The View from Hell

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Archive for the ‘intuition’ Category

Idea Contamination

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In an eloquent comment on my piece, “Is Suicide Selfish?Jim says,

But I think the suicide’s problem runs deeper, because his action is an affront to the prevailing mythos of the culture i.e. life is intrinsically good; or, at least, intrinsically worth the cost. He’s not only hurting those close to him in a personal, relatively superficial way; he’s actually souring the milk of foundational meaning that everybody’s sucking down. His threat has become transpersonal, and an insult to THE core belief of most of the species.

What most people tend to misunderstand is that these mythic structures weren’t originally top-down edifices; they arose from within pre-societies to support and satisfy individual emotional needs and desires en-masse. Of course, these things tend to take on a life of their own, in a feedback loop sort of way, and pretty soon people are hearing their own petty supplications magnified and bouncing back as the voice of God (or some other sort of moral authority; either concretized, or more abstract). So in a sense, the suicide is spitting in the face of God. And you’re not generally gonna get much of a rational…and dare I say, unselfish?… response to THAT! [Emphasis mine.]

I think Jim correctly identifies the source of the vitriol that citizens often direct toward proponents of suicide rights and antinatalism. The suicide, by his act, is making a statement that life is not worth living – and this challenges the deeply held, but largely unexamined, belief that most people seem to have, that life is a precious gift. Even for those of us who have long questioned life’s value, it’s easy to imagine the feelings of discomfort and fear that might come from being forced to confront, for the first time, the possibility that life is not so great. Suicide, even a mere discussion of suicide, forces people to confront the reality that many people do not think that life is worth living. (I previously posted on the fascist East German government’s response to its high suicide rate, a challenge to the government’s image, which was to at once vilify and ignore suicide.) The evidence from the “suicide contagion” studies shows that, indeed, suicide acts as a powerful social proof that life might not be worth living, that its value is at least questionable.

It is possible that people hate the idea that life is not worth living because many of them have invested a great deal of cognitive energy in believing that life is worth living, and have built ways of life on top of that fragile foundation. I’m reminded of the recent words of Ill. Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago), in arguing that atheism is a dangerous idea and children should not know that atheists exist:

It’s dangerous to the progression of this state. And it’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists! Now you will go to court to fight kids to have the opportunity to be quiet for a minute. But damn if you’ll go to [court] to fight for them to keep guns out of their hands. I am fed up! Get out of that seat! . . . You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying! You believe in destroying what this state was built upon.

I must admit, it is possible that God and the value of life are what “the state was built upon.” But that does not conjure them into existence, nor render it morally wrong to challenge their existence.


Written by Sister Y

June 3, 2008 at 10:51 pm

Benatar’s Account of Value (It’s Not Nihilism)

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Some have accused David Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence of nihilism. Where nihilism is taken to mean a rejection of intrinsic value, this is at least partially a mischaracterization of Benatar’s theory of value. While Benatar’s book does not explicitly detail the values that underlie his antinatalist position, it is unfair to say that there are no values to be found. I will try to unpack his account of values and take a look at its implications.

It is important to distinguish, as Benatar does, between value as seen from a universal perspective (things that are meaningful sub specie aeternitatis), on the one hand, and value to a particular person or to humanity (things that are meaningful sub specie humanitatis, on the other. Benatar’s theory in no way derogates, and in fact respects, values held by individuals and by humanity as a whole, so his position cannot be seen as nihilistic in that respect.

It is when it comes to value from the perspective of the universe that Benatar might be seen as nihilistic. In Benatar’s view, the pleasure, happiness, projects, and satisfaction that might be of value to an individual or to humanity are not actually valuable in a universal sense – that is, they are not valuable in the sense that if no one existed to experience them, it would not be a shame. But this is not quite nihilism, because suffering and pain, in Benatar’s view, have a sort of universal negative value – that is, if no one exists to experience pain, it is an intrinsically good thing. Put another way, from the perspective of nonexistence, someone coming into existence and experiencing pain would be a bad thing.

That this is an exclusively negative value is not much of an objection. If suffering and pain have negative value sub specie aeternitatis, then prevention of suffering and pain must have a sort of positive value.

Benatar’s views accord well with my own – that, although individual humans may find things valuable in relation to their lives, there is no universal meaning or value, except that suffering is, in a sense, a universal wrong. (Of course, suffering can only be experienced by sentient beings, so suffering will always be bad in relation to them, because without sentient beings, there can be no suffering. But in the sense that it is objectively worse for a sentient being to experience suffering than for the being not to have come into existence at all, it is a universal (negative) value.) I do not see any value in sentience or consciousness or life, compared to its utter absence in the universe. However, I prickle at the notion that this is nihilistic or misanthropic, because my feeling comes from the experience that human suffering is horrible, animal suffering is horrible, and there is nothing in the world to compensate for it.

However, I recognize that this view rests on a particular intuitional theory of value. Some might posit that sentience itself has value, or even that suffering itself has positive value. Some seem to take the continuation of humanity (non-extinction) as the primary value, such that no amount of suffering could ever make it not worthwhile to continue humanity. I currently see this as a clash-of-intuition situation, and am not sure how to counter it.

Written by Sister Y

May 8, 2008 at 11:42 pm