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Ask Sister Y

with 5 comments

Paul asks:

One of the supposed signs of clinical depression is a person’s inability to enjoy their usual interests. Do you consider this to be a societal denial of an individual’s process of disillusionment and another facet of the conspiracy against suicide?

DSM-IV Major Depressive Disorder is diagnosed on the basis of one or more Major Depressive Episodes. A Major Depressive Episode is a period of at least two weeks during which at least five of a list of criteria are present. One of these five criteria must be either the “depressed mood” criterion, or the “loss of interest” criterion to which the question refers. So it’s actually a really special criterion, not just one of many things on a list. In some ways, it’s the essence of the disease, to the extent that we conceive of it as such.

This very special criterion is stated thus in the DSM-IV (and not scheduled for alteration in the DSM-V):

(2) markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day, nearly every day (as indicated by either subjective account or observation made by others)

The diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder is critical to the question of suicide rights, since the modern conception of suicide is as the consequence of untreated mental illness. As the vomitrocious suicide.org puts it, “Over 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a mental illness at the time of their death. And the most common mental illness is depression.”

Suicide, we are told, is the act of a mad person, not a genuine choice. One of the other diagnostic criteria for depression is, in fact, suicidal ideation or “thoughts of death.” This is a very suspicious move; while on the one hand, the media explain suicide as a result of mental illness, the psychiatric establishment defines the desire to die as part of a mental illness. The criterion Paul points to deals not with the desire to die, but with a failure to find satisfaction in the world. This defines the well-functioning of a person as finding satisfaction in everyday activities.

But are we really so sure that satisfaction is properly found in human activities?

Pathologizing a failure to find satisfaction and meaning in life is, to some degree, appropriate – failure to find meaning represents a real source of suffering in the world, and pathologizing something allows us to “treat” it. But it should be recognized that this failure to find meaning and satisfaction is not a failure to see truth. It’s not like hallucinating that you have a pet lion, or hallucinating that the walls are not there. There is a genuine epistemic question as to whether meaning and satisfaction are available or even properly found in life.

When you hear a news story about suicide, it will probably mention what I think of as the “party line”: suicide is caused by untreated mental illness. Next time you hear this, read between the lines. The deeper meaning, according to actual DSM-IV criteria, is something like: suicide is caused by not finding enough satisfaction in life to justify the pain.

I’m not sure I’d use the word “conspiracy,” since that implies conscious collaboration toward an explicit goal. There is collaboration toward a goal, but it must be largely unconscious. The field of Terror Management Theory has created a robust model of human mental functioning in which we are constantly reminded of our own death, but just as constantly engage in defense mechanisms to prevent the terror associated with thoughts of death. These defense mechanisms are most commonly “worldview preservation” – attaching ourselves to something eternal, something that has meaning and will live on after we are gone. I would posit that most everyday activities in which people find meaning qualify as mental defenses against the future reality of death. They point us away from truth – the truth of eventual extinction. This refusing-to-see-truth helps us function. But is functioning really so great?


Rob asks:

Really trivial question: what’s behind the pseudonym “Sister Y”?

Y is my Vietnamese name – I’m not Vietnamese, but my, uh, heterosexual life partner is, and a close friend of his family gave me the name Y. (This family friend also has the honorary title “Sister” (ji), which I think is cool.) It has complicated diacritic marks over it, to indicate that it’s pronounced with a falling-then-rising-tone, like you’re really surprised to hear something: “EEeeeEEE???!?” It’s a relatively common name, and I’m told it means something like “dream.”

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Written by Sister Y

January 18, 2011 at 4:42 pm

Posted in Ask Sister Y

Ask Sister Y: Distinguishing Pure Antinatalism from "Bad World" Antinatalism

with 8 comments

A reader asks:

Hello Sister Y,

Would you change your antinatalist views if –

a. life extension technology took off and
b. a legal system existed somewhere where a more ‘rational’ frame of mind was adhered to?

To answer this question, it may be helpful to attempt a sort of taxonomy of philanthropic antinatalisms (philosophies that maintain that reproduction is wrong because it harms those brought into existence). One kind of antinatalism occurs when we look at the world around us and conclude, based on some kind of standard, that our particular world is so bad that it is no place for children (or new beings). Another, more subtle form of antinatalism is the judgment that no matter how nice conditions in our or any world may be, it’s still wrong to bring sentient creatures into existence. We might call the former view “context-dependent antinatalism” or “bad world antinatalism” or something like that. The latter we might call “pure antinatalism” or “context-independent antinatalism” or even “Benatarian antinatalism,” since this is the view advocated by David Benatar in his book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence.

The first view – context-dependent antinatalism – has multiple versions as well. The most common form of antinatalism is the belief that it is generally okay to reproduce (i.e., that most lives are worth beginning), but that it is immoral for some people* to reproduce (e.g., starving people, people with AIDS, drug addicts). A stronger form of context-dependent antinatalism holds that, given the universal features of our world (the inevitability of death and bodily pain, the high likelihood of some degree of misery, the condition of absurdity), it is never morally right for someone in our world to reproduce. But both of these require us to look at the world around us and judge it according to some standard for what makes a good existence. Pure antinatalism – Benatarian antinatalism – requires no such mysterious standard, and no examination of the world at all, except to note that all beings suffer at least a little bit. Benatar’s illustrative example is that of a child brought into existence in a miraculous world where he would be purely happy and never suffer any pain or misery – except a single pinprick. Pure antinatalism would judge it immoral to bring him into existence; context-dependent antinatalism would judge it morally good.

So we might divide the world into four basic positions:

  1. Pronatalism. “All reproduction is morally innocent (or morally required).”
  2. Situational context-dependent antinatalism. “Everybody should have babies except starving people in the third world, drug addicts, and AIDS patients.”
  3. Universal context-dependent antinatalism. “Our world is so bad that no one living in it should reproduce; but if things got much better, it might be okay.”
  4. Pure antinatalism. “No beings should ever be brought into existence if they will suffer at all – which they will.”

In my experience, the first two views are the most common. Most folks either cannot conceive of existence ever being a harm, or can conceive of it as a harm only for the very worst lives among us.

What is rarely acknowledged is that both forms of context-dependent antinatalism – 2 and 3 in the list above – require some kind of standard by which we can measure whether a human life is worth getting. The most common standard offered is, I think, that explicitly articulated by Robin Hanson: we can judge which lives should come into existence based on which lives are happy having their existence now.

I have previously discussed the problems with this view (the idea that we can judge whether a life is worth getting by whether a similarly-situated alive individual is happy to have been born). We are attracted to the idea that one may choose for oneself; recreating happy beings seems like a nice proxy for individual choice. But the similarities are illusory.

We assume that when one evaluates oneself as happy, or glad-to-have-been-born, one is observing the evidence and making a rational judgment (even if that evidence is introspective). But there is plenty of evidence that such judgments are irrationally skewed in the direction of justifying one’s own existence. We are programmed (by evolution) to feel happy-to-be-here, and to fear oblivion, whether it be the oblivion of death or the oblivion of never existing. The optimistic bias causes us to cheerily predict good things in the future, even where that is irrational. The just-world fallacy causes us to irrationally perceive existing institutions as just and good, and to perceive victims as deserving their troubles. The findings in the field of terror management theory have shown us that pondering or own mortality (mortality salience) causes us to bolster our irrational prejudices even more strongly – a practice called worldview defense. When Marty McFly begins disappearing, he is not merely sad to lose his relatively happy existence; he is horrified. There is no discussion of whether he might actually be better off not coming into existence; this rational process is elided in favor of raw horror. And that is what our brains naturally do. That is what evolution has made them to do: anything it takes to survive and reproduce, regardless of ethical truth. A being who judges himself lucky to exist is more likely to (a) cling to life and (b) reproduce than one who feels existence to be a burden.

Our subjective analysis of whether our own lives were worth beginning may be fundamentally tainted by evolutionarily-determined blocks on our capacity to reason. But this does not necessarily mean that there can be no possible standard by which existence can be measured, or no possible values which could justify the suffering of innocents who do not subscribe to those values. However, it is far from easy to articulate such a standard. Benatar frames the problem by distinguishing between an actually objective perspective (the perspective sub specie aeternitatis) and the embodied, human perspective (the perspective sub specie humanitatis). Those who hold views 2 and 3 (above) must, whether they like it or not, articulate the standard by which a “life worth getting” may be judged.

Rather than engage in this project, however, those who take the position of context-dependent antinatalism (which we might also call context-dependent pronatalism, for that is what it is if the context is nice enough) furiously object to the entire project of determining whether our world is a good one, or who might be an innocent parent. The most common objections to the project, often brought with high emotion, are obviousness, pointlessness, and dangerousness.

1. Obviousness

Bryan Caplan says:

When I hail these benefits for parents, critics often accuse me of moral blindness. How can I neglect the welfare of the children created by artificial means? But I’m not “neglecting” children’s welfare. I just find it painfully obvious that being alive is good for them. [Bolded emphasis mine; italics in original.]

Hopefully I have illustrated that it is not so obvious as we might think; and obviousness that cannot be articulated is not worth much.

2. Pointlessness

A commenter on Modeled Behavior says: “I’m astounded at the amount of mental effort you’ve put into this ultimately meaningless, frivolous, pointless, fatuous exercise.” This objection is relatively common. But is it really pointless to analyze such an important ethical choice as the choice to bring a child into existence? Isn’t it important to determine if our world is a good one?

3. Danger

Still others, such as Sami Pihlström, think that this project is, in fact, a dangerous one; that philosophy should not “go there.” The danger, indeed, might be the cessation of human existence, if the answer to the question of whether the world is a good or bad one is “bad” and all of us humans come to believe that. In a sense, Pihlström and others who take the “dangerousness” point of view want to say that human existence is a good thing, but want to forbid examining whether that is true or not.

My point is that the project of examining whether the world is a good one is key to context-dependent antinatalism (and context-dependent pronatalism), but most holders of this belief would like, for mostly emotional-seeming reasons, to not engage the question.

My Answer

I am a proponent of pure antinatalism. I also happen to think that ours is a very bad world in ways that do not appear fixable. As to the original question at the top of the page, the answer in both cases is no. I do not think there is a world in which is it right to reproduce. Ours happens to be a horrible one – and this would still be true even if it really were “the best of all possible worlds.” Given the pain and misery of our world, extending life is merely cruel; it makes the trap of existence that much more of a burden. And I seriously doubt the ability of any government, no matter how “rational,” to eradicate the problems inherent in human existence. However, even in a very happy world, I still think it would be immoral to reproduce.


* The exact set of immoral reproducers varies depending on the holder of this belief, but suffice to say that it is generally does not include the speaker himself in any case. Proponents of this view are often quick to offer suicide as a remedy for those unfortunates who are not happy with their existence.

Not only does mortality salience cause us to bolster our existing prejudices, such as our belief that the world is just, but it causes us to desire to achieve some kind of immortality – which may take the form of clinging to immortal-seeming institutions (e.g., patriotism) or may take the form of desperately reproducing.

And if brought into existence, wouldn’t his “replacement” (a child born to Marty’s mom, not by Marty’s dad) be equally horrified to ponder his non-existence? Is Marty’s hypothetical horror somehow more real and serious than the hypothetical horror experienced by the replacement? Everybody’s afraid to “disappear” and never-have-come-into-existence; that does not make it right for us all to have come into existence.

Written by Sister Y

October 25, 2010 at 3:18 pm