Bryan Caplan  

Identity and Misanthropy

PRINT
The Paltry Effect of Political... Is the Government an Efficient...
Paul Kelleher's critique of my recent post on mobility and misanthropy is a rare pleasure.  He begins by carefully explaining and defending a position on personal identity that I've repeatedly championed.  Kelleher:
 

The following claims seem true: I could have gone to a different college. I could have been a doctor instead of a professor. I could have died early.

The following claims seem patently false: I could have been a lego block. I could have been my grandfather's son instead of my grandfather's grandchild.

So what makes a counterfactual about me true, while others are obviously ridiculous?*

Philosophers tend to agree that in order for such a claim to be true, it must presuppose that I am identical to the individual who grew out of the particular sperm and egg that combined to make me. That is, if it makes sense to imagine that that individual--the individual created by that unique sperm/egg pair--went to a different college or, heaven forbid, died in an early car accident, then these counterfactuals about me can be true. But if it doesn't make sense to speak of these things happening to me, then they are probably false. That's why I could never have been a lego block.

One implication of this view is that if my parents had decided not to have a baby in 1979, and instead had waited two years, then it is quite probable that I would never have existed. After all, my parents did have a child two years after they had me--they had my brother--and he is a wholly different individual from me. He is a wholly different individual because he resulted from a different sperm/egg pairing.  On the other hand, if my parents had--miraculously--saved the specific sperm and egg that in fact created me and then joined them in 1981 instead of 1979, then, yes, that would have been me. 

This is the currently dominant view of the metaphysics of existence in contemporary analytic philosophy.
So far, Kelleher and I are in profound agreement.  So where's the dispute?  Kelleher:
if Caplan is correct that it is "misanthropic" to prevent an individual from existing, then Caplan faces the very same charge of misanthropy. For in delaying procreation, prospective parents virtually guarantee that the child who's born later is a metaphysically different individual than the child who would have been born if the delay had not occurred. Indeed, if a woman ends up procreating with a different man down the road, then it is metaphysically certain that the resulting child is not the same individual who would have been born if there had been no delay. This raises a serious problem for Caplan. He thinks it's wrong (or at least bad)** to deny individuals existence. But that is what I'm doing right now by typing this blog post instead of procreating. And it is what prospective parents would be doing by taking Caplan's own advice to delay procreating by a few years. If neither I nor those prospective parents are doing anything wrong in failing to procreate here and now, then Caplan is wrong that it is necessarily misanthropic to prevent someone's existence.
Reply: My original post was objecting to the view that, holding the welfare of all other people fixed, the creation of an additional relatively poor person is bad.  My claim is that, all else equal, it's misanthropic to prefer the existence of no one to someone.  Indeed, that's almost a definition of misanthropy.  I'm not saying that:

a. It's misanthropic to prefer the creation of one person to the creation of a different person. 

b. It's wrong (or even bad) to fail to make unlimited sacrifices to create additional people. 


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (17 to date)
Peter writes:

Your original objection was to the idea that it would be better if some people of a certain class hadn't been born. Mind you, I thought that an unfair reading of the passage you quoted and that the sense intended was your charitable interpretation. Anyway, that's different from objecting to the birth of a particular person. So I don't think Kelleher makes his case.

J Storrs Hall writes:

It surprises me that you, Kelleher, and if he is to be believed the philosophical mainstream believe in genetic determinism, if only of identity. "This is the currently dominant view of the metaphysics of existence in contemporary analytic philosophy."
What do you have to say about identical twins? Are they really the same person? Actual research seems to indicate that genetics determines about half of the traits or characteristics that we consider crucial to our identity -- though which ones these are seems to vary as well.
I personally take a memetic view of the self -- a person is the sum of the ideas he believes and understands. Intellectual insemination is as important as biological.
Now to the interesting questions: do you extend your "someone is better than no one" to intelligent machines? Does it matter that there may be two upload copies of the "same person"? Are uploads preferable to synthetic AIs?
Finally, are you using misanthropic as a moral term (presumably of misapprobation)? If so, on what theory? A Rawlsian veil analysis is strongly against your point: I would much rather live in a society where women did not become single mothers. I think evolutionary ethics agrees: such a society would outcompete ours, all else equal.

Paul Kelleher writes:

@Brian: Thanks for taking the time to respond. I'm glad you didn't begrudge my taking the opportunity to introduce our blog's readers to these issues via a critique of your intriguing post. --- I'm not sure I fully understand your reply, but I'm happy to admit I may be missing something. My original interpretation of your first post was largely shaped by the line: "It's easy to forget that what really counts isn't 'outcomes,' but individuals." Since you yourself are in favor of preventing certain individuals in favor of creating others, and since your reasons also have to do with the hardships that the former would face, I didn't see much daylight between your view and the one you ascribe to Winship. I guess I still do not. If your point is just that we shouldn't say that a (relatively) poor person's life is not worth living, then I agree wholeheartedly with you on that.

Thanks, Paul


@J Storrs Hall: you are right that the view needs amendment to accommodate the non-identity of individual twins. There's been work on how so to accommodate. I'm not totally up on it.

Jason Malloy writes:

My claim is that, all else equal, it's misanthropic to prefer the existence of no one to someone

Not sure what "all else equal" could mean here since Winship's argument was obviously that all else is not equal.

Your argument prioritizes the imaginary interests of imaginary people, which ironically enough, makes it misanthropic towards existing people (aka people).

People choose to have one well-fed child over two undernourished children for the sake of the existing child, not out of animus towards the species or the unborn. The second child is hypothetical and possesses no rights or interests; the first child exists and his well-being can be severely modified by the choice to create another person.

RPLong writes:

I think both Kelleher over-intellectualized it almost in the same way that Winship did.

Winship assumed that belonging to a demographic that is statistically more likely to be poor is what makes a person poor. Caplan rightly pointed out that this is a hideously misanthropic position, that it denies anyone their choices, and that those who face a rough initial set of conditions would be better off never existing in the first place.

Kelleher seemingly defends this position by suggesting that any time we abstain from conceiving a child we are denying theoretical, potential children their existence. But in making this claim, Kelleher is merely denying individuals their choices.

That I am not right this moment conceiving a child isn't Winship's brand of misanthropy. The belief that the child I am not currently conceiving is "better off" because I am ill-prepared for another child definitely is.

By making all these claims theoretical, we're dropping the context. Just because Kelleher can think up a theory as to why Caplan is denying potential humans their existence doesn't mean that Caplan is a misanthrope.

No, misanthropy requires some sort of inhumanity, such as believing that people who come from bad circumstances would have been better off not having been born.

Chip Smith writes:

My claim is that, all else equal, it's misanthropic to prefer the existence of no one to someone

Quite the opposite if this preference stems from concern for the suffering and deprivation that "someone" is sure to experience, but that "no one" is assuredly and eternally spared.

One of these days, Bryan, you're going to have to stop dismissing philanthropic antinatalism as absurd.

RPLong writes:
One of these days, Bryan, you're going to have to stop dismissing philanthropic antinatalism as absurd.

"Philanthropic antinatalism" = 10 syllables
"Eugenics" = 3 syllables

Certainly sounds better, though. ;)

Scott Winship writes:

"My original post was objecting to the view that, holding the welfare of all other people fixed, the creation of an additional relatively poor person is bad."

Who could object? Well, some utilitarians might say that the additional relatively poor person might impose costs on others, which means their welfare levels are NOT fixed. But I'm NOT making that argument or endorsing it.

All I was suggesting is that it's an unambiguous good if we can help people (rich or poor) who didn't intend to become parents (ever, or again, or just now) avoid becoming parents, with the additional benefit that--because this situation is empirically more common among the disadvantaged--we will improve mobility outcomes. That's more than just saying, hey neat, the number dropped from 42% stuck at the bottom to some lower number. It's also saying we, as a society, will incur lower costs due to everything that is correlated with immobility out of the bottom.

We can help the parents in question and help society by preventing unintended pregnancies from occuring in the first place. This shouldn't be controversial.

Bryan Willman writes:

What possible difference does the genetics or metaphysics make?

No woman can possibly bear as many children as she has eggs, therefore the vast majority of potential people will never be born regardless of any other circumstance.

What's more, how many of us would argue that people living in poverty, or war or other political distress, or illness, SHOULD bring children into such circumstances?

On a different vector - a large part of life, far beyond what quintile of the economy you reside in, is set by the luck of your birth. Born in the US versus in North Korea? Born healthy versus with AIDS? Born in the 20th or 21st centuries rather than the 9th? Those sorts of elements of luck swamp quintile ranking in the US, or mobility, or lots of other things.

(And given this post/thread - that YOUR combination of sperm and egg got together rather than some other combination is also major luck.)

Finch writes:

> What's more, how many of us would argue that
> people living in poverty, or war or other
> political distress, or illness, SHOULD bring
> children into such circumstances?

I don't know...

If you buy that argument, you wind up thinking that the vast majority of children in the world and through history, including your own ancestors, should not have been born. I don't think you need a modern, Western, middle-class, peaceful existence for life to be worth living, and I believe happiness research bears that out. For most of humanity and most of human history, poverty is normal, war is normal, disease is normal. It's hard not to conclude that the reason we think it's so bad is just lack of familiarity.

David Friedman writes:

"Quite the opposite if this preference stems from concern for the suffering and deprivation that "someone" is sure to experience, but that "no one" is assuredly and eternally spared."

"Life is hard; better not to be born. But who could be so lucky? Not one in a thousand."

David Friedman writes:

Defining identity by the particular sperm and egg seems like an obvious first guess, but it has problems. To begin with, suppose we accept genetic identity as defining. There are genetic therapies that work by actually changing the genetics of existing cells--after such a therapy, are you now a different person?

Further, not everything about you, even about your physical structure, is determined by genetics. Sufficient brain damage can change a person quite a lot--afterwards, is he still the same person? Arguably traumatic experiences can change personality too. Why is it only the genotype that counts?

And that's without even worrying about whether clones, natural or artificial, are really the same person, a point already raised by another commenter.

I think implicit in the concept of identity is some view of what used to be described as the soul, even for those of us who seriously doubt the existence of an immaterial soul. I and my identical twin do not have the same soul. My alternative futures involve the same soul going in different directions.

Evan writes:

Bryan says:

Reply: My original post was objecting to the view that, holding the welfare of all other people fixed, the creation of an additional relatively poor person is bad.

Scott Winship says:
Who could object? Well, some utilitarians might say that the additional relatively poor person might impose costs on others, which means their welfare levels are NOT fixed. But I'm NOT making that argument or endorsing it.

I think that the utilitarian argument is fairly sound. The conclusion I draw from it is that creating new people is good so long as there is room in the world for those people to contribute to the increasing divisions of labor and Patterns of Sustainable Specialization and Trade that make everyone better off. As long as this occurs that person's existence makes everyone better off, on the net. Some people may lose relative wealth from having a new competitor enter the marketplace, but absolute wealth will increase.

Where creating a new person can be harmful is in a Malthusian world where people are created at a faster rate than entrepreneurs can find new PSSTs for them. In that world creating new people would not add to the wealth, it would merely divide it further among already existing people. Creating new people would be economically equivalent to counterfeiting, or to the bimetallic flows of the Middle Ages. It would not find new PSSTs and therefore be harmful to everyone on the net.

It may be that Julian Simon was right and we will never reach that Malthusian scenario. At our current rate of reproduction I doubt we will for thousands of years. On the other hand, Robin Hanson may be right and this Malthusian scenario may be coming soon as we discover new ways to produce people. But I don't think it's ethical to produce more people once we've reached the PSST limit.

@Finch

If you buy that argument, you wind up thinking that the vast majority of children in the world and through history, including your own ancestors, should not have been born. I don't think you need a modern, Western, middle-class, peaceful existence for life to be worth living, and I believe happiness research bears that out. For most of humanity and most of human history, poverty is normal, war is normal, disease is normal. It's hard not to conclude that the reason we think it's so bad is just lack of familiarity.
Actually, happiness research does indicate that some level of wealth does have an impact on happiness. Generally in modern America you need to belong to a household that makes at least $50,000 a year to have maxed out happiness. I think what that indicates is that once you have enough money that you don't have to worry about necessities, and that you have a little extra cash and free time to enjoy yourself, your happiness is pretty much maxed out. But if you have less wealth than that, you're less happy. So a reasonably wealthy society is necessary for full human happiness, even if wealth is less important to happiness than most people think.

Let's also not forget that people desire other things than happiness. People want to be moral, smart, reach their full potential, etc. Wealthy societies help achieve these things as well. If I was given a choice between being a euphoric witch-hunter in the 1500s, or a depressed receptionist today, I'd take the latter.

Also, I am perplexed that some people think the standard for someone being "worth creating" is the same as the standard for whether or not their life is "worth living." If I was choosing whether or not to have a child my standard would not be "well, they'll be happy enough that it would be wrong to mercy-kill them." I don't think that you should create someone if their life is just going to be "worth living." That would be sad. Someone's life should be worth celebrating in order to be worth creating. (Now obviously there are no guarantees in life, so what I really mean is that there should be a good chance that that future person's life is worth celebrating, but you get my drift.)

Finch writes:

> Actually, happiness research does indicate that
> some level of wealth does have an impact on
> happiness.

I understand that. Although my understanding is the Easterlin paradox has been debunked and that happiness essentially rises with wealth and no "saturation point" is ever reached. So more wealth is clearly better. But that doesn't say much about what happens at the low-end of human existence.

My point was that happiness research shows that even people who are quite poor are happy, or at least the median quite poor person is happy. Obviously sad people exist. But even in poor circumstances, that's not the way to bet.

I was just reacting to what I thought was an awfully modern-Western-centric view from Bryan W. People are generally happy in a much broader set of circumstances than those he described.

Finch writes:

A little digging on the web indicates that Easterlin is back trying to defend the saturation point concept, so I'm not sure how things are settling out. I don't think that changes the point that this is a red herring. It doesn't say much about what happens at the low-end of human existence.

Mark Anthem writes:

Per Ridley, we are genetically 8% nationality, 7% race, and 85% individual. Per Mises, each individual is in a unique location and able to specialize in the division of labor. Even an inferior man is beneficial in that he allows the superior individual to concentrate on what he is best at.
The brilliance of these two men is that they remain scientists and self-limiting.
Eugenics, birth control, and economic planning though wildly popular, go way beyond their ken and flail destructively in the realm of pseudoscience.
Sadly practitioners of modern neo-liberal economics are constantly tempted to enable and build an anti-intellectual world run by brute force and popular pseudoscience.

Bryan Willman writes:

@Finch - my real argument is a little more nuanced than fits there - and yes, obviously, some rule that only people with great wealth should have children doesn't work from a genetic or social perspective.

So let's frame the question another way - is it bad policy to suggest that in a rich place (the US), all people should strive to have only the number of children they think they can raise to live reasonable lives? That is, all children should be a little bit planned, and always wanted?
(That hasn't been true throughout history, but low risk of smallpox wasn't true either.) Context matters. "Poverty" could mean "bottom 5%" or it could mean "99% chance my children will starve to death before the age of 3, probably in some very painful way".

@"happiness" - who decided that was the real goal of economics or policy? Genetically, the goal is to have your genes survive into the future. Pesonally, the goals are probably more about status, security, and various kinds of comfort, and not at all about what you feel like reporting on somebody's happiness survey. Whether Easterlin is right or wrong (see below) is largley irrelevent.

@Easterlin - he's wrong. I know from very direct personal experience, and very direct observations of others. "Well being" and "Life satisfaction" rise with wealth, and to much higher levels than people might think. I suggest they rise until the only throttling factor on your life is time. We're talking Bill Gates wealth levels to get to that.

But what does any of this say about economic mobility - which is what set it all off?

The absolute material, social, etc. status of the lives of the poor matter. That's a fine thing to think about in policy proposals.

But on a global scale, luck dominates. Born in village into the middle of a diamond war in Africa? Then the details of the US political economy do not matter to you.

Born to a mother who is a crack addict? Your life will difficult, no matter what we do. (And our society will actually try to help you.)

That element of luck or inherent limiting challenges does not define all of social policy, but we are very foolish to ignore it.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top