Threshold-Value, Neganthropic – Negative Utilitarianism

The question of the neganthropic threshold-value arises both on the individual and on the collective level.  

Individual-Neganthropic Threshold-Values

The question of an individual-neganthropic threshold-value is one which arises in two distinct respects: namely, reflexively, in respect of one’s own self, and in respect of one’s children.   Reflective, self-related neganthropic threshold-values are established when we ask ourselves: “in what sort of situation would I have to find myself in order for me to say, it would have been better if I had never been born”?

But in order to establish the second, child-related sort of individual-neganthropic threshold-value we would need rather to ask parents in spe: “Imagine that medical diagnostic techniques had progressed so far that it were possible, by means of genetic analysis of the embryo, to predict not just some serious illnesses but practically every form of malady and disease from which the person that this embryo becomes would suffer throughout the whole length of their life: how serious would the predicted illness have to be – or how many less serious illnesses would have to be predicted to ensue, one after the other, in the prospective person’s life – for you, as parent in spe, to decide rather to forgo allowing the embryo in question to become your child?”

Would the knowledge that certain childhood diseases – such as measles, chickenpox, scarlet fever, and whooping cough – would certainly occur be enough to cause this prospective parent to revise their pronatal decision?  Or would there be needed for this the certainty, rather, of more serious illnesses, such as thyroid disorders, leukemia, skin cancer, diabetes, Crohn’s disease, high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis, gall stones, kidney stones, collapsed veins, coronary disease, rheumatic disorders, pulmonary fibrosis, rosacea, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease, or the many varieties of allergy? And if the inevitable arisal of one or more of the illnesses on this long list – which might easily be made still longer – really were enough to cause someone to revise a pronatal decision once taken, should it not then be the case that every single such pronatal decision would need by rights to be revised, since we can be absolutely certain that every human being, without exception, will have one day to experience the catastrophe of death (unless the human being in question happens to die a very sudden death or slips down gradually into a deeper and deeper state of unconsciousness)?


The Kantian Limes – The Question About a Collective-Negathropic Threshold-Value

Already for Kant, a man of the 18th Century, there remained little hope that the human species could be improved: “The experience of both ancient and modern times must leave every thinking person in doubt and embarrassment regarding the question of whether our species’ condition will ever improve.” (Kant, Schriften zur Anthropologie) Of such an affirmation it would seem reasonable to expect that it should issue, if at no earlier point in history then quite definitely after the terrible experiences of the 20th Century, in numerous professions of adherence to an historically-informed antinatalism. We see, however, that this is a long way from having been the case.

For this reason we ask: after what war or genocide, what famine, plague or natural catastrophe was it finally enough, or would it finally be enough? How many future human beings would someone wish to see rendered up to a terrible destiny before he or she began to view the non-violent termination of the history of our species as an ethical imperative? Which event in human history forms the caesura by which one might consider Michael Landmann refuted and revealed as a >damnatorial accomplice in the Conditio in/humana, when he claims – light years removed from Kant – that “the human race learns from the suffering which it has inflicted on itself. Error provokes, by a logic of thesis and antithesis, improvement.” (Landmann, Fundamental-Anthropologie)

Another Kantian limes concerns the theory of justice and conveys the notion that humanity deserves its own extinction if justice has become extinct among human beings: if society, for example, has reached such a point that the offer is made to a criminal condemned to death that he allow medical experiments to be conducted upon himself the results of which might serve the wellbeing of humanity in general: “Because when justice perishes the continued existence of human beings on earth is an existence without value.” (Kant, Metaphysik der Sitten, Metaphysische Anfangsgründe der Rechtslehre, 2. Teil, E. Vom Straf- und Begnadigungsrecht)

The Tyranny of a Majority Contented with a Minimal Quality of Life

For the important ethical thinker Dieter Birnbacher the future of humanity is not, in the first instance, something which self-evidently simply “has to be”. He writes: “Rather, we are necessarily running, by pushing on with the history of humanity, a certain risk. (…) Whether our persistence in this project is ethically justifiable or not cannot be proven or disproven except in light of the balance of costs and benefits, which can only ever be drawn up ‘after the fact’.” To all appearances, what Birnbacher writes here implies that, after the massive human catastrophes of our history, especially those of the 20th Century, we still enjoy a morally defensible choice regarding whether or not to take the risk of exposing human beings to such experiences also in the future (>Damnators). Birnbacher’s ‘only after the fact’ qualification serves here, in reality, to give a carte blanche to procreation: only once new human beings have come into existence, it implies, can it be judged whether the decision in favour of procreation was or was not a justifiable one. – But this is tantamount to the annulling of all >Parental Guilt. Birnbacher, however, cannot be reproached with blinding himself to the facts. In the final decade of the 20th century, he notes, more human beings will have starved to death than in any previous decade in history. This decade also saw mass murders on an almost inconceivable scale, with victims (as in Rwanda) running into the hundreds of thousands.” Clearly, Birnbacher foresees, for the 21st century, crimes and catastrophes on a comparably enormous scale. He is unable, however, to see any grounds in this for considering “that we should wish for the next, or the next-but-one, generation the blessing of never being born.”

Plainly there was not reached, for Birnbacher, even with the terrible events in Rwanda any neganthropic threshold-value such as to prompt him to take his distance from his own speech in favour of a persistence in the Experimentum mundi. What considerations, precisely, does he offer in this regard? The basis, for Birnbacher, of the above-mentioned ‘balance of costs and benefits’ is the ‘balance of happiness’ of a merely arithmetically calculated ‘greater number’ of individual human beings. For so long as “life, for this greater number of human beings, has not become something which they feel they cannot bear being asked to put up with” it is not, for example, future species-embracing catastrophes that represent the worst of all evils but rather: the ebbing-away of humanity. Birnbacher bases himself here on the subjectively-perceived quality of life of “the greater number”. But this amounts in the end to nothing more nor less than the justification, in the name of “the majority”, of the imposition of the grossest suffering and misery. It would be legitimately conceivable, under the auspices of such a philosophy, that a human majority whose numbers would run into the billions might lead a life full, in their own perception, of happiness while a human minority, whose numbers would run into barely fewer billions, would suffer unspeakable physical and mental misery.

As far as the life of the majority is concerned, progenerative decisions are, more precisely speaking, justified in Birnbacher’s eyes for so long as life, for this “greater number” of the human race, “has not become something which they feel they cannot bear being asked to put up with” – a statement which seems to imply that the life of those we bring into the world to live on after us may indeed permissibly be “something they have to put up with” – but not may not permissibly be “something they cannot bear being asked to put up with”.    Birnbacher specifies this aspect of “something one can bear being asked to put up with” more precisely by giving a direct answer to the question of just when a life can be said to be meaningless: “Life is meaningless only in the case where the most important and fundamental of our aims and ends are constantly disappointed and we fail to adapt these goals to the realities of our existence to such an extent that a bare minimum of fulfilment becomes possible.” Birnbacher arrives at this assessment on the basis of his own preferred version of Utilitarianism, i.e. of an ethical system with a subjective-hedonistic axiology. Birnbacher is certainly right in taking up the cause of Utilitarianism here because, although the value-basis, or basis in evaluational premises, of this latter doctrine is indeed a narrow one, it is a value-basis which is not contested by any other system of ethics, for which reason it can lay a strong claim to universal validity. The value-basis of Utilitarianism consists in the value of “wish-fulfilment subjectively experienced as valuable” – for which Birnbacher uses the briefer form of expression “the value: quality of life”. In terms of Utilitarian ethics a positive value is assigned to experiences which are subjectively experienced as positive, while a negative value is assigned to experiences which are subjectively experienced as negative. The value of life thereby inheres in an extra-moral characteristic, namely “therein, that life is predominantly experienced, by those who are living it, as satisfying”. Thus far, however, the only question answered would be that of whether, or for how long, an already-existing life is to be persisted in; and a suicide comes into consideration only if someone is unable any longer to achieve a certain minimum of self-fulfilment.

Now, the question that specifically concerns us is whether one can, and how one does, move from the question of the continuability of an individual life to an answer to the question of whether it is legitimate to cause other lives to begin. On the basis of the value: “the quality of life”, remarks Birnbacher, the question “should human beings exist?” can only possibly be answered in the affirmative: it is better for more of that which is good to exist than for less of it to. “If the existence of a being with a (generally considered) positive quality of life represents a value, then it is ceteris paribus better if more instances of this being exist rather than fewer instances of it.” Firstly, this answer would imply that human beings are to be brought into existence in order that the maximum possible quantity of value enter into the world. But this sounds extremely implausible, since we would be dealing here with an increase in value that does, prima facie, no one any good – because nothing good is done for a person beginning to exist by this mere fact alone of their beginning to exist (as Birnbacher himself, indeed, citing Erich Kästner, explains[1]). And secondly, were this logic to be followed out, there would be a danger of there coming into being what a hostile observer would be inclined to call “the tyranny of a certain minimum quality of life”: if, merely statistically considered, of some ten billion people some six billion are, in terms of their own subjective perception of their lives, “doing well”, while some four billion, judging by all established value-criteria, are “doing badly”, the advocacy, or the practice, of procreation would be, on the basis of this “majority vote”, morally meritorious even in the case where it could not in all conscience be held that this proportion of happiness to unhappiness were likely to alter at any point in the foreseeable future. In the last analysis Birnbacher justifies the continuation, indefinitely on into the future, of a certain status quo by reference to billions of human beings the pressure of whose suffering is not yet so great that they are driven to suicide.

But, being an informed and judicious philosopher, Birnbacher does not just reckon with the occurrence of further enormous human catastrophes; he is also aware of the mechanisms of the biological and social >Lottery (see Birnbacher, Analytische Einführung in die Ethik, p. 235). Despite this being the case, though, he makes no serious attempt to enter, ex ante, into an >Assessment of the Consequences of Begetting Progeny. Let us attempt, therefore, to better understand his position. In his 2007 book “Analytische Einführung in die Ethik” Birnbacher expounds in more detail his as it were “quantitative” conception of ethics: “More happiness must always be a better thing than less, regardless of whether this ‘more happiness’ comes about through an increase in the enjoyment experienced by already existing individuals or through the existence of more individuals who will also find enjoyment in their lives.” (p. 223) In order to make more plausible this “sum-of-utilities”-based imperative to procreate, which contains within itself an anthropodicy, Birnbacher has recourse to cases involving so-called “negative utilities”. He reminds us of the fact that, when there occurs a mass accident or a famine, it is, in the end, not at all a matter of indifference to us whether the number of victims amounts to ten, or a hundred, or a hundred thousand (c.f. ibid. p. 223f). But what Birnbacher leaves out of account here is the after all decisive circumstance that we have to do, in the case of these victims of accidents and famines, with already-existing human beings. There is indeed no question but that an accident which claims the lives of ten people is (all other things being equal) less bad than one which claims the lives of a hundred. But our reference point here consists in existing persons, the smallest possible number of whom should have to undergo suffering. Birnbacher, by contrast, pleads for the bringing into existence of additional, not-yet-existing human beings (“blank spaces”, ontically speaking) in order that the total “utility sum” of the world is accrued.  We have to do here with a true >Salto natale. With his reference to the imperative to minimize suffering Birnbacher touches on the moral theory of negative utilitarianism, with which Karl Popper aligned himself, adducing the convincing consideration that we know far better what to do in order to decrease suffering than we know what to do in order to increase happiness. The value-basis of negative utilitarianism is, in fact, much narrower even than that of the happiness-based version which is advocated by most Utilitarians. Negative Utilitarianism’s stance, indeed, toward progenerative decisions must necessarily be a dissuasive one: after an act of begetting there begins to exist a >Living Being that must necessarily suffer – something which runs counter to the negative-Utilitarian imperative to minimize suffering in the world. “Sum-of-suffering” negative Utilitarianism has the advantage here over the “sum-of-happiness” Utilitarianism advocated by Birnbacher, since it restricts itself to existing sentient beings and does not comprise the implausible imperative to bring forth, so as to arrive at its moral-theoretical goal, additional such beings. The moral-theoretical intention of “sum-of-suffering” Utilitarianism is, at least as far as our own earth is concerned, fulfilled when the sum of suffering in the world has become equal to zero – that is to say, when no sentient being capable of suffering any longer exists (or no sentient being capable of suffering any longer suffers). For this reason Birnbacher calls our “sum-of-suffering” Utilitarianism “a radical variant of negative Utilitarianism which is hardly acceptable in view of the consequences that flow from it” (ibid. p. 236). The question is only: “hardly acceptable” for whom and for what reasons? Behind this judgment there doubtless stands the “intuition”, or personal aesthetic preference – never to be shaken by any future mass murder or natural catastrophe – that a world with human beings, or at least some sort of sentient being, in it is “better” than one without such beings.  

[1] According to Birnbacher “we are entirely right to chuckle over Erich Kästner’s joke that ‘there really are people who still believe that they procreated in order to give pleasure to their children” (ibid. p. 368). And in his book  “Analytische Einführung in die Ethik” (2. 2007, p. 224) Birnbacher even adduces Narveson’s finding whereby Utilitarian ethics is not a training in how to create happy people but rather a general answer to the question: “how should we act in order that human beings become happier thereby?”

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