Monday, March 22, 2010

TGGP says...

The host of the blog Entitled to an Opinion, TGGP, has offered a short essay critiquing both antinatalism and its proponents. I'm posting it in its entirety for my readers' scrutiny, with a mind to dismantling it piece by piece in near future (in the next few days, hopefully). I'm disallowing comments on this particular post until I post what will most likely be a pretty extended rebuttal, in the spirit of fairness. Don't want to be accused of ganging up :)

“You have to be pretty smart to be that dumb”. I forget the context in which I first heard that phrase, but I'm sure it wasn't as accurate as it would be applied to antinatalism. Antinatalism, or the belief that nobody should ever reproduce, has got to be in the running for most counter-intuitive idea of all time. We're positively rigged against it down to our bone marrow. So of course some miserable German philosopher had to come up with it. I haven't read Schopenhauer, nor the more recent acolyte of the creed, David Benatar. I don't really have any intention to either. A few uncredentialed weirdos on the internet are good enough for Wikipedia, and they're good enough for me. You can strike out the “good” part, they're enough. It's a credit to the magnitude of their misplaced brain-straining that they can come up with something so mindbogglingly absurd.

My immediate knee-jerk reaction when somebody tells me I ought not do something is “Hey, fuck you, buddy. I bet electricity tastes delicious” or something along those lines. I'm not crossing off any of my options on some yahoo's say-so. Give me a good reason why I don't want to. You say it's just inherently bad. I say it's too bad you've wasted your breath and my time. You can claim it causes harm, it's immoral, or that man qua man as a rational being must act in accordance with some of your favored principles. I say if instructing people on how to murder someone and get away with it is wrong, I don't want to be right. Your natural law hocus pocus is weak voodoo, as is devastatingly argued by L.A Rollins in The Myth of Natural Rights, recently republished by Nine Banded Books with more great additional material than you deserve (Buy a copy today! And another tomorrow!).

Right then and there I refuted or neutered the doctrine, at least in application to this Ego. But I'm an aberrant case (as if adherents of such a marginal doctrine as antinatalism weren't) and nutcases make nutty-flavored law. As it's doubtful that you're satisfied with just that measly preceding paragraph, I intend to show how a number of arguments for it are unsound. I'll also explain a bit about the nature of humanity (presumably including you, dear reader) and life itself ignored by philosophers that will show just how flawed and futile the stillborn antinatalist “movement” really is.

The concern antinatalists have about the desirability of bringing into existence people that will suffer is not limited to antinatalists themselves. Derek Parfit's famous “repugnant conclusion” asks whether a utilitarian should prefer a population dwindling to one very happy person or a nigh-infinite number of people almost miserable enough to prefer nonexistence. Almost. There are two schools of utilitarian thought: total utility and average utility. The former prefers larger populations even if everyone is less happy; the latter is only concerned with the quality rather than quantity. You might think that antinatalists can claim the latter theory, with all its attendant arguments and respectability. That's not the case. Utilitarian antinatalists embrace a third, hitherto unknown, variety of utilitarianism: phony utilitarianism (there have of course been previous kinds of baloney, but this specific flavor is new). They embrace an asymmetry where the bad is taken into account but the good is not. It's good to prevent bad but not bad to prevent good. Classical utilitarianism sought the conditions for man's flourishing and had as its ultimate goal happiness. They didn't know whether someone's happiness was desirable as an addition to some ghostly stock of joy or a tweaking of the collective scale of satisfaction. They didn't know what to do with “utility monsters”, unmeasurable subjective states, cardinal vs ordinal arithmetic and other things (because 'utils' are as imaginary as karma, but that's another story), but happiness certainly counted for something. These phony utilitarians care not a whit for it. Think back to your cherished memory, your wedding day (or night), the birth of your favorite child (and don't claim you love them all equally), or the simple pleasures of speculating on a monkey knife-fight. Who can deny that these constitute some redeeming goodness in the world? The phony utilitarian does. He (and it is going to be a he, among the weaknesses of women is an inability to reach certain heights of imbecility) says “Shut up about those precious moments, you're distracting me from the agonies of existence. You know I stubbed my toe this morning?”. Some thinkers on the problem of theodicy (not necessarily the same thing as theoidiocy) have suggested that we could not even comprehend or properly appreciate good without the experience of bad to compare it to. The phony utilitarians denies any good that they can compare bad to. It's just nothing but bad. Their optimal end-state is the same as the evil space alien race called “The Hey” from The Tick: The Big Nothing. Not that it would be good, just not bad by virtue of not being anything. Even the believer in maximizing average utility, affirming the desirability of having just one jolly person, can't even consider the option. I'm not saying it's such an affront to their delicate sensibilities that that they denounce it and its malevolent proponents, but that they can't. Average utility gives no basis for evaluating such a condition. You get a divide by zero error, no answer, a completely undefined gap about which nothing more can be said. The only remaining branch of utilitarianism is then that of the promoters of constant growth toward near-suicidal malaise.

Will Wilkinson once argued against the pro-natalism of Ed Glaeser and Bryan Caplan by accusing them of what he called the “lucky souls fallacy”. The idea is roughly that there are a bunch of souls holding lottery tickets and hoping their number comes up so they can be born. They imagine they are doing someone a favor by bringing them into existence and getting to partake in its delights, as if there was an existing person with preferences who can actually be given a benefit. Ironically enough, these souls resemble the free-floating disembodied somnambulist wraiths that Hans Herman Hoppe identified as the inhabitants behind the “Veil of Ignorance” proposed by Wilkinson's favorite ethical philosopher, John Rawls. Antinatalists similarly commit the “unlucky souls” fallacy of imagining a harm being done by being brought into being. While the pro-choice and pro-life folks debate whether a fetus (or even a zygote) has a right not to be aborted, the antinatalists date rights to before conception. They defend the rights of non-persons to non-birth, or of sperm and eggs to live out their lives as singletons. Let's think of these helpless nothings, if we prick them do they not bleed? Crying foul over a nonbeing's involvement in a sexual act it didn't have the consent not to give, the antinatalist magically turns one rape into two. The notion of rights was always a limited one, which has expanded for reasons of moral sympathy or power politics depending on your level of cynicism. At its most expansive it may include animals, plants or even “the environment” or “the Earth”. Perhaps a few such as animists may attribute rights to nonexistent spirits, but at least they mistakenly believe those are real. The antinatalist will tell you that something simultaneously does not exist and has rights. To me, that is a simple error in logic. An entity must exist to have any properties at all. Any statement of the form “X has Y” contains the implied statement that X exists. It is not accurate to say “The king of France is bald” regardless of the presence of any follicles, because France has no king (their loss). It is true that one may speak of the properties of imaginary beings as in “The diarist of Go Ask Alice is a deceased drug-addict”, in which case the facts of our statements are imaginary as well. You're not going to take seriously the suggestion that you leave out cookies for a fat Santa or pray to an omnipotent God if you don't think they exist.

Antinatalists don't generally believe that God exists, but if he does, they claim, all the more reason not to have children! I recommend these atheists try convincing Middle Easterners that the true meaning of Islam is peace and tolerance. The reasoning goes that it's possible (or probable, depending on how liberal a doctrine of salvation you believe) that your kid will wind up in Hell, and that's infinitely bad. They seem to have overlooked that minor detail in Genesis of God instructing us to “Be fruitful and multiply”. It didn't contain an addendum of “Eh, if you feel like it or whatever”. If God wanted to minimize the number of souls in Hell, He wouldn't have created us in the first place. Nor is there any reason for a Christian to try to minimize the population of the underworld. Vox Day opens his The Irrational Atheist by telling you he doesn't care if you go to Hell, and while he is obligated to spread the Good News what you do with it and the fate of your soul is your own decision and none of his concern. Thomas Aquinas was once asked if it was okay once in heaven to take pleasure in the misery of the damned, and he replied that it is always correct to be pleased by the enactment of God's will. Furthermore, this conception of Hell predominant in pop culture owes more to heavy metal and Dante's Inferno than the Biblical text. The Old Testament doesn't discuss it at all, because who cares what happens to Gentiles? Jesus' parables do mention the unfaithful amidst “gnashing and wailing of teeth”, but the context is in being locked out wedding party (representing the Kingdom of Heaven). They'd only be immersed in fire if the city was burning down, in which case the bride and groom have little to celebrate either. That version of Hell is simply the complete absence and separation from God. The reason it's so bad is that God is the pinnacle of perfection in terms of love and the good, so you definitely want in the party. The antinatalist however pays as little attention to the upside of the afterlife as to that of its earthly predecessor.

Is life really what it's cracked up to be, or not worth it? The antinatalist says its awful, though they admit the idea strikes the vast majority of humanity as absurd. This accords with the evidence that most people don't commit suicide despite the ease with which they could do so painlessly, the lengths people will go to in preserving their lives and their self-reported happiness with life. Even those who do attempt suicide cannot be confidently said to prefer the sweet release of death. As Charles Duhigg of Slate noted in The Economics of Suicide, those who attempt to kill themselves and survive improve their lives significantly compared to people who contemplate it but do not make the attempt. The more serious the attempt, the greater the improvement. What's going on? The act serves as a signal of distress that results in positive attention and assistance, and considering that there are 20 attempts for every successful suicide, the odds aren't that crazy. It's a high-risk move, but so is base-jumping, running with bulls or selling crack on the corner.

When asked why they themselves haven't fled from the hell of existence, antinatalists sometimes cloak themselves in altruism. Of course I'd love to die, but I have so many commitments to other people and they'd be so sad. This claim casts doubt on how bad life is. These living victims of our suicide have value in their lives, and part of that value comes from our own lives. If a life can bring joy to others, is it not then altruistic to bring life into the world? It seems to me a glaring asymmetry that subtraction causes harm but addition is no benefit. I don't even believe their excuse is honest. If they survived a plane crash or a wreck at sea and everyone they knew already believed they were dead, would they then kill themselves? I really doubt it.

A more clever reason is that they fear death, and life is a curse precisely because it results in death. The latter point may become false within our lifetimes thanks to the work of transhumanists and the technological singularity, but for our purposes we can ignore that. Why is it that death is horrible? Precisely because we cherish life so much. This logic would tell you not to give someone a cake because then they would eat it and (horror of horrors) not have it anymore! Death is simply the cessation of life and so any argument resting on the demerits of death contributes to the merits of life.

Perhaps most, even nearly all, lives are great. But shouldn't the very tiny possibility that our offspring might end up with horrible lives that they wished never to have been cursed with dissuade us? No. Tiny probabilities have tiny force. It's possible that I'll be struck by a meteor as I go to pick up my mail, that we're all the dream of a magic beetle that began a second ago and all our memories are false, that all the children we never have will pester us in the afterlife about not loving them enough to create them. We discount possibilities that, though feasible, are not likely. The fact that you're reading this means you know English and have free time to waste, which indicates that your children will be among the luckiest on the planet. And there is no more reason to ignore their good fortune than the possibility of misery.

Among the most laughable claims is that even though most people claim to be happy and even believe themselves to be, they're really miserable and just don't know it. This idea stems back to the Marxists of old perplexed as to why the workers of the world did not develop class consciousness and unite to overthrow capitalism. It was called “false consciousness”, and the idea was sorely needed to explain by people were going over the Berlin wall from east to west or why boat-people fled the worker's paradises of Cuba and Vietnam. The idea is that some thinker in their arm-chair understands the depths of your soul better than you and can invalidate any of your choices and preferences. It is of course completely unfalsifiable, which is why Karl Popper held up Marxism as a premier example of nonsense that was taken seriously by people who should have known better. I could just as easily claim that everyone, including antinatalists, mistakenly believes that life is not at all times positively euphoric. You have no reason to take that seriously, and no more reason to believe to believe the opposite.

That's not to say I'm completely above second-guessing people and claiming they don't completely understand what's going on in their minds. Robin Hanson argues in Was Cypher Right?: Why We Stay In Our Matrix that though we believe that we care about things such as “love, humor, talk, story, art, music, fashion, sport, charity, religion, and abstract ideas”, our actions do not seem consistent with valuing them so much as our status or reproductive fitness. This is explained by our “selfish genes” which seek to maximize their number of copies and construct our brains toward that end. We are not conscious of our real desire to spread those genes for the same reason that a White House press secretary is kept in the dark about the administration's actions and motives: all the better a front that can be given to others. In that list of superficial concerns I would include ethical philosophy or morality. We try to convince others that our behavior is good and they should change theirs to accord with our preference, yet ordinary people commit seemingly unimaginable sins all the time. Professed antinatalists even have children.

Life is not for living. It is for reproducing, and our bodies are vehicles are constructed by our genes for that purpose. In The Ancestor's Tale Richard Dawkins dates the origin of life not to metabolism but to replication with inheritance. That's the difference between fire and living beings. The sensations and emotions we experience and the thoughts we think exist for a reason. The reason is that the genes that result in them were able to make more copies. We judge things as positive when they are apt to result in more descendants and negative when they do the reverse. When you get kicked in the balls your genes and those of your unborn children are crying out in pain, and your feeling of satisfaction as you smoke a post-coital cigarette (they aren't as up to date as the Surgeon General) is them patting you on the back.

So what is the motivation of parents? Are they Stirnerite egoists looking out for their own interests or devoted to their children's well-being? Both really. We share half our genes with our offspring, so we have a large stake in them. We created them for our reasons of spreading our genes, but their mission in turn will be to spread their own genes which has a lot of overlap with our goal. Our children are a part of us, our “extended phenotype”, and in our concern for ourselves we love them as well. Love is adaptive and our children's genes know how to tug at our heart-strings to get as big a share as they can, even if it means taking some from their less cute or demanding siblings (including the helpless unborn ones). These areas in which our genetic interests come into conflict were most famously explored by Robert Trivers, who also explained how we self-deceive in order to better deceive others. Even your noble aspirations to rise above the selfish nature are likely futile, because they were created by those same selfish genes. Any successful attempt to live rightly is going to have to swim with the tide to have any hope, and there can't be anything that fits the bill less than antinatalism.

Moving beyond the actions of the individual, what can we say about the antinatalist movement or meme? It is doomed to failure. Within America there has already been an antinatalist sect, the Shakers. You may not have heard of them because they're gone, having not-bred themselves out of existence,. Success from an antinatalist perspective, right? Of course not. More babies are being born now than when they were around, and why should an antinatalist care if is their children or others that are being born? It is really a victory for non-antinatalists, who were able to take up the space otherwise occuppied. In evolutionary game-theory terms this is an extreme Dove strategy that will in short term be outcompeted and replaced by Hawks. Even if antinatalists made a perfectly compelling case against it, humanity would come to consist of people incapable of understanding it. Some mutant variant would arise giving resistance to antinatalism, because like the guy from Jurassic Park said “Life finds a way”. The only hope for preventing procreation would be to hit humanity faster and more powerfully than it could respond to. In other words, wipe it out. Furthermore, just as the disappearance of dinosaurs permitted the explosive rise of mammals and then humanity, the remaining animals species are just human-substitutes in waiting. There's no reason once our niche is open they couldn't evolve the same capacity for suffering that we possess. So it's best to exterminate all life on earth, and they'd better make absolutely sure they don't leave the tiniest bacteria alive. But why just focus on this planet? With such a big universe it's likely life will arise somewhere else and spread across its galaxy, cruelly bringing trillions and trillions of its species into existence. That means an apocalyptic imperative to exterminate everything anywhere in the universe, quite a big task. Better pray we don't live in an infinite universe (still a likely possibility as far as we know), containing an infinite amount of living and reproducing things which it is logically impossible to reduce or increase.

After mocking antinatalists for their nonsensical and futile beliefs, I should confess that I myself have no kids and have made zero progress toward fathering any. I see it as quite likely that I'll die childless. I don't feel any ethical imperative to reproduce or refrain from doing so, and my complacency serves as further evidence to me that my genes are not fit for this environment. I can live with that. I'll be replaced by enthusiastic spawners, which I don't see as a problem but an antinatalist must. Get used to it. And go squeeze out some crotch-fruit.