Sunday, June 27, 2010

Commenter CM's Critique of Ben Bradley's Essay

What Good Is The Logic of Betterness?

Ben Bradley's BENATAR AND THE LOGIC OF BETTERNESS spends a lot of its time knocking down strawmen. The very first sentence of part I is a mischaracterization. Professor Benatar only uses pains and pleasures as exemplars of harms and benefits (p. 30, BNtHB), and makes no claims about hedonism being true or false; other theories are discussed and taken seriously by him in Chapter 3, as well.

Then (almost immediately), Ben Bradley alleges that David Benatar views the absence of pain in (A - X exists) as intrinsically better than its presence in (B - X never exists); it is unclear why Professor Bradley thinks that. David Benatar states that "absent pleasure is relatively (rather than intrinsically) bad [in (A)]" (p. 41, BNtHB). It would seem reasonable to infer from the above that he also views the absence of pain as relatively (rather than intrinsically) good, especially since we are making the comparison with reference to the (potential) interests of X. For some reason, Ben Bradley does not consider that last point very important, and refuses to take it into consideration "for simplicity's sake" (see footnote 1).

A major part of Ben Bradley's paper is devoted to descriptions of how the asymmetry self-destructs when the concept of values is introduced, down to sarcastically asking how the values of absences are to be weighted. He says nothing about Professor Benatar's discussion of these very issues (pp. 45-9, BNtHB), where the latter shows why it is mistaken to assign values in this case and illustrates by revisiting his Healthy and Sick analogy; if the assignment of values were appropriate there, never getting sick (H) would be worse than getting sick and recovering quickly (S) if "the amount of suffering that [the presence of capacity for quick recovery] saves S is more than twice the amount S actually suffers". But such a conclusion is clearly absurd. Again, recognizing the fact that the asymmetry is to be understood only within the context of individual-affecting values (p. 37, BNtHB) would have saved Ben Bradley a lot of unnecessary trouble.

After doing a bit of googling, I stumbled upon this Google book preview, in which Roderick Chisholm (one of the betterness theorists) postulates that "the only bearers of intrinsic value are actual states of affairs - just those states of affairs that occur, obtain, or exist" (p.55). This, then, seems consistent with my interpretation of Professor Benatar's arguments above. However, the expanded list of intrinsic goods and bads proposed by Professor Chisholm presupposes the existence of someone and is therefore irrelevant to our case. While I am neither a logician nor a philosopher, the two quotations mentioned above seem straightforward enough.

If, like Ben Bradley claims on page 2, "pleasure must be intrinsically better than the absence of pleasure", how about we just grant him that and say that the absence of pain in (B) is non-intrinsically better than the presence of pain in (A)? If intrinsic values are only relevant to existers, we must think beyond then if we want to compare non-existence with existence. It doesn't follow that such a comparison would require us to redefine every axiological concept; we can simply continue applying such concepts to existers and come up with new concepts that help us make ethical decisions about potential people with regard to their potential interests. Otherwise, we are again forced to face the non-identity problem, or even logic of the larder (with regard to people; not that the fact that Henry Salt's essay applies primarily to non-humans makes it any less persuasive).

In contrast with some of the other reading material we have been exposed to lately, Ben Bradley's discussion note at least attempts to engage Professor Benatar's arguments. Whether or not it has done so successfully is a different question, however. A useful way of describing this paper would be to say that it is relatively, rather than intrinsically, good.


Shadow said...


Once again, saying thanks to all the links, personalities, references, essays and books being discussed here.

I´m writing some stuff on antinatalism in portuguese, because we are short from good stuff translated, so I need all the links I can get!

Thanks to everyone.

Chip said...


Solid response. Cogent and concise, and I'm glad you make reference to the Healthy & Sick analogy.

CM said...

Thanks, Chip. I've honestly never got this obsession with intrinsic values. But I can see the appeal of pretending there are some higher ideals that we need to perpetuate by throwing more bodies into the grinder.

Speaking of analogies. You know the whole "better to have loved and lost" adage, and how people always drag it out when confronted with the idea that coming into existence is a harm. But what about asexuals/aromantics? They don't understand sex/romantic love (which most people find valuable and even intrinsically good), and argue that there are no good definitions for these concepts and the ones available are self-referential. These concepts are simply irrelevant to them.

So it seems like it would be a challenge for breeders who want to appeal to loving and losing to demonstrate: 1)why it would be better for asexuals to become interested in sex/love for its own sake (not just as a way to pass the time, avoid tedium, or escape marginalization), and/or 2)why the absence of heartbreak is not better than its presence, even if the former can only be achieved by people's inability to experience heartbreak.

Chip said...

The project of cataloging and examining non-existential asymmetries is useful because the good ones help us address the arguments of those who claim to reject Benatar's formulation without closely considering a fortiori implications.

As folk rationalizations go, the "better to have loved and lost" adage is particularly risable. No one in the throes of heartbreak buys it for a second.