Monday, 9 November 2015

Gregory E. Kaebnick on Nature and Moral Humility

Bioethics as a profession has a strong tendency to simplify things, to do away with the messiness of real-life situations, to escape from the fuzziness of real-life ethics. It seeks to impose order and rational structure onto the chaos of our moral life. Irreducible individuality, the uniqueness of the concrete, the uncertainty that comes with complexity, are its sworn enemies and cannot be tolerated. Because it is supposed to tell us how we ought to act, bioethics’ findings need to be easily applicable, and hence universalizable. That is why bioethicists are so fond of trolley problems and similar schematics. They make things appear simple and straightforward, whereas in reality they almost never are. That is also why the concepts that bioethicists prefer to use tend to be ones that can be clearly defined. What cannot be clearly defined is deemed to have no ethical relevance. Think of the concept of ‘potentiality’, or the concept of ‘dignity’. Pretty damn useless, both of them. Bioethics, rational bioethics, cannot afford to take moral intuitions into account that draw on those concepts. The same goes for the concept of ‘nature’, which many people appear to attach some normative significance to, but which is so vague and lacking in content that common appeals to what is ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’ can best be understood as the expression of a deep-seated, but entirely unreflected aversion to change. In other words, talk about nature and the natural and that both should be protected from human interference merely voices a (conservative) attitude, but not a (rational and therefore worth-considering) argument. Or so we are being trained to think by a bioethics that is largely liberal, progressivist, and most importantly result-oriented in its outlook.

Yet even though the concept of nature is without doubt difficult to apply in a coherent and consistent manner, we may not have to give it up entirely. At least that is what Gregory F. Kaebnick argues in his book Humans in Nature. The World as We Find It and the World as We Create It (Oxford University Press 2014).  Kaebnick is the editor of the Hastings Center Report and a research scholar at the Hastings Center, which describes itself on its website as a “nonpartisan research institution”, and nonpartisan is exactly what it is. Kaebnick’s work is, like that of his colleague Erik Parens[1], infused by the ethos of his institution and thus bears no traces of the self-assured dogmatism that too many professional bioethicists adopt as a matter of course when they set out to tell us what is right and wrong, morally permissible and morally obligatory, justified and unjustified, rational and irrational. Kaebnick is not interested in prescribing actions to his readers, and he certainly doesn’t want to persuade us to ‘do what is natural’ or to ‘protect nature’. Instead he explores with an open mind what, if any, moral significance the concept of nature has or can have in various different contexts, looking at the discourses in which the concept is used, and leaving it to the reader to draw his or her own practical conclusions from those discussions.

Kaebnick’s open-mindedness results from his neo-Humean ethical subjectivism (or maybe his ethical subjectivism results from his open-mindedness), which shies away from postulating the truth of certain moral judgements (and, as a corollary, the falsity of others). Because ethics is not about truth, but about positioning oneself in the world of human (and non-human) relations, we need to practice what Kaebnick calls “moral humility” (32). Ethics is about commitment. But commitments are personal. They are built on, or nourished by, individual ideals that cannot and should not be regarded as obligatory for everyone. “If moral standards are projections on the world of human attitudinal stances, then why not allow that, within the complex social web of moral standards, there arise some that are endorsed by individuals specially to guide their own lives?” (56) But the fact that those standards are not universally binding constitutes no good reason to take them less seriously: “If we are committed to our commitments, then we need not relinquish them just because somebody else disagrees with us.” (35) If we genuinely care about something, then knowing or believing that it is not objectively true that we ought to care gives us no reason at all to stop caring. That doesn’t mean that we should blindly follow our intuitions and initial emotional reactions. Reason is important to sort out our preferences and to understand and negotiate conflicting intuitions. It helps us figure out what we care about most and why. “The very point of morality, after all, is that it is about what matters most: therefore we must (and often will) try to get to the bottom of our values, to articulate them in their most general terms, and also to think about how seemingly competing considerations compare.” (41) However, a complete rationalisation of our moral outlook is not possible (and understanding this may well be part of what it means to be morally humble). This is no reason to resign ourselves to a brute-fact view of morality: “We will not be able to support our positions with arguments that are entirely noncircular: ultimately, our values form a closed system, since they are not grounded on analytic truths or objective features of the universe. But we should still be able to articulate, convey, and defend our views.” (43)

This articulation, however, is not always as easy as we may wish. Thus, if we want to protect ‘nature’ from human interference, be it as ‘wilderness’ and ‘wildlife’, as genetically unmodified animals and plants, as analytic rather than synthetic biology, or as human rather than posthuman biology (or post-biology?), we shouldn’t expect to be able to come up with a persuasive rationale for our concerns. “Concern for nature can be brute feature of our moral lives.” (181) Nor should we expect to be able to defend (before others as well as ourselves) an indiscriminate condemnation of all human interference in those areas. Instead we have to look at what exactly is being done or proposed and then decide whether this particular instance of, say, genetic modification or change of the human condition violates or undermines our shared or personal values.  A dogmatic stance on those issues cannot be justified given the interconnectedness of all things. While the subtitle of Kaebnick’s book (“the world as we find it and the world as we create it”) suggests that we can neatly distinguish between the natural (i.e. the world as we find it) and the artificial (the world as we create it), he makes it very clear that in practice there is no clear-cut distinction between the two. Instead, the world as we find it is already a world that we have created, and any world that we create does of course also have to be built out of the world that we have found. So the natural is never completely opposed to the artificial.

Yet despite the “ineradicable fuzziness” of the concept of nature (126), it has some heuristic value for us, functioning, if I understand Kaebnick correctly, as a comprehensive label for a group of concerns that have to do with the kind of relationship that we have to the non-human world. This relationship, Kaebnick believes, should ideally (and this may well be a personal ideal) be not one of domination, but more like a conversation: “What makes a food ‘natural’ (or ‘organic’) is not that humans did not produce it, but that its production reflects a kind of limited exchange with nature, one in which nature is not thoroughly dominated.” (126) One may say, of course, that this is not an argument, and indeed it is not. There is no persuasive argument in support of conversation rather than domination. Whether you favour the one or the other depends on your mind-set. I personally find the ideal of conversation much more appealing than the ideal of domination, and so, obviously, does Kaebnick, but I’m sure some other readers will not. That may also be the reason why I am often taken aback by the way many bioethicists practise their profession.

Talking about the difference between an “industrial paradigm” and an “ecological paradigm” in agriculture, Kaebnick suggests that the industrial paradigm, although

“featuring technological sophistication, (…) is really fundamentally about simplicity , about trying to iron out the irregularities of nature and ignoring the complexities that careful organic farming is based on. It is about control of nature, with practices that fly in the face of natural mechanisms and must be strenuously maintained over against nature, rather than about collaboration with nature. (…) With animals, too, industrial agriculture tends to depart from nature, at least in the sense that it encourages farmers to treat their animals in ways that have ever less to do with animal husbandry, with caring for animals, and more to do with productivity.” (125, my italics)

It seems to me that what Kaebnick says here about agriculture could also be said about bioethics. The dominant paradigm in bioethics today is industrial. It aims at what Kaebnick calls the “industrialization of life” (125). In contrast, the paradigm that Kaebnick himself follows with his style of conducting an ethical inquiry is ecological, i.e., far more willing to acknowledge the complexities (what I would call the ‘messiness’) of our ethical life. I for one would like to see more of that.

[1] Last year Parens published Shaping our Selves: on Technology, Flourishing, and a Habit of Thinking (Oxford UP 2014). Brian D. Earp and I have (sort of) reviewed the book for the American Journal of Bioethics, endorsing Parens’s defence of “binocularity”:

Sunday, 1 November 2015

David Benatar Debating Procreation: Is It Wrong to Reproduce?

Nine years after Better Never to Have Been (Oxford University Press 2006), David Benatar has published yet another book about the harm of coming into existence: Debating Procreation. Is It Wrong to Reproduce? (Oxford University Press 2015). Roughly half of the book is written by Benatar, the other half by David Wasserman who rejects the anti-natalism defended by Benatar and others (Matty Hayry and Valentine Shiffrin), mostly on the grounds that life is, for various reasons, not as bad as they depict it, and wrestles with some philosophical procreation problems of his own. The title of the book is slightly misleading because there is no real debate between the two authors. Benatar says his bit, then Wasserman says his, and that’s it. No real dialogue takes place. I will here focus, once again, on Benatar’s position.

Life cannot have been very good for Benatar this past decade because he still believes (or professes to believe) that we would all be better off if we had never been born and that our parents have inflicted serious harm on us by allowing us to come into existence. His argument is basically the same, although he now puts more emphasis on the existential risks that we expose our children to by bringing them into the world, which may be read as a tacit acknowledgement that maybe not all lives are so bad that they are not really worth starting. Even if this were so, he now argues, for each and every child there is always a non-negligible risk of ending up with a really miserable life. It may not be likely, but certainly possible. And since we shouldn’t be playing Russian roulette with our children’s lives (65), we shouldn’t procreate. Benatar now also fully appropriates the misanthropic argument that he only alluded to in his previous book on the subject: humans are really so prone to doing so much damage to each other, to animals, and to the environment, that the world would be a much better place if we weren’t around. (Maybe so, but I don’t think we should be giving up on us just yet.) Whatever we may think of this argument, the fact that Benatar makes so much of it in this new book clearly shows that his main concern is not primarily theoretical (i.e. to establish the truth of the claim that existence is always harmful), but practical (i.e. to convince us that it is always wrong to reproduce). However, the theoretical claim that existence is always harmful for the one whose existence it is still constitutes the foundation of his anti-natal position, and it seems to me that the argument he presents in support of this claim presents the greatest philosophical challenge to those who, like me, are unwilling to accept his practical conclusion. So this argument – the (axiological) asymmetry argument - needs to be dealt with.

What the asymmetry argument seeks to establish is that “even if there were more good than bad, the presence of any bad would be sufficient for coming into existence to be a harm. Because every life includes some bad, coming into existence is always a harm.” (18) This supposedly follows from the fact that while it is bad to cause harm (or more precisely to allow harm to exist), it is not bad not to cause benefit (not to allow benefit to exist). While the absence of harm is good, the absence of benefit is neither good nor bad, i.e. “not bad”. (23) For this reason, no amount of good in a possible future life can outbalance even the slightest harm in it. This axiological asymmetry between harm and benefit explains why (as most people would acknowledge) “we have a duty to avoid bringing into existence people who would lead miserable lives”, but “no duty to bring into existence those who would lead happy lives.” (25). Similarly, while we may well regret the suffering of existing people in remote places, we do not regret the absence of happy people on, say, Mars.

Benatar finds the axiological asymmetry thesis not only true, but “clearly true”. Moreover, he accuses those who reject it of “moral callousness” and “moral insensitivity” (27). So by daring not to accept the thesis we would reveal not only our essential blockheadedness - because we would allow our truth-tracking reasoning abilities to be compromised by “powerful biological drives with deep evolutionary roots” (11), but also our bad moral character. Let’s give it a try anyway, at the risk of being found wanting both intellectually and morally. Is the axiological asymmetry thesis obviously true? I think not. In fact, I think it is false.

Here is why: we neither have a moral obligation to bring new people into the world, nor do we have a moral obligation not to bring new people into the world, or more precisely we don’t have such an obligation to the possible people that could be in the world if we brought them into it. We may have moral obligations to already existing people, or also people that are going to exist independent of our decision to procreate or not to procreate. If, for instance, we think that the world suffers from overpopulation, then we may conclude that it would be wrong for us to add to the problem by bringing even more people into the world. Likewise, if society suffers from a lack of children, we may find that it is our duty to do our bit to alleviate the problem by reproducing. Or if we knew that our child is likely to be a very bad person who will cause a lot of harm to others, we may also feel that we have a moral duty not to have that child. Likewise, if we knew that our child would be likely to do a lot of good, then we may conclude that we should reproduce. But generally speaking it is neither wrong (morally prohibited) nor right (morally required) to reproduce. Instead, it is, in the absence of particular circumstances that speak against or for reproduction here and now, merely permissible. Now if we do decide to reproduce, then there will be new people whose existence we have caused, and we do have moral obligations to them, just as we have moral obligations to any other person that exists or is going to exist (such as future generations of people, whose identity is not defined, but who we can reasonably be sure will exist). If we know that the child that we are going to have is likely to have a bad life full of suffering, then we may justly be accused of having caused harm to that child by allowing it to have such a bad existence (and the greater the harm the more difficult it becomes to justify our decision to them). Likewise, if we know that the child we are going to have is likely to have a life that lacks most of the pleasures, satisfied desires, or benefits that we feel constitutes a good life, then we may also be accused of having caused harm to that child. In both cases the child that we would have harmed is not the possible child, but the actual child that will exist if we decide to bring it into the world. The presence of pain (or more generally any kind of harm), and the absence of pleasure (or any kind of benefit) is equally bad for that child and may serve as a good (moral) reason for us to abstain from procreation. It is thus not the case that while the absence of pain is good, the absence of pleasure is merely not bad. The one is as bad as the other (especially as the absence of goods is generally a cause of suffering). While neither harms a possible child, both harm any actual child that will result from our decision to procreate.

So why is it generally thought to be wrong to bring a child into existence that (we know or can reasonably assume) will have a miserable life, but not wrong not to bring a child into existence that is likely to have a very happy life? And why are we concerned about the bad in the lives of existing people, but not about the good lives that could exist if we had created them?  Does that not imply that the absence of suffering is good and the absence of pleasure is not bad (i.e. neither bad nor good)? No, it does not. It merely implies that any moral obligation we may have is always an obligation to existing people, and never to merely possible people. If (!) we are going to reproduce, we should be reasonably sure that the life that results from our decision is a reasonably good one. A reasonably good life is one that has sufficient access to life’s goods and is sufficiently devoid of life’s harms. If we know it is not going to be a reasonably good life, then we should abstain from reproducing. If we know it is, then we are free to reproduce, meaning that the quality of our future child’s life does not constitute a moral reason against reproduction. What it does not mean is that we have a moral reason for reproduction.

Now it may be the case that it is (in an impersonal sense) better for there to be no world at all rather than a world that is filled with suffering. But if we accept this possibility (which is not easy to make sense of, but nonetheless doesn’t strike me as completely absurd), then it may, on the same grounds, also be better for there to be a world filled with goods (be they pleasures or something more objective) rather than no world at all. (We may also feel that a world like ours, in which there is life and sentience and reflection, is, in some unspecified sense, better than a world in which none of this exists.) Then the absence of pleasures would be just as bad as the presence of suffering, or if not just as bad, then at least also bad. But we are not in the business of creating worlds. This is not a decision we are ever going to make, because the world already exists, and it exists with us in it. What we should be concerned with is whether the lives we create are going to be good or bad. A good life requires no justification (and creating it is therefore permissible), while a bad life does require justification (and creating it is, to the extent that a justification cannot be given, impermissible).
This is all very much common sense and does not require any commitment to a fundamental axiological asymmetry between harm and benefit, or the existence of impersonal harms and the non-existence of impersonal benefits.

Now, I could leave it at that, but there’s one more thing about this new book that I find worth mentioning, namely the now explicit (albeit partial) endorsement of the transhumanist worldview (lending support to my view that we are currently experiencing a “transhumanization” of our culture, which includes our intellectual culture)[1]. Here is what Benatar writes in support of his claim that our lives are actually much worse than we commonly recognize:
“The sad truth, however, is that, on the spectrum from no knowledge and no understanding to omniscience, even the cleverest, best educated humans are much closer to the unfortunate end of the spectrum. There are billions more things we do not know or understand than we do know and understand. If knowledge really is a good thing and we have so little of it, our lives are not going very well in this regard. Similarly, we consider longevity to be a good thing (at least if the life is above a minimum quality threshold). Yet even the longest human lives are fleeting. If we think that longevity is a good thing then a life of a thousand years (in full vigor) would be much better than a life of eighty or ninety years (especially where the last few decades are years of decline and decrepitude). Ninety is much closer to one than it is to a thousand. It is even more distant from two or three or more thousand. If, all things being equal, longer lives are better than shorter ones, human lives do not fare at all.” (52)
“Human lives would (…) be immensely better if we lived for many thousands of years in good health and if we were much wiser, cleverer, and morally better than we are.” (53)
“To prefer a human life to a better life suggests a distracting sentimentality about humanity. It is to think that it is more important to be human than to have a better quality of life” (58)
“Not all optimists fetishize humanity. Among the advocates of human enhancement are those who envisage and welcome the project of a ‘post-human’ future – a future in which humans have been so enhanced (physically, mentally, and morally) that they are no longer recognizably human. These advocates of transhumanism think it is much more important to improve the quality of life than for the enhanced future beings to be human. While there are many who object to the wisdom and morality of seeking such enhancements, I am not among those categorically opposed to technological enhancements.” (60)

Where Benatar disagrees with transhumanism is mostly with regard to the optimistic expectation that with such enhancements our lives will soon be good enough. Enhanced posthuman lives will certainly be much better, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be good (60). Why? Because “we would still die and we would still have vastly more ignorance than knowledge” (62), to which a truly dedicated transhumanist may well respond: Just wait, have faith, we are already working on it. Immortality and omniscience might be difficult to achieve, but eventually, if we try hard enough, we may well figure it out. And then, when we are for all intents and purposes like Gods, even Benatar will have to agree that our lives are now, finally, worth living.

[1] Cf. Michael Hauskeller, “A Cure for Humanity? The Transhumanisation of Culture”, Trans-Humanities 8/3 (2015): 131-147. A pre-print version can be accessed here: