Paternalism: From Safe Spaces to Suicide Prevention

Sticks and stones may break my bones, and names will always hurt me”

A Scottish school bullying prevention video, late 1990s

The above quote comes from an anti-bullying video that I watched when I was a pupil in a Scottish comprehensive secondary school, some time in the late 1990s. Although myself and my classmates would have probably been 14-15 years of age at the time of viewing the video, the children featured in this video were pre-pubescent, and would probably have been aged between 8 and 10.

The video started out with the children chanting the well known schoolyard mantra “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me”. Some of these children were then interviewed about their experiences of verbal bullying and the impact that this had on them. By the end of the video, all the children features in the video had learned that they should be kinder to each other, because “names” can cause emotional injuries just as “sticks and stones” cause physical ones, and ran round the playground chanting the altered and more enlightened version of the mantra, as quoted in the sub-heading. They would all now be resolved to no longer tolerate any form of verbal abuse, and in the future would report all such altercations to a teacher and no child would ever again be expected to sustain injuries to their inherent human dignity without recourse to an authority figure.

Even in my early teens, it never quite seemed right to me that we should look to the teachers as the first resort for resolving all conflicts; even as someone who himself had copped a fair amount of abuse, both verbal and occasionally physical. And I was never the tattling type, or the type to start crying when a mean boy pushed me over in the playground. For me, it wasn’t so much the case that we owed our persecutors protection, and I didn’t want to be responsible for getting someone else into trouble. It was more the case that I felt as though asking a grown up to intervene in my social conflicts was inherently undignified and that by taking the easy way out by asking someone to deal with my problems for me, I would have been depriving myself of an opportunity for personal growth and to develop resilience. Put simply, I would have felt weak and undignified if I took the easy way out rather than cultivating the capacity to withstand conflict and the occasional unkind word. It felt somehow pathetic to be terrified of mere words to the point where, even as a teenager, I would still be so profoundly damaged by an insult that I would have to hide trembling behind the skirt of my class teacher to give me protection from them. Many of my classmates did continue to demand this sort of protection, and I can remember once being summoned by the assistant principal of the school because I had a jokey little fake territorial dispute with a 14 or 15 year old classmate who sat next to me concerning his workbooks crossing the border between his desk and mine, thus taking up my desk space. Fortunately for my defence, this chap; so beleaguered according to his own perception of the world; had been up and down to the assistant principal’s office on the 4th floor like a veritable Jack-in-the-box; reporting anyone who so much as looked at him squint-eyed, so the assistant principal readily believed me when I said that there was no malicious intent and that this was not part of a concerted campaign of bullying on my part. And for my part, I made concerted efforts to avoid any kind of unnecessary interaction with this boy again.

In The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt examines the ‘safe space’ phenomenon that has emerged within the last 2 decades and has been spreading across university campuses in the US and other parts of the developed world. The authors observe that the generation of youths that have grown up with the Internet as a household technology (referred to in the book as “iGen”) seem to exhibit a markedly reduced capacity for tolerance of ideas which challenge their core beliefs in comparison to the generations which came before them. This is attributed by the authors to the fact that there has been an increasing trend towards overprotection of children, which leads to them failing to develop the strength of character and resilience that would enable them to withstand the social pressures of trying to coexist with others who may have a radically different worldview. Policies which cater towards this intellectual fragility in universities include a demand for “safe spaces”, de-platforming and trigger warnings.

The authors posit that the human mind is naturally “antifragile”, which means that it requires this process of being annealed through exposure to different levels of threat in order to build strength. But if a child grows up being overprotected from any danger or threat, even including intellectual threats, then they will emerge from adolescence with a very “fragile” mind who perceives challenges to their worldview as a threat to their very existence, and is in fact at risk of being traumatised by such encounters. For many within this generation “words are violence”, and therefore it is an imperative that one’s “intellectual safety” is protected through the policing of harmful speech.

In countries like the UK, Canada, Australia and other countries within western Europe, this cultural shift is now reflected in the existence of legislation which polices hate speech, and other language and ideas that may be offensive to certain ‘protected groups’. In Scotland, the ruling Scottish National Party recently attempted to introduce a sweeping expansion to existing laws against “stirring up hatred”, which would potentially have resulted in actors being considered criminally liable for the expression of ideas that offended an audience member; even when expressed as part of a performance.

When students across the western world demanded that school administrators implement policies to help them to maintain a mind hermetically sealed off from troubling thoughts from the outside on the basis that “words are violence”: they were not entering into uncharted territory. In fact, they only needed to follow a path that had already been well trodden by fervent suicide prevention activists.

The Leveraging of the Culture of Vulnerability to Prevent Suicide

In England and Wales, suicide was a criminal act up until the 1961 Suicide Act was introduced. This new legislation came in response to changing attitudes towards suicide and decriminalised the act of suicide. Suicide was now increasingly believed to be an act of desperation by those who were seriously mentally unwell, and thus it would be harsh to consider such persons to be fully morally responsible for their actions. Curiously, the new law still made it a criminal offence to assist in a suicide in any form, even if such assistance merely constituted providing a reliable method, or even providing information on suicide methods. Thus you would be liable for prosecution if you offered another person any assistance (even verbal) in carrying out an act that was itself lawful.

In order to better understand this bizarre paradox, it would be instructive to examine how psychiatry and, by extension, society itself, perceives suicidal ideation. Suicide itself is thought to exclusively or almost exclusively arise as a product of the “disordered thoughts” of a person who has been severely compromised in their capacity to reason; and this incapacity is believed to be so profound that this person is not capable of consenting to a choice of the magnitude of suicide and thus it would be deemed more appropriate to keep this person under some form of a guardianship of the state, rather than allow them to freely make decisions on their own behalf. I discussed this in some detail in my first post on the topic of suicide.

Thus, in the eyes of the law, the relationship between the person merely giving information to a suicidal person on where to obtain a method of suicide (let alone actually providing the method) would be considered to be analogous to the relationship between an adult paedophile or hebephile and their underage sexual partner. Or that of a parent who allows their young children to roam freely in a park that is well known locally to be hotspot for heroin junkies to shoot up and drop their used syringes on the ground.

Yes, it’s quite clear. Rational grown up human beings simply don’t experience suicidal ideation. Believing life to be a futile, Sisyphean task of rolling the boulder of need and desire up the hill every day until death, never reaching any destination, is the first sign that you have taken leave of your senses and perforce need to urgently seek professional help. If you have ever been troubled with such thoughts, then this is prima facie evidence that you are not a competent adult, and require an additional layer of legal protection in order to rescue you from the consequences of your own deranged judgement. Just like the parents of very young children have a duty of care to store the bleach in an area that is as inaccessible as possible to their children, so too does society have a duty to do its utmost, as your guardians, to ensure that you do not have easy access to anything that you can use to hurt yourself (which perversely has special emphasis on suicide methods that don’t hurt at all and which could be used to pre-empt any possibility of being hurt in the future).

If you were to perform a search for the term “suicide” or “suicide methods” on any search engine (or at least, ones that I’ve tried), then the top result will always be for the local suicide prevention hotline, and an assortment of resources for suicide prevention.

Far from bridling in response to this infantilisation from the government and large corporations; it has actually been my observation that many suicidal people (fortunately not all) actually embrace their status as vulnerable people who need to have limitations placed on their rights as an adult, for their own protection. If you were to do a search for suicide forums, for example, you would turn up results such as SuicideForum.com, which is one that I have posted on in the past myself. This is a forum which is run by suicidal people, for suicidal people.

The rules of SuicideForum.com are fairly standard for forums of its type. In addition to the obligatory rules against sharing suicide methods or forming suicide pacts (these are rules that, for legal reasons rather than on any matter of principle, even I have to enforce on my subreddits and on this blog), you have what amounts to a ‘safe space’ rule which ensures that SuicideForum must always prioritise the intellectual and emotional safety of its participants:

“6. SF is a pro-life support site. Discussion and debate on euthanasia and “right to die / right to commit suicide” is not permitted.”

You will struggle to find a pro-choice suicide forum on the Internet through an easy Internet search, as any such forums tend to quickly become the victim of concerted efforts from the public to have them shut down, even in cases where they expressly prohibit discussion of suicide methods or suicide pacts. Reddit itself has seen a slew of pro-choice suicide subreddits banned or quarantined under a particularly strained definition of “inciting violence” as per the content policy, which may be nothing more than validating an individual suicidal person’s choice to commit suicide, or providing tips on where to access reliable methods. When it comes to suicidal people; it isn’t sufficient to merely hide the bleach in a high up cupboard where little arms cannot reach; you have to actually shelter them from the very concept of bleach itself.

The goal is to create an internal, mental safe space for the suicidal person. In just the same way that trigger warnings and university safe spaces exist not to protect students from tangible external threats, but from their own thoughts. Thoughts which might be provoked through exposure to external stimuli and prove distressing to the young person’s mind. The suicidal person is considered to be constitutionally incapable of weighing up the arguments for and against suicide; and thus they must only ever be presented with the pro-life side of the argument. On SuicideForum.com, I can remember that there was one particular user (no longer active, as far as I can tell) who was obviously not having a good time in life at all, and always seemed to be teetering on the verge of a complete mental collapse. Yet was one of the most prolific users on the site and their contributions usually consisted of greeting new users to the site who introduced themselves by recounting the tales of woe with the mantras of the group: “life is important”, “suicide is NEVER the answer”.

The striking thing about this type of safe space, is that it cannot keep you safe from whatever is causing you to become suicidal in the first place, and from the distress that these circumstances are causing you. The only “safety” that they can afford you is by helping you to deny that suicide would be a rational solution to your predicament and protect you from knowing how to carry it out without inadvertently causing yourself to become paralysed for life and land yourself in a far greater pit of suffering which would then be completely inescapable. They can “protect” you from having to accept that as your answer by suspending you in a state of denial that may be less psychologically healthy for you in the long run than if you were allowed to be open-minded enough to give both sides of the philosophical argument due consideration.

It is my (unproven, but based on my decades of experience as a long term suicidal individual) personal theory that much of the distress that arises from suicidal ideation arises as a product of the irreconcilable tension that exists between the ostensible logical appeal of suicide as a solution to suffering (e.g. ‘I wasn’t suffering before I came into existence, and if the afterlife doesn’t exist, then I won’t suffer after I am dead) and society’s intransigent insistence that suicide is always an irrational choice and that people who are seriously considering suicide must be protected from their own madness.

This is very reminiscent of the history (and in the case of much of the world, the present day situation) of how homosexuality has been treated by societies steeped in traditionalist views about the natural teleological function of sexual intercourse. As discussed in my previous post on suicide, homosexuality was once, just like suicidal ideation is today, considered to be a form of mental illness. People who grew up gay in these societies genuinely believed that they were sick in the head, and why wouldn’t they? A natural consequence of this is the existence of gay ‘conversion therapy’ camps to try and ‘cure the sickness’ (which bears an uncomfortably close resemblance to ‘pro-life’ suicide forums) and even latent homosexuals themselves being amongst the most venomous denouncers of the sin of homosexuality .

Pro-life suicidal people also tend to be very militant about defending the “chemical imbalance” myth regarding depression. I can remember having a number of interactions with suicidal people on Reddit in which it has been confidently asserted by my interlocutor that suicide is always, or almost always, brought on by a “chemical imbalance” within the brain, which causes the suicidal person not to be in the “right frame of mind” to make the decision to commit suicide. When I politely provided reasonably authoritative sources debunking this myth, these suicidal people became very defensive and dismissive of what I was saying, calling me a pseudo-intellectual, and snidely referring back to the authority of their doctor (sadly it is true that many doctors continue to use the “chemical imbalance” myth as an explanatory framework in order to reassure patients). I have more than once been accused of preying on the vulnerable merely for providing sources to debunk the chemical imbalance theory, or for denying that suicide is always the choice of an irrational and disordered mind.

What form will the next victory of the suicide prevention zealots take? Will a special license be necessary in order to procure a length of rope at the hardware shop? When one goes to purchase a set of new chefs knives, will one be required, at the cashier’s register, to produce documented proof of having passed a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation to certify one’s soundness of mind?

You might have guessed that I’m being facetious. But such is the absurdity of the suicide prevention movement, that I’m a loathe to even wax satirical in this way, lest I should give them any new ideas.

Alternatively, would it not be possible for pro-life suicidal people to individually sign away their own rights to ownership over their own body, without also signing away mine? Or would the mere knowledge that other people were being able to make decisions on the basis of a philosophical outlook on life which contradicts theirs make them feel too unsafe, because their “mental safety” relies not only on being protected from ideas themselves, but even being protected from having to learn about the fact that other people disagree with their ideas about life, and are actually freely permitted to make decisions on the basis of that opinion?

With the money that we would save from effectively torturing people and keeping them locked up in re-education camps for having the wrong outlook on life, we could potentially hire nannies to come around to the homes of the anti-suicide folk and confiscate all of the sharp and pointy objects to ensure that they have nothing with which they could hurt themselves. And to make sure that they’re always in bed by 10 o’clock, and that they are only looking at Internet resources and books that have been pre-approved by suicide prevention charities to be ‘safe’ for vulnerable minds.

Is the doctrine of “sanctity of life” upon which these anti-suicide laws are founded really anything more than a house of cards which threatens to collapse once any card is removed? Are suicidal people being forced to remain alive not due to the need to “protect” suicidal people themselves, but to protect a set of ideas? In that way, it would seem to me that the laws that restrict people from having a right to suicide is actually more akin to a blasphemy law than to policy set in place to help protect people from harm. And it would seem to me that the policies that we are drifting towards that; instead of innoculating people to offence and fragility through exposure to challenging ideas; we instead sensitise them through over-protectiveness, is itself one of the greatest harms that we could deal to young people. After suicide prevention itself, that is.

Even people who have never been suicidal a day in their lives ought to be profoundly concerned about these developments which seek to protect people from their own thoughts. One in which anyone can be reduced to the status of less than a legal adult and deemed unfit to make important decisions by an institution which lays claim to a scientific legitimacy that it has never earned. And in which any decrees thus handed out by this authority are unfalsifiable, and irreversible, as I will discuss in my next post which will explore the rationality of suicide.

#MyLifeMyChoice

In the meantime, I would like to start a Twitter hashtag campaign to advocate for the right to choose, for suicidal people. For too long, intelligent and rational proponents of suicide have allowed themselves to be marginalised in the media due to the types of stigma that I have been discussing in my posts on suicide (more on this in later posts). So I would like to ask you to retweet the hashtag (and this post) with #MyLifeMyChoice. I am not experienced on Twitter – @existentialgoof is my first Twitter account – so if this name is already in use, we can consider changing it. Please stand up and be counted if you are suicidal yourself and do not believe that you fit the mould of the “vulnerable” person who require perpetual guardianship in order to protect them from thinking for themselves regarding this matter.

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existentialgoof – 3rd October, 2021

Antinatalism vs. The Non-Identity Problem

The non-identity problem backfires against opponents of antinatalism

Non-Identity and the Consent Argument

One of the most commonly cited philosophical grounds for rejecting antinatalism is the so-called “non-identity problem”, which posits that procreation cannot be an unethical violation of consent due to the fact that a person does not exist in order to be imposed upon prior to the act of creation, and therefore no ethical trespass has been committed. If you were to read or listen to any rebuttal of antinatalism, the chances are that this is one of the first arguments that you will encounter. The normally excellent Philosophy Tube did a disappointingly cursory video about antinatalism and summarily concluded that the non-identity problem is fatal to antinatalism; as there was no person suspended in the abyss who had any desire not to come into existence, and to find that state of affairs preferable to being born.

This rebuttal misses the point that antinatalism is about preventing a harm, rather than bestowing a benefit. It also seems to be something of a straw-man argument. As an antinatalist, I am not concerned with preserving the non-existent in some blissful ethereal antechamber where they will enjoy their perpetual state of protection from suffering. My ethical concern does not relate to the void that precedes the existence of the person. It pertains to the person who will come into existence in the future. As Youtube philosopher inmendham analogised it best, procreation forces a person onto a tightrope strung out over the pits of hell, and one misstep or gust of wind can send you hurtling down to be impaled on the daggers below. If procreation is prevented, then this prevents an individual from coming into existence who may find that existence to be burdensome, and may resent the imposition. They won’t enjoy a benefit from that prevention; however prevention need not confer the experience of relief in order to be valuable. The value of the prevention is in the fact that we do not create suffering. As the person never comes into existence, the “benefit” of relief from suffering, is never needed.

The Principle of Maximin Reasoning

I believe that most people would agree that consent is often an important pre-requisite to permit you to make decisions on behalf of others. However, as opponents of antinatalism have correctly pointed out, there are numerous scenarios in which the ethically appropriate course of action may involve violating the consent of another. Such examples could include decisions being made on behalf of a dependent child, such as deciding to take them to the dentist, or having them vaccinated. As young children have insufficient life experience to know what is in their best interests all of the time, it is incumbent upon a responsible adult (usually a parent) to make decisions on their behalf which may not coincide with what the child wants at the time, but which are likely to be in the child’s long term interest. Thus, we have compelling ethical grounds to allow us to violate the child’s consent in the expectation of having served their long term interests to avoid suffering. As an antinatalist, I would not dispute that this is often the case, and would not aver that one can never act without the consent of a living person regarding decisions that can have profound ramifications on their future wellbeing.

However, this counterargument ignores a key distinction between examples such as the one above, and decisions taken on behalf of a person yet to exist. Namely, the person who already exists already has a present welfare state that must be protected, and because they exist in the present, they will have a future welfare state which is going to be determined by the decisions made today. Consequently, when you are making a decision on behalf of a young child, or an elderly adult, you must perform a cost-benefit analysis in order to determine whether the short term detriment (i.e. acting against the person’s will, or without their knowledge) is going to be more harmful or less harmful in the long term than abstaining from making that choice.

Because you can prevent your as yet in-existent child from coming into existence, and from having any future wellbeing state at all, you cannot appeal to the same line of reasoning that would enable you to make decisions on behalf of an already born child. That’s because, unlike in any of these scenarios in which the person has already been born, you have an option available to you that would avoid any risk of future harm to the child. Namely, you can abstain from bringing the child into existence in the first place. An entity which never comes into existence, can never be harmed, and it can never want for the pleasures that existence could afford them. In other words, you must invoke maximin reasoning here; which means that; rather than take into account the full spectrum of probability regarding the outcome of that child’s life, you may only consider the worst possible outcomes. If those worst possible outcomes result in serious harm, then you cannot ethically justify the act of procreation. Abstaining from procreation would result in a perfectly harmless outcome for the hypothetical person who would have come into existence (i.e. they will never exist, and will thus never form an identity or a set of interests that can be benefitted); thus in order to justify your imposition, you must restore symmetry by explaining how procreation will also be perfectly harmless. This must be true not only for the child you create, but for all of their descendants as well. And arguably also for any sentient beings whose welfare state they will affect.

Unlike the child who may get sick because they weren’t vaccinated, the child who was never born cannot be identified, and thus no meaningful comparison can be made which would allow one to assert that the child was worse off for never coming into existence. Therefore, the non-identity problem not only fails as a refutation of antinatalism; it actually backfires against the pro-natalist side of the argument and becomes, in my opinion, one of the most robust and devastating weapons in the antinatalist arsenal.

The Asymmetry Between Pleasure and Pain

The only way that natalists can salvage the non-identity problem would be to radically subvert civilisation’s normally agreed-upon rules of ethics and instead of consent being required; an explicit refusal of consent would be required in order to prevent the 3rd party from acting, as opposed to the normal situation in which the absence of verbalised consent would mean that consent has not been obtained. Otherwise, special pleading would be needed to justify why the rules of consent could be violated in this particular instance, despite the fact that a non-existent entity could not be at any danger of being harmed.

Baked into this exercise in ethical subversion is the assumption that life itself is a profitable endeavour, and that the existence of pleasure constitutes a just reason to introduce the risk of suffering. This would therefore constitute the grounds for special pleading being presented in defence of procreation.

Under the normal ethical rules of civilisation, there is first an obligation to do no harm; and no obligation at all to give someone pleasure. If you can give someone pleasure without foreseeably causing them serious harm, then it is optional to give someone pleasure without asking for their consent first. You could illustrate this with the example of an unsolicited birthday gift. The gift would be anticipated to satisfy existing desires or needs, and therefore enhance the quality of life of the recipient, in some way. When shopping for a gift for a friend, one would normally be expected to take pains to ensure that they are not going to be burdening their friend with the burden of maintenance that they may not be prepared to accept (hence a live animal such as a dog would not usually be considered an appropriate choice of gift, unless this had been discussed with the recipient previously, or unless you were already aware that the recipient wanted a dog, and what type of dog they wanted). A considerate gift giver would also take into account the needs and desires of their friends, and tailor their choice accordingly. The recipient must always retain the right to refuse the gift at the point of receipt, or to dispose of it.

In praise of life, you will undoubtedly have often heard it said that life is a precious gift that is bestowed upon us by our parents. But the problem with this claim, is that the “gift of life” seems to fall foul of each one of the criteria listed above.

And the problem is compounded by the fact that the opponents of antinatalism cannot even seem to keep their story straight. No sooner have they invoked the non-identity problem to wave away the ethical concerns of antinatalists, than they have started to impute needs and desires onto an as-yet inexistent individual (or even the universe itself) in order to justify the creation of that individual. The natalist is proposing to create a problem that needn’t exist in order to allow for the chance for the problem to be solved to a satisfactory degree. That is to say, they want desires to be satisfied, even though those desires can only be satisfied up to the extent that a yawning cavern of desire was opened up within that individual’s psychology to begin with, constantly demanding to be filled in; never satisfied for long. Whilst desire is not an intrinsically negative experience itself, it is always a liability. For as long as you have a desire, you run the risk of failing to satisfy that desire, which will result into falling into a state of deprivation. And as is observed from the psychological phenomenon of the hedonic treadmill effect, you can’t just satisfy a desire once, and then remain permanently satisfied with what you have gained. As soon as that one desire is satisfied, then another one arises to take its place.

In order to further illustrate the problem of desire; I would liken desire to the poles of a magnet. There is a negative pole of suffering, and a positive pole of pleasure. Only the negative pole exerts a magnetic pull on the individual, which reflects the fact that striving is usually required to secure pleasure; whereas if you exert no effort at all, then you will inexorably be drawn into an ever deepening pit of suffering. This needn’t even require a lapse on your part in actively attempting to maintain forward movement towards the pole of pleasure. It may be that a barrier outside of your control gets in your way and trips you up, and you hurtle backwards towards the pole of suffering until you are able to gain your footing once again and resume your forward motion. These barriers which may impede your progress may be so manifold that you could never possibly anticipate every one of them. Even if you consider the human body itself; your comfort and pleasure depends on maintaining a minimum standard of health, with every organ functioning as it should be, no significant damage to any muscles or bones, and so on. If you develop a significant injury or malady in even one of the vast number of constituent parts of your body, then the pain or discomfort from that is likely to be sufficient to vitiate any pleasure that you might have been experiencing, as you will become focused on relief from the suffering. This suffering must be ameliorated as a precondition before you can even start to attain pleasure.

As I hope to have illustrated; by following the line of reasoning opened up by the non-identity problem, we find profound weaknesses in the pro-natalist position, and in an honest debate, it would be difficult to assess that the natalist argument has gained any traction in the debate whatsoever. The only reason that it is still winning, is because people were already disposed towards favouring life to begin with, and in the example of suicide prevention for example, are willing to use state sanctioned coercion to silence opposition and ensure that life-affirming philosophy carries the day. Unfortunately, as is the case with suicide, this debate has not been a fair one, to date, and much like the Philosophy Tube video linked at the start of the post, opponents of antinatalism are quick to shuck off challenges to their worldview with superficial arguments, seeming to uphold the virtue of life, but which collapse upon further scrutiny.

Please feel free to add your comments below, or discuss on Reddit at r/DebateAntinatalism or r/BirthandDeathEthics for uncensored debate. As always, all perspectives are welcome. More posts exploring different rebuttals of antinatalism and efilism (and perhaps expanding upon some of the topics touched upon here) will follow in due course. Please also subscribe using the form below, and visit the homepage for an index of all the blog’s published content.

existentialgoof – 19th September 2021

Negative Utilitarianism – Why suffering is all that matters

Pessimistic philosophies such as antinatalism, efilism and the universal right to die are widely rejected on a number of grounds and this blog intends to explore many of these arguments in due course to find where they are lacking. In this post, I will be addressing the claim that these philosophies place too much emphasis on suffering, and pay insufficient regards to the putative positive aspects of life, such as joy, love and meaning.

The core pillar of my argument is one that has been promulgated by the Youtube philosopher inmendham in a large number of the thousands of videos that he has made since joining Youtube in May 2007. Namely, that suffering is the only source of value in the universe, and thus all ethics should be focused on minimising, if not eliminating suffering.

There are many philosophers who explore negative utilitarian themes, however this is generally considered to be a very unpopular ethical theory, as even such controversial ethicists as Peter Singer believe that procreation can be justifiable if there are reasonable grounds to believe that the child will have a good life. Even David Benatar is reluctant to characterise himself as a negative utilitarian, and whilst he opposes procreation on the basis of the axiological asymmetry, he has publicly rejected promortalism.

The reason to assert that suffering is the only source of intrinsic value is obvious. Whilst most people do value their lives, they value their lives on the basis of their feelings. Therefore, whilst life is considered a wonderful gift to many people, who hope to live as long as possible, to the chronically suicidal person, life is seen as an unasked for burden and a malediction.

If one rejects the duality of body and mind, as most atheists would do, then a person yet to be born, or a person who was born but is now dead, is incapable of ascribing any value to life at all. Similarly, as both inmendham and David Benatar point out, the planet of Mars is not apparently being tormented in any way by the absence of living beings enjoying pleasure. Therefore, one would logically have to conclude that pleasure has instrumental value, because living organisms have an innate desire for pleasure and aversion to suffering. The extremes of pleasure and pain are the two opposing poles of sentient experience, and the further you get away from one pole, the closer you get to the opposite pole. Just as Sisyphus valiantly struggled to push the boulder towards the top of the hill in order to earn his short period of respite at the top before the boulder rolled back down; as individuals, we must be constantly striving towards the pole of pleasure. If our efforts to do so fall short, then we will inexorably find ourselves inexorably pulled towards the magnetic pole of suffering. Suffering is the default condition of life, as one will find oneself in suffering if one fails to expend adequate effort in seeking comfort.

As creatures with diverse interests and dispositions, external stimuli will not always elicit the same value response from all people, and this is because the external factors that affect how we feel have only instrumental value or disvalue in inducing either a positive or a negative feeling. It is only the feelings themselves which have intrinsic value, and thus ‘suffering’ is tautologous with ‘bad’. Without the capacity to experience the feeling of suffering, then the concept of ‘badness’ itself cannot exist in the universe. When you get down to the core of trying to explain why pain is bad, it is impossible to do so without merely referring back to the ineffable sensation itself. It is for this same reason that we could explain to another human being our need for aspirin when we are experiencing a severe headache, by just referring to the mutually understood sensation of pain; but we would not be able to explain to a non-sentient AI (if such could exist) why we need this relief, as due to the sensation itself being ineffable, we would be incapable of reducing it to concepts that would be understandable to an intelligence that had no direct experience of it. In much the same way, we would not be able to describe the colour blue to someone who was blind from birth.

In my years of debating on Reddit, a great deal has been made of the subjectivity of suffering by moral nihilists, who greet this fact as a welcome ethical loophole to excuse a multitude of unethical acts, especially procreation, and perhaps more importantly, afford them some form of psychological protection from the unsettling philosophical implications of the realisation that they live in a universe which is coldly indifferent to their own wellbeing, and by the fact that they were evolved through unintelligent forces with no concept of mercy or fairness; and live in a world in which, by and large, mercy and fairness have little to do with the actual outcomes which obtain.

Moral nihilism is the psychopath’s charter, but also an untenable philosophy. It is the argument that, if objective morality does not exist, then there’s no compelling reason to pay any regard to the impact that one’s actions may have on the suffering of another, unless one’s actions were being constrained by the character weakness of empathy.

However, as much as moral nihilism is correct in a very narrow sense, it is also untenable in real human affairs. Moral nihilism is how the animal kingdom operates, and how nature and evolution have always operated. There was no benevolent guiding force which created these beings, and they have very limited capacity for morality themselves, and for structuring cohesive societies based on mutual interests.

Humans, on the other hand, have realised that life can be made a little easier for virtually everyone, if we co-operate and respect the ‘golden rule’ to not do unto others as one would not want done unto oneself. Unless you are unchallenged as the most powerful person on the planet; untrammelled moral nihilism is not going to work in your favour, because as much as you would be capable of bulldozing over the feelings of others in order to obtain what you desire; they would be able to do the same to you. In a world in which the rules of ethics have broken down and might makes right, the end result is a perpetual state of anarchic war, which will be sure to be unsatisfactory to virtually everyone concerned. It would be otiose to propound a philosophy of morality that you will abandon when it does not suit your own interests.

Invoking Hume’s is/ought gap, as moral nihilists are wont to do, does not meaningfully detract from the validity of pessimistic philosophies such as antinatalism, as one always feels that one ‘ought’ to avoid unnecessary suffering; and if one recognises that to be the case for oneself, then there’s no logical defence for creating meaningless new lives that will serve no purpose other than to perpetuate the existence of sensations that are intrinsically negative.

As an antinatalist and efilist, would I be willing to die on the hill of negative utilitarianism? Yes, I would, in the most literal sense. As I’ve explained above, I only have any use for my life whilst I still have it. Therefore, if the Benevolent World Exploder came tonight and instantaneously eradicated all sentient life on the planet, then it would not be possible for me to register any qualms about its decision to act without my consent. Consent is only important when the potential outcomes of one’s actions are going to cause harm, and a scenario in which life was eradicated painlessly at the push of a button would do nothing other than remove harm from existence.

David Benatar would argue that annihilation is itself a harm; however this can only be true in an abstract sense. And if I’m dead and everyone else is dead, then whom is left over to worry about abstract harms? Why should I be concerned about a “harm” that nobody will ever have to experience? Why worry about my interests being frustrated, when the only rational set of interests it would be possible for me to have would be concerned with trying to navigate a path, for myself, and/or for others, through the treacherous terrain of life, with the least amount of suffering (and therefore the maximum amount of the polar opposite of suffering, pleasure) possible? This is the point at which Mr Benatar unfortunately ran into some difficulties in his debate with Sam Harris. Harris correctly pointed out that the badness arising from the frustration of one’s interests to continue living do not accrue in any realm of physical reality (in Harris’ and Benatar’s physicalist universe) and thus it is difficult to understand how Benatar believes that he is able to remain logically consistent whilst avoiding this logical conclusion of his antinatalist arguments.

Some philosophers have posited a “deprivation account” of the badness of death as a refutation of Epicureanism; however, again, this relies on the existence of some kind of abstract harm that is not experienced. I will devote a separate post to the deprivation account in order to explain its shortcomings in more detail; having debated this at length on Reddit.

To conclude this post, my thesis is that if one accepts an atheistic and materialistic conception of reality, then there can be no such thing as a good or a bad that is not defined exclusively by the feelings of sentient organisms. There is no basis for having a preference between two different outcomes outside on the impact that those outcomes are going to have on the feelings of yourself, or other sentient organisms. The gulf which exists between pleasure and pain is what drives preference; and if not guided by this, then all choices would be as arbitrary as the result of a meaningless coin toss.

Even in cases where we are driven by the motivation to preserve life (the source of all suffering), our motivation comes from the fact that we are evolved to associate suffering with existential danger, due to the fact that most of the things which induce suffering are harmful to the wellbeing of ourselves or our loved ones, and therefore in the wild, would have been most likely to have reduced our chances of being able to successfully replicate our DNA and protect our family to ensure that they were able to continue on our bloodline. Our instinct to preserve life is based on crude instincts, with which we were endowed by unintelligent forces. Not because life has inherent value.

Unfortunately, as the result of unintelligent and non-rational forces; natural selection is an arena within which the most effective tools are not necessarily the ones that best represent the interests of rational beings. There is no more effective tool to motivate organisms to preserve their bloodline than one which elicits genuine value as punishment for failing to do so. It is as a result of this that we find ourselves in the position today where most of humanity is still incapable, or unwilling, to recognise the trick that has been played on them by the forces of natural selection. Only when we allow ourselves to outsmart the unintelligent forces of natural selection will humanity realise that the only rational course for us to pursue is that of the extinction of ourselves, and of all life. We can then realise that, in a game in which nobody can win, the best option left to us is to cut our collective losses.

Please feel free to use the comment section below for further discussion. Comments will be reviewed prior to publication, however providing you demonstrate that you are intending to debate in good faith and does not endorse or promote violence or self harm in any way, your comment will not be deleted or altered. Alternatively, if you have a Reddit account, please feel free to discuss these topics further on r/BirthandDeathEthics or r/DebateAntinatalism. Please subscribe by email to be notified of future content, using the form below:

existentialgoof – 10th September 2021

In Support of a Fundamental Right to Die: an argument from personal liberty

The right to die movement is well under way in a number of developed nations across the world, with several countries having established assisted suicide laws, and yet more countries in which this is a subject of intense public debate.

However, I would argue that the approach that has been taken thus far to securing this right has been too cautious, and too readily accepts the fundamental premises upon which opposition to the right to die rests.

The scope of the right to die laws that have been introduced in most countries that have so far established the right to assisted suicide are very narrowly focused on a small group of people in extreme circumstances. This group of eligible candidates is typically restricted to those languishing in the final stages of a terminal illness; often specified as a prognosis, verified by 2 or more doctors, of 6 months or less to live. Even in Canada, where the Carter commission recommended that assisted suicide be made available to people with non-terminal conditions and to include sufferers of so-called mental illness, Justin Trudeau and his pusillanimous Liberal Party failed to live up to its own sobriquet, and instead instituted a very narrowly focused MAID program available only to those whose natural death was deemed by doctors to be “reasonably foreseeable”; thus callously abandoning Canadians suffering from severe psychological torment and cravenly capitulating to the protests from religious and disability rights lobbying groups. Fortunately, Trudeau’s government has now reversed track on this somewhat, and now intends to make this service available to the mentally ill within 2 years. This progressive advance however, is under threat should the Conservative Party get back into power in Canada, as they propose to block any extension of MAID to the mentally ill.

Should this be successful, it will be a substantial step in the right direction for the many people who have an interest in this subject in Canada, and one further blow to be struck against the religious primitivism of suicide opposition. Unfortunately, here in the UK whence I am writing this article, we still await even the most modest of breakthroughs, as our parliament continues to cower and pander to the querulous disquiet of assorted ‘disability rights’ lobbying organisations and faith groups. However, I would like to take a different tack in this article, and argue for the right to suicide not as a privilege to be granted by the government, but rather as a negative right, from which we should be unfettered from undue government interference.

At the present time, the majority of discourse around the subject of assisted suicide concerns the terminally ill, as mentioned earlier. The argument for granting these people the right to die is fairly clear cut. Whereas with those who are not close to death there are arguments brought up concerning the individual’s potential for future happiness and the prospect that they could be basing their decision on a distorted mental state; in the case of those with a terminal illness, there is very little life left to foreclose upon and what little life they do have left is virtually guaranteed to be of deteriorating quality. In upholding the right to die for these people, we can show mercy to those at the end of life’s journey, but do so without invalidating society’s fundamental belief in the intrinsic value of life.

What the right to die movement has failed to do, so far, is to champion the view that the value of an individual’s life is something that should be defined only by the individual. That only the individual should be entitled to decide what, for them, constitutes an acceptable quality of life, or acceptable risk of coming to serious harm in the future. The right to die movement as it currently exists, is still predicated on the assumption that a standard life contains a certain amount of intrinsic goodness which can be affirmed and codified into law independently of the agreement of the owner of that life. It is also predicated on the belief that death itself (as opposed to the dying process) can be bad for a person because it deprives them of certain goods that may have obtained should they have stayed alive. In a future post, I will produce a detailed rebuttal of the so-called ‘deprivation account’.

If an individual is to be truly at liberty, and to be the owner of their own body, then they should be at liberty to determine what cost they are willing to pay for their own existence. Nobody else will have to endure this individual’s suffering; therefore nobody else is qualified to be an arbiter of what constitutes an acceptable ‘exchange rate’ between the amount of suffering to be paid, and the amount of life’s goods to be reaped in return. Nobody can objectively say that even so much as a hangnail would be a price worth paying in order to continue living, if the owner of the life deems otherwise. Of course, for as long as one remains alive, one has to contend with the risks of an inconceivably broad array of potential harms arising in the future, and one is never safe from these until death. The capricious nature of fate makes it such that a “good life” is something that can only really be judged in retrospect once an individual is dead, or at least on their death bed, as one can otherwise never rule out a period of prolonged suffering that would leave the person wishing that they had never been born.

To force an individual to continue experiencing the harms of conscious existence is to enslave this individual, and therefore the right to opt out of sentient existence must be considered to be the bedrock of personal autonomy. One cannot meaningfully own one’s own life, if one remains alive by compulsion, rather than by choice. For those who would rather opt out, if given the choice, there is no meaningful autonomy; as every choice that they do make is in an effort to try and make the best of a bad situation. To mitigate, as to the best of their ability, the liabilities inherent in sentient existence. They may still have choices in respect to what job they will work, where they will live, what they will do in their spare time, what they’ll spend their income on, and so on. However, they are compelled to make these choices in order to satisfy the needs and desires which society compels them to continue to have. This person is stuck in perpetual damage limitation mode. They are not living as a free individual. A free individual can choose to shuffle off their mortal coil whenever they perceive the putative ‘benefits’ of life as no longer commensurate to the price that they need to pay in order to receive them.

Libertarians are often keen on pointing out that one can never have a right which entails an obligation on the part of someone else to provide a service. But why is so little objection raised to the act of forcing someone to continue to need the services that only someone else can provide, when that person could terminate their involvement with the system altogether without demanding anything from anybody that this other party was not willing to provide.

I explored this issue on 2 different libertarian subreddits, to mixed results. Regrettably, the idea of granting individuals the fundamental liberty to decide whether or not they wish to experience life as a sentient organism was greeted with a reception of less than unanimous acceptance, with most responses citing concerns around mental illness clouding the individual’s capacity to provide meaningful consent. I’ll address why this is a philosophically and ethically problematic stance in more detail in a separate page. However, I have provided a link to both of the threads below, in which I address these concerns multiple times:

My post on r/Libertarian which, for some reason, is not formatting the numbers properly, and putting each bullet point as number 1. You can view the outcome of the same thread posted on r/GoldandBlack here.

At the very minimum, the government should not be unduly interfering in the rights of citizens to end their lives, as to do so is a breach of the individual’s negative right to freedom from violence (as involuntary suicide prevention and detainment is an act of violence), and the right not to have their personal choices and liberties interfered with on the basis of an unproven religious/spiritual belief (namely society’s foundational shared narrative that all human life is endowed with intrinsic value, meaning and dignity). By restricting access to suicide methods, the government is also unjustly blocking the individual’s right to access goods and services willingly provided on the basis of an unproven and unprovable presumption that the consumer’s philosophical beliefs are inauthentic and are the result of impaired reasoning brought on by a “mental disorder” whose creation itself was never justified on the basis of any empirical evidence whatsoever, but rather by comparing an individual’s internal conscious experience to a normative standard which itself is not demonstrated to always be calibrated (by the intelligent design of God, or by the omniscient and omnibenevolent process of natural selection?) to optimal capacity for rational, informed decision making.

As you may see from the threads, the basic thrust of the argument that I received from self-identified libertarians opposed to the right to die can be paraphrased thusly: ‘We support autonomy, but only for people who have demonstrated the capacity for rational decision making. But if you don’t enjoy life, then by definition, you lack the capacity for rational decision making, and it would violate your right to life if we allowed you to act on this distorted and delusional perception that there’s something fundamentally wrong with life’.

So upon what basis can one assume that a rational mind will enjoy life, and always seek more life? If one is a believer that the universe, and life itself, was designed by an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent deity, then the answer is simple. God is the objective arbiter of goodness, and God imbued us with the instinct to live. Therefore, anyone who doesn’t desire to continue living is obviously defective in their ability to evaluate goodness, and thus we must intervene on their behalf in order to protect them from their own judgement.

It certainly worked well in the case of homosexuality, which was in the DSM up until the 1970s due to the fact that homosexuals practiced intercourse in such a way that deviated from the presumed teleological function of intercourse, which elicited feelings of disgust from the general public (undoubtedly including a great many psychiatrists), and this probably in no small part contributed to its eventual inclusion in the DSM. Much as is the case with depression today (along with the large majority of mental illnesses), there was nothing in the way of empirical evidence that would have warranted its categorisation as a mental disorder. But this is how psychiatry has always operated, as it has always sought to pathologise behaviour that is objectionable to social norms. For example, Drapetomania, which psychiatry medicalised as a “disorder of slaves who have a tendency to run away from their owners due to an inborn propensity for wanderlust”. When it was eventually removed from the DSM in the 1970s, neither was this based on any new scientific evidence. Rather, it was the case that institutionalising a moral stigma against homosexuality was becoming increasingly difficult to justify, and it was voted out as a disorder via a referendum. Psychiatry as a ‘science’ has scarcely moved on since the days of Drapetomania, of being used as a tool of oppression against women who dared to subvert or challenge socially ingrained gender roles by asserting independence of will and of homosexuality. All that has changed is that social attitudes have progressed, and psychiatry is not able to get away with the same abuses (operating behind veneer of unearned scientific legitimacy) today as it did in the past.

As was the case with homosexuality, escaped slaves and strong-willed women, the opponents of suicide also invoke these teleological arguments to suggest that, because we are ‘hardwired’ to want to preserve our existence; the existence of a desire which runs contrary to this instinct betrays prima facie evidence of severely compromised judgement.

Astoundingly, it is not only theists that have advanced these arguments in opposition to a legal right to suicide. Even self-professed ‘atheists’ have made very confused arguments of this sort (see an example of this here).

Those who wish the right to suicide without interference should demand objective evidence from anyone who claims the authority to know what is in their interests better than they do themselves. Given the enormity of the stakes involved in this type of interference with a person’s liberty (nothing less than slavery itself, I would argue), a very high standard of proof would perforce need to be met in order to provide sufficient ethical justification for this action. Not only this, but the authority responsible for making this decision should be legally required to outline exactly what they are intending to do in order to help that person to attain a mental state in which they are capable of meaningfully giving consent, and should be limited by law to a specified time period within which they are entitled to suspend the individual’s legal right to choose for themselves. Presumption of incapacity based on an unproven belief in life’s inherent value is not sufficient here.

An unfalsifiable diagnosis, based on normative assumptions and rendered without conducting any objective tests will not suffice. As far as I’m aware, there is no scientifically established link between any organic brain dysfunction or anomaly and suicidal thoughts. More to the point, I am also unaware of any scientific evidence which has ever proven the value of life; and thus I am unsure as to how one could scientifically establish a threshold to determine how much a rational person ought to be enjoying life under any given set of circumstances. In which case, there is no way to compare how an insane person would react to how a sane one would, and you cannot render a sound verdict that the suicidal individual has failed to evaluate life correctly due to cognitive distortions.

As we can see, there is no basis other than articles of religious or philosophical faith for codifying the value of human life into law when it pertains exclusively to decisions that an individual is making on their own account. Therefore, the existing restrictions on suicide may be viewed as a violation of the right to freedom from religion, and no state which upholds these restrictions can be considered to be a truly secular one.

The future of the right to die

As for what the right to die might look like, I will advance my own proposal. I am not averse to the idea of forming a compromise with those who have concerns regarding the impulsivity of suicide, and those who may make a choice after an episode of adversity, within a mindset not typical of their usual outlook. We would address these concerns by implementing a specified waiting period of perhaps a year for those who want to die due to non-terminal illness, and counselling could be required during this waiting period. This would give the health service sufficient time to direct the patient towards support services that may help to remediate any issues that are identified as factors contributing to the patient’s wish to die; and importantly, it would demonstrate that the patient’s will was settled and that they had sufficient time to reflect on, and give serious consideration to, alternative options to suicide. As for the actual suicide itself, this need not necessarily require the direct involvement of medical doctors. Once the patient completes their 1 year waiting period, then the doctor would provide them with documentary proof that they have met this requirement. They would then be entitled to access a service that would allow them a painless, and risk-free death, such as Philip Nitschke’s invention The Sarco, which the patient themselves would be able to utilise without the need for a doctor to assist them in contravention of any sincerely held personal principles. The actual service of assisting the person to die could be run parallel to the health service of the country.

Anecdotal evidence from Belgium demonstrates that even knowing that one has the exit door available can help to ameliorate distress that previously was intolerable, and thus the patient who was once desperate for death finds that their emotional resources are greatly restored. From a personal perspective, I feel that the greatest source of my psychological unrest is from the anxiety and fear of finding myself being burdened with a life that I never consented to having had imposed on me in the first place, but being denied a failsafe and dignified route out of this existence, should I choose to take it. I find it difficult to divert my mental energies to ways in which I can improve my living circumstances when I am constantly worried about trying to break out of my prison cell by tunnelling out through the walls whilst the guard’s back is turned. I believe that granting people the peace of mind of knowing that they cannot be indefinitely trapped in their circumstances against their explicit consent will affirm George Sterling’s famous quote “a prison becomes a home when you have the key”.

What are your views on the right to die? Please share your views in the comments section below. The full spectrum of views on this subject are welcome, and will be published unaltered, providing that they are submitted in good faith, with the desire to advance the discussion. Please note that, for legal reasons, I am unable to allow publication of any comments that provide information pertaining to suicide methods, or which explicitly advocate for suicide. Please subscribe using the form below, if you would like to be updated on future content.

existentialgoof 10th September 2021