Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Asymmetry Simplified (hopefully)

As you know, I’ve been looking for a concise argument to support Professor Benatar’s fundamental asymmetry. Here’s a decent summary of that asymmetry by one of its critics, Ben Bradley-

THE PRIMARY ARGUMENT OF DAVID BENATAR’S Better Never to Have Been is an argument for the claim that coming into existence is always harmful, because it is always worse for an individual to begin to exist than never to have existed (Benatar 2006: 30-49). Thus, it is always morally wrong to procreate.

I’ll begin by citing the first paragraph of commenter CM’s critique of Mr. Bradley’s critique-

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...

Just so. Furthermore, it is unnecessary to ‘prove’ hedonism’s truth or falsity. That’s not to say that hedonism, or

the ethical doctrine that pleasure, variously conceived of in terms of happiness of the individual or of society, is the principal good and the proper aim of action.

can’t be shown to be a universal aspect of normative human values. It can, even when we take into consideration ostensibly mitigating defeaters. However, there’s really no need to pursue that tangent, since Bradley himself accedes to hedonism’s precedence as our presuppositional starting point. With that out of the way, I’d like to proceed with what I hope to be a very brief argument based on an idea we talk about a lot here- namely, that for practical purposes it is impossible to isolate existential ‘pleasure’, or happiness, from its own relativistic context. That is, happiness can be defined as much by the avoidance of suffering as by the accrual of so-called positive experiences. We might call these the positive and negative poles of happiness. Naturally, we could argue over which pole holds more sway regarding the overall human condition, but again...unnecessary to my argument. Let’s agree to call it 50/50, and leave it at that.

That said, everything else boils down to some very basic utilitarian math. Which better serves the hedonistic imperative, existence or non-existence? Regarding existence we’re stuck with a mixed bag, both on the personal level and in terms of humanity as a whole. The principles informing hedonism are never fully actualized. At best, preference utilitarianism (either positively or negatively emphasized) winds up being a wash in the present tense, and this doesn’t even begin to speak to the future risk of suffering becoming so predominant as to obliterate the hedonistic objective (this risk, of course, is already actualized at any given time within a sub-set of humanity in toto).

On the other hand, happiness’ fulfillment at the negative pole- that is, happiness as defined by lack of suffering- is ALWAYS fully realized in non-existence. To put it metaphorically, non-existence is the left hand of God; Buddhism’s Nirvana, or ‘blowing out’. On an experiential level, I’ve come to think of this ‘state’ as Negative Bliss.

To sum up: The goal of hedonism is never fully actualized within existence via either positive or negative utilitarian reckoning, and always fully actualized within non-existence via negative utilitarian reckoning. To put it another way-

positive happiness fully actualized/-1
negative happiness fully actualized/-1
final score/-2

positive happiness fully actualized/-1
negative happiness fully actualized/+1
final score/0

The asymmetry is validated.


Ok, this is pretty cool. In preparing this post tonight, I'd pulled up this link. The essay is entitled 'The Pinprick Argument', which is basically an argument used as a defeater of negative utilitarianism on the grounds that its logical ramifications are counter-intuitive.

Anyway, I never got around to reading past the first or second paragraph until AFTER I'd finished my own little argument and posted it. The whole thing is basically just another regurgitation of futurist 'happy pill' thinking, but I DID run across this interesting paragraph somewhere in the middle-

If the abolitionist project succeeds, whatever its ultimate time-scale, then should the negative utilitarian be morally satisfied with such an outcome? In an important sense yes: s/he will have discharged all his or her moral responsibilities. If this epoch-making transition in the history of life on Earth comes to pass, then it will be a revolution far more momentous and profound than anything to date. Moreover, unlike positive utilitarianism or so-called preference utilitarianism - neither of which can ever be wholly fulfilled - NU seems achievable in full.

In other words, even this transhumanist agrees that antinatalism is the sounder argument but for the fact that most people don't like it on an 'intuitive' level. So much for intuition.


CM said...

That's a really interesting way to put it. Makes you wonder why there are so many positive utilitarians with a goal they can never quite reach. I fail to see how running on the hedonic treadmill with no end in sight is a good substitute for meaning and purpose.

metamorphhh said...

I'm just looking to boil it down to something simple, CM. The way I see it, the asymmetry exists because non-existence fulfills the hedonistic imperative to a degree (perfectly, actually) that existence can never hope to. If you see any way to tweak it further, let me know :)