The View from Hell

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Archive for September 2010

30% of Children Wish They’d Never Been Born

with 15 comments

Chip Smith points to a study, published in the American Journal of Sociology in 1932, with the surprising result that 30% of a broad sample of children studied expressed a wish never to have been born. (I know someone pointed me to this before, but I forget who it was.)

Life’s cheerleaders will no doubt argue that such wishes, while common, are most likely fleeting and not of a serious nature. However, I think this study must suggest to even the cheeriest of us that most people’s feelings toward life are ambivalent from the very beginning of mature consciousness. A feeling of certainty that anyone brought into being will be grateful to his creators is not justified. The essential value of one’s own life is not a feeling universally shared.

Many, many people are not glad to be alive. They are among the most seriously wronged by being brought into existence. But (and the author of the above study is a case in point) their position is pathologized and not taken seriously; even though cheeriness is not the universal position, it is assumed to be the correct position. Any deviation from gratitude for life does not, from the dominant point of view, need to be sincerely considered.

Written by Sister Y

September 30, 2010 at 5:16 pm

The Mundane Horrors of Childhood

with 12 comments

It is an understatement to say that parents are shocked when their child commits suicide. To the extent that parents think about it at all, they generally assume that they do some good to their children when they bring them into the world. Everyone wants to live – right? What could possibly possess a child to take his own life?

But many children do take their own lives. In recent news cycles, the suicides of Asher Brown, Seth Walsh, Billy Lucas, and Phoebe Prince have received a great deal of attention, especially because they were complicated by bullying of the victims in their schools. News reports tend to feature the parents claiming they reported the bullying to school officials, but school officials didn’t do anything, or didn’t do enough, to stop it.

I think that the suffering of even a normal childhood is much more serious than is generally acknowledged. I do not think child suicides are particularly surprising; what is surprising is their relative rarity. The question is not why some children commit suicide, but why most children are able to endure the mundane horrors of childhood.

The blame the parents of suicides place on those who “caused” the suicide of the child belies the parents’ own responsibility for bringing a child into the world who suffered so much that he could not bear it anymore. The parents took a gamble with an innocent child’s life, and it did not pay. It is too bad that the children, and not just the parents, are the ones who must suffer for the parents’ mistakes.

It is not that I think the parents of suicides deserve the pain of loss; parents, just like non-parents, were forcibly brought into the world through no choice of their own, and deserve suffering no more than any one of us. It is that their own pain and the pain of their children is a plainly foreseeable consequence of reproduction. And we are responsible for the foreseeable consequences of our actions.

Written by Sister Y

September 29, 2010 at 5:23 pm

Selling Life-Years

with 3 comments

Adam Ozimek at Modeled Behavior has an interesting piece on whether we should be able to sell years of our lifespans.

This is, I think, exactly the question addressed by J. David Velleman in his article Against the Right to Die, wherein he argues that giving people a choice can make them less well-off, even if, given the choice, they choose correctly. Velleman is concerned with assisted suicide – shortening lifespan to avoid suffering near the end of life. Ozimek is concerned with shortening lifespan to promote other values, but the moral logic is, I think, the same. I respond to Velleman’s article in my piece Velleman’s Sorrow of Options.

Also exactly on point is Velleman’s related article A Right of Self-Termination? in which he argues that it is morally unproblematic to force people to remain alive, because by choosing to shorten our lifespans, we somehow abrogate human dignity, which belongs to everyone, not just to ourselves. Velleman thinks, for instance, that accepting a shorter lifespan in exchange for the pleasure of smoking is morally wrong and an affront to all humanity. I respond to this in my piece Respecting and Erasing, essentially challenging the notion that limiting the span of something in time denies its dignity.

Other writers think that dignity, as distinct from autonomy, is just stupid.

Written by Sister Y

September 16, 2010 at 3:19 pm

A Duty to Rape?

with 23 comments

Robin Hanson gamely bites the bullet I offer up in my Rape Doctor Hypothetical, a thought experiment I devised to test intuitions about risks of inflicting harm and benefit on others, in cases where a proxy for consent must be used because actual consent is impossible.

Consent is nice, when you can get it. When consent is impossible, as it often is – when providing medical care for unconscious patients, for example, or when parents make decisions for their children (at least preverbal children), or when we bring a new being into life – we must decide whether to use a proxy for consent. These might include:

  • Ex-post ratification (examined in my piece The Moral Effect of “Being Glad It Happened”)
  • Predictions based on the ex-post ratifications of similarly-situated others (as I think Robin Hanson would have us use in the procreation case)
  • Predictions based on a mental model of the nonconsenting being, including perhaps its likely utility function and the costs and benefits of the action.

All of these, of course, involve probabilities; they are unlikely to be perfect, and are in fact virtually guaranteed to result in some margin of error. How good should we require the predictions to be before using them? How much risk is too much for the nonconsenting beings we are acting on behalf of?

Many accepted proxies for consent are used to avoid harm (e.g., treating an unconscious patient to save his life – since most people wish to remain alive). But what about using proxies for consent to provide a pure benefit – with some risk of harm?

Please read my whole hypothetical for details, but in short, I posit a situation in which a doctor has identified a class of patients with Forced Sexual Contact Arousal Syndrome, who are only capable of sexual arousal through rape and will be benefited, not harmed, by being raped:

Based on his research, Dr. A has statistical grounds to believe that, of FSAD patients who meet Criteria A, B, C, and D, 99.9% will experience sexual enjoyment exclusively from forced sexual contact. Beyond that, Dr. A notices that his FSCAS patients who have been raped are much more socially and emotionally well-adjusted than those who have not. It is statistically reasonable for him to believe that, out of 1000 patients with FSCAS who have not been raped, 999 will experience a great deal of sexual enjoyment and a much better quality of life if raped; one will experience the usual extreme distress that rape would cause a normal woman.

So should Dr. A rape his patients? Robin Hanson says: “I’ll bite the bullet and say that the rape has expected good consequences in this case.” I take this to mean that the special rape under these circumstances is at least permissible, and perhaps that Dr. A even has a duty to rape his FSCAS patients.

Intuitions are the stuff of ethics. Here, Robin Hanson is taking (I think) a position I describe in my article as an extreme form of consequentialism – the idea that the suffering of a few is offset by the pleasure of others. It is the move from humane Pareto efficiency to ugly, realist Kaldor-Hicks efficiency – that the suffering of a few is a fair price for the benefit of the many, even if that suffering is not consented to.

Hanson and I disagree as to whether a 99.9% chance of pleasure and life benefit is worth a 0.1% chance of the ordinary harm of rape. A more general phrasing of the question is this:

The Dilemma of Impossible Consent: In cases where consent is impossible and a proxy for consent must be used, how risk-averse should we be on behalf of those our decisions will affect?

My answer to this, supported by my own intuition and what I see as commonly-held intuition across a variety of situations, is: extremely risk-averse. In addition to the thought experiment above, I examine this notion in my post on dosing strangers with ecstasy. Seana Shiffrin examines this position in her paper “Wrongful Life, Procreative Responsibility, and the Significance of Harm” (Legal Theory 5:117-148, 1999), which I summarize here. It is a notion that is usually uncontroversial – except when it is brought to someone’s attention that antinatalism is among its ethical conclusions.

How risk-averse should we be when potentially dealing out unconsented harm to others? I think the position Robin Hanson is articulating is: not that risk-averse. How risk-averse, then? As I mention in the comments, how far would we have to skew the probability in the Rape Doctor Hypothetical to make the rape impermissible (or, if there is a duty to rape under my facts, to make it permissible to refuse)?

There is a related question which I think is separate from the first, and that is:

The Dilemma of Uncompensated Suffering: To what extent may a few be made to suffer greatly, without their consent, so that many people will be benefited?

This is a separate question from the first, although both are appropriate perspectives to consider in the case of creating or refusing to create a person (and raping or refusing to rape a likely rape-beneficiary). The first question inquires how we should treat risk in a decision affecting a non-consenting other; the second inquires how we should balance and compare interpersonal utility functions.

I am interested in (but have not encountered) a strong defense of the position that some may (or must) be sacrificed for the benefit of many. John Leslie carefully considers the issues in his book The End of the World: the Science and Ethics of Human Extinction (he’s anti-extinction, by the way), but acknowledges that he fails to provide anything like a proof of the position. (Note that this was written before Benatar’s Better Never to have Been was published, and Leslie does not consider Benatar’s arguments.)

Again, ethics must be based on intuitions. The most interesting ethics happens when intuitions conflict. My intuition is that it is never permissible to seriously harm one in order to provide a pure benefit to many; Robin Hanson’s intuition (and that of many others) is that this is fine, under some circumstances. My intuition is that we must be very risk-averse on behalf of others if we may harm them seriously without their consent; Robin Hanson’s intuition (and that of many others) is that we can be utility-maximizing without any special regard for risk-aversion. In other words, there are real ethical disagreements regarding the basic intuitions underlying the ethics of reproduction.

In addition to my two dilemmas, I pose a third:

Dilemma of Ethical Uncertainty: Given ethical disagreement between epistemic peers, what is the proper course of action in the real world regarding reproduction?

See also Chip Smith’s One Man’s Exquisite Treasure.

Correction: I incorrectly refer to risk aversion (preference for certainty) throughout this piece when I mean loss aversion (desire to avoid harm is greater than desire to realize gain of the same magnitude). I leave the text as is since comments were made before I noticed my error. In other news, I have a hard time telling left from right and I tend to pronounce “scourge” phonetically.

Written by Sister Y

September 13, 2010 at 5:13 pm

3 Quarks Daily Philosophy Prize

with 6 comments

If you would like, please vote for me for the 3 Quarks Daily 2010 philosophy prize. My essay “The Patriarchy, the Gynocracy, and Other Comforting Myths of Struggle” was nominated anonymously. I think today (September 8) is the last day for voting.

Written by Sister Y

September 8, 2010 at 5:22 pm

Is "saves" really the right word here?

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When someone makes a very serious suicide attempt, like jumping from heights, should we be glad when that person is . . . “saved”? Is that a “miracle”?

From that cultural pillar, USATODAY:

Dodge Charger, or a miracle, saves man from suicide attempt

The New York Daily News says 22-year-old Thomas Magill jumped 39 stories from a West Side apartment building, and ended up landing in the back of a red 2008 Dodge Charger. He broke both of his legs and is in critical condition, but survived the fall.

Some witnesses laud the car he fell on for saving his life. Some say it’s a miracle from God. But is it even a good thing?

Often, people who make very serious suicide attempts and are “rescued” say they are glad. Their incomes tend to go up, too. But this is at great cost to autonomy. Perhaps the would-be suicide will wake up and give the culturally appropriate response: “I’m so glad to be alive; I never wanted to die.” (N.B.: if he wants to get out of the hospital, this would be advisable.) Perhaps he will wake up and curse God and demand to be allowed to die (the dignified route, but the one that will keep you hospitalized).

Regardless, it’s nothing but cruel to this poor guy to praise Jesus (or a Dodge Charger) for “saving” him. People who do not want their lives should be free to discard them, without having to break their fucking legs in the process.

Written by Sister Y

September 1, 2010 at 9:48 pm

The Pathetic Golem

with 3 comments

Robin Hanson, gamely considering the question of who should be brought into existence, outlines a model that’s something like R.M. Hare’s Golden Rule, plus economic efficiency:

Economically, creature X should exist if it wants to exist and it can pay for itself. That is, in a supply and demand world, if our only choice is whether X should exist, then an X that wants to exist should actually exist if its lifespan cost of resources used (including paying for any net externalities) is no more than the value it gives by working for others. [Similarly excerpted by Adam Ozimek on Modeled Behavior.]

In a comment on AO’s post, RH says:

Surely there are many kinds of creatures where we could know with great confidence that they prefer to exist. Exact copies of other already existing creatures, for example. Can you accept that these creatures should exist?

I see a very serious problem with the move from “X creature is happy to exist” to “It is morally correct to make more creatures like X creature.”

Say we make a golem out of clay, like in the old days. We bring it into existence to suffer a life of misery, as golems are want to have. But we endow it with a very special characteristic, along with life: the preference to exist. No matter what tortures we or the world inflict on our golem, it will keep on preferring to exist.

Is that moral? Can we create a Foxconn megafactory of such golems and keep them alive for miserable decade after miserable decade, with clean consciences?

The problem that I hope this raises is this: we expect preference to exist to be a function of quality of life, but it may actually be entirely independent from quality of life. People with every human advantage in the world (like me) often wish they had never been born; sick, suffering homeless people on the street often prefer to keep on living.

While I think we should respect an individual’s decision as to whether it wishes to keep on living, this does not form a good guide as to whether to bring new people into existence.

The worst part: a pasted-on “preference for life” is exactly the sort of cruel trick we could expect evolution to play. What could be more beneficial? Except, perhaps, an unshakable preference to reproduce.

Written by Sister Y

September 1, 2010 at 9:22 pm