Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Moral Asymmetries of Existence

The NDPR on Benatar's Better Never to Have Been is very interesting (HT: Siris). But I'm skeptical of the moral asymmetry proposed in the following example:
Suppose you can, as a package, bring seven lives into existence. Six will be good, one will be very bad. You might think it would be wrong to go ahead. Other things equal, starting good lives is permissible, but not starting bad lives is required. We can't justify starting this bad life by appeal to the good in other, separate, lives.

Predictably enough, I'm inclined to go 'indirect utilitarian' on this one, and grant it as a merely contingent moral principle. Context is all. As it happens, we have a high normal baseline: most lives in our society are pretty good. So, creating a good life is nothing exceptionally good, whereas creating a bad life is exceptionally bad. Given the more fundamental principle that exceptionally good or bad actions have greater moral significance (in virtue of their impact on the general form of society), we find that the contingent asymmetry in social circumstances leads to the above moral asymmetry.

But things could have been different. If we imagine a dystopian world where the normal 'baseline' is much lower, i.e. where most lives are rather awful, then it seems to me the moral asymmetry would be likewise inverted. Given the opportunity to bring about an exceptionally good life, people ought to do so. To prevent another typically bad one would be permissible -- good, even -- but not required. So, dystopians ought to embrace the 'package deal' of six good lives and one more bad one.

Benatar argues from the original asymmetry principle to the conclusion that no lives are worth living. (Even a mostly good life has some bad in it, so we are like the 6:1 package deal, squashed into one body.) But, ironically, his asymmetry principle only holds in the first place because of all the good lives that (future) people will have. In light of this contingency, Benatar's use of the principle is self-undermining. The prescribed "zero birthrate" would remove the grounds of its own justification.

In sum: the asymmetry principle derives whatever force it has from the more fundamental value of promoting the general welfare. So it cannot be used to subvert this very goal.


  1. [An email from Mark Lee, reproduced with permission...]

    I wasn't completely convinced by your rejection of the asymmetry principle. As I understand, you concede that it is intuitively plausible, but only because when we consider whether to take the "package deal" (i.e. the addition of several good lives and one bad life), we have in mind adding the package to our current society. And since our current society has a high baseline of value, the bad part of the package is exceptionally bad whereas the good part isn't exceptionally good. Moreover, were we to have a low baseline, our intuitions would reverse.

    In response, it's unclear to me why we should have in mind our current society, in considering whether to take the package deal. I take it we're not considering adding the package of good and bad lives to our society, but rather to our world. So we should have in mind the whole world. But then the baseline would be drastically lowered, since it would include "the bottom (1.2) billion". Having in mind the whole world, with this lowered baseline, however, I still find the package unacceptable. I also don't share the intuition that in the dystopian world, we should accept a package of several bad lives for one good life (or even the initial package). I may be abnormal, but when I consider whether to take the package deal, I don't consider how the addition will affect the overall shape of the world. My intuition concerns the makeup of the package alone - if we accept the package, we are harming (maybe not the right word... 'doing wrong by'?) the one saddled with the bad life, but if we reject the package, we aren't harming anyone.

    I'm assuming that in the package deal, the one bad life is not a life worth living, since the asymmetry principle as you put it mentions 'lives of suffering'. I'm torn, however, on whether we should accept a package deal where the one bad life is replaced with a life barely worth living - i.e. a package of several good lives and one barely-worth-living life of positive value. Curiously, I think your argument against the asymmetry principle applies very well to my intuitions about this latter package. When I consider adding the package to our society, I think that it is not worth adding the barely-worth-living life to have more lives whose value matches our high baseline, whereas when I consider adding the package to, say, Sub-Saharan Africa, my intuition reverses.

    What all this means, I'm not sure. Perhaps I have some deontological or fairness intuitions with the first package and not the second, which preclude a value holistic assessment of the kind you describe.

  2. Hi Mark, it's an interesting question what sorts of "wholes" the holist should be looking at. I find it intuitively compelling to think that the 'shape' of a society matters, and contributes to the overall 'shape' of the world. A moderately flourishing life in Sub-Saharan Africa may be extraordinary in a way that improves the shape of the world more than would an equally flourishing (but less extraordinary) life in America. So I'm not any kind of simple average utilitarian.

    You're right that the "bad life" in the package deal is one that's not worth living. Consider the dystopian world where every life thus far is like this -- there are no worthwhile lives at all. Doesn't it seem to make a huge difference to introduce a genuinely good life into this world? And wouldn't this change be so extraordinarily desirable as to outweigh the badness of the bad lives in the package deal? This seems overwhelmingly plausible to me -- every bit as compelling as the original intuition that to introduce a bad life into our society would be so bad as to outweigh the (unextraordinary) good lives in the package deal.

    (But we may just have different intuitions; I've never really felt the pull of deontological or fairness intuitions.)


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)