Why ISIS Is Ignorant, But Not Wrong

It is clear that we in the West do not agree with ISIS. We think that what they think is wrong, and more importantly: we think that what they do is wrong. They decapitate Western journalists, promote violence against people who don’t agree with their religious beliefs, organize terrorist attacks, and even destroy Iraq’s cultural heritage – statues that were over 5000 years old. How can they do this? Why do they do this? Is it due to their set of (religious) beliefs? And if so, can we then judge them for doing what they think is the right thing to do?

First a rather obvious observation: people from different cultures or societies have different ideas about what is right or wrong. This view is called descriptive moral relativism, and it’s a moderate, empirical claim, that is corroborated by reality. Look only at the people of ISIS, who think that what they do is spreading the true message of Allah, and who think that anyone who disobeys this message is wrong. They believe that they should stick to a very strict interpretation of the Islam, and that people who don’t do this, should be done away with. If not by words, then through force. We in the West clearly find their ideas about what is right and wrong absurd. Hence ISIS and us, clearly, disagree about what we find right and wrong.

We could go one step further than this claim, and say that ISIS and us don’t merely have different ideas about what is right and wrong, but that neither of us is more right or wrong than the other in having these ideas. There are many cultures and equally many ideas about what is right and wrong, but there simply is no absolute, culture independent interpretation of right and wrong.

And there is something to say for this so called meta moral relativism. After all, acts can hardly be judged wrong in any absolute sense; that is, without regarding the relevant context. Killing a person might seem wrong, but if you can save one hundred people by doing so, it might actually be a sin if you wouldn’t do it. So the context appears to matter for deciding whether an action is right or wrong. So it could in principle be possible that a culture’s or society’s set of beliefs, taken as the relevant context, genuinely determines whether an action is good or bad. Applied to the ISIS case: it is not only that they have the idea that destroying Iraq’s cultural heritage is right, but given their set of beliefs, it truly is the right thing to do. An equivalent way to say this is that what is right or wrong is determined by nothing but the idea of what is right and wrong. Hence, given that ISIS thinks that what they are doing is right, which I assume they do, their deeds are truly right – for them at least.

Let’s for the sake of argument assume that this meta moral relativism is a correct description of reality: that there truly is a plurality of interpretations of right and wrong floating around, none better or worse than the others. Then, applied to the ISIS case, we have to face a difficult question. Because if ISIS truly thinks to do what is right, how then can we judge them? Okay: we might have a different interpretation of what is right than they do, but we have just established that having a different interpretation doesn’t make their views wrong regardless of the context. Our conception of morality is just different from ISIS’s: different, but not superior.

And, playing the devil’s advocate, don’t we (the West) do exactly the same? It might not be the message of Allah that we try to spread throughout the world, but the message of liberalism and freedom. And we too are willing to go to great lengths to spread this message. History shows that countless of people have been killed because their actions didn’t cohere with our ‘right’ notions of freedom and liberalism – the Nazi’s being just one example.

So it appears that we cannot declare ISIS’s ideas and actions to be more wrong than ours – not while strictly assuming meta moral relativism. That’s a pity.

But there might be a way out. A way in which we can judge ISIS’s beliefs and actions to be wrong, without falling into the pitfalls of meta moral relativism. Because even though we might not be able to say that ISIS’s ideas and actions are absolutely wrong, we can say that ISIS is ignorant. We can say that they have not tried to actively refute their basic set of principles – the principles, derived from the Islam, that make their actions right. For if they would have done so, which I am quite sure they have not (because Allah’s words seem the most basic principles guiding their thinking, and even doubting these principles is wrong), it seems hard to imagine that they would have still accepted such principles.

So we can say that ISIS is ignorant, which in itself could be found immoral. But let’s not go there…

What do you think?

Violence against Public Servants: Should It be Punished Harder?

ambulance

Should ambulance personnel receive extra protection from the state?

Ambulance personnel, police officers and firemen: people that, day in and day out, prevent our society from turning into a complete chaos. They support us so that we can live our lives without having to worry about our human rights being infringed upon. But what if these servants themselves become infringed upon their basic human rights? What if they are violated, both mentally and physically? There are governments, including the Dutch one, that have made explicit their intention to punish violence against public servants harder than violence against ‘regular’ (non-public servant) citizens. But, is this decision justified? And, more importantly, why would that be so?

Let’s think about it. You could claim that abusing a public servant is more severe than abusing a regular citizen because, by abusing a public servant, the perpetrator not only violates the rights of the servant but also the rights of the other members of society who are entitled to the services of the servant. After all, attacking the staff of an ambulance not only harms the ambulance workers, but indirectly also the patient that is (supposed to be) treated by these men and women. The same goes for police officers: abusing these men and women not only harms them, but also the citizens waiting to be helped by the police officers. Thus the physical or mental abuse of a public servant not only hurts the servants themselves, but also the citizens who are supposed to be served by the servants. And therefore, you could say, should the abuse of a public servant be punished harder than the abuse of a regular citizen.

Also, by abusing a public servant you are infringing upon what might be the controlling or correcting power of the state, which might be a violation in itself. That is, public servants are appointed to guard the laws we have set as a society, including the law condemning violence against other persons. Therefore, by abusing a pubic servant, you are not only attacking a member of our society, but you also resist the authority (ambulance personnel, police etc.) a (democratic) society has decided should safeguard our rights. Hence, abusing public servants is more wrong than abusing a regular citizen, and thus should be punished harder.

One the other hand, a public servant is just as much human as a regular citizen. Therefore, you could say, should the abuse of a public servant be punished equally hard as the abuse of a regular citizen. There is no reason why the live of a public servant would be worth more than the life of a regular citizen, right? Just because he or she fulfils a certain position within our society? Isn’t someone’s profession totally irrelevant when it comes down to our most fundamental rights, including the right not the abused by others? If that would indeed be the case, then there would be no justification for punishing the abuse of a public servant any differently from the abuse of a regular citizen.

Also, you could say, the abuse of a public servant is in no way a more severe violation against the state and its controlling power than is the abuse of a regular citizen. That is to say that the violation of another person’s well-being is just as much a violation of a fundamental right as would be the violation of the state’s controlling power, and thus should be punished equally hard. After all: the state’s integrity is no more important than any citizen’s integrity. Hence, attacking the former should be punished equally as attacking the latter.

Personally, I believe that both positions are well defensible. However, I consider the first position to be more reasonable. By taking away another person’s right to be saved or defended by a public servant, more parties seem to be hurt in abusing a public servant than in the abuse of what is ‘only’ a regular citizen. And surely, it might not only be a servants’ duty to assist other people when they are in need; you and I might be just as capable in doing that. This might cast doubt on the idea of granting them an extra form of protection. But that doesn’t change the fact that a public servant is explicitly appointed to fulfil this duty within our society; and that might have to be taken into account.

But what do you think?

Why the High Taxation on Cigarettes is Unjustified

According to a survey held by the British Action on Smoking and Health (the ASH, for short), 20 percent of the British adults smoke. Is this a good thing? I don’t know. I believe that the act of smoking isn’t intrinsically good or bad; it is something that each person should decide for himself. However, what I do believe is valuable in its own right is human autonomy. By autonomy I mean ‘the right each person has to decide for himself how to live his life without unjustified intervention from external parties‘. And it is this latter point I want to draw attention to.

According to the ASH, in 2012, 77 percent of the price of a pack of cigarettes consisted of tax. Multiply that by the number of cigarette packs sold, and you get an amount of £10,5 billion raised through tobacco taxation. This is six times as much as the spending by the the National Health Service (the NHS) on tobacco related diseases; these were ‘merely’ £1,7 billion. So the question that comes to mind is: what justifies the £8,8 billion that remains after subtracting the NHS costs from the money raised through tobacco taxation?

The ASH claims that the inequality between the two numbers is no issue, for ‘tobacco tax is not, and never has been, a down payment on the cost of dealing with ill health caused by smoking’. But what then is the purpose of this tax? The ASH claims that the high level of tobacco tax in Britain serves two purposes: (1) to reduce smoking through the price incentive, and (2) to raise taxes from a source that has little impact on the economy. The latter point has been scrutinized extensively by economists, and I don’t think I can add anything to that discussion. So let’s focus on the first point: the aim of reducing smoking through the price incentive.

By making this claim, the ASH implicitly assumes that it is within the government set of rights to reduce smoking among its citizens. But is it? One can justify tobacco taxation on the grounds of the (health care) costs incurred by the non-smoking part of society. But, as we have seen, this amount by no means adds up to the taxes levied on tobacco. I believe this question (‘But is it?’) directs us towards the fundamental question of where the boundaries lie between justified government intervention and morally objectionable behaviour. One could say that, as I believe, it is one thing (and justified) to prevent non-smokers from being financially hurt by the actions of smokers, but that it is a completely different thing (and not justified) to promote non-smoking values among citizens, merely for the sake of – what appear to be – paternalistic motives.

As with any government intervention, the benefits of the intervention should be weighed against its costs. Presumed that there might be an intrinsic value in having a non-smoking society – a point the ASH doesn’t provide any argument for – the costs of violating what might be an intrinsically valuable human right (autonomy, that is) should be included in the calculation as well. And until this has been done, the question of whether the £10,5 billion in tobacco taxation is justified remains open for debate.

But what do you think?

Celebrities and Privacy: An Unlucky Combination

Don't we violate a right by intruding in Jennifer Lawrence's private life?

Don’t we violate a moral right by intruding in Jennifer Lawrence’s private life?

While surfing on the internet I ‘accidentally’ stumbled upon a picture of Jennifer Lawrence (a famous, and very pretty, actrice) having lunch with her boyfriend at a London restaurant. The photo was quite obviously taken by a paparazzo. While looking at the picture I thought to myself: why is someone allowed to take a picture of this event? The obvious answer is: because it is legal to do so. But then the next question I asked myself was: should it be legal to do so? In other words: should we be allowed to take – and publish – pictures of someone in their private life? Let’s take a look at that question.

You could say that, since celebrities are – by definition – famous, we (‘society’) have the moral right to know what they are doing. But this is nonsense. For suppose that we would have that right. Then we would be allowed to stalk celebrities each and every minute of the day to see what they are doing: no matter whether they are at home, watching TV or taking a shower. This is clearly absurd. Therefore we do not have that right.

A stronger – but still invalid – argument would be following. Celebrities choose a job that was likely to make them well-known, and they knew this before they started their ‘celebrity career’. Hence they should accept all the consequences of this decision: including being photographed by paparazzi. But is this argument valid? It might be true that celebrities should accept all consequences of their decision. After all: if they don’t, they would lead a miserable life. But that doesn’t mean that all of the consequences are morally acceptable. It might be that taking photo’s, and publishing these photo’s, of someone in a restaurant is not a morally acceptable consequence of being famous. Hence we might want to ask ourselves whether we want to force anyone, celebrity or not, to accept a consequence is immoral. If not, we might have to reconsider our privacy laws.

This is of course not to say that it is morally wrong to take pictures of any celebrity engaged in any activity. A prime minister, for example, should be allowed to be photographed while attending an international congress. But this is not because we have the right to know what the prime minister is doing in his private life. For even if we would have that right, it wouldn’t apply to this case, since the congress is clearly not a private matter.

In case of the prime minister, society has the right to know whether its representatives are doing a good job at representing them, and it is solely because of this right that it is okay to take pictures of the prime minister at the congress. But since by far not all celebrities are our legal representatives, we don’t have the moral right to take pictures of all celebrities at all times – at least not when they are engaged in private activities, such as visiting a restaurant.

But what do you think?

The Inevitable Unfairness of the Free Market

I just finished reading Milton Friedman’s book Free to Choose: a plea for the free market. Friedman has some compelling claims against government intervention in economic transactions. Price is – as he claims – the most informative entity there is in communicating individuals’ demand and supply of goods and services, and, in a capitalistic society at least, provides people with the incentive to utilize this information, thereby satisfying the needs of those that demand the goods/services. Furthermore, by acting upon the information, individuals provide themselves with the resources required to live a decent life. But although the free market – as Friedman describes it – seems a beautifully simple and elegant construct, there are some ‘side-effects’ of the system that might run against our intuitions about the notion of fairness.

It seems clear that the free market is the most efficient medium there is for maximizing the value of each of the individuals involved. And that (the ‘maximizing of value of each person involved’) is, according to libertarians, what makes the free market a fair system. After all, if you want to sell a computer, and another person is prepared to pay you the price you charge, then it’s only fair to let this deal take place, isn’t it? There is mutual consent between the parties involved, so what – if anything – could give a third party the right to intervene in this seemingly flawless transaction?

While there indeed might be nothing wrong with the free-market mechanism from the perspective of exchanging value, it might be doubted whether it is fair to make this mechanism the only mechanism for exchanging value. For while it’s no problem – and might even be beneficial – for those parties in a free market that possess the means to participate in the ‘game’ of exchanging value, it might be harder for those that – by nature or environment – have been unfortunate in acquiring the means required for satisfying their needs.

Because what if you’re not as intelligent as the average person, therefore getting a relatively low-income job, such as being a plumber, because of which you are unable to satisfy your needs to the same degree as – let’s say – a banker or lawyer? Of course, a libertarian might say, the plumber can still participate in the free market, just like the banker or lawyer can. But, even though the three parties might have the same needs (for luxury or otherwise), the plumber cannot satisfy as many of his as the banker and the lawyer can of theirs: only because nature happened to endow him – in contrast to the banker and lawyer – with capabilities that apparently are less appreciated (since less demanded) in society. So the question is: is it fair to let nature – and thus chance – play such a drastic role in the ability of any person to satisfy his needs?

A libertarian can answer this question in either of two ways. Either he admits that the extent in which we’re able to satisfy our needs is indeed – in principle – determined by nature’s authority over our capabilities, or he must come up with an ingenious invention for how to solve this negative side-effect of the free market without thereby endangering the libertarian heart of his plan. The first option, although this appears to be mostly ignored by libertarians, seems to imply a notion of ‘fairness’ that I – and I assume many others – find highly questionable. On the other hand, it at least is a notion, and – given that this truly is the libertarian’s view of a fair world – should be accepted for what it is.

The latter option – on the other hand – provides more room for discussion. Because how – if ever – could it be possible to solve nature’s capability-casino by means of a libertarian solution? There are of course many plans one could come up with, all of them mitigating the negative effects, but all of them being either (1) in conflict with the libertarian aspiration of a free market or (2) don’t get down to the root of the problem (that is, the unequal distribution of capabilities over mankind). It seems fair to say that (2) is a kind of unfairness that is inextinguishable – not by socialism nor by libertarianism. We after all cannot redesign our beings in order to endow everyone with the same capabilities. And even if we could do so, it’s high questionable whether this choice would be beneficial to society as a whole. So it seems we’re stuck with (1), pointing us to the possibly unfair consequences of the free market.

The above reflection shows that there seems to be an intuitively unfair side-effect of the free market; a side-effect that is unsolvable by means of the free market-paradigm itself. It either requires us to adopt the libertarian notion of ‘fairness’, or requires some sort of (government) intervention in order to compensate for nature’s ‘unfair’ distribution of capabilities.

What do you think?

Trust and Having Three Locks on the Door

I was looking out of my window, staring into the night, and saw my neighbor returning to her home from – what seemed to have been – a late night walk. She opened her door and – when she was inside – closed it. She not only closed it, but she locked it as well: with three separate locks. But why did she do that? Why three locks? Why not merely one or two? The answer is as simple as it is frightening: because we can’t trust each other. We don’t know what other people’s plans are. We might have worked hard in order to buy our flatscreen television, but others might have another interpretation of what “working hard” consists of. Robbing a middle-aged woman is – after all – not as easy as it might look.

This morning I went to the grocery store. In front of me, in the queue, stood an old lady. She was paying for her groceries, by pin. When she was about to enter her pin-code, she threw a look at me: a suspicious look. A look as if I would rob her of her pin-pass, if only I would have the chance.

I was going on holiday with a couple of friends of mine, and we were booking a flight. When the point came at which one of us had to pay for the flight up front, assuming that the others would pay him back at a later point in time, each one of us hesitated to take the offer.

If you want to trust someone, you better share your secrets with one person only, and that person is yourself. And even that person isn’t fully reliable. Even that person might come to change his mind and break his part of the deal. Because the “you of tomorrow” might have different needs than the “you of today”. While the “you of today” might intend to save money in order to pay for his education, the “you of tomorrow” might really like to buy that MacBook.

People have different interests, and different means for satisfying these interests. While some might be good in football and make tons of money with it, others might be good in carpentry and make not so much money with it. And some people don’t know where they’re good at, so they decide to make use of those who know where they’re good at. And although we can’t blame anyone for not having the required means at his disposal, we might doubt the morality of those who (ab)use the talents of others.

But what if morality would be a talent too? What if, just like soccer and carpentry, morality is just another quality ingrained – or not ingrained – in a person’s nature? Are we then still allowed to blame those whom seemingly lack this sense of morality? Or is this just the way they are, are they just using their “moral means” at full power? Or what if morality is only reserved for the few lucky ones? The ones who can afford to be moral, because they possess all the resources allowing them to live a moral life? Isn’t morality a luxury, like a MacBook or a mobile phone? A secondary need, only relevant for those who have passed the first layers on the survival-ladder?

Maybe…but it’s still a good idea to lock your doors.

But what do you think?

Ethics and Mathematics: The Love for Absolute Rules

Ethics is not mathematics. For, unlike mathematics, ethics cannot function solely based on a set of axioms, or ‘absolutely true staring points for reasoning,’ like a + b = b + a. Based on axioms, we can build an entire world  (‘mathematics’) in which we can be sure that, only by following these rules of inference, we will always end up with the truth, the truth and nothing but the truth. Hence it’s understandable that philosophers have thought to themselves: ‘Damn, how cool would it be if we could apply the same trick to ethics; that we, confronted with any action, could decide whether the action would be right or wrong?’ Surely: society has tried to build its very own rule-based system, the system of law. But is this a truly axiomatic system? Are there truly fundamental rights from which the rules of justice can be inferred? Let’s take a look at that.

Immanuel Kant made the distinction between hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives. These are two ‘kinds of rules’, with the first ‘being applicable to someone dependent upon him having certain ends‘; for example, if I wish to acquire knowledge, I must learn. Thus we’ve got: desired end (‘knowledge’) + action (‘learning’) = rule. Categorical imperatives, on the other hand, denote ‘an absolute, unconditional requirement that asserts its authority in all circumstances, both required and justified as an end in itself.’ We can see that there is no desired end present in this kind of rule; only the ‘action = rule‘-part.

But how could a categorical imperative be applied in practice? A belief leading up to a categorical imperative could for example be: Gay marriage is okay. Period. That would imply that, you believe that, irrespective of the conditions present in a particular environment – thus no matter whether there is a republic or democratic regime, whether the economy is going great or not – gay marriage is okay. However, as it stands, it is not yet a categorical imperative, since this claim doesn’t urge you (not) to do something (such as ‘You shall not kill’, which is a categorical imperative). The rightful categorical imperative would be something like (G): ‘You should accept gay marriage.’ This is an unconditional requirement that asserts its authority in all circumstances and is justified as an end in itself

Now: let’s assume that you’re talking to someone who doesn’t agree with (G). Because now it gets interesting, for now you have to make a decision: you either stick to (G) or you reformulate (G) into a hypothetical imperative. The first option is clear: you just say ‘I believe that gay marriage should be allowed always and everywhere. Period.’ Seems fair, right? But what if the person you’re talking to would respond by saying, ‘Okay…so even when citizens would democratically decide that gay marriage is unacceptable?’

Now you have got a problem, for this might be situation in which two of your categorical imperatives are contradictory, such as (G) and (D): ‘Decisions coming about through a democratic process should be accepted.’ Both (G) and (D) are unconditional rules: they should be acted on irrespective of the situation you’re in. But this is clearly impossible, for (G) forces you to accept gay marriage, while (D) forces you to do the opposite.

You could of course say that (G) is merely your belief (you believe that gay marriage should be accepted, not that this particular democratic society should find this too), but then you seem to fall into a form of moral relativism. Given that you don’t want that to happen, you have to decide which one is the true categorical imperative: (G) or (D)? And which one can be turned into ‘merely’ a hypothetical imperative?

You could of course decide to turn (D) into (D.a): ‘Only if you believe that a decision has come about through a democratic process and is a good decision, you should accept the decision.’ Or you could turn (G) into (G.a): ‘Only if the decision has come about through a democratic process, gay marriage should be accepted.’ But is this really how we form our moral judgements? Is (D.a) truly a rule you believe to be ‘fair’? And (G.a): do you truly believe that gay marriage is okay only if it is accepted by society? That is: do you make the moral value of gay marriage dependent upon the norms prevalent within a society? I doubt it.

So we are stuck; stuck into a paradox, a situation in which two absolute rules are contradictory, and the only way out is through turning at least one of them into an unintuitive and seemingly inadequate hypothetical imperative. So what to conclude? We’ve seen that categorical imperatives look powerful; as if they can truly guide our lives for once and for all; no more need to search for conditions that might be relevant to our judgements. But we’ve also seen that when two categorical imperatives are contradictory – that is, when two rules cannot be followed at the same time – changes have to be made: at least one of them has to be turned into a hypothetical imperative. In order to do so, a certain ‘value hierarchy’ is required, based upon which these categorization decisions can be made. Hence it seems that even Kant’s absolute ethics – with its absolute categorical imperatives – seems to be relative: relative to (the value of) other imperatives, that is. Therefore mathematical ethics, as presented above, seems to be impossible.

But what do you think?

Nature: The Biggest Discriminator in the Workplace

Man and woman: two different ‘types’ of human. The one being the hunter, the other being the caretaker. The one being the fighter, the other being the lover. And there are many more differences (or stereotypes) you could come up with. But one thing is for sure: both types are needed in the production of human life. And another thing is clear as well: the workload isn’t shared evenly between the two types of human. And I’m not talking about workload in the sense of keeping our economy going; in the sense of working and contributing ‘profits’ or other kinds of financial value to society. No, I am talking about the natural workload: the workload we humans have been endowed with by Mother Nature. And whether we like it or not, women are the ones carrying the burden. And the reason for this is as simple as it is unfair: men can’t get pregnant.

Surely: we should strive for a society with equal rights for men and women. Surely: we should try to make sure that men and women get equal opportunities in the workplace. And surely we should make sure that no-one would be denied any job solely because of the ‘type’ of human he or she is. However, the truth of the matter is that we cannot equalize nature. By that I mean that we cannot make men carry babies and we cannot make women not carry babies. The implication of this damn obvious fact is that there will always remain a (big) difference between men and women; a difference we cannot solve by non-discriminating policies in the work space.

So – given this observation – isn’t it (more) understandable why women occupy merely 14.3 percent of the executive officer positions in Fortune 500 companies? And given this observation, isn’t it (more) understandable why merely 16.6 percent of board seats are held by women? Maybe these low numbers don’t originate from a sense of discrimination by society; maybe they come up from a sense of discrimination by nature. And by that I am in no sense implying that women couldn’t be capable of reaching a representation of (at least) 50 percent in each of the aforementioned positions. I am only saying that it isn’t weird that women seem to have a harder time balancing their working- and private life. Especially when they’re pregnant, an ‘event’ preventing them (at least partially) from (temporarily) continuing their job-related obligations.

The consequence of this is that full equality, in the sense of equal representation of men and women in whatever kind of boards, might be an illusion. And again: not because men are better than women; because that is in no sense the case (just as women aren’t better than men). But simply because nature has put a burden on women; a burden that can’t be equally shared between them and their husbands.

But what do you think?

Euthanasia and the Right to Voluntarily End your Life

Ladies and gentlemen. Because of a collision with a person, the trains to Amsterdam will not run for the next three hours. We thank you for your patience and hope to solve this issue as quickly as possible.

Fuck, another person jumped in front of a train. That wasn’t very nice of him, was it? Making an end to his life by traumatizing an innocent conductor and delaying hundreds of people who do want to live their lives. Why did he chose this option? Why not jump of a bridge, take a few too many pills or buy a shotgun from the nearest creep in town?

This train ‘accident’ – which is by no means a sporadic event – seems a good opportunity to open the debate about voluntary life ending, and in particular about legalization of euthanasia. In many countries – except for the USA, in which it is illegal in all states – euthanasia is reserved only for people who ‘are incurable, or suffer without having any chance of improvement’. Only then, the doctor can drop by and make an end to it. And even then, even when someone is terminally ill and sees no reason to prolong his life, it is often very difficult to be allowed to end your life in a ‘decent’ manner – by means of euthanasia, that is. But why is that? And – to take it one step further – why is euthanasia only reserved for terminally ill people? Let’s take a look at that.

If you don’t like going to the cinema, you don’t go, right? You aren’t forced to go. The same goes for a football game or a birthday party. If you don’t want go, that’s fine: you don’t have to go. When applied to the act of giving birth, the same choice, although to a lesser extent, is available: for what if you don’t want to produce offspring? That’s fine: use a condom. And if something went wrong during the protection process? You still have the possibility, in many countries, to abort the fetus. Giving life is an option; and so it should be, right? For why would the government – or any person or institution for that matter – have the right to decide that you should or shouldn’t give life? We aren’t sheep, right? We aren’t living in a totalitarian regime, are we?

Well, maybe we are. Because although we are mostly free to do what we want, if the government doesn’t like what we decide in this ‘freedom’ of ours, it can – and will – try to stop it: ‘Smoking? No, that’s bad for you. Let’s try to stop it. ‘Fast-food? Think about your cholesterol! Let’s tax it (just to help you! Always remember that!).’ And so it is with dying: ‘Dying? No, that’s bad for you! You shouldn’t die?! You should stay alive and be happy! Let’s make ‘voluntarily dying, in a decent manner, illegal.’

Surely: we should set some rules to make sure that we live peacefully together and don’t smash each other’s brains out. Or, to put it less dramatically, to make sure that people don’t exploit others generosity – like smokers’ exploiting non-smokers’ health expenditures. But to decide who should stay alive is something of a different order, isn’t it? It touches upon the most fundamental rights we people are born with: the right to live and its counterpart, the right to die.

But apparently, the government has a veto to decide who dies and who doesn’t. As long as it can make money out of people dying – as in a war – death promotes ‘a world free of suppression.’ But when death enters home territory, and the wish of suffering citizens, the choice to die voluntarily is no option. Weird, isn’t it?

But what do you think?

Antinatalism and the Right to be Thrown Into this World

A fair trade is always based on a sense of mutual consent: you want something + I want something = let’s trade. That’s fair, right? The participants can deliberately weigh the pro’s and con’s of the trade and decide – based upon this information – whether to take part in the exchange or not. That’s a choice: the choice between doing and not doing something.

How different is it for the ‘choice‘ to be born? Well, there isn’t really much of a choice there, is there? No-one has asked you: ‘Hey Peter. You want to be born?’ You don’t have this choice; you don’t have a right to decide for yourself if you want to be thrown onto this earth. No-one has asked you whether you want to experience the suffering – and the joy – that you do. No-one. You are born. Period.

There is a philosophical position called ‘antinatalism‘ that assigns a negative value to birth. This makes it different from all the ‘christian’ doctrines that praise birth to be a miraculous phenomenon; a true gift from above. There are different arguments in favor of antinatalism. One – put forward by Schopenhauer – is that live is always filled with more pain than pleasure; therefore a living person would have always been better of if he wouldn’t have been born at all. After all, Schopenhauer claims,

A quick test of the assertion that enjoyment outweighs pain in this world, or that they are at any rate balanced, would be to compare the feelings of an animal engaged in eating another with those of the animal being eaten.

Other arguments for antinatalism point to the lack of autonomy or freedom of choice involved in the ‘decision’ to be born. See it as a trade in which, no matter what your preferences might be, the deal will always take place. Peter Wessel Zapffe – a Norwegian philosopher – said about this,

In accordance with my conception of life, I have chosen not to bring children into the world. A coin is examined, and only after careful deliberation, given to a beggar, whereas a child is flung out into the cosmic brutality without hesitation.

This decision – the choice whether or not to bring children into the world – is of course a choice you have to make for yourself: do you find it okay to throw a person into this world without ever knowing – or being able to know – whether or not this person wants to be thrown into this world? It you do, you are likely to be a natalist: someone who puts a positive value on human reproduction. And if most people on this world would be natalists, there are some problems we will inevitably run into. And these problems are getting closer and closer.

I am talking of course about the ever increasing world population. In 2011 the 7th billion person was added to our world’s population. It is expected that in 2050 this number will have increased to 11 billion and – given that the fertility rate keeps constant (an average of 2.5 children per women) – the 27 (!) billion will be reached in 2100. It seems save to say that these numbers are going to pose some problems. Events like a Malthusian catastrophe – a situation in which the increase in food production can’t keep up with the increase in the world population – might happen if we don’t do something. Darwin and his survival of the fittest-doctrine seem – if we continue like this – to become ever more apparent in this world of ours.

But let’s keep the ‘logistical’ problems aside, and focus ourselves solely on the (philosophical) issues attached to (anti)natalism. All these issues culminate into one question: is it okay for anyone to throw creatures like him- or herself into the world, without having their approval? Whenever we engage in other kinds of decisions – like the trading of collector cards – we firmly believe that mutual consent is a prerequisite for ethical conduct. So why don’t we apply this same principle to child birth? Surely: we might want children; we might want to reproduce ourselves because we find children cute or we find that this is the most reasonable thing to do. But what about the children’s self-determination? Shouldn’t we pay any attention to that? Or are we just so self-centered and so egocentric that we don’t even care about throwing other people into a world without even knowing – or caring – whether this is what they would have wanted to happen? It’s obviously impossible to ask children whether they would like to be born before them being born, but why would we – based upon that knowledge – decide to do – instead of not to do – it?

What do you think?