[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.