Aug 172011

The post “People types defined over futures” brought forth many excellent comments that raised some important issues, and so I’m going to promote them into a post and attempt a discussion.

Let me begin with commenter CM, who asks:

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 [James:  a good posthuman condtion] over X [James: the success of noncoercive antinatalism leading to human extinction], 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)?

On possible response to this might begin something like this: unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be any future not paved with mutilated corpses.  That’s a grim view, but unfortunately it’s a view that I fear is correct.  Let us assume that we reject any sort of coercive approach to human extinction — an assumption that seems pretty safe here, since I’ve yet to encounter anyone among my commenters who is in favor of ending the life of anyone who does not want to die, or of things like forcible sterilization of people who don’t want to be sterilized, or compulsory abortion, etc.  What’s left to antinatalists?  Well, there’s always peaceful persuasion and I’m not so pessimistic as to say that will never work.  But I don’t think any plausible case can be made that that’s going to be a particularly quick process.  Christianity, by way of comparison, relied (as far as I know) on peaceable persuasion and conversion to spread, at least up until the Fourth Century C.E. when it became the official religion of the Roman Empire.   By one careful estimate cited by John Stark in The Rise of Christianity, perhaps 17.4  percent of the population Graeco-Roman world was Christian by 315 C.E.  That means centuries of slow growth just to become a substantial minority in one of the world’s then-extant civilizations.  To be sure the world is a little different now from what it was like then:  twenty-first century antinatalists have access to far cheaper and quicker communications than anyone had in classical antiquity.   But counterbalancing this fact would be those that antinatalists might have something less to offer their adherents than early Christians did:  not otherworldly rewards, certainly, and (with all due respect to my wonderful commenters) nothing like the this-worldly bonds of community and fellowship that they had either.  At the very least, I see no compelling reason to think that even if antinatalism prospers, that it will make its way in the world significantly faster than Christianity did, and sadly that means centuries of people being born, suffering, and dying.  It’s a long march.  Maybe a march that would have gone on as long as the human species would have anyway even if no one had ever conceived of antinatalism.  Antinatalism is a moral idea.  I don’t wish to disdain moral ideas per se, but half a lifetime’s worth of disillusioning experience  has taught me that it is very hard to get people to change their behaviors based only on moral ideas.  Antinatalism might get a bit of extra leverage by evangelizing the benefits of a childfree lifestyle and that’s not contemptible, but it’s still fighting powerful biological and cultural forces both.

Now while we’re on our long march to somewhere technology will doubtless keep bubbling along.  I’m not a fan of Singulatity-is-near enthusiasms, but even so there’s no reason to rule out the possibility that the means from bringing about a good posthuman condition will arrive sooner than centuries from now.  And if that’s the case, then we actually do have a reason to care about whether we rank P over X, because if we do, then we have an exit ramp off the long march.  We don’t have to care about meaning per se.  We just want to push for whatever means come to hand for ending (or at least sharply limiting) the suffering sooner rather than later.   And posthumanism does have something that will appeal to people: palpably less suffering and more pleasure.  It’s an easier sell.

So if the considerations I urge upon you above are correct, then there might be a functional reason to prefer P to X, albeit here only as a sort of lesser achievable good, not a happy ending but just doing the best we can.

Is P necessarily only a lesser good?  Maybe. But maybe not, and that is a possibility I’d like to explore in a near future post.

 Posted by at 10:23

  4 Responses to “Reflections on some good comments: I”

  1. Intetesting parallel with Christianity. I am skeptical whether ideas/beliefs have anything to do with the spread of religion; it seems they are all about promoting social belonging and serve as technologies that allow trade outside the tribe. We certainly have nothing like that to offer.

    • The very existence of James’s blog, your blog, and other antinatalist blogs, has brought a few far-flung people together. I didn’t enter the community a misanthrope, or a depressive, and I don’t think I’m any more of any of these than I was already[1], but I’m less likely to have children than I was when I encountered you all.

      It’s also worth considering finding ways to increase the correlation between antinatalism and social movements or other things that may have better treats to offer adherents. I may be totally weird, but I find antinatalism liberating, and I don’t just mean finding childlessness liberating.

      As for ideas’ effect on the spread of a religion, I think one of the strengths of social conservatism in the U.S. today is that it offers gay rights as a really easy way to perform morality without really suffering any deprivation oneself. For most men, for example, not blowing another dude is *really easy*. On the other hand, being charitable and being sexually faithful to one’s wife is a bit harder. So if you can find an idea that lets you satisfy people’s need for morality without any actual cost to them, you’ve found an idea that facilitates the spread of your religion.

      1. If we’re a community, might as well let it be known. 0-10. Misanthrope: 0. Depressive: 2, even though the Hamilton scale James referred to a fortnight or so ago gives me only a 5: “within the normal range”.

  2. I guess I was wrong in assuming that all other things (such as the length of time to P or X) would be equal. But Jason, I believe, made a good point recently that ceteres are never pares. If P occurred sooner than X would, that would certainly constitute a good reason to prefer it. I guess I just don’t really see why such revolutionary technological advances are more likely to occur than some sort of an overpopulated anti-Utopian future with lots of Soylent Green. But then I’m very risk-averse and hopelessly ignorant when it comes to economics and technology. On the other hand, ceasing to reproduce is technically possible (which, I realize, is very different from actually possible) right now.

    Since you brought it up, I should probably mention my *ahem* unorthodox views on sterilization and abortion as detailed in this comment thread and more recently elaborated on by estnihil and Karl. I’m open to being persuaded that the harm principle is wrong, but until then, it seems that forced sterilizations and abortions are justifiable on utilitarian grounds.

    And I really, really look forward to further posts your High Threshold View and the goodness of P.

    • Practically speaking, do we have to choose? We can be *both* antinatalists and transhumanists. It’s hard to predict the future, so rather than picking a position that relies on “revolutionary technological advances” versus “some sort of an overpopulated anti-Utopian future with lots of Soylent Green”, why not adopt a stance that’s in harmony with both: don’t have kids, and try to make things better by donating talent or treasure towards reducing suffering.

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