Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Double Violation of the Unacceptable Life

While there is disagreement as to what constitutes an unacceptable life - a life not worth getting - there can be no doubt that many people with unacceptable lives currently exist. And, Utopian post-human fantasies aside, at least some unacceptable lives are a guaranteed result of the continuation of our species.

Forms of utilitarianism such as prioritarianism push us to be most concerned with the welfare of the least well off within the relevant population. But I argue that it is the very special group at the bottom, those with unacceptable lives, who are especially entitled to our highest consideration.

Those with unacceptable lives suffer a double violation. First, they are violated by being brought into existence. Their lives are worse than having no life at all, so being born makes them worse off.

Second, they suffer a new and continuing violation by being prevented from improving their circumstances in particular ways. Just as their birth is required to enable those with unacceptable lives to exist (because each birth risks the creation of unacceptable lives), their exploitation is also required for those very acceptable lives to remain acceptable.

For instance, if those with unacceptable lives were not coerced into acting in the interests of those with acceptable lives, the most miserable could either end their lives or increase their welfare toward acceptability. However, by doing so, they would likely depress the welfare of those around them with acceptable lives.

The (philanthropic) antinatalist objection to breeding is not limited, in practical application, to the decision to create a being. It also implies that those who are born with unacceptable lives, having been once violated, are entitled to special consideration once they come into existence - the "social contract" justifications for coercive policies are not applicable to them.

So these people with unacceptable lives have a strong moral claim to be allowed to commit suicide, to use mind-altering chemicals or technology, to "shirk" the "responsibilities" that the majority would benefit from imposing upon them, perhaps even to join a criminal gang. There is much less justification for coercing them into acting in accord with the best interests of the majority, because there can be no reciprocation.


  1. I'm not sure that this is quite correct as an interpretation of Rawls, per se, since at least in The Theory of Justice Rawls applies the Difference Principle only to "social and economic inequalities," that is, the distribution of wealth, income, and status perhaps. (And it is also worth noting that he gives lexical priority to equal liberty across persons.) Rawls doesn't apply the Difference Principle to the distribution of welfare.

    One could try to apply the Difference Principle in the space of welfare, although that can lead to some strange and probably unpalatable results: for example if obliged to somehow choose between (1) a world in which one person has an unacceptable life while a billion others have very good lives and (2) a world in a billion-and-one people have unacceptable lives, but unacceptable lives slightly better than the one person with an unacceptable life in (1), then we would be obliged to choose (2). A result like that is either (a) a compelling reductio against using the Difference Principle in the space of welfare or (b) a powerful argument in favor of being a suicide choicer.

  2. I am going to rewrite this because that's only a hand-wavy thing that isn't even that related to my point - I somehow thought it would make it clearer.

    So if James' comment makes no sense it's because I edited out the part he was referring to.

  3. Forms of utilitarianism such as prioritarianism

    A case could be made that prioritarianism is not a form of utilitarianism. There's probably a way in which this is not just a linguistic question, but I haven't given it much thought.

    And even though you edited out the part involving the difference principle, I think there's an important distinction to be drawn between theories that assess how good the world is and theories that tell us how to act. So one may adopt, say, total utility as an assessment of the quality of the state of affairs, but the best guide(s) to acting to maximize total utility may be something very different from the rule, "act to maximize total utility".

    You could also deny any single metric for the quality of the world, and still be a quantitative consequentialist. The difference principle and prioritarianism have roles here: if some utility boon becomes available, it ought to go to those who enjoy the least utility. If some change has to happen that causes disutility to some, then that disutility should befall those who currently enjoy the greatest utility.

    In theory, the relative importance of the change in distribution of utility versus the change in total utility can be determined by finding the point at which one is indifferent, or by various gambling methods like James refers to here.

  4. Those who are born with unacceptable lives, having been once violated, are entitled to special consideration once they come into existence - the "social contract" justifications for coercive policies are not applicable to them.

    Why should the special consideration come in the form of excepting them from coercive policies?

    If the well-being of the majority truly depends on the existence of persons with unacceptable lives (I'm skeptical of this -- certainly some people's well-being depends on others being less well off, at least in some regards, but why does it depend on others having negative rather than low positive utility?), then the fantastic ideal solution would be to given them an injection of p-zombie drug before they start being able to have experiences (i.e., probably before the third trimester of gestation).

  5. It is not that the happy people's welfare depends on others' suffering as such - I am not implying sadism - it is that, as a practical matter, many of the most salient ways suffering people have for ameliorating their condition (such as suicide) would substantially negatively affect the welfare of the happy people if they occurred at the level that would naturally occur without forcible prevention. I'm not even sure basic contract enforcement is fair against a person with an unacceptable life. It's hard to justify even rules like "don't rape" when enforced against people with unacceptable lives. The social contract justification disappears.

    I'm fine with p-zombie drugs! Sign me up!

  6. "Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
    Get out as early as you can,
    And don't have any kids yourself."

    Extract from "This Be The Verse" by Philip Larkin.


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