Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Not All Births Are The Same

Are antinatalist types just depressed? This is a common response from laypeople learning about antinatalism, and I think it is worth considering the relationship of affect to morality.

To a normal, healthy, cheery person, life seems so clearly worthwhile that the AN position seems downright pathological - exactly the way the pro-birth position can come to seem pathological to a committed AN. Of course, the former position carries more weight in our society because of the medicalization of depression; I would venture that most people who have never experienced severe depression, and even some who have, conceive of depression as a curable medical condition. The positions are not treated as having equal weight, not only because the cheery position is more common, but because the sad position is pathologized as a departure from healthy, rational thinking.

Of course, even psychiatrists admit that not all depression is curable. The kind of depression that the DSM-II used to call endogenous depression - the kind of life-long, severe, probably hereditary depression that I have - is particularly intractable.

Even if we define this type of depression as a pathological departure from rationality, it remains the case that it is an often incurable, extremely painful condition. Viewed from its lens, life does not seem obviously worthwhile at all; quite the opposite.

It is interesting that two types of people with radically different stable affects come to radically different conclusions about the worth-it-ness of life. Is it possible that the morality of creating life is determined by the eventual affect of the created person?

This seems to be what pro-lifers claim when they want to weigh the pleasures of life against its suffering. But there are some folks - let's say we're a small minority - for whom life is mostly experienced as suffering. If it is sometimes okay to create living beings who will experience more pleasure than pain, isn't it just as wrong to create living beings for whom suffering will outweigh pleasure?

Not all births are the same. The ethical harm involved in creating a person may be felt by the person to be great, or may be felt as negligible or even negative (i.e., many feel benefited). It's as if there is a Euclidean and a non-Euclidean morality, depending on affect.

But does this not all mean that we should, at a minimum, avoid creating depressed people? People receive genetic counseling mostly for selfish reasons - to make sure their child will not have a disorder that makes it hard to care for or disappointing. However, it would be of great benefit to potential people like me if people received genetic counseling geared toward the happiness of future offspring. My proposition: it's extremely wrong to create a depressed person, and the fact that research and screening are not directed toward preventing likely-depressed people from being born shows that the entire reproduction industry cares not a whit for the suffering of those it causes to be born.

If you are a cheery person who thinks it's okay to create people, or if you know someone like this, what do you/they think of creating people who are likely to experience severe depression?

43 comments:

  1. I am amazed sometimes that severely depressed people intentionally have children. I agree with you that it is a very cruel thing to do, since depression is often genetic. I am fortunate that I am not depressed most of the time like you are, Sister Y. But the times I am depressed, I understand the feeling of just wanting to die and being so sad to just continually focus on hating existing, and being so upset about having to wake up in the morning and go through another day. I can't imagine feeling that way all the time. I can see why you titled your blog "The View from Hell".

    I think it is always wrong to have a child, but I agree it makes it even worse for a depressed person to have a child since that child's suffering will be continual throughout his or her life.

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    1. The saddest part is that I can completely understand depressed people like my mom thinking that having children will give them a sense of meaning - and it seems to work, for a while. But the cost is huge. I certainly thought I would have children until I was around 27.

      Much as I regret my birth, I can understand the pain my mother was in, and I can understand women in similar situations making the same decision.

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    2. Sister Y, did you think having kids would make you happy and relieve your depression? Had you made a suicide attempt before then?

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  2. It doesn't seem wrong to have the average child since the average person considers their life worth living. It does seem wrong to take the risk of having a child who does not consider their life worth living, which is an elevated risk for those who have heritable type depressions.

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    1. Even though the average person considers their life worth living, you cannot guarantee that any one child will, and you don't have their consent to have them. If the child ends up hating their life, and then dies, nothing can undo this fate, there is no compensation and "I thought you might like it" or "many others like it" simply doesn't cut it as a justification for torture.

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    2. It doesn't seem wrong to have the average child since the average person considers their life worth living.

      The average person has ex-post ratified their existence. This is different from a hypothetical pre-person having been shown the experience of their self-to-be and deeming it superior to never-existing.

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  3. This reminds me of the flak Bryan Caplan caught some time back when he enthused about the (hypothetical) prospect of having and raising his own clone. While a number of negative comments followed suggesting that Bryan was being absurdly narcissistic or especially selfish to entertain such an unconventional notion, it struck me that cloning would be a more decent pronatalist course for one who assigns even marginal value to the prospective well-being of his brood. If we assume that Bryan's cheery demeanor would likely be reflected in the temperament of his cloned offspring, it's at least better than the traditional crapshoot.

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    1. Yes, assuming of course, that cloning doesn't cause health problems, and the research to get there doesn't require human experimentation that ends up effectively torturing children. It's also not clear with what probability the clone would end up hating life due to development or environment even if the original didn't.

      If we could copy fully fledged consenting people in an adult state, with memory and personality intact, and if they could self-terminate at any time, the idea of reproduction would be far less of an imposition.

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  4. A question for you, Sister Y.

    In your last post you suggested (and I tend to disagree) that the salient complaints of antinatalists might slightly or greatly defanged if we could only remove or lessen the ethical and legal barriers surrounding suicide. Here, you argue (and I tend to agree) that genetic counseling might have a similarly beneficial effect by preventing unhappy people from being created. My question: Which course do you think is likely to be: a) more practical, and b) more effective?

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    1. The main problem with the plan treated here (don't make depressed people) is that, while depression is highly heritable, it's not clear what genes are responsible. My 23andme/Promethease has no obvious red flags - I have the long version of the serotonin transporter gene, etc. We simply don't know who will end up depressed. I have a full biological sister who is completely non-depressed, for instance. That said, it's possible that if a lot more effort when into prevention of making depressed people, rather than just treatment of depression, there could be improvements here.

      Easy suicide has the advantage that it's completely doable with our current level of tech - no inventions necessary, just legalize barbiturates. However, not creating people avoids any costs to them, and allowing them to exist still saddles them with the costs of living prior to exit. I doubt under-18s will ever be able to legally commit suicide, for example, and many people who wish they hadn't been born still want to live as long as possible.

      So, the "genetic prevention" route would solve more problems, but it's less technologically workable.

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  5. Sister Y, in fact, this is what I intend to say a few posts (which may even take years, by the looks of it) later in my blog.

    It looks to me that in the end, people who haven't given birth to people who are devastated at their own birth haven't done anything all that wrong, after all. But it is hindsight. They don't know beforehand that their child will be glad s/he was born. So it's immoral to do that. And that "happiness is a stochastic phenomenon" makes it all the more so. Even being well-to-do and loving won't ensure that your child will be glad to be born.

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    1. Exactly - especially given the poor state of our knowledge about who will be sad and who will be happy, having a child is essentially gambling with the life of an innocent child.

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  6. From a practical perspective, wouldn't it make sense for antinatalists to support the availability of contraceptives to poor women worldwide?

    It's all nice and well to vote with your uterus, but what about those who want to but can't?

    Relevant TED talk by Melinda Gates: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/melinda_gates_let_s_put_birth_control_back_on_the_agenda.html

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    1. I should hope we all support the right of people to avoid having children they don't want! However, I always feel a bit disingenuous talking about reproductive rights, because I don't really believe in the positive right, only the negative right.

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  7. It seems somewhat obvious to me that the dominance of the "life is worth living" meme is not borne out of an actual overabundance of lives that are really, truly worth living, but rather an ex-post facto rationalization for staying alive, since it is extremely difficult to:

    1) realize that life is bad in the first place
    2) deal with the consequences of learning this fact, which include intense, multifarious social stigma and probably an even worse life than the deluded one pre-epiphany

    Personally I continue to want to live, not because I think my life is currently worth living, but because I think it could be, some day. But I wonder if this is not also a rationalization.

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    1. Yes, these distortions are definitely there. It's unlikely that they are so strong that we could assume most lives are not worth living.

      But even if most lives are worth living, this does not compensate for the injustice forced onto those whose lives end up not being worth living.

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    2. Indeed - this is what I'm interested in exloring with the "meaning of life" thread I'm into lately.

      Maybe most people are happy to be alive only because of self-deception. I think it's a huge moral QUESTION whether it's good to try to make them realize the awful truth - if, indeed, the truth is awful!

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    3. '...the dominance of the "life is worth living" meme is not borne out of an actual overabundance of lives that are really, truly worth living...' Splendidly well articulated.

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    4. They're "happy" to be alive because there's little else they can do about it once they're here.

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    5. And of course it's unhealthy (depression) and low-status to admit you're not happy to be here.

      There is a clear cultural message that it's a serious failure to be unhappy. Like birds hide their illness from the flock (or owners) until they're nearly dead, humans are encouraged to hide their suffering, so we don't have a clear picture of how many suffer, and how much.

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    6. When I used to look for other depressed people on the internet, I never ever expected they would be so unbelievably cheerful. I have been incredibly gloomy for a very long time, and have never once believed my suicidal thoughts were wrong, because I had evaluated the evidence carefully. Very few people on the internet see things the same way I do (or at least if they do they pretend HEAVILY not to), and the few that do I wager self-censor so others don't think they are inspiring others to kill themselves, or are being overly negative. I was on a depression chatroom once and saw absolutely no difference from an ordinary chatroom - if anything they were more cheerful. Were they all just mildly depressed? Could be true, but statistically a couple should have been suicidal. None acted as if life was hard in any way, like they were in some sort of cult. It is the same with forums, and with blogs.

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    7. Estnihil, this is somewhat directed at you.

      (sorry if this sucks, my writing is way out of practice and Im tired)

      I have to say, I am consistently struck with the gender differences in self-reported experiences of depression on the internet.

      It really reminds me of my mother, who, like Y's mother, brought kids into this world to validate her own depressed existence.

      Of four, Im the only one who really got it bad as far as consistent long-term depression goes.

      I love my mother, but I don't "understand" her decision the way Y apparently does.

      I know that on some level I truly resent it.

      Part of the resentment, Ive realized, is because of the different way I experience depression than her - for reasons of gender.

      She is non-logical and amoral enough to have a bunch of kids to make herself feel warm and fuzzy for a few years while they are little and cute. Im not.

      I always read these testimonials from "depressed" women on the internet, and they almost always have RELATIONSHIPS, or if not that always SEX LIVES. Someone mentioned before how often they have fucking reproduced themselves. SICKENING.

      A depressed man is deeply repulsive to women, and is treated like an invisible piece of shit by them and most men.

      Women still get their needs met, as long as they have a pulse.

      I think Ive said enough.

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    8. "I always read these testimonials from "depressed" women on the internet, and they almost always have RELATIONSHIPS, or if not that always SEX LIVES."

      Filthy sex-havers! How dare they try to seek comfort in the arms of another human being!

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    9. Way to illustrate my point by missing it completely.

      The other human being, the man, is *not depressed*. Those are all alone. Nevermind, I tried.

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    10. I didn't know about birds hiding their illness. Awesome!

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    11. Anonymous, I'm sorry if I didn't understand your point - can you explain it in a way that doesn't sound like "boys vs. girls"? <3

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  8. In regard as to whether atheists or antinatalists should be 'spreading the word', it's tricky. I'd wager a fair portion of most people's happiness comes from believing their life fits into a bigger, meaningful picture. To quote Robert Nozick:

    'Yet being part of an ongoing human enterprise that is worth continuing may not be a trivial part of our lives and the meaning we think these have. It was against that background, taken for granted until now, that many activities found their point of significance and many others found a place to permissibly be. One cannot share or dissolve that context yet leave everything else as it was.'

    If you think life is an unjustified imposition causing terrible quantities of unnecessary suffering, then perhaps you may have to go out and shatter what you perceive to be people's illusions. 'A small harm to prevent a bigger harm' etc.

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    1. That is exactly the issue. Should Tinkerbell live?

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  9. Sister Y: Your post really hits home for me. I suffer from chronic anxiety and other issues which I inherited from my mother, which she in turn inherited from her father. He spent the last seven years of his life as a semi-invalid before his death at age 59. Suicidal ideation and wothless ECT along the way. According to my father, her afflictions had bloomed well before their marriage.

    Other Anon., above Karl: As a man, I can confirm your observations about the sexual politics of mentally ill people!

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  10. In terms of people who really, really shouldn't have kids, I have moved away from my initial sexism (misogynistic direction) toward a (slightly) more balanced view of things. Of course, since in our society, only women have reproductive rights, men can't truly, legally be responsible for the creation of children. But given that technicality, it does seem that (a) men are, in a practical sense, responsible for intentionally creating children a large proportion of the time, and (b) even low-status men often breed copiously.

    One thing that surprised me was a statistic that more men than women want kids; GSS data apparently shows men wanting almost exactly as many children as women. This actually jibes with my own experience - I have several friends who have kids, and in all but two case, it was the man's idea, and the man was the one who pushed it. (Of the remaining two, one is an extremely religious couple who both felt obligated to have kids, and in the other it was mostly the woman's idea.)

    Second, this motherfucker here managed to have nine kids. That's as amazing to me as people who amass nine DUIs.

    I know there's gendered hypergamy and that's bad for lowest-status men. As Anonymous above mentions, most mentally ill, low-status women have at least a sex life, if not a relationship. It wouldn't surprise me if most mentally ill, low-status men did not have either one. But should we blame these pathetic women for taking what comfort they can from life? When our whole culture tells them that motherhood is something to aspire to, and that abortion is wrong? Yes, they are doing unimaginable harm by having children. But they are in a terrible position in the first place, put there by people much like them in similarly shitty situations.

    Men seem to take what comfort they can from the world as well. Rather than buying into a story about how women (or men) are bad m'kay, I think we have to recognize that any improvement over current conditions has to have members of both sexes on board.

    I have been thinking a lot about the empathizing v. systemetizing ways of thinking. In women, the caricature is that empathizing is high and systemetizing is absent; that's certainly true for many ordinary women. In male/autistic brains, it's the opposite. But both systemetizing and empathizing are necessary for moral reasoning. Unless you're a freak of nature (like many of us) and score high in both forms of cognition, you either won't be able to see how your actions contribute to suffering (systemetizing fail), or won't be motivated to prevent suffering in the first place (empathizing fail).

    We need both.

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    1. "Of course, since in our society, only women have reproductive rights, men can't truly, legally be responsible for the creation of children."

      With all due respect, could you please stop repeating this nonsense? Men can:

      a) choose not to have coitus
      b) use a condom to reduce the risk
      c) get a vasectomy before having coitus

      Knowing this, how do you construct the absurd claim men don't have reproductive rights? Because they can't force women to abort? The reason for that is that the pregnancy happens in the woman's body and she has a right to bodily autonomy. It is a forseeable risk for the dad, who can do all the above mentioned things to maintain his reproductive rights.

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    2. So their choices are no sex (sounds great!), crappy fail-prone method, or surgery. True, it's not nothing (which is why I linked to my defense of my admittedly strongly-phrased claim), but there's a major gap between the rights of women and the rights of men.

      If we could make everyone gay, this would go away! <3

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    3. Maybe it's just a lack of imagination on my part, but it seems like only the discovery of a cure for pregnancy and childbirth could ever fully justify substantially narrowing that gap.

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    4. Sister Y, condoms aren't that crappy. You take a risk, but that's a conscious choice. And of course there is no basic right to sex, at the expense of the bodily autonomy of others, simply because a sexless life is less pleasurable. If there were, rape would be ok. This position usually has to be sustained with power abuse and people hate you for it.

      Forcing a woman to abort or become or remain pregnant against her will is a violation of her bodily autonomy. Depending on how you see the rights of the fetus before it has a brain, the major conflict is with the rights of the fetus who unfortunately happens to non-consensually reside inside the body of another person who may have different interests. But once born without consent, the child also has the right to be compensated for the needs and risks forced onto them by their parents. I do think unprotected and even protected sex is a form of consent to the risk of having to pay child support. It is, after all, the practical act that forces the same risk onto the potential child.

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    5. If you actually know how to use condoms, they are extremely effective birth control. I feel like sex education has pumped out so many lies about condoms and their effectiveness to prevent premarital sex as much as possible since our country seems to believe that is oh so terrible. But there was an entire two years I was only using condoms, and because I was using them properly and using a pretty good brand, I was able to avoid pregnancy every single time. *gasp* Imagine that? And it's not as if I was having sex once in a blue moon, either. Then I eventually moved to oral birth control to control my breakouts, but my fiance also happened to enjoy how it felt without a condom. We mixed it up every so often, but I never once increased my risk for pregnancy. And now I'm back to using condoms because of my bipolar medication and am still avoid pregnancy, and I highly doubt this is luck because we've been together for a good five years. A lot of women who become pregnant and have used birth control become pregnant because they improperly use the birth control. Either the condom is not put on correctly or they miss a pill.

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  11. Parents are happier people:

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120517115446.htm

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    1. I'm sorry, Anonymous, but this blog is for serious discussion.

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    2. I'm sure that's the reason you write condescending comments instead of actually participating in a serious discussion?

      Tell me, Grognor, in what way does you comment facilitate serious discussion, as compared to providing a link to a scientific article relevant to the topic?

      Or is anything that doesn't agree with your pre-conceived notions not a legitimate part "serious discussion"?

      Explain yourself, would you kindly?

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    3. The fact that your comment about parents reporting higher happiness was entirely off-topic makes it plausible to assume that your are not interested in serious discussion of the the post that you were commenting on.

      Also, please be aware that you did not provide a link to a scientific article; it is a news report about a scientific article.

      Note also that the report says that the authors explicitly deny a causal claim. I haven't read it, so I don't know how far it goes, but it may be that their findings actually support "Happier people are (more likely to be) parents".

      In any case, the relevance to the present blog post is completely unclear.

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    4. Makes sense. Nature is pretty much inclined to do something like that to make people keep breeding. Doesn't affect antinatalism in any way at all though

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    5. Except its practical success probabilities. Not a trivial factor from a consequentialist view.

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    6. Studies on children and happiness come to different results depending on a lot of factors. Most find a negative relationship, but some find a positive relationship for the limited subset of white, married, high-income people on their first and second child.

      However, even if children negatively affect happiness for most people (especially single parents), they do create a sense of meaning that is hard to replace now that religion and tribes have faded in influence. The interesting question for antinatalists, in the practical sense Anonymous hints at, is how to replace the "meaning" feeling people get from children with something that doesn't involve bringing innocent children into our sad world.

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    7. I think a certain amour propre, even among those who feel regrettably little amour of any kind in their lives, is unlikely to be something we can extinguish, and so we might as well try to harness it toward good. There are ways to leave legacies and be remembered other than by procreating, and antinatalists should seize upon them and promote them.

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