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The Opposite of a Mine Disaster

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When you take your pill
it’s like a mine disaster.
I think of all the people
     lost inside of you.

Richard Brautigan, “The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster

The above is the title poem from The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, a book by the strange American poet and author Richard Brautigan. I find this poem oddly compelling; Brautigan is one of my favorite poets. It lodged itself into my mind upon first reading, back when I was an undergraduate. It is a strange poem, a weak poem in many ways, but it contains a kernel of something important.

Sentimentality and Possible People

The most salient way in which this is a weak poem is that it is sentimental. The poem pretends to emotional truth, but in fact it carefully subverts it. Anthromorphization is a common means of sentimental truth-evasion; here, Brautigan anthropomorphizes ova.

A more common tactic is to impute human characteristics to blastocysts, fetuses, and even former fetuses. A widely-read email chain letter often called “Dear Mommy” uses this literary device:

Dear Mommy,

I am in Heaven now, sitting on Jesus’ lap. He loves me and
cries with me; for my heart has been broken. I so wanted to be
your little girl….

One day you cried almost all of the day. I hurt for you. I
couldn’t imagine why you were so unhappy. That same day,
the most horrible thing happened. A very mean monster came
into that warm, comfortable place I was in. I was so scared, I
began screaming, but you never once tried to help me. Maybe
you never heard me. The monster got closer and closer as I
was screaming and screaming, “Mommy, Mommy, help me
please; Mommy, help me.”

Complete terror is all I felt. I screamed and screamed until I
thought I couldn’t anymore.Then the monster started ripping
my arm off. It hurt so bad; the pain I can never explain. It
didn’t stop. Oh, how I begged it to stop. I screamed in horror
as it ripped my leg off. Though I was in such complete pain, I
was dying. I knew I would never see your face or hear you
say how much you love me.

It is tempting to mock such literary efforts, but elitism does not help ordinary people get any closer to ethical truth. And such literary efforts are as influential as they are common.

What is the central untruth of the Brautigan poem and of the folk-literature letter? It is that suffering is falsely imputed to those who cannot experience it. And, in falsely imputing such suffering, the infliction of suffering on actual people is encouraged.[1]

Actually, the use of contraception in Brautigan’s situation, and the abortion described in the folk-literature letter, are calculated to avoid the infliction of suffering on sentient beings. No one is “lost inside of” Brautigan’s speaker’s lover. The fetus in “Dear Mommy” does not actually “want” to be anybody’s “little girl,” nor did she experience terror. Only people brought into existence can do that. Avoiding bringing people into existence avoids suffering.

Things That Are Actually Like a Mine Disaster

1. An Actual Mine Disaster

The Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, beginning on April 5, 2010, killed 29 people. Eventually. It is not clear whether any of the miners actually wandered around “lost,” or if they died too quickly to perceive anything. The families of those who died, though, certainly suffered.

2. A Nursing Home

My grandmother is dying. About a year and a half ago, she contracted a nerve disease that leaves her in pain so constant and intense that she spends a large portion of each day crying. On two occasions, her pain has been so intense, and has been complicated by weight loss, falls, and other problems, that she has had to enter a nursing home temporarily. The first time I visited her in the nursing home, I accidentally went to the wrong wing. I asked for my grandmother; they didn’t recognize the name.

“Is she going to go home eventually?” a nurse asked me.

“Yes,” I said.

“Then she’s in the other wing,” the nurse replied. I was in the wing where people stay for the rest of their lives.

I had already poked my head into a couple of the rooms looking for my grandmother. Some of them were awake. I was the only visitor.

3. A Megaslum

From BBC News, Africa: “Nairobi slum life: Kibera’s children,” by Andrew Harding:

It’s 0600 and 11-year-old Eric Omondi is waking up. He’s usually the first. Some of the others have sniffed solvent the night before, to try to take the edge off the cold. Eric doesn’t like the solvent – it makes his chest hurt.

There are four boys in all, huddled under their cardboard blankets on the edge of Africa’s largest slum.

. . .

The boys are laughing now – kicking a stone instead of their punctured football. And it makes me smile to think that these four dirty, hungry, lonely humans are still children at heart – still able to have fun.

Nairobi is full of street-kids who have lost that instinct. The dead-eyed zombies who patrol the roundabouts down town.

Ten-year-olds with plastic solvent bottles wedged between their teeth, brandishing balls of human excrement – ready to thrust them into an open car window – to force the driver to pay up.

A little later, Eric and his friends stop to pick up scraps of cardboard and coal sacks – tonight’s sleeping bags. Later, when it’s dark, they’ll return to their usual spot on the pavement.


1. Brautigan, in particular, should know better; he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head at the age of 49. Had his mother used hormones to prevent herself from ovulating, he would never have had to suffer whatever personal horrors made him pull the trigger. There would have been no one “lost inside of” his mother. There would have been no Richard Brautigan “lost inside of” the world, either. It would have been better. I love Brautigan’s novels and his poetry, but it is morally hideous, in my opinion, to imply that his suffering was “worth it” so that I could read A Confederate General from Big Sur.

We are not each other’s instruments to do with as we choose. Babies are not our instruments to do with as we choose. But when we bring them into the world, we treat them that way.

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Written by Sister Y

April 30, 2010 at 5:26 pm

14 Responses

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  1. “It would have been better.”

    But wouldn't it be better only if, at the time he killed himself, he thought it would be better? Maybe the mindset issuing in his suicide was more along the lines of thinking that it would have been better had more things gone right in his life, or had some features of himself been different, rather than the one of regretting that he had been brought into existence.

    But even if a resolution of this question could be made in his case in favor of the likelihood of the latter mindset, how generalizable is such a coincidence of the external antinatalist perspective with the internal perspective of a suicide wannabe?

    I guess I'm still hung up on the idea that for it to be true of a reflectively capable life that it would be better not to have been, an endorsement, in some form or other, by the person whose life it is, is required.

    Rob

    May 3, 2010 at 11:58 pm

  2. How come you have never addressed the arguments for amoralism?

    Also, I sent you questions and you never responded. An “I'm too busy right now” would be just fine if you didn't want to respond. It's very rude, considering that you responded in depth to one of my emails and gave me the impression that you'd respond to others.

    Elizabeth

    May 4, 2010 at 8:36 am

  3. Rob – I don't think we need to get Brautigan's approval to say that it would have been better had he not existed.

    There are three logical possibilities, as I see it:

    1. No lives are worth beginning (my position).
    2. Some lives are worth beginning; others, not so much (the most common position).
    3. All lives are worth beginning (a fairly difficult position to hold).

    Before there was a Richard Brautigan, before he came into being, there was no reason to bring him into being (it would not benefit “him”), but strong reasons not to (a sentient life form, if brought into being, will suffer). His mother had no obligation or even a good reason to bring him into life.

    He was, in fact, brought into being; once he was, he might have enjoyed his life or not, might have thought his birth was a good thing (or not). It's irrelevant what he thought. The wrong was done to him before he was ever conscious. I figured that Brautigan, as a suicide, would be a relatively easy one for believers of Proposition 2 to accept as someone who was wronged by being brought into existence.

    Elizabeth, I'm sorry to be rude – it is not lack of interest in your question that led me to fail to answer it. I just forgot. I was just talking to my therapist yesterday about how I'm constantly late doing things; I wish I were better about it.

    As for amoralism – I think it's kinda silly. The fact that TGGP makes moral arguments while claiming morality doesn't exist makes no sense to me. I've talked about subjectivism in a couple of places, which is similar, I suppose.

    Sister Y

    May 4, 2010 at 4:08 pm

  4. Regarding amoralism — I have slowly come to the conclusion that people frame their personal wishes in objective moral terms to manipulate peoples' moral instincts to their own ends. People do not usually respond to obviously selfish or 'subjectivist' claims, especially ones that conflict with their own self-interest. I suspect TGGP believes his brand of morality is not objective or absolute, just a system that intelligent egoists can agree on to minimize chaos and unnecessary violence.

    Consider — plenty of amoral egoists (sociopaths) pretend to be moral because few people would trust an out-and-out amoralist. There is nothing hypocritical about their behavior from an amoral perspective, it's our self-interest and fear of exploitation that make us condemn them. They are simply following their interests and exploiting a vacuum created by a high-trust society.

    Game theory is probably the strongest case for amorality. Two people with different interests will need different strategies to promote their respective goals. This has important implications as people cannot choose the factors (especially genes) that determine their primary interests.

    Elizabeth

    May 4, 2010 at 11:23 pm

  5. Hey Sister Y, check out this book, it sounds fascinating! See if you can find it at a university library as it's so expensive.

    Elizabeth

    May 5, 2010 at 5:49 pm

  6. My bad. There's a cheaper paperback version.

    Elizabeth

    May 5, 2010 at 5:57 pm

  7. I definitely think amoralism can be an effective strategy for maximizing one's gain – among other strategies. (I think the game theory prediction is that sociopathy can be an effective strategy as long as the proportion of such “cheaters” doesn't get too high – and real-world incidence of sociopathy reflects this.)

    My concern is not competitive effectiveness, though. My concern is what is morally right.

    The Danielson book looks awesome – I am going to try to find a copy (my friend's dissertation is on a similar topic and I kinda suspect he has it).

    Sister Y

    May 5, 2010 at 6:32 pm

  8. Aren't you fighting a losing battle by ignoring peoples' differing interests?

    In my experience, most young Westerners are individualists and don't care if “it's the right thing to do”. They want to know how your demands relate to their interests and experiences. Even if some of them care about “the right thing”, a good chunk don't have the willpower to stand by their beliefs.

    The only way everybody could look out for one another is by being convinced we are helping ourselves by helping everybody. I doubt that is the case. Evolved moralities are usually factional, and the universal ones always chafe against factional tendencies.

    Elizabeth

    May 6, 2010 at 6:32 pm

  9. The megaslum kids sounded happy. Do they really belong with the mine and nursing home?

    TGGP

    May 7, 2010 at 2:15 am

  10. Elizabeth,

    You may want to check out David Ramsay Steele's review of L.A. Rollins' “The Myth of Natural Rights and Other Essays” at:

    http://www.libertyunbound.com/article.php?id=504

    Rollins has written a lively response, which may or may not run in a future issue of Liberty.

    Chip

    May 21, 2010 at 11:58 pm

  11. Hi Chip,
    I have read “The Myth of Natural Rights” (just the pamphlet without the other essays) as well as Steele's response to it. Just so you know, I had already used similar reasoning to arrive at the same conclusion before reading the pamphlet and didn't find any clever new arguments for amoralism.

    I thought Steele's criticism totally missed the mark and would like to see Rollins's rejoinder. Have you already read it, Chip? I do like Rollins's wit.

    Elizabeth

    May 25, 2010 at 6:29 pm

  12. Elizabeth,

    Yes, I have read Rollins' rejoinder and I think it's quite good (and quite funny). If it is not published in the next issue of Liberty, I'll post the text on my blog and leave a note in this thread.

    By the way, the augmented edition is available for $5 postpaid from Nine-Banded Books, and stock is low. Once it sells out, I hope to do a reprint with additional material.

    Chip

    May 27, 2010 at 3:29 am

  13. Elizabeth,

    Yes, I've read Rollins' response and I think it's very good (and also very funny). If it's not published in the next issue of Liberty, I will post it on my blog and link to it in this thread.

    Chip

    May 27, 2010 at 9:02 pm


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