Morality Should Exist

In the New Yorker and on NPR, Bryan Caplan’s views on kids have recently been contrasted with ethical arguments against having kids – that the possibility kids might suffer outweighs all their likely joys and benefit to others. Now while I could understand some obscure academics or oddball activists taking this position, I find it bizarre to see it taken seriously in the mainstream media.

I mean, really, the whole human race should go extinct to avoid the risk that some future kid might suffer at some point?! And since the same argument applies to non-humans, all life should go extinct?! How could that ever be a remotely acceptable mainstream position? Cryonics is silly, and that is not?!

Yes I know I cannot refute this claim with just an incredulous stare, so let me suggest a moral axiom with apparently very strong intuitive support, no matter what your concept of morality: morality should exist. That is, there should exist creatures who know what is moral, and who act on that. So if your moral theory implies that in ordinary circumstances moral creatures should exterminate themselves, leaving only immoral creatures, or no creatures at all, well that seems a sufficient reductio to solidly reject your moral theory. I’m not saying I can’t imagine any possible circumstances where moral creatures shouldn’t die off, but I am saying that those are not ordinary circumstances.

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  • http://www.davegottlieb.com/blog/ Dave

    This seems like a terrible argument to me. “Someone should exist who agrees with my views” just seems incredibly petty and insignificant when weighed against other typical moral interests, like avoiding pain etc. And there are of course many moralities that make no allowance for this particular “intuition,” e.g. utilitarianism.

    I understand that at some level ethics may just be trying to fit models to our feelings, but the feeling that “morality should exist” seems both alien and unimportant to me, and I don’t feel compelled to include it in my model.

    • John

      If you’d like to die without producing any heirs to your genes or your personal philosophy, I won’t go out of my way to stop you. Then again, I’m not one of your ancestors.

      • Bill

        John,

        Having children is not necessary to produce heirs to one’s personal philosophy.

        Many, many children choose not to follow the philosophies to your parents.

        Conversely, it is possible to promulgate your ideas to many people without having children.

    • Kith

      If you accept “morality” to mean something like

      The faculty of a mind or mind-like system that allows it to determine if future events would be good/right/desirable or bad/wrong/undesirable to the end that the mind/system can work to constrain the likely future toward a higher probability of desirable outcomes and/or a lower probability of undesirable outcomes

      then “morality should exist” seems like something the “morality” faculty should output every time on pain of its own death/obsolescence. The statement does not constrain or specify what “morality” should do, only that any moral system should prefer its own existence (and, by implication, its continuance) over nonexistence.
      In the context of producing children, it is true that direct offspring are not required to continue a moral system and it is also true that direct offspring do not guarantee that continuance. However, if the purpose of morality is to constrain the space of all possible futures to have a higher probability of “good” events, direct offspring are a good way to achieve this end because their base architecture is a 50% copy of your own and much of their development is under your strong influence.

      • Dremora

        The logical weak point here is the implicit assumption that any moral system should value its own existence as a goal in itself rather than a means to an end. Assume a hypothetical moral system, based on evolved emotions, that says “Innocents should not have to suffer without personal compensation”. Now assume a practical situation where the only causal mechanism for the moral system to preserve itself is to make innocents suffer without personal compensation. Also assume, for the sake of the thought experiment, that the moral system could output an action preference that would causally lead to its own non-existence, but at the same time at the non-existence of innocents suffering without personal compensation.

        This thought experiment shows that not all moral systems would choose self-preservation. Only those who have an explicit overriding self-preservation goal and those whose goals are always best realized by continued self-preservation would operate this way.

      • Kith

        Dremora,
        I would only expect the function chooseOne(“something horrible”, “self is terminated”) to return “self is terminated” if it estimated that its continuation would produce less good than its termination. This could happen if it expected to be terminated soon anyway, or if “something horrible” represented an enormous anti-value that the agent could never hope to equal in the future. These are edge cases, and at any rate I would expect any good morality to be using a more sophisticated choice function that allowed it to search for a third alternative.
        As for your “implicit assumption”, I reject that I made any such thing. The continuation of the moral agent is important for its ability to steer the future toward “shouldness”. That is a means to an end, not a platonic goal.

      • Dremora

        The continuation of the moral agent is important for its ability to steer the future toward “shouldness”. That is a means to an end, not a platonic goal.

        Fine. But then you should concur that self-termination of the moral system is strictly preferred by the moral system if its non-existence facilitates its own values. Antinatalists don’t place value on the existence of antinatalists, or on moral systems in general. They usually place value on the absence of non-consensual suffering of individuals. Robin Hanson’s argument wasn’t just that antinatalists won’t be successful in achieving this end by not personally having children, but also that antinatalists are wrong in their intrinsic indifference to the existence of moral systems.

        If you only care about the absence of non-consensual uncompensated suffering of individuals, disrupting the reproductive chains, ultimately leading to universal extinction, would be the correct thing to do, if you had the power to achieve it.

      • Kith

        If you only care about the absence of non-consensual uncompensated suffering of individuals, disrupting the reproductive chains, ultimately leading to universal extinction, would be the correct thing to do, if you had the power to achieve it.

        That sort of thinking leads very quickly to end-of-the-world scenarios. If your morality function advocates for the ultimate destruction of life, it is broken. Don’t cure the disease by killing the patient! Look for the third alternative!

      • Dremora

        If your morality function advocates for the ultimate destruction of life, it is broken.

        Why? This only makes sense if you already have a morality term for the mere existence of life, or of other positive values requiring life, such as pleasure or personhood and if you think that the expectation value of these positive terms compensates the expectation value of the negends. Where do all these assumptions come from, and why do some people here treat them as axiomatic, so that they do not simply consider the antinatalists as people with different values, but people with somehow broken or objectively incorrect values? I have yet to find one logical argument that can justify that kind of critique.

      • Kith

        “Why”? Because of the consequence of removing all moral agents. The future light cone of a world where all moral agents have been removed is (morally) chaotic. Once the agents have no influence, it is impossible to steer the future toward moral “shouldness”. This state is automatically lower in the agent’s preference order simply because the agent has a moral system at all. It goes directly against the goal of morality which, as stated (far) above, is to constrain the future into a stronger probability of being higher in the agent’s preference order of all possible futures.
        Preferences for the existence of life, pleasure, personhood, &c. may or may not follow from a less general specification of morality, but a preference for morality itself necessarily follows from the more general case I have stated.

      • Dremora

        Because of the consequence of removing all moral agents. The future light cone of a world where all moral agents have been removed is (morally) chaotic.

        No, it’s not. If the moral agent has a plausible model of what probably happens in that world, it has a clear outline of the expected utility of bringing about that world, compared to the expected utility of bringing about worlds where moral agents still exist. If the expected utility of the former is higher than that of the latter, it is rational for the moral agent to bring about that world, ending its own existence in the process. I thought that was obvious by now, I think I even gave an example.

        I’ll end the discussion here due to time constraints.

  • Doug

    I think it’s a signaling/association thing. Cosmopolitan people, the type who write or read the New Yorker or NPR, like to style themselves as big-thinking, altruistic, sophisticated people. Caplan comes along and is publicly making a very strong point: the creation of a human life (especially in first world America) is the most altruistic thing that the vast majority of people will ever do.

    But who has high birthrates? Hillbillies, poor minorities, and religious nuts. Exactly the opposite type of people the typical New Yorker reader associates with. To cede the moral high ground to such a “low” group of people would destroy the self-image that the cosmopolitan community has cultivated for itself.

    This just goes to show how far absurd people will rationalize to defend their in group.

    • Markus Ramikin

      Signalling? Who would have thunk.

      Is there any issue whatsoever that can be explained around here without anyone invoking signalling?

  • http://twitter.com/robsica Rob

    >> very strong intuitive support <<

    Really?

  • http://www.uweb.ucsb.edu/~criedel/ Jess Riedel

    I can imagine all sorts of plausible universes where creatures generally suffer much more than are happy. Call them not “ordinary” if you want, but they seem perfectly natural to me, and I don’t see something particularly unattractive in a morality which says creatures in such a universe should not be.

    • Dániel Varga

      How do we determine this baseline happiness level that we use for comparison? How do you know that you are above it?

      • Dremora

        You evaluate experienced time-units (such as days) according to a linear scale of negative and positive numbers and then simply sum the numbers over a given period of time. If the sum is negative, you were below the baseline. If it is positive, you were above it. Then you extrapolate and evaluate the observational clues of other beings’ behavior and circumstances. You can also make educated guesses for complete systems, such as wild life.

        However, this does not answer you the question why you should morally care about suffering, or whether and why the suffering of non-consenting individuals can be compensated by the happiness of other beings.

    • lemmy caution

      I agree. This is not one of those universes, but this it could happen.

    • Konkvistador

      Happiness is overrated.

  • Weatherman

    Your proposed axiom is far from “intuitive” for a person whose moral philosophy is focused solely on the elimination of suffering. It seems that you are advocating for the existence not of “creatures who know what is moral, and who act on that” but creatures who know what is moral but will not follow their morality to its logical conclusion.

    I can certainly appreciate the notion that amoral or immoral individuals will continue to reproduce, regardless of the ethical consequences. We can imagine a future in which all moral individuals have refused to reproduce and so all remaining creatures are the offspring of the thoughtless, uncaring, etc. These offspring will then go on to reproduce, heedless of the suffering that might come to their spawn. Of course, this is only true if the offspring have the same attitude toward reproduction as their parents, which is hardly a certainty.

    If I’ve understood your post, you are suggesting that moral creatures should prolong their own existence in order to assert a moral check on these offspring of the immoral. It would seem to me that the biological reproduction of moral individuals isn’t completely necessary for that kind of influence; I don’t believe that genetics are such a cut-and-dry determiner of morality, and philosophy can be passed down to individuals who are not one’s own offspring. If antinatalism were to succeed in lowering the population to any significant extent, then we can assume that the idea has become widely known and available.

    If anything, the possibility that the self-incurred extinction of moral individuals will lead to a perpetually reproducing immoral society isn’t an argument against extinction per se. It’s an argument that extinction might be desirable, but would be difficult to achieve.

  • Mark M

    Would it be immoral to kill off all the moral creatures leaving only the amoral behind?

    Is it immoral to treat the moral worse than the amoral? Would the amoral even care? Are the amoral intrinsically more deserving than the moral? Is life always more valuable than non-life? Is it better to have lived and suffered, than never to have lived at all? Is it moral to judge how much a person should value his or her own life? Would it be immoral to kill the people who, in our judgment, are suffering so much their lives aren’t worth living?

    It’s been proven that fish do not have the capacity to feel pain, so they can stay.

    • roystgnr

      Would it be immoral to kill the people who, in our judgment, are suffering so much their lives aren’t worth living?

      Wouldn’t their judgement be the least subjective way to measure that decision?

      • Mark M

        If we’re not going to give future generations a choice, why do we feel the need to give our current generation a choice?

        See what I did there? I answered your question about my question with a question. Nobody gets to claim anybody is making a statement, since we’re all just happy-go-lucky question-asking fools.

  • Alex Demarche

  • Mark M

    Morality should exist.

    Why?

    Imagine a planet just like ours but without humans. Is there a natural morality? When a lion starts eating a gazelle that’s still breathing, is that immoral? It seems cruel, but the lack of intent to cause pain and suffering means morality isn’t a factor. It’s amoral.

    I do, however, think that an incredulous stare is the proper response.

  • Dremora

    There are several different levels here. Let’s start with your objection: Morality should exist. No. Ideally, morality shouldn’t need to exist. It would be better to live in a universe filled with amoral creatures but with boundaries that I find acceptable; especially non-consensual severe suffering should ideally be physically impossible.

    Another question is, are antinatalists right? Leaving aside the questionable practical feasibility of convincing all relevant agents, the answer is clearly yes, if you think that non-consensual uncompensated suffering of innocents strictly outweighs all other considerations. Which is a logically consistent position that meaningfully generalizes a common moral intuition, except with consequences that many find unappealing. Robin Hanson’s !? expressions show that his rejection is emotional, not logical, which is unsurprising.

    A last question is, if you reject the absolute generalization and allow for trade-offs, can we realistically expect positive net utility from our actual world? This depends on your standard, but I think the answer is no, according to a standard I would personally accept for my own life. I think there are systematic forces in evolution and game-theory that make me doubt exponentially replicating sentient beings competing over limited resources can ever experience positive net utility.

    I personally would not object to strict antinatalism for the prevention of all suffering, even though I don’t strongly prefer it. From a general utilitarian perspective, I see the future, present and past more pessimistically than Robin Hanson, which may be a function of different acceptability levels rather than different epistemic quality of our world models. I personally am very displeased that suffering is both severe, wide-spread and involuntary, and frankly I don’t see it going anywhere.

  • miguel

    I think that what you are saying with the need for morality is a bit of a bootstrap argument; perhaps (probably) there is no better reason for existing other than existing. Still, it’s worth it (IMHO).
    If you want to avoid all suffering, it is true that it is better not to have kids. Or move. Or live. We may want to make things and people suffer less, but no suffering at all is just too costly.
    If “the possibility kids might suffer outweighs all their likely joys and benefit to others” is true, then it is simple; have no kids. However, perhaps it is false. Maybe under normal circumstances we prefer to suffer a little bit sometimes, knowing it will probably get better in the future.
    Good, interesting post, had me thinking for a while!

  • Enfilade

    Professor Hansen,

    I disagree with your axiom that morality should exist (at what cost?) and am personally an antinatalist.

    I thank you, however, for seriously discussing and publicizing the antinatalist position. You are an thoughtful person and thoughtful people read this blog.

    The antinatalist position has roots dating back thousands of years. It is gaining traction.

    I suggest that anybody interested in this topic, whether you believe having children is moral or not, read the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran’s book “The Trouble With Being Born.”

  • Scott H.

    Instead of “morality should exist”…

    I give you “life is good”.

    What ever feels this from instinct grows and lives on. Whatever lacks this instinct vanishes — and good riddance!

  • http://theviewfromhell.blogspot.com Sister Y

    And since the same argument applies to non-humans, all life should go extinct?!

    This is extreme and totally mischaracterizes our position. It’s only life that’s capable of suffering that should go extinct; slime molds, bacteria, and probably mushrooms are totally cool and should breed all they want. As long as they don’t evolve feelings.

  • Dan

    I highly doubt that “morality should exist” and “there should exist creatures who know what is moral” are interchangeable, absent some contentious metaethical claim about the domain of moral truths being ontologically dependent on the present existence of beings with correct moral knowledge. The explanation of the moral axiom doesn’t have strong intuitive support–except insofar as we have strong feelings about the survival of the human race, which we might be confusing with that claim–and the truth conditions of the moral axiom itself are mysterious.

  • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

    I think this is real. People today don’t want children the way they used to. I think it is a consequence of stress levels. If the stress level is high enough, people choose to not have children because becoming pregnant in a very high stress environment is a bad idea. If the stress level is so high that the chance of a successful pregnancy is less than ~10%, it is better to put off reproducing until times are better. Physiology does that for animals and humans too. It integrates the present stress level and projects how difficult a pregnancy will be, and causes infertility to prevent pregnancy.

    This is observed in animals. A population of mice given abundant food, water and air, and protected from disease and predators goes extinct pretty quickly.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/4734760

    The mice die of old age, but they die without reproducing. They could reproduce, they just choose not to. Sort of like how the birth rate in many developed countries is below replacement rates.

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com/ TGGP

      Shouldn’t protection from disease/predators & deprivation REDUCE stress, just like liking in a developed country should? I believe in the mouse study the issue was overpopulation within a confined space. I’m not sure but I don’t think birth rate gradients among humans map well on population density. Female education is generally considered the most important factor. And why should that increase stress?

      As for the top-level post, there’s really no basis for believing in moral facts at all.

  • Andr

    I’m with you there, Dr Hanson: Morality should exist. And by no means should people stop having children because of “potential suffering” –it really is silly, i mean we’re all going to suffer in our lives but that’s no reason to collectively off ourselves.

    But I’ve also seen some evidence that you think overpopulation isn’t a problem. Population growth is driven by economic factors, right? If my words are unclear it’s because I’m not 100% certain what I’m trying to point at.

    I would like to briefly state, for anybody else who might be browsing through these comments, that to curb overpopulation we don’t need to resort to mass-sterilization (or any sterilization), genocide, cold fusion or any other whacky stuff like that. All we have to do is curb economic growth, problem solved.

  • Matt

    Isn’t one of the principles of economics that value is subjective?

    For me, life is positive sum, and I’ve experienced incredible pain! If you have incredible consistent pain then the value of your life can asymptote near zero, but even if it reached zero, it would never have a negative value (in and of itself). Of course, unlike Robin, I believe in an afterlife, so I’m not sure how that affects things.

    But wouldn’t every theoretical child be infinitely better off if you went ahead and had them, raised them, and taught them how to shoot itself in the brain effectively?

    Isn’t presuming a negative value on anyone else’s life an incredibly unethical moral philosophy?

    • Dremora

      If you believe in an afterlife, doesn’t that usually mean that you believe people will burn forever with non-zero probability, especially those who shoot themselves? This would imply that every theoretical child would be infinitely worse off if you had them – literally.

      • GudEnuf

        Almost no religions today say that babies can go to hell. Most religions say babies go straight to heaven. And some religions say that some adults go to hell.

        Therefore, the most altruistic thing you can do for a baby is kill her. That way, you maximize her chance of going to heaven.

      • Matt

        Afterlife does not equal hell. No, I don’t believe in hell. Also, where is the proof that nothingness is greater than pain?

      • http://theviewfromhell.blogspot.com Sister Y

        But wouldn’t every theoretical child be infinitely better off if you went ahead and had them, raised them, and taught them how to shoot itself in the brain effectively?

        Lovely! That’s what Bryan Caplan thinks:

        Tall buildings and other routes to painless suicide are all around us; in economic jargon, life is a good with virtually “free disposal.”

        Given the major problems with suicide from jumping from heights, not to mention gunshot suicides, it would be much more humane for those who rely on this justification for creating life to advocate for more humane suicide methods – such as legalizing barbiturates. Meanwhile, we’re stuck in a world where comfortable, reliable suicide is intentionally made impossible.

        In practical terms, when you breed, you very likely create a new prison inmate, not a new, free person.

      • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

        There are effective ways to treat depression.

        There are things that can be done to make people who feel so terrible that they actively wish they were dead to feel less terrible so that they don’t wish that. It is not being paternalistic to do so, it is being humane.

        The reason people don’t try to reduce the suffering of others is because it does not profit them to do so. The problem is the patriarchal mindset, where the individual at the top has all the power and controls all the resources. Someone who is depressed is focused on trying to stay alive, and is a lot easier to exploit. Exploiting people who are depressed is what is being paternalistic (i.e. being aligned with a patriarchal power structure).

        If you wanted to make people feel better, you can stop exploiting them. People don’t want to stop exploiting their “inferiors” for fear they will get better and become their “betters”. So they make up all kinds of nonsense stories about how the poor like to be poor, about how the poor don’t want to have nutritious food or nice places to live, or have health care, or have decent jobs.

        It is typical of an exploiter mindset that when they encounter someone who feels so terrible they want to die, all they can think of is to facilitate suicide. How about changing society so that people are not put under such stress that they feel so terrible they want to die?

        Yes, it is a lot easier and cheaper to facilitate suicide than to prevent the things that cause people to become stressed and depressed to the point of suicide. How about changing those things about society?

        I appreciate that there is the halcyon belief that the existing social structure is the best of all possible worlds. It isn’t. It is simply one of many possible social structures that just so happened to allow a certain group of individuals to rise to the top 1% and 0.1% of the power structure. Of course those people believe it is the best of all possible worlds because it is a possible world that they are at the top of the power structure in. Of course they don’t want to change it because then they wouldn’t be the top 1% or 0.1%.

        They would rather the whole society collapse rather than cede the power and wealth that they have. So what they do is make up delusional fantasies about how society will collapse if the plight of the poor is made less severe. Tax cuts for the rich, paid for by the poor are the mantra of the GOP. Why? Because that is what the richest 0.1% want and they can pay for spin meisters to wax about Apocalyptic scenarios about death panels, job loses, WMD in Iraq and ICBMs from Iran.

      • Dremora

        There are effective ways to treat depression.

        True or untrue, I have no idea what this has to do with the above posts. The original claim was simple: People are better off being brought into existence and then given suicide methods, than not being brought into existence (life as a freely disposable good). The responses were aimed at practical problems with suicide (showing that life is not freely disposable). Now you talk about depression as if that were the only cause of suicide, and life circumstances and physical health simply didn’t matter with regards to suicide decisions.

        The problem with your position is twofold: 1) It’s naive to think it works. 2) It’s oppressive because it operates on depriving people of personal liberties.

      • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

        Spoken as a true libertarian, concerned with the oppressiveness of providing food to starving children because it deprives their parents of the joy of providing for them by working 16 hours a day.

        Much better to allow them “freedom through work”? Most infamously remembered in the German;

        Arbeit macht frei.

        The cause of suicide is the feeling that one’s life is so painful that one would be better off dead. Feelings that one’s life is so painful that one would be better off dead is a pretty good definition of depression.

        Is that the mental calculation that the Nazis did? Work and starve the slaves in the concentration camps so hard that their life was a living hell and so tortured that their tormentors could imagine they would be better off dead and feel that killing them was actually a benefit for them?

        When you want to facilitate the ability of people to kill themselves while simultaneously exploiting them and increasing the likelihood that they will want to kill themselves aren’t you doing the exact same thing?

        When someone bullies a victim until the victim commits suicide, is the bully guilt-free? Who benefits from making suicide easier? You must think that the people who benefit are those who kill themselves to escape being bullied. The bully certainly doesn’t benefit, the bully loses a victim.

      • Dremora

        Let me speak only for myself: I want to have the option to commit suicide at any time I choose, with any means I choose, as long as I am not putting others in physical danger by doing so. And no, by “putting others in physical danger”, I don’t mean by refraining from protecting other potential suicides from the consequences of their own choices. I mean direct danger like jumping on their heads.

        If I want to go to a drug store and buy a painless deadly drug to take, I should have that right. If other people deprive me from it, they are aggressors.

        I don’t care about your moral crusade against the rich. You can tax them all you want if you have the political clout. But don’t tell me I am not allowed to die simply because you say so, or because you think you can remove all potential reasons for rational suicide by political activism. This was never realistic, and it will never be realistic. There are countless non-psychological reasons why a person might want to end their lives. Rational suicides aren’t idiots. They don’t kill themselves for no reason. They kill themselves for instrumental reasons.

        If I were to choose to reliably and painlessly die tomorrow, I want to be able to reliably and painlessly die tomorrow. Any person or institution who actively works to prevent me from having this option will be treated by me as an enemy. They are hostile agents actively working to undermine my liberty and increase the amount of suffering I will have to experience, against my explicit will.

        Spoken as a true libertarian, concerned with the oppressiveness of providing food to starving children because it deprives their parents of the joy of providing for them by working 16 hours a day.

        I don’t know where you find starving children in my post, but the oppressive part in your position is the reduction of personal options, such as suicide, that I personally want to have. That said, since we are in an antinatalism thread, parents are indeed responsible for creating their children, and I do think that they should not have the right to do so unless they have the means to provide food, clothes, shelter, medical services, water, and a baseline of education for them.

        Tyler Cowen recently linked to a discussion about restricting the total number of children per family in Nigeria to 3. Cowen and many commentors on his blog seemed to see it as an unacceptable invasion of personal liberty of the parents. But if the antinatalists have one strong point, then it’s that reproduction isn’t about self-determination only, it is primarily about other-determination. After all, whether you judge it as good or bad or something in between, it is clearly a non-consensual imposition on third parties, namely the children. It seems clear to me that this is more of a privilege than a right, and it should be conditional – the least you can expect is that parents are willing and able to compensate the needs of the children that were non-consensually created by them.

  • mjgeddes

    Of course morality exists, but only minds with a certain mind-design are capable of perceiving it. Which mind designs? Sentient minds obviously.

    And what is sentience (consciousness)? Obviously it’s the process of categorization (analogical inference) applied to forming an ontology of our values, which are represented as narratives. So when do sentients feel good? Obviously when these representational narratives are optimized. And when does this occur? Obviously when the internal (cognitive) complexity of the process of producing these representations is minimized. And exactly what does this equate to? Obviously it equates to what is perceived as beautiful. Therefore, the moral is 100% equivalent to the beautiful. You’d have to be some sort of dumb-ass not to see this.

    Since the arguments in the mainstream media are the dumbest of the dumb, we can only conclude that the pundits are zombies.

  • ThePenileFamily

    Robin, this is as biased a post as I’ve ever seen from you. You’re just barely on the correct side for the completely wrong reasons. Goofball. haha (I love ya though)

  • http://grognor.blogspot.com/ Grognor

    Suffering is a horrible enough thing that I take it as obvious that it would be better if there were no such thing as life than if there is life that spends most of its time suffering, like much life does today.

    When an assertion “feels” axiomatic is a terrible reason to take it as axiomatic.

    • Noumenon

      I echo your opinion completely and am giving Robin’s post the incredulous stare. Well, “morality should exist” I am giving the incredulous stare. “The extinction of the human race is bad” I am giving the look of disapproval: ಠ_ಠ. That would be a huge benefit for so many people, I would do it myself if I could. Fortunately I have no supervillain powers to make this happen.

    • Konkvistador

      Meh the amount of suffering people experience today is overrated.

  • gc_wall

    I admit the following is anecdotal, but over fifty-three years I have heard many people say that they did not ask to be born. Those people think that being born was a curse not a blessing. People are moral “and” immoral; they are not either one alone.

    The aristocracy has promoted breeding forever, and not for moral purposes. It requires more expendible lives to fight wars. It needs laborers and consumers. It requires random generation to create an occasional rare gifted type, but that means its opposite is also randomly generated. When does one know if he is interferring with nature or reacting to it. One cannot assume moral choices will be victorious over immoral ones; that only occurs with some regularity in fiction.

    If a goldfish bowl becomes over-crowded, some goldfish become asexual or homosexual until the goldfish population is sufficiently reduced to protect the population’s survival. Therefore, when breeding trends change would it be moral or immoral to manipulate a trend one believes is morally repugnant or psychologically devastating for the off-spring? Temporary hardships and life long hardship are different ways of experiencing the general and particular.

    If greater emphasis was placed on emotional, spiritual and physical health then breeding could be moral, I suppose. Never the less, if one believes that profound sadness and physical pain are types of suffering no one would choose, than how can it be moral to bring someone into the world who had no choice in the matter?

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com/ TGGP

      People don’t reproduce because of “aristocracy”, the tiniest knowledge of Darwin should explain reproduction!

      You seem confused about group selection. I am not here making a knock-down argument that it can never exist, but an individual limiting its own reproduction in order to lower the total population is exactly the sort of thing we shouldn’t expect to see. That’s basically the experiment Eliezer Yudkowsky discussed in The Tragedy of Group Selectionism.

  • Al

    May I suggest that morality inherently depends on existence? Which is to say, only intelligent beings that exist can define morality, and so morality can be defined as that behavior that best perpetuates intelligent beings.

    So, if religious nuts and poor people are the only ones reproducing, then naturally their behavior is the only moral behavior – regardless of what others think.

  • pole

    “morality should exist” is a belief statement just as civilization based on Christian god and values should exist.

    • Konkvistador

      Not really. It is preference.

      My morality says it should exist. I prefer to follow my morality. And even if it is written on some rock of objective morality out there in the Tau Ceti star system that life shouldn’t exist according to it, well gee wouldn’t it be more fun to ignore it in favour of my own values?

      What possible reason in the world do I have to conform to alien value systems?

  • Dremora

    It would be interesting to see Robin Hanson actually provide a utilitarian calculus. Put utility numbers on good vs. bad experiences and then use actual statistics and scenario projections for the real world and maybe possible em futures. Maybe support the utility trade-offs with data about revealed preferences in human moral and personal behavior. Then use the numerical result to judge the value of life on earth vs. quick extinction scenarios.

    It is very unfortunate that Robin Hanson replaces such analysis with rhetoric and emotional expressions. He would certainly have the expertise to create an actual approximative utility calculus instead.

    • Poelmo

      I agree with you that this is all just rhetoric. No calculations were made, but I disagree that such calculations can be made, unless we’re talking about a clearly dystopian or clearly utopian future. It’s very hard to assign a value to suffering or joy because there are subjective experiences.

      • Dremora

        That’s a weaker argument than you think. The nature of subjective experiences is objectively real and open to scientific analysis. For instance, it’s an objective fact that strong pain feels bad for almost all conscious humans and we can measure how much pain they accept, on average, to gain other values like sexual pleasure or entertainment. You can measure how much people are willing to pay for risk reductions, pain killers etc.

      • Poelmo

        You’re assuming people themselves know the (relative) values of joy and suffering. This is simply not true: people’s feeling about memories of joy and pain change over time (rosie memories, trauma’s, etc…), teenagers attach crazy extremist values to both joy and pain, people attach more value to individual painful events when those events are grouped closely together in time, a person’s expectations of a joyful or painful experience in the far future often differ from what those experiences will actually feel like, even if the person has experienced them before, (Robin would call all of this near-far behavior), and finally how do you attach value to an experience you’ve never had?

        P.S. It’s also possible the joy/pain ratio of humans may change in the future because society becomes more utopian or more dystopian.

      • Dremora

        You’re correct that there are biases and distortions. This does not mean there can’t be approximations. It becomes clear when we look at extreme examples, e.g.:

        1) Would you accept one second of searing agony for 1000 years of the best life you can imagine?
        2) Would you accept 1000 years of the worst torture you can imagine for one second of sipping tasty coffee?

        I personally found it hard to accept my continued existence without some kind of standard weighing the experiential good and bad. It is imprecise, but instrumental for decision making. For instance, I have calculated how much money I would have to be offered for what kinds of unpleasantness in the workplace so that later good experiences (free time) bought with it would compensate for them. If I realize a job doesn’t pay enough on that metric, I switch jobs.

  • http://alrenous.blogspot.com Alrenous

    Most of these counter-Hanson arguments are self-refuting.

    If you believe in any ‘shoulds’ at all, you believe in morality. The only way to get out of it is to deny the existence of ‘should’ altogether, which then means neither Bryan nor counter-Bryan nor Hanson can be shown to be wrong.

    I’m just porting David Hume to the future, here. “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the human race to the scratching of my finger.” Now I’m going to repeat it a third time. Why shouldn’t you prefer destruction? If you can think of any reason at all, then you believe in morality.

  • Poelmo

    “Morality should exist”

    Well, why? Or why not? This question cannot be solved, because morality is a construct by sentient beings. Yes, you can “universalize” some aspects of morality that are based on reciprocity or go against irrational things like racism, but without sentient beings morality ceases to be relevant. As long as sentient beings are around morality should exist but without sentient beings it loses its meaning.

    In short, this is a pretty useless discussion with no right answer.

    • Matt

      Not to get all new-agey on you, but if sentient beings didn’t exist, there would be no should, and there would be no exist. No perception = No reality. So, the way I take it, Robin isn’t just saying “Morality should exist,” he is pointing out how completely illogical it is to say, “Morality shouldn’t exist,” or “moral beings shouldn’t exist.”

      • Gulliver

        @ Matt

        No perception = No reality.

        That fallacious reasoning. No perception = no perception of reality. That does not infer the nonexistence of objective reality.

  • rapscallion

    I don’t see anywhere where Overall said that the human race should go extinct, and it’s only a tendentiously uncharitable interpretation of the views she espoused in the podast that says that’s what she believes.

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  • Evan

    Of course morality should exist. If you understand morality to be the sum total of all human values in a reflective equilibrium, then obviously it would be a very bad thing for morality to not exist, since it would mean that creatures that value things have ceased to exist.

    Most forms of morality that are so counter-intuitive as to appear insane are bad because they focus on one tiny aspect of human values at the expense of all others. Classical utilitarianism recommends forcing people to consume heroin because it focuses on pleasure at the expense of other values. The Repugnant Conclusion recommends creating a Malthusian hell because it focuses on total wellbeing at the expense of other values. And anti-natalism recommends wiping out all life on Earth because it focuses on pain minimization at the expense of other values.

    I think anti-natalism is one of the craziest of all because pain minimization isn’t even a very important value on the hierarchy of values. People submit to pain to achieve other values all the time. I occasionally hurt myself on purpose just because I’m curious about the sensation. And occasionally people have hurt me against my will, for what they believe will be for my own benefit, and I’ve realized upon reflection that they were right and thanked them for it.

    @Dremora

    Why? This only makes sense if you already have a morality term for the mere existence of life, or of other positive values requiring life, such as pleasure or personhood and if you think that the expectation value of these positive terms compensates the expectation value of the negends. Where do all these assumptions come from, and why do some people here treat them as axiomatic, so that they do not simply consider the antinatalists as people with different values, but people with somehow broken or objectively incorrect values?

    It’s not that their values are incorrect from some sort of cosmic objective perspective. It’s that their values are incompatible with their desire to be good people (that is, people who effectively fulfill human values). Being an antinatalist doesn’t violate any categorical imperatives, but it does violate the hypothetical imperative “if you want to be a good person you shouldn’t do X.” Antinatalism isn’t objectively wrong, but it is objectively evil.

    Similarly, I don’t think the values of a murdering psychopaths are objectively wrong, I just think they’re evil. The concept of morality exists independently of the desire to obey it. Fortunately, most people have an innate desire to be moral. I do use the term “morally wrong” on occasion, but I always mean “wrong if you want to be a good person,” not “wrong in some cosmic sense.”

    From what I understand, anti-natalism originated from a failed attempt to systematize morality in order to “be good” more efficiently. Benatar’s reasoning seems to be:
    1. The Repugnant Conclusion seems counterintuitive.
    2. One reason why that might be is that it is good to prevent pain, but not bad to prevent pleasure.
    3. If that is the case then it is bad to create people, since they will feel pain.

    The flaw in Benatar’s reasoning is that 2 is not the reason the Repugnant Conclusion is counterintuitive. The reason the Repugnant Conclusion is wrong is that it maximizes one value, total wellbeing, at the expense of all others. Benatar falsely assumes from this that because singlemindedly maximizing total well being is bad, it is bad to value total wellbeing at all. Alan Carter calls this “moral monism” and effectively demolishes it here here.

    The Repugnant Conclusion and anti-natalism are to morality what being a Munchkin is to RPGs. In the same way a munchkin maximizes combat prowess at the expense of storytelling, atmosphere and camaraderie, those two moral systems maximize one tiny facet of value at the expense of the whole thing.

    @Alrenous

    If you believe in any ‘shoulds’ at all, you believe in morality. The only way to get out of it is to deny the existence of ‘should’ altogether, which then means neither Bryan nor counter-Bryan nor Hanson can be shown to be wrong. .

    I repeat: The concept of morality exists independently of the desire to obey it. You can believe in morality without believing in shoulds.

    • Dremora

      Antinatalism isn’t objectively wrong, but it is objectively evil.

      No. It is subjectively evil, from the perspective of someone who has other value priorities, such as you.

      Being an antinatalist doesn’t violate any categorical imperatives, but it does violate the hypothetical imperative “if you want to be a good person you shouldn’t do X.”

      No, it doesn’t. This depends entirely on how you define X. You implicitly assume that X should be defined by your personal value system, which is of course not a cosmic objective perspective, it’s just yours. An antinatalist could say “X is making children suffer; if you want to be a good person you shouldn’t make children suffer; the most reliable way of achieving is is to stop reproduction entirely.” It’s completely logically consistent, there’s nothing objectively evil about it. You just personally disagree with the value prioritization.

      Finally, to correct two misconceptions of other value systems:

      Classical utilitarianism recommends forcing people to consume heroin because it focuses on pleasure at the expense of other values.

      No, they would calculate the side-effects of such coercive action and realize it’s not utility maximizing.

      The Repugnant Conclusion recommends creating a Malthusian hell because it focuses on total wellbeing at the expense of other values.

      No, because creating a “hell” of any kind is not maximizing total wellbeing. The Repugnant Conclusion is not repugnant if you take the realistic conditions for utility maximization seriously. Creating more starving children in a world of starving children does not increase total wellbeing, it decreases it. This is one reason why “the poor still smile” is a non-starter as an argument; it cannot replace sophisticated empirical analyses about the distribution of affect in those populations. Not to mention side-effects like sustainability issues and their effect on existential risk.

    • Realist Writer

      “This person has no conscience. They care nothing for other people and their values. They kill, steal, torture, and abuse, and have no problem in doing so.”

      Why would a person who has no conscience logically kill, steal, torture, and abuse? Wouldn’t such a person have no motivation to do anything, or if he does have a motivation, to care for only his own interests and won’t kill/steal/torture/abuse if he feels that doing so would harm himself?

      And furthermore, why would a person who has a conscience not kill, steal, torture and abuse? I could see systems of morality where doing these sort of things is justifiable for the ‘greater good’.

      • Realist Writer

        Also, we’re talking about morality here, not a “value system that is destructive to human values”. The mere existence of a value system makes it ‘morality’, even if you happen to disagree with it.

  • Evan

    @Dremora

    An antinatalist could say “X is making children suffer; if you want to be a good person you shouldn’t make children suffer; the most reliable way of achieving is is to stop reproduction entirely.” It’s completely logically consistent, there’s nothing objectively evil about it.

    I don’t use the word “evil” to refer to an objectively irrational value system that is somehow irrational in some cosmic sense. I use “evil” to refer to a value system that is destructive to human values. Antinatalism would destroy the entire human race, and the most human-like of animals, so obviously it’s evil.

    To put it in a more concrete sense, imagine someone who has antisocial personality disorder. This person has no conscience. They care nothing for other people and their values. They kill, steal, torture, and abuse, and have no problem in doing so. There is nothing intrinsically irrational about their behavior. But their behavior is objectively evil, because it is destructive to the values of other people. An exceptionally honest and reflective sociopath might well acknowledge that their behavior is evil, but this would not motivate them to stop, because they don’t care about not being evil.

    That being said, I do not think that anti-natalists are some bizarre sort of sociopath. I think they have the exact same kind of conscience that I do, but are failing to execute its desires properly. I think they are people who are trying to do good, but when reasoning about how best to do good effectively they screwed up and made a serious error (value monism) that cause them to do evil instead. This error causes them to monomaniacally focus on one value (pain minimization) and ignore all the other ones.

    Moral disagreements are rarely about totally alien value systems. They are usually about “blind men and the elephant” type scenarios, where someone correctly identifies some aspect of value, but fails to realize value has other aspects, and hence maximizes one aspect to the detriment of others.

    No, they would calculate the side-effects of such coercive action and realize it’s not utility maximizing.

    Modern preference utilitarianism would do that. However, old-style “greatest pleasure for greatest number utilitarianism” did have this as a problem. Bentham received a lot of criticism for not ranking some pleasures as more important than others. Preference utilitarianism fixed that, but until it was invented a major objection to utilitarianism was the supposed duty to force-feed people heroin.

    I could always invent some hypothetical scenario where it was possible to force-feed people heroin with minimum coercion. But even in that scenario it would be wrong to do that because pleasure is not the only value.

    No, because creating a “hell” of any kind is not maximizing total wellbeing. The Repugnant Conclusion is not repugnant if you take the realistic conditions for utility maximization seriously.

    The Repugnant conclusion states that it is better to have quintillions of people who have one moment of satisfied preference in all their lives than billions of people with very satisfied lives. That is bad because, while increasing the total amount of satisfied people in the world is important, it is a value that must be traded off against other important values, like increasing the average preference satisfaction per person.

    The practical concerns you cite aren’t relevant, I could always a construct hypothetical scenario that avoided things like existential risk, but still forced quintillion of people to live lousy lives. Such a scenario would still be immoral.

    • Dremora

      [I skip the discussion of antinatalism as evil because I have a different view of what evil is than you do. Let's leave it at that.]

      However, old-style “greatest pleasure for greatest number utilitarianism” did have this as a problem.

      Can you show me a citation of a serious debate about forced pleasure drug consumption where a reputable classical utilitarian had a problem explaining why that is not utility maximizing? I suspect you’re making stuff up here. The negative consequences of forced heroin consumption are so obvious that I won’t waste our time even outlining them here.

      The Repugnant conclusion states that it is better to have quintillions of people who have one moment of satisfied preference in all their lives than billions of people with very satisfied lives.

      Assuming that those lives are otherwise net neutral (the good and bad cancel each other exactly), and assuming the definition of “very satisfied lives” contains a utility equivalent of no more than one billion of the satisfied preferences. in the quintillions’ lives, then yes. But in that case, why is it repugnant? It means many more good experiences in the universe, while the rest is net neutral.

  • Evan

    Can you show me a citation of a serious debate about forced pleasure drug consumption where a reputable classical utilitarian had a problem explaining why that is not utility maximizing?

    Bentham received, heavy criticism for simplifying all pleasure so that it was equivalent, although I don’t know if he talked about heroin per se. John Stuart Mill argued against heroin use from the pragmatic standpoint that having lots of heroin users would make it hard to maintain society (although I think he opposed drug prohibition because it had even worse consequences), and that there were qualitative differences between intellectuals and physical pleasures.

    I am arguing that a naive form of pleasure utilitarianism that held no other values than pleasure and did not distinguish between bodily and intellectual pleasures like Mill did would conclude that the best society is one where everyone is blissed out on drugs.

    There is the argument that a society consisting only of heroin users would fall apart, but that is a pragmatic argument in response to technological and social constraints. Imagine a world where those restraints were removed. Imagine a world where we had nonsentient robots that could take over all the work. Then would not the best way to maximize pleasure be to keep everyone blissed out on drugs 24/7 while robots did all the work?

    A good moral system has to produce good results in any situation that is physically and logically possible, not just in ones you can reasonably extrapolate from the present day. You can’t dismiss some horrible conclusion of that moral system because it’s impractical, you also have to dismiss it in the least convenient possible world where it is practical.

    For the record I am a utilitarian, but I am also a value pluralist and think true utility consists of weighing many complex values that can’t be reduced down to one thing.

    Assuming that those lives are otherwise net neutral (the good and bad cancel each other exactly), and assuming the definition of “very satisfied lives” contains a utility equivalent of no more than one billion of the satisfied preferences. in the quintillions’ lives, then yes. But in that case, why is it repugnant? It means many more good experiences in the universe, while the rest is net neutral.

    Because it would result in the universe having a very low average utility. You can’t just detach all the happy experiences from the people having them and add them up like that. Having them concentrated among fewer people would increase the average quality of life, which would be good.

    Now, you might reply that the logical conclusion of that reasoning is to have one very happy and satisfied immortal supported by nonsentient robots. But that’s only true if you think that average utility is the only value. If you value both total and average utility then it becomes better to have a fairly large amount of people living fairly high quality lives than to have either trillions of people with mediocre lives, or one ecstatic immortal (incidentally, it’s also probably good to value equality distribution of utility to a limited extent).

    Morality is about improving quality of life per life, not per life years experienced. If you want more evidence, consider the way when people find out a loved one is dying, they spend more time with them and try to make their last moments better. That is likely because they realize they didn’t have as much time as they used to improve the quality of their loved one’s life, they have to fit in more quality experience more quickly. The type of utilitarianism you describe would consider that behavior insane. If you can just detach positive experiences from the people having them and tally them up, it wouldn’t matter whether the dying person was having them, or someone healthier. In fact, it might be worse, since the dying person might experience diminished returns from all the attention. But if you measure utility by life rather than life year it makes perfect sense. (you might argue that they’re caring for the loved one to compensate for the pain of dying, but people behave the same way even if the cause of death is painless.)

    If you want more evidence that aggregating utility separate from the people experiencing it is irrational, imagine two societies: One consists of 99 slaves who have a net total of -1 positive experiences in their life (that is, their good and bad experiences balance out except for one negative experience) and one slave owner with a net total of 201 positive experiences in his life. The other society consists of 100 free people with a net total of 1 positive experiences in their life. The first society has a net total of 102 positive experiences, while the second one has a total of 100. Yet I think we can agree the second society is morally superior.

    [I skip the discussion of antinatalism as evil because I have a different view of what evil is than you do. Let's leave it at that.]

    I think I can show that the reasoning behind antinatalism is logically incoherent if one has something close to a normal human utility function, which I believe antinatalists do:

    Benatar’s argument is basically:
    1. It is good to stop pain and dissatisfaction.
    2. Implying that it is bad to stop pleasure and value satisfaction logically implies the Repugnant Conclusion. You cannot reject the Repugnant Conclusion and believe it is bad to stop pleasure without being logically incoherent.
    3. The Repugnant Conclusion is obviously wrong.
    4. Therefore, it is good to stop pain, but not bad to stop pleasure.
    5. Therefore, having children is bad, even if they live satisfied and pleasurable lives.

    The most vulnerable point of his argument is points 2. If someone finds a way to simultaneously believe stopping pleasure and satisfaction is bad, but also reject the Repugnant Conclusion, without being logically incoherent, then anti-natalism is false. Alan Carter figured out how. Therefore, anti-natalism is false. (Incidentally, it’s also false if you reject 3 and accept the Repugnant Conclusion, as you seem to have done, but I have other reasons for believing the RC is false.)

    I can’t really imagine how your conception of evil can be that different from mine. If I was to ask you why Joseph Stalin or Ted Bundy were evil would you say “Because they are irrational in some cosmic sense” or would you answer “Because they tortured and killed people”? Evil people are people who destroy human values (not being tortured and killed in the case of Stalin and Bundy), not people who are cosmically irrational.