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On the Moral Effect of the Bright Side of Things

with 25 comments

I have a question: is there any act, other than reproduction, that is widely perceived to be morally innocent, and that satisfies the following conditions?

  1. The actor knowingly inflicts serious harm on another
  2. who does not consent to the harm;
  3. the act does not prevent a more serious harm;
  4. the actor does not act in response to a wrong committed by the victim or others;
  5. and the harm is perceived to be justified by intrinsic or concurrently provided benefits. (I.e., the victim is asked to “look on the bright side.”)

The only examples I can think of involve questionable authoritarian treatment of children by their parents, which I think falls into the same category as reproduction – widely considered morally innocent, but actually quite sinister when considered in a broader context. (Also, generally parents justify their authoritarian treatment of children in terms of harm avoidance, rather than provision of a pure benefit.)

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Written by Sister Y

October 13, 2010 at 5:14 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

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

The Harms of Suicide

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Citizens considering the issue of suicide generally fall into one of two camps: those who condemn suicide (and people who commit it) on moral grounds, and those who, while acknowledging suicide’s awfulness, excuse those who commit suicide on grounds of mental illness. Along with Thomas Szasz, I fall outside either camp: suicide is a choice for which the actor is responsible – he is not automatically mentally ill for having chosen suicide – but I doubt whether it is often a morally wrong choice. Suicide is both usually morally permissible, and a genuine choice for which the actor bears moral responsibility.

In the interest of clarifying the moral issue of suicide, I wish to catalog the harms attributed to suicide, and, to the degree that space permits, to examine each harm in terms of blameworthiness and in relation to similar types of harm inflicted in other ways.

1. Harm to Survivors – Friends, Relatives, and Others

Suicide opponents often call suicide a form of murder – self-murder. The suicide is viewed as improperly taking himself away from his friends and relatives earlier than they expected – frustrating their expectations.

However, comparing suicide and murder is problematic. People who die by suicide are not “victims” in the sense that people who die by murder are. Consent is a powerful element, transforming rape into consensual sex, slavery into work, kidnapping into a vacation. A suicide’s survivors are not victims, I will argue, because the type of harm that they suffer is a type of harm that the suicide himself, and not a murderer, has a right to inflict as a double effect of refusing to live.

And it cannot be that the harm to survivors is the only – or even the major – reason that murder is wrong. The murder of a lonely person with no relatives is surely no less horrible (or not much less horrible) than the murder of a person with many relatives. Daly & Wilson point out that “tribal people may explain a particular act of seemingly unprovoked homicide to an appalled missionary or anthropologist by pointing out that the victim had no relatives” – that is, there was no danger of retaliation – but to a modern mind, this is hardly a moral defense (Homicide, p. 228).

How much of the harm to survivors is due, not to the suicide itself, but to the suicide prohibition? An ASBS writer writing as “EverDawn” asserts that a great deal of the harm to survivors of suicide – in particular, the perception of suicide as “tragic” – is an artifact of the policy of suicide prevention and its attendant doctrines:

Perceiving an event as tragic makes it difficult to come to terms with, in contrast to an event which is just sad. If a sad event couldn’t have and shouldn’t have been prevented, then there is no blame to be placed, and nobody to be angry at. But a tragic event raises the questions: how could it be prevented, who should have prevented it. This leads to anger (when blaming others) and despair (when blaming self). The questions linger on, unanswered, making it far more difficult to come to terms with the event.

We have been led to believe that suicide should be prevented because suicide is tragic, when in fact, the reason why suicide is tragic is because society has chosen a policy of suicide prevention. Suicide is a sad event, however, the perception of suicide as tragic is a result of the choice society has made – a choice which society is responsible for. Ultimately, society is to blame for the negative consequences of this choice. [Emphasis mine.]

a. Loss of Company, Support, and Other Expected Goods

The most commonly cited harm inflicted by suicide is the harm to the surviving friends and relatives. What, exactly, does that harm consist of? Certainly, it is not merely the fact that the person has died. Everyone dies eventually; suicides are not unique in this. Family and friends must eventually come to terms with all of our deaths. The only special harm attributable to the suicide is that he has died early. The survivors are deprived of an expected period of the company and support of the person who has committed suicide – specifically, that period between the time of suicide and the time the person would have otherwise died. During that time, the lover or spouse no longer enjoys the affection of the suicide, the relative no longer enjoys his visits and presents and sidewalk-shoveling, the friend no longer enjoys his opinions and companionship, the parent may no longer hope for grandchildren.

The problem is that little of this “company and support” (and reproductive capacity) is morally obligatory. A person may, without committing a moral wrong, leave his spouse due to irreconcilable differences or move away from his friends and relatives to pursue a career or refuse to have children. Providing our company is a voluntary act, and we are under no moral obligation to do so. The company and support of a person is a privilege, not a right – with the important exception of a person’s voluntarily conceived children (there is a moral duty to care for one’s children that renders the suicide of a parent of dependent children, rebuttably, wrong).

The losses inherent in a suicide are real, but unlike the losses inherent in a murder, they may be inflicted in the exercise of a moral right. At the very least, we are generally permitted to inflict those losses in other contexts. If suicide is prohibited because of the harm to our mothers, should we also be legally forbidden to move away from our mothers?

(See also, “Is Suicide a Waste?“)

b. Knowledge of Permanent Loss

A loss of companionship and support is upsetting, but perhaps a suicide is worse than moving away, because it creates a knowledge in the survivors that the loss is permanent. It removes hope of an eventual return and reconciliation.

But do people have a right to this (often irrational) hope? Move-away losses and other estrangements are frequently permanent. While the knowledge of the permanence of the loss may be painful, it is also valuable to know the truth. The survivor of a suicide may be in this way better off than the person left behind in an estrangement he stupidly refuses to admit is permanent.

c. Discovering and Disposing of the Body

A very visceral harm must be suffered by someone in any suicide: the discovery and disposal of the body. Where the discoverer is a relative or close associate, the shock must be even greater.

While discovering the body of one’s spouse or friend or child must necessarily be awful, it is (a) an artifact of the suicide prohibition that this must happen, and (b) possibly preferable to a suicide’s being “missing” for days or weeks (or more) prior to discovery. Given the suicide prohibition, privacy and a controlled environment are essential to a suicide’s success; his own home is often the only place where these are possible. Legal, preplanned suicide, perhaps taking place in a hospital, would eliminate this harm. (See “In Defense of the Man Whose Wife Finds Him Hanged” for more on this.)

Frequently, as with suicides who jump in front of trains, another must suffer the great harm of being the unwilling agent of death for the suicide. This is unfortunate, and I see these suicides as particularly morally questionable. However, this harm (in fact, this type of suicide) is an artifact of the suicide prohibition and would disappear if reliable suicide that did not cause harm to bystanders were commonly available.

Everyone dies of something. And we can’t bury ourselves. Therefore, for every human being who has ever lived, someone must discover and dispose of the body (except, perhaps, for those who expect to be bodily lifted to Heaven by fairies upon expiring). It is mistaken to attribute this harm only to suicides. It is part of our humanity that we must inflict this harm on others – suicides and non-suicides alike.

2. Harm to the Suicide Himself

Those comfortable with paternalism often argue that suicide must be prevented – indeed, it displays a lack of compassion to allow it – because of the harm to the suicide himself.

a. Loss of Future Experiences

The harm inflicted by the suicide upon himself must be the deprivation of future experiences. Think of all the puppies and sunsets the successful suicide will miss out on!

However, by committing suicide, a person affirms that, in his evaluation, the expected future gains from living are not worth the expected costs. A number of people support this line of thinking when in comes to people dying of a terminal illness. But why would people dying of a terminal illness be the only people miserable enough to rationally want to die? Hope is not necessarily rational. Prohibiting suicide amounts to substituting one’s own (poorly informed) judgment for the suicide’s own (immeasurably better informed) judgment of the degree to which his life is worth living.

I have argued elsewhere that suicide is not, as many believe, the irrational product of mental illness. But what about suicide committed on impulse? Perhaps a person’s “self” evaluates the situation at time t and decides that suicide is preferable, but later, at time t plus 24 hours, he might decide he was mistaken, and dearly wish to keep living.

First, given the existing barriers to suicide, a suicide that appears “impulsive” may actually reflect the genuine rational desires of the suicide. The person who rationally prefers to die may be unfairly prevented from doing so by legal and practical barriers; he may need an “impulse” to push him over the edge and enact his rational desire. (I experienced this with my most serious suicide attempt, and I would definitely feel benefited from a renewed “impulse.”)

Second, there is evidence that suicidality is not impulsive and fleeting, but is in fact very permanent over the lifespan.

Third, even if we could be certain that a would-be suicide would be glad to be rescued (we can’t), this would not be a strong moral reason to prohibit suicide. The victim’s being “glad it happened” after the fact does not render interference morally justifiable.

b. Harm from an Unsuccessful Suicide Attempt

Harm inflicted by an unsuccessful suicide attempt is entirely an artifact of the suicide prohibition, not a harm inherent in suicide.

c. Failed Signaling

Many consider the proper response to a suicide attempt to be to universally interpret it as a cry for help. A successful suicide may be seen, then, as a failed signal for help. But this attitude benefits neither serious suicides, nor would-be signalers! Again, the idea of “failed signaling” is an artifact of the suicide prohibition.

In order for a person to send a reliable signal, the suicide attempt must appear lethal while not actually being lethal. If comfortable, reliable suicide were legally and practically available, there would be very little value in choosing any other method, and any other method would be less lethal than the medical option. This would interfere with the apparent lethality communicated by a suicide attempt, thereby decreasing the motivation to make a “signal” attempt in the first place.

What an insincere suicide attempter – a “signaler” – really wants is to be rescued. That is, he wants to be forcibly prevented from committing suicide, because he does not really want to commit suicide. Remove the possibility for rescue, and you remove this insincere suicide’s motivation to make the potentially harmful attempt in the first place. It is the suicide prohibition, and not suicide itself, that causes this harm to the would-be signaler.

Written by Sister Y

November 11, 2008 at 5:46 am

Suicide and Leprosy: The Ethics of Voluntary Isolation

with 10 comments

Imagine a person with leprosy, in the days before the invention of dapsone. This person has done nothing wrong to contract leprosy; nevertheless, there are certain precautions that this person could take to avoid transmitting the disease to others: namely, isolation. This person does not in any sense deserve either leprosy or isolation; nevertheless, the morally right thing to do is for this person to voluntarily isolate herself away from those who have not contracted the disease, including her own family and friends.

Similarly, although a potential suicide has done nothing wrong to be born, and although, I argue, the action of committing suicide is not morally wrong, the suicide can limit the harm his suicide will cause to those close to him by voluntarily isolating himself prior to committing suicide, just like the person with leprosy.

The suicide of one’s spouse or lover is much more devastating and personally affecting than the suicide of one’s former spouse or lover. While the latter may be painful and induce unpleasant feelings on the part of the surviving ex-lover or ex-spouse, it has much less chance of producing the shock and despair that are often the result of the suicide of one’s current spouse or lover. Given this clear differential of harm, I think a suicide owes a duty to his lover or spouse to end the relationship well prior to committing suicide.

This rationale also holds true for one’s friends. The suicide of a close friend is bound to be traumatic; however, the suicide of a former friend to whom one hasn’t spoken in years may barely affect one at all, beyond prodding some interesting reflection on life and mortality. Suicides should think carefully about ending close social relationships well ahead of the act in order to lessen the harm the act may cause.

Family relationships may not, as a practical matter, be ended. I am not sure what can be done to lessen the pain of one’s suicide to one’s relatives. My own informal study of news reports of various suicides seems to indicate, however, that family members are most accepting of the suicide of a close relative when they were aware of the suicidal person making a great effort to live during his life. The suicide of a person who “tried everything,” who struggled mightily during his life, and whose desire to die was obvious for a long time, seems to be less emotionally devastating to his family than a suicide that the family perceives as impulsive or random.

Finally, if a person decides conclusively to commit suicide, it is morally imperative to end any therapeutic relationship with a psychologist or psychiatrist, leaving as long an interval as possible between the end of the therapeutic relationship and the suicide. First, it is hard to imagine a therapist not feeling responsible for the death of his patient, whereas a former therapist may not hear of the suicide at all, and if he does, will likely feel less responsible for the death. Second, the suicide must recognize that his therapist may actually be sued by his survivors for failing to prevent his suicide. Someone who commits suicide months or years after formally ending the therapeutic relationship will not put his therapist in this troubling situation.

Written by Sister Y

September 30, 2008 at 8:10 pm

Tort Law and the Harm of Death

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A question related both to philanthropic antinatalism (especially what some see as its apocalyptic implications) and to suicide rights is the question of whether death is a harm to the person who dies. Objections to death being a harm to the deceased person are that nothing can be a harm unless it is perceived by the harmed person, and that, if there are non-conscious harms, it is difficult to assign the harm to a subject. Thomas Nagel, in his essay “Death,” in Mortal Questions, grounds the special harm of death in the idea of deprivation: the subject is deprived (of future experiences), so to the extent that his life would have been worth continuing, he is harmed by death.

But even if death deprives a person of something, what harm is it to him, since he does not suffer by the deprivation? The case that Nagel finds convincing is that of an intelligent adult reduced, through traumatic brain injury, to the mental capacity of an infant. Surely, for Nagel, this person has been harmed, though he does not realize it or perceive it. Nagel, however, imagines this objection, which I imagine would be Jim’s objection:

He does not mind his condition. It is in fact the same condition he was in at the age of three months, except that he is bigger. If we did not pity him then, why pity him now; in any case, who is there to pity? The intelligent adult has disappeared, and for a creature like the one before us, happiness consists in a full stomach and a dry diaper. [Prurient emphasis mine.]

Nagel, of course, does not find this objection persuasive. He sees the harm as occurring, not to the brain-damaged person, but to the healthy person prior to the injury, in having been reduced to such a state. In other words, Nagel is willing to assign harm backwards in time. But is this so strange?

For a long time, I had a hard time intuitively understanding sexual jealousy. It seemed to have about the same objective reality as the cultural tradition of celebrating birthdays or saying “bless you” when someone sneezes. And, as an irrational, ridiculous, harmful social construct, it deserved no respect, and existed only to be eradicated. However, I have since been convinced by evolutionary psychology data that sexual jealousy is very much real, in the sense that it is not “socially constructed” like birthdays, and causes people genuine anguish. Though it is not intuitive to me, it is only proper to recognize that other people feel harmed by it, rather than assume they are making it all up. (Incidentally, the violent sexual jealousy suffered by humans, coupled with the sexual exuberance that humans also display, seems to function as a very real limitation on human happiness, at least given our current biological make-up.)

If harm can never occur unless someone perceives it as a harm, then we must take the position that sexual infidelity does no harm to the cuckolded partner, even where monogamy is promised, unless it is discovered. This presents two problems. First, it conflicts with the widely-held intuition that sexual infidelity is a harm to the unaware partner. If you refuse to sleep with your friend’s girl, you say, “I wouldn’t do that to my buddy” – not “I wouldn’t do that because it might get discovered.” Second, and related to this, is that when a person discovers that he has been betrayed sexually, he does not date the harm to the discovery; he dates it, most certainly, to the incident of the infidelity. (He is not sad that he found out; given the infidelity, he will probably say he is glad to have found out. He is sad that the infidelity occurred.) In cases like this, at least, it is common to backwards-date harm; are we forbidden to do this with the harm of death simply because, given our conception of time, causality cannot actually move backwards?

I must say that I am not entirely convinced of the rightness of either position; the idea that harm can occur when there is no one to perceive it is intuitively strange to me, but the objections commonly offered do not leave my mind easy, either. (See O.H. Green’s “Fear of Death,” in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 43, No. 1, Sep. 1982, pp. 99-105, for a view on how death may be wrong (or “evil”) without actually being a harm.) I am persuaded by the arguments, however, and by the obviously conflicting intuitions of others, to the point where I have severe doubts about the goodness of ending life where a person wishes to continue to live, as prescribed in the “apocalyptic imperative” case.

I want to digress briefly to point out that, in the above-mentioned essay, “Death,” Nagel articulates both a pro-natalist position and the idea that not being born is not a misfortune (usually the more contentious half of the antinatalist asymmetry) in the same paragraph:

The fact that Beethoven had no children may have been a cause of regret to him, or a sad thing for the world, but it cannot be described as a misfortune for the children that he never had. All of us, I believe, are fortunate to have been born. But unless good and ill can be assigned to an embryo, or even to an unconnected pair of gametes, it cannot be said that not to be born is a misfortune.

But back to the harm of death. What I want to explain here is that American tort law, interestingly, accords with the view that death is not a harm to the person who dies, even when that person is killed by the wrongdoing of another!

When a person dies through the wrongful act of another, whether negligent, reckless, or intentional, there are two separate lawsuits (“causes of action,” in legalspeak) that may be pursued. First is what is called the survival action. To call it a “survival action” means that the right to sue existed while the person was alive, and continues after his death. (If someone is legally wronged during his life, he does not lose the right to sue for a remedy if he dies; his estate retains the right to sue for wrongs committed against him during his life.) Second is the wrongful death action, created by statute, to give the relatives of a deceased person a remedy for being deprived of his company and support.

The reason I claim that tort law accords with the notion that death is not a harm to the dead person is that, in the survival action, the decedent may only recover for harm that he experienced during his life. He may recover, for instance, medical expensed incurred prior to death, and for pain and suffering experienced prior to his death. But he gets nothing for being deprived of his life. As the court in the O.J. Simpson civil appeal (Rufo v. Simpson, (2002) 86 Cal. App. 4th 573) noted, in very quick killings, the only “compensatory damages” available may be for the damage to the victim’s clothing. (Punitive damages are available, interestingly, in the survival action for an intentional killing, even if compensatory damages are quite small; this accords with the strange idea proposed by O.H. Green that death may be evil, but not a harm!)

The harm of the death itself is recognized only in the wrongful death action – that is, as a harm to the survivors, not to the decedent himself. Interestingly, this is applied even where the survivors are suing a mental health practitioner for failing to prevent a suicide – the damage is recognized as harming the survivors, not the decedent. It is hard to square tort law’s failure to recognize death as a harm to the decedent with the alacrity with which other areas of the law impede suicide.

Apparently Eliezer Yudkowsky thinks death is a harm, though he doesn’t explain to whom, because “death events” create “negative utility.” Negative utility to survivors? Potential dead people who might fear death? In any case, how can something create negative utility if the people whose utility is to be measured are all dead? Surely there’s someone who’d be very happy to be alone in the world, happier than the average person currently alive. (Average utilitarianism suffers from some of the same problems as utilitarianism based on summing utility.)

[Quotation from poster]Unknown:

“Besides (in the usual single world): is Eliezer willing to kill off everyone except the happiest person, therefore raising the average?”

No. Because that creates Death events, which are very large negative utilities.

Sigh. Seriously, though, dude’s brilliant and I’d like to know what his essential values are.

Edit: Eliezer points to an explanation of his views on happiness and value in his essay, “Not for the Sake of Happiness (Alone).”

Written by Sister Y

June 5, 2008 at 1:22 pm

Birth and Consent: An Alternate Philanthropic Route to Antinatalism

with 54 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Sister Y

May 19, 2008 at 8:15 pm