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December 10, 2007


Should you not then say 'I believe that it is good for me to exist' or 'it is personally preferable to exist'? There may well be people out there whose wish it is that you had never existed. Cowardly freedom-hating terrorist lizards, for example. Can you logically prioritise your desire to exist over their opposing desire? I hope so, since otherwise, those who argue that "if I didn't exist, there would be no 'me' to suffer" should have no problem with being wiped out by their enemies. What do they care?

Robin, would you deem it morally better or worse for a person who (lucidly) wished they had never existed to get their wish?

I take it you aren't convinced by Benatar's "impeccable rational arguments". Me either.

I agree with Robin's point in principle. As a practical matter, on account of the vast amounts of suffering by animals in the wild, I would find a possible world in which earth-based life did not exist morally preferable to a possible world in which such life existed up until now and then humans went extinct. Considerations of the possibility that people experience infinite happiness or suffering after death are also relevant.

"Many, however, say this is nonsense - you can't hurt someone by preventing them from existing because then there would be no one there to hurt. I disagree. I can care about things beyond my immediate experience, such as what happens to my family after I die. So you can hurt me by changing such things, even if I never experience your hurt."

Maybe I'm just too stupid to understand your argument, but is this really a valid position? Sure, you care about what happens to your family after you die. I feel the same way for mine. But unless you have some kind of religious view of the world, must you not acknowledge that once you die you stop caring about anything, as there is nobody around to process the neccessary thoughts?

Assume you point a gun at me and me family. You tell me that you are going to kill me but spare my family. Then you change your mind and say that after you kill me you will also kill my entire family. I would say that your change of mind makes me worse off, as I indeed care about what happens to my family even after I die. However, if you change your mind first after having already killed me, I cannot accept that I am worse off. Why? There is not "I" anymore, I am dead. Once cease to exist, surely nothing can matter to me at all?

Or am I missing something?

This goes back to the question of whether, once you have a logically consistent description of something, it makes further sense to talk about whether the object "exists" or "does not exist". If you argue that (your utility function being consistent) it must make just as much sense to care about that utility function morally whether it "exists" or "does not exist", then why not argue that it makes no sense to care about whether your experiences themselves "exist" or "do not exist"?

For every utility function there is an equal and opposite utility function. Should I also take into account the desires of the anti-Robin-Hanson, who does not currently exist, but is a logically describable consistent agent, whose preferences are precisely the opposite of yours? That is, for every good thing that happens to you, including your existence, the anti-Robin-Hanson desires that it should not happen to Robin Hanson; and for every bad thing that happens to you, such as a dust speck in the eye, the anti-Robin-Hanson prefers this bad thing to happen to Robin Hanson.

You could argue that the anti-Robin-Hanson's preference should not count morally, but you cannot argue that the anti-Robin-Hanson's preferences are meaningless...


Thanks for taking the time to explore these issues in a separate post. A few comments follow.

Many, however, say this is nonsense - you can't hurt someone by preventing them from existing because then there would be no one there to hurt. I disagree. I can care about things beyond my immediate experience, such as what happens to my family after I die. So you can hurt me by changing such things, even if I never experience your hurt.

The argument that failing to bring someone into existence cannot harm that person need to rely on the claim that people's lives are made worse off only by events which they can experience. The best such argument does not rely on that claim. Rather, the argument relies on the claim that people must exist in order to be made worse off. This claim is neutral with respect to the debate over what makes someone's life worth living, and it works whether you are a hedonist or a preference-satisfactionist. If you had never existed, there wouldn't have been someone whose preferences would have been frustrated, and hence no one that could be truly claimed to have been harmed as a consequence.

a possible world where I die tomorrow, and I have no more future selves seems worse for me than a world where such future selves do exist, and a world where none of my selves ever existed seems worse for me than either.

There is a world of difference between claiming that not continuing to exist would be worse for you and claiming that not ever existing would have been worse for you. In the first case there is an existing person who is made worse off as a result of your not continuing to exist. In the second case there is no such person. It makes no sense to claim that there is someone who is made worse off when this person doesn’t actually exist.

"at the banquet of nature no place is reserved for him; he is really an intruder on the earth. Nature bids him take himself off, and she will not be slow to put this order into execution herself."

If your existence is a burden, to you or someone else, then maybe you have no right to existence, and should be terminated. Conversely the one who has no desire to exist has already forfeited his right existence and at the same time his ability to make any choice. He has no right nor free will whatsoever anymore, and if any variant of himself would, under other conditions, choose otherwise, and will to exist and carry on living, that other self has any right to do so and to take the succession over the inapt variant. Mind your step, miss it just once, and you ought to be replaced.

Chip Smith has been writing a series of posts on anti-natalism. I recommend them.

I posted about this earlier, but since it's appropriate I figured I'd notify people who might be interested, Chip Smith has been writing a series of posts on anti-natalism. I recommend them.

From an egoist perspective, I say nuts to the kids who must suffer because I spawned them.

I was going to post a comment, but it was loaded with links and keeps getting flagged as spam, I've made it a post at my blog.

Ben, if it is morally good to give people what they want, then it is good for people who want not to exist to not exist.

Eliezer, if RH (me) wants to exist while ARH (anti Robin) does not want ARH to exist, well then it is good if RH exists and ARH does not exist. If neither RH nor ARH exist, but both have opposing preferences about something that exists, well then yes they might cancel for goodness if they were equally weighted. However, even if I agree that given any RH you can construct an ARH with opposing preferences, I need not agree goodness weighs them equally. But I do agree that this is a subtle issue.

Pablo, even if you agree I care about whether I exist, you might say I am not harmed if you take not existing as the "harmless" reference outcome, against which other acts are compared. But even then you might agree it is good if I do exist, relative to my not existing.

Robin Hanson, ARH doesn't want RH to exist. Not, ARH doesn't want ARH to exist. If you take the preferences of nonexistent people into account then there's an awfully large number of nonexistent people...

If you deny that preferences should count over any being but ourselves, then I'll execute my standard reply and ask whether a superintelligence would act wrongly in allowing babies to grow up into humans (with different, newly developed motivations) rather than ensuring the babies grow up into "superbabies" which maximally fulfill a baby's current utility function. Since this notion that a baby has a destiny of humanhood comes from yourself, not the baby. A similar dilemma on a lesser scale is successfully involuntarily medicating a psychotic.

Eliezer, yes, I accept there may be many nonexistent people's wants to account for. They need not count equally though. I have in mind something like giving more weight to creatures who were "closer to having existed", but I'll admit I haven't thought very hard about this. The superbaby case seems a nice one to explore - it does seem we respect the adult sucessor more than the superbaby successor to the baby.

Robin, another way to rephrase Eliezer's point (and Eliezer, sorry if I'm unfairly highjacking a the hypothetical you yourself have defined) is that for the hypothetical to be at all useful, we should understand RH as relating to the potentially-desirably-existing-RH not as a self but as a person, some person. ARH would also relate to potentially-desirably-existing-RH in the same manner.

"Existing" and "non-existant" are not adjectives like "tall" or "utilitarian." You cannot arbitrarily put them in front of "persons". The utility of non existent people is undefined. Not zero, undefined, because there is no "they" to have utility. (This does not rule out the utility of people who will exist but do not currently, only that of those who simply do not.)

Both sides of this whole debate get very confused about this issue. The antinatalist side has this weird hangup with death, whereby no matter how good life is, death must necessarily be worse, so no existence is preferrable (at least, that's the main cogent point I got out of the Chip Smith piece referenced by TGGP). This doesn't make much sense to me, but if an individual hates death that much, I suppose that he's entitled to that value, though he should recognize it is far from universally held.

RH, it is meaningless to say that you can't hurt someone by preventing them from existing. If they do not exist, there is no them to hurt (or help), period, full stop. There is quite literally no such thing as a non-existent person, so you can't compare people to one.

Robin, I agree with Pablo and Psychohistorian. I think it is nonsense to say that someone is made worse off by never having existed because there is a two-place predicate involved and only one of these places can be filled. That said, I agree with the following: that your life is good for you and that the world is better with you existing than with you not existing. These are meaningful statements because the first uses good-for rather than a comparative and the second is a comparative over worlds which do exist in both cases to be compared.

Parfit famously uses this philosophical issue (the non-identity problem) to show that morality can't be discussed purely in terms of harms and benefits because the goodness or badness of some things (which are intuitively good or bad) can't be captured in such terms. Eg (assuming briefly that you have no externalities...) it is not a benefit to you that you exist, but it is good that you exist.

Note: your quantum understanding of things *may* be able to get you out of this because even though you are hypothesized to not exist, you would still exist in some other sense, but not in this universe. A lot of work would need to be done on fleshing this out to see if it does work, but I don't think it is worth the time. The important thing is that it is good that you exist (and that this goodness is in a sense 'owned by you'), not that it benefits you.


Psycho and Toby, if I say something, and you think that what I say is meaningless, and then I offer a precise description of what I could clearly and sensibly mean by what I say, why doesn't that settle the issue? Why would you then insist that I can't mean what I propose to mean, but instead insist I am saying something meaningless?

I have to say I'm sympathetic with Robin on that last plaint.

Nastunya correctly rephrased my point: While RH relates to itself, ARH relates to RH rather than itself. This is part of the problem with embracing agent descriptions that are not of (locally) instantiated agents, as if they were existing citizens. It does not reveal incoherency, it is just a moral problem.

Insofar as the desires of ARH and RH are taken into account, I'd say the numers of ARH's and RH's are relevant. They are both, in this hypothetical sense, infinite - but one is going to be more likely, and hence, is a much larger infinity. (I suspect RH's, which need not be limited to Robin himself, but simply anybody who desires his existence, far outweight ARHs)

As a complicating factor, it seems the reasons for those desires are more significant than the desires themselves. So you must also weigh the values for which those reasons exist. And insofar as THAT goes, it seems to me that the RH's position is generally going to be stronger than the ARH's.

Of course, once you process all of this abstraction and dump it out the other side, you end up with a summation that would look something like this:
All the good of your existence(however you define good) - all the bad of your existence(however you define bad.)

Since it is my opinion the average WANTED life is a significantly positive externality, adding a life is of positive value.

An unwanted life, i/e, a baby that neither mother nor father wants, seems quite likely to be a negative externality - i/e, the person will be significantly more likely to be miserable, and to cause misery. So one could very easily posit a neutral or even negative moral value for having a child that isn't wanted, using armchair logic alone.

Of course, all of this is largely irrelevant except as a thought exercise to a the rational egoist, who after all does not regard the conditions of others to be a moral imperative upon him or her self.

This disagreement, like 95% of philosophy generally, sounds like confusion over language. When you use "exist," some people infer that you mean "ever existed" rather than "continue to exist." The post seems to focus on the latter, but the language you use implies the former.

This would be much less ambiguous were the title "It is Good to be Alive," and used living rather than existing as your point. When you say "not exist" it seems your point is closer to "cease to exist," and I think that has confused some people. Unless the meaning is in fact "ever existed," in which case I remain confused.

EL's point seems to be (as I understand it) that if we can say "Your desires are X, and you argue X is good. But we can easily conceive of someone who desires not-X, which makes your argument ineffective." That argument seems entirely cogent, since you are referring to a hypothetical person (which is intelligible) rather than a non-existent person (which is not).

For your consideration:

In a rational world, anyone caught philosophizing without accomplishment would be given a warning.

The second time, they would be imprisoned for ten years.

The third time, they would be executed.

Robin, I agree that 'there is a clear sensible thing we can mean by "how much you want (those selves) to exist."' But that is not at all the same thing as saying that 'you can[] hurt someone by preventing them from existing.' I take it Toby et al are objecting to the latter sort of claim. It's important to be clear that there is no "potential person" to be harmed by our failure to bring them into existence. (I'm not sure whether you actually disagree here. It's the sort of problem where differences in focus could easily lead us to be talking past each other.)

A couple of other thoughts on the original post:
1. Pablo was right to point out that the possibility of unexperienced harm is no argument for the possibility of harming the non-existent. (In the former case there is still a being, i.e. you, to be harmed by the - spatially or temporally - distant events. Not so in the latter case.)

2. A (e.g. lifeless) world / state of affairs may be bad even if there is (or would be) no-one for whom it is bad. This is the lesson from Parfit's non-identity problem.

Richard, philosophers often negotiate ways to use words with each other, and then complain when ordinary people do not use words in the same way. In ordinary language you hurt me when you prevent me from getting something I want. So if you agree I can want to exist, then in ordinary language you hurt me by preventing that.

Psycho, I mean to be talking mainly about ever existing.

"In ordinary language you hurt me when you prevent me from getting something I want."

While holding your desire fixed, right? I hurt you when I bring it about that you have thwarted desires. But I cannot possibly bring it about that you have a thwarted desire to exist. This fortunate desire is such that merely holding it logically entails that it is fulfilled! So you cannot possibly be harmed in relation to it.

(This case is unusual enough that it's not entirely clear how ordinary language would apply to it. Best, then, to use our clearest and most precise philosophical language instead!)

I keep asking my brain's happiness/suffering anticipation module what the utility of my existence vs. my non-existence is, and it keeps giving me "does not compute" errors. I am therefore unable to make up my mind on the question of whether my own existence has value to myself (and, by extension, the question of whether I have a selfish reason to maintain my existence). The thought of not existing has some sort of perverse appeal to me; I do not like my current life all that much, but I do not know of a practical way to improve it. However, the people around me seem to believe that my continued existence has value to them; my altruism module gives a clear answer (that I should not end my existence in a manner that causes suffering to others), so I continue to maintain my existence in spite of my confusion about whether I prefer not to have come into existence.

I place a rather high value on my own experience of pleasure, however obtained; I would very much like to modify my brain in such a way as to make me feel happier, but I don't see a practical way to do this. Surgeons are generally unwilling to perform recreational brain surgery, so becoming a wirehead is impractical, regardless of how much I might desire electrical stimulation of pleasure neurons. Also, current pleasure-inducing drugs have significant drawbacks. Prescription antidepressants, such as the one I currently take, just aren't very effective at inducing pleasure. Others, such as the dopamine-producing agents which include cocaine and amphetamines, and opiates such as morphine and heroin, are a bad way to maximize pleasure over a lifetime. Although they produce short-term bursts of intense pleasure, the brain has some vicious negative feedback mechanisms that "compensate" for abnormal, drug-induced brain chemistry by reducing the brain's capacity for pleasure; the net effect is less total pleasure, not more.

There is one way that I know of modifying my brain to feel more pleasure that might be practical, and that is by using meditation and biofeedback techniques. There's an awful lot of nonsense and gibberish associated with these, though, so finding simple, practical advice that leaves out the unscientific garbage is rather difficult.

/me shrugs

I'll have to deal with this sooner or later, but I'm feeling sleepy right now... on a related note, is this guy crazy or is he on to something?


In ordinary language you hurt me when you prevent me from getting something I want.

No, that's a harm. A hurt would require physical injury and/or pain of some kind. Harm can involve those things, but it doesn't require them.

I assume in this context that 'hurt' is to be understood more broadly as 'hurting one's interests', i.e. harming.

"Just as a possible world where humanity becomes extinct in the next ten years seems morally far worse than one where it continues on for millions of years, a possible world where humanity or anything like it had never existed seems worse than both. Similarly, a possible world where I die tomorrow, and I have no more future selves seems worse for me than a world where such future selves do exist, and a world where none of my selves ever existed seems worse for me than either."

If there are worlds where I exist then I have no objection to there also being worlds where I don't exist. Should I be so greedy that I want to be in every possible world? Of course the possible worlds that I don't grace with my presence are unfortunate and worse off than those where I am, in my opinion.

"Many, however, say this is nonsense - you can't hurt someone by preventing them from existing because then there would be no one there to hurt. I disagree."

Well, consider one random woman. If you don't get her pregnant, you are preventing the child she would have had from existing.

Now consider that her child would have 23 chromosomes from her and 23 from you, allowing up to 2^46 combinations of chromosomes -- more than 64 trillion different combinations, not counting cross-overs and point mutations etc. Whichever child you two have, there are many trillions of other children you are not having. Now consider that this is true for every fertile woman in the world. Each woman who can get pregnant that you don't impregnate, you are preventing many trillions of children from being born.

You are living in a world of hurt.

This all seems very theoretical, though. Maybe there are existing alternate universes where there's somebody just like you except he's got one chromosome different. 46 kinds. And alternate universes wehre there's somebody just like you except he has two chromosomes different -- 2116 kinds. And so on. Taking it farther, maybe there are an infinite number of universes where there's somebody just like you except he's had one thought different, or two thoughts different, etc. HOw could we ever know?

Very theoretical. How different does somebody have to be before you decide he isn't you after all? How much have you changed over the last decade or two? How do you distinguish self from non-self anyway, when there's room for doubt?

The sentence "I am alive" is ambiguous, since what "I" refers to is a constantly changing and murky construction. In normal human affairs and conversation, this is no problem. "I" is like an address; like mail sent to "RESIDENT". But as soon as you try to make a rational argument (as opposed to romantic poetry that employs rational-looking patterns of speech) that speculates about the moral implications of "I" vs. "not-I" then you need to confront that ambiguity.

With regard to existence or non-existence, another way to look at life is that my "I" dies every time the continuity of my experience is interrupted, and then is regenerated by the conditions of my brain, like one of those candles that you can't blow out. Every regeneration results in a slightly different "I", and one that is inconsistent, in some ways, from previous "I"'s. In this way, the Republican party has been around a long time, but it isn't the Republican party of Abraham Lincoln.

Today I am 25 pounds lighter than I was 126 days ago. I feel fundamentally different than I did. I no longer feel a sense of creeping malaise and death-around-the-corner. My experience of being 41 years of age is transformed. So, what can we say about that James-Bach-at-261-pounds? What of the value of his experience and outlook? I KILLED him, in a sense, and yet I don't mind. He doesn't mind, either, mainly because he no longer exists to mind.

When I was 11, I remember not being able to IMAGINE living away from my mother, brother and sisters. Now it's hard to imagine ever having such a utility function.

So, I find it difficult to sort out what you mean when you say existence is better than non-existence.

Every decision you make murders countless numbers of possible future selves who now won't have the chance to exist.

I find it hard to justify the creation of an entity capable of suffering as human beings can and do. Mere existence is not a good.

m and J, yes, there are vast numbers of possible creatures who want to exist, and we can only grant the wishes of a tiny fraction of them. But it does matter if more or less of them get their wish; it matters how many creatures exist.

Implications for abortion/birth control?

In fact, if we're placing non-zero value on the wishes of non-existent or potential people, why are we not making like bunnies? Strain on the environment? Strain on ourselves? Better things to do with our time? I hope everyone who agrees with Eliezer (above) has at least one good reason that they believe.

mtraven - does your point have any significance other than to underline the inherent fuzziness of talking about 'other potential realities'?

Mitchell - existence is what you make of it. The absence of huge piles of bodies at the foot of every skyscraper is testament to the fact that while existence itself may not constitute 'a good', most of us think of it as having positive utility. Beats the hell out of the alternative. Isn't that right, ARH?

But it does matter if more or less of them get their wish; it matters how many creatures exist.


Answer the question. Do not give us more eloquent nonsense dressed up as an argument.

Perhaps the most obviously questionable idea here is not the idea that we should bring into existence possible individuals who love life, but the idea that we can do so without any serious risk of instead creating individuals who will experience agony, disillusionment, more misery than happiness, etc. Optimism bias!

I actually agree with Robin that "it matters how many creatures exist", but for different reasons. The non-existent wishes of non-existent people cannot coherently be granted any weight whatsoever. So that is not the right reason. Instead of an agent-centered approach, though, we may adopt a world-centered approach. That is, do not ask "what would be best for these people?"; ask instead, "what would the best possible world look like?" As a general rule, flourishing lives add value to a world (at least up to a certain point: 1 billion people is better than just a hundred, but maybe 2b is not so different from 1b). So we should want there to be many flourishing lives. But the particular identities of the individuals who fill this role is not so important. (Again, see the non-identity problem, as discussed upthread.)

P.S. For anyone interested in Benatar's arguments that it is better never to have existed, I explain here precisely where I think he goes wrong.

ben jones -- the point is that there are hugely more nonexistent states than existent ones. If existence is good and nonexistence is bad, than there is an overwhelming amount of badness as compared with goodness. Of course, if you believe in some version of a multiverse in which every possible cofiguration of the universe exists, then the above isn't true, but in that case the whole discussion seems rather pointless.

it isn't the Republican party of Abraham Lincoln
I know some folks at lewrockwell.com who will disagree with that!

ben jones, Chip Smith has discusses the relation between Benatar's theory and abortion. My post here sums up and provides links for his posts.

I assume in this context that 'hurt' is to be understood more broadly as 'hurting one's interests', i.e. harming.

Conclusions cannot be more precise than the means used to reach them; this is especially important when dealing with natural language, because of its immense ambiguity and general lack of precision.

If you're not careful to use words specifically and precisely, you end up saying nothing at all... which of course is the desired endstate for quite a lot of people, evidently including Our Hosts.

I think when you encounter people loosely using words to say nothing at all, you should respond with scat.

A ska-dee-bop gah-doodly-boo!

Caledonian: "If you're not careful to use words specifically and precisely, you end up saying nothing at all... which of course is the desired endstate for quite a lot of people, evidently including Our Hosts."

Oh, evidently! Our hosts have evidently made those hundreds of posts over the past year because they had nothing to say and wanted to say it. Dude, go have a cold shower until you stop hallucinating.

TGGP - thanks for the link, interesting stuff. mtraven - I think we're in agreement here. If you give weight to nonexistent entities, you must realise that there are an infinite number of them and you start getting in trouble very quickly.

If and when I have children, it won't be an act of mercy. It'll be an effort by my genes to reproduce themselves and give themselves the best chance of continuing to reproduce into the future. Questions like 'Dad, would I have been better off not existing?' will be met with a cuff round the head.

I would hope that the alien god would have something to say about any genes that cause their survival machine to consider non-existence a better option than existence! Like the man say - we're protein computers 'designed' to make more protein computers. Anything else is fluff.

A less methodologically-based objection to Robin's idea (due to Sam Kinison) is here.

It frustrates me that people are missing an essential point: suicide is different from never existing in the first place. Suicide has as a precondition of existing in the first place, and experiencing pain, thus putting you already in the negative. Suicide also includes risks of unpleasant consequences (pain, failing and waking up in a hospital or asylum, inflicting emotional anguish, maybe even hell for some belief systems). In short, it's inconvenient, and it is possible to regret existing and ever being born without wishing to undergo the inconvenience of suicide. Many people go on living out of inertia. Call us lazy, call us cowards, but don't call us inconsistent or illogical.

I agree with the above points.

obligatory Onion article

Robin's initial post goes from an emotional but incoherent statement : "So you can hurt me by changing such things, even if I never experience your hurt" to an unrelated discussion on multiverses and morality.
No possible discussion of the desires of me and all my potential mini-mes in the blackberry multiverse can have tuppence worth of value in a discussion on morality. We may indeed want Father Christmas to exist. Does that make our wish moral ? I may indeed wish, along with all my potential mini-mes, that a certain potential but non existant political figure on the planet Zorg continue to not exist. Does that make that wish moral ?
By all means, those wishes are meaningful, within the cohort of me and my clones, but the invocation of 'potential existence' and 'multiple universes' adds nothing to the fact that what is meaningful for dull old singular me in this world is not necessarily moral for the dull old singular society in which I evolve.

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