suffering by its very definition implies an interest in its absence, so there is a reason to prevent it.
If a mind exists and suffers, we’d think it better had it not existed (by virtue of its interest in not suffering). And if a mind exists and experiences joy, we’d think it worse had it not existed (by virtue of its interest in experiencing joy). Prima facie this seem exactly symmetrical, at least as far as the principles laid out here are concerned.
Depending on exactly how you make your view precise, I’d think that we’d either end up not caring at all about whether new minds exist (since if they didn’t exist there’d be no relevant interests), or balancing the strength of those interests in some way to end up with a “zero” point where we are indifferent (since minds come with interests in both directions concerning their own existence). I don’t yet see how you end up with the asymmetric view here.
(Note: My judgments between outcomes here should be qualified with “ignoring other reasons”, specifically reasons that don’t come from interests or their satisfaction for the existence of those interests or interest holders over their nonexistence.)
Ok, I think I first have to make my claim stronger (actually capturing the first part of its first statement in the intro):
Only Actual Interests: Interests provide reasons for their further satisfaction, but neither an interest nor its satisfaction provides reasons for the existence of that interest over its nonexistence.
It follows from this that a mind with no interests at all is no worse than a mind with interests, regardless of how satisfied its interests might have been. In particular, a joyless mind with no interest in joy is no worse than one with joy. A mind with no interests isn’t much of a mind at all, so I would say that this effectively means it’s no worse for the mind to not exist.
It would also follow that nonexistence of the mind is not worse, from the universal rejection of the Transfer Thesis (I was mistaken about its equivalence to Only Actual Interests). In my language:
No Transfer: Interests provide reasons for their further satisfaction, but neither an interest nor its satisfaction provides reasons for the existence of that interest’s holder over its nonexistence.
Only Actual Interests at least says it’s no worse for a mind to not have an interest in the absence of suffering, and hence to not suffer than it is to suffer, because Suffering implies an interest in its absence, by my definition. Similarly, No Transfer would imply it’s not worse for the mind to not exist.
There are a few ways to complete the argument that come to mind:
1. If a mind has a constant interest in not suffering which is satisfied to the degree it is not suffering, then not suffering at all would fully satisfy this interest, and not existing at all would be no worse, according to No Transfer.
2. If not, to start, we should assume that if a mind is suffering, if it were suffering less but still suffering (or another mind existed in its place and was suffering less), that would be better, because, e.g. its interest in not suffering would be more satisfied or its interest in not suffering would not be as strong. In particular, its interest in not suffering through its given experience would be completely unsatisfied in both cases, but stronger in the case of worse suffering.
Then, denote by A an outcome in which the mind is suffering, and by B the outcome in which the mind is not suffering (or does not exist). If we can use the independence of irrelevant alternatives (IIA), transitivity, completeness, and claim the existence of a hypothetical outcome C in which the mind (or a replacement) would be suffering less, then we would get A≺B . To start by our choice of C, we have A≺C. Since C is suffering, we would get C⪯B by completeness, and then by transitivity and IIA, A≺B, so it would be better for the mind to not suffer (or not exist). Unfortunately, if there is a minimum amount of suffering in a suffering experience (over all hypothetical outcomes), this argument wouldn’t apply to it.
If you make this argument that “it’s no worse for the joyful mind to not exist,” you can make an exactly symmetrical argument that “it’s not better for the suffering mind to not exist.” If there was a suffering mind they’d have an interest in not existing, and if there was a joyful mind they’d have an interest in existing.
In either case, if there is no mind then we have no reason to care about whether the mind exists, and if there is a mind then we have a reason to act—in one case we prefer the mind exist, and in the other case we prefer the mind not exist.
To carry your argument you need an extra principle along the lines of “the existence of unfulfilled interests is bad.” Of course that’s what’s doing all the work of the asymmetry—if unfulfilled interests are bad and fulfilled interests are not good, then existence is bad. But this has nothing to do with actual interests, it’s coming from very explicitly setting the zero point at the maximally fulfilled interest.
If you make this argument that “it’s no worse for the joyful mind to not exist,” you can make an exactly symmetrical argument that “it’s not better for the suffering mind to not exist.
If I make these claims without argument, yes, but I am giving arguments for the first and against the second, based on a more general claim which is intuitively asymmetric and a few intuitive assumptions about the ordering of outcomes, which together imply “the existence of unfulfilled interests is bad”, but not on their own.
The negation of “neither an interest nor its satisfaction provides reasons for the existence of that interest over its nonexistence” would mean pulling interests up by their bootstraps (for at least one specific interest):
“an interest or its satisfaction provides reasons for the existence of that interest over its nonexistence”. I think this is far less plausible, see my section “Why Only Actual Interests”.
The symmetric claim also seems less plausible:
“neither an interest nor its unsatisfaction provides reasons for the nonexistence of that interest over its existence”
For example, the fact that you would fail to keep a promise is indeed a reason not to make it in the first place. Or, that fact that you would not climb mount Everest successfully is a reason to not try to do so in the first place.
Fehige defends the asymmetry between preference satisfaction and frustration on rationality grounds. This is my take:
Let’s consider a given preference from the point of view of a given outcome after choosing it, in which the preference either exists or does not:
1. The preference exists:
a. If there’s an outcome in which the preference exists and is more satisfied, and all else is equal, it would have been irrational to have chosen this one (over it, and at all).
b. If there’s an outcome in which the preference exists and is less satisfied, and all else is equal, it would have been irrational to have chosen the other outcome (over this one, and at all).
c. If there’s an outcome in which the preference does not exist, and all else is equal, the preference itself does not tell us if either would be irrational to have chosen.
2. The preference doesn’t exist:
a. If there’s an outcome in which the preference exists, regardless of its degree of satisfaction, and all else equal, the preference itself does not tell us if either would have been irrational to have chosen.
So, all else equal besides the existence or degree of satisfaction of the given preference, it’s always rational to choose an outcome in which the preference does not exist, but it’s irrational to choose an outcome in which the preference exists but is less satisfied than in another outcome.
(I made the same argument here, but this is a cleaner statement.)
Michael wrote this:
Asymmetry between pleasure and suffering: In the absence of an interest in further pleasure, there’s no reason to increase pleasure, but suffering by its very definition implies an interest in its absence, so there is a reason to prevent it.
And you write:
If a mind exists and suffers, we’d think it better had it not existed (by virtue of its interest in not suffering). And if a mind exists and experiences joy, we’d think it worse had it not existed (by virtue of its interest in experiencing joy)
A question here is whether “interests to not suffer” are analogous to “interests in experiencing joy.” I believe that Michael’s point is that, while we cannot imagine suffering without some kind of interest to have it stop (at least in the moment itself), we can imagine a mind that does not care for further joy.
So maybe we could sum up the claim that there’s an asymmetry in this way: More suffering is always worse; more happiness isn’t always better.
Let’s say I see a cute squirrel and it makes me happy. Is it bad that I’m not in virtual reality experiencing the greatest joys imagineable? Maybe it would be bad, if I was the sort of person who had the life goal to experience as much pleasure as possible. But what if I just enjoy going for walks in the real world and occasionally encountering a squirrel? For whom, and why exactly, is it bad that I’m “only” glad and excited to see the squirrel, as opposed to being blissed out of my mind in virtual reality?
I believe that Michael’s point is that, while we cannot imagine suffering without some kind of interest to have it stop (at least in the moment itself), we can imagine a mind that does not care for further joy.
The relevant comparison, I think, is between (1) someone who experiences suffering and wants this suffering to stop and (2) someone who experiences happiness and wants this happiness not to stop. It seems that you and Michael think that one can plausibly deny only (2), but I just don’t see why that is so, especially if one focuses on comparisons where the positive and negative experiences are of the same intensity. Like Paul, I think the two scenarios are symmetrical.
[EDIT: I hadn’t seen Paul’s reply when I first posted my comment.]
(2) someone who experiences happiness and wants this happiness not to stop.
Some sleeping pills can give you a positive feeling of intense comfort. And yet people fall asleep on them rather than fighting their tiredness in order to enjoy the feeling a bit longer. I suppose you can point out an analogous-seeming case with depressed people who lack the willpower to improve anything about their low mood. But in the case of depression, there’s clearly something broken about the system. Depression does not feel reflectively stable to depressed people (at least absent unfortunate beliefs like “I’m bad and I deserve this”). In the case of me going to sleep rather than staying up, I can be totally reflectively comfortable with going to sleep. Is this example confounded? It seems to me that in order to decide that it’s confounded, you have to import some additional intuition(s) which I simply don’t share with you. (The same might be true for arguing that it’s not confounded, but I always point out that people with different foundational intuitions may not necessarily end up in ethical agreement.)
Interesting example. I have never taken such pills, but if they simply intensify the ordinary experience of sleepiness, I’d say that the reason I (as a CU) don’t try to stay awake is that I can’t dissociate the pleasantness of falling asleep from actually falling asleep: if I were to try to stay awake, I would also cease to have a pleasant experience. (If anyone knows of an effective dissociative technique, please send it over to Harri Besceli, who once famously remarked that “falling asleep is the highlight of my day.”)
More generally, I think cases of this sort have rough counterparts for negative experience, e.g. the act of scratching an itch, or of playing with a loose tooth, despite the concomitant pain induced by those activities. I think such cases are sufficiently marginal, and susceptible to alternative explanations, that they do not pose a serious problem to either (1) or (2).
I’d say that the reason I (as a CU) don’t try to stay awake is that I can’t dissociate the pleasantness of falling asleep from actually falling asleep
That makes sense. But do you think that the impulse to prolong the pleasant feeling (as opposed to just enjoying it and “laying back in the cockpit”) is a component of the pleasure-feeling itself? To me, they seem distinct! I readily admit that we often want to do things to prolong pleasures or go out of our way to seek particularly rewarding pleasures. But I don’t regard that as a pure feature of what pleasure feels like. Rather, it’s the result of an interaction between what pleasure feels like and a bunch of other things that come in degrees, and can be on or off.
Let’s say I found a technique to prolong the pleasure. Assuming it does take a small bit of effort to use it, it seems that whether I’m in fact going to use it depends on features such as which options I make salient to myself, whether I might develop fear of missing out, whether pleasure pursuit is part of my self-concept, the degree to which I might have cravings or the degree to which I have personality traits related to constantly optimizing things about my personal life, etc.
And it’s not only “whether I’m in fact going to use the technique” that depends on those additional aspects of the situation. I’d argue that even “whether I feel like wanting to use the technique” depends on those additional, contingent factors!
If the additional factors are just right, I can simply loose myself in the positive feeling, “laying back in the cockpit.” That’s why the experience is a positive one, why it lets me lay back. Losing myself in the pleasant sensation means I’m not worrying about the future and whether the feeling will continue. If pleasure was intrinsically about wanting a sensation to continue, it would kind of suck because I’d have to start doing things to make that happen.
My brain doesn’t like to have do things.
(This could be a fundamental feature of personality where there are large interpersonal differences. I have heard that some people always feel a bit restless and as though they need to do stuff to accomplish something or make stuff better. I don’t have that, my “settings” are different. This would explain why many people seem to have troubles understanding the intuitive appeal tranquilism has for some people.)
Anyway, the main point is that “laying back in the cockpit” is something one cannot do when suffering. (Or it’s what experienced meditators can maybe do – and then it’s not suffering anymore.) And the perspective where laying back in the cockpit is actually appealing for myself as a sentient being, rather than some kind of “failure of not being agenty enough,” is what fuels my stance that suffering and happiness are very, very different from one another. The hedonist view that “more happiness is always better” means that, in order to be a good egoist, one needs to constantly be in the cockpit to maximize one’s long-term pleasure maximization. That’s way too demanding for a theory that’s supposed to help me do what is best for me.
Insofar as someone’s hedonism is justified solely via introspection about the nature of conscious experience, I believe that it’s getting something wrong. I’d say that hedonists of this specific type reify intuitions they have about pleasure (specifically, an interrelated cluster of intuitions about more pleasure always being better, that pleasure is better than non-consciousness, that pleasure involves wanting the experience to continue, etc.) as intrinsic components to pleasure. They treat their intuitions as the way things are while shrugging off the “contentment can be perfect” perspective as biased by idiosyncratic intuitions. However, both intuitions are secondary evaluative judgments we ascribe to these positive feelings. Different underlying stances produce different interpretations.
(And I feel like there’s a sense in which the tranquilism perspective is simpler and more elegant. But at this point I’d already be happy if more people started to grant that hedonism is making just as much of a judgment call based on a different foundational intuition.)
Finally, I don’t think all of ethics should be about the value of different experiences. When I think about “Lukas, the sentient being,” then I care primarily about the “laying back in the cockpit” perspective. When I think about “Lukas, the person,” then I care about my life goals. The perspectives cannot be summed into one thing because they are in conflict (except if one’s life goals aren’t perfectly selfish). If people have personal hedonism as one of their life goals, I care about them experiencing posthuman bliss out of my regard for the person’s life goals, but not out of regard of this being the optimal altruistic action regardless of their life goals.
Anecdatally, I’ve taken medication for insomnia before and ended up trying to stay awake for longer because I was enjoying the sensation of sleepiness. Unfortunately fighting to stay awake was kind of unpleasant, and negated the enjoyment.
>>> I suppose you can point out an analogous-seeming case with depressed people who lack the willpower to improve anything about their low mood.
This reminds me of the ‘Penfield mood organ’ in Philip K. Dick’s ‘Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep?’
>>> From the bedroom Iran’s voice came. “I can’t stand TV before breakfast.” “Dial 888,” Rick said as the set warmed. “The desire to watch TV, no matter what’s on it.” “I don’t feel like dialing anything at all now,” Iran said. “Then dial 3,” he said. “I can’t dial a setting that stimulates my cerebral cortex into wanting to dial! If I don’t want to dial, I don’t want to dial that most of all, because then I will want to dial, and wanting to dial is right now the most alien drive I can imagine; I just want to sit here on the bed and stare at the floor.”
(though this description is of someone who stays in a bad mood because they don’t have a desire to change it rather than lacking the willpower to)
I don’t think that’s the relevant analogy though. We should be comparing “Can we imagine suffering without an interest in not having suffered?” to “Can we imagine joy without an interest in having experienced joy?”
Let’s say I see a cute squirrel and it makes me happy. Is it bad that I’m not in virtual reality experiencing the greatest joys imagineable?
I can imagine saying “no” here, but if I do then I’d also say it’s not good that you are not in a virtual reality experiencing great suffering. If you were in a virtual reality experiencing great joy it would be against your interests to prevent that joy, and if you were in a virtual reality experiencing great suffering it would be in your interests to prevent that suffering.
You could say: the actually existing person has an interest in preventing future suffering, while they may have no interest in experiencing future joy. But now the asymmetry is just coming from the actual person’s current interests in joy and suffering, so we didn’t need to bring in all of this other machinery, we can just directly appeal to the claimed asymmetry in interests.