Friday, September 04, 2015

Good lives and un/conditional value

At the recent MANCEPT workshops I had some fun discussions with a couple of defenders of the idea that, while we've reason to improve the lives of people who exist, there's no reason to bring awesome lives into existence.  (As Johann Frick put it in his very interesting paper, "our reasons to confer well-being on people are conditional on their existence.")

This strikes me as a rather bleak, depressing view of the value of life.  Johann compares welfare to promise-keeping: there's no value in making-and-keeping promises, it's just that once you've made a promise, you'd better not mess it up.  Likewise, it seems on these views, there's no real value in good lives, just the risk of their going badly which needs to be avoided.

I think the big worry with these kinds of views is the seemingly unavoidable conclusion that sentient life, as a whole, is regrettable.  If God creates a world with a billion blissful, flourishing lives, and one (antecedently identifiable) very slightly bad life, his act of creation is deemed to be wrong on net: the bad life counts against it, and the good lives don't count in favour.

Indeed, as others (especially Matthew R.) brought out in conversation, those who deny that (good) existence has value will find it difficult to avoid full-blown anti-natalism.  If future generations are sufficiently numerous, the aggregate badness of the (proportionally very few) bad lives will eventually be arbitrarily large.  Assuming that any countervailing values -- including preservationist values, and the value existing people get from having offspring, etc. -- are bounded, they seem likely to be outweighed by the aforementioned harms.  (Even if we're harmed by the end of humanity, we are not harmed as much as those possible future individuals who would otherwise have bad lives.)

To avoid these unacceptable implications, we should simply deny the procreative asymmetry on which they're based.  Contrary to common belief, granting that good lives have real value does not have any comparably untoward implications.  It should be a philosophical no-brainer.


  1. Exactly. It's not surprising that denying that good existence has value has anti-natalist consequences, because the opinion is simply a small version of anti-natalism itself.

  2. I don't see that this follows. Since all the people who have or will be born exist, they're lives are valuable, and so we did, or will do, right to create them. It's only people who haven't and won't be born who are not valuable - and surely we've done nothing wrong in not creating them?

    1. Well, I don't want to go too much into the details of Johann's view in particular since he's only made the abstract publicly available, but given the analogy with promises, it seems important to interpret "conditional reasons" here as not retroactively bestowing value on bringing about the antecedent condition, or it would be right and good to go about making trivial (easily-kept) promises all the time.

      More generally, I think it can (when we bracket the usual costs of procreation) be wrong not to bring good lives into existence, as I argue in this previous post. And in particular, I think it would be wrong for a creator God to create a barren and lifeless universe in place of one where the flourishing lives vastly outnumber the sad ones.

  3. I see - that does seem to me to be a disanalogy between this promises and procreation.

    From the view I had in mind, it's not permissible for God to create an empty world, since that would harm a lot of actual people, like you and I (this idea leans pretty heavily on the two-dimensional interpretation of actual, so I guess you're right that this is not the place to bring it up.)

  4. Hi Richard,

    Thanks for the interesting post. For those who are curious, I have posted a copy of my paper on my homepage (follow Richard's link above). This is still a work in progress, so feedback (by email) is very welcome.

    A couple of clarifications about my view:

    First, the version of the Procreation Asymmetry that I defend in my paper is more restricted than the position that Richard ascribes to me (i.e. “there’s no reason to bring awesome lives into existence”). On my view, if a future person would foreseeably have a life that is not worth living, this in itself gives us a strong moral reason to refrain from bringing this person into existence. By contrast, there is no moral reason to create a person whose life would foreseeably be worth living, just because her life would be worth living. This is compatible with there being a whole range of reasons, both moral and non-moral, to create new happy lives: beneficial effects on independently existing people; the fact that the parents’ own lives would be enriched by having children; perfectionist considerations (perhaps the child is a future Schubert or van Gogh); a Schefflerian concern with there being an ‘afterlife’; and a collective moral obligation to ensure the long-term survival of humanity. What I deny is merely that I have a moral reason to create a new person, just because her life would be worth living for her. (Why do I believe this? Read my paper.)

    Second, I think it’s potentially misleading to say that, on my view, “there's no real value in good lives.” Like most everyone else, proponents of the Procreation Asymmetry believe that human lives (and not just happy ones!) are valuable. We condemn wars and genocide for leading to the large-scale destruction of human life. We criticize politicians or generals for “gambling with lives”, and mean that they are failing to respect the value inherent in each human life. In general, we believe that we have moral reasons to care that the lives people lead go as well as possible. What I question is whether – besides wishing to protect, to respect, and to ameliorate human lives – responding appropriately to the value of human life also gives us reason to promote it, by maximizing the number of happy lives that are lived. To borrow Narveson’s formula, I believe that we should strive to make people as happy as possible, not to make as many happy people as possible.

    Finally, as to the claim that embracing the Procreation Asymmetry commits us to anti-natalism, I’m currently working on a new paper which argues that any such inference is mistaken. I’d be happy to report back on that work in the near future. In the meanwhile, interested readers could take a look at Chapter 3 of my dissertation, which also addresses this worry.

    1. Thanks for the clarifications, Johann, and for sharing your excellent paper. (I of course meant the "no reasons" side of the asymmetry to be implicitly restricted to something like no non-instrumental reasons, in just the way you helpfully elaborate in your comment. In similar fashion, the "no real value" comment should be unpacked to read something more like "no real value in the existence, rather than non-existence, of good lives".)


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