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Female Choice and Its Discontents

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Would morality be different if we had evolved from big cats instead of great apes?

Nature’s moral horrors are monstrous and plentiful. Lions exhibit a polygynous mating structure, in which males compete for territories containing groups of females and their hunting territory. A male lion usurping the territory of another will kill all the cubs sired by the previous male (in order to promote his own genetic line at the expense of others).

If we had evolved from lions instead of from Australopithecus, would we find infanticide by stepfathers to be completely morally acceptable? Perhaps more importantly, would it actually be morally acceptable? (This latter question is really a question about the existence of moral facts.)

Are some mating and survival strategies inherently more legitimate than others? Is parasitism less honorable than predation? Is predation less honorable than photosynthesis? Is K morally preferable to r? Does symbiosis have a privileged moral status?

Some of our moral feelings about the natural world are mere products of our biological history. If we see parasitism as worse than predation, it may be because we have been predators, but never parasites, and we see things from the point of view of a predator and a “host.” But we also reach for – and to a limited extent, I think, find – a more abstract moral sensibility that may be applied to the natural world and human history alike.

I suspect nearly all moral realists would agree with me that if we had evolved from lions, it would still be wrong to kill babies. Contra Wittgenstein, it is even possible that we would have come to realize that infanticide – along with, perhaps, other central aspects of our evolutionarily determined life – is wrong.

I will argue here that most of our evolutionarily important sexual behaviors are immoral and undesirable from the perspective of our most abstract, species-neutral, organism-centered perspective. Specifically, I will argue that socially imposed monogamy is immoral, despite the fact that it is a strategically viable solution to mating coordination problems and may encourage investment in socially optimal behaviors. I will argue that the social conditions necessary to enforce monogamy include reducing female economic self-sufficiency. I will argue for individual ownership of our own bodies (including a legal right to prostitution), but with the caveat that women are not morally entitled to exploit the structurally unmet sexual needs of men, either through prostitution or through economic marital support. And I will argue that while monogamy should be permissible (from individual body ownership), we are not ethically required to recognize the monogamous sexual contracts of others.

Female Choice and the Kenyan Baboons[1]

Baboon mating strategy is bimodal. Males compete for rank among themselves, and the alpha male mates with any females in estrus and prevents other males from mating with them. We can call “alpha male” one strategy. However, lower-ranking males frequently engage in years-long liaisons with a female, grooming and being groomed by her even when she is not in estrus, sleeping snuggled up with her, and even babysitting her children (who are often not his genetic children). What is the point of this “friend male” strategy? When in estrus, female baboons often sneak off out of the view of the alpha male (who may be otherwise engaged in combat) and mate with their “friend male” grooming partners, allowing the lower-ranking males mating opportunities they would not have had if not for the “friendship.”

Male baboons essentially have two choices: either compete with other males for dominance and the mating opportunities it brings, or compete/cooperate with a single female for a mating opportunity with her, unmediated by the usual dominance hierarchy. In the former situation, females do not have genuine choice as to whom they mate with; the alpha male determines this by force. The latter situation is driven almost entirely by female choice.

For much of human history, especially since the introduction of agriculture, sexual access to females has been largely controlled by competition between males, not by the individual females themselves. A female was a special kind of chattel to be sold by her parents to her husband.[2] Only very recently, and in certain enlightened parts of the world, has it been widely believed that an individual female owns herself, and is herself entitled to choose her sexual liaisons.

In baboons and humans, it often appears that female choice necessarily entails a move in the direction of monogamy. However, enforced monogamy is only a first – and very unsatisfactory – step toward true female choice, and toward individual sexual choice in general.

Monogamy as Schadenfreude

The essence of a monogamous relationship is limitation. It is a special kind of contract that is mostly characterized by promising to refrain from doing something (having extramarital sex). It is what in the law is characterized as an output contract – a contract wherein a seller promises to sell his entire output to a buyer, who in turn promises to buy the entire output. It is not, in practical terms, a requirements contract – a contract wherein a seller might promise to sell to a buyer all the goods the buyer requires. The promise entailed by monogamy is the promise not to have sex with anyone else. It is not a promise to meet the sexual needs of one’s partner (nor is this kind of promise desirable, much less enforceable – what’s less sexy than being obligated to fuck?).

The person contracting a monogamous relationship is gaining utility from his partner’s promise to reduce her own utility. It is, in essence, an agreement explicitly to benefit at the expense of one’s lover.

A more idealistic conception of love (and sex) is one in which one desires one’s lover to be happy and have as much pleasure as possible – a situation in which one derives utility directly from one’s partner’s utility. Non-monogamous paradigms (open relationships, polyamory, swinging) allow participants to be ultra-cooperators – to mutually agree to refrain from limiting each partner’s sexual opportunities.

Within nonsexual social relationships (e.g., friends), the idea of gaining utility by limiting the utility of the other is repugnant. The idea that one should shut oneself off to cooperation with all but one friend is ludicrous (and would make for a social nightmare). In the abstract, monogamy appears to be the morally worse option. So why is monogamy broadly considered the moral gold standard of sexual relationships?

It’s because our morality hasn’t yet caught up with technologies such as birth control, paternity testing, and female citizenship. It’s also because monogamy is a solution to a coordination problem. Monogamy really was the way to go when there wasn’t any birth control, a simple test wouldn’t reveal paternity, and females could not support themselves through their own efforts. From the perspective of a female under such conditions, monogamy was her best chance of having surviving offspring. And to a monogamous woman, a sexually receptive non-monogamous woman is a threat to her ability to extract resources from a male. Therefore, women – not just men – attempt to enforce chaste or monogamous behavior in other women.

In this way, in premodern societies, monogamy functions as a kind of sexual minimum wage for women – that is, it specifies that the only unit in which sex may be acquired is a whole woman for her life, and the only currency it may be acquired in exchange for is a promise of lifetime support and monogamy. This makes some amount of sense when babies are a likely result of sex, paternity is uncertain, and a woman cannot support herself. It makes a great deal less sense given that we now know where babies come from and can prevent them, we can test a baby’s DNA to determine its parentage (if that is, in fact, morally relevant), and women are as able to support themselves as men, if not more so. If all the justifications for socially imposed monogamy have disappeared, perhaps it is time for sexual monogamy to go the way of infanticide.

Given that consensual non-monogamy is an option – one that many people in our society choose – why would anyone choose monogamy? One possibility, which I think is true for many people, is that they have a special preference for monogamy, perhaps because they find sexual jealousy to be an insurmountable obstacle. Such people would freely choose monogamy even if it were not socially enforced. Another possibility, which I also think is true for many people, is that they genuinely want to have multiple lovers, but are prevented from doing so by barriers – such as lack of available partners (men), the fear of slut stigma (women), or the fear of other social sanction (both).

Economic Constraint of Female Sexual Liberty

Many heterosexual males find chastity in females to be aesthetically appealing. But females only have an incentive to be chaste when women’s ability to provide for themselves is constrained. The social conditions necessary to promote monogamy are incompatible with female economic self-sufficiency. And self-sufficiency is broadly socially desirable.

Again, the biological basis of monogamy is to promote paternity confidence and paternal investment. Because of DNA testing, legal father-child relationships and obligations, and female suffrage and economic equality, these objectives are no longer morally relevant.

In societies in which males do not heavily invest in their sexual partners or their children, females have more sexual liberty.[3] Conversely, in societies in which women are economically dependent on males and are structurally prevented from being economically self-sufficient, sexual chastity (for women) is strictly enforced. For this reason, we should be extremely suspicious of norms of sexual chastity.

Supporting a Wife

Sexual chastity, then, is a tool (whether wielded by society or individual women) to get men to invest in wife and child. Children are morally entitled to investment from their parents, at least where their parents voluntarily conceived and bore them. Children are unable to provide for themselves. However, it is far from clear that an adult woman is morally entitled to seek investment from a man.

Women experience sexual desire for men, but male sexual services to women are so oversupplied that their value is zero (or even negative, at times). Women are born with[4] a naturally occurring, enormously desirable “resource” largely unrelated to productive activity, or to any morally relevant characteristic. Men have no comparable resource.

Women are in the position of a hereditary landlord – born with a desirable resource that others desire and are willing to “pay” for (whether in currency or otherwise). But while I do feel that women should be properly considered the “owners” of their bodies, this does not entail that we should legitimize the equivalent of rent-seeking in women. Women are morally entitled to decide who they have sex with, and to have sex with anyone, for any reason – including, I think, for money or the promise of lifetime monogamy and economic support. But this does not mean we as a society should legitimize such transactions, either with state-sponsored marriage or through slut stigma.[5]

Restraining Women’s Sexual Freedom: Cui Bono?

Some men and some women benefit from restraining women’s sexual freedom. Men who have the resources to do so and wish to “purchase” a female for life have an incentive to restrict the sexual freedom of their “property.” Similarly, the subset of women who wish to attract such lifetime investment benefit from restricting the sexual freedom of other women.

But this is not to say that ALL women or ALL men benefit from restricting the sexual freedom of women. In fact, as I have argued, most people would benefit from lifting most of the societal sexual restrictions currently in place. Societal restrictions on sexual freedom function as a governmental taking: they prevent individuals from using their resources for their own pleasure, for the alleged benefit of the group (or at least those in positions of power in the group). Many writers, both male and female, confuse the issue by assuming group heterogeneity of preference. But “good for women as a group” does not justify an involuntary welfare transfer from individual women to the group, especially with a resource as intimately connected to the individual’s body as sex.

Are Married Folks Morally Off-Limits?

Long-term output contracts are rare, and are generally entered into at arm’s length. Lifetime output contracts executed under conditions of undue influence (inherent in almost any dyadic sexual relationship) are especially suspect compared to other contracts. And they are frequently entered into by young participants with poor access to information and a great deal of hormone intoxication.

The more a contract is obtained by shady means, the less we should feel inclined to enforce or abide by the contract. Contracts obtained by force or fraud are not enforceable at all, for instance. For these reasons, we are not always morally obligated to respect the lifetime sexuality output contracts of others. Doing so in fact assists with the undesirable rent-seeking behavior described above. It does not make sense to expend a huge amount of resources enforcing long-term contracts, when little is expended in making sure those contracts are voluntary and informed, and that other options exist.

Respecting property rights is as much a voluntary act as asserting property rights. We may be morally entitled to have some property rights enforced, but “property rights” in the private actions of agents that do not directly affect us are extremely questionable. When we respect property rights, we are actively giving support to the institutions and policies that created those property rights. I have argued that monogamy is broadly socially undesirable; respecting the lifetime sexuality output contracts of others when one party wishes to “breach” his or her contract promotes monogamy and the flawed social policy on which it rests.

How Will the Sexual Market Clear?

To review, women are born with a resource unrelated to productive effort. Men are born desiring this resource, but without any comparable resource. If material transfers to women from men in exchange for sex are morally undesirable (and I think they are), how will men’s sexual needs be met?

One thing to remember is that the sexual market is far from clearing in its natural state. This imposes a great deal of suffering on men.

As humans, we intuitively feel that sex should be a gift. Sex provided enthusiastically, out of an altruistic desire to please one’s partner and to be sexually pleased, is the ideal. As I have argued, this is incompatible with sex-for-resource-extraction (either in the form of marriage or of prostitution). How will the non-monetary market (gift economy) for sex ever clear when men’s sexual services are worth only a tiny fraction of the value of female sexual services?

One solution is already being tried by a growing group of men. Sexual seduction techniques are really a way of learning to provide better sexual services to women in a way that they desire – increasing the value, to women, of male sexual services and making a gift economy possible for at least a lucky subset of the population.

Another solution is only possible on an extremely macro level: increase the ratio of women to men (while maintaining female economic self-sufficiency). This was “tried” in a natural experiment involving the Kenyan baboons mentioned earlier. The most dominant and aggressive males, but not the females or less aggressive males, would raid a nearby open garbage pit. As a result, those dominant males all contracted tuberculosis from meat refuse and died, nearly doubling the female-to-male ratio.

The result was a surprising cultural change in the affected baboon population. Male-female grooming drastically increased – males were groomed by females more frequently, and less time passed between a new male arriving at the troupe and his first being groomed by a female. The stress experienced by low-ranking males plummeted, measured both by prevalence of anxiety behaviors and measurements of the stress-related hormone cortisol. Essentially, everybody chilled the fuck out.

So one solution to the problem of the male-female sexual market not clearing is just to have fewer males – especially males of the type who attempt to subvert female choice. A rare male is more valuable than an oversupplied male. The sexual market could clear as a gift economy under those circumstances.

1. Sources for this section include Barbara Smuts’ book Sex and Friendship in Baboons and the article A Pacific Culture among Wild Baboons: Its Emergence and Transmission by Robert M. Sapolsky and Lisa J. Share (2004). You may also enjoy this Radiolab episode about the change in baboon culture.

2. Except, of course, in societies that utilize a dowry system, which tend to be societies that enforce monogamy, thereby driving up the value of high-quality males. Women generally do not choose their own mating partners in dowry societies; they are still very much property. As Elizabeth Cashdan puts it (in “Women’s Mating Strategies,” Evolutionary Anthropology 5:134-143, 1996),

…cross-cultural analysis shows that the co-occurrence of stratification with socially-imposed monogamy is the best predictor of dowry, although it is also found in the upper strata of some extremely stratified polygynous societies. We might wish to add to the criteria of stratification and socially imposed monogamy the additional one of degree of female dependence on male investment. Competition for investing mates should be most intense where the payoffs to such investment are highest, hence greater economic independence of women might be expected to discourage the prevalence of dowry payments, even in monogamous, stratified societies. [Emphasis mine.]

3. See, e.g., Gaulin, S.J.C., and Schlegel, A., “Paternal confidence and paternal investment: A cross-cultural test of a sociobiological hypothesis. Ethol Sociobiol 1:301-309 (1980), and Hartung, J., “Matrilineal inheritance: New theory and analysis.” Behav Brain Sci 8:661-668. Cited in Cashdan (1996), Note 2 (supra).

4. Okay, not “born with,” but you know what I mean.

5. This is why I find it surprising that the “men’s rights” camp can so frequently be found attempting to re-impose slut stigma. Slut stigma is directly opposed to female choice; most men, especially men into “game,” benefit directly from enhanced female choice (one-on-one competition and body ownership).

Written by Sister Y

April 1, 2011 at 9:00 pm

Pareto, Kaldor-Hicks, and Deserving

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In my recent post, I argued that our received notions of not applying human morality to the natural world are wrong, and that we should judge Nature – and judge it very bad indeed, and worthy of being stopped.

In doing so, I acknowledge that the actions of animals are not up for moral judgment; but their experiences are proper subjects of moral concern.

This framework of considering beings as moral objects whose experiences matter, but not agents whose choices “deserve” reward or punishment, is properly applied not just to animals, but to small children, the insane, and other “near persons” who lack the faculty of rationality.

This is nearly the opposite of Kantian “respect for persons” as I understand it, which accords the mysterious quality of “dignity” to all those with rational faculties. This “dignity” – this human-like rational function – is why we should respect the wishes of others, why what others want should matter to us.

I find it obvious from inspection that the pain of other experiencing beings should matter to us even if the others have no rational faculties at all. And I see the path from conscious-experiencing to conscious-choosing to be a continuum, rather than binary categories, with humans not even fully embodying the rational/choosing end of the spectrum.

I am concerned with suffering. Justice often concerns itself with suffering only so far as the suffering is “undeserved.” I do not think any suffering is deserved. The notion of desert is entangled inside the context of a particular system.

In the bad old days, academics in criminology frequently wrote about victim-precipitated rape. Menachim Amir writes, in 1967:

We are accustomed to believe that forcible rape is an act which falls upon the victim without her aid or cooperation, but there often is “some reciprocal action between perpetrator and victim” in such cases.

Once the victim and the offender are drawn together, a process is set in motion whereby victim behavior and the situation which surrounds the encounter will determine the course of events leading to the crime. If the victim is not solely responsible for what becomes the unfortunate event, at least she is often a complementary partner.

Victim Precipitated Forcible Rape,” in The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology and Police Science 58:4 (1967). Citations omitted; bolded emphasis mine.

I think victim-criminal interaction theory is a fruitful and interesting field, especially with an evolutionary psychology orientation. However, I also agree for once with mainstream academic feminists: nobody deserves to be raped.

The fact that a victim contributed somehow to cause a crime does not imply that the victim is a deserving victim. Rape is simply not an appropriate sanction for any behavior – even rape itself. Not even a rapist deserves to be raped.

But why should this be? To see this, we need to ask ourselves: what justification is there for saying a rapist deserves to be raped? Or that a thief deserves to have his hand cut off?

Considering the classical theories of punishment (justifications for a society imposing criminal sanctions), most of them – general deterrence, specific deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation – justify punishment on the grounds that it is good for someone, or good for society as a whole. Punishment is justified in order to create the proper incentives, to maximize the happiness of everyone at the expense of the suffering of a few. Only the retributive theory of justice – vengeance, punishment for its own sake, spite – is compatible with a notion of desert on the part of the suspect. The rest justify punishment only on utilitarian grounds, and might equally justify punishment of the innocent!

The vengeance motive – the retributive theory of justice – is not explicitly utilitarian. It is the deeply-felt human idea that harm simply deserves harm – an eye for an eye. Under the framework of vengeance, it’s a bad thing when a criminal dies before having the opportunity to be punished, even though everyone is made better off by his death. But there is a great deal of evidence that this spite function – the desire for revenge even when it doesn’t make anybody better off – is an adaptation for realizing the most effective, versatile game strategy in social animals. A social animal that allows others to get away with defection unpunished encourages more defection, and meanwhile does not compete as well as a social animal programmed to follow tit-for-tat. In this light, we can see vengeance as evolution’s tool to get a social organism to cooperate the optimum amount to maximize its fitness. I would argue that the justice of vengeance stands or falls with the justice of the utilitarian theories of punishment.

All the utilitarian justifications come down to this: we must punish people, make them suffer, so that overall, people in society suffer less. What this assumes is that we have a right to make people suffer against their will for the greater good. This assumption is wholly unsupported, and can never, in my view, be supported. How the unconsented suffering of some can be justified by the happiness of others is something I have never understood, and something that concerns me a great deal. I have argued that this is the same as the move in economics from “humane Pareto efficiency to ugly, realist Kaldor-Hicks efficiency.”

Pareto efficiency is the idea that a transaction is just (and we should encourage it) if it helps someone and hurts no one. Any fully consensual transaction should have this characteristic, so a contractual exchange would be a Pareto improvement. (However, the justice of any transaction relies on the justice of the initial distribution, which is, in reality, totally unfair.)

Kaldor-Hicks efficiency comes from a recognition that consent is hard to do. With Kaldor-Hicks, we jump from requiring a transaction to help someone and not hurt anyone – that is, to be fully consensual – to allowing the transaction if the gains for some outweigh the costs to others, so that theoretically the losers could be compensated. (It doesn’t matter if, in reality, the losers are compensated.) Many non-consensual transactions can be justified under Kaldor-Hicks; the good for some just has to outweigh the bad for others. For instance, rape is never a Pareto improvement, but if the rapist enjoys it more than the victim suffers from it, it could be a Kaldor-Hicks improvement. It is my contention that Pareto has a shot at being just, but Kaldor-Hicks is churched-up evil.

What is missing in any sort of justification for why it’s okay to make some suffer so that most of us can be better off. And what’s especially fascinating is that although in general in economics we do not compare utility functions of people, Kaldor-Hicks thinking essentially requires us to compare utility functions of different individuals. Why is it okay here and not okay in other places? There’s no market here, by definition, so we’re not using revealed preference as a guide.

But even a market based on actual consent is not grounded or justified in any way that should make us ethically comfortable. A market or social system may provide for individual choice in any given transaction, but a participant cannot decide whether to be part of a market economy. It’s not consent all the way down, you might say.

Having a baby might be a Kaldor-Hicks improvement, but it cannot be a Pareto improvement. We need to pay more attention to this type of unconsented transaction, and our primary concern should be for its victims, rather than for the rights of agents making these harmful decisions for their own benefit.

Written by Sister Y

January 6, 2011 at 8:11 pm

Living in the Epilogue: Social Policy as Palliative Care

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“A self is a machine for making you concerned about your organism.”
— Antonio Damasio

The Story as a Cognitive Bias

The essence of consciousness, says Antonio Damasio, is the internal narrative – the story one tells oneself about oneself. The ability to create this narrative – to conceive of oneself, to project oneself into the past and the future, to connect events meaningfully – has proven to be a very effective evolutionary strategy to ensure that an organism acts to promote its own ends.

Our evolutionary history ensures that we think in stories. They are so central to our thinking that it is hard to think about them. An old fish said to a couple of young fish, “Morning, boys! The water’s fine today!” and swam off. One young fish turned to the other young fish and asked, “what’s water?” Thus it is with humans and stories.

Stories are extremely useful; as information-hungry, social creatures, we are as pleased to hear stories as dogs are to sniff the pee stains of other dogs. We love stories. We are stories. We think and remember in the form of stories. As Roger Schank puts it (in Tell Me a Story: A New Look at Real and Artificial Memory), “In the end all we have, machine or human, are stories and methods of finding and using those stories.”

But stories are not real. They are constructs that we apply to the universe, but there is no story out in the universe. There is no “gist” or “point” to the universe, as stories have gists and points. We construct meaning to serve our evolutionarily-determined ends, and this is, I think, the most central of all the cognitive biases.
causation (story v. narrative)
events follow each other in time
a protagonist pursues his goals
we empathize with the protagonist
conflict followed by resolution – structure/pattern of events
characters affect each other
not just what stories we are attracted to (what makes stories “interesting”) – but the very form of the story itself
positions in time of the story have different emotional connotations–>
Living in the Epilogue

My name is Sarah. I’m 32 and I live in Los Angeles. Since I was a small child, I have wanted to die. But here I am.

I keep two bottles labeled “Poison” on the shelf next to my bed. They are filled with an alcohol extract of several pounds of macerated immature Conium maculatum seed pods, the part of the plant that is highest in toxic alkaloids. I feel much better having it there. My hope is that someday I’ll get drunk and upset and drink it down without even thinking about it. I think it will work; my only worry is a couple of papers that point to extreme pain while dying and possible kidney problems if one survives. (Also, the stuff smells like the Grim Reaper’s boiled turd smeared on a rat with gangrene.) Still, here I am.

A few years ago, I wanted to die all the time, every minute. I suffered intensely, and the main project of my life was to get through time. I researched suicide methods, made repeated attempts, but always failed, and was left with the conviction that suicide is extremely difficult without barbiturates, which I could not (and remain unable to) get. At some point, I changed my focus from trying to end my life to trying to make what years I am forced to endure less miserable. In the language of illness, I put myself in hospice and gave myself palliative care.

I tried many therapies, including a six-month attempt at alcoholism. Many of my experimental palliative care therapies (including this) failed, but a few were extremely successful at making me not suffer all the time. I stopped trying to be in monogamous relationships. I take a couple of prescription SSRIs. I exercise in a rather extreme fashion. I see a therapist. I smoke marijuana and have riotous group sex with my boyfriends and girlfriends. I go to lectures and watch experimental animation at the independent movie theater. I write essays on my couch with my books all around me and Shehnai music playing.

I suspect that I have more fun that most people in the world. Life remains an irritation, but for me, it is not the constant grind of pain and humiliation that it must be for millions of people. In many ways, my very suicidality makes life more pleasant for me, since I utterly lack the fear of death and all the cringing urgency that fear engenders.

But there is something missing. Here is the problem, if it is a problem: I am not in a story.

Living outside of any story – living without hope for the future, without the belief that one is part of a narrative – is confusing. It’s hard to get anything done when nothing has a point. For any not-immediately-pleasurable action (or inaction) I contemplate – getting up in the morning, vacuuming, answering the phone, spending an entire day sober – there is no readily-available answer to the ever-present question in my mind, “why?” At least, there is no long-term “why.”

Do I wish I were in a story again? Ultimately, no. Even if it were possible to imagine myself as a character in some narrative about to unfold, I don’t really want to. This would be sacrificing truth for comfort – and questionable comfort at that.

I spoke about this with my closest friend, and he suggested that I have had a story, and now I’m living in the “ever after” part. I am, for all relevant purposes, living in my own epilogue. This is also, I think, the status of people with terminal illness who are about to die: their story is essentially over. This is even true if you believe in magical sky friends and heaven and all that.

There Are No Stories In Heaven

There are no stories in heaven; heaven is all epilogue. It functions as a bookend on our stories; we may even call it the “hereafter,” as in “happily ever after.” There can be no conflict in heaven, so there can be no stories, either.

Aristotle scholar Martha Nussbaum explores how crappy it is for humans to live outside of a story, even in heaven, in her essay “Transcending Humanity.” Here, she considers Odysseus’ choice to give up eternal youth and pleasure with Calypso in order to return to his wife and the certainty of inevitable death. She says,

What, in the face of the recognized human attachment to transcendence, could justify such a choice? Odysseus has little to say. But what he does say makes it perfectly clear that they key is not any surpassing beauty in Penelope herself. He freely grants that from this point of view Calypso will be found superior. And he points to no superiority in Penelope that could counterbalance Calypso’s divine excellence. So he is not, it seems, choosing a glorious prize in spite of the fact that he has to face death to get it; that is not at all how he sees the issue. He is choosing the whole human package: mortal life, dangerous voyage, imperfect mortal aging woman. He is choosing, quite simply, what is his: his own history, the form of a human life and the possibilities of excellence, love, and achievement that inhabit that form. What, then, can he say to make that choice intelligible, once the alternative of divinity and agelessness is on the scene?

And yet, to readers of the poem from ancient to modern times, Odysseus’ choice does seem intelligible, and also admirable — the only choice we would have our hero make.

Odysseus’ choice is perfectly understandable because the alternative is so . . . boring. Without the possibility of loss, nothing is interesting. Without limitation, there is no possibility for excellence, which is, in the Aristotelian view at least, the purpose of a human being:

We don’t quite know what it would be for this hero, known for his courage, craft, resourcefulness, and loyal love to enter into a life in which courage would atrophy, in which cunning and resourcefulness would have little point, since the risks with which they grapple would be removed, and in which love, insofar as it appears at all, would be very different in shape from the love that connects man to wife and child in the human world of the poem.


The Greeks, no less than contemporary Americans, praise outstanding athletic performance as a wonderful instance of human excellence. . . . But clearly, such achievement has point and value only relatively to the context of the human body, which imposes certain species-specific limits and creates certain possibilities of movement rather than others. . . . But if this means that even races or contests between different animal species will usually seem pointless and odd, it means all the more that there will be no athletic excellence at all, and no meaningful concept of athletic excellence, in the life of a being that is, by nature, capable of anything and physically unlimited. . . . What would such achievement be, in a being for whom it is all easy? What would be the rules of the game? [Bolded emphasis mine.]

But the real appeal of Penelope, and of the mortal world, compared to heaven, is the possibility of stories. We root for Odysseus to choose Penelope over immortality, says Nussbaum, because of

this more general uneasiness about the shapelessness of the life Calypso offers: pleasure and kindliness and on and on, with no risks, no possibility of sacrifice, no grief, no children. All we need to do to see this is to compare accounts of lovemaking. Odysseus and Calypso “withdrew, and in a recess of the arching cavern they took their pleasure in love, and did not leave one another’s side.” That’s the end of that; the poet can say no more; for they have nothing to talk about, since they have done nothing and nothing has happened to them. As for the human husband and wife:

The two in their room enjoyed the delights of love, then pleased one another with recounting what had befallen each. The queen told how much she had suffered in these halls, seeing always there the pernicious multitude of suitors who in wooing her had slaughtered so many beasts, fat sheep and oxen, and drawn so much wine from the great jars. The king told of the harm he had done to others and the misery he had endured himself. Penelope listened to him enraptured, and sleep did not fall upon her eyelids till he had told his tale to the end. [Oddyssey, V.226-27, XXIII.300-09, W. Shewring transl.]

It’s perfectly plain that the human pair are, at least from the viewpoint of the human reader, more interesting and more erotic. A sexuality divorced from conversation, from storytelling, from risk and adventure and the sharing of risk and adventure, seems extremely boring; and we feel that it is a great tribute to the goddess’s beauty that Odysseus retains his interest in her, after so much time.

Life is quite unbearable, for a human, without the “risk and adventure” of a story-bound life. What we are looking for when we look for the “meaning of life” is the greater story. The unfortunate truth, suggested by science and vehemently denied by religion, is that there is no greater story. We may make up stories and allow them to shape our perceptions, but ultimately there is no story. We are all living in the epilogue of reality, or rather worse, because there never was a story. For many of us, our personal stories have run out – and it’s extremely difficult to push oneself into a new story once you see that all stories are vanity. It is like the difficulty of staying in a dream once one realizes one is dreaming.

The Cheery and the Damned

Why are drugs, prostitution, gambling and suicide illegal, when they clearly give so much relief to suffering people? I think it is because, at a societal level, we are deluded into thinking that happiness is possible, maybe even easy or likely, without these things. I have called this cheery social policy.

The fundamental problem with this sort of cheeriness is the assumption that a good life – a pleasant life – is relatively easy to achieve. Cheery people are able to hold such a belief because they 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.

There is a majority belief that we need not use extraordinary means to achieve a happy and meaningful life. Behaviors that deviants 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 cheery people as perplexing and frightening. 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.

Jason Roy’s “Explanations for drug war” makes this point with respect to the drug prohibition. He quotes John Gray’s Straw Dogs:

Drug use is a tacit admission of a forbidden truth. For most people happiness is beyond reach. Fulfillment is found not in daily life but escaping from it. Since happiness is unavailable, the mass of mankind seeks pleasure.

Religious cultures could admit that earthly life was hard, for they promised another in which all tears would be wiped away. Their humanist successors affirm something still more incredible — that in future, even the near future, everyone can be happy. Socieities founded on a faith in progress cannot admit the normal unhappiness of human life. As a result, they are bound to wage war on those who seek an artificial happiness in drugs.

But it is not necessarily the case that prohibitionists think that life is great. It’s that they think it is meaningful – that we are in a story, and it’s worth participating in, win or lose.

The idea that life is inherently worthwhile, and happiness easy to achieve, underlies many social policies, including prohibitions (legal or moral) on suicide, abortion, nonmarital sex, drugs, gambling, and even eating fatty food.

On the other hand, if life were not inherently worthwhile, suicide would be understandable, and bringing a new life into the world would not be an unqualified good, but an uneasy question mark. Sex, drugs, and fun would be appropriate ways to treat oneself for the unwanted condition of life.

Palliative Care: A Double Standard for People in the Epilogue

The terminally ill are at the end of their story. If you’re going to die anyway, what does it matter what you do? Take ecstasy. Go skydiving. Fuck a prostitute. Kill yourself. Who cares?

There is a sense that, once you’re terminally ill and an official short-timer in life, what you do ceases to really matter. This is, I think, at the heart of the double standard our society imposes with regard to suicide and the other activities mentioned above. If you’re young and healthy, you have an obligation to stay alive and be sober and responsible. But if you’re toast anyway, anything goes. For the dying, we can conceive of allowing them pleasure as mercy. But we are not so eager to offer mercy to healthy people. That is because we mistakenly believe in the concept of health.

Toward Social Policy as Palliative Care

We are all terminally ill. Not one of us is going to survive. And our stories are delusions. Each one of us lives in The Matrix – a story-dream created by our minds. Happiness is not easy; meaning is elusive. Young, healthy people who find themselves miserable, or find that they no longer inhabit a story, have even more need of the kind of “palliative care” that we offer to terminally ill people, simply because young people have so much more time to get through. Eighty years! Ninety years! A hundred years of epilogue ahead of us. It’s crushingly boring to ponder. As Martha Nussbaum says,

When Calypso speaks of “calm possession of this domain,” our hearts sink; for there’s no story in that. . . . Stories have shaped and continue to shape the readers’ desires, giving them a preference for onward movement over stasis, for risk over self-sufficiency, for the human form of time over divine timelessness. They play upon and nourish the emotions — fear, anticipation, grief, hope — that presuppose the form of life of a being both needy and resourceful, both active and finite — and that seem to have their point and function only within the context of such a life.

Regarding antinatalism, someone recently asked me if it was my belief that the bad outweighed the good, or whether I thought they weren’t even comparable. I believe the latter. Ray Brassier, in his introduction to Thomas Ligotti’s excellent The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, puts it thus:

The optimist fixes the exchange rate between joy and woe, thereby determining the value of life. The pessimist, who refuses the principle of exchange and the injunction to keep investing in the future no matter how worthless life’s currency in the present, is stigmatized as an unreliable investor.

This is the view from hell. Hell is not the state of experiencing a great deal of suffering with no pleasure to “balance it out.” Hell is popping out of the notion of meaning altogether. And this Hell is the meta-condition that we are all in, whether we perceive it or not.

Memento mori

Written by Sister Y

December 8, 2010 at 9:54 pm

Why Can’t Critical Theory Be More . . . Critical?

with 6 comments

Jean-Christophe Lurenbaum, self-described “militant au planning familial” (which I totally want on my business cards), recently published his master’s thesis, entitled Naître est-il dans l’intérêt de l’enfant? (Is birth in the interest of the baby?) at the Université Pierre Mendès France.

M. Lurenbaum makes a very important point: the modern value of preventing suffering is at odds with the ancient value of procreation. We as human beings use various strategies to avoid confronting this conflict, including outright denial of science.

But Lurenbaum is writing critical theory (French feminist critical theory, no less), not science, and he denies science (or makes bullshit assumptions that elide scientific thinking) in his own way. Here is an exemplary claim (p. 25):

Ces indices attestent une création tardive du concept de père, suivie de la mise en place d’un contrôle masculin sur le pouvoir de reproduction des femmes après l’invention de l’élevage : le moment de l’invention de l’élevage focalise donc le soupçon d’une découverte d’un rôle masculin dans la reproduction. [Emphasis in original.]

These observations attest to a relatively late creation of the concept of the father, followed by the development of male control over the reproductive power of women after the invention of agriculture: the moment of invention of agriculture is the moment when mankind first suspects that men have a role in reproduction. [Translation mine.]

Essentially, the claim is that pre-agricultural people did not understand how sexual reproduction works. (Lurenbaum maintains that there are cultures to this day that lack the concept of a father.) This is at odds with the evidence that pre-agricultural peoples do, in fact, understand where babies come from, as evidenced not only directly by ethnographic records, but indirectly by the universality of punishment of female adultery and other means of proprietary control of female sexual capacity by men.

I think that even “true stories” are dangerous, because a “story” is a way of thinking about events (a particularly human, conscious way) that implies that events may be meaningful. “True” “stories” are dangerous because life is actually meaningless, and “stories” make us falsely believe that life is meaningful, and that the actual fact of suffering can be justified by subsequent events, the attitude of the sufferer, etc. But this story of Lurenbaum’s, while deployed toward a noble conclusion, is a false one. I will be the first to admit that humans are stupid monkeys, but even the behavior of literal monkeys reflects the importance of genetic paternity.

Lurenbaum’s entire text is steeped in the myth that, because representations of goddesses are more common in some ancient cultures than representations of male gods, ancient societies must have been literally female-dominated. This is so retarded that it makes the baby Jesus cry, yet it is a core belief of science-denying academic feminist critical theory. It’s just as stupid and falsifiable as a claim of a weeping statue, and it is protected from rational analysis in the way that other culturally important myths are protected.

The idea that the imperative to reproduce is a patriarchal human construction is one that can only be held by a denier of evolutionary biology – or at least someone whose understanding of human evolutionary history is confused.

I will give Lurenbaum props for reminding me that Hitler was an unashamed pronatalist (p. 130). Do you love Hitler? Yes? Then have more babies!

Thanks to Chip for sending me this article, and to Jim for independently posting it at

Written by Sister Y

December 7, 2010 at 6:11 pm

30% of Children Wish They’d Never Been Born

with 15 comments

Chip Smith points to a study, published in the American Journal of Sociology in 1932, with the surprising result that 30% of a broad sample of children studied expressed a wish never to have been born. (I know someone pointed me to this before, but I forget who it was.)

Life’s cheerleaders will no doubt argue that such wishes, while common, are most likely fleeting and not of a serious nature. However, I think this study must suggest to even the cheeriest of us that most people’s feelings toward life are ambivalent from the very beginning of mature consciousness. A feeling of certainty that anyone brought into being will be grateful to his creators is not justified. The essential value of one’s own life is not a feeling universally shared.

Many, many people are not glad to be alive. They are among the most seriously wronged by being brought into existence. But (and the author of the above study is a case in point) their position is pathologized and not taken seriously; even though cheeriness is not the universal position, it is assumed to be the correct position. Any deviation from gratitude for life does not, from the dominant point of view, need to be sincerely considered.

Written by Sister Y

September 30, 2010 at 5:16 pm

A Duty to Rape?

with 23 comments

Robin Hanson gamely bites the bullet I offer up in my Rape Doctor Hypothetical, a thought experiment I devised to test intuitions about risks of inflicting harm and benefit on others, in cases where a proxy for consent must be used because actual consent is impossible.

Consent is nice, when you can get it. When consent is impossible, as it often is – when providing medical care for unconscious patients, for example, or when parents make decisions for their children (at least preverbal children), or when we bring a new being into life – we must decide whether to use a proxy for consent. These might include:

  • Ex-post ratification (examined in my piece The Moral Effect of “Being Glad It Happened”)
  • Predictions based on the ex-post ratifications of similarly-situated others (as I think Robin Hanson would have us use in the procreation case)
  • Predictions based on a mental model of the nonconsenting being, including perhaps its likely utility function and the costs and benefits of the action.

All of these, of course, involve probabilities; they are unlikely to be perfect, and are in fact virtually guaranteed to result in some margin of error. How good should we require the predictions to be before using them? How much risk is too much for the nonconsenting beings we are acting on behalf of?

Many accepted proxies for consent are used to avoid harm (e.g., treating an unconscious patient to save his life – since most people wish to remain alive). But what about using proxies for consent to provide a pure benefit – with some risk of harm?

Please read my whole hypothetical for details, but in short, I posit a situation in which a doctor has identified a class of patients with Forced Sexual Contact Arousal Syndrome, who are only capable of sexual arousal through rape and will be benefited, not harmed, by being raped:

Based on his research, Dr. A has statistical grounds to believe that, of FSAD patients who meet Criteria A, B, C, and D, 99.9% will experience sexual enjoyment exclusively from forced sexual contact. Beyond that, Dr. A notices that his FSCAS patients who have been raped are much more socially and emotionally well-adjusted than those who have not. It is statistically reasonable for him to believe that, out of 1000 patients with FSCAS who have not been raped, 999 will experience a great deal of sexual enjoyment and a much better quality of life if raped; one will experience the usual extreme distress that rape would cause a normal woman.

So should Dr. A rape his patients? Robin Hanson says: “I’ll bite the bullet and say that the rape has expected good consequences in this case.” I take this to mean that the special rape under these circumstances is at least permissible, and perhaps that Dr. A even has a duty to rape his FSCAS patients.

Intuitions are the stuff of ethics. Here, Robin Hanson is taking (I think) a position I describe in my article as an extreme form of consequentialism – the idea that the suffering of a few is offset by the pleasure of others. It is the move from humane Pareto efficiency to ugly, realist Kaldor-Hicks efficiency – that the suffering of a few is a fair price for the benefit of the many, even if that suffering is not consented to.

Hanson and I disagree as to whether a 99.9% chance of pleasure and life benefit is worth a 0.1% chance of the ordinary harm of rape. A more general phrasing of the question is this:

The Dilemma of Impossible Consent: In cases where consent is impossible and a proxy for consent must be used, how risk-averse should we be on behalf of those our decisions will affect?

My answer to this, supported by my own intuition and what I see as commonly-held intuition across a variety of situations, is: extremely risk-averse. In addition to the thought experiment above, I examine this notion in my post on dosing strangers with ecstasy. Seana Shiffrin examines this position in her paper “Wrongful Life, Procreative Responsibility, and the Significance of Harm” (Legal Theory 5:117-148, 1999), which I summarize here. It is a notion that is usually uncontroversial – except when it is brought to someone’s attention that antinatalism is among its ethical conclusions.

How risk-averse should we be when potentially dealing out unconsented harm to others? I think the position Robin Hanson is articulating is: not that risk-averse. How risk-averse, then? As I mention in the comments, how far would we have to skew the probability in the Rape Doctor Hypothetical to make the rape impermissible (or, if there is a duty to rape under my facts, to make it permissible to refuse)?

There is a related question which I think is separate from the first, and that is:

The Dilemma of Uncompensated Suffering: To what extent may a few be made to suffer greatly, without their consent, so that many people will be benefited?

This is a separate question from the first, although both are appropriate perspectives to consider in the case of creating or refusing to create a person (and raping or refusing to rape a likely rape-beneficiary). The first question inquires how we should treat risk in a decision affecting a non-consenting other; the second inquires how we should balance and compare interpersonal utility functions.

I am interested in (but have not encountered) a strong defense of the position that some may (or must) be sacrificed for the benefit of many. John Leslie carefully considers the issues in his book The End of the World: the Science and Ethics of Human Extinction (he’s anti-extinction, by the way), but acknowledges that he fails to provide anything like a proof of the position. (Note that this was written before Benatar’s Better Never to have Been was published, and Leslie does not consider Benatar’s arguments.)

Again, ethics must be based on intuitions. The most interesting ethics happens when intuitions conflict. My intuition is that it is never permissible to seriously harm one in order to provide a pure benefit to many; Robin Hanson’s intuition (and that of many others) is that this is fine, under some circumstances. My intuition is that we must be very risk-averse on behalf of others if we may harm them seriously without their consent; Robin Hanson’s intuition (and that of many others) is that we can be utility-maximizing without any special regard for risk-aversion. In other words, there are real ethical disagreements regarding the basic intuitions underlying the ethics of reproduction.

In addition to my two dilemmas, I pose a third:

Dilemma of Ethical Uncertainty: Given ethical disagreement between epistemic peers, what is the proper course of action in the real world regarding reproduction?

See also Chip Smith’s One Man’s Exquisite Treasure.

Correction: I incorrectly refer to risk aversion (preference for certainty) throughout this piece when I mean loss aversion (desire to avoid harm is greater than desire to realize gain of the same magnitude). I leave the text as is since comments were made before I noticed my error. In other news, I have a hard time telling left from right and I tend to pronounce “scourge” phonetically.

Written by Sister Y

September 13, 2010 at 5:13 pm

The Pathetic Golem

with 3 comments

Robin Hanson, gamely considering the question of who should be brought into existence, outlines a model that’s something like R.M. Hare’s Golden Rule, plus economic efficiency:

Economically, creature X should exist if it wants to exist and it can pay for itself. That is, in a supply and demand world, if our only choice is whether X should exist, then an X that wants to exist should actually exist if its lifespan cost of resources used (including paying for any net externalities) is no more than the value it gives by working for others. [Similarly excerpted by Adam Ozimek on Modeled Behavior.]

In a comment on AO’s post, RH says:

Surely there are many kinds of creatures where we could know with great confidence that they prefer to exist. Exact copies of other already existing creatures, for example. Can you accept that these creatures should exist?

I see a very serious problem with the move from “X creature is happy to exist” to “It is morally correct to make more creatures like X creature.”

Say we make a golem out of clay, like in the old days. We bring it into existence to suffer a life of misery, as golems are want to have. But we endow it with a very special characteristic, along with life: the preference to exist. No matter what tortures we or the world inflict on our golem, it will keep on preferring to exist.

Is that moral? Can we create a Foxconn megafactory of such golems and keep them alive for miserable decade after miserable decade, with clean consciences?

The problem that I hope this raises is this: we expect preference to exist to be a function of quality of life, but it may actually be entirely independent from quality of life. People with every human advantage in the world (like me) often wish they had never been born; sick, suffering homeless people on the street often prefer to keep on living.

While I think we should respect an individual’s decision as to whether it wishes to keep on living, this does not form a good guide as to whether to bring new people into existence.

The worst part: a pasted-on “preference for life” is exactly the sort of cruel trick we could expect evolution to play. What could be more beneficial? Except, perhaps, an unshakable preference to reproduce.

Written by Sister Y

September 1, 2010 at 9:22 pm