Ignorance of non-existent preferences

I often hear it said that since you can’t know what non existent people or creatures want, you can’t count bringing them into existence as a benefit to them even if you guess they will probably like it. For instance Adam Ozimek makes this argument here.

Does this absolute agnosticism about non-existent preferences mean it is also a neutral act to bring someone into existence when you expect them to have a net nasty experience?

8 responses to “Ignorance of non-existent preferences

  1. The argument delineated in OP says that if we know nothing of a potentially created entity then we don’t know whether the entity would prefer to be created, which is as I see rather trivial. If we expect our creature to have bad experiences, that means we do have some information about it, in which case the argument doesn’t apply.

  2. The whole premise is wrong. Nonexistent people should figure into our moral calculus. For instance, part of why we care about having a good environment and a good economy is that it will affect people who haven’t been born yet.

    I think those who deny this have some ulterior motives. Maybe they’re worried that if nonexistent people have moral status, this will be an argument against abortion rights. I’m for abortion rights and I don’t think there’s a moral obligation to procreate. But there has to be a more convincing argument for these positions than the ludicrous idea that we shouldn’t care about what might happen in the future to people who haven’t been born yet.

  3. It would be good to see a comprehensive blog debate between pronatalists and antinatalists – and the ingredients for such a debate are there, but it will have to move beyond this almost formal logic-chopping about whether nonexistent beings “have preferences” and so on. The part where we judge life itself – worth it or not worth it, worth creating or not worth creating – is the important part.

    The two elemental arguments against creating life are that life is crap and that life is risk. Life is crap: people hate their jobs, they hate their relationships, adult life is all downhill, etc. Life is risk: truly terrible things do happen to some people. Any serious antinatalist argument will be founded in some way on these themes, and any serious opposition will have to rebut them. Of course rebuttals exist. Life isn’t all crap all the time; and if the mere risk of life is so terrible, why don’t you advocate universal suicide as well? I would like to see the discussion focus on those debates.

  4. Katja,

    Great question. I agree with the implication you’ve identified. However, I don’t necessarily think we need to be agnostic about existence, I just think utilitarianism is insufficient here. If you want to use utilitarianism here but bring in some other assumptions based on other moral philosophies then you don’t need to be agnostic. But I disagree that one can make statements about the value of existence vs non-existence appealing only to utilitarianism in the same way that one could do with the usual subjects of economic analysis.


    I’m not claiming you have no information about non-existent creatures, I’m saying you have insufficient information.


    I do think we should consider future generations in our moral calculus. Doing welfare analysis based on the assumption that some future agents will exist is much different than doing welfare analysis of their actual existence.

  5. “Doing welfare analysis based on the assumption that some future agents will exist is much different than doing welfare analysis of their actual existence.”

    What’s the difference?

  6. “Does this absolute agnosticism about non-existent preferences mean it is also a neutral act to bring someone into existence when you expect them to have a net nasty experience?”

    That’s a good way to turn the question around. I suspect people’s intuitions may well not be symmetric with respect to the two cases; a lot of deontological style reasoning in general seems to stem from a “badness aversion” bias (of course in the context of morality it only makes sense to call this a bias if you presuppose something like a utilitarian framework.)

    I don’t agree with the way Adam phrases his argument, although I think I’m sympathetic to his point or at least a similar one. Specifically:

    “The problem is that we don’t know the preferences of the non-existent, and so we don’t know Robin’s first requirement: whether creature X wants to exist.”

    Its not that we don’t know the preferences of X. Its that until X is created X has no preferences. We actually know quite a lot about the kind of preferences most people that come into existence are likely to end up having. Talk of knowing anything about some (necessarily non-existant) property of some non-existant agent just confuses the issue.

    To draw a comparison, we know quite a lot about what Louis XIV probably preferred while he was alive, and if he were resurrected, or accurately simulated in the Matrix etc, what kind of preferences “he” might have today. So in that sense we “know” a lot about Louis’ preferences. However currently Louis simply doesn’t have any preferences for us to know anything about, because he’s dead. There is no agent corresponding to Louis in existence in the universe at this point in time. Louis is a “potential agent”, in that we can imagine a world in which Louis exists as an agent (indeed, there was such a world historically.) He has “potential preferences” – preferences he would have, if he existed – which we know a surprisingly large amount about. However you can’t just treat these potential preferences (whether of the dead or unborn) on the same footing in the hedonic calculi as actual preferences of existent agents, without at least doing some serious groundwork.

    Is the thought of humanity being quickly and painlessly wiped out (say by vacuum destabilisation at the LHC) troubling from a moral standpoint? Probably. So should the current non-existence of infinitely many not-yet-existing people trouble us even more – infinitely more, I guess – than the potential future non-existence of a finite few billions? I don’t even think this question makes much sense, but its important to realise that its not because we don’t “know” anything about the kinds of preferences a human born tomorrow will end up having.

  7. Pingback: Accelerating Future » Assorted Links for September 15, 2010

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