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Archive for March 2011

Why Don’t You Just Kill Yourself?

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On 3QuarksDaily (cool article by Tauriq Moosa btw), commenter Louise Gordon asks the question that’s on everybody’s mind: why don’t philanthropic antinatalists just kill themselves? She asks:

If you are an anti-natalist and think being alive is hell and suffering and an overwhelming bummer, why are you still alive? Is there some life instinct that’s driving you to stick around or you’re just not ready to check out yet?

I explain:

Let me explain by analogy. Two birthdays ago, my friends had a surprise party for me. I was in a very antisocial mood at the time, and it was a very unpleasant experience – but I suffered through it because I didn’t want to hurt my friends’ feelings. I didn’t just walk out and leave the party (though I feel I morally could have done, if it were bad enough for me). But mostly I wish they hadn’t had a party for me in the first place – I would have been better off if they hadn’t.

Ditto my mom giving birth to me. I wish she hadn’t, but my family and friends would be very sad if I peaced out of the party (though I still have a moral right to commit suicide).

Another problem is that killing oneself is hard. Barbiturates are tightly controlled these days. You’d be amazed how easy it is to survive a gunshot wound to the head. And then they keep you alive and do medical experiments on you without your consent. Not a pretty picture.

In more general terms, the question may be phrased as: If you have been the victim of injustice and a solution to your subjective suffering exists, why not take it? And the answer is: because the proffered solution (a) through no fault of mine, harms others whose interests I care about, and (b) through no fault of mine, will very likely put me in a situation that is worse than my current situation.

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Written by Sister Y

March 16, 2011 at 7:47 pm

John Stuart Mill: No Right to Breed

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From Principles of Political Economy:

Every one has a right to live. We will suppose this granted. But no one has a right to bring creatures into life, to be supported by other people. Whoever means to stand upon the first of these rights must renounce all pretension to the last. If a man cannot support even himself unless others help him, those others are entitled to say that they do not also undertake the support of any offspring which it is physically possible for him to summon into the world. Yet there are abundance of writers and public speakers, including many of most ostentatious pretensions to high feeling, whose views of life are so truly brutish, that they see hardship in preventing paupers from breeding hereditary paupers in the workhouse itself. Posterity will one day ask with astonishment, what sort of people it could be among whom such preachers could find proselytes.

It would be possible for the state to guarantee employment at ample wages to all who are born. But if it does this, it is bound in self-protection, and for the sake of every purpose for which government exists, to provide that no person shall be born without its consent. If the ordinary and spontaneous motives to self-restraint are removed, others must be substituted. Restrictions on marriage, at least equivalent to those existing [1848] in some of the German states, or severe penalties on those who have children when unable to support them, would then be indispensable. Society can feed the necessitous, if it takes their multiplication under its control; or (if destitute of all moral feeling for the wretched offspring) it can leave the last to their discretion, abandoning the first to their own care. But it cannot with impunity take the feeding upon itself, and leave the multiplying free.

To give profusely to the people, whether under the name of charity or of employment, without placing them under such influences that prudential motives shall act powerfully upon them, is to lavish the means of benefiting mankind, without attaining the object. Leave the people in a situation in which their condition manifestly depends upon their numbers, and the greatest permanent benefit may be derived from any sacrifice made to improve the physical well-being of the present generation, and raise, by that means, the habits of their children. But remove the regulation of their wages from their own control; guarantee to them a certain payment, either by law, or by the feeling of the community; and no amount of comfort that you can give them will make either them or their descendants look to their own self-restraint as the proper means of preserving them in that state. You will only make them indignantly claim the continuance of your guarantee, to themselves and their full complement of possible posterity.

On these grounds some writers have altogether condemned the English poor-law, and any system of relief to the able-bodied, at least when uncombined with systematic legal precautions against over-population. The famous Act of the 43rd of Elizabeth undertook, on the part of the public, to provide work and wages for all the destitute able-bodied: and there is little doubt that if the intent of that Act had been fully carried out, and no means had been adopted by the administrators of relief to neutralize its natural tendencies, the poor-rate would by this time have absorbed the whole net produce of the land and labour of the country. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that Mr. Malthus and others should at first have concluded against all poor-laws whatever. It required much experience, and careful examination of different modes of poor-law management, to give assurance that the admission of an absolute right to be supported at the cost of other people, could exist in law and in fact, without fatally relaxing the springs of industry and the restraints of prudence. This, however, was fully substantiated, by the investigations of the original Poor Law Commissioners. Hostile as they are unjustly accused of being to the principle of legal relief, they are the first who fully proved the compatibility of any Poor Law, in which a right to relief was recognised, with the permanent interests of the labouring class and of posterity. By a collection of facts, experimentally ascertained in parishes scattered throughout England, it was shown that the guarantee of support could be freed from its injurious effects upon the minds and habits of the people, if the relief, though ample in respect to necessaries, was accompanied with conditions which they disliked, consisting of some restraints on their freedom, and the privation of some indulgences. Under this proviso, it may be regarded as irrevocably established, that the fate of no member of the community needs be abandoned to chance; that society can and therefore ought to insure every individual belonging to it against the extreme of want; that the condition even of those who are unable to find their own support, needs not be one of physical suffering, or the dread of it, but only of restricted indulgence, and enforced rigidity of discipline. This is surely something gained for humanity, important in itself, and still more so as a step to something beyond; and humanity has no worse enemies than those who lend themselves, either knowingly or unintentionally, to bring odium on this law, or on the principles in which it originated.
—Book II: Distribution; Chapter XII: Of Popular Remedies For Low Wages. Bolded emphasis mine.

This reasoning is extremely similar to that employed by Bryan Caplan in explaining why behavioral economics might mean we need to give the poor fewer options for their own good. Despite this similarity, Caplan’s thinking on births is utterly opposed to Mill’s.

Written by Sister Y

March 14, 2011 at 7:38 pm

Marriage Is Bad For Your Health

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Marriage modestly increases longevity for some men, but may decrease longevity and other common measures of well-being for women and for most men:

From an interview in The Atlantic with Howard S. Friedman, author of The Longevity Project:

One of our longevity myths is “Get married, and you will live longer.” The data tell a different story.

Marriage was health-promoting primarily for men who were well-suited to marriage and had a good marriage. For the rest, there were all kinds of complications.

For example, women who got divorced often thrived. Even women who were widowed often did exceptionally well. It often seemed as if women who got rid of their troublesome husbands stayed healthy—most women, it seemed, can rely on their friends and other social ties. Men who got and stayed divorced, on the other hand, were at really high risk for premature mortality. It would have been better had they not married at all. [Emphasis mine.]

Consequences like these should be kept in mind when we consider policies that promote marriage as an alleged correlate of good outcomes.

Written by Sister Y

March 14, 2011 at 6:57 pm

Why It’s Great News that Idaho Just Made Assisted Suicide a Felony

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A bill was just passed in the Idaho State Senate to make assisted suicide a felony:

BOISE – The Idaho Senate voted overwhelmingly Friday to make assisted suicide a felony, revoke the licenses of doctors who violate the law and allow people to get injunctions to block anyone they think might be planning an assisted suicide.

Why is this great news? Because Idaho is perhaps the lowest-status state in the country, and publicly associating itself with a cause like forbidding assisted suicide drops the cause’s status and makes it appear even more like the redneck bullshit it is. Hooray! I hope Mississippi is next.

Added: This post on Uncreated Thoughts, about how sometimes the status of a cause is dropped by well-meaning but low-status entities associating themselves with the cause, was the inspiration for the essence of this post – but I couldn’t find it to link to until just now.

Also, to be fair, this is the author as an adorable redneck child growing up in redneck Idaho, on her redneck horse, being led by her redneck hippie father (who has gun racks on his pick-up truck but voted for Obama):

Written by Sister Y

March 13, 2011 at 2:56 am

Mistakenly Glad

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Alex, a vegetarian, is glad to eat the vegetable soup at a restaurant because he mistakenly believes it is made with vegetable broth. Actually, it is made with beef broth. If Alex knew the truth, he would be disgusted. He is mistakenly glad to eat the soup. (This is true regardless of whether he ever finds out the truth.)

Martin is glad to be married. However, he mistakenly believes that his wife is sexually faithful, when in fact, she has been having sex with his business partner for many years. Martin values sexual fidelity such that if he knew the truth, he would be devastated to the degree that he would not be glad to be married. Martin is mistakenly glad to be married.

Emily is glad to have been given a diamond ring, because she believes it came from an ethical source. In fact, the diamond comes from a source that causes significant suffering to innocent people. If she knew the truth, she would be horrified and insulted at receiving the gift. She is mistakenly glad to receive the diamond.

Joyce is glad to have a son. However, she mistakenly believes her son is not murdering people and eating them. In fact, he is murdering people and eating them. If she knew this, she would regret having a son. Joyce is mistakenly glad to have a child.

The most common response people give upon hearing about philanthropic antinatalism is to ask why we haven’t killed ourselves (yet). The second most common, in my estimate, is what I call the “imaginary survey justification” – to assert that most people would be expected to report that they are glad to be alive (imaginary survey), therefore it is a good thing that they are alive, therefore it is a good thing to make new people.

I find this justification problematic not only because the empirical data are imaginary, but because it fails to address the phenomenon of being mistakenly glad. Just as ordinary “gladness” is subject to being mistaken if it is the product of incorrect beliefs, “gladness to be alive” is similarly problematic and subject to factual error. But is there any reason to be particularly worried about this in the context of “gladness to be alive”? Here are a few:

  • From an evolutionary standpoint, it would be incredibly dangerous to “allow” one’s organism to realize that life is not a great deal. We should expect human brains to embrace beliefs that promote gladness to be alive (and other survival-promoting mental states) regardless of their truth.
  • A high percentage of the world’s population is religious. I would suspect many people would subscribe to the statement, “I am happy to be alive because God created me and has a special plan for my life.” Thus, many people’s primary reason for being glad to be alive is patently false.
  • Many people believe in an afterlife. Same issue.
  • A high percentage of the world’s population lacks the capability for the kind of abstract thinking necessary to consider the question and all the prior beliefs one’s purported gladness may be based on.
  • The phenomenon of “meaningfulness” (commonly spoken of in the context of gladness-to-be-alive) seems to be a function of a specific kind of self-deception.

Similarly, more Americans than Europeans or South Americans seem happy to participate in their economic system, despite inequality, because they believe either (a) they have a “fair chance” at one day having high material wealth and status, or (b) they think there is a high probability of their one day having high status and material wealth. If it is merely procedural fairness (that is, reason (a)) that motivates them, they are only mistaken in this belief if the economic system is in fact unfair. However, if (b) is the reason – the belief that personal success is statistically likely – this is necessarily mistaken, because only a small percentage of people will achieve high status and material wealth, making the majority belief of personal future wealth demonstrably incorrect.

Exploiting other people’s false beliefs in a way that harms them is, ya know, fraud.

Written by Sister Y

March 10, 2011 at 10:31 pm

Robin Hanson and the Repugnant Conclusion

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Robin Hanson on Respecting Poor People

Based on Robin Hanson’s conversation with Karl Smith regarding population ethics on a recent Blogging Heads TV program, on why the Repugnant Conclusion is not really so repugnant.

Written by Sister Y

March 9, 2011 at 11:23 pm

Russian Dolls

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Incentive structures are created within other incentive structures, and at the outermost edge is only the initial distribution of the capability for force.



Should fast food restaurants be allowed to sell food without posting calorie content? To market unhealthy food to children?

Should garbage cans be labeled “Landfill”?

Should manufacturers be allowed to sell caffeinated alcoholic beverages? To whom should alcoholic beverages be sold?

Should prostitution be legal? Drugs? Weapons? Nukes? Divorce?

What should the age of contractual capacity be? The age of sexual consent?

What should be the consequences of a breach of contract?

Are taxes the same as stealing?

A System of Incentives

The field of law & economics recognizes that a system of law is a system of incentives. We adjust human welfare by adjusting the incentive structures in which humans operate.

Any incentive structure, including but not limited to a legal system, helps people predict how they will be treated, and thus how to plan their actions. Any incentive structure will do, more or less, for this purpose. But some individuals will always be treated sub-optimally by any incentive structure. The only certainty is that some will live in misery – there is always plenty of misery to go around. But who should be miserable, and how miserable, and why?

By creating or adjusting incentive structures, planners assume that they know what is best for human flourishing. Creating and adjusting incentive structures is an inherently epistemically ungenerous activity. This, I think, is the main problem with Bryan Caplan’s take on behavioral economics, which I’ve previously summarized thus:

Bryan Caplan thinks that the solution [to the problem of men not wanting to work] is to not have soup kitchens. That is, to make everybody so miserable that they HAVE to work, or else.

Caplan (and his coauthor) “know” that it’s better for people to live as close to a “productive,” middle-class existence as possible; so they argue we should adjust the incentive structure to give the poor fewer choices so that they are forced to make the “right” choice.

The search for a just, ethically defensible incentive structure requires an attempt to get outside of any single individual or group’s notion of what is best – to do what’s best for everyone, not just the would-be incentivizer and his cronies.

The Russian Doll Problem

In some sense, incentive structures compete with each other (e.g., capitalism v. communism). But even competing incentive structures exist within a wider incentive structure. The governments of countries may be seen as competing incentive structures, existing within the wider incentive structure of the world. Organized crime and government are competing systems of incentive, and operate within the wider incentive structure of the natural world. This is true even if the background incentive structure is merely “might makes right” – which is probably the only possible top-level, ultimate incentive structure.

Creating and adjusting incentive structures is at best hubris, at worst tyranny.

Some (libertarians, the religious, and advocates of democracy, for example) ignore this problem by assuming a privileged status for some kind of incentive structure.

Privileged Incentive Structure: God Said So

Some of the most successful religions worldwide have a built-in legal system and/or incentive structure. For this reason, some religions function very well as technologies that promote trade. Sharia in Islam, Gemora in Judaism, and Canon law in Christianity are the most well-known examples.

Religions are not written texts. As my rather religious Jewish boyfriend puts it, the written text (e.g. Mishnah) is like a constitution – but a government is not its constitution. The United States has a tiny little constitution, but the system of incentives is largely given by the enormous system of courts and police that interpret and enforce the written text.

Adherents of these religions get around the Russian dolls problem of incentive structures by assuming a privileged status for their enshrined incentive structure on the basis that this incentive structure was ordained by God.

Privileged Incentive Structure: The Market Said So

Libertarians attribute a privileged status to the “free market.” However, a market exists within a context of a wider incentive structure (the initial distribution, human nature, scarcity). Markets are not ever really “free” – there must be a wider incentive structure to contain the market, even if this incentive structure is merely “might makes right.”

Privileged Incentive Structure: The People Said So

A novel solution to the Russian Dolls problem of incentive structures is: let the participants choose their own incentive structure. Various forms of democracy claim to embody this solution.

Ultimately, this is no more than creating a market to determine the rules for the market. “One person-one vote” is, ultimately, as arbitrary as “one dollar, one vote” (or “one bullet, one vote,” for that matter). Why is a person the proper unit of democracy? Why adults and not children? Why present people and not future people? What about the rights of those in the minority position on anything? Why is it fair for a majority to impose its will on a minority? Democracy is, at best, a caricature of consent.

Prior to garnering fame as an authoritarian parenting enthusiast, law and economics scholar Amy Chua wrote a book (World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability) explaining some of the problems with “democracy-as-privileged-incentive-structure” – especially when combined with a purportedly free market. In the real world, economic advantage tends to not be spread equally among people – or randomly. Advantages, whether intellectual or material, tend to be clustered within identifiable groups of people, and these groups tend to attempt to manipulate the system of incentives to increase this clustering (that is, to promote inequality). Unfortunately, the red-in-tooth-and-claw nature of the background incentive structure is frequently revealed when “market-dominant minorities” are punished for their inequality-promoting success in often gruesome ways by the (ethnic) majority.

Is the “free market” right, in this case? Should market-dominant minorities, racial or otherwise, own and keep an ever-growing majority share of the world’s property? Or is “democracy” right? Should the majority be able to punish the market-dominant few? The conflict, rarely acknowledged, demonstrates that neither is an inherently good incentive structure.

The nature of our universe prevents an ethically sound incentive structure from existing.

It’s the initial distribution all the way down.


Misery, or suffering, might be defined as that of which there is negative scarcity. Not only is there an abundance, but there is an abundance and its consumption is not optional. I think it is more humane to think of economics in terms of a system for the distribution of misery, rather than the distribution of scarce, utility-promoting goods and services.

Written by Sister Y

March 8, 2011 at 9:00 pm