Thursday, October 28, 2010

Drawing Distinctions

Heads up for an interesting taxonomic approach to the antinatalism question. Sister Y has classified the major positions thusly-

1: Pronatalism. "All reproduction is morally innocent (or morally required)."
2: Situational context-dependent antinatalism. "Everybody should have babies except starving people in the third world, drug addicts, and AIDS patients."
3: Universal context-dependent antinatalism. "Our world is so bad that no one living in it should reproduce; but if things got much better, it might be okay."
4: Pure antinatalism. "No beings should ever be brought into existence if they will suffer at all - which they will."

Obviously, 1 and 2 are off the table as far as I'm concerned. 3 is no more tempting for a couple of reasons, the most obvious being that life exists in a constant state of existential flux. Having achieved utopia, what possible guarantees of everlasting prolongation can be secured? Shit happens. Beyond the question of endurance, there's the matter of those lives brought into being between then and now- how can the coercion and sacrifices ever be justified within a normative moral framework? There's also the problem of varying subjective standards to deal with. How can we know that our little utopia will measure up to somebody else's future measuring stick, unless everybody is exactly the same? It's been tried before.

Now onto number 4, and a question that's never really occurred to me before. What IF, in a far distant future, some paradise is manufactured which is somehow guaranteed to be both sufficient for all and sustainable throughout eternity. Imagine a day when suffering of any sort is abolished once and forever, swept out of the universe like a herd of unwelcome dust bunnies. Under these conditions, would procreation automatically become a moral act? Why? Perhaps it could be said to be not an immoral act, but I'm not so sure this is the same thing. Is a harmless act automatically a moral one? Or does a moral act entail some substance or form of moral necessity, no matter how oblique? I may be splitting hairs here, but equating non-immorality with morality is leaving me just a little bit queasy...perhaps for no good reason, I'll confess. It's an open question, and I invite debate.

UPDATE: The reason I bring this up is because it occurs to me that all purposeful action requires, or is impelled by, SOME sort of necessity. In a theistic context, the question has always been IF God is entirely sufficient unto Himself, what could possibly provoke Him to an act of creation? The pat answer has always been that He does such for His own pleasure; but of course, wasn't He always perfectly 'pleased' to begin with?

Pursuing this line of inquiry to its outer limits, I am logically persuaded to conclude that absolute perfection- or purity, if you will- when defined under the aegis of unalloyed non-necessity, doesn't look a whole lot different from non-existence to me. If, indeed, there's any difference at all. It seems to me that a positive moral action is always conceived to fill a gap, the kind of gap which just doesn't exist in a fundamentally ideal state (or non-state, in the case of non-existence). Which brings us full circle to the concept of Negative Bliss. The place where we started. The place we're all headed back to, eventually. In this light, existence seems to be nothing more than sediment temporally shaken up from the bottom of a crystal clear lake otherwise untroubled by any eddies, or winds of chance. Why muddy the waters?


filrabat said...

Re: the far distant future utopian paradise, without any suffering.

Unfortunately, the laws of physics are against this in the very long-run (the “heat death of the universe” thing I continually bring up). Even if we do eventually develop the technology to stop all suffering (definitely transhumanist ones), that means we will still cease to exist as conscious things one day anyway. The only way around this that I know of is to completely purge both the following traits from humanity, or at least our distant descendants:

(a) the survival instinct itself

(b) our capacity to feel pain in any form.

This would essentially make us glorified robots in the classical connotation of the word. It would be the same as if we built androids with human-like cognitive capabilities (or even greater), only without the “survival instinct software” or a sensory system compelling it to avoid areas too hot, too cold, unable to care about other androids and biological entities, etc. IF we built such an android and launched it to an uninhabited region of the cosmos (whether relatively nearby or far across the universe), then I think its existence would be morally irrelevant – if it exists, that’s fine; if it doesn’t exist, that’s fine.

cuntagious said...

I guess I'd fall under 'Universal context-dependent antinatalism'. In theory I could consider having children under the right conditions. However, human nature being what it, most likely the 'right' conditions will never exist, which makes me a de facto pure anti-natalist

metamorphhh said...

I suppose if suffering in all its forms were utterly excised from existence forever and ever, amen, then the ultimate heat death of the universe seems inconsequential. In this best-of-all-possible-cases scenario, however, what are we really left with? I see it as a draw. On life's side of the ledger, we have lack of suffering + positive experience until, finally, things come to an absolute close. On non-existence's side, we have lack of suffering which includes the inability to feel deprived, in any fashion whatsoever, of positive experience; which, from the point of view of normative human appraisal, is positive in and of itself.

However, we can't snap our fingers and wish a perfect world into existence, much less guarantee that such a situation would last forever and ever, amen (or at least until the universe coughs up its last breath). On the contrary, suffering seems to be part of the natural process, though Utopian fantasies run a dime-a-dozen. They're just part of the process of denial whereby we justify this procreative business as usual we're so fond of practicing. I think I agree with you, cuntagious, that outside the ground of extreme, unfounded flights of fancy, 'universal context dependent' and 'pure' antinatalism boil down to the same thing. Life simply cannot be rationally justified without contradicting some aspects of the moral schema which most of us hold dear.

metamorphhh said...

This in contrast, btw, to Sister Y's SITUATIONAL context-dependent antinatalism, which most people probably hold to at some level, as per her examples.

Thinking a little more about it, I can see where there might be differences of opinion regarding #3, even granting a truly universal and forever ongoing Utopian context. I tend to be of a consequentialist bent, so if I truly believed that all new life everywhere was being delivered into an absolutely perfect existence with no chance of anything ever going sour, I doubt I'd work up much of a sweat about the whole issue. But someone who sees ethics through more of a deontological lens might take issue.

The difference, I think, lies in how one feels about coercion. For some, lack of consent is the be-all and end-all of the issue. I actually respect that attitude quite a lot, but I'm not sure it means as much to me outside of some kind of consequentialist framework; at least, emotionally speaking. But I guess the real point I'm trying to make in this O.P. is that even under the most radically ideal circumstances, a logical moral justification is lacking. At best, procreation within the context of our hypothetical Utopia might be said to be a harmlessly selfish act. At least, in consequentialist terms.

metamorphhh said...

STILL thinking about it, doesn't it seem that #2 and #3 naturally collapse into #4 under a little close scrutiny, especially when we allow for the wild card of bad fortune, which can pop up at any time and turn any relatively good context into a bad one?

Anonymous said...

Hello Jim,

> Under these conditions, would
> procreation automatically become a
> moral act? Why? Perhaps it could be
> said to be not an immoral act, but
> I'm not so sure this is the same
> thing.

I think it is not the same. A moral act for me is something that should be done. An immoral act is something that should not be done. So, if something is not immoral it only means there are no (moral) reasons not to do it. But that does not automatically mean that there is a (moral) reason why it ought to be done.

Therefore I think that you are right, under these hypothetical/unrealistic circumstances it might not be immoral. But it would still not be a moral act.

In my opinion creating new life is never a moral act with respect to the new individual in question (because, prior to its existence, it has no needs which would be helped by it coming into existence). It could be moral regarding other, existing, lives, which might be benefited by the new life. But that would reduce the new life to a means to the ends of others, which would then make its creation an immoral act.

All the best,

Ann Sterzinger said...

Recently I was interested by a problem unwittingly presented to me by a coworker re: the improvement in numerous people's quality of life due to the benefits a contemporary gained from the birth of his child. To wit: a chef I work with, once notorious for screaming his underlings into suicidality, suddenly became more warm and forgiving after (his wife's having had) a baby. The question: is the reduction in about 20 people's suffering worth the (death-bookended) existence of a 21st?

Anonymous said...

Ann: I wonder how long it will be before your co-worker reverts back to his a-hole mode when the afterglow has worn off?

Anonymous 2 said...

Or his child will be a bully too.

Curator said...


I have still never heard a convincing argument as to why the unconsented suffering of some people is justified by the pleasure of others. (Has anyone here?) It is my position that the pleasure of some NEVER morally justifies the suffering of others without their consent. In economic terms, I think Pareto=good and Kaldor-Hicks=bad.

One of the most troubling aspects of life and the living universe is the tendency for creatures to soothe themselves by beating the crap out of, or otherwise causing suffering to, a fellow creature.

Leaving Society said...

filrabat: I think that your distinction between suffering and the survival instinct is unnecessary. "Survival" is a misnomer, anyway, isn't it? After all, no past organism to have ever lived on this planet ultimately "survived" beyond a few decades at the most. More accurately, then, we possess innate aversions to what we perceive to be threats to our well-being; so, if death is perceived as painful, terrifying, or mired in uncertainty, then organisms will exhibit avoidance behaviors when confronted with that prospect. We don't desire to survive -- we desire to avoid a negative sensations like fear, regardless of what stimulus or set of stimuli triggers them. My cat, for instance, has no idea that it is going to die one day, and only runs from predators because it has an innate fear of them -- not because it "wants" to survive (which, ultimately, it won't).

A few more thoughts:

1. A world of intelligence and "positive" sentience (that is, sentience absolutely deprived of negative value) will always be superior to a world devoid of any form of consciousness so long as there is no absolute guarantee that sentience will never, ever arise again in the distant future (in this universe, in a parallel universe, or in a future iteration of the universe). If everyone is too afraid to stick around, fine, but those who volunteer to maintain sentience and intelligence just in case negative value exists elsewhere -- and thus warrants management -- should be encouraged.

2. The heat death of the universe is so absurdly far into the future that it would be foolish to pretend that we have accounted for all variables involved in that event. Our deduction that heat death will occur is based on the interaction between non-intelligent variables; given that we know nothing about what an augmented or simulated reality chock-full of intelligent entities could ultimately produce, I don't think that it's wise to be so sure of ourselves when it comes to events trillions of years in the future.

Leaving Society said...

I'm glad to see that someone has explicitly outlined the differences between the competing kinds of anti-reproduction. I think it's important to know them, and to specify which applies to you when discussing your decision to not reproduce.

On your point that a universe without the inability to feel deprived, even in the absence of negativity, is inferior to a universe where said inability exists, how do we determine whether the universe is incapable of feeling deprived? I am currently of the perception that intelligence in some form is required if there is ever to truly be an absolute guarantee that negativity will never arise in the future. Even after the universe decays, what if M-theory turns out to be true, and the two parallel branes collide several trillion trillion years from now, thus producing an offspring universe? If there is a way to do something about that, then someone should stick around and investigate -- of their own volition, of course.

Forsaking everything sounds like setting it all up to fail. Not having kids is a good start, but if you can prevent others from having them far into the future, then do so.

Also, if the existence of positive sensation necessitates that there must be a capacity for potential negativity, then, yes, living in perpetual pleasure may be unwise, but the termination of that activity would need to be reinforced by the guarantee that it was also the termination of all pleasure and pleasure-seeking, everywhere, forever. If this remains an unknown, then I don't see anything wrong with living, because even if our own lives eventually cause suffering at some point in the future (in a once-paradise where everyone existed voluntarily), that undesirable consequence could prove paltry in the face of much worse suffering discovered in other pockets of the universe. In other words, if we all disappear to avoid suffering, we may unintentionally allow it to thrive in areas where it could have been circumvented by foresight.

Ultimately, all life decisions should remain subject to improvement, change, and withdrawal if or until we attain objective omnipotence, as they are, by their nature, conditional. Therefore, while I currently think that reproduction is a nonsensical and vile act, I have no idea whether it will remain so indefinitely.

Leaving Society said...

To add onto what I wrote about "positive" sentience: In a virtual or simulated environment, I think that it would be acceptable to allow for short-term, monitored deprivation, because it seems to be the case that brains interpret sensory data in a binary fashion. I could choose to feel hunger within a simulation, for example, but I could also opt for a maximum sensation duration of thirty minutes, or even build experiential limitations into the simulation such that "I'm hungry" never crosses the cognitive threshold into "I'm starving to death and my stomach is twisting into unbearable knots" territory -- the conscious equivalents of "I need to feel good. Hey, the activity of filling this deprivation is fun!" and "This is a bad situation. I am suffering."

filrabat said...

@Leaving Society

filrabat: I think that your distinction between suffering and the survival instinct is unnecessary. "Survival" is a misnomer, anyway, isn't it?

I distinguish between the two because most living things (especially conscious ones) do strive to survive. Humans hope to do it vicariously through reproduction. Suffering is a sign that things aren't going as well as they are compared to you're accustomed to. The survival instinct is very likely a mechanism that allows us a 'better than dumb luck' chance of escaping from unpleasant situations (whether through fleeing or successfully attacking a problem). The survival instinct also ensures a better-than-dumb-luck probability of reproducing. Therefore, I think the survival instinct/avoiding suffering dichotomy is more intertwined than you let on.

Response to Point 1:It’s not enough to say that “A world of intelligence and positive sentience … will always be superior to a world devoid of consciousness”. WHY is such a world superior; more specifically, in what way is it superior? As it stands, the notion of worlds with intelligence and sentience being superior to worlds without it is just a bald assertion – at best a faith-based statement (not in a religious sense, but in the sense that either you agree with the notion or you don’t).

Response to Point 2: Our ability to feel negative sensations are in fact, ultimately part of the survival instinct. Most survival instinct kinds of reactions are involuntary and subconscious. Our fear of fire, for example, evolved to keep us away from heat sources that would induce chemical changes in our physical makeup that would render us nonliving material. Essential to this is our evolution of a nervous system, which allows us to better avoid threatening situations with a greater chance than just plain dumb luck would allow.

filrabat said...

@Leaving Society do we determine whether the universe is incapable of feeling deprived?

So far as we know, actually existent non-living things (i.e., rocks, water, air, etc) cannot be deprived because they have no ability to feel anything. They just....are. It wouldn't matter if a dinosaur killer smashed into Venus because there is no life on that planet. The only "damage" (a human concept meaning 'rendered less usable or outright unusable) done is to rock. In moral/ethical terms: If a huge rock slams into Venus, that's fine; if it doesn't slam into Venus, that's fine.

Leaving Society said...

filrabat: I've written a reply, which you can view on my blog. Sorry, but I can't handle Google's pointless word limits. You have no obligation to read it or to reply, but if you're interested in making progress or discussing this some more, it's there.

francoistremblay said...

You've probably read Better Never to Have Been. In it, Benatar does discuss the issue of the fact that, in a debirthing society, some births may be justified consequentially given that we need a certain amount of population for people to live comfortably. But this is a highly debatable issue.

Personally, I think any world population above 1 billion is absolutely not defendable consequentially (and the upper limit is most probably much lower than that), but I am not a consequentialist anyway.