Review of David Benatar’s, Better Never to Have Been

David Benatar is professor of philosophy and head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Cape Town in Cape Town, South Africa. He is best known for his advocacy of antinatalism. His article, “Why It Is Better Never to Come into Existence,” espouses the view that it is always a harm to be born. In addition, he wrote a book on the same topic: Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. Here are his basic arguments.

It is commonly assumed that we do nothing wrong by bringing future people into existence if their lives will, on balance, be good. This assumes that being brought into existence is generally beneficial. In contrast, Benatar argues that: “Being brought into existence is not a benefit but always a harm.” While most people maintain that living is beneficial as long as the benefits of life outweigh the evil, Benatar argues that this conclusion does not follow because: 1) pain is bad, and 2) pleasure is good; but 3) the absence of pain is always good whether people exist or not, whereas 4) the absence of pleasure is only bad if people exist to be denied it. Here it is in matrix form:

Scenario A (X exists) Scenario B (X never exists)
(1) Presence of pain (Bad) (3) Absence of pain (Good)
(2) Presence of pleasure (Good) (4) Absence of pleasure (Not bad)

To support this asymmetry between 3 & 4 Benatar presents three arguments. The first is that: 1) while there is a duty not to bring people who will suffer into the world (supports 3), there is no duty to bring people who will be happy into the world (supports 4). Thus a lack of suffering is always good, whether or not someone enjoys this absence; whereas a lack of happiness is not always bad unless people exist to be denied it.

His second argument is that though we think it strange to say we have children so they will benefit, we think it normal to say we should not have children because they will be harmed. We don’t think people should have as many children as they can so as to benefit those children, but we do think people should refrain from having children if this will cause them suffering.

His third argument to support the asymmetry is that while not having children may be bad or good for the living, not having been born cannot deprive those who have never been born of anything.

This fundamental asymmetry—suffering is an intrinsic harm, but the absence of pleasure is not—allows Benatar to draw his nihilistic conclusions. In other words, the amount by which the absence of pain is better than its presence is greater than the amount by which the presence of pleasure is better than its absence. This means that not existing is either a lot better than existing—in the case of pain—or a little worse, in the case of pleasure. Or to think of it another way, the absence of pain and the presence of pleasure are both good, but the presence of pain is much worse than the absence of pleasure.

(Here is my own thought experiment that might help us understand this. Suppose that before you were born the gods were trying to decide whether to create you. If they decide to create you, you will suffer much if you have a bad life or gain much if you have a good life. If they decide not to create you, you will gain greatly by avoiding a bad life, but suffer only slightly if at all by not existing—as you wouldn’t know what you had been deprived of.)

To further his argument, Benatar notes that most persons underestimate how much suffering they will endure. If their lives are going better than most, they count themselves lucky. Now consider death. It is a tragedy at any age and only seems acceptable at ninety years of age because of our expectations about lifespans. But is lamenting death inconsistent with his antinatalism? Benatar thinks not. While non-existence does not harm a possible person, death is another harm that will come to those in existence.

In response, you could say that you can’t be mistaken about whether you prefer existence to non-existence. Benatar grants that you may not be mistaken if you claim that you are currently glad to have been born, but you could still be mistaken that it was better to have been born at all. You might now be glad you were born and then suffer so badly later that you change your mind. (I might wish I hadn’t been born after I find out what was in store for me in the future, as I age for example.)

What follows from all this? That we shouldn’t have children? That no one should have children? Benatar claims that to answer yes to these questions goes against a basic drive to reproduce, so we must be careful not to let such drives bias our analysis. Having children satisfies many needs of those who bring children into existence, but this does not mean it serves the interests of the children—in fact, it causes them great harm.

One could reply that the harm is not that great to the children, since the benefits of existing may outweigh the harm, and, at any rate, we cannot ask future persons if they want to be born. Since we enjoy our lives we assume they will too, thus providing the justification for satisfying our procreational needs. Most people do not regret their existence, and if some do we could not have foreseen it.

But might we be deceiving ourselves about how good life is? Most of us assume life would be unbearable if we were in certain situations. But often, when we find ourselves in these situations, we adapt. Could it be that we have adapted to a relatively unbearable life now? Benatar says that a superior species might look at our species with sympathy for our sorry state. And the reason we deceive ourselves is that we have been wired by evolution to think this way—it aids our survival.

So Benatar views our claims about the benefits of life skeptically, just as he would the ruminations of the slave who claims to prefer slavery to death. Benatar concludes by saying: “One implication of my view is that it would be preferable for our species to die out.” He claims that it would be heroic if people quit having children so that no one would suffer in the future. You may think it tragic to allow the human race to die out, but it would be hard to explain this by appealing to the interests of potential people. He concludes that it is better never to come into existence, as being born is always a harm.

Reflections – Benatar relies on an asymmetry to claim that it is better never to have been born and that it would be a good thing if the human race became extinct. The validity of this asymmetry is questionable. Yet despite its philosophical subtlety, it is hard to believe that Benatar believes his own argument. Can one really prefer eternal nothingness to the possibility of a good or bad life? If I prefer to remain alive, am I not implicitly accepting that life is better than non-life? Does it really make sense to dedicate a book to your parents (as Benatar does) if they harmed you by bringing you into existence?

Despite these questions, Benatar’s arguments are persuasive enough that I cannot find any knock-down arguments against them, although I urge caution against accepting philosophical prescriptions that, if followed, will result in the death of the species. Surely we ought to tread carefully here despite the power of Benatar’s claims.

I find this one of the most troubling, and hardest to evaluate pieces I’ve ever read. A possible answer might be to accept the truth of Benatar’s assertions regarding the history of cosmic evolution to the present—so far pain and unhappiness have outweighed their opposites and so far it would have been better never to have been—but suggest that a better future might render the long, painful struggle of life and consciousness ultimately worth it. Thus the end state will be so rewarding that we can say, in retrospect, that it was better to have been.

Still, this kind of eschatological talk scares me, inasmuch as it relies on a future that may not transpire. It also implies that somehow this better future will justify past suffering. If this justification depends upon an eternal plan, then the eternal planner is exceptionally evil. As Dostoevsky said, the torture of a single child cannot be justified by a good future. But if reality was a matter of happenstance, and if all those who previously suffered somehow partake in this better future, then one might justifiably conclude that, on balance, it was better that consciousness arose.

Still, I don’t know if my argument works against Benatar, and the whole question strains my limited intellectual faculties. Perhaps we just have to hope that life is worth living.  As for me, I now find my life to be worthwhile. However, if at some point in the future that is not the case, then I hope to have the option to end my life without help or be able to get help ending it if necessary. I also hope that my family reads the pieces I have written on this topic, as well as consult my end of life documents. Until then, I try to follow the advice of Thoreau:

… to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life …

Henry David Thoreau

 

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14 thoughts on “Review of David Benatar’s, Better Never to Have Been

  1. Wow, thanks for sharing this. This is a great summary, which saved me from reading the book (which has been on my wishlist forever).

    I don’t think his always-bad-to-be-born conclusion follows from his asymmetry thesis. If the benefit of pleasure is weaker than the cost of pain, that doesn’t mean that you can’t stack up so much pleasure that you still outweigh pain. Feathers are lighter than hammers, but one million features are heavier than one hammer. To evaluate whether it’s better to not be born, you would need a way to quantify and compare this pleasure and pain (broadly construed), which nobody can really do with any precision. Still, his larger point (that being born is not as good as we often believe and want to signal) seems correct and very intriguing.

  2. I’m little moved by arguments about pain and suffering; they are relevant but not dispositive in my view. We have evolved to register suffering as a benefit to ourselves for our self-preservation, not as as an absolute right to dictate the behavior of others. I have a sense of smell and it may be offended by what the perfume someone is wearing. Absent some fairly strong additional facts, it’s not mine to demand this person go wash and never wear it again. The same principle applies for something that causes me pain, with the difference that causes all this confusion for people being that what causes us pain is routinely objectively dangerous. But not always!

    We can prove this by the fact that some people are hyper-sensitive to pain, even to touch. We would think that a claim by such a person that clothes are criminally too heavy, that they should be fed so as not to have to hold a utensil, and so on, are not strong enough to impose a general duty on others. Likewise some people enjoy pain. We do not think that it imposes a duty to torture them or even absolve anyone of mistreating them.

    That someone is going to get pain or pleasure in their life is not the only issue worth considering in an abstract, objective sense. It has a strong claim among peers out of civility and agreed concern for one another… but even then not that strongly.

  3. I agree with everything Kip say here. His argument is very sophisticated, but I think Kip is right that to do so “you would need a way to quantify and compare this pleasure and pain (broadly construed), which nobody can really do with any precision.” Interpersonal and intrapersonal quantitative and qualitative measures of pleasure and pain are notoriously difficult to ascertain. Aristotle suggested the only way to determine whether a life had been a good one was after it was over. Because a life might start of bad or good and then get better or worsen. Finally I do think coming into existence for many people in the world is an injury or harm.

  4. The argument only works if you consider all pain a negative. Pain can be both “good” and “bad” at the same time. Considering all painful experiences negatives takes for granted the existence of conscious experience in the first place. I’m reminded of John Searle’s idea that there is something specific that it is like to be a person which cannot be replicated by mere programming. Subjectivity imparts a unique group of feelings, thoughts, experiences, etc. Even painful ones have more meaning than total non-existence.

    The argument that never having been born is preferable is based on an over sensitivity to pain and a taking for granted of the fact that experience itself has a unique value to it. I’m reminded of a quote from somewhere I can’t remember that we’re all trapped inside some kind of giant work of art. There’s plenty of time for non-existence after we ride this one out and see exactly where it goes.

  5. Thanks for your perceptive comment. Your idea that “Even painful ones have more meaning than total non-existence,” is especially thought provoking, and it also brings home the distinction between happiness and meaning. I’ll have to think more about that. I do think though that some fates are worse than death, so at least sometimes death is preferable.

  6. Thanks for bringing this article to my attention. I really have quite a few things to say about it. Your argument is very balanced and tries to account for “both sides”. That is the way it should be. As you have implied, this kind of deliberations and knowledge can be very bitter medicine. It is very striking to me to observe that most of what I read from Benatar here, was already said by Schopenhauer. For example, for S one of the things that would be absolutely clear, is that “pain is always positive, whereas pleasure is always negative”. I took a while to find out what that meant, and he clarifies this elsewhere, more or less in this way: “Pleasure is always short lived and illusory, for as soon as you reach it, it is over and you look for the next one, whereas sorrow is real. And lasting”. A very simple example: let’s say that I want to find a girlfriend. Or a new job. Or new friends. Or more money. Or that I want to have an holiday to a particular place. Or that I want to have a lot of sex. Or that I want to eat a lot of great food.

    The problem with getting any of this is that, in the best of cases, I will get used to it. Soon it will feel habitual. I might not even start to notice it’s even there anymore. Soon, BOREDOM will set in, and now I will have to do SOMETHING ELSE to ward it off (this is all stuff that Schopenhauer wrote, it is none of my own knowledge). You can see this happening everywhere, in yourself and other people. For example, take Johnny Depp: he’s famous, he’s very wealthy. He’s 57 and he spends his time getting drunk and snorting cocaine. I ask myself, how is this possible? I am living almost as a destitute, and even I am doing none of the stupid things he is doing. I am sure you too, are living a much better life than his. Yet he’s a millionaire, and his life seems completely out of control. It doesn’t seem a happy life to me, at all.

    I have never cared about what goes on in the “ celebrity” world, of course, but this is just an example. Why do you think someone like Depp engages in self destruction, even though with all his money, he could EASILY be WAY happier (after all, more money means more possibilities, for people like us).
    And how many there are like him? And what about his ex wife, Heard? Let’s see, during their short marriage they were throwing bottles at each other, and then they divorced.

    You will rightly ask yourself: how is it possible that these people, having the means to live a better life, they waste it throwing tantrums and making their lives unnecessarily bad?

    Answer: boredom. But when, say, in cases like ours, we don’t really have that problem, because we find lots more interesting things to do that numbing our brains as the people mentioned before do, and we read Plato or other interesting books, keep learning, and find many other things that are interesting , (if you think about it, we are quite lucky in this respect. ), then there’s still PAIN to deal with. And this is a major topic in Schopenhauer’s “Counsels and Maxims”. Here’s is revelation: “if life is tolerable, it is good enough. Stay away from pain as much as possible.

    As probably is your case, boredom has never really been a problem for me. The world is certainly not an uninteresting place.

  7. Consider this lucid observation by Schopenhauer (quoting from memory, not word for word):

    “We should stop to pretend that life should be “happy”, for this is an illusion. Instead, if life is TOLERABLE, we should consider it good enough. Remember, pleasure should NEVER be bought at the cost of possible pain. Even if the cost is only a remote possibility. Indeed, it is far better that one becomes overly cautious, than being the fool who will later blame himself for his lack of judgement. For there are very few things for which we can truly say we are completely blameless. Still, if one tries to avoid pain as much as possible and then will still have to face pain, then at least it will be so because of fate, and not his own”.

    I see the truth of all these observations everywhere, both in my own life and that of everybody else. For example, when I was young I was an heavy smoker. Then I gave it up with great difficulty (I literally locked myself up for 6 weeks and imagined I was a soldier with a sole mission, and that nothing else mattered). Of course, I really loved smoking. Each puff gave me a high. It’s hard to explain but it really works like a drug, because it is one. Now I see people smoking, and fully knowing all the horrible risks that smokers incur, I think to myself: “These people are absolutely INSANE! The cancer risk increases of 80 per cent for a smoker. Insane!”. This, for example, is a perfect example of what Schopenhauer was talking about: too many people just don’t know what they are doing. I tried to tell other people “You should give it up immediately. You should imagine that you are dying of cancer in a hospital ward and that you are crying and that you would give anything to go back in time and quit immediately. And there you are now, you are now back in time! Do it!”. But they just don’t get it! 🙁

  8. Kip,

    “ that doesn’t mean that you can’t stack up so much pleasure that you still outweigh pain. Feathers are lighter than hammers, but one million features are heavier than one hammer. “

    With all due respect, what makes you so sure of all that? Seems wishful thinking, to me. Name me one serious misfortune, to which indiscriminately, anyone is subject to , at any time(I trust I don’t need to make examples, do I ?), and tell me if eating a million strawberries dipped in ice cream, will cure one of a major or chronic disease, or bring someone back from a premature death.

    Pleasures are worthless, except the greatest ones, such as a major, personal accomplishment, like getting a PhD, learning classical piano, etc…Little pleasures especially are worthless, they last only while you are doing that one particular thing that produces the pleasure. Minutes, or seconds. Then you are back at square one. And the greater the mind, the more insignificant these little pleasures are. This is why people like the Cynics or the Buddha despised them.

    Even sex is short lived. After you do the thing, a few hours later you are back at where you started. Pleasure never lasts, except the very greatest ones. Pain does.

    I am not sure whether I agree with Benatar, but then again, as John wrote, it is because I do not know my future. But I can think of countless people that had been better not born at all: people who suffered serious abuses. Kids who were exterminated in concentration camps, the list is endless.

  9. I agree with almost everything you say here. As always you touch on so many ideas. Here are just a few random comments. Buddhism talks about contentment coming from reducing or eliminating desires; Plato showed that a life of pleasure isn’t a good one by saying that although scratching an itch is pleasurable, a life spent itching and scratching would not be a good one; Thoreau said that those who aren’t satisfied with a little won’t be satisfied with a lot; Frankl said those who did best in concentration camps were those with rich interior lives. I really like the idea that a tolerable life is a good one. People try to get more out of life than it offers and end up in trouble. Maybe a glass of wine is nice, but a bottle every day is no good. It may be nice to have good food but too much of it will result in ruin.

  10. John,

    “People try to get more out of life than it offers and end up in trouble. “. Exactly. This striving to “get more out of life than one has” is an illusory search for lasting pleasure. This involves risk, indeed, risking what one already has, we assume it falls in the range of at least ‘tolerable’, for something that almost never happens. Unfortunately, our culture produces and reads stupid books about how it’s all about becoming a millionaire, getting a lot of sex, competing with everybody else in regard to their possessions…and then? After all the toil and the struggle, EVEN after attaining these things, which almost never happen, one is left with an empty feeling. I have studied innumerable examples of this, from the real world. I have a friend who years ago could not understand why I just didn’t much care about having a lot of money, and I could not understand why he did. He was a reliable and good person, but he started to take more and more risks, and some years later, I saw him again , thin and pale. He was in huge debt, he asked me 10 bucks to buy some petrol for the car. And he did not do anything crazy in pursuing these “pleasures”. It was all legal and fair. On paper, it seemed all promising (he worked as an estate agent). This process is again explained very clearly by Schopenhauer in various places: “Not pleasures, but freedom from pain, is what one should strive for, for it this this striving for pleasures that we start doing extravagant things that inevitably end up in ruin.”. I also like what Alain De Botton said, very succintly: “Good enough is good enough.”.

    Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong in enjoying some ice cream. I just did! 🙂
    But seriously, of course there is nothing wrong about harmless pleasures; one doesn’t need to be a monk. But even a bit of that attitude, I think is very useful. Incidentally, some said that Schopenhauer was a hypocrite because he professed that “denying the Will” consisted in self-negation, i.e. asceticism, and he himself didn’t become a monk or something. What I think these people don’t get is that Schopenhauer didn’t say: ‘here is the perfect solution”; I don’t think he meant we should living in a cave, but that we should still apply this kind of attitude, i.e. not running after the shiny things everybody seems to be wanting; being suspicious of appearances; practicing some basic discipline; avoiding doing stupid things that can result in serious pain later; practicing moderation; developing the powers of the mind, etc.

    Nothing wrong with having a glass of wine a couple times a week, but getting drunk, hitting my head, and ending up paraplegic is not high on my to do list. (examples of this type are of course real, in fact I am thinking of a very real example).

    Once again, thanks for your article, John.

  11. But to get back to Benatar (sorry about the long train of thought that apparently seems to go in many directions), I think I would say that if life has been tolerable, then on the whole it was acceptable to be born.

    But the problem is, no one knows that, until they already come in the world. On a balance of probabilities, I would say I would probably refuse to be born again and live a different, unknown life, for I could then not miss the good things I never experienced, and I still avoided the bad ones, as you wrote. And some of these could be very bad.

    Incidentally, during these last couple of weeks I have been filling out an Advance Decision to Refuse Treatment, in case I basically die and attempts to resuscitate me are tried, etc.

    Point being, once the transition has been made, I certainly would not come back, for in my case what is left is just getting older and lonelier. The latter part I don’t mind too much at all, the former one, I do. See, I think the problem isn’t just death, but very old age too. We get weaker, “we become a former shadow of ourselves” as Schopenhauer wrote. Not necessarily until the age of 70-75, I think. I see plenty of people in good shape and they are even approaching 80 years of age. But past that age, I definitely would like to get out of here. I am “only” 47 now, but how long it will take to see 15 years whizz me by? Not long. (but this realisation is a good thing too, as you know, i.e. it means we really value our time)

  12. PS. as regard the Advance Decision, I just wanted to clarify that I do not have a terminal illness or any such thing ( and I guess I should be thankful for that).

    Also, I notice that you taught medical ethics, so these things are far from not known to you. I apologize for my ignorance, I do not have your long experience as a thinker. I will read the other topic you mention in the article.

    (as I finish writing this, a silly idea occurs to me: “But, first, a little ice cream!”. Ah ah, sorry John! it gets silly around here 🙂 )

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