Friday, January 2, 2015

Death is bad (but I'm not sure why)

I would urge you to read the linked article on its own, especially if you self-identify as an effective altruist or utilitarian or somewhere on that philosophical area. But for the purposes of this blog, there's an argument there that goes like this: Murder is very bad. Most people who support abortion are sure that killing a 1st trimester foetus is not murder, but they should also be aware that there a lot of people who disagree with them. Therefore, they should not be 100% certain* that abortion is not murder. Therefore, if you admit something like a 1% chance that abortion is in fact murder, and therefore very bad, and if you put numbers on "very bad" (that's where the utilitarianism comes) it's very hard to make the math come out "abortion is good". (unless you are dealing with extreme cases like abortion to save the life of the mother/foetus will not survive/etc.)

Political disclaimer: My support for legal abortion has less to do with "abortion is morally good" and more with "abortion will happen anyway but if legal it's safer" and "we should probably give people the right to decide how their body is used as a matter of principle, even if they will decide to do bad things with them". "If it's bad it should be illegal" is not a principle I endorse in the general case. So no, I'm not trying to make or endorse an argument for banning abortion.

Back to the argument. There a number of obvious responses, like:
"I'm not an utilitarian and I don't think you can do math on life and death", in which case I would love to have a longer argument with you on the subject but this post is not the place, or

"I am, in fact, very much certain that foetuses are not people and killing them is not murder, less than 0.01% chance I'm wrong", or

"Well, obviously in conclusion abortion is wrong", which I think are both interesting positions and I'll address in a moment.

In the "put numbers on very bad" part above, the author uses Quality-Adjusted Life Years (QALY). The argument is that if it turns out abortion is murder, it costs the foetus ~76 years of life, on average. Here's the part where my brain, and my philosophy, goes nuts:

What if a foetus isn't a person? Aren't we missing out on exactly those same ~76 QALY anyway?

There's a philosophy that says no. You can only care about real people, not potential people; those 76 QALY only matter if the person who would have lived them already exists.

If you accept that, yay. You can go back one level to the previous argument and try to figure out the expected personhood of a foetus, which I'm sure must be a barrel of laughs. My problem is that I'm not sure I can.

If I'm certain of anything in meta-ethics, it's consequentialism: the idea that "good" or "bad" is about states of the world. The right action is the one that results in the best state of the world, and nothing else. Not which laws you follow, not which virtues you exercise, just how the world is.

In particular, if "person X exists" is a good state of the world, we should bring it about; if not, we shouldn't. But the "fuck you, potential people" principle says otherwise: If you already exist, then states of the world where you don't mean you were killed, so that's bad. But if you don't already exist, then states of the world where you don't exist are neutral. There's no reason to care about you in the future if you don't exist now.

It seems like a very weird twist on consequentialism: The same state of the world can go from good to bad depending on when you ask the question. That's a very ugly feature I don't really want in my metaethics.

But if you reject that, not only do you have to worry about abortion, but suddenly everything from contraception to not having sex falls in the same bucket: You are not taking action to make a person come into existence, this is the same as taking action to remove a person from existence (since they both result in world states where a person doesn't exist), ergo you are a murderer.

Which brings us to a nasty conundrum: If I want to be remotely consistent about ethics, then either I admit that murder is not always that bad, or I have to stop blogging right now and go impregnate as many women as possible. Since the second option sounds like a lot of work and would probably end badly for everyone involved (except our future children, who are being saved from counterfactual murder!), let's look at the first one.

Why is killing people bad? 

... honestly, I'm not sure. I'm far more certain of the fact of "don't murder" than of any philosophical justifications for it, presumably because hominid brains evolved to have an innate sense of morality where we don't kill each other all the time, because social animals that kill each other all the time don't really work too well.

Like, there's the making people sad argument: if I kill you, your friends and family will be very sad, and making people sad is bad, therefore don't do it. And that's all well and good, except that if that's all it should mean it should be alright to kill people with no friends, or people who have lots of enemies who would be happy to seem the die. It does seem to allow not having sex, since people who don't exist yet don't have friends to care, so that's at least a point in favour.

There's the preferences argument: as a general rule, people's preferences being fulfilled is good, all other things being equal. People prefer not to die, ergo, don't kill them.

But that falls prey to the potential people problem just as well: hypothetical people would most likely also enjoy existing, ergo, if we care about their preferences we should bring them into being. Should we only care about the preferences of people who exist right now? If so, then that raises intriguing questions about the future: are we supposed to stop caring about what happens to the planet after the last currently-living person dies? After all, the people who would be alive then have no moral weight right now. 

It seems to me that I intuitively care about people who don't exist, like, I would think it's very bad if the world a thousand years from now is every human being living a miserable existence. But I don't worry about my potential children not existing. My brain parses "not existing" and "it existed and then stopped" as very different things, even though the end result is the same.

It would then seem there are two choices: 

Existence is not inherently valuable, and I need a good ethical grounding for why murder is bad that I don't have,


We are morally obligated to maximise the number of people who exist, and will exist.

I'm currently defaulting to the first one, hence the title. This just might be because the second one is weird and uncomfortable, and I would really like a good answer for this. But I don't have it.

*As a general rule, you should not be be literally 100% certain of anything, for reasons I may have gone over in the past. Here though, I don't mean just "technically this could all be an illusion created by a trickster demon" but "There is a small but measurable chance you are wrong".

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