Brian McLean: the asymmetry is false because the asymmetry is false.

Brian McLean, philosophy student, wrote a paper about antinatalism which Ohio State University put online. I think it’s an interesting rebuttal in its formulation, although it’s really nothing new at all. Actually, it’s very disappointing in terms of content. For one thing, he mostly concentrates on the Asymmetry, like most critics, which means that his criticism is overly narrow and does not pertain to most antinatalist arguments. For another, his arguments are pretty bad.

Like most academics critics, he at least understands the Asymmetry well enough to explain it correctly (which is more than I can say for most people). But then he says this:

But suppose we reject Prudential Asymmetry. Suppose the following is true, for any person:

The presence of pain is bad for that person
The presence of pleasure is good for that person


The absence of pain is good for that person even if that person doesn’t exist.
The absence of pleasure is bad for that person even if that person doesn’t exist.

It’s worth noting that this view seems to be a commonplace one. We tend to think that, if we want to figure out whether existence is rationally preferable to non-existence, we need to look at the amount of pain and pleasure that would be contained within that person’s life. If the pains outweigh the pleasures, it’s bad for that person to come into existence; but if the pleasures outweigh the pains, it’s good for that person to come into existence.

This proves that he may understand the Asymmetry well enough to explain it, but not enough to do anything with that information. It is literally impossible for the absence of pleasure to be bad because there is nothing that “loses out.” To posit otherwise is to posit a world outside of our understanding.

Furthermore, he says that this is a “commonplace view,” but cites the belief that we should compare pain and pleasure in a life to evaluate it. This is a logical error. There is no direct logical connection between “the absence of pleasure is bad” and “we need to look at the pain and pleasure contained within a person’s life to evaluate it.” What he means to say, perhaps, is that if we hold to his symmetry, then we must look at the pain and pleasure within a person’s life to evaluate it. But this makes no sense because the Asymmetry is not about evaluating the quality of a life, after the fact, it is about putting a value-judgment on procreation, before the fact. It is also about comparing two states of affairs, not evaluating people. The best his new symmetry can do is conclude that procreation is morally ambiguous, but it tells us absolutely nothing about how to evaluate a person’s life.

Because his analogy does not hold, we have to conclude that his symmetry is completely unproven and is simply another tiresome argument from “well, you’re wrong therefore you’re wrong.”

McLean then elaborates on what he means by “looking at the amount of pain and pleasure”:

For instance, consider the concept of a disabler: the concept of a consideration that prevents another consideration from being a pro tanto moral reason for or against some action…

I propose that, in the procreative context, we understand the moral significance of pleasures that would be within a child’s life as disablers with respects to the moral reasons that would be generated by the pains that would be within the child’s life. For instance, suppose for simplicity that a child’s life simply contains one painful experience with an intensity of -80 hedons and a pleasant experience within an intensity of 90 hedons. Other things equal, with respect to the child’s interests, there are two morally relevant considerations:

(1) The child’s life would contain a pain with an intensity of -80 hedons.
(2) The child’s life would contain a pleasure with an intensity of 90 hedons.

(1), normally, would be a pro tanto moral reason against creating the child. But (2) prevents (1) from being a moral reason against creating the child. (1) is a moral reason against creating the child only in the absence of (2). This framework captures an intuitive idea. Provided that the pleasures that would be within the child’s life outweigh the pains that would be within the child’s life, there is no moral reason (grounded in the child’s interests) against creating the child. But the pleasures don’t themselves generate moral reasons to create a child; they simply counteract the moral force of the pains that would be within the child’s life. The language of disablers allows us to make this intuitive idea more precise.

I would contend that his “intuitive idea” is not intuitive at all. It only seems intuitive because he keeps the discussion at a highly abstract and imaginary level (there are no such thing as hedons, so this is quite open to imaginative interpretation). So let’s take a concrete case. Suppose that a football player is recruited by the NFL, wins many awards, lots of money, and then has a car crash and ends up paraplegic for the rest of his life. Since there’s no such thing as hedons, and any measurement would be nonsensical anyway, let’s posit that the hedon quantity is similar in both cases: +90 at the beginning, and then -80 due to the accident. Is it therefore intuitive to say that the football player had a “good life,” let alone a life worth creating?

The latter question is silly, since no life can be worth creating, as the Asymmetry demonstrates. But let us restrict ourselves to the question: is this a “good life”? I would contend that it is not. Others may disagree. However, it seems to me that the latter position is not intuitive at all, and that there’s plenty of grounds for disagreement. It is not a priori absurd to imagine people seriously arguing for both sides of the question with articulate and rational arguments.

So in my opinion, this attempt at a justification fails completely. However, what of the argument itself? Is (2) sufficient to reject (1) as a moral reason against creating the child? No, because pleasure and pain do not “cancel out.” This seems to be a sore point for a lot of people, so let me explain this further.

To take my example again, the experience of becoming paraplegic does not “cancel out” the experience of being a professional athlete and getting lots of admiration and money. Both of these events exist as series of memories with their own effects. The memories of being a professional football player may cause, for example, pride and a sense of identity. The memories of becoming paraplegic may cause trauma and despair. These effects do not cancel out either: one person can feel both happiness and trauma. I know this is very obvious, but it shows the silliness of the idea of “canceling out.” We do not experience pleasure and pain as sides of a see-saw which dictate a single quantitative evaluation. Both the positive and the negative experiences of our lives show us that there can be many evaluations of one’s life, which are equally valid.

In the end, no one outside yourself knows how good or bad your life has been, and only you can truly make any sort of evaluation of it. This means that any idea of evaluating someone else’s life and translating it into numbers is ultimately as invalid and counter-productive as the utilitarian belief that one can (numerically or not) compare the well-being of different people. The whole premise discussed by McLean is therefore ultimately futile.

Now, I have to repeat myself because McLean commits the same fallacy of equating the Asymmetry (or his symmetry) to the evaluation of a person’s life. Whether a person had a “good life” or not has no bearing whatsoever on whether that life was worth creating. In his book, Benatar does point out the difference between a life worth creating and a life worth continuing, but apparently McLean didn’t pay attention to that part. This is sloppy to say the least, and makes the entire line of reasoning irrelevant to the topic of antinatalism, since it is not contradictory at all to posit that all humans live “good lives” (which of course we know isn’t actually the case) and that no lives are worth starting.

Since McLean also addresses the duty argument, I will finish by pointing out that our duty to not harm people is not canceled out by helping people. To give an example I’ve used before, if a doctor saves a patient’s life, he does not thereby have the right to punch the patient in the face. Generally speaking, we have a duty to not harm, but we do not have a duty to help (or at least such a duty cannot be attributed to all people at all times, since most of us are not doctors, firefighters, etc). But even if we had a duty to help as well, there still would be no “canceling out.”

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