Thursday, June 17, 2010

Brainpalming- More Singer and Benatar

Heres a puzzler-

This is the kind of thing that gives philosophy a bad name. Really. I have nothing against this kind of thing in a graduate seminar; to publish it, to offer an argument that, precisely because existence involves suffering to some degree or another, non-existence is actually a better moral choice than existence is just, well, silly.

While it is true that there are those, many perhaps, whose existence involves extensive suffering - consider children born with extremely debilitating disorders, such as anencephalia, or even something like spina bifida. Or a child born HIV+. Or a child born in to a family, community, or whole nation defined by desperate poverty. Does "suffering" define the entirety of their existence? I cannot imagine that it does. There are, to be sure, those who choose to define their lives that way. Such may even be the case.

Yet, they do, indeed exist. Whether it's a child born with a rare condition in which their brain develops outside their skulls, or a young man who was once active and athletic who suffers a traumatic injury leaving him a quadriplegic, or a woman raised in a home filled with domestic violence who grows up and continues the cycle by marrying an abusive man, subjecting yet another generation to the cycle of violence - these cases (some, admittedly, more common than others) do not negate the simple fact, because these people exist they should be the center of our ethical concern. Rather than figuring out how to argue that it would have been preferable they never existed at all - the George Bailey Syndrome - we should be figuring out how to alleviate their suffering. That and that alone should be the focus of our ethical concern.


Since when is prevention not part of practical ethical concerns? We are encouraged to spay and neuter our pets precisely because of such concerns. In fact, dog and cat sterilization could probably be said to be THE primary ethical focus of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. That doesn't mean other aspects are ignored, such as prevention of physical cruelty. The only difference with antinatalism is that it extends the scope of preventative measures, and makes arguments as to why such an expansion is necessary. Limiting our ethical concerns to the inevitable suffering that comes after the fact, or only to prevention in terms of those who have already arrived on the scene is a perfect example of closing the barn door after the horse has gotten out, isn't it?

What intrigues me about this particular article is that the author is able to recognize the existential problems of being alive on this planet- at least, some of them- but then fails to comprehend that maybe this stuff is worth talking about. I mean, honestly, can anyone say with a straight face that not bringing a child into the world isn't at least SOMETIMES the right moral choice, ever??? Acknowledging that, the question then comes down to a simple discussion about risk, and what kinds of risks are worth taking under what circumstances. This is all quite basically commonsensical, which is why I suspect people would rather eschew the subject altogether. Because they know in the backs of their minds where this leads, and they don't like it. Why? Because their unexamined presuppositions are threatened by digging this stuff up, as well as their vicarious immortality. That's why.

So instead- "What? Stop breeding?! What a stoopid idea! Nope, not worth going into at all, not one bit. My hands are over my ears now. I CAN'T HEAR YOU!"

Etc.

UPDATE: This part-

While it is true that there are those, many perhaps, whose existence involves extensive suffering - consider children born with extremely debilitating disorders, such as anencephalia, or even something like spina bifida. Or a child born HIV+. Or a child born in to a family, community, or whole nation defined by desperate poverty. Does "suffering" define the entirety of their existence? I cannot imagine that it does.


Really? REALLY? He can't imagine it at all? And does suffering have to so infuse a person's whole being that anything less isn't worth considering in the context of the conversation of whether or not it might have been better if that person had never been born. Really? Such obtuseness can only be explained by psychological denial on a grand scale- David Benatar's point, btw. I wonder if people of this mindset would be willing to apply such a stringent standard to folks they'd otherwise describe as 'happy'. Doubtful.

6 comments:

CM said...

It is interesting to note that laws against animal cruelty preceded laws against cruelty to children (in the US, at least), and the first case of child removal was justified using the laws against cruelty to animals (since the child was an animal too). I wonder if it is a good sign for the future. The trends in the welfare of non-human animals (excepting the ones that are used for consumption) - euthanasia, sterilization - are way more progressive than the trends in human welfare, probably because our judgment about their quality of life isn't clouded by evolutionary mechanisms and coping skills. Sure, there are problems with "Let's house those in need before we breed", but it is so far ahead of the way people consider human reproduction. But then maybe children are viewed more like beef and chicken than pets and service animals. After all, whenever you tell someone you don't want to breed, people's first question is "Don't you like children?", as in "Don't you enjoy them?" as opposed to "Aren't you concerned for their well-being?"

Curator said...

probably because our judgment about their quality of life isn't clouded by evolutionary mechanisms and coping skills

Excellent point! I'd never thought of that.

Chip said...

RE "evolutionary thinking" -- If this is true wrt animals/people, I wonder if the same tendency is detectable within-species wrt near/far, along the lines one would expect from kin selection? Are people generally more amenable to antinatalist ethics (for people) when the problem is framed with reference to more genetically distant populations/cultures? Seems there might be anecdotal evidence, but the question is especially interesting because it could be tested.

CM said...

Chip - I suspect so. Unfortunately, it might be hard to tell when people are genuinely more amenable to the ethics, or just use them to mask their hatred of the genetically distant populations/cultures. I think even neo-nazis sometimes like talking about how black people shouldn't breed because their lives tend to be inherently worse due to their "genetic inferiority".

CM said...

On second thought, it might not be that hard to tell. An implicit association test re:race would take care of that.

TGGP said...

The Implicit Association Test may be bogus.