Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day and the problematic issue of creating new people

2:20 am.

Can’t sleep. Memorial Day everywhere on television and radio. Heroes who gave their lives for our freedom. In Korea I don’t recall anyone, ever, talking about protecting American freedom, or talking about fighting for his country. We were just there. Some of us were there because we were looking for something. It wasn’t freedom. Others were there because they had been drafted by the State. The contest itself interested everybody, volunteers and draftees alike. When a contest involves life and death both, the events of the contest interest everyone in the game. It was the same in Vietnam as in Korea, and I would suppose the same as it is in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Finished Jim Crawford’s Confessions of an Antinatalist. He gets better as he goes along. His first book. He’s got a career ahead of him.

I can’t find the paragraph in Crawford’s book where he lays out his thesis in a few lines. The next best thing is to quote what he quotes of David Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence.

“Each one of us was harmed by being brought into existence. That harm is not negligible, because the quality of even the best lives is very bad—-and considerably worse than most people recognize it to be. Although it is obviously too late to prevent our own existence, it is not too late to prevent the existence of further possible people. Creating new people is thus wholly problematic.”

The logic of the statement appears incontrovertible to me. Creating new people is problematic. Billions of them. The amount of suffering in the world is inestimable. Every day hundreds of thousands of women giving birth. At this very moment the agony, the exploding water, the blood. All over the world. For what? To feed our yearly Memorial commemorations? If we were truly interested in ending suffering, we would just stop making people.

It’s not going to happen.

At the same time, I’m not certain I agree that “the quality of even the best lives is very bad …” Maybe I don’t understand what Benatar means by “best.” My own life is not among the best in any sense of that word, yet it does not seem to me to be a very “bad” life either. I think we are talking about suffering here. There has been some suffering, but not near enough of it for me to not want more life. It’s been an ordinary happening, and will soon be finished. Outside the human construct, meaning itself is meaningless.

The great adventure.

Crawford can write a fine line of poetry. In Looking Out Schopoenhauer’s Window his first line reads: “Passions coagulate to form a man.”

He writes. “Hold nonexistence in your right hand, and an eternity of unbearable agony which must be borne in your left. Is there any question as to the most favorable state you would want your child to end up in, after her body has gone to ground?”

Now the brain recalls the night in Hollywood in our rented apartment in the little canyon behind Grauman’s Chinese Theater when I literally paused in my passage from the kitchen to the dining room which was now our bedroom. At that moment the brain had recalled that my wife was pregnant, that we were going to have a child, and that child was coming into a world where atomic warfare could break out at any moment, every moment of the day and night. For a brief moment the brain thought about the horror of bringing a child into a world when what could happen is probably going to happen sooner or later, people being what we are. I didn't know what to do with what the brain had given me.

Well, the child is 24 years old now, she’s had a difficult life, a bad life I suppose, but she hasn’t been nuked yet, and there is no sign that she wants out of it. I'll keep my fingers crossed.


Chip said...


I'm glad you enjoyed Jim's book, as I imagined you would. I believe his project is similar to yours, at least in its humanistic aspiration.

A few notes:

Benatar's argument that "the quality of even the best lives is ... worse than most people recognize it to be" is provocative on its surface, but a major purpose of his book, Better Never to Have Been, is to show how people are naturally biased against arriving at an objective account of a given life's quality. One factor contributing to this "optimistic bias" is Pollyannaism, which leads people to selectively recall positive experiences (to the exclusion of negative ones) and to be unrealistically hopeful about future prospects. In a sense, accounts of a cheery afterlife may be understood as the ultimate expression of the Pollyanna Principle. Benatar also cites research showing how people are psychologically disposed to attenuate negative experiences by inventing explanatory narratives that serve to re-cast their bad experiences in terms that suit a more positive overall view. "Sweet lemons" and "sour grapes" rationalizations come so naturally to us that it is difficult to imagine how such habits of thought could conceal anything significant, yet there is evidence that those who suffer from depression (and who consequently have less access to consoling inner-narratives) are generally more accurate in assessing their abilities and future prospects. Finally, there is the tendency for people to judge circumstances in relative rather than absolute terms. Again, though it seems natural to tailor one's expectations to accord with the limits of biology and circumstance, there is no clear-cut philosophical reason why we should follow this script. If the human lifespan were suddenly extended by hundreds or thousands of years, or if the problem of scarcity were solved through some new technology, people's expectations would shift dramatically and the plight of those who came before would seem dire by contrast. But "the view from eternity" is always available to imagine in assigning qualitative value to life. If we eschew it, we do so out of practical habit because we are cornered by more realistic options. Our bias serves to preserve optimism against a more objectively -- and cosmically -- accurate appraisal of the quality of life.

Of course, even if one is inclined to dismiss the significance of the positive biases that keep most people on an even keel (most of the time), Benatar's argument -- which is central to Jim's position -- remains relevant as to procreation. Considered against the normal life with its shares of suffering and pleasure however proportioned, the person who is never created is spared every pain, and suffers no deprivation by never coming into being.

Also, regarding Jim's "hold nonexistence in one hand" passage, I want to point out that that bit is contextually directed toward those who believe in the existence of Hell, as billions of people do. The prospect of "eternity of unbearable agony" that Jim weighs against antinatalism is not meant to describe the normal state of life (as a reader unfamiliar with the broader context might infer). Rather, it is meant to point out the special moral gravity of the situation for Christians who presumably cannot know in advance whether their offspring will follow a path that leads to damnation.

Finally, I agree with you when you say, "It’s not going to happen." Provided you are referring to the "big picture," it seems true that people aren't ever going to stop creating new people en mass, even if the logic of ethical antinatalism were to be widely accepted. But inasmuch as choices rest with individuals, the argument that Jim advances is worthy of consideration. Every potential life that is withheld from existence is a life that will not suffer and will not die.

Fooled Once said...

Many people have children (or justify having them to themselves) so that they can live beyond that period of their lives during which either (you pick): (a) they feel able/willing to work; and/or (b) they are employable (they're able/willing to get others to pay them for something they do). This purpose evidently does not apply to you, as you have already outlasted the Eveready Bunny twice over.

This aim has acquired the term "retirement" in "advanced" countries, and it has ostensibly been socialized through arrangements called Social Security in the US. Declines in natural population growth accompany the installation of such programs, as they also accompany growth in economic prosperity and, in particular, accumulations of capital, particularly privately owned capital.

Whatever other reasons I have for having had them, I hope to gain comfort in my old age from (at least some of) my children. These sentimental concerns both encourage me to be nice to them (emotionally and materially) AND to keep them out of the armed forces and other sources of harm.