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The Sense of the Asymmetry

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In my most recent piece, “The Austrian Basement and Beyond: Consequences of Rejecting the Antinatalist Asymmetry,” I introduced a couple of examples – the Austrian Basement and Slum World – in order to make a point about the intuitive soundness of the asymmetry that philanthropic antinatalism rests upon, and the consequences of rejecting the asymmetry.

In the Austrian Basement case, I introduced a scenario that, I think, is difficult to analyze in good faith while rejecting the asymmetry. If absent pain were not good, why should we feel a sense of relief should E. F. decide to use the birth control? If absent pleasure were not a much lesser moral consideration – were it not in fact merely neutral or not good, but not bad either – why should we feel horror at the prospect of babies being born into the dungeon?

This is especially important for those who still cling to the “non-identity problem” as a genuine problem. “How can a baby be harmed by being born into the dungeon? Before the baby is born, there’s no one to be harmed! And if no one is harmed, it is not a wrong. So procreate away!” But, of course, it is wrong. We have a duty to avoid creating babies in dungeons. To demand that there be someone to be harmed before we recognize a wrong strikes me as a bit silly. I am with Professor Benatar that it is enough that an outcome be bad for a person, in the sense of worse than the alternative (nonexistence), to qualify the bringing about of that outcome as a wrong.

In the case of Slum World, I attempted to put a concrete face on the so-called “repugnant conclusion” of aggregate well-being measures, and to demonstrate that the claim that nonexistent people have for happiness/existence is weak (that absent pleasure, if someone is not thereby deprived, is merely neutral). The prospective inhabitants of Slum World do not have a strong claim to come into existence. The nonexistence of their pleasures is merely neutral, and the nonexistence of their pain is just good. This is true even though, once born, the inhabitants of Slum World would presumably choose to keep living (lead lives worth continuing). Low Population Splendor World is good, Slum World is awful, and rejecting the asymmetry seems to require one to claim otherwise.

Coming into existence is sui generis, and it is difficult to construct clear examples to use in testing intuition that aren’t just different situations of bringing people into existence. My last example, below, attempts to illustrate something like the asymmetry without being about bringing people into existence.

3. Commercial Children’s Television

An advertisement for a new children’s toy runs several times per hour on a commercial children’s television program. The advertisement creates a desire for the toy in the children who see the commercial. Of these children, many of them will eventually receive the toy from their parents, but others will not. Still other children, cruelly brought to life in the households of liberal academics, do not have televisions and therefore do not see the advertisement, and never desire the toy at all.

a. Which group out of the three is best off?

b. Do television advertisers actually do children good by creating desires that might later be fulfilled?

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Written by Sister Y

July 31, 2008 at 1:46 am

The Austrian Basement and Beyond: Consequences of Rejecting the Antinatalist Asymmetry

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David Benatar’s philanthropic antinatalism, explored in his book Better Never To Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence, rests on an asymmetry between pain and pleasure: that, while absent pain is always good, absent pleasure is merely neutral, not bad, given that there is no one who was deprived of this pleasure. A related asymmetry is that, while there is a moral duty to avoid having a child who will be miserable (lead a life not worth continuing), there is no moral duty to create a child who would lead a life very much worth continuing.

Benatar explains the pain/pleasure asymmetry in depth in Chapter 2 of the book, and those who feel they have a slam-dunk logical objection to the asymmetry might be advised to read the detailed treatment of the asymmetry in the chapter before assuming Professor Benatar just missed the objection. Ultimately, though, there remain real, non-trivial objections to the asymmetry, because the asymmetry is built using the common ethical philosophy tool of explaining and analyzing commonly held intuition. Since the asymmetry is ultimately based on intuition, it may be disputed by those who, in good faith, do not share the intuitions upon which it is built.

Many, however, deny the asymmetry without fully grasping the consequences of the asymmetry. I wish to map out some ethical problems that those who deny the asymmetry must explain in a manner consistent with rejecting the asymmetry.

1. The Austrian Basement

E. F. has been kidnapped by her father and imprisoned in an Austrian cellar since her early adolescence. Her father repeatedly rapes her over the course of several years. E. F. gives birth to several children sired by her father. She reasonably believes that all these children have severe health problems, and that at least the female children will likely be abused by her father as they grow up.

In Year 10 of her imprisonment, with four children born and removed from her by her father, she discovers a box (unknown to her father) hidden under a floorboard in her cell, containing everything she needs in order to practice undetectable birth control.

a. Does she have a duty to practice birth control and avoid having more babies? Does she have a duty not to practice birth control, because she would be depriving her unborn babies of life (which, while it would have certain problems, would nevertheless presumably be worth living)? (Assume she would like the company of more babies, but fears the pain of more unassisted childbirth, and the “interests of the unborn children” is the concern that will break the tie, given her personal ambivalence.)

b. Why?

c. (Only for those who think that antinatalism requires suicide.) If you answered that the daughter has a duty to practice birth control, is that the same as saying that the real-life E. F.’s seven children have worthless lives and should be put to death?

Of course, I’m making up the part about the birth control choice, but here’s an excerpt from the real life story:

The dungeon in which they lived was so small that the older ones had to watch as his father delivered his daughter’s subsequent children. Presumably they also had to watch as he had intercourse with his daughter to beget them – she claims that he repeatedly raped her – and regularly beat her. The dungeon contained one padded room, its walls and floor covered in rubber, the purpose of which is still unclear.

2. Slum World

The Supreme World Leaders meet in Tokyo in 2100 and decide that the world has a choice. Either the 2100 world population of 3 billion can be maintained in relative splendor, with fresh kumquats and sensory implants for everyone, or the world population can be increased to 100 billion, with everyone living in conditions similar to the conditions of a 20th century slum, apparently endured by upwards of 900 million people circa the year 2000.

a. Which condition should the Supreme World Leaders choose?

b. Why?

c. If you answered that Low Population Splendor World is preferable to Slum World, what about the interests of the unborn people who would have come into existence had Slum World been selected? Aren’t they being harmed by not being brought into existence? What right to the inhabitants of Low Population Splendor World have to deny the extra 97 billion people a right to exist, just for the sake of the happiness of 3 billion?

Written by Sister Y

July 29, 2008 at 9:01 pm