Monday, June 28, 2010

Children of Earth: What Children are For, and How We May Use Them

(Apparently it is polite to note that this article contains "spoilers," or revelations about the plot of the works discussed, in this case Children of Earth, the third season of a BBC Doctor Who spin-off called Torchwood.)

An alien race known as the 456 comes to earth and demands 10% of earth's children - or they will destroy the human race.

What do they want with the children? A child previously abducted by the 456 is shown partially dismembered and physically attached to an alien's body, puppet-like. The child feels no pain and will never die; his eyes gaze out with a vacant, vaguely pleading expression. Why do the aliens do this? The human children produce chemicals that the aliens find pleasurable.

The situation is one of raw horror. A person of normal empathetic capabilities will find it absolutely horrifying for a child to be used in this way - cut up and attached to an alien to live forever as his drug factory. In the television show, a government worker who is informed his children will be among the 10% sacrificed to the alien overlords kills his children (and himself) rather than hand them over to this fate. Many of us might share this reaction.

What if, however, instead of kidnapping existing children, the alien could breed its own human children (in vats, say) for this purpose? Would that be wrong? The answer to this question gives us insight into the morality of creating children under normal circumstances.

One objection to the 456 creating children to use as drug factories is that although the children will not "feel pain," they will suffer a horrible, endless existence. But horrible by whose standards? If the 456 does not create the children, they won't exist at all. Isn't a painless, eternal existence as the appendage of an alien better than none at all? Can we even compare the two? What standard could we use to decide whether a proposed existence is "too horrible"?

A second objection is that it contemplates using children for very selfish reasons. "Child-as-drug-factory" is about as selfish as you can get in terms of motivation for creating a child. But are ordinary human motivations any less selfish? We do not ordinarily inquire into motives for creating children. Should we?

The proponent of procreation must explain, I think, why it is wrong for the 456 to create children to use as chemical factories, but not wrong for ordinary humans to have babies for such motives as personal enjoyment and a feeling of immortality.

See also The Austrian Basement and Beyond for a similar thought experiment.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Patholysis, the Destroyer of Suffering

Enjoy the dark hilarity of sweet, innocent, slightly stupid Dr. Sanjay Gupta getting more than he bargained for in interviewing the (presumably antinatalist) suicide choicer Jack Kevorkian:
Not surprisingly, [Kevorkian] strongly advocates assisted suicide, or euthanasia, or what he calls "patholysis." Terms matter to Kevorkian, and this is the term he prefers when describing the "medical procedure" he performed on at least 130 people, by his own count.

"Path means disease or suffering," he said to me.

"And lysis, [sic] means destruction," I said.

"Exactly," he answered. Patholysis, he repeated. The destruction of suffering.

Kevorkian at one point asks Gupta if he wants to know the worst moment of his (Kevorkian's) life. "The single worst moment of my life... was the moment I was born," he says.

See also: my argument for an"unwanted life" diagnosis.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Peter Singer: Should This Be the Last Generation?

The philosopher Peter Singer discusses the ethics of procreation and voluntary extinction in the New York Times:
To bring into existence someone who will suffer is, Benatar argues, to harm that person, but to bring into existence someone who will have a good life is not to benefit him or her. Few of us would think it right to inflict severe suffering on an innocent child, even if that were the only way in which we could bring many other children into the world. Yet everyone will suffer to some extent, and if our species continues to reproduce, we can be sure that some future children will suffer severely. Hence continued reproduction will harm some children severely, and benefit none.

Two things are surprising about this:

  1. The antinatalism question is appearing in a major media outlet at all.
  2. The treatment and the comments are surprisingly balanced and intelligent, especially given the nature of the medium and the audience.

Singer does throw in the usual dash of Pollyanna-ish, feel-good idiocy:

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.

Overall, however, it's a huge step forward for the antinatalist cause.

A thoughtful comment from "sarah" in Brooklyn:

I think about this a lot - so many pregnant women are out there, and I wonder where they find the hope to have children. My son is a young adult, and I feel that the likelihood of his living out a natural lifespan is small. Environmental disaster, terrorism, the end of the world feels awfully close. Frankly, I love the idea of a planet devoid of people, healing itself from our damage, taken over by animals and plants. I don't think most people lead such fabulous lives, and I don't think it's worth sacrificing our beautiful home to let more people slog along.

Thanks Rob!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Scab, Snitch, Slut

On the use of aesthetic "moral" taboos to enforce compliance in large coordination problems

Part One: An Introduction to Coordinaton Problems

  • A scab is someone who works for an employer despite an ongoing strike by a union.
  • A snitch is someone who testifies against a criminal - sometimes for personal gain.
  • A slut is a female who has sex (or gives the appearance of being willing to do so) without demanding marriage, monogamy, or other social concessions in return.

These fun but ugly Germanic words have something in common: their aesthetic power enforces taboos that are perceived by users of the words to be ethical, but are, in reality, only solutions to large coordination problems. Enforcing these taboos is not morally justified - it only feels that way because a large group of people benefits from enforcement of the taboos. In fact, enforcing the taboos harms large groups of people at the expense of the benefiting group, and in these cases, there is no base-level ethical justification for that harm.

Intro to Coordination Problems: Shit

People are social animals. They live in large groups. In any particular instance, what is best for the group is not what is best for a particular individual. Paradoxically, if everyone in the group does what's best for the group, then each individual in the group is better off than if each individual maximized her own utility separately.

It's best for us all if we do what's best for the group. But each one of us has an incentive to cheat in particular situations.

Take defecation. It's annoying to have to only crap in certain places - an individual might be better off crapping wherever he felt like it, as opposed to only in designated latrines. But if everyone crapped wherever he felt like it, there would be shit everywhere, and everyone would be worse off. Society asks us to make a trade-off between our individual desire to shit freely on the one hand, and our mutual need for clean water (and sidewalks) on the other.

We spend a large amount of time alone, though, and so we may occasionally be tempted to violate this scatological provision of the "social contract." That is where taboos come in: (1) they facilitate the emotion of shame on the part of would-be taboo violators, enough to offset a minor expected individual gain from a taboo violation; and (2) they turn the entire society into "taboo enforcers" by giving moral color to the situation, thereby enabling the enforcers to punish the taboo violator (i.e., inflict retribution out of proportion to the harm the violation actually causes).

The no-shitting-in-the-spring taboo is a pretty good one, I think; it may even deserve its moral color. However, the taboos represented by my titular words merely represent a certain group in society claiming that moral power for themselves, at great cost to other groups. It is my position that these taboos have no genuine ethical power, because (1) they do not protect universal human needs (like clean water and freedom from torture), and (2) the harm occasioned to the "out-group" is unjustifiably great.

Enforcement of these taboos isn't altruistic, though it is often felt to be so by taboo enforcers. Following the taboo may be altruistic, in that it trades one's own happiness for the happiness of the group. Enforcing the taboo is more complicated: while taking on the cost of enforcement oneself for the benefit of the group may be altruistic, at the heart of enforcing a taboo like this is placing the needs of one's own group above those of another group - just like nepotism, racial discrimination, and genocide. Hardly altruistic, in the philosophical sense.

End of Part One.

Memento mori.

It is interesting to me that the people who tend to violate the "no shitting outside designated latrines" rule are homeless people - people (1) for whom the cost of following the taboo is great, and (2) who do not particularly benefit from enforcement of the taboo. It's good for everybody to have clean sidewalks, but the cost is greater for some than for others.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

What is Special about Genetic Paternity?

This post is a follow-up to Child Support for Unwanted Children is Wrong.

I am trying to find arguments why it might be morally just to force a genetic father to pay child support, even if he did not wish to conceive a child.

The closest thing to an argument I have come across in support of this proposition is this: What matters is not the rights of the parents, but the best interests of the child. The focus should be on what is best for the child, who after all did not choose to be conceived or born; and it is in the child's interest to have a legal father responsible for her well-being, at least financially.

This argument has some validity; perhaps the focus should be on what is best for the child, and the rights of adults should come second. But we still have no account of why genetic paternity matters.

If we performed a "best interests of the child" analysis when assigning a child a legal father, we would have to look at many things besides genetic paternity. Perhaps the wealthiest candidate should be chosen, or perhaps the one best equipped to be a father. This would very often be someone other than the genetic father of the child.

If consent to sex is all that is required to forcibly assign paternity, why not inquire into which of the mother's former sex partners would be the best father for the child, and assign him the burden? This would be better for the child than always assigning this burden to the genetic father. Better yet, we could force all former sex partners of the mother to share in the financial support of the child, which would certainly be better for the child than having just one (potentially deadbeat) father. But why stop there? Unless we have an account of why consent to sex equals consent to birth, we should really expand the circle of potential fathers to include everyone. (And why limit it to males?) Why should genetic fathers pay child support, and not the public in general or a "father" chosen by the best-interests-of-the-child lottery - regardless of whether he had sex with mom?

In forcibly assigning child support to someone against his will, why does genetic paternity matter at all?
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