Having been really so bad?

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.

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11 Responses to “Having been really so bad?”

  1. Chip Smith Says:

    Thoughtful review.

    I think Benatar would argue that the absence of pleasure may be posited as neutral — or irrelevant — in the unique context of foregone procreation because there is no countervailing deprivation to inform the calculus.

    See his clarifying rejoinder at:

    http://www.utilitarianism.com/benatar/betanar-reply.html

    Responding to a less charitable reviewer, Benatar there addresses some version of your criticism with the following:

    “This diagnosis presupposes that the quantities of pleasure and pain are indeed relevant. My arguments show that they are relevant in many cases, but not in cases where the absent pleasures do not constitute a deprivation for anybody – that is, in cases where we are choosing whether to bring somebody into existence.”

    My view is that when you take account of the near certainty of at least some suffering combined with the inevitability of death, and when you further consider the potential procreator’s inherent inability to know beforehand how good or bad the death-doomed life he creates will be before setting it in motion, the absence of deprivation that attaches to the option of not creating that new person argues overwhelmingly for avoiding the risks and inevitable deprivations that go with bringing that person into existence.

  2. veryshuai Says:

    Chip, thanks for the pointer to Benatar’s response. I understand that the asymmetry is only intended to apply when we are considering non-existent beings. The thing I don’t understand is why there should be such an asymmetry. Why isn’t the absence of possible pleasure bad just as the absence of possible suffering good? Benatar is certainly correct in pointing out that many people regret the suffering of distant strangers, and that few regret the non-existence of people that could have inhabited a bountiful island. Is there a stronger argument than this common sense one?

  3. jim Says:

    I second Chip’s points. Also, I’ve posted something on my blog concerning your review http://antinatalism.blogspot.com/2008/05/having-been-really-so-bad.html .

    Glad to see you’re thinking about the issue, though. The more talk, the better. Thanks.

  4. Chip Smith Says:

    “Why isn’t the absence of possible pleasure bad just as the absence of possible suffering good?”

    At some level, one’s response must be intuitionally bound. But without steering too far out of my depth, I would ask: bad for whom? To my mind the only rational answer is that the absence of pleasure would be bad for the non-existent potential person. But the implications of positing interests for a non-existent person quickly reduce to absurdity, as I believe our intuitive lack of regret for those hypothetical island inhabitants well illustrates.

    Furthermmore, knowledge is important. The purchase of pleasure chips cannot be made with any degree of certainty where the recipient is yet non-existent, but the lack of deprivation guaranteed in avoiding the gambit remains assured. And for what it’s worth, I am inclined by intuition to regard this eternal denial of deprivation as a very good thing when weighed against the prospect of creating a life whose quality is intrinsically unknowable in advance. When the absence of possible pleasure for a non-existent being equals the impossibility of ALL suffering for the potentially created recipient, my strong sense is that the asymmetry is vindicated from every rational vantage. I may be wrong.

    You might also want to take a look oat Benatar’s discussion of the Original Position, which is gated at:

    http://jme.bmj.com/cgi/reprint/33/10/577

    Finally, it may be worth noting that one needn’t accept asymmetry to arrive at the conclusion that people shouldn’t have children; as Benatar notes briefly in his monograph, the same conclusion may obtain from deontology, i.e., from the view that the imposition of harm (including the harm of death) entailed in creating a new being can be viewed as a violation of the presumptive rights of the potential person. This view may be strengthened by the fact that it is impossible to secure consent from the potential person.

    BTW, for an interesting view that takes seriously the plight of those mirthful nonexistent islanders, see RM Hare’s “Abortion and the Golden Rule”:

    http://www.utilitarian.net/hare/about/1977—-.pdf

    Best,

    Chip

  5. Sister Y Says:

    Hi there – I was just telling Chip that I thought one of the problems with the asymmetry is that (as Benatar acknowledges) it’s built on intuition, which many people will claim not to share when faced with its potential consequences, and he pointed me to your review.

    If we refuse to accept the asymmetry – specifically, as you point out, the idea that absent pleasure, such that no one is deprived by its absence, is merely neutral and not bad – it leads us to all kinds of strange mental acrobatics. For instance, we have to acknowledge that it is bad that kajillions of potential people are denied life, at least that enormous portion of them who might have led pleasurable lives, and we must mourn for the pleasure that even those people who would have led awful lives were denied by not being born. We must live in a very bad world indeed, by that standard, considering what a tiny portion of people who might be born are actually born.

    And if we are to truly reject the asymmetry, we must treat absent pleasure as on equal grounds with absent pain. People who deny the asymmetry assert that a potentially happy person (rich Swiss baby) not being born is bad – but if something is bad, we usually have some moral duty to prevent it. These same people who deny the asymmetry are willing to excuse the parents from having extra happy babies on the grounds that having more children is a sort of sacrifice, which they are free not to make – but few honest people would say that it’s fine for carriers of severe genetic illnesses to have children, even though not having children must be at least as great a sacrifice for them as another baby would be for the rich Swiss couple. In practice, the potential for harm has more moral weight than absent pleasure. People might deny the asymmetry based on intuition, but they must then take that denial to its full consequences.

    If someone is willing to impose an equal duty to have happy babies as to avoid having unhappy babies, then I think he truly rejects the asymmetry. If not, I think he secretly accepts it, but does not wish to be bothered with its troublesome consequences.

  6. Tres bien passer Says:

    Sister Y: “If someone is willing to impose an equal duty to have happy babies as to avoid having unhappy babies, then I think he truly rejects the asymmetry. If not, I think he secretly accepts it, but does not wish to be bothered with its troublesome consequences.”

    I could not agree more. It is undoubtedly the case that people on the whole do not want to be bothered with the necessary assymmety’s consequences. Whenever I bring the issue up for discussion, much more crudely than all you guys (bad brain genes…), I sense that people deep inside know what I’m talking about but because they feel provoked, almost personally offended and attacked, clinge to their own view that the reproduction show must go on.

  7. Tracy W Says:

    The simple solution that strikes me is that the question of good or bad is simply irrelevant when considering non-existant people. Non-existant people don’t suffer, they don’t benefit. Their absence of pain is no more good than their absence of pleasure. We only owe moral duties to existing people.

    I think this matches with people’s moral intuitions, as when people count their blessings, I don’t normally hear of them including a list of all those things that can’t feel pain simply because they can’t feel, like rocks. Yet, according to Benatar, we should be happy that rocks aren’t suffering.

    And think of the end result of Benatar’s claims, if we all accepted them. Eventually no one would be alive. In that case, how can something be good or bad, if there is no one around to think that it is good or bad? His theory appears to require postulating some sort of good or bad that is independent of what any individual actually thinks.

  8. Marcus Says:

    How many of those who are horrified by Bennatars thesis, would agree with him if all supernatural beliefs in possible divine salvation are removed..not left in, remaining in doubt, but removed utterly from the argument? I think the experience of Sentient beings can be compared to being in a plauge city. the plauge is 100% lethal…some suffer horribly some less so. It is absolutely, completely virulent; everyone in the city will die from it, you, your children, your parents, your heros, your pet dog,everyone. there is no escape. you cannot leave the city. Enjoy! hey, try to look on the bright side! maybe theres a benevolent, all powerful sky daddy (or mommy) who is going to save us. we have no reason other than stark raving terror to want to belive this but try. it might ease your days.

  9. thewhitelilyblog Says:

    Pleasure and pain are two elements–but what about joy? Marcus’ rendition of the “Sky Daddy” almost gets there. I haven’t time to go into all the arguments that point toward the existence of a Creator, but if one were to tip the scale in that direction, and further, toward Christ, who teaches us what to do with suffering, then the possibility of joy emerges, even in extreme suffering, and certainly joy in life as it comes, mixed with pain and pleasure and delight and surprise. And that is to say nothing of what comes after life in the form that we know it.

    No one who counts only what our physical eyes can see even understands physics or biology or chemistry. No one who totals life as nothing more than a see saw between pleasure and pain ever wrote a poem, or ever loved.

  10. D Wade Says:

    Given our universe exists then universes in which sentience can arise will occur forever. Does Beneter believe the the annihilation of sentience on Earth will in any way end or even significantly reduce the pain of sentience in this universe or others? Our self-impossed extinction would be a very hollow victory over the “injustice” of being sentient in a universe doomed by entropy.

    The avoidance of pain is a senseless activity. Embrace it and learn how to heal from it and then get on with enjoying your life. In seeking out those things that you most fear you’ll either conquer them or learn what goals you must give up in order to achieve equanimity with existence.

    And if the pointlessness of existence gets you down, then perhaps you should think of your reflex to want purpose for all phenomenon as out of control and seek to circumscribe this reflex to the Earth-bound activities it evolved to help you understand rather than this doomed universe we’ve only recently discovered.

    Plus what’s to say our progeny can’t escape the entropy truly threatening their happiness with the destruction of all the things they love. If our progeny learn to put the universe creating forces to work creating other universes then they’ll escape entropy and give human kind immortality…Not that immortality for a species guarantees happiness for its individuals but it would be an improvement over our current situation of guaranteed annihilation.

  11. rob Says:

    @D Wade:
    There might be lots of sentient (and suffering) beings in the universe, yes. But the difference between them and our children is this: we did not create all these aliens and would not have had the power to prevent them from existing. Therefore we don’t have the same responsibility for their suffering as for that of our children, whose existence we could have avoided.

    Or, from another angle: that we are unable to stop all [possible] suffering in the universe is no reason to cause more suffering here, where we have the power to avoid it.

    All the best,
    rob

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