A Brief Word on the Reaction to the Aurora Theatre Shooting

I haven’t tended to talk about current events/politics here, but I really want to say one thing.  I have heard that there are some people in the US trying to link the Aurora shooting to the Democrats.  Or the Republicans.  Whichever.  This is just irresponsible – taking an accidental characteristic of the killer and then making this into a relevant characteristic in order to smear one’s political adversaries as monsters, demons, and murderers-by-proxy.  It would be understandable (though still erroneous) were it an apparently politically motivated attack (as seemed possible with the Loughner shooting), but this is just run-of-the-mill deadly-nuts (like Columbine).  DO NOT DO THIS.  It leads only to greater anger, frustration, and decay of trust and social cohesion – your society has enough of that as is.  Read your Jon Haidt.

Now, feel free to go hog-wild having debates about gun-control or security friskings at the theatre, since those are at least relevant to what took place.  But stop fooling yourself into believing that your next-door neighbour who doesn’t quite have the same politics as you is one among the throngs of hell’s army – that’s a fundamentally insane worldview.

NB: If what I’ve said doesn’t apply to you, keep up the good work.

Advertisements

Building Better Zombies

I’m warning you…

David Chalmers relies in no small way upon his so-called ‘philosophical zombies’ – entities that are like human beings in every respect, physical and psychological, the only teeny, tiny difference being that they are lacking conscious experience – to make his point about consciousness being a basic property, i.e. that it is a mental-kind term that may neither be functionalized nor emergent from some set of physical states of affairs. However, his example doesn’t (and shouldn’t) convince anyone who is not already friendly towards the sorts of consciousness-views offered by the various dualisms and panpsychisms floating about. To pick but one example, Daniel Dennett doesn’t think that Chalmers’ thought experiment does the trick (and is, in any case, very hostile to the proposition that there may be any mental properties which are not emergent from/reducible to physical facts/happenings [1]). And for what it is worth, I don’t think Chalmers’ thought experiment is very compelling either, even though I am more open than is Dennett to possibilities beyond run-of-the-mill reductive/eliminativist physicalist doctrines.

Why should I say this? Chalmers’ uses his zombies thus:

  1. It is conceivable that there might be some possible world wherein there
    are creatures with brains and psychologies such as our own, which are
    functionally identical to our own, but which are lacking conscious experience.
  2. Since it is conceivable that such beings could exist, consciousness is not an emergent property of physical systems assembled (physically or functionally) like our brains, otherwise the zombies in question would be conscious as well.
  3. As such, we may conclude that consciousness is neither simply a product of physical systems arranged in the right way nor functional systems of the right sort. [2]

Obviously, this is a very simplified presentation of his argument (or at least, of the version of his argument with which I am familiar), but it captures something of its thrust. As should be apparent, it is the second premise that causes the argument to fail – simply because something implies no logical contradiction, it does not follow that it is actually possible (in this world or any other). It may well be that in actuality any number of functionally appropriate systems (of which human brains are but one example) will be conscious and nothing else besides – which, not incidentally, is precisely the physicalist position promoted by fellows like Dennett.

The weakness of the argument is unfortunate because I find the (reductive/eliminativist) physicalist’s explanation of consciousness risible [3]. I suspect that the argument could be reworked in order to appeal directly to and make use of the sorts of intuitions held by physicalists of a Dennettian sort, all while avoiding the use of modal arguments (“in some possible world…”). This would make for a more effective argument against functionalist/physicalist accounts of consciousness since, at the outset, it gives them everything that they say they want but leads to the necessary abandonment of some of it. What follows, then, is my own version of a zombie thought experiment that, although leaning heavily on the intuitions Chalmers is mining with his zombies, (I think) does a better job.

Building Better Zombies:

Imagine for the moment that there existed a complete neuroscience. I mean ‘complete’ in the sense that this theory ranges over the entire range of properties of neurons as well as their actions and interactions in the terms with which ordinary science is comfortable (i.e. objectively observable/measurable properties) – there is no hint of ‘woo’ about it.  Moreover, this theory has been subjected to rigorous testing and is as good as proven and is able to predict with near perfection what any particular sort of neuron will do whenever any stimuli one would expect to find in its ordinary operational environment (whether biochemical or electrical) are applied to it in said environment [4]. So, were we to have a single neuron placed before us in a petri dish, we should be able to apply any neurotransmitter or electrical charge under any environmental conditions we should choose to subject the cell to, with absolute certainty that it will react in a specific way. This is all well and good, especially since we would not need to make any reference to mental-kind terms (e.g. consciousness, intentionality, representation) – our neuron is simply caused to produce said effect ‘mechanically’, as it were [5]. Indeed, to make any appeal to mental properties at this low level would be to make a claim which no physicalist would suffer gladly – neurons are just too ‘simple’ to be host to intelligence or consciousness.

From this modest beginning, we should be able to attach a second neuron to the first and to apply some stimulus to one or the other and predict with perfect accuracy what each of them will do, considered individually and as a unit. Once again, this prediction will in no way necessitate a resort to mental-kind terms – we are still firmly in the realm of the objectively explicable – and so again with the addition of a third neuron, and a fourth, and a fifth, etc. With each successive neuronal addition, the behaviours of the whole system will become increasingly complex, but without causing any explanatory or predictive troubles (as I have, after all, stipulated that this is a complete neuroscience). On each iteration, we slowly build a neuronal assembly that is increasingly similar to our own human brains until, soon enough, we will have succeeded in building one that is physically and functionally identical to an ordinary human brain which may then be hooked up in the right way to a (presumably custom-built) body. The zombie is ready.

I told you so!

This zombie will now start interacting with its environment and new stimuli will arise naturally from sensory perception of the immediate environment. This will lead to the zombie behaving in complex ways – e.g. using language and planning its vacation to Maui in the fall – based upon the stimuli it receives. Indeed, its behaviour will seem remarkably similar to our own, as we would expect, given that we designed it to be exactly like a neurotypical human being, but for one crucial difference – its behaviours (ranging from thirst to the writing of forlorn love songs) may be explained entirely without reference to mental-kind terms. After all, why should we explain these behaviours by reference to such terms, since they are just the working-out of neuronal cause and effect, which our ideal neuroscience already accounts for with ease?

Not to do so, however, would necessitate accepting some highly dissatisfactory entailments. If our neuroscience really does explain our zombie’s apparently rich range of behaviours, then because we have built a brain that is physically and functionally indistinguishable from that of a womb-born human being [6], we should seek to use the same theory to explain our own behaviour.  Since everything may be satisfactorily explained without need to refer to consciousness, qualia, thought, etc., then explanations of our own activities will also need make no reference to such things.  The trouble is, we emphatically do have subjective experiences and we are conscious. Given this, there are a number of possible moves the physicalist could make:

  1. Give a reductive/eliminative account of phenomena like volition, thought, consciousness, etc. This is, however, precisely what the stipulated ideal neuroscience has done – it has accounted for all higher-order processes in terms of lower-order neurological functioning – and has led only to the present conundrum.
  2. Deny altogether the existence of the referents of mental-kind terms (or, what is the same, insist on their ‘illusoriness’). This strategy preserves the ‘zombic’ quality of our zombie – our mental-kind term-free explanation is then entirely sufficient – but, because our brains are physically and functionally identical to those of the zombie, we necessarily rob ourselves of consciousness, mind, etc.  This, to me, is a major non-starter [7].
  3. Acknowledge the reality of these higher-order phenomena and give a non-reductive account of their emergence from lower-order ones which don’t exhibit mental properties. This preserves the absence of mentality at lower orders of existence, but introduces problems of its own.  Notably, it requires an account of the precise degree of complexity required for emergence to take place.  Furthermore, ‘emergence’ strikes me as something of a scientific equivalent term for ‘and then a miracle happened’.
  4. Abandon physicalism.  There are plenty of acceptable alternatives (dualism, idealism, panpsychism), although they might not be popular in the faculty lounge.

Endnotes:

[1] At this juncture I should say that I am only very generally familiar with Dennett’s take on consciousness. Consciousness Explained is on my to-read list, but I haven’t yet got around to it. If I have said something strictly wrong about Dennett’s position, ignorance is my excuse (albeit, a poor one), but if I have got the gist of his position wrong, feel free to take me to task.

[2] He goes on from there to argue for panpsychism, a doctrine with which I shall not concern myself at present (though I find the idea fascinating, if rather counterintuitive and subject to its own problems).

[3] The problems with physicalist accounts of the mind are, to my mind, several and I should like to do a post dedicated exclusively to them, but this is not the time. NB: I do not discount physicalism in its entirety, however, but only those strains of it which claim to already have provided a complete, adequate explanation of the world and everything in it.  The “near enough” physicalism of Jaegwon Kim or Colin McGinn’s physicalist ‘mysterianism’ do not strike me as problematic.

[4] Necessarily, also, in the lab environment. This is, of course, a highly idealized science, but I’m doing philosophy, so I’m able to stipulate anything I wish in order to explore our intuitions. If magical miniature unicorns could do the trick, that would be fair game – so too with scientific theories which require prohibitively complex computations.

[5] Or, rather, biomechanically or biochemically. Or, for that matter, biophysically (especially if quantum minds are something one finds appealing).

[6] I am assuming here that the causal histories of our zombie brain vs. an ordinary human brain will not be relevant, at least insofar as consciousness is concerned – I think it likely that so long as the brain is up and running it should not matter whether it was built in a petri dish or a mother’s belly.  Of course, the different causal histories almost certainly would be of relevance to matters such as personality or learned skills (to name two).

[7] I can’t fathom how it is possible that consciousness (conscious experience) could be an illusion.  For this to be so, it would be necessary that we experience the illusion of having experience.  This idea is so obviously self-defeating and crazy that I wonder why intelligent people go in for it.

Where Is the Mind Located?

Which is it – body in mind or mind in body?

If asked whether the mind is located within the body, most people – most Westerners, at least (I cannot speak for how people from other cultures might experience such things) – would immediately and unhesitatingly say “yes, the mind is located within the body.”  Indeed, it often feels a lot like it is.  I was lying awake last night and it was really apparent in the dark and the silence that my thoughts really did seem to be taking place in the physical space between my ears and behind my eyes.  But this, I know, hasn’t always been the case – other cultures have maintained that thinking happens in other parts of the body (by this they did mean thought, not emotion, which I experience as scattered throughout my body), sometimes even disconnected parts!  The heart was a typical one (and Aristotle thought the brain was an organ for cooling the blood).

There are other times, however, when I have exactly the opposite intuition, when I really do feel like my body is actually inside my mind.  It is a strange feeling and I can’t really describe it because it both is and isn’t a matter of physical/spatial location, but that is what it feels like.  Sometimes I oscillate between these two perceptions, back and forth, without any clear priority given to either.  But when I am ‘body in mind’, my thoughts take on a strange non-locality, are not really anywhere, whereas when I am ‘mind in body’, thoughts definitely occur in my head. So I have two questions for everyone:

  1. Do you experience your mind as being located within your body or do you experience your body as being located within your mind?
  2. Do you also experience your thoughts as being in your skull or do you sometimes have thoughts in your heart or left pinky?

A Moral Presumption in Favour of Private Property

Property rights are a highly explosive subject of political debate in modern Western society (and probably in any human society that did or shall ever exist).  This Manichean debate has, on the one side, those who defend private property as a ‘natural right’ with nearly (sometimes totally) unlimited strength and scope, and, on the other side, those who insist that private property is just another historically contingent social more (the sociological term) designed by humans to facilitate our well-being (which argument is virtually always followed by the claim that said more is not serving human well-being).  All social/cultural/political/moral systems have a property concept of one sort or another for the simple reason that people must have some possessions and security in holding these in order to survive and flourish.  Obviously, these various systems will all differ in some capacity, so left-wingers and anthropologists are right to point out that there is nothing inevitable or immutable about the modern West’s private property views. [1]

And, in honesty, when I look at the arguments upon which Western property-rights are based – specifically, the Lockean theory and its derivatives (especially Nozick) – I do find them to be faulty.  I don’t necessarily blame Locke for this [2], but modern defenders of private property should be careful because, although this account makes property rights extremely strong, they are like a castle built on shoddy foundations – undermine those and the walls will come down, regardless of how sturdily built.  Such individuals may want to consider giving up some height in the walls in order to shore up the foundations.  As for myself, I think something can be said in favour of there being some sort of ‘natural right’ to private property, though I find such language (that is, the language of natural rights) to be unnecessarily strong, not to mention suggestive of an objective moral order of the sort of which I am skeptical.  I would rather say that there is something like a prima facie presumption in favour of private property that (potentially, as we shall see) obtains even in the absence of a legal authority to codify property rights.

But how do I define property?  Property in some object, concept, or territory (and so on) I define as ‘possession by right’.  There are two halves to this formula.  First, possession: whatever is one’s property, whatever one owns, is to be treated as though one is quite literally in possession of it, with all that this entails.  To choose an example, my car is to be treated as though I am literally in it or holding it, even when I have left it parked on the street.  Just as, were I behind the wheel, one would not simply be able to drive off (or otherwise tamper) with it without my say-so, so too am I considered ‘by right’ to be sitting behind the wheel, even when I am physically distant.  This brings us to the second half.  The ‘right’ which secures my possession of my car can be one of two types: legal or moral.  Since legal rights depend, on the final analysis, on the moral case(s) made in their defense, it is the moral right of possession which is of interest here.

Locke grounds the moral case for the creation of private property rights over things found in the state of nature – things previously owned in common as they were a gift from God to the whole of Mankind – in a presumed mixing of one’s labour with some piece of the world.  Even if we include his caveats (the so-called ‘Lockean Proviso’ and the prohibition against wastage) there are two significant stumbling blocks for his theory.  First, is the forging of private property through the mixing of labour, which simply reeks of metaphysics. [3]  Locke’s approach makes property into an ontological relationship between an object and its owner (in some non-trivial sense, the object is subsumed into its owners’ being), but today we correctly understand that property rights are social relations among members of human communities.  Second, it is unclear just what constitutes enough mixing of labour to unequivocally make something one’s own. [4]  For these reasons (and a couple of others aside, relating primarily to ‘common’ ownership of the Earth), I don’t find Locke’s account very compelling.

Still, I do believe that there is a simple enough principle in which we may ground ‘possession by moral right’ that does not necessitate recourse to exotic metaphysics and which comports perfectly happily with current anthropological/sociological accounts of human nature.  It is simply this: humans are purposive creatures – we act for reasons.  Whenever I bring something into my physical possession (whether by gathering, production, etc.), I have done so for a reason.  For example, if I have whittled a flute from a fallen branch I found, I will have done so because I want to play music, or I want to make a gift of it, or I want to trade it, or somesuch.  I have brought it into my possession to serve some end I have in mind.  Now, if someone steals, breaks, sells, or gives away that object, they will have interfered with my plans in a manner analogous to other interferences (say, having one’s hands bound – I did say analogous, not equivalent).  Provided that my plans are not themselves outside the bounds of acceptable action, there is a prima facie obligation on the part of others to refrain from interfering with my plans (since we all find such interferences irksome).  The moral right of possession is really, as I see it, a species of respecting the autonomy of action by others.

Endnotes:

[1] However, it does not follow from this, as such people seem to assume, that current arrangements are no better than some (or many) others.

[2] It would be foolish to do so – the basing of such rights in God seemed a perfectly natural thing to do at the time he was writing.

[3]  What is ‘labour’ and how does it ‘mix’ with sticks and rocks?

[4] Is picking an apple from a tree sufficient?  What if the apple fell from the tree and I just happened to catch it?  Would thinking about picking that particular apple be sufficient for it to be ‘mine’ – like calling ‘shotgun’ on the front seat or planting a flag and “claiming this land in the name of King Louis of France”?

No Moral Properties: Morally Relevant Properties

I do not think it overly incautious to say that most people view morality as something that exists apart from themselves.  I take no position between the various ways in which this is explained (whether as the Will of God, or of the law of karma, etc.) but I would be willing to go far enough out on a limb to say (without providing any strong evidence in support of the claim, mind you) that the perception of moral valuations as existing ‘out there’ as properties adhering to acts and objects, just as ‘red’ adheres to a fire-engine, is probably innate, the default setting of the human mind.  While it could be the case that this is so (who am I to say?),  it strikes me as unlikely that this should be the case.  After all, despite many years – our entire species-history since we attained sapience, in point of fact – of believing in morality, of arguing morality, and enacting (however poorly) morality, we have failed to achieve any robust species-wide agreement upon the content of morality.  Granted, there are such platitudinous agreements that, for example, we ought not to kill, but when we dig deeper into how different cultures and different individuals within those same cultures understand and operationalize such principles, we find that there exists hardly any common ground at all, even relating to such arguably fundamental positions.  Given our extraordinary successes in expanding human knowledge in other domains (e.g. astronomy, physics, medicine), it seems improbably that we might nevertheless have failed to achieve some degree of success in the moral sphere if, in fact, moral properties are obvious and actually existing features of the external world. [1]

Still, we feel very keenly (at least, most of us do) the strength and pull of morality and moral reasoning and we strive with mixed success to act within the boundaries these define.  Quite obviously, morality is a real phenomenon and we experience it as such.  Equally obviously, if morality is not an aspect of the external world, it will necessarily be a feature of the human mind.  The goodness that we observe in kindness and the evil from which we recoil in cruelty are not properties of the acts themselves, but are valuations that we have made and projected (instantaneously) onto the happenings themselves.  Thought the universe may be amoral, we most certainly are not.

Now, perhaps this doesn’t strike some of those reading this as plausible, which is fine – it is not really my intention here to change anyone’s opinion on this count.  Indeed, a good many will be sure to remain unconvinced because they know (or claim to) that it is perfectly obvious that there is a moral order independent of ourselves.  There will be others, however, perhaps fewer, who resist the view because they are unsure that they want to accept what they believe to be its consequences.  After all, if we lose the objective moral order, don’t we thereby fling to doors wide open to relativisms of all sorts, not to mention losing the basis of justification for our own actions? [2]  Such concerns, however, lively as they may be, have much less substance than they appear to, for two reasons.  First, and most importantly, there is no danger whatsoever that we are at risk of collapsing into barbarism and immorality/amorality on an account of morality as non-independently existing – what we take to constitute acting morally might change, but we do and shall retain our moral compass (whichever way it points) until evolution has stripped it from us.  Second, although there may be no such things as moral properties,  out there and ready-made to guide our actions, it nevertheless remains the case that there are morally relevant properties of objects and states-of-affairs to which we may turn for grounding our moral reasoning.

In order to determine what properties might count as morally relevant, we will necessarily need to first determine what exactly morality concerns itself with.  This, as any who has tried can attest, is a maddeningly difficult thing to do, at least to everyone’s satisfaction, but one or two tentative and broad definitions are available.  A minimally acceptable definition of morality obviously has something to do with guiding/constraining our actions, but this is too vague to serve as a definition since it says nothing about the reasons why we may declare certain acts impermissible in the absence of objective moral properties.  There is one family of accounts – one which I find compelling – that claims that morality exists as a way of constraining the acts of members of groups of particular species of social animals in order to bring about and maintain a modus vivendi necessary for their flourishing.  Some will find this to be too restrictive however, arguing that it misses out on the universality of the moral imperative – we generally, they would claim, extend the sphere of moral concern beyond the (sometimes very) narrow confines of our social groups.  Instead, morality is about acting appropriately toward everything.  There is something to this objection/definition, but I don’t think that it disproves the evolutionary account – I think, rather, that it serves as an interesting expression of the particular moral make-up of the human animal. [3]  I don’t see these two as incompatible as it is surely possible that our in-group moral sense is, like our intellect, far more powerful than strictly required for our survival and reproductive success and, like our intellect, has been applied to problems beyond those it arose to cope with.  But if this account does replace the other which I have given above, then morality will simply be concerned with the prescription of those actions which are of benefit to others and the proscription of those that are detrimental.  For the time being, then, I shall use this benefit/harm criterion as it arguably is a more broadly applicable standard (e.g. how we deal with a biting mosquito has little if anything to do with social cohesion) and is, in any case, widely assented to, even among those who don’t believe it to be the whole of morality. [4]

In order for some property of an object or situation to be morally relevant, therefore, it must be some property whereby an object (whether this object is the one which possesses the property or is some other thing) of moral concern may be brought to harm or benefit.  Unfortunately, this introduces a further complication into the matter – how do we judge whether an object has been harmed or benefitted?  I propose simply that for any action to count as a harm or benefit, it must have been done to an object which possesses some property whereby it can come to harm or benefit and would (had it the ability) judge itself to have been so affected.  This last bit is critical, since this is what allows moral action to be meaningful and coherent.  For example, we are not harming chimpanzees by refusing to educate them in mathematics since chimps’ natures are such that they do not consider themselves to be harmed by such withholding – indeed, they cannot even understand what it is that we are withholding.  If, however, we were to confine them to cages and refuse to feed them, then we are clearly doing them harm (they have a nature such that they require food and experience its absence as harmful).  Moreover, it is this own-judgement of benefit/harm that allows us to make moral arguments and appeals against the powerful and the opinions of our peers – but for this own-judgement there could not have been any case against slavery, patriarchy, etc.

From this it follows that the greater the number of properties by which an object can be affected, the greater moral consideration is due that thing.  A rock, for instance, cannot judge itself to have been harmed by anything, so is owed no moral consideration, except perhaps derivatively by being of interest to something to which we do owe moral consideration (by being someone’s property, say).  Conscious entities that feel pain and pleasure will deserve some minimal moral concern, while self-aware entities will deserve yet more.  Social animals will merit much, much more, since they can be affected not only by what  happens to themselves but also by what happens to members of their social groups.  Humans, finally, will bear the greatest degree of moral consideration since we can be affected in the greatest number of ways (indeed, by having our rights violated or our plans interfered with).

In any case, it should not be difficult, on inspecting an object, to ascertain which of its properties may be morally relevant.  The fundamental morally relevant property must be consciousness, since without consciousness there can be neither perception nor judgement of harm or benefit.  Emotional attachment, plan-making, and others are potential candidates.  But to compile a list would take much more effort than I would be willing to do on a blog!

Endnotes:

[1] Unless, of course, our moral science (please pardon the term) is still in its infancy.  Morality may, on this eventuality, actually be a part of the external world as much as is the sphericity of the Earth.  As was the case with the Earth in days of old, ‘natural’ moral properties may not yet be obvious minus some conceptual equivalent of manned space-flight.

[2] As to why the prospect of relativism should be so troublesome to any but the most rigid of religious fundamentalists, I have to admit that I find myself at a loss.  Surely we can all agree that moral relativism is, quite apart from normative concerns, a descriptive fact of human morality as it manifests in practice?  What further harm can result from acknowledging relativism that doesn’t already obtain from the mere fact of it?

[3] I would be interested to know whether some evolutionary psychologist has addressed the question of why it should be that humans are so readily able to extend our sphere of moral  concern so far beyond our most intimate acquaintances – as far as other living species and even, on some occasions, to inanimate objects!

[4] And because, furthermore, one could make the case that many of our apparently non-harm/beneficence matters of moral concern (social cohesion, say) could be derived from harm/benefit considerations, it would just take a lot of work.  How this can be should become apparent later.

Small Thoughts on Anti-Natalism and Potential Persons

Well, I haven’t been a very good blogger in the recent past.  It would seem that recently, when not at work, I have been in a reading and not a writing phase.  I have been working at a longer essay but I have to admit that my enthusiasm for it is low, so that will be done whenever it is done.  Meanwhile, I imagine that I will be keeping to shorter bits (and I suppose that I could get some book reviews in, since I’ve read a few in recent weeks).

Anyway, I was at our local megabookstore yesterday (though I prefer to spend my money at smaller booksellers, I had some gift cards to spend, so no option).  There, I happened to discover a book titled Why Have Children?: The Ethical Debate by one Christine Overall (MIT Press 2012).  I didn’t buy it, though it seems interesting enough to eventually make its way into my tower of books that I have yet to read (besides, I’m on a bit of a fiction kick and Heinlein is calling to me…).  It caught my eye, both because I find the natalist/anti-natalist debate to be a rather interesting one and, further, personally relevant [1].  The author takes the question from a feminist perspective and, somewhat surprisingly for feminists who cover the question of the ethics of procreation, finds in favour of it.  I look forward to reading it.

There was a time when one of my primary ethical interests just was the question of anti-natalism.  Now, it seems that there are two general approaches that have brought most anti-natalists to their position [2].  The first focuses on the ethical impact of child-bearing upon those already living, whether those impacts are related to environment, parents’ hedonistic calculus, etc.  There’s much to be discussed in this vein, but it is the second that I am (and usually have been) more interested in, which concerns itself with the ethical impact of procreation upon the yet-to-be born.

The arguments are various, but usually go something like the following:

  1. Even on the sunniest (credible) review of life’s ups and downs, it’s clearly a mixed bag – though there is much that is good and enjoyable in life, there is also much that is bad and harmful [3].  No one who is born, after all, can escape sickness, ageing, or death (as to whatever compensations come with these, it is telling that we think of them as compensations).
  2. It is uncontroversially granted that causing unnecessary harm is bad and best avoided.
  3. The harms listed in (1) obviously cannot be suffered by someone who hasn’t been born.
  4. Whether or not someone is born is obviously a consequence of his parents’ decisions on the matter (due to modern contraceptives, etc.).
  5. Given (3) and (4), the harms that come from being born are obviously evitable.
  6. Therefore, by (2) and (5), it must be concluded that potential parents should not become actual parents.

Now, there are a couple of ways of countering this argument, should one be so inclined, but I personally think it fails because it seems implicitly to suppose the existence of potential persons.  Harms must be done to someone in order to be harms at all, but how could harms be done to someone who doesn’t exist?  Surely (most) anti-natalists do not believe that there are ethereal little people hovering around women which are then unwillingly trapped in wombs by the procreative act.  If such was the case then, yes, it would be a harm – I highly doubt that it is, though.  More seriously, I cannot see how to make a precondition of one’s own existence into a harm against oneself.  It strikes me as about as plausible an argument as saying that because we must breathe in order to survive, and some of us will at some point have difficulty with that, we therefore would be better off not having to breathe at all.  There’s nothing obviously fallacious about such an argument, but it still strikes me as wrong.

Endnotes:

[1]  My wife and I have just passed our first anniversary and as it would seem we haven’t come to loathe each other any more than we already did (joke!), so starting to think about whether and how we might fit kids into the plan seems pertinent.  And since I’m a philosophy nerd, this also means thinking about children and the having-of-them philosophically.

[2]  When that position in fact does have some justifications grounding it, rather than simply being an expression of personal distaste for children or the raising of them (not that there is anything wrong with such an attitude – surely not everyone is of a sort to have children – and not that there is anything necessarily wrong witha posteriori justifications for one’s preferences).

[3]  And this of the best lives available to anyone.  There surely are, have been, and shall be lives in which that which is bad and best avoided overwhelm that which could potentially have been enjoyed (the famine children of late-night television donation drives come to mind).  A related and interesting question: are there lives that are not worth living?