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"Better Never to Have Been:" The Bizarre World of Philosophical Antinatalism

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posted on Aug, 22 2011 @ 07:35 PM
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Hello ATS.

In the dog days of a hot and wild summer as the global economy teeters on the brink of archetectronic meltdown, It is not necessarily a bad idea to escape the cares of this beleaguered world and turn our thoughts to more rarefied philosophical heights...while we still can.

Today's offering is my summer book report (quite the light beach reading, ha-ha), an ATS exclusive for the class, on the work Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence by philosopher David Benatar of the University of Capetown. The book itself is published by Oxford University Press and it is extremely dry and philosophical/logical in both form and tone. Fortunately for you, ATS, I've waded through this short but dense philosophical stew so you don't have to. I present my findings below.



NOTE: I do NOT espouse the views of Prof. Benatar and I am not here to argue in favor of them, so please don't "shoot the messenger." I merely present the information below to stimulate discussion and as an example of one extreme philosophical view on the outposts of moral theory.

The basic premise of the work is an extremely radical philosophical and moral position -- Benatar argues that that coming into existence is always a serious harm. To quote from the book's succinct self-summary:



...Although the good things in one's life make one's life go more smoothly 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...


Basically, Benatar's view is a form of radical Antinatalism, an "anti-existence" philosophy that has been associated with canonical philosophical names like Arthur Schopenhaeur.

The following is a sketch of Benatar's core argument as presented in this work

Benatar begins by showing that coming into existence is sometimes a harm for some beings, which most (but not all) people would accept as at least intuitively plausible. Then he takes on a bigger challenge: demonstrating that it is always a harm for all beings. He summarizes a core nugget of the attendant argument as follows:



...Both bad and good things happen only to those who exist. However, there is a crucial asymmetry between the good and the bad things. The absence of bad things, such as pain, is good even if there is nobody to enjoy that good, whereas the absence of good things, such as pleasure, is bad only if there is somebody deprived of these good things. The implication of this is that the avoidance of the bad by never existing is a real advantage over existence, whereas the loss of certain goods by not existing is not a real disadvantage over never existing...
-p. 14


Benatar then goes on to argue that "even the best lives are not only much worse than people think, but also very bad." (he has a cheery way with words, doesn't he?) He talks a bit about quality of life, and the difficulty of defining it precisely. He presents several different popular philosophical frameworks for understanding quality of life, and argues that life is a net negative no matter which one of these views you accept. He then goes into a rumination of all the sufferings in this world.

This is followed by a discussion of procreation in all its forms and argues how in each case there is a "moral duty not to procreate." He also defends abortion. I will not treat these passages here (although they make up a lengthy part of the book) because these types of arguments have all been made elsewhere ad nauseum, and frankly I think focusing on them detracts from the more unique aspects of Benatar's ideas.

The final section of the book deals with population and human extinction, which should be of interest to many on ATS. Can you guess which side of the argument Mr. Benatar came down on, boys and girls? If you guessed that he argues in favor of human extinction, give yourself a pat on the back. He writes: "...although extinction may be bad for those who precede it, particularly those who immediately precede it, the state of human extinction itself is not bad. Indeed...it would be better, all things being equal, if human extinction happened sooner rather than later." He then spends some time discussing a few arcane points of academic moral theory with reference to population.

Despite the overwhelming gloom and nihilism of Benatar's worldview, he does include a intriguing portion near to the book's end that adds a bit of nuance. It should give the "then why don't you start by killing yourself" voices a bit of food for thought. As Benatar puts it: "...one can think that coming into existence is always a harm without having to think that continuing to exist is always worse than death...It follows that suicide is not an inevitable implication of my view..." perhaps life, even in this grim view, may better off continued than ended once it has started...even if it might have "been better off never to have been."


Above: Arthur Schopenhaeur, cannonical philosophical exponent of Antinatalism

For possible discussion and consideration

Many people on ATS will doubtless find Benatar's position viscerally repellent...but can one defeat his arguments logically? If so where are his flaws? Or conversely, if you agree with him, why?

Some people might argue that certain ascetic, world-denying strains of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christian Monasticism (among others, no doubt) contain a similar "embrace of oblivion" on (or sometimes over?) the edge of nihilism, while others will find the comparison insulting for various reasons. Nevertheless, it is interesting that certain forms of mysticism appear to glorify celibacy, cessation of self, the end of connection with the flow of history, total detachment, etc. Do these ideas share an uneasy space with seemingly drier ideas like Benatar's? Or does Benatar's rational style conceal a lurking mysticism as well?

The conspiracy-minded among you might want to ponder radical antinatalist ideas like Benatar's philosophy in connection with ideas like the supposed radical depopulation agenda, etc. Opinions about this being published by Oxford University, giving it "gold standard" academic credentials? Is this a valid and exploration of radical conceptual space, or a symptom of nihilism and decadence in academia that mirrors the destructive emptiness of wider culture?
And anything else you'd like to share with the class of course....

For More Info
Better Never to Have Been (Amazon USA Link)

Prof. David Benatar's academic page, University of Capetown Department of Philosophy

David Benatar (Wikipedia)

Antinatalism (Wikipedia)



edit on 8/22/11 by silent thunder because: (no reason given)




posted on Aug, 22 2011 @ 08:06 PM
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reply to post by silent thunder
 



If only he could have heard the Honey Cones...




posted on Aug, 22 2011 @ 08:10 PM
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That is quite possibly the dumbest philosophical position I've ever heard. It's even worse than "only I exist, no one else can prove they exist." If such a person believed what he was saying, why would he not immediately commit suicide? Or better yet, set out to destroy all life? That guy has serious mental issues.



Both bad and good things happen only to those who exist. However, there is a crucial asymmetry between the good and the bad things. The absence of bad things, such as pain, is good even if there is nobody to enjoy that good, whereas the absence of good things, such as pleasure, is bad only if there is somebody deprived of these good things.


I really have to bother refuting this?

There is absolutely no reasoning put forward to show this supposed "asymmetry", that the absence of bad things is good, while the absence of good things is not bad. Unsupported nonsense. If one does not exist, neither bad nor good things matter to that non-existent entity.

Another thing in favor of existence is selective memory. Over time, you tend to remember the good things more than the bad things (thus why people get back into bad relationships, among other things.) Thus, a net POSITIVE asymmetry is in fact created.

Furthermore, since we are thinking human beings, IF we continue to exist without destroying ourselves, we most probably will continue to improve the average quality of life for human beings. Take the average person from 2000 years ago and put them in a low-class western or middle-class eastern life today. With the general ease of life and availability of all kinds of amazing technical gadgets, instant and almost inexhaustible sources of entertainment, worldwide instant communication, modern conveniences such as air conditioning, dishwashers and washing machines -- they would probably feel like privileged nobility.

As for the extent to which we could improve our lives and existence -- it is almost limitless. If humans can't get past the corruption that shackles modern life, we may all end up dead. If not, we may have a utopian future, where we can live 1000+ years in an earthly paradise. Is that still not good enough for Mr. Negative Philosopher Man?
edit on 22-8-2011 by Observer99 because: dumb philosophers need a smackdown



posted on Aug, 22 2011 @ 08:27 PM
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Mate

Star for the thread and another summary, as you say a cheery tomb indeed.

Like yourself, I also do not agree with the premise that coming into existence is harmful. I also consider that any agenda for depopulation is driven by a perceived availability of resources and not any antinatalist philosophy, although in my opinion there are now more fruit cakes per square meter than have ever been, so maybe I'm wrong.

If there is any lurking mysticism then considering the premise that coming into existence is harmful, this mystic existence must be more pleasant than our current existence. How can that be known.?

I am no Philosopher, however, statements or implications of a knowledge or existence that we do not know and that cannot be known always leave me shaking my head, sorry but I just cannot get my head around it. My thoughts on conjecture beyond that which we know, "variables infinite and not open to useful speculation". Or maybe I'm just stupid.

Cheers and again good thread.
edit on 22-8-2011 by myselfaswell because: typo



posted on Aug, 22 2011 @ 08:33 PM
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post removed because the user has no concept of manners

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posted on Aug, 22 2011 @ 08:52 PM
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reply to post by silent thunder
 


The only thing I would respond to this is this



I know all about existentialism but even Sartre would not accept this position.

We exist... so what are you going to do about it?



Benatar then goes on to argue that "even the best lives are not only much worse than people think, but also very bad." (he has a cheery way with words, doesn't he?) He talks a bit about quality of life, and the difficulty of defining it precisely. He presents several different popular philosophical frameworks for understanding quality of life, and argues that life is a net negative no matter which one of these views you accept. He then goes into a rumination of all the sufferings in this world.


I don't see anyone complaining about it, do you?

One question is this.... why didn't he kill himself?



posted on Aug, 22 2011 @ 09:30 PM
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posted on Aug, 22 2011 @ 09:47 PM
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reply to post by silent thunder
 


I am not all the brainy but I will take a crack at it.
First off I am not for or against him nor will I be sponsoring either side of the Paradym.

I can see where he is coming from. He is saying in laymen terms that there is more bad in living then there is good. Hence it is better to not have lived at all. He is not saying we should commit suicide because we would only be increasing the pain in others. That and in the end we are already here so we are now and have already faced the reality of the situation. Conversely then it follows the more people brought in to existence only amplifies both the good and bad. Where bad would actually leap over the good. If one percent of the population were kings. One could say they have a good life all in all. But the other 99 percent who are under the demands of another will always be on the receiving end.
Trying to say it better. So if You and I were on an island and you appointed me leader. Everything in your life would be less because of your subservience to me. Say another person showed up. Then equally his or her life would not be as good as mine. And As my life improved for having both a wine maker and a cook. Both the wine maker and the cook would have to do twice the work. Leading to a better chance of one or both getting hurt. That problem amplifies as more people enter the equation. It could be said as well as more people were added the burden of the full work load got easier. Now the wine maker doesn't have to cook.

On the other side of the coin is it truly better to never have existed. I think this is where he fails to make his argument. Without existing he could have never made this or any argument. Just like he panned out good and bad. Without being able to see this side of it and hence formulate the thoughts. If I had never existed, All those people I have met and spoken with would not be the people they are today. I am not my job nor am I my Name I am a collection of thoughts and ideals, of people and things, and of good and bad. I am also everyone i have ever met because they even in minute almost Unfathomable way have become part of me. His argument is to one sided. If you capture the essence of it you could say If fire never existed we would be better off. No one would ever have been burned. Not one house would have burnt down. Of course then we would most likely be still living in caves and chewing raw meat. Life is full of lessons allot of them can be painful. The trick is to appreciate what you have ( or have left). And continue to grow. Continue to be the teacher who inspired thousands. Not Every pain can be learned it has to be experienced. But as humankind exspands so do the lessons in which we teach our children so their live will be richer and fuller. No pain in the world, No hurt, no embarassment can topple the love and excitement we gain by watching our children surpass us..

I am not sure I answered anything and for that I am sorry I started rambling. Well anyways be well guys..
Therian



posted on Aug, 23 2011 @ 01:03 AM
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reply to post by Therian
 


I think that's compatable with his argument in general, and your "layman's term" summary in the first paragraph is more or less spot on.


To me,there are flaws in his assumptions, particularly in the way he handles negative concepts like "lack of XYZ is good" or "lack of XYZ is bad." Well, I'm not sure it's so easy to toss around nothings (lacks of somethings, that is) as if they were real things. Put another way, I don't think one can hinge an argument around a normative evaluation of a lack of something. Because there are too many other factors involved in life, or lack of life.

You also have a good way of approaching a practical understanding of suicide in this worldview, IMHO. So people in the thread wondering why he doesn't just kill himself are invited to read Therian's post as well as to re-read Benatar's own quote on the matter in the last paragraph of my own original post.

Thanks for posting and thinking, everyone...keep it coming...

edit on 8/23/11 by silent thunder because: (no reason given)



posted on Aug, 23 2011 @ 07:42 AM
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I guess my view on what is 'bad’ differs to David Benatar’s. And that is probably the main point he is missing. Who is to say what is bad or good anyway, at least for anyone else beside himself. The terms themselves are relative to the person experiencing them.

I don’t suppose he actually gives any indication in the book what he, as a philosopher, believes the meaning of life is …..?



posted on Jun, 30 2012 @ 06:30 PM
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This guy is sick and anyone who subscribes to his belief system is sick.

Its a good example of how the brain can be sick in a (presumably) healthy body.

His body wants to live while his brain wants to die.



posted on Jul, 1 2012 @ 09:59 AM
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reply to post by KarensHoliday
 


Interesting (to me anyway) old thread you chose to bump. Did you find it through an ATS or google search for something?

Having read the book, I don't find the man sick per se. He's approaching it in an analytical way, as a professional philosopher. The task of a good philosopher is to ask questions most people don't, taking basic assumptions about reality, turning them on their head, and exploring the implications.

As Philip K Dick once wrote, "There was no body of evidence which proved that life in the first place was a boon." Many religions are based on a fundamentally pessimistic apprasal of life, from the fallen nature of man in Christianity, or Buddhist conceptions of the irreducibly "unsatisfactory nature" of conditioned existence. ("Life is suffering": the first noble truth).

And It is interesting that none of the major religions encourage suicide, no matter how grim their apprasal of life. Nor does this philosopher. Although his view of life is bleaker than those of even the organized religions, he stops short of recommending suicide, noting that the harm that can be caused by suicide may be greater than the harm that occurs with the alternative of living out one's natural life. Thus, even in the extremes of antinatalism, there is something to keep one going, it seems; if "duty to one's loved ones" alone is a relatively dry reason to keep living, it is at least a reason that is frequently effective in real life, as well as in philosophical speculation.



posted on Jul, 1 2012 @ 10:12 AM
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I think the prof would get along well with Judge Death.

en.wikipedia.org...

If all life is harm then life itself should be illegal.



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