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Is It Better Never To Have Been Born? (anti-natalism)

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  • #23426
    Peter
    Member

    David Benatar is professor of philosophy best known for his advocacy of anti-natalism.

    [See the full post at: Is It Better Never To Have Been Born? (anti-natalism)]

    #23430
    Harry J.
    Participant

    I have identified a fallacy in Benatar’s argument, at least as it is shown here. There is an equivocation fallacy, where the argument starts from the priority of benefit versus harm, but does a semantic shift to talk about pleasure versus pain instead, without justification. There is no justification for saying that benefit is pleasure, and there is no justification for saying that harm is pain. Are we expected to just assume that pain is harm, therefore having an intact nervous system is harm? Surely, harm is more useful as the label that we use for a threat to our existence i.e. our nervous systems, so saying our existence / nervous system is harmful just because of “pain” is a complete inversion of what harm is. It is more accurate to judge that “harm” is whatever threatens or degrades one’s existence in a true sense. Pleasure and pain are only marginally related to benefit and harm, so conflating the two commits a logical fallacy.

    #23433
    Peter
    Member

    Persistent and prolonged pain is pretty undesirable though, to the point that people that experience it sometimes seek to end their lives.

    #23465
    Matt
    Participant

    Another logical fallacy is the assumption of asymmetry in which pain outweighs pleasure (or harm outweighs benefit if you take these to be equivalent, which I think is what Benatar intended). How does he support this statement? Sorry, but there is no objective test of right and wrong. You can argue about it, but morality ultimately comes down to a matter of opinion. When we say that something is desirable or not, or that the world ought to be a certain way, it is really just a statement of how we feel about it.

    The asymmetry of pleasure vs. pain arises because most of us feel bad when we see others suffer (because we were raised that way), but we also feel bad in a different way when we see others better off than ourselves. Thus, Benatar supports his argument by appealing to your own opinions rather than any objective evidence.

    #26179
    Marcos
    Participant

    “If I prefer to remain alive, I am not implicitly accepting that life is better than non-life?”

    Nope. Because you, as you and everyone else should, are just repaying that initial debt which was bestowed upon you. A debt, however, which can never be repaid. (insert evil laughter here) =)

    Thanks for bringing to my attention a philosopher who reached similar conclusions to myself. Last time this happened I discovered Nietzsche.

    “Cheers”, *
    MM

    * quotes refers to the 2 cents I’ve just contributed to both our — infinite and thus the quotes — ‘debts’

    #26301
    Brian
    Participant

    Actually if the nervous system is the very source of the experience of pain, and it is impossible to eliminate those things that trigger a reaction by the nervous system, then it can’t be excluded from the definition of harm. I see no dictionary definition that limits harm to things that threaten existence..degrades yes. I think suffering qualifies as something that degrades one’s existence. I think the essence of antinatalism is that extreme suffering is never justified by extreme joy. Even if one goes from one to the other, suffering is only transformed into psychological trauma with varying degrees of suppression. Since when are any moral arguments based strictly on “objective evidence”? They all appeal to our emotions and intellect..

    #27238
    Danielle
    Participant

    One actually CAN prefer eternal nothingness to all that possibilities being born gives. For instance, yours truly is an example of this, and I only learned that antinatalism exists well after I came to antinatalist conclusions purely independently.

    #27240
    Marcos
    Participant

    My dilemma exactly. To be or not to be.

    Careful though, “eternal nothingness” may not even be an option as the so-called scientific, but really dogmatic, minds mostly believe. They have no evidence for it, so where is the science? The only evidence we have is for TOTAL consciousness, even sleep, we only rest well when we wake up frequently, after every cycle, during the whole night! Or, say, when remembering dreams which, of course, is a conscious experience. Who’s never awakened — still unrested — when these things don’t happen and just go through the night, phase 4 all the way down probably, as if they never even slept?

    Thus, WHAT IF, Death is simply a clever TRICK of this “eternal somethingness” (or however registered trademark you wanna call it) to avoid the HORROR of this very realization? FORCED to experience, as you well put it, Danielle, “all that possibilities being born gives”. Since, even if infinitesimally improbable — in eternity — the most ghastly of tortures is absolutely GUARANTEED. <o> There’s the “rub”, if you forgive the pun… although, possibly a good marketing strategy for Alcor 😛 “Guaranteed Stupor ’till the Cold Death of the current Universe OR your money back!” LOL

    Currently, however, I prefer to keep the Free Will to decide what I prefer.

    Don’t kill yourself just yet tho, perhaps the Buddhist ideal to minimize suffering is feasible. Probably not for eternity but well, we’re in (other) good company as well: 😉

    To be, or not to be, that is the question—
    Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
    The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
    Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
    And by opposing, end them? To die, to sleep—

    No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
    The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
    That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
    Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,

    To sleep, perchance to Dream; Aye, there’s the rub,
    For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,

    [or a less famous one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Posthumous_Memoirs_of_Bras_Cubas ]

    #27241
    Lukas
    Participant

    I remember finding this book ages ago, forgetting the title, and now luckily enough, finding it again. It’s an interesting idea, but there seem to be a number of problems with this argument.

    First of all, “suffering is an intrinsic harm, but the absence of pleasure is not”. This is arguable primarily on the terminological looseness the author is guilty of here. While pain, as in a psychosomatic sensation indicating some kind of bodily malfunction, is indeed (indicative of) an intrinsic harm, “harm”, itself is a subjective word. I may think that scuffing a new shoe is a harm in that I liked the condition the shoe was in, and my brain is now producing neurochemicals that worsen my mood because my shoe is no longer in a condition that pleases me, but to most other people this will not seem like harm in any important sense of the word. It’s the vagueness of the term “harm” that allows people who have inherited millions of dollars and live leisurely to consider themselves in any way disadvantaged against those without similar assets. To them, perhaps an attack on their vanity is “harmful”, while others endure physically and mentally stressful jobs just to make ends meet. Pleasure is once again, outside of the biochemical realm, subjective, as two people in the exact same situation can derive totally different amounts of pleasure from it, even to the extent that one person is ecstatic and the other one traumatized.

    The second issue is with this point: “If they decide not to create you, you will gain greatly by avoiding a bad life, but suffer only slightly if at all by not existing—as you wouldn’t know what you had been deprived of”. Why is it that we’ve decided that there is a “you” to benefit or not if “you” literally does not exist? I can talk all day about how lucky person X is to have never been born, or how sad for that person I am if he or she wasn’t, but…that kind of doesn’t make sense, does it? I’ll defer to Meinong here. According to Meinong, there are three categories of existence. Humans fall into the first–existence, which occurs in our reality and over time. The author seems to be thinking that humans can equally fall into the third–absistence, which is really non-being. A human life which doesn’t exist is, at most, an idea, not something to which we can meaningfully ascribe temporal phenomena, such as positive or negative stimuli (i.e., pain or pleasure, benefit or harm).

    Frankly, the latter point could just be semantical, but in my view, both it and the former are fairly damning of the argument. “Benatar says that a superior species might look at our species with sympathy for our sorry state.” Mightn’t another do the same to them? Don’t we already do this in reflection upon our own history? Don’t we even do this for ourselves, after a long dark period passes on? As Matt said, good and bad, even their neurochemical analogues, have their own chains of causation equally among the individual and civilizational levels. It’s just a matter of seeing the glass half-empty or half-full. Isn’t that what makes life worth living and propagating, seeing the glass at all?

    #27251
    Danielle
    Participant

    2 Marcos

    This point on prospects of eternity is something I’ve never seen anywhere before. And though I don’t subscribe to that part concerning us only having evidence for eternal consciousness, as an agnostic, I can’t say such thing is definitely wrong.

    I bet it’s not what people picture whilst dreaming of eternity! But yes, we all remember that in eternity a bunch of monkeys is able to deliver a print of any masterpiece. Eternity is when infinitesimal probabilities become reality, and it doesn’t only concern extreme pleasures but also extreme sufferings! And if we can’t return to non-existence and are condemned to exist forever, we will have to experience that extreme tortures.

    And thanks for the link! That story looks rather promising. I can relate to the protagonist of the book in thinking that at least, AT LEAST, no one else was brought into this world by me.

    2 Lukas

    Well, the Asymmetry can be argued; some people attack it, some defend, and it’s been going on for a while now. But the thing is, the Asymmetry isn’t crucial to antinatalism. There are antinatalists who think some existers might be benefited by being born after all, but the issue is not exhausted there. Just for one other reason to believe it’s better never to have been is because of changeability of luck, and the fact that we can assess that balance of harm\benefit only in the very end. One might think he\she’s a lucky person today, but the future is unpredictable.

    Of course, potential people don’t exist and can’t experience anything; these formulations like “If they decide not to create you, you will gain greatly by avoiding a bad life” are only the means to make the idea more understandable.

    (And the worthiness of seeing the half-empty\full glass is subjective; I’m one of those whose appraisal of it isn’t entirely high. Surely, people often feel differently. But antinatalists don’t think it’s worth suffering.)

    I think Benatar’s great public service is probably not that he presented a perfectly immaculate text, but that he finally had taken up this exceptionally important question, and had done it in academic circles, no less. And it’s very good, because this’s the issue we all really better take into account and weigh as well as we can.

    #27263
    Brian
    Participant

    I see a lot of rhetoric for a very simple point. Is it ok to knowingly cause the consciousness of another sentient being when the potential negative consequences may be ameliorated by nothing short of death itself? This, especially when the same beings decry the option of voluntarily ending one’s life. The subjectivity point is a red herring. The fact that we have different things that make us suffer, doesn’t change that we have similar experiences of suffering and finally,that suffering itself is a universal and guaranteed experience. The only threat I see to antinatalism is the growing acceptance of euthanasia.

    #27266
    Marcos
    Participant

    @ Lukas

    > “[…] outside of the biochemical realm, subjective, as two people in the exact same situation can derive totally different amounts[…]”

    However miswired these states are, and believe me, many people ARE miswired, then something WILL trigger them — unless in serious cases of anhedonia — and that’s all you need for this argument. (kudos to Brian for simplifying as well)

    However you trigger those is inconsequential. Sure, there will be both masochists and sadists which will enjoy stuff most people find unthinkable, and people also change over time, mostly getting desensitized, both physically and psychologically, by their bad habits or even aging itself. This is beside the point. Is it something they did NOT WANT to experience? or at least cared enough to choose not to, if given the chance? (Since maximizing every step would make existence more of a movie than an interactive game).
    It all comes back to Free Will, you see.

    > “Why is it that we’ve decided that there is a “you” to benefit or not if “you” literally does not exist?”

    Isn’t that an argument in favor of it? If you cannot assign a payoff to the unborn and, if being born always has a < 0 payoff, then it’s always dominated by not being born. We’re in a losing game, there is no need to specify a particular victim.

    If that doesn’t convince you, you could think it this way: Given any number n of particles (say atoms for the sake of argument) there are at most a finite amount of possible different configurations those can be arranged in 3 dimensions. If you grant the assumption that what makes me conscious here and you there — and not vice-versa — is the particular configuration our brains differ — which seems reasonable* since we don’t seem to pop into other bodies randomly every other second, at least during a human lifetime — then it MUST entail that there are a finite number of possible different conscious beings for any given n. Such a “you” is said not to exist, if and only if, for the whole history of spacetime, the corresponding configuration of ‘particles’ was never assembled (or not currently assembled, if you don’t believe in time). It may not exist yet but, if it did, it would most definitely be miserable. LOL So miserable in fact it would not even realize how miserable it was.

    > terminological looseness

    The author was simply avoiding being so categorical. But that was exactly what he said.. take off the “slightly” and “not suffering at all” is equivalent to “not ascribing negative stimuli”.. Not “gaining” here is in the same vein as what I have gained today by not leaving the house: not spending a whole lot of nothing on a whole lot of junk I don’t need. It doesn’t change the fact that I had nothing to begin with. =) So you actually made the argument even stronger!

    > “a superior species might look at our species with sympathy for our sorry state”

    I already do this for as long as I can remember and I’m only slightly, if at all, superior =) [if you allow my looseness ;)]

    > “It’s just a matter of seeing the glass half-empty or half-full. ”

    I wish those were the only 2 possibilities, I would gladly take a half-empty glass over a half-full. Full empty glasses are not mathematically impossible though. Worse, it seems every human got a broken glass to start with.

    > “Isn’t that what makes life worth living and propagating, seeing the glass at all?”

    We have a strong bias to think so and that alone should give us pause. Bigger brains not only risk killing mother and child, it has diminishing returns (specially before the information age), not least for the risk of giving a 2nd thought to these dangerous ideas (and thus avoid propagating)… The selfish gene hates that. It has a vested interest in our “neurochemical analogues” and it will make its preference VERY clear in most people’s minds.. it’s not pretty.

    []
    Cheers.

    * Actually I’ve grown to distrust this assumption but the philosophy is more involved and don’t really matter for this discussion. As a hint, try to explain why nobody ever reported the disorienting disease of being conscious at 2 places simultaneously. =)

    #27442
    Lukas
    Participant

    @ Marcos

    >>”Sure, there will be both masochists and sadists which will enjoy stuff most people find unthinkable, and people also change over time, mostly getting desensitized, both physically and psychologically, by their bad habits or even aging itself. This is beside the point. Is it something they did NOT WANT to experience? or at least cared enough to choose not to, if given the chance?”

    Isn’t that basically what I was saying? The point is that people will perceive things as positive, negative, or mixed stimuli, and that this seems (to me) to weaken the argument that birth and consequently life is just generally not worth living, because it’s more complicated than good-or-bad overall, until, as you say, the very end, when we can take stock of the vast majority of all that will ever have happened to us, when the question of continuing to live becomes irrelevant. Then again, perhaps I’m missing something here.

    >>”Such a “you” is said not to exist, if and only if, for the whole history of spacetime, the corresponding configuration of ‘particles’ was never assembled (or not currently assembled, if you don’t believe in time). It may not exist yet but, if it did, it would most definitely be miserable”

    I’m with you until that last part. Why would it “most definitely be miserable”? That’s kind of the crux of this book, and I’m not sure I buy it. Honestly, I’m not trying to state the counterfactual that it will most definitely be enjoyable–I’m neutral on the conclusion of this argument. Ultimately, I think that’s the only position that’s tenable for the reason you stated earlier: it’s very difficult to have some perspective on your life as its own thing until it’s just about over, so unless you really don’t feel like it’s going to get better and that it most definitely will always be miserable, in which case I fully support a person’s right to end it, why not just see how things turn out?

    Also:

    >>”So miserable in fact it would not even realize how miserable it was”

    Does an amoeba know it’s an amoeba?

    >>We have a strong bias to think so and that alone should give us pause. Bigger brains not only risk killing mother and child, it has diminishing returns (specially before the information age), not least for the risk of giving a 2nd thought to these dangerous ideas (and thus avoid propagating)… The selfish gene hates that. It has a vested interest in our “neurochemical analogues” and it will make its preference VERY clear in most people’s minds.. it’s not pretty.

    You’re right; we should be as objective as possible when assigning a value to life, but in truth, I’m not sure our brains are really capable of doing that. The question of the value of life, and the multitude of reasons why it might turn out negative really ought to give us pause. That’s one reason why–my own homosexuality aside–I’d never consider having a child of my own. I’d hate to think I made the mistake of bringing something that my primitive instincts holds so dear into a world wherein it is simply bound to be miserable. It’s also a reason why I think that developing artificial uteri, ensuring universal, global access to social welfare, and a host of other humanity-supporting and -enhancing measures (however defined) are hugely important. If our collective mind keeps telling us to make more of ourselves, then we better make sure we get the most out of each zygotal investment made. Who knows; maybe that is why we exist–to find out if human-level conscious life is worth living. That’d be an interesting experiment for (a) god-like creature(s) to run, eh ? 🙂

    Thanks

    #27444
    Brian
    Participant

    “Then again, perhaps I’m missing something here”

    Likely the same thing that others are missing – the fact that procreation is no longer something that just happens. Our knowledge of the body has turned it into a choice. And like any other choice, it is not above reproach. We cannot fall back on the “well nature must’ve wanted it this way so let’s wait and see what she decides”. Humans’ probably thought that way about the teeth at some point until someone finally got the nerve to extract the bad ones. Knowledge = power. What are we doing with the power? Trying not to make a mess in the first place or expecting forgiveness for willful ignorance?

    #27460
    Marcos
    Participant

    @ Lukas

    > “Isn’t that basically what I was saying? ”

    I’m not sure now, because later you mention I said something which I don’t remember saying. What I did say was that Free Will should be the judging parameter (it must be cleverly defined to work tho) and, since we can’t ask people if they want to be born or not, that’s more akin to something negative, even criminal, than positive. Perhaps even, the argument goes, “infinitely” negative.

    > “until, as you say, the very end, ”

    I don’t remember saying that, where? The quoting here is kinda confusing, i’m using email notation, after the first line it may give the impression that the quote is over while it isn’t…

    > “I’m with you until that last part. Why would it “most definitely be miserable”? ”

    Yes, I was half joking (LoLing at the end).. going with the depressive theme =)

    True, maybe the argument should be stronger as to whether anything AT ALL one does is not enough to “repay” the initial “debt” of being born.

    > ” you stated earlier”

    I still think I didn’t.. =) Are you sure it wasn’t me quoting you about that?

    > “Does an amoeba know it’s an amoeba?”

    Exactly. ^_^

    > I’m not sure our brains are really capable of doing that.

    Precisely. Just like the amoeba. Now, isn’t that conspicuously suspicious to have undergone some kind of evolution? The brains capable of doing that simply did not engender any descendents. They were “less fit” to survive. Ironically perhaps.

    > “it is simply bound to be miserable”

    Yep, a better strategy in such situations would be to adopt. At least one is minimizing the suffering of someone which already has no choice.

    > “and a host of other humanity-supporting and -enhancing measures (however defined) are hugely important. ”

    Although at face value I would be inclined to agree I often find people do not consider the game theoretical implications of such policies. Another even more contentious one is abortion, what if these measures actually incentivise people to care less if they have more and more kids? Education, on the other hand, seems to have only positive outcomes. More specifically “how”, as opposed to “what”, to think which, despite the history of such measures, still seem quite rare, even among the, so-called, “educated”/intelligentsia.

    > Who knows; maybe that is why we exist–to find out if human-level conscious life is worth living.

    Or worse (if such a cruelly “interesting” experiment was not enough), exist to find out what’s the IQ cap beyond which existence becomes unacceptable. Natural selection, as I alluded, takes care of that cruelly beautifully. Artificial selection would have to try pretty hard to be worse. It’s almost a moral obligation, arguably.

    > That’d be an interesting experiment for (a) god-like creature(s) to run, eh ? 🙂

    You mean the pandimensional mice responsible for most, if not all, scientific research on this planet? Why, of course! Before one can assign a value to life, one must discover what it actually means. =)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aQWdMftKT3Q

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