(This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine as, “Is It Better Never To Have Been Born? (anti-natalism)” October 13, 2014)
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, as does his book, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. Here is a summary of his basic argument.
It is commonly assumed that we do nothing wrong bringing future people into existence if their lives will, on balance, be good. This assumes that being brought into existence is generally beneficial. But Benatar argues that: “Being brought into existence is not a benefit but always a harm.”[i] While most 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 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.
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 exists to enjoy 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 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 is no deprivation for those who have never been born.
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 measure by which the absence of pain is better than its presence is itself greater than the measure 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 to help explain 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 you will gain greatly 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. Consider death. It is a tragedy at any age and only seems acceptable at ninety 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 too might wish I hadn’t been born, when I encounter what’s in store for me.)
Does it follow that no one should have children? Benatar claims that to answer yes to this 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 for 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. Benatar views people’s claims about the benefits of life skeptically, just as he would the ruminations of the slave who claims to prefer slavery.
Benatar concludes: “One implication of my view is that it would be preferable for our species to die out.”[ii] 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.
Summary – It is better never to come into existence as being born is always a harm.
[i] David Benatar, “Why It Is Better Never to Come into Existence” in Life, death, and meaning, ed. David Benatar (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004), 155.
[ii] Benatar, “Why It Is Better Never to Come into Existence,” 167.