Thursday, November 3, 2011

To Say Status is Zero-Sum is Optimistic

I have previously argued that status, as a positional good, is by its nature a zero sum game; any gains in status by one participant are matched by losses on the part of other participants.

When we look at the real-world effects of status choices, though, it seems that the view of status as a zero-sum game (where losses of losers are balanced by gains of winners) is a very generous interpretation.

Losses of status, or having low status, seems to make people very miserable. Robin Hanson quotes the authors of Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage on the harmful effects of status threats in maintaining poverty:

Conflicts over money do not usually erupt simply because the man cannot find a job or because he doesn’t earn as much as someone with better skills or education. Money usually becomes an issue because he seems unwilling to keep at a job for any length of time, usually because of issues related to respect. Some of the jobs he can get don’t pay enough to give him the self-respect he feels he needs, and others require him to get along with unpleasant customers and coworkers, and to maintain a submissive attitude toward the boss.

Clearly, a loss in status causes serious enough social pain that the affected person is willing to risk his job and family to avoid or repair it. But don't gains in status make the winners much happier, rendering status contests at least Kaldor-Hicks efficient?

Not so, suggests a study on the welfare effects of commuting (Stress That Doesn't Pay: The Commuting Paradox). From the abstract:

People spend a lot of time commuting and often find it a burden. According to economics, the burden of commuting is chosen when compensated either on the labor or on the housing market so that individuals’ utility is equalized. However, in a direct test of this strong notion of equilibrium, we find that people with longer commuting time report systematically lower subjective well-being. Additional empirical analyses do not find institutional explanations of the empirical results that commuters systematically incur losses.

Unfortunately, the status gains a person may derive from commuting to work (high-status job, high-status suburban house, etc.) are not made up for by greater happiness; people with longer commutes are consistently less happy than people with shorter commutes. This is true even where people longer commute time is associated with higher income.

We are used to seeing sad low-status people, but what's missing is the ecstatic high-status people. It seems that the best we can achieve is somewhat stable mediocre life satisfaction, but the worst we can achieve is very bad indeed.

62 comments:

  1. Men must know their status in a hierarchy and often strive to rise. Women must know who has the status of included and who has the status of excluded. Children and infants are confused little critters. Then there's different cultures and times, with acceptance of slave / caste or not. Status is many things.

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  2. I am of the opinion that status is too complicated to think about. (Which totally stops me from thinking about it, as you can see.)

    I think bullying can best be explained as aggressive prevention of status insults. On a related note, groups of children are often cruel to individual children, and I think this is best explained not by sadism exactly, but by group members wanting to express social belonging and avoid becoming a victim.

    So I think the need for social belonging explains the Murray "authority experiments" better than authority.

    Our social needs are at the root of our cruelty. This should make us pity each other immensely (though of course it doesn't).

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  3. That book about young mothers made me feel profoundly depressed. The idea that having a child increases self-worth and so on. ANY woman can have a child; there is nothing unique about it, nothing that denotes individual achievement. One may as well take a dump and carry one's turds around in one's pockets, ready to show strangers, shouting, "Look, look, I can excrete with the best of them!" (Sorry, have to meet my mother today, so that book struck a terrible chord.)

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  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  5. "Our social needs are at the root of our cruelty. This should make us pity each other immensely (though of course it doesn't)."

    I love this miserable blog.

    (I deleted my first attempt at this comment due to a typo.)

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  6. People will never be satisfied with their status, since they can always look up and see someone who is better off than they are. Also, a loss of status can be very painful. This is true even for people who are still well off after losing some status.

    That is one reason why I don't believe that people will ever feel like they have an ideal life, even if the futurists are right about the amazing technology that will exists in the future. People will still want more and more, and will still be able to notice that someone is better off than they are, even if in absolute terms they are much better off than anyone was in the past.

    You can observe some of this among upper middle-class people in the US. They may have a really nice house, but they feel bad when they see someone has two nice houses. Someone who has two nice houses will feel a loss of status if they have to go from two houses to one house, and this can be painful for them, even if all their basic needs are still being met. Once you have something, it is painful to give it up. So I think no matter how much material wealth and leisure we have, that still will not lead to any absolute state of happiness.

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  7. "That is one reason why I don't believe that people will ever feel like they have an ideal life"

    But that's an unnecessarily high goal to declare. Specifically, this doesn't mean that their lives are not worth living.

    "Someone who has two nice houses will feel a loss of status if they have to go from two houses to one house, and this can be painful for them, even if all their basic needs are still being met."

    And yet the human mind is resilient, and they can adapt. If they find that they can't, suicide is an option for them.

    I also want to point out that there are modes of well-being that do not depend on status, and pleasurable distraction can divert the mind from painful memories and interactions. Fake status, flow experience etc. are partial remedies.

    Generally speaking, I'm not terribly concerned with the wellbeing of those who could opt out of life if it gets too hard of them, as long as there are suffering sentient entities who can't even end their own existence. Considering the severity of the actual status quo, the social pain of downgrading from two houses to one doesn't even register on my radar. Offer these people a good suicide method, and that problem is "solved" as far as I am concerned.

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  8. I am just saying that I think the people are wrong who say we should continue reproducing because some future technology will make everyone's life wonderful.

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  9. Everybody's life doesn't need to be wonderful in order for life to be worth living. That would be enough to justify reproduction, given that either Benatar's asymmetry is rejected, or suffering is abolished (which future technologies could at least hypothetically do).

    People could lose their second house, feel that life is not wonderful, but worth living, and not suffer (enough) for them to feel that they have been harmed by being brought into existence.

    The more serious priority, I think, is intense and/or prolonged suffering of those who can't opt out. There are currently still uncounted billions of such entities on the planet.

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  10. Every being can always self-starve to death. Problem "solved".

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  11. "Everybody's life doesn't need to be wonderful in order for life to be worth living."

    Suicide doesn't need to be horrible in order for suicide to be unacceptable. That would be enough to prohibit reproduction.

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  12. 'Every being can always self-starve to death. Problem "solved".'
    That would be true if self-starvation was painless, no one would interfere coercively and anyone could do it.

    'Suicide doesn't need to be horrible in order for suicide to be unacceptable.'
    Unacceptable in what way? Do you mean psychological barriers, even though it's not perceived as horrible?

    'That would be enough to prohibit reproduction.'
    Depends on the opportunity costs of forgone life, and whether you're ready to weigh them against the perceived unacceptability of suicide.

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  13. The only prominent opportunity costs of foregone life I see are frustrated childwishes. They should certainly be weighed against the unacceptability of suicide, but have you considered that a frustrated childwish is almost certainly much less damaging than losing a kid to suicide?

    That said, in a society where suicide were as easy as going to the pub downtown, I really couldn't be bothered to oppose procreation. I'll help you get there if I can, but until then I oppose procreation.

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  14. "The only prominent opportunity costs of foregone life I see are frustrated childwishes."
    That would mean you completely discount all pleasure and interestingness experienced by the created person. This seems odd to me.

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  15. "That would mean you completely discount all pleasure and interestingness experienced by the created person. This seems odd to me."

    I think it is a common position among antinatalists to not count the pleasure that is not experienced by the non-existing as a form of opportunity-costs because nobody exists who is affected by these costs. (Unless one says that existing person X suffers because non-existing person Y is not there and experiencing happyness. Which would seem odd to ME :-) Or maybe that is one of the points of "frustrated childwishes"?)

    I hope these sentences were not too convoluted ;-) One clarification: I understad "foregone life" as Tim uses it here to only mean "a life never started", and not "a life given up through suicide" or something like that. Otherwise things would be different and possibly more complicated.

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  16. Pleasure is real. Pleasure is good. We like happiness.

    But how much of a shame is it that a nonexistent person doesn't get to experience happiness?

    We generally don't take it as important enough to create a DUTY to make happy people. Even the folks to whom every sperm is sacred don't ground the rule in the rights of possible people to exist (with the possible exception of the Mormons, who believe in some kind of pre-life waiting room).

    Most reasonable people would say that an actively using meth head has a duty to avoid getting pregnant/having a child. Ditto, perhaps, someone with a genetic condition such that her children would suffer horribly. Possible pain creates a duty not to reproduce.

    But when you see a happy couple of 18-year-old kids, do you think "wow, how sad that they haven't reproduced, their children would be so happy!"?

    That is how pain and pleasure are different from the point of view of not-yet-created people.

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  17. 'We generally don't take it as important enough to create a DUTY to make happy people.'
    We generally don't have duties, period. Duties and rights make sense in a specific formal and legal context, but in the moral realm, they're essentially fictional. The better question is, "Is it good to make happy people?" And yes of course the answer is yes. That doesn't mean, like anti-natalists often misleadingly argue, that we should breed like rabbits independent of the consequences or even that human lives will ever be worth living on average.

    It just means the forgone pleasure and happiness is a real, quantifiable ethical cost. Value patterns that could exist, but now don't because of our decisions.

    'But when you see a happy couple of 18-year-old kids, do you think "wow, how sad that they haven't reproduced, their children would be so happy!"?'
    That's the kind of misrepresentation I'm talking about. No one said that the rejection of the anti-natalists assumed asymmetry between pleasure and pain leads to the logical conclusion that all 18-year-olds should reproduce as much as they can. That's just completely non-sequitur. Of course, you already knew that.

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  18. Anonymous - what I am pushing is that in everyday life, we do not pity the never-born, chide those who don't breed, or look at an empty expanse of land and think "wow, too bad for all the people who could live there but don't."

    I can't cop to your accusation of bad faith; at worst I am guilty of repeating myself. Is there some reason you think I'm being dishonest rather than genuinely describing an intuition you happen not to share?

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  19. That doesn't mean, like anti-natalists often misleadingly argue, that we should breed like rabbits independent of the consequences

    In my defense, plenty of pronatalists argue just this (e.g. Bryan Caplan). I'm happy just to encounter someone who admits that SOME lives are not worth having.

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  20. 'Anonymous - what I am pushing is that in everyday life, we do not pity the never-born, chide those who don't breed, or look at an empty expanse of land and think "wow, too bad for all the people who could live there but don't."'
    Right, even though this could be seen as a bias. I do sometimes think of wasted resources as an opportunity cost of pleasure for more people. But since we're living in a world with a billion very poor people in it, you can just point to them and think "wow, too bad for all these people who could use these resources for a greater improvement of their lives". I do agree with your critizism of Caplan's position; some resources are obviously both limited and crucial for human welfare.

    'Is there some reason you think I'm being dishonest rather than genuinely describing an intuition you happen not to share?'
    No, I was specifically referring to the use of examples that don't rely on the general logic of the anti-natalist position, specifically the assumed asymmetry between pleasure and pain of non-existing people. For instance, rejecting the asymmetry does not lead to the conclusion that all couples should start having children at age 18. Or that bringing a person into existence in an Austrian basement is better than not bringing that person into existence. There are straightforward classical utilitarian arguments against those, so they cannot be coherently used to show, "See, you implicitly accept the asymmetry as well, you should adopt a generalized anti-natalist position."

    I personally have an intuition pump against the asymmetry in my own life: I would not feel obligated to commit suicide just to avoid pain in my own future life, provided I expected more pleasure to result from it. Of course, people like Benatar are careful to avoid such a conclusion, hence the focus on not-yet-existing people only. Which turns the whole position into a complicated counterintuitive mess, at least from my personal perspective.

    'In my defense, plenty of pronatalists argue just this (e.g. Bryan Caplan). I'm happy just to encounter someone who admits that SOME lives are not worth having.'
    I'm quite happy to admit not all lives are worth living. I suspect most non-human animal lives might not be worth living, and I'm not sure the utility of human life on average is above zero either. Torture can be quite severe, and daily life can be quite tedious and annoying. If that is true and can't be changed, then anti-natalism could follow from utilitarian considerations alone, even if pleasure and pain are both counted as values in an ethical calculus.

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  21. Honest questions:

    "The better question is, "Is it good to make happy people?" And yes of course the answer is yes."

    Why is that so obvious?

    "It just means the forgone pleasure and happiness is a real, quantifiable ethical cost."

    To whom? Do "ethical costs" not always need some subject/victim, who has to pay these costs? And how can they be quantified?

    "Value patterns that could exist, but now don't because of our decisions."

    What are "value patterns"?

    All the best,
    rob

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  22. Hi rob.

    'Why is that so obvious?'
    Ask happy people whether it would be bad if they were dead in 5 minutes. If they say yes, ask them why. It's self-evident for happy people that their existence is a good thing.

    'To whom? Do "ethical costs" not always need some subject/victim, who has to pay these costs?'
    Well, to the happy people. If they don't count because they only potentially exist, then why should the suffering of only-potentially-existing people count? I've encountered serious arguments that their predictable future suffering shouldn't matter for the decision because they don't exist yet. This doesn't convince me any more than it convinces the anti-natalists. I just don't intuitively see why I should treat happiness differently. Maybe because non-existence is a kind of safe haven to protect from suffering... but as I pointed out before, this wouldn't convince me to commit suicide now, as long as the expected tradeoff happiness - suffering is well above zero. (and I'm not claiming that it is for all potentially created humans)

    'And how can they be quantified?'
    I don't have a formal metric, but some rough outlines are relatively clear to me. Today was a good day (above zero value), I've had other days that I'd rather have skipped (below zero value). The quantifiability is intuitive for me, I don't know how a formal empirically sound metric would look like.

    'What are "value patterns"?'
    Positive or negative experiences, mostly. The activation patterns in your brain, as you feel strong pleasure or pain, are an example of value patterns. To me, a person, or any sentient being, is itself a pattern, a complex arrangement of elementary constituents of some sort. So are their subjective experiences. For example, the severe badness of pain is a value pattern that can usually be physically localized in your anterior cingulate cortex.

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  23. http://www.theonion.com/articles/suicide-attempts-a-desperate-cry-for-death,395/

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  24. Duties and rights make sense in a specific formal and legal context, but in the moral realm, they're essentially fictional. The better question is, "Is it good to make happy people?" And yes of course the answer is yes. That doesn't mean, like anti-natalists often misleadingly argue, that we should breed like rabbits independent of the consequences or even that human lives will ever be worth living on average.

    Anonymous Who Commented On November 8, 2011 3:07 PM, look at this: http://saynotolife.blogspot.com/2011/10/woody-allen-on-antinatalism.html

    It'll be easier to address people if they think of some random nickname like "John" or "Dancer" or something instead of using the default "Anonymous" all the time.

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  25. Ask happy people whether it would be bad if they were dead in 5 minutes. If they say yes, ask them why. It's self-evident for happy people that their existence is a good thing.

    That example shows only that they find it self-evident that their continued existence is good. You could, of course, also ask them whether the find it good that they have been born, but I find such preferences suspicious. Preferences about the past may have a special status.

    Well, to the happy people. If they don't count because they only potentially exist, then why should the suffering of only-potentially-existing people count? I've encountered serious arguments that their predictable future suffering shouldn't matter for the decision because they don't exist yet. This doesn't convince me any more than it convinces the anti-natalists. I just don't intuitively see why I should treat happiness differently.

    You're confused about what the predicate "good" applies to here. For the antinatalist asymmetry to become apparent, "good" has to be a predicate of worlds:
    A world where there is one person that is suffering badly is worse than a world where no person exists. The antinatalist intuition is that a world where one person is leading a happy life is not better than a world with no person. No hypothetical persons needed; also, the question of whether to "treat happiness differently" doesn't make sense if you put the issue like this.

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  26. 'A world where there is one person that is suffering badly is worse than a world where no person exists. The antinatalist intuition is that a world where one person is leading a happy life is not better than a world with no person.'
    I see. I do not share these intuitions, and I don't think most people do or ever will. The first judgment lacks necessary information about other features of the world, including the existence of happiness. The second judgment outright contradicts my emotional intuitions.

    @Srikant: Woody Allen's claim that "The best of lives are sad and tragic. The best of them." is false. The best lives are filled with interestingness and pleasure. You have to apply selective perception in order to defend such a statement.

    'It'll be easier to address people if they think of some random nickname like "John" or "Dancer" or something instead of using the default "Anonymous" all the time.'
    Just address the points at hand, that should be sufficient.

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  27. Ah, there was a misunderstanding. The first world with the suffering person contains only one person, and that person is suffering.

    As for the second judgment, if you don't share it, I don't think there is much that could be done. I personally don't get it how anyone could ascribe such intrinsic value to sentience or happiness. Just be consistent and take into account the possibility that you might have a duty to actively procreate. (Obviously, whether you do depends on the relative weight you accord to happiness and suffering, and on the probabilities that your children will experience the one or the other.)

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  28. 'I personally don't get it how anyone could ascribe such intrinsic value to sentience or happiness.'
    Well, it feels good to me. I like it and I want it. :)

    'Obviously, whether you do depends on the relative weight you accord to happiness and suffering, and on the probabilities that your children will experience the one or the other.'
    Yes, and of course with one billion people being born in just 12 years, individual procreation doesn't make that much of a difference either way.

    Thanks for your clarifications and perspectives.

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  29. No offense is meant by this nitpicking, but why would the duty to procreate become weaker simply because other people are doing their duty, too? Your duty not to kill anybody doesn't become weaker if you leave in a non-violent neighborhood...

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  30. Oh, sorry, I overlooked this:

    Well, it feels good to me. I like it and I want it.

    That's a judgment about your sentience and happiness. That's understandable enough, if your life doesn't majorly suck. What puzzles me is the step from this to sentience/happiness simpliciter.

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  31. Yes, and of course with one billion people being born in just 12 years, individual procreation doesn't make that much of a difference either way.

    Not to aggregate population totals, but it makes all the difference to the created individual, and this is what we as philanthropic antinatalists are primarily concerned with.

    A decision not to have a baby may not affect the world very much, but it completely, 100% protects all future generations of your line from ever suffering. A decision to procreate guarantees the created individual's suffering - and leaves open the possibility that the created person will recapitulate the misery by making more people.

    The harm is very individual - but that's how we experience harm. Not in the aggregate, but in our individual monkey brains and monkey bodies.

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  32. No offense is meant by this nitpicking, but why would the duty to procreate become weaker simply because other people are doing their duty, too?
    It's about limited resources and how they're used. If more people procreate, creating additional lives causes fewer happiness and more suffering than if fewer people procreate, because limited resources have to be distributed among all existing individuals. That is not to say that resources couldn't be distributed better or more fairly, or that all kinds of resources are competitive like this.

    'The harm is very individual - but that's how we experience harm. Not in the aggregate, but in our individual monkey brains and monkey bodies.'
    Actually, we are apes, not monkeys. ;)
    But to address your point, this contradicts Constant's earlier claim that the antinatlist notion relies on "good" being a predicate of worlds. That is well in line with utilitarian intuitions; to the degree that I care about others at all, I care mostly about aggregate welfare. This doesn't mean that small shifts can't make a difference just because population is big overall. But my point about limited resources and rebound effect is still valid: with an exponential growth like we see currently, population will be more and more limited by resource constraints (ie. children and the elderly starving off etc.); I see no point in reproducing currently.

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  33. It's about limited resources and how they're used. If more people procreate, creating additional lives causes fewer happiness and more suffering than if fewer people procreate, because limited resources have to be distributed among all existing individuals.

    That is of course a perfectly appropriate worry. I was mislead by the formulation "doesn't make much of a difference". I thought you were saying "the more people there are, the less it matters if an individual human being is created". But of course it may well be that there are already so many people and resources are so scarce that the creation of another child matters an awful lot - on the negative side. Or there are still few enough so that it makes a reasonable contribution on the positive side. If it didn't make a difference (i.e. were close to the zero line of the utility function you use), that would just be a coincidence.

    (I'm just being so verbose to make very clear how I understood you now.)

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  34. ^Yes, exactly, sorry for the confusion. :)

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  35. Well, if the primary anti-natalist asymmetry argument doesn't convince you, there's always the alternative Schopenhauer one, where life consists of constantly filling deprivations created by our psychologies with temporary and ephemeral pleasures which do little more than eliminate suffering and are an attempt to attain an unattainable state of happy contentment with existence. Under that argument, weighing the positives and negatives of life are unimportant, because being alive and in the state of desiring things is fundamentally negative.

    Mind you, the argument is "Armchair philosophy folk psychology" enough that I don't know how well it holds up to actual psychological and neurological data on how desire and pleasure work, so take it as you will.

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  36. 'where life consists of constantly filling deprivations created by our psychologies with temporary and ephemeral pleasures which do little more than eliminate suffering and are an attempt to attain an unattainable state of happy contentment with existence.'

    I agree that life is filled with depivations, but I disagree that pleasure does little more than eliminate suffering, I think it has value in its own right. I also disagree that pleasure is just an attempt at the unattainable, I think temporary pleasure is still valuable. If it isn't, then I don't see why temporary suffering should be problematic.

    I think the best attack against pro-life philosophies would be to show that, even if humanity made the best choices it can realistically make, sentient life in general will always feel more bad than good. I have a nagging suspicion that this may be true, but it's far from axiomatic. The Hedonistic Imperative could possibly turn this around even if it actually is the natural status quo, like Schopenhauer assumed.

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  37. (sorry for the broken link, I wanted to refer to www.hedweb.com)

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  38. Sister Y

    "A decision not to have a baby may not affect the world very much, but it completely, 100% protects all future generations of your line from ever suffering."

    This way of thinking leads you down a problematic path. Suppose that, by having a child, you could prevent two other people from having children. It's still true that, by not having children, you protect "all future generations of your line" from ever suffering. But you would also increase the overall amount of suffering in the world. If you choose to have a child under those circumstances, can one reasonably accuse you of any moral fault for having imposed suffering on your own descendants?

    Granted, there may be no circumstances under which that hypothetical is realistic. However, it's also not clear to me that an individual's decision not to have a child would necessarily result in the world's population being lower. Perhaps by choosing not to have a child, you free up resources that will allow someone else to have a child that they would not otherwise have had. It's not really clear to me what determines the world's population.

    If I had to guess, I would say that choosing not to have a child is more likely to reduce the world's population than to increase it, and therefore "global anti-natalists" should also be anti-natalist at the individual level. But I have trouble with you individualist justification for individual anti-natalism.

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  39. The problem is that, the more antinatalism wins, the more selection pressure will there be against antinatalist memes. Social rejection of antinatalists would increase in a world of civilization-threatening population collapse, while it would probably decrease in a Malthusian world. I don't think there's any realistic "winning condition" for antinatalism, unless they're willing and able to engage in doomsday planning of some kind.

    Maybe they can push eugenics-related memes to reduce genetically co-determined suffering, but that easily backfires as well. You get something like the Nazis, they create a bloody mess, the memes receive a backlash effect that lingers for decades.

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  40. Anonymous Who Commented On November 8, 2011 3:07 PM and November 10, 2011 11:08 AM (presumably the same person)

    You seem to have missed the main point of Woody Allen's response. HE cannot gaurantee that his kid will have a good life. He cannot gaurantee that he will be around to prevent his kid from being raped or tortured when he's five years old.

    FURTHERMORE, the "chances of the kid having a good life" being very high SIMPLY does not matter: Woody Allen shouldn't gamble with his child's life (he can gamble as much as he likes with his own). That is not a "good" thing, whether or not it's the child's "right" not to go through sh!t.

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  41. 'That is not a "good" thing, whether or not it's the child's "right" not to go through sh!t.'
    Actually, it's not. Rights are a legal concept. I'm not aware of any legislation on the planet that would outlaw procreation based on this "right". Just because you feel is unfair doesn't mean it's a right.

    Similarly, a libertarian may insist that she has the "right" to her own money without ever being taxed. Yet this is simply false, as all legislations, to my knowledge, allow and rely on taxation.

    Just because you claim a right doesn't mean you have it, you need to be able to point to a specific legal or otherwise normative context. Maybe you could organize an antinatalist declaration of the universal right to not exist and then try to get the world's nations to sign and implement it. I wouldn't hold my breath.

    For all it's worth, I can relate to the feeling of unfairness when a child's life goes wrong or contains violence and oppression, all without consent. But when I look at actual children, they are curious and love a lot of things in life; an active wish to avoid everything is not usually on top of their list of preferences.

    I agree that even (older) children and of course adults should be granted access to good suicide methods though, but I wouldn't hold my breath for that either.

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  42. (Ah sorry, I misread your statment; I thought you were claiming children have a right not to exist, now my reply doesn't make much sense.)

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  43. I don't think there's any realistic "winning condition" for antinatalism, unless they're willing and able to engage in doomsday planning of some kind.

    I'm against team thinking and the idea of "winning" (you can't win a nightmare), but I think there can be real benefits to the world from the adoption of antinatalism beyond complete eradication of humanity.

    If a few people decide not to reproduce, then the people who would have otherwise existed get to not exist. That's a win for them.

    And if a few people realize that none of us asked to be here and it's totally unfair and sad for us all that we're here, people might not be such cuntfaces to each other. That's a win for all of us.

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  44. That's a win for them.
    Unless they would've been happy, in which case I think it's a real loss for them.

    And if a few people realize that none of us asked to be here and it's totally unfair and sad for us all that we're here
    Yes, I think it's important to point out the non-consensual nature of existence, but you're wrong that it's unfair and sad for all of us. It's quite obviously an indefensible position.

    I agree that suicide options should be improved, it should be socially recognized as a rightful opt-out, like quitting a job or a bad relationship. Unfortunately, people don't change their minds easily, and I know from experience it's hard to argue against someone who interprets all suicidality as a "cry for help" or a mere symptom of treatable mental illness, even if the suicidal people are well-articulated and treatment doesn't change their opinion on it. I don't know how to win this.

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  45. That's a win for them.
    Unless they would've been happy, in which case I think it's a real loss for them.

    Real loss ... for -- whom?

    http://francoistremblay.wordpress.com/2011/09/21/the-ice-cream-salesmen-cometh/

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  46. I think just the cartoon will do.

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  47. Srikant, Sister Y wrote:

    If a few people decide not to reproduce, then the people who would have otherwise existed get to not exist. That's a win for them.
    I avoided the obvious reply: Real win... for -- whom?

    I avoided it because the answer is right there. Why should this argument count for positives only but not for negatives? And if it counts for negatives as well, why should one be an antinatalist instead of neutral regarding reproduction?

    I think both the happiness and suffering of the people we can create counts; this seems very straightforward to me.

    The cartoon is of course a misrepresentation; you don't need a thinking "space fetus" who has preferences. After all, I could draw a cartoon of a "space fetus" who is afraid of suffering and begs not to be born, thus mocking the entire ethical argument around which this very blog revolves.

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  48. I think Anonymous is right. Benatar's asymmetry doesn't exist in a utilitarian perspective. Also there is no fundamental distinction between starting lives and continuing lives.

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  49. Primarily, the asymmetry is an intuitive thing. But there's no problem with incorporating it into a utilitarian perspective. It follows straightforwardly from negative utilitarianism, but you can also have an axiomatization that is not pure negative utilitarianism that respects it.

    And yes, there is a fundamental difference between starting lives and continuing them. You can not start lives without any significant harm - you can't not continue one without the harm of death.

    Besides, I totally agree with Anonymous that space fetuses are an unnecessary nuisance. Because seriously, nobody (well, not nobody...) really accepts the non-identity argument, since from that it follows that reproduction is morally unconstrained, and among decent folk, intuitions about the Austrian basement are just too strong.

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  50. Tim, Constant and The Anonymous,

    I agree with this:
    "That said, in a society where suicide were as easy as going to the pub downtown, I really couldn't be bothered to oppose procreation. I'll help you get there if I can, but until then I oppose procreation."

    Agree if going to the pub downtown is as easy as it is in the western world, where drinking is not looked down upon, etc. :D

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  51. Very relevant (also very funny):

    http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2431#comic

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  52. Of course it comes down to what you define as utility. I was referring to utility as the desirability of a situation by its inhabitants. If happiness and pleasure are desirable, it doesn't matter whether the subject exists or not. As you said earlier, utility is a function of worlds. We should prefer a world in which X exists and is happy over a world in which X does not exist, because the utility is higher. There is no room for Benatar's asymmetry in here.

    I recall that the negative utilitarian manifesto contests that happiness and/or pleasure are desirable, so there may be something there, but it isn't Benatar's asymmetry. I would agree that they are much less desirable than pain and suffering are undesirable.

    Benatar would refer to the world in which "X does not exist" as the world in which "X never exists" because of the supposed fundamental difference between starting and continuing lives. I don't think there exists a "harm of death" apart from the extent to which death causes pain and suffering. Ceasing to exist is not in itself undesirable, and neither is coming to exist. There are only experiences.

    Death is practically always associated with pain and suffering, so I have no problem with talking about a "harm of death". But my point is that death isn't fundamentally harmful, and therefore there is no fundamental distinction between starting and continuing lives. They are not fundamental in the same way that fire is not elemental: they can be explained in terms of other things already present in our model.

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  53. I was referring to utility as the desirability of a situation by its inhabitants.

    It's obvious that if you think that's utility, then you won't have the asymmetry, because the utility function is undefined for the world with no inhabitants.

    We should prefer a world in which X exists and is happy over a world in which X does not exist, because the utility is higher. There is no room for Benatar's asymmetry in here.

    Well, no. He who is able to intuitively grasp the asymmetry will simply disagree with your choice of utility ordering.

    I recall that the negative utilitarian manifesto contests that happiness and/or pleasure are desirable, so there may be something there, but it isn't Benatar's asymmetry.

    If you're a strict negative utilitarian, happiness doesn't register on your theoretical radar, except as non-suffering. And from that, the asymmetry does follow. I don't see the issue here.

    Death is practically always associated with pain and suffering, so I have no problem with talking about a "harm of death". But my point is that death isn't fundamentally harmful, and therefore there is no fundamental distinction between starting and continuing lives.

    Well, I don't know what you mean by fundamental, but I would call the practical quasi-impossibility of ending life without unpleasant experiences (pain, anxiety) pretty fundamentally different from the certain lack of any such experiences that results from not coming into existence.

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  54. I don't think there exists a "harm of death" apart from the extent to which death causes pain and suffering.
    ...and prevents potential pleasure...

    I would agree that they are much less desirable than pain and suffering are undesirable.
    There's an old paper titled "Bad is stronger than good" that explores this phenomenon empirically in psychological terms. I think it has a point. If we could take a "hedonistic average" of all affective experiences in this universe, I'd expect the result to be a small negative number. The goodness probably outweighs most of the badness, but not all of it. I can't prove it though, it's just a gut-level intuition. It's not clear that sentient life is doomed to this baseline forever, evolutionary paradigm shifts are not completely out of the question here as far as I can see.

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  55. If we could take a "hedonistic average" of all affective experiences in this universe, I'd expect the result to be a small negative number. The goodness probably outweighs most of the badness, but not all of it. I can't prove it though, it's just a gut-level intuition.

    Most people and animals are in deprivation most of the time. Does that count for something against your gut?

    It's not clear that sentient life is doomed to this baseline forever, evolutionary paradigm shifts are not completely out of the question here as far as I can see.

    Well, a paradigm shift changing all sentient life so much that positive reinforcement suddenly becomes more effective than negative reinforcement seems to me to be pretty much out of the question, actually. And as long as that doesn't happen, nature's way of making beings do things she needs them to do is to make them suffer for not doing them (with tremendous amounts of collateral damage).

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  56. Most people and animals are in deprivation most of the time. Does that count for something against your gut?
    That is precisely what I took into consideration when I concluded that the hedonistic average would probably be a negative. Did you overlook that part, or do you disagree that it is only a slight negative, rather than a strong negative? I think it's easy to understimate suffering while not suffering, but it's also easy to underestimate happiness while not happy.

    Well, a paradigm shift changing all sentient life so much that positive reinforcement suddenly becomes more effective than negative reinforcement seems to me to be pretty much out of the question, actually.
    Why is it out of the question? With current technology, sure, but with future technology? Would it be impossible for super-duper neuroscientists to create a person that feels more good than bad within the average darwinian game states? It's even conceivable that such individuals currently exist.

    nature... she
    Please don't do that. The last thing we need is the absurd meme that nature is a loving "mother".

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  57. Did you overlook that part, or do you disagree that it is only a slight negative, rather than a strong negative?

    I was disagreeing with the "slightly" part by suggesting there were enough "most"s in play to make the negative more than slight. I don't think the happy people on earth are so exceedingly happy as to be able to compensate for the vast amounts of suffering of others. (Which is to say, I find what Sister Y says in the initial post here highly plausible.)

    Why is it out of the question? With current technology, sure, but with future technology? Would it be impossible for super-duper neuroscientists to create a person that feels more good than bad within the average darwinian game states? It's even conceivable that such individuals currently exist.

    I don't think we'll ever get to a point where we can write genetic code almost from scratch; and I suppose we would have to radically re-write the coding for the brain to achieve such. And while I can't refute the idea that such a person exists at the moment, I have to admit that my brain stubbornly insists on assigning this hypothesis an extremely low prior probability.

    Please don't do that. The last thing we need is the absurd meme that nature is a loving "mother".

    I was rather thinking along the lines of "manipulative bitch"... ;) Seriously, though, the metaphor seemed like the easiest way of expressing what I wanted to say. I didn't intend to invoke any meme.

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  58. It's obvious that if you think that's utility, then you won't have the asymmetry, because the utility function is undefined for the world with no inhabitants.
    It's not undefined but zero in that case; it's a sum of zero terms. What would your utility function be? I am not familiar with the prominent possibilities and arguments for/against.

    He who is able to intuitively grasp the asymmetry will simply disagree with your choice of utility ordering.
    I grasp the asymmetry as intuitively as anyone else around here, but I think Benatar's account of it is wrong. Similar asymmetries exist in my flavor of utilitarianism; I don't need his particular asymmetry.

    If you're a strict negative utilitarian, happiness doesn't register on your theoretical radar, except as non-suffering.
    Happiness I don't know, but surely pleasure should show up on your radar? It is experienced as something that positively exists (i.e., it isn't the negative space that non-suffering is). If you simply discount this, how do you justify that? To say that a lack of pleasure is "not bad" is to already assume that only the bad matters.

    And from that, the asymmetry does follow. I don't see the issue here.
    It's not Benatar's asymmetry is all I'm saying. Benatar's asymmetry is a black-and-white distinction justified with arguments from rights and duties that in turn are justified using intuition and popular opinion. Negative utilitarianism also makes a black-and-white distinction which I don't (yet) see a justification for.

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  59. It's not undefined but zero in that case; it's a sum of zero terms.

    You said the utility of a situation is its desirability for its inhabitants. If a situation has no inhabitants, the terms "its inhabitants" does not refer, hence you have a presupposition failure, hence undefinedness. That's what I thought. Of course, you can add an extra point in the definition of the function, saying that it's zero in the absence of people.

    Happiness I don't know, but surely pleasure should show up on your radar?

    No, it doesn't. That's the point of strict negative utilitarianism.

    If you simply discount this, how do you justify that?

    Several intuitive points for negative utilitarianism, off the top of my head (I don't know the negative utilitarianism literature particularly well): 1) pleasure and pain look like they're in complementary distribution. 2) it's difficult to see where the neutral line should be. 3) intuitively, pain counts more than pleasure. (Enough experiments to back that up. I remember Shiffrin mentioning some.)

    I think these considerations gets stronger for negative preference utilitarianism. I don't know what a fulfilled preference is and how many I have of them, let alone how to count them against my unfulfilled ones.

    It's not Benatar's asymmetry is all I'm saying. Benatar's asymmetry is a black-and-white distinction justified with arguments from rights and duties that in turn are justified using intuition and popular opinion.

    I don't think it makes any sense to say that it's in the nature of Benatar's asymmetry to be justified by rights and duties. Benatar's asymmetry is just that the absence of pleasure is not bad if there is no-one who is deprived of it, while the absence of pain is always good, regardless of people being present or not.

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  60. 1) pleasure and pain look like they're in complementary distribution. 2) it's difficult to see where the neutral line should be. 3) intuitively, pain counts more than pleasure.
    I agree with 1 and 2, but there's no fundamental reason why 1 should be a dealbreaker, and 2 is only about intuitive fuzzyness of quantities; choosing extreme examples lead to clear intuitive responses in my own mind (e.g. 1 second of pain to gain 100 years of pleasurable life free from suffering). 3 is also just about quantities, no paradigmatic dealbreaker here.

    I don't think the happy people on earth are so exceedingly happy as to be able to compensate for the vast amounts of suffering of others.
    Probably not completely, but hopefully mostly? I don't know, it's an empirical question that should be approximated by empirical methods.

    I suppose we would have to radically re-write the coding for the brain to achieve such.
    I'm not sure, maybe shifting hedonistic set-points, pain sensitivity, neuroticism etc. could go a long way. Eventually of course, it may be quite possible to re-writng the coding of the brain, or create sentient algorithms from scatch; scientific progress can be fast. Otoh, it can be abused for more torture as well.

    And while I can't refute the idea that such a person exists at the moment, I have to admit that my brain stubbornly insists on assigning this hypothesis an extremely low prior probability.
    Well, this would also be an empirical question. To provide evidence, we could look at personality traits and people who experienced hardship, trauma or large quantities of stressors in their lives and correlate them with self-reports, revealed preferences for or against a painless death, neuroanatomy... I don't have the expertise to answer this, but to negate the value of all life without even updating the prior probability through seeking evidence seems hasty.

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  61. I agree with 1 and 2, but there's no fundamental reason why 1 should be a dealbreaker, and 2 is only about intuitive fuzzyness of quantities; choosing extreme examples lead to clear intuitive responses in my own mind (e.g. 1 second of pain to gain 100 years of pleasurable life free from suffering). 3 is also just about quantities, no paradigmatic dealbreaker here.

    I don't think there is any such thing as a paradigmatic deal-breaker to be found in this area of philosophy. I also didn't want anything more than to give some considerations that make negative utilitarianism appear not nearly so absurd, after all. I'm not sure the "only" in "only about intuitive fuzziness" is quite justified, though.

    Of course, for me, negative utilitarianism gets strong additional appeal because it can derive the asymmetry that I feel very strongly.

    Probably not completely, but hopefully mostly? I don't know, it's an empirical question that should be approximated by empirical methods.

    I agree, it should be. I'm not going to cite large numbers of starving people as evidence, because that's a boring argument. ;) Let's just leave it at that.

    I don't have the expertise to answer this, but to negate the value of all life without even updating the prior probability through seeking evidence seems hasty.

    I don't think finding such an extremely neurologically atypical person would change anything in my value ascriptions, so I feel quite justified in pursuing other things than looking for evidence for something that seems so implausible.

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  62. You said the utility of a situation is its desirability for its inhabitants. If a situation has no inhabitants, the terms "its inhabitants" does not refer, hence you have a presupposition failure, hence undefinedness.
    I was thinking more along the lines of an empty set of inhabitants. Then the sum of the desirability for each of them is a sum of zero terms.

    For the record, I don't think this is the One True Utility function. In retrospect, my point was that even if you put in some clever exception like "happiness and pleasure have positive value iff the subject already exists", you would still have to rate the possible world in which X exists and is happy higher than the possible world in which X never exists, because in the former, X's happiness counts. So the asymmetry would have to be in the utility function (as it is in negative utilitarianism). That's all.

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