Bryan Caplan  

Simon vs. Ehrlich at a Funeral

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I recently attended my first funeral.  Even though I never met the deceased, I cried.  The only good thing to say about death is that it beats severe, chronic pain.  I didn't need a lot of details about her life to be confident that this woman's death was a tragedy for her, for her family, and for the world.

A week later, I googled my favorite Julian Simon quote to get the page number.  Many decades from now, I hope someone reads this at my funeral:

There came to me the memory of reading a eulogy delivered by a Jewish chaplain over the dead on the battlefield at Iwo Jima, saying something like, "How many who would have been a Mozart or a Michelangelo or an Einstein have we buried here?"  And then I thought, Have I gone crazy? What business do I have trying to help arrange it that fewer human beings will be born, each one of whom might be a Mozart or a Michelangelo or an Einstein - or simply a joy to his or her family and community, and a person who will enjoy life?

Guess what else appeared on the first page of hits?  Paul Ehrlich's rebuttal:
What business does anyone have trying to help arrange it that more human beings will be born, each one of whom might be a Judas, an Attila the Hun, or a Hitler - or simply a burden to his or her family and community and a person who will live a life that is nasty, brutish and short?
Imagine reading this at a funeral!  All ideology aside, it's hard to see Ehrlich's reply to Simon as anything other than demented hatred.   Sure, it's possible that the person in the coffin lived in misery, burdened his family, and/or would have been the next Hitler.  But does Ehrlich really think that these gruesome scenarios are even remotely as likely as Simon's?  If not, what's his point?

P.S. I believe this is the actual eulogy Simon remembered.  I like Simon's version better, but much the original is still excellent.  The key passage:
Somewhere in this plot of ground there may lie the man who could have discovered the cure for cancer. Under one of these Christian crosses, or beneath a Jewish Star of David, there may now rest a man who was destined to be a great prophet-to find the way, perhaps, for all to live in plenty, with poverty and hardship for none.


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COMMENTS (25 to date)
Eric J. writes:

Thank you, Brian -- I struggled last night to explain my feelings about the tragedy of death to my date, feelings that Simon (and you!) sum up perfectly.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Honestly I'm not a fan of Simon's or Ehrlich's. It's all extremely impersonal and funerals are important for saying goodbye to an individual who meant a lot to you.

I say leave all the demographics and probabilities at the door - both of them.

If you were closer to the deceased or had ever been to a funeral of someone you were close to, I think you too would be struck by the impersonal anonymity of Simon's eulogy. Maybe it's appropriate for a mass funeral or to decry the senselessness of war, but not for this sort of situation.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

You're also being very unfair to Ehrlich (wrong as he is on many things). His statement explicitly spoke to the issue of more people being born. Simon explicitly spoke to the issue of more people dying. You can't compare the two in the way that you do. Ehrlich is pointing out to Simon that there are bad people in the world as well as good people, but it doesn't follow that he's celebrating the death of human beings. If he did, he would have specifically talked about increasing deaths rather than decreasing births. Stop trying to pretend he was making a statement about human death.

mattmc writes:

I actually agree with Daly's first argument in the link to your previous post, the one you characterize as ludicrous.

"The first is ludicrous: Genius is a 'unique combination of nature and nurture'; therefore, it's 'inept' to think a larger population increases the chance of getting more geniuses?"

In order for a genius to become an Einstein, they need to be in a context to apply that genius. An additional genius born in Malawi becomes William Kamkwamba, not someone working at CERN (or Macgyver).

SydB writes:

The truth of a statement is not measured by how appropriate it seems for a funeral.

John Fast writes:

This partly explains why, as Raymond Chandler put it, "murder is an act of infinite cruelty." (Incidentally, Bryan, if you haven't read "The Simple Art of Murder" then I highly recommend it.)

I am sorry for your loss; at Ehrlich's funeral I will dance.

mikedc writes:

The contrast between the life-loving Simon and the positively last-mannish Ehrlich reminds me that I've always thought Nietzsche deserved a lot more sober attention from libertarian philosophy.

nicole writes:

I don't care for Ehrlich either, but Daniel Kuehn is right above that you need to differentiate between celebrating death and thinking long and hard about whether to encourage births. I often think your negative view of death colors your ideas about reproduction in a way that doesn't make sense given that babies don't exist before they are born. As for this:

All ideology aside, it's hard to see Ehrlich's reply to Simon as anything other than demented hatred. Sure, it's possible that the person in the coffin lived in misery, burdened his family, and/or would have been the next Hitler. But does Ehrlich really think that these gruesome scenarios are even remotely as likely as Simon's?

Well, I think it's lots, lots more likely. There are people out there who view life as a net negative, after all. Living in misery seems less like a gruesome scenario and more like the norm, especially compared with the chance of becoming Mozart (who may well himself have lived in misery, of course).

I wish at some point you would address the arguments of, e.g., David Benatar, especially as they relate to your book project.

Steve Z writes:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mere_addition_paradox

JPIrving writes:

Don't worry prof Caplan, by the time your in your 70s immortal cybernetic bodies will be common! I hope....

Josh Weil writes:

People have the option to kill themselves if life is as miserable as Ehrlich posits. Since most choose not to, we can assume they prefer to be alive.

Revealed preferences in action. There's no sense in making that decision before someone is born.

Douglass Holmes writes:

Funerals cause us to think about what is important in our lives and what great moments impact our beliefs. Thanks for sharing yours with us, Bryan.

nicole writes:

Josh Weil, you assume that it's equally easy to kill oneself and to simply not be born. I think it's pretty clear that's not the case, physically speaking. Further, there is a vast difference between choosing to end a life that you know and not ever knowing the difference. Is it really revealed preference when millions of years of evolution have made you highly averse to death, and not because of any benefit to yourself?

mulp writes:

"How many who would have been a Mozart or a Michelangelo or an Einstein have we buried here?"

In other words, this is a loss to humanity because they might have done something worthy, but otherwise, no big loss.

SydB writes:

"Funerals cause us to think about what is important in our lives and what great moments impact our beliefs."

I believe our daily preferences are a better measure of what is important. Actions and words at funerals primarily tell us about preferences for rituals and the likes.

Though Mr Caplan's preferences are revealing. There is a mystical religious aspect to thinkers like Julian Simon that Mr Caplan enjoys, thinkers who have abandoned the gods of the past but now worship future nirvana as expressed in their gods of technology and the market. Both are based upon an insufficient understanding of the world.

ryan yin writes:

mulp,
If you truncate a sentence, and the part you omit makes it clear that your criticism of the sentence is unfounded, maybe you shouldn't truncate the sentence.

Josh Weil writes:

@robin

"Further, there is a vast difference between choosing to end a life that you know and not ever knowing the difference."

I agree there's a difference. Does it imply that a person who a third party would assume would have a miserable life doesn't deserve to evaluate both scenarios and make the choice himself? I don't believe so.

"Is it really revealed preference when millions of years of evolution have made you highly averse to death, and not because of any benefit to yourself?"

I could ask you, is it really revealed preferences when million years of evolution have made you ______________ (insert anything you do). Of course it is. All actions reveal preferences no matter what factors led you to that point.

@SydB

Character attacks are the surest sign of a weak argument.

Mark Bahner writes:

"It's all extremely impersonal and funerals are important for saying goodbye to an individual who meant a lot to you."

Funerals are also important for being there for the loved ones that individual leaves behind. (Even if the individual who died was not very close to you.)

ardyanovich writes:

1. I really hate writing about this topic, but I feel as if there is a bias towards Simon's view being more visibly prevalent simply because it's a rather depressing hobby to argue as Ehrlich does (it's also hard to listen to such a depressing view). So what winds up happening is that the people who are positive about life speak up, and those with a darker view remain silent so that they don't depress others.

2. "People have the option to kill themselves if life is as miserable as Ehrlich posits. Since most choose not to, we can assume they prefer to be alive."

I side with Nicole here. Think of people who went through really awful events such as the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, slavery, or one of the many famines in history. To be sure, many people who didn't want to live did commit suicide, but it's hard to imagine that all or even most of the people who didn't commit suicide actually wanted to continue living.

3. Another point to add to Ehrlich's rebuttal: I think the worst part about giving someone life is that even if that child has a great life, they still die, and that death (I assume) is usually not very pleasant, so parents force their kids to experience death, which is horrible by itself. This all ignores the possibility that they have bad life or cause someone else to have a bad life, which would make the parent's decision to have them even worse, in my view.

4. I do not take pleasure in speaking these words, but there needs to be some balance on these kinds of issues.


indregard writes:

I do not wish to take sides here, either, but saying Erlich is wrong because the probability of a Hitler is smaller than a Mozart is below your usual standards. The pain and suffering inflicted by a bad person could obviously exceed the corresponding good done by a good person -- and I would say that's the case in your examples. Mozart's music is probably great, but it doesn't come close to alleviating the pain caused by Holocaust.

Anyway, I believe it makes little sense to say either of these at a funeral. It conveys the idea that your primary value as a human being is what you leave behind, intellectually. I find that repulsive. Your primary value, as a human being, is who and what you are to the people around you. Incidentally, that's also the people attending your funeral.

David Jinkins writes:

You are truly blessed if you had never had the occasion to be at a funeral!

Someone close to me grew up in a very large family (most of them lived in the same family owned apartment building). By the time she was thirty, two generations (10 or so) of the people she grew up with had died. She is still plagued by guilt over things she said to them, or didn't say to them, did or didn't do, and I know she still thinks of them very often. All these deaths have been very painful for her.


George X writes:

David wrote: You are truly blessed if you had never had the occasion to be at a funeral!

I disagree. I found Brian's statement shocking and borderline unbelievable. The only explanation I can think of is that he never had a close relationship with anyone much older than himself (grandparent or teacher or neighbor), which would be a shame. (Not that age is the only cause of death; last year a high-school friend of mine died in an accident.)

I usually find his writings on death and dying to be his least-persuasive work; maybe this is why.

(Just to be clear, I don't mean this as a criticism of Brian; I just don't think never going to a funeral is necessarily a sign of luck.)

George X writes:

Ardyanovich wrote: ...[D]eath (I assume) is usually not very pleasant, so parents force their kids to experience death, which is horrible by itself.

Death may be pleasant, it may be horrible, it may not have any subjective qualities whatsoever. Nobody among us has any evidence one way or the other.

That profound ignorance is what makes the anticipation or fear of death so horrible: there's no rational way to assuage the fear. Dying, in contrast, may be horrible (e.g. pancreatic cancer); but would a miracle cure at death's door erase any of the suffering caused by the disease?

As to parents' responsibility: even granting that inevitable death is terrible, how exactly do I have a responsibility to someone who doesn't exist to relieve them of that fate? And, of course, once a child exists, that child will inevitably die; my responsibility is then to postpone his or her death for fifty or sixty years. There are no existence monopoles: if something's existence has a beginning, it has an end.

nicole writes:
Does it imply that a person who a third party would assume would have a miserable life doesn't deserve to evaluate both scenarios and make the choice himself? I don't believe so.

But by giving someone this "choice," you are in fact coercing him into first living, then suffering, then dying, whether by his own hand or not. That is, you've made all the relevant choices. Conversely, you aren't really *denying* the choice to an entity that does not exist previous to that coercion.

Also, I agree with ardyanovich's first point, and also with George X regarding Bryan's attendance of funerals and his writings on death and dying. But:

As to parents' responsibility: even granting that inevitable death is terrible, how exactly do I have a responsibility to someone who doesn't exist to relieve them of that fate?

The responsibility wouldn't be to relieve them of their fate (and I don't think death is the worst of it), but to avert the problem in the first place.

Josh Weil writes:

@Nicole

Coercion is the use or threat of physical violence. It is not giving birth to someone.

I don't think you owe a potential person to birth them. But I don't think you can very convincingly argue its generally in a persons best interest to not be born. The only exceptions require information you can't have at the time of birth.

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