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There are many people who claim that in the future everything will be better. As an example of this I will point out Steven Pinker’s, Enlightenment Now, which I just covered and which is most notable for having lots of graphs which all go up. As you may recall, Pinker (along with many others) claim that we’ve mostly eliminated war and famine, and that we’ll soon eliminate disease. Leaving death as the only remaining horseman of the apocalypse. But if we go farther and bring transhumanists into the discussion, then even death will shortly be eliminated through things like cryonics, brain-uploading and cool cyborg enhancements.
Despite these upbeat predictions of a brilliant future where humanity will either be gods, or at a bare minimum live in a super awesome society, (as best as I can tell you should picture a place like Norway only even better) anytime someone writes about the future, they generally end up creating something strongly dystopian. Now I have said before this is more a reflection of the art of a good story, and to a lesser extent Tolstoy’s observation that, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, than any sort of actual divination. Accordingly it would be misguided to use the existence of science fiction dystopias as proof that actual dystopias are inevitable.
That said, Tolstoy did make a good point in what has come to be known as the Anna Karenina Principle. For things to go the way you want everything has to go right. Thus happy families are alike because they all have the same set of things going well. On the other hand any number of different things could be causing the unhappiness of an unhappy family. In the same way, there are any number of things that could go wrong which would derail the predictions of Pinker and the transhumanists, and, on the other hand, everything has to go right for those predictions to come to pass.
However, all of this is tangential to my real point. As I said, there are numerous science fiction dystopias, and along with that, for the most part, there is widespread consensus that we should do what we can to avoid these dystopias, however unlikely they might be. I said “for the most part”, I imagine that there are some transhumanists who would prefer the world of Neuromancer or Altered Carbon to the current world. Which is not to say they wouldn’t tweak some things if they had the chance. But this is not the sort of thing which concerns me. What concerns me is that there is at least one dystopia out there, which is actually viewed as a utopia by some. What is this dystopia and who are these people? The dystopia is Children of Men by P.D. James and the people are antinatalists, people who are opposed to humans reproducing.
This is one of those posts where everything seems to be pointed in the same direction. To begin with over a month ago one my readers sent me a video about antinatalists which started me thinking about the subject. Second, one of the things which I failed to cover when I was talking about Pinker’s book, is his lack of any discussion about the importance of reproduction and survival, which I feel is one of the major weaknesses of the book. Finally there’s last week’s discussion of incels, which, regardless of your personal feelings on the movement itself, touches on this issue as well. And then of course there are previous posts in this space which touch on the issue.
Let’s start with the video I got sent. It’s a presentation by Dr. Tom Moore of University College Cork, Ireland where he discusses David Benatar’s book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence. His discussion starts with a skeptical air (probably reflecting the attitudes of his audience) before ultimately coming to the conclusion that despite antinatalism appearing ridiculous on its face, that there are no successful counter arguments to Benatar’s version of it (at least not that he’s aware of.) As you might gather I am not an antinatalist, so either I must have taken that position on faith (which is not the worst thing in the world) or I must believe that I have a successful counterargument. In the end it’s a little bit of both, but I assume my readers are more interested in a successful counter argument.
Obviously, it would be inappropriate to launch into a counter argument without first presenting the argument itself. To begin with antinatalism can be divided into three sub-ideologies:
- Antinatalism as a solution to overpopulation, and as a tool in the prevention of a Malthusian catastrophe. I.e. being alive is good, but better if it’s limited to a “privileged” few.
- Humans are bad, they ruin everything and “things” would be better, particularly for other species if humans weren’t here. I.e. Being alive is bad, but not for humans, for everything else.
- Being alive is so bad that it’s better to have never lived at all. I.e. Suffering sucks, and that’s what being alive is all about.
The first two positions are easy to understand even for those people who don’t agree with them. It’s the third that Benatar advocates for, and which requires some explanation.
For Benatar there are two possibilities, being born and not being born. If someone is born they experience some happiness and some suffering. If the happiness is greater than the suffering then being alive was a good thing. On the other hand if someone isn’t born, they can’t experience any suffering. We have prevented it. And the prevention of suffering is obviously a moral good. Of course we have also prevented them from experiencing happiness, which most people would count as a bad thing. But Benatar argues that non-existent individuals cannot have regrets, accordingly rather than counting the missing happiness as a bad thing, we should assign it a value of zero. Something that is neither good nor bad. To put it another way no one imagines the anger of the children they didn’t have (well actually I know some religious people who do, but I think they’re an edge case.)
What this means is that unless the net happiness of those who are alive completely swamps the prevented suffering of those who were never born (which will be difficult, since the number of people who could have been born but have not could be in the trillions) then it would be better for all of humanity to go extinct.
This is the argument Dr. Moore found so compelling, and I agree, if you accept all of the assumptions, the logic is essentially irrefutable. But should we accept all of the assumptions?
The most critical assumption in this chain of logic is that the happiness of those who are unborn have zero value. That if, say for instance, Shakespeare had never been born that it wouldn’t have been a loss to humanity, because we would never know what we were missing. I might grant Benatar’s point, but only when evaluating one life at a time. As productive and consequential as Shakespeare was we still probably wouldn’t notice the space where he would have been.
There are in fact very few individuals whose lack would be noticeable, even if we could compare the reality in which they were present against the reality in which they are not. Particularly on a time scale of hundreds or thousands of years. Even without Shakespeare we would still have Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson, and Sir Walter Raleigh, and later Keats, and Byron and Shelley. But what if we eliminated England in its entirety? Is it possible we might notice a lack then? That we might decide that however bad life is, that this was not a trade worth making? Maybe, hard to say. And some anti-colonists might argue that the world in fact would be better without the English. But I am positive that they in turn would be appalled if I suggested that we wipe out all Africans. Why is that? Perhaps they just don’t understand Benatar’s iron-clad logic. Or perhaps there’s something else going on, if despite all the suffering they claim for the continent and its inhabitants and those who were carried away as slaves, they still wouldn’t want Africa to cease to exist.
But Benatar doesn’t just want to eliminate all the English or all the Africans, he wants to eliminate everyone. I think at this point it’s hard to argue that we would be oblivious to the positive contributions of all those who would not be born under this plan. It may be hard to model the contributions of the sibling you might have had, but didn’t. It’s a lot less difficult to model the contributions of all of humanity. In other words Benatar isn’t merely assigning a value of zero to one hypothetical unborn life. He’s assigning a value of zero to all of the happiness, art, science and other achievements for all of humanity from the point of extinction forward.
That phrase, “point of extinction” brings us to another interesting inflection in Benatar’s ideology, at least as it was explained by Moore (I may eventually read Benatar’s book, but you can imagine why it’s not very high on my list.) Given that Benatar views human extinction as a way of reducing suffering, he doesn’t want to do anything to cause any more suffering even if it’s in furtherance of his ideology. What this means is that he doesn’t advocate suicide (because of the suffering it causes to those around you). Nor does he advocate homicide, forcible controls on reproduction or even euthanasia. Additionally, any anticipation of the extinction would also cause suffering as well. Meaning that Benatar’s ideal solution would be an instantaneous extinction which was completely unanticipated.
As regular readers know I have my disagreements with Eliezer Yudkowsky, but on this issue he made an excellent observation. There are people who would be horrified at the murder of a single individual, who would never in a million years consider killing someone, but yet, when you wrap it up in enough philosophy will calmly contemplate, and even advocate the murder of everyone who’s currently alive or who ever will live. In Benatar’s case the only condition is that it needs to be sudden and painless. But let’s not overlook the fact that he advocates murdering everyone.
Benatar’s argument has one further assumption, and this is an assumption which is made by Pinker as well. They assume that happiness/pleasure/lack of suffering is the thing we want to be optimizing for. And as long as I’m mentioning Yudkowsky, he had something interesting to say on this subject as well. When talking about rationality he made the point that people can get so caught up with the idea of what is or isn’t rational, that they overlook the key thing, which isn’t rationality for rationality’s sake, but overall success, or as he phrases it: Winning. Which is to say, even if by some logic, Benatar is being completely rational, the extinction of all of humanity is probably not winning.
As I said a lot of this comes back to whether or not happiness/pleasure/reduction of suffering is our terminal value. If it’s not, then what is? I’m half way through Skin in the Game by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (post coming soon) and he speaks to this issue and how it connects to rationality on multiple occasions:
Reality doesn’t care about winning arguments; survival is what matters.
What is rational, is what allows the collective–entities meant to live for a long time–to survive.
Rationality does not depend on explicit verbalistic explanatory factors; it is only what aids survival, what avoids ruin.
Along with Taleb, my argument would be that survival should be our core value, and by mentioning survival, we can no longer avoid the elephant in the room: evolution and Darwinian natural selection. As far as I can tell every, even somewhat rational, antinatalist admits that our survival instinct is far too strong for voluntary extinction to work, which leaves only murder (which Benatar at least opposes) or some sort of instantaneous extinction, which appears to be impractical.
From a certain point of view, this is the best counter-argument of all, “It’s absolutely impossible.” And for my own part it adequately answers the second form of antinatalism (Humans ruin everything). And we’ve already covered the third form of antinatalism, but what about the first form of antinatalism, avoiding the Malthusian catastrophe? This is where, I would argue, all of the various threads come together.
As I pointed out when I originally brought it up, the first kind of antinatalists believe that life is grand, but that it should be reserved for a select few. As it turns out there’s a logical proof concerning this as well, though it comes to the exact opposite conclusion. It’s called the Repugnant Conclusion, and while there’s a fair amount going on with it, in essence, it says that if everyone is experiencing at least some amount of net happiness, that maximizing happiness requires as many people as possible. I don’t really have strong feelings one way or the other on the Repugnant Conclusion as a guide to action (though it does support the religious injunction to multiply and replenish the earth). Rather, I bring it up at this point for three reasons:
1- It’s a compelling and logical counter-argument of the sort that Moore said he was unable to find. And it directly speaks to the first form of antinatalism.
2- However “repugnant” this conclusion is, I can’t imagine anyone arguing that it’s more repugnant than the extinction of all of humanity.
3- The first form of antinatalism at least pays some attention to the issue of survival.
At this point the common thread, from Benatar to the Repugnant conclusion, up to and including even Pinker, is a debate over whether happiness or survival should be our guiding value. On the one side, to use the technical term, Pinker and Benatar and Dr. Moore, are all hedonists. Now I don’t know about you, but for me, and I think most people, hedonism has a negative connotation. One I think it’s earned. I know there are hedonists who will argue that their philosophy is more nuanced and complex that just doing whatever is the most pleasurable in any given moment. And I’m sure they’re correct, but I don’t think it matters.
I’m not sure what to call those people on the other side of the hedonists. Maybe the survivalists? But on this side, in addition to myself, and Taleb, you have all humanity, and indeed all life back to the beginning. It’s only in the world of the last few decades, that one could argue that happiness is so good, or suffering so bad, that it should override survival.
To put it another way, there are really only two logical positions. You can either think being alive is preventing happiness (by causing suffering) in which case you’re allied with Benatar, or you can think being alive is a necessary precondition for happiness. I don’t think it’s a stretch to argue that the vast majority of people reject the first position almost as soon as they hear it, and if not I’ve provided several counter arguments. Leaving only the second position, being alive is necessary to being happy. In which case survival precedes and takes priority over happiness, by virtue of the obvious: you can’t be happy if you don’t exist.
If it’s down to a battle between happiness and survival, what does that mean? At this point maybe you’re convinced that survival should be the ultimate value or maybe you’re not. But for the moment let’s move past that and assume that it is. I mean sure “The Children of Men” is a bleak future, and you may still have a hard time imagining that there are people pushing for just that future, but we’re surely not in any danger of that, right? Well I definitely hope not, but if we do avoid it it won’t be because we’ve taken any precautions against it. In fact much of what Pinker and people like him find so great about modernity are precisely those things which nibble away at our chances for survival. And this is a problem.
Why is it a problem? Well, the essential danger of having incorrect priorities is that we are getting better and better at pursuing our priorities. With this in mind the question becomes how much does the pursuit of happiness overlap with ensuring that we survive? I’m becoming increasingly convinced that they don’t overlap at all. Thus prioritizing happiness has nothing to do with prioritizing survival.
I’m reminded of this everytime I see an article by someone explaining that people without kids are way happier than people with kids. How is it that we’ve reached a point where our urge to survive is so weak that the combined strength of all of our selfish genes put together is not enough to outweigh the pursuit of slightly increased happiness? Even if there is some overlap between survival and happiness, to the extent that they diverge (and as this example shows, they don’t even have to diverge by very much) survival is going to increasingly be left behind, as we put more and more effort into pure happiness and less and less effort into pure survival.
I would argue that the accumulated survival efforts of all those who have gone before us have created a surplus which masks the extent of the problem. In reality, if you were to take a snapshot of modern society, say take 1000 individuals, and remove them from the rest of civilization, your only conclusion would be that they were in a lot of trouble. If you were to apply the same standard you use for pandas, tigers and mountain gorillas you would definitely classify them as endangered, and not because of their numbers. You would be way more concerned about their below replacement birth rate. The significant and increasing minority who don’t even engage in sexual activity that results in procreation. And the fact that when children are conceived there’s a non-trivial chance that the child will be aborted in-utero. You might even conclude, that somehow, evolution has stopped working with this species. And yet everything I just listed is considered progress by people like Steven Pinker. It is progress towards some definition of happiness. It is not progress towards ensuring our survival.
The point I’m trying to get at is that when taken to its logical conclusion, prioritizing happiness over survival leads to things like Benatar’s antinatalism. But even when not taken to such extremes, such as the case Pinker makes in “Enlightenment Now” it can still end up emphasizing the wrong thing, emphasizing a soft but nevertheless toxic hedonism while completely ignoring stagnation and decline in the only thing that matters, our very existence, itself.
My survival is contingent on eating, eating is contingent on money, money is contingent on your donations, thus my very survival is contingent on you donating. If you’re experiencing any guilt at all right now, then, mission accomplished!