It’s an age-old question – debated in the Talmud, alluded to in Ecclesiastes, and ruminated over by everyone from Sophocles to Schopenhauer. Now, David Benatar, a world-renowned professor of philosophy at the University of Cape Town, has answered Prince Hamlet’s famous quandary in the negative, meticulously dismantling the foundations of all that we hold dear. Is he wrong?
Dr David Benatar is the head of philosophy at the University of Cape Town and a bona fide genius. In 2017, he emerged as the most compelling voice against the hooliganism and intimidation of the Fallist movement. He has debated everyone from Sam Harris to Sam Lebens. Improbably, he was the inspiration for Matthew McConaughey’s indelible anarchist Rust Cohle on the brilliant first season of HBO’s True Detective. Above all, he was my first-year philosophy lecturer, and, like many others, I fell deeply in love with him.
Benatar enjoys rock-star status in South African academic circles, and not just because of his global standing as a great thinker. He has entered into folklore for his astounding conversion rate as an ethics course lecturer – and I don’t mean passes and failures, but rather the overwhelming number of students who, after taking his course module on ethics and the treatment of animals, become militant vegans, or less often, guilt-racked omnivores like myself. He is also renowned for his truly astonishing memory – he still greets all of his former students by name in the street.
Benatar is certainly not – or doesn’t seem to be – a sad sack sort of chap. He conducts his classes with a rather notable joie de vivre, and sports an impish grin, a twinkling eye, and a wonderful good nature. It came as a surprise a few years ago, therefore, when I first heard about an anti-natalist doctrine Benatar had written, entitled Better Never to Have Been. In its wake, the book caused turmoil in the hallowed halls of Cambridge, Oxford, Princeton and other great institutions; ethics supremo Peter Singer expressed his admiration in the New York Times; and Facebook pages and fan sites sprung up across the internet. Benatar recently released a follow-up, The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions, that has been no less explosive. A profile in the New Yorker last month described Benatar as “the world’s most pessimistic philosopher”.
As the title of his first book implies, Benatar argues that we’re better off having never been born. And while the warm reception of his work in the world of philosophy probably says more about the lives of those who inhabit that world than anything else, true to Benatar’s genius and laser-like powers of reasoning, he does indeed make an intriguing argument.
In his work, Benatar argues that coming into existence is always a serious harm, and related to this assertion: that procreation is always wrong; that it is wrong not to abort foetuses at the earlier stages of gestation; and that it would be better if, as a result of there being no new people, humanity became extinct.
At the heart of his argument lies an intriguing “asymmetry” relating to the pain versus pleasure trade-off:
“The presence of pain is bad and the absence of pain is good,” Benatar writes, “but whereas the presence of pleasure is good, the absence of pleasure is bad only if somebody is deprived of that pleasure. If nobody is deprived of an absent pleasure – because the person who would have experienced the pleasure never existed – then the absence of that pleasure is not bad…”
Arguing at length for this asymmetry, he then shows why it entails that coming into existence is always a harm. Put in the simplest possible terms: living equals one plus (good) and one minus (pain), and not living equals one plus (no pain) and no minus – hence it is always “better never to have been”. (One of the jaw-dropping ramifications of his argument is that it even extends to those who will live, on balance, a life filled with more pleasure than pain.)
Many of the criticisms levelled at this thesis stem from the fact that for all the rigorous analysis and brilliant reasoning, there is something deeply unsettling about Benatar’s conclusions. As one disdainful reviewer put it: “It is more likely that Benatar’s claim is false than that the asymmetry is true.”
This, however, is a response Benatar anticipates from the start, stating in the first book’s blurb:
“Although these conclusions are antagonistic to common and deeply held intuitions, the author argues that these intuitions are unreliable and thus cannot be used to refute the book’s grim-sounding conclusions.”
Similarly, to the above reviewer, Benatar responds that “instead of actually considering my argument…(he) rather considers only the palatability of my conclusion.”
At the risk of jumping straight into the lion’s den and being chewed up like the assortment of Benatar-bashing scholars and philosophers who have come before me, I would like to raise a number of what I perceive to be fundamental problems with his position, and demonstrate that his overall argument is not impregnable.
To begin, Benatar’s argument seems to rest on a highly contentious assumption: that pain and pleasure can be compared with, and squared off against one other; and on a marked oversimplification: that the value or desirability of a given life can be calculated by a simple “pain vs. pleasure” formula.
Firstly, there’s no reason to assume pain and pleasure can even be squared off against one another – pain doesn’t necessarily diminish pleasure, and in fact, the two often co-exist in a single experience, and sometimes even complement each other (S&M as a crude example). In other words, it’s the classic apples and oranges scenario.
Clearly, people often realise extraordinary meaning through their painful circumstances. Last year, I wrote a piece for this very publication on Kids Kicking Cancer, an organisation which empowers kids suffering from terminal illness not only to master their pain but to help others more fortunate than them master theirs.
Benatar does in fact concede that people find meaning in suffering. However, he sees this more as a coping mechanism. The fact is, though, even if he is right and it is just a coping mechanism, the obvious response is “so what?” The salient point is that people do indeed generate meaning in their response to suffering. How or why this happens is, for the purposes of his argument, largely irrelevant.
Another issue is that Benatar doesn’t seem to fully factor human interaction and people’s ability to influence their environment into the equation. There are many people in the world who are net contributors; whose contribution outweighs their consumption. Those who find cures for diseases, engage thousands in meaningful employment, a local doctor or even the neighbourhood cafe owner − these are people for whom the net value of their lives extends far beyond the relative pain and pleasure they experience. They enact positive changes on the world around them, and to condemn them to non-existence through a simplistic pain-versus-pleasure formula is to deny them the chance they would have had – the chance we all have – to make the world a better place.
Of course, we are able to negatively influence our surroundings as well – and in his “misanthropic” argument, Benatar points out how prevalent such negative influence is. But it’s not abundantly clear that misanthropic human behaviour (whether intentionally altruistic or not) is more prevalent than philanthropic human behaviour. He claims instances of humans benefiting other humans are the “rare exceptions” but brings no data to back that up, offering nothing more than anecdotal evidence and a vague surmising.
Benatar brings many examples of why life isn’t as good as it could ideally be. One of the examples is that we don’t live for as long as we could. But of course, by his own contention – that we live lives containing on balance more pain than pleasure – living a shorter life would be a plus rather than a minus.
He discusses at length how people’s subjective assessments of the quality of their lives are unreliable, citing that we are prone to regard ourselves as happier than we are, to recall positive experiences more readily and more vividly than negative experiences, and to adapt to our adverse circumstances and eventually come to terms with them. In each case, the response, once again, is “so what?”
Suffering – certainly the recollection of past suffering – is a state of mind. If memory and subjective sensation of suffering recedes, then that is all that matters. The objective, historical fact of the suffering lies outside the immediate experience of the person in question and shouldn’t concern us. Put another way, if we feel better about life than we “should”, then perhaps our lives are indeed better. How we feel is inextricably bound up with how we are actually doing.
It’s important to note that Benatar doesn’t advocate suicide (or murder). He recognises that death itself is a form of suffering. As he puts it: “There is no interest in coming into existence. But there is an interest, once one exists, in not ceasing to exist.”
To illustrate this point, he offers an interesting analogy – life as a bad movie: “A performance at the theatre…might not be bad enough to leave, but if you knew in advance that it would be as bad as it is, you would not have come in the first place.”
But there’s a clear problem with this analogy. If you had prior knowledge that the film or theatre production was going to be terrible, the reason you wouldn’t go is because going would entail an opportunity cost. In other words, you could be doing something more productive or more enjoyable with your time. Opting out of life, on the other hand, entails no such opportunity cost. You wouldn’t be doing something better if you weren’t alive; there would be no you to begin with.
Which brings us to perhaps the most fundamental flaw in Benatar’s argument. Pain and pleasure cannot be measured. There is absolutely no reason to hold – even assuming that they do square off against one another – that they do so neatly, in a simple one-to-one ratio. Benatar would have us believe that it’s a case of: three units of pleasure minus 4 units of pain = a life better not to have been lived. In reality, though, it’s X – Y = who knows what. We don’t have the relative values for each variable. And even if we did, they’d be infinitely complex, and different for each individual.
In The Human Predicament, Benatar has attempted to solve the measurability problem. Arguing that “the worst pains are worse than the best pleasures are good” he conjures a thought experiment in which the reader is asked to consider “whether they would accept an hour of the most delightful pleasures in exchange for an hour of the worst tortures”.
And, of course, he is correct. No reasonable person would take an hour of intense pleasure in exchange for an hour of extreme torture. But the timing of this question matters. Remove it from of the realm of the hypothetical and ask a burn victim or cancer sufferer: would they choose not to have met their children or to have married their spouse in order to forego this suffering? If they could go back in time, knowing all that they know and having experienced all that they have experienced, would they have willingly chosen never to have come into existence on account of the pain of that existence? In almost all cases, the answer will be in the negative.
This example – of the significance and compelling force of relationships – is not incidental. Even if life could be reduced to an accurate and meaningful cost-benefit analysis, even if we could be sure that all the horrific emotional and physical suffering that we all endure throughout our lives did outweigh any of the pleasures, it really isn’t better never to have been.
For if nothing else, it’s the lives we share with others, and the lives they share with us, that make this whole damn thing worthwhile. DM
"Man is by nature a political animal" ~ Aristotle