Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Doomsday Button Revisted

This post is prompted by some recent conversation in the ‘watercooler’ section of the blog. There’s a rather spirited debate going on between two ostensibly opposing viewpoints which, for convenience sake, I hereby dub the ‘absolutists camp’, or ‘AC’, and the ‘situationalist ethicists camp’, or ‘SEC’ (you know who you are :)

The debate kicks off with this question from the SEC- “Would you torture a baby to end world suffering?” Apparently, the SEC representative was quite shocked and dismayed upon discovering, in another forum, that many commenters there were opposed to the idea.

The representative from the AC, on the other hand, seems at least as shocked and dismayed at the SEC’s blatant disregard of what the AC considers the cardinal principle informing antinatalist sensibility e.g. ‘thou shalt do no harm’. Or, alternatively worded, ‘thou shalt not coerce’. In fact, the AC is so morally outraged at this apparent schism from the Official Antinatalist Credo that they are threatening to revoke any and all antinatalist privileges previously extended to the members of the SEC, including though not limited to frequent flyer miles, complimentary e-harmony guest passes, and 50% off on hula lessons!

At this point, I’d like to suggest that another, and perhaps more appropriate, set of labels for our two combatants might be consequentalists v. idealists. The hitch here is that consequentialists can also be idealists, and, in fact, are in this case. The difference is that idealists of the first order load their ideals from the front end; that is, their ideals strictly inform the process by which their ideal ends might be achieved, EVEN when this formula becomes self-stultifying. Which it often does.

The consequentialist, on the other hand, sees no problem with breaking a few eggs along the path to what he understands to be the tastiest omelet ever baked up. “Do the math!” he adjures. “This is the way things get done.” He writes off the idealist as a pussy/Pollyanna lacking the testes to achieve his goals.

Meanwhile, the idealist dismisses his opposition as a study in contradiction, rationalizing away the very ethical precepts he supposedly adheres to whenever it becomes convenient to do so. The consequentialist is merely a means-to-an-end, I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now, amoral moralist.

Here’s the thing. ALL of us are consequentialists to some degree or another. I suppose the immediate polarization here partly stems from the precise language used in the original proposition. ‘Torture a baby’ is a buzz-phrase with an immediate emotional impact, rendering the thought experiment ‘beyond the pale’ of serious consideration in many minds. It’s not that it’s a bad question, except that it allows for a rather comfortable, automatic dismissal in those inclined toward idealist attitudes; which we all are, in certain situations. Fortunately, this particular question is easily tweakable in the context of a debate where one party holds strictly to a non-coercion policy. Would the idealist allow the breaking of a kid’s arm to end world suffering? How’s about giving him an indian burn? Would he step on an ant to cure cancer? What if his wife had cancer? And so on.

On the other hand: Would the consequentialist have the balls to torture the baby him/herself? It’s all very easy to posit as a hypothetical, isn’t it? Sort of like meat eaters who rage against all hunting. As an antinatalist, my greatest ideal would be the cessation of all life, everywhere...but would I torture a baby to achieve it? Honestly, I’m not sure I have the balls. Beyond the self-serving issues, like wanting to be seen as a good guy in the end, there’s a basic conflict in my personality regarding desiring an end to suffering, and committing suffering in order to bring about the end product of my desires. Or maybe the conflict is in the working out of the philosophical premise itself; after all, the desire to end suffering is grounded in the emotional matrix, is it not? The reason follows afterward, and only makes sense to those who exist above a certain empathetic threshold, and are willing to flesh out those impulses to what I see as the foregone conclusion i.e. philosophic antinatalism.

However, conflicting emotions are NOT the same thing as a contradictory mindset, or a philosophy. As far as I can tell so far, antinatalism holds more water than any its detractors. When you consider that the two major challenges generally boil down to ‘You can’t consider the welfare of someone who doesn’t exist yet’ and, ‘Suffering is GOOD for you!’, you begin to sense the desperation of those who feel driven to argue for the existential status quo, don’t you?

Oops, I’ve gotten off on a tangent again, haven’t I? Back to consequences; and more to the point, the consequences I actually care about, which are experiential consequences. And now I'm finally to what I was referring to in the title of this post (emphasis on the word ‘finally’). We’ve talked about it before, that little magic button that would make the world go ‘poof!’ (virtual snap inserted here). Would you push it? Seems like an appropriate question about here. I certainly would, probably with a few qualms, though none of them are ethics-based. At least, I HOPE I would...there’s that question of balls again. Perhaps I’d ask one of the antinatalist ladies to do it; they seem to get along without them just fine :) (Or should that be :( , followed by a groan? I can’t decide :))


Garrett said...

I have no idea who you're referring to ;)

I'll put it this way. Hypothetically, I would push the button, but ONLY if permission was given to me by every single antinatalist. Breeders do not deal in consent and therefore, their opinions of this matter are not worth my consideration. They will inevitably force living things into this world that do not want to be here; I have no qualm in preventing them from having to suffer in this hell.

I absolutely would apply a sterilization agent to the entire world if it were possible. Sure, the effect would be chaotic in some ways, but no more so than the insanity that we're already surrounded with. This "peaceful" universe is as fake as they come. It is an illusion created by minds that are struggling to cope with everything.

If anyone finds this to be hypocrisy, you may talk to my ass on it's way out the door ;)

rob said...


Permission granted.

All the best,

Garrett said...

Thanks rob! ...Ok, that's one tallied. Alright, let's hear the yeas (any neas will be thrown in the boo box).

Take care

Anonymous said...

You got the wrong term. It's not "idealists," it's "deontologists." I can personally tell you that I am 0% consequentialist.