In 2009, philosopher Elizabeth Harman published a critical analysis of the Asymmetry in peer-reviewed journal Noûs (thank you to reader Brian L. for the link). This analysis can be examined here.
In this entry, I want to look at her attempt at rebutting Benatar’s Asymmetry (which I explain here). I believe her rebuttal is a failure because she has failed to fully grasp the Asymmetry, and her arguments are no more sophisticated than that of the average philosophy-inclined person grappling with it. This is too bad, because I think the Asymmetry deserves far more serious academic examination than it currently receives.
Her analysis of the Asymmetry proper begins at the end of page 3. She correctly identifies the Asymmetry:
(a) The presence of pain is bad, and the absence of pain (in the absence of anyone who would have experienced the pain) is good.
(b) The presence of pleasure is good, but the absence of pleasure (in the absence of anyone who would have experienced the pleasure) is not bad (nor, of course, is it good).
So far so good. But she also suspects that there’s something else “going on.” She deconstructs the argument some more, identifies a middle premise between the Asymmetry (the two premises above) and its conclusion (that procreation is a harm), and formulates this middle premise as such:
An action harms a person by causing some effects only if experiencing those effects is worse for her than the alternative—namely, not experiencing those effects in the scenario in which the action is not performed. An action benefits a person by causing some effects only if experiencing those effects is better for her than the alternative—namely, not experiencing those effects in the scenario in which the action is not performed.
In and of itself, the middle premise presented is perfectly fine, but unfortunately it’s also the beginning of the problems in her analysis. For it assumes the stance of looking at states of existing persons, which is not appropriate here. This leads her to adopt the following stance:
If Benatar is to rely on [the middle premise] to yield the conclusion that we harm someone by bringing her into existence, he needs it to be the case that the pain she experiences if she exists is bad for her—which is clearly true—and the absence of that pain in the alternative in which she is not brought into existence is better for her, not impersonally better.
But this cannot possibly be the case. Logically, non-existence cannot benefit any specific person, because there cannot be a thing that both does not exist and benefits from anything.
As I’ve pointed out before, Benatar is actually talking about states of affair and therefore impersonal good/bad (i.e. evaluations which do not rely on the point of view of the specific individual experiencing or not experiencing pleasure/suffering). She does address Benatar’s actual position:
Whereas, as regards pleasure, while the existence of pleasure is good, the absence of pleasure is (from the Asymmetry) neither bad nor good. But then it’s hard to see how we get the result that it’s bad to bring someone into existence (and even if we do get that result, it’s hard to see how we get the conclusion that we harm the person, as opposed to merely getting the conclusion that we do something impersonally worse). Rather, it seems we get the result that if we bring someone into existence, there are some bad things and some good things; whereas if we don’t, there are some good things (the absence of the pain). This doesn’t show what’s better without a comparison between the sum of the good things and the bad things of existence, on the one hand, and the good things of nonexistence, on the other hand.
She seems to believe that abandoning the middle premise means that there’s no more logical connection between the Asymmetry and the conclusion. But the logical connection is obvious: from Benatar’s utilitarian perspective, a state of affairs A is definitively (impersonally) better, all other things being equal, than another state of affairs B if A contains less suffering than B. I personally would not always agree with this principle, but let me narrow it down to a more specific form:
Procreation is bad because the state of affairs where any person P does not exist contains less suffering (P’s suffering) than the state of affairs where P does exist.
In that specific form, I can’t disagree: no matter what the conditions are, the existence of any specific person is always a bad thing. So this is, I think, the correct middle premise that Harman is looking for.
She argues that we must have some sort of mathematical comparison in order to determine whether procreation is good or bad, but she doesn’t explain why. She completely missed that part of the point of the Asymmetry is that such a comparison is pointless; for example, we have no reason to compare “the good things of existence” brought about by pleasure to anything because they are irrelevant (since the non-existence of the pleasure does not represent a deprivation to anyone). Harman was able to describe the Asymmetry but apparently did not grasp it very well, if she could make such a mistake.
She then completely loses the plot:
An independent objection to the Asymmetry goes as follows. It seems that whatever can be said in favor of (a) can be said in favor of the denial of (b). If we are reading (a) as (a1), then it seems that what makes it impersonally good that some suffering is not occurring is that it would have been bad if that suffering had occurred. But then it seems it should be impersonally bad that something is not happening that would have been good. At least, I don’t see why that wouldn’t also be true.
This is merely independent confirmation that she hasn’t understood the Asymmetry. The whole point of the Asymmetry is that there is an asymmetry (hence the name) between pleasure and pain, and her objection is… that pleasure and pain are symmetrical in nature.
This is about as silly as a Christian theologian objecting to the Problem of Evil by simply stating that God had reasons to create evil, and ending the discussion there. That’s just nay-saying, or at worse thought-stopping, and does not engage the argument at all. The very point of the argument is to demonstrate the asymmetry between pleasure and pain. In order to argue the opposite, you need to address the argument in its entirety. This, she has failed to do.
Not only has she failed to debunk the Asymmetry, but she has also failed to address the other asymmetries presented by Benatar in his book; I note this because her analysis is supposed to cover the entire book (Better Never to Have Been), not just what we call the Asymmetry. She does briefly discuss other chapters, but she does not discuss any other arguments from the chapter where the Asymmetry is presented, including other pleasure/pain asymmetries.
One such asymmetry, which I find perhaps even more important than the Asymmetry, is the one concerning moral obligation (which he addresses on page 32, only a few pages before the Asymmetry): we have a duty to prevent inflicting suffering, but we do not have a duty to give pleasure. Or expressed more specifically in the context of this debate: we have a duty to not create new lives on the basis of the suffering they will generate (both to themselves and others), but we do not have a duty to create new lives on the basis of the pleasures they will generate (both to themselves and others).
This asymmetry is, I think, widely accepted. People just refuse to accept its consequences regarding procreation, but their hypocrisy is not our fault. And if I am wrong about this hypocrisy, then the point should be addressed: but so far I don’t believe it has been addressed, except through the Non-Identity Problem, which is a non-starter.