The Owl and the Ostrich

David Benatar has drafted a sharp rebuttal to Sami Pihlström's meretricious essay, “Ethical Unthinkabilities and Philosophical Seriousness” (gated reference to the latter here). For those of you who don't follow this stuff closely, Pihlström's essay was noteworthy in that it argued not against Benatar's antinatalist reasoning per se, but against the mere and open consideration of ideas that, for whatever shifting reasons, may be deemed to fall ouside the bounds of "serious" philosophical discourse. "There are ideas," according to Pihlström, "that are dangerous enough not to deserve serious argumentative attention." Allowing arguendo that such preemtively intolerable ideas may somewhere exist, the weight of Benatar's rejoinder is rightly devoted to rescuing philanthropic antinatalism from the blanket indictment.

Where the philosophical merits of antinatalism are concerned, I think Benatar's response is entirely persuasive. This is no surprise since, despite the pretense of intellectual "seriousness," Pihlström's critique  amounts to little more than an exasperated and clumsily strewn harumph and sneer that doesn't stop short of implying that antinatalists are as dangerous as Nazis. So yeah, fuck that record-skipping noise; we can discern more substance in YouTube comments (where it usually takes longer for Godwin's Law to disrupt the festivities). Philanthropic antinatalism is chiefly concerned with the problem of suffering and so long as people have the capacity to choose whether or not to make new people (who will suffer), the position merits serious philosophical — and practical — consideration. Done and done.

Things do become a bit more interesting as the lens widens to bring the deeper question (which Pihlström posits as resolved and about which Benatar remains skeptical) into relief. Do some ideas legitimately try intellectual tolerence?  Is the inherent — or perceived — "danger" of some ideas sufficient to countermand ordinary philosophical engagement and inquiry? To entertain the affirmative proposition is to tempt a swarm of paradoxical implications. Can the question even be phrased in safely meta-philosophical terms, or do we summon demons merely by asking? Don't think of an elephant, merry pranksters. And whatever you do, don't make a list. The knot tightens to a snare when you consider that, as Benatar points out, the notion that potentially dangerous ideas should be withheld  from examination is "itself a dangerous idea."

Benatar tempers his support for open intellectual engagement with a conservative stance toward praxis. "I think that dangerous arguments should be engaged," he writes, "even if we do not always act on them." This much is at least consistent with the soft-to-absent policy prescriptions on offer in Better Never to Have Been, where, having advanced the strong case against the moral beneficence (or mere neutrality) of procreation, Benatar stops short of advocating legal remedies that would limit reproductive freedom. Guided by democratic caution, the purveyor of hetorodoxy recognizes that, despite all reason and evidence to the contrary, he may yet be proven wrong. The Stoic view of death, Benatar instructively reminds us, remains perenially problematic for those who contend that death is a harm to the individual. Yet tens of centuries after Epicurus and Lucretius met the reaper, their cogitations on the harmlessness of death are perpended in the light of day, and no one worries that the penal code will be substantially revised.

Fair enough. The distinction between thought and action may be crucial in the scheme of philosophical discourse. But I fear it is also, at least potentially, a dodge.  I think it is noteworthy, if slightly tangential, that the most interesting criticisms of philanthropic antinatalism to date have been levelled not by those who would upend the structure of Benatar's hedonic assymetry, but by critics who express concern that the tacit emphasis on negative utility inherent — or at least strongly implicit — in an extra-mortal accounting of pain and pleasure may be logically extrapolated to justify conclusions, and potentially actions, that are almost universally believed to be, in Pihlström's phrase, "ethically intolerable." In most textbook accounts, variations of the "pinprick argument" are entertained to suggest the folly of an ethical system that seeks, at all turns, to minimize and finally abolish all manifestations of pain, but  in the face of our reflexive repugnance, the math looks back. Lay two time-tables side by side: one in which the progress of life marches on toward natural extinction; the other in which a Negative Utilitarian Demiurge calls off the parade well before the final storm has gathered. Then add up the pain chips, vast against Vast. I am absolutely confident it won't even be close. We can hedge our bets as matter of prudence and form (and perhaps it's well that we should), but confidence isn't so elusive, even if it takes a demonic supercomputer overlord to put the period at the end of the sentence.

What if Benatar had concluded his original antinatalist argument without such face-saving, if earnest, humility? What if he had claimed — as others have claimed in marginal forums and as yet others will surely claim with greater authority in time — that the force of antinatalist reasoning is presently sufficient to countenance the sort of proactive policy-based interventions that critics probably have in mind when they thrum on about "dangerous" slopes of ethical inquiry? In the counterfactual where Benatar comes out in favor of forced sterilization or other policies that stand in contravention of widely shared and cherished values about reproductive freedom, should the underlying argument that coming into existence is always a harm suffer by the addition of such far-flung policy proposals, however imprudent?

I don't think it should. When the distinction between thought and action is blurred, and even when the distinction gives way to legislation or its prospect, the argument against open engagement is not strengthened; it is merely complicated, ironically, by the seriousness of the proposed intervention. In whatever case, thought binds us to look closely and let the chips fall. Whether it is dressed as a tentative moral conclusion or as a more confident proposition, "No one should ever have children" is an assertion  backed by entirely "thinkable" reasons that in less radical contexts operate to justify uncontroversial laws that penalize harmful actions. Perhaps it is well for now to play it safe and wait for the smoke to clear, but don't be surprised — and don't bury your head in the sand — when some twice-as-clever killjoy rummages for a blunt instrument.

Memento mori.

5 thoughts on “The Owl and the Ostrich

  1. The variation between believed and measures is blurry, and even when the variation gives way to regulation or its probability, the disagreement against start involvement is not strengthened, it is merely challenging, surprisingly, by the degree of the recommended mediation.

  2. The Stoic perspective of loss of life, Benatar instructively tells us, continues to be perenially difficult for those who claim that loss of life is a damage to the person. Yet hundreds of decades after Epicurus and Lucretius met the reaper, their cogitations on the harmlessness of loss of life are perpended in the lighting of day, and no one problems that the penal value will be considerably improved.

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