Time-independent Interests

July 17, 2013


Defenders of procreation often assert that the non-existent can have no rights, because they are non-existent. It is claimed that certain predicates, such as to “have” rights, to be “imposed” on, or to be “harmed” can’t apply to these non-existent people since they are not real. The typical response to this objection runs something like this:

One might deny that nonexistent people could have rights, because they do not exist, while also objecting that they must have rights for it to be possible for our contemporary actions to violate their rights. But as Joel Feinberg has pointed out, hiding a nondefusable bomb attached to a nontamperable time clock of seven years in a kindergarten would be clearly wrong. In part, it would be wrong because it violates the rights to life of the children who will die, even though they do not now exist and do not yet possess rights to life. One’s action sets into motion a chain of events that will lead to the violation of the rights that will come to be held.

This counterargument is not entirely convincing, due to a distinction in the cases. In the case of the time-bomb, it is assumed that the children will already exist, but that the time-bomb would violate their rights. In the hypothetical, existence (x) vests prior to the time the decision which acts as cause (c) would affect the patient at (e). C is unrelated to X: 



X is alternatively considered as the background of the situation, and the effect is the foreground, with which our ethical intuitions will be concerned. Although the children are non-existent now, it is presumed that they will exist in the future. In this sense they are already existent in the hypothetical, which is phrased in terms of certainty that it will kill them.

Consequently the natalist might argue that they are simply people who, in the future, will have rights. The fact that they will have rights in the future makes the ethical calculus subject to the left side of the Benatarian asymmetry, but not to right hand side, as their non-existence does not relate to the basis of the argument.

In the case of procreation, we wish to point out that the children would not exist. In this sense, the time-bomb response fails to address the underlying issue which is that the decision in question should relate to the existence of the person directly.

Here it will be suggested there is a better response to the non-identity argument, which is to conceive that the interests of sentient beings are not time-dependent, but have an objective value which is the basis of ethical concern. The evidence that such a predicate exists will be taken from an analysis of murder. Consider the case of murder: 

c, x—->e,-x

Here the cause (c) leads to an effect, (e), which is (provisionally) identical to the non-existence of the murdered (-x). In our language we represent this situation in a variety of ways. In the simplest form we say:

(1) John killed Eddy.

Sentence (1) actually takes the schematic form of a predicate and an object.

(2)  X _ed Y

The same construction type is used for verbs of motion:

(3) John moved Eddy.

A construction like (3), however, can be diagrammed as a change in state:

c —->e,x’

So the same construction is used both for changes in state, and a change from existence to non-existence. Both the construction for murder, and the construction for typical affectedness use the same form. The person murdered and the person moved are also both considered patients.

Since Eddy is no longer alive, however, it would make no sense to say Eddy was murdered, and the above conflation of two different types of change seems implausible. Through introspection, we can see the inherent contradiction between representation of a sentient being as a noun, and as a thing which can be born and die. At what point can a being, taken as the subject of a predicate, constitute that subject in the process of dissolution or combination? Prior to death it was not, after death it was not, but there can be no point at which it comes into being or disappears. A non-existent object cannot be murdered. A more explicit example of this contradiction is the common expression: 

(4) He took his life.

It seems impossible that anyone’s life could be taken, since, at the point at which we could assert it was taken, there is no one remaining from whom it could have been taken.

So we see that in language we do use strictly non-existent persons as ethical patients. The significance is that analytic arguments for the innaplicability of resultative constructions to the non-existent is therefore flawed. Those who argue that non-existent beings cannot be imposed upon, or that existence cannot be impositional, must contend with a language that makes sentient beings the subject of “death” as well as “birth”.

As with murder, so with harm. Murder is one predicate, harm is another. As the patient cannot be affected at the time of death, it seems difficult to claim it is harmed by murder.  Though it can be harmed by the apprehension of death, the assault that precedes death, and although others suffer from its lack, the persons killed cannot themselves be ethical patients at the moment of death. 

From this it follows that there is a difficulty in advancing the argument that the non-existent can have no rights, since the only person remaining to be harmed when murder takes place is no longer existent. If we do not accept this, both murder and birth causing harm are feasibly acceptable. The two cases look like this:

murder: c,x —->e,-x [bad]

birth:     c,-x —–>e,x [bad]

If the natalist still wishes to defend the idea that the non-existent cannot be predicated over, a number of ideas suggest themselves. Perhaps (1) analytic arguments demonstrate nothing, and language is an artifact of evolution. Alternatively, (2) perhaps murder is not to be understood on the basis of a change in an actual state. In either case, the difficulty in the time-bomb example has been resolved. We have shown that a case much more analogous to birth (murder) does in fact hold ethical significance. 


Here we consider possibility (2), and, rather than refuting it, it will be suggested that antinatalism can be derived from it, absent hedonic harm. 

Under both murder and birth there is a change from having a state, to not having a state, or vice/versa, and a judgement is being made. But, when antinatalists “unpack” the notion of non-existence on the left hand side of the birth line, is is often claimed that there is nothing justify the unpacking, since non-existence is empty, or unfilled for properties.

Nevertheless, in arguments against murder this prohibition is typically not adhered to. One argument against murder, advanced by Peter Singer, is that it “thwarts the interests” of the party at issue. In this sense, the asserter has unpacked non-existence on the right-hand of the murder line, and has filled it explicitly:

c,x —->e,-x [bad]

                                              -x [thwarted interests]

Clearly, it cannot be that their interests exist, in a thwarted state, within the non-state of non-existence. Nevertheless this is exactly how the language represents it.

A more sensible understanding of our ethical intuitions is that non-existence refers to the person, but that their interests nevertheless have a time-independent value. It was wrong to kill them because their interests have value, objectively and independent of their continued existence.

Linguistically, we simply introduce a modal predicate, “would have” and say that beings who receive the predicate are ethically relevant. If we accept this, it is fairly easy to see how murder is wrong. John would have liked to go on living. 

We can now return to the case of birth. It is indisputable that there are some who are born who would have not liked to be born. Consequently their interests have been thwarted in the same way as in the murder case. (If anything, it appears this case has special weight, vis-a-vis the murder example, because not only were their interests thwarted, but they are aware that their interests were thwarted, which causes present suffering, while in murder there is no present suffering). 

Clearly, the introduction of this time-independent significance of interest leaves much unanswered. We have not couched it in the terms of the Benatarian asymmetry, nor have we expressed murder in those terms (it may be doubtful that it can expressed in those terms). It has not been shown unequivocally that murder is wrong if decontextualized to such an extent that no apprehension, collateral loss, or physical pain is present. This is a possibility, but I suspect it is in the minority. It has also not been demonstrated that time-independence is reversible, though we can easily enough create thought experiments involving age-of-consent to demonstrate that it is. 

Lastly, we have not attempted to ground this time-independence in terms of hedonic consequences, but rather in terms of an opposition to interests. It seems inevitable, that if murder is to be wrong, it must be by an appeal to a pluralist view in which opposing interests that would have been present is sufficient on its own to justify a negative evaluation. We might say that, although the murdered and the born are not harmed, they are wronged, to distinguish this from a judgement of hedonic consequences.

It is noteworthy that to be wronged it is not necessary that the interest be rational. Some who wish to go on living, despite pain that might appear to us to be unbearable, nevertheless deserve not to be murdered, because we can assume that they would have continued to want to go on living. Similarly, some who would have not wanted to be born, for reasons that may appear irrational, nevertheless deserved not to be born. Perhaps, under this view the Benatarian asymmetry simply supplements their judgement by showing how it is indeed reasonable. 

Lastly, it is not necessary to look at individualized cases. Totalist consequentalist ethics (to which I adhere) has already dealt with the non-identity problem in a very different way:

Traditional forms of consequentialism, including both the total form of consequentialism (“totalism”) and the average form of consequentialism (“averagism”), have the resources to explain how an act can be wrong while making things worse for no one. If, by waiting a few years to have a child, the 14-year-girl could have produced a better off but nonidentical child, both totalism and averagism will imply (other things being equal) that it was wrong for the girl not to wait (Singer 1999, 122–25). The key for both both views is the focus on the maximization of aggregate wellbeing. Whether we do that (a) by creating additional wellbeing for a particular person, or (b) by bringing a nonidentical but better off person into existence instead, is immaterial. If we have no way of accomplishing the former, then we must do the latter. (See the entry on consequentialism.)

At which point, one needs only apply modality to wellbeing itself, with the question being: is it better if a gradient of wellbeing exists or not? If one creates a gradient of wellbeing, one is creating suffering, but if one does not create the gradient, no suffering or pleasure would exist, which seems the optimal choice. This is a much simpler view, and comports with science in that the existence of ethical “persons” is actually not necessary 


3 Responses to “Time-independent Interests”

  1. I agree with your arguments. They remind me of Zamulinski’s (Evolutionary Intuitionism) position that acknowledging that human beings are of inherent value means also acknowledging that potential human beings are of inherent value, including zygotes.

    This is not to say that they are persons, obviously. But if a child has the right to the highest standard of health, then we don’t have any right to compromise a fetus and then bring it into this world. To say otherwise is disingenuous and evil.

  2. JR Says:

    Interesting. I would agree with him it’s a by-product not an adaptation, like the ability to do calculus. Probably just the ability to see universals is the basis.

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