On Good And Evil For Non-Existent People

Kyle, from the video blog Serptopia writes the following to me in reply to my posts from the summer, “On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being and Goodness”:

Oh my, you seem quite the Aristotelean.

From a certain angle, yes, I am very Aristotelean.  But in the broader picture, I see myself as situating all of what I take to be the strongest ideas from the deontological, prescriptivist, consequentialist, teleological, eudaimonistic, and perfectionist traditions within a broadly Nietzschean, power-based ethics.  I can, have, and hope in the future to produce posts which will illuminate each of these approaches to moral philosophy’s influence on my overall picture of ethics.

Your approach to morality is an interesting one, but there are some very large differences in the way you and I approach morality and the world in general. I’ve read this post and the other you linked to on how our morality realizes our humanity. Here are my thoughts:

For one, I don’t hold existing to be inherently better than not existing. Not existing seems quite neutral to me, and that which exists might be good or evil.  There are things or even people of which I would say “It would be better if it/he/she did not exist.”

When I say that existing is inherently better than not existing, I mean for whatever being is existing.  This strikes me as axiomatic since all particular goods are conditioned on existence.  What sort of a good can exist for a complete non-being?  I can imagine goods for a former being.  After we are dead, we can still be powerful remotely through the continued functioning of powerful processes which we set in motion while we were alive.  I genuinely think that this is an intrinsic good for us even if we cannot experience it.

Not all goods are experienced.  If a given artist’s or politician’s or scientist’s or business person’s work enhances the lives of millions of people, I imagine that she will never be able to soak in the satisfaction of all this good she produces.  But of course it is better for her to be responsible for all this good than not.  Even though her mind would probably register the pleasure of knowing she positively affected 5 million lives with roughly the same sort of quantities of qualitative feelings of satisfaction that she would were she to affect 10 million people or, possibly, one person who she impacted in an intimate context that left a more profound psychological impression on her; nonetheless impacting 10 million is far more objectively great than reaching just 5 million or just 1 person.

Psychologically it is entirely possible that we cannot adequately feel sufficient pleasure to correspond to every good effect we have (nor sufficient pain for every bad one, in the case of some of our actions).   But psychological responses in the form of pleasure are not really our good, they are only a just reward for our good (in the sense of the appropriate intellectual response to it) and/or an enticement to continue doing whatever it is that is right to cause us pleasure.  (And hopefully there will be pain accompanying whatever part of a bad but in some respects pleasurable act in order to help us realize what parts of it we should not repeat, even for the sake of whatever valuable pleasure we are nonetheless getting out of it).

And just as we can have goods that are not fully (or often at all) brought to our cognizance while we are alive, I think we can have goods that extend beyond our deaths.  What we leave behind can still carry on the purposes which we pursued in life and even powerful good ones that we only indirectly (or not at all) intended.  Through our works, through the people to whom we role model our virtues or who we otherwise teach while alive, through the institutions which convert the energy we invest into them into a sustainable form such that it perpetuates itself well beyond our deaths, etc.  And the same goes for evils of course.  If my legacy, say through an institution through which my power functions beyond my death is destroyed or my child (in whom my values, teachings, memories, and partial genetic replication carry on) is killed, an evil befalls me as my successful functioning in the world diminishes significantly with such losses.

The fact that our powerful functioning can perpetuate itself even beyond our deaths is one of the reasons that some people who due to illness have become too debilitated and pained to function successfully as living beings may choose death while (relatively) peacefully knowing that that is not the end of all their valuable functioning in the world.

Not only can formerly existent beings have goods and evils but future beings can too.  Obviously if we razed all the elementary schools and implemented laws against the education of children, millions of not yet existing children would be harmed.  Who those children are would not be determined until they actually exist and the consequences start to hit them.  But this would still be an evil action towards them in the present, it would not have to wait until the consequences actually hit them or the pain of their intellectually impoverished lives caught up with them increasingly as they got old and culminated in their mentally diminished adult lives.   Similarly, the advances of civilization which provide for a better future in some sense can be said to be effectively benefiting future generations even before they are created.

But all of these speculations about the intrinsic goods of past and future generations involve either their future functioning—either in an embodied form during their future lives or through their ongoing influence through the people, works, institutions, etc. which they leave behind after they are physically dead.  I cannot conceive of how a never-existent being (one existing neither in the past nor the future tense but never brought to being) could have any goods.  Only insofar as conceivable but unrealized beings are spared various evils can they be said to “benefit” from not being born.  But that’s not a positive good, that’s just an avoidance of an evil, which is by default better than suffering an evil but it is still no thing.  The non-being can never function positively in actuality and so never realize any actual good, since all goods occur in existence.

I do not know what it would mean to say that non-being can be as good as being.  I do not even know what it would mean to say that non-being can be a good at all.  At best it can be a non-suffering but this can be neither experienced as a pleasantness nor be a good in the sense of a functioning.  Even the justifiable suicide of the incurably and physically demolished sick person is not a positive good so much as an avoidance of even worse evils.

As for whether or not a particular person would have been better off not existing—that’s a judgment for others affected by that person.  I surely agree that some lives do yield a net negative in the world, in which they leave other people and institutions, etc. functioning worse than they were when that person arrived.  This does create a bit of a paradox.  If our good is to function well and one’s life functions so badly as to have no net positive power contributions to the world around one but instead to be profoundly destructive to everything which his powers exist to promote, would it actually be better for that person himself to have never existed?  Clearly society would be better off without those who leave the world regressed in its overall power rather than advanced or left roughly the same in terms of power.  But would they themselves be better off not having lived?  I might have to say, yes, I think.  This is not a reason for suicide however, for as long as one can still change things around so as to function positively (and I think to some extent this is in everyone’s reach), it is better for that person to counteract their negative functioning in the world with concerted positive efforts.  Just dying neither rectifies the negative functioning nor gets on with advancing the positive.

Kyle has a couple other remarks which raise other big issues, so I will save them for their own post as this one is already quite long.  I’ll end by acknowledging his closing observation is correct.

Finally, one thing between these two posts seems a discrepancy. In this one you say we cease to function when we die, but in the other you say that you continue to function poorly through a building you build as long as it causes problems for the occupants, and that Edison continues to function through the light bulb. I don’t follow.

In the one case I was only thinking of our functioning as a living and conscious being and in the other I was thinking of our functioning remotely, even beyond our deaths.  They are two ways to function.   Clearly, the living way is the far more desirable way insofar as we can experience it consciously and that is an intrinsic good that makes all the difference here from a pleasure standpoint.  And living is the precondition of the other kind of functioning, is for the vast majority of us the period in which we will actually function the most powerfully, and clearly all things being equal anyone would prefer to be alive (and even aware) while having their remote “functionings” rather than dead for them.

Nonetheless, some people who are long dead are presently having more successful and effective years of functioning in the world than those of us with our brains still activated.  But even these people had to first be alive and can still only function while dead to the extent that their power has found forms outside of their bodies through which it can continue to exist and be effectual in the world.  Without existing even in the remote way through vessels we leave behind (be they books, people, institutions, buildings, etc.) we can have no good whatsoever after death.  So the connection between goodness and existence still remains rather tight, I think.

Your Thoughts?

The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.

The Contexts, Objective Hierarchies, and Spectra of Goods and Bads (Or “Why Murder Is Bad”)

Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)

Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities

Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts

Effectiveness Is The Primary Goal In Itself, Not Merely A Means

What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good?

On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

Deriving An Atheistic, Naturalistic, Realist Account Of Morality

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism

Can Good Teaching Be Measured?

Some People Live Better As Short-Lived Football or Boxing Stars Than As Long Lived Philosophers

The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity

Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example

The Facts About Intrinsic and Instrumental Goods and The Cultural Construction of Intrinsic Goods

Subjective Valuing And Objective Values

My Perspectivist, Teleological Account Of The Relative Values Of Pleasure And Pain

Pleasure And Pain As Intrinsic Instrumental Goods

What Does It Mean For Pleasure And Pain To Be “Intrinsically Instrumental” Goods?

Against Moral Intuitionism

Moral vs. Non-Moral Values

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

On Good And Evil For Non-Existent People

My Perfectionistic, Egoistic AND Universalistic, Indirect Consequentialism (And Contrasts With Other Kinds)

Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

God and Goodness

Rightful Pride: Identification With One’s Own Admirable Powers And Effects

The Harmony Of Humility And Pride

Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality.  Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways

Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”


Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?

The Universe Does Not Care About Our Morality. But So What?

Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism

Why Moral Nihilism Is Self-Contradictory

Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist

If You Don’t Believe in Objective Values Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either

On Not-Pologies, Forgiveness, and Gelato

Yes, We Can Blame People For Their Feelings, Not Just Their Actions

Why Bother Blaming People At All? Isn’t That Just Judgmental?

Is Anything Intrinsically Good or Bad? An Interview with James Gray

My Metaethical Views Are Challenged. A Debate With “Ivan”

On Unintentionally Intimidating People

Meditations on How to Be Powerful, Fearsome, Empowering, and Loved

Is It Ever Good To Be Annoying?

No, You Can’t Call People Sluts.

Why Misogynistic Language Matters

Sex and “Spirituality”

Can Utilitarians Properly Esteem The Intrinsic Value of Truth?

No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Feel Offended By Just Any Satire or Criticism

Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral

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