Monday, October 28, 2013

Antinatalism and The Problem of Happiness

Hey y'all, I ain't dead yet.

It's been a while, and I apologize for the lack of updates. I've had a tumblr going for a little while, and I'm going to port some of the tumblr posts I made back over the blog, but know that I'm back.

So, to mark my return from my unannounced hiatus, I have an announcement:

The Second Blue Pimpernel novel, Liquidity, is in the final stages of drafts. And by final stages, I mean I'm still proof reading; but I've got a print copy, and I don't usually do that unless I'm happy with the plot and I'm ready to move on. I won't put a release date on it, but watch this space for more information.

Now, onto my post.

I encountered a particular "philosophical" position the other day while responding to comments on Libby Anne's blog, Love, Joy, and Feminism. The particular post in question, "Breeders," "Spawn," and the Childfree, was making observations on how hostile some people in the childfree movement are capable of being. No movement is too good not to attract its own special little brand of asshole, and the childfree movement is no exception (yes, even the transhumanist movement has its own special breeds of asshole; misogynistic, racist, bigoted, and frankly, flat-fucking stupid, Silicon Valley Brogrammers who are chasing the Singularity while preaching their other religion, Libertarianism). I've seen some pretty nasty people in the chidlfree movement before, but that doesn't change my opinion that it's your choice whether or not to have a child. If you want one, good for you. If you don't, good for you. Life about knowing yourself and knowing what you want; allowing people who want to have children is what procreation is truly about; what we have now can be called accidental creation.

But that's not the overall point. I agree with everything she said.

It was a particular philosophy I ran into in the comments, however, that I severely disagree with.

For those who've never heard of it, here's a Wikipedia link to the two things I'll be discussing today:

Wikipedia: Antinatalism
Wikipedia: Negative Utilitarianism

It will come as no surprise to long term readers that I'm a utilitarian. That's my particular philosophy; I've already declared myself a mild abolitionist who believes a net reduction in suffering will lead to a net increase in happiness, and the goal is to increase happiness. So it might come as a surprise to some people to know that I take issue with these two positions.

Antinatalism, in so many words, says that birth causes suffering; a negative value is assigned to the act of being born and being alive. Benatar takes that position further, stating that because we suffer at birth, and suffering is negative and the goal is to reduce suffering, the only efficient way to truly reduce suffering is to never have been born at all.

Fucking cheery, right?

It gets better. Arthur Schopenhauer argues that it doesn't matter how much joy you experience, it will always be outweighed by the negatives (the pain and suffering) and, as a result, life itself has a negative value.

Now, let's hitch this ray of sunshine philosophy onto negative utilitarianism, like Benatar does. The goal of negative utilitarianism is to reduce suffering. Now, figure that any joy in life will be outweighed by suffering, and the goal is to reduce suffering. The only possible solution to reduce suffering, then is to reduce life. Life becomes nothing more than a stream of negativity and suffering, and because of that, it's fundamentally immoral and unethical to bring children into this world and things that are alive deserve sympathy at best.

For a syllogism, we have this:

Point A: Life contains suffering
Point B: Suffering outweighs the joys of life
Point C: Our goal is to reduce net suffering
Conclusion: The only way to reduce net suffering is to reduce life, since life contains suffering.

Now, any comparisons here against Darkseid, Thanos, or Judge Death are entirely appropriate. This is the sort of thinking that the most comical super-villains do, cloaked in a pseudo-philosophy.

Readers know I'm an optimist. This notion that life contains suffering, therefore, end all life is an affront of the deepest sort to me. I'd get along better with an Objectivist than I do these people, since at least Objectivists see a purpose to life.

Now, if you're looking at this, you're likely wondering: I know something is wrong here, but I can't pin down where. This logic seems rock solid on the surface. And let me assure you, that logic is more than rock solid on the surface, it's rock solid all the way through.

So, what's my issue aside from pitiful little emotional responses, so the cold hard philosophers can dismiss me as another stupid optimist with their manly and iron-hard logic? Recall earlier I called this a pseudo-philosophy.

I call this pseudo-philosophy because the problem isn't in the logic. It's not in the syllogism; they're solid. The problem is in the axiom underlying the thesis; the problem is the core notion that drives that entire argument, and drives the entire utilitarian argument, negative, positive, and otherwise:

The problem is this: Suffering is not inherently bad, and suffering is not inherently undesirable. I see two types of suffering in the world: necessary and ethical suffering, an unnecessary and unethical suffering. The goal shouldn't be to reduce all suffering, just unnecessary suffering.

Sometimes, suffering can lead to a positive outcome. Since outcomes are the result of multiple different factors, I can't assign a value to how often this happens since some of those factors might be positive, others negative, and the net result is negative, but for sake of argument, it's assign a 50/50 chance. I'm pretty sure that suffering ends on a positive note more than 50% of the time, but being generous, let's assume that.

How does suffering lead to a positive outcome, you might ask? Well, if you're ignorant of something, say, that the exhaust on a car is hot (this has happened to me before when I was little), you don't know any better. So you reach out and touch it, and hey, guess what, it's hot. You suffered as a result of that - you got burned - but the outcome was a net positive. For all the pain you endured, you learned that the exhaust of a car was hot, and you learned not to do that again. Not only that, but you are able to tell others not to make that mistake you did, so you can be a model for them, thereby reducing their suffering. Since a reduction of suffering is the goal, your suffering lead to a positive outcome and a possible net reduction in suffering. So we can safely say that suffering can have a positive outcome and, indeed, may even be desirable for that purpose. We can even say this was necessary suffering, since you served as an example and you learned something. Not only are you less likely to touch it again, but when someone says, "be careful, that's hot," you're less likely to touch that, too.

Learning, then, is a positive outcome. Being a model for others, so they don't have to make that same mistake you made, is a positive outcome.

Not all suffering leads to a positive outcome, though; unnecessary suffering usually doesn't. I define, for all intents and purposes, unnecessary suffering as suffering inflicted through removal of autonomy and choice, or undermining your being in a negative manner, although sometimes even then (for instance, a prisoner being sent to prison is stripped of most of their autonomy and choice, but very few people would call them being in prison unnecessary suffering). Murder is unnecessary suffering. Rape is unnecessary suffering. Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse are unnecessary suffering. These are all instances of something that remove your autonomy, undermine your being in a negative manner, or strip you of your choice (or all three at the same time). 

So, I've defined two types of suffering: necessary suffering, that leads to a positive outcome and the possibility of a net reduction in suffering, and unnecessary suffering, which rarely leads to a positive outcome and usually a net increase in suffering. Suffering, then, is not uniformly bad, and it's not something we should be working to eliminate because it's not bad.

But wait, what about the argument of non-existence? It's clear that some people experience quite a bit of unnecessary suffering in their life, and these people would be better off if they'd never been born, right?

Let's look at it from this perspective:

Goal: Reduction in unnecessary suffering
Point A: A positive outcome can be defined as a reduction in suffering
Point B: A negative outcome can be defined as an increase in suffering
Point C: Ergo, all negative outcomes must be reduced or removed. Since life is full of more negative outcomes than positive, life is still full of suffering, and the only possibly way to achieve a positive outcome is to reduce life.

This is still wrong.

Given a negative outcome, you have the opportunity to take a negative outcome and turn it into a positive one. If someone you live is murdered, you can still work with the police to find the individual that killed them, arresting that individual before they can kill again. It's not a positive for you, but it's a positive for society over all. Your negative has become a positive for society. People no longer live in fear of that murderer. Same for the case of rape. It may not become a positive for you, but it will be for society, because that rapist is no longer there to threaten other people.

So even the darkest negatives generated by unnecessary suffering can be flipped into a positive. I mentioned earlier that you can take a negative and turn a negative into a positive; I told you I don't know what the exact rate was, but I pegged it at 50/50 for the sake of argument.

So, I can take a negative and I can turn it into a positive.

But what if I never existed? First off, I'd never be making this argument. But, overlooking that, non-existence affords me the ability to do nothing at all in a very literal sense. Meaning that there will be no outcome at all from me not existing.

So, let's phrase it this way:
Goal: Reduction in unnecessary suffering
Point A: A positive outcome is preferred
Point B: A negative outcome is not preferred
Point C: A negative outcome can be changed, 50% of the time, into a positive outcome for someone
Point D: Non-existence affords no outcome
Point E: No outcome affords no chance for any sort of change, positive or negative.
Point F: 50/100 is better odds than 0/100
Therefore: suffering, both necessary and unnecessary, are preferable to non-existence, since both stand a chance of leading to the goal - a net reduction in unnecessary suffering, for myself and others.  Non-existence, meanwhile, affords me nothing, because I don't exist, and it affords others nothing, because I don't exist. Since my suffering can be used as an example for others to learn form leading to a positive outcome, my existence is justified and so is the suffering that I experience.

Ergo, both negative utilitarianism and antinatalism are both wrong on the face of it, and the axiom defining both is, in so many words, bullshit. To drive this home even harder, being born may be suffering (since now I know what happiness is, and now I can be deprived of it), but, as I've show by example, it's necessary suffering, since you can take that and turn it into a major positive. Life, my friends, is what you make it, and it's superior to non-existence precisely because it affords you the opportunity to do just that

But what about happiness? I've spent all this time focusing on suffering, since the goal of negative utilitarianism is a net reduction in suffering, not a net increase in happiness. I hold that both are necessary - you can't just focus on a reduction of suffering while not trying to improve overall happiness in general, but I also hold that not all happiness is desirable.

For instance, just as some suffering can be justified and deemed ethical, not all happiness can be said to be ethical and justified. Note above I mentioned happiness for the first time; birth is suffering because I know happiness and happiness can now be deprived of me; that deprivation causing suffering. At work here is the claim that all happiness is good and all deprivation of happiness is bad, but that's not true, because not all happiness is good.

For instance, a serial killer who enjoys murdering their victims can be said to be happy when they do so. But their happiness is certainly not ethical or justified. Likewise, a CEO who scams his employees so he can make more money, works them without paying them, and lies to them about reasons for cutting their hours while expecting them to work the same while he works even less and makes more money; his happiness is not ethical or justified either. In both cases, their happiness results in a deprivation and unnecessary suffering for others. Since I split suffering up into two categories, I can do the same with happiness; ethical happiness and unethical happiness, just as there's necessary suffering that leads to a positive outcome and unnecessary suffering that may or may not lead to a positive outcome for someone; so too is there ethical happiness, which leads to a positive (a reduction in net unnecessary suffering) and unethical happiness which leads to a negative (an increase in unnecessary suffering).

Unethical happiness is almost always selfish happiness; happiness achieved at the expense of others. Make no mistake; everything you do in life will likely harm someone(s). Unethical happiness, then, is not preferred, and unethical happiness, then needs to be reduce just like unnecessary suffering.

Because of this, being deprived of happiness is not necessarily a bad thing, especially since that happiness may well be unethical. But being deprived of ethical happiness is a negative - but remember that like necessary suffering, that negative can be spun into a positive: being deprived of ethical happiness may well lead to a total net increase in ethical happiness.

So being born and knowing happiness to be deprived of it is not bad. Suffering is not all bad. Happiness is not all good. But all antinatalism and negative utilitarianism is bullshit.


  1. I've been writing about antinatalism on my blog!

    tl;dr it's really racist in addition to the problems you pointed out.

  2. Your arguments have been addressed numerous times by the antinatalist camp.

    Suffering is axiomatically bad. Suffering is defined as whatever we try to avoid as much as possible in our day-to-day experience. The reason you aren't gouging your eyes out with a rusty nail at the moment, is because you want to avoid the severe physical and psychological pain it would cause. Human behavior would be completely different if we actually believed suffering was a "good" thing. In other words, we can put on a brave face and proclaim that "That which does not kill me makes me stronger", but this is just big talk, since nobody believes it in the real world.

    In the cases where we "choose" suffering (diet, studying, working out, etc.), it's only to avoid greater future suffering (unattractiveness, poor self-image, health problems, unemployment, etc.), and we make sure that this "chosen" suffering is as limited in scope and duration as possible, and is completely discarded as soon as our goals have been achieved.

    Relatively little of the total suffering in the world is so-called "instrumental" suffering (i.e. suffering that teaches us a lesson), unless you're going to argue that disease, war, famine, poverty, death, etc. are serving some useful educational purpose. Even if suffering teaches us a lesson, it would have been better had we learned that lesson without the accompanying suffering. And since nonexistent entities neither experience suffering nor are deprived on pleasure, and don't need to learn any lessons, suffering is completely redundant and malignant.