Benatar’s “The Human Predicament”

I have previously written about the philosopher David Benatar’s anti-natalism. Oxford University Press has published another of his books 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 questions such as whether our lives are meaningful or worth living, and how we should respond to our impending death. He warns 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 mean something to each other, life is meaningless from a cosmic perspective; life has 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. Still, 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 argues that immortality may 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. 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 or pathological individuals.  While Benatar admits these adjectives describe some pessimists, they don’t describe them all.  For many pessimism is an authentic response to an 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 create some meaning in 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 to 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 actually 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 say is that the pragmatic response may be best. This aligns well with the kind of attitudinal and wishful hope that I’ve written about previously. The main difference in my approach is that I begin with ignorance about answers to the big questions whereas Benatar 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. In the end, my own attitude is very close to Benatar’s.

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8 thoughts on “Benatar’s “The Human Predicament”

  1. Possible Sources of Meaning and Motivation

    This blog raises many profound questions which a brief reply like this cannot possibly fully address. But here are several thoughts that point in directions worth pursuing.

    Based on the blog (and I rely entirely on that; I have yet to read Benatar’s book), an implicit, underlying question here is whether and how “meaning” is linked to temporality, i.e., is “meaning” possible only with eternality? Does temporary necessarily imply meaninglessness?

    But perhaps that question is a blind alley; perhaps “meaning” isn’t the only avenue for humans to pursue. “Meaning” implies sense or rationality, but “joy,” for instance, does not. For me at least, “meaning” is not prerequisite to joy; I experience moments of joy reflexively, unmediated, without first or even simultaneously contemplating their “meaning” (though I may do that later). The moment is joyful and pleasurable immediately and in and of itself.

    Another aspect of this piece may also be misplaced. Benatar apparently says that “life is meaningless from a cosmic perspective,” but that implies that such a “perspective” exists, i.e., that there’s some cosmic consciousness “out there” capable of perceiving or assigning value to meaning. That suggests some form of awareness capable of assessing what humans consider “meaning,” i.e., some form of divinity. Does Benatar mean to imply that? Or does he allow a back door recognition that humans themselves may perceive or even achieve some form of transcendence?

    As quoted in this blog, Benatar concludes that despite all the negativity, “One should not desist from loving one’s family, caring for the sick, educating the young, bringing criminals to justice…” This brings to mind Otto Spengler’s observation that,
    “Man is the only being that knows death; all others become old, but with a consciousness wholly limited to the moment which must seem to them eternal….every religion, every scientific investigation, every philosophy proceeds from it.”

    I believe that many forms of work likewise proceed from our human awareness of mortality. As explained in the concluding chapter of my recently-published book, Wellsprings of Work/Surprising Sources of Meaning and Motivation in Work:

    “Writing a poem, building a pyramid, joining a cause, supporting your family, rooting for your team, fighting for your nation, praying for an afterlife, serving others—in all cases, consciously or not, we seek something beyond our transient, limited selves, something more universal and enduring.”

  2. Naturally, “immortality” is a one-word way of saying ‘indefinite lifespans’. Though there’s little or no meaning (probably the latter), there’s yet purpose. My two purposes for the next few decades are:
    Preventing dictatorship
    Building genuine civilization…

  3. One more comment on this.
    I’d prefer the excessive optimism of even, say, an uneducated rock star such as Pat Benatar to the perhaps self-pitying pessimism of a David Benatar. Maybe just a bit too much ‘woe is me’ underneath the objectivity of his scholarly writing.
    We won’t live long enough to know genuine civilization, full civilization, as not even a verifiable life extension exists now. However dictatorship can be prevented today and in the future by sabotaging people who want power. Trump’s enemies did everything they could to ruin his administration—and rightly so. Today, Russia’s plans are being ruined in Ukraine—and rightly so. Thus there is evidence that the spread of dictatorship can be prevented.
    At any rate, Benatar’s sort might be portrayed as those who throw in the towel not long after the pugilists enter the ring.

  4. Obviously, Meaning is in the mind of him who lives a meaningful life!
    Al Brooks, A regular, and well respected, poster here, has identified a cause to champion and believe in!
    Having a cause to believe in gives purpose and meaning to life!
    I think meaning and satisfaction, are found in things we do outside our selves, something we identify as being for the greater good!

  5. It does give purpose, but meaning? Therein is where the doubts enter. As Sam Halpern begins in his comment: whether and how meaning is linked to temporality. Is meaning possible only with eternality?
    Surely, purpose is not. The purpose of say crocheting doilies isn’t. But as I’ve no intention of reading Benatar’s book, such is as far as I’m willing to go with this. Even if he’s correct—and he probably is—he’s a tad too pessimistic.
    (Btw, John, the last thing in the world I want to be is respectable; wrong gene pool. We can escape our environments, but not our genetic structures. For now.)

  6. In my experience, joy generates meaning, because it is meaningful in itself, in so far as when one is joyful, one enjoys life.
    The joy may always be evanescent, yet it can be maximised through engagement in an infinite number of activities which further generate joy.
    If everyone could live a life of joy, we would have a paradise on earth.
    But if I can maximise my joy and contribute to others maximising joy in their lives and the more of us would do this, the more meaningful life could become.
    So the maximisation of joy on earth could give meaning to me and many others.

    Composing his double violin concerto in D minor, must have given J.S. Bach increadible joy.
    And even though he died, the joy he succeeded in causing to all members of humanity too who listen to his work is extraordinary and is perpetuated intergenerationally.
    To be a pessimist, realistic or not, is a ‘kill joy’ approach to life.
    And the more we could generate a kindom of humanity vs tribal kingdoms by seeing people beyond our blood family as members of our extended family of humanity, the more joyful and loving lives we could all live.
    Are we going backwards in this regard?
    Maybe so.
    But while the pessimist would mope about it, the person of courage would grasp the nettle and find joy in pursuing the impossible dream, even if it may never become possible for the whole of humanity.
    That is the difference between the self-defeating pessimist and the person who is capable of joy by constanly striving to be in the joyful eye of the storm while not giving up working to bring others into the eye too and the working for the calming of the storm.

  7. “even if it may never become possible for the whole of humanity”

    There’s the rub: it won’t, so a Buddhist approach of equanimity is illustrative. One doesn’t seek joy—but not despair either. A mild pessimism is the way to go, accepting that life is impermanent except for suffering, which is permanent. Maybe Benatar would agree with such.

  8. ‘A mild pessimisis the way to go’.

    Why not realism with inspired optimism rather?

    Life AND suffering are both impermament.
    When I have fun I don’t suffer.
    And the end of life might permanently put an end to suffering.
    Well, the jury is out on the latter.

    But accepting the inevitability of suffering as part of life need not lead to pessimism, even in its mild form.
    An option is gratitude for having been around for life’s tragicomic gig and further gratitude that it has not been as bad as it might have been.

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