Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Having Been Really So Bad?

Via Chip Smith of the Hoover Hog, we get another hasty review of David Benatar's 'Better Never to Have Been'...

"If Benatar had convinced me that this asymmetry between pleasure and suffering was real, his conclusions would have been hard to argue with. Unfortunately, he didn’t explain why the absence of pleasure is only neutral, and not bad. "

Since we're talking about the pleasure of non-existent entities, I think the burden of proof falls on the reviewer to demonstrate how an imaginary person's non-experiences could possibly have anything BUT a neutral value.

"...Moreover, many people have profoundly unhappy lives (malnutrition, war, etc.). Even here, though, there is a way around Benatar’s argument. Certainly some people are more likely than others to have happy children. People in a country like the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, with its extended, brutal, ongoing civil war are likely to have children that profoundly suffer. But on the other hand, a very rich family in Switzerland might be relatively likely to have happy children. As long as the Swiss family has a high chance of having a happy child, it doesn’t seem immoral for them to give birth. This, of course, if we reject the asymmetry argument."

The problem is, the reviewer is playing a risk management game with lives other than his/her own. So the parents of the child in the DRC are playing russian roulette with 5 bullets in the chamber, while the gun held against the Swiss child's temple only has one or two. Not much of a justification to hang one's hat upon, methinks. I also think the nature and ubiquitousness of suffering is being underplayed here, and the fact that any new life is immediately given a pending death sentence is completely overlooked. Furthermore, since I think I've adequately demonstrated that the asymmetry argument was rejected out of hand, where does this leave us?

What are the interests of non-existing entities in coming into existence? The answer, of course, is zilch. Therefore, procreation is strictly a matter of self-interest to everybody BUT the potential child. It's a base utilization scheme, for whatever reason(s), where the utilized pays the brunt of the costs. As far as the 'good stuff' life has to offer, well...just because a slave is given trinkets by the master, that doesn't make the slave any less a slave. Every lifeform on this planet is a servant to life and its uncaring processes, until finally it is cast off onto the trash heap of history. But misery loves company, and so we keep bringing in fresh meat as a hedge against the idea of dying alone. Again, this is risk management in a venture that's doomed to fail, set against the sure thing of avoiding this nasty little adventure.

Think about eternity of nothingness stretches behind us. A similar one stretches before us. Why go on creating these little episodes of agony in-between? Consider procreation in these terms, and you'll recognize the utter futility. Then, maybe Benatar's little asymmetrical argument might not seem so trivial, or easy to dismiss.

You can read the full review here- .


Sister Y said...

Jim, I think your Russian Roulette example is right on, and correctly focuses the question on the degree of risk it's acceptable to subject someone else to without his consent. Even without the asymmetry, even if we granted that it might be morally correct or at least morally neutral to bring happy people into the world, procreation still entails taking an unreasonable risk with someone else's life - and with the lives of the very people parents have a special duty to protect.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, curator. Yeah, the thing that bothers me about most of the Benatar reviews is the out of hand dismissal of some pretty well thought out precepts. There's a lot of depth and detail to the asymmetry argument that gets glossed over. In essence, it's pretty simple, but he takes the time to build his case against dissenting opinions quite thoroughly, including the outlining of the several sub-asymmetries, which I haven't seen addressed even once.

And you're right- the risk argument stands on its own, despite how one might choose to interpret the asymmetries, or even the idea that life is always bad. Plus, I think most folks minimize the sheer awfulness of some suffering, often arguing along the lines of "Well, I suffer migraines, but I'm a better person for it. It builds character." It's the almost purposeful trivialization of the abject horrors some people labor under everyday, and also discounts the cumulative effects of the everyday drudgery of existence on the human psyche. Pharmacies aren't pumping out those tens of millions of anti-depressants for nothing!