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Smilansky on Should We Be Sorry That We Exist?

Professor Saul Smilansky (University of Haifa) [1] will be giving a talk on Monday, March 1, at the Oxford Moral Philosophy Seminar [2] entitled “Should We Be Sorry that We Exist?” [3] A copy of Saul’s talk can be found here [3]. Saul would welcome any comments/suggestions. Here’s an abstract of his talk:

We can morally compare possible alternative states of affairs, judging that various actual historical occurrences were bad, overall— the Holocaust, World War I, and slavery, for example. We should be sorry that such events occurred. But the vast majority of people who now exist would not have existed were it not for those historical events. A “package deal” is involved here: those events, together with oneself; or, the absence of the historical calamity, and the absence of oneself. So, ought one to be sorry that one exists? There seems to be a strong case for saying that morally one must wish and prefer that certain historical events had not occurred, even if that would have meant that one would never have existed. After setting out this idea, I explore arguments against it, and possible implications if it is accepted.

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#1 Comment By Richard Chappell On February 25, 2010 @ 7:35 am

I take it that to be “sorry that X” is just to prefer that X hadn’t been the case — that is, to prefer the nearest not-X world over the actual (X) world.

But then it’s fallacious to say that if one is (or ought to be) sorry that X, and if ~X then ~Y, then one is (or ought to be) sorry that Y. This is because the latter evaluation compares the actual world with the nearest ~Y world, which may well be a world in which X is still the case. (If I had not existed, WWI would still have occurred.)

So while it seems obviously correct that we should regret that past atrocities occurred — and hence there is a possible state of affairs where we don’t exist that we ought to prefer over the actual state of affairs — it doesn’t follow that we should regret our existence (tout court).

Perhaps there’s an element of stipulation here: by “being sorry that we exist”, Smilansky may just mean “being sorry that S [some particular state of affairs in which we don’t exist] does not obtain”. But it seems awfully misleading to talk in this way. It makes the claim sound much more radical and counterintuitive than it really is.

For example, Smilansky writes:

Two broad alternative interpretations of our situation seem to me tenable. The first simply claims that we should all be sorry that we exist (and indeed we should probably be sorry that anyone who ever existed had existed) – however absurd this may seem. This is a radical philosophical view of history, and of human life.

But if all he means by this is that we should all prefer some impersonally much better state of affairs S (in which it happens that we do not exist) over the actual world, then that doesn’t strike me as particularly “absurd” or “radical” at all. At any rate, the best way to assess this is surely to describe the contentious preference in the most basic and transparent terms available.

#2 Comment By Saul Smilansky On February 26, 2010 @ 8:43 am

Thank you for the post. Usually when we ask whether we are happy to exist we just mean something like whether we find our life enjoyable or whether we find meaning in it. But we can also think about this question morally, and moreover on the understanding that in order for us to have existed, various historical atrocities needed to have occurred. So, all considered, are we still happy to exist? That is, are we happy that the state of affairs that includes those atrocities and our existence triumphed over a much better moral order where we would not have existed? I don’t think that it is obvious that we should prefer any state of affairs where we (and our loved ones) do not exist. After all, it is not obvious that we should give up much of our wealth to save starving people in poor countries, so why is it obvious that we should be willing to “give up our existence” and that of our loved ones for the sake of some strangers in the past?

As to whether the issue I raise or my claims are “absurd” or “radical”, I will leave this for each person to decide. But it seems to me that the thought that arguably each one of us should prefer a state of affairs where he or she does not exist, and regret that the current state of affairs where we do exist rather than that other one materialised, is not trivial.

#3 Comment By Travis Morgan On February 26, 2010 @ 3:21 pm

If ANY historical event were different, it changes the course of events that follow it. Causality, the butterfly effect, chaos theory, is moving the state of affairs. The Holocaust, World War I, slavery, etc… of course, had they of not happened, we may not exist. But just as these events may have led to our existence, they also led to us feeling sorry that they happened. At first it seems curious to feel sorry for events that may have led to our existence, but were determined by the conditions to feel this way, we know these events were at the expense of many lives that were lost. Just as these events led to the current conditions including our existence, these events with all other previous events that led up to the current state of affairs, also determined our feeling of sorrow over these events.

If we acknowledge causality determined our existence, we must also acknowledge that it determined us to feel sorry. We are unable to do otherwise given the conditions that led us to feeling sorry. The only thing that would change this is if the conditions were different, if history had went otherwise. But it is out of our control. We are moved and determined by causality.

#4 Comment By Saul Smilansky On February 27, 2010 @ 9:16 pm

Most people are happy to be alive, and most normal people are sorry that innocent people suffered and died, and there is probably a biological source for both types of attitudes. But when they confront, as they do here (for we are alive only as a result of the suffering and death of countless innocent people in the past), are there compelling cognitive considerations that should incline us in one direction or another? That is the question that I am posing, and I tried to make a case for their being strong arguments on both sides. For the reasons I explain in the paper, I favour in the end the “pro-regret” side, but surely such a conclusion is deeply unwelcome.

#5 Comment By Amanda Quadling On July 7, 2010 @ 7:55 pm

I also favour pro-regret and it is my strongest argument against the Christian concept of a creator-god. No Beethoven’s 9th can justify the holocaust. An omniscient creator, if all merciful, should have foregone Creation rather than allowed human freewill to play out as it has. I cannot ‘glory’ in, or be thankful for, my existenc, knowing that Darfur runs concurrent with my life. It seems to me to be a central failing of Christian philosophy : assigning the deity the ‘co-properties’ if you will, of mercy and foresight !

#6 Comment By Łukasz Stafiniak On July 19, 2010 @ 11:37 pm

I am in the pro-regret camp (let’s call it regret*), but with the meta-view that the paradoxicality of “pro-regret” follows from confusions that are only recently being resolved. My view is: we can best serve our existence by regretting, in the sense of the article, that we exist; if we didn’t regret in this sense that we exist, we wouldn’t even exist. We are not “determined” to regret, some people choose not to regret*, but we (the tightest reference class including persons just as us but either regretting* or not) are more likely to exist if we regret*. Generally, for two reasons: there would be more atrocities that might prevent our existence; and a personality just as ours but not regretting* is less consistent (stable, effective at being “ourselves” and bringing the change to the world, etc.).