Summary of David Benatar’s “The Human Predicament”

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I have previously written about the philosopher David Benatar’s anti-natalism. Now Oxford University Press has published Benatar’s new book The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions.  Here is a brief summary of the book followed by a few comments.

Benatar’s book addresses the biggest question such as whether our lives are meaningful or worth living, and how we should respond to our impending death. He forewarns his readers that he won’t provide comforting answers to these questions. Instead, he argues

that the (right) answers to life’s big questions reveal that the human condition is a tragic predicament—one from which there is no escape. In a sentence: Life is bad, but so is death. Of course, life is not bad in every way. Neither is death bad in every way. However, both life and death are, in crucial respects, awful. Together, they constitute an existential vice—the wretched grip that enforces our predicament. (1-2)

The rest of the book explains this predicament. The basic structure of the argument goes something like this. While our lives may have meaning to each other, life is meaningless from a cosmic perspective; they have no grand purpose. “The universe was indifferent to our coming, and it will be indifferent to our going.” (200) Whatever little meaning our lives have is fleeting, and all human achievements ultimately vanish. In the end, it will all be as if we never were. This doesn’t imply that life has no meaning whatsoever, but “that meaning is severely limited.” (201)

However, even if our lives have some little meaning they are poor in quality and involve endless suffering. Some lives are better or luckier than others but in the long run, none of us fare well. It’s not that every moment is horrible but that sooner or later life will probably deal us some terrible fate. However, Benatar doesn’t conclude that since life is bad death is good. Instead, he argues that death is bad too. “Death does nothing to counter our cosmic meaninglessness and usually (though not always) detracts from the more limited meaning that is attainable.” (2-3)

Benatar doubts claims of immortality, even scientific ones, and also considers that immortality might not be a good thing. He grants that having the option of immortality would be better than not having it, but doubts that we will ever have that option. And while suicide doesn’t solve the human predicament it is sometimes the best choice we have. Yet, even when it is rational, suicide is tragic because it both affects others and annihilates an individual. Thus the prescription to “just kill yourself if it’s so bad” fails to appreciate our existential predicament.

This human predicament is not the product of a conscious agent, but of blind evolutionary forces. Yet human consciousness worsens the situation because humans “inflict colossal quantities of suffering and death on other humans. The deceits, degradations, betrayals, exploitations, rapes, tortures, and murders …” (203) However, while we should be pessimistic about the possibility of cosmic meaning, we can still obtain limited meaning. And this implies that

One should not desist from loving one’s family, caring for the sick, educating the young, bringing criminals to justice, or cleaning the kitchen merely because these undertakings do not matter from the perspective of the universe. They matter to particular people now. Without such undertakings, lives now and in the near future will be much worse than they would otherwise be. (205)

Naturally, people resist pessimistic views of life. Furthermore, they try to undercut them by claiming that adherents to pessimism are grouchy, pathological or macho individuals.  While Benatar these adjectives describe some pessimists, they don’t describe them all.  For many pessimism is an authentic response to one’s understanding of the human predicament.

So how then should we respond to the human predicament? First, we should cease having children and thereby perpetuating the cycle of suffering. But as we already exist, what can we do about our situation? Suicide might be a rational response, but better to invest some meaning into our lives.

An even better response would be to adopt a pragmatic optimism that recognizes the human predicament but uses optimism to cope. This would be most successful if one actually believed in an optimistic view. But suppose you only accept optimism as a kind of placebo? The optimist might recognize the horror of the human predicament but try to keep this horror at bay and remain optimistic. However, Benatar worries that this compartmentalization will be hard to maintain—to acknowledge the bleakness of life and yet remain optimistic. If you can’t maintain the correct balance here, you might become overly optimistic or revert back into pessimism.

The best coping mechanism would be to adopt pragmatic pessimism. Here you accept a pessimistic view of life without dwelling on it and busy yourself in projects that enhance and create terrestrial meaning. In other words “It allows for distractions from reality, but not denials of it. It makes one’s life less bad than it would be if one allowed the predicament to overwhelm one to the point where one was perpetually gloomy and dysfunctional … ” (211)

Benatar admits that the distinction between pragmatic optimism and pessimism as well as between denial and distraction are ambiguous. They exist midway in a continuum between “deluded optimism and suicidal pessimism.” (211) Like terminally ill patients we should confront our imminent death but not be so obsessed with it that we don’t spend time with our friends and family. So, while we can ameliorate our predicament somewhat, doing so “is the existential equivalent of palliative care.” (7)

In the end, the best we can do according to Benatar is to be the kind of “pessimists who have the gift of managing the negative impact of pessimism on their lives.” (213)

Reply – There is much to say about this book but let me mention a few things in passing. I believe that life is bad in many ways and so is death. The solution is to make life better and eliminate death. It may indeed be better if nothing had ever existed—assuming nothingness is even possible—but I just don’t know how to evaluate that claim. It may also be that something like Schopenhauer’s idea of blind will drives us and reason recommends putting an end to consciousness. But again I just don’t know how to evaluate such claims. Right now I enjoy my life, but then I’m a privileged white male in a first world country with a roof over my head, food in my refrigerator, access to medical care and the recipient of a wonderful education. I certainly understand that for many others life isn’t worth living and this fills me with irredeemable sadness. I wish I could say more.

The other thing I’d like to say is that I think the pragmatic response, whether slightly more optimistic or pessimistic is the best approach. This aligns well with the kind of attitudinal and wishful hope that I’ve written about in this blog. The main difference in my approach is that I begin with ignorance about answers to the big questions whereas Benatar confidently claims that the answers to life’s big questions are pessimistic ones. Starting from my ignorance I argue that, assuming we have free choice, we might as well be optimists as that is pragmatically useful. As I’ve said many times this is no answer but a way to live. And we find the most meaning by trying to make the world a better place.

8 thoughts on “Summary of David Benatar’s “The Human Predicament”

  1. Well there is nothing new here for me in this book. I’ve already digested and come to my own terms with all the issues discussed. For myself I think this quote sums it up as to how I handle this life predicament.

    “In the end, the best we can do is to be the kind of “pessimists who have the gift of managing the negative impact of pessimism on their lives.”

    That does not mean I say no to suicide. In fact I say a resounding positive YES to it at some point when the psychological and physical pain and my courage combine to make a way to make my escape from this prison I call my life.

    There is no way that optimism will ever again be an option for me. I know and feel too much of the sufferings of humanity, myself included of course and many other living creatures who live to struggle reproduce and die. Were I to try and opt for optimism I feel it would be dishonorable. The compassion I feel for the suffering I see in this world has almost completely overwhelmed me. I still cannot fully grasp the scope of misery and suffering in the world that I was programmed to believe was a beautiful place where I was somehow important and lucky in the scheme of things.

    Actually from what you’ve shared of his book I’m not sure why he bothered to write it. Seems that most or all of this was covered in his first book and I’ll guess that Becker and Schopenhauer and Ligotti did a better job covering the issues raised in this new book. This is something that I’ve noticed about most authors covering this and similar subject matter. They need to keep saying the same things over again. I’m guessing there is a phycological need on their part to keep trying to get past their own sticking point with the problem or and some ego gratification and maybe the desire for cash. Doesn’t really matter because I find him one of the most compassionate and logical humans I’ve ever encountered. I love this man I’ve never met. I love the fact that he’s out here in the world somewhere. I feel less alone. This is very selfish of me. It would be better for him had he never been born. I’m confident he would agree. And that is what makes things so difficult for some of us. For those of us who look deeply at the human condition and the condition of all living things the main experience of a life is some kind of suffering. This may sound like a self important or mean thing to say about the rest of humanity but IMO those who claim life is very good and they are optimistic about existence have found a more efficient way to shut down a large part of their consciousness in the very way that Becker showed in his book Denial of Death so as to limit their awareness of what is actually happening everywhere all the time from the little boy beaten by a drunken father or just ignored and left to fend for herself, to horrific disease, starvation, mental illness, war, torture, animal abuse and a thousand other slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that are happening this very second all around the globe. Even downtown L.A. One of the things that result with this limiting of consciousness is the limiting of the ability to deeply feel compassion. The more you limit your awareness of this suffering the more superficial your feelings of compassion when you do attempt to address it. These are my personal observations from 65 years of living and watching life along with many psychedelic experiences which had a major impact on my awareness. These beliefs might be incorrect in whole or in part. However I’m mostly convinced that my observations are correct. There is a lot of evidence to be easily found if one wants to look at it.

    I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why I am this way and think and feel like this. My conclusion is that because of a childhood of neglect and emotional abuse and my first psychedelic experiences when just a very young man Inhibited the normal cultural programming that is meant to allow me, unconsciously, to shut down a portion of my conscious awareness which all societies use to protect human animals from our death anxieties and the overwhelming horrors of existence. In my case the inculturation process was not completed successfully due to my life circumstances and I became hyper aware of what is actually going on in material existence. People then say to me “well of course you feel this way. You had bad experiences and you took them personally. Otherwise you’d be a happy camper.” To that I have to say that the fact that this kind of suffering happened to an innocent little boy just provides one more tiny bit of evidence for my position. If the world is such a wondrous place I would never have had those experiences. So reluctantly and sadly and pessimistically I’m going to side with Becker and Schopenhauer and Ligotti and the Antinatalists and not side with Nietzsche and the Superman.

    So thanks for doing this book review. You saved me some time and a few bucks for the book. I think I’m going to pass on this one. I get it.

  2. Mr. Miller – I thank you for taking the time to write such a powerful commentary on my post. Perhaps some of my readers will reply better than I can. All the best, JGM.

  3. “Benatar doubts claims of immortality…”

    Alexander the ‘Great’ is only great because he lives on in memory, a sort-of immortality. Certain Egyptians had themselves mummified– and they achieved immortality in museums.
    People will take any immortality they can. The negative is acidic warming oceans full of plastic, as by-product of people seeking various forms of immortality.

    “…even scientific ones, and also considers that immortality might not be a good thing.”

    Pure science is at best neutral–applied science is not good. Applied science is ‘pragmatism’, expediency. Immortality will not be a good thing yet, unconsciously, immortality is what people want. It is heir genetic trajectory
    Having children is a trajectory of genetic immortality.
    People spend extravagant sums keeping their elders alive as long as possible because they subconsciously wish for an immortality of sorts. (And, naturally, after an elder dies more large sums are spent on funerals, sending away the soul of the deceased to immortality.)
    ——————————–
    Agreed, immortality is not good; the more science advances, the less good there is. The trade-off is we lose piety but gain excitement. It used to be life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Now we lose happiness but gain pleasure.
    Today it is excitement, pleasure, and the pursuit of immortality; we do gain the world and lose our souls. Whatever one’s definition of ‘soul’ might be it is what we lose in seeking different forms of immortality.

  4. Thank you for summarising this book. I would like to put forward the following argument.

    Firstly, it doesn’t follow logically that if the universe is not affected in grand ways by one’s birth and death and that one is an evolutionary accident that one should be in a terrible predicament and should be pessimistic about life. This is only his opinion. There is no natural or biological law that says this should happen. It is Benatar’s judgement or just his opinion resulting from his way of thinking, his personal history and perhaps his desire to distinguish himself by holding such opinions which are shocking to others.

    Secondly, all his opinions are predicated upon an unstated assumption that (1) there is a self (beyond its function as a social convention for communication and social regulation similar perhaps to paper money) which is separate from the flow of the weaving and unweaving of the dynamics of relationships in life and (2) that this self wants to be the fulcrum around which the universe revolves.

    There are other ways of experiencing life that do not lead to Benatar’s conclusions. Indeed, there are ways of experiencing life without the concept of self that neither lead to the need to have any conclusion (pessimistic or otherwise) nor to the need to find a meaning or purpose in life. Now this is not another opinion opposing Benatar’s opinion. It comes from phenomenological experimenting with bare awareness and finding it to be true. This experimenting is open for anyone to try irrespective of their worldviews, personal histories and previous opinions.

  5. …HOWEVER there might be some very good news (one would have to ask AI experts): uploading to happiness simulation. After all, if discussions are going on all over the developed world concerning the future of AI/AGI, then why not regarding happiness sim? Goodness sim.
    Benatar is down to Earth, here and now in dealing philosophically with the human predicament. AI/AGI, though, go –of course–beyond human and here and now

    Not to write plausible- but Conceivable.

  6. I agree with John that the best response to David Benatar’s main thesis is to apply pragmatic optimism. This approach is reminiscent of one of the main principles of Stoicism: when faced with a situation that cannot be changed, one simply accepts it, maintains self-control and remains happy in the face of it. This approach is described very well in John’s essay “In Defense of Optimism”, which can quickly be found on this site by entering that title in the search bar.

  7. Pragmatic optimism, yes. Also escapism–which ironically involves being pragmatically unpragmatic in running away from reality. Escapism covers everything from death and religion, to sims and robots. There’s total escapism, wherein someone escapes altogether from reality, esp. the reality of dying & death.
    Nietzsche wrote,

    “there are rational arguments for abandoning rationalism.”

    Less escapist escapisms exist. Such as the Arts. Enthusiasts think the Arts are practically sacred, but Art is not eternal.
    Right now there are a few people living on the International Space Station. They have escaped from the substrate of Earth, if only temporarily. Some astronauts and cosmonauts undoubtedly have religious sentiments; imagining they are closer to their God/closer to eternity/feeling immortal.

  8. ..Btw,

    “people resist pessimistic views of life. Furthermore, they try to undercut them by claiming that adherents to pessimism are grouchy, pathological or macho individuals.”

    Macho individuals? A ‘real man’ in conventional terms must be grouchy and pathological to some degree. Grouchy & pathological as good as any definition of macho. Any conventional definition of a man.

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