Monday, December 27, 2010

The Dark Power of Positive Thinking: Accepting Bad Lives Leads to More Bad Lives

From Evolution is Suicide:
Imagine that the first slaves that were attempted to be put on a slave ship to America committed mass suicide, by not eating or by attacking their owners and refusing to work. Had their culture promoted this reaction to being forced into slavery, it could have prevented millions of lives from being forced into suffering and abuse as slaves.

From Devaluing Life as a Catalyst for Freedom

Also, some comments got unfairly marked as spam, but I published them belatedly. They were from Chip and Rob.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Consensual Cannibalism is Less Wrong Than Childbirth

Tauriq Moosa argues that there's nothing wrong with eating somebody who wants to be eaten.

I proceed to tilt viciously in the direction of some dangerous windmills.

Also on 3 Quarks Daily, Tauriq's epic pessimist manifesto.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Living in the Epilogue: Social Policy as Palliative Care

"A self is a machine for making you concerned about your organism."
— Antonio Damasio

The Story as a Cognitive Bias
The essence of consciousness, says Antonio Damasio, is the internal narrative - the story one tells oneself about oneself. The ability to create this narrative - to conceive of oneself, to project oneself into the past and the future, to connect events meaningfully - has proven to be a very effective evolutionary strategy to ensure that an organism acts to promote its own ends.

Our evolutionary history ensures that we think in stories. They are so central to our thinking that it is hard to think about them. An old fish said to a couple of young fish, "Morning, boys! The water's fine today!" and swam off. One young fish turned to the other young fish and asked, "what's water?" Thus it is with humans and stories.

Stories are extremely useful; as information-hungry, social creatures, we are as pleased to hear stories as dogs are to sniff the pee stains of other dogs. We love stories. We are stories. We think and remember in the form of stories. As Roger Schank puts it (in Tell Me a Story: A New Look at Real and Artificial Memory), "In the end all we have, machine or human, are stories and methods of finding and using those stories."

But stories are not real. They are constructs that we apply to the universe, but there is no story out in the universe. There is no "gist" or "point" to the universe, as stories have gists and points. We construct meaning to serve our evolutionarily-determined ends, and this is, I think, the most central of all the cognitive biases.

Living in the Epilogue

A few years ago, I wanted to die all the time, every minute. I suffered intensely, and the main project of my life was to get through time. I researched suicide methods, made repeated attempts, but always failed, and was left with the conviction that suicide is extremely difficult. At some point, I changed my focus from trying to end my life to trying to make what years I am forced to endure less miserable. In the language of illness, I put myself in hospice and gave myself palliative care.

I tried many therapies, including a six-month attempt at alcoholism. Many of my experimental palliative care therapies (including this) failed, but a few were extremely successful at making me not suffer all the time (including distance running and marriage). Marriage is a kind of heaven, and I suspect that I am happier than most people in the world. Life remains an irritation, but for me, it is not the constant grind of pain and humiliation that it must be for millions of people. In many ways, my pro-death orientation makes life more pleasant for me, since I utterly lack the fear of death and all the cringing urgency that fear engenders.

But there is something missing. Here is the problem, if it is a problem: I am not in a story.

Living outside of any story - living without hope for the future, without the belief that one is part of a narrative - is confusing. It's hard to get anything done when nothing has a point. For any not-immediately-pleasurable action (or inaction) I contemplate - getting up in the morning, vacuuming, answering the phone - there is no readily-available answer to the ever-present question in my mind, "why?" At least, there is no long-term "why."

Do I wish I were in a story again? Ultimately, no. Even if it were possible to imagine myself as a character in some narrative about to unfold, I don't really want to. This would be sacrificing truth for comfort - and questionable comfort at that.

I spoke about this with my closest friend years ago, and he suggested that I have had a story, and now I'm living in the "ever after" part. I am, for all relevant purposes, living in my own epilogue. This is also, I think, the status of people with terminal illness who are about to die: their story is essentially over. This is even true if you believe in an afterlife (including the transhumanist kind).

There Are No Stories In Heaven

There are no stories in heaven; heaven is all epilogue. It functions as a bookend on our stories; we may even call it the "hereafter," as in "happily ever after." There can be no conflict in heaven, so there can be no stories, either.

Aristotle scholar Martha Nussbaum explores how crappy it is for humans to live outside of a story, even in heaven, in her essay "Transcending Humanity." Here, she considers Odysseus' choice to give up eternal youth and pleasure with Calypso in order to return to his wife and the certainty of inevitable death. She says,
What, in the face of the recognized human attachment to transcendence, could justify such a choice? Odysseus has little to say. But what he does say makes it perfectly clear that they key is not any surpassing beauty in Penelope herself. He freely grants that from this point of view Calypso will be found superior. And he points to no superiority in Penelope that could counterbalance Calypso's divine excellence. So he is not, it seems, choosing a glorious prize in spite of the fact that he has to face death to get it; that is not at all how he sees the issue. He is choosing the whole human package: mortal life, dangerous voyage, imperfect mortal aging woman. He is choosing, quite simply, what is his: his own history, the form of a human life and the possibilities of excellence, love, and achievement that inhabit that form. What, then, can he say to make that choice intelligible, once the alternative of divinity and agelessness is on the scene?

And yet, to readers of the poem from ancient to modern times, Odysseus' choice does seem intelligible, and also admirable — the only choice we would have our hero make.
Odysseus' choice is perfectly understandable because the alternative is so . . . boring. Without the possibility of loss, nothing is interesting. Without limitation, there is no possibility for excellence, which is, in the Aristotelian view at least, the purpose of a human being:
We don't quite know what it would be for this hero, known for his courage, craft, resourcefulness, and loyal love to enter into a life in which courage would atrophy, in which cunning and resourcefulness would have little point, since the risks with which they grapple would be removed, and in which love, insofar as it appears at all, would be very different in shape from the love that connects man to wife and child in the human world of the poem.
The Greeks, no less than contemporary Americans, praise outstanding athletic performance as a wonderful instance of human excellence. . . . But clearly, such achievement has point and value only relatively to the context of the human body, which imposes certain species-specific limits and creates certain possibilities of movement rather than others. . . . But if this means that even races or contests between different animal species will usually seem pointless and odd, it means all the more that there will be no athletic excellence at all, and no meaningful concept of athletic excellence, in the life of a being that is, by nature, capable of anything and physically unlimited. . . . What would such achievement be, in a being for whom it is all easy? What would be the rules of the game? [Bolded emphasis mine.]
But the real appeal of Penelope, and of the mortal world, compared to heaven, is the possibility of stories. We root for Odysseus to choose Penelope over immortality, says Nussbaum, because of
this more general uneasiness about the shapelessness of the life Calypso offers: pleasure and kindliness and on and on, with no risks, no possibility of sacrifice, no grief, no children. All we need to do to see this is to compare accounts of lovemaking. Odysseus and Calypso "withdrew, and in a recess of the arching cavern they took their pleasure in love, and did not leave one another's side." That's the end of that; the poet can say no more; for they have nothing to talk about, since they have done nothing and nothing has happened to them. As for the human husband and wife:
The two in their room enjoyed the delights of love, then pleased one another with recounting what had befallen each. The queen told how much she had suffered in these halls, seeing always there the pernicious multitude of suitors who in wooing her had slaughtered so many beasts, fat sheep and oxen, and drawn so much wine from the great jars. The king told of the harm he had done to others and the misery he had endured himself. Penelope listened to him enraptured, and sleep did not fall upon her eyelids till he had told his tale to the end. [Oddyssey, V.226-27, XXIII.300-09, W. Shewring transl.]
It's perfectly plain that the human pair are, at least from the viewpoint of the human reader, more interesting and more erotic. A sexuality divorced from conversation, from storytelling, from risk and adventure and the sharing of risk and adventure, seems extremely boring; and we feel that it is a great tribute to the goddess's beauty that Odysseus retains his interest in her, after so much time.
Life is quite unbearable, for a human, without the "risk and adventure" of a story-bound life. What we are looking for when we look for the "meaning of life" is the greater story. The unfortunate truth, suggested by science and vehemently denied by religion, is that there is no greater story. We may make up stories and allow them to shape our perceptions, but ultimately there is no story. We are all living in the epilogue of reality, or rather worse, because there never was a story. For many of us, our personal stories have run out - and it's extremely difficult to push oneself into a new story once you see that all stories are vanity. It is like the difficulty of staying in a dream once one realizes one is dreaming.

The Cheery and the Damned

Why are drugs, prostitution, gambling and suicide illegal, when they clearly give so much relief to suffering people? I think it is because, at a societal level, we are deluded into thinking that happiness is possible, maybe even easy or likely, without these things. I have called this cheery social policy.

The fundamental problem with this sort of cheeriness is the assumption that a good life - a pleasant life - is relatively easy to achieve. Cheery people are able to hold such a belief because they are able to ignore - and perhaps can't even conceive of - the suffering of a significant minority of the population. A good life is not easily achieved for many of us.

There is a majority belief that we need not use extraordinary means to achieve a happy and meaningful life. Behaviors that deviants engage in, perhaps in pursuit of a tolerable life - weird sex with lots of people, say, or using steroids or marijuana or LSD or benzodiazepines - strike cheery people as perplexing and frightening. For a cheery person, these behaviors are wholly unnecessary - life is perfectly tolerable without them. And they increase the risk of harm! Who wants harm?

What the cheery cannot imagine is the importance, the function of these behaviors, and others like them - the pursuit of the interesting, and the temporary suspension of the intolerability of existence, which intolerability (for many) the cheery do not even perceive, and therefore do not properly weight as a problem.

Jason Roy's "Explanations for drug war" makes this point with respect to the drug prohibition. He quotes John Gray's Straw Dogs:
Drug use is a tacit admission of a forbidden truth. For most people happiness is beyond reach. Fulfillment is found not in daily life but escaping from it. Since happiness is unavailable, the mass of mankind seeks pleasure.

Religious cultures could admit that earthly life was hard, for they promised another in which all tears would be wiped away. Their humanist successors affirm something still more incredible — that in future, even the near future, everyone can be happy. Socieities founded on a faith in progress cannot admit the normal unhappiness of human life. As a result, they are bound to wage war on those who seek an artificial happiness in drugs.
But it is not necessarily the case that prohibitionists think that life is great. It's that they think it is meaningful - that we are in a story, and it's worth participating in, win or lose.

The idea that life is inherently worthwhile, and happiness easy to achieve, underlies many social policies, including prohibitions (legal or moral) on suicide, abortion, nonmarital sex, drugs, gambling, and even eating fatty food.

On the other hand, if life were not inherently worthwhile, suicide would be understandable, and bringing a new life into the world would not be an unqualified good, but an uneasy question mark. Sex, drugs, and fun would be appropriate ways to treat oneself for the unwanted condition of life.

Palliative Care: A Double Standard for People in the Epilogue

The terminally ill are at the end of their story. If you're going to die anyway, what does it matter what you do? Take ecstasy. Go skydiving. Fuck a prostitute. Kill yourself. Who cares?

There is a sense that, once you're terminally ill and an official short-timer in life, what you do ceases to really matter. This is, I think, at the heart of the double standard our society imposes with regard to suicide and the other activities mentioned above. If you're young and healthy, you have an obligation to stay alive and be sober and responsible. But if you're toast anyway, anything goes. For the dying, we can conceive of allowing them pleasure as mercy. But we are not so eager to offer mercy to healthy people. That is because we mistakenly believe in the concept of health.

Toward Social Policy as Palliative Care

We are all terminally ill. Not one of us is going to survive. And our stories are delusions. Each one of us lives in The Matrix - a story-dream created by our minds. Happiness is not easy; meaning is elusive. Young, healthy people who find themselves miserable, or find that they no longer inhabit a story, have even more need of the kind of "palliative care" that we offer to terminally ill people, simply because young people have so much more time to get through. Eighty years! Ninety years! A hundred years of epilogue ahead of us. It's crushingly boring to ponder. As Martha Nussbaum says,
When Calypso speaks of "calm possession of this domain," our hearts sink; for there's no story in that. . . . Stories have shaped and continue to shape the readers' desires, giving them a preference for onward movement over stasis, for risk over self-sufficiency, for the human form of time over divine timelessness. They play upon and nourish the emotions — fear, anticipation, grief, hope — that presuppose the form of life of a being both needy and resourceful, both active and finite — and that seem to have their point and function only within the context of such a life.
Regarding antinatalism, someone recently asked me if it was my belief that the bad outweighed the good, or whether I thought they weren't even comparable. I believe the latter. Ray Brassier, in his introduction to Thomas Ligotti's excellent The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, puts it thus:
The optimist fixes the exchange rate between joy and woe, thereby determining the value of life. The pessimist, who refuses the principle of exchange and the injunction to keep investing in the future no matter how worthless life's currency in the present, is stigmatized as an unreliable investor.
This is the view from hell. Hell is not the state of experiencing a great deal of suffering with no pleasure to "balance it out." Hell is popping out of the notion of meaning altogether. And this Hell is the meta-condition that we are all in, whether we perceive it or not.

Memento mori

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Why Can't Critical Theory Be More . . . Critical?

Jean-Christophe Lurenbaum, self-described "militant au planning familial" (which I totally want on my business cards), recently published his master's thesis, entitled Naître est-il dans l'intérêt de l'enfant? (Is birth in the interest of the baby?) at the Université Pierre Mendès France.

M. Lurenbaum makes a very important point: the modern value of preventing suffering is at odds with the ancient value of procreation. We as human beings use various strategies to avoid confronting this conflict, including outright denial of science.

But Lurenbaum is writing critical theory (French feminist critical theory, no less), not science, and he denies science (or makes bullshit assumptions that elide scientific thinking) in his own way. Here is an exemplary claim (p. 25):
Ces indices attestent une création tardive du concept de père, suivie de la mise en place d'un contrôle masculin sur le pouvoir de reproduction des femmes après l'invention de l'élevage : le moment de l'invention de l'élevage focalise donc le soupçon d'une découverte d'un rôle masculin dans la reproduction. [Emphasis in original.]
These observations attest to a relatively late creation of the concept of the father, followed by the development of male control over the reproductive power of women after the invention of agriculture: the moment of invention of agriculture is the moment when mankind first suspects that men have a role in reproduction. [Translation mine.]

Essentially, the claim is that pre-agricultural people did not understand how sexual reproduction works. (Lurenbaum maintains that there are cultures to this day that lack the concept of a father.) This is at odds with the evidence that pre-agricultural peoples do, in fact, understand where babies come from, as evidenced not only directly by ethnographic records, but indirectly by the universality of punishment of female adultery and other means of proprietary control of female sexual capacity by men.

I think that even "true stories" are dangerous, because a "story" is a way of thinking about events (a particularly human, conscious way) that implies that events may be meaningful. "True" "stories" are dangerous because life is actually meaningless, and "stories" make us falsely believe that life is meaningful, and that the actual fact of suffering can be justified by subsequent events, the attitude of the sufferer, etc. But this story of Lurenbaum's, while deployed toward a noble conclusion, is a false one. I will be the first to admit that humans are stupid monkeys, but even the behavior of literal monkeys reflects the importance of genetic paternity.

Lurenbaum's entire text is steeped in the myth that, because representations of goddesses are more common in some ancient cultures than representations of male gods, ancient societies must have been literally female-dominated. This is so retarded that it makes the baby Jesus cry, yet it is a core belief of science-denying academic feminist critical theory. It's just as stupid and falsifiable as a claim of a weeping statue, and it is protected from rational analysis in the way that other culturally important myths are protected.

The idea that the imperative to reproduce is a patriarchal human construction is one that can only be held by a denier of evolutionary biology - or at least someone whose understanding of human evolutionary history is confused.

I will give Lurenbaum props for reminding me that Hitler was an unashamed pronatalist (p. 130). Do you love Hitler? Yes? Then have more babies!

Thanks to Chip for sending me this article, and to Jim for independently posting it at

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Parent as Apologist

Awesome antinatalist propaganda from Zralytylen, on Jim's antinatalist pamphlet site:

I do not think it is emphasized nearly enough that all parents are, in effect, apologists for the Holocaust. If the Holocaust were not, in some deep way, "okay" - if the world including frequent genocide were not "okay" - how would it be acceptable to reproduce? Making a new baby says the world is alright. And the world includes genocide, mass rape, pediatric AIDS, eyeball parasites . . . all this, though, the parent must conclude, is "worth it."

Monday, November 29, 2010

...But It Probably Won't

From the Boston Globe, "A world of misery left by bullying":
Childhood bullying is an old problem, one that has produced generations of victims. And while many of those bullied as children move past it and thrive in adulthood, a surprising number say they have been unable to leave the humiliating memories behind. Their accounts are supported by a growing body of research suggesting that the bullying experience stays with many victims into young adulthood, middle age, and even retirement, shaping their decisions and hindering them in nearly every aspect of life: education and career choices; social interactions and emotional well-being; even attitudes about having children.

Unfortunately, it does not appear to affect attitudes about having children nearly as much as it should.

Monday, November 22, 2010

It Might Get Better

It is dishonest and cruel to prime children to expect better things from the future than the future in fact holds.

Many LGBT youth can't picture what their lives might be like as openly gay adults. They can't imagine a future for themselves. So let's show them what our lives are like, [sic] let's show them what the future may hold in store for them.

The It Gets Better Project is a creative, non-coercive suicide prevention project directed at gay youth, who are at a highly elevated risk for suicide attempts. Folks are invited to make a pledge:

Everyone deserves to be respected for who they are. I pledge to spread this message to my friends, family and neighbors. I'll speak up against hate and intolerance whenever I see it, at school and at work. I'll provide hope for lesbian, gay, bi, trans and other bullied teens by letting them know that "It Gets Better." [Bolded emphasis mine.]

Dan Savage, the creator of the project, says:

'When a gay teenager commits suicide, it's because he can't picture a life for himself that's filled with joy and family and pleasure and is worth sticking around for,' he declared.

'So I felt it was really important that, as gay adults, we show them that our lives are good and happy and healthy and that there's a life worth sticking around for after high school.'

I find many things to be supportive of here:

  • It acknowledges how sucky life is for many gay kids;
  • Non-coercive methods are advocated;
  • It's pro-gay and pro-freedom;
  • It's kind of heartwarming and encourages people not to be ashamed of something it's stupid to be ashamed of.

However, as much as I approve of these aspects of the project, I would not be able to make the above-printed pledge. "It gets better" is an empirical statement, and it is one I don't think can responsibly be made so unequivocally. I think there is a great deal of evidence that it does not, in fact, get better. It is dishonest and cruel to prime children to expect better things from the future than the future in fact holds. We do it, I think, to feel better about the wrongs we allow or commit against children, both as parents and as a society that can only function with a high rate of reproduction. We are here told to tell the gay kids and the bullied kids that it gets better. But what we need to ask first is: does it get better?

For Kristin and Candace Hermeler, the Australian twin sisters who attempted to carry out a suicide pact (with limited success) in Colorado, "it" does not seem to have gotten "better." An article in the New York Times indicates that the 29-year-old sisters were bullied as children, and chose to die at a shooting range in Colorado because of its proximity to the site of the Columbine massacre. For the Hermeler sisters (no word on their sexual orientations), being bullied in high school was not, apparently, followed by a happy life of contentment and adventure. It was followed by a mutual wish to die.

One question we need to answer empirically is whether gay suicide attempts in fact decrease dramatically with age. If they do, that's some evidence that youth is just a tough period to get through. I haven't dug up any data either way (let me know if you find some); the only study I've seen found that "first attempts" tend to cluster at young ages, but I don't think that has anything to say about later-in-life suicidality.

"It Gets Better" makes the assumption that children are committing suicide because they irrationally think life is crappy and won't get better. Many attribute the high rate of teen gay suicides to bullying and homophobia:

Beth Zemsky, director of the University's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Programs Office, said [a 1998 study indicating an increased risk of suicide for gay youth] is consistent with previous research. She also said our culture's intolerance of homosexuality, which can often be violent, leads many to take their own life [sic].

"Suicide attempts are often caused by the stress of a homophobic society," said Zemsky. "The study is in line with the American Psychiatric Association. People are not killing themselves because they are gay, but because they are dealing with a society that discriminates." [Bolded emphasis mine.]

I have never seen the evolutionary psychology side of things considered with regard to the high rate of suicide among gay kids, but that nasty idea seems to require serious consideration here, if only to make better models to understand suicide. This may help us understand why gayness is a risk factor for male suicide attempts, but not female. (Personally, I took way more crap in high school for being a cheerleader and being on the math team than I ever have for being bisexual.)

The idea that youthful suffering is short-lived is an empirical proposition. There is some evidence that as people age, their ability to cope with life's suffering increases. But not always. If the organizers of the It Gets Better Project cared about intellectual honesty, they'd call it the "It Might Get Better Project."

But that wouldn't be as catchy.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

At Last We Know What Causes Suicide

It's not personal agency. It's not mental illness. It's mixing booze and caffeine:
A wrongful death lawsuit has been filed against Phusion Projects Inc. after a Florida man got drunk on Four Loko, a controversial alcoholic energy drink, and shot himself in the head with a pistol.

The family of Jason Keiran, 20, filed the Four Loko lawsuit in Orange County Circuit Court on Friday, less than a week before the FDA issued warning letters to Phusion and other energy drink makers that it considers caffeine an unsafe additive for alcoholic beverages, which will shut down the entire alcoholic energy drink industry. [Bolded emphasis mine.]

Does this mean I can sue the bar for serving me Irish coffee or Continental Airlines for serving me DVRs?

While my inner plaintiff's attorney loves this (my students will definitely be hearing about this when we cover product liability in a couple of weeks), I think it functions best as an example of how people are willing to elide considerations of causation when the consequence is suicide, as opposed to some other act. Imagine if the decedent in this case had killed, not himself, but his estranged girlfriend or a rival, and blamed his action on drinking caffeine-laced booze. I doubt we would be so quick to attribute causation to the cocktail in that case; voluntary intoxication and other "Twinkie defenses" to real crimes or torts, as opposed to suicide, tend to get laughed out of court.

Why do people get intellectually lazy when it comes to suicide? Why are people unwilling to attribute causation to anything but personal agency for most actions, but very willing to attribute causation to other factors when the action is suicide?

I suspect that part of it has to do with the commonly-held idea that suicide is actually mysterious. Because non-suicidal people find the act of suicide so puzzling, I think, they are willing to accept the shakiest excuse as a "reason" for the suicide, without the skepticism that is normally present when addressing questions of causation for more understandable events. The task is to make suicide less mysterious and to point out problems in the evidence for causation.

Another reason I have considered for this species of intellectual laziness is that it follows from the mental gymnastics required to pretend that suicides are not actually responsible for their actions, but that suicide is a result of mental illness and outside the control of the actor. As I have previously written:

The more an actor is seen as the agent of his actions, the less outside influences are seen as affecting his actions. Therefore, in cases where moral responsibility is strongly attributed to an actor, outside influences are unlikely to be taken seriously as a cause of his actions - and, therefore, it is not necessary to censor these "outside influences" (such as media reports).

It is my belief that the widespread voluntary censorship of reports of suicide - from use of politically correct language to pervasive norms of message content - are the result of the modern trend to exculpate suicides from moral responsibility and redefine suicide as an act of insanity. There is, however, little evidence that suicides are any less morally responsible for their actions than murderers. Certainly, many other behaviors are media-contagious - but they are not censored, nor are many of them even studied.

I think that one possible explanation is that, at a deep level, people understand that suicide is just not that bad compared to actual acts of violence - despite hysterical language describing suicide as "self-murder." We want to exculpate people from acts to which we are sympathetic. While we often refuse to define acts outside of societal norms as "not wrong," we may nonetheless refuse to attribute full moral responsibility to these acts. However, this sort of sympathy backfires in our society. People who are "not responsible for their actions" must be "protected," often in painful and dehumanizing ways; and society is responsible for their "protection," often to the detriment of freedom.

Unfortunately, policy recommendations are often built on these shaky connections.

Plus, we all know that it's actually internet video game addiction that causes suicide.

Thanks Chip.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

United States: Suicide Tourism Destination?

The United States has relatively liberal gun laws compared to first-world countries, and allows the public to access shooting ranges where real guns may be rented for target practice. Many Americans have taken advantage of this quick access to guns in order to commit suicide (and sometimes homicide-suicide).

On November 15, 29-year-old Australian twin sisters in the United States on tourist visas attempted to commit suicide at a public shooting range in Colorado. One died; the other "was rushed to a nearby hospital where she was in a critical but stable condition after undergoing surgery." As of November 18, police have not yet determined which sister died.

Free access to guns makes the United States attractive as a suicide tourism destination; however, as this case illustrates, the de facto suicide prohibition makes gunshot suicide in the United States a risky proposition. But apparently it's better than the options in Australia.

Australians have previously taken advantage of the availability of barbiturates in Mexico. One can only conclude that the suicide prohibition is even worse in Australia than it is in the United States:
Another Australian who purchased the drug in Mexico, Caren Jenning, was convicted in June of accessory to manslaughter because a friend, Graeme Wylie, who had advanced Alzheimer's disease and had long expressed a desire to end his life, used it to commit suicide two years ago.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Further Proof that Psychology is Not a Mature Science

From The Skeptic's Dictionary:
Psi researcher Daryl Bem (he of Bem and Honorton fame) has had a paper on precognition accepted by a peer-reviewed publication of the American Psychological Association: the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. He's titled his paper "Feeling the Future: Experimental evidence for anomalous retroactive influences on cognition and affect." Anomalous retroactive influence is psiency talk for precognition. (Psiency is snarky talk for psi jargon.)

That's right - a journal published by the American Psychological Association is publishing a paper suggesting that precognition is real.

But we should totally trust what they have to say about suicide:

Suicide is the act of killing yourself, most often as a result of depression or other mental illness.


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Most Politically Correct Article on Suicide of All Time

An article entitled "No surge in teen suicides, but many myths," by Jeremy Olson of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, doesn't actually say anything, but may be the most politically correct article on the topic of suicide I have ever read. It author carefully follows the questionable "media guidelines" for reporting of suicide, meant both to dampen the (questionable) phenomenon of suicide contagion and to be extra-polite about suicide.

The author carefully refers to the fact that a student "died by suicide" - avoiding the more natural construction "committed suicide." He states that "[m]ental illness is the most proven risk factor" for suicide; although it is questionable what meaning that statement has, encourages the media to emphasize this "fact."

Most insultingly, the author accuses teenage suicides of shortsightedness. "Despondent teens perceive suicide as an end to their personal pain, but don't see the torture it brings to those left behind," he says. On the contrary. I think it is more accurate to say: Parents perceive reproduction as an end to their personal feelings of meaninglessness, but ignore the torture existence brings to their children.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Ask Sister Y: Distinguishing Pure Antinatalism from "Bad World" Antinatalism

A reader asks:

Hello Sister Y,

Would you change your antinatalist views if -

a. life extension technology took off and
b. a legal system existed somewhere where a more 'rational' frame of mind was adhered to?

To answer this question, it may be helpful to attempt a sort of taxonomy of philanthropic antinatalisms (philosophies that maintain that reproduction is wrong because it harms those brought into existence). One kind of antinatalism occurs when we look at the world around us and conclude, based on some kind of standard, that our particular world is so bad that it is no place for children (or new beings). Another, more subtle form of antinatalism is the judgment that no matter how nice conditions in our or any world may be, it's still wrong to bring sentient creatures into existence. We might call the former view "context-dependent antinatalism" or "bad world antinatalism" or something like that. The latter we might call "pure antinatalism" or "context-independent antinatalism" or even "Benatarian antinatalism," since this is the view advocated by David Benatar in his book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence.

The first view - context-dependent antinatalism - has multiple versions as well. The most common form of antinatalism is the belief that it is generally okay to reproduce (i.e., that most lives are worth beginning), but that it is immoral for some people* to reproduce (e.g., starving people, people with AIDS, drug addicts). A stronger form of context-dependent antinatalism holds that, given the universal features of our world (the inevitability of death and bodily pain, the high likelihood of some degree of misery, the condition of absurdity), it is never morally right for someone in our world to reproduce. But both of these require us to look at the world around us and judge it according to some standard for what makes a good existence. Pure antinatalism - Benatarian antinatalism - requires no such mysterious standard, and no examination of the world at all, except to note that all beings suffer at least a little bit. Benatar's illustrative example is that of a child brought into existence in a miraculous world where he would be purely happy and never suffer any pain or misery - except a single pinprick. Pure antinatalism would judge it immoral to bring him into existence; context-dependent antinatalism would judge it morally good.

So we might divide the world into four basic positions:

  1. Pronatalism. "All reproduction is morally innocent (or morally required)."
  2. Situational context-dependent antinatalism. "Everybody should have babies except starving people in the third world, drug addicts, and AIDS patients."
  3. Universal context-dependent antinatalism. "Our world is so bad that no one living in it should reproduce; but if things got much better, it might be okay."
  4. Pure antinatalism. "No beings should ever be brought into existence if they will suffer at all - which they will."

In my experience, the first two views are the most common. Most folks either cannot conceive of existence ever being a harm, or can conceive of it as a harm only for the very worst lives among us.

What is rarely acknowledged is that both forms of context-dependent antinatalism - 2 and 3 in the list above - require some kind of standard by which we can measure whether a human life is worth getting. The most common standard offered is, I think, that explicitly articulated by Robin Hanson: we can judge which lives should come into existence based on which lives are happy having their existence now.

I have previously discussed the problems with this view (the idea that we can judge whether a life is worth getting by whether a similarly-situated alive individual is happy to have been born). We are attracted to the idea that one may choose for oneself; recreating happy beings seems like a nice proxy for individual choice. But the similarities are illusory.

We assume that when one evaluates oneself as happy, or glad-to-have-been-born, one is observing the evidence and making a rational judgment (even if that evidence is introspective). But there is plenty of evidence that such judgments are irrationally skewed in the direction of justifying one's own existence. We are programmed (by evolution) to feel happy-to-be-here, and to fear oblivion, whether it be the oblivion of death or the oblivion of never existing. The optimistic bias causes us to cheerily predict good things in the future, even where that is irrational. The just-world fallacy causes us to irrationally perceive existing institutions as just and good, and to perceive victims as deserving their troubles. The findings in the field of terror management theory have shown us that pondering or own mortality (mortality salience) causes us to bolster our irrational prejudices even more strongly - a practice called worldview defense. When Marty McFly begins disappearing, he is not merely sad to lose his relatively happy existence; he is horrified. There is no discussion of whether he might actually be better off not coming into existence; this rational process is elided in favor of raw horror. And that is what our brains naturally do. That is what evolution has made them to do: anything it takes to survive and reproduce, regardless of ethical truth. A being who judges himself lucky to exist is more likely to (a) cling to life and (b) reproduce than one who feels existence to be a burden.

Our subjective analysis of whether our own lives were worth beginning may be fundamentally tainted by evolutionarily-determined blocks on our capacity to reason. But this does not necessarily mean that there can be no possible standard by which existence can be measured, or no possible values which could justify the suffering of innocents who do not subscribe to those values. However, it is far from easy to articulate such a standard. Benatar frames the problem by distinguishing between an actually objective perspective (the perspective sub specie aeternitatis) and the embodied, human perspective (the perspective sub specie humanitatis). Those who hold views 2 and 3 (above) must, whether they like it or not, articulate the standard by which a "life worth getting" may be judged.

Rather than engage in this project, however, those who take the position of context-dependent antinatalism (which we might also call context-dependent pronatalism, for that is what it is if the context is nice enough) furiously object to the entire project of determining whether our world is a good one, or who might be an innocent parent. The most common objections to the project, often brought with high emotion, are obviousness, pointlessness, and dangerousness.

1. Obviousness

Bryan Caplan says:

When I hail these benefits for parents, critics often accuse me of moral blindness. How can I neglect the welfare of the children created by artificial means? But I'm not "neglecting" children's welfare. I just find it painfully obvious that being alive is good for them. [Bolded emphasis mine; italics in original.]

Hopefully I have illustrated that it is not so obvious as we might think; and obviousness that cannot be articulated is not worth much.

2. Pointlessness

A commenter on Modeled Behavior says: "I’m astounded at the amount of mental effort you’ve put into this ultimately meaningless, frivolous, pointless, fatuous exercise." This objection is relatively common. But is it really pointless to analyze such an important ethical choice as the choice to bring a child into existence? Isn't it important to determine if our world is a good one?

3. Danger

Still others, such as Sami Pihlström, think that this project is, in fact, a dangerous one; that philosophy should not "go there." The danger, indeed, might be the cessation of human existence, if the answer to the question of whether the world is a good or bad one is "bad" and all of us humans come to believe that. In a sense, Pihlström and others who take the "dangerousness" point of view want to say that human existence is a good thing, but want to forbid examining whether that is true or not.

My point is that the project of examining whether the world is a good one is key to context-dependent antinatalism (and context-dependent pronatalism), but most holders of this belief would like, for mostly emotional-seeming reasons, to not engage the question.

My Answer

I am a proponent of pure antinatalism. I also happen to think that ours is a very bad world in ways that do not appear fixable. As to the original question at the top of the page, the answer in both cases is no. I do not think there is a world in which is it right to reproduce. Ours happens to be a horrible one - and this would still be true even if it really were "the best of all possible worlds." Given the pain and misery of our world, extending life is merely cruel; it makes the trap of existence that much more of a burden. And I seriously doubt the ability of any government, no matter how "rational," to eradicate the problems inherent in human existence. However, even in a very happy world, I still think it would be immoral to reproduce.

* The exact set of immoral reproducers varies depending on the holder of this belief, but suffice to say that it is generally does not include the speaker himself in any case. Proponents of this view are often quick to offer suicide as a remedy for those unfortunates who are not happy with their existence.

Not only does mortality salience cause us to bolster our existing prejudices, such as our belief that the world is just, but it causes us to desire to achieve some kind of immortality - which may take the form of clinging to immortal-seeming institutions (e.g., patriotism) or may take the form of desperately reproducing.

And if brought into existence, wouldn't his "replacement" (a child born to Marty's mom, not by Marty's dad) be equally horrified to ponder his non-existence? Is Marty's hypothetical horror somehow more real and serious than the hypothetical horror experienced by the replacement? Everybody's afraid to "disappear" and never-have-come-into-existence; that does not make it right for us all to have come into existence.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

On the Moral Effect of the Bright Side of Things

I have a question: is there any act, other than reproduction, that is widely perceived to be morally innocent, and that satisfies the following conditions?
  1. The actor knowingly inflicts serious harm on another

  2. who does not consent to the harm;

  3. the act does not prevent a more serious harm;

  4. the actor does not act in response to a wrong committed by the victim or others;

  5. and the harm is perceived to be justified by intrinsic or concurrently provided benefits. (I.e., the victim is asked to "look on the bright side.")

The only examples I can think of involve questionable authoritarian treatment of children by their parents, which I think falls into the same category as reproduction - widely considered morally innocent, but actually quite sinister when considered in a broader context. (Also, generally parents justify their authoritarian treatment of children in terms of harm avoidance, rather than provision of a pure benefit.)

Thursday, September 30, 2010

30% of Children Wish They'd Never Been Born

Chip Smith points to a study, published in the American Journal of Sociology in 1932, with the surprising result that 30% of a broad sample of children studied expressed a wish never to have been born. (I know someone pointed me to this before, but I forget who it was.)

Life's cheerleaders will no doubt argue that such wishes, while common, are most likely fleeting and not of a serious nature. However, I think this study must suggest to even the cheeriest of us that most people's feelings toward life are ambivalent from the very beginning of mature consciousness. A feeling of certainty that anyone brought into being will be grateful to his creators is not justified. The essential value of one's own life is not a feeling universally shared.

Many, many people are not glad to be alive. They are among the most seriously wronged by being brought into existence. But (and the author of the above study is a case in point) their position is pathologized and not taken seriously; even though cheeriness is not the universal position, it is assumed to be the correct position. Any deviation from gratitude for life does not, from the dominant point of view, need to be sincerely considered.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Mundane Horrors of Childhood

It is an understatement to say that parents are shocked when their child commits suicide. To the extent that parents think about it at all, they generally assume that they do some good to their children when they bring them into the world. Everyone wants to live - right? What could possibly possess a child to take his own life?

But many children do take their own lives. In recent news cycles, the suicides of Asher Brown, Seth Walsh, Billy Lucas, and Phoebe Prince have received a great deal of attention, especially because they were complicated by bullying of the victims in their schools. News reports tend to feature the parents claiming they reported the bullying to school officials, but school officials didn't do anything, or didn't do enough, to stop it.

I think that the suffering of even a normal childhood is much more serious than is generally acknowledged. I do not think child suicides are particularly surprising; what is surprising is their relative rarity. The question is not why some children commit suicide, but why most children are able to endure the mundane horrors of childhood.

The blame the parents of suicides place on those who "caused" the suicide of the child belies the parents' own responsibility for bringing a child into the world who suffered so much that he could not bear it anymore. The parents took a gamble with an innocent child's life, and it did not pay. It is too bad that the children, and not just the parents, are the ones who must suffer for the parents' mistakes.

It is not that I think the parents of suicides deserve the pain of loss; parents, just like non-parents, were forcibly brought into the world through no choice of their own, and deserve suffering no more than any one of us. It is that their own pain and the pain of their children is a plainly foreseeable consequence of reproduction. And we are responsible for the foreseeable consequences of our actions.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Selling Life-Years

Adam Ozimek at Modeled Behavior has an interesting piece on whether we should be able to sell years of our lifespans.

This is, I think, exactly the question addressed by J. David Velleman in his article Against the Right to Die, wherein he argues that giving people a choice can make them less well-off, even if, given the choice, they choose correctly. Velleman is concerned with assisted suicide - shortening lifespan to avoid suffering near the end of life. Ozimek is concerned with shortening lifespan to promote other values, but the moral logic is, I think, the same. I respond to Velleman's article in my piece Velleman's Sorrow of Options.

Also exactly on point is Velleman's related article A Right of Self-Termination? in which he argues that it is morally unproblematic to force people to remain alive, because by choosing to shorten our lifespans, we somehow abrogate human dignity, which belongs to everyone, not just to ourselves. Velleman thinks, for instance, that accepting a shorter lifespan in exchange for the pleasure of smoking is morally wrong and an affront to all humanity. I respond to this in my piece Respecting and Erasing, essentially challenging the notion that limiting the span of something in time denies its dignity.

Other writers think that dignity, as distinct from autonomy, is just stupid.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Duty to Rape?

Robin Hanson gamely bites the bullet I offer up in my Rape Doctor Hypothetical, a thought experiment I devised to test intuitions about risks of inflicting harm and benefit on others, in cases where a proxy for consent must be used because actual consent is impossible.

Consent is nice, when you can get it. When consent is impossible, as it often is - when providing medical care for unconscious patients, for example, or when parents make decisions for their children (at least preverbal children), or when we bring a new being into life - we must decide whether to use a proxy for consent. These might include:
  • Ex-post ratification (examined in my piece The Moral Effect of "Being Glad It Happened")

  • Predictions based on the ex-post ratifications of similarly-situated others (as I think Robin Hanson would have us use in the procreation case)

  • Predictions based on a mental model of the nonconsenting being, including perhaps its likely utility function and the costs and benefits of the action.

All of these, of course, involve probabilities; they are unlikely to be perfect, and are in fact virtually guaranteed to result in some margin of error. How good should we require the predictions to be before using them? How much risk is too much for the nonconsenting beings we are acting on behalf of?

Many accepted proxies for consent are used to avoid harm (e.g., treating an unconscious patient to save his life - since most people wish to remain alive). But what about using proxies for consent to provide a pure benefit - with some risk of harm?

Please read my whole hypothetical for details, but in short, I posit a situation in which a doctor has identified a class of patients with Forced Sexual Contact Arousal Syndrome, who are only capable of sexual arousal through rape and will be benefited, not harmed, by being raped:

Based on his research, Dr. A has statistical grounds to believe that, of FSAD patients who meet Criteria A, B, C, and D, 99.9% will experience sexual enjoyment exclusively from forced sexual contact. Beyond that, Dr. A notices that his FSCAS patients who have been raped are much more socially and emotionally well-adjusted than those who have not. It is statistically reasonable for him to believe that, out of 1000 patients with FSCAS who have not been raped, 999 will experience a great deal of sexual enjoyment and a much better quality of life if raped; one will experience the usual extreme distress that rape would cause a normal woman.

So should Dr. A rape his patients? Robin Hanson says: "I'll bite the bullet and say that the rape has expected good consequences in this case." I take this to mean that the special rape under these circumstances is at least permissible, and perhaps that Dr. A even has a duty to rape his FSCAS patients.

Intuitions are the stuff of ethics. Here, Robin Hanson is taking (I think) a position I describe in my article as an extreme form of consequentialism - the idea that the suffering of a few is offset by the pleasure of others. It is the move from humane Pareto efficiency to ugly, realist Kaldor-Hicks efficiency - that the suffering of a few is a fair price for the benefit of the many, even if that suffering is not consented to.

Hanson and I disagree as to whether a 99.9% chance of pleasure and life benefit is worth a 0.1% chance of the ordinary harm of rape. A more general phrasing of the question is this:

The Dilemma of Impossible Consent: In cases where consent is impossible and a proxy for consent must be used, how risk-averse should we be on behalf of those our decisions will affect?

My answer to this, supported by my own intuition and what I see as commonly-held intuition across a variety of situations, is: extremely risk-averse. In addition to the thought experiment above, I examine this notion in my post on dosing strangers with ecstasy. Seana Shiffrin examines this position in her paper "Wrongful Life, Procreative Responsibility, and the Significance of Harm" (Legal Theory 5:117-148, 1999), which I summarize here. It is a notion that is usually uncontroversial - except when it is brought to someone's attention that antinatalism is among its ethical conclusions.

How risk-averse should we be when potentially dealing out unconsented harm to others? I think the position Robin Hanson is articulating is: not that risk-averse. How risk-averse, then? As I mention in the comments, how far would we have to skew the probability in the Rape Doctor Hypothetical to make the rape impermissible (or, if there is a duty to rape under my facts, to make it permissible to refuse)?

There is a related question which I think is separate from the first, and that is:

The Dilemma of Uncompensated Suffering: To what extent may a few be made to suffer greatly, without their consent, so that many people will be benefited?

This is a separate question from the first, although both are appropriate perspectives to consider in the case of creating or refusing to create a person (and raping or refusing to rape a likely rape-beneficiary). The first question inquires how we should treat risk in a decision affecting a non-consenting other; the second inquires how we should balance and compare interpersonal utility functions.

I am interested in (but have not encountered) a strong defense of the position that some may (or must) be sacrificed for the benefit of many. John Leslie carefully considers the issues in his book The End of the World: the Science and Ethics of Human Extinction (he's anti-extinction, by the way), but acknowledges that he fails to provide anything like a proof of the position. (Note that this was written before Benatar's Better Never to have Been was published, and Leslie does not consider Benatar's arguments.)

Again, ethics must be based on intuitions. The most interesting ethics happens when intuitions conflict. My intuition is that it is never permissible to seriously harm one in order to provide a pure benefit to many; Robin Hanson's intuition (and that of many others) is that this is fine, under some circumstances. My intuition is that we must be very risk-averse on behalf of others if we may harm them seriously without their consent; Robin Hanson's intuition (and that of many others) is that we can be utility-maximizing without any special regard for risk-aversion. In other words, there are real ethical disagreements regarding the basic intuitions underlying the ethics of reproduction.

In addition to my two dilemmas, I pose a third:

Dilemma of Ethical Uncertainty: Given ethical disagreement between epistemic peers, what is the proper course of action in the real world regarding reproduction?

See also Chip Smith's One Man's Exquisite Treasure.

Correction: I incorrectly refer to risk aversion (preference for certainty) throughout this piece when I mean loss aversion (desire to avoid harm is greater than desire to realize gain of the same magnitude). I leave the text as is since comments were made before I noticed my error. In other news, I have a hard time telling left from right and I tend to pronounce "scourge" phonetically.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Is "saves" really the right word here?

When someone makes a very serious suicide attempt, like jumping from heights, should we be glad when that person is . . . "saved"? Is that a "miracle"?

From that cultural pillar, USATODAY:
Dodge Charger, or a miracle, saves man from suicide attempt

The New York Daily News says 22-year-old Thomas Magill jumped 39 stories from a West Side apartment building, and ended up landing in the back of a red 2008 Dodge Charger. He broke both of his legs and is in critical condition, but survived the fall.

Some witnesses laud the car he fell on for saving his life. Some say it's a miracle from God. But is it even a good thing?

Often, people who make very serious suicide attempts and are "rescued" say they are glad. Their incomes tend to go up, too. But this is at great cost to autonomy. Perhaps the would-be suicide will wake up and give the culturally appropriate response: "I'm so glad to be alive; I never wanted to die." (N.B.: if he wants to get out of the hospital, this would be advisable.) Perhaps he will wake up and curse God and demand to be allowed to die (the dignified route, but the one that will keep you hospitalized).

Regardless, it's nothing but cruel to this poor guy to praise Jesus (or a Dodge Charger) for "saving" him. People who do not want their lives should be free to discard them, without having to break their fucking legs in the process.

The Pathetic Golem

Robin Hanson, gamely considering the question of who should be brought into existence, outlines a model that's something like R.M. Hare's Golden Rule, plus economic efficiency:
Economically, creature X should exist if it wants to exist and it can pay for itself. That is, in a supply and demand world, if our only choice is whether X should exist, then an X that wants to exist should actually exist if its lifespan cost of resources used (including paying for any net externalities) is no more than the value it gives by working for others. [Similarly excerpted by Adam Ozimek on Modeled Behavior.]

In a comment on AO's post, RH says:

Surely there are many kinds of creatures where we could know with great confidence that they prefer to exist. Exact copies of other already existing creatures, for example. Can you accept that these creatures should exist?

I see a very serious problem with the move from "X creature is happy to exist" to "It is morally correct to make more creatures like X creature."

Say we make a golem out of clay, like in the old days. We bring it into existence to suffer a life of misery, as golems are want to have. But we endow it with a very special characteristic, along with life: the preference to exist. No matter what tortures we or the world inflict on our golem, it will keep on preferring to exist.

Is that moral? Can we create a Foxconn megafactory of such golems and keep them alive for miserable decade after miserable decade, with clean consciences?

The problem that I hope this raises is this: we expect preference to exist to be a function of quality of life, but it may actually be entirely independent from quality of life. People with every human advantage in the world (like me) often wish they had never been born; sick, suffering homeless people on the street often prefer to keep on living.

While I think we should respect an individual's decision as to whether it wishes to keep on living, this does not form a good guide as to whether to bring new people into existence.

The worst part: a pasted-on "preference for life" is exactly the sort of cruel trick we could expect evolution to play. What could be more beneficial? Except, perhaps, an unshakable preference to reproduce.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

This "ultimately meaningless, frivolous, pointless, fatuous exercise"

No, it's not life - it's the serious examination of the antinatalist position, and Modeled Behavior is getting its hands dirty with us.

Karl Smith notes, contra Bryan Caplan, that giving someone life is not like giving them $100 because life can't be freely disposed of. And Adam Ozimek argues, inter alia, that we can't just poll already-existing people to figure out the wishes of possible people.

And various commenters want everybody to stop talking about such obvious stuff.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Why Engage in Rational Argument?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take heart, fellow antinatalists and other thought criminals.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Patriarchy, the Gynocracy, and Other Comforting Myths of Struggle

This post was very sweetly nominated for the 3 Quarks Daily Philosophy Prize. I think Karl Smith's Pessimist Manifesto articulates the same philosophical points more generally and better.

Conspiracy theories are comforting. They posit an enemy - "bad guys" who are responsible for the mess we're in - and they give us a group to imagine we're struggling against, allowing us to be the "good guys."

Patriarchy is, of course, real - in the Sudan, in Afghanistan, and for tens of thousands of years of human history. "Males dominate public/political realm" is on D.E. Brown's list of human universals; it characterizes every human society that has ever been studied. Contrary to the wishes of wiccans and the like, there never have been any female-dominated societies.

In the modern West, however, almost all legal barriers to gender equality have been removed - as well as many practical ones (e.g., birth control, abortion, and the information economy). So why aren't all our problem solved? Why do men still commit the vast majority of lethal violence? Why do men still "dominate the public/political realm"? Why aren't there as many female math professors as male math professors? Why are female leading actors still mostly young and beautiful?

The comforting conspiracy theory is that all this is from socialization. Boys and girls are somehow influenced, from a young age, to take on the gender roles that they do. If we "good guys" could only change this socialization, then all the problems attributed to patriarchy would vanish.

But only an evolution denier could hold such a position (and, indeed, many feminists are evolutionary psychology deniers). A species with (historic and present) effective polygyny as high as ours is never going to achieve gender equality in anything but a legal sense.

And gynocracy, of course, is real, too - at least recently, in the West. While there are few situations in which the law prefers men over women, there are many situations in which the law protects (and sometimes "protects") women at the expense of men's interests. Here are a few:

  • By United States federal law, baby girls may not have their genitals mutilated, but baby boys may.

  • The near-universal prohibition on prostitution primarily affects men's interests, because men are nearly the sole consumers of sexual services of both male and female prostitutes (fantasies like the television show Hung notwithstanding). A male who is unwilling or unable to enter a mutual sexual output contract has few legal options for obtaining sexual services - certainly a very important part of human happiness.

  • For a female, consent to sex does not equal consent to have and support a child. For a male, it does. A man may be forced to support a child he did not wish to have merely because he is the genetic parent.

  • On the other hand, for a female, being the genetic parent is enough to establish parental rights to the child. A male must often demonstrate more than genetic paternity - e.g., a relationship with the child or attempt to support the child - in order to have parental rights recognized at law.

The above examples of what might be termed "gynocracy" are wrong, and should be rectified. But will all the problems between men and women disappear if only we get the right legal system in place? If it didn't work for women, why would we expect it to work for men? Or for any other oppressed group?

Evil exists. But there is no "enemy" except ourselves. Evolution has created organisms that compete with each other - intrasexually as well as intersexually. Our organism has developed the concepts of "good" and "evil," "fairness and "cheating," that help us live in large groups and compete successfully. But all the "good" and "fairness" in the world does not guarantee human happiness. In fact, it is human suffering that is guaranteed.

Conceiving of problems as struggles between us and our enemies is problematic because it gives false hope - hope that one can "win" the struggle. If only the right people were in charge, we think, things would be alright.

But the hope is a false one. Problems such as those between men and women are deep, systemic, and insoluble. They are part of our nature and will always exist. If we perpetuate our species, we perpetuate the problems. There will never be a time when "it was all worth it" - when we can look back on our previous struggles and pat ourselves on the back.

As we perpetuate our species, we do so on the backs of the suffering. And always shall.

On the curious proposition that women are as violent as men in relationships, see also my Demonic Males and Attack Heifers: On the Sex Ratio of Marital Violence.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Your Children Might Be Evil - Even If You're Not

Parents generally have a great deal of expectations regarding their children, and one of the biggest expectations is that the children will be similar to the parents: similarly intelligent, happy, attractive, etc.

Parents also expect that their children will grow up to be good people; it's all about how you raise them, right?

Not necessarily.

A New York Times article by Richard Friedman, "Accepting That Good Parents May Plant Bad Seeds," describes the nightmare of raising kids who are just morally bad people - even if the parents, and the parents' other children, are fine.
. . . there is little, if anything, in peer-reviewed journals about the paradox of good parents with toxic children.

Another patient told me about his son, now 35, who despite his many advantages was short-tempered and rude to his parents — refusing to return their phone calls and e-mail, even when his mother was gravely ill.

"We have racked our brains trying to figure why our son treats us this way," he told me. "We don’t know what we did to deserve this."

Apparently very little, as far as I could tell.

Very little . . . except force him out of the womb and into the world, necessarily against his will.

Parents make the choice to reproduce, and deserve what they get. Problem is, the children - bad people or not - do not.

Friedman concludes:

For better or worse, parents have limited power to influence their children. That is why they should not be so fast to take all the blame — or credit — for everything that their children become.

I think parents are very much to blame for the suffering of their children - and for the suffering their children cause others. Denying responsibility for making the very serious decision to reproduce is incredibly immature.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Life Is Addictive

An advertising designer is working on a campaign for a cigarette company.

Designer: Maybe we shouldn't do this campaign. It's clearly geared to lure nonsmokers into trying cigarettes. I've smoked for ten years, and I wish I'd never started. I smell like an ash tray and I can't walk up a flight of stairs without wheezing. Maybe we should bid on an anti-smoking PSA campaign instead.

Boss: You're a hypocrite. If you really thought smoking was so bad, you'd quit. Obviously, you think smoking is great. Now go out there and convince more people to start!

Makes perfect sense to me.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Parental Parasitism

How parents use their children - and use their children to use society.

The similarities between a fetus and a parasite are striking enough that the metaphor is fairly common. (See, for example, Adrienne Zurub's The Parasitic Nature of Pregnancy.)

However, as horrifying as the reality of pregnancy can be, it is much more disturbing to ponder the extent to which parents act parasitically with regard to their children.

Babies as a Retirement Plan

One of the most common reasons people give for having children is to have someone to take care of them in their old age. There are really two important questions here: first, is it realistic? And second, is it fair?

The dream that most parents assume will come true for their children is tri-fold:

  1. The parents will have the financial means to support the child without relying on public assistance.
  2. Once raised, the child will support himself for his lifetime without relying on his parents or public assistance.
  3. The child will be financially successful and altruistic enough to voluntarily support the parents in the parents' old age.

The first assumption is far from guaranteed. The second is shaky. And the third is downright hilarious.

Your Children Won't Take Care of You

Raising children is expensive. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that the average cost of rearing a child, adjusted for 2009 dollars - not counting college - is $160,410 for the lowest income families (less than $56,670 annually), $222,360 for middle-income ($56,670 to $98,120 annual income) and $369,360 for the highest earners (over $98,120 annually). That's far in excess of the 2009 average retirement savings for the 55-64 age group of $69,127. If parents really are concerned with how they will live in their old age, wouldn't they be better advised to avoid reproducing and stash those hundreds of thousands in their retirement funds? It's certainly a much more secure investment. An "investment" in children often has a negative return, as I will explain below.

In addition, a 2009 Pew survey found that 11% of people aged 25-34 had moved back in with a parent because of the recession. Far from supporting their parents, an enormous proportion of adults end up relying on their parents far past the age of majority.

Another problem: those children who are going to happily support you in your old age are probably going to have children of their own. You will be competing with your grandchildren for your children's resources - and who do you think is going to win?

Even breeding advocate Bryan Caplan recognizes that children don't feel the same solicitude toward their parents that parents feel toward their children:

An old saying tells us that "One parent can care for five children, but five children cannot care for one parent." It could happen to you.

There are strong evolutionary biological reasons why this should be so. From the perspective of inclusive fitness, an adult child is much more valuable to a parent than a parent is to an adult child. I quote Daly & Wilson's Homicide (pages 99-100) at length on this point:

Parent and child are equally related to each other, but it does not follow that each should have evolved to be equally concerned for the other's welfare . . . . [A] parent's valuation of an offspring is theoretically expected to increase over time, at least until the latter's maturity. The fact that reproductive value varies over time means that mutual valuations between individuals are similarly unstable. From A's point of view, B's value as a potential vehicle of A's fitness is the product of B's relatedness (r) to A times B's reproductive value (RV), i.e. (rAB × RVB). From B's perspective, A's value is the product of the same coefficient of relatedness times A's reproductive value (rAB × RVA). If A's reproductive value exceeds B's, and the two are close kin, it follows that B may be more willing to incur costs - risk to own life, for example - on behalf of A than vice versa . . . .

By virtue of greater reproductive value, an offspring will typically be more valuable to its aging parent than vice versa . . . . [Such] interindividual valuations constitute one determinant of the probability that dangerous tactics will be employed when two people find themselves in conflict. In particular we would expect the individual less valued to be more at risk. An obvious prediction, then, is that offspring will kill their parents more often than the reverse. However, we must immediately exclude young children from this proposition, mainly because their relative defenselessness makes them much more likely to be victims than offenders regardless of any relationship with the adult involved, and also because the parent's reproductive value may well still exceed the child's at this stage.

In fact, between adults, killings of parents by offspring are vastly more common than the reverse. In a sample of Canadian homicides from 1974 to 1983, 91 adult sons killed their fathers and 45 killed their mothers; only 20 fathers killed their sons, and only one mother killed her adult son. Seven daughters killed their fathers and twelve killed their mothers; just five fathers killed their daughters, and just three mothers killed their adult daughters.

Your children will probably not murder you, but the data illustrate the degree to which children are more valuable to parents than parents are to children. They won't kill you, but they probably won't exhibit inordinate amounts of filial piety in the form of voluntary cash transfers, either.

Children are People, Not Investments

But even though having children is a poor financial decision, it is also unfair to expect children to financially support their parents. Parents and children do not properly have a relationship of reciprocity, although it is common to suggest that they should. The title of an article in the Daily Mail illustrates this mistaken "reciprocity" view:

Children should be forced to care for parents and grandparents to repay them for 'free' childcare, says lawyer

Why is this completely wrong-headed? Raising children - time, food, toys, diapers, irritation - is a gift to the child, not half of a contract. Parents are properly regarded as volunteers - that is, those who provide a service without a reasonable expectation of compensation. The homeless guy who washes your windshield without your consent is in the same situation - and the guilt you feel if you don't "tip" him does not reflect ethical reality. He did you a favor - perhaps you appreciate it, perhaps you don't - but you certainly did not agree to pay him for it. In order to make it fair to enforce a contract, the law requires that you actually willingly exchange something. You can't give someone a gift and then turn around and expect him to pay for it, hence the legal maxim "equity will not assist the volunteer." That is, equity (fairness) does not require that a volunteer be compensated.

When we expect our children to be our maids, caretakers, and sugar daddies in our old age, we are, in a sense, ordering them to follow a particular life path: one that allows for a great deal of discretionary income and time. What if a child does not want a high-powered, money-making career? What if he or she wants to support himself as a musician, artist, clergy member, or worker for a nonprofit organization? Shouldn't this be the child's choice? It's bad enough to bring a child into our troubled world, necessarily without his consent. It's adding insult to injury to saddle him with the responsibility to support parents who were too lazy to plan for retirement themselves, and preferred to push the responsibility off on him.

Babies as Hostages

Parents expect, by and large, to be able to use their children as caretakers in their old age. But more importantly, parents use their children's helplessness to extort resources from others.

Imagine two people are trapped in a mine with only enough oxygen to keep one of them alive until help arrives. They are both thirty years old; the only difference is that one has small children, and the other has no children. Which one should get the oxygen?

Most people would opt to save the parent. But it is important to realize that the parent has no intrinsically greater claim to life: his children merely have a claim to their provider and caretaker. In this sense, having children is a great deal like taking hostages. Resources are provided to the hostage-taker not because of his own moral claims, but because of the moral claims of his innocent hostages. Unfortunately, this creates an incentive to take hostages. The parent-child relationship allows for a similar parasitism.

In large societies, assistance is provided to children because of their helplessness that also "just happens" to benefit their parents. Welfare, food stamps, and the Earned Income Tax Credit are just a few ways that society attempts to transfer wealth to suffering children, but also ends up transferring wealth to parents whose decision to reproduce was irresponsible. Even child support provided by non-custodial parents fits this model: the money is purportedly for the benefit of the helpless child, but it is paid directly to the custodial parent, and improves her welfare as well as that of the child.

How Parents Use Their Children to Parasitize Society

I wish here to analyze a real-life example. On July 11, NPR aired a story about the possible extension of unemployment benefits, and interviewed in detail a woman named Debra Rousey.

Until November 2009, Rousey was a bank manager. She has been unable to find a job since then, and gets $355 a week in unemployment benefits. The text version of the piece characterizes her as "a single mom supporting her 17-year-old son, her 25-year-old daughter and two young grandchildren." But while these folks all live with her, it's misleading to say that she is "supporting" her children and grandchildren. In fact, (1) she is receiving child support from her former husband for her 17-year-old son; and (2) her daughter (who does not work) receives food stamps for her two small children, and the family lives on those. (The audio, but not the print, version of the article contains these details.) She is considering applying for welfare. The story notes that "Rousey was able to pay June's rent with help from her former in-laws, but she still has to come up with money for July. [Emphasis mine.]"

In Rousey's words:

"Twenty years ago, when I was a single mother I was on food stamps and Medicaid," she says. "I feel like I have come so far, making the income I was making, getting the degrees that I got, and to go back to public assistance is like taking three steps backwards."

Rousey, who seems articulate, kind, and well-intentioned, is a poster child for how the three-fold parental ideal described above can go astray. Her situation illustrates how parents use their children's ethical claim on society, and on the other parent, to benefit themselves. If she did not have a minor son, she would not be receiving money from her former husband, and it is unlikely that her "former in-laws" would be helping her out with rent. If her daughter did not have small children, she would not be eligible for food stamps.

This is a reality that few consider when making the decision to reproduce - if, indeed, they conceive of it as a decision at all.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Children of Earth: What Children are For, and How We May Use Them

(Apparently it is polite to note that this article contains "spoilers," or revelations about the plot of the works discussed, in this case Children of Earth, the third season of a BBC Doctor Who spin-off called Torchwood.)

An alien race known as the 456 comes to earth and demands 10% of earth's children - or they will destroy the human race.

What do they want with the children? A child previously abducted by the 456 is shown partially dismembered and physically attached to an alien's body, puppet-like. The child feels no pain and will never die; his eyes gaze out with a vacant, vaguely pleading expression. Why do the aliens do this? The human children produce chemicals that the aliens find pleasurable.

The situation is one of raw horror. A person of normal empathetic capabilities will find it absolutely horrifying for a child to be used in this way - cut up and attached to an alien to live forever as his drug factory. In the television show, a government worker who is informed his children will be among the 10% sacrificed to the alien overlords kills his children (and himself) rather than hand them over to this fate. Many of us might share this reaction.

What if, however, instead of kidnapping existing children, the alien could breed its own human children (in vats, say) for this purpose? Would that be wrong? The answer to this question gives us insight into the morality of creating children under normal circumstances.

One objection to the 456 creating children to use as drug factories is that although the children will not "feel pain," they will suffer a horrible, endless existence. But horrible by whose standards? If the 456 does not create the children, they won't exist at all. Isn't a painless, eternal existence as the appendage of an alien better than none at all? Can we even compare the two? What standard could we use to decide whether a proposed existence is "too horrible"?

A second objection is that it contemplates using children for very selfish reasons. "Child-as-drug-factory" is about as selfish as you can get in terms of motivation for creating a child. But are ordinary human motivations any less selfish? We do not ordinarily inquire into motives for creating children. Should we?

The proponent of procreation must explain, I think, why it is wrong for the 456 to create children to use as chemical factories, but not wrong for ordinary humans to have babies for such motives as personal enjoyment and a feeling of immortality.

See also The Austrian Basement and Beyond for a similar thought experiment.
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