The Asymmetry is Objective
July 13, 2013
One of the more sensible proponents of suffering-creation is this dude, who’s done a series of videos on why antinatalism is a bad, evil thing. Which of course it is, but that hardly excuses misunderstanding it. He still thinks AN is making an existential claim, which it’s not. He proceeds to the usual ad hominem psyche attacks. But really, it’s all a misunderstanding. And that misunderstanding, dear reader, is what I will correct now.
So let’s try again. Here is the Benatarian asymmetry:
|pain||Presence of pain (bad)||Absence of pain (good)|
|pleasure||Presence of pleasure (good)||Absence of pleasure (not bad)|
The left column refers to pain and pleasure, the top row refers to whether a being exists or does not exist. Because creating an existing being means creating pleasure but also pain, which is bad, but refraining from creating sentient beings means the absence of pain, but also the absence of pleasure (which is merely not bad), row two is an optimal utilitarian outcome.
A lot of people get hung up immediately, believing that we are making unjustifiable existential claims. But what does this mean? First we need to know what the meaning of “existential” really is. Let’s look at how it’s used. Not by ivory tower academics, but someone out there actually existing, taking part in this existential self-definement, as encouraged by so many existential self-definers. Here’s Ian Brady, describing his motives for child murder:
Dr Cameron Boyd, a member of the three-man panel hearing his case at a mental health tribunal, asked Brady about the five child murders he committed with accomplice Myra Hindley…
Dr Boyd asked: “What value did you get from the acts you did?”
Brady replied: “Existential experience.”
Indeed. And who wouldn’t go out of their way to create as much existential experience as possible? Say, by directed panspermia?
But are we, or Brady, any closer to understanding the asymmetry? Surely not. Because an existential claim refers to a claim about existence, and perhaps it’s meaning. And the asymmetry does not claim existence– which is an ill-defined term to use as a noun– has any properties at all. Subjective experience has properties of desirability or non-desirability, which make imposing them subject to ethical considerations. Existence is one factor to take into account.
It is a willful misunderstanding, because the extremism of natalism has been swept under the rug for so long people just have to project that extremism on the anti-life view. Make no mistake, the idea that we should create an entire evolutionary chain on another planet, so that it can undergo billions of years of cannibalism and suffering, and in the end build a McDonald’s, is effing extreme.
Now, as far as I can tell, the asymmetry contains no existential claims. The claim is not about existence, but about creating existence– it refers to an optimal utilitarian outcome.
These are relatively simple ethical claims which have no bearing, strictly speaking, on what existence “is”. So it’s important to note what the asymmetry is claiming, and what it is not claiming.
First, it is not claiming that existence is bad. Existence hasn’t been judged on this presentation. All we can say is that it contains pain and pleasure. More pain than pleasure? Probably, but that depends on how you define pain. If pain is striving for something you don’t have, then existence is almost entirely painful. But it is the pain of Kafka’s Castle, not the pain of a vice to the head. The vice to the head is a bonus. However, here we are assuming neutrality. That is clear from reading down the left column, where we see both the presence of pain and presence of pleasure.
What it is claiming is that, compared to non-existence, creating existence is decidedly a sub-par ethical decision.
It is also not claiming that pain or pleasure are either good or bad, so don’t try your daoist shit on me. Of course, pain is pleasure to a masochist, or to a person who wants to “grow”. The question is creation of pain or pleasure for another, and whether this creation of pain or pleasure is good or bad. This ethical distinction is what we mean by good or bad.
The qualifications “good” and “bad” relate not to some intrinsic property of the things themselves, but to their status in ethical reasoning. In the characterizations of the four possibilities, pleasure or pain stands for the subjective aspect, because it is the individual experience.
It is subject to an immediate hedonic evaluation, true, before our hypothetical daoist re-interprets it, so in general we can say that there can be a regular evaluation of the desirability of these two states. But the desirability of these states for any one being is actually secondary to claim of “goodness” or “badness”. Are there exceptions where pain is good and pleasure is bad? Of course there are. But common sense dictates that you don’t impose those on other people. So bad and good stand for the objective aspect, because it involves an actor affecting someone else. An actor affecting someone else needs to make an objective assessment of the utility of their actions. That is what “good” and “bad” represent.
You don’t have to be a depressed person, or believe depression is existentially valid, to recognize the possibility of creating depressed people who experience subjective negativity. So it matters not at all whether depressed people (antinatalists?) are making existential generalizations about the universe that are incorrect. If a man with a vice to his head points out that there are people with vices placed on their head, no one doubts him simply because he is in pain. Nor do you have to be depressed to know that there are depressed people. Depression, even from the outside, has an ethical relevance. He might exaggerate how many people have vices on their head, but there is at least one, which is enough to satisfy the asymmetry.
It could be rewritten as follows:
|pain||Presence of pain (bad to impose)||Absence of pain (good to allow)|
|pleasure||Presence of pleasure (good to impose)||Absence of pleasure (not bad to allow)|
Perhaps not exactly what Benatar had in mind, but it helps to get around the daoist shit. Because no one has a right to kill the farmer’s horse, just because it “might turn out best for him”. And that is whole point.