The View from Hell

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On the Moral Effect of the Bright Side of Things

with 25 comments

I have a question: is there any act, other than reproduction, that is widely perceived to be morally innocent, and that satisfies the following conditions?

  1. The actor knowingly inflicts serious harm on another
  2. who does not consent to the harm;
  3. the act does not prevent a more serious harm;
  4. the actor does not act in response to a wrong committed by the victim or others;
  5. and the harm is perceived to be justified by intrinsic or concurrently provided benefits. (I.e., the victim is asked to “look on the bright side.”)

The only examples I can think of involve questionable authoritarian treatment of children by their parents, which I think falls into the same category as reproduction – widely considered morally innocent, but actually quite sinister when considered in a broader context. (Also, generally parents justify their authoritarian treatment of children in terms of harm avoidance, rather than provision of a pure benefit.)

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Written by Sister Y

October 13, 2010 at 5:14 pm

25 Responses

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  1. Circumcision? Vaccination? Forced school attendance? But these are all examples of “authoritarian treatment of children by their parents”.

    As for adults: conscription? taxation (if you're libertarian)? etc.

    The Plague Doctor

    October 13, 2010 at 6:02 pm

  2. Circumcision and forced school attendance are good examples and fit all my criteria. Vaccination is designed to avoid a greater harm, so I'm not sure it fits. (Some might argue the same for school attendance, though circumcision is a procedure searching for a purpose.)

    Conscription is interesting – though I'm not sure it fits my criteria (3) and (4). I am wondering if my criterion (3) should be stated “the act does not prevent a more serious harm to the victim” – in which case your conscription example definitely fits it. Criterion (4) would fail in the case of conscription in response to attack. I think my criterion (4) is uncomfortably fuzzy, though.

    Taxation and all the “social contract” (fake contract) obligations are also interesting! The harm is a bit more diffuse, and is financial rather than physical, but still very real and very unconsented, unless you think democracy is real. There's no democracy for babies, though.

    Sister Y

    October 13, 2010 at 6:29 pm

  3. Hate to be dense, but I don't think I understand the first criterion. Most parents, I take it, would sincerely reject it as applying to them; and, ipso facto, escape satisfying the condition, no?

    Rob

    October 13, 2010 at 7:17 pm

  4. Do you deny that death is a harm or that death is known to be the final result of bringing someone into being?

    I am not in the first criterion arguing that life is an overall harm, though of course I also believe that, but merely that it necessarily entails some very serious harm.

    Sister Y

    October 13, 2010 at 8:42 pm

  5. *I* deny neither. What I question is whether many parents conceive of their successful decision to reproduce as the cause of the eventual death of their children. Seems like they would have to in order to be guilty of knowingly inflicting *that* harm. I'm also generally skeptical that, at least before the birth of their children, most parents conceive of any such 'existential' harms as inflicted *by them*. (Too bad this isn't likely to be a topic pursued by ExPhilers.)

    Rob

    October 13, 2010 at 9:56 pm

  6. Conscription would fit, except that it's (arguably) not “widely perceived to be morally innocent.” Same goes for taxation, though most anti-tax rhetoric is not philosophically radical. By scientific consensus, vaccination confers real benefits.

    Though some would hold out (incorrectly, I think) over criterion #3, I think circumcision absolutely fits. Same goes for compulsory schooling. All subsumed as kid stuff, I realize.

    Regarding Rob's point, I would argue that it is simply a fact that procreation creates and entails some degree of harm where none previously existed, benefits notwithstanding. Underscoring this with an emphasis on the harm of death may seem peculiar, but it is valid.

    Chip

    October 14, 2010 at 6:22 am

  7. Taxation also fails the criterion of being justified by intrinsic or concurrently provided benefits, at least if that is benefits to the victim.

    And in some sense, it also fails 4. Because taxation is there to rectify that someone has acquired more than they're entitled to. Although it's difficult, because they haven't done anything wrong in the course of this acquiring… Maybe taxation is the expression of the fact that it would be wrong for them not to give some of it away if they acquired that much.

    Constant

    October 14, 2010 at 3:49 pm

  8. Rob – I think it's true that most parents don't conceive of reproduction as the cause of death (or suffering) of their children. I don't think they think about it at all. Similarly, I doubt many criminals think about the suffering their crimes cause. Still, the harm is the 100% likely result of the action – legally and morally, we can impute this knowledge to the actor, even if he doesn't conceive of it this way.

    Taxation is so WEIRD. I'm teaching wills & trusts at the moment – estate taxes are even weirder, ethically, than income taxes.

    Taxation exists within a system of distribution. I guess really there are tons of aspects of this system – the “social contract” stuff – that could be read as an unconsented harm from the perspective of one who does not buy into the entire system.

    Taxation is a harm if we assume that we are entitled to ALL the fruits of our work. But how much of the fruit of our work is attributable to us, and how much to society in general? We bolster the system of property distribution just by failing to steal from our neighbors. Why shouldn't we be compensated for that? Especially if we have the short end of the stick in terms of the initial distribution.

    All this makes you understand the Randians . . . at least their ethical world is simple.

    Sister Y

    October 14, 2010 at 5:23 pm

  9. One thing I just realized – conscription and taxation are the exclusive province of the state. Can anyone think of an example that's not?

    Sister Y

    October 14, 2010 at 11:06 pm

  10. I've noticed that though breeders don't typically acknowledge that things like death and the more serious harms of life are inflicted by them, they tend to do quite a bit of fretting over minor stuff. For instance, their potential inability to breastfeed and thus provide a healthier diet for their future baby. Or their ridiculous fears that their (not yet conceived) children might have an identity crisis because mombie has a different last name than dadbie (because that's the only thing children have to worry about, I suppose).

    CM

    October 15, 2010 at 2:55 am

  11. If we allow that victim upon whom the serious harm is inflicted may be an animal, then that ups the quotient dramatically without involving state coercion.

    Do you sense that we're missing something obvious?

    Chip

    October 15, 2010 at 4:18 am

  12. Cold calling someone at 3 AM.

    A suitor stalking the object of his love.

    Breaking into someone's house to prepare a surprise birthday party for him when he comes home.

    The Plague Doctor

    October 15, 2010 at 2:02 pm

  13. Window washer scammers (people at traffic lights who wash your car windows unasked and then demand payment).

    The Plague Doctor

    October 15, 2010 at 6:37 pm

  14. How about the involuntary medical treatment of the mentally ill? It's true that this is sometimes justified in terms of “preventing harm” but it's often not in terms of what the patient perceives as harmful, but what the doctor/society thinks the patient ought to perceive as harmful. I think it ticks all the boxes.

    Alternatively, consider if you are bored but not miserable in your marriage but your spouse is happy. Divorcing your spouse in these circumstances would be viewed by many as morally innocent, and it satisfies all the criteria.

    Jojomajojo

    October 16, 2010 at 3:09 am

  15. Jojomajojo-

    while being miserable in a marriage doesn't necessarily mean your spouse wronged you, it does mean s/he's failed to meet your needs and you are acting in response to that failure, so this scenario sort of doesn't satisfy (4). Plus, s/he got married knowing the risks and prevalence of divorce (even though everybody thinks they are less likely to get divorced than everyone else), so his/her consent is implied, I think. It could also be argued that greater harm is being prevented since one of the spouses is just going to continue being miserable and probably won't be able to provide the other person with a satisfying relationship anyway. If one spouse stayed in an unhappy marriage for the sake of the other, it would be unfairly privileging the well-being of one person (which is exactly what occurs in procreation).

    Another criterion to add would be “the act makes the perpetrator worse off” since parenthood makes people less happy. This makes the case of procreation even more bizarre. This criterion wouldn't apply to gamete donors, but probably would to gamete recipients who make the decision to create a child.

    CM

    October 16, 2010 at 4:06 am

  16. Rootkits and other forms of invasive DRM.

    The Plague Doctor

    October 16, 2010 at 6:36 am

  17. CM –

    Notice that I specifically said “bored but not miserable.” I'm positing a situation where one partner does NOT view the marriage as a negative, but views it as not sufficiently positive, and so they get divorced to seek a positive elsewhere. The other partner views the marriage as a positive, and so is devastated.

    Failure to satisfy someone's needs is not a wrong, and it's silly to claim that there's always implied consent to divorce. You may as well claim there's implied consent to be born.

    I think the reason you are unhappy with this example is because marriage is such a prickly subject and so people get emotional. How about we take the sex out of it?

    I am best friends with X. Then I discover that X holds views that I consider immoral. For example, he holds a very different view on abortion than I do. Although he has not/will not commit any act that I view as immoral, I do not wish to associate with people who hold such a view. I wouldn't be miserable staying friends with him, I just think of myself as the kind of person who doesn't hang out with such people. So I break off all contact with X. He certainly doesn't consent, and is devastated.

    You could also make an economic version of this example.

    The point I am making is that people engage in this kind of behaviour all the time, because few people buy fully into this notion of “inflict harm.” Most people (and I am one of them) would say that breaking off the friendship is blameless, because I have no obligation to continue it, and he has no RIGHT to my company. So what that it makes the other person unhappy? I'm not responsible for his happiness.

    This is not a refutation of antinatalism, because arguably a parent is very much responsible for the child's happiness. But I think it should show you why the antinatalist argument outlined above doesn't have much popular traction. People consider morality in terms of rights and freedom of action at least as much as they think about benefits and harms.

    Jojomajojo

    October 17, 2010 at 12:38 pm

  18. To be clear, I mean this as an exploration more than as an argument – thanks for the suggestions.

    Sister Y

    October 18, 2010 at 7:22 pm

  19. Moderate to high-risk surgical separation of conjoined twins in cases where neither twin's life is threatened without the surgery and where their consent is not sought.

    Chip

    October 19, 2010 at 2:55 pm

  20. If you liked Karl Smith's Pessimist Manifesto, you might also like his post on the karmic lie.

    TGGP

    October 25, 2010 at 12:50 am

  21. Here are two ways taxation becomes less problematic.

    1. You don't own your tax liability. Between the time of income and income tax, you temporarily are lent your tax liability, but it is never yours to begin with. When you park your car in a garage where you have to pay upon exit, you are temporarily lent a sum of money equal to the price of parking there.

    2. Money is scrip. Parents who create a household economy to get their children to do chores require that each child furnish ten units of scrip per week. This creates a demand, and thus a value, for the scrip. Children earn scrip by performing chores. The scrip can be traded — if one child is short the ten units and the other has a surplus, the first child can trade something of value for the second child's surplus scrip. When the parents collect the scrip at the end of the week, it is not a transfer of value — rather, the parents simply extinguish the scrip or otherwise remove it from circulation to prevent the scrip from devaluing.

    The value of (fiat) money is ultimately backed by the issuing government's ability to collect taxes. Even if we say that fiat money is worth something because people think it's worth something, it's still true that people wouldn't think it to be worth something if there weren't taxes (or something else imposed by force) payable only in that money.

    If society had a single employer and provider, the state, it might not need money at all. The state could compel people to work, and could distribute the fruits of production as it saw fit. There would be no money, and no taxation. It's much cheaper, however, for the state to not have to create this police state, and it's better for society for there to be a universally recognized medium of exchange to facilitate trade, so instead this single-employer, single-provider state might issue money to those who work, and also require that its people submit some amount of money each year to the state. Those who fail to voluntarily submit the requisite amount are compelled to by force. If you now allow anyone, not just the state, to employ people, and get rid of most state-operated enterprises and state-provisioning of goods, you basically have today's mixed capitalist economy.

    JasonSL

    January 5, 2011 at 9:40 pm

  22. Your first point is especially important – the system of economic distribution includes not only how property is divided up, but definitions of property in the first place. What you outline is similar to Amartya Sen's entitlement theory, as I understand it.

    I love Peter Frost's take on this in terms of predictions for the future, in Evo and Proud:

    “Finally, there will be concern over behavioral infrastructure, albeit less openly expressed. The market economy may be self-generating, but it doesn’t self-generate in a vacuum. As the historical economist Gregory Clark has shown, the market economy began to develop once a certain behavioral profile had become the norm—above all, a commitment to honesty and a rejection of violence and theft as means of self-enrichment. If the current population is replaced by one where people casually cheat and steal, transaction costs will escalate throughout the economy. A lot of economic activity will simply cease to be cost-effective.”

    Sister Y

    January 6, 2011 at 5:57 pm

  23. In case the connection above isn't clear, I think people contribute value to the economy just by participating in behavioral norms like performing contracts, not stealing, etc. So regressive taxation is a way for them to be compensated for this contribution.

    This was Bruce Ackerman's justification for applying a 100% estate tax and distributing the proceeds in a lump sum among 20-year-olds.

    Sister Y

    January 6, 2011 at 6:01 pm

  24. Oh and Bruce Ackerman wrote The Stakeholder Society.

    Obviously I just need to write a blog post connecting all these things up.

    Sister Y

    January 6, 2011 at 6:01 pm

  25. Sister Y: So regressive taxation is a way for them to be compensated for this contribution.

    Presumably you meant to write “progressive” rather than “regressive”, right? The indigent man's contribution to the economy by not stealing is equal to Meg Whitman's contribution to the economy by not stealing, and thus much greater as a share of income.

    How do you think your anti-natalism and support of suicide rights bears on questions of intergenerational justice and discounting? It seems like some of your posts hint that you may have something perceptive and original or at least uncommon to say about these things.

    JasonSL

    January 9, 2011 at 11:32 pm


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