Every Cradle is a Grave: Rethinking the Ethics of Birth and Suicide, by Sarah Perry
Sarah begins by considering the nature of meaning for human existence. She shows how people need meaning; and how without it, we are hard pressed to accept all of the suffering that life entails. We need:
an ultimate value base (that we believe to be self-justifying);
a personal purpose;
self-worth or status;
efficacy or control;
Our need for meaning leads us to suffer from a number of illusions, including:
Meaning is permanent. (“Sources of meaning display false permanence… The stability of value bases is often exaggerated… Modern young people are starved for meaning and crave to attach it to themselves, [e.g.] tattoos and expensive weddings…”)
Suffering increases meaning. (“Meaning increases with certain kinds of suffering; the meaningfulness of a particular group or experience is proportional to the suffering incurred to join. More intense initiation or hazing rituals create more meaningful bonds within the group. More demanding or more religious Utopian communes tend to last longer than their more easy-going or secular brethren.”)
Meaning increases control. (“Shamans, witches, and even medical doctors often provide an illusion of control to suffering people. A love spell or a bottle of cholesterol pills probably won’t have much real-world effect, but such props can provide a much-needed sense of control to a suffering person.”)
Narrative meaning is objective. (“‘A self is a machine for making you concerned about your organism.’ The essence of consciousness, says Antonio Damasio, is the internal narrative — the story one tells oneself about oneself. The ability to create this narrative — to conceive of oneself, to project oneself into the past and the future, to connect events — has proven to be a very effective evolutionary strategy to ensure that an organism acts to promote its own ends.”)
Sarah shares a famous philosophical thought experiment (that went on to inspire The Matrix) called “The Experience Machine”, originally proposed by Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia:
Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s experiences?
In a novel twist, and in light of the preceding discussion on meaning and its illusory nature, Sarah claims that meaning is, in effect, an experience machine (emphasis added):
The things that we find to be meaningful are, in fact, miniature Experience Machines. They rely on illusion and filter the information that reaches us so that we may continue to feel that life is meaningful, or continue to search for meaning in life if it is missing. They are very useful; they help us organize our behavior, coordinate with others, and manage our emotions. In a practical sense they often make the suffering of life bearable; but, once they are recognized to be illusions, they cannot justify suffering in an abstract sense any more than pleasure can.
In an epilogue, she describes her own experience in recognizing these illusions as “living in the epilogue.”
She also discusses the role of “sacredness” in meaning-making communities — along with the other moral foundations originally popularized by Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind (reviewed here), including harm/care, liberty/oppression, loyalty, and fairness.
Much of this is a prelude to the central explorations of her book: the ethics of suicide, and the ethics of procreation. She makes an impassioned case for debunking much of the unscientific claims spread by anti-suicide organizations like suicide.org, while exploring the empirical evidence for the rationality of much suicidal and life-disregarding behavior. She turns the pro-natalist arguments of behavioral economists around on them, by utilizing their same approaches (utility fitness functions) while adjusting them to fit the reality of suicidal and life-disregarding behaviors.
She also goes on to make arguments against procreation in general (for all sentient life, not just humans), weaving together discussions of axiological asymmetry and nature as suffering-based gene replication.
In all, it’s a fascinating read, and I recommend it to anyone interested in existential philosophy and ethics. (The cover, by the way, is a painting by Jack Kevorkian).