[This is a revised version of an article I wrote a few months ago 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 don’t alter my original argument, which I think remains unchanged, but were necessary to clear up a few ambiguities and clarify certain points. I have noted my changes in blue]
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.
‘Good’ and ‘Bad’
For Benatar, there is an asymmetry between the absence of pain and pleasure. I think this is false and the reason is that Benatar is equivocating on the words “good” and “bad” in (3) and (4) respectively.
Let me begin with a brief digression into the different ways we use the words “good” and “bad”. Consider the following four statements:
(A) It’s (a) good (thing) that I arrived in time to catch the bus.
It’s (a) bad (thing) that I missed the bus.
(B) It’s good to tell the truth.
It’s bad to steal.
Clearly the propositions in (A) are doing nothing more than expressing a preference, the satisfaction or frustration of a desire/goal, emphasised by the additional words in brackets. They aren’t telling us anything about morality or the fact that arriving early to catch buses is good, in itself. The propositions in (B), on the other hand, are explicit moral pronouncements designed to be universal and therefore completely independent of any individual’s desires/goals.
One way to see the difference between the two is to look at the language we use when discussing morality. If something is morally bad, we label it ‘wrong’, or in extreme cases, ‘evil’. So saying, ‘stealing is bad’, is equivalent to saying, ‘stealing is wrong’. On the other hand, we would never say, “It’s wrong that I missed my bus.” Missing my bus is bad but in a completely different way. The difference is the explicit ethical dimension to the latter.
These two different senses of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ can be summarised thus:
(A) ‘Good’ as “the satisfaction of an individual’s desires/goals”
‘Bad’ as “the frustration of an individual’s desires/goals”
(B) ‘Good’ as “right”
‘Bad’ as “wrong”
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. We would also look slightly askance at someone who claimed that feeling sadness was ‘bad’, as in ‘wrong’. It clearly isn’t, although it is bad as the frustration of an individual’s desires/goals (assuming people generally want to experience joy).
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.
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.
However, because of the way Benatar has phrased things, it’s not that simple. I’ve argued that (3) and (4) can’t be moral, but neither can they both be preferential either.
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? (4), like (1) and (2) is coherent as a preferential proposition.
On the other hand, Benatar’s (3) says the “absence of pain is good even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone.” [emphasis added] Now here, because of the highlighted clause, “good” is NOT coherent as a preferential term. How can the absence of pain be ‘good’ (in the sense that it is the satisfaction of someone’s desires/goals) in a state of affairs in which there is no one around with any desires/goals? Clearly it can’t. (3), unlike (4), is incoherent as a preferential proposition.
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.
After correcting for the category mistake that tries to view pain and pleasure as moral, there are three salient consequences:
- The asymmetry of the ‘Asymmetry’ argument disappears because Benatar’s (3) and (4) are appealing to different interpretations of the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
- Since the asymmetry fails, the argument against having children also fails.
- Even if the asymmetry was somehow preserved, since nothing in the argument is about morality, we cannot possibly conclude that it is wrong (or right) to do anything, including have children.
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 (“good even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone” [emphasis added]). On the other hand, we read “not bad” in (4) as if it were a moral pronouncement (and the absence of pleasure is, in fact, 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/)