segunda-feira, 9 de maio de 2011


Between two deaths: from the born death to death.

My initial methodological conviction in the field of ethics is that what we think about the duties to others and to ourselves, or what is usually called a “good life” must be accompanied by a realistic and crude study of our condition, without cover-ups or consolations. For the one who is required morality, the one who has duties to others or the obligation to try to be happy, do not seem to be in best conditions to carry out these important undertakings. Philosophy, in general, especially after the defeat of existentialism (one of the most resounding successes of the academy), does not face the most troublesome issues related to our condition, as if they were already resolved.

During my Argentinean philosophical period (1967-1979), I never wrote a single line on these issues, dealing exclusively with logical and semantic problems. As a convinced analytic philosopher that I was back then, it seemed to me that all these questions only deserved a literary treatment (which sometimes I tried to do in many stories such as The Information Post (La Oficina de Informes), where a proto-being is informed in advance about human life and chooses not to be born). It was only in Brazil that I began to take these issues seriously and consider them as objects of philosophical analysis. Throughout the eighties, I was writing what would later be, the Project of Negative Ethics, which was published in 89. I kept thinking about the relationships between ethics and the human condition during the following years, improving my arguments and at times, coming to results that scared me, and even disgusted me. But I had decided to think beyond what a human thinker could withstand, ignoring my limits and trying to develop the thoughts themselves. 

In 1996, due to a productive stay in Spain at the beginning of the decade, in contact with Fernando Savater and Javier Muguerza, I published Crítica de la Moral Afirmativa. This book contains the argued development of aphoristic ideas outlined in the Project of 1989, and was accompanied by some controversy with contemporary philosophers (Habermas, Tugendhat, Hare). I considerer it as a semi-academic work, but I was pleased with the result, and with the fact that my ideas, now put in an international language, were read and discussed in the Hispanic world. I never felt the necessity to translate it to English before, but I recently changed my mind and it will be edited in English soon.

There was always an initial expositive problem linked with the unpopular character of my ideas about the human condition, and the themes (put back in vogue by Bioethics) of the “value of human life” and correlated issues, as procreation and suicide. For if I formulated these thoughts seriously, I was considered morbid, but if I exposed them laughing, through the use of humor (as I did in many passages of the Project), the readers would think that not even I took them seriously.

Telling the truth is just one of the things you can do with it. The truth may be hidden, disguised, trimmed, postponed, and also misrepresented, and among other things, said. Philosophy has been traditionally defined as the searching for the truth, assuming implicitly that it also carries an obligation to say it. But these two things should not identify themselves. The philosopher should wait a bit after discovering some truth, to consider the sensitivity of his audience and see what he may or may not do with the discovered truth.

The traditional question of ethics has been: "How can we live ethically?" (“How should we live?” in deontological ethics, or “how can we ethically be happy?” in hedonistic and eudaemonistic ethics). The usual ethics are thus ethics of how. Its questions are not radical, because it assumes that the need to continue living and the moral obligation should be compatible: the usual problem is how to live ethically, never asking if you can live and be ethical at the same time. There is therefore a basic value attributed to life and living, without ever asking if living could not be a movement basically contrary to moral obligation, if living does not carry a fundamental lack of ethical value. As a result of a rigorous and previous analysis (I would say merciless) of the human condition and value of life, one could come to the conclusion that it is not possible for humans in that condition, to live his life happily or virtuously.

I called “affirmative” ethical theories that assume life without discussion as a basic value, as something that is allowed to live, and from which ethics are constructed as ethics of how to live the life. I call “negative” the ethics that initially opens the possibility of a mismatch between life and ethics. What is meant by ethics in this initial context of reflection cannot be anything too complicated or anything that is strongly committed to particular ethical theories, but rather quite a basic concept that can be accepted by them all.

I propose to speak of a “Fundamental Articulation of Ethics” (FAE, from now on) to refer to the following concept: In decisions and actions, we must take into account the moral and sensitive interests of others not only those of your own, trying not to undermine the former and not give systematic primacy to the latter only because they are our interests”. I cannot imagine any ethical theory, whatever its trend and assumptions, which does not accept some version of FAE. This is the basic idea that should be compared with data about the human condition, aiming at its possible compatibility. The fundamental question is: “Can a being situated in the human condition be ethical in the minimal sense of FAE?”

In the sensitive domain stressed by hedonist ethics, the question about the value of human life is a question by the pleasant or enjoyable; in terms of duty and virtue, marked by deontological ethics, to question the value of human life is a question of dignity. In my reflection, both ways are interesting, and I have tried to show that the data provided by rigorous analysis of the human condition systematically blocks both types of value. I believe I have arguments to show that the value of human life cannot be accepted as initial assumption free of problems of a given ethics.

Death seems to be a factor undoubtedly relevant for the consideration of the value of human life. Not just death, but what I call mortality. It is crucial to distinguish between “punctual death” (PD) and “structural death” (SD) or “mortality”. I understand PD as the dated event of our factual disappearance. I refer, for example, the PD of Jean-Paul Sartre as having happened exactly on April 23 1980. PD opens the state of  “being dead” of someone, his ceasing. However, PD is not an event that arises suddenly, but the result of a long process that begins with birth. I call SD or “mortality” to the process of  “dying”, in the sense of wearing, decaying and vacating.

Unlike other datable events, death has this structural dimension. Death is datable, but at the same time, it has to do internally with the being itself, with its very emerging, with becoming a being as something intrinsically mortal. Death is not just something that happens, but belongs to the very making of being in its structure, not something that could happen or not within a human life. SD has to do with the constitutive mortality of being. (The negative ethics is thus linked with a negative ontology).

Now the crucial question is: can a mortal life be considered morally valuable (in both hedonistic and deontological sense)? Can one be happy or worth of happiness within the constitutive mortality of SD? My question when introducing death in the reflection is if mortality would not steal the moral value (hedonistic or deontological) of human life independently of its contents, i.e., independently of how each of us can live his mortality, the mortality of his own being.

On the usual reflective context, when it comes to studying the question of what is the sense in which death could be considered bad, one considers only PD, as if death was not part of life, but something ontologically external. They say things like: “Life is good, it is a pity we have to die” without seeing that if it is a pity that we have to die, then life is not good, since life brought death with it, or rather, they are one and the same thing. But understanding this is already going out of death as PD to SD, to the constitutive “mortality” of being.  When one says: “Death is bad because it deprives us of the good things of life”, the meaning is to give a privative sense to death, as if life were positive, without seeing that life carries the negative with it. From this tendency to see death as “bad”, this opportunity is taken to formulate, by opposition, the idea of the “goodness” of life: if death is bad, and life is the opposite of death, then life must be good.

But, what sense could this statement have? Clearly only an empirical sense: “PD is bad because it deprives us of worldly goods. Here, punctual death is the only that is considered, as literal interruption of goods such as perception, movement, performing tasks, desire, etc. But to avoid an unjustifiable affirmative asymmetry, it should be answered back that, in the same way, one could say that “Death is good because it frees us from the evils of life” if we continue to understand death only as PD, and if we think of worldly evils as deception, treachery, aggression, disease, wars, etc., from which death frees us. Since the world is, in the empirical view, an alternation of goods and evils, PD may be called “good” or “bad” as we consider as depriving of the former or as freeing from the latter. If death is good (for freeing us from the worldly evils) and life is the opposite of death, then life must be bad.

But I do not think this is the correct line of argument. The lack of value of life cannot be shown in this purely empirical manner, because one cannot escape from total symmetry in what I like to call the “seesaw vision”, or the “one day the sun shines, the other one it rains vision”. If death is understood as PD, and life just as worldly, with its mixture of goods and evils, there is no way of breaking the tie or overcoming the seesaw vision. It seems to me that the right way is to consider the issue of the value of human life also considering SD, the mortality of being, and not just SD. If we use this other dimension of death, it could not have any sense to say that “life is good, but dying is bad” (the usual tendency), nor the opposite, that “life is bad, and therefore death is good”, given that, structurally seen, death is inside the living, it is inseparable from it, living is internally mortal, mortality has emerged along with the being itself, it is the very being of being.

In the structural domain of SD, it is therefore absurd to say that being born (have emerged) is good but having to die is bad, because death came along with the being so inseparable and constitutive, not as a passing event, but in its own structure. Being born is being placed on the mortality of being, so that if death is, for some reason, considered bad, then having emerged should also be bad, or both things should be good (or, as the agnostic claims, neither good nor bad), but in no case it could be argued some asymmetry in favor of one side or the other. Regretting having to die should be structurally identical to regretting being born, because it is not in our power being born in a non-mortal way.  

The negative ethics tries to be the development of a life under the dominion of the death of being, the born death. The “Little Survival Guide”, in Part III of the Critique of Affirmative Morals defines a sort of a minimum morality of someone always prepared to die, and who, while alive, develops activities with full knowledge that not even its more sublime character may prevent him from ending up abruptly and painfully at any time. The negative person live, therefore, with no affirmative expectations, developing activities that do no harm to others in at least two fundamental issues: not to kill anyone, and refrain from procreating.

The problem of the morality of procreation had been a classical topic of my negative ethics along the years, but my reflection is inserted in a more general philosophical reflection including ontological considerations. These ideas found their better expression in the book of 1996, where a great number of theses about the value of life, birth, procreation and ethics are discussed. Some of these topics had been recently debated in DAVID BENATAR’s book Better Never to have Been (Oxford, 2006).

In the first part of my book, called “On the road for a morality of non-being” (pages 17-37), I present some basic reflections about ontology concerning the relations between being and not-being, and the place of values in ontology. These ideas are developed around a critical interpretation of Heidegger’s valueless or “apathetic” ontology, which was exclusively concerned with the sense of being without exploring the question of its value. I intend here a sort of negative appropriation of ontological difference, establishing the domain of being as the more appropriate to put the question of the value of a human life, and not merely the domain of beings or concrete entities.

The prevailing affirmative ontology, postulates, implicitly or not, the primacy of being over non-being: being is good, non-being is bad; but in this kind of attitude is difficult to understand properly the phenomenon of the persistent “forgetting of being” (Seinsvergessenheit) so insistently pointed out by Heidegger in his writings: why something good would have to be so strongly and persistentlyforgotten? I try to demonstrate that a primacy of being over non-being is not rationally tenable; being is always an impoverishing and a limitation if compared with the wide domain of non-being; so, coming to being is always an ontological restriction, and not a gift.

In the second part of the book, “Birth and Suicide: the arguments of a radical, non-skeptic moralist” (41-127), I sustain, against Camus and others, that the problem of the value of life is not reducible to the problem of suicide, but it also includes procreation, which Camus never put in focus. Possible people are in question: “A solution to the problem of continuing is not by force a solution to the problem of starting” (Critique, page 41). It is clear from the beginning, in contrast with David Benatar’s position, that the problem of birth and procreation is viewed in my book not in purely empirical and Utilitarian terms, but within the scope of a structural consideration based on ontology: the point of the value of human life and its consequences for the morality of procreation does not emerge from a mere balance of benefits and harms, as if life were put in a supermarket, but from a critical consideration of the prevailing affirmative position sustaining a supposed primacy of being over non-being.

Ontology, in my vision, in contrast to Heidegger’s existentialist and anti-naturalist approach, is overtly naturalized: being is visualized in the light of the information about nature provided by well established sciences, and the place occupied by humans within it, as beings strongly affected by the attacks of nature in all their forms; this is part of a relevant and crude description of human condition beyond the traditional metaphysical and religious accounts of nature. Here I present my main concepts of “structural pain” and “moral disqualification” and study their use for the problems of procreation and suicide. The pain relevant to evaluate procreation and suicide is not the eventual pain that can always be balanced with pleasures in the seesaw vision, but the structural pain given in birth, the pain of declining, suffering and dying independently from the specific contents of particular human lives.

These pains are not only natural, but also social: because human beings are put in a situation of scarce time and space to conduce their lives, they are constantly compelled to hurt the other’s projects with their own and to apart the bodies of the others to attain the own objectives. (Jean-Paul Sartre’s phenomenological descriptions of human conflicts can be of benefit in this point). This I call “moral disqualification”: instead of saying that all human beings are immoral, within a naturalized ontology would be more correct to say that they are all morally disqualified. “The pain of being is connected to the limitations and narrowness of its own instauration…” (page 50). The narrow space full of pain occupied by human beings produces a morally disqualifying effect, independently from the Ulilitarian calculi of goods and harms presented in authors like Peter Singer e David Benatar.

In the chapter specifically devoted to the question of procreation, the main reason for not to make people coming into being is not that, in the balance, pain prevails over pleasure (something that cannot be asserted in absolute terms given the usual uncertainty of the results in the Utilitarian calculus and the seesaw vision), but that coming into being means to put someone in the terminal structure of being, to give him or her a being which is in process of termination from the very beginning, independently of the contents people put into this process, monotonously characterized by friction, decadence and conflict. A person who is in advanced age or seriously ill or unfairly accused in any moment of life, will actualize this very same terminal structure of being, independently of pleasures or achievements. Procreation is morally problematic in the strict measure that we know perfectly well, before the birth, that all this will inevitably happen to our sons or daughters, even when we don’t know if they will like to study English or live in Brazil or eat chocolates or play chess.

To come into being is to be ontologically impoverished, sensibly affected and ethically blocked: to be alive is a fight against everything and everybody, trying all the time to escape from suffering, failure and despise. This strongly suggests that the true reason for making someone to come into being is never, as Benatar also argues, for the person’s own sake, but always the interest of his or her progenitors, in a clear attitude of manipulation; radical manipulation indeed because, in contrast with usual manipulation of people already alive, manipulation in procreation affects the very being of the person, and not only some of his or her predicates. “Although the ontological manipulation of the offspring is absolutely inevitable, it is perfectly evitable not to bring him or her into being, and this is precisely which indicates the way for a morality of abstention…” (page 61). My disagreements with Benatar’s position are not material but formal, as the reader will see in my critical review of his book outlined in the FORUM OF DISCUSSION.

In 2002, I offered a course on these issues at the Universidad Veracruzana in Xalapa (Veracruz), Mexico. An issue of the PHILÓSOPHOS journal from Brasília/Goiânia was edited with an article by Professor Paulo Margutti, discussing my ideas in my article “Sense of life and value of life: a crucial difference” (“Sentido e valor da vida: uma diferença crucial”)” A reply of mine, entitled “The enormous sense of what lacks of value” (“O imenso sentido do que não tem nenhum valor”), was published in the same journal (Volume 11, Number 2, 2006). Other recent publications in the area of negative ethics are: 

“Dussel and suicide” (“Dussel y el suicidio”). DIANOIA Journal, Volume XLIX, Number 52, May 2004. (It contains a reply of Enrique Dussel: “About some criticism to the ethics of liberation. Reply to Julio Cabrera” (“Sobre algunas críticas a la ética de la liberación. Respuesta a Julio Cabrera”).

“The ethical-metaphysical issue: value and non-value of human life in the domain of the ontological difference” (“A questão ético-metafísica: valor e desvalor da vida humana no âmbito da diferença ontológica”). (In the book: GARRAFA Volnei and others. Conceptual basis for Bioethics. Latin american view (Bases conceituais da Bioética. Enfoque Latino-americano. Gaia / Unesco Publisher, São Paulo, 2006).

“What is really negative ethics? Clarifications and new thoughts” (“O que é realmente ética negativa. Clarificações e novos pensamentos”). (In the book: POLIEDRO. Phases of philosophy. (Faces da Filosofia). Publit Publisher, Rio de Janeiro, 2006). 

“Ethics and the human condition: notes for a natural foundation of morals (containing a critique of the foundation of morals of Ernst Tugendhat)” (“Ética e condição humana: notas para uma fundamentação natural da moral (contendo uma crítica da fundamentação da moral de Ernst Tugendhat” (In the book: NAVES Adriano. Ethics. Questions of foundations. Ética. Questões de fundamentação. UnB Publisher, Brasília, 2007).

“Suicide. Philosophical aspects”, “Suicide. Empirical approaches” “Death, mortality and suicide” (“Suicidio. Aspectos filosóficos”, “Suicidio. Abordajes empíricos”, “Muerte, mortalidad y suicidio”) (Entries of the Latino American Dictionary of Bioethics (Diccionario Latino-americano de Bioética).Universidad Nacional de Colombia/UNESCO, Bogotá, 2008).

Negative Ethics: Problems and Discussions (Ética Negativa: problemas e discussões). Book published by the UFG, Goiânia, 2008, with texts of my own and five Master students from the University of Brasília, and another text from a Mexican student, which presents multiple objections to my ethical-ontological thinking.

Because I love you, you will NOT born. Nascituri te salutant. (Porque te amo, NÃO nascerás. Nascituri te salutant”). Book published by LGE, Brasília, 2009, in collaboration with Thiago Lenharo di Santis.



Here I present the development of my criticism to Benatar's book, and a summary of my positions in Ethics. To read them, see the texts:

7 comentários:

Karl disse...

Excellent site and excellent philosophy!

nadaalleen disse...

it has weak points, like all antinatalistic arguments have

"being is always an impoverishing and a limitation if compared with the wide domain of non-being; so, coming to being is always an ontological restriction, and not a gift."

like in Benatar's asymmetry, non-being is a metaphysical state, one can only speculate about.

"human beings are put in a situation of scarce time and space to conduce their lives, they are constantly compelled to hurt the other’s projects with their own and to apart the bodies of the others to attain the own objectives....This I call “moral disqualification”"

that should make perfect sense, but, morals are man-made fabrications nature doesn't give a damn about.
and we are first and foremost nature's slaves. being morally disqualified doesn't necessarily have to be interpreted as...
a "bad" state. instead, one could also blame moral codes for being too unrealistic for actual usage.

nonetheless, it's an excellent depiction of life's shortcomings, and our views match for the most part

thanks for writing it.

kabra7 disse...

Thanks you very much, Karl; I am trying to improve my site including new philosophical texts until the end of the year.

Curator disse...

Will there be any translations of your books into English?
If yes, when?

Curator disse...

BTW, I was refering more specifically to your books/papers on Anti-natalism and Negative Ethics. Thanks.

darthbarracuda disse...

I hope to see more of your work translated into English.

Ryan T disse...

Mr. Cabrera, I love your work and am very happy to see your Critique available in English. I have one question:

In the Critique, you describe "moral disqualification" as something that can happen under circumstances of extreme physical suffering, such as torture or wasting disease. In these states, no one is expected to behave ethically. However, later in the book (and in your Summary), you describe moral disqualification as something different. You say it is a consequence of being forced to occupy the same space as other beings, interfering in their autonomy, and so on. According to the first definition, moral disqualification is always a possibility. According to the second definition, moral disqualification is a reality that already exists. Why did you change your description of this concept?

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