There seems to be a trend in criticism of antinatalism, in that critics are actually now taking the time to understand what antinatalism is all about, but they still can’t confront the arguments. This makes their criticism a lot stranger: why take the time to understand antinatalism if you’re unable to confront it anyway? It is absolutely useless for them to be able to describe antinatalist arguments completely accurately if they are unable to deal with the arguments or provide a reasoned reaction to them.
Artir, of the blog Nintil, has written an overlong rebuttal to antinatalism called Pollyanna über alles: A critique of antinatalism. Now before I begin, I want to point out that Artir is not quite right in the head. What are we to make of someone who seriously writes: “someone who is never sad like me” and that “what follows is an argument from non-self-deluded, cheerful Pollyannaist optimist”? Why would anyone describe themselves in this way?
Anyway, as I said, the rebuttal is extremely long, but I will not address most of it here. My position is that the basic argument used by Artir is absolutely wrong, and therefore there is no point in addressing the corollaries of Artir’s reasoning. So let me go straight to Artir’s argument.
First, he defines “UAPR” (“universal a priori antinatalism”), but that’s just his term for antinatalism. He also uses two other terms, UAPO (“universal a posteriori antinatalism”) and “individual a posteriori antinatalism,” which have nothing to do with antinatalism. Antinatalism is nothing more than the position that procreation is wrong. How you justify that proposition is irrelevant to the fact that you are an antinatalist, and you cannot say that an antinatalist must justify their antinatalism in certain ways. I think this is an attempt by Artir to single out the Asymmetry as a particularly extreme argument.
Talking about that, the Asymmetry is what Artir singles out. He seems to erroneously believe that refuting the Asymmetry proves that “UAPR” (i.e. what we call antinatalism) is wrong. This, of course, is false: there are plenty of other antinatalist arguments which are not based on the Asymmetry, and Artir fails to address any of those. Again we see this obsession with the Asymmetry that so many critics seem to have, possibly because it’s the argument on which Benatar spends the most time in his book. And yet, despite this obsession, the Asymmetry still has not been logically refuted.
Artir’s argument is the following:
1. My life is nice
2. Not bringing me into existence wouldn’t have allowed me to have such a good life, or a life at all
3. If you can cause me to exist by pressing a button – a small cost to yourself – you ought to do it. Failing to do so will mean that I wouldn’t enjoy my life
4. Hence, there is one life that is worth starting, and for which we have a duty to start it
5. But this contradicts UAPR
6. Hence, UAPR is wrong…
The antinatalist will criticise my premise 1 with arguments for UAPA, saying that my life is not that good. I’ll answer that later. The second premise will be criticise by means of the Asymmetry, so to it I turn. Premise three seems trivially true if one accepts even a minimalistic conception of positive duties.
I have no interest in denying premise 1 or 2. I really have no idea if Artir’s life is nice or not, but I’ll take his word for it. I have no idea why he thinks antinatalists would criticize premise 2, because it is almost trivially true. Not bringing a potential person into existence means that potential person will not become actual and have a lifespan. There is no disagreement possible on this point.
No, the only premise that is clearly false, and which antinatalists such as myself will criticize, is premise 3. Premise 3 is not at all trivially true, and in fact it is rather bizarre that someone would argue this, especially after considering criticisms for premise 2, which is actually trivially true. Logic is not Artir’s strong suit, to say the least.
Apart from the idea that we have an obligation to bring about enjoyable lives, a point which I will argue with the next quote, there are still many things wrong with the argument. For one thing, we do not come to exist at a minuscule cost equivalent to pressing a button. Since this is part of one of the premises, this means that his argument only proves that antinatalism is wrong if procreation comes at a minuscule cost. But it very clearly does not, therefore the argument does not refute antinatalism. Furthermore, as I said before, this argument does not refute other antinatalist arguments such as the misanthropic arguments, the risk argument, the teleological argument, the ecological arguments, the feminist arguments I’ve presented on this blog, and so on. So this argument fails to disprove antinatalism (of the “universal a priori” kind or otherwise).
As for the obligation to bring about enjoyable lives, Artir argues as follows:
I disagree that there anything special regarding a duty not to bring people into existence. Duties are mostly negative (To avoid harming), and a few are positive (beneficence). This stems from the idea that we ought not interfere with the life-plans of other and let them live their lives as they want. However, there is no pre-existing life-plan to interfere with in the case of unborn people. But if a new person is generated such that the person comes to regret its existence, then we would have wronged that person, for we would have put that person through a life that was not asked for, so it would still be wrong.
That said, if we accept that we have a broad duty of beneficence (to do good to others), then one way of discharging that duty is bringing more people into existence. Creating people who will be satisfied with their lives is a good thing.
What antinatalists are saying is that there is no universal duty to provide pleasure, and therefore the pleasures of life do not provide an obligation to bring about new lives. The duty of beneficence is about our duty to prevent others from suffering due to their position in society or their specific situation. This makes absolutely no sense in the context of procreation, because there is no human being there whose suffering we can prevent. The duty of beneficence therefore cannot disprove antinatalism.
I think Artir confused “duty of beneficence” with “duty to do good for others.” It is very clear that no one should believe in the latter idea, and anyone who says otherwise is pure evil: if we have a duty to provide anything that others find morally good, no matter what it is and no matter what moral evaluation we give it, that means we have a duty to do anything from having sex (i.e. being raped) to killing their enemies. I think it should very, very clear that no such duty could possibly be justified. We have a duty as a society to help others who are worse off or in danger, but we do not have a universal duty to do good to others.
That being the case, we have disproven premise 3 of his argument. I cannot have any obligation or duty to help conceive any given person on the basis of expected pleasures, because I have no obligation or duty to give other people pleasure (except if I create such an obligation for myself, and myself only, which clearly does not apply here since this is about Artir telling us that we have that obligation). The only universal duties that can exist are negative, duties which enjoin us to not harm others in some way and/or to prevent harm in some way.
Just to clarify a possible source of confusion, when I say we have no universal positive duties, this is not related to “negative rights” and “positive rights.” We do clearly have “positive rights,” because any conception of human rights is meaningless or empty without them. But human rights as a whole pertain to what we’d call negative duties. We have no human right to be given pleasure or satisfaction.
The idea that “we ought not interfere with the life-plans of other” (sic), but that this does not apply in the case of unborn people, is true. But while it may be true that procreation does not interfere with the future person’s life-plan, this is because there are still no values to protect, and there will not be any values to protect until the child is born. Therefore, the life-plan of the future person, whether it includes pleasure or suffering, is used in these arguments as a purely selfish factor: ultimately, it is the values of the parents which are being furthered by the act of procreation, no one else’s. So while the argument is technically true, it is also very conceited and selfish. At any rate, the consent argument takes care of it.
He also tries to validate his positive duty in another way, and to dispatch the consent argument as well:
Suppose you have a magic fist such that if you punch people in their arm you cause them to have greater intelligence, and be able to enjoy a range of pleasures that they weren’t enjoying before (Say, understanding quantum mechanics, learning History, and doing phlosophy). Furthermore, assume that people who have been punched in the past have all almost unanimously been glad to be punched. Is there anything wrong with you randomly punching people?
I argue that no, and in fact you have a duty -as part of a duty of beneficence – to punch people in the arm to improve their lives.
This case, however, is not totally analogous. You could obtain consent. Although in this particular case, the fact that most people are glad to have undergone the procedure could perhaps defeat consent, in a similar way to how parents impose certain rules to their kids, on grounds that they will come to see them as justified, because in the present they don’t have enough information to understand their choice. (If however, they manifested enough knowledge of the relevant information, then their consent would trump our duty to punch).
For non-beings, they consent via hypothetical consent. Had they been able to say yes, they would have. We can know this by asking people.
So this is what it comes down to: “hypothetical consent.” The belief in hypothetical consent is pure fantasy, it is only an imaginary construct, but it partakes of the same psychology as the imperialists who believe that bombing some brown people into the Stone Age to “liberate” them is justified by “hypothetical consent,” because they would consent if they knew just how great it is to be bombed until you’re “liberated.” In both cases, what we have is a person with high levels of belief in their own superiority: in the case of imperialists, in their mode of government, in the case of natalists, in the greatness of their own lives.
I have examined the view that we can assume consent by asking people if they are happy with their lives, as well as “hypothetical consent,” as expressed by our favourite natalist stooge Bryan Caplan. I am not aware of any survey asking people if they would have consented to be born, nor how anyone could imagine such a state (apart from using Rawls’ Original Position argument). Either way, even if someone said “if I was able to communicate as a fetus, I would have consented to be born,” that evaluation would be based on their current life, not on a hypothetical point of view as a fetus. People want to continue to live because they have accumulated values, desires and attachments, all things which our hypothetical fetus would not have.
Artir posits that you can just omit consent completely if you want to do things to people that most people are glad to have undergone. But this is just cultural relativism, plain and simple. Suppose, for example, that most people in a society are fundamentalist Christians and believe that it is better for them to die than to become atheists and be condemned to Hell. Would it therefore be fine to not ask an atheist for consent before killing them, because that’s what most people would want done to themselves? Or to take a real life example, was it ethical to burn widows to death by sati without their consent, because that was the accepted belief of a large majority of the population? What about female circumcision?
Now clearly, punching people to raise their intelligence is nowhere analogous to killing people or circumcising little girls. And I have no doubt that most people would consent to such a punch-based procedure (including myself!). That’s precisely what consent is for: to obtain permission from others to act upon them, whether you consider the act morally good or bad. The fact that most people would agree with it would not thereby nullify consent, since the act is still an act performed upon other people, and there is no prior justification to impose it on anyone else. If such justification exists, Artir has not told us what it is, his confusion about beneficence aside (which has generally little to do with raising people’s intelligence, and definitely has nothing to do with giving people new pleasures).
In that narrow sense, it is perhaps more similar to male circumcision (a topic on which I have an upcoming entry). Many advocates claim that male circumcision has some health benefits. Whether that is true or not, however, does not evacuate the issue of consent. The fact remains that, health benefit or not, the newborn does not have the ability to consent to such a dangerous procedure (especially when administered by some ignorant clergy).
While childism is not the topic of this entry, Artir brings it up when he uses children as an example. The fact that we accept childism (that children are inferior and need to be controlled by parents) and see this as normal is due to the fact that a large majority of people accept it, not because it is actually valid. I don’t really want to get into the childism issue because it’s rather off-topic and would take a lot more space than I want to use to address a single example (my entries on the subject can be read in this category), but my basic point here is that it follows the same relativist pattern I’ve already highlighted. The parents’ will, or their imaginary belief that the child would consent if they were fully informed, does not trump consent, because children are human beings who have the right, like all other human beings, not to be invaded upon without some higher justification (e.g. pulling a child out of the street, or preventing a child from getting burned).
Since Artir’s argument centers around the premise that we have an obligation or duty to bring about a life if that life would contain pleasures, the failure of his demonstration of “positive duties” also means that his argument as a whole fails. Therefore, as I stated at the beginning, I see no point in delving in his long rebuttal to the quality of life argument, since he does so for the sole purpose of shoring up premise 1, a maneuver which is entirely unnecessary in the first place and which, at any rate, cannot save his argument. As it happens, I do think his rebuttal to the quality of life argument so bizarre and delusional as to not deserve a response; he does explicitly call himself a self-deluded Pollyanna, so perhaps there are no surprises here, but it makes his argument useless cheerleading, about as valid as sports fans arguing which of their favourite team is the best (“Which team is the human race?” “Both.” “Duh.”).