Monthly Archives: July 2014

Thoughts on Antinatalism Part 4: Benatar’s Asymmetry

This post is a response to another post by Tremblay defending Antinatalism, Benatar’s Asymmetry . In the post Bentar summarises and defends an argument in Better Never to Have Been by David Benatar. The summary of the argument is:

“(1) If a person exists, then eir pain is a bad thing.
(2) If a person exists, then eir pleasure is a good thing.
(3) What does not exist cannot suffer (therefore this non-existing pain is a good thing).
(4) What does not exist cannot be deprived of any pleasure (therefore this non-existing pleasure is not a bad thing).”

Due to the asymmetry between 3 and 4, Benatar and Tremblay argue that creating new people is bad.

This asymmetry seems incorrect to me, the logic that seems to be behind 3 and 4 does not seem consistent.

Tremblay writes: “[people who reject (4)]argue that to not start new lives is a deprivation of pleasure. But for whom is this a deprivation? It cannot be a deprivation to the non-existent, since that which cannot exist cannot be deprived. Is it a deprivation to the parent, or to humanity? ”

But isn’t this argument also an argument against (3)? If non existence isn’t deprivation for a person that would experience suffering. how can non existence be salvation for a person who would experience pain?

Tremblay writes: “We can imagine that the world might contain 12 billion people. That’s a whole 5 billion people that do not actually exist. And yet no one is mourning the loss of pleasure of these 5 billion imaginary people. A mother may regret that an expected child was stillborn, but the person whose death she regrets exists solely in her imagination. That which does not exist cannot be a person, or anything else.”

But what if circumstances were such that the mother didn’t want the child to be born because she knew it would person who would experience immense suffering (maybe she is trapped in a forced labour camp) and so is very relieved that the baby is still born? Is this irrational because ” the person whose death she [celebrates] exists solely in her imagination” ?

Here is the way I think about it. I have a choice to either create Person A or not create them. If I create A and they are happy, that is good, if I create A and they suffer that is bad. If I don’t create A and they would have suffered if I had created them than that is good. And if I don’t create A and they would have been happy, this is bad.

This is because of the opportunity cost of the choice to create A. The opportunity cost of a choice is the value of the highest value option that you didn’t choose. So if I don’t create A the opportunity cost is the value of A existing and being happy. Because I value that more than the option if they don’t exist I should choose to create them.

To illustrate my point further imagine a Paperclip Maximiser, a super intelligent AI that’s terminal value is to create paperclips. But this is a special paperclip maximiser, it values the creation of red paperclips but disvalues the creation of all paperclips of other colours. For simplicities sake, let’s say these values and disvalues are even, so it cares about creating one red paperclip the same amount as preventing one red paperclip from being created.

So if this Paperclip Maximiser was given a process that creates paperclips, but it wasn’t sure whether it made red paperclips or blue paperclips, would it also feel there was an asymmetry in the different possible outcomes? It seems clear that it wouldn’t. The Paperclip Maximiser only wants to increase the amount of red paperclips and minimise the amount of non red paperclips. it would view a situation where a red paperclip could have been created but wasn’t analogous to (4) as bad.

Now just to clarify my opinion, I reject (4) not because I think that nonexistent babies are floating around in nonexistent space and being deprived of pleasure. it is because I value a universe with a happy person in it more than a universe without one all other things being equal. Just like the Paperclip Maximiser values a universe with a red paperclip more than one which doesn’t have a red paperclip, all other things being equal. So I disagree with the ” therefore this non-existing pleasure is not a bad thing) ” part of (4).

Tremblay has made another post defending Benatar’s argument Clearing out confusion about Benatar’s Asymmetry. The post rephrases some content from the original, the first argument in the second post that s not in the first is that ” (4) cannot be worse than (2) because pleasure in fulfilment of a need is not any better than the absence of need in the first place. ” Tremblay appears to be saying that pleasure/happiness is of the same value as the non existence of the person experiencing that pleasure/happiness. This may be what Tremblay values (although in a comment in part 2 of this series he told me he agree with the statement “happiness is good,” maybe he meant only for people who already exist?) but I value someone existing in a state of happiness more than someone non existing, and if I could choose I would choose the former, all other things being equal.

Thoughts on Antinatalism Part 3: Over Population + Feminism + Burden of Proof + Hierarchy

In this post I will be addressing the four other arguments Tremblay presents in the second part of his The case for antinatalis The case for antinatalism

  • Argument 3) “Global resources arguments”

Tremblay argues that creating new people has negative effects due to the additional strain on the economy, increased use of recourses and inevitable environmental damage. He writes ” the more people we have, the less we can feed them, and thus having children at the same pace we are having them today will eventually lead to global disaster.”

I completely agree and although I am still less confident than I would like to be on the relative threat of overpopulation compared to other large scale problems I believe that is should be a serious concern. It is one of the reasons that I support Weak Antinatalism which as I defined early in this series is the belief that it is wrong to create new people right now. But it seems possible that at some point in the future this will no longer be the case. Unlike the previous two arguments that seem to apply to the act of creating new people regardless of circumstance, this argument only applies in a situation where resources are limited. In a technical sense resources will always be limited, but it seems it seems possible that they will be practically limitless at some point in the future.

Also this is a side point but Tremblay also writes that creating new people causes ecological damage. I agree but I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. I will be writing about this more in the future, but there are strong arguments that nature has negative value to the existence of Wild Animal Suffering. If this is the case than ecological damage could be overall positive.

  • Argument 4) “Feminist arguments”

Tremblay argues that from a feminist perspective creating new children is negative because of the harm it does to women, that childbirth in a large strain on women and that it reinforces harmful gender roles. I agree with a lot of what he says but I don’t want to engage with this argument at this time because it would require derailing the conversation on antinalism to talk about gender equality, a subject that Tremblay and I most likely disagree on. So I will not fully respond to this argument, at least not now.

  • Argument 5) “Burden of proof argument”

Tremblay argues that the burden of proof should be on the natalist rather than the antinatalist because the natalist is making a positive claim, that creating new people has a positive value.

I have some issues with the concept of burden of proof, which I will talk about in a future post, but even if we accept it as valid, it seems that the antinatalist is also making a positive claim, namely “creating new people has negative value” The burden of proof seems to apply to both positions, and in fact any position except “I make no positive claims about the morally value f creating new people.”

But I do agree with Tremblay that it is impossible to convince someone that they should have different values than they do. But it is possible to change what someone believes there value. If someone value human life but it extremely racist and thing one group of people aren’t human, then by changing there belief about what a human is we can cause them to value a group of people they previously didn’t appear to value. This is the reason that I engage with people who seem to have different values to me.

  • Argument 6) Anti-hierarchy argument

Tremblay’s final argument is that creating people unavoidably creates a hierarchy. Again this is a whole other conversation but I don’t view all forms of hierarchy as immoral, but rather think that the morality hierarchies should be judged case by case based on their positive and negative effects.

So it seems that most of these arguments I either agree with or think it would be unproductive to engage with, so overall this post isn’t that useful. But Tremblay and I have been having a productive conversation in the comments section of the last post so hopefully that will continue. My next post will be outlining an idea thay may allow us to accept antinatalist conclusions whithout them leading the extincion of the human race.

Thoughts on Antinatalism Part 2: Means to an End + Do No Harm

In this post I will be moving on to actually addressing arguments in favour of Strong Antinatalism. The source I will be using for Antinatalists arguments is the blog posts The case for anti-natalism by Francois Tremblay. Today I will be addressing the arguments in the part 1 and then tomorrow i will discuss the arguments in part 2. I chose

  • Argument 1) “Future human lives are used as a means to an end”

Tremblay argues that because future people are currently non-existent, meaning their values are also non-existent, that the creation of new people is always because of the values of already existing people. Therefore when adult create children they are using them as means to their own ends. Tremblay believes that the ethical principle “don’t use people as a means to an end” is so strong that he does not need to defend it but just argue that creating new people is in fact an example. He even goes so far as to say “for a proponent of natalism to simply declare that it is good to use people as means to an end would be argumentative suicide.”

I’m not sure why he believes this. The principle “Don’t use people as a means to an end” is a very deontological, the kind of claim that a consequentalist will quite often reject. And it seems to me that the position “in some situations it is morally acceptable to use people as a means to an end” isn’t as controversial as Tremblay seems to think. Although of course the popularity of an argument can only at best provide us with weak inferential evidence support of that argument and does not determine its truth.

I value personal autonomy and self determination, but these values can be outweighed by other values such as the prevention of suffering or the promotion of wellbeing. Lying to people is often cited as an example of using people as a means to an end, and I am fine in principle with lying to save lives for example in the classic “You are hiding Jewish people in your basement and Nazis come and ask you if you are, what do you tell them?” scenario (although there are complications such as the existence of ethical injunctions.). In a more hypothetical case. If there was a person who’s blood contained a cure to a disease that was killing millions of people but didn’t want to donate blood for religious reasons I personally would choose to remove a sample of their blood without their consent rather than let millions of people die (although that is clearly a less universally held position).

Of course if Tremblay says “No, I value not using people as a means for an end more than preventing harm/promoting well being or anything else” (which I don’t think he would because from his writing he seems to dislike suffering) then I can’t convince him he is wrong as it would seem to be a difference in terminal values which can’t be resolved by argumentation or evidence. But assuming that the Antinatalist agrees that not using people as am means to an end is acceptable in some circumstances they have moved from Strong to Weak Antinatalism and we just need to figure out the circumstances where it is Okay to create new people

  • Argument 2) “Creating new human lives also creates more harm in this world.”

Tremblay argues that “Do no Harm” “fundamental ethical principle” This is again is a deontological argument which I reject. Like most people, I value both the nonexistence of harm and the existence of happiness/well being. If there was a drug that caused some large positive effect most of the time but that caused a significant amount of harm in 0.0001 of people that took it, I would be fine with people taking this drug, which would not be the case if I only cared about preventing harm

Tremblay writes “”The main point is that, while we do not have a duty to create pleasure, we do have a duty to not create harm.” But he does not really say why this is true. For me personally. my moral values don’t really include terms like duty or obligation. I want people to be happy, so I should do actions to make them happy, just like if I wanted a chocolate cake I would do actions that would help me get the chocolate cake

Next Tremblay argues that viewing the creation of new people as a net positive, rather than a negative or just a neutral would lead to the conclusion that we should create as many new people as possible. He writes “The only logical outcome of this approach is the quiverful doctrine, that we should simply breed as much as we are possibly able, regardless of ethical or practical considerations.”

As I have previously stated, I don’t think creating new people right now is a good thing to do, but in some future society where material scarcity has been eliminated would I advocate creating as many new people as possible? As long as it didn’t decrease the quality of life of already existing people, absolutely. If at some point in the future there are a trillion people living happy, productive, worthwhile lives then I see no reason why doubling the population of this society (or increasing by a factor of 10, or 100) would not be better. It is possible that at some point we would reach a point where new lives would have negative value due to them being essential replications of already existing people after we reach the limits of how much variation in personality and experiences can exist that in the bounds of people that we want to create (this is much more complex issue that I will post about in detail in the future,) but this is no problem for me because my position is “If creating new people in the current situation has positive value, then create new people, if it has negative value than don’t.” So I would advocate the creation of new people until any more additional people would mean a universe that I prefer less than a universe with nor more additional people.

I’ll be discussing the other Antinatalists that arguments that Tremblay presents in the second part of his Case for Antinatalists in tomorrow post.

Thoughts on Antinatalism Part 1: Introduction + Strong and Weak Antinatalism

This is the first of several posts I will be making about Antinatalism. First this post will be introducing Antinatalism and my position towards it, then in late posts I will be directly engaging with Antinatalism arguments and finally presenting a way that Antinatalism doesn’t have to lead to a controversial conclusion

Antinatalism is the ethical position that the creation of new (usually human) life is morally wrong. Before arguing against this belief I would like to make a distinction between two different types of Antinatalism. It may be a distinction that already exists or it may not (I don’t remember seeing someone make a formal distinction between them), and I’m not sure how Antinatalists would feel me making it, but I think it will assist in our conceptual analysis of Antinatalism.

I am going to define Weak Antinatalism as the position that creating new life in our “current situation” is immoral but that it is not immoral in principle and there could be situations in the future where it would not be immoral to create new people. On the other hand, strong Antinatalism is the position that creating new life in principle is immoral regardless of the circumstances.

A Weak Antinatalist may use arguments such as “we currently have overpopulation so more children would be bad right now” or “the resources you use to raise one child could be used to help hundreds of children that already exist” and is more likely to identify with consequentialist moral framework. A Strong Antinatalist may use, along with the previously mentioned arguments used by Weak Antinatalists, arguments such as “a non-existent person can’t consent to being created, so by creating them you are violating their rights” or “it is always morally wrong to create harm and we can never guarantee that a person will not experience harm during their life time, therefore creating new people is immoral” and are more likely to identify with a deontological framework.

(Note: an Antinatalist doesn’t necessarily think that it is never the best available option to create new life such as in situation where someone says “make a baby or ill torture the whole human population for a million years” Antinatalists might see creating new life as a negative that can be outweighed by more negative but just that they would never see it as a positive in itself)

I make this distinction partly because I think it is a real distinction that relates to different groups of arguments and different underlying ethical frameworks and partly because I agree quite strongly with Weak Antinatalism and disagree quite strongly with Strong Antinatalism. I think that in the current situation that I am in (and that people like me are in) it is extremely selfish and immoral to have children and I will be making posts defending this position in the future. But I think that there are certain circumstances (that I hope will one day exist) where creating new humans would have extremely positive value.

The Antinatalist arguments I will be arguing against in the future posts are all Strong Antinatalism and I will usually refer to them as just Antinatalists. But when it is a relevant distinction to make I will make it and after arguing against Strong Antinatalism I will make posts arguing for Weak Natalism that will cause disagreement with Antinatalists and Natalists alike.

How I feel when I talk to Non Effective Altruists (Part 2)

This is a follow up to yesterday’s post and once again is about my personal emotional reaction rather than actual issues, but tomorrows will post will actually have content.

I often see people at shopping centers that come up to people and ask them to donate to a specific charity that they work for. I have run through what I would say to one of if they approached me. I would tell them the difference between passive and active selection of charities and how there charities are probably less effective than the charities recommended by GiveWell etc.

But at the same time I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing this. Partly because of the reason I talked about in yesterday’s post, but also because I once did what they are doing and it was one of the worst emotional experiences of my life. For an assignment in year 12 me and some friends went to a bus interchange and asked people to fill out surveys and donate to a mental health charity. I have never felt that much constant rejection. Every person I would walk up to would either ignore me or lie that they were busy or just flat out refuse to donate. I directly saw people not caring about doing good. even when someone presented them with the opportunity It was horrible. I ended up giving up and just sitting down for the last hour while my friends kept trying.

I honestly don’t think I would be able to do that full time, even for an EA charity. I guess I would get better at it and develop tactics to deal with it I had too. But at the time it was just unbearable. So I have a lot of respect for people who do that every day. Which makes the fact that they are doing it for non EA charities even worse.

Also obviously the fact that people not wanting to talk to me for a few hours is one of the worst experiences have had shows exactly how fortunate I am and how high my standard of living and general emotional levels are in comparison to the majority of other people, which is a reminder of why I need to help people. And given how much more I could be doing I don’t feel any sense of superiority to the people that didn’t donate.

How I feel when I talk to Non Effective Altruists

This post is not intended as an argument in favour of effective altruism (although I intended to write those posts in the future) but instead is about my emotional experience as an Effective Altruist talking to non-effective altruists about EA ideas.

I have many friends who raise money for charity. They do Relay for Life, or Live Below the Line, or 48 Hour Famine. They want to help people (or from a hansonian perspective they want to signal helping people.) And they do. But they don’t help people as much as they can with the effort they are putting in. And they don’t know that. And I do. And I want to explain this to them. But it’s hard.

I think part of the reason is that because effective altruism is so intuitive for me. It feels almost condescending telling people about it. I didn’t independently come up with the entirety of the collection of ideas effective altruism as a concept consists of (although I do remember googling “effective charities” and finding GiveWell and then from there effective altruism) but after I first read them, it just seem obvious. I find it very difficult to understand how people cannot agree with them. There are good worthwhile critiques of the effective altruism movement and ideas but central tenets such as “If you want to do good, figure out which option does the most good and choose based on that criteria, rather than another criteria” are so obvious that writing them out like that makes me feel like I’m talking to a five year old.

But a larger part is that I just feel bad telling people that thing they are good that they are not. I’m trying to analyse why, but it’s hard to break the feeling down. My brain seems to be suggesting it’s like telling a child that Santa doesn’t exist, but I don’t think that’s quite right.

Sometimes I talk about how some charities are more effective than others. They will say “yeah, like how some charities will spend 20% of the money on the staff” and then I have to explain that that is only one of several measures of a charities effectiveness, and often can be misleading etc. And the look on their face. Its like they don’t understand. I know this is partly because I need to improve my communications skills (part of the reason I am writing this blog) but it seems like a different kind of look to when I try to explain an philosophical or economic concept to someone. Or maybe just my internal emotional reaction is different.

I am writing about his because I want to get over it. Because it lowers the amount of good I can do. When people talk to me about charity I should be able to effectively communicate EA concepts without having unproductive negative emotional reactions. If I can cause one person to be as effective altruistic as me (which is not much yet as I am a full time student that ) then I have doubled the amount if good I would otherwise have caused.

So my ideas are to desensitize myself to this feeling my incrementally building up to it/forcing myself to do it. Next time I see a facebook post about raising money for a non EA charity I want to be able to send a polite, non-confrontational message to the person suggesting that they consider donating for a more effective charity. I’ll update you if I make progress in this area.

Hi :)


(Did I really just start my blog with hi? Could I be any more cliché?)

(Did I really just start by blog with a meta comment about my first blog post? Could I be any more try hard?)

(Oh no I’m trapped in a meta loop HELP)

Sorry about that. So, hi.

The point of this blog is to facilitate me writing. About 6 months ago I got a new blog with a very intimidating URL and goals that were so high that my procrastination and perfectionism wouldn’t let me make a single post there. So the current plan is to avoid that mistake by just writing with absolutely no expectations. My goal is to write at least one post per day. I may have to resort to writing a “Can’t think of anything to write today, sorry, here are some links” type posts but hopefully not. It worked well for Eliezer Yudkowsky. And I know the content won’t be ANYWHERE NEAR AS GOOD as the sequences due to my lack of raw intelligence and vast reserve autodidactic knowledge. But hopefully it will still be productive on my end, by forcing me to write and actually produce content.

I’ve noticed then when I just try to work through things in my head often go in circles and repeat things that I already know and writing things down usually helps when I can force myself to do it. So hopefully by writing my thoughts out in blog form I can organize and develop my ideas and practice communicating them at the same time.

So what I’m saying is that this point of this blog is primarily to help me rather than you. It’s possible that you may gain value from reading it, but I just want to remind you that it is very very very far down on the list of best things you could be reading right now. Especially if you haven’t heard of Less Wrong.

So, other stuff you should know. On this blog I intend to talk about things that I’m interested in writing about, which based on what I am interested in reading about will include Philosophy, Politics, Economics, Sociology, Psychology, Self-improvement, Effective Altruism and from time to time personal experiences. There are other things I am interested in, such as music, but that I don’t want to communicate to people in the same way as the rest so hopefully I won’t make a blog posts about them. There is also one large thing that I spend a lot of time thinking about but that causes me anxiety and I feel that writing about it and hearing people discuss what I have written about it will make my anxiety about it much worse. But hopefully I will be able to talk about this more in the future.

That’s about it, this counts as my posts for today, so I will hopefully make a new post tomorrow. I am about to be very busy for the next two weeks so if I can make it through then with keeping to my schedule I should be able to making until at least next semesters exams, especially if I keep one or two as a reserve to post on days when I can find time.
Thanks for reading. Hopefully this helps.