The equivocation on “life.”


Extract from a Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic.

I have already discussed the problem related to the use of the word “life” in natalist arguments. Consider the following examples:

(a) The fact that you have not killed yourself proves that you think life is worth living. So much for antinatalism!
(b) Life is not just about consumption, addiction, cannibalism and reproduction. It’s also about love, relationships, and the profound joy of raising children.

Both of these arguments rely on an equivocation on the word “life.” There are two possible meanings for “life.” The first is “my lifespan as a conscious sentient being” or “the lifespan of other persons as conscious sentient beings.” The second is “the life-system which populates this planet and changes in accordance with the theory of evolution.”

In example (a), the fact that I have not killed myself can only, at best, prove that I think my lifespan is worth preserving (although even that much is dicey), and proves nothing about my views on the life-system. So it has nothing to do with the antinatalist view that the life-system has no innate or objective value (it also has nothing to do with the premise that human lives should not be started, since any lifespan one considers preserving has already been started).

In example (b), the arguer is trying to counter properties of the life-system (consumption, addiction, cannibalism and reproduction) with properties of one’s lifespan (love, relationships, the joy of raising children). Obviously the second list is derived from the first; love, for instance, evolved because of the advantage of stable families in raising offspring. But the elements in the second list do not modify the first list. Love and relationships are not on the same level as consumption, addiction, cannibalism and reproduction; they are properties of completely different things.

It has been argued, however, that there is a clear relation between the two concepts. Our lifespan only exists because it was created within the life-system, and exists within its parameters. So people will say things like:

(c) If you value life so little, then why do you not want to kill yourself or kill other people?

Now this is a very confused statement full of equivocations, so let’s clarify it a bit:

(c’) If you value the life-system so little, then why do you not want to end your lifespan or other people’s lifespan?

Now it’s clearer that we’re talking about two different things. There is no direct relation between how I value the life-system and how I value lifespans. I don’t like factory farming or monoculture, but I still eat food. Of course I’d rather see factory farming or monoculture ended and get my food from another source, but I still value a broccoli or a chicken burger because of their nutritional value and taste. It’s obvious that there’s no correlation in property here; the concepts of factory farming and monoculture do not have nutritional value or taste, because they are not objects which can be consumed. Likewise, the life-system does not include the subjective experience of ice creams, only conscious lifespans do.

In general, we can express the natalist objection in this manner:

(1) X produces Y.
(2) X is disvalued.
(3) Therefore Y must also be disvalued.

Yet there is no logical way to go from (1) and (2) to (3). Y is not valued by virtue of being the product of X, but it may be valued for other reasons. For example, if a random sentence generator produces the proposition “The Earth is round,” I will not believe said proposition on the basis of it being produced by the random sentence generator, but I will believe it on the basis of observation. So despite the fact that it was produced by something disvalued, it can still be valued.

The equivocation on “life” is so pervasive precisely because the distinction between lifespan and life-system is at the core of many antinatalist arguments. It is because lifespans are of such importance ethically (in fact, one may reasonably argue that sentient lifespans are actually the only thing of any importance at all ethically) that we question the system that leads to them being started. If we didn’t think lifespans had any value, why would we be interested in examining issues related to starting new lifespans, and why would we identify the harm incurred within lifespans as an important ethical concept?

This seems very much related to the accusation that antinatalists are nihilists. And yet this is a bizarre claim to make when antinatalism is very clearly an ethical principle. A nihilist by definition cannot hold to ethical principles, so the accusation seems very silly. I think it stems from the fact that any negative position is labeled as nihilistic. People think that, because you are denying their important values, you must therefore be against all values. It’s a very ego-centric game they’re playing.

One may argue that antinatalism denies the importance of human values, and therefore is nihilistic because of that. But this is not true at all, and stems again from the equivocation. We do not deny at all that the ice creams are important, because they are part of our lifespan, and all those important values that we put forward are basically conceptual ice creams. They really have nothing to do with the question of whether the life-system is important or valuable.

To be an antinatalist does not require one to automatically deny the value of freedom, equality, happiness, knowledge, spirituality, love, friendship, or any such thing. It does however require one to realize that these are not the alpha and the omega of ethics, that we must use our capacity for logic and reasoning to realize that human existence (i.e. the perpetuation of the life-system), and by extension these values, is not necessary or needed from any objective perspective.

One thought on “The equivocation on “life.”

  1. […] that life in general is worth living. But this is an equivocation between lifespan and life-system, as I’ve explained before. The life-system is not worth it, but individual lifespans can be. But this only pushes us back to […]

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