Reviewing Hell

Note: This post has been automatically imported from my old blog. Formatting may be incorrect.

Last week, I had an interesting twitter conversation with Sister Y that ended with her saying "I think the suffering of life is much worse than death & impossible to predict enough to bet a child's life on it." I'd heard of antinatalism before, but only in an environmentalist context. I found her blog, The View from Hell, and my initial reaction after a casual skim was a visceral kind of disgust/aversion. From what I've seen so far, though, she seems very intelligent and like she's put serious thought into her views, so I thought it would be valuable to try to understand her ideas and see how they can enrich my own, both as someone who wants kids and as someone who wants to get better at facing uncomfortable ideas head on and fairly considering the perspectives of those I disagree with.

I asked her if she could give me some pointers to articles that would help me get started understanding her ideas, and boy did she deliver:

My plan is to go through one by one, reading carefully and then writing a post where I try to lay out what I think she believes and why, what aspects of her reasoning I agree with, what evidence I have from my own life and knowledge that supports her ideas, and only at the end talking about where, if anywhere, I disagree and why. These posts aren't part of a series or even in chronological order, and some of them (Theory of Nerddom?) seem like they aren't directly related to the topics that originally drew my interest, but I expect they will form an interesting and valuable whole as I go through.

In this post, though, I want to talk about what I currently think (based on a very preliminary scan through!) are her ideas and how they relate to mine. It seems like she has two core distinct but fundamentally interrelated views: that it should be much more socially acceptable and feasible to commit suicide, and that it's immoral to have children. Both of these ideas seem to stem from her belief that many (most? all?) people live lives that are net negative experiences, so that it would have been better if they hadn't been born and now that they're here they should be able to die easily, reliably, and with social support. I don't have a clear picture yet of why she thinks that (though I do know it's more than just that her own life has been that way), but my guess based on what I've read so far is that a big piece of her argument is based around the idea that relative position within social structures are a (the most?) important value for people and that inherent in that is that many people will not be able to achieve that value (since relative importance is in most senses a zero-sum game, except for the fact that you can always add unimportant people so it's even worse than zero-sum).

I think I agree with many aspects of what I think are her views on suicide. Legally speaking, I think suicide (assisted or not) should be as cheap and easy as the market will provide, with exceptions or caveats only for people who are incapable of making rational decisions (young children, severely mentally handicapped). I find the prospect of an obligation to continue living a life of unhappiness morally abhorrent, and if that was the reasonable expectation for someone I cared about I hope I'd be able to be supportive of their decision to die as much as it might hurt me. I think culturally we could simultaneously be doing a hell of a lot more to be respectful of people's choices to end their lives if they see fit and to make it more likely that people will live happy lives. I think there is cause to treat the decision seriously and to try to make sure people are as educated about it as possible, but people's lives should be theirs to live or not as they see fit. I really disagree with the antinatalism aspects, though. It is simply not my experience (both in my own life and observation/study of others') that life is a net negative. I believe most people are happy to be alive, and that there are ways (starting with good parenting!) to make personally valuable lives much more likely (though of course not guaranteed) than the current societal average. I think that parents can gain genuine value out of having kids1. I think that in the society that treats suicide the way Sister Y wants, an antinatalist view is even less justified: If methods of suicide are readily available and reliable and socially acceptable, then the potential negative value of a life will have a definite floor and people who expect their lives to go below that can choose that route.

So, I expect it will be interesting to see how my understanding of Sister Y's views changes (please remember that I wrote this post before having studied her work in detail!) and how it will shape my perspective. As I add new posts, I'll link them here, so watch this space if you're interested.

1. I think this statement hides a kernel of what may prove to be an insurmountable difference between Sister Y and me. I am an Objectivist (with some important caveats!), which in particular means that I think selfishness is virtuous. Contrary to popular caricature of Objectivism, this doesn't mean I think it's OK not to care about or to live at the expense of other people, or in particular to have kids and try to live through them, mistreat them, deny their individuality, etc, as it is not in your long-term interest to treat other people as objects and it is in your interests to care about them for their own sakes. It does mean, however, that I think a proper justification for having children ultimately needs to be rooted in the value you expect being a parent will provide you.