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.