David Benatar’s anti-natalist monograph Better Never to Have Been left me unconvinced. The short book presents Mr. Benatar’s simple argument in favor of non-existence, describes how life is more harmful than most people think, and discusses the implications of Mr. Benatar’s view.
The non-existence argument is so simple I can sum it up in several sentences (if I read it correctly). The absence of suffering is always good even if there is no one to be not suffering. The absence of pleasure is however merely neutral, neither bad nor good. Thus not having a child is always good, because no matter how pleasurable a child’s life may be, there will always be some suffering.
If Benatar had convinced me that this asymmetry between pleasure and suffering was real, his conclusions would have been hard to argue with. Unfortunately, he didn’t explain why the absence of pleasure is only neutral, and not bad. The closest he comes to defending the asymmetry is to say that if we accept that the absence of pleasure is bad, we must have as many potentially happy children as possible, and regret that there are uninhabited islands on which people could pleasurably live. It is strange that someone who is advocating the cessation of childbirth and extinction of the human race would be unwilling to accept these much less counter-intuitive conclusions.
Benatar is on stronger footing when he discusses the harmfulness of life. The discussion is more complicated than the asymmetry argument, but most convincingly Benatar notes that even the people with the most satisfying lives spend much of their time stressed out, tired, uncomfortable, hungry, having to go to the bathroom, etc. Nearly everyone’s life has some events of profound suffering, such as grieving the loss of loved ones. Moreover, many people have profoundly unhappy lives (malnutrition, war, etc.). Even here, though, there is a way around Benatar’s argument. Certainly some people are more likely than others to have happy children. People in a country like the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, with its extended, brutal, ongoing civil war are likely to have children that profoundly suffer. But on the other hand, a very rich family in Switzerland might be relatively likely to have happy children. As long as the Swiss family has a high chance of having a happy child, it doesn’t seem immoral for them to give birth. This, of course, if we reject the asymmetry argument.
On the whole, the book was provocative and peppered with interesting digressions and a surprising variety of famous peoples’ anti-natalist quotes. It was worth reading, but in the end left me where I started–on the fence about the kid question.