Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence (英語) 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.
Benatar's book can be roughly divided up between his formal argument and his material argument. The formal argument is the asymmetry between non-existence and existence in respect to tendencies of feelings, generalized into pain and pleasure. According to Benatar, the existence of pleasure is good, the existence of pain is bad, the non-existence of pleasure is neutral (not-bad), and the non-existence of pain is good.
Benatar's material argument is similar to that of the classical pessimists - life is pretty bad, all things considered. He correctly notes the existence of the psychological phenomenon of the Pollyanna principle (echoing Freud and Zapffe), shows how we're never quite satisfied with what we have (echoing Schopenhauer and Buddhism), etc. In my opinion, the material argument is all that is needed for the antinatalist conclusion - in fact I think it's the only thing supporting the antinatalist conclusion without coming across as ad hoc.
Returning to Benatar's formal argument, I believe he has committed a few fallacies in his reasoning:
The first problem, and the most pressing one, is that he is inconsistent with his use of logical counterfactuals (if...then propositions). He argues that the non-existence of pleasure is not-bad purely because nobody is being deprived of pleasure (echoing in some sense Fehige). However, he does not apply this counterfactual to the non-existence of pain. Instead, he argues that the lack of pain is good, brute fact, because nobody is suffering. In other words, he argues that in order for the lack of pleasure to be bad, there must be someone there, but there doesn't need to be anyone there for the lack of pain to be good.
This is problematic because Benatar is claiming that his asymmetry is formal (he goes about it logically), yet he is not being consistently logical. In fact, Benatar claims that a symmetrical view (in which I am inclined to accept) is "incoherent" - but there's nothing incoherent about applying counterfactuals logically. Additionally, Benatar asserts that we have no feeling of loss when thinking about the lack of pleasure - but I would argue that we actually can feel a certain amount of regret at the loss or avoidance of pleasure. It's not incoherent to see the world as fundamentally bad because it's incapable of supporting long-lasting happiness: and this is a bad entirely independent from suffering.
To put all this another way (which I don't think anyone else has thus far): Benatar is not consistent with his use of "good" and "bad" - he's too liberal with his use of "good" and too conservative with his use of "bad". He claims that an empty universe can actually be good (because nobody is suffering) - but this seems much too liberal: WHAT is good about an empty universe? There's nothing there to support any value of any kind. Furthermore, if we accept that an empty universe can be good, then (logically) we also can accept that an empty universe can be bad. In an empty universe, nobody feels pleasure. It could just be me, but I personally feel a pang of disappointment and regret when imagining a world without happy people. Thus, Benatar's claim that the symmetrical view of this all being too strong is, in my view, false. I can clearly see that the universe is a bad place because it's not able to support happy existences.
In other words, Benatar is "secretly" holding a suffering-focused view to advance a position that is supposed to support a suffering-focused view (anti-frustrationism, similar to negative utilitarianism): he identifies suffering as the only ethically important thing of note here. How? Because what makes non-existence good, according to Benatar, is that nobody is suffering. What makes it the case that non-existence can never be bad? Because bad can only exist when someone is suffering. What makes it the case that pleasure is good? Pleasure is good because it's a removal of a bad (a desire, a need, a concern, etc...a suffering). Here we have an explicit dependency on suffering-focused ethics which, in my opinion, is strikingly ad-hoc and also much too narrow to be even reasonable. For example, Benatar identifies no difference in value between an empty world and a world filled with pleasure and no pain - which, at least to me, is absurd. A world filled with pleasure and no pain (or even only a little bit of pain) is better than an empty world. Furthermore, ignoring pleasure as a legitimate variable leaves no way of evaluation relative populations of happy people - in his view, a million happy people is objectively equal to ten happy people, just as a million happy people or ten happy people are objectively equal to an empty state of affairs.
When talking of pleasure, Benatar makes it person-dependent. When talking of pain (or suffering, take your pick), Benatar makes it state-dependent. If we were merely talking about the interests of possible people, we would see that there is a logical symmetry between pleasure and pain. The same applies to states of affairs - which Benatar readily accepts without the proper use of counterfactuals. If it's not bad that nobody is feeling pleasure, then it's not good that nobody is feeling pain. If it's good that nobody is feeling pain, then it's bad that nobody is feeling pleasure. Benatar wants us to believe that goodness can literally "float around" out in non-existence, simply because nobody is suffering. Goodness, according to Benatar, is not dependent on people, but Badness is. This is not valid.
I can see how perhaps someone may try to justify Benatar's argument by appealing to Fehige's preference ideas - that there is no difference between satisfying a preference and not having a preference to begin with. To which I simply say: this is insufficient. Pleasure is more than just the satisfaction of a preference. It's a distinct feeling, a distinct mood. Furthermore, it seems ad hoc to not ascribe the same Fehigean principles to pain as well - is pain just simply the frustration of a preference? I seems intuitively obvious that it is not. And yet, if we apply these principles to the non-existence of pain, then we get that nobody is there to have a preference to not feel pain.
To put it another way: if the non-existence of pain is good, and the non-existence of pleasure is not-bad (because nobody is suffering), is the non-existence of pleasure actually a good thing (since nobody is suffering)? Surely not - yet this seems to be a conclusion of Benatar's dependency on suffering as a person-independent value.
Another problem I see with the asymmetry is that it is inconsistent when it comes to suicide. Admittedly this is what immediately struck me when I read his argument for the first time: if there really is an asymmetry, then we ought to kill ourselves. Benatar argues that we shouldn't do this because we have preferences to continue to live - and yet, if we're all dead, we have no preferences, and we're also not suffering anymore (to echo the Epicurean argument). Why are our preferences suddenly important? They weren't before, even if we think of possible people having preferences. From what I can tell, an antinatalism focused on the consistencies and tendencies of life is incompatible with an affirmative life - if life is not worth starting, then surely it's not worth continuing? Surely a life not worth continuing is what makes a life not worth starting?
None of this is to say that those who think that life is not worth starting or living can't nevertheless live out of spite or necessity. But this isn't really "living", it's more akin to "managing" or "enduring".
I will confess that, despite everything I have just said, I continue to find Benatar's formal argument to be intuitively compelling. I've rolled over this for a long while now - how our intuitions in this matter lead us to illogical conclusions. Indeed population ethics is rife with contradiction. I suspect there are other reasons for this than those Benatar has presented. For example, it seems as though we have a greater prioritization of pain than pleasure - not enough to entirely remove pleasure from the equation as Benatar wishes to do but significantly tip the scales in favor of pain. There's also issues with consent and legal matters, which are just as important as anything else. More importantly, I think that Benatar's formal argument is, despite what he claims, inherently dependent on his material argument, another problem with the argument. I think the material argument is where all the force is, and is what propels us to even consider his formal argument in the first place. Imagine if we all lived in a utopian paradise: would Benatar even have conceived of his argument? It seems not, at least to myself.
Do I think, despite what I see to be flaws in his reasoning, that this book ought to continue to be seen as a "primary" text for the antinatalist community? I'm not sure. On one hand, I'm committed to truth, and I have issues with supporting an argument that I feel is wrong. And yet, many people (including myself for some time) have found Benatar's argument persuasive. And, coming from a consequentialist, a bad argument can nevertheless be useful if it motivates people to do something: in this case, not have children. Additionally, Benatar was, as far as I know, the inventor of the term "antinatalism" in which many philosophers in the past have been identified with (justified or not - for example, I don't think Schopenhauer was an antinatalist, he just looked down on birth but didn't see anything "immoral" about it). If we're going to continue to use the term "antinatalism", it might be a bit inconsiderate to ignore the person who coined it to begin with.
In regards to the rest of the book: I think Benatar could have done a better job explaining how he thinks antinatalism should be implemented in society. He seems to gloss over this part in favor of the theoretical, only mentioning that the final few generations would have more difficult lives than those in the past. I have to wonder what he thought would happen when he released his book - surely he could have seen how a philosophy without practical constraints imposed on it leads to extremist views within corners and pockets of the internet? What was the "point" of releasing the book if there was no defined way of implementing its contents? Additionally, I also thought he missed the point of pessimism in general when dealing with his material argument: he alluded to but never really said that life is "structurally" problematic. The structure is what I think is so pressing about pessimism, and it's a shame that this wasn't really expressed as much as I thought it should have.
All in all, I think David Benatar's book "Better Never to Have Been" is a tough book to recommend to others - I can see it convincing many people of antinatalism, despite it being wrong in its argumentation, or I can see it pushing people away from antinatalism, those who would have accepted it had it been a bit less provocative. I don't think it should be the "Bible" of antinatalism as so many internet enthusiasts seem to make it out as, despite the term "antinatalism" coming from this book originally. Perhaps it can be seen as an exercise in the limitations of intuition, or a way of exposing our intuitions as it did for me. In that sense, I'm deeply grateful that Benatar made this book - it helped get me interested in philosophy, in particular ethics and philosophical pessimism, and is one of the reasons I continue to study it today. That is why I give it 3-stars: it's interesting, provocative, and troubling, but also inconsistent, contradictory, and a bit disappointing.