Untitled Black on Gray, Mark Rothko

Does Our Existence Imply Suffering?

The COVID-19 pandemic has allowed me to recognise various kinds of previously neglected emotions inside myself. In addition to experiencing feelings such as loneliness or uncertainty, there is one more emotion which I consider to be particularly difficult to cope with. It stems from the awareness of the fact that I’m able to damage my surroundings just by my mere presence, without committing any other act. For sure, many of us have perceived this risk over the recent months whenever there was a more vulnerable person in our proximity whom we, as potential asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus, could unknowingly infect and inflict serious health problems upon. No matter how low the chance that this would really happen is, it’s precisely this emotion that motivates us to restrain our social life. In this essay, I will thus attempt to grasp it as a philosophical problem.

The above-described emotion may appear to be something that has arisen as a consequence of the pandemic and will vanish together with it. Unfortunately, that isn’t quite right. However honest lives we live, the idea that, under normal circumstances, suffering in this world is unrelated to our presence in the world is an illusion. The following paradox, in moral philosophy known as the apology paradox, will debunk it most clearly: we owe our existence, among other things, to the large number of historical calamities in this world that engendered countless casualties. We regret such tragedies of the past as we know that if they hadn’t happened, the world would have been a better place. But if these tragedies were causally necessary for us being born, how can we then sincerely claim that we are glad to be alive?

The Australian philosopher Janna Thompson uses examples similar to the one below to illustrate this predicament: imagine that you come to learn that your direct ancestors got to know each other by a lucky coincidence that would never have occurred if your society hadn’t been affected by an unjust and tragic historical event, such as the two world wars or the slave trade. In that case, you, as their descendant, wouldn’t have existed. Nevertheless, you have the following two beliefs:

(1) I’m sorry that the given calamity happened.

(2) I’m glad that I exist.

Yet, these beliefs seem to be mutually inconsistent. This is because had this calamity been avoided, your existence would have been precluded as well. Therefore, to say that you are glad that you exist but would prefer the given calamity not to have happened is as contradictory as to say that you are happy that the Sun is shining but regret that the Earth is one of the planets in the solar system. After all, that the Sun’s rays fall on the Earth is causally related to the Earth being in the solar system.

The apology paradox affects each of us more personally than it might seem on the face of it. Considering that most of the historical calamities had a profound impact on the personal lives of our ancestors, it seems nearly certain that if these calamities had been averted, their life stories would have developed in a substantially different way, which would have no longer causally led to our birth. Therefore, our existence is also in the grip of this paradox.

One attempt to escape the paradox would be to insist that in order for us to be happy of a consequence preceded by some causal chain of antecedent events, it isn’t required that we are happy of each event included in that chain. This is because it is conceivable that the same consequence would have been preceded by a completely different chain of events. In other words, I can be glad that I exist and, at the same time, wish that I existed in a world in which the given calamity wouldn’t have happened, yet I would have still been born in it. Such a world seems perfectly possible insofar as it is conceivable that the lives of my ancestors would have intersected independently of the calamity in completely different circumstances.

All the same, there seems to be something unsatisfactory about this answer. A world in which, for instance, World War II wouldn’t have broken out would differ from the actual world in most respects. In the post-war period following 1945, different people would have been born, and even the political order and the overall subsequent development of our society would have little in common with the actual world as we know it. And it’s indeed a precarious task to try to even imagine what exactly the difference between the two worlds would consist in. But if I lack this knowledge, we are stepping into the unknown by making such counter-factual conjectures.

It is therefore at least questionable whether I can sincerely say that I would prefer to exist in such a world rather than in the actual world. Of course, I could add that I would ideally want to live in a world that is maximally similar to the actual world with the only difference that the given calamities would have been avoided there. However, as Saul Smilansky points out, given how unlikely it is that if we erased the bloodshed of World War II from history, all the subsequent events would have led to the present state of the world, my desire seems unrealistic as hope for a miracle. Dreaming of existence in a world where everything would remain as it is now except World War II is just a desperate attempt to close our eyes to the cruel fact that the existence of the world as we know it today is closely tied to World War II.

Another way to tackle the apology paradox is to view it as a moral dilemma: imagine a putative historical figure in whose power it was to inhibit the political ascent of the Nazis in interwar Germany. The question stands: should she have done it? Every reasonable person will probably reply positively. But do we hold on to this judgment even if we realise that, by doing so, she would have triggered such a historical drift of events that would have prevented the birth of a large number of the currently existent individuals who live blissful lives, including ourselves?

Answering in the negative seems unacceptable. After all, the opportunity to reduce suffering in the world and save the lives of actual people who fell victims to the war morally overrides the interests of only potential but non-existent individuals that most of us were in the interwar period. But then we must admit that our existence as an indirect consequence of war isn’t by itself a reason for happiness.

Although such a consequence may seem self-destructive, accepting it is clearly better than abandoning the belief that World War II shouldn’t have taken place. Just because we stop perceiving our existence as such as a reason for happiness doesn’t mean that we should stop valuing it and being grateful for it. The opposite may be true. The awareness of how many hardships our ancestors must have suffered so that we can now exist allows us to recognise new value in our existence.

At this point though, the problem rises in complexity. We can also find such cases in which the existence of a population depends on a wrong political decision which caused suffering to its current members rather than to their ancestors.

In such cases, the question is no longer whether the individual should be willing to sacrifice her own existence in favour of a higher goal by judging that, provided that the past act which caused suffering to other people than herself had never happened, it would be preferable if she didn’t exist. What we are asking now is rather whether she should conclude that the act she is afflicted by is morally bad even if it holds that, without this act, she wouldn’t have been born.

Let’s use the following case invented by Derek Parfit to illustrate this point: consider a country the political leaders of which must decide how to manage its limited resources. One option is to conserve them for long-term use by leaving the large portion of them to the next generation of its citizens. The other is to deplete them all in a short period of time, which will slightly increase the quality of life of its current citizens but make the quality of life of its next generation extremely low. The country’s leaders decide for the second option, and its later citizens thus live lives full of misery and suffering.

Our moral intuition immediately alerts us that something wrong has been committed in this scenario.

But what exactly makes the leader’s decision morally bad? Our concept of moral badness is surrounded by several assumptions, but two assumptions are particularly relevant in this context.

(Assumption 1) If something is morally bad, it is bad for someone. In other words, moral badness is a binary predicate, namely, the relation between what is morally bad and an afflicted person. To say that something is wrong, but that it isn’t wrong for anyone is as defective as saying that I read but don’t read anything.

(Assumption 2) If an act is morally bad, it will harm someone, where harm is understood as making the given individual worse off than she would be if the act hadn’t been committed.

The attentive reader has noticed that the second assumption entails the first assumption since the fact that an act is morally bad only if it harms someone implies that it must be bad for someone. However, both of these assumptions may sound so obvious to the readers that they may wonder why I even mention them. I do so because it seems that unless we give up at least one of these assumptions, we are forced to say, contrary to our strong moral intuition, that nothing wrong has been done in the depletion case. Why is it so?

To explain, Parfit designs the case so that it follows that if the country’s leaders had decided to conserve its resources, its later citizens would have never come to exist. This is because it is more than likely that the prudent management of the resources would have affected the personal lives of the country’s citizens and their interpersonal interaction to such an extent that its later citizens wouldn’t have been born. In other words, the country’s conserved resources would have been enjoyed instead by people who would have been produced through the different fusions of the earlier citizens’ gametes than them.

Now, let’s assume that any life is worth living. Then, at least one of our two assumptions cannot be met: the decision of the country’s leaders couldn’t be bad for their victims, because if they had decided otherwise, these victims wouldn’t have existed, i.e., they wouldn’t have been made better off than they are now. The original problem (also called the non-identity problem in this form) regains its footing: how can the later generation of the country’s citizens claim that the decision to deplete the country’s resources was bad and should have never been made if they also owe their own existence to it?

Memorial to Man, Isamu Noguchi

There are various ways to respond to this argument. One possible response is to insist that both assumptions are in fact met. Caspar Hare, for example, tries to show that under a certain description of events, it can be said that the decision of the country’s leaders was bad for its later citizens precisely because it harmed them. To understand his argument, though, it is first necessary to draw one very useful distinction in philosophy of language between the two ways in which expressions in language can refer. Let’s consider, for example, how the term ‘the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom’ refers in (3).

(3) The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is Dominic Cummings.

On one hand, the term can refer to a specific individual who in the real world holds the office of the UK Prime Minister, i.e., to Boris Johnson. If that is so, we say that the term refers in a de re mode. Under the de re interpretation, (3) is necessarily a false statement, as it is metaphysically impossible for Boris Johnson to be identical with Dominic Cummings. On the other hand, ‘the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom’ may also refer to anyone holding the given office in a possible context in which (3) is assessed as true or false. In such a case, we say that the given expression refers in a de dicto mode. Under the de dicto interpretation, (3) may be a true statement, because we can well imagine a possible context in which ‘the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom’ refers to Dominic Cummings.

The de re-de dicto distinction proves useful when we are about to assess whether (Assumption 2) is met in the depletion case as (4) claims.

(4) The decision to deplete the country’s resources wasn’t bad because it didn’t make its later citizens worse off than they would have been if its leaders had decided instead to conserve the resources.

Hare argues that (4) is untrue only if we interpret the term ‘its later citizens’ in a de re mode as referring to concrete individuals who are the country’s later citizens in the actual world. These people wouldn’t have existed if the country’s leaders had decided not to use up its resources, so it is difficult to say that they were harmed. Nevertheless, if the given term refers in a less specific de dicto mode to any later citizens who might have been born in the country after the decision, then it cannot be denied that the country’s leaders could have guaranteed a better quality of life for its later citizens by conserving the resources. And that these citizens wouldn’t be identical with the people who were born in the actual world where the resources were depleted is simply irrelevant to this judgement.

However, the opponent of this argument could argue that the de dicto interpretation is an inadmissible linguistic trick. She may reasonably argue that only the real-world people who are the referents of the term ‘later citizens’ can be, strictly speaking, the victims of harm, while the de dicto interpretation seems to imply that harm is related to some abstract set of possible referents of the term, which is a very counter-intuitive reading.

Another possible way out of the paradox would be to dispense with (Assumption 1), according to which an act can be morally bad only if it is bad for someone. Derek Parfit, for example, attempts to replace this assumption with the impersonal utilitarian principle that an act can be morally bad only if it brings less total benefit than other alternative acts. This principle can then be used to explain what the country’s leaders were guilty of: their decision was wrong simply because it caused a great deal of suffering, and thus resulted in less total benefit in the world than it would have otherwise.

The main drawback of this argument is that if we choose between actions that have consequences for diametrically different numbers of people, there may be a situation where the act that causes more suffering also causes more benefits. For example, imagine that a hundred times more people were born in the country than there would have if its leaders had conserved the resources. Still, the life of each of its later citizens would have very low quality and would consist of a great amount of suffering and a small amount of happiness. Even so, if we were to add up the total amount of happiness that the later will experience together, we would get a higher number than if the country still had enough resources but had a hundred times fewer citizens. This would bring us to the repugnant conclusion that the country’s leaders did nothing wrong.

Parfit attempts to protect the principle from this conclusion by revising it to a form that also takes into account whether the total amount of benefits is fairly distributed among the individual citizens of the country. But by doing so, he implicitly admits that, in assessing the morality of an act, it is also important how the act affects the individual, which is precisely what (Assumption 1) states.

A less drastic solution is to reject only (Assumption 2). This can be done at least in two ways. On the one hand, it can be argued that an act can be bad for someone without harming them. James Woodward thinks that this may happen if the act does bring some benefit to its victim, but still wrongs her by infringing on some of her rights or interests. For example, imagine that a racist airline refuses to sell a ticket to its customer just because the colour of their skin isn’t white. There is no doubt that this act is morally unacceptable. And this remains so even if the airline happens to save their life because the plane that the customer wanted to board will accidentally crash.

It may be likewise argued that the understanding of harm as an act that brings someone to a worse state than they would otherwise be in is inaccurate. Elizabeth Harman argues that there are many cases where we seem to have harmed someone without making them worse off. For example, someone can harm you by hitting your head and causing you concussion, even if the hospital visit that follows leads to the early discovery and removal of a brain tumour that you would otherwise die of. Such and similar cases show that it is possible to harm someone even when the person ultimately benefits from our harm.

Yet, the proponent of (Assumption 2) may object that these counter-examples apply only to exceptional cases where the benefit that the above actions give to their victims is nothing but their unintended consequence, and thus the given assumption still obtains in most cases, including the depletion case. To resist this objection, one would have to show that even the existence of the country’s impoverished future generation is only an unintended consequence of the depletion. However, whether this is the case is far from clear. After all, when making their decision, the country’s leaders could be fully aware that the depletion of resources will indirectly give rise to many new human lives.

Seascapes, Hiroshi Sugimoto

Let’s go back to the beginning of this essay. My initial observation was that the pandemic allowed us to redefine our relation to suffering. We are used to perceiving suffering as something that affects us only insofar as we consciously cause it through our actions. If that were the case, self-control would suffice for us to distance ourselves from suffering. However, by analysing the apology paradox, I have tried to show that we are inadvertently involved in suffering just by our very existence.

Honestly, such a conclusion startles me, and I don’t know well enough how to react to it. Existence is a state that, unlike actions, we don’t have under our voluntary control. If we harm someone, we apologise to them by saying that we regret our action and will try to correct it. These are the words that are relatively easy to utter. By comparison, to say that we regret that we exist and will try to correct it sounds so absurd that our tongue betrays us on the first attempt to utter these words. And even if we manage to utter them, the expression on our face soon reveals that we don’t believe what we are saying. Existence cannot be regretted or corrected, but only accepted. Though does this mean that we cannot take responsibility for it?

Denis Kazankov is currently reading for the BPhil in Philosophy at the University of Oxford. He is mainly interested in philosophy of language, epistemology, meta-ethics and some metaphysics. He likes tea and runs a tea tasting society at St Cross College which you are more than welcome to visit if you happen to be in Oxford.

Further readings:

The Apology Paradox

Thompson, J. 2000. The Apology Paradox. Philosophical Quarterly. 50(201), pp.470-475.

Levy, N. 2002. The Apology Paradox and the Non-Identity Problem. The Philosophical Quarterly. 52 (208), pp.358-368.

Smilansky, S. 2013. Morally, Should We Prefer Never to Have Existed?. Australasian Journal of Philosophy. 91(4), pp.655–666.

The Non-Identity Problem

Parfit, D. 1986. Reasons and Persons. Part Four. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Parfit, D. 2017. Future People, the Non-Identity Problem, and Person-Affecting Principles. Philosophy and Public Affairs. 45(2), pp.118-157.

Hare, C. 2007. Voices from Another World: Must We Respect the Interests of People Who Do Not, and Will Never, Exist?. Ethics. 117(3), pp.498-523.

Harman, E. 2004. Can We Harm and Benefit in Creating? Philosophical Perspectives. 18(1), pp.89-113.

Woodward, J. 1986. The Non-Identity Problem. Ethics. 96(4), pp.804-831.



One thought on “Does Our Existence Imply Suffering?

  1. An interesting, closely reasoned argument Denis. But is not true that we have a case here of a philosophical glass that is half empty and half full? Could we not rewrite this statement that “suffering in this world [as] unrelated to our presence in the world is an illusion” to also read “joy (happiness etc.) in this world [as] unrelated to our presence in the world is [also] an illusion.”? James Baldwin captured this point somewhat when he said: “What one must be enabled to recognize, at four o’clock in the morning, is that one has no right, at least not for reasons of private anguish, to take one’s life. All lives are connected to other lives and when one man goes, much more goes than the man goes with him.” To put his thoughts into our philosophical context: Our private existential suffering is not the last word. We are all part of an interconnected web of suffering AND other experiences, such as joy, happiness, empathy etc. which are implicated in the existence of others–born and unborn–just as suffering is. In other short, a non-binary reality. Does this then resolve the Apology Paradox? If my existence is also complicit with happiness, joy, and other antidotes to suffering, then should I not be happy that I exist? What is there is too apologize for if I am indirectly or directly responsible for engendering those qualities to make other lives better by relieving their suffering? (But if I am a monster like Hitler or Pol Pot I have plenty to apologize for but then I would by definition feel no remorse and thus no need to apologize for the suffering my existence caused.)

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