Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Sense of the Asymmetry

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

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

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

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

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

3. Commercial Children's Television

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

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

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


  1. I realize you aren't proposing a perfect analogy to existentially predicated asymmetry, but I'm slowly beginning to question how well this example works as a relevant intuition pump.

    In order to accept it, it seems as though we must first accept the idea that advertising "creates" a desire, which previously did not exist. Other things being equal, however, it seems more accurate to say that advertising may, at most, particularize or stimulate a latent or generally expressed desire -- and that the process by which this occurs entails some naturally and culturally influenced engagement of imagination, both on the part of the advertiser and on the part of the young spectator/potential consumer. To plausibly "create" a previously nonexistent desire, you might need to introduce some drug or mind-control device into the thought experiment. Otherwise advertisers could implant six-year-olds with a desire for name-brand laxatives.

    As I child, I recall having specific and general desires for toys that didn't exist. And as an adult, I often talk, semi-seriously, of the things I "miss" about the future, or of the cool future-fangled things which I may be deprived by the tyranny of the present (like air conditioned pillows, lucid dreaming pills, and the option of immortality). Imagination being central to human nature, this doesn't strike me as trivial. Merely seeing and thinking about a cool new thing can be a source of some pleasure. And wanting tends to be a ticklish state, entailing pleasure (stimulated imagination) and displeasure (frustrated gratification).

    Let's say that one pitiable TV-denied culturati-bred kid bides his time thinking of how cool it would be if he could be invisible. Meanwhile, another two TV-watching kids (one whose family is rich, one whose family is poor), both burdened with the same abiding wish to be invisible, see a commercial for "Invisa-Goo," a product that actually makes you invisible! One of those latter two will go on to enjoy the product and fulfill his desire to become invisible, while the other is left only to hope and wish and dream. Meanwhile, the first kid doesn't know what he's missing -- YET HE DOES. He already wanted to be invisible. He just didn't know it had become a live option. Seems to me his desire is frustrated, regardless of the more specific awareness that exposure to the commercial would have cultivated. The acuteness of his frustration may blunted by his parentally-abetted ignorance of the existence of Invisi-Goo, but his desire is frustrated just the same. And I would say that televisionless child is actually deprived of fulfilling his desire, just as is the pauper kid (and arguably even Ritchie Rich, prior to the product's existence). In a sense you can get to this by taking the view from eternity, under which deprivation -- for the living -- is multiplied to vast proportions.

    Among the three, who is best off? Obviously, I would say, the kid who finds Invisa-Goo in his stocking on Christmas morning! After all, he gets to be invisible! The others can only dream and wish and hope, which is neither nothing nor essentially new.

    As to your second question, I've already expressed reservations about the premise, but even if we take the particularization, stimulation, or exploitation of -- rather than the creation of -- a desire to be the central issue, this seems to be a mixed bag as well. Merely knowing about something new and nursing a desire for that new thing can be frustrating, especially if that desire is doomed to be unfulfilled. On the other hand, such desire-infused knowledge can be an impetus to creativity, a benevolent stimulant or muse. This is the sort of thing that will differ from person to person.

    Even if you think I'm missing the point or interjecting variables not contemplated in the original proposition (though I would argue that human nature and human heterogeneity invites these interjections), the point might yet go to your original insight -- missed by many -- about the morally relevant uniqueness of being brought into existence. The kid who is NEVER born, never sees the commercial for Invisi-Goo. But nor does he -- or she -- ever want to be invisible. No person, no deprivation, no mixed bag, no frustration, nothing. And weighed against the possibility of something bad, "nothing" is good.

  2. Yup, this is a tricky one - I was attempting to play off of the Sydney Opera House example (I think from Benatar, though I can't find it now) and come up with a more realistic version of genuinely "implanting a desire" in someone. (The example has to do with giving someone a pill that makes them desire for the Sydney Opera House to have some characteristic, which it either does have, or is soon to have, I can't remember - but, at any rate, it doesn't seem to be providing the person with a benefit.)

    If it's something the person already has a desire for, then my example fails. But I think it's rare that a children's toy advertisement acts on a pre-existing desire, rather than creating a new one. Perhaps the example requires more specificity.

  3. Ah, I found it - it's Christopher Fehige's example, from his paper "A Pareto Principle for Possible People," in the book Preferences (unfortunately not part of the book preview on Google Books). What a sexy title for a paper, though, despite the alliteration!

    I slightly misstated the example, but it goes like this: "we 'paint the tree nearest to the Sydney Opera house (sic) red and give Kate a pill that makes her wish that the tree nearest to Sydney Opera House were red.' Professor Fehige plausibly denies that we do Kate any favour in doing this."

    Benatar lists this, along with the Seanna Shiffrin unconsented harm to prevent harm/unconsented harm to provide pure benefit asymmetry (whose intuition at least one professional philosopher in my life, who's worked with Seanna, claims to not share), in a section he calls "other asymmetries," meaning they're related to the antinatalist asymmetry, but aren't necessarily at the core of it. These "other asymmetries" have the property, though, of not involving bringing new people into existence, hence avoiding all the baggage connected with that scenario.

    Perhaps a better, more realistic version of the Sydney Opera House Red Tree would be my toy example, but specifying a more specific toy that no one could possibly have a pre-existing desire for - say, Electronic Mall Madness, the Board Game (which my adult friend actually played with her adult sisters). Any other ideas?

  4. Worm Wrestle!

  5. I know I'm necroing the comments, but one angle to look at the thought experiment differently:

    Replace 'paint the tree nearest to the Sydney Opera house (sic) red and give Kate a pill that makes her wish that the tree nearest to Sydney Opera House were red.' with 'paint the tree nearest to the Sydney Opera house (sic) red and give Kate a pill that makes her feel good when she perceives the tree nearest to Sydney Opera House to be red.'

    Has Kate received a real benefit then? I think the answer is yes.


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