Debunking David Wasserman in Debating Procreation.

The book Debating Procreation is not really a debate but a book divided in two halves, one where David Benatar (the antinatalist) makes the case against procreation, and the other where David Wasserman (the natalist) answers this case and antinatalism in general.

Benatar’s case covers the first six chapters. What concerns me here is chapter 7, the first chapter of Wasserman’s reply. I thought it should be publicly debunked, because it is a sickening defense of procreation full of outrageous and offensive statements, which I will quote in their entirety.

His initial claim is pretty arrogant (p149):

I will conclude that none of the anti-natalist arguments establish even a presumptive wrong in procreation.

What he means by “anti-natalist arguments” is only four of them: the Asymmetry, the “quality of life” argument (i.e. part of misanthropic antinatalism), the consent argument, and the risk argument. But I don’t think I’m giving anything away if I say that even this narrow claim falls flat on its face. He fails to address most of the arguments in a substantial manner (he does have a point here and there, but nothing that outweighs his laughable blunders).

His reply to the Asymmetry completely misses the point. He argues that only a person who has a terrible life has any grounds to complain that their life was not worth living. In this he completely misses the distinction between a life worth living and life worth starting, which is fundamental to the Asymmetry. If the Asymmetry is correct, then it is probably the case that most lives are worth living, but it is absolutely the case that no life is worth starting.

We see how completely he misses the point on p153, where he compares two lives, that of a Lucky Child (LC) and that of an Unlucky Child (UC):

Benatar displays an insufficiently robust appreciation of the vast difference in their quality of life, and, more generally, of the vast differences in how well the lives of different people go. Even if we have a strong tendency to ignore, forget, or discount the pain and suffering in our lives, these differences remain profound.

What Wasserman fails to understand is that quality of life has no relevance whatsoever on the Asymmetry: the Asymmetry compares existence to non-existence, in the sense that non-existence entails a lack of properties (i.e. pleasure and suffering, needs, emotions) and existence does not. The quantity of those properties does not change the argument.

It seems he’s confused the Asymmetry with the quality of life argument, or he thinks the Asymmetry is a sort of quality of life argument (i.e. a misanthropic argument), but it is not. Both the Lucky Child and the Unlucky Child lost out when they were brought into existence. This is a logical fact which can only be refuted by addressing the Asymmetry, not considerations outside of it.

But it gets even worse. On the same page, Wasserman appears to be blaming the victim:

Benatar does recognize that UC suffers two kinds of disadvantage, LC only one. First, the pains within UC’s life vastly outweigh the pleasures; second, his very existence gives him good and bad instead of the good and not-bad of nonexistence. LC, in contrast, suffers only the latter disadvantage. Although I have suggested that LC’s complaint on that basis is frivolous, I have assumed that it is coherent; one can always complain that one has not received what is in one’s best interests. But it seems a perverse complaint for LC to make, one that would be belied by his attitude toward the life he leads. He presumably loves that life and craves more happy years. It is an understatement to say that from his ex post perspective he has no regrets about having been created.

There are many things wrong here. First, he again fails to grasp the fundamental distinction between a life worth living and a life worth starting: LC may very well love the life it leads and want more happy years, but that does not prove in any way that its life was worth starting. Wasserman is a piss-poor philosopher if he thinks he can conclusively refute an argument by failing to understand its basic premises.

Second, he’s accusing his imaginary Lucky Child of being some sort of hypocrite in complaining about its existence. So let me make concrete his silly example. I was a Lucky Child. I was born in what I think anyone would call relatively excellent circumstances. I certainly do want my life to continue happily. But I also understand that it would have been better for me to not exist.

This is not a “perverse complaint”; for one thing, it’s not a complaint, just a statement of fact. The fact that I think my life is worth continuing is, again, irrelevant to the fact of the Asymmetry. Wasserman’s accusation that I am making a “perverse complaint” because my life is relatively good makes no more sense than accusing astrophysicists of making a “perverse complaint” when they posit the end of the universe because their own lives are relatively good. My recognition that it is better not to exist has no more to do with my own quality of life than the fate of the universe does.

Third, as I pointed out, this is an attempt at blaming the victim. All human beings, including LC, receive harm in the course of their lives, and they are all justified in complaining about it, no matter how light or severe the harm is. For Wasserman to whine about this is the only perverse thing here.

Moving on to his analysis of the quality of life argument, which is basically the argument that most lives are not good enough to justify procreation, Wasserman goes into truly pathetic territory. He begins by making a Not My Child argument on p155:

Many of Benatar’s critics have claimed that a lot of prospective parents, especially in more developed nations, have good reason to believe that their children are very likely to lead good lives, conventionally assessed. They know, of course, that their lives may go very badly, as badly as those of the worst off in a developing country, but they may reasonably believe the odds of such a dreadful life as very slight.

You know a philosopher is shit when his argument begins with an assessment of people’s opinions. The quality of life argument has absolutely nothing to do with what parents believe, or what anyone believes. It is not a poll. The quality of life argument has to do with the concrete facts of human existence on this planet.

Before going into the meat of his argument here, I wanted to point out a particularly perverse (to borrow his term again) argument on p159, where he uses a debating tactic that is exactly similar to one of the Christian theodicies:

Benatar gives the verdict of a desire-satisfaction account intuitive appeal with his hedonic inflection: the frustration of desires is a highly aversive (sic) experience, while their satisfaction gives only transient pleasure… But the tenacious pursuit of a goal that one that (sic) expects to be unattainable need not produce frustration… rather, it may lead to the satisfaction of a “higher-order” desires (sic) to be resourceful and persevering in trying to satisfy first-order desires, and to pride in whatever partial successes one has achieved.

This paragraph is so badly written and so muddled that it’s hard to understand, but basically he’s using a “higher-order desires” argument to justify frustrated desires in the exact same way as Christian theologians try to explain the existence of evil by appealing to “higher-order goods.” The argument fails for the exact same reason: it’s a red herring. There is no need for those “higher-order desires” to exist in the first place, any more than there’s any need for the frustrations to exist. It’s all pointless verbiage.

On p162, his argument proper starts:

[M]any in the throes of a painful final illness still regard their lives as well worth living, even if they do not die surrounded by loved ones or narcotized into bearable pain without loss of awareness. Benatar may think they are mistaken and self-deceived. But it is not clear on what basis he can invoke their authority about their experiences while dismissing the weight they give them in the overall evaluation of their lives.

Yes, as you probably imagined from the quote on p155, his argument hinges on personal perception of one’s life, or other people’s perception of one’s life, both things which have absolutely no relevance whatsoever to the quality of life argument. Again Wasserman thinks he’s answering an argument while completely ignoring what the argument is about. As we know now, this is about par for the course for natalists: they must desperately ignore what the arguments are about, because they are so simple, direct and logical, and therefore they must go on endlessly about ridiculous irrelevancies.

But to be clear, the antinatalist does not, at all, have to say that such people are mistaken and self-deceived. There is no issue in antinatalists recognizing that a person’s life was worth living once it was started. We are against procreation, not against people wanting to continue living. The only person who is self-deceived here is Wasserman, because he thinks he’s addressing antinatalism but clearly is not. And it’s so nice of him to use suffering people as an argument, too.

He continues this endearing (by which I mean “sickening”) trend on p164:

[I]ndividuals have very different experiences of the physical conditions Benatar describes, and, if those conditions are not terminal, live with them in very different ways. Thus Benatar treats paralysis as a terrible fate, and for some people it undoubtedly is. But for others it is definitely not. They find ways to live rich lives with and despite their limitations, and not only because they may have a robust euphoria.

This is coming dangerously close to agency talk, which, as I’ve explained at length on this blog, is merely another form of blaming the victim. By portraying victims of paralysis as “finding ways to live rich lives” (i.e. pretend that they’ve become “active” instead of “passive”, thus erasing their status of victim), he seeks to distract us from the fact that paralysis is a grave harm and throw us into a theetie-wheetie “if they think it’s okay, then who are we to complain?” line of reasoning.

I won’t pretend to talk for the people Wasserman is trying to use as an argument. They may or may not sympathize with his view of things. But from a logical standpoint, this is nonsense. The way in which people view their experience of suffering has no bearing on the importance, or lack thereof, of that suffering. People shrugging off a genocide or mass extermination (as we are doing right now with the extermination of other species on this planet, just to give one example) does not make it irrelevant. To say otherwise is to plunge into delusion.

I made an analogy with a theological argument previously. On p165, Wasserman seems to be one-upping himself in using a secular equivalent of the “you send yourself to Hell” argument:

Benatar’s risk argument gains spurious strength, I suspect, from the Russian roulette simile he employs, which has prospective parents pointing a gun at the head of their future child; a gun with a high proportion of chambers loaded. This simile is misleading. As the literature on the ethics of risk imposition and distribution points out, it matters a great deal if the threatened harm will be imposed intentionally. Shooting someone with a loaded gun is intentionally harming him, even if the discharge of the bullet had been far from certain. As David DeGrazia points out in discussing Shiffrin’s harm argument, parents do not impose harm on their children so much as expose them to it, while making a concerted effort to avoid or mitigate it. And that is a far different matter for a non-consequentialist than imposing harm.

That second-to-last sentence is quite bizarre. Parents do not “impose” harm on their child, they “expose” their children to harm, while trying to “mitigate it.” What exactly is being mitigated? Not the harm, since, in this scenario, parents are merely “exposing” children to it, as if harm is something that exists wholly outside the family structure. And if they’re trying to avoid exposing their children to it, then why expose them to it in the first place? Why bring them into a world which they know contains innumerable harms?

The Russian roulette example, which is commonly used by antinatalists, provide us with a way of further interrogating this reframing. Can we not rephrase placing a person under a Russian roulette scenario as “exposing them to” the harm of the risk of getting shot? Then what good is the rephrasing? Whether we say we’re “imposing the” harm of the risk of getting shot, or “exposing them to” it, we’re talking about the exact same thing. So this leads us nowhere.

This whole quote is obviously extremely clumsy, but Wasserman seems to be trying to imply that the parents are not imposing harm “intentionally.” But this is slicing it thin. Sure, parents are not imposing any specific harm intentionally, but they are imposing harm intentionally: they are very well aware (or should reasonably be aware) that by creating a new person they are also “imposing” or “exposing” it to harm, and they are doing so intentionally (because they believe the benefits outweigh the harms, or whatever other nonsense justification they have).

If they are not doing so intentionally because they are creating new people without even thinking about it, well, how is that any better? What does “the literature on the ethics of risk imposition and distribution” have to say about willful ignorance leading to harm? Does it “matter a great deal” if I shoot you out of willful ignorance of what guns do, instead of shooting you intentionally? Or are you still dead either way? I’d really like to know…

I am not a consequentialist. My main guiding ethical principle is that one should strive not to harm others. Adopting this principle is the result of my radical commitments, including my commitment to antinatalism. And to me, intentionality is really not that important. If it can be reasonably expected that our actions will cause harm (as in the case of procreation), then we should not perform those actions. It’s really that simple.

Before going into the next argument, I wanted to point out this nice little bit of Polyannaism on p167:

I believe that many prospective parents can reasonably conclude that their own children are unlikely to commit, or be significantly complicit in, the kind of harms that would (or should) make them ashamed of having borne them.

This is, again, absolute twaddle. The only way “many prospective parents” could “reasonably conclude” this would be if they had so little sense of shame that they were actually sociopaths, or robots. Not only have we all done things we’re ashamed of, but our existence as social agents necessarily implies, as I’ve discussed in my entry on misanthropic antinatalism, a number of grave harms (such as our contribution to animal suffering and to the suffering of slaves). The only thing we can “reasonably conclude” is that our existence leads to harms that should make us ashamed.

Moving on to Wasserman’s reply to the consent argument, what does he have to say to this very simple, direct and powerful argument? He spends the entire section trying to weasel out of the requirement of consent, and he does so with brazen use of childism. On p171, we get this:

[I]t is not clear that parents would violate any right by bringing a child into existence, although existence brings unavoidable harms. Unlike in postnatal interventions, there is neither a physical incursion on an individual with a right against such incursion, nor a disruption of plans and attachments already formed. Moreover… the benefits of life can be enormous.

I don’t understand why he thinks this is a counter-argument to the consent argument, since he’s talking about rights, not consent. The underlying premise seems to be that we only need to obtain consent if the action we wish to perform would otherwise violate a person’s rights, but that seems unnecessarily narrow. Besides, Wasserman does not try to justify this premise, and does not even seem to recognize that his argument crucially depends on it. Without a justification for it, the argument fails.

In my view, consent is the absolute bare minimum criterion that an action done to another must pass in order to be ethical (although in most circumstances we should additionally recognize a number of other criteria). Consent is an issue more generally of freedom and self-determinism, not just of rights. So I reject Wasserman’s argument on that basis.

I also reject his argument as circular. His argument reduces itself to: parents do not violate the rights of future persons by bringing them into existence because future persons have no rights. But the issue of future persons having rights or not is precisely the issue under debate. All natalist arguments I’ve heard are rendered null and void if future people have rights.

And I do believe that future persons have rights. I realize this is a substantial topic and will not go any further here, but I’ve already debunked the most common objection to this view, the Non-Identity Problem.

Before moving on, I do want to point out the irony of that last sentence: “the benefits of life can be enormous.” To whom? Not to the future person, as it does not yet exist, and non-existence cannot benefit from anything. Can life benefit someone already alive? Sure, but that’s a red herring. Since his argument was clearly about future persons, this addition is disingenuous at best.

He continues:

[P]arents do not generally cause or impose the more serious harms their children suffer, but merely expose them to those harms. DeGrazia, who makes this distinction, argues that parents “faultlessly expose children to harm all the time, often as part of creating opportunities for greater benefits.” He gives the example of sending children to school, to which they often vocally dissent, and which exposes them to a variety of significant harms for the sake of rich opportunities.

Again with the benefits. This time, at least, we’re clearly talking about existing persons, but the question still remains: benefits according to who? Not according to the child, but according to the parents, presumably. To which one should reply, why does it matter at all what the parents think? Whether the parents think they are “exposing” children to harm for a good reason or not, they are still imposing harm, that is to say, without consent (that last word, while supposedly the thing under discussion, does not appear anywhere in this argument).

And how does this childist argument prove that parents “merely expose” children to harm, a semantic trick we’ve already seen? In the particular example presented, parents are not “merely exposing” children to school, they are “imposing” school on them, with all the harms that this implies. So the example completely fails in making the point.

The term “exposing,” I think, is meant to reframe the relation between harms and children as one where the parent is completely passive, where the parent has no personal responsibility. It brings to mind parents showing their children a television show or a book, “exposing” them to other ideas or other cultures. It sounds vaguely positive, even educational.

In trying to push this reframing, and smuggling in all these connotations under the reader’s attention, I think Wasserman is being deliberately deceitful.

Now to the last argument, the risk argument (basically, the Russian Roulette argument). On p173, we see that Wasserman still does not understand the difference between a life worth starting and life worth living:

It is hard to deny the possibility that anyone’s child could have a life that she reasonably regarded as not worth living.

This is a damning statement on his part, because he’s conceding a major part of the risk argument right there. But most importantly, that’s not the point. The standard for a life worth starting is reasonably much, much higher than the standard for a life worth living. By using the latter, Wasserman is making a straw man and fallaciously tipping the scales in his favor.

The meat of his argument suffers from a similar childism than the previous one. On p174:

As DeGrazia notes in response to Shiffrin, we do not look askance at many significant gambles parents take with their children’s lives, as long as a reasonable parent could conclude that the payoffs were worth the risks.

Again, why the hell should we care what a “reasonable parent” believes? No person is ethically justified in forcing risks on another person without their consent. Of course we should “look askance” at a parent taking a “significant gamble” with their child’s life! The fact that Wasserman thinks there’s nothing wrong with this proposition shows that he has considerable child-hatred. There’s not much to say about such bigotry except to point out that it is bigotry.

Wasserman’s basic argument against the risk argument is to accuse its proponents of suffering from “implausible risk aversion.” He does not really come out and explain what he considers to be a reasonable risk, although he seems to be taking the line that a risk of harm is acceptable as long as it brings with it the potential of a greater benefit. He uses the example of driving on a road versus driving drunk: driving drunk presents an unacceptable level of risk to others compared to the benefits, while driving in general, according to him, presents an acceptable level of risk compared to the benefits of transportation.

It really doesn’t matter since, after all, he is only obligated to disprove the argument, not propose his own. But his accusation that we are risk averse seems misguided to me, insofar as he again refuses to take into account the issue of consent. I am willing to concede a considerable level of risk as long as consent already exists.

Again, consent does not enter into his discussion at all, which is pretty bizarre since he is ostensibly analyzing an argument which hinges around consent. Why Wasserman insists on not talking about consent, I don’t really have any idea, especially since he could have used some of the arguments I discussed above to address consent as well (badly, since the arguments are bad, but at least he would have made an effort).

I think this is not just an indication of Wasserman’s incapacity of dealing with the arguments as they stand, but also an indictment of the natalist mindset in general. As far as I can tell, the only way to make natalist argument is by not giving a shit about women and not giving a shit about children’s rights and well-being, let alone their consent.

Some may say I am being too hard on him. I do not think so. This is a serious debate between two scholars in philosophy and ethics, and one may reasonably expect that the very best, most sophisticated arguments will be presented. Seen in this context, Wasserman’s response is a laughable failure.

Just for laughs, let me quote one particularly egregious example from the next chapter. On p190, he discusses how a parent could have a child for the good of the child, a proposition which is illogical on its face. But here’s his attempt at explaining it:

Here is an example to give some flesh, and plausibility, to the idea that prospective parents can create children for reasons that concern the good of the children, or at least their shared good. Consider a couple who very much want children and decide to adopt. They are normally fertile, but are moved by the need to find homes for the many orphaned children in their country now housed in institutions. This, however, is not their primary reason for adopting; it merely tips the balance. Their reasons include wanting the fulfillment of raising a child from a young age, seeking the uniquely intimate relationship that a child develops with its parents, and giving the child a good home- among the reasons given in surveys of prospective parents. They regard these as reasons that could be served equally well by adoption or conception. Just as they are going to start visiting orphanages, their government prohibits adoption… The couple is very disappointed but quickly decides to go with “Plan B”- they conceive a child for the same reasons.

The point of this example is not just to illustrate that adoption and procreation may be done for similar reasons. As important for my purposes, it suggests the limited role that the actual vs. contingent existence of the child may play in the sorts of reasons prospective parents have.

I hope you see why this is completely confused, but let me clarify for those who don’t. Wasserman is trying to demonstrate that breeders can have non-selfish reasons for having a child by starting from the point of view of adoption, and then stating that most of the reasons for adoption also apply to procreation. But the one non-selfish reason, finding a home for an orphaned child, does not, by definition, apply to procreation. So the analogy makes no sense as evidence for the claim.

This is the kind of nonsense you end up with when you try to prove something impossible. You’d think a philosopher could figure that out!

5 thoughts on “Debunking David Wasserman in Debating Procreation.

  1. Michael H November 3, 2015 at 03:59

    I have several issues with Wasserman’s position and I have been waiting for a blog post like this. I am excited to see where we match up. I look forward to give this blogpost a thorough reading. I’ve notified the AN Facebook groups.

    • Francois Tremblay November 3, 2015 at 04:06

      Very good. I would like to hear your opinion as well.

      Please note that I only reviewed the first chapter of his case. I really couldn’t be bothered to read the rest, if it’s anywhere as terrible.

  2. Michael April 26, 2016 at 14:21
  3. […] know I’ve reviewed a number of “rebuttals” of the Asymmetry on this blog (see: 1, 2, 3). I’ve seen some weird arguments before. But this has to take the cake. This may be the […]

  4. […] the absolute truth, like fundamentalist Christians. It is perhaps not entirely coincidental that some natalist arguments sound rather similar to Christian apologetics (or, for that matter, that some arguments against Christian apologetics can be transposed to […]

  5. […] some minor ways which would mostly hinge around formulation, some of which I’ve examined in this entry), and (5) is the logical conclusion, therefore the argument clearly hinges around (1) and (2). As […]

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