Saturday, October 27, 2012

The harm of risks

In discussions on antinatalism, the following exchange of dialogue sometimes occurs:

Pronatalist: "Most people have a favourable view of their own lives. While some may have different views, the majority are still glad to have come into existence. On balance, procreation is thus acceptable."

Antinatalist: "Yes, but whenever one procreates, the risk that the created person suffers greatly in life and wishes they were never born is a risk whose consequences are born by another individual. While people are free to take risks with their own lives, creating another person is rolling the dice with someone else's life. The seriousness of the potential harms to those who come into existence makes that risk an unacceptable imposition."

There's nothing particularly wrong with this line of reasoning but there may be a subtle reason why it's unlikely to be successful (apart from the ordinary reasons). The counterargument engages with the idea that there's risk involved in procreation. This is true, of course, but the problem is that most people don't think in terms of probabilities. People typically don't think there's a realistic chance that bad things will happen to them - until those bad things actually happen to them.

It seems rather that the following is more appropriate:

Antinatalist: "Because of the widespread adoption of pronatalist ideals, many people will inevitably be created who hate their lives and wish they had never come into being, perhaps even wish to kill themselves. In some sense, the happiness of some is supported by the suffering of others. To justify procreation then is to justify the institution of inflicting suffering on some so that happiness may be experienced by other people in other places."

The above response is essentially equivalent to the former but it highlights the sheer sickness of the whole culture of procreation. It bypasses the matter of risk entirely by invoking considerations of actual harms and leaving abstractness aside. But who knows? Perhaps this counterargument will be equally unpersuasive. After all, it's easy to justify suffering when that suffering is not happening to you.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The right to life

I previously wrote about the how right to life could be used to justify forcing women to have abortions, the irony of which will only ever be appreciated by a select few. Using this as an actual argument is, however, clearly fraught with problems because it positions most people against the use of logic and in favour of emotive prejudices. But if my argument really does imply that counter intuitive claim then there probably exists additional supporting evidence which may lessen its perceived repugnance.

Consider the following:
Imagine a world where people ordinarily live forever. Would the right to life mandate against creating people with finite lifespans?

One key difference between that world and this one is that active steps would need to be taken to ensure that someone dies. In our world, there is no such option and death is something more of a mere passive and incidental outcome of the decision to procreate, at least in the perception of those who have children. Note that if the above scenario is insufficient for some purpose then we can alternatively consider a world where no one suffers and then imposing suffering on an unfortunate would-be person.

Getting back to the main issue, the point of the thought experiment was to make plausible the notion that adhering to the right to life could preclude one from procreating because the person would die eventually. Even if one disagreed that it was wrong to create a person who would die at some point, it's not hard to imagine that the immortal inhabitants of that world might argue against that behavior on considerations of a hypothetical right to life and my original argument therefore wasn't totally absurd.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Preference utilitarianism

A common alternative to classical utilitarianism is that of preference utilitarianism. This typically arises out of opposition to the tendency for various moral theories to treat opposing views in terms of pathology. For example a utilitarian might believe that one can be mistaken as to what is actually in their best interests - they might see the forcible altering of the physical, chemical and electrical makeup of the brain of any contrarian to be a good thing. A preference utilitarian would reject such intervention.

However, there is ambiguity as to how this theory should operate. Specifically, it could do any of the following or a combination thereof.

1. Satisfy all preferences currently in existence
2. Create and satisfy as many preferences as possible
3. Prevent the emergence of any unsatisfied preferences

Point 2 is, however, incompatible with the foundational principle of preference utilitarianism alluded to in the opening paragraph.

Consider which of the the following is better: a life that contains no preferences or one that contains many preferences all of which are satisfied. One who believed in point 2 would say that the latter was better while others might say that neither was. The way in which the incompatibility arises is the way in which the lack of preferences is pathologised just as in the hedonistic case. The the very state of having no preferences might be seen as misguided because their life would allegedly be much better if they had fulfilled preferences even though the person who has no preferences clearly disputes this. As an amusing aside, one who believed in point 2 would have to concede that the advertising industry is one of the best of all; being that which creates and fulfills preferences.

If point 2 is rejected while the others hold then I needn't carry on this post any further; preference utilitarianism has become negative in its formulation and thus antinatalism is already implied. The preferences of people to procreate surely cannot outweigh the sheer magnitude of stifled preferences that result from them. The other fine details are not of great importance as with all negative moral theories.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The heuristic of antinatalism

A key issue behind many moral philosophies lies in the following question:

"When is it permissible to inflict suffering on another individual without their consent?"

If the answer is "never" then antinatalism follows. Apologists of pro-natalism face an awkward balancing act of justifying the imposition of harm in some cases while denying it in others. Thus if the question is not answered with sufficient care then unintuitive consequences can arise. Perhaps for some people there may not be any way to answer this question without unknowingly violating some other principle they took for granted. Most justifications of antinatalism use this fact to their advantage.

When this question is presented in the context of antinatalism, answers are frequently given with the sole intent to avoid the conclusion of the wrongness of procreation; answers that wouldn't arise if the question was considered in isolation.

For example, one might take issue with what precisely is the cause of harm inflicted on someone in the morally relevant sense. Someone who has children might be absolved of any hypothetical wrong doing if they weren't directly responsible for the harms that befall their children. However, arguing along these ontological lines is risky because it doesn't attempt to reconcile the harms with any benefit so could just as well apply to a world that contains only suffering.

Outside of the antinatalism specific arguments, the primary responses to this question are the following:

1. In self defense.

2. For punishment.

3. When the individual's psychological history suggests that consent would probably be supplied if it could be obtained.

4. When the one suffering receives something of sufficient compensation as determined by the past beliefs of the individual.

5. For religious reasons.

6. When the infliction of harm serves some greater good.

7. When the individual will probably believe in hindsight that the suffering was beneficial or a necessary evil i.e. retroactive consent.

8. When the suffering is outweighed by some quantity of pleasure or another good of which that suffering is a condition.

The first four don't concern antinatalism. I have nothing to say on religion other than that it can be used to justify anything and two people with different religions aren't going to agree on everything. The case of greater goods is like that of religion.

For retroactive consent, the question of harms can be thought to reduce to one of technology or of cunning psychological manipulation. We might phrase this in the form "what can someone be made to believe?" for anyone with sufficient technology can make anyone believe anything. Retroactive consent is problematic for this reason.

For the last and most common response, the goodness of something is tied to personal beliefs and is like the case of retroactive consent.

The key to arguing antinatalism lies in weaknesses of these responses but the whole issue is still very murky. There are numerous subtle issues that I don't seem to be able to conquer all simultaneously. However, I do see merit in the way the question can be used to focus attention and to expose and clarify the ways in which assumptions must be introduced (often artificially) to avoid the conclusions of antinatalism.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A paradox in utilitarianism

Should game theoretic paradoxes invalidate an ethical theory?

Utilitarianism operates under the rule "perform the action which maximises utility overall".

Proposition: Retaliation violates utilitarianism because actions don't affect the past so utilitarianism implies that only future utility should be considered.

Suppose someone always adhered to utilitarianism and then suppose that there is some hostile party who knew this and could exploit it for their own gain in a way that promoted utility for them but reduced it overall for everyone. The only way circumstances like this could be prevented is by the utilitarian adopting a policy of always retaliating against exploitation of this nature to act as a deterrent. If holding such a policy increased utility overall then it would be in accordance with utilitarianism. However, if they hold this policy then implementing it would violate the proposition if the retaliation held no other purpose then in carrying out the policy.

Thus both holding and not holding the policy lead to violations of utilitarianism so this theory is inconsistent. The only way to resolve it is to deny the proposition which would itself deny the linear nature of time.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Rational self destruction

1. Everyone has problems
2. A rational person should should solve their problems in the most efficient way
3. Suicide is the most efficient way of solving all one's problems
4. From 1-3, a rational person should commit suicide

I shall justify these assumptions in turn and then follow up with some miscellaneous commentary.

Everyone has problems
If people have no problems, then the question immediately arises as to what they're actually doing if not solving problems. People avoid pain because pain is a problem and seek pleasure because the lack of pleasure is a problem. If pain were not a problem then people would be indifferent to pain and if the lack of pleasure was not a problem then they wouldn't bother seeking pleasure.

A rational person should should solve their problems in the most efficient way possible
All else equal, if there are two solutions to a problem and one is better than the other for whatever reason, then not choosing the better option is tantamount to indifference to the resolution to the problem i.e. the problem never existed in the first place. The only other case for someone knowingly choosing an inferior option and yet still believing in the problem is that the person is irrational.

Suicide is the most efficient way of solving all one's problems
The first issue to resolve here is whether or not becoming non existent would actually solve any of their problems. But solving a problem is equivalent to eliminating the problem for then the problem no longer exists and hence the problem is solved. Moreover, the same logic applied to all their problems shows that they are solved if they cease existing entirely.

On the question of efficiency, the quickest method of solving problems is to stop believing in them. For most people, this is quite difficult and in some cases impossible. The typical method of solving problems by directly undertaking some action that alters or effects a set of circumstances directly related to the problem is inefficient as it cannot guarantee that that problem and others won't continuously reoccur in future. Suicide solves all problems in one swing and is therefore better for those capable of carrying it out. It should be noted here that the practical details of the matter are not overly important to the argument but rather that suicide is the best way if only in principle.

It is my contention here that the human condition logically leads to rational self destruction. Of course, a person might be interested in solving problems of other people but self destruction is the ultimate goal even if that only occurs after everyone else has been destroyed. One significant remaining point is whether or not problems can exist even if people don't. For example, one might consider the absence of happy people in the universe to be a problem.

As a thought experiment, consider the idea that the number of grains of dust on the moon being prime is a problem. Clearly, this isn't a problem for any currently living people but who's to say that it's not a problem independently of people. If this isn't a problem in general, then for what reason? Perhaps we could create someone who believes a priori that the number of dust grains on the moon shouldn't be prime and thus that the whole moon should be vacuumed clean to preclude this possibility.

The question here is this: what distinguishes the two cases of the problem of there being no happy people and the problem of the number of dust grains on the moon being prime? Humans generally seem to regard the addition of happy people to the world a good thing just as the hypothetical person above regards the creation of new people to ensure that the continued dust equilibrium a good thing. However, if we move outside of these respective frameworks, we see that one thing is a problem if and only if everything else is because those things were only ever problematic for people inside those systems; outside the scenarios are indistinguishable. So if no one exists then either everything is a problem or nothing is a problem. Only the latter makes any kind of sense so it is most reasonable to conclude that problems necessitate people and thus that the destruction of all people can solve all problems.

There are clear allusions to antinatalism above even though the argument only intends to address rational self destruction. In particular, in upholding antinatalism, humanity would ultimately obtain a solution to all its problems. Thus instead of becoming a pleasure/pain antinatalist or similar one could become a problem antinatalist instead. A key difference in motivating antinatalism this way instead of pleasure/pain is that the problems in defending an asymmetry disappear under the alternative approach of solving problems because there is nothing to act as a counter point to solving problems. No one is interested in 'unsolving anti-problems' whatever that might mean. A natural asymmetry thus arises. The probable disadvantage lies in its abstractness which might make it unappealing for anyone who dislikes that approach. Another minor disadvantage is that most people are not fond of killing themselves no matter how ultimately rational that may be.