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Is Coming Into Existence an Agent-Neutral Value?

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David Benatar argues that bringing someone into existence is always a harm, and grounds his argument in a particular asymmetry – the “goodness” of absent pain, versus the mere neutrality of absent pleasure where no one is thereby deprived.

Seana Shiffrin, on the other hand, doesn’t argue that procreation is always a harm, but does refuse to characterize procreation as a “morally innocent endeavor” and argues for a more equivocal view of bringing people into existence. While procreation is not necessarily always a harm, it is often a harm, and procreators should bear moral responsibility for the harm they do. (Shiffrin, Seana Valentine. “Wrongful Life, Procreative Responsibility, and the Significant of Harm.” Legal Theory, 5 (1999), 117–148.) Shiffrin defends her view with a different asymmetry – that, while it is fine to harm someone in order to prevent a greater harm to him, even without his consent (the rescue case), it is not fine to harm a person without his consent merely to provide him a benefit. Her core example involves a wealthy recluse, Wealthy, with no other way to help others, dropping $5 million cubes of gold from the air on a neighboring island. Many receive his presents with no complications, but one recipient (Unlucky) is hit with the cube and breaks his arm. While the recipient might, after the fact, be glad to have been hit with the gold cube, and consider the broken arm worth it, intuition suggests that dropping $5 million gold cubes on people is wrong. Unlucky

admits that all-things-considered, he is better off for receiving the $5 million, despite the injury. In some way he is glad that this happened to him, although he is unsure whether he would have consented to being subjected to the risk of a broken arm (and worse fates) if he had been asked in advance; he regards his conjectured ex-ante hesitation as reasonable. Given the shock of the event and the severity of the pain and disability associated with the broken arm, he is not certain whether he would consent to undergo the same experience again.

Shiffrin goes on to flesh out the intuition that Wealthy has wronged Unlucky – for instance, we would say that Wealthy owes Unlucky an apology, and if Wealthy refused to pay for Unlucky’s corrective surgery, Unlucky would properly have a cause of action against Wealthy for the cost of his injuries.

Shiffrin’s focus on unconsented harm accords well with my thinking on procreation. I wish to question, though, whether it is the benefit/harm distinction that matters when motivating an unconsented harm. In my view, Shiffrin’s benefit/harm distinction is unnecessarily confusing and subject to contrary individual interpretations of harm and benefit; the very idea of harm and benefit are, in my view, too subjective to form the basis for the rightness or wrongness of inflicting unconsented harm. I think it is both more correct and more general to say that unconsented harm may be only be done in the service of a genuinely agent-neutral value.

Shiffrin considers, as a possible objection to her framework, that the real reason that a rescue is morally right, while Wealthy’s action toward Unlucky is morally wrong, is that in the rescue case, hypothetical consent may be said to exist, whereas not even hypothetical consent exists in Unlucky’s case (he is not sure he would have consented ex ante). Shiffrin argues that it is the asymmetry between harm and benefit that grounds our intuition on hypothetical consent, rather than the other way around. She argues that

there seems to be a harm/benefit asymmetry built into our approaches to hypothetical consent where we lack specific information about the individual’s will. We presume (rebuttably) its presence in cases where greater harm is to be averted; in the cases of harms to bestow greater benefits, the presumption is reversed.

My view is that we can be clearer than this. It is not the harm/benefit distinction that is driving the willingness to infer hypothetical consent; it is the different level of agent-neutrality of the inflicted harm’s consequence.

Thomas Nagel introduces the concept of agent-relative and agent-neutral value in The View from Nowhere. Agent-relative values are values which an agent holds, but which no one but the agent has much reason to promote. Agent-neutral values are values which anyone has reason to promote, whether or not the promotion of the values would benefit him directly. An agent’s desire to climb Mount Everest would be an agent-relative value; he may place genuine value on it, but I have no reason to assist him in his endeavor. However, relieving pain may be said to be an agent-neutral value; if someone is suffering severe pain, I have good reason to alleviate his pain.

In the rescue case, the rescuer causes harm to a person in order to prevent greater harm – to save his life, or to prevent more serious physical injury. Both saving life and preventing physical injury would probably be classified as agent-neutral values. In Unlucky’s case, however, the $5 million gold cube could well be seen as something with only agent-relative value. Shiffrin specifies that inhabitants of Unlucky’s island are well provided for even without the gold. While there might be an agent-neutral reason to provide people with a certain minimum level of money or material comfort, beyond this, there is not much reason to give substantial gifts to strangers. A person might want $5 million, but I have no particular reason to see that he gets it, while I do have a reason to ensure that his basic nutritional needs are taken care of.

A major problem with the agent-neutral/agent-relative classification is whether agent-neutral values exist at all. Eric Mack, for example, argues that there are no agent-neutral values (“Against Agent-Neutral Value,” Reason Papers 14 (Spring 1989) 76-89.) Mack argues that an agent-neutral value must necessarily be an “agent-external” value – something that is valuable in itself, even if no one is ever in a relationship with it so as to value it. Otherwise, all such values are “reducible to [their] value for someone,” that is, they are agent-relative (emphasis mine). Few are prepared to claim that there are truly agent-external value in this sense (things that would be valuable even if there would never exist any sentient beings in the world). I find the possibility of the nonexistence of agent-neutral values disturbing, calling to mind as it does relativism/subjectivism, though I could imagine an ethical system that recognized the existence only of agent-relative values, but also recognized reasons other than personal preference for taking the values of others seriously. Interestingly, Mack refers to the possibility for agent-relative values that are nevertheless, in his words, objective; as long as there can be reasons for taking the (agent-relative) values of others seriously, then the project of ethical philosophy doesn’t fall into dust.

George R. Carlson (in “Pain and the Quantum Leap to Agent Neutral Value,” Ethics, Vol. 100, No. 2 (Jan., 1990), pp. 363-367), while not exactly precluding the possibility for agent-neutral value, argues that Nagel’s chief example, pain, fails to be a genuinely agent-neutral value. He argues that while a person might have reason to alleviate the pain of another, these are not agent-neutral reasons. Rather, they are grounded in the perceptions and empathy of the agent.

What I find most concerning with the benefit/harm classification, as well as allegations of agent-neutral value, is that any of the examples so far examined may, depending on the individual circumstances, be either a harm or a benefit. Saving a life would generally be seen as an “agent-neutral” value; however, since I am a suicide, a rescuer saving my life would do only harm to me. Preventing pain is seen as an agent-neutral value; however, hiding my friend’s car keys so he cannot drive to a club and get beaten up by his dominatrix friend (and thereby preventing him physical pain) would certainly do him harm, not good. And studies of lottery winners seem to indicate that even loads of unnecessary money can do harm. (As J. David Velleman points out, even choice can be a harm.) Can these values really be especially agent-neutral if they are often harms? Is it not more appropriate to call them the agent-relative values of the majority, rather than genuinely agent-neutral values?

Shiffrin points out a “related asymmetry,” from Thomas Scanlon (Preference and Urgency, 72 J. PHIL. (1975) 655–69.). This is the asymmetry between the harm that is is morally correct to inflict on another, and the “harm” that a person may inflict on himself. In Shiffrin’s words (summarizing Scanlon),

One may reasonably put much greater weight on a project from the first-person perspective than would reasonably be accorded to it from a third-party’s viewpoint. A person may reasonably value her religion’s mission over her health, but the state may reasonably direct its welfare efforts toward her nutrition needs rather than to funding her religious endeavors.

This “related asymmetry” is, it seems to me, concerned with both the problem of consent and, indirectly, with the idea of agent-neutral versus agent-relative values. A person may consent to “harm” for any reason whatever, agent-relative or otherwise; but in order to inflict harm on another without consent, we must either (a) have such a good model of the person’s values that we can infer hypothetical consent based on agent-relative values, or (b) act in furtherance of genuinely agent-neutral values.

The ultimate question, of course, is whether coming into existence is the kind of value that it is morally acceptable to inflict harm on others, without their consent, in order to procure for them. Pain, suffering, illness, unrequited love, shame, sexual frustration, sorrow, disappointment, fear, and death are all guaranteed (or nearly so) by the fact of being brought into existence; these are certainly harms. The pronatalist might argue that despite these certain harms, it is not wrong to bring others into existence, because the unconsented harm in the service of an agent-neutral value: coming into existence. (I find the “hypothetical consent” argument unpersuasive, because we have no model, much less a reliable model, of the agent’s future agent-relative values when we contemplate bringing that agent into existence. This is my core problem with R.M. Hare’s “Golden Rule” argument that we should bring into existence those who will be happy to exist and not bring into existence those who won’t. How do we tell the difference ex ante?)

Is coming into existence an agent-neutral value? The problem we run into at this stage is that we have little theory of what qualifies an agent-neutral value. Carlson’s chief criticism of Nagel seems to be a lack of a theory for determining what counts as an agent-neutral value versus an agent-relative value (other than the unsatisfying “pain is awful”). Indeed, there seems to be a genuine question as to the degree to which agent-neutral values exist at all.

Actually, even under Mack’s restrictive definition, I think there is, in some sense, a clear example of a genuinely agent-neutral value, a peculiar value that would retain its value even if no sentient beings ever come into existence to appreciate it. This is the value of no sentient being coming into existence. If no beings exist, no suffering can occur; this is good, even though (and precisely because) no being ever come into existence to appreciate this pleasant state of affairs. The alternative would be worse; it is good that this worse option does not obtain, even though the only way anyone would perceive its better-ness would be by the worse alternative coming to pass.

There may be disagreement over whether coming into existence is an agent-neutral value. I certainly think that it is not, but I think that an argument could be made in good faith that it is. I think there is a stronger argument, however, that no one coming into existence is an agent-neutral value – perhaps the only such peculiar value – and, under my theory, an agent-neutral value is one in the service of which unconsented harm may be countenanced.


Written by Sister Y

August 15, 2008 at 5:02 am

Birth and Consent: An Alternate Philanthropic Route to Antinatalism

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David Benatar’s route to antinatalism largely rests on an essential asymmetry: that, while bringing someone into existence who will suffer great harm is bad, failing to bring someone into existence who would experience great pleasure is not bad. (Of course, once brought into existence, one may experience both bad and good; the asymmetry Benatar relies on is only an asymmetry in the pre-existence scenario.) Stated in a different way, when someone avoids bringing someone into existence, the lack of harm to that would-be person is good, because had the person come into existence, he would have suffered harm, which is bad; however, the pleasure that this would-be person would have experienced, and is denied by coming into existence, is merely neutral; that is, not bad.

I will not go into more detail on Benatar’s asymmetry. Benatar himself acknowledges that many people, upon understanding the asymmetry and its consequences (coming into existence is always a harm), are willing to claim that they do not see the asymmetry. Also, many have treated Benatar’s conclusion as a reductio ad absurdum of his entire argument. In my own experience, I have heard it criticized as “more clever than deep” and too focused on the negative value of suffering, as opposed to other values – though, to be sure, always by those Benatar would describe as “cheery.” As a (currently non-practicing) suicide, Benatar’s arguments seem merely obvious to me.

For those who would let go of the asymmetry, or feel that the antinatalist conclusion is a sort of reductio of its supporting arguments, I feel there is a more palatable route into antinatalism from a rights perspective. Of course, there are many routes to antinatalism from a misanthropic perspective; I see human suffering as so particularly harmful that I am not particularly persuaded by them, but at any rate, this argument is a philanthropic argument, as is Benatar’s.

Let us consider cases where one person inflicts harm on another without the victim’s consent, where consent is impossible. Benatar draws a distinction (from Seana Shiffrin’s “Wrongful Life, Procreative Responsibility, and the Significance of Harm,” in Legal Theory, 5 (1999) 117-48) bewteen, on the one hand, causing harm without consent in order to prevent a greater harm, and on the other hand, causing harm without consent in order to provide a pure benefit:

Thus, we take it to be acceptable to break an unconscious (non-consenting) person’s arm in order to prevent a greater harm, such as death, to that person. . . . However, we would condemn breaking that person’s arm in order to secure some greater benefit, such as ‘supernormal memory, as useful store of encyclopedic knowledge, twenty IQ points worth of extra intellectual ability, or the ability to consume immoderate amounts of alcohol or fat without side effects’ (quotations from Shiffrin by Benatar).

However, Shiffrin and Benatar’s intuition does not seem to be universally shared. Many argue that it is, in fact, completely acceptable to cause someone a harm in order to provide him with a benefit. While many harms parents do to children without their consent are in the interest of preventing greater harm (vaccination), plenty of other harms parents inflict on their children, with the approbation of society, are mostly or purely to provide a benefit, such as education, discipline, and indoctrination into a religion. Many people intuitively accept it as morally fine to strike or otherwise discipline one’s child, or to force a child to study something he or she hates, or to teach frightening religious ideas to a child, in hopes that the child will thereby have a better life, one more in accord with the values that the parent feels the child will hold.

This is the point at which I interject myself. Why is female genital mutilation, performed on children, awful? It is awful because it causes physical suffering, and limits a girl’s ability to enjoy sexual pleasure, perhaps. But if an adult woman chooses to undergo this body modification, in circumstances that lead us to believe that her consent is one hundred percent valid, we might reach the conclusions that Sheldon and Wilkinson reached in their article, “Female genital mutilation and cosmetic surgery: regulating non-therapeutic body modification,” in Bioethics (1998 Oct;12(4):263-85); that is, that as long as genital mutilation is freely chosen by an adult aware of the risks, it should be allowed. So perhaps the harm of the genital cutting of children is a lack of consent.

Consent is the key to a rights-based ethical system. Why, then, should we allow a parent to consent to harm such as vaccination, teeth cleaning, surgery, and education of children, but not non-therapeutic genital cutting of those same children? All might be defined as harm to prevent a greater harm, or harm in the child’s best interests, from the perspective of the parent. There are many ways in which one might try to distinguish genital cutting (it primarily serves the interests of those other than the child, it is a major invasion, its benefits are dubious when considered from a perspective outside the child’s kin group), but none of these distinguish genital cutting from the procreation case.

Our legal system recognizes the principle, and I think it is a good one, that even a benefit must be consented to. A gift is not legally valid unless the recipient consents to accept it. Another problem for the harm/benefit dichotomy is that the harm/benefit distinction is often much less clear in practice than in the examples above. Why should it be morally acceptable to harm someone either in order to prevent greater harm or in order to provide a benefit? Both must be suspect in light of the bias that necessarily accompanies an agent’s judgment of what is good for another.

I propose a general principle: it is ethical to inflict harm without consent only where it advances the values of the victim. (And the greater the imposition, the surer the perpetrator must be that the imposition advances the values of the victim.) However, knowing whether an intervention advances the values of the victim is extremely difficult in the absence of consent. If a person voluntarily consents to a harm, there can be little ethical problem with it (though there may be problems with knowing whether consent is truly voluntary, as with prostitution or other forms of paid work when resources are initially distributed unequally). Consent transforms rape into consensual sex, battery into medical assistance, slavery into employment, a forced march into a backpacking trip. We are free to take suffering onto ourselves. We are not free to impose suffering on others for our own ends, without their consent. This principle should give us pause and make us less sure about our intuition in thinking about even the “easy” cases, like vaccination, care of unconscious people (particularly attempted suicides), discipline, and education.

The problem with the birth cases – and, arguably, many education and imposition of religion cases – is that harm is done not to advance the values of the victim, but rather, to advance the values of the perpetrator (parent). Where we could accurately predict the future values of the victim, and had a good indicator as to whether the victim’s currently expressed values should be ignored (attaining the age of majority seems to be an extremely poor hash), there would be little ethical problem with birth and education: children may be harmed to the extent that their future selves, as accurately predicted by our tools, would want them to be. However, accurate prediction is, of course, impossible (nor is it clear why future selves should take precedence over present selves, and exactly which future self we are here discussing). In fact, the predictions about future values are likely to be biased in predictable ways – optimistic, self-serving, and projecting the mind of the perpetrator onto the victim. A Baptist parent will assume that his child will wish to be taught frightening theology to be safe from Satan; nevermind if the child, once allowed to be free from harmful interventions, espouses Buddhism. I feel that a recognition of this principle is, at some level, responsible for the much less severe methods of education in use today compared to a generation before. We are queasy in the face of harming a child, even if we believe it to be “for his own good.” For we are poor indeed at predicting the future good of another.

The ultimate unconsented intervention – a harm, which, of course, might turn into a benefit if consent could only be obtained – is that of being brought into life. Being brought into existence is a more serious intervention than sex, employment, or even bodily integrity, and yet we require no consent to be born. Of course, this is because it is impossible – there is no one to consent in advance of being brought into existence. But we should realize that this impossibility of consent does not excuse us, any more than the impossibility of consent of children to be genitally mutilated excuses their mutilators.

People have children to advance their own values, not those of the children they bring into existence. Put another way, procreators are using others (their children) as means to serve their own ends, without their consent. This is why it is wrong to bring new people into existence. An intervention as serious and potentially harmful as being brought into this world must be consented to; since this is impossible, it is wrong.

Note: the vaccination case, at least, is made slightly more complicated, but more in line with intuition, when we consider that failing to be vaccinated imposes a potential harm on others in society. However, so does failing to get a flu shot, or failing to receive other vaccinations as an adult, which is not, so far, compulsory. Note also that I am certainly not one of those who believe that vaccines cause autism.

Written by Sister Y

May 19, 2008 at 8:15 pm