Better Never to Have Been: The Harm Of Coming Into Existence ペーパーバック – 2008/9/15
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Most people believe that they were either benefited or at least not harmed by being brought into existence. Thus, if they ever do reflect on whether they should bring others into existence---rather than having children without even thinking about whether they should---they presume that they do them no harm. Better Never to Have Been challenges these assumptions. David Benatar argues that coming into existence is always a serious harm. Although the good things in one's life make one's life go better than it otherwise would have gone, one could not have been deprived by their absence if one had not existed. Those who never exist cannot be deprived. However, by coming into existence one does suffer quite serious harms that could not have befallen one had one not come into existence. Drawing on the relevant psychological literature, the author shows that there are a number of well-documented features of human psychology that explain why people systematically overestimate the quality of their lives and why they are thus resistant to the suggestion that they were seriously harmed by being brought into existence. The author then argues for the 'anti-natal' view---that it is always wrong to have children---and he shows that combining the anti-natal view with common pro-choice views about foetal moral status yield a "pro-death" view about abortion (at the earlier stages of gestation). Anti-natalism also implies that it would be better if humanity became extinct. Although counter-intuitive for many, that implication is defended, not least by showing that it solves many conundrums of moral theory about population.
This isn't a new book, but it is generating increasing discussion in university departments and elsewhere: hence this review... If you enjoy an ethical challenge, then read this book. (Malcolm Torry, Triple Helix)
For those who admire really careful and imaginative argumentation, and are interested in either issues of life and death, or the foundations of morality, it's a must read (Harry Brighouse, Out of the Crooked Timber)
Benatar's discussion is clear and intelligent. (Yujin Nagasawa MIND)
This view on procreation is called anti-natalism and is often met with a visceral reaction in most people that learn of it. But, is it really so off target as to be insane, as most people assert or is it a completely rational and logical way in which clear headed people can and should view our lives and the world that we inhabit? Benatar argues that there are scientific reasons that we overestimate the quality of our lives.
In this book, he argues brilliantly, in my opinion, that procreation is not only irrational but it is immoral as well. He holds a candle for the "Pro-death"movement in that he believes women are morally obligated to abort their fetuses at the earliest stages of gestation. The visceral reaction that most people have to his view point is easily explainable, according to Benatar; humans have evolved over billions of years to be optimists. This is the way in which we survive as a species and it blinds us to the reality of our lives. In short, humans are delusional about their condition because nature makes us this way. This is very unfortunate, according to Benatar, because it leads us to the creation of new lives and new suffering.
Why is life so bad? Well, according to Benatar, even the most priveleged and gifted lives are full of suffering and hardship. Humans are "centers of suffering" according to Benatar and we don't even realize it due to our optimism bias instilled by nature. Benatar claims that most people spend a large part of their lives lonely, sad, hungry, thirsty, tired, depressed, anxious, nervous, embarassed, in physical or emotional discomfort or otherwise suffering in some way. He believes that all pleasures are negative in character; that is, it is a relief from some pain that we are in. Benatar argues that pain is much more intense than pleasure. He holds that no one alive would take the option of an hour of pure pleasure if it was followed by an hour of the worst pain imaginable.
Pain is also much easier for people to "catch" than pleasure. For example, everyone has heard of chronic pain but no one has heard of chronic pleasure. It only takes a moment for someone to be seriously injured in an accident that lasts a lifetime but it is impossible for someone to catch a type of pleasure which is as intense or lasts as long.
Benatar implores us to observe the bad in the world we live in. Some facts he presents: There are currently 7 billion people on the planet and that number is expected to skyrocket in the coming decades. Over the past 1,000 years, 15 million people are estimated to have died in natural disasters. Approximately 20,000 people in the world die from starvation every day. The 1918 Influenza epidemic killed 50 million people. HIV kills 3 million people annually. 3.5 million people die each year in accidents. Wars have killed hundreds of millions of people. When the numbers were put together for the year 2001, 56.5 million people died. That is more than 107 people per minute. As the world population increases, the amount of death and suffering only magnifies.
One thing that we humans are guaranteed is death. We all will die, either through the natural aging process or through a disease or accident that take us out prematurely. Our physical prime is only a tiny part of our life and the rest is our gradual, if not steep, decline. We are not guaranteed any pleasures at all.
A potential parent should view themselves as the top of a pyramid, according to Benatar. As that parent creates more humans, they create more suffering and pain that is easily avoidable. If each parent has 3 children, that amounts to more than 88,000 humans over ten generations. To Benatar, that is a lot of pointless suffering that could easily be avoided if we would all just use birth control or have early term abortions.
Part of the brilliance of Benatar's book is that he anticipates the readers objections and responds to them with clear and sound logic. The first argument against Benatar's views on life is that there are good parts of life that Benatar chooses to ignore; Benatar agrees with this but argues that the bad outweighs the good by a large margin.
His key argument against reproduction is his assymetry argument; that is that pain is bad and pleasure is good. The best lives contain a lot of pain and pleasure as well, but, had we not existed, we would not have been deprived of pleasures. Only living beings can be deprived of pleasures, no one that does not exist can ever be deprived. When one does not exist, one does not feel pain, which is good and one does not feel pleasure, which is not bad, since one does not exist. Simply put, non existence means no suffering and no deprivation. Therefore, never existing is better than existing, considering all the suffering that humans must endure.
Benatar urges us to look at Mars as an example. There is no suffering on Mars because there is no sentient life there. The Earth, however, is full sentient life and suffering. There is no pleasure on Mars but this matters not since there are no Maritians alive to be deprived. Do we Earthlings ever look to Mars and bemone the lack of pleasure that Martians do not have since they do not exist? Of course we don't. However, if Martians were alive and suffered as we humans do, we would certainly deplore their condition.
One argument that always comes up against anti-natalism is the reaction that anyone that promotes it, such as Benatar, should commit suicide. Benatar does address suicide and believes that it is an option, but it should be used only as a last resort after one discusses it with many people. In general, he is against suicide because it not only causes the suicidee harm, it also causes harm to people around that person, including their family and those that care about them. Anti-natalism is not the belief that we should all commit suicide, but rather that we should analyze reproduction and our lives and come to the conclusion that we should not create more pointless suffering by creating new humans.
Every person, even those opposed to anti-natalism, can agree that having a child is essentially rolling the dice with another person's life, without their consent. None of us can see into the future; the future that involves our future children may indeed be grim. Reproduction is a form of Russian roulette, according to Benatar. For example, in the United States, 1 out of 4 women in America is raped during her lifetime. That means, if we have 2 daughters, there is a 50% chance that one of them will be raped. Knowing this, is it moral for humans to go ahead and create those daughters? Benatar believes that is it morally wrong to do so.
I loved this book. It can be dense at times as there is a ton of information in each paragraph; some parts of it can be hard to understand. That being said, this book is important and I don't see how Dr. Benatar's thesis can be refuted.
I can agree -- since it is pretty obvious -- that lives never created cannot be deprived in any way. I can also agree that, in general, people really need to give more thought to whether they are suitable to be parents, financially, emotionally, and otherwise. I agree that human overpopulation is destroying this planet, I wrote a college thesis on this many years ago. I don't think it is very debatable that religions or other philosophies such as nationalism and special interests such as the corporate/business economy that push reproduction at any cost are doing a vast amount of harm and creating immeasurable suffering -- this has been a topic of widely read books.
What I am not convinced of in reading this book is that the author has proven his point that procreation is always (or nearly always, as he vacillates on this), for everyone, morally and practically wrong. He uses pure philosophical reasoning and gyrations but does not stop to examine the most fundamental premises on which the arguments are based. One can sometimes, but not always and probably not even often, decide that a condition is "bad" or regrettable and have it apply universally. This is patently false collectivist and stereotypical thinking.
While I agree (again it is pretty obvious) that people procreate based on their own needs and interests rather than the needs and interests of their progeny, selfish reasons for procreation can be very good reasons. For example, many people selfishly want children because they are lovers of life and people and want to give this love to a child. Many people have worked very hard on themselves and know they would be good role models for their kids. The author acknowledges this but insists adoption would better fulfill these needs. Again, that would depend on the individuals; people have the right to make their own reproductive decisions.
The author has not brought in any opinions from expert figures in human psychology and this is a serious weakness. For only one example, Aaron Beck, the founder of Cognitive Behavioral Psychology, I think would be rolling in his grave were he to read this book. Beck showed us how we are prone to cognitive or thinking errors of the pessimistic sort and how we tend to let such premises slide by in much of our thinking.
Added to this, we are all individuals -- what affects us and how it affects us is subject to tremendous variation. Shinzen Young's The Science of Enlightenment and others that back up the evidence he presents on meditation have agreed that a serious meditation practice can eventually lead to a condition of happiness, independent of conditions, and this includes most conditions. While this is not an excuse for irresponsible reproduction, which I vehemently oppose, it still tends to show that extreme statements such as that all sentient life on balance entails mainly suffering can be rationally challenged. The author's premise may on balance be correct -- for reasons additional to what he gives -- but by the same token it may be false -- there is really no way to know.
By making us think more deeply about reproduction, this book is worthwhile but I see as a detraction that the author overstated the case.
Lastly, let's assume for the sake of argument that the author's premise is correct ... it will never make a difference anyway. Evolution of sentient life from basic chemicals on this planet is a paradigm for the entire universe, which is unlimited in space and time. There are an infinite number of planets "out there" with conditions suitable for evolution of life; this has always been and will always be going on, as life is created and destroyed. How soon life will be destroyed on earth is unknown, but what is certain is that earth is an infinitesimal speck in an endless universe in which nature dictates that life is born and evolves to become more complex and sentient over time, be that good, bad, or indifferent.
Bottom line, a worthwhile read from an author who is courageous enough to express a highly unorthodox opinion.