The ice cream salesmen cometh…

If there is one inevitability when arguing about antinatalism, it is that the ice cream salesmen (or as Gary would call them, the trivialists) will inevitably show up and try to sell you their particular laundry list of ice creams as an argument for making children. The ice creams, of course, can be anything nice and fluffy that make people feel good.

The Ice Cream Argument goes something like this:

1. Ice cream is great.
2. It would be terrible to deprive potential children of ice cream, wouldn’t it?
3. Therefore it is good to have children.

To begin with, this is just not a logical argument. Potential human lives cannot be deprived of anything. There is no life-void floating somewhere in the universe going “I wish I could be born so I could eat ice cream.” The universe does not experience pain from the fact that millions of potential people whose potential existence is made impossible (say, when a man masturbates) will never get to eat ice cream. There is no deprivation here.

There is no reason to believe that the experience of the ice cream is necessary. We love ice cream because we crave calories. It’s nothing but DNA programming. There is no objective merit to ice cream or anything else we crave.

The ice cream salesmen try to sell long laundry lists of nice fluffy things that DNA makes people chase. It’s really all just a reiteration of DNA-worship with no critical examination of whether these ice creams compensate for the harm of coming into existence. They are not arguing with you, they are trying to sell you ice creams, which means hyping the ice creams at the expense of any alternative viewpoint.

Obviously antinatalists do not deny that there are plenty of nice, fluffy things in life. Ice cream is a nice thing. So are orgasms, having a good night’s sleep, kittens, baby hedgehogs, having good friends, love, righteous anger, a cool shower on a hot day, and so on and so forth. There are also more abstracts fluffy things, like a sound argument which pleases the mind, a sense of dignity or justice or honor, the feeling of being recognized, understanding something, and so on and so forth. No one’s denying that there is a long list here.

The bare fact is that these things are only good for people who already exist. Only existing people can enjoy these ice creams, and potential people are not deprived from not having them. Therefore they are of no relevance in determining whether we should bring a potential person into existence.

The underlying premise seems to be that, if we compare the harm we encounter during our life with all the pleasures we experience, we’ll come out on top. Consider that, as Benatar rightly points out in his book, we have powerful motivators to overestimate the amount of pleasure we experience and to underestimate the harm we experience (for one, this evaluation is done before one’s ultimate end, which usually involves a great deal of suffering), so there’s no way our evaluation will be fact-based. But beyond that, how would one even start making such a comparison? There is no way for anyone to compare experiences from their past and determine which was more or less intense. So the whole idea falls on its face.

But suppose that by some unknown magical method we are able to compare experiences objectively and to overcome these distorting motivators. What if we determine that a given human life ended up positive on the whole? Then such a person would be very lucky indeed compared with the average human being; it would still not justify the hard life that most human beings go through. It also would not justify the harm that we inflicted on that person by bringing them into existence. Remember that, as I’ve pointed out before, harm and pleasure do not cancel each other: we have a duty to not create harm, but we do not have a duty to create pleasure.

Another major problem with the Ice Cream Argument is that it logically leads to the quiverfull position. If potential persons are being deprived, being harmed, by not being brought into existence, then we have a duty of bringing into existence as many potential persons as we possibly can. The only logical outcome of this reasoning is a constant frenzied production of children. And yet no one who ever uses this argument has twelve children. Could it be that they don’t really believe there are ghosts of their potential children haunting the universe and lamenting their lack of ice cream?

Now consider the opposite argument, the Flesh-Eating Bacteria Argument:

1. Flesh-eating bacteria are terrible.
2. It would be terrible to risk unleashing flesh-eating bacteria on potential children, wouldn’t it?
3. Therefore it is evil to have children.

This argument makes no more sense than the Ice Cream Argument. Possible children cannot suffer, and therefore flesh-eating bacteria can have no effect on them. However, rephrase both arguments around the act of bringing persons into existence:

1. Experiencing ice cream is great.
2. It is desirable for people to experience ice cream.
3. Therefore we should bring potential people into existence so they can have ice cream as well.

1. Experiencing flesh-eating bacteria is terrible.
2. It is undesirable for people to experience flesh-eating bacteria.
3. Therefore we should not bring potential people into existence lest they suffer from flesh-eating bacteria as well.

Now we can easily see that the first argument is still nonsensical, while the second is perfectly reasonable. Potential people do not experience suffering, while existing people can; on the other hand, potential people are not deprived from the pleasure of eating ice cream, so there’s nothing lost by not forcing them to exist. Another way to phrase it would be “it is bad to keep from potential people the future possibility of existing and eating ice cream” and “it is good to keep from potential people the possibility of existing and suffering from flesh-eating bacteria.” This is, again, rephrasing the issue around procreation, with the same results.

A related complaint is that the human race can’t “give up,” that people who follow antinatalism have just “given up” and that the human race shouldn’t “give up.” What exactly is it that we would be “giving up” by ceasing to reproduce? A chance to continue the endless cycle of consumption, addiction, cannibalism and reproduction? A chance to raise new generations of beings that get addicted to new ice creams, always only temporarily satisfying their desires? What’s the harm in giving that up?

I am not “giving up” anything by not having children. I am preserving a lot of what I would otherwise lose: my money, my free time, my well-being, my peace of mind, and my integrity, just to name those. To have children is to more or less give up one’s freedom for the next eighteen years, that’s the real truth of the situation. That’s what’s being “given up.”

There may, however, be something deeper to this “given up” paradigm. I suspect that deep down they are falling prey to the fallacies about evolution which I have discussed before, that evolution is a game with winners and losers, that our DNA-given purpose (the rule of the game) is to reproduce, and that species “win” by surviving. By abandoning reproduction, we “give up” the game and become losers, like the dodos.


(modified from a Cat and Girl cartoon)

There is even a team element to it. The people on the “human team,” that is to say all humans, have to keep the human race surviving to “win.” Antinatalists, then, are nothing more than traitors. If the players start believing antinatalism and stop reproducing, the “human team” will lose. Therefore you’d have to be a chump to believe them, or so the reasoning goes. Other teams, other species, will thrive on our “loss.”

Life is not a game. There is no goal or purpose in evolution. We exist due to purely mechanistic, unguided, unintelligent processes which have no concern whatsoever with human life or life in general. As a mechanism, it’s more inefficient and murderous than anything humans have ever produced. There’s no shame in giving something like that up unless you think human beings are eventually going to create some Garden of Eden that will make life worth it. But we are not even starting to go in the direction of trying to make life better, and such optimism is not really worth the time it takes to consider it. The only rational position is to stop feeding the mechanism.

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18 thoughts on “The ice cream salesmen cometh…

  1. fourem September 26 2011 at 12:51 Reply

    Francois, something that you do here and that I observe a lot of antinatalists doing is importing deontological reasoning into a consequentialist argument in a way that leaves out an important step.

    Classifying actions (or effects) into the “harm” and “benefit” categories, and then forbidding the former while considering the latter supererogatory, is either deontological or negative utilitarian. But when trying to make the point to consequentialists who are not negative consequentialists (that is, good and bad are commensurable), this won’t work.

    If someone wants to maximize the (good minus bad) in the world, then creating someone with a net positive life is just as good as improving an already-existing person’s life by the same amount. Then you’re in one of two unacceptable positions. If you think that human lives are on average good, you’re obliged to go around creating as many people as possible (at least among people who will have such positive-life children). Having two children when you could have five is as bad as having five children and then killing three other children (or three of those children). On the other hand, if you think that human lives are on average bad, then you should favor omnicide (relative to the status quo, at least).

    So this is why I don’t think trying to optimize some quantity in the world works. You might be able to make better progress with those for whom non-negative consequentalist arguments are especially persuasive by trying to convince them what matters is not some quantity in the world, but rather some quantity among people. It’s probably easier for someone who defaults to something like total utility to move from utility in the world to utility among persons than to get them to reject the value of benefits or to make exceptions to consequentialism.

    Utility-among-persons allows you to argue that it would be better for an existing miserable person to never have been. Compare that person having suffered though life to that person having had no experiences, or perceptions, or thoughts, or emotions, or anything like that whatsoever. And for someone miserable, the latter is superior. So creating the circumstances in which this comparison can be made, that is, creating the miserable person, is inferior.

    At the same time, however, it bars the argument that it would be better for a non-existing would-be-happy person to come into being. There’s no one for things to be better for, no one there to be given a life. There’s no “that person”‘s experiences to (retroactively) retain or eliminate.

    This gets you to there being nothing wrong with not creating happy people. Of course, to get to the point where there is something wrong with creating people at all, you have to argue that life is on balance bad, even if for a lot of people it’s good (i.e., a “high-threshold” view). But, practically speaking, I think just getting people to accept that there’s nothing wrong with not creating happy people does a lot of the work of antinatalism, if it’s paired with empirical or other arguments for why life as a parent is worse for selfish reasons.

    I think that a lot of people, myself included, are impervious to the idea that good cannot make up for bad, even in theory.

    • Francois Tremblay September 26 2011 at 14:37 Reply

      Prove that suffering is not primary, and that utilitarian calculations are possible, and you might have a point. Otherwise, the happiness of future persons is entirely irrelevant- the ice creams do not compensate for anything, because the potential person cannot be deprived of anything.

      “I think that a lot of people, myself included, are impervious to the idea that good cannot make up for bad, even in theory.”
      I will give you the example I always give. A doctor saves a patient’s life. Post-op, the doctor gets into an argument with the patient and punches him in the face. If good can make up for bad, then the doctor shouldn’t be tried, since he did after all save his life and that surely is “greater” (if utilitarian calculations make any sense, something which I deny) than the punch. Is that your position as well?

    • Francois Tremblay September 26 2011 at 14:39 Reply

      By the way, there are plenty of antinatalists who support omnicide. I don’t, because I am strictly deontologist. But there you go.

  2. fourem September 26 2011 at 20:55 Reply

    I don’t see how the doctor example is problematic.

    What should be criminally punished is different from what creates a dispreferable state of affairs. Obviously the doctor should be punished for punching the patient in the face — punching people is the face is harmful and should be deterred and the doctor should be prevented from doing so again. That the doctor just gave the patient a large benefit has nothing to do with it.

    If you’re asking whether the save_life+punch_in_face package deal is a good one, of course it is. But the packaging of the two is not necessary. It’s not like yanking someone out of the way of an oncoming car, causing them to fall and bruise their knee.

    • Francois Tremblay September 26 2011 at 20:59 Reply

      “What should be criminally punished is different from what creates a dispreferable state of affairs. Obviously the doctor should be punished for punching the patient in the face — punching people is the face is harmful and should be deterred and the doctor should be prevented from doing so again. That the doctor just gave the patient a large benefit has nothing to do with it.”
      Precisely. This is my point when I say that suffering and pleasure do not cancel out. We have a duty not to create harm, but not to create pleasure.

      “If you’re asking whether the save_life+punch_in_face package deal is a good one, of course it is.”
      I would never ask such a thing, because it makes no sense. Utilitarian calculations are impossible.

      “But the packaging of the two is not necessary. It’s not like yanking someone out of the way of an oncoming car, causing them to fall and bruise their knee.”
      Yes, it is necessary. Suffering is primary, and all pleasure is derived from the existence of suffering. You can’t have pleasure divorced from the possibility of suffering.

      • fourem September 26 2011 at 21:09 Reply

        “Yes, it is necessary.”

        What I mean is that the doctor didn’t have to punch the patient in order to save him. So saving someone’s life by yanking them out from being about to be run over by a car and thus making them skin their knee is necessarily a package deal, while punching the patient after the operation or whatever is complete is not.

        Would you deny that the goodness of the outcome of the save-someone-from-an-oncoming-car package deal can be assessed?

        • Francois Tremblay September 26 2011 at 21:13 Reply

          “What I mean is that the doctor didn’t have to punch the patient in order to save him.”
          A fair point. But the packaging of the concepts of harm and pleasure IS necessary.

          “Would you deny that the goodness of the outcome of the save-someone-from-an-oncoming-car package deal can be assessed?”
          Yes. Utilitarian calculation is logically impossible.

  3. fourem September 26 2011 at 21:05 Reply

    Prove that suffering is not primary, and that utilitarian calculations are possible, and you might have a point.

    A lot of your material suggests caring about consequences. It is thus something that may carry weight with people whose ethics has a large helping of consequentialism. If your aim is to persuade rather than simply to express what you think, then arguing why antinatalism can be supported by quantitative non-negative consequentialist arguments is worthwhile.

    Lots of people don’t think that suffering is lexically prior to joy or ataraxia or whatever. I personally think that quantitative consequentialists often underestimate the badness of the bad, but that caring only about harms takes things too far. I don’t expect either of us to persuade the other on this, but that’s no reason not to try to broaden the appeal of our arguments.

    How do you distinguish a harm from a forgone benefit? If you sit down to eat an ice cream sundae, and I snatch it from under your nose as you are about to sink your spoon into it, have I harmed you, or have I deprived you of a benefit? What if I sabotage the promotion you would otherwise have had?

  4. Francois Tremblay September 26 2011 at 21:10 Reply

    “A lot of your material suggests caring about consequences. It is thus something that may carry weight with people whose ethics has a large helping of consequentialism.”
    That is not something that concerns me. I have no desire whatsoever to appeal to consequentialists. I have nothing against it, but to each his own.

    “If your aim is to persuade rather than simply to express what you think, then arguing why antinatalism can be supported by quantitative non-negative consequentialist arguments is worthwhile.”
    I have no intention to persuade anyone, no… especially not about antinatalism. I have no hope of doing such. My aim is to present information and let people decide for themselves who is being logical and reality-based.

    “Lots of people don’t think that suffering is lexically prior to joy or ataraxia or whatever. I personally think that quantitative consequentialists often underestimate the badness of the bad, but that caring only about harms takes things too far. I don’t expect either of us to persuade the other on this, but that’s no reason not to try to broaden the appeal of our arguments.”
    Prove that suffering is not primary, and then you’ll have a point. Until then, just forget it.

    “How do you distinguish a harm from a forgone benefit? If you sit down to eat an ice cream sundae, and I snatch it from under your nose as you are about to sink your spoon into it, have I harmed you, or have I deprived you of a benefit? What if I sabotage the promotion you would otherwise have had?”
    Having a given desire and not being able to fulfill it is all part of harm, yes, because there is no reason for those desires to exist in the first place. There is no reason for there to be organisms in the universe which want ice cream. But given that fact, frustration of the desire becomes a harm yes.

  5. [...] have analyzed this bizarre set of beliefs in my entry debunking Richard Dawkins and my entry on the Ice Cream Argument. It is not really one single belief as much as a gradient of ignorance going from science-like [...]

  6. [...] I think, is especially pushed. There is a strong correlation, I think, between this propaganda and the objection that antinatalism puts us on the “losing team”; again there is this belief in life as a sports game and longevity as the points, and if you kill [...]

  7. [...] if non-existence is “involuntary”? One might as well bemoan that which does not exist cannot eat ice cream. Two, it deprives succeeding generations of human capital. Even the mentally unfit or [...]

  8. [...] of a fetus, a sperm and ovum, a disembodied mind considering the Original Position argument, or some hypothetical “space fetus” suffering somewhere in the rings of Saturn) is completely, utterly defenseless. People are claiming [...]

  9. [...] at the pleasure it could be missing or suffer from the pain it cannot receive. No matter how many ice creams you list, there is no non-existing thing out there suffering from being deprived of [...]

  10. [...] know there is an element of loyalty in the natalists’ arguments. I’ve already discussed the belief that suicide means “giving up.” But no one has a duty to keep living. The [...]

  11. […] that people are happy, therefore we should make more of them, although I’ve already addressed the general form of this argument. I will merely note that the argument loses a lot of its credibility by ignoring the objectively […]

  12. […] Explicit natalism is another story entirely. Those who adopt such a view are mostly religious fanatics who are motivated by fear and ignorance. The desire to breed is a symptom of the death culture, more specifically our dismal view of death and eternity; religion has bamboozled people, even seculars, into believing that having children extends our selves into eternity. The idea of extinction triggers not only the fear of one’s death (through the non-survival of one’s progeny) but also the fear of species death (or “losing the game”). […]

  13. […] * The ice cream salesmen cometh… […]

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