Monday, May 19, 2008

Birth and Consent: An Alternate Philanthropic Route to Antinatalism

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.

56 comments:

  1. Thank you for this very sober and thoughtful essay. My treatment of the subject is somewhat less cogently articulated than yours, but I have outlined a more explicitly libertarian case for deontological antinatalism on by blog, The Hoover Hog. If it should be of interest, the link is:

    http://hooverhog.typepad.com/hognotes/2007/06/initial_harm_pa_1.html

    Best,

    Chip

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  2. "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."

    This says it all, and speaks a lot to the psychological barriers in place, which keep people from entertaining the utterly obvious.

    I'm loving your site, btw. Hoping to read all of it after work tonight. Take care, and keep it up!

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  3. Chip - I have been reading your project and find it plenty cogent so far. It seems that now that Benatar has set up one pillar in support of antinatalism, we are all setting up alternate pillars from different ethical points of view.

    Jim - thanks for your comment and for the link from Antinatalism.net. I think one of the most important things to be aware of and keep harping on here is not so much the philosophic arguments, but, as you say, the psychological barriers that keep people from genuinely considering them.

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  4. 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.

    Why should we realise this? This seems the weak point of your argument. The impossibility of consent means that the situation is utterly different, since the unborn person cannot receive any benefit throughout the whole of their life. By not having a child, you are ensuring that your unborn child will not be harmed, but you are also ensuring that your unborn child will not be benefited. Parents who refrain from genetically-mutilating their child leave a world of possibilities open to that child. Could-be parents who refrain from having a child at all mean that there are no possibilities. I don't see how notions of right and wrong can apply to someone who doesn't exist.

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  5. "I don't see how notions of right and wrong can apply to someone who doesn't exist."

    True enough, there is an intuitive problem about this. You need the existence predicate for this to work, which isn't that bad, but still somewhat suspicious from certain perspectives.
    Plus, there is a formulation issue: When your ethics is about justification to and consent from the person(s) affected by an action, then you need a normative sentence for judging actions. I assume that this sentence will ordinarily contain a universal quantifcation over actions. But now, how do you implement the affected person (once you have a theory of what it means to be affected)? You can do it by either using a definite description or by introducing another universal quantification over individuals. If you take the former route, the evaluation of the sentence crashes for non-existent persons due to lack of references, and any act of procreation is automatically ethically neutral (which comes down to being permissible, I think). (Assuming that you manage to include people being created in your definition of being affected.) Apparently, most people implicitly use the universal quantification formulation, because almost no-one seems to think that you may procreate right away under whatever circumstances. And then, they're being inconsistent again in not being antinatalist, because it is inherently impossible to get consent from a non-existent person.
    Only the problem is that upon realizing this conclusion, people may chance their premise and bite the bullet of having the definite description. And I really find it difficult to actually say something against this because it seems you need agent-external values in order to do so.

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  6. Mh, I just realized that I was being confused in the previous comment.
    I see now that if you include people coming into being through an action in the definition of who is affected by this action, you actually do have a reference for the definite description of the individual(s) affected by the action. And if you require consent, you arrive at antinatalism once again.

    So it really depends all on the existence predicate.
    I have to think more about what happens when you refuse to accept this predicate... But not now, the danger of making another error of the kind above is too big.

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  7. Mh, I just realized that I was being confused in the previous comment.
    I see now that if you include people coming into being through an action in the definition of who is affected by this action, you actually do have a reference for the definite description of the individual(s) affected by the action. And if you require consent, you arrive at antinatalism once again.

    So it really depends all on the existence predicate.
    I have to think more about what happens when you refuse to accept this predicate... But not now, the danger of making another error of the kind above is too big.

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  8. I don't know what an "existence predicate" is. But here's a sweet example regarding the non-identity problem (lifted from either Benatar or Shiffrin, I can't remember):

    A man sets off a timed bomb to go off in a kindergarten classroom in seven years' time. (In the United States, children go to kindergarten when they are five years old.) No one who will be harmed by the action has yet come into existence. Is his action therefore not wrong? (If the wrong to the parents bothers you, imagine they're all orphans.)

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  9. By not having a child, you are ensuring that your unborn child will not be harmed, but you are also ensuring that your unborn child will not be benefited.

    The core of Benatar's argument is that ensuring someone will not come into existence - and therefore not be benefited - is not wrong, whereas ensuring someone will come into existence, and therefore be harmed, is wrong.

    You make an interesting point that my boyfriend, a professional philosopher, also makes - that what is preserved by bringing someone into existence is that person's choice. The person has no choice if not brought into existence.

    However, even giving someone a choice may harm that person, as J. David Velleman has argued. I address this is my piece on birth and consent.

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  10. Also, you could just extend the asymmetrie and say that there's no problem about non-existing people having no choice because it's not in any sense a relevant deprivation of opportunities.

    The existence predicate is a predicates that says about things that they exist. (Surprise, surprise!) But the issue about it is that if you use it in addition to the existential quantifier, which you have anyway, then you have sort of two ways of existing. (People call it the split between existence and subsistence.)
    Subsisting then means being in the domain of quantification, while existence is just a predicate, although a special one. But then, you have to say something about what else can be predicated of non-existing entities in order to avoid annoying questions like "How many quare circles do not exist?".

    The bomb layer example is not problematic in quite the same way, though I agree that of course you also have something to say about it. But mind you, it's hard to force someone to say something of the kind you like, because there is a backdoor. You can say that the offense lies not in positioning the bomb, but in not removing it/warning others/whatever. I don't really know how plausible that is.

    Benatar doesn't have any of these problems because he can avoid reference to particulars. He's a Utilitarian, so he isn't against agent-neutral values anyway.

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  11. Also, you could just extend the asymmetrie and say that there's no problem about non-existing people having no choice because it's not in any sense a relevant deprivation of opportunities.

    Yep. I have no problem with that.

    A man sets off a timed bomb to go off in a kindergarten classroom in seven years' time.

    A man sets off a timed bomb to go off in a kindergarten in two years time, so it will kill already existing children. The man absolutely believes that he is obliged to do this for religious reasons (eg he must kill the kids before they reach the age of religious maturity so they can go straight to heaven). All the kids and any nearby adults will be killed instantaneously and painlessly. No one else will be hurt, as you say imagine all the children are orphans. Why is this action wrong despite the man believing it to be right?

    My answer is that society functions awfully badly if we can go around harming each other whenever we like. So rules preventing or limiting some sorts of harm are good. Not all sorts of harm - I can write a review of an author's book that reduces that author to tears, and do that legally. But this is a view contingent on there being a society, and people around to think that things are good or bad. I don't see how not harming someone is good independently of anything anyone thinks about it.

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  12. I think that my problem with Benatar is thus:
    I have an intuition that murdering or abusing small children is morally wrong (as is murdering or abusing anyone else, but the small children are more eye-catching).
    I have an intuition that deciding to have a baby is morally neutral - ie it is fine not to have a baby, it is fine to have a baby.

    Benatar is arguing that my intuition that it is fine to have babies is wrong. But how he argues that is by using my intuition that it is wrong to harm people. But if my intuition on having babies is wrong, why would my intuition on harming people be right? If I can't trust one, I can't trust the other.

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  13. That strikes me as very honest, and gets to the heart of the problem. Philosophy is very interested in the problem of conflicting intuition.

    Let's say I start out with the intuition that homosexuality is wrong.

    Perhaps I read some ethical philosophy and come upon the theory that what's wrong is harming people, and that things that don't harm people are not wrong. This doctrine is in conflict with my prior belief that homosexuality is wrong. Perhaps I reject the doctrine if my intuition about homosexuality is strong enough, but perhaps I decide to change my intuition on homosexuality based on my new analysis of the situation.

    Conflict of intuition need not be the end of the analysis. Maybe we look at things like coherence of the theory underlying the intuition, problems the theory resolves, strength of the relative intuitions, etc. Benatar spends a chapter in his book examining the intuitions underlying and supporting his asymmetry.

    I really appreciate your comments and interest. You have no idea how refreshing it is to hear honest, genuine criticism of antinatalism that's not merely dismissive.

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  14. "I have an intuition that deciding to have a baby is morally neutral" (Don't know how to make it italic.)

    Does that mean that you think there cannot be a moral restriction on procreating, whatever the circumstances?
    If so, then you're grasping the other horn of a dilemma I'm currently thinking about; I have the feeling that it is impossible to construe an intermediate position between antinatalism and the "procreation is always permitted"-point of view, though I have to think it through more carefully.
    If you ask them off the street, I'm sure many people will find the latter position abhorrent. But I have to say that I'm afraid a lot of them will take refuge there in order to escape antinatalism, if this position is tenable without too sincere consequences in other areas.
    I wouldn't say you decide to change an intuition. Rather, you decide to override it and not ignore it in your system of thought in order to keep it consistent. Which of two confliction intuitions you let go has to be determined by analyzing what happens for each of them if it is missing, and then looking whether result you find intuitively worse. That may have to do with one intuition being stronger than the other, but also with other intuitions being violated once one of the two conflicting ones is missing. (Something like the latter possibility is what, in a way, underlies slippery slope arguments, I guess.)
    Perhaps it has long been mentioned here, but this procedure has a name: you establish a reflective equilibrium. This is generally said to be due to John Rawls, but I'm really not competent to have an opinion on what his predecessors might have been.

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  15. Anonymous, re: the difficulty of a middle ground between all-procreation-is-permitted and no-procreation-is-permitted - yes, exactly! It's a very interesting question - if we reject antinatalism, can we still draw a clear ethical line separating "ethical" births from "unethical" births? I'm not sure it can be done, either, but I'd LOVE to see attempts at this. From intuition, it seems that some births are okay and others are wrong (Austrian basement). But I'm not sure how a non-antinatalist would draw the line, and I can see a retreat into "all reproduction is morally neutral."

    Also, the procedure for dealing with conflicting intuitions, exactly. It turns out to be very complicated in practice, it seems - some people want to ignore intuition and retreat into theory (some Kantians), some people think intuition is all and our intuitions all agree (insane but extremely mainstream professional philosophers at major universities). The SMART thing seems to me to be the middle ground, the sort of defeasible confidence in our moral intuitions, with a willingness to reflect on them. I suspect you have a more formal philosophy background than I do, Anonymous!

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  16. Kantians and those other "practical reason" people, I don't understand... That's something I'm planning to improve on, but now the semester is about to begin and so this project must be postponed. As for my background, I'm an undergrad in philosophy.
    In case I find it interesting and emotionally endurable to be look here more often, I might try to think up a name to go by...

    As for the middle ground, I think both Utilitarians and deontologists don't have very good chances of finding one. If deontologists have the existential presupposition, they should perhaps be the strongest antinatalists ever, since I cannot think of anything, given the gravity of the interference that being given birth to constitutes, that could possibly override the demand for consent here. And if they don't have this predicate, then I don't see how they could not be anything-goes on procreation... At most, they might find a way to say that you may procreate only when you have reason to assume that your offspring will not regret his own existence (though I have no concrete idea about how this could be achieved); but this practically amounts to "always" anyway. Even though you're not supposed to talk about such things, I suspect that the number of people who regret their existence is very low indeed, and that it's not forseeable from the circumstances that someone will do so. Or the deontologist could go even further and say that you may procreate even if this would seem likely as long as there is assisted suicide, and then, if he asks only for universalizable behavior, it might suffice to only support assisted suicide, while you may have kids whenever you want even if assisted suicide isn't reality. After all, you're acting in a universalizable manner. I find this kind of cruel...
    There is an article by Rahul Kumar (Who Can Be Wronged? Phil. & Public Affairs 31/2) who claims that a contractualist theory can avoid the identity problem (which means that it's able to steer clear of the all-procreation-permitted position), but apart from the fact that I'm not convinced by his argument, we're still stuck with the question of how the original position relates to antinatalism. There seems to be a danger of begging the question against the antinatalist here, for the parties are supposed to take typical human desires into account, among them the wish to exist. (I think you can have meaningful preferences about the past, so you can't reduce this to a wish to continue to exist.)
    And about Utilitarians, we supposedly needn't talk.
    I don't know what the situation is for those broadly "Aristotelian" people... I don't have a very precise picture of what any of them thinks.

    PS: In this sentence in my previous post, "you decide to override it and NOT ignore it...", the "not" shouldn't be there. It is the remainder of a previous version of that sentence that I overlooked...

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  17. Actually, I have to admit that what I said about deontology above was certainly too crude.

    The first thing I noticed is that you can even be anything-goes if you accept the existence predicate. It depends on what you think gives rise to the need for consent. If it's about preferences, then you might find no restriction because not-yet-existing people have no preferences.

    And then, another point would be that even if procreation is not restricted for the sake of the created person, der may in fact be other grounds for this. If you think about universalizability, then maybe you owe those persons that already live that you act in ways that, if universalized, would lead to an ideal population size or something. Of course, this sounds very un-Kantian... (instrumentalizing human life...) But then, it seems very difficult to see what applied Kantianism would actually look like. I haven't yet seen any statement of Kantian rules that was sufficiently precise to somewhat reliably guide you to practical results. Usually, they are massively underdetermined...

    Thinking in small bits, you see...

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  18. Anonymous: Does that mean that you think there cannot be a moral restriction on procreating, whatever the circumstances?

    I think the decision on whether or not to procreate is up to would-be parents. (Leaving aside the complications between differing male and female control over the decision to procreate). I don't see any reason to come to a strong moral duty one way or another.

    Which of two confliction intuitions you let go has to be determined by analyzing what happens for each of them if it is missing, and then looking whether result you find intuitively worse.

    But, say the anti-natalists manage to convince everyone that having children is bad. Eventually humanity dies out, and there is no human being around to think that something is right or wrong. How can I form a moral view about that world? (Expand this to cover other species if you feel this is appropriate).

    Curator - I am still curious as to what you think is wrong about my hypothetical man planning to kill a kindergarten of small, already existing, children?

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  19. I think it's wrong to kill people who don't want to die.

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  20. (Not usually a controversial point, but one I've written on before.)

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  21. "I think the decision on whether or not to procreate is up to would-be parents. (Leaving aside the complications between differing male and female control over the decision to procreate). I don't see any reason to come to a strong moral duty one way or another."

    This, it seems, is a reluctant formulation (why not be straightforward?) to the effect that you don't see ANY moral duty related to procreation. (Except such as a woman's duty not to cheat her husband with respect to contraception if she wants children and he doesn't, and the like. What I mean are duties about procreation as such, not indirectly.)

    "How can I form a moral view about that world?"

    I totally agree that this is an issue. It depends all on how your demands are formulated and what you think happens when a presupposition of your normative sentence fails in this world. This is actually a very linguistic problem, because presuppositions are no simple phenomenon.
    What, however, I think is no obstacle to judging this world is that you don't exist in it. But I suppose that isn't controversial.

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  22. First off, let me say that it's heartening to see such dispassionate analysis applied to this subject. While the high caliber cerebration makes me reticent to step in, I am eating it up just the same. Thanks.

    Tracy W:

    You write:

    "I think the decision on whether or not to procreate is up to would-be parents. (Leaving aside the complications between differing male and female control over the decision to procreate). I don't see any reason to come to a strong moral duty one way or another."

    Do you mean this in the strong sense that your phrasing suggests? Off the top of my head, I'm wondering about the case where both parents are known carriers of Tay Sachs, leaving their potential child with a relatively high probability of being afflicted? Say a blood test confirms that their gestating fetus is indeed affected and thus doomed to live a short life marked by severe pain. Are you arguing that such a situation would not impose special moral limits on the would-be parents' procreative agency?

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  23. Just a small addition, let me illustrate with natural language examples what I mean by it all depending on the formulation.

    The demand that "all children be happy" does not seem to make much sense when there are no children, that is to say, it comes with an existential presupposition about children. However, once you say "children must be happy", leaving out the "all", the presupposition appears to vanish. Rather, what you're saying is that "should there be a child, it must be happy".

    Chip, thank you, but I really think you're overestimating something here.

    Anyway, I want to take the opportunity of using your example, which in its extremeness is well fit to illustrate my point about indirect restrictions on procreation: Someone might want to argue that the parents do a duty not to procreate in the case, but that this is because they must spare society the burden of looking after such a needy new member. (But I'd expect that many people will have a feeling of this being somehow the wrong reason.) Of course, then the question arises where you draw the line if you still want to prohibit eugenics, which many people would want to for... how would you call it, societal climate?

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  24. I think it's wrong to kill people who don't want to die.

    In my hypothetical case, the man thinks that it is right to kill children who don't want to die. Because he believes that if he kills children they will go straight to heaven while if they grow up to the age of moral responsibility they may very well eventually go to hell. On what basis do we say that he has no right to put that view into action?

    And I note that it's not enough to say that you think it is wrong. I think that astroloy is wrong, but I don't think that societies have a right to stop people practising astrology. I do think that societies should stop people murdering children, or anyone regardless of age.

    My own answer is that rights exist in a society as a way of us all getting along more or less, and that murdering people on the basis of belief rather destroys that, while astrology in and of itself doesn't.

    It depends all on how your demands are formulated and what you think happens when a presupposition of your normative sentence fails in this world.

    I hate to say this, but I have no idea what this means. We are talking about a hypothetical world in which I don't exist and thus can't formulate any demands. How, therefore, can good or bad depend on how my demands are formulated? And as for the remainder of the sentence, I am totally baffled.

    What, however, I think is no obstacle to judging this world is that you don't exist in it. But I suppose that isn't controversial.

    Well it strikes me as a remarkably good obstacle. If I don't exist, and no other thinking entity exists, how can something be good or bad?

    Do you mean this in the strong sense that your phrasing suggests? Off the top of my head, I'm wondering about the case where both parents are known carriers of Tay Sachs, leaving their potential child with a relatively high probability of being afflicted? Say a blood test confirms that their gestating fetus is indeed affected and thus doomed to live a short life marked by severe pain. Are you arguing that such a situation would not impose special moral limits on the would-be parents' procreative agency?

    Yep. It's the parents' job to decide if it is right for them to have the child. If they don't have the child the child doesn't suffer severe pain, and also doesn't have the pleasures of their brief life. I would, in that situation, not have the child, but I don't think I can construct a moral duty that no one else has such a child.

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    1. "In my hypothetical case, the man thinks that it is right to kill children who don't want to die. Because he believes that if he kills children they will go straight to heaven while if they grow up to the age of moral responsibility they may very well eventually go to hell. On what basis do we say that he has no right to put that view into action?"

      We can say we disagree with him, and stop him, based on our values. But at the end of the day, if this is what he believes and he has the courage of his convictions, that is what he will do.

      So the "stopping him" plan better include an armed police force, possibly an armed citizenry, and a criminal justice system, rather than merely a philosophical argument.

      We can't stop all people from killing. We can't even stop most people from killing if they want to. The best we can do is deter it somewhat, in one way or another, which has been increasingly successful over time.

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  25. On what basis do we say that he has no right to put that view into action?

    Ah, I see the problem - you're saying there is no such thing as moral truth (right?). And that it's okay for someone to murder people just because he thinks it's okay?

    There are volumes of books addressing moral relativism and subjectivism. I've addressed this before in passing. I can't say I view it as worth my limited time to address in depth. I leave that to meta-ethicists. If you're not convinced that there is any moral truth to be got at, then why even discuss ethics?

    If you're asking about a more narrow disagreement (what do we do when we have genuinely conflicting intuitions about what is morally right?), there's some common ground for discussion.

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  26. Ah, I see the problem - you're saying there is no such thing as moral truth (right?). And that it's okay for someone to murder people just because he thinks it's okay?

    No, I'm not saying that. That's why I have said several times why I believe that it is wrong for the man to murder people.
    "My own answer is that rights exist in a society as a way of us all getting along more or less, and that murdering people on the basis of belief rather destroys that, while astrology in and of itself doesn't. "

    And earlier I said:
    "My answer is that society functions awfully badly if we can go around harming each other whenever we like."

    I don't know what I said that made you think that I might be arguing that it is okay for someone to murder people just because he think it is okay. And looking back over my comments, I still have no idea what made you think that. Can you please tell me specifically what I said that made you think I might have that idea, so I can avoid giving such a false impression in the future?

    If you're asking about a more narrow disagreement (what do we do when we have genuinely conflicting intuitions about what is morally right?), there's some common ground for discussion.

    Well personally I would prefer to argue about what do we do when we have genuinely conflicting *beliefs*, I don't see any reason to narrow the argument to merely conflicting intuitions.

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  27. I suppose, more generally, what bothers me about the argument that a child with Tay Sachs should not be born is that it strikes me as awfully overconfident.

    No one here has lived with Tays Sachs, yet many commentators (not just on this blog) feel that not merely can they decide that such a life is not worth living, but that they are so right in their decision that any parent who thinks differently is committing a moral wrong.

    I do not have that sort of confidence in my own judgment or anyone else's. I know that people have very different values about what makes life living - I know of a person who committed suicide because she was dumped. I also know of numerous people who have been dumped and not committed suicide. There are people who have been tortured multiple times, seen their loved ones die, been through hell, and still find life worth living. I can see no consensus amongst humanity as to what makes life living. If I was a parent who faced the decision to have or not to have a Tay Sachs child, I would make the best decision I could as I must. But I would bear in mind that I might very well be wrong, whatever decision I made.

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  28. Tracy W:

    Obviously, you exist in this world, as we are having our conversation here, and all that matters is formulating our demands in this world. We don't need to formulate normative sentences IN worlds where we don't exist. But we can, and in fact must, formulate them ABOUT worlds where we do not exist, and this is why:

    A demand is usually analyzed as having the form of a universal quantification over worlds. That is, "I want p" means "in all worlds compatible with what I want, p". That's totally irrespective of your existence in all these worlds. You would have to add a conditional to make your existence relevant to the fulfillment of the demand.
    And there is no problem about wanting something that is independent of your own existence. You can wish that someone you love will have a good life long after your death, and you can make a will assigning him properties or rights to promotes this; so the sensibilities of such wishes is even accepted by the law.

    As for presuppositions, let's take Russell's famous King of France example again. "The King of France is bald" is a sentence that has a presupposition, namely that there is a unique King of France. What if this doesn't hold? Then the sentence doesn't seem to make much sense, intuitively. Whatever that not making much sense precisely be in logical/linguistic terms.
    There are numerous other types of sentences that have presuppositions, not only those with definite descriptions. For instance this one: "John knows that it's raining". It presupposes that it is in fact raining.
    A good test for presuppositions is this: A sentence p presupposes another sentence q if q is entailed by both p and the negation of p.

    "My own answer is that rights exist in a society as a way of us all getting along more or less"

    What is more, what is less, and, most importantly, what is enough?

    "It's the parents' job to decide if it is right for them to have the child."

    Crucially, "right" cannot mean "morally right" in this context, but must be a term related to some other norm system; personal preferences, for instance. This must be emphasized.

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  29. "No one here has lived with Tays Sachs, yet many commentators (not just on this blog) feel that not merely can they decide that such a life is not worth living, but that they are so right in their decision that any parent who thinks differently is committing a moral wrong."

    That reminds me of the problem that we can trash all ethics if we can't solve the riddle of induction... Or so. Ethics so often works with "reasonable expectations". That a child with such a disease would suffer much is such a reasonable expectations, and under those circumstances it's quite plausible to say that people are obliged not to gamble hazardously with another's life.
    If there is a way to be morally related to non-existent people and this way is about happiness, of course...

    As for the notion of "life worth living", Velleman says about this in "Love and Non-Existence" (quite new, thus easy to find on his website) that this notion is rather dubious (as opposed to a "life worth continuing"). Is a life is worth living if it is not likely that its liver (wasn't that Benatar's creation?) is going to regret having come into existence? In practice, this would most likely amount to non-restricted procreation, because only very few people develop such feelings of regret. (They are systematically discouraged from doing so - is this relevant here? In a way, this has some similarity to the problem of paternalism.) But what else could a life worth living be? Who knows...

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  30. Tracy W.,

    I think that what differetiates your reasoning from antinatalist reasoning is that you assign value to rights explicitly insofar as they may advance or support social harmony ("...a way of us getting along more or less..." ; "...society functions awfully badly..."). This view presupposes that the survival of some kind of social matrix is required for any meaningful consideration of legal or moral rights to proceed -- preemptively rigging the game against antinatalist reasoning. Since antinatalism sees the morally optimal population size as zero (no society in which to "get along"), its moral defense is already disqualified.

    As it is usually expressed, the antinatalist view rejects or minimizes the predicative value of social harmony - or society itself - and instead focuses on the value of reducing harm (harm experienced, inevitably, by indiviuals). Murdering people on the basis of belief is bad because it harms that person. Or: Creating a new person is bad because it harms that new person. Whether you prop it with "rights" or not, there is no assumption that social functioning need be taken into account.

    Based on my understanding of Tay Sachs, I don't think it is at all overconfident to see such births as being intrinsically harmful. Chalk this one up to a conflict of beliefs if you like, but there is just overwhelming evidence that victims of this disease suffer horribly, if terminably. (And I say this as someone who in this very forum has defended -- in relative terms -- parents who have children with Down Syndrome.)

    WRT Tay Sachs, you write:

    "If they don't have the child the child doesn't suffer severe pain, and also doesn't have the pleasures of their brief life."

    This statement sums up why I am an antinatalist. It is because I can't accept the positive value of any such "pleasures" when the option of NOT creating such arguable pleasure entails no harm whatsoever (and absolutely guarantees the absence of every harm for that person, forever). No one is deprived in any way by not being brought into existence. No bad. Is good.

    I think that when ethics is set to perpetually refer back to socially instrumental premises, the absence of such deprivation is denied relevance. To me, this suggests that something has gone very wrong.

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  31. Correction:

    I wrote: "This view presupposes that the survival of some kind of social matrix is required for any meaningful consideration of legal or moral rights to proceed..."

    Should read:

    "This view presupposes that the survival of some kind of social matrix MUST BE ASSUMED before any meaningful consideration of legal or moral rights can proceed..."

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  32. Anonymous: You can wish that someone you love will have a good life long after your death, and you can make a will assigning him properties or rights to promotes this; so the sensibilities of such wishes is even accepted by the law.

    But this is me doing the wishing. With the ante-natalist position, there would be no me to wish.

    Also, I only care about sentinent beings. In the example you give, there's someone that I love. But if there are no sentinent beings around, what would make that a good world?

    Crucially, "right" cannot mean "morally right" in this context, but must be a term related to some other norm system; personal preferences, for instance. This must be emphasized.

    That's odd. On thinking about it, I think I was using the right to mean "morally right". Why can't the word "right" there mean "morally right"? I understand that Gandhi was firmly opposed to abortion and all forms of artificial birth control because of his advocation of ahimsa (I personally am pro-choice and use artificial birth control myself). If Gandhi decided to have a child with Tay-Sachs, he would be doing this based on his view of moral rightness. His view might be wrong, but it would be based on more than merely personal preference.

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  33. Chip: This view presupposes that the survival of some kind of social matrix is required for any meaningful consideration of legal or moral rights to proceed -- preemptively rigging the game against antinatalist reasoning.

    My view would only presuppose such a thing if my view said that there could be no other sort of reasoning about rights and moral values. I am aware of many other moral theories (eg Kantian ethics, utilitarian, Christian theology, Buddhist theology, ahimsa, etc). All the moral theories I am familiar with though presuppose people who are alive and relate to good and bad between those people (or all animals or all life). The anti-natalist position appears to be coming from a different basis, it makes moral claims about how the world would be a better place if there were no sentinent beings around to think this. This is new, in my experience. I am trying to understand this moral theory, which is why I keep asking why an anti-natalist would say that it is bad to painlessly kill already-existing people.

    Murdering people on the basis of belief is bad because it harms that person.

    How, if they do not suffer any pain on that basis? I know my answer. I don't know yours.

    And, is it bad if I write a scathing and utterly truthful review of a novel that reduces the novel's author to tears?

    Based on my understanding of Tay Sachs, I don't think it is at all overconfident to see such births as being intrinsically harmful. Chalk this one up to a conflict of beliefs if you like, but there is just overwhelming evidence that victims of this disease suffer horribly, if terminably.

    Firstly, I am not saying that it is overconfident to think that a child would be better off to have never been born than to have been born with Tay Sachs. What I think is overconfident is to raise this belief to a "moral obligation" and say that every parent, regardless of *their* own judgment, is morally obliged to refrain from having a child with Tay Sachs. We have enough evidence from enough lines of argument that we can say that everyone, regardless of their own judgment, is morally obliged not to murder small children (as in my hypothetical case of the man who wishes to kill them to ensure they go to heaven). But, I'm sorry, but the judgment of a person who has never suffered from Tay Sachs themselves, never lived that life from the inside, is rather weak, especially since we know that different people do evaluate similar life sufferings massively differently. As you say, there are plenty of people who think that a Downs Syndrome baby does not have a life worth living, but there are also plenty of relatives of people with Down Syndrome who vigorously refute that view. There have been people who have thought that life as an atheist is not worth living, but I find my life worthwhile, less painful than when I was Christian. Humanity has a history of getting judgments about the value of other people's lives wrong. At times we must make such judgments, poor quality though they may be. But I think, based on the light of history, it is wise to be modest about our judegments.

    Suffering is bad. But for many people it is not enough in itself to make life worthless.

    It is because I can't accept the positive value of any such "pleasures" when the option of NOT creating such arguable pleasure entails no harm whatsoever (and absolutely guarantees the absence of every harm for that person, forever).

    Why can't you accept the positive value of any such pleasures? What does it mean when you say that you "can't accept" something? And what effect do you think your inability to accept something should have on me?

    No one is deprived in any way by not being brought into existence. No bad. Is good.

    How is it good? They're not deprived, they're not benefitted. They don't even exist. Moral null.

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  34. 1. A person who already exists must be analyzed differently from a person who does not (yet) exist, but might come into existence. An already-existing person has a strong interest in continuing to live, for instance. A person who does not exist, does not.

    2. Related to that, there is a difference between a "life not worth starting" and a "life not worth continuing." Even a child born with Tay-Sachs has a life worth continuing; but it is harder to say that it is a life worth beginning.

    3. Antinatalism proposes that, while perhaps everyone but us suicides has a life worth continuing, no one has a life worth beginning.

    4. It is not that the sentient-being-free world would be good for anyone; it is that the world with sentient being is bad for everyone at the moment each is brought into existence.

    5. It is possible to be harmed or benefited without being conscious of such. A painless death is a harm to one who does not wish to die. Having one's Last Will followed is a benefit. Etc.

    6. The world without sentient beings is not, as I said, good for anyone, lacking as it is in sentient observers, but it is better than the alternative, in that any sentient being brought into existence would be thereby harmed.

    7. Everyone who is not born into this world is in some sense benefited, because he never suffers the harm of this world. Absent pain is good.

    8. However, any person not born is not harmed, despite the fact that he never experiences happiness or pleasure. Absent pleasure, where no one is deprived of anything, is merely neutral, not bad.

    9. These last two (7 and 8) are the asymmetry. Based on the fact that you've said you think it's fine for the Austrian basement prisoner to intentionally conceive babies who will likely suffer genetic problems, having their father as their grandfather, and be sexually abused, and that you think it's morally neutral to have a baby with Tay-Sachs, I think you're one of the few people who genuine reject the asymmetry.

    10. If the reason it's morally neutral to have a Tay-Sachs baby is that we can't know what it's like to have Tay-Sachs, is it also morally neutral to secretly genetically alter someone's healthy fetus so that the baby will have Tay-Sachs?

    11. What about the organization that pays crack addicts to be voluntarily sterilized - is their work morally neutral?

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  35. 5. It is possible to be harmed or benefited without being conscious of such. A painless death is a harm to one who does not wish to die. Having one's Last Will followed is a benefit. Etc.

    But this again assumes that there was someone who felt that they existed.

    6. The world without sentient beings is not, as I said, good for anyone, lacking as it is in sentient observers, but it is better than the alternative, in that any sentient being brought into existence would be thereby harmed.

    How does the mere fact of being harmed by being born make the world a worse place? After all, if the person is never born then they are not merely not harmed, they are also not benefited.

    7. Everyone who is not born into this world is in some sense benefited, because he never suffers the harm of this world. Absent pain is good.

    8. However, any person not born is not harmed, despite the fact that he never experiences happiness or pleasure. Absent pleasure, where no one is deprived of anything, is merely neutral, not bad.


    This person not born is deprived of existance. How is that neutral, while being deprived of pain is good? I can believe that both are neutral. I can believe that one is good and the other is bad. I don't see how one can be good and the other neutral.

    Based on the fact that you've said you think it's fine for the Austrian basement prisoner to intentionally conceive babies who will likely suffer genetic problems, having their father as their grandfather, and be sexually abused...

    I haven't said it's fine. I said it's the mother's choice. She's the person best placed to assess what her children's lives are likely to be like. People who have been through sexual abuse make different choices afterwards - some commit suicide, others still find value in life. I don't think there's one right answer. When a decision has to be made, the could-be parent is the best placed one to make it (again leaving aside the complications of the relative control a man and a woman has over having a baby - in this case since we have assumed that there is an undetectable form of contraception avialable to the mother so it's her decision entirely).

    10. If the reason it's morally neutral to have a Tay-Sachs baby is that we can't know what it's like to have Tay-Sachs, is it also morally neutral to secretly genetically alter someone's healthy fetus so that the baby will have Tay-Sachs?

    Now you are harming an existing fetus that could presumably exist without having Tay-Sachs. Different situation.

    Anyway, I'm not saying that it's morally neutral to have a Tay-Sachs baby. I am saying that we should not be so confident in our judgment that it is wrong as to think that everyone else is obliged to follow it even if they personally think differently. I am confident enough in our judgment that it is wrong to murder already-existing small children that I think we have a right to stop my hypothetical religiously-motivated man from doing it.

    Also, it's not merely that we don't know what it's like to have Tay-Sachs, it's also that we know that different people going through similar life experiences can have very different reactions as to whether life is still worth living. Even if we are right in thinking we wouldn't want to be alive with Tay-Sachs, that doesn't mean that we can be sure that no one else would want to be alive with Tay-Sachs.

    11. What about the organization that pays crack addicts to be voluntarily sterilized - is their work morally neutral?

    Well the decision is voluntary. Are crack addicts, or anyone else, obliged to have children? No. Are crack addicts or anyone else, obliged not to have children? Your answer is yes, but mine is no. Therefore from my point of view it's morally neutral. If it was the government doing it, I'd be more worried of course for fears over the government power.

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  36. Tracy W,

    I think Curator's unpacking is more useful to this discussion than anything I might say to clarify, but I'll try to address at least some of your questions.

    You ask:

    "Why can't you accept the positive value of any such pleasures? What does it mean when you say that you 'can't accept' something? And what effect do you think your inability to accept something should have on me?"

    What I mean is that, contextually, I cannot accept the logic of assigning positive value to such pleasures IF the option of NOT creating this life -- this life that will be marked by overwhelming pain -- is disallowed from consideration by non-identity argumentation.

    I'm looking at two worlds: one in which this TS child is born; one in which this TS child is not. If both worlds were possible to choose (and they were), the positive value of any pleasures in the world where this child is created, is, in my view, overruled by the eternal lack of the child's suffering in the world where he or she does not exist.

    Once a life is set in motion, I accept the positive value of whatever fleeting pleasures may be enjoyed this TS-afflicted child. Such pleasures, however negligible, must amount to something. Once the initial harm (of procreation) has been done, I'm all for making a tortured life as comfortable as possible. That's what we're left with.

    You ask:

    "How [is murder a harm], if [persons murdered] do not suffer any pain on that basis? I know my answer. I don't know yours...And, is it bad if I write a scathing and utterly truthful review of a novel that reduces the novel's author to tears?"

    I consider murder a harm because it violates an already existing person's presumptive interest in continuing to live. I think a "harm principle" may be efficiently formulated and enforced in strong and roughly libertarian terms that proscribe physical violence and propertarian invasion and the like. The harm entailed in creating a person is serious under this standard since it results in a person's death. The harm of hurting another person's feelings is trivial by most any standard that would seek to limit conduct through laws, norms or customs.

    You write:

    "The anti-natalist position appears to be coming from a different basis, it makes moral claims about how the world would be a better place if there were no sentinent beings around to think this. This is new, in my experience. I am trying to understand this moral theory, which is why I keep asking why an anti-natalist would say that it is bad to painlessly kill already-existing people."

    I would say that a painless nullity is better than a state in which pain co-exists with pleasure, provided the former state is achieved without violence, which is the case with non-procreation. I think it is "better," and not merely neutral, because of the asymmetry; when the absence of pleasure is neutral (i.e. attained without deprivation or force), the absence of suffering becomes salient, tipping the scales.

    Moral philosophy may require a reflective audience, but an outcome need only be possible. Not creating new sentient beings is, under normal circumstances, possible. I think it is at least indecent to create new people because this results in unpredicatable and serious harm (including death) to those people, and because this could otherwise and initially have been avoided.

    Once a person -- or another morally relevant being -- exists, it is crucially NOT possible to "uncreate" them. That person then has a presumptive interest in continuing to live, and I say it is prudent to respect this, for roughly the same harm-evasive reasons that argued against creating this person in the first person.

    The antinatalist preference for uninhabited worlds may seem peculiar, but it is really incidental to the intention.

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  37. Please note Anonymous' comment above, which slipped through my moderation queue for a bit.

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  38. Curator, thanks for bringing this other remark to display and attention.

    "But if there are no sentinent beings around, what would make that a good world? "

    As I said and tried to exemplify above, I believe depends on how you phrase your wishes even about sentient beings.

    "But this is me doing the wishing. With the ante-natalist position, there would be no me to wish. "

    That's true, but it strikes me as somewhat beside the point. As a matter of fact, you do exist in this world which we are discussing, and therefore you have to evaluate worlds where no-one exists in order to decide whether or not you should promote or avoid or not care about the actual world becoming such a world in the future.

    "Why can't the word "right" there mean "morally right"?"

    Your statement would be trivially empty in that case. Of course the parents have to decide whether it's right, because they have to make a decision to act on. But then you can't dismiss our discussiom, because it is precisely about how they should decide for what reason. And morality is supposed to be objective, so that we are in a position to lead this discussion.
    Or did you mean they were in the position to DEFINE (someone tell me how to get italics, please... !) whether it's right? I suppose not, because then their reasons for deciding one way or the other have to come from some other norm system again.

    "How is it good? They're not deprived, they're not benefitted. They don't even exist. Moral null."

    Just a small discovery I recently mafr. It's neither great nor exciting, but still sort of nice, in a way: There is a special case where Benatars asymmetry can be strengthened to a logical truth. If you have only one parameter, not two like "pleasure" and "pain", and furthermore don't have an existence presupposition in your formulations.

    Then you get:

    It is necessary that for all x, P(x) -- Where P(x) means that your parameter is satisfied for x. (This corresponds to the demand that no-one should be deprived of pleasure. Because saying that everybody should be in pleasure without an existence presupposition is the same as saying that no-one should be deprived of it.)

    Conversely, it is necessary that there be no x such that non-P(x). (Of course, this is just a trivial reformulation. But it is needed to have a counterpart for the claim that no-one should be in pain.)

    Both sentences are true when the domain you quantify over is empty, that is "if there is no x".

    In fact, I think Benatars view can easily be transformed so as to have only one parameter. You may well define pain as a frustrated preference. Then both a frustrated preference for something bad not happen, which somehow seems to have been the prior definition of pain, and a frustrated preference for something to happen, which was called "deprivation of a pleasure", count as pain, and you get a pair of normative sentences like the above.
    Whatever that amounts to in the end... I don't know.

    "I haven't said it's fine. I said it's the mother's choice."

    Again, we're at the beginning of my post. The question that interests us is what should guide her decision. That she must decide, we know anyway. We wouldn't have to discuss anything if she didn't.

    "Now you are harming an existing fetus that could presumably exist without having Tay-Sachs. Different situation."

    The fetus doesn't yet suffer from it. He may be a sentient being, from a certain age on, but he certainly isn't a person for very long time. So how can the notion of harm be applied here, if not to non-existent persons?

    "I am saying that we should not be so confident in our judgment that it is wrong as to think that everyone else is obliged to follow it even if they personally think differently."

    Do you mean to remind everyone that they might be wrong? In that case, I agree that one mustn't lose sight of this fact, but it doesn't get us much further. In fact, it is sort of incompatible with your "it's their choice"-position (whatever that precisely means), because knowing that we might be wrong, we should be especially motivated to enter a discourse over reasons.
    As for the first possibility, in that case you might reconsider speaking of "morality" at all. To me it feels like this word comes with a sort of in-built claim to objectivity...

    "Well the decision is voluntary."

    I personally don't think it can be said that incentives, especially for people in precarious situations, as most drug addicts presumably are, are morally innocuous.

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  39. Just a quick note - to put something in italics, type this:

    <i> italic stuff here </i>

    and you get this:

    italic stuff here

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  40. Chip: I consider murder a harm because it violates an already existing person's presumptive interest in continuing to live.

    Why does an already-existing person have a presumptive interest in continuing to live?
    Again, I know my answer to this - rights are necessary for society to function. But where do you think that such moral interests come from, since you also seem to wish to apply rights to people who don't exist (the right not to be born)?

    The harm entailed in creating a person is serious under this standard since it results in a person's death.

    Why? After all, it results in a person's life too.

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  41. Anonymous: That's true, but it strikes me as somewhat beside the point. As a matter of fact, you do exist in this world which we are discussing, and therefore you have to evaluate worlds where no-one exists in order to decide whether or not you should promote or avoid or not care about the actual world becoming such a world in the future.

    I am well aware that I exist. What I have trouble with is the idea of good and bad in the absence of any sentinent beings. How am I meant to formulate a view about a world in which there are no people?

    But then you can't dismiss our discussiom, because it is precisely about how they should decide for what reason.

    Please rest assured I have no desire to dismiss our discussion. If I did, I would not currently be participating in it.

    And morality is supposed to be objective, so that we are in a position to lead this discussion.

    What do you mean by the word "objective" here?

    ...It is necessary that for all x, P(x) -- Where P(x)...

    As for your maths, I can't make sense of it. What's P(x)? In the mathematical notation I am used to P(x) looks like a function, but you have above called it a parameter. This raises a couple more puzzles. How can you have a parameter without having a function? And what does non-P(x) mean, if P(x) is a parameter? While we are at it, what is non-P(x) if P(x) is a function?

    By x, do you mean people, or some other quantity?

    Also, you appear to be implying that "pleasure" and "pain" are parameters. If so, in what function? Are you implying an economics-style utility function or something else?

    Normally I find mathematical formulations clarify arguments. But in this case I am baffled. I think if you defined your variables and functions that would help. Though it is possible that our past mathematical educations are so widely disparate as to make communication impossible.

    Again, we're at the beginning of my post. The question that interests us is what should guide her decision.

    And for me, what should guide her decision is the balance between the pleasures of life that child will likely receive and the suffering the child will endure. For you, only the avoidance of suffering counts.

    The fetus doesn't yet suffer from it. He may be a sentient being, from a certain age on, but he certainly isn't a person for very long time. So how can the notion of harm be applied here, if not to non-existent persons?

    How can Chip argue that it is wrong to conceive a child, and wrong to painlessly murder that child once they have been born? We have a discontinuity here one way or another. I'm happy with a discontinuity that allows both my moral intuition that it's wrong to physically harm other people and it's perfectly fine to have children to be compatible.

    He may be a sentient being, from a certain age on, but he certainly isn't a person for very long time. So how can the notion of harm be applied here, if not to non-existent persons?

    Where are you getting your definition of person from?

    As for how I can apply my notion of harm here, well, even if this debate is not moving us towards agreement, it is certainly sharpening my own understanding of my own views, which I think is good.
    It is indeed possible to apply a notion of harm to non-existant persons. Many calculations about long-term environmental problems do so - as a number of the people affected are not yet born. There are two things going on here, firstly I object to the idea that harm to non-existant persons counts but benefits don't count.
    Secondly, I don't think there is a universal right to be not harmed. I gave the case of a scathing review of the novel that really harmed the author's feelings. I don't understand rights in a universal philosophical sense, how I can understand rights is that they are ways of allowing society to get along. So A has a right not to be punched in the nose by B, but B has a right to hurt A's feelings even if the suffering A feels from a nasty review is far more than the suffering from a punch in the nose.

    So limiting what harm we can do to each other makes sense. This is not the same as a rule that no one should ever be harmed.

    I personally don't think it can be said that incentives, especially for people in precarious situations, as most drug addicts presumably are, are morally innocuous.

    I have heard this line of argument many times before. No one making this argument has yet appeared to have any coherent theory about what incentives are permittable, or morally innocuous, let alone a theory I find convincing, so I find such argument useless in deciding what incentives may be applied to people in precarious situations and thus ignore them. You of course may be an exception, and I would be delighted to hear it. What incentives is it morally suitable to offer drug addicts? What deals can be entered into with drug addicts (assuming that the drug addict is happy to consent)? When is a person not in a precarious situation?

    Do you mean to remind everyone that they might be wrong? In that case, I agree that one mustn't lose sight of this fact, but it doesn't get us much further. In fact, it is sort of incompatible with your "it's their choice"-position (whatever that precisely means), because knowing that we might be wrong, we should be especially motivated to enter a discourse over reasons.

    I am quite happy to enter a discourse over reasons. If I said anything that implied I am not happy, it was entirely by mistake. Can you please do me the kindess of telling me what I said that gave you the impression that I objected to a discourse over reasons in cases of uncertainty, so I can avoid giving such a false impression in the future?

    More generally, this is twice in your comment that you have said something that implies that you think I am not interested in discussion. May I ask why you think that I dislike discussions? Do you think you know me off-Web (if so you have mistaken someone else for me, my acquaintances are all well aware I like to argue almost endlessly).

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  42. Why does an already-existing person have a presumptive interest in continuing to live?
    Again, I know my answer to this - rights are necessary for society to function. But where do you think that such moral interests come from, since you also seem to wish to apply rights to people who don't exist (the right not to be born)?


    I think moral interests come from our brains. Doesn't mean you can't extrapolate to work out principles that apply to potential people. The concepts of "consent" tracks back like this. The socially predicated principle that says one should not act in certain ways without securing the consent of an affected party is simply applied to eliminate options where an affected party's consent cannot be secured, and soon you end up with the problem of procreation. The reasoning may be grounded in social utility and an evolved moral sense, but it has a consequence that, if taken to its ultimate conclusion, would eventually wind things down.

    Also, I question whether "rights" are indeed "necessary" for society to "function." Rights might be useful and nice, but people have managed to get things done without appeal to "rights" in various places and cultures (slave societies, for example). There's always fear and superior firepower.

    The harm entailed in creating a person is serious under this standard since it results in a person's death.

    Why? After all, it results in a person's life too.


    No one asks for their life. They can't, because they don't yet exist. This is why I think your application of the concept of deprivation (and benefit) to the not-yet-existent is misplaced or confused. They are not deprived of life, because there is no one to experience this deprivation. Once there is, both harm and benefit may be taken into account.

    Since it traces to an agent-specific event (procreation), I think an individual's death is a form of killing. And a form of needless killing. This is a serious problem under any moral theory you wish to consider.

    At best, we can presume to bestow "gifts" (such as life) upon those who have not yet been brought into existence since pre-existent beings cannot express interest in receiving the gifts. But in the case of procreation, the arrogantly bestowed "gift" comes with a ticking time bomb.

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  43. Tracy, no reason to be offended. If I came across a bit harsh, I apologize.
    By no means, I intended to suggest that you were averse to any kind of discussion. Only I had the impression that you were skeptical of certain kinds of ethical discussion. This is, as far as I can make out, due to this statement of yours from 9/25, 8:52 am:

    "I haven't said it's fine. I said it's the mother's choice. She's the person best placed to assess what her children's lives are likely to be like."

    This read to me as is you found it none of our business to discuss the morality of her possible decisions. The reason is that Curator's Austrian basement example is so extreme that it seems very implausible to say that we're just not in the position to forsee what a live created in that situation would be like. So my attempt to make sense of your last sentence led me to the assumtion that you are skeptical about such assessment from third persons on principle.
    Also, that's just what I meant by objective above: That morality can in principle be sensibly discussed by non-involved third parties.

    And let me say I don't think there is anything wrong in principle with being skeptical of certain discussions. Quite to the contrary. It's just I believe the particular kind of discussion that you seemed to call into question to be valid.

    "How am I meant to formulate a view about a world in which there are no people?"

    How are you meant to formulate if about a world WITH people? You do it both from the same position: From the actual world, in which you exist. What does it matter whether people in the world your judgment is about exist or not for the mere possibility of such a judgment? Also, I don't see how you with your position could accomodate the fact that suicides are clearly able to form a preference for their own death, for in order to do so, they must judge a world in which they don't exist, and in fact judge it superior.

    There's no complicated maths here, it's just predicate logic. What I'm afraid is the source of confusion is the word "parameter", which I carelessly used in a completely non-technical sense. Benatar judges situations by the existence/absence of pain and pleasure. Only in that sense I wanted to call them parameters... Perhaps it's not the best word for this, but I couldn't find a better alternative.

    P(x) in general means just that the predicate P holds of x, that is, P(x) stands for the sentence that expresses this fact. non-P(x) would be ~P(x) in somewhat more formal notation, which means just that the sentence P(x) is false.
    It was a hidden assumption that the domain for the quantification (that is, the set of things that you take into account when checking the truth of a quantified sentence) was the set of persons or whatever entities you find morally relevant.

    So P simply denotes a predicate that your ethical system requires people (or whatever) to have. For instance, being happy or having all preferences fulfilled, or whatever. Just packing all this into a single predicate is of course simplistic, but my point was about the behavior of the quantifiers...

    What do you mean by defining variables? x is bound by the quantifier, that's what the "for all x, ..." part means. It's just the usual way to express predicate logic in natural language, as far as I could observe. The usefulness of bound variables becomes clear once you have more than one quantifier, for instance when you are talking about pairs of things. Then you can, for instance, say that "for all x and for all y, if x and y are not identical, then ... whatever".

    "And for me, what should guide her decision is the balance between the pleasures of life that child will likely receive and the suffering the child will endure."

    Well, if you can accomodate a duty to have children in your intuitional framework... And/Or do a trick to accept it, and then strongly restrict it again.
    And of course, there's the age-old problem of how this balancing should work. What does it mean for an instance of pleasure to outweigh another instance of pain? When is that the case?

    "For you, only the avoidance of suffering counts."

    I don't really know what counts. But what I don't know either is how to formulate your values in a plausible way so as to avoid the asymmetry.

    "How can Chip argue that it is wrong to conceive a child, and wrong to painlessly murder that child once they have been born? We have a discontinuity here one way or another. I'm happy with a discontinuity that allows both my moral intuition that it's wrong to physically harm other people and it's perfectly fine to have children to be compatible. "

    I don't grasp your point here. Can you clarify a bit on what you mean by "discontinuity" in the respective cases?

    "Where are you getting your definition of person from?"

    Ultimately, ordinary language. Every language user would give you a queer look if you seriously referred to a little singing-bird as a person. Not even cats or dogs are "persons", even though they are attributed "personalities". It seems that by person, we mean something like a self-conscious agent or so... I don't have any precise definition, but I find it highly unlikely that a good definition would turn out to include embryos.
    As for the rest, I don't have much of an opinion about the notion of "harm". I only wanted to target your differentiation between the non-existing person and the embryo, which struck me as untenable.

    As for the incentives issue, I regret that I cannot give an answer to any of your questions. With my statement, I just appealed to the rather intuitive contention that you must not restrict people's choices to arbitrary sets of options that have at least to elements and say it's permissible because after all, the decision is voluntary. After all, it's absurd to say that it's permissible to say "Either I kill you, or I chop off your right leg. Now choose!" After all, you don't have to do either. And also, you don't have to require the drug addict to undergo sterilization, you could help him and give him what you would use as an incentive just the same without any condition on it. Do you have to? I don't know. I completely agree it's an unsolved problem what set of options your are permitted to give people. I only contest that the problem can be dismissed to easily as your reaction to Curator's 11. suggested. I think it's a serious one, also for this particular case.

    I hope I have been able to clarify some things a bit to make myself better understood...

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  44. Chip: The socially predicated principle that says one should not act in certain ways without securing the consent of an affected party is simply applied to eliminate options where an affected party's consent cannot be secured, and soon you end up with the problem of procreation.

    But we have no such general principle. I am allowed to write a scathing review of a novel that really hurts the author emotionally without their consent. We do general moral agreement that one should not act in certain ways, particularly one should not commit murder, but we do not have agreement that no one should ever be harmed without their consent. Indeed, many moral theories allow people to kill in defence of their country and some even advocate this as a good thing.

    Also, I question whether "rights" are indeed "necessary" for society to "function." Rights might be useful and nice, but people have managed to get things done without appeal to "rights" in various places and cultures (slave societies, for example).

    Can you please name those places and cultures? How do they decide land use? For example, I understand that in the slave-owning societies of southern USA and of Ancient Rome land was held privately and decisions about what crops to plant or to raise animals or whatever was made by the owner of the land. Slaves may not have had rights, but that's very different from a society getting along without any rights at all. In hunter-gatherer societies, I understand there was division - when and where you could fish and hunt, who could camp where, etc.

    There have been societies with no rights - Stalinist Russia during the Purges, the Great Terror of the French Revolution, the Chinese Cultural Revolution. But those periods almost destroyed those societies.

    There's always fear and superior firepower.

    How do you keep the army on your side so as to have the superior firepower? How do you keep your bodyguards from killing you in your sleep? And, while you are at it, who makes decisions about land-use? Rights are important even in societies where many people have no rights.

    Why? After all, it results in a person's life too.

    No one asks for their life. They can't, because they don't yet exist.


    Well, yes, that's obvious. I am not sure where you are going with this.

    They are not deprived of life, because there is no one to experience this deprivation. Once there is, both harm and benefit may be taken into account.

    If you like to say so. But then equally, they do not benefit from not suffering.

    Since it traces to an agent-specific event (procreation), I think an individual's death is a form of killing. And a form of needless killing. This is a serious problem under any moral theory you wish to consider.

    So, we redefine the definition of "killing" to exclude the act of bringing something to life, if your only problem is due to definitions. Clearly society has implicitly been doing this for millenia - I don't know of any court that has defined conception as killing. Indeed, the number of moral theories iunder which birth is a serious problem appears to consist of exactly one - the anti-natalist moral theory - so I don't believe your statement that birth is a serious problem under any moral theory I wish to consider.

    At best, we can presume to bestow "gifts" (such as life) upon those who have not yet been brought into existence since pre-existent beings cannot express interest in receiving the gifts. But in the case of procreation, the arrogantly bestowed "gift" comes with a ticking time bomb.

    And you expect me to have a problem with this because?

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  45. Tracy, no reason to be offended. If I came across a bit harsh, I apologize.

    Thank you for this kind reply, but I was not offended, just surprised and curious.

    "I haven't said it's fine. I said it's the mother's choice. She's the person best placed to assess what her children's lives are likely to be like."
    This read to me as is you found it none of our business to discuss the morality of her possible decisions.


    Ah, now I see. I was completely baffled. My apologies for giving the wrong impression. When I say that something is someone's choice, I did not mean to rule out all discussion of it.

    The reason is that Curator's Austrian basement example is so extreme that it seems very implausible to say that we're just not in the position to forsee what a live created in that situation would be like.

    This again strikes me as overconfident. Neither of us have lived that life. We don't know its pains, we don't know its pleasures, if there are any. I have to say that I do find it entirely plausible that I am not in a position to foresee what a life created in that situation would be like.

    So my attempt to make sense of your last sentence led me to the assumtion that you are skeptical about such assessment from third persons on principle.

    Well yes I am skeptical in principle, but being skeptical in principle is a rather different thing from not wanting to enter a discourse over reasons. After all, if I wasn't skeptical, what would be the point in debating? I don't see any point in having endless discourse over, say, if there is or isn't a largest prime number, to pick something I'm not skeptical about.

    "How am I meant to formulate a view about a world in which there are no people?"

    How are you meant to formulate if about a world WITH people?


    Well I have read a lot of moral theorising, and of course have some strong intuitions embedded in me by some combination of my genes and environment. I find this background a good starting place.

    What does it matter whether people in the world your judgment is about exist or not for the mere possibility of such a judgment?

    Because in a world without people how can something be good or bad? I'm happy judging worlds full of hypothetical people. But I don't have any moral theories to judge a world in which there are no people( for a broad definition of people of course, I can happily debate hypotheicals involving Vulcans or the Predators, or whatever).

    Thanks for explaining your mathematics. It is beginning to stir vague bells for me of doing some formal logic at the past. So you have just restated Benatar's argument mathematically, am I right? The reason for defining variables in doing mathematics is that it makes it clear how your equation relates to the real world, given that there is very little consensus about mapping between concepts and variables and all sorts of weird quirks to what consenses do exist, like electrical engineers using j to mean the imaginary portion of a number, not i).

    As for your definition of person, the thing that made me question it is that you talked about a fetus being a sentinent being, but not at the same time a person. I personally, to the extent that I have to draw a line, think that a fetus becomes a person at about the time they become a sentinent being - I find it hard to think that killing a blob of just-fertilised cells is murder, and easy to think that killing a new-born baby is murder. The exact dividing line between is not clear to me.

    The discontinuity in Chip's argument I was referring to is the one between being a non-person and being a person. A non-person has a right not to be concieved, but it's wrong to kill a baby. Both Chip and I think that at some point the rights change, which is what I meant by a discontinity. To quote Chip:
    "Once a person -- or another morally relevant being -- exists, it is crucially NOT possible to "uncreate" them. That person then has a presumptive interest in continuing to live"

    So Chip places a discontinuity at a point where a person exists. At that point, an interest appears in continuing to live.

    As for the case of the drug users being offered money for sterilisation:
    With my statement, I just appealed to the rather intuitive contention that you must not restrict people's choices to arbitrary sets of options that have at least to elements and say it's permissible because after all, the decision is voluntary.

    Maybe so. But what does this have to do with your original example? Unless you have failed to mention something in your example, the organisation does not restrict people's choices, it adds them. The crack addicts have all the options they had before hand, and one more option - getting money in return for being sterilised. I don't know what you think is morally problematic about increasing options. Am I harmed because I could take up a career in pizza delivery? (to pick a life-risking example)

    Of course if the organisation is using force or fraud that's another matter. Or if it was the government doing this.

    And also, you don't have to require the drug addict to undergo sterilization, you could help him and give him what you would use as an incentive just the same without any condition on it.

    Indeed, but that would hardly help the people in the organisation achieve their goals. Which apparently consist of preventing unwanted pregnancies in addicts, and consequent suffering for the children and for their mothers, and the costs for society. Is a guns buyback morally problematic because the organisation could just give people the money instead without requiring them to turn over the guns in exchange? (A guns buyback may of course be morally problematic on the basis that it diverts money from more effective uses, particularly if say people only hand in old and broken guns, but that's a separate debate).

    I don't know. I completely agree it's an unsolved problem what set of options your are permitted to give people. I only contest that the problem can be dismissed to easily as your reaction to Curator's 11. suggested. I think it's a serious one, also for this particular case.

    This I think is because you think that offering a person money in exchange for doing what you want is the same as saying "Either I kill you, or I chop off your right leg. Now choose!" As the two situations strike me as remakably dissimiliar, I see no moral problem, serious or otherwise.

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  46. Tracy W.

    I don't think we disagree over the nature and social utility of "rights," insofar as they are enforced. My issue is with your strong statement that "rights" are necessary for society to function. And this is where definitional problems arise. If you define rights so malleably as to qualify the functional basis for slave societies and customary rites among hunter gatherer societies, then a "right" reads to me as a byword for force, which can be equally exercised under an anarchistic social situation. At least until the means are reified, or codified, or whatever. And your exceptional examples of Stalinist and Maoist regimes actually make my point, unless you want to argue over the definition of "function" and "nearly."

    Myself, I rather prefer the Lockean framework, though I believe it is based on exactly nothing (other than wish and whim, perhaps buttressed by an evolved moral sense of fairness). It seems to serve us well enough. But if you take it seriously, my argument -- for present purposes -- is that it proscribes procreation. Consent is important, because death -- or "murder, as you prefer" -- is crucially important.

    ...if your only problem is due to definitions.

    My problem isn't with definitions, but with facts, and implications. I'm getting at something much simpler than logomachy. Creating a life leads to that life's eventual demise. At least under present conditions, this stands as an irrefutable truth. I think this truth has -- or should have -- serious implications for any sincere formulation of rights or consent (limited to serious harm). You can define it away if you prefer, but the situation remains to be observed. Birth = Death. No birth, no death. Death is a serious harm. When death is caused by an agent, death is killing. If you see -- or intuit -- this linkage, the problem of consent (its impossibility, in the sui generis case of procreation) can only be ignored. By defaulting to the primacy of social order, I think you're seeking refuge. Or rigging the discourse. I think this may be the point of our disagreement. I'm happy to call it an impasse.

    the number of moral theories iunder which birth is a serious problem appears to consist of exactly one - the anti-natalist moral theory - so I don't believe your statement that birth is a serious problem under any moral theory I wish to consider.

    I don't know how you define "theory," but birth is viewed as a serious problem in wrongful life jurisprudence, and in bioethical debates over cloning, and, if you have the imaginative fortitude, in ethical debates over the creation of sentient AI. But my argument isn't exactly that birth, qua birth, is the problem. My broader point centers on suffering and risk, which is complicated by the problem of knowledge. And for present purposes, just to keep things clean, my problem is with the fact that birth leads to death.

    This perspective may be new to philosophy, but I'm not a philosopher. I just call what I see. And this one seems just painfully obvious. Don't create a person, that person doesn't suffer. That person doesn't die.

    If you want to wait for the philosophers to chime in, then why not chalk it up to caution. No harm, no foul. I think a world without suffering is better, and I don't give a damn if there are people in it.

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  47. Offering someone a money incentive - even if the recipient ultimately chooses whether to accept the incentive - is a morally relevant action. It's certainly morally relevant to pay someone to, say, commit a murder - it's morally wrong, even though the actual murderer chooses to accept the payment (or not). Likewise, certainly it's morally good to, say, pay someone to pick up trash in the neighborhood, even though that person may choose to accept or reject the paid assignment. Similarly, the morality of paying a crack addict to be sterilized depends on the morality of crack addicts having babies.

    Another point - antinatalism is not some freestanding moral doctrine. The idea that, in general, it's wrong to harm people without their consent is a widely accepted principle in most philosophical systems.

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  48. Tracy:

    This again strikes me as overconfident. Neither of us have lived that life. We don't know its pains, we don't know its pleasures, if there are any. I have to say that I do find it entirely plausible that I am not in a position to foresee what a life created in that situation would be like.

    I suppose you are alluding to the distorted preferences problem? Well, there is something that, depending on the premises, may serve as a starting point for getting around this problem. Even if the mother has come to terms with her situation, I'm sure the first rape was a terrible experience. If you don't allow even for such judgments, then the consequences are rather extreme: For instance, all those with an integer body would not be in a position to assert that no-one should be subject to physical mutilation. After all, they have a preference to keep their body, but maybe those who have lost parts of it like it?
    So I assume that from what we have heard, we are reasonably justified in assuming that the first rape would be terrible also for her potential daughter. This is the "something" I was referring to above.

    And even if you deny that something can be made of this, you are stuck with the balancing problem. First, how is balancing done? And second, people react differently. The mother knows only her perception of and attitude towards this life. Is she able to estimate the pain and pleasure values for her potential daughter sufficiently exactly to do a meaningful balancing, while we are not?

    After all, if I wasn't skeptical, what would be the point in debating?

    I was using skeptical in a more radical sense here. A skeptic in this sense would be someone who doubts that something is possible or meaningful.

    Well I have read a lot of moral theorising, and of course have some strong intuitions embedded in me by some combination of my genes and environment. I find this background a good starting place.

    Because in a world without people how can something be good or bad?

    It depends on where the judge stands.

    (1) It is true that in a world with no-one in it (call it w1), nothing can be judged good or bad.

    This sentence is, I believe, true. I think we agree on this meta-ethical point.
    However, (1) is distinct from (2):

    (2) Nothing in w1 can be judged good or bad.

    I don't think (2) holds. You can judge worlds from other worlds. Only in the world the judgment is done from there must be a person to do the judgment. As you say, we, living in, say w0 (unfortunately, < sub> ... < /sub> wasn't accepted), have some basis for forming moral opinions. But there is nothing to prevent us here from forming an opinion on whether the situation in w1 is good or bad. If there were something intrinsically wrong with this, then the suicide's preferences would be a complete mystery, and in fact even preferences for a future in which we exist would become somewhat problematic.

    Now, of course our moral judgments are not usually intended to be about worlds like w1. According to your intuitions, it is obviously a kind of accident that these judgments, due to their logical properties, happen to yield also an assessment for w1. But this is an accident that happens, and what is more, it is difficult to prevent! And what appears to be even more difficult is preventing w1 from being just a perfect world once we have decided to assess it in order to be able to morally restrict procreation.

    What is somewhat disturbing here is that so much depends on things that seem to be completely arbitrary from the ethical point of view: formulation and logic. Why choose this logic over another one? ...

    Speaking of logic, I see now what you meant by defining variables. I was confused because the things that you assign a reference in order to show how your formula "relates to the real world" are actually called constants.

    In fact, there are only two things to be defined for my sentences: The domain of quantification, which would just be the set of entities you find morally relevant. And P, which would the predicate that you think is morally required to hold of these morally relevant entities, for instance not being in pain, or whatever else you like.

    It's not exactly Benatar's argument. First, to have the required form, Benatar's notions of pain and pleasure need to be defined in the same terms so that you need only one predicate P, which I argued is possible in a plausible way.
    And second, the very point of my argument is that it's not linked to a particular interpretation of P. It needn't be pain or pleasure. If you think it is morally required that people have red hair, you're still going to end up as an antinatalist, provided your statement of this demand has the right format (and genetic engineering doesn't yet work).

    By the way, it's not really mathematics but predicate logic. (The thing that comes to people's minds when they hear "formal logic".)

    As for your definition of person, the thing that made me question it is that you talked about a fetus being a sentinent being, but not at the same time a person.

    Well, I guess many people would say that a cat is a sentient being, but hardly anyone would assign it personhood. I don't actually have a definition for "sentient being" for myself.

    Finally, the incentive case... Of course my example was very extreme, to the extent that the analogy to our case was unclear. But it can be improved: Say, for instance, that there is a starving illiterate man who was witness to a crime. The offender now offers him money for handing over his tongue so that he can't report of what he has seen anymore. And furthermore, assume that the crime was only a crime in the eyes of the law, but was in fact a morally permissible action. Intuitively, there is something wrong about this offer. Perhaps it is that one would be obliged to help a starving person anyway? And indeed, it is certainly less problematic than the sterilization case. I didn't mean to say that this organization really does something wrong. I don't know. As Curator said, it depends on various questions; several more than she named, in my opinion.
    What occured to me only this morning is that there might be a misunderstanding here about what these people actually do: Do they offer incentives for undergoing sterilization, or do they just take over the costs of the procedure? The latter would, of course, be unproblematic anyway.

    Besides, my talk about "restricting" people's options was careless and obivously inadequate. What I meant was just fixing their set of options to certain members. Merely adding an option is actually also problematic, in a certain way: Why did you add this particular option instead of another one? But that actually leads us into political philosophy...

    Curator:

    The idea that, in general, it's wrong to harm people without their consent is a widely accepted principle in most philosophical systems.

    Well, some people deny that harm is a relevant concept. And then, some more deny or would deny that the notion of harm and/or consent is applicable to the case of the creation of persons.

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  49. Curator: Offering someone a money incentive - even if the recipient ultimately chooses whether to accept the incentive - is a morally relevant action. It's certainly morally relevant to pay someone to, say, commit a murder - it's morally wrong, even though the actual murderer chooses to accept the payment (or not).

    I stated when you first brought up this argument that my starting position was that no one is obliged to have children, and no one is obliged not to have children. Everyone is obliged to refrain from murder (we all appear to be agreed on that), therefore the two are different situations.

    If you wish to convince me that contraception and sterlisation is morally wrong, equivalent to murder, you can try but I predict you will have a tough time of it. I note that several commentators here are trying to convince me that *having* children is morally wrong. But at the moment I remain unconvinced by either argument and therefore do not find paying crack addicts to be sterilised the same as taking out a hit or paying someone to pick up rubbish. It's morally neutral.

    Another point - antinatalism is not some freestanding moral doctrine. The idea that, in general, it's wrong to harm people without their consent is a widely accepted principle in most philosophical systems.

    No it isn't. Again, the example of me writing a scathing but truthful review of an author's novel.

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  50. Chip: Sorry, something I should have said earlier. "Rights" are necessary for society to function at all. But some rights lead to societies functioning better than other rights, in many senses, from the efficiency of resources production (rights over property) to avoiding civil war (the right to religious freedom appears to be a really good one) to allowing individual people to pursue their individual conceptions of the good life.

    then a "right" reads to me as a byword for force,
    Well yes. I have a right not to be punched on the nose, and the way I can exercise that right is that if you punch me on the nose I can call up the police, and if there is sufficient evidence they will arrest you, using force if necessary. (Leaving aside details of whether the police will come to my aid). Other rights are enforced through the civil courts, eg tort claims, where if you lose the courts can take assets from you via force if necessary. What happens in the USA if the president asserts they have a right to serve more than two terms? Presumably the courts eventually send in the bailiffs to remove them from office.

    If the police don't back me up, I can assert that I have a right not to be punched on the nose. But it's like the long lists of rights various people assert - makes no practical difference. Arguing that I should have a right not to be punched on the nose and that the police should back me up by arresting anyone who punches me on the nose, strikes me as far more likely to be productive than just asserting a right in the absence of any force behind it. To be meaningful, rights have to be backed up by a threat of force.

    My problem isn't with definitions, but with facts, and implications. I'm getting at something much simpler than logomachy. Creating a life leads to that life's eventual demise. At least under present conditions, this stands as an irrefutable truth.

    And it also creates a life. And that is equally an irrefutable truth.

    Birth = Death. No birth, no death. Death is a serious harm.
    When death is caused by an agent, death is killing.

    This is where your definition breaks down to me. How many people in the world would say that my mum killed me because she had me?
    There is no obligation on you or me to define "killing" as including starting a life, even though that action does lead to death eventually. Or if you prefer, you can mark off "giving birth" as a form of killing that is more morally-neutral than killing in self-defence (which I approve of).

    As death is the price we have to pay for life, I do not think that it a harm sufficient enough to outweigh the value of death.

    Less seriously, do you really think that you could get a court to rule that your mother has killed you by having you?

    By defaulting to the primacy of social order, I think you're seeking refuge.

    And your problem with that is? Moral reasoning has to start from somewhere.

    If you want to wait for the philosophers to chime in, then why not chalk it up to caution. No harm, no foul.

    I find the precautionary principle remarkably unconvincing.

    I think a world without suffering is better, and I don't give a damn if there are people in it.

    But then there is no pleasure, no joy either. How is that better? It's just nothing.

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  51. Anonymous:

    Even if the mother has come to terms with her situation, I'm sure the first rape was a terrible experience.

    Probably. But that's not the same as life being worthless, and to be honest I find your implication that a child should not be born because she would likely be raped terrible - that imputes too much power to the rapist. I know that for much of Western history there has been a tradition of women finding being raped so terrible that they killed themselves (Lucretia being the famous example). But I have been imbibed with enough feminism to think that being raped is not enough to make your life worthless. Even being raped multiple times over years. Even being forced to bear your rapist's child. I would make a lousy Ancient Roman or Victorian. But then there are women who have actually been raped and yet still gone on and made something out of their lives. And, I think that the trauma of rape has something to do with the beliefs of most of society. If Ancient Rome had held that that being raped is a horrible experience to go through, but has no impact on a woman's virtue or reputation, would Lucreatia have killed herself?

    I am not denying that rape is terrible. What I am denying is that rape makes the raped woman's, or man's, life worthless. If you were arguing that rape makes the rapist's life worthless, I would have much more sympathy with your line of argument. But that's not because the rapist suffers, that's because the rapist is a rapist. Suffering is not enough to make a life not worth living.

    And second, people react differently. The mother knows only her perception of and attitude towards this life. Is she able to estimate the pain and pleasure values for her potential daughter sufficiently exactly to do a meaningful balancing, while we are not?

    Not sufficiently to do this *exactly*. But someone has to make the decision, and it's her body that will be bearing or not bearing the baby, so it's her job.

    I do also think that, aside from the important fact that it's the mother's body, not yours or mine, she is better-placed to make that decision than we are as she is the one living in the basement being raped by her father on a regular basis, even if she will never know the answer exactly.
    Furthermore, her child will inherit half her genes, indeed more than that due to the incest balance, so to the extent that our personalities are shaped by our genes (which appears to be, roughly speaking, 50%), her mind statistically should be a better guide to her potential children's minds than ours.

    I don't know of any general rule for how balancing is done when making difficult decisions about options where the results are not directly comparable. People do recommend various ways, such as making lists of the pros and cons, making decision trees and applying odds to each branch of the tree, tossing a coin and if you are disappointed at the outcome choosing the other option, etc.

    I was using skeptical in a more radical sense here. A skeptic in this sense would be someone who doubts that something is possible or meaningful.

    I am surprised. If you think that your definition of skeptic is radical, what definition of skeptic would you find non-radical?

    To me radical skepticism is doubting if the evidence of our senses and our memories can be even remotely reliable. I do find that debating that view a waste of time, as it isn't even remotely falsifiable.

    If you don't allow even for such judgments, then the consequences are rather extreme: For instance, all those with an integer body would not be in a position to assert that no-one should be subject to physical mutilation.

    Good thing I do allow for such judgments, then, isn't it? To quote myself from earlier: "I am confident enough in our judgment that it is wrong to murder already-existing small children that I think we have a right to stop my hypothetical religiously-motivated man from doing it. "

    I just don't think we have enough evidence or lines of argument to assert that the Tays Sach child has a right not to exist.

    On the case of body mutilation - are you really going to assert that I should not have had the right to have my ears pierced?
    Body mutilation can be resolved by the issue of consent. Those who want their bodies mutilated can consent to it, those who don't, don't. On the case of those who can't consent, their parents generally get a choice - eg you do see small Indian children sometimes with their ears pierced, and I had to get my mother's consent to have mine done given my age. Some forms of body mutilation (eg FGM) reduce a child's life enjoyment so much that it makes sense for a government to rule that parents do not have the right to give consent to it. However, it is impossible for someone who doesn't exist to consent, so we need different rules.

    But there is nothing to prevent us here from forming an opinion on whether the situation in w1 is good or bad.

    Well the major thing preventing me from forming an opinion is that I don't know how to do so. I know plenty of theories about how to form moral opinions in a world where there are people, not many about a world where there are no people.

    According to your intuitions, it is obviously a kind of accident that these judgments, due to their logical properties, happen to yield also an assessment for w1.

    Really? I didn't know that was my intuition. I thought my intuition was exactly the same as my rational logic that there's something really mystifying about claiming that a world in which there are no people is good.

    And what appears to be even more difficult is preventing w1 from being just a perfect world once we have decided to assess it in order to be able to morally restrict procreation.

    Well if you start off wanting to restrict procreation then of course w1 is a perfect world. But that's different to whether it is a good world from my starting point.

    And in what sense do you mean perfect?

    What is somewhat disturbing here is that so much depends on things that seem to be completely arbitrary from the ethical point of view: formulation and logic. Why choose this logic over another one?

    I think this is the is-ought problem, raised by David Hume. I don't know of a good answer to the is-ought problem. This is partly why I fall back on rights that allows society to get along.

    I was confused because the things that you assign a reference in order to show how your formula "relates to the real world" are actually called constants.

    Not in my experience. For example, take the formula E = mc^2. There are two constants in that formula - 2 and c. But the formula has meaning if we say:
    E = energy
    m = mass
    c = the speed of light

    The formula E=mc^2 with those definitions tells us the amount of energy contained in any amont of mass. Or alternatively, the amount of energy needed to create a given unit of mass. However, if I defined
    E = tax to be paid
    m = tax rate
    c = income as a percentage of $100,000 per year
    I would have a formula for calculating the tax rate - one that really discouraged high incomes.
    Defining your variables is important.
    And when relevant, defining your set is important. I have spent a lot of time writing out things like:
    "For all x, where x is a member of the set of real numbers"
    "For all x, where x is a member of the set of positive integers"
    Etc
    Definitions apply to far more than just constants.

    And second, the very point of my argument is that it's not linked to a particular interpretation of P. It needn't be pain or pleasure.

    But if I take a note from the Americans, and say that:
    P is the pursuit of happiness
    Then if x is an empty set, then no one can pursue happiness, so the requirements are not met.
    Or to copy an idea from the Christains:
    P is go forth and multiply
    Then if x is an empty set, then no one can go forth and multiply, so the requirements are not met.

    As for whether or not something is maths, my general bias is I learnt it in maths class, it uses mathematical-style notation, it's maths.

    Say, for instance, that there is a starving illiterate man who was witness to a crime. The offender now offers him money for handing over his tongue so that he can't report of what he has seen anymore.

    Say a non-starving illiterate man wanted a hospital to cut out his tongue, and was willing to pay the full costs? Should the hospital do it?
    Now say a non-starving illiterate man wanted a hospital to perform a vasectomy and was willing to pay the full costs? Should the hospital do it?

    One can make an argument that some people are in a position that is vulnerable enough that they should be protected from having to make certain irreversible decisions. However, the decision to have a child is irreversible, even more so than modern sterilisation operations - children adopted out at birth sometimes trace down their biological parents, people who have lost a child seem, from my view as someone who has no children, to be drastically affected by this for the rest of their lives. One can make an argument that it is wrong to offer money to someone to undertake an irreversible decision like having your tongue cut out, but in the case of paying someone not to be sterilised it's a case of paying someone to make one irreversible decision rather than another. And as I stated earlier, I do not think that anyone is morally obliged to have children, or morally obliged to refrain from having them.

    There is a further argument that if you choose to remain in a country and take its benefits, you are morally obliged to submit yourself to the laws of that country even when those laws strike you as wrong. Plato's account of Socrates's deathbed speech makes the strongest argument I've heard for that. That argument is applicable to your man seeking to avoid being convicted. But not applicable to the original case (although again I repeat the disclaimer that this assumes that the organisation is not using force or fraud).

    I didn't mean to say that this organization really does something wrong. I don't know.

    You know my answer. I hope that helps.

    Merely adding an option is actually also problematic, in a certain way: Why did you add this particular option instead of another one?

    I guess that the reason they added that option is that they wanted to reduce the number of children born to drug addicts. We can debate the question of whether that is the best way of spending money if you like, but then we can debate that about anyone's decisions about the public good - for example is it morally problematic to give money to reduce malaria in poor countries since you could give that money to encourage the growth of the right of free speech? Paying crack addicts not to have children doesn't strike me as a priority, but I've never really looked into the question. Do you have any data to hand about the rate of disabilities amongst crack addicts' children relative to the rest of the population? The rate at which their children are taken into care?

    By the way, just because I am not well-equipped to have a debate about the effectiveness of paying crack addicts not to have children does not mean that I wish this question not to be debated. I am in favour of debating such questions.

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  52. Oh, I thought I had better add that even though I don't find value in discussing utterly unfalsifiable ideas like what I think of as radical skepticism, I have no desire to prevent anyone else discussing them.

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  53. But that's not the same as life being worthless, and to be honest I find your implication that a child should not be born because she would likely be raped terrible - that imputes too much power to the rapist.

    What's so great about having someone born that this is a problem? Besides, I have a sort of contrary intuition: I find it problematic to provide the rapist with another victim to satify his offensive desires. This is too much of a concession.

    But I have been imbibed with enough feminism to think that being raped is not enough to make your life worthless.

    I didn't mean to suggest that. I don't even know what it means.
    The kind of argument I had in mind has a deontological flavor and would be a way around your concerns about being able to judge the situation, which I interpreted as rooted in the distorted preferences problem. (I, personally, am inclined to take such preferences at face value.) We have abundant evidence -- rejecting which would be absurd -- to the effect that entering the state in which you develop distorted preferences is extremely painful, so it's a point that you must not cross. The driving force is the same as behind the argument about suicides: even if many of the rescued ones were later glad to be rescued, you can't use that a justification for interference.
    And of course, such arguments don't and can't make reference to whole-life assessments.

    Suffering is not enough to make a life not worth living.

    What does "a life worth living" mean? This is a dubious concept. I can make sense of "a life worth continuing", and then we may debate about whether a live is worth "starting". But "worth living" - what's that?
    Anyway, assuming that you think future excessive suffering is not enough to make a life not worth starting - what would be sufficient?

    Not sufficiently to do this *exactly*.

    How inexact are you allowed to be? And still, I have no idea about what her reasoning would have to be like...

    I don't know of any general rule for how balancing is done when making difficult decisions about options where the results are not directly comparable. People do recommend various ways, such as making lists of the pros and cons, making decision trees and applying odds to each branch of the tree, tossing a coin and if you are disappointed at the outcome choosing the other option, etc.

    Well... This doesn't sound like principled ethical decision-making. The issue strikes me as a bit too important for such imprecise guessing. Also, without at least somewhat clear guiding principles, various biasses on the potential mother's part are extremely likely to play a role...
    It seems to me that an inapplicable ethical theory (that is, one that doesn't lead you to the right decisions) is none at all. For me, these difficulties sound like a good reason not to choose such a balancing-approach.


    But someone has to make the decision, and it's her body that will be bearing or not bearing the baby, so it's her job.

    Why is this relevant? After all, of course it is her who practically has to make the decision. There isn't even anyone else there (in the cellar) for her to consult with, so...

    If you think that your definition of skeptic is radical, what definition of skeptic would you find non-radical?

    It seemed to me that you were using the word just to say that you were doubtful about which answer is correct.
    (A small linguistic aside: I said more radical, which isn't the same as radical. Something can be larger without being large, you know.)

    To me radical skepticism is doubting if the evidence of our senses and our memories can be even remotely reliable. I do find that debating that view a waste of time, as it isn't even remotely falsifiable.

    I completely agree, but you can also be skeptic about very specific issues, in which case the position can be reasonably debatable.

    I just don't think we have enough evidence or lines of argument to assert that the Tays Sach child has a right not to exist.

    What would consistute sufficient evidence?
    In addition, we should also see whether we can define what sufficient evidence for the birth being definitely unproblematic would be. This would be playing on the safe side, as it were...

    On the case of body mutilation - are you really going to assert that I should not have had the right to have my ears pierced?

    No, of course not. It's just that the term "mutilation" has such a strong negative connotation that I forgot to make sure that I was talking of involuntary mutilation.

    Body mutilation can be resolved by the issue of consent.

    You have to establish it as potentially harmful first. Only then the requirement of consent arises.

    Some forms of body mutilation (eg FGM) reduce a child's life enjoyment so much that it makes sense for a government to rule that parents do not have the right to give consent to it.

    How does the government know? They haven't experienced it themselves...

    Well the major thing preventing me from forming an opinion is that I don't know how to do so. I know plenty of theories about how to form moral opinions in a world where there are people, not many about a world where there are no people.

    I meant logically or metaphysically... And then, there are quite a few situations where we have no or unclear intuitions. We can do extrapolation for these cases.

    Really? I didn't know that was my intuition. I thought my intuition was exactly the same as my rational logic that there's something really mystifying about claiming that a world in which there are no people is good.

    But I cannot identify any logical problem with judging w1 from w0. That's my whole point. And my conception was that it's your intuition that there is something wrong with judgments of worlds like w1, which is an intuition that I don't find it difficult to understand. Yet I see reasons to resist it.

    Well if you start off wanting to restrict procreation then of course w1 is a perfect world. But that's different to whether it is a good world from my starting point.

    Huh? I thought you find completely unrestricted procreation problematic, too?

    And in what sense do you mean perfect?

    Nothing that is morally prohibited is the case there.

    I think this is the is-ought problem, raised by David Hume.

    I don't see the connection here...

    This is partly why I fall back on rights that allows society to get along.

    This gets you a very minimal morality, if any... Certainly one that falls short of our moral intuitions. Also, on what scale is well-functioning assessed and how do you get to this scale?

    As for the variable stuff, I get what you mean now. In your E=mc^2 example, "defining the variables" is actually restricting the domain of the quantors. Because stated in logical terms, such equations are always sentences with a bunch of universal quantifiers. It's like "for all Energies and masses ...". But then, this is Physics...
    Anyway, you're right that explicitly stating the domain is what I forgot at first, presumably because it was so natural for me that it would be the set of moral subjects. But I hope it's clear now what the symbols all mean?

    Then if x is an empty set, then no one can pursue happiness, so the requirements are not met.

    In universally quantifying over a set and saying that all its members are P, you are not actually asserting that there is anything that is P. At best, using natural language, you might presuppose it, in which case w1's assessment would be undefined, but this isn't necessary.
    The shop-owner who writes "dogs must stay outside" doesn't care whether or not there is a dog in front of his shop. What is important to him is that there be no dog in his shop. And indeed, the standard universal quantifier used in predicate logic can be defined in terms of the existential quantifier: for all x, P(x) = there is no x so that not-P(x).

    As for whether or not something is maths, my general bias is I learnt it in maths class, it uses mathematical-style notation, it's maths.

    I am inclined to see it the other way around: Mathematics use logic-style notation. ;)

    Say a non-starving illiterate man wanted a hospital to cut out his tongue, and was willing to pay the full costs? Should the hospital do it?
    Now say a non-starving illiterate man wanted a hospital to perform a vasectomy and was willing to pay the full costs? Should the hospital do it?


    They should inquire into the preferences of the two men, but if it turns out that it is either one of their final preferences (which is unlikely) or that there is no way to achieve their goals that wasn't known to them and that they would prefer, my answers are yes and yes. But how exactly is this relevant here? In particular, what role should the illiteracy play here?

    And as I stated earlier, I do not think that anyone is morally obliged to have children, or morally obliged to refrain from having them.

    Now I'm confused now. Do you believe in morally unrestricted procreation or don't you? If you do, what is our discussion about the Austrian basement mother all about... ? Why did you say there that you didn't think it's just fine if she has a child and insisted that her decision should be guided by moral reasons and not by some other norm system?

    There is a further argument that if you choose to remain in a country and take its benefits, you are morally obliged to submit yourself to the laws of that country even when those laws strike you as wrong.

    I have strong objections to this line of argument, but maybe we shouldn't start a fundamental discussion about political philosophy here, to which this would lead...

    As for the crack addict issue... I'm equally ill-equipped to form a conclusive opinion: I have absolutely no clue about any statistical data, so I can't judge whether the money would be better invested in trying to turn the addicts into former addicts. And even if the chances were good, one would need a theory about the morality of procreation, which I don't have, in order to assess where the priority lies.

    One word about the scathing-review example. I think it is more appropriate to speak of disproportionate harm instead of harm in general, which probably wouldn't run counter to Curator's intentions. And I don't find it so absurd to say that there is a moral limit on how nasty you may get... Surely there is a way of being truthful without being scathing.

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  54. I'm late to the party, but I'll comment anyway. First, I agree this is a very thoughful essay.

    Consent is the key in the case of birth (or in this case lack thereof, indeed the impossibility of consent). It's bad enough there is the possibility of accident or loss or original lack of physical and mental well-being. Personally, I focus secondarily on the fact that even the most pleasant life will die and that all species (including ours) will go extinct one day anyway - through the Universe's entrophic "heat death", if in no other way.

    However, what really seals it for me is an admitted misanthropy on my part (not a bitter, sullen type - yes, such a type IS possible). Call this the "moral depravity of humanity" argument - one that focuses on the perpetual moral shortcomings and egotisms of human nature.

    We're prone to lie, cheat, steal, exploit. Sometimes we're unkind to each other, and - sometimes- even are even violent or bigoted. Now why would I want to contribute my sperm to sustaining a species like that? Note well that this moral argument works equally well for atheistic and theistic world views, as I don't even bring up anything supernatural in this one.

    I admit that the degree to which we are such an unpleasant species is debatable, perhaps it might all be a matter of "you either believe me or you don't". Nevertheless, I do find it a point worth pondering.


    filrabat

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  55. When a person is incapacitated, either by injury or minority, we have to think about "what would they likely consent to if they did not lack capacity?" If a child understood they would avoid the suffering of the childhood diseases they would likely consent to the MMR vaccine. A dying adult would in almost all cases desire for their arm to be broken if that means it would save their life. A girl who understood the long term effects of FGM would likely never consent to it.

    The principle of consent still holds, it is simply the duty of the actor to carefully consider what the incapacitated person would choose to consent to. An imperfect process, for sure, but not one that is philosophically intractable.

    The one place this might not work is whether a child would likely consent to permanent physical disability in exchange for some superhuman mental powers. That technology may exist someday and it will present one heck of a tough moral problem.

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