Another failed attempt at disproving the Asymmetry…

I’ve discussed attempts at disproving the Asymmetry before. They suffer from a complete inability to just look at the argument and argue with it on its own terms. Instead, they have to introduce all sorts of considerations that are not relevant to the argument itself: commonly, they want to talk about some sort of balance between pleasure and suffering (as if that was even possible), such as in this attempt.

Fergus Duniho, of Wisdom is Best, thinks he’s cracked the Asymmetry. His explanation of the argument is very good: he gives the graph, explains it, and even grasps the distinction between a life worth starting and life worth continuing, which is pretty unusual (most critics don’t even get that far). So I have to praise him for his excellent attempt at confronting the Asymmetry.

Unfortunately, the confronting doesn’t continue in the same vein:

So what he is really expressing by (3) is a counterfactual. When he calls the absence of pain good for the never-existent, what he really means is that pain would be bad for the never-existing person if that person existed. Well, this is what (1) already tells us. This counterfactual interpretation adds nothing to what (1) already says. It just frames it in a way that comes across as misleading. Using the same standard, I may call the absence of pleasure bad in the counterfactual sense that pleasure would be good for the never-existent person if he or she did exist. This makes (4) mean the same thing as (2), adding nothing to what (2) already tells us.

Remember what (1) to (4) means in the context of the Asymmetry (at least, in the way I clarified it):

(1) If a person exists, then eir pain is a bad thing.
(2) If a person exists, then eir pleasure is a good thing.
(3) What does not exist cannot suffer (therefore this non-existing pain is a good thing).
(4) What does not exist cannot be deprived of any pleasure (therefore this non-existing pleasure is not a bad thing).

(1) and (3) are clearly not the same thing. Likewise, (2) and (4) are not the same thing. One set pertains to a state of the universe where a person exists, and one set pertains to a state of the universe where that person does not exist. The moral judgment that a person’s pain is a bad thing, and the moral judgment that a state of the universe where that person does not exist does not contain that pain and therefore is a good thing, are obviously two different judgments.

This may seem like a petty dispute, but it is central to the argument. Duniho is wrong in saying that (3) really means that “that pain would be bad for the never-existing person if that person existed.” For one thing, there is no such thing as a “never-existing person.” We are talking about states of the universe, not an “existing person” and a “non-existing person.” But more importantly, (3) is concerned by the fact that what does not exist cannot suffer. This fact cannot be arrived at solely from (1), and requires one to take into account the (lack of) features of non-existence.

If, as some critics bizarrely seem to believe (but not Duniho, as far as I know), there actually are non-existent persons floating around in the aether suffering from not existing (as in the top image on this entry, that I made as a parody of such beliefs), then (3) would be incorrect, and the Asymmetry would not work. But this belief, if true, would change absolutely nothing about (1). Therefore (1) is not an equivalent of (3). Of course we know that there are no non-existing persons floating in the aether, and the Asymmetry is correct, but the point, I hope, is clear.

His analysis of Benatar’s argument continues:

In arguing against a “Bad” evaluation of (4), he writes,

“if the absence of pleasure in Scenario B is bad rather than not bad then we should have to regret, for X’s sake, that X did not come into existence. But it is not regrettable.”

I would disagree. We may not be able to know who any never-existent people would have been, but there are surely some never-existent people who, had they been born, would have lived remarkably happy lives. We may regret, for their sakes, that they never knew the joy of living.

Duniho here seems to completely miss the point of (4), which is that non-existence is not deprived of pleasure (because non-existence, by definition, cannot experience anything), and that “never-existent people” (i.e. people who, if they existed, would have lived happy lives) are not deprived of anything. Or to rephrase this more strictly: in a state of the universe where a person does not exist, there is no one that is deprived of the pleasure that person would have experienced. This is true regardless of the intensity of the happiness or joys we imagine these “never-existent people” having: actually, the intensity has strictly nothing to do with it.

The last sentence is simply incoherent. Who are we regretting the non-existence of? You may imagine some random person living a great life, but that person is only in your imagination. You don’t know what kind of life any hypothetical person might have lived in an alternate universe. To argue that what you’re regretting is anything more than a figment of your imagination would be erroneous.

I also think that Duniho’s response is circular because he is not an antinatalist and therefore believes that lives are inherently worth starting. An antinatalist would point out that even what we think are “remarkably happy lives” contain more suffering than we life to imagine. Our own lives contain more suffering than we like to think about. But this is a side issue anyway.

By this same standard, we might feel relief that the never-existent are not suffering, but it makes no sense to take any serious comfort in this. Since the never-existent will never exist, they are not of much concern to us, one way or the other. The same standard works both ways, and Benatar hasn’t given a convincing reason why it shouldn’t.

Of course it doesn’t make sense to take comfort in it, but it also makes no sense to regret that “never-existent people” did not get to experience “the joy of living.” To go back to the Benatar quote that started this bizarre argument, he was talking about the hypothetical in which a “never-existent person” was deprived of some pleasure, that if this was the case then we should regret, for that “deprived, never-existent person” sake, that they did not exist. But there can be no such thing as a “deprived, never-existent person” (because there are no suffering space fetuses, or anything like that). Therefore there’s no reason to regret anything. Somehow Duniho interpreted this as some kind of “standard.”

I also don’t understand why he thinks “the standard works both ways,” since he himself thinks it doesn’t work both ways: he thinks we should regret (4) (the absence of pleasure) but not take comfort in (3) (the absence of suffering). Therefore he’s maintaining the asymmetry that he himself says doesn’t exist!

We get from bad to worse:

What he means by (4) is simply what it says, that the absence of pleasure fails to be a bad thing for those who do not exist. He says, the absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation. Likewise, I may say that the absence of pain is not good unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a benefit. This is the same standard he uses to argue for (4).

Duniho again insists on a “standard” that doesn’t seem to exist. The only “standards” required to evaluate (3) and (4) are to understand what non-existence means, and to posit that pleasure (which is good) is better than suffering (which is bad). That which does not exist cannot be deprived of pleasure, and cannot suffer. By this standard, the absence of pain is good. I don’t know what other “standard” Duniho seems to be referring to, unless he’s referring to the standard of trying to evade a simple and direct point, which he’s doing here. There does not need to be a person for whom the absence of pain is a benefit because the absence of pain is the benefit.

Keep in mind my formulation of (3) and (4):

(3) What does not exist cannot suffer (therefore this non-existing pain is a good thing).
(4) What does not exist cannot be deprived of any pleasure (therefore this non-existing pleasure is not a bad thing).

Points (3) and (4) apply equally well to a universe with no humans in it, or with a trillion humans in it. If there are no humans anywhere, then there is no human suffering or pleasure, the former fact being a good thing and the latter fact not being a bad thing. If there are a trillion humans, then the absence of the suffering of a hypothetical trillion+1 human is a good thing and the absence of the pleasure of the hypothetical trillion+1 human is not a bad thing. There is no “somebody for whom this absence is a benefit,” as we are talking about states of the universe, not about individual moral judgments within those states. A person within our world may very well be hurt by the non-existence of more people (e.g. infirm or sick people in a world where there’s not enough people to help them out), but this does not affect the Asymmetry in any way.

Duniho then commits the exact same error, but in a much more egregious form, when restating the argument in terms of pain and pleasure having no value for the “never-existent”:

The absence of pain and the absence of pleasure each have zero value for the never-existent, making them perfectly symmetrical with each other. Among the never-existent, there is no one at all who benefits from an absence of pain or who is harmed by an absence of pleasure. As I have argued in other posts, life is the source of value.

The Asymmetry is not about what the “never-existent” may or may not value. It is about evaluating two states, one where a given person exists and one where the person does not exist, and passing moral judgment on both of these states. We are the ones doing the evaluating, not some hypothetical person living in those states, and not a “never-existent person.”

I don’t know why Duniho seems to think that we should debunk moral judgments on the grounds that a person in that situation might disagree. I’m sure many people who we might call immoral would disagree with that judgment. And some people who are in what we would call a “bad situation” might disagree with that judgment. So what? Unless these people can bring us evidence that sheds new light on the problem and makes us revise our judgment, their feelings alone are not particularly relevant. Of course, “never-existent people” are not likely to do so since they, you know, don’t actually exist, so the point is made even more absurd.

As for the statement “life is the source of value,” this can be either trivial and true or substantive and false. It can be trivial and false if it means “in order to value, one must be alive.” It can be substantive and false if it makes more of a statement about life being a fundamental value or some Objectivist-like nonsense similar to this. As it turns out, he means the latter:

When I recognize that valuing my life makes it truly worthwhile, I must recognize, to be consistent, that the same conditions making my life worthwhile make the lives of others truly worthwhile. This opens us up to the possibility of genuine morality, which begins with the recognition that each of our lives is of real, intrinsic value.

I think this is relevant insofar as it shows that Duniho has a vested interest in rejecting antinatalism, beyond the truth or falsity of the arguments.

9 thoughts on “Another failed attempt at disproving the Asymmetry…

  1. dimka January 12, 2016 at 20:36

    What do you think about Cabrera’s issues with the asymmetry?

  2. Brian L May 7, 2016 at 06:11

    For myself, I’ve started framing the asymetry by giving them new symbolic variables, such as ‘state0’ and ‘state1’, and ‘state0entity’ and ‘state1entity’. I also rephrase the suffering as ‘pleasantness/unpleasantness’, as it directly and correctly correlates to consciousness, and requires no explanation. With this reframing of the argument, I find even the most stupid and slippery of the naysayers to be at a loss to twist the argument.

  3. Brian L May 7, 2016 at 07:10

    You know, it occurs to me as a programmer that I can develop a program to deal with this issue in Prolog or Lisp. I’ll look into this.

    • Francois Tremblay May 7, 2016 at 14:54

      Keep us updated!

      • Brian L May 7, 2016 at 15:40

        Will do. Yeah, someone noted I could do Prolog, and pointed me to a book that deals with reframing ethics and such in the language. Perfect opportunity to try it.

  4. […] 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 most […]

  5. Biodegradeable Man July 27, 2016 at 10:05

    I found a predator on this vegan forum. Looks like a hatchet job.

    • Francois Tremblay July 27, 2016 at 15:09

      Yea, they didn’t even try to engage with the argument. They don’t even accept consent as a standard. That’s just fucking dumb. Who’s gonna agree with that?

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