Tuesday, June 8, 2010

What if the Taliban Crime Family tried to produce a television comedy?

Well, it would bear a striking resemblance to "The Office" only with less evidence of corporate competence.

Via Wings over Iraq

Notice the bitching, kvetching, and blame gaming.

Only then does the IED go off.

Hysterical, you bunch of losers.

Are we better off never having existed, or should we take steps to assure we are the last generation?

Peter Singer is at it again. Another controversial and thought provoking post in the NYT. Except, this time, he actually takes the less counterintuitive of the positions he considers.

Be sure to read the whole thing. To give a flavor of the gist, take a gander at this excerpt:

Is a world with people in it better than one without? Put aside what we do to other species — that’s a different issue. Let’s assume that the choice is between a world like ours and one with no sentient beings in it at all. And assume, too — here we have to get fictitious, as philosophers often do — that if we choose to bring about the world with no sentient beings at all, everyone will agree to do that. No one’s rights will be violated — at least, not the rights of any existing people. Can non-existent people have a right to come into existence?

I do think it would be wrong to choose the non-sentient universe. In my judgment, for most people, life is worth living. Even if that is not yet the case, I am enough of an optimist to believe that, should humans survive for another century or two, we will learn from our past mistakes and bring about a world in which there is far less suffering than there is now. But justifying that choice forces us to reconsider the deep issues with which I began. Is life worth living? Are the interests of a future child a reason for bringing that child into existence? And is the continuance of our species justifiable in the face of our knowledge that it will certainly bring suffering to innocent future human beings?

A few thoughts on the piece:

Let’s distill the questions and then try to answer:

1. Is a universe devoid of sentience ‘better’ than one that contains sentience?

2. Do future generations have a right to existence or life?

3. Do future generations have interests?

4. Can non-existent people make claims upon people that do exist?

5. Given that future suffering is unavoidable, are we morally wrong in bringing future generations of humans into existence?

I’ll try now to answer these. Answers do not appear in the same order as the questions, just because answers occurred to me out of order. So, I develop them out of order. I start with #4:

4. Can non-existent people make claims upon people that do exist?

The obvious answer here is ‘not so long as they persist in non-existence. But, once they do exist, they can make claims.

But, it does not necessarily follow from the fact that non-existent people cannot make claims upon us that we do not have obligations to those folks. How’s that? Well the answer has to do with the positive answer that must be given to #3.

We can project that future generations will have much the same set of interests as we. Also, we have good reason to believe they will come into existence. (Hey, the power of biology.)

We, as existing humans have an obligation to look out after the interests of future generations, given that it is likely (a) that they will in fact exist due to us, and (b) we are reasonably capable of projecting consequences of our present acts into that future, and (c) we have a good idea what their interests will be. While future folk do not yet exist, and therefore cannot make claims against us (you do, after all, have to be hanging around to make a claim or assert a right) we can reasonably project that humans will exist, that their existence will be causally dependent on our actions, and that their interests will be similar to ours. Given all this, we have an obligation to do certain things that are reasonably within our power to insure their well being.

Analogous instances abound. Here is a simple example: I own a car. I will not own that car for its full operational life. At some point, I’ll trade it in, or sell it. Now, I can certainly choose to stop driving that car next week, and just for the heck of it, cut the brake cables, or rig the airbags to go off randomly. Hey, it’s my property after all. Yet, if I am going to trade in or sell that vehicle, I would need to either abstain from that action in the first place, or restore full functionality beforehand. Why? Because I can reasonably project that some other human beings will use that car. There is no necessity, by the way, that those other human beings now exist. It is certainly possible that the car could sit for 75 years, and only then be acquired by some unsuspecting teenager (a person who at present does not exist).

Now, Singer certainly makes a similar point when he brings up anthropogenic global warming...er...climate change. Now, thoughtful people can quibble as to the veracity of such claims, and we can easily substitute other plausible future oriented worries for those of us who think that AGW is a load of old cobblers (perhaps runaway governmental debt and severe and prolonged economic depression?) but the principle remains. When you have good reason to believe your actions will impinge on the well being of people in the future (whether they presently exist, or you have good reason to believe that they will exist, even if at present they do not) and it is within reasonable control for you to do things to assure that their well being is not threatened, then you have an obligation to undertake those measures.

So much for #’s 3 & 4.

How about # 5?

Given that future suffering is unavoidable, are we morally wrong in bringing future generations of humans into existence?

At first blush, the answer would seem to depend on the ratio of suffering to non-suffering and/or‘enjoyment’ (broadly construed use of that term, mind you). If the suffering far outweighs the non-suffering, then, to bring those future folks into existence is to doom them to that level of suffering, that is, to a miserable life. I see no reason to believe that on the whole, humanity suffers much more than it does not. So, on the whole, the answer to #5 is ‘no’. We are not morally blameworthy for having kids! Life is not overall miserable, despite Benatar’s claims to the contrary.

On that point, I think a conceptual distinction needs to be made: While it may be true that human lives are filled to overflowing with unfulfilled desires and a meager smattering of satisfactions it does not follow from that alleged fact (and I do not agree that it is a fact) that those lives are miserable. There is a logical distinction to be made between the two modes of existence. Misery is not identical to the state of being primarily unfulfilled in life. But, I’m not too interested in pressing that point. I actually think that most human lives are sufficiently fulfilling and satisfying to be worth living. With caveats I present a case from which I warily extrapolate, knowing full well that I may be accused of having an insufficient data base. So be it:

(Now, I report as objectively as I can on my own rather typical human life, knowing full well that I can be accused of suffering from the dread ‘illusion of Pollyannaism’ not only presently, but unbeknownst to me, throughout my benighted existence. A brief somewhat sketchy chronological sketch):

My typical life: I was brought up by two caring parents, had shelter, food, security, spent time in elementary, middle and high schools, sometimes bored, other times interested. I had siblings and friends, throughout childhood. We created things, played outside, inside, swam, ran, played and watched sports, argued made up. I early on, developed a love of reading. In middle school I developed an interest in philosophy, natural science etc. That interest stuck. I had parents that loved me, took care of me, and gave me a sense of humor, nurturing grandparents with whom I spent many wonderful summers, lazing away on hot summer days, drinking iced tea, swinging on old porch swings. I’ve witnessed the awesome majesty of thunderstorms, snowstorms, the fall foliage, etc. I lived somewhat dangerously in high school, as did many people that grew up in the 70s. My high school experience was overall a mixed bag, positives and negatives, as is typical for folks growing into adulthood. I graduated, held down jobs, many of them monotonous and low paying, but valued my independence, made some good friends while learning the value of hard work, not only for self, but for society. As an adult I married a wonderful woman, pursued higher education, and taught at university level. I now find it incredible that I work for the Naval Academy with some wonderful folks whom I admire. My son, now 17, is a great kid, witty, and smart (By the way; is it objectionably “selfish” to have kids? Do parents do this primarily for their own satisfaction? Perhaps. But, so what? Isn’t it expecting too much to think that motivations for reproduction are not at least partially selfish? When I read this sort of hand wringing coming from philosophers I just want to say ‘Come on folks! Get a grip on reality.’ Sometimes the tribe of the philosophers just over-thinks things, and they fail to make proper concessions to human nature. There is some sort of lesson there that Adam Smith could teach.) All along, being a typical member of the human community, I am able to listen to music, converse, read, write, teach, buy and sell things, engage in politics, etcetera etcetera. There are periods of boredom, excitement, drudgery, health, illness, thrill of accomplishment, agony of failure, etcetera etcetera.

Now, I ask myself: Would I rather not have existed?

Nope. I'll take existence, thank you very much.

Now, multiply that typical case millions of times over. I dare to guess that most human lives (unfortunately not all) are similar. That is quite a lot of rich experience, even if accompanied by sometimes extended doses of the mundane or indeed, the miserable.

In conclusion, while we do not have to argue, in answer to #5, (and also to #2, which I think I’ve also answered now) that there is an obligation to bring future generations into existence, or that presently non-existent future persons have rights, or can make claims upon us, (even if we have, ex hypothesi, all agreed to abstain from undertaking the necessary actions to bring them into being) we certainly can make the argument that in bringing these future humans into existence we are not doing something that is morally suspect, in ‘dooming’ them to some miserable existence they would rather not have.

(And yes, I know, in saying all this, I admit I may yet be in thrall to the dread ‘illusion of Pollyannaism.’ All I can say in response to that possibility is to encourage individual readers to make an objective survey of their own lives, or the lives of folks they know, or a good sampling of representative folks from around the world, and see if they think those lives are miserable more often than not. At some point, if the results of such objective surveys are overwhelmingly against the claim that we are in fact miserable, while that could nevertheless be explained with some variant of the ‘false consciousness’ thesis, one suspects that appeal to that sort of thing begins to look like an instance of a non-falsifiable hobgoblin of a theory, something that need not be taken too seriously.)

So, I’ve treated #’s 2, 3, 4, and 5. What about #1?

Well, once again, we have to rely on a sort of comparison or survey, this time, not so much of individual human lives but of possible worlds or universes. We are asked to compare a universe that has no sentient life to a universe that does contain such life. The term ‘sentience’ is pretty broad. It can include non-human as well as human conscious life. So, we could compare several possible worlds, some containing sentience, but no human sentience, others with both, yet others with none of the above.

Now, in doing this, we necessarily do so from the perspective of sentient creatures, so one might want to argue that we are unavoidably sentience-biased in doing our survey, that is; deep in the teeth of the ‘dreaded illusion of Pollyannaism’. So, there is simply no way for us to carry out the comparison in an objective manner. We are in no position to be able to answer #1.

The obvious response to this bit of epistemic pessimism is to point out the obvious truism that only sentient beings can compare! Not only that, to pile truism on truism, only sentient beings can have a grasp of what it is to be sentient! So, sentient beings are in fact in the best, and only available position from which to carry out the comparison that #1 would have us do. Singer rightly claims, I think, that the results of such a survey will show to most folks (other than Arthur Schopenhauer, Buddhists or those deeply in misery) that the universes containing sentience are on the whole richer than the universes devoid of such life, and in that sense, better.