Absurd Being tries to disprove the Asymmetry.

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.

9 thoughts on “Absurd Being tries to disprove the Asymmetry.

  1. And bxz April 13, 2018 at 01:01 Reply

    Hello,

    I just read your Benatar’s Asymmetry blog post. The comment section was shut down, but I wanted to raise a few quick objections, that perhaps you can dismantle for me.

    Claim:
    1)The presence of pain is bad

    Objections:

    A) Pain is not inherently bad. Pain is but a state of mind, and because we can modulate our subjective experiences through practices of meditation, we can achieve a “happy” state of mind while in abject agony. One of the extreme examples of such practice manifests as self-immolation practiced by Buddhist monks (imagine burning alive without screaming and running around but meditating in jubilee). Ignoring the religious backdrop, this still shows that we are capable of changing our subjective experience of pain at will. Studies back this up.

    “The burning monk, 1963”
    https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/the-burning-monk-1963/

    “Brain Mechanisms Supporting the Modulation of Pain by Mindfulness Meditation”
    Journal of Neuroscience 6 April 2011
    http://www.jneurosci.org/content/31/14/5540?loc=interstitialskip

    B) You say: “If your two options going into a long and painful operation is to bite a literal bullet or get anesthetized, which would you choose? Unless you are an inveterate masochist, the pain of the operation is not what you seek.” This justifies masochists as an exception to Benatar’s argument because suffering is a boon for them, hence better than not existing. I think this means that the logically consistent position isn’t antinatalism, but anti-non-masochism.

    C) There are many other ways to get around pain.
    1) Drugs (painkillers, MJ, LSD, etc.)
    2) Cut off our part of the brain that is responsible for pain and suffering.
    3) Genetic modification of human life to create negative emotion-free and pain-free organisms.
    4) The future wonder drug that puts benefits of meditation on a pill
    (Many of these are out there, but I’m just spitballing alternatives to preferring non-existence)

    Claim:
    3)The absence of pain is good even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone,

    Objections
    A) Not if pain itself can be good or mitigated altogether, see objections to claim 1
    B) This at least seemingly contradicts premise #4. You say: “The absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom that absence is a deprivation.” A corollary of #4 is that non-existing beings do not suffer the absence of pleasure. #4 is logically true because people that do not exist cannot mourn not having ice cream (a non-existing ‘fetus’ person says, “it is bad that I do not get to enjoy ice cream”). In other words, (Statement 1) No one is actually suffering, so it isn’t immoral. Yet in premise #3 you say: “The absence of pain is good even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone.” In other words, you are saying that despite the fact that (Statement 2) No one is actually soothed, but it’s good. How can both of those statements be true at the same time? You dismiss the morality of discussing non-existing human’s suffering based on their non-existence; yet ascribe morality to the pleasure of non-existence. It’s like you imagine non-existing beings enjoying the fact that they aren’t suffering (saying, “it is good that we do not suffer since we do not exist”) and then scoff at people who imagine non-existent fetuses being condemned to the “equivalent of deliberately starving children.”

    My final point is a question, that to me seems inescapable. If non-existence is more desirable than existence, why not commit suicide? (I’m not telling you to kill yourself, I’m just wondering what is keeping you from killing yourself) It seems to me that whatever justification or reason one comes up with to not commit suicide, it inevitably invalidates the argument you’ve presented because it automatically creates a reason for why you desire existence over non-existence, and ultimately showcases that whatever the justification is, it outweighs all suffering.

    I am not too familiar with your philosophical arguments so please do tell me if I misrepresented your ideas in any way. Your blog post was nonetheless a fascinating read.

    • Francois Tremblay April 13, 2018 at 01:06 Reply

      I try not to engage in debates on my comments, and these points are all lengthy topics, so I will write a new entry to discuss them. Thank you for the submission!

      • And bxz April 13, 2018 at 08:36 Reply

        Thank you very much. I will look forward to your next entry! 👍

  2. […] And bxz has pointed out a number of objections to the Asymmetry. Since there are a number of them and they are more […]

  3. absurdbeing April 17, 2018 at 05:45 Reply

    Hi,

    Thanks for taking the time to rebut my argument. Since it’s my article you are rebutting, allow me to briefly respond to some of your points (you say you want to avoid getting into debates in the comments, which is fair enough, so I will try to simply point out what I see as mischaracterisations of my position):

    1) You (correctly) state that my argument depends on pain/pleasure not being morally good or bad. You’re also right that I didn’t explicitly argue for this (brevity got the better of me here). This was the article’s biggest failing. However, you mistakenly assumed I was arguing for this by claiming that morality is nothing more than pain/pleasure. This is definitely not my position. I only included this as a response to a hedonistic utilitarian challenge; hence I prefaced this sentence (which you quoted) with, “If you object…”; ‘you’ being a hedonistic utilitarian.
    This misinterpretation resurfaced in your final point about Benatar’s (3).

    2) You state that the absence of pleasure (Benatar’s (4)) is “not a bad thing, morally.” I agree (only because I don’t think anything in the Asymmetry is good or bad morally). But you add that 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”, suggesting that I think this is only a matter of preference.
    Let me be clear; depriving someone of pleasure can absolutely be morally bad (that is, ‘wrong’) in some cases but my argument only concerns the presence (or absence) of pleasure. I certainly never claimed, nor am I committed to the notion, that “depriving human beings of pleasure is an act of no moral status whatsoever”. My article (and the Asymmetry) has nothing to do with depriving people of pleasure, which obviously does have moral implications. Your fear that if I have children, I will actively deprive them of pleasure is therefore, unfounded.

    3) You take issue with my use of the phrase, “non-existent being” and argue that Benatar is instead talking about “a state of affairs where a person X does not exist”. This is a good point and I concede this term only adds confusion.

    4) Finally, I am not trying to rebut the position that “pain and pleasure have to do with morality AT ALL”. I don’t think I said this. I did say, “the words “bad” and “good” [in Benatar’s (1) and (2)]… have nothing to do with morality” [emphasis added]. Regarding pain/pleasure, I said they “aren’t moral in themselves”, and this, I think, is quite different from your criticism, which I agree with you is obviously indefensible.

    • Francois Tremblay April 17, 2018 at 14:54 Reply

      Then explain to me how to interpret the following sentences:

      “It ought to be clear that the words “bad” and “good” here have nothing to do with morality (goodness and badness), but are only asserting that pain is bad and pleasure is good for the person experiencing them. ”

      “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. ”

      Because apparently you didn’t mean the plain English meaning.

  4. absurdbeing April 18, 2018 at 07:36 Reply

    Pain and pleasure, in themselves, (which is how they are discussed in the Asymmetry; i.e. not as factors in a moral deliberation) can’t be said to be morally good or bad, therefore the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ here [again, as Benatar is using them] “have nothing to do with morality”.

    Not entirely sure how I’m deviating from plain English here.

    As far as I can see, one of your points was that I thought pain/pleasure were completely irrelevant morally, leading you to sincerely hope I don’t have children. I don’t think anything in those quotes commits me to this. I don’t think pain and pleasure are moral, in themselves, as far as we are discussing them concerning the Asymmetry, but of course they are morally relevant if we broaden the discussion to making moral decisions in specific instances (which the Asymmetry explicitly isn’t doing).

    One could say exactly the same thing about sadness, which I think (uncontroversially) isn’t morally bad for the same reason, despite being bad (as the frustration of a desire to be happy, for example) for the person experiencing it.

    • Francois Tremblay April 18, 2018 at 15:36 Reply

      “Pain and pleasure, in themselves, (which is how they are discussed in the Asymmetry; i.e. not as factors in a moral deliberation) can’t be said to be morally good or bad”

      “As far as I can see, one of your points was that I thought pain/pleasure were completely irrelevant morally, leading you to sincerely hope I don’t have children. I don’t think anything in those quotes commits me to this.”

      I am confused. You are contradicting yourself IN THE SAME COMMENT. You clearly are not using plain English, or you are using some new brand of logic I don’t know about. Pain and pleasure are morally relevant, and yet pain and pleasure have nothing to do with moral good or bad? What part of this makes sense?

  5. […] and posted here. The changes were made after I read a rebuttal of it written by Francois Tremblay here. Despite the considerable revisions (particularly in the ‘Refutation’ section), my amendments […]

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