Thursday, August 2, 2012

Utilitarianism, David Benatar, and Thought Experiments.

This blog post is a response to another philosophy blogger (blog here) who argues that utilitarianism becomes hard to swallow when considering a certain thought experiment. I discuss some interesting new philosophical literature that might, if accepted, provide reasons to doubt the strength of the thought experiment. I'm not sure (yet...) whether I accept the counter-argument I present but I think it is definitely food for thought (plus I've been wanting to blog about Benatar for a while now :P). The thought experiment is, as worded in the original post, as follows:

Imagine you are some sort of inter-dimensional space-time traveler, and you wind up in the following situation. You can create a better world than Earth in a new parallel universe (maybe you can do this by time-travel, or creating a mirror-universe somehow, or some other possibility). Now the new world is not an exact copy of our Earth. It is very similar, and has the same population, but it has different individual people in it. More importantly, there is some important and concrete way in which Earth Mark II is plainly superior – from a utilitarian perspective – to our Earth. Maybe in Earth Mk.II Hitler never existed, or racism, nationalism or religious intolerance never really took hold for some reason. As a result, there is more peace, trust, prosperity and diversity in the new world, and as a result more happiness. Or maybe there are just better supplies of safe drinking water in Africa, or terrific alternative energy-sources that don’t inject carbon into the atmosphere. Choose whatever you like that would make our world and its prospects better if we had it.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that to create that world you need to destroy our world (imagine that we need to demolish this planet in order to perform the mapping process that creates the almost mirror-image of Earth in the other universe).

Should you do it?

Breakey assumes that the utilitarian response would be to advocate the construction of the parallel universe in place of the current universe. He then states that destroying the existing world would also destroy the hopes and dreams of all the world's current people and that this move would not be justified by the creation of a 'super-happy' new world. Breakey discusses the problems that utilitarianism faces if potential people are given the same status as existing people; if this is the case peoples lives become mere vessels for carrying happiness and can be traded for the lives of people who could potentially be happier. This, for Breakey, is a serious concern.

As a utilitarian myself I am always keen to try and defend the theory against counter-arguments and I think this objection can be countered too. In short I would like to deny that the utilitarian is obligated to create "Earth Mark II" in place of the current earth. I think that the intuitively immoral consequences of this thought experiment can be escaped if one accepts certain arguments about the status of potential persons.  I believe it is the duty of the utilitarian to make 'people happy', rather than making 'happy people'. I will try to sketch out my reasons for this below:

The first assumption that must be accepted in order for the thought experiment to appear repugnant is that the destruction of the world will cause suffering to the inhabitants of the world. If the destruction of the world involves a slow and painful demise of all sentient creatures it is obvious how this might be the case. Both hedonistic utilitarians (like myself) and preference utilitarians can agree that this would be a bad thing because pain is intrinsically bad and unpleasant, and people generally have a preference to avoid pain.

But it might be the case that the destruction of Earth1.0 is not slow and painful but instead ephemeral and painless. If this is the case a preference utilitarian might want to argue that they would experience harm due to one's 'preference to continue living' being violated. Already I find this problematic because, as I have argued here, I do not understand how something impossible to perceive (like 'being dead') can be a harm at all. Hence I do not think that the world being destroyed is necessarily a bad thing provided that the destruction of Earth1.0 is unperceived (instantaneous, painless, unexpected, etc) - In this case there is no change in the utility of the agents involved and no recognition of an unfulfilled preference. This sort of argument, however, might be unconvincing to the type of preference utilitarian who holds that even unperceived-unfulfilled-preferences cause harm. Furthermore there is nothing in the thought experiment that suggests that the destruction of World1.0 would be either unperceived or painless.  

So, looking at the destruction of Earth1.0 as a stand-alone event it can be considered acceptable if:

a) You are a hedonistic utilitarian and the destruction of Earth1.0 causes no displeasure.

b) You are the type of preference utilitarian that believes that a preference must be perceived in order to cause pain and the destruction of Earth1.0 is not perceived (either before, during, or after the destruction).

On the other hand the destruction of Earth1.0 can be considered harmful if:

a) You are a hedonistic utilitarian and the destruction of Earth1.0 causes pain to sentient beings; or

b) You are a preference utilitarian with a preference to live which is denied through the destruction of Earth1.0    

But is the pain caused by the destruction of Earth1.0 (either through direct experience or through unsatisfied preferences) counteracted in a utilitarian calculus by the pleasure that will be experienced by the inhabitants of Earth2.0?  

To answer this I would like to share an argument put forth by David Benatar in his book "Better Never to Have Been". Benatar highlights that there is an asymmetry between pleasure and pain. His premises are:

1) The presence of pain is bad;
2) The presence of pleasure is good;
3) The absence of pain is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone.
4) The absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation.

The most ambiguous and contested premise is probably the third one - It seems strange to think that the absence of pain can be good even if there is no-one around to experience it. Benatar explains that this premise must be thought of retrospectively in terms of the person that may have existed. For example think of a severely disabled person who suffers enormous amounts of untreatable pain and claims that she wishes that she was never born. This desire seems to make sense even though in the alternative world that she imagines she would not be there to appreciate her non-existence. This scenario supports premise 3 that 'The absence of pain is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone'. It seems uncontroversial to say that we might even have a 'duty' to prevent bringing people into existence that we know will suffer a great amount. The reason we wish not to bring these people into existence is because we feel that they are better off not-existing than experiencing the harms of existence.

So we agree (hopefully) that the absence of pain is good, even if the person that it is good for does not exist. The converse, however, does not follow. We do not seem to think that the absence of pleasure is bad unless there is somebody to experience this 'bad-ness'. To use another example we do not feel that we have a duty to bring happy people into existence. When we consider a couple that have the financial, emotional, and genetic means to have a happy child but choose not to procreate we do not consider them morally repugnant. The potential child experiences no harm in its non-existence despite the fact that it could have experienced great pleasure through existence. This argument supports premise 4 that 'the absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation'.

There is a lot more to the argument that I have skimmed over for the purposes of brevity but I think the general direction that Benatar is headed is obvious. He illustrates his point using this matrix:

Benatar's argument is simple: Scenario B (non-existence) is preferable to Scenario A (existence). A 'good' + a 'not bad' is better than a 'bad' + a 'good'. If Benatar's argument is sound (and I'm still trying to establish whether or not it is myself) then the thought experiment proposed by Breakey must be seen in a different light. If one adopts Benatars outlook there would be no benefit in creating a whole new world full of people that otherwise would have not existed. The reason is that their non-existence is not a harm and that the pleasure that they are deprived off in non-existence is not experienced by anyone. Seen in this light the existence of Earth2.0 causes people that did not exist to exist, and, as seen in the matrix, this is arguably a bad move.

To return to the original thought experiment destroying Earth1.0 is only done because it is a necessary step in bringing Earth2.0 into existence and the existence of Earth2.0 is considered more beneficial than Earth1.0. But coming into existence is, according to Benatar, not a benefit at all - So there is no reason to consider destroying Earth1.0 in the first place! In fact Benatar would probably argue that the best state of being is in neither Earth1.0 or Earth 2.0 but non-existence. Nontheless there is no reason for mass-genocide because as Benatar points out there is an important distinction between lives worth continuing and lives worth starting. It might be that now, since we're alive, we might as well continue living. However were we to somehow objectively view our lives we would, argues Benatar, be no worse if we didn't exist then if we had the most pleasurable life imaginable.  

I admit that Benatar's argument is quite radical and I'm still working my way through his book to see whether I can agree with him, but so far I find his arguments hard to escape. The implications of his argument are far reaching and lead to an anti-natalist position. . . So part of me is hoping that there is a massive flaw in his argument somewhere so I can escape his conclusions.  

There is a great blog post on Benatar's writings here which deals with Benatar's central thesis in a lot more detail than I have in this post.

As always I welcome any comments or criticisms. 


  1. That's an interesting idea. But I'm not sure I've quite got it. You say, "If one adopts Benatars outlook there would be no benefit in creating a whole new world full of people that otherwise would have not existed." But that seems wrong. There is a benefit on Benatar's account. It's in (2): pleasure is a good thing. It would be correct to say, (if I'm understanding the table) that because of (4) it would not be a bad thing if that world is not created. I agree that helps avoid the problems of Earth Mk.II. But, providing that something being good gives us a reason to do it (and surely that, at least, is a necessary implication of its being good) then (2) mandates that there is a benefit in creating Earth Mk.II. So in that respect it still looks as if a contest between the amount-of-good-created and the amount-of-good-destroyed is in the offing...

    1. I interpreted the thought experiment as suggesting several events: Destroying the old earth, constructing the new earth, and having a gap in between where there is no earth at all. We can break the process down into 2 actions:

      1) The move from having the original world to having no world.
      2) The move from having no world to having the new world (which is better than the original world).

      In order to get to the New World you must pass through a stage where there is no world at all. And 'non-existence' is preferable to existence says Benatar so there is no reason to make move (2). Because Benatar distinguishes between 'lives worth starting' and 'lives worth beginning' he does not advocate killing existing sentient life (in regular circumstances) so there is no reason to make move (1) either. This is what led me to believe that one who adopts Benatar's views on death and existence would not choose to destroy the existing earth for an improved version.

      When Benatar talks about pleasure being a good thing he is talking about pleasure for existing life rather than potential pleasure. So, as in segment (4) of his matrix, the absence of pleasure in non-existence is 'not bad'.

      I'm not whether I interpreted the thought experiment as it is intended though. Maybe I was meant to understand the thought experiment as suggesting a simultaneous 'destruct and replace' scenario in which there is just one event - Replacing the original earth with the improved earth. In this interpretation your response works fine - Pleasure is a good thing and if it is a choice between Old Earth and New Earth (and there are no other choices) then New Earth is preferable.