Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence by David Benatar

This is a book that exudes controversy! In Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, David Benatar, who is a professor of philosophy at University of Cape Town, argues that it is morally wrong to have children, and that the best outcome for the human race is extinction sooner, rather then later.

Though an Antinatalist, Benatar is a neither misanthrope nor a hater of people. His goals actually seem altruistic, as he ultimately wants to reduce human suffering. His argument is laid out logically and systematically. The author argues that an un–conceived, potential human, if conceived, will undoubtedly experience a life that contains suffering. While the new person is also likely to experience pleasure and joy, potential parents have no obligation to create a person. Nor are they morally obligated to generate happiness for someone that does not yet exist. People do have an obligation not to create suffering. When conceiving a child, parents condemn their offspring to a lifetime of pain. All the contentment in the world, which the parents have no obligation to create, cannot compensate for the fact that the parents produced a sentient creature that will now experience suffering. In a nutshell, one has no ethical duty to create people, even if they will sometimes be happy. There does exist an ethical obligation not to bring a person into the world that will experience pain. Even if a one were assured that their offspring was to have the best possible life, the offspring would experience some suffering, which is amoral to create. Furthermore the only proper course for the human race to pursue, is to allow itself to become extinct in lieu of generating more suffering beings.

Benatar adds supplementary arguments to round out his worldview. He contends that most human lives are very bad. Even the lucky few have it worse then most would admit. Furthermore, when parents conceive a child, Benatar points out that they are at best playing a kind of Russian- Roulette. There is a distinct possibility that the child, for a million possible reasons, may have a horrendously bad life. It cannot be the right thing to do, to bring a person onto person into the world, and take this horrible chance without the consent of that person.

Benatar goes out of his way to point out that the above is not necessarily true for people that already exist. Once a person has a stake in this world, their interests and potentialities often make their lives worth continuing. Though he argues that societies are too loath to accept suicide for those who are condemned to a life of misery, he does not advocate the elimination of those who already exist. In other words, once one is actually in the game, it is usually best to play it out.

This is indeed a radical belief system! I do not generally agree with Benatar’s ultimate conclusions. I will not bother to elucidate my arguments as I suspect that most people will easily raise multiple objections on their own. A Google search yields a variety of critiques of Benatar’s philosophies, many reasoned and thoughtful, others just angry rants against the author. I ask myself, is the anger and condemnation that Benatar elicits justified?

My objections to Benatar’s hypotheses got me to thinking. If I study a philosophical work and I disagree with its conclusions, does that mean that I have wasted my time? Does this mean that the opinions have no value to me? Of course not!

When I think of some of the philosophies and viewpoints that I have explored in the past, Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, to name just a few, I disagree with both the ultimate conclusions as well as many of the lesser arguments that most of these thinkers present. My disagreement in no way diminishes the fact that these philosophers present a worldview that is creative, brilliant, thought provoking and culturally significant.  Often, along the way to their ultimate points, these writers expound multiple arguments, some of which either I do agree with, or at least help me glimpse an alternate view of the world. This indeed, is part of what serious reading and thinking is about. Of course there is plenty of rubbish with no value out there, but such drivel is relatively easy to identify .

While I am not comparing Benatar to the great philosophical minds in human history, his cogitations are creative, reasoned, and occasionally brilliant. He takes the reader into much uncharted territory with some very audacious arguments. He raises all sorts of valid ethical questions. He tries, at times with success, to get at the often - paradoxical questions revolving around the existence of sentient beings. Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence is brimming with such ruminations. My summery above, barely scratches the surface.

In additional, though I suspect the Benatar would disagree, like many works of philosophy that I have encountered, various points expounded in this book fall more into the category of “this is an interesting alternate way of looking at the world”, as opposed to “this is incorrect”. For example, Benatar’s assertion that there is more “bad” then “good” in even the best human life. This is not the way that I usually look at human existence, but this conclusion is really just an expression of a different perspective, not an empirical assertion of fact. Sometimes it is intellectually healthy and stimulating to be presented with such alternate viewpoints.

Benatar certainly does not deserve the scorn that some have heaped upon him. He is not hateful as some reviews suggest, unless one considers that he genuinely seems to hate suffering. I have read and heard that as of late, his ideas seem to getting quite a bit of attention. He has strong supporters (many have expressed themselves in Amazon Reviews pages). For the adventurous and open- minded reader, who likes to think and reflect about issues involving existence and humanity, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence is well worth a try.


Violet said...

Interesting! I have not read the book, but I agree with his basic premise. I decided not to have children because I did not want to pass on my genetic inheritance and the behaviours learned from my family, and potentially cause another child to be miserable. I thought about this a lot and decided I did not want to be responsible for bringing more suffering into the world. Most people have been supportive of my decision. I had no idea anyone was writing about this, so I shall have to seek out the book. It seems to me that having children involves many ethical questions, not least of which is the aleady over-populated planet.

Brian Joseph said...

I mostly agree with your sentiments Violet. However in some ways Benatar is a little extreme and goes way beyond the reasoning that you have expressed. Even so I highly recommend this book. I would love to know what you think if you give it a try.

PS - If you cannot find a library copy, at least here in the US a hard copy is pricy. The E - Book version is a lot cheaper.

Caroline said...

Now this is a book that interests me a lot. I didn't even know there was a term for my way of thinking.
I'm exactly on the same page with Violet. I decided to not have children for some of the above mentioned reasons and for some she mentions but I find people to be not very accepting. I face quite some aggression too.
Thanks for this review. Very interesting.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for the feedback Caroline. Based on both your comments as well as Violet' s, in addition to the views of a few folks who I have spoken to about this book, it is amazing just how many people have sympathy for many of these ideas. I totally agree that issues such as over population and global warming are rational reasons not to have children. On the other hand I believe that there are also reasoned arguments behind the decision to procreate. There is also some mindless hostility and prejudice against those of us who do not have children by what seems to me to be small minority.

However, Benatar does go into territory that I cannot agree with. For example, he is a strong advocate for abortion This is NOT the same as being pro choice. I am pro choice. Benatar believes it is immoral for any pregnant Women NOT to have an abortion. He also argues for the extinction of humanity.

If you decide to give this I read please let me know what you think when you have completed it. i would love to discuss further.

Caroline said...

That's the problem with so many radical ideas, they exaggerate and in doing so discredit themselves. It is too bad. There is decidedly a difference between pro-choice and pro-abortion, I agree.

Brian Joseph said...

I will say that while I strongly disagree with him, Benatar lays out a very coherent seeming argument as to why he is pro - abortion.

Max Cairnduff said...

Are you familiar with the Voluntary Human Exctinction Movement? If not it's worth googling. Benatar I'm sure must be.

The problem with the philosophy for me is its inutility. People won't stop having children regardless of the merits of his argument, therefore a philosophy arguing that they do is like a philosophy arguing that people should stop growing old. It may be an interesting thought experiment, but it's not going to happen (actually, not growing old is much more likely than not having children, as aging may be addressable through technology I suppose).

That said, what really interests me is the strength of reaction. The voluntary extinction people get a vitriolic response, furious and filled with hate. But why? I don't particularly agree (I think the idea that human existence is ultimately a bad thing is a non-sequitur in the absence of a maltheistic universe, though setting that out would be a separate reply) but there's no harm in his view.

No harm as long as it remains voluntary anyway. My concern is always how often these philosophies, when adopted by others, cross that line between the voluntary withholding of life and the involuntary withdrawing of it. The problem with not valuing human life in the abstract is we soon start not valuing it in the concrete.

Interesting book though.

Brian Joseph said...

Benatar acknowledges that it is very unlikely that humans will ever voluntary move towards extinction. He argues however that if it is the right thing to do, however, folks like him should still be pointing it out.

I just Googled the voluntary Human Extinction Movement, they seem like an interesting group.

I also disagree that human existence is a bad thing (though I do think that, to some extent this is just an alternate way of looking at the universe, neither correct nor incorrect) mostly because I believe that human intelligence IS the universe's embodiment of conciseness and intelligence. In other word, the cosmos has become self- aware in the form of humanity. In light of the fact, the universe is understanding itself better and better through the agent of scientific advancement and perhaps human art and culture. Thus, it behooves us to keep intelligence and progress towards self- awareness going for as long as we can. Of course, like the voluntary extinction folks, this is also just another way of looking at existence.

argumentativeoldgit said...

The idea that it is better not to exist is not, obviously new. This is a passaage from a chorus from Sophocles' "Oedipus at Colonus", in the version by W. B. Yeats:

Never to have lived is best, ancient writers say,
Never to have drawn the breath of life, never to have looked into the eye of day;
The second best's a gay good night and quickly turn away.

I can see the reasoning behind this point of view, but, like you, I disagree. Why, I cannot in all honesty say.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Himadri- Benatar does point out that many people will object to his ideas because the theories seem to be so counterintuitive. Ultimately, if one believes in a higher purpose to existence, then I think that one may find counterarguments. The thing is that most people have very different ideas to what that higher purpose might be.

erin said...

I have always viewed procreation as a horrible act of the perpetuation of human suffering.
This book was great as a fresh look to what another commenter already pointed out as an ancient conundrum. I found it fascinating to watch another human being arrive at the same conclusion that "it is better to never have been" from a completely different line of thought than I. That being said, it wasn't exactly a great read.
What bothered me most about this book was the mixing of logic, statistics and popular opinion. I found this rather ridiculous, although I admit I do not read much philosophy and I am not sure how common this approach is. For example,in this book a majority of people interviewed found it acceptable to abort a fetus if it would be born without any limbs, yet close to 0% of the people interviewed found it acceptable for someone already living without limbs to be terminated for their own sake (by their own hand or another). Statistics are statistics..they just aren't very convincing to me on this sort of topic, but what bothered me most of all was that he would use these statistics to assign truth values to these situations and then carry on from there to "prove" or justify another point. There were just far too many random surveys of people's opinions on morality, life, suffering, and death in this book for me to actually take it seriously. Justifying ideas by majority rule does not make for convincing philosophy.
It is true that Benatar does lean more towards the voluntary extinction camp and in this book he even openly counter-argues fellow philosopher David Pearce who believes that human suffering can be ended independent of human life.
Although I agree with Benatar that it is better to never have been, I find myself optimistically siding on David Pearce's school of thought that suffering can be eliminated through technology. Although until some real progress is made in this technology, I won't be in a rush to be having any babies.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Erin - Good to hear from you. You know I think that I can credit reading this book to you as I recall that your mom mentioned that you were interested in it.

You raise a really good point about Benatar relying on lots of opinion surveys and how it makes no sense to base an ethical argument on such things. He ultimately does not give this method total credence however, as he acknowledges that his theories are now, and will likely always be, extremely unpopular.

I have read a limited amount of philosophy but almost everything that I have read includes what is in my opinion a fair amount of ridiculous reasoning. I tend to just love to ponder different and innovative ideas even when I disagree as to how they are derive. I actually found Benatar’s reasoning fascinating but flawed.

I never knew much about Pierce before. I read and skimmed some of what he has posted online after reading your comment. He has radical but fascinating ideas and I plan to read about his more thoroughly. While there seem to be enormous pitfalls and obstacles to what he advocates, a cursory look at his writing indicates that he does grapple with many of these dangers and obstacles. My gut reaction is that I really like what he is advocating.

Kate Scott said...

This is interesting. My first reaction to a book like this is, "well, that's horribly depressing and nihilistic." But the truth is, one of the two primary reasons I've chosen never to have children is precisely the same as what the author is saying. I could not live with the guilt of bringing a child into a world like this. The difference is that I'm glad other people choose to have children. Not as many people as do have children because we have a serious overpopulation problem, but I don't want the human race to go extinct. I just want us to keep our populations in check and wise up about how we care for the earth, animals, and other people. Not that I believe that's actually going to happen but, you know, a girl can dream!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kate - Indeed, bringing children into this world has serious moral implications. I understand your decision. I think that it makes sense.

I also agree with you in that I also want humanity to continue. It is a "if", but I think that if humankind can survive Climate Change, and a few other serous threats, I think that the good things that you mention will happen.