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No Life Is Good

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David Benatar, in The Philosopher’s Magazine:

One common and instant response to [the claim that no lives are good] is indignation. How dare one claim that no lives are good when there are billions of people who say otherwise about their own lives? I dare to make such a claim partly because there is excellent empirical evidence for the conclusion that people’s judgements [sic] cannot be trusted as a reliable indicator of how good their lives really are. For example, research psychologists have shown that people are prone to optimism and to optimistic (that is, inaccurately positive) assessments of their own lives. There are many manifestations of this phenomenon. People are more prone to remember good experiences than bad ones; they have exaggerated views of how well things will go for them in the future; and most people think that the quality of their lives is above average. When it comes to assessing their own moral goodness, people also tend to be overly optimistic. Very few people think of themselves as bad. If we were to trust self-assessments, we would have to conclude that there are very few bad people and evil actions, which is patently false.

Cheery people – those who think that life is, or at least, can be good – invariably attempt to reconcile the many bad things in life with the possibility of a good life. That is to say, they offer what might be called a “secular theodicy”. But, like conventional theodicies, which attempt to reconcile the vast amount of evil in the world with God’s existence, the secular theodicy of optimists puts the conclusion before the evidence. [Bolded emphasis mine.]

Read the entire piece here.

Thanks Rob Sica!

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Written by Sister Y

May 2, 2011 at 3:39 pm

Is Antinatalism Illiberal?

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Aschwin de Wolf‘s “Non-existence is hard to do: A review of contemporary antinatalist writings,” published in Cryonics magazine for the second quarter of 2010, examines antinatalism from the perspective of a life extension enthusiast.

One of de Wolf’s more original claims, I think, is that antinatalism is illiberal. He says:

Like Crawford, Benatar cannot completely escape the charge of illiberalism. Classical liberalism takes very seriously the difficulties in reaching satisfactory conclusions about the quality of other people’s lives. In practice this means that we exercise restraint in making strong cognitive and moral claims about the feelings and preferences of other people. This is a mindset that does not seem to come easily to antinatalists. [Emphasis mine.]

We often hear the claim that antinatalism cannot be correct because life cannot be a harm – look at all the happy people! (de Wolf even posits this as somehow “empirical” evidence for the correctness of reproduction. I wonder what he makes of things like this when he says that “The claim that coming into existence is always a harm is not consistent with the reports of all those who have come into existence.”)

Antinatalists, then, are chastised for being such closed-minded party poopers, and pointed to evidence of subjective happiness of existing people.

In reality, liberalism, in de Wolf’s conception, is at the very core of antinatalist ethics. We just conceive of babies as human beings, too.

It is difficult for me to imagine a greater instance of “making strong cognitive and moral claims about the feelings and preferences of other people” than intentionally creating a person. To do so, one must assume that this stranger, whose beliefs and values cannot possibly be known, will be happy with his life. And that is a load of shit. “Most people don’t like it” is not a liberal argument for a prohibition on drug use, prostitution, suicide, etc. Nor is “most people like being alive” a liberal argument for reproduction.

Written by Sister Y

December 16, 2010 at 7:54 pm

Demonic Males and Attack Heifers: On the Sex Ratio of Marital Violence

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Introductory Words about Truth, Legend, and Bullshit: Putting the “Pissed” back into Epistemology

Truth is secondary. On its own, it doesn’t help us survive or reproduce, and it isn’t even necessarily any fun. Truth often does us more harm than good. Human beings have not evolved to actively care about and seek out truth for its own sake. (It’s often beneficial to signal that one cares about truth when one does not – this, rather than mere factual inaccuracy, is the genesis of bullshit.)

Truth – and here, I mean factual veracity – is especially vulnerable in the face of legend, the kind of cultural story that invests its believers with feelings of comfort, belonging, and value. Facts that contradict important legends tend to be denied and disbelieved; uncomfortable facts are prevented from reaching consciousness, and if forcibly brought to consciousness, are resoundingly shouted down. (This strong emotional reaction – the shouting-down of facts contradictory to cherished beliefs – is valuable to those who try to serve truth for truth’s sake, because the strong emotional reaction is a clue to the existence of an underlying important cultural legend or fixed belief that can, once identified, be examined.)

Legends are not necessarily universal. The pictures is more complicated. Often there are two or more competing, incompatible legends within a large society on the same topic. Subcultures form around countercultural legends, and these new legends are not necessarily any closer to truth as the majority legend.

Such is the case with beliefs about gender. There are some beliefs about gender roles and differences that are so common among human societies as to form a sort of universal legend. In modern times, feminism has provided a countercultural narrative to many of the traditional beliefs about gender (defining the prevailing norms as patriarchy). Feminism was such a popular critique that it became, over a generation or two, arguably the predominant cultural narrative about gender in modern Western society. And a counter-counter-critique which we might call the men’s rights movement has challenged the feminist narrative (labeling it gynocracy – only sometimes tongue-in-cheek). From the perspective of history, we can see the back-and-forth of revolution and counter-revolution, but we must make our factual judgments in the present moment. Recognizing the narratives and counter-narratives is a first step in looking for truth – but it is by no means a final step.

Every source has its biases; I myself, as stripped of myth as I consider myself to be, no doubt operate with my own unrecognized legends forming the firmament of my consciousness. But let’s try to look beneath at least the truth-threatening legends we can recognize, while remaining open to the possibility that our reasoning may be swayed by unseen narratives.

Legends exist where, for the legend believer, some fact must be true or can’t be true. That is, the need to believe the legend is greater than the desire for truth (this is the origin of political correctness – a particular form of the more general class of bullshit). But compare the life work of even someone as purportedly truth-seeking as a scientist; if a scientist becomes identified with a particular theory, it must be mortally terrifying to have this theory threatened. One’s life work will be undone. I think we must be circumspect about even the truth-orientation of scientists. But that doesn’t make science worthless; only imperfect.

On to the Sex and Violence

I am interested here in violence in sexual relationships, or marital violence, if you prefer.[1] Specifically, I am interested in the question of how violence by men in relationships compares to violence by women in relationships. Murray Straus and others claim that women are just as violent in relationships as men – in terms of frequency and severity of violence. Others dispute this claim. I can’t pretend to be neutral, since I had formed the belief prior to writing this article that men are, in fact, more violent than women in relationships; but many people that I respect (including David Benatar) have articulated the opposite belief, and I must ardently promise (okay, signal) that I was, and still am, open for correction on this issue if presented with strong evidence.

Evidence

At the outset, I ask the reader to imagine himself a sociologist, and to think about what sources we might consult to explore the question of who is more violent in relationships, and what these sources’ limitations might be. As a sort of epistemological meta-issue, we would ideally like to find lots of different types of sources using different methodologies; and the more these diverse sources agree, the more confident we may be in our conclusion. Similarly, if a source has a limitation or potential bias, we must examine such limitations and biases. Assuming that a bias exists it is as unscientific as assuming there is no bias – such a claim must be examined, not assumed to be true or false.

In brief, some of the sources we might consult – and their expected limitations – are as follows: (please suggest other sources in the comments section)

  • General population surveys, utilizing various methodologies. (Limitations: depends on both truthfulness and accuracy of subjects)
  • Targeted surveys using various methodologies. (Limitations: findings may not reflect general population; depends on truthfulness and accuracy of subjects
  • Emergency room records. (Limitations: only catches violence that produces injury, and for which treatment is sought. Lesser and unreported violence will not be counted. Cause of injury may be partly determined by report of subjects, so some of the same limitations as survey data.)
  • Data on people seeking help with domestic violence (shelters, hotlines, etc.). (Limitations: only catches reported violence for which help is sought. Depends on truthfulness and accuracy of responders.)
  • Police assault records. (Limitations: Only catches violence that is reported to police. Conclusions may be partially based on reports by subjects, so truthfulness and accuracy of subjects is still an issue.)
  • Homicide records. (Limitations: only catches the most severe violence, which may or may not reflect general levels of violence.)

The error in these sources may be random (noise), or it may be systematic – effectively biasing the results in a particular direction. The latter type of error is more dangerous, from our perspective.

One type of systematic bias we must consider is that men may be less likely to report violence than women. It is shameful, we might hypothesize, for a man to let a woman smack him around; he might feel a bit silly going to the hospital or to police, or responding to a survey, even, especially given that human males are on average about 15% more massive than human females. This is related to the fact that, at the outset, we probably assign the greater probability to males being more violent in relationships; the idea that women are just as violent in relationships as men is counterintuitive, but that might just be because there is a huge, unrecognized epidemic of battered husbands too humiliated to speak out. It might be that the belief that men are more violent than women, that battered wives are more prevalent than battered husbands, is just a cultural legend that is ripe for toppling.

What the Case for Sexual Symmetry of Marital Violence is Based Upon

1. Conflict Tactics Scale

Beginning in the 1970s and continuing until the present day, Murray Straus began claiming that women are as violent as men in relationships. His claim in the initial studies was based on a single source of data: a survey of married or cohabiting couples, using the Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS) as its methodology.[2] Other researchers have since joined Straus; generally, they use the exact same methodology as the studies in the 1970s, that is, the Conflict Tactics Scale. This reliance on a single source of data for confirmation is endemic to those who claim sexual symmetry in marital violence; one 2000 meta-study[3] found that out of 82 empirical studies that found marital violence to be equal between genders, 76 of them used CTS measures exclusively.[4]

The CTS is nearly the only methodology that produces the counterintuitive result of gender symmetry in relationship violence. Where a hypothesis is supported by only a single source of data, and contradicted by all other sources, this does not necessarily mean that the single source is wrong. It does, however, necessitate careful review of the source producing the aberrant result. I will examine the CTS shortly. But there is one other source which produces similar results, and that is:

2. American Homicide Data

In the United States, women are nearly as likely to kill their husbands as men are to kill their wives. The Sex Ratio of Killing (SROK) – the ratio of women who kill husbands (legal or de facto) to men who kill wives – is about 75 in the United States, meaning about 75 women kill their husbands or live-in boyfriends for every 100 men who kill their wives or live-in girlfriends.[5]

And that’s pretty much . . . it.

What the Case for Asymmetry is Based Upon

Everything else.

Seriously.

Evidence from criminal and divorce courts, police, women’s shelters, and emergency rooms all support the hypothesis that males commit considerably more violence than females in relationships, as do survey data using methodologies other than CTS.[4][6][7][8][9]

American SROK is Not Reflected by Homicides in Other Countries

Again, in the United States there are nearly equal homicide rates between husbands and wives (75 husband-killings for every 100 wife-killings). In every country other than the United States, however, the Sex Ratio of Killing (SROK) is quite low – in no case higher than 40, and generally much lower than that.[6] This peculiarity of SROK data to the United States pretty much destroys its probative value for sexual symmetry of violence. As Dobash et al. note,

. . . U.S. homicide data and CTS data from several countries have been invoked as complimentary pieces of evidence for women’s and men’s equivalent uses of violence (citations omitted). One cannot have it both ways. If the lack of sex differences in CTS results is considered proof of sexually symmetrical violence, then homicide data must somehow be dismissed as irrelevant, since homicides generally fail to exhibit this supposedly more basic symmetry. Conversely, if U.S. homicide counts constitute relevant evidence, the large sex differences found elsewhere surely indicate that violence is peculiarly symmetrical only in the United States, and the fact that the CTS fails to detect sex differences in other countries must then be taken to mean that CTS is insensitive to genuine differences.[6]

Advocates of the sexual symmetry of violence hypothesis point to the reporting bias – mentioned above – to justify the poor match between CTS data and all the other data (except international homicide data, which, as they cannot be dismissed as products of reporting bias, go unexplained). Men, it is posited, are less likely to seek a protective order, to call the police, to go to the emergency room, to seek help from a hotline or shelter, to press charges against an offender, and to report being victimized to the National Crime Victims Survey (though not, for some reason, on CTS). Is this factually accurate? One study[10] found that male victims of domestic violence are actually significantly more likely than women to report domestic violence to the police – twice as likely, in fact – and less likely to drop the charges. Without data, we should not assume that a particular bias exists, any more than we should assume a particular data set is perfect and without bias. It is also a bit silly to assume that all violence against women is reported; women have strong reasons not to report marital violence, just as men do.

Why the CTS is Kind Of Retarded

1. Zero Interobserver Reliability

If CTS surveys were factually accurate, and were in fact detecting real phenomena, we would expect the reports of husbands and their wives to match. The validity of the CTS depends on people telling the truth; a necessary (thought not sufficient) condition for factual accuracy is that witnesses of the same incident agree with each other. In the case of marital violence and the CTS, they don’t. A given husband and wife interviewed separately using CTS methodology are no more likely than chance to agree in their reports of violence in the relationship. From Dobash et al.:

Szinovacz (1983)[11] found that 103 couples’ accounts of the violence in their interactions matched to a degree little greater than chance. On several CTS items, mainly the most severe ones, agreement was actually below chance . . . . In a similar study, Jouriles and O’Leary (1985)[12] administered the CTS to 65 couples attending a marital therapy clinic, and 37 couples from the local community. For many of the acts, the frequency and percentage data reported are impossible to reconcile [that is, data reported are mathematically impossible. -ed.]; for others, Jouriles and O’Leary reported a concordance statistic (Cohen’s Kappa) as equalling [sic] zero when the correct values were negative. Straus (1990b)[13] cites this study as conferring validity on the CTS, but in fact, its results replicated Szinovacz’s (1983)[11]: husband/wife agreement scarcely exceeded chance expectation and actually fell below chance on some items.[6] [Bolded emphasis mine.]

2. Conflation of Serious with Minor Violence

The Conflict Tactics scale asks responders to relate the violence they have perpetrated or experienced in their relationships according to acts: whether one has “pushed,” “slapped,” “kicked,” etc. the other. Certain acts are grouped together as mild, moderate, or severe, regardless of the specifics of the situation or the degree of injury, if any. Throwing an object qualifies as a “severe” assault, regardless of the nature of the object, the context of the “assault,” and whether the blow even landed. When case histories are examined closely, the retardedness of this classification becomes obvious. Again quoting Dobash et al.:

In a study of 103 couples, Margolin (1987)[14] found that wives surpassed husbands in their use of “severe violence” according to the CTS, but unlike others who have obtained this result, Margolin troubled to check its meaningfulness with more intensive interviews. She concluded:

While CTS items appear behaviorally specific, their meanings still are open to interpretation. In one couple who endorsed the item “kicking,” for example, we discovered that the kicking took place in bed in a more kidding, than serious, fashion. Although this behavior meets the criterion for severe abuse on the CTS, neither spouse viewed it as aggressive, let alone violent. In another couple, the wife scored on severe physical aggression while the husband scored on low-level aggression only. The inquiry revealed that, after years of passively accepting the husband’s repeated abuse, this wife finally decided, on one occasion, to retaliate by hitting him over the head with a wine decanter.

[6]

CTS pretends to measure, but does not actually measure, the severity of violence.

Violence Outside Relationships

Men are, across the board, more violent than women. Gender (male) is the single greatest predictor of criminal violence. In non-marital contexts, this is not at all controversial. One problem with the sexual symmetry hypothesis is that its proponents fail to provide any theory or explanation for why violence would be asymmetrical in nearly all contexts, but symmetrical in this one limited context. In fact, female violence this context is particularly in need of explanation, since it is particularly bizarre for an actor to choose a victim much larger than she, which husbands generally are. Which brings us to . . .

That Whole Sexual Dimorphism in Body Size Thing

Proponents of the sexual symmetry hypothesis generally concede that women are more likely to be injured by marital violence than men, yet still maintain that “women initiate and carry out physical assaults on their partners as often as men do.”[15] Focusing on the frequency of violence, rather than the severity and consequences, is silly and dishonest in the context of a physically mismatched pair such as a typical heterosexual couple. Imagine reading a study that found that children were as likely to hit their parents as vice versa, or elderly dependent adults were as likely to hit their caretakers as vice versa. We might say – interesting, but so what? Violence by the physically stronger party is simply more dangerous – more of a “social problem” – than violence by a weaker party. (This is aside from the issue that violence initiated by the stronger party against a weaker party is vastly more common than the reverse in other contexts, casting even more doubt on the veracity of the symmetry claim.)

However, violence against men is not nonexistent; in my experience as a domestic violence attorney, men with physical disabilities were particularly vulnerable to abuse by their female partners.

Evo Psych

The idea of sexual asymmetry in marital violence is not just a feminist idea; it is one grounded in evolutionary psychology. Men have much more to gain from violence against their wives than women do from violence against their husbands. Violence is an effective means of achieving men’s evolutionary aims (maintaining exclusive access to a woman’s reproductive capacity); women are unlikely to advance their evolutionary aims by physical violence against husbands. Women must use other means of getting what they want, which brings me to my . . .

Closing Words: Toward an Evolutionary Biology of the Attack Heifer

Over the past several years in my personal life, I have been baffled by a phenomenon affecting several of my male friends. Four of my male friends are or have been married to extremely mean, unpleasant, downright emotionally abusive women. The abuse was (or is) so severe that all of my friends developed a perceptible depression; one actually began to wet his pants at work (he’s still married, God save him). From an evolutionary perspective, I could understand my friends tolerating this abuse if the females in question were attractive (had high reproductive value); however, in each case, the female is significantly less attractive than the male. Two of the four women are clinically obese as well as ugly; the other two are merely ugly. Based on the baffling (to me) combination of emotional abusiveness and ugliness, I have termed this surprisingly common beast the attack heifer.

My male friends in question are characterized by innocence, lack of experience, and early age at marriage. They are also characterized by IQs within the top tenth of a percent of American adults (easily). Why did (or do) they stay?

My thinking is that this phenomenon – an objectively less “valuable” mate being crappy to a more “valuable” mate – is analogous to the fact that a man is more likely to kill a young wife than an older wife, and that age difference is a strong predictor of interspousal homicide.[16][17] A young wife has a higher reproductive value than an older wife; the husband of a young wife has “more to lose,” and is more likely to use violent tactics to prevent or punish his wife’s infidelity or attempts to leave the marriage.

Similarly, attack heifers perceive that they have a great deal to lose, and escalate their tactics to maintain control within the relationship – not through violent means, which wouldn’t be effective anyway, but using skills at which women surpass men: emotional manipulation.[18] Physical violence is not necessary to cause extreme suffering. Women do not need to be as violent as men to be as evil as men.


1. I dislike the fuzziness of the concept of “romantic relationships,” and marriage is too limiting for what we are discussing, which includes de facto marriages as well as legal unions. I tend to reduce this kind of relationship to its sexual component, which, to me, is what separates romantic relationships from friendships. The special value of sex compared to other, more nebulous concepts involved in romantic relationships, and the questionable value of monogamous relationships, are certainly something of legends for me, albeit examined ones.

2. Straus, Murray A. “Measuring intrafamily conflict and violence: The Conflict Tactics (CT) Scales.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 51:75-88 (1979).

3. Archer, John. “Sex Differences in Aggression Between Heterosexual Partners: A Meta-Analytic Review.Psychological Bulletin 126.4:651-680 (2000).

4. Kimmel, Michael. “‘Gender Symmetry’ in Domestic Violence: A Substantive and Methodological Research Review.” Violence Against Women 8.11:1332-1363 (2002).

5. Wilson, M. I., and Daly, M. “Who kills whom in spouse killings? On the exceptional sex ratio of spousal homicides in the United States. Criminology 30:189-215 (1992). No, it’s not because of guns, and it’s not because American women are more violent in general. Read the paper – it’s fascinating.

6. Dobash, R.P., Dobash, R.E., Wilson, M., Daly, M. “The myth of sexual symmetry in marital violence.Social Problems 39:71-91 (1992).

7. Felson, Richard. “Big People Hit Little People: Sex Differences in Physical Power and Interpersonal Violence.” Criminology 34.3:433-452 (1996).

8. Henning, Kris, and Lynette Felder. “A Comparison of Men and Women Arrested for Domestic Violence: Who Presents the Greater Threat?” J. Family Violence 19.2:69-80 (2004).

9. There are lots more, of course, but I can’t be arsed currently lack the resources to conduct a major literature review. But notice that even the proponents of the sexual symmetry hypothesis admit that most data sources do not reflect sexual symmetry in intimate partner violence.

10. Kinkaid, Pat. The Omitted Reality: Husband-Wife Violence in Ontario and Policy Implications for Education. Maple, Ontario: Learners Press, 1982. Cited in Dobash et al. (1992), supra.

11. Szinovacz, Maximiliane. “Using couple data as a methodological tool: The case of marital violence.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 45:633-644 (1983).

12. Jouriles, Ernest, and Daniel O’Leary. “Interspousal reliability of reports of marital violence.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 53:419-421 (1985).

13. Straus, Murray. “The Conflict Tactics Scales and its critics: An evaluation and new data on validity and reliability.” In Physical Violence in American Families, ed. Murray A. Straus and Richard J. Gelles, 49-73. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers (1990).

14. Margolin, Gayla. “The multiple forms of aggressiveness between marital partners: How do we identify them?” J. Marital and Family Therapy 13:77-84 (1987).

15. Straus, Murray. “Physical Assaults by Wives: A Major Social Problem.” In Current Controversies on Family Violence, Richard Gelles and Donileen Loseke, eds. Newbury Park, California: Sage Publication (1993).

16. Daly, Martin, and Margo Wilson. Homicide. New York: Aldine de Gruyter (1988); see especially pp. 205-207.

17. Wilson, Margo, and Martin Daly. “Lethal and nonlethal violence against wives and the evolutionary psychology of male sexual proprietariness.” Pp. 199-230, in Violence Against Women: International and Cross-disciplinary Perspectives, Dobash & Dobash, eds. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications (1998).

18. “A man will rip off your arm and throw it into a river, but he will leave you as a human being intact. He won’t mess with who you are. Women are non-violent but they will shit inside of your heart.” – Louis CK

Written by Sister Y

August 19, 2010 at 8:46 pm

Inflicting Harm and Inflicting Pleasure on Strangers

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On ecstasy, peanuts, and how we take care of strangers.


A 2008 report from the United Kingdom’s Home Office Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs concluded that ecstasy (at least, MDMA) is not nearly as dangerous as was previously thought, either in deadliness or in long-term health consequences. The Council even recommended changing the classification of MDMA from its present status as Class A (heroin, crack, and amphetamines prepared for injection are Class A) to the less-dangerous Class B (which includes marijuana and Ritalin). (The recommendation was, of course, rejected.)

A February 2009 editorial in the New Scientist took the logic a step further:

Imagine you are seated at a table with two bowls in front of you. One contains peanuts, the other tablets of the illegal recreational drug MDMA (ecstasy). A stranger joins you, and you have to decide whether to give them a peanut or a pill. Which is safest?

You should give them ecstasy, of course. A much larger percentage of people suffer a fatal acute reaction to peanuts than to MDMA.[1]

The implication is that, when acting upon a stranger, we should minimize his risk of death.[2]

The lovely and talented Caledonian has a slightly different take: we should focus on the relative likelihood of harm, he says, rather than the relative likelihood of death.

Both of these goals – acting to minimize the risk of death to a stranger, and acting to minimize his risk of harm – are laudable and widely shared. But there’s a glaring aspect of the utilitarian calculus that almost no one seriously considers in making the decision to administer a peanut or some ecstasy. This is the differential positive utility to be gained by the stranger in each case. A peanut is marginally sustaining, but unless it’s been boiled with star anise and Sichuan peppercorns, it’s not particularly enjoyable. Ecstasy, on the other hand, is fucking awesome. Why doesn’t anybody consider the relative benefit to the stranger along with the relative harm?[3]

While many of us would certainly consider the pleasure of ecstasy in deciding whether to eat the pill or the peanut ourselves, it’s proper and coherent not to consider the pleasurable effects of a potentially harmful action when it will be inflicted upon a non-consenting stranger whose values we do not know. This illustrates Seana Shiffrin’s principal that, while it’s morally acceptable to harm a stranger without his consent in order to prevent worse harm (e.g., to administer ecstasy in order to avoid administering a peanut or to break someone’s arm in order to pull him from a burning car), it’s not morally acceptable to harm a stranger without his consent in order to provide a pure benefit. But the ecstasy example supports a stronger inference: when evaluating actions that will harm a non-consenting stranger, his potential pleasure doesn’t count. When we’re acting toward someone whose values we do not know, we should not think in terms of maximizing his utility, but in terms of minimizing our harm to him.

The distinction between acting toward a non-consenting stranger whose values we do not know, and acting toward ourselves (or toward someone whose values we know), is one that is ignored by S. D. Baum in his article “Better to exist: a reply to Benatar” (J. Med. Ethics 2008;34;875-876). Baum’s “reply” (to David Benatar’s position that it is always better not to bring people into existence) is, in relevant part, as follows:

The benefits/harms asymmetry is commonly manifested (including in Benatar’s writing) in the claim that no amount of benefit, however large, can make up for any amount of harm, however small. This claim comes from an intuition that while we have a duty to reduce harm, we have no duty to increase benefit. The corresponding ethical framework is often called “negative utilitarianism”. Negative utilitarianism resembles maximin in its resolute focus on the worst off—as long as some of those worst off are in a state of harm, instead of just in a state of low benefit. Like maximin, negative utilitarianism can recommend that no one be brought into existence—and that all existing people be euthanised. I find negative utilitarianism decidedly unreasonable: our willingness to accept some harm in order to enjoy the benefits of another day seems praiseworthy, not mistaken. I thus urge the rejection of this manifestation of the benefits/harms asymmetry. [Emphasis mine; citations omitted.]

Our own willingness to accept suffering in the interest of pleasure (or any other value) is no reason to think that it is right to inflict that same suffering on a non-consenting stranger. Negative utilitarianism may not be the proper course to take in our own lives, but thought experiments like mine suggest that negative utilitarianism is the proper course to take toward the lives of others who do not consent to our interference. [4]

Many people think it’s morally acceptable to have babies, despite the fact that the babies will certainly suffer a great deal during their lifetimes and may suffer an exceptional amount (that is, bringing someone into existence does him some harm). Pronatalists generally want to point out the good things in life – the pleasant effects of puppies and sunsets – and to balance them against life’s harms. But bringing a child into the world necessarily entails harming a stranger (for one doesn’t know the values of one’s child prior to procreation). It is no different from dosing a stranger with ecstasy for no reason, except that the harms of life massively exceed the harms of ecstasy, and the pleasure of life, for many, is much less. Considering the non-consenting stranger’s pleasure in the ecstasy/peanut case is unthinkable; procreation advocates need to explain why considering his pleasure in coming into existence is just fine.

The peanut/ecstasy example functions as a thought experiment that may be closer to real life than Shiffrin’s ingenious example in which a wealthy person drops gold bars from an airplane, thereby benefiting some of the people below but also occasionally breaking their arms.

The only case in which it is widely accepted to inflict unconsented harm in order to provide a pure benefit is when acting toward one’s children. This is an aspect of viewing one’s children as property rather than persons. (Proprietariness is also the best explanation for why parents sometimes kill their natural children – and why men sometimes kill their wives or wife-equivalents – when they decide to commit suicide.)


1. Actually, the New Scientist is oversimplifying; there are two risks of death in each case. The first kind of risk is the risk that the stranger S has particular characteristics which will make any peanut, or any MDMA, lethal for him. The second kind of risk is that a particular ecstasy tablet or peanut will be lethal for any given stranger (e.g., the tablet purporting to be E is really, say, buprenophine, or the peanut is somehow infected with lethal levels of salmonella). The latter type of risk probably isn’t that significant, though. UK studies don’t seem to be finding lethal chemicals in street ecstasy. In Australia, the most common “fake ecstasy” is methamphetamine, which is not particularly lethal. As for peanuts, the CDC reports that the death rate from nontyphoidal Salmonella like the S. typhimurium that recently caused peanut recalls is about 00.78%.

2. I have to point out that the Mounties claim that “peanut” is a street name for ecstasy. I’ve never heard this in my life, but I don’t go clubbing in Canada much.

3. We might also consider our own willingness to endure, on the one hand, a stranger’s slight peanut breath, and on the other, a stranger clinging to our leg like a baby macaque for three hours, but that is a separate calculus.

4. Baum also assumes, contrary to Benatar’s express position, that death is not a harm to already-existing people. In fact, Benatar’s claims do not rest on any simplistic pleasure/pain conception of value; Benatar argues that death is a harm, even a painless death. It is, in fact, one of the great harms of life – every born person will suffer the harm of death.

Written by Sister Y

March 8, 2009 at 7:42 am

Cheery Social Policy

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The “cheery,” frequently alluded to by David Benatar in Better Never to Have Been, might be defined as those people experiencing optimistic bias, who are as a result untroubled by, or overly dismissive of, serious problems involving human suffering. Cheeriness is an extremely common trait, and the cheery certainly make up a majority of the human population and exert a major influence on social policy.

The fundamental problem with cheeriness is the assumption that a good life – a pleasant life – is relatively easy to achieve. This assumption is, of course, true for the cheery, but the cheery are able to ignore – and perhaps can’t even conceive of – the suffering of a significant minority of the population. A good life is not easily achieved for many of us.

The cheery do not need to use extraordinary means to achieve a tolerable life. Behaviors that others engage in, perhaps in pursuit of a tolerable life – weird sex with lots of people, say, or using steroids or marijuana or LSD or benzodiazepines – strike the cheery as unnecessary and harmful. And, for a cheery person, these behaviors are wholly unnecessary – life is perfectly tolerable without them. And they increase the risk of harm! Who wants harm?

What the cheery cannot imagine is the importance, the function of these behaviors, and others like them – the pursuit of the interesting, and the temporary suspension of the intolerability of existence, which intolerability (for many) the cheery do not even perceive, and therefore do not properly weight as a problem.

I suspect that the same cheery social policy is at work with the question of suicide. Groundless faith that anyone can have a good life, bar none, leads to a general policy of suicide prohibition. A more mature understanding of the seriousness of suffering, and a more realistic evaluation of the possibility for its amelioration, would lead at least to a policy with more exceptions.

Written by Sister Y

August 28, 2008 at 11:45 pm

Is Coming Into Existence an Agent-Neutral Value?

with 4 comments

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

My Work on Antinatalism

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The following are pieces I’ve written addressing various aspects of philanthropic antinatalism.

Procreation and Suicide, written before I read Better Never to Have Been, arguing that one reason it is unfair and wrong to require a sentient being to remain alive against its will is that the being took no voluntary action to come into existence. I argue that the “social contract” justification for state power is weaker in states that prohibit suicide. And I argue that if one voluntarily reproduces, one may not ethically commit suicide under the earlier justification, since one has at that point acted to ratify one’s life.

Benatar’s Account of Value (It’s Not Nihilism) – in which I explain why philanthropic antinatalism is incompatible with nihilism.

Birth and Consent: An Alternate Philanthropic Route to Antinatalism, in which I attempt to ground antinatalism in concern for unconsented harm, without reference to the antinatalist asymmetry, and explain how birth is similar to genital mutilation.

Life Rights and Death Rights, in which I briefly introduce J. David Velleman’s “option to live without explicitly deciding to live,” which option is removed by an institutional right to die, and also introduce the symmetric “option not to exist without explicitly choosing to die,” which Velleman very much does not address, and which is removed by birth.

Velleman’s Sorrow of Options, in which I map out several arguments from different starting points using Velleman’s concept of options as potentially harmful, including the “options” granted to an entity by virtue of its being brought into existence.

Unfriendliness is Unsolvable, in which I argue that the fact that being brought into existence is always a harm may preclude the existence of a friendly, powerful AI.

Where Do Rights Come From? (Or, A Weird Consequentialist Reason Why Pure Consequentialism Fails), a fairly silly essay in which I explore the concept of rights Thomas Nagel develops in “Personal Rights and Public Space” and attempt a consequentialist justification for avoiding consequentialism. I go on to explore a possible right not to be born, as well as a right to die.

Three Meditations on the Sweetness of Life, in which three instances of the widespread cannibalism of children by parents are related.

Tort Law and the Harm of Death, in which I examine the harm of death with reference to Nagel and O.H. Green and explain how American tort law accords with the counter-intuitive view that death is not a harm to the person who dies.

Moral Dilemmas Involving Harm to Children, in which I argue that ethical problems involving whether it is wrong to harm a child if one feels it is ultimately in the child’s interests are insoluble in a particular way, in that the true responsibility for any harm to a child lies with his parents’ decision to create that child, and the justification that the harm is “in his interests” is irrelevant.

Limits on Human Happiness, in which I examine some of the problems facing humans that are insoluble except by radical biological or brain changes.

The Moral Effect of “Being Glad It Happened,” in which I argue by analogy that it is irrelevant to an action’s morality that the object of the action is subjectively grateful for the action after the fact.

The Austrian Basement and Beyond: Consequences of Rejecting the Antinatalist Asymmetry, in which I present examples with a view to pointing out the ethical horror entailed by rejecting the antinatalist asymmetry on the grounds that it is counter-intuitive.

The Sense of the Asymmetry, in which I explain some of the implications of my earlier examples, and present another example that does not involve the creation of new people.

Inflicting Harm and Inflicting Pleasure on Strangers, in which I present another example, this one about ecstasy and peanuts, over which there is wide agreement of intuition. The example illustrates one of the arguments for antinatalism: that it is wrong to harm a stranger without his consent merely to provide him with a pure benefit (as opposed to preventing greater harm). It also supports a stronger claim: when evaluating actions that will harm non-consenting strangers, their potential pleasure doesn’t count.

The Rape Doctor Hypothetical, which I will let speak for itself.

Written by Sister Y

August 2, 2008 at 2:19 am