Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Curiosity of Reasoning

In the domain of parenting, a truly hard decision is one that is a trade-off between serious, potentially damaging consequences. A truly hard decision cannot be passed off to the child, because the child is too young (or disabled) to give meaningful input. The parents must decide for the child, and in doing so must risk (or actively impose) severe harm.

Some of the hard decisions are widely discussed; children in distress make good news articles, and everyone likes to criticize other people's parenting decisions. Some hard decisions are obscure. Here are a few, by way of illustration:

  • Autism: how should it be treated? Should it be treated? Are the deficits associated with autism outweighed by the benefits? Are the harms of treatment made up for by the benefits? This problem is even more difficult if you think about it not from your own likely scientifically savvy perspective, but from the perspective of an ordinary, scientifically illiterate parent. I am pretty hard on parents, but I maintain that it is almost certainly not sadism that motivates parents to do things like give their autistic children bleach enemas to try to cure them. It is, rather, misplaced hope and poor decision making - which highlights the importance of good decision making, and the seriousness of the decision and its consequences.
  • Circumcision and other forms of genital mutilation: is removing a part of a child's body appropriate in order to maintain tribal affiliation? If you, like me, think genital mutilation is always wrong, consider the fact that millions of parents still do it. Why do you think they do it? Again, sadism is the wrong answer. What benefits are the parents seeing that, to them, outweigh the cost?
  • Deafness: should deaf children be surgically altered to "fix" them? Should they be taught lip reading, sign language, or both? Parents must choose whether to immerse the child fully in the deaf community with full language acquisition, risking less engagement with the hearing community, or attempt to engage the child in the hearing community, risking poor language acquisition.
  • Divorce: what should be the parenting arrangement following a divorce? Should the child spend large amounts of time with each parent, splitting himself between two homes and lives, or have a primary parent and visit the other? (Prior to this, another hard decision may be whether to divorce in the first place.)
  • Parenting style: is authoritarian parenting worth the direct harm to the child and the risks to his future? Is relaxed, laissez-faire parenting appropriate? Both have benefits, but the risks of both may be grave.
  • Religion: what about the child's "spiritual" well-being and/or his mortal soul? Are the harms of religion worth the benefits?

The above list represents a tiny slice of the total space of hard parenting decisions. Almost everyone agrees that these decisions are grave matters with extremely serious consequences. It's a rare person who experiences no strong feelings when thinking about these matters.

The "curiosity of reasoning" I want to point out is this: despite the massive space of hard parenting decisions that everyone has strong feelings about, the decision to create a child is treated as trivial. The meta-decision - what might be expressed as the sum of all the subordinate hard decisions, or at least to have some relation to the space of hard parenting decisions - is uncritically treated as a wash.

Isn't it strange we should be so cavalier about flipping the switch that turns on all of these decisions, when we treat each sub-decision as grave and serious? Are not the consequences of the meta-decision worth at least as much consideration as a single one of the hard parenting decisions that will arise if the child is created?

That's my main point. I have another, related point concerning what Bryan Caplan has called "free disposal." His argument is that the decision to create a child is not that grave or serious, because (a) the child can always choose to commit suicide (tall buildings and all), but (b) hardly anyone does.

This line of logic seems to convince folks in regard to existence (flipping the overall switch). But think about it in relation to any of the hard parenting decisions I've mentioned here. If it is an argument that creating a child is not a grave matter, shouldn't it also be an argument that doing anything to a child that doesn't frequently result in suicide is not a grave matter? It sounds very strange, for instance, to argue that circumcision is not a grave matter because few victims of circumcision choose to commit suicide, yet suicide is easy. It sounds oddly callous to argue that giving children bleach enemas is not that serious because few victims commit suicide, and they could easily do so.

Is there a reason that the argument has force when applied to the gravity of the creation question, but not to the gravity of other hard parenting dilemmas?

41 comments:

  1. I think what lies at the crux of this disconnect is the fact that most people seem to approach the decision to have children from an egotistical premise (I'M becoming a parent), or a social one (WE'RE starting a FAMILY), but rarely from an empathetic premise (a NEW PERSON is about to enter the world).

    How many times have you heard someone talk about how having a child has forced them to be less selfish and more sacrificing? You know, it's been a real revelation to them.

    It seems endless, and I'm forever stunned that people can be so narcissistic and clueless. It's a sentiment that could reasonably be expressed by a teenager with a frontal cortex that's still developing, but we often hear it from people in their 20s, 30s, and even 40s.

    If people would think more about what it means to create another person when they conceive, instead of what it means for them and/or their family and/or society, then the issue would become much clearer. And there would be a lot fewer births.

    P.S. Thank you for using "meta" properly. I'm so tired of artists, hipsters, and pop-culture writers using it it merely mean "self-referential."

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    1. I'm beginning to think that pushing for people to consider the decision carefully and seriously is a much better course of action than trying to convince them that not having children is always better.

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    2. Yeah, I've only been into antinatalism a month or two or maybe three tops, and I've already reached this conclusion. Your article on mortality salience was part of the reason why, but not the only one.

      Take immendham and his most recent of his long series of shrieking flipouts. In a lot of ways, he seems like an empathic, caring guy. I am very very sympathetic to most of his arguments and, frankly, think I'd be better topping myself than not. However, by constantly talking about it and antinatalism, this does reduce people's enjoyment of life. Further, it doesn't work much as your previously mentioned article shows, in light of the very astute Terror Management Theory.

      Finally, it will never happen. Natural selection will not allow it. It's self-limiting, since antinatalist people take themselves out of the gene pool. Sure, there's a cultural element, a meme, that can still propagate, but no way is that going to evolutionary outcompete reproduction. It doesn't even make sense mathematically that it could (to be precise, it might, but the odds are very very low).

      But bringing up general antinatalist arguments, however, under the rubric of simply making careful decisions about whether to create a new life or not? Few would object to that, and it doesn't raise mortality salience and therefore increase the desire to have sex and reproduce both, it doesn't greatly interfere with people's enjoyment of their lives and cause them to put their back up, although it has the potential to help many people realize they shouldn't create new lives in their case.

      Many will, of course, but perhaps a somewhat higher percentage of them will be those who've thought about it, and realized they can put significant love, effort, and resources into parenting.

      And that is an improvement.

      Besides, wiping out the human race? That's almost inevitable, via the creation of an AI singularity. No way, no how is antinatalism going to catch on as a widespread, popular philosophy and course of action before that.

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    3. *evolutionarily outcompete

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    4. Christoph, antinatalism will not be bred out of the gene pool, as obviously, antinatalists are not born to antinatalists.

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  2. I think there's one qualitative difference here (which even Benatar points out): the parental decisions all bring different results for the same person. But if you decide between having a child or not, and you go with "not" - who exactly benefits from that?

    In other words, what does it mean to act for the good of a person that doesn't even exist? You can contrast two different futures, but can you compare a person and.. nothing? You need someone around for good decisions to be meaningful in the first place (or at least that's the intuition).

    Plus, I don't think parents have the expectation that those decisions are *impossible* to solve. They are hard, sure, but with reasonable effort, you ought to get good results. So starting isn't a hard decision itself.

    (I know that this isn't the case, but I doubt people appreciate how fucking hard and random good parenting is.)

    Also, can you think of any field that *doesn't* have this bias? Like, is there any group of people who goes, "yeah, getting X right is really tricky and there are a lot of problems, you're better off if you give up on the whole thing altogether"?

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    1. Like, is there any group of people who goes, "yeah, getting X right is really tricky and there are a lot of problems, you're better off if you give up on the whole thing altogether"?

      I do of course think you're better off giving up on the whole thing altogether, as you say, but this is an argument about the seriousness of the decision to start the whole thing altogether. I think people do take these sorts of initial decisions seriously - first-domino, meta-decisions - like the decision to get a pet, to join the military, to choose a major.

      What I'm pushing here is the initial decision to have a child creates decisions in which any answer is potentially harmful to the child. No existing being benefits from non-existence (naturally), but the severity of the potential harm to a created being makes the decision to create one far from the no-brainer it is often treated as.

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    2. "In other words, what does it mean to act for the good of a person that doesn't even exist? You can contrast two different futures, but can you compare a person and.. nothing?"

      No, you are comparing a state of the world in which the person exists to a state of the world in which the person does not exist.

      "Also, can you think of any field that *doesn't* have this bias? Like, is there any group of people who goes, "yeah, getting X right is really tricky and there are a lot of problems, you're better off if you give up on the whole thing altogether"?"

      They don't, but they should. See: precautionary principle.

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  3. Also, compare free disposal to the Amish rumspringa.

    We have a sizable Amish community around here and I've heard it argued several times (by Non-Amish!) that it's perfectly alright for the Amish to basically isolate their children from technology, fashion and scientific education because those children are given the choice (around the age of 16) to leave their community, if they want to.

    Of course like with free disposal, most don't take that option, for obvious reasons, and it's somewhat of a fiction to begin with, but it's still convincing.

    (I'm unsure why. Maybe "harm" is something that only sociopaths and generally evil people inflict. Everyone else can't do worse than nothing. Or because "you don't have to solve this problem in the first place" isn't an option that naturally occurs to people. Dunno.)

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    1. Or because "you don't have to solve this problem in the first place" isn't an option that naturally occurs to people.

      Yes! A (Bayesian-ish) idea that needs more press.

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    2. Which is why security, cryptography and general engineering is so fucking hard.

      Everyone thinks, I have a complex problem, I'll throw more complexity at it and solve it for reals! I am teh smart!

      Only few actually get that the most reliable way to solve a problem is to not have it in the first place.

      "The cheapest, fastest, and most reliable components are those that aren't there."

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    3. This is an excellent comment, both for the analogy with the Amish practices and the notion of solving a problem by not having to solve it in the first place!

      The analogy is also of some possible didactic use, because in the Amish case it's easily seen that the "free disposal" premise is not true; disposal comes with a significant cost here. In the suicide case, it's less obvious, but of course, that's still the reason why the argument doesn't work. It's valid, it's just not sound. (As Anonymous below pointed out correctly.) So I think the Amish analogy provides the slippery slope that people who defend the free disposal argument should be sent down: how costly can disposal be to still count as "free"?

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  4. "His argument is that the decision to create a child is not that grave or serious, because (a) the child can always choose to commit suicide (tall buildings and all), but (b) hardly anyone does."

    I agree it's weird people only ever use this logic when it comes to suicide and not all death. I mean if you applied this logic consistently, which basically says that the death of the person committing suicide erases all the responsibility of the parents for forcing that shitty life on the person, then doesn't it also mean that if I rape and murder a woman, I should only be punished for the murder since her death erased all my responsibility for the suffering caused by the rape? Following this logic to it's conclusion would mean that it's ok to do literally anything to anyone since everyone dies at some point.

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    1. That is a great extension of the logic. I think part of Caplan's point is that few people actually do commit suicide, which he wants to use as evidence that life is good overall (as opposed to evidence that there are built-in and socially-created barriers to suicide), but I agree there is something in the "free disposal" logic that suicide really does erase all the pain of life retroactively.

      Presumably, BC's reaction to child suicides like this seven-year-old would be, great, no harm, no foul! And I'm all for suicide choice, but for fuck's sake, making a seven-year-old suffer so much he wants to die is pretty fucking horrible. The suicide doesn't make it all better.

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    2. Another extension of the "free disposal" logic:

      Say we have memory erasing technology a la Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This makes any memory erasable. So if we look at a particular category of experience (abuse, rape, abandonment, etc.) and find that people (a) could easily have the memories erased but (b) rarely choose to do so, does that mean that it's now okay to inflict these harms on people?

      Maybe somebody can poke holes in and/or tighten up my logic.

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    3. Your logic seems tight to me. Simply because people choose not to "freely dispose" of the "side-effect" does not make the original act right or wrong. You're right in pointing out that rape is wrong for reasons beyond our ability to erase all of its negative consequences.

      I'm the Anonymous guy disagreeing with you below, but totally agreeing with you on rejecting "free disposal".

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    4. So if we look at a particular category of experience (abuse, rape, abandonment, etc.) and find that people (a) could easily have the memories erased but (b) rarely choose to do so, does that mean that it's now okay to inflict these harms on people?

      I would distinguish between the harm of the experience itself, and the harm of the memories of the experience. Imagine a hypothetical scenario where there's an experience that is not in itself bad, that has socially beneficial side-effects, but that leaves memories which are distressing. In that scenario, I think it would be reasonable to cite the existence of a selective memory erasing technology as a justification for harvesting the socially beneficial side-effects. After all, the person suffering from the memories can just delete the memories, ending all the downsides. However, rape and abuse are in themselves bad, since they inflict direct suffering, and of course we don't have a memory erasal technology, let alone one without side-effects.

      In relation to creating a child, that child's suffering before it can commit rational suicide is a form of harm that can only be prevented by not creating the child. But assuming it gets to a point where it can commit rational suicide, the further harms of life are preventable by that person. It does not negate the previous harms before rational suicide was an option. In practice, suicide is never completely free, since it is psychologically damaging and leaves social damage behind.

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    5. That's also useful - perhaps a timeline would be a proper illustration.

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    6. "I would distinguish between the harm of the experience itself, and the harm of the memories of the experience. Imagine a hypothetical scenario where there's an experience that is not in itself bad, that has socially beneficial side-effects, but that leaves memories which are distressing."

      In my case, it is the memories of the best times and best person I ever had in my life and how they are both gone that is so devastating.

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    7. "In practice, suicide is never completely free, since it is psychologically damaging and leaves social damage behind."

      Not to mention that wanting to suicide and thinking about suicide, weighing the pros and cons, and anguishing over this, and feeling fear at the thought of the pain and unreliability and simply self-caused death aren't exactly pleasant either.

      And these pains can go on for a long, long time.

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  5. I agree that parents should not treat the decision to bring children to life trivially. On the "related point", however, I offer this thought.

    Here's my understanding of "free disposal", from the link she provided:

    1: Parents give life to children.
    2: Life comes with "free disposal" (i.e. suicide).
    3: Most people choose not to commit suicide.
    __________________________________________
    C: People (generally) prefer existence to non-existence.

    She attempts a reductio ad absurdum:
    1: Parents circumcise children.
    2: (???)
    3: Most people choose not to commit suicide. (???)
    __________________________________________
    C: (which she think is absurd) People do not commit suicide.

    I think either I do not understand the "free disposal" argument (I blame the link she provided!!!) or she is wrong. I'll attempt to generalize my understanding of the "free disposal" argument:

    1: Person A gives person B a thing, call it X (e.g. a million dollars)
    2: X comes with free disposal (B can always dispose of X freely)
    3: Most people, when given X, choose not to dispose of X
    __________________________________________
    C: People (generally) prefer to have X.

    Bleach enema and circumcision do not come with free disposal. That is why "the [free disposal] argument has force when applied to the gravity of the creation question, but not to the gravity of other hard parenting dilemmas".


    PS: I am not arguing that free disposal is right. I'm simply arguing that she's using it wrongly. I'll let Caplan argue free disposal, as I've never been a fan of such argument and it does not hold that much force to me.

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    1. That's useful, thanks! Agree, the gift analogy is not present in the hard dilemma cases.

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    2. Anonymous,

      It can be difficult to understand this post if you don't know the general idea of this blog, or maybe even Sister Y. Let me help you a bit.

      The 'free disposal' idea is something Sister Y doesn't like.

      Bryan Caplan uses that idea to derive the conclusion for the first three statements.

      When it comes to circumcision, Sister Y applies the idea (to show it can result in absurd conclusions). This is how it's done for that:
      1) Many parents circumcise children.
      2) Suicide is also a free disposal for circumcision, since you don't suffer anything because of the lack of a foreskin after suicide.
      3) But many (circumcised) people don't commit suicide, so people don't mind / like being circumcised.

      But I really like the earlier Anonymous's generalization, it seems to expose the absurdness of that idea much more!
      1) Suppose Y rapes X.
      2) Eventually, all memories and effect of the rape will be dissolved once X dies.
      3) X will eventually die. So there's nothing wrong about Y having raped X.

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    3. It's funny that when you put it that way, we realize that it's absolutely batshit insane to compare throwing away a million dollars to killing yourself. There is just no comparison.

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  6. This might be part of what Anon is getting at above, but maybe Caplan would argue that suicide negates creation on strictly proportionate terms. That is, he might argue that the incidence of suicide is only narrowly or specifically relevant insofar as it reveals a preference for or against life, but not necessarily for or against other harms.

    Now, I don't for a minute think the "fee disposal" argument holds weight (nor, as I have previously stated, do I think it would necessarily be strengthened in the event that moral and legal barriers to suicide were somehow lifted), but if we grant as much for the sake of argument, and if we further assume that Caplan's suicide "out" is meant to be revealing only with reference to the appraisal of life itself, it seems to me that "free disposal" cheerleaders are stuck with a subordinate problem: If they assert that the purported rarity of suicide is relevant in assessing (i.e., defending) the sui generis value of being born, why shouldn't other subjective valuations, as revealed through polling and behavior, carry similar weight in assessing the gravity of post-vital harms like the ones you mention?

    Most circumcised men do not go on to become anti-circumcision activists, aftet all. Does this make circumcision okay? Many people who are abused as children go on to abuse their own children, often defending their actions in hostile terms. If the rarity of suicide despite available methods constitutes evidence against the view that procreation entails special harm, then why shouldn't the persistence of other seemingly harmful conduct -- especially when perpetrated by victims -- be weighted as evidence against the presumption of harm in such instances that do not bear directly on the value of being forced to live? Why should Caplan be convinced by the mob in one instance, but not in other cases? Gymnastics are required.

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    1. It seems to me that the crucial difference is that suicide affects the life of the person himself or herself, while the other forms of harm you mention are committed against other people without consent.

      Once a person has been abused, they cannot undo their own abuse by not abusing others. But maybe they can enjoy abusing others. They may tell themselves they're pretty much entitled to - after all, they may think they deserve such compensation for their own abuse. (This assumes a good degree of selfishness and sadism, which is probably not terribly unrealistic.)

      The suicide availability arguments aim at showing that a person very usually doesn't want to die even if they could do so easily and painlessly. It is not unreasonable for people who acutally could do so. Some of my friends are medical doctors. Despite of their profession, they are still alive. To me, this indicates that their lives must have been worth living ever since they became medical doctors. They could've died at any day during that time, with high effectiveness.

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    2. The David Benatar argument that life is always a net harm always struck me as silly. Aside from his asymmetry -- which doesn't follow mathematically, since it arbitrarily dismisses the value of benefits to the nonexistent, but using special pleading, doesn't do the same thing regarding harms -- he also makes a great deal of the fact that, objectively, our lives our worse than we think they are.

      This is essentially due to the optimism bias, where the majority of people don't encode negative experiences to memory as well as they do positive experiences.

      Benatar discounts subjective experience too readily. If people feel like their lives are good, isn't this the main thing? How is "objectivity" more important than a person's subjective evaluation? I'm including in this a person's possibly inaccurate, but nonetheless evolved to be comforting, sense of meaning.

      A much stronger antinatalist argument is simply unequal distribution of everything, inherent in nature. Some lives are pretty enjoyable (don't tell me Julius Caesar or Martin Luther King or my ex's lifelong monogamously married adoring grandparents wouldn't do it all over again).

      But some people end up tortured to death in basements, or so socially, sexually, or romantically unsatisfied that they want to die, or have horrid medical problems, or what have you.

      So having a child is a huge risk to the child. Comfortable, reliable suicide availability at least mitigates that risk.

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    3. Benatar's argument relies on a premise that is, apparently, not universally intuitive (the asymmetry), although some people feel it very strongly. On the other hand, it is special in that it is necessarily immune to the non-identity problem.

      Actually, I've come to the conclusion that the non-identity problem need not be taken very seriously because I think people intuitively see it as sophistry, and only philosophers are really bothered by it. So I think that you're actually right that the irresponsible risk argument is better. On the other hand, it must be said that Benatar's premises are not entirely arbitrary, and that his contribution to the philosophical discourse is certainly important. And of course, all the observations about optimism bias carry over to the irresponsible risk argument. In that sense, he is still right to discount subjective experience.

      Note that reports about people feeling their lives are good may often just be reports that they feel good at the particular moment that you ask them! This is not optimism bias, but some kind of heuristic. I don't remember if there's name for that. So actually, one could say that Benatar doesn't necessarily discount subjective experiences, but merely reports of such experiences, which, given that we have reason to believe such reports are frequently inaccurate, is not unreasonable at all.

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    4. Constant, it's true that people have more bad experiences/observations than they remember well -- at least ~80% of people do. So, even subjectively, most people's lives are worse than they think, if one adds up the total goods vs. total bads.

      Regardless, to say that all lives are net harms doesn't fly.

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    5. That still flies if you accept the asymmetry, but that's an entirely different point. I do agree with your that it's better to not argue based on the asymmetry.

      Where I disagree with you is whether Benatar is right to discard people's reports of their subjective quality of life. Presumably, what's valuable is good experiences, not reports of good experiences. Given that the correlation between the two leaves something to be desired, there is good reason to not take these reports too seriously.

      And that actually helps your argument about uncertainty: prospective parents are likely to radically overestimate their offspring's chances to have a good life; so you're all the more justified in telling them to really think twice about it.

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    6. The asymmetry argument is the argument in Better Never to Have Been that has elicited most response. However, it is not the only argument I provided. Indeed, by itself, the asymmetry argument is insufficient to yield the anti-natalist conclusion. It shows that it is better never to come into existence. It does not show how great a harm it is to come into existence. The second argument – what I shall call the quality-of-life argument – reveals the magnitude of that harm. However, the quality-of-life argument can also be understood as a separate argument for the conclusion that coming into existence is a harm. ("Every Conceivable Harm", p. 146)

      I wish Benatar, in his quality-of-life argument, had addressed Kahneman and colleagues' work, summarized in Part Five ("Two Selves") of Thinking, Fast and Slow, on the "remembering" versus "experiencing" self, which seems to me to complicate the matter beyond how Benatar conceives of it. Though I'm doubtful this would diminish its force as a separate argument for the conclusion that coming into existence is a harm, I think it could have some bearing on how the living might think of their existing that might be different from Benatar's account.

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    7. Constant, it's true that people have more bad experiences/observations than they remember well -- at least ~80% of people do.

      Christoph, can you clarify how you arrive at the 80% number?

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    8. Seems to me that Caplan's argument, as you articulate it, would only be valid if every person who commits suicide, or does not commit suicide, does so on a purely conscious basis and is 100% fully aware of what ey is supporting/rejecting. But this seems to me as an extremely unreasonable standard. We do not accept/reject anything on a basis of 100% full awareness, we accept/reject them on the basis of our own flawed perspective and cognitive biases.

      Caplan, bless his retarded little heart, has always seemed to me to hold an extremely naive view of human cognition, and he does so again here. Whatever else he is, he is no philosopher.

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    9. "Christoph, can you clarify how you arrive at the 80% number?"

      Please watch this. It will explain it well.

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    10. Christoph, the Benatar asymmetry does not "arbitrarily" dismiss the value of benefits to the nonexistent. You said this with a straight face without even realizing what you were saying. Things that do not exist cannot benefit.

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    11. Nor can they be harmed.

      But it you bring them into existence, guess what? Now they can be harmed.

      Are you with me so far?

      Guess what else? Now they can also be benefited.

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  7. lol @ "mortal soul"

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    1. The Andrea Yates thing (killing your children to save them from Hell) has a special place in our hearts.

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  8. Sister Y,

    This is a beautiful post. I'm planning to forward it to some of my family members. =)

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  9. "Why do you think they do it? Again, sadism is the wrong answer."

    Why is it the wrong answer?

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    1. Also, my wife pointed out that the "free disposal" argument is very similar to the Christian attitude about life: this whole concept that if life has an end then everything that happens in between must be completely meaningless.

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