December 2, 2008
By Saul Smilansky
Things have been philosophically very quite over here, so I thought that some of you might like to ponder the question whether you should be sorry that you exist. Some background explanation: Jean Kazez has been posting on the paradoxes in my recent book “10 Moral Paradoxes” in the blog Talking Philosophy. So far she has covered chapters 1 through 6. Chapter 6 is “On Not Being Sorry About the Morally Bad”. The basic idea here is this:
Sometimes bad things happen. For example (true story), my parents had a baby before me, who died a few weeks after she was born. Had she lived, I almost certainly would have not been born. Must I be sorry that she died? Yes, in the sense that I should be sorry FOR her, and in general I should be sorry that it was not possible for the both of us to live. But that’s too easy: must I also be sorry THAT she died, in the sense that I prefer her continuing to live and my consequent un-birth? I don’t think so. The issue here isn’t only about Parfit-style Nonidentity Problem sort of cases, as can be seen from a second case. Assume you are walking around town and a crazy gunman opens fire in your direction, but just then two pedestrians happen to step into the line of fire, so that, as a result, they die but you are not hit. Ought you to be sorry that things happened that way (again, in the sense that you prefer that they not happen as they did but rather that you die instead of the two)? The death of two innocent people is morally worse than the death of one, even if that one is yourself, yet I don’t think that you ought to be sorry that they (rather than yourself) were killed. This is particularly interesting because you are NOT permitted to push those pedestrians into the line of fire in order to save yourself, yet you are (it seems to me) permitted not to be sorry that they happened to be there, and even to be happy about it. However, it also seems to me that there must be a limit: one cannot be happy that the Holocaust occurred, even if it is a fact that were it not for the Holocaust, one would not have been born (one’s parents would not have met, or would have had a different child at a different time). So one must choose: Holocaust plus one’s existence, or no Holocaust plus one’s non-existence, and for any morally serious person the answer should be obvious. But this sort of argument applies almost to everyone (were it not for evil event X, one would not have been born, when X can be the Holocaust, or World War I, or slavery, and so on). Hence, in one sense everyone should be sorry that he or she exists.
You can read Jean’s perceptive explication of the problem and the discussion here: