Richard Stallman, founder of GNU, and his bizarre “rebuttal” of the Asymmetry.

Richard Stallman is a prominent open software advocate who also writes on political issues. I was told that he had written a rebuttal to the Asymmetry, so naturally I was eager to read what Stallman had to say. But what I found… was something rather mind-boggling.

Now, readers 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 most bizarre argument I’ve seen for anything.

Stallman argues that, if it is better not to exist, then making more “nonexistent possible persons” therefore creates more good. And we can do this by creating new alleles. In fact, each new allele doubles the amount of good in the world. No, I am not kidding, that’s actually what he wrote:

Suppose we interpret “nonexistent possible persons” as including only those who are possible in the world as it is. Only a minute fraction of those possible people exist. If each one that doesn’t exist is a positive good, comparable in size to the good or bad experienced by an existing person, it follows that the total good is measured, to a close approximation, by the number of possible people — which, with this interpretation, can be changed by our own actions. We could contribute enormous good to the world by increasing the range of nonexisters (nonexistent possible persons), assuming nearly all of them would suffer if they existed…

One way is to create a new allele, not found in nature, as an alternative to some existing gene found in all humans. Suppose this new allele would not be fatal but would cause a lot of suffering. Of course, to put that gene into anyone would be cruel and wrong, but for this purpose we do not entertain the idea of _using_ it. The goal is achieved by its mere existence, which would (more than) double the number of nonexistent possible humans, and thus double the good of their nonexistence. There could hardly be an easier way to add so much good to the world, so we should focus our efforts on this goal — or so we would conclude from Benatar’s matrix of values.

Now, I understand that he’s trying to make an argument ad absurdum, by arguing that the Asymmetry must lead one to do such crazy things. But there are a number of problems with his argument. First of all, and I can’t believe I have to explain this, there is no such thing as a “nonexistent person.” All of this is fantasy, because you can’t increase or decrease the number of something that can’t exist.

And it can’t be argued that antinatalists believe in “nonexistent persons,” either. As Benatar states in his book on page 22, the Asymmetry is about comparing states of affair, not an existing person to a non-existing person:

Comparing somebody’s existence with his non-existence is not to compare two possible conditions of the person. Rather it is to compare his existence with an alternative state of affairs in which he does not exist.

Where Stallman got the idea that this is an acceptable argument ad absurdum, I have no clue. It bears no relation to the Asymmetry, or basic logic. But it is very, very absurd. And then he doubles down:

It is not clear that “nonexistent persons” must be limited to those that could exist in the world as it is. Another plausible interpretation includes all persons that might exist even in worlds different from our own.

So what does Stallman conclude from this?

This absurd conclusion shows it is a mistake to assign “good” to that slot in the value matrix. We must put there “absence of bad” — in effect, zero. Whatever might have happened to a nonexistent potential being contributes zero to the total good in the world and to the total bad in the world. Thus, the number of nonexisters has no effect on any judgments about actual good or bad in this world.

This refers to Stallman’s earlier stated position that the fact that what does not exist does not suffer is not a good thing, but rather “the absence of bad.” But it is hard to understand why he thinks the absence of suffering is not a good thing. Stallman’s argument here is no more enlightening. He says that non-existing people contribute “zero to the total good in the world.” But that has no relevance to the point he’s arguing against, which is that the non-existence of suffering which would otherwise exist is a good thing: this does not point to some mystical property of non-existence but to the undesirability of actual existing suffering. Actual existing suffering is bad, therefore its absence is good. We can make that simple and straightforward deduction without invoking any “contribution” from “a nonexistent being,” which is just nonsense.

The fact that a serious person like Stallman can misunderstand antinatalism so badly is an eloquent demonstration of the refusal of people to grapple with the actual arguments.

2 thoughts on “Richard Stallman, founder of GNU, and his bizarre “rebuttal” of the Asymmetry.

  1. Brian L May 28, 2016 at 17:01

    Stallman is a loon. That’s all I have to say about him. Emacs? Whoopee. It’s an editor. GNU? It’s a free toolset that on a kernel he didn’t create. And his buddy, Eric Raymond, is a libertarian nutbar.

    Yeah, I’m done…

    • Francois Tremblay May 29, 2016 at 00:37

      I wouldn’t say he’s a nutbar. I think he has a lot of good ideas about open source. But yea, he is a whacko about many things.

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