A blog called Absurd Being, by Nathan Hohipuha, attempted to disprove the Asymmetry, in an entry called Axiological Asymmetry and Anti-Natalism. Unfortunately, this attempt falls strictly into the “the Asymmetry pertains to non-existing people, which is impossible, therefore the Asymmetry is false” sort of argument, but at least it’s slightly novel.
Hohipuha begins by quoting my quote of Benatar’s formulation of the Asymmetry, so at least he knows what the argument actually is, which is nice. Unfortunately, the niceties stop here. He begins by distinguishing between a personal preference (“It’s (a) good (thing) that I arrived in time to catch the bus”) and a moral statement (“It’s good to tell the truth”). Then he states that statements (1) and (2) in the Asymmetry must be about personal preferences, because:
If you object that morality is nothing more than pain/pleasure, then you are committed to notions as absurd as that a dentist putting me through pain is acting immorally, or that the pleasure children take in teasing a classmate is moral.
But this is a bad counter-argument. The following statements are not at all equivalent:
(A) The presence of pain is bad, and the presence of pleasure is good. (statements (1) and (2) of the Asymmetry)
(B) Morality is nothing more than pain/pleasure.
Hohipuha is arguing that statement (A), in order to be a discussion of morality, must entail (B). But this is obviously and clearly false. Morality is about pain and pleasure, and also about other things. Saying that “the presence of pain is bad” does not logically entail that nothing else is bad. To use his example, the presence of pain is bad, but so is, for example, taking pleasure in teasing a classmate. But the fact that the perpetrator is experiencing pleasure is not, in itself, the bad thing. What is bad in this situation is that the perpetrator is not respecting the feelings of his classmate. This is a consideration that has nothing to do with pain or pleasure directly. But, absent of those other moral considerations, the pleasure is still good and the pain is still bad.
The purpose of the Asymmetry is not to give a complete accounting of morality, but to use certain intuitive features of it in order to make an argument against procreation. I don’t know why Hohipuha thinks the Asymmetry needs to give a complete accounting of morality, unless he thinks that arguing anything is good or bad necessitates a complete and total understanding of morality, but this is something he needs to prove.
Then he moves on to (4), the proposition that pleasure that does not exist is not bad:
This proposition asserts that the absence of pleasure could only be bad if there were somebody to be deprived of that pleasure. Since we are talking about a non-existent being, there is no one ‘losing out’ and we can’t say the absence of pleasure is bad. The important question is whether we are talking about badness or just about it being bad for a particular being.
Clearly, Benatar is using the word “bad” in the latter sense. If the absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom that absence is a deprivation, then it would be bad if there was someone to be deprived, and this means we are talking about it being bad for someone; i.e. we are not talking about (moral) badness.
We are not talking about a “non-existent being,” whatever that means. As I have repeated many times on this blog, Benatar himself points out in his presentation of the argument that he is talking about states of affair, not of states of individuals. So this is just plain wrong.
The second half of the Asymmetry is about a state of affairs where a person X does not exist, as opposed to the first half, which is about a state of affairs where a person X does exist, and experiences pain and pleasure. The fact that the pleasure they would have experienced is not present is not a bad thing, morally. It has nothing to do with there being a person who is deprived or not. There are already people who are deprived of pleasure right now, in the real world, and that’s a bad thing, morally, not just as a matter of preference. For Hohipuha to state that this is merely an issue of preference is astounding: does he seriously believe that depriving human beings of pleasure is an act of no moral status whatsoever, and just an issue of preference? I sincerely hope he does not have children.
And now, his final argument:
What about (3)? The absence of pain is good even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone. Now, here “good” is clearly no longer merely good for someone (a preference). Benatar explicitly says as much. “Good” here means goodness; in other words, a moral pronouncement. Since I have already claimed that pain and pleasure aren’t moral in themselves, it follows that the absence of pain and pleasure also can’t be moral. (3) is false.
Again, Hohipuha commits the exact same mistake as above: equating his rebuttal of the position that morality is SOLELY about pain and pleasure, with a rebuttal of the position that pain and pleasure have to do with morality AT ALL. Hohipuha has most definitely not proven the latter proposition, and I don’t think he can, because it’s a ridiculous claim. Either way, he hasn’t proven it, and since his argument here relies on it, the argument therefore fails.
In his part called “Analysis,” Hohipuha says that he finds Benatar’s failure ironic because the real asymmetry is one between good actions and bad actions:
I don’t want to examine morality in detail or attempt a robust definition of it here, so let me just say morality primarily encourages us to think unselfishly and consider other people’s interests in addition to our own to avoid harming them or causing undue suffering. On the other hand, morality isn’t about ensuring the happiness of other people or maximising happiness in general (sorry, utilitarians).
He thinks that’s ironic. I, on the other hand, think it’s ironic because the asymmetry he discusses here is one of the very asymmetries discussed by Benatar as an argument for antinatalism! I have discussed this argument, the Duty Argument, in this entry. I’m not sure if Hohipuha supports antinatalism or not, but if he doesn’t, then he has to explain why he supports a different argument which leads us to antinatalism just the same.