Above: One of my Antinatalist Antelope memes.
Since I’ve become aware of ethical intuitionism, I’ve learned that natalist shill Bryan Caplan is also an intuitionist. This should be distressing to any antinatalist intuitionist like myself, especially since it promotes a dubious connection between natalism and intuitionism. So I am especially interested in demonstrating why this connection is invalid.
* The fairness intuition.
The philanthropic category of antinatalist arguments aims to demonstrate that procreation is harmful. Arguments in this category include arguments from consent, risk, not taking decisions for others, and will usually take a form such as this:
1. We should not impose on other persons without their consent.
2. Procreation imposes existence on a future person without their consent.
3. Procreation is wrong.
1. We should not expose other persons to negative risks.
2. Procreation exposes future persons to a wide variety of profoundly negative risks.
3. Procreation is wrong.
1. We should not take decisions for other persons.
2. Procreation means taking the decision for other persons that this world is good enough to be born in.
3. Procreation is wrong.
In response to such arguments, natalists inevitably reply that future persons do not exist and therefore have no rights and freedoms, and that this represents a significant moral difference. I have already addressed the general form of this argument in my entry on the Non-Identity Problem, so I will not repeat all the points here.
I will rather look at the issue of fairness. It seems eminently unfair to grant consent and decision-making freedom to some people but not others. In the absence of moral difference between two people, we should not give less freedom to one than to the other; this, I think, is intuitively true.
Natalists have replied by positing that future persons are in fact morally different, because they do not exist in the present. But this makes no sense unless we can say the same about past persons as well. Consider:
(A) The execution of Giordani Bruno was unjust.
If it is correct that non-existing people do not have rights and freedoms, then A should be trivially false; but A does not seem like a trivial issue at all, let alone trivially false. Therefore it seems unlikely that non-existing people do not have rights and freedoms.
The natalist can only escape this problem by stating that it is only future persons who do not have rights and freedoms, but there is no reason to agree with this. Supposing a future person P who will be executed at some time in the future (sadly we can assume this will happen, as executions are not about to end), we can formulate a similar proposition:
(B) The execution of P will be unjust.
Again, if future people have no rights and freedoms, B should be trivially false, but B does not seem to be trivially false at all.
* Torturing innocent children.
(I1) It is morally wrong to torture innocent children for fun.
I1 is such a strong intuition that it is widely considered the prototypical ethical intuition: it is as powerfully true as other basic intuitions like “one plus one equals two” or “pleasure is better than pain.” But “fun” is not a relevant distinction here: it seems equally valid that it is morally wrong to torture innocent children for revenge or for sexual pleasure. Furthermore, we already know that:
(I2) It is wrong to punish someone for an action for which ey is not responsible.
But surely a little child cannot be responsible for any action ey performs. So I don’t believe that we lose too much in the translation by changing I1 to:
(I1′) It is morally wrong to torture little children.
What does that have to do with natalism? Well, some children are born with debilitating conditions such as spina bifida, Down syndrome, cystic fibrosis, anencephaly, just to name those. In some cases the condition can be detected in the womb, in others it cannot. So some risk is inevitable.
Now you might reply that such conditions are not literally torture, since they are not inflicted by human beings. But this assumes antinatalism is false, and therefore is a circular argument. For the antinatalist does believe that these conditions were inflicted by human beings, more specifically by the parents of the children afflicted, because they made the conscious decision of giving birth to those children knowing the risks of such conditions arising.
Suppose you make a tool which you know for a fact has a very small chance of exploding and killing someone, even if the user uses it safely. You find a stranger on the street who knows nothing whatsoever about tools and sell him your object without telling him about the chance of death. You later learn that he died of an explosion. You did not kill him directly, but you are responsible for putting him under that risk and you did kill him indirectly. We would qualify this as a homicide by criminal negligence, not as an accident.
If this scenario is correct, and I think it is, we should therefore rightfully call giving birth to a child with such conditions torture. The torture is inflicted genetically instead of physically, but it is torture nevertheless. If a parent inflicted this kind of suffering (i.e. physical damage and pain equivalent to what the disease does to a child’s body) on their children physically, we would not hesitate to call it torture.
If this is the case, then natalism does entail that I1′ is sometimes false. But I1′ is not false. Therefore natalism is at least sometimes false.
So far so good. But we can go further than that, since putting someone at risk of torture would be considered endangerment. I think we can agree that:
(I2) If it is wrong to inflict an action A on a person, then subjecting a person to the risk of being inflicted A is also wrong.
For example, if shooting an innocent person is wrong, then subjecting an innocent person to a forced game of Russian Roulette is also wrong, even if the person does not die. If it is wrong to kill a worker with dangerous chemicals, then exposing a worker to dangerous chemicals without appropriate safety measures is also wrong. If it is wrong to deliberately hit someone with your car, then driving erratically and exposing others to the danger of getting hit is also wrong.
If I1′ and I2 are correct, then natalism is always false.
I realize that in this conclusion I run against an emotional problem. For most people, it seems extremely cruel to blame parents for the horrible death or crippling of their little child. I acknowledge that fact but also recognize that feelings and intuitions are not the same and do not serve the same role. While our positive feelings towards bereaved parents pushes us to not punish them for what they did, we can still intuitively see that they are responsible for their actions.
* Bringing about new lives is worse than the alternative.
When asked in personal correspondence to give an argument which intuitively proves natalism, Bryan Caplan replied with the following:
1. The existence of people who are glad to be alive is a good thing. (moral intuition)
2. The vast majority of people are indeed glad to be alive. (empirical claim, some evidence here: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2011/12/a_cursory_rejec.html)
3. Having a child increases the number of people who are glad to be alive.
4. Having a child have little indirect effect on the number of *other* people who are glad to be alive. (empirical claim, some evidence here: http://www.cato-unbound.org/2011/05/02/bryan-caplan/population-fertility-and-liberty)
5. So having a child is a good thing.
I’ve already addressed hedonistic adaptation on the very first entry I wrote debunking Caplan’s flimsy arguments, so this proves, if anything, that Caplan’s thought has not evolved one iota in the past years.
Keeping in mind that an intuition is not derived from some prior proposition, I think we can easily see that 1 is actually not a moral intuition, since it is predicated on the assumption that life is a good thing. If life is not a good thing, then we should be worried that people are glad to be alive.
But “life is a good thing” has a clear, intuitive and powerful defeater: Benatar’s Asymmetry. The Asymmetry is completely reducible to a basic moral intuition and a basic logical intuition:
(I3) Pleasure is better than pain.
(I4) Non-existence cannot experience anything.
Because they are so basic, I3 and I4 are very strong intuitions. 1, on the other hand, is a weak intuition (if it is an intuition at all) since we know that people’s feelings, including positive feelings, can arise for good or bad reasons. There is no reason to think that people being glad to be alive is any more good or significant than people being glad of their nationality or religion.
This alone is sufficient to sink Caplan’s argument. But we haven’t even gotten to a premise about procreation yet, which in this case would be 3. Now, it should be clear from the get-go that 3 is obviously false, because it contradicts 2. A “vast majority” of people are glad to be alive, but not all people (after all, a million people kill themselves every year), therefore having a child cannot always increase the number of people who are glad to be alive. Sometimes it also increases the number of people who are sorrowed to be alive. At best, we could only say:
3′. Having a child very often increases the number of people who are glad to be alive.
Since procreation can result in a person who is sorrowed to be alive, and presumably the existence of people who are sorrowed to be alive is a bad thing (if we agree with Caplan and his spurious premise that life is a good thing), then having children is sometimes a bad thing. But since we cannot tell whether any given child will end up glad to be alive or sorrowed to be alive, this argument cannot in any way support natalism; at best it can only support the conclusion that procreation could be good or bad depending on outcomes.
Since this argument is the only connection between intuitionism and natalism proposed by Caplan, then we must conclude that this supposed connection is very inconclusive.
My position on natalism is that it finds its origins not in intuitions but in emotions, more specifically the primal fear of death and, by extension, the fear of human extinction. The most prominent motives for people to have children, be it bloodline, DNA, continuing the family, getting support in the present or future, religious beliefs, have to do with the prolongation of the individual in time.
Others have to do with the perpetuation of the family structure, the nation, the race, and so on. In these cases also the individual is motivated by fear and insecurity (that a marriage won’t last, that the “race” will disappear, that the nation will not have enough children to continue the endless cycle of “progress,” and so on).
Natalists also get hung up on the concept of human extinction, although they treat it as a separate issue. I think the two issues are one and the same: human extinction is merely a more expansive and deeper reminder of mortality, deeper because it denies the possibility of extending oneself in time even indirectly through one’s progeny. In their minds, the extinction of humans means their lives are worthless as well. This is a misunderstanding, but a very common and powerful one, which atheists observe in Christians as well. It is equally spurious here.
In his argument, Caplan upholds a despotic hedonistic dogma: people being glad to be alive is good, even if we deprive them of their basic rights and freedoms in order to ensure their existence. This is a bizarre and extremely unintuitive (pun intended) way of understanding the world; sane people do not, and should not, value hedonism at the expense of everything else.