Saturday, 21 April 2012

Why Utilitarian Justifications for Procreation Fail


I've been participating in a debate on procreation over on threequarksdaily: http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2012/04/the-case-against-kids.html#comments (cheers to Filrabat for the heads-up on Jim's blog). The main pro-life advocate there has made me clarify my thoughts on utilitarianism, so the debate has certainly been worthwhile. Here's what I've been pondering:

Utilitarian justifications for procreation are generally put forward on two grounds:
                                                                                                                                A) The majority of lives contain more good than bad, therefore procreation is justifiable in terms of individual aggregate utility.                                                                                                                                                                                                               B) All sentient beings are guaranteed to experience some amount of joy, therefore procreation adds to the aggregate amount of joy in the world, no matter how much suffering there may be. This holds even if the amount if joy in an individual life is miniscule compared to the suffering experienced therein.                                                                                                                                                                                               Problems: A is unverifiable. Not only do we not have access to the information necessary to arrive at such a conclusion, but the statement is incoherent even in terms of an individual life for the following reasons:                                                                                                                                                                                        i)Assessments of whether one's own life contain more pleasure than suffering are subject to continual change, due to shifting perspectives in one's conception of joy/happiness, whether the experience of joy can somehow nullify pain and vice versa, and so on.                                                                                                                                            ii)As well as the above, there is no ultimate final point of reckoning available due to death. The individual cannot make a final judgement on his life. (This is the essence of Herodotus's epigram 'Call no man happy unitl he is dead'.) Furthermore, there is no particular reason why we should grant credence to a third party's assessment of another life, either during the duration of that life or afterwards. Whether X judges that I am having a good life while I am alive, or believes I had a good life after my death is nothing but X's subjective judgement based on his partial perspective, his lack of access to my experiences and possible conflicts between his perception of the good and mine.

                                                                                                                                              Therefore is A is unverifiable and ultimately incoherent.


B results in conclusions that I believe a majority of individuals would find morally repugnant. This being so, it strongly suggests that B is incorrect.

Take the following example: X and Y come together. Both are sadists who derive pleasure from child torture. They decide they will procreate in order to create a being they can torture in order to generate more joy for themselves. A child, Z, is born. Z is raised normally for the first four years of its life and experiences a certain amount of joy. Then from aged four, Z is tortured, raped and abused for eight years until he is murdered. The eight years bring great joy to X and Y. On an agreggate utilitarian approach, X and Y have experienced 16 years of joy (plus whatever joy they may have had in the four years pre-torture); Z experienced 4 years of joy before the torture period. That creates a total of 20 years of joy from the act of procreation. Subtract Z's 8 years of torture and we are still left with a total benefit of 12 years of joy. Therefore from the perspective of B the actions of X and Y were justified. (Lest anyone think the example is too extreme, I've cited before the example of my friend who informed me that if his daughter of two were kidnapped, tortured and finally murdered after 10 years he would still believe that her life had been worthwhile due to the pleasure both she and he had derived from her pre-torture period.)

 If X and Y's actions were to be deemed acceptable by a majority, I can only assume that all manner of acts that involve inflicting torture and suffering on individuals would become acceptable. For me, such an outcome would lead to an utterly nihilistic and even more chaotic world than we have at present. Not to say that this is an impossible outcome (think of the millions of individuals sacrificed in Stalin's USSR, for example, on the basis of a form of Benthamite utilitarianism), but for me it would contravene my basic moral position of refusing to needlessly inflict suffering on another consciousness.

So in conclusion the utilitarian arguments in favour of procreation as exemplified in A and B are untenable.

All comments, observations and corrections welcome.

35 comments:

  1. Hey Karl,

    A is in principle verifiable. Pain and pleasure affect the world -- that's the point of their existence -- therefore we can measure them. Minds are only private in practice, and we're getting better and better at reading the signs.

    A is also coherent. At each moment in time, I have a particular state of mind. This state of mind also has a particular utility to me, in light of my particular values at that moment. If at one moment I feel like eating ice cream but have none, that subtracts from the utility of that moment. If at the next moment I do have ice cream, that adds to the utility. If at the next moment I don't feel like eating ice cream anymore, but I haven't finished yet, that subtracts from the utility of that moment. Today's utility is not a function of tomorrow's desires. Aggregate these utilities over time and over individuals, and you're done. This should answer point "i".

    Given the above, it is irrelevant what I think of my own life at the moment of death -- whether my life was filled with what I value at the moment of my death. It's indeed also irrelevant what some other individual thinks of my life -- whether my life was filled with what he values at the moment of reflection. But that's not what's being measured. This should answer point "ii".

    (No, none of this is practical, but it should serve as the theoretical basis of "morality" because it is "what we want". In practice, we'll need to measure, extrapolate, approximate etc., maybe come up with a couple of simple rules (such as "do not violate consent") for quick decision-making in daily business, who knows what else. I am well aware that I fail to ever get into real-world stuff (the real world is hairy, whereas hypotheticals are clean-shaven and oiled and ready for an erotic massage), but I'm partly hoping to get some heads out of the clouds and slowly steer the cultural machine into more sensible directions. I can't do it alone, but a culture equipped with science is pretty powerful. Imagine where we could go if we all had common values.)

    As for B, I don't think you could get anyone to agree with it as stated; it is an asymmetry that disregards the bad. Most of the discussion in that thread was about what support there is for an asymmetry in the first place. They specifically targeted the antinatalist asymmetry, but it makes sense that the burden of proof is on the ones asserting that an asymmetry exists.

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  2. I can't stand (non-negative) utilitarians: they're mighty hypocrits who blow high from their ivory tower, their intelligence wasted on expanding graveyards for the sole sake of dancing on the graves. Alike man-flies now, they've engineered themselves to be "above" fairness, seeing no fault with acquiring A's feast at the price of B's destruction, so long A's screams of pleasure (or rage at B's expense) buzz over B's cries of torment.

    All about justifying means to the end, the crux of utilitarian abstraction is to factor out involuntary human saccrifice as if self-evidently neutral and irrelevant.

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    1. It's okay, I'm sure non-negative utilitarians can't stand you either.

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  3. How are negative utilitarians different from non-negative utilitarians in this regard?

    Also, the value of involuntary sacrifice is implicit. If X is subjected to something against his will, then either it doesn't cause him harm, in which case there is no problem, or it does cause him harm, in which case that subtracts from utility.

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    1. (What I mean is that "harm" includes the feeling of "I do not want this".)

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    2. But that, there, is exactly what I'm getting at:
      utilitarian logic appears to only calculate for the resentment expressed after the abuse. In Dutch, we have the saying "Wat niet weet, niet deert" ("What [one] doesn't know, doesn't hurt [him/her]"); betrayal without knowledge or consequence would not substract utility, for example: this would be within utilitarian logic , wouldn't it?
      Utilitarianism would thus tell us to ignore the motives behind breeding, for one.
      But it also welcomes the train of thought that lays the fault of experiencing harm with those that do the 'not wanting', where victimhood becomes itself the act of defiling the climate or "substracting from utility". Drawing from utilitarian doctrine, the breeder world suckers people into resenting resentment instead of the resentful.
      Negative utilitarianism at least starts with a focus on creating no more victims, which changes the whole logic more profoundly than just turning half-full measurements into half-empty ones.

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    3. I think the problem with utilitarianism is that it implies there's a certain number of people stubbing their toes that outweighs a rape, and given the choice, we would morally have to pick the former over the latter. I don't really buy that.

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    4. Totally agree, gentlemen. Good to see you back around, Bazompora. I always miss your rage against existence, a rage I feel is identical to my own:-)

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    5. I miss my rage alot too, unfortunately.

      Thank you, Karl.

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  4. Tim, thanks for the comment, but, as you admit yourself, your proposals are all completely theoretical. I don't believe people will ever share common values and definitions of positive utility. How could they? Who would decide what values are worth pursuing? Your system also requires a kind of techno-scientific dictatorship that I think most people would never agree to.

    "Also, the value of involuntary sacrifice is implicit. If X is subjected to something against his will, then either it doesn't cause him harm, in which case there is no problem, or it does cause him harm, in which case that subtracts from utility."

    I'm with Bazompora on this. The assumption that negative utility on the part of some is acceptable for the greater good is not acceptable for me. Unfortunately, that's how all real world decisions are made, which is why I believe this world to be fundamentally an evil place.

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  5. Bazompora: you are essentially right.

    Motives aren't fundamentally important, but they are indirectly important because they affect reality. Bad motives lead to bad situations, except when they don't, in which case there's no problem.

    I don't think utilitarians put blame on anyone, or at least they shouldn't. It's all about what should be done, not about who to blame. If someone makes a bad decision because they lack knowledge, or even if they have the relevant knowledge, then that's too bad, but it happens. You have to incorporate this uncertainty in your calculations. So if there's a high probability that something painful is coming your way, then you could decide to sit down and look for someone to blame. You could also decide to try to deal with it as well as possible.

    It's not like parents-to-be can just handwave the kid's suffering away saying that that is its own responsibility. Even if relieving its own suffering is at some point in time the correct decision for the kid to make, it may fail to make this decision. The parents have to assess beforehand the probability of the kid actually dealing with its suffering.

    Wrooines: not necessarily; it depends on how you aggregate over individuals. If you sum everyone's utilities, then yes. If you average them, then no. If you take the maximum, then yes. The minimum, no. It's not clear to me which of these we should prefer. It's also not clear to me that reasoning in terms of individuals is really the right way to go (better would be in terms of feelings). Also, this.

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    1. Tim, you say that motives aren't fundamentally important, but if there's no motive, there's no decision in the first place. A conception of the good is necessary before an action to maximise utility can be taken. You call an action's results good or bad depending on how they match the starting aim, ie the motive. You can't even talk about good or bad motives otherwise.

      Utilitarianism attempts to have it every which way by saying it cares only about results, and if things go wrong, well, oops, we didn't have enough information, but we did have the right motive etc, so let's give it another shot. It's just an utterly incoherent line of thought that involves way too many indeterminacies.

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  6. What do these utialitarians think gives them the right to meddle with other people's lives? Who do they think they are to decide what's bad, what's good and who has which rights? It

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    1. Agree, anonymous. Utilitarianism always talks about a vaguely defined "we" and assumes all aims are the same. In practice, it generally involves a self-proclaimed elite attemtping to decide what's best for everybody and pushing their line no matter at what cost.

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  7. A couple of more thoughts on this issue:

    As Quentin Crisp pointed out, life itself is fundamentally an irrational process so the bigger goal of rationalising it (which is what utilitatrianism seems to be about ultimately) appears somehow undoable and incoherent, given the many and conflicting reasons people give for living and perpetuating the species.

    Secondly, and in connection with that, if you're an antinatlaist then it would seem that the only goal you should ultimately be interested in would be the cessation of breeding. I just can't see the 7 billion+ on the planet agreeing to that, no matter how many incentives, reasons, arguments they may care to expose themsleves to.

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    1. I don't think I'm either utilitarian or negative utilitarian: I'm all for imposing inconveniance now to stop the imposition of suffering later, especially if limited and well-dispersed amounts of the former can prevent astronomic and imbalanced amounts of the latter. To me, antinatalism is the only rational outcome to a consistent "moral economy" based on the Golden/Silver Rule. As such, I have absolutely no qualms with returning bigotry to bigots.
      The moral market rule for antinatalism is synonymous with a couple of Inmendham's arguments: "you can have kids, provided you're 100% guaranteed that they'd be as blissfully silly as you" and "if you would not buy the worst possible scenario, you have no right of selling it" (quoted verbiage not entirely accurate). Since those odds don't exist, breeding should neither.

      People who, through their actions, opt out of honest moral exchange, naturally forfeit the credit to bargain for their own treatment.

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    2. Bazompora, I wonder if you'd be prepared to elaborate on how far you'd go in terms of 'imposing inconvenience' to prevent later suffering. I agree that AN is the only rational economy following from the Golden rule, but isn't there a danger that imposing inconvenience or harm would lay one open to the kind of criticisms of utilitarianism you mentioned earlier?

      I should add that these days I'm so bemused and put off by the world and its inhabitants that I think I've more or less forsaken all interest in practical ethics (of the positive kind) as well as politics and am inclined to the belief that quietism is the only position where I won't end up tying myself in knots (or at least not too many anyway).

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  8. "isn't there a danger that imposing inconvenience or harm would lay one open to the kind of criticisms of utilitarianism you mentioned earlier?"

    I doubt you had expected me to reply something much other than "I don't think so" and I am indeed defending that line:
    making life tough on breeders would not be a lucrative endeavor paid in the blood of innocents. I would never suggest reducing people to numbers (which sadly is common practice in this world), not even breeders; but they are however identifiable with their collective crime: breeding victims and abusers. EVERY breeder is guilty of wilfully drawing random tickets from these same categories: through breeding, one backs the horror; and I don't see how a breeder is not responsible for accessory and wilful neglect towards all of it. The breeder isn't a saccrificial lamb, but a wolf that became cancer by its own volition.

    When it comes to inconveniancing beasts, I would not turn my nose up at seeing them treated for what they are; but for the sanctity of safety, I would side with mere targetted inhibitions.


    (I have to say though, that I feel rather uneasy with having even elaborated this much on hypothetical decision-making already, for it makes me seem like the kind that loves to sell the skin before the bear is caught: and honestly, I believe I'll be living a few centuries too short, to see antinatalism grow to any exciting impact.)

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    1. Thaanks, Bazompora. By the way, the question wasn't meant in a hostile fashion. I was just genuinely curious to see what you thought was morally acceptable in regard to the treatment of procreators.

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    2. To be honest,
      I quite did take it like you were telling just me to fess up true colors.
      Perhaps that interpretation was spurred by the rather-unmotivated move being the aberration for an autist of my kind.

      Ah, the cruel mockery of the mind-culture barrier, to top off the confusion that be humanity ...

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    3. You can say whatever you want here, Bazompora. A man with your admirable loathing and distaste for the world has free reign to express their thoughts on this platform:-)

      As for autism, seclusion, solitude, and withdrawal generally, I begin to view it more and more as the only sensible response to bring a captive in the hold of this cosmic prison galley.

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  9. speaking from the point of view of a profoundly disabled and disfigured person, no amount of happiness in this world could ever take away any of my pain. there are some things people just dont- cant- understand until theyve experienced suffering worse than death (examples: severe facial deformity, being burned alive, watching loved ones being tortured, holocaust, etc). once they have experienced the level of suffering at which they ache to die, but death doesnt come, they will begin to understand. but the trouble is, many people who have not suffered to this extreme don't want to try to understand, because if they did understand, they'd know that they cannot justify procreation. so they will put their own pleasure, their own desire to procreate- ahead of the welfare of those who will suffer for their decision. so i really think even if 99 percent of the world were happy, and 1 percent were in severe suffering, all procreation should be ended for the sake of the 1 percent. believe me i wish this world were happy and good enough for procreation but it just isnt.

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    1. Anonymous, thank you. That's a very moving comment. I was wondering if you'd allow me to post it on the debate I was referring to at the top of the post. It might help a few people wake up from their Pollyanna slumber.

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    2. yes of course you may post it. i want to help people go from pollyanna thinking to reality.

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    3. Thanks, anonymous. I'll save it as my nuclear option:-) Another problem with the happy majority is that they also generally control the airwaves and publishing media. Us types tend to retreat from the world and keep shtum. Let them have their pigswill of a world, I say!

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    4. let them have the hideous world that they've created for themselves...yes, they deserve it....the dreadful thing is for those of us unwilling participants trapped in it. i will never forget a picture of a monkey in a research lab, the horror on his face, whilst he's being held down and tortured in a science experiment. a picture speaks a thousand words. i wish i could broadcast that picture to everybody in the whole world and make them look at what they have done. far better to have let the monkey, and myself, remain as we were (unborn)

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    5. That´s a very moving comment. It deserves to be spread around indeed. Thanks Anon.

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  10. Many people like their lives and are glad to be alive despite of all pain and suffering they experienced. Life is worth living even if sometimes we have to face difficult moments. I believe many antinatalists suffer from depression, and there's cure for this disease. Maybe you guys just should see a therapist and take some antidepressant pills. Life is beautiful. Don't let yourself be overcome by depression.

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  11. Anonymous, obviously you're new to all this:-) It's nothing to do with psychological feelings; it's a rational and logical debate about the risk and worth of procreation. There are plenty of antinatalists who enjoy their lives, but recognize that there is no necessity to risk creating a new life. Please try and comprehend this.

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    1. It could be a rational and logical debate about the risk and worth of procreation, and occasionally on blogs and comments section it becomes one, but most of the time it's relentless tunnel vision mixed with whining.

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    2. There's plenty of rational debate going on here and elsewhere, AYM. Maybe try reading the actual post above, or going to threequarksdaily site I referred to. As for 'tunnel vision', if people have firm philosohical beliefs and are prepared to defend them against all challengers, is there something objectionable about that? And as for what you see as 'whining', others view as perfectly rational and justified protests against finding themselves in a scenario they had no choice in. Perhaps you're just having a bad emotional reaction because some of your own beliefs are being questioned?

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    3. Look, you managed to convince me not to have any kids, but I still can't help but roll my eyes at how ridiculous antinatalist rhetoric gets.

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    4. AYM, didn't realise you were of the AN persuasion. As for 'rhetoric', every postion can be accused of using it. I still think the AN argument holds up against all challenges. And anyway, would you really deprive me of the joy of spitting bile? It's one of the few pleasures I have in this life:-)

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  12. So much true words... so much wisdom in one place. Where antinatalists - and pessimists talk - we sense this truthfulness - this HONESTY about life. Keep it coming, and good debate there Karl.

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    1. Thanks as always, Shadow. Let's keep the flag flying!

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