Monday, September 13, 2010

It's Official!

As of last week, I have officially joined the ranks of senior citizenry; or, is that citizenship? The pants are hiked up, better to show off my white penny loafers, the 'Ultimate Matlock DVD Collection' is on order, and I'm feeling damned cranky! *shakes fist at the sound of children playing outside my window* Although for some reason, Glen Beck still seems like an idiot to me...must be the fluoride in my Milk of Magnesia. Damned Commie bastards!

On a somewhat more serious note, my apologies for neglecting the blog of late. My head's wrapped around moving right now, but hopefully that'll be over in another 3 or 4 weeks, and maybe I'll be able to get my head together again and write something worthwhile. In the meantime, thanks to all the contributors here who've made my absence pretty fucking unnoticeable, I must say :) Good show to one and all.

Meanwhile, over at the Hoover Hog, Chip Smith has written something worth reading, and he's given his permission to print it here in full. The original has a lot of embedded links that I can't seem to transfer over here, so feel free to wander over there and click, click, click them at your leisure. I just wanted to have a copy over here for reference. Enjoy.

One Man's Exquisite Treasure

In considering the question, "who should exist," economist Robin Hanson perhaps intentionally avoids grappling with the articulated view that the answer could or should be, "no one," proposing instead a framework that Sister Y aptly characterizes as "something like R.M. Hare's Golden Rule, plus economic efficiency." Essentially, Hanson argues that a being should be brought into existence if it would want to exist and can pay for the ride.

When pressed to address the obvious objection that it would seem to be impossible to know with perfect confidence whether a specific being would or would not "want to exist" prior to being created, Hanson comes off as mildy put upon. "It seems odd that I have to specify this in such detail," he sighs in a related thread, "but ... [f]or some creatures we know with great confidence that if they existed, they would prefer to exist." Not surprisingly, he goes on to cite himself as an example of just such a creature. So just do the play math and rev up the clone machine already. Never mind that the objection hasn't been answered. Never mind that other questions remain. This little piggy prefers to exist, and there are more like him in the imaginary queue. What more need we know? People making isn't ethically problematic; it boils down to a recruitment quiz drafted on the fly. Antinatalism is probably just a form of signaling, anyway.

I'm late to the festivities as usual, but, obviously, I think Hanson's recipe is wildly overconfident. I think his discussion of an important question is uncharacteristically careless and flippant, and I think his use of moral language is tellingly selective and profoundly misplaced. I don't think he has thought seriously about the nature and resonance of suffering. I think he wrongly equates pre-vital nonexistence with some kind of qualitative or experientially deprived state and that he fails to consider the evolutionary basis for "a preference for existence" that nevertheless rests on force and entails nontrivial harm and risk. Finally, I am inclined toward the conclusion that Robin Hanson, a prodigiously intelligent and interesting thinker who I often read with admiration and polite envy, is being disingenuous about most of it. I'll try to explain.

By sleight of noun and verb, Hanson's preferential test can of course be asserted to justify subordinate existential states that would strike most people as undesirable or absurd. We may know with great confidence, for example, that if "some creatures" were introduced to heroin, they would prefer continued access to heroin. Can this toggle be invoked to support the claim that such people, identified in advance, should be introduced to heroin, "if they can pay for it"? I suppose Hanson might respond that, unlike being alive, being addicted to heroin is economically inefficient, that it entails countermanding negative externalities, or something. If that is true (and ceteris paribus, it might not be true at all), there would seem to be no shortage of contending preference-based asymmetries to supplant the 'if' and 'then' with similarly dubious implications. If some creatures were to light up, they would cultivate a preference for smoking and remain productive, perhaps even saving society some significant cost in end-of-life care. If some creatures were afflicted with heartbreak, they would nurse their limerance to produces beautiful poetry and music. If some creatures were chemically endowed with psychotic genius, they would guard their angst-inducing delusions while contributing to the advancement of knowledge. There must be countless subjective preferences that, once actualized, will ensure their own demand and buy their own ticket. Are we thus encouraged to create such preferences where they do not as yet exist? Is it OK, as Sister Y asks, to slip someone Ecstasy without their knowledge? Or, per Seanna Shiffrin, to drop gold bricks on impoverished villagers, improving their lot while breaking a few bones?

Or is there something special about the life-preference as such, even if the flowery scent is most probably an artifact of natural selection? And if life-lust is sui generis -- as it certainly is in when considered in the context of existential (rather than subordinate or post-vital) asymmetry -- should we be obligated to create miserable Golems? I don't think Hanson cares to explore such questions because doing so would tend to undermine the meta-ethical qualification that he assumes should be obvious. Creating preferences may be good or bad (regardless of efficiency) when those affected are already existent, but the idea that never-existent beings are benefited by being brought to life (or conversely that they suffer by not being brought to life) is mistaken. It is mistaken regardless of what degree of confidence may be assigned to the likelihood that they would want their existence once created. More on this later.

Though his position at the outset is presented in insistent terms of economic efficiency, Hanson's stance of disinterested positivism is belied at later turns when his tone assumes a curiously emphatic moral cast. Perhaps irritated by the incipient noise of antinatalist discourse (yes, I'm speculating), I think Hanson insinuates a sly subtext into his reasoning. More precisely, I think he means to turn the tables on those who don't cop to his unscratched pronatalist bias. If I'm right, the tell may be evident in his Hareian suggestion that potential procreators should be guided by a strong positive obligation toward those as yet nonexistent critters nested in the static of pre-flight zilch -- you know, the ones who presumably "want to exist" and can pay for it.

I think Hanson is being worse than coy when he writes:

If asked what gives you the right to prevent the existence of creatures who could fully pay for themselves, you might respond that you need no right, if you have power and a will to use it. Or perhaps you’ll say ethics assures you it is simply impossible to be unfair to creatures who don’t yet exist. But wearing my efficient economist hat, I cannot support such naked selfish aggression, even if I thought it would work. And knowing how hard is coordination, I have serious doubts re feasibility. If you can identify large negative externalities, I will help you to find ways to price them, to discourage the creation of creatures who cannot fully pay for themselves, and the theft of legacy assets. But if not, I prefer to help creatures who can pay for their existence obtain that exquisite treasure.

Emphasis mine. Notice how the deck is shifted with a wink. Notice how the clumsily situated econ-argot serves as misdirection. Rather than consider the agent-specific question of whether and why it should be just (or decent or right or moral) to create a new being out of lifeless chemistry, Hanson cursorily assumes away the arguments of antinatalist objectors, only to unfurl conspicuously judgmental language (what gives you the right ... naked selfish aggression) to place a burden of presumptive guilt on those who, for whatever pre-defined-as-bad reason, would fail to summon ostensibly life-craving beings into existence given sufficient (and, at present, impossible) epistemological vantage. It is in failing to create such new beings, or, more accurately, in actively preventing their existence, according to Hanson, that we commit "selfish aggression" by denying, what he, oblivious or not to his profound metaphysical arrogance, describes as "that exquisite treasure," which is to say -- aesthetically, I suppose -- life.

It's hard to know what to unravel first. One way to begin is by observing that the moral burden Hanson assigns to those who have the ability to create new life (under presently impossible conditions) carries bizarre implications and rests upon a concept of "aggression" that bears no relation to common usage of the term. Under his proposed injunction, every spare moment that is not devoted to creating utility-maximizing lives that are somehow (impossibly for now) predetermined to want their existence -- is a moment in which a potential procreator stands under shadow of suspicion for inflicting violence upon teeming nullities of untapped potential life-preference. Taken seriously, such a view would place every moral agent in an absurdly untenable position. Step away from the happy consciousness emulator for a bit of down time, and you reveal your "naked aggression" by denying those potential someones the "exquisite treasure" to which they are surely and emphatically entitled. There can be no rest for the existence-mixing barkeep, given such stakes. Original sin seems like a shoplifting offense by comparison.

Even if we permit that Hanson's moral rhetoric may be less than sincere (as it clearly is), his confidence in ascribing preference and future-resourcefulness to pre-existent beings in order to enjoin (rather than justify) their creation is questionable on his own terms. Leaving aside the first-order problem of epistemic uncertainty that I don't for a moment forgive, constancy of preference remains a big problem. If we allow that a pre-existent being's optimistically speculated potential to desire its own existence once created constitutes a valid reason to initiate that potential being's actual life, should we not be compelled to insure against events that could radically change this preference? I would argue that the problem of sustainable preference is relevant even and perhaps especially with reference to the far-flung futuristic scenarios that Hanson prefers to entertain. Check back a thousand years later when -- oops! -- a coding glitch in the latest consciousness simulator has led to a quantum holocaust. In a dynamic universe aswarm with unknown unknowns, stochastic variables are predictably inevitable and certain to thwart our best intentions from time to time. There might also be mischief, of course, and life-loving sadism to account for. And minds that change.

During a recent news cycle, we learned about the horrific fate of a lovelorn woman. Perhaps Dr. Jacquelyn Katorac, preferred existence at one time. It seems likely enough, really. Perhaps when she was a littel girl, or when she was in medical school lost in study, or when she first fell in love with the man who would later reject her affection -- perhaps at such times she was disposed to affirm her life in terms that would neatly satisfy professor Hanson's existential criteria. Perhaps she once regarded her life -- or all life -- as an "exquisite treasure." I don't think such conjecture is unreasonable. But if we submit, arguendo, that this woman -- by all accounts well situated to pay for her existence -- once and perhaps greatly preferred being to its alternative, as most of us do, we are in a position to consider what she would have been denied had she never been born, and to further consider this counterfactual against the terrifying reality that she actually experienced in the final days and hours of the precious life that she never asked for.

I wonder how and whether Dr. Katorac's preference shifted when, in a state of jealous desperation, she made what her unrequited lover would later characterize as "an unbelievable error in judgment" by trying to gain access to his home through an open chimney. Robin Hanson may not feel troubled to dwell over the acute panic and the white-hot shockwaves of implacable regret that this woman surely must have experienced as her body became wedged within the the hot and unyielding crampspace of a brick and mortar stack. He might not feel pressed to contemplate the agony that must have come in waves as her descent locked and her mind raced in shambolic retrospect over the choices (if they were even choices) that led her to such a position. Were Dr. Katorac's arms raised above her head when her progress down the chute was retarded by brute physics? Or where her arms locked at her side, or in some awful pretzled contortion? Which would you prefer? As time pressed on and the heat became unbearable, did she succumb to sleep in her wedged position only to awake in a renewed state of panic? Did her mind drift into some passive state, or was punishment constant unto her death? Did she hold out hope? Were there spiders in the chimney, as there usually are? Did she piss herself? Did she regress to cry out for the mommy who created her? Every quale and detail is fucking relevant. Because it happened in real physical space to a real living human being, who but for a chance meeting of gametes, would have been prevented and denied ... what?

It may be observed that Dr. Katorac is but one individual, and further that her suffering resulted from choices that she made freely, if under strange duress. I doubt the latter part is true, but cling to this if it helps. It hardly matters, because we know that her fate is and will be multiplied in the deaths and sufferings of countless others, most of whom, we may speculate with equal or greater confidence, were constitutionally endowed with an adaptive preference for life. I could more easily have chosen a clear-cut victim by example. Perhaps a raped and tortured child, as the textbooks prefer. There have always been more than a few. But I want to stay with the good doctor dying in the chimney. To appropriate a Hansonian term, her plight feels "near." And I sincerely wish, as she must have wished, that none of it had happened. It didn't have to. It never does.

As Hanson finds cause to fake outrage over the plight of the never-weres who may never be, he should take pause to consider, in good faith and with some imaginative effort, the profound horror that some certain quantity of once-life-affirming beings will absolutely endure no matter what degree of caution is exercised to ensure that they gratefully accept and embrace the "exquisite treasure" that he prefers to enthrone. If Dr. Katorac had never been brought into existence, the nearly inconceivable ordeal that marked her end would likewise not have been. That much, I submit, is simple. But to confront this existential counterfactual in particular (which we may do in countless other instances and iterations) is to confront the equation that Hanson and other overconfident pronatalists seem content to loosely rhetoricize without overmuch reflection. Hanson assures us that it is possible to be "unfair" to a nullity, indeed he is confident that we behave aggressively toward some whose existence we "prevent."

Can this be true? No, it cannot.

A nullity is not an entity. Those who are never born are deprived of nothing because they are nothing eternal. Hanson's glib assertion that we can aggress against those who would, if created, prefer existence is bullshit. Tested against reality, his words collapse into meaningless ether. Hanson fails to explain how or why those hypothetically posited would-be life-lovers are or could ever be deprived or harmed in any way by being left to the default infinity of stateless non-vitality to which they -- we -- will all return as a matter of course anyway. If some actual, experiential deprivation could be shown to manifest through the ostensibly negligent (or inefficient) inaction that denies a potential quantity of gristle-and-nerve the "exquisite treasure" of inhaling and exhaling and craving pizza, then Hanson might have some ground upon which to prop his Darwinian bias, perhaps by reference to a hedonic ledger that pits the banked suffering of uncorked souls against the benefits of a mostly rewarding and productive life that nevertheless may end up rotting in a chimney. Trouble is, souls are make-believe, and the ledger doesn't yield to whim. Where there is no person, there is no personal experience. Zip. Nada. Like the time before you were born, and after you die.

A world in which Dr. Katorac is never brought into existence a world in which she experiences nothing and is done no violence. The world in which she was brought into existence is the real world in which she actually experienced throes of agony that most of us are loath to imagine. While the actions that led to her creation, and perforce to her ordeal, may logically, if arguably, qualify as "aggressive," the inaction that creates no cluster of subjective experience cannot meaningfully be described as exacting any tangible harm or deprivation against a person who might otherwise have been. To argue otherwise is to relinquish reason to mysticism.

Robin Hanson is no mystic. Like all of us, he is more likely entranced by his own biased life narrative. His vacuous assertions cannot change the fact that nothing is nothing, and the imaginary harm that he posits will remain impotent and meaningless before the real and unpredictable pain that sentient beings will experience in the real and unpredictable world that he feels so blessed to perceive, thanks to a cosmically indifferent scheme of happenstance and blind natural selection. I want to hammer this much because it's one thing I know for sure. Where there is no being to be deprived, there is no deprivation, no harm, no aggression. No then or now. No tomorrow. No yesterday. Nothing ever. While the moral (and economic) relevance of beings who do not yet exist may be propositionally considered insofar as their creation is being contemplated, a nobody cannot lay claim to any preference or desire, and a nobody cannot be harmed by the denial of a preference that a somebody insists it would express if only it could.

The asymmetry looks back and yawns. The argument isn't going away.

No one should ever have children. There is no good reason to bring another being into existence. Life is not a treasure, exquisite or otherwise. It's just one damn thing after another, until it ends in death. If you're lucky, it won't hurt too much. If you're luckier still, it won't be at all.