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