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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

Why Engage in Rational Argument?

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The very wise Robert Todd Carroll, author of the Skeptic’s Dictionary, made my day with an insightful essay (DEFINITELY worth reading in its short entirety) about the purpose of critical thinking and rational argument in a world where our interlocutors rarely seem to value those things. Arguments, online and in meatspace, are often emotionally difficult and seemingly counterproductive; no one ever seems to change his mind, so why bother?

Carroll’s reader laments:

I . . . find it frustrating and upsetting when people make me feel I’m wrong or crazy when I, very diplomatically, describe a more rational, objective, or philosophical explanation, when other people follow irrational paths.

Carroll correctly notes that rationality, the practice of critical reasoning, is a very unnatural mode for humans – it’s not what we evolved to do. Valuing truth above one’s own interests is hardly evolutionarily beneficial behavior. And people don’t tend to admit that you’ve changed their minds.

But, Carroll says, rational argument has several major purposes, even if it doesn’t seem to change anyone’s mind: first, argument benefits us directly by promoting our own truth-seeking function:

It is pleasurable to seek out the best evidence available and construct the best argument possible. It is pleasurable to explore a strong argument that goes against what you believe. Either you find weaknesses and fallacies in the argument (strengthening the confidence in your conviction) or you realize the error of your ways. Either way, you benefit. Examining arguments, especially arguments that seem counterintuitive, is the only way we can arrive at the most reasonable beliefs possible.

Mostly, though, argument serves the purpose of (a) potentially changing an observer’s mind (especially important for web arguments), (b) changing an interlocutor’s mind later, when face-saving is no longer an issue; and (c) figuring out whether we ourselves might be wrong. Carroll says:

The dynamics of changing minds are complex, but I hope for two things by confronting the errors of others in a public forum: I hope they will later reconsider their views in light of the evidence and arguments I present, and I hope others who are not directly in the fray, but who are interested in the subject and interested in getting it as right as possible, will read the discussion and see that I have the better evidence and arguments. I also remain open to the possibility that I might be wrong and that some observer will provide me with the evidence and argument to show me the error of my ways.

Take heart, fellow antinatalists and other thought criminals.

Written by Sister Y

August 12, 2010 at 5:26 pm

Society for the Protection of Possible Future People

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Adam Ozimek at Modeled Behavior applies the successive-selves metaphysics suggested by neuroscience (examined in detail in, among others, Jennifer Radden’s 1996 book Divided Minds and Successive Selves: Ethical Issues in Disorders of Identity and Personality) to the issue of suicide. He argues:

If one seriously considers the future self as a separate self, it seems to me a serious challenge the Szaszian idea that mental illness is just extreme preferences and that suicide should be respected and allowed as a legitimate exercise of choice; if our future selves are separate selves, then suicide is murder. [Emphasis mine.]

TGGP disagrees on the ground that our present selves and future selves have such united interests that they should be thought of as a single entity. Practically speaking, “If suicide is murder, then spending in the present is theft from a future self, sex is rape and a boxing match is battery,” says TGGP.

This is certainly the reason that “successive selves” thinking will never catch on, true as it may be. Then we couldn’t lock people up for rapes and murders for long periods of time. (How do you punish a past self?) The entire justification for contract enforcement is destroyed.

But I think there’s a deeper reason that the suicide/murder analogy fails. I respond:

My future self is not anything other than a possibility. It’s a possible self. Even accepting the successive-selves view, suicide is no more murder than is abortion or contraception.

There’s a distinction between protecting the “right” of merely possible people to come into existence on the one hand, and protecting the interests of future people provided they come into existence on the other (as we do when we consider, e.g., environmental protection, budget deficits, etc.).

Written by Sister Y

April 1, 2010 at 3:41 am

Is Suicide a Waste?

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A highly publicized suicide of an attractive or talented person is commonly greeted with the sentiment, “what a waste!” The substance that is wasted may be named as talent, intelligence, beauty, or life itself, or may not be named. But, whatever is “wasted,” is it fair to blame a suicide for “wasting” it?

“Waste,” in this sense, connotes an immoral misuse of resources that might have been better directed elsewhere. It is wrong to misuse or fail to use scarce resources, because they might be better used by others. Wasting may often involve depriving someone else of the resource that is wasted.

The problem with describing suicide as a “waste” is that to do so engages the same fallacy a clever child detects in his mother’s command to eat his food, because children are starving elsewhere. “Can I send them this food, then?” the clever child might ask, pointing out that waste is only a genuine moral issue if the resource is truly transferable.

If a clueless benefactor buys me a non-transferable plane ticket for a vacation in Tanzania, but I can’t go because I’m an albino, it can’t be said that I have wasted the plane ticket (except maybe in a sort of visceral, aesthetic sense). I did nothing to waste the plane ticket – it was a useless gift, and could not be transferred to others with pressing business in Tanzania. The waste was committed by the person who ill-advisedly bought me the ticket – the money used to buy it could have been transferred to more worthy endeavors.

Where the substance allegedly wasted by the suicide is “life,” waste in the moral sense is clearly not present. Until laws are changed so that we suicides may donate our organs prior to suicide, life, like the ticket to Tanzania, is a non-transferable resource. The waste, in the case of a suicide, occurred when the suicide’s parents made the decision to give the “gift” of life to a person who, it turns out, had no use for it.

What if the substance “wasted” is not life itself, but rather talent, intelligence, or beauty? All these are scarce things, and others in the community may have benefited from the beauty or talent of a suicide, had he not decided to end his life. The potential to benefit is lost.

There are two responses to the idea that a suicide “wastes” his talent or beauty. One is the same response a wealthy person might make to a poor person in justifying his decision to “waste” money on a tenth automobile rather than buy the poor person a house; that is, “it’s not yours.” Or, to put it a different way: it is radically collectivist to think that we have a right to the resources of others – beyond perhaps guaranteeing a certain level of subsistence for all, we do not have a right even to each others’ money. Why should we have a right to each others’ physical and personality characteristics? Is a Muslim woman who veils committing a wrong by hiding her beauty from others? The person who, on finding out about a suicide, says “what a waste,” is really saying – “it’s too bad, I could have used him (or her).” This is hardly a noble sentiment.

The second response is the utilitarian calculation at the community level, including the suicide himself. While others may have benefited from a would-be suicide’s continued existence, their benefit would come only at an extreme cost to the suicide himself. If the overall cost of utilizing goods exceeds the benefit to be gained thereby, how can it be a “waste” to fail to use them?

Written by Sister Y

October 15, 2008 at 3:40 am

My Work on Antinatalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Sister Y

August 2, 2008 at 2:19 am

The Moral Effect of "Being Glad It Happened"

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In my post “When It’s Permissible To Force Someone To Stay Alive For His Own Good” and elsewhere, I have addressed the fact that many people who are forcibly prevented from committing suicide later report being glad they were forced to stay alive. This fact is often used to justify coercive suicide prevention practices.

Similarly, the vast majority of people appear to report that they are glad to have been born. This is occasionally used as a justification for procreation (against antinatalist arguments).

While I am not attempting, in this piece, to address the question of whether suicide or procreation is right or wrong, I wish to question the validity of the argument that goes something like this:

  1. Action
  2. Object of the action is later glad the action occurred
  3. Therefore, Action was morally correct.

I will jump right in with an illustrative counterexample: genital mutilation of children. In many countries, female children are subject to genital mutilation, usually for the purpose of maintaining their chastity by making sex painful or less pleasant, though sometimes for other purposes. Those of us who find the genital mutilation of children horrifying are confronted with the fact that, in many cases, women who were genitally mutilated as children grow up to participate in, and actively perpetrate in many cases, the genital mutilation of their own daughters. The fact that they practice genital mutilation on their own children is strong evidence that these woman are glad to have been genitally mutilated. But does this make forcible genital mutilation of children morally right? Clearly not.

In many cases, we may suffer wrongs that begin a chain of causation that leads to a subjectively good result. It should not take much introspection to come up with cases in our own lives when someone committed a wrong against us for which we were ultimately grateful, because the eventual consequences of the wrong were subjectively pleasant or otherwise beneficial. My claim is that this after-the-fact feeling of gladness does not render the initial act any less wrong.

More on the parallels between birth and female genital mutilation in my piece, “Birth and Consent: An Alternate Philanthropic Route to Antinatalism.”

The “glad it happened” justification seems to be a species of the Golden Rule Argument – if you’re glad you’re alive, have more babies (who will presumably be glad to be alive). If you’re glad you were prevented from committing suicide, prevent others from committing suicide. And so on. The problem with this line of thinking is people like me – people who are not happy to be alive, and who sincerely wish to die. What effect would a Golden Rule have when applied to me – should I go around killing people because I want to die? Hardly. It is moral for me to respect the lives and desires of others, just as I feel it is moral for others to respect my wish to die. I think “do unto others as you would like to have done unto you” has a serious flaw, and the variety of human experience is that flaw.

Obviously, the majority of people are happy to be alive. Perhaps the majority of “rescued” attempted suicides are even happy to have been rescued. But this line of thinking turns action into a consequentialist game of playing the odds. Respecting the values of individuals – even those with unusual desires – and placing a high value on consent, is a more coherent and appealing strategy. “Do unto others as they would have done unto them.”

Thanks to Sister Wolf for crystallizing the argument at her site!

Written by Sister Y

July 26, 2008 at 12:03 am

A List of My Responses to J. David Velleman Articles

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This is a list of various responses I have made to arguments that J. David Velleman advances against a right to suicide.

Life Rights and Death Rights – in which I briefly introduce, and more briefly consider, Velleman’s argument that giving (terminally ill or disabled) people a right to die harms them even if they are fully rational and can be trusted to make choices that maximize their various interests.

Velleman’s Sorrow of Options – in which I review Velleman’s pro-forced-life argument in more detail, attempt to identify problems with the argument, and apply the argument given different starting conditions to get shocking conclusions.

Respecting and Erasing, in which I respond to J. David Velleman’s pro-forced-life paper “A Right of Self-Termination?” In his article, Velleman proposes that suicide is nearly always morally wrong, because by taking one’s own life, one acts in such a way that denies the inherent value of a person in general. I argue that killing oneself (and destroying something in general) does not at all require denying a person’s (or a thing’s) value, and that a person or a thing that is absent often paradoxically has a high value.

Altruism and the Value of Life: Another Response to Velleman – in which I challenge the ideas set forth in “A Right of Self-Termination?” in a different way, this time by contrasting Velleman’s position (that suicide to end suffering is wrong because it involves trading “mere” agent-relative benefits for a human life) with the commonly-held intuition of the moral worthiness of altruistic suicides.

Written by Sister Y

July 17, 2008 at 6:25 am