Axiological Asymmetry and Anti-Natalism (Revised)

[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.

 

The Argument

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
and that
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,
whereas
4) The absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom that absence is a deprivation.[1]

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”

 

Refutation

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? (3), 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. (4), unlike (3), 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:

  1. The asymmetry of the ‘Asymmetry’ argument disappears because Benatar’s (3) and (4) are appealing to different interpretations of the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
  2. Since the asymmetry fails, the argument against having children also fails.
  3. 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.

 

Analysis

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.

 


 

[1] Source: The Prime Directive (https://francoistremblay.wordpress.com/2013/02/11/benatars-asymmetry/)

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9 thoughts on “Axiological Asymmetry and Anti-Natalism (Revised)

  1. Pingback: Axiological Asymmetry and Anti-Natalism | Absurd Being

  2. You did something I have never seen before: you actually revised an entry on antinatalism on the basis of a criticism. Kudos to you!

    However, your criticism is even worse than the previous one. Do you really not understand the difference between “the existence of pain is wrong” and “feeling pain is wrong”? “Feeling pain” is an experience of a specific person X. Noting that there is pain and that this pain is happening to person X, on the other hand, can be done by any observer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks!

      What I don’t understand here is how either “the existence of pain” or “feeling pain” can be wrong in the first place. Pain may be an indication that something wrong (i.e. immoral) has happened, but it may also be nothing of the sort (e.g. the pain I feel when I stub my toe). If a general proposition like, “the existence of pain is wrong” holds, then specific pains, whether they are felt or merely observed, must also be wrong, and this just seems like a category mistake to me. Pain isn’t the kind of thing which can be ‘wrong’.

      If someone steals from me, is the pain/suffering I feel wrong? Is the existence of the pain/suffering that a third person can attribute to me wrong? Surely not. What was wrong was the action – the act of stealing. And this is what morality is about – human action.

      Like

      • “What I don’t understand here is how either “the existence of pain” or “feeling pain” can be wrong in the first place.”
        No one said that “feeling pain” was wrong. That’s not in the original argument. What the argument says is that the presence of pain is a bad thing. All other things being equal, it would be more desirable to live in a world where there was less pain.

        “Pain may be an indication that something wrong (i.e. immoral) has happened, but it may also be nothing of the sort (e.g. the pain I feel when I stub my toe). If a general proposition like, “the existence of pain is wrong” holds, then specific pains, whether they are felt or merely observed, must also be wrong, and this just seems like a category mistake to me. Pain isn’t the kind of thing which can be ‘wrong’.”
        Then you have to explain why you think that is. Most people (while they may disagree with the argument) have no problem understanding the proposition that pain is a bad thing. It’s clear that it means that pain is undesirable and that we generally try to eliminate it..

        “And this is what morality is about – human action.”
        If this argument was about pain in the abstract, then I would agree with you, it would have no relevance on moral issues. But this argument is about procreation, which implies the creation of more pain (amongst other things). That’s human action. In the context of that action, the fact that it creates more pain is a strike against it. Antinatalists merely believe that this strike is decisive.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Let me have one more crack at this…

    “No one said that “feeling pain” was wrong.”
    You seem to be getting a lot more mileage out of this than is warranted. Nothing turns on the distinction between ‘felt pain’ and the ‘existence of pain’. The whole point is moot anyway because the presence of pain is the feeling of pain. What kind of pain is present but not felt?

    I think the beginning of my ‘refutation’ section explains why pain isn’t the kind of thing which can be wrong.
    If ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mean ‘desirable’ and ‘undesirable’ (which we seem to agree they do), then Benatar’s (3) is actually saying, “the absence of pain is desirable even in the absence of anyone to desire it.” How can something be desirable when there is no one to desire it? Only if that something (pain, or its absence, in this case) is being treated as an absolute, something bad (or good) in itself, i.e. independent of individual people. This is a much stronger claim, one which amounts to a moral one. And we’re back to my refutation of pain as wrong.

    “If this argument was about pain in the abstract, then I would agree with you…”
    Benatar’s (3) is precisely making a point about pain in the abstract. He even says as much, considering the situation “…even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone”. Not only that, he’s arguing that the absence of pain is good. It doesn’t get much more abstract than this!
    This is the whole problem – he starts out treating pain as a concrete phenomenon (i.e. desirable; i.e. desirable to someone) in (1) and then switches to something wholly abstract in (3). This is why he derives an asymmetry, because his use of the words good/bad is asymmetrical.

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    • “Let me have one more crack at this…”
      I don’t think one more crack will be enough… your response was pretty bad.

      “The whole point is moot anyway because the presence of pain is the feeling of pain. What kind of pain is present but not felt?”
      This has no relevance to my point, so I have no idea what you’re addressing. You didn’t answer my point at all.

      “I think the beginning of my ‘refutation’ section explains why pain isn’t the kind of thing which can be wrong.”
      Your argument was that pain is a human experience and therefore cannot be good or bad. I’ve already addressed why that’s not relevant.

      “If ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mean ‘desirable’ and ‘undesirable’ (which we seem to agree they do), then Benatar’s (3) is actually saying, “the absence of pain is desirable even in the absence of anyone to desire it.” How can something be desirable when there is no one to desire it?”
      Because we are the ones who posit the scenario and we are the ones making the evaluation. The absence of pain (caused by a person X no longer existing) is desirable from OUR perspective, even if person X does not exist and is not there to benefit from it (because they’re just a hypothetical person anyway). Even if we posit a scenario where no human beings exist, that scenario can still be evaluated from our perspective as the ones making the evaluation.
      You really don’t seem to understand the distinction between looking at a scenario/feeling and the scenario/feeling itself. It’s not complicated at all, so my guess is that you’re just being sloppy.

      “Benatar’s (3) is precisely making a point about pain in the abstract. He even says as much, considering the situation “…even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone”. Not only that, he’s arguing that the absence of pain is good. It doesn’t get much more abstract than this!”
      The Asymmetry is about a person X existing and not existing within the context of the world. Insofar as all people come about through procreation, this makes the Asymmetry an analysis of human action. Concentrating on one sentence is silly in this context, and makes it look as if you’re just trying to ignore the bigger picture to make a point.

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      • I admit I’m not really sure where else to take this discussion. We just seem to disagree about some fundamental points.

        My focus on Benatar’s (3) is hardly silly considering it is 25% of the argument and the crucial part because it secures him the asymmetry.

        Benatar’s (3) and (4) are abstract. The fact that he uses them to argue for something practical doesn’t change that.

        Something cannot be desirable without anyone to desire it. To be desirable means to be desirable for —. If the absence of pain is desirable from OUR perspective (as you suggest), then it precisely is desirable for someone; i.e. us, hence can’t be what (3) is about.
        Look, I know what you’re saying. We can imagine a universe without people, therefore without pain, and deem that good. Yes, we can. The question is what ‘good’ means in this case. It’s not good as desirability because no one is enjoying this ‘good’ (i.e desiring the absence of pain) in that universe (again, as (3) explicitly states). The only other meaning of ‘good’ is as an absolute, moral value. And this is the final thing we just seem to disagree on (or you think is irrelevant, at least): pain (and its absence) is not a moral bad (or good).

        Like

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