[Note: This article has been significantly expanded on by the author. The amended version can be viewed here]
I recently listened to a podcast on Sam Harris’ website in which he discusses anti-natalism (the view that it is morally wrong to have children) with David Benatar. You can find the podcast here. The core of Benatar’s argument rests on what he calls axiological asymmetry, a concept much easier to explain than the name might at first suggest. In this article, I will outline axiological asymmetry but argue that it doesn’t lead to anti-natalism.
Axiology is nothing more than the study of value so axiological asymmetry refers to an asymmetry in our values. Specifically, Benatar argues the following:
It is uncontroversial to say that
1) The presence of pain is bad
2) The presence of pleasure is good
However, such symmetrical evaluation does not seem to apply to the absence of pain and pleasure, for it strikes me [that is, Benatar] as true that
3) The absence of pain is good even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone,
4) The absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom that absence is a deprivation.
Since (3), then the absence of pain associated with any currently unconceived child must be accorded good. Since (4), then the absence of pleasure associated with any currently unconceived child must not be bad. The conclusion is that it is better not to conceive any child.
For Benatar, there is an asymmetry between the absence of pain and pleasure when talking about non-existent beings. I think this is false and the reason is Benatar is equivocating with the words “good” and “bad” in (3) and (4) respectively.
Let me begin with a brief digression into the different ways we use the word “good” (the same holds for the word “bad”). Consider the following two statements:
- A) It’s (a) good (thing) that I arrived in time to catch the bus.
- B) It’s good to tell the truth.
Clearly (A) is doing nothing more than expressing a preference, emphasised by the additional words in brackets. It isn’t telling us anything about morality or the fact that arriving early to catch buses is good, in itself. (B), on the other hand, is explicitly referring to morality. To distinguish this sense of the word, we might call it goodness (badness).
So, let’s return to Benatar’s (1) and (2). 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. 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.
So far, so good. Let’s leave (3) for now and look at (4) next. 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. Okay, still fine.
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.
Since (3) is false, the argument for anti-natalism also fails.
In this section I want to consider why Benatar’s axiological asymmetry argument seems so intuitively compelling. Interestingly, I think it’s because we automatically read “good” in (3) to be a preferential good (and it is preferentially good that no one is suffering) when Benatar is actually trying to claim it is morally, absolutely good(ness) (“good even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone”). On the other hand, we read “bad” in (4) as if it is moral bad(ness) (and the absence of pleasure is not (morally) bad) when Benatar is merely treating it as preferentially bad.
The massive irony in all of this is that axiological asymmetry is actually valid; it just doesn’t arise in reference to pleasure and pain. Instead we find an asymmetry in morality, between good and bad actions. The reason for the asymmetry lies in what morality is and isn’t. 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). If you doubt this, a single example will suffice to make my point, I think. It would be wrong for you to punch someone (causing undue suffering), but not wrong for you not to buy them a coffee (which would nevertheless make them very happy, and let’s say it would make you happy too thereby yielding greater happiness than if you hadn’t bought the coffee or if you had bought one just for you). Of course, it’s nice if you do buy them a coffee but you aren’t acting immorally if you don’t. That’s precisely what makes such acts of generosity meaningful; because they aren’t morally mandated.
There is one reason I can think of for this off the top of my head. Making promoting other people’s happiness a moral obligation would place an impossible to meet moral burden on everyone because there are countless ways we can (and would have to, on this theory) work to make others happy. Merely requiring that we not interfere with others; i.e. making morality primarily about refraining from doing things is, on the other hand, eminently achievable.
Essentially, Benatar is hijacking our intuitive understanding of the asymmetry of morality and confusingly tossing it in with counterfactual absences of pain and pleasure to create two propositions that intuitively sound right, but aren’t.
 Source: The Prime Directive (https://francoistremblay.wordpress.com/2013/02/11/benatars-asymmetry/)