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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:


  1. 1. Posted by Richard Chappell | December 2, 2008 10:58 pm

    I don’t see any paradox here (at least once we’re careful to distinguish ‘all things considered’ from ‘in that respect’ attitudes), but in any case here are two ways to reject the conclusion:

    (1) Granted, if given the choice (say God offers to rewind history), we may be obliged to pick “no Holocaust plus one’s non-existence” over “Holocaust plus one’s existence” (assuming all else is equal, so that the former total world-history really is impartially best). But that is not to say that in ordinary circumstances we ought to feel any regret or negative emotion about the actual state of affairs. What it’s appropriate to prefer (choose) may diverge from what it’s appropriate to feel — or so I argue here.

    (2) Even if you think that this is a case where feelings and preferences must march in step, one might question whether our preferences about the past must track our evaluations. Liz Harman, for example, argues that it’s rational to have preferences that are biased towards the actual. (I’m skeptical, but it’s a possible response.)

  2. 2. Posted by Saul Smilansky | December 3, 2008 1:13 pm

    Richard – I don’t think that I have to make any general committments on these two questions. But in the present context, the reason why we ought to prefer the option where we would not exist is that it is so much better, morally. And the emotion (it seems to me) comes in naturally, once we see the appropriate preference. The fact that I cannot undo the Holocaust does matter, of course, to the feeling, but I don’t find that it erases it completely. I agree that there is no “point” in dwelling on the matter, but then philosophy isn’t about a “point” in that sense.

  3. 3. Posted by Norman Hanscombe | December 4, 2008 1:43 am

    What sense is there in wishing a particular incident in the past hadn’t occurred, when (quite apart from how precisely the workings of the universe were momentarily suspended) whatever variation in the causal chain was, we have no way of knowing the ‘alternative’ wouldn’t lead to something even worse?

    My children, thanks in part to watching early episodes of the old black and white “Doctor Who” television serial, had no trouble grasping this point when they were quite young. The more recent “Dr” (despite being in colour and having much better special effects) lacks some of the philosophical depth of the original, so my grandchildren may not be as aware; but hopefully, if ever they become serious students of philosophy and are troubled by the issue, will be able to hire old videos.

  4. 4. Posted by Saul Smilansky | December 4, 2008 6:41 am

    Indeed, “we have no way of knowing the ‘alternative’ wouldn’t lead to something even worse”, but don’t you think that sometimes, such as with the Holocaust, we could risk it? Stalin’s death (in most periods of his life, perhaps not in the middle of WW2) would have surely been beneficial, because it is hard to imagine horrors greater than the Gulag and the tens of millions of unnecessary deaths. Life is indeed complex, and “Take care what you wish for” is good advice, but we sometimes have good reason to think that we can get it right. In fact, we typically have more reason for skepticism about our ability to predict the future than about the possible effects of “changing” the past in certain ways, but it still makes good sense to wish that, say, a loved one who has cancer will survive, or that humanity will be able to reduce global warming or avoid nuclear war. I am sure that the good Doctor would agree.

  5. 5. Posted by Norman Hanscombe | December 4, 2008 7:35 am

    What is meant by “ we could risk it”, Saul? How could we “risk” anything? As an old saying put it, not even God can change the past. Indeed, wishing the past were different is as useful as wishing one could fly unaided by any devices.

    The early death of Hitler or Stalin might (depending on when/where/how it happened) have resulted in better outcomes; but logically the outcomes could have been even worse, and games about what might have happened are best reserved for periods late night, relaxing with nothing at stake other than whether the provisions are adequate.

    With regard to wishing, a clear distinction needs to be made between wishing about the past, and wishing about the future. With the former, there’s no need to, as you put it, “Take care what you wish for” as you most certainly won’t get it. I wonder also precisely what you’re asserting when you say that, “– it still makes good sense to wish that, say, a loved one who has cancer will survive, or that humanity will be able to reduce global warming or avoid nuclear war.” I have no problem understanding your acceptance of the value judgments that each of those wishes as an outcome you see as ethically good [or whatever equivalent term you use for “good”]

    But — ? The wishes refer to hopes about what might happen in the future, and have no relevance to the issue of wishing things had been somehow different in the past.

    To paraphrase you, “I‘m reasonably confident the good Doctor’s original scriptwriters would agree with me on this.”

    Finally, putting everything else aside for the moment, IF one decides to spend time thinking about preventing misery to mankind [is one still permitted to use that word?] why stop with the Holocaust and that mother’s rape? There was so much brutality before the Nazis, and has been so much since which had nothing to do with Adolph. Why not wish the Big Bang [or whatever it was] never happened? No more suffering, Q.E.D. We’d be sparing, for example, the mental anguish of countless generations of ants being devoured by ant lions. There’d be no such thing as battery hens, and no whale need live in fear of sushi bars.

    There wouldn’t even be people struggling with the many different connotations of sorry. But I can’t help feeling something would be missing.

  6. 6. Posted by Anibal M. Astobiza | December 4, 2008 6:24 pm

    In some sense Eric Kandel in his autobiography (In search of Memory)rememorate that his glorious achivements were due in part to the madness that occured in Austria at the time of his upbringing.

    If that madness never happened he never could be the Eric Kandel who went to America, studied in America´s top universities, earned a medical degree, made experiments with the seaslug aplysia to win the Nobel for his discoveries, met his wife etc.

    My question is: where´s the limit to “On Not Being Sorry About the Morally Bad” when that will carry you extreme goodness. The limit is extreme badness or not?

  7. 7. Posted by Norman Hanscombe | December 5, 2008 4:02 am

    Assuming for the sake of the discussion only, Anibal, that we were to accept that it makes any sense to talk about being sorry {for?] something which occurred before you were born, I suppose you might try to construct some sort of personal scale to decide that question — but would that make much sense?

    Much of this discussion reminds me of the sort of schoolyard pseudo problems (e.g. whether someone was in or out of the room when he was halfway out, ad nauseum) which popped up regularly in the distant past when I was in primary school. It wasn’t very interesting then, but at least my schoolmates hadn’t given much thought to philosophy, so we shouldn’t be too critical.

    As for the extent of the enormous potential loss had Kandel not gone on to study the sea slug, I’m afraid I’m unable to comment about the effects on either Kendal or humanity. If only the world were simpler?

  8. 8. Posted by Saul Smilansky | December 5, 2008 5:05 pm

    Anibal – I cannot really say in a general way where the limit is. Even if we can do the estimates (sometimes we can, sometimes we cannot), there are hard moral questions here, about the sacrifice of some people for the greater good, which is a topic that mostly goes beyond the scope of my discussion. My argument is more limited, but nevertheless surprising: in cases where –

    (1) we feel fairly sure about the counterfactual (i.e. “had this happened, that would have followed”), and

    (2) the weight on one side is overwhelming (such as preventing the Holocaust),

    – then we can say that the better course of events for the world is one that did not happen. Alas, that is also a course of events that does not include us. We should thus be sorry that that other course of events (e.g. no Holocaust, but no us) did not happen. So in a sense, we should be sorry that we exist. Of course we have no responsibility for the Holocaust (I am assuming that we were born after it or had no effect on it), but nevertheless we have very strong moral reason to be sorry that the actual course of events (which includes our existence) is the one that materialized. So far I haven’t seen a good counter-argument against my argument.

  9. 9. Posted by Norman Hanscombe | December 6, 2008 9:11 am

    1. It’s simply not true, as you suggest Saul, that:
    “.. then we can say that the better course of events for the world is one that did not happen.”
    Psychologically, we may indeed feel that’s the case, and whatever else happened, it “must” be better; but logically there’s no basis for making this claim (especially in terms of the long run of history — e.g. how often seemingly trivial events have had such surprising outcomes?)
    2. Even if that problem is overlooked, a second remains re your treatment of “sorry”. In everyday life, people can be both pleased and sorry at the same time about the same thing. Softie that I am, for example, I often felt genuinely sorry for rival football teams, even as I gained pleasure from what we were doing to them. I never told them, “This is hurting you more than it is me,” (and I have to concede it wouldn’t have been altogether true if I had) but my feeling sorry for them was as genuine as the pleasure the game’s course was giving me — even if not quite as strong. We often feel sorry about something we do to others, sometimes even wishing we didn’t have to do it. This may reduce the degree of pleasure the action gives us; but life isn’t all absolutes, and we recognise these mixed emotions as part of that life.
    3. Your assumed “paradox” might seem less paradoxical if seen in terms of our species’ strong desire to have our cake and eat it too. It’s part of our everyday dreams. We know we can’t; but “wouldn’t it be nice” if we could? I enjoyed talking to students about the complex pattern of interactions which (at extremely long odds) resulted in them even being here. Initially most were startled by what this meant. Until that point, by and large, they had been oblivious to how, for example, some trivial event in a Viking longboat could have changed all the Modern History they were studying.
    Before this, all were sorry Adolph died at birth. After the Viking longboat story sank in, although they still felt sorry about what happened to Jews (and others) very few felt so sorry they still wished Hitler hadn’t survived. A paradox? Hardly. Until they had thought about the consequences, they’d never needed to consider the implications of removing the infant Adolph. Once they did understand, because they were reasonably compassionate people, the feeling of sorrow for the Holocaust victims remained, but — with the exception, from memory, of only one especially sensitive lass — when it came to the quite different matter of wishing (retrospectively) to kill off the infant Hitler, support for such action disappeared. They weighed up the strength of their sorrow, against the strength of their desire to exist. They felt sorry (i.e. had sympathy?) for those who had suffered — but they weren’t prepared to make the ultimate personal sacrifice for them.
    Perhaps they took the not unreasonable course of deciding that when it comes to words with as many connotations as “sorry”, they were going to eat just one tiny but relevant piece of that cake which kept them alive, saving the rest of it for other more or less unrealistic “moral” dilemmas?

  10. 10. Posted by Anibal M. Astobiza | December 6, 2008 12:22 pm

    I grasp the moral paradox Professor Smilansky tries to convey.

    But perhaps all this events are just unforeseen “Black Swans” á la Taleb.

    Random events, unpredictable events, that nobody can be hold responsible, neither moral responsible or feel any moral emotion such as guilt or regret, because they are not repeteable.

  11. 11. Posted by Norman Hanscombe | December 6, 2008 2:05 pm

    What a relief, Anibal, to be assured I’m not somehow “responsible” for whatever has happened during the millennia before I was born — or even most of the(comparatively) small number of things which have happened since my birth. As most of these events were in the past, even before your assurance I didn’t really feel there was a strong case for me being expected to have “foreseen” them. As for them not being “repeatable”, I can’t argue with that either.

    Nevertheless, what I’d really like to see now is an explanation of how we even establish that the basis of morality (in all its many and varied manifestations from one society/epoch to another)is more than the result of our species’ innate psychobiological drives?

  12. 12. Posted by Peter Axon | December 17, 2008 12:43 am

    An interesting and challenging paradox. Another thing to think about, imagine two news items:
    – “Tour bus hits an old WW2 land mine and explodes killing 30 holidaymakers”; and
    – “Bus carrying 30 terrorists hits an old WW2 landmine on the way to a terror training camp, all on board were killed”.

    Which one do you feel more ‘sorrow’ about? Why? My guess is most of us would feel more sorrow about the people going on vacation who were killed than about the terrorists who were killed. But either way a terrible thing, an evil thing, has happened and 30 lives have been lost.

    Why do we feel more ‘sorry’ about the holidaymakers than the terrorists? I think its because we believe the terrorists deserved it, they were planning evil and so evil happening to them is not so bad because it will stop them committing the evil they had planned. Whereas the holidaymakers were just everyday people looking for a good time, surely they didn’t deserve this evil to happen to them?

    But surely if a bus hitting a landmine and exploding killing all its passengers is an evil event then it is evil in all cases. How can we say it is OK for evil to happen to some people and not to others? And if the reply is, “Because some people are evil therefore they deserve it”, well how do you decide that someone is evil? What can you measure people by to see if they are evil and therefore its alright for evil to happen to them?

  13. 13. Posted by Norman Hanscombe | December 28, 2008 12:48 am

    On what basis, Peter, do we establish that a bus hitting a landmine is an “evil” event? If, for example, it hits a long-lost landmine laid by terrified Armenians 90 odd years back in a desperate attempt to avoid sneak genocide attacks on their camp during the night, is the event evil? We can hardly define an evil event simply as one causing death, or an exploding volcano would be an evil event. If ‘evil’ is to have any genuine meaning, might not we do better to think about it in terms of the human agent’s intent, rather than a mere outcome, such as death?
    You may be correct in saying, “How can we say it is OK for evil to happen to some people and not to others?” You need first, however, to look at how you’re setting out your question. Take killing someone. If ALL killing of a human being is evil, then calling a particular killing ‘evil’ adds nothing. On the other hand, if one looks at evil in terms of the killer’s reason for killing, there may be value in ascribing evil to some killings and not others, or assigning different degrees of evil to different killings. Assuming (and he’s always a popular figure for such scenarios) Adolph Hitler possessed a foolproof Biological Doomsday Weapon in 1945, and was about to detonate it as punishment for a World which failed to recognise what he had to offer us; would killing him have been an evil act? If so, surely we’ve made an ‘evil’ mess of causing the word “evil” to lose all value in terms of human communication?

  14. 14. Posted by Mark Simpson | January 5, 2009 10:16 pm

    I feel like a little Schopenhauer (e.g. “On the Sufferings of the World”) would provide a welcome perspective on the issues at work in this discussion….

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