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Friday, May 5, 2017


All of us, I imagine, have at one time or another found ourselves yelling at the television.  I turned on MSNBC this afternoon just in time to hear a bright, cheerful young thing explaining to Ali Velshi why it makes no sense to require men to buy life insurance that insures them for, among other things, maternity expenses.  As she said with an enormous smile, “I am sorry to tell you this, Ali, but you are never going to get pregnant,” she was so manifestly pleased with her wit that she could scarcely contain herself.  Let us set to one side the notion, apparently anathema to a good many conservatives, that we should care about the well-being of others [even if they are no longer fetuses].  I feel the need to explain just exactly why it is in the self-interest of unmarried men to pay something to ensure the healthy delivery of babies.  If you know all of this a thousand times over, my apologies, but writing a blog post is a tad more satisfying than throwing fruit at a TV screen.

The life cycle is the central fact of human existence.  Assuming that we are fortunate, we are born, we grow to maturity, we live, we grow old, and we die.  These days in the United States that process takes, on average, a bit less than eight decades.

Now, to live, we need food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and – I am hesitant to acknowledge – cell phones.  It is also nice for us to have movies to watch, music to listen to, restaurants to go to, and airplanes to ride in.  Not absolutely essential, to be sure, but nice.  A great many people imagine that they can ensure their supply of food, clothing, shelter, and the latest upgrade in cell phones by prudently engaging in systematic saving, setting aside a bit of their income each year in a pension plan of some sort so that when their earning days are over, they can live on what they have saved.  But that is, I should like to point out, a very superficial and shortsighted view.

This is 2017.  Let us suppose that I am a thirty year old unmarried man gainfully employed here in Chapel Hill, NC.  My life plan has me retiring at 70 [I have one of those white collar jobs that does not wear the body down.]  That means that in 2057 I will stop earning and start spending my pension. 

Today, when I go to the grocery store for dinner, I will buy fresh fruits and vegetables [I am, let us suppose, a health nut.]  These fruits and vegetables are grown by farmers in California, harvested by low paid undocumented workers, trucked East by unionized truckers, and sold to me by the staff of the local Whole Foods outlet.  If I get sick, I will go to the Ambulatory Care Center [or ACC] at UNC Health Services and be looked after by a doctor and several attending nurses and medical students [it is a division of a teaching hospital.]

In 2057, who will grow, harvest, and truck East my fruits and vegetables?  Who will treat me when I am sick, as I imagine I will be from time to time at age seventy?  I will have the money to pay for them because I have for forty years prudently saved a little each year.  But although I am putting away money, I am not, as though I were a squirrel, storing bread and yoghurt and shoes!

The people who provide all of those things for me now will not still be providing them for me in forty years.  In forty years, those people will all pretty much be retired except for the medical students, who will be senior physicians.  No, I will be fed and clothed and housed and amused and treated by a raft of people who are now babies or children, if indeed they have even been born yet.

Think about that for a moment.  No matter how self-reliant I am, no matter how healthy a life I live, my survival in old age will depend completely on the labor of people who are being born now.  Is it in my self-interest that those people be born healthy, grow to maturity healthily, get educated, and live productive lives?  You are damned right it is.

Imagine I am rushed to the Emergency Room in 2057 with a heart attack, only to be told that the physician who was to attend me isn’t there because forty years ago her mother had inadequate pre-natal care and so she did not make it through the first year of life.  Of course, if maternity care had been part of a health insurance plan that unmarried men like me contributed to, thus making it affordable, that little girl would now be a physician capable of saving my life.


There.  That feels better.


Bill said...

I am a Canadian. We have socialized medicine here. My mother died when she was 85 having 6 serious operations which made it possible for her to live a good life; I can't tell you what any of these surgeries cost because they were paid for through our tax dollars. We pay far more taxes in Canada than Americans do. Somehow we cope. To drive a car we are compelled to buy liability insurance. Lack of liability insurance results in a fine ranging from $5000 to $50 000. Most people get sick and need health care. I'm not sure what happens to an uninsured person in a car accident who needs emergency care in a hospital. I would hope that he is treated by a doctor and billed for services. I would also assume that he would be seriously distressed if he were fined $50 000 for not having health insurance especially if he were a young person with no previous medical conditions and chose not to be insured. What is truly perplexing to me is the notion that a society does not regard the health of all as a basic tenet of its fabric.

howard berman said...

You forgot to mention free psychoanalysis, the government funded examined life should come with the package

s. wallerstein said...

The U.S. has an infant mortality rate of 5.87 per thousand live births. Canada 4.65, Norway 2.48, France 3.28, Germany 3.43 and poor Cuba 4.63.

I don't know what you can say to someone who refuses to pay a few more tax dollars or a slightly higher insurance payment to assure that babies are born healthy. They are the only argument I know of in favor of the gulag.

howie berman said...

Why Americans so paranoid about socialism? Is it just anti government jingoism going back to colonial times? Some super individualism?
A holdover from the Soviets?
All the countries you listed except Cuba and maybe France are not exactly socialist. It's a weird tic

s. wallerstein said...

By the way, the figures I cite are from the CIA, which has absolutely no reason to sing the praises of the Cuban healthcare system. There are other lists in this Wikipedia article, but they all rank the U.S. lower than Cuba and than Western (and most Eastern) European countries, not to mention some Asian nations such as Japan and Singapore.

Jerry Fresia said...

Bravo! Great blog; perhaps that young woman "so manifestly pleased with her wit" has a known email address.

Chris said...

I was going to ask, what's her contact info, lets forward her the blog.

Jerry Fresia said...

Yes, indeed Chris, that would be good.

Enam el Brux said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Enam el Brux said...

The risk pooling argument is excellent, which for me is a source of consternation just as I was cozying up to the anti-natalism of David Benatar. If you do have an interest in continuing the life cycle and certain patterns of production and consumption, then the only rational justification for not contributing to insurance risk pools for maternity care if you are male or an infertile female is free riding. Free riding, the animating principle of the exploitative classes, is rational but not moral. That leaves me with Benatar's pessimistic Existential Vise as a source of "comfort."

Danny said...

'Is it in my self-interest that those people be born healthy, grow to maturity healthily, get educated, and live productive lives? You are damned right it is.'

I think I follow the argument well enough, but I still am intrigued by the rules concerning the usage of this term 'self-interest'. In this case, we are talking about a 'self-interest' that is even something close to 'fear'. And is at least a concern for one's own advantage and well-being. And yet the argument is, as it turns out, for a sort of far-sighted thing, like when people argue that self–interest requires that we be generous in foreign aid. And as I say I think I do follow the argument well enough. We state state a kind of philosophy, which states that acting to further the interests of others also serves one's own self-interest. And we can do this without being terribly original. What intrigues me is that doing so doesn't confront the interesting matter directly, of whether we intend to simply take up the ethical position that moral agents ought to do what is in their own self-interest. Or perhaps, also, do we mean to decide here whether all rational actions are those done in one's self-interest..? Or again, moral agents ought to do what is in their own self-interest, is that right? This might be rational, might be ethical, might be both. But stating this baldly, we simply have Ayn Rand's objectivism. It doesn't seem like it ought to take a Trotskyite to notice, but heck, there are Trotsyikes among us..

Chris said...

IMF, I love Benatar! Teach him all the time. I agree with you that the argument works well if you're a natalist, but if you're an anti-natalist, it's not clear it does.

Enam el Brux said...

Now you have a conflict. If you're alive, you have an interest in continuing and in maintaining a decent quality of life. This depends on others. But if you're an anti-natalist, you are against bringing new lives into the world. You could say that the moral imperative not to reproduce stops with you. But in that case you may be relying on free riding--on the unpopularity of anti-natalism. This may be rational, but it's morally unsavory. Otherwise the anti-natalist has to weigh his own future suffering against universal anti-natalism, which seems like the morally consistent position, if you are an anti-natalist. In that case the interest in continuing comes into conflict with the desire to reduce the overall level of suffering in the world. Has Benatar considered arguments of this kind?

Enam el Brux said...

I should be more careful: the interest in continuing to live comes in conflict with the moral rule (in Gert's usage of 'moral rule) not to increase suffering. The anti-natalist belIves that coming into being increases suffering. I suppose the anti-natalist would have to resign himself to increased suffering with age if he maintains that it is always better never to have been.

Chris said...

Benatar does not believe that coming into existence increases suffering in the world. That's not the argument he gives against natalism. The argument is powerfully simple, it's that NON-Existence is better than Existence, every time. However, once you exist, you have different moral imperatives. And he does talk about some of your scenarios in Better Never to Have Been.

It is important to note, again, the argument is about whether or not bringing people into existence is moral, not about once you exist what ought you to do. If you exist kill yourself if you're miserable, or make your life and other lives better, all of that is congruent with non-pro-creation.

"Now you have a conflict. If you're alive, you have an interest in continuing and in maintaining a decent quality of life. This depends on others. But if you're an anti-natalist, you are against bringing new lives into the world."

This isn't a conflict. I can both try to improve my life and others, without procreating. If I help my neighbor move, I'm not violating anything Benatar argues.

Enam el Brux said...

Well, I was interested in hearing your thoughts about why it is unclear if Prof Wolff's argument works for an anti-natalist--apparently my thoughts didn't cut it. You wrote, "I agree with you that the argument works well if you're a natalist, but if you're an anti-natalist, it's not clear it does.'

Danny said...

it seems like this previously obscure branch of philosophy has developed a cult online following. I mean 'antinatalism'. There's the bevy of contemporary popularizers of anti-natalism. To me it seems quite obvious really, that it isn't an idea that has no basis whatsoever, even though people can spout thousands of illogical emotional reasons why it's untrue. I think of this as an occasion to meditate on whether arguing never convinces anyone of anything, people just come out from arguments maintaining their original positions in an even stronger manner.