Rebuttals to the Asymmetry seem to pop out with some regularity, mainly because it is the most well-known antinatalist argument. I think this is too bad, as there are many much stronger, and more intuitive, arguments (e.g. the duty argument, or the “Russian Roulette” argument). Still, here we are again.
darthbarracuda’s argument is not much different from the other more sophisticated rebuttals: there cannot be an asymmetry between pain and pleasure because you can reframe them in a symmetrical manner. But this is a linguistic game, the same game that Christians play when they ask “why is there anything instead of nothing?”: framing existence as being symmetrical to non-existence because of the way we formulate concepts does not mean they actually are symmetrical in reality (or to take a more ignorant example, when they say evolution and Creationism are both “just theories”). In this regard, I think the following passage from darthbarracuda is key:
Second, if we are to use counterfactuals for pain, then we really ought (and need) to use counterfactuals for pleasure. For I can imagine myself experiencing pleasure – in fact, this imagery is often the cause of desire (which causes suffering in some sense). Regardless of the fact that this imagery causes suffering, since pleasure is good then a possible me experiencing the pleasure is better off than the actual me who is not. This does not mean that the actual me is in a bad state, though, just as the lack of a headache does not mean that I am in a better state.
But the Asymmetry does not compare a person X who experiences pleasure and a person X who does not. It compares a state of affairs where person X exists (and therefore experiences pleasure) with a state of affairs where person X does no exist. In darthbarracuda’s objection, both sides of the comparisons are about people who exist. Yes, obviously a person who experiences a certain pleasure is better off than the person who does not. So what? The fact that you can reframe the argument in a manner you prefer does not demonstrate the falsity of the original argument. All it shows is that suffering and pleasure are symmetrical in the context you’ve chosen, but the context, in this case, has nothing to do with what the Asymmetry sets out to prove (that existence is less desirable than non-existence).
Now that I’ve made my point, let me now backtrack to the first objection:
First, I do not usually proclaim that it is a good thing that I am not experiencing a headache. It’s only apparent that this is a good thing when I compare myself with counterfactual, possible me’s. In which case, the real me who is not experiencing a headache is not in a good state just because I’m not experiencing a headache – I’m merely in a better state than if I were.
I agree with this point, but it’s not relevant to the Asymmetry. We don’t say the absence of pain is good because there is a person that is in a better state; we say the absence of pain is good because the state of affairs is better. A world where there is no person X is more desirable, all other things being equal, than a world where there is a person X that will suffer.
And the third point:
Third, counterfactual, possible if-me’s do not hold the same good-ness or bad-ness that actual me’s do. This was already explained above. For example, we typically don’t throw a party because someone avoided a really, really bad situation – we throw a party because a person is experiencing or is about to experience a lot of pleasure. And we typically don’t mourn the loss of pleasure – we mourn the subsequent gain of pain.
This point is very badly written. From what I understand, it’s just a repeat of a previous point, but I have no idea how this disproves the Asymmetry. The fact that we don’t throw a party for something, or mourn its loss, or otherwise find it noteworthy, doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good thing. The fact that a person avoided a really bad situation may not be a good party occasion (although why not celebrate it, if one dodged a bad enough bullet, like not going to jail or not losing one’s house?), but it is still a good thing nevertheless. But again, it has no relation to the Asymmetry, because the Asymmetry is not about a “possible if-me.”
There is also a final point to analyze. It is lengthier, so I will cut it up.
Furthermore, like I said before, Benatar conflates the “good” of the lack of pain with the GOOD of pleasure. His entire argument hinges upon his equivocation of the two. He specifically states that it is difficult to calculate how much pleasure or pain someone experiences (and yet he goes on later to explain why our lives are really bad which is calculating pain but whatever). Because of this avoidance of calculation, Benatar avoids the issue that would break his argument apart: that we often do plan things to do based upon how much pleasure or pain will be experienced.
I know I’m repeating myself, but this point, like most of his points, has no relevance to anything. We do plan things based on how much pleasure or pain we expect from them. So what? In any such decision, we’re comparing two future states of ourselves. In either state, we still exist.
The general point, I think, is that darthbarracuda is trying to argue against the principle that we can’t decide how much a life is worth by directly comparing the pleasure and suffering in it. But his argument fails because it does not address this at all: talking about how we plan things is an entirely different sort of procedure than judging an entire life. In the “how we plan things” process, we’re making a straightforward comparison of two hypothetical situations at the same point in time (e.g. a state where I buy the car versus a state where I don’t), so it makes sense to compare benefits, compare losses, and their evolution over time. On the other hand, the “how to judge a life” process is not straightforward at all, because we have no direct comparison to make. Is winning a million dollars better than becoming paraplegic? Is stubbing your toe worse than eating a piece of spaghetti? If these questions seem difficult to answer for ourselves, then how much more difficult they must be to answer for someone else. And yet this is what “judging a life” would imply.
Benatar openly embraces the idea that a pinprick disqualifies all pleasure by making the “good” of the lack of a pinprick equal to the GOOD of a million orgasms.
I have no idea what it would mean to “disqualify” a pleasure. The pinprick argument is a consequence of negative utilitarianism (which Benatar adopts): if our ethical goal is to minimize suffering, then the event of a single pinprick is enough suffering to make human life undesirable. I am not a negative utilitarian, so I am not going to defend that position. But whatever you think about negative utilitarianism, it’s not about equating a pinprick with a million orgasms, or indeed making a pinprick equal anything. The point is not that the pinprick is equal to anything, but that the pinprick is part of that category of things (suffering) that the negative utilitarian seeks to minimize.
Basically, darthbarracuda’s point is something like saying that feminism is wrong because a woman’s experience of rape is not as important as the murder of millions of male soldiers in war. Feminists want to minimize women getting raped (amongst other things), and the comparison simply has no relevance. The amount of pleasure or suffering that men experience is beyond the scope of the ideology. Likewise, to negative utilitarians, orgasms are not relevant: their standard is the minimization of suffering, and does not involve pleasure at all.
He’s appealing to states of affairs without considering the composition of these states of affairs – I liken it to saying there is flour in the cookie mix without actually stating how much flour is in the cookie mix. All Benatar is concerned with (at least with his formal argument) is that there is pain in existence and no-pain in non-existence without actually considering how much pain is in existence and how much pain is avoided in virtue of non-existence.
But how would the quantity of pain change the fact that people who exist experience pain and that non-existence does not? Or, for that matter, how would the quantity of pleasure change the fact that people who exist experience pleasure and that non-existence does not? This is not at all like saying there’s flour in cookies without stating how much flour is in the cookie mix. This is like being asked how you mixed the ingredients and answering that there’s flour in cookies. The nature of the ingredients in the cookies is not relevant to the question of how these ingredients are mixed together.
I think I’ve made my point. Most of this response is made of complete red herrings, and this betrays a lack of understanding of the argument. This lack of understanding is also shown by darthbarracuda’s comments on this blog, which similarly miss the point.