Jul 302011

One useful way to think about people’s bedrock philosophical positions would be to think of their preference orderings over different possible futures.  Let’s define a few such futures.

Future X is a peaceable, non-coercive human extinction-sooner-rather-than-later, something rather like what David Benatar recommends to us in Chapter 6 of Better Never to Have Been.  No omnicide, no one pushing the Big Red Button, no forced sterilizations or other coercive measure to stop people from breeding.  Just the spread of antinatalist convictions through reflection and persuasion until people stop breeding and, nature taking the course it will, human extinction results.

Future P is the achievement of a hypothetical Good Posthuman Condition, described in this post, something that might be achieved through technology.

Future H is something like the continuation of the status quo.  A species of highly-sociable, language-and-technology using apes has the run of Planet Earth and nearby space perhaps and breeds generation upon generation of itself — until at some point in the future some resource critical to the apes’ survival is exhausted, resulting in extinction then.

Now with these conditions defined, we can imagine having different preference orderings that might define different types of possible worldview. I’ll use the same notation I’ve used before with the “>” sign meaning “is preferred to.”

Optimistic humanists.  Have a preference ordering something like H > P > X.  Cheery folks who think that human life is really good, and have doubts, possibly related to “meaning” about whether a posthuman condition could be all that good.  I think something like this is the professed worldview of most people.

Technophobic humanists.  Have a preference ordering like H > X > P.  Think that human life is good, but find the idea of a posthuman condition, even a good one as I’ve tried to define it, deeply repellent.  This appears to be position of writers like Bill McKibben and Jürgen Habermas.

Cheery Transhumanists.  Have a preference ordering of P > H > X.  These are your garden-variety, slightly-to-very juvenile transhumanists whose position is “human life is great!  I want more! More!”

Negative Posthumanists.  Have a preference ordering of P > X > H.  Think human life is terrible, for reasons that probably don’t need to be rehashed for readers of this site.  They don’t care about “meaning,” but are very bothered by sentient suffering and want to see it overcome.  If this can be overcome in a way that allows for there to be a lot of pleasure in the world, then great.  If not, a peaceable extinction is preferred to the status quo.  This is pretty much my current view.

Pessimistic Extinctionists.  Have a preference ordering of X > P > H.  A tricky state of mind for me to enter into, but I can see someone espousing a position like this if they worry about “meaning,” and think that the world doesn’t provide any, so we’re better off dead, but if we must be alive, then it would at least be better to be alive with less suffering and more pleasure.

Misanthropic Extinctionists.  Have a preference ordering X > H > P.  I don’t know anyone who takes this position and one would have to be pretty damn cranky to hold it.  What rationale could it have?  “Human beings are horrible and they’d be better off not existing at all, but if they’re so insolent as to exist, they’d better suffer.”

I’d be willing to classify as an antinatalist anyone who order X > H, so Negative Posthumanists, Pessimistic Extinctionists, and (sigh) Misanthropic Extinctionists would all count. (It gets a little tricky with Negative Posthumanists.  I’ve myself wondered whether whatever sentients that might exist in a Good Posthuman State would make new people.  My best guess is exceedingly speculative, and squicky-weird to boot.  A subject for a future post.)

For want of a better term, “Meaningist” would be anyone who orders X > P.  I confess it’s something that I find very hard to grasp:  wouldn’t joy be better than nothing?  But I’ll take a stab at understanding.  There seems to be an enduring feature in the psychology of many people that might be described as the Horror Of Nothing To Submit To.  Many people — and not just religious people — feel lost at the thought of no guide vast and cosmic to their lives: no Will of God, no Law of Nature, no Objective Moral Reality, no Categorical Imperative, no Authoritative Tradition, what have you.  Without these things they feel miserable and lost.  Argue against them and they feel threatened.  And I can sort of see how any posthuman condition looks like the negation of all these things:  Promethean defiance of the Will of God, the rewriting of the laws of nature, the substitution of what will make us feel joy for the yoke of moral duty, the shameless shucking off of tradition.  Why so many people are like this would require a whole department of Nietzsches to figure out, but that they are like this, I don’t think many will doubt.

 Posted by at 08:21

  15 Responses to “People types defined over futures”

  1. One possible reason many anti-natalists reject the post-human solution is due to the fact that the post-human solution is not an imminent possibility. To reach that hypothetical point in time when it is a possibility would require mankind to perpetuate itself through time (i.e. creating new people).

    • This is a sensible objection, although it seem highly likely to me that an antinatalist path toward human extinction, assuming that it is achieved through peaceful persuasion rather than coercion, also strikes me as likely to proceed rather slowly.

  2. Apparently I am a Pessimistic Extinctionist. I don’t think of myself as being pessimistic, but that’s labels for you.

  3. James, forgive me, but I feel you’re being quite patronising about ‘Meaningists’, which if I read you correctly, is probably the category I would fall into. It’s not about wanting to submit yourself to some Old Testament Yahweh or place oneself into bondage; that take on it smacks of a teenager who’s just decided they don’t believe in god anymore and is looking forward to seeing the look on their parents’ face when they tell them. It all boils down to the classic problem of Theodicy: looking for a justification/ redemption for the infinite and unjustifiable suffering of the world. I see no need whatsoever to apologise for feeling this, and in fact, I can only surmise that people who aren’t troubled by this are insensitive, selfish boors. If people are happy playing with their synthetic cheese, best of luck to them, just don’t expect everyone to be like this.

  4. You left out X=P, or at least P!>X (I think !> would stand for “not greater than” on the internetz). I think I fall into that obscure category. P!>X seems to follow from accepting David Benatar’s asymmetry. Since we are talking about futures, the inhabitants of these realities have not come into existence, so what reason is there for us to prefer P over X, since the road to P will undoubtedly be paved with countless mutilated corpses (I’m bungling Jim’s metaphor here)? Furthermore, if negative posthumanists don’t care about meaning, what reason is there for them to prefer P over X other than yearning for a happy ending of some sort (i.e., meaning)?

    I suppose if we were to ever reach the point where either P or X are actual possibilities, both the problem of meaning and the problem of preference of P to X would self-resolve. Posthuman experience machines could supply P-meaningists with all the experience of meaning they could want. And if it somehow became possible for people to decide to go extinct and then actually go through with it, my guess is that attitudes towards extinction would be pretty drastically different than the ones even the most staunch antinatalists hold today (we’ve been so brainwashed to think of extinction as a bad thing that it would be ridiculous to believe we can just shake those attitudes, except maybe when engaged in abstract philosophizing). X-people would probably regard the asymmetry as self-evident and its implications would not be upsetting.

    Let’s imagine future XP for a second. The great posthuman condition has been achieved, but a sudden and unforseen power blackout shuts down all the holodecks (or whatever) and instantly and painlessly kills all posthumans without their being the wiser. If P>X, then it would seem to follow that P-infinity>XP, but is it really something you believe? I cannot see a reason to order P-infinity>XP unless one values humans primarily as vessels of pleasure, which I’m pretty sure does not apply to you.

    • This comment raises great issues and deserves more than I can offer right at the moment — let’s hope for a post in the future.

      One possibility I have thought about is a possible alternative to Benatar’s Asymmetry is a High Threshold View, that is, a view that it would be good to make people if it were reasonably certain that they would exist over a very high threshold of of well-being, even if their lives were not completely devoid of suffering. Someone like a hypothetical One Pinprick might be over the high threshold. If the high threshold view is correct, then one might have a reason for P > X. Much of the time I find the High Threshold View intuitively appealing, although I also find it a bit ad hoc compared with Benatar’s Asymmetry, and I don’t have a very good sense of just how high a threshold would be “enough” (I suspect it would be higher than most or even all existing humans, but how reliable is that intuition, really?), and of course, I might just inventing this curious principle as a way of rationalizing away the desirability of extinction (no reason for me to believe I’m any less brainwashed on this subject than anyone else!) . I suspect this is something I’ll be chewing over mentally for quite a while.

      • Much of the time I find the High Threshold View intuitively appealing, although I also find it a bit ad hoc compared with Benatar’s Asymmetry, and I don’t have a very good sense of just how high a threshold would be “enough” (I suspect it would be higher than most or even all existing humans, but how reliable is that intuition, really?),

        Benatar stakes out a position at a boundary point — that is, the threshold is at infinity for him (or, if you prefer, at zero suffering — also a boundary point). But just because we don’t know where exactly the threshold should lie doesn’t mean we should default to an extreme / a boundary point. It would be like if a coworker’s daughter were selling Girl Scout cookies, and asked you how many boxes you wanted, and you said, “hmm, well, I don’t know — maybe three or four?” and your coworker replied, “well, since you don’t know, I’ll put you down for zero.”

        • This strikes me as an eminently reasonable observation though, Nervous Nellie that I am, I continue to worry about the reliability of my own intuitions.

          • I’m skeptical of an ethics that always has the answer. I think it’s fine to land somewhere acceptable rather than ideal.

  5. Hi James,

    Here you have a Misanthropic Extinctionist. :-)

    I feel Rafael Melo (who writes antinatalismo.blogspot.com ) would be one too.

  6. I’d be willing to classify as an antinatalist anyone who order X > H

    Not all reasons for antinatalism are grand teleological ones. Sure, universal adoption of antinatalism would result in X as opposed to H, but there are lots of motivations for it other than the desire for X over H.

    1. One could be an antinatalist because one is convinced by the deontological argument that non-consensually imposing a mixed package of suffering and joy is wrong.

    2. One could belief that for any given person, non-existence is better than existence. That the universal adoption of non-existence over existence would result in X rather than H happens to be a consequence.

    3. One could be a conditional antinatalist: it happens that the current world is really crappy and/or overpopulated, and so we right now ought not to create more persons, but once things get better and/or the world’s population is at an appropriate level, people can start having children again.

    4. One could be risk-averse when creating new people: someone could have a really lousy life and we just shouldn’t take that gamble.

    I for one am not convinced that X > H, nor am I even convinced that H !> X. I’m somewhat of a mix of 1, 3, and 4, though none is dispositive. The proportion of actual births that I think ought to occur is low; perhaps it is zero. But I consider myself functionally an antinatalist since I intend not to have children (both for the moral reasons 1, 3, and 4, and also because it is my personal preference) and try to get people to think about things such that they might be less likely to have children themselves.

    • Not all reasons for antinatalism are grand teleological ones.

      I agree; I don’t mean for X > H to exhaust the possibilities of antinatalism.

  7. […] really should be writing serious posts on philosophy, especially on some good issues raised recently in comments, but as I’ve been hit by a great wave of work this week […]

  8. […] post “People types defined over futures” brought forth many excellent comments that raised some important issues, and so I’m […]

  9. […] like this result might motivate what I have called in commentary discussion with CM and JasonSL the High Threshold View,, that is, the view that it is not wrong to create new people if they will […]

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.