhood can become which then invokes the question as to why it was ever used as a basis for ethical decisions. Of course, this isn't the only route to attack personhood. A reasonable consequence of the Omphalos hypothesis is that the past should have no bearing on future moral decisions. But I digress.

In my naive assessment, I'd suggest that Benatar and others have used this to avoid the unfortunate conclusion that the asymmetry used for a basis for antinatalism makes no reference to the idea of personhood and that consequently, coming would indeed be the same as going.

Curator said...

I'm not sure I understand. I agree that person-based and interest-based analyses are complicated (I laughed out loud when I noticed that Peter Singer recommends Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons to the general population in his follow-up article).

Are you arguing (or arguing that Benatar is secretly arguing) that it's okay to kill sleeping people?

CM said...

Yes, I'm not entirely sure what your point is, either, zralytylen. Just to be sure we are talking about the same thing, the asymmetry that antinatalism is based on is the asymmetry of pleasure and pain, not one between coming and going.

That said, I don't think the notion of personhood is essential to the antinatalist position. I'm sure David Benatar could defend his views even without appealing to it. It just so happens that most people think in those terms. But we could just say they the majority of animals are all one big clump of sentience (see what Jim said about patterns), and that suffering is an inherent component of its existence. We perpetuate and increase sentience by reproducing, so reproducing=causing harm to sentience. The asymmetry of pleasure and pain would still apply. The only difference is that it would be more appropriate to suggest that sentience kill itself, so to speak, than that individual people kill themselves because it's not like there are other sentiences that would be hurt by its suicide, and it has no survival instinct, just experiences.

Also, sleeping and not (sentiently) existing are different. You are still sentient when you sleep, and you experience things.

metamorphhh said...

CM:

Thanks for saving me the time by saying what I was going to say, and more succinctly to boot! We certainly CAN get into the question of what personhood entails; and, in fact, if we amp up the magnification enough, smear the notion into unrecognizability. But I think the more prosaic conceptions suffice for this discussion. I'm me, you're you, and we both experience joys and sufferings which anybody can relate to. I don't see how any of Benatar's main points change either way, whether we are children of the universe, or the universe imagining it is children.

zralytylen said...

I was arguing that Benatar's original asymmetry implies that there's no difference between dying coming into existence. Because of the claim that procreation always entails harm, death must always be a benefit. In order to circumvent this conclusion, one must appeal to some notion of personhood. The thought experiment was intended to show that either the reference to this concept is unjustified or that the very idea is flawed. Perhaps I'll syllogise this later.

Chip said...

zralytylen,

You write:

"I was arguing that Benatar's original asymmetry implies that there's no difference between dying coming into existence. Because of the claim that procreation always entails harm, death must always be a benefit. In order to circumvent this conclusion, one must appeal to some notion of personhood. The thought experiment was intended to show that either the reference to this concept is unjustified or that the very idea is flawed."

Your thought experiment is interesting and potentially useful, but I'm not sure it leads in the direction you suggest. It introduces a novel twist of epistemic uncertainty to provoke a dilemma for those who value individual autonomy (and who therefore may conclude that death is a harm) while also embracing the view that procreation entails special harm (including perforce the harm of death). Though the dilemma may present special difficulty for deontologically grounded anitnatalists who value individual autonomy, it can be resolved in various ways (through consequentialist reasoning, for example) without uprooting a person-centered view that death, like birth, is a harm.

CM said...

zralytylen -

I see what you mean. These issues and the different views of death are discussed in the chapter Death and Suicide of BNtHB. In theory, an antinatalist could hold any of them without being inconsistent; Chip is, perhaps, an exception in carrying his value for autonomy so far, but it strikes me as perfectly consistent with philanthropic antinatalism. David Benatar's own views are that death is sometimes a benefit and sometimes a harm, BTW.

He mentions the possibility that loving life as a whole despite its badness may be irrational (and felt despite realizing its irrationality). That is my view. If you're interested in a discussion about rational suicide and coerced life, you should definitely check out Curator's blog. Some antinatalists, myself included, think that unexpected, instant and painless omnicide would be best. However, it is not feasible; if we were to hope that it becomes possible in the future, we might as well become transhumanists, abolitionists, or engage in similar mental masturbation. But we already have all the tools we need to cease human reproduction, i.e. contraception, abortion, and sterilization, so it seems more reasonable to advocate this route.