Friday, 18 May 2012

Antinatalism: The "Risk Equation" Argument

Hi guys, welcome to Orygyn!

My subscriptions have made a few videos about antinatalism over the past year. Among these videos, 1 argument was raised by the antinatalist camp which I have not seen sufficiently addressed. I will refer to it in this post as the "risk equation" argument and it goes like this:

"The act of creating life comes with a 100% certainty that the new life form will suffer at some point in their life, but a lesser probability that the life form will ever experience pleasure. To minimise suffering, we must abstain from producing life."

First, I want to assess the logic of the argument. It doesn't hold for a human being that has no mental or physical disorders. It will, at some point, experience pleasure, unless it dies very soon after birth. Is suffering guaranteed? This depends on what is defined as suffering. If my understanding of the argument and the antinatalist position is correct, any form of discomfort including mild hunger counts as suffering. To eliminate bias, the definition of pleasure, as the opposite of suffering, must be equally flexible. For example, satisfying hunger decreases suffering and so, by definition, increases pleasure. A fetus is constantly fed through its umbilical cord and so the organism's utility varies (pleasure and suffering will cycle up and down). This holds true, even if the organism has a debilitating disease or disorder. The only case in which it is not true is when an organism may not be mentally capable of pleasure, suffering or both. As such, I have problems accepting the argument at all.

However, let's assume that the definitions of pleasure and suffering could be adjusted in such a way where the argument's logic becomes sound. The argument concludes by making a moral assertion, that to minimise suffering in the world, we must stop procreating. This is a utilitarian viewpoint, but one which I find to be unsatisfactory. It essentially makes the case that suffering should always be avoided, even when it could be argued to be justifiable because it produces net pleasure (more pleasure than suffering). I don't necessarily agree with this position.

Let's take a very simple example: disciplining a child. This discipline could be anything from a mild telling off to a beating. Here's the scenario:

A child does something which the parent views as wrong. As this is the first instance of the child performing this action, and because the parent is relatively understanding, the parent explains to the child that it is wrong and that they shouldn't do it again. The child seems to take this in but, some time later, repeats the action. At this point, the parent decides that discipline involving some amount of suffering for the child is necessary. Once again, this action need not be a beating, just as simple as a telling off. Is the parent wrong to discipline the child in a manner which involves some amount of suffering? Anyone using the morality required to argue against natalism by means of a "risk equation" must, if they are consistent, answer "no". However, this morality clearly isn't practical in the example of disciplining a child. Nothing short of some amount of discipline will prevent the child from repeating the undesirable action, an action which causes some other form of suffering. A small amount of suffering is induced in the child to prevent them from causing a larger amount of suffering to others as a result of their actions. If the child doesn't understand the immorality of the action they are being punished for, they will likely forgive the parent later on when they do, as they will then understand why it was necessary.

The previous paragraph introduces a concept, which I think must be present in any utilitarian view of morality for it to function in practice, and that is the concept of "acceptable suffering". It needn't be the example of disciplining a child, it could be something as simple as delayed gratification, and encouraging that practice in others. It teaches individuals to persist at an activity to reap enormous benefits when they eventually succeed. Where it applies to the risk equation argument is when we look at how people view their own life. It's very easy to assume that someone living in the most resource deprived parts of Africa might wish they were never born, but is this true? Humans are very adaptable, especially when faced with a hardship they have no control over. Dan Gilbert talked on TED about how lottery winners and paraplegics were equally happy 1 year after their respective events. I know personal experience is a bad way to argue anything, but I, for one, would rather be alive now than to not have been born at all. It's unlikely you'd find many people, especially in developed countries, who disagree. I argue, then, that the inevitable suffering, which it is argued any child will necessarily experience as a result of growing up, is acceptable, as the child is unlikely to care about it in the long run, unless their life is consistently deeply horrific.

Antinatalists make some very valid points about how we live our lives, but, in my opinion, ruin it by providing a hatchet job as a solution. In the 21st century, when humans inarguably have a huge impact on the environment and the planet's available resources, we should think before we add 1 more to the 7 billion we already have. We should, at the very least, consider the upbringing that the child we create will experience. I'm not telling anyone what to do, but if it's controversial to even suggest that people should be responsible when considering how many kids they have, or even whether they should have kids given their immediate environment, we are fucked as a species. We need to reduce our impact on the planet, we need to watch our numbers so we don't exhaust our resources, but the situation does not call for our extinction as a species.


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