I previously posted a rebuttal to an argument by Nathan Hohipuha, of the blog Absurd Being, which proposed to show that the Asymmetry argument gets morality wrong, basically. His claim was that pain and pleasure have nothing to do with morality, and therefore the Asymmetry is not about morality. I found this argument to be unconvincing, to say the least. In answer to this, Hohipuha did something that I don’t think any other critic has ever done: he actually corrected his article on the basis of my criticism! Unfortunately, the soundness of the argument did not dramatically improve.
The beginning is the same: he summarizes the Asymmetry and then makes the difference between a personal preference and a moral statement (I don’t think he makes any distinction between morality and ethics, so for the sake of discussion I will not do so either). Those parts were already correct, so that’s fine. After that is when the new stuff starts (written in blue in his article):
Let’s put this information to use by considering how we are supposed to read the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in Benatar’s (1) and (2). Are they moral pronouncements (concerning right and wrong) or preferential ones (relating to the satisfaction/frustration of an individual’s desires)? I argue that they are the latter. Why? Because the presence/absence of pain and pleasure just isn’t the kind of thing that is morally bad or good.
If feeling pain were a moral bad in the same way that stealing is a moral bad, it would make sense to say, ‘feeling pain is wrong’ in the same way that we say, ‘stealing is wrong’. The former doesn’t work because we understand that pain (like pleasure) is just a human experience. It is neither right (good) nor wrong (bad), in and of itself.
This is a complete non sequitur, because the Asymmetry is not based on an evaluation that “feeling pain is wrong.” Feeling pain is not wrong or right, it’s a subjective experience which results from having a complex nervous system which is affected in certain ways. Hohipuha is equating “the presence of pain is bad” with “feeling pain is wrong,” which is just incorrect: the presence of pain can be the result of human action (as in “person A shoots person B”), while feeling pain itself is not (as in “person B felt pain because of the trauma of the gunshot”).
To make an analogy relevant to antinatalism, we cannot say that the growth of a fetus in a woman’s body is the result of human action, but we can say that the fact that a fetus is born or not is the result of human action, insofar as the fetus could be aborted. To use that comparison to say that there cannot be any morality in the issue of abortion would be silly.
The reason why “stealing is wrong” is a coherent sentence is because “stealing” designates an area of human action, while “feeling pain is wrong” does not. But the Asymmetry is not about “feeling pain” in isolation, it is about the existence of pain, with all that it implies.
Now this obviously isn’t to say that the presence/absence of pain and pleasure is irrelevant in moral deliberation. The point is that it isn’t the presence /absence of pain and pleasure in itself that is right or wrong. Therefore when Benatar talks about the presence of pain being bad and the presence of pleasure being good, he must be using the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in my (A) sense, that is, as something disagreeable to an individual; i.e. not morally wrong.
At least Hohipuha did not hold on to his silly position that pain and pleasure have nothing to do with morality, so again I applaud him for changing his position. But he does not specify here how pain and pleasure are relevant to morality, in his view. He does not think that pain or pleasure are, in themselves, good or bad. If that’s the case, then how else are they relevant?
I specifically ask this because Hohipuha seems to be pitting the Asymmetry’s implicit premises (e.g. “pain is bad,” “pleasure is good”) with his own premises, which are unspoken, so we can’t make an evaluation of how these two premises stack up. Hohipuha does not tell us how he’s determined that his views are more valid, so his entire enterprise is based on something we are not privy to.
Let’s now turn to the second half of the Asymmetry argument. As with (1) and (2), we need to ask the same question of (3) and (4); i.e. are the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ moral pronouncements (e.g. ‘stealing is bad’) or merely expressing a preference (e.g. ‘it’s bad I missed my bus’). Since I have already argued that the mere presence of pain and pleasure isn’t moral (because pain and pleasure aren’t, in themselves, moral), it follows that the absence of pain and pleasure also can’t be moral.
As I have already shown, he has not argued this at all. He has asserted that pain and pleasure aren’t in themselves moral, but has presented one argument, which was a non sequitur, and no alternative view. In short, we have nothing so far.
Benatar’s (4) says the “absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom that absence is a deprivation.” [emphasis added] Now, because of the additional highlighted clause, “not bad” in this proposition is coherent as a preferential term. The absence of pleasure is not ‘bad’, which is equivalent to saying, the absence of pleasure is not ‘a frustration of an individual’s desires/goals’. In what state of affairs? As Benatar clearly states, in the state of affairs in which there is nobody for whom that absence is a deprivation. This is trivially true. How can the absence of pleasure be a frustration of an individual’s desires/goals in a state of affairs in which no individual exists to experience that absence? (3), like (1) and (2) is coherent as a preferential proposition.
Hohipuha has jumped to the conclusion that premise 4 is a preferential statement because it makes sense as a preferential statement. I am confused as to why he thinks that’s a valid argument. Many moral statements also make sense as preferential statements, and many moral concepts can be described in preferential terms: that does not make them any less moral in nature.
For example, consent is an important factor in moral discussions, because the presence of consent ensures that an action tends towards (to quote Hohipuha) “the satisfaction of an individual’s desires/goals” instead of someone else’s desires/goals. A simpler example is the common moral argument of the type “you should be against murder because you yourself wouldn’t want to be murdered.” This is a way to argue morality with someone else by appealing to their own preferences as a standard.
Clearly, the fact that no one is affected by an absence of pleasure means that no one’s desires or goals are being hindered. But it is also true that this situation is morally not bad, which is what concerns the Asymmetry. There is no contradiction between these two facts.
He then explains that (3) cannot be framed in preferential terms (which is true), and then concludes:
This is why the asymmetry arises between (3) and (4). Because, “not bad” in (4) is getting through as a preferential term (not bad ONLY in the state of affairs in which no one is around to experience the absence) but “good” in (3) is (invalidly) getting through as a moral term (good, in itself, EVEN IF no one is around to enjoy it).
Since the terms in (3) and (4) aren’t being treated equally (symmetrically), it’s hardly surprising that our intuitions here yield unequal (asymmetrical) results.
I have no idea what “getting through” is supposed to mean here. The Asymmetry clearly is a moral argument and all its premises are moral statements. The fact that some of them also can be viewed as preferential statements, and some of them cannot, has no relevance to the argument. Hohipuha is unable to show that (3) and/or (4) are invalid moral statements, so he has to resort to this red herring. The terms in (3) and (4) are being “treated equally” and symmetrically, because “good” and “bad” are used in the moral sense in both cases.
The conclusion of his entry didn’t change significantly, so I won’t review it, since I already did this at the end of my first refutation. Suffice it to say that his arguments fail again, albeit for totally different reasons this time around. It’s still sloppy logic and sloppy reasoning, although not quite as sloppy as the first time around, so maybe Hohipuha will continue to improve his arguments with time and get to some point where we can both agree, although I am not holding my breath.