Symposium on David Benatar’s Better to Never Have Been (OUP, 2006)

From 18-24 March, the APJ is pleased to host a symposium on the Conclusion (chapter 7) of David Benatar’s book Better to Never have Been (OUP 2006) in which he claims that his anti-natalist views are compatible with certain religious views, including some Jewish views. With thanks to OUP, a copy of the Conclusion is available here to our readers for personal use only.

Commentators include Tyron Goldschmidt (Wake Forest) and Jeremy Wanderer (U. Mass).

Please click here  for Tyron’s comments.

Please click here for Jeremy’s comments.

Please click here for David’s responses.

All are welcome to participate in the ensuing discussion below.

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  1. Andrew Pessin

    Reflections on Benatar symposium

    Unfortunately I haven’t read the book or even “The Conclusion” (would perhaps have been helpful to post the latter on the website). I am just trying to glean the issues from the exchange, so I apologize if these remarks end up failing to be germane … From my gleaning there seem to be two theses in play: that it’s a serious harm to be born and that we shouldn’t reproduce, and these seemed to be linked in a conditional, such that the latter follows from the former.

    Tyron mentions the problem of evil, and it does seem to me right to engage in this whole matter in the context of theodicy. Tyron mentions it in a very focused way, focused only on the individuals created — which also seems to make sense, given that David is presented as defending the point that being born is a serious harm to the individual. But then I’m drawn to Tyron’s phrase at the start of his comments: “It is better for us to have him in being … even if it is better for us never to have been.” (I’m also inspired in what follows by Jeremy’s invocation of Nagel re subjective v objective (or 1st v 3rd-person) perspectives.)

    “Better” always requires asking “for whom?” or “for what?” And it is also to be evaluated relative to various fixed conditions, as the Talmudic passage being discussed makes clear. (Better not to have been born; but once born, better to behave in certain ways rather than others. There’s also Sophocles’s darker variation: better never to be born, but failing that, it’s best to return hither whence one came as quickly as possible.)

    So, suppose it is often/usually/always a harm to person x for x to be born. OK, we shouldn’t want to harm (future) people, so we shouldn’t reproduce. Ditto with respect to person y. But now given that x is born, it may well be better (for x) that y is born. (Say y is x’s one and only soulmate; and vice versa.) So perhaps y is harmed by being born. But then how do we compare the betterness that comes to x from y’s being born to the harm done to y for y’s being born (and vice versa, mutatis mutandis)? I don’t immediately see any way of crunching numbers here, but it doesn’t strike me as implausible to believe, from a utilitarian perspective, that the goods we derive from our relationships with other human beings may compete with or even outweigh the harms we individually suffer from being born. If so, then even if it’s a harm to each individual to be born, the overall good in his life may outweigh that harm, so it is better for him to be born than not.

    (Perhaps or probably David has refuted this in his book, insofar as his thesis is presented as “if it’s a serious harm to be born, then we should not reproduce.” What I’m essentially suggesting is that even if we grant the individual is seriously harmed in being born, it may not follow that we shouldn’t reproduce. But I haven’t seen David’s arguments.)

    Now let’s suppose that isn’t the case. Suppose we are harmed by being born and then, on average, either the good we derive from others does not outweigh it, or maybe even we get a net negative sum — we are harmed by being born then harmed even more by our relations with others. (Either everyone, or most people, or on average ….) So, for many/most/each individual(s), it is definitely NOT better to be born than not to be born.

    Even so, there’s another route. For perhaps the world as a whole is better for having a human population in it than it would be without, even IF that comes at the expense of (all) the human individuals themselves.

    On this view, human agents are not the only locus of moral evaluation. We evaluate whole worlds, possible worlds, histories of worlds, some of which contain human populations, some of which don’t. Again I have no idea how to do these calculations, but it doesn’t strike me as implausible that some worlds with populations are better than some (otherwise similar, if that makes sense?) worlds without populations; that having a population may increase the value of the world, even if the members of that population are (all) worse off for existing in it. (In fact it doesn’t strike me as entirely implausible either that the best possible world would be one with a human (or at least conscious, sentient, rational) population rather than one without — if only because the presence of human agents may be necessary for the existence of (moral) value at all, moral possibility — even if those agents largely suck and do bad things and suffer, and even if, for many/most/all of the agents it would have been better for them had some other world been created without them.)

    I don’t think either of these alternatives presupposes anything specifically religious — but it also strikes me that these are the kind of (greater goods, best possible world) theodicies that would be quite palatable to religious people … and both are ways that grant David’s thesis as it has been presented here (that it’s serious harm to be born) without causing any problem or objection from the religious folk different from the standard problem of evil problems.

    And again, it allows a way to grant that for many/most/all individuals it’s a harm to be born while denying that it follows that we shouldn’t reproduce. So (eg) Judaism may hold that having children is obligatory for men — not because it is good for the child, z, to be created, but rather despite the fact that z is harmed in being created — but because it’s better for the world that it be populated rather than not.

    One religious way to illustrate this: perhaps it’s highly likely that any child I produce will be harmed in being created. But there’s a (small) chance that my child will be the messiah, who will usher in tremendous goodness in the world, maybe redeem the whole world, reunite it with the godhead, etc.. I don’t know how to quantify this, but it would seem to be a case where even if I harm the person who is the messiah by producing him/her/they, it may well be permissible or even obligatory to undertake that reproduction.

    Re David’s postscript, a final quick thought:

    I would think that many who feel committed to perpetuating Judaism (and thus perpetuating Jews) feel that way not for its own sake but because they believe that Judaism is a good thing, and that the world with Judaism is better than the world without Judaism, all else equal. Now it may be true that we harm the Jews-to-be-born by producing them; and that in producing them we produce more potential victims of antisemitism etc; but depending on the precise quantities of good/harm here that doesn’t strike me as much of a reason not to produce them. Many people think it important to fight for goodness/justice even when harm comes from it; a very prosaic example, we don’t NOT create a police force to combat criminals just because that endangers the police officers, but instead we see it as valuable to risk suffering and harm in order to pursue justice. So if someone thinks a world with Jews and Judaism is a better world than one without, ceteris paribus, or more precisely thinks that the next generation of our current world will be better with Jews and Judaism in it than not, then it’s permissible and maybe obligatory to reproduce even if we harm the relevant individuals in producing them.

    (Not having read David’s book (yet!) I don’t know if all this is addressed, or based on a misunderstanding of his actual position — but I was working with the statement of it presented in the symposium — which expressed two theses (it’s a harm to be born and we shouldn’t reproduce), and seemed to link them in a conditional).)

  2. Tyron Goldschmidt

    As for the human predicament more generally, there is a relevant section of Maimonides’ Guide (pp. 441-2; Pines trans) that readers might find an interesting Jewish and historical precedent. Beginning:
    “Razi [Abu Bakr Al-Razi] has written a famous book, which he entitled “Divine Things.” He filled it with the enormity of his ravings and his ignorant notions. Among them there is a notion that he has thought up, namely, that there is more evil than good in what exists; if you compare man’s well-being and his pleasures in the time span of his well-being with the pains, the heavy sufferings, the infirmities, the paralytic afflictions, the wretchedness, the sorrows, the calamities that befall him, you find that his existence—he means the existence of man—is a punishment and a great evil inflicted upon him. He began to establish this opinion by inductively examining these misfortunes, so as to oppose all that is thought by the adherents of the truth regarding the beneficence and manifest munificence of the deity and regarding His being, may He be exalted, the absolute good and regarding all that proceeds from Him being indubitably and absolutely good…”

    I don’t mean to endorse Maimonides’ arguments, and certainly don’t think Benatar’s views are ravings and ignorance. Benatar would doubtless have given Maimonides much more to think about than did Al-Rhazi.

  3. Michael Haruni

    A hedonistic utilitarianism purports to morally guide our choices of actions by directing us to somehow measure the pains and pleasures our actions will cause others, total these up and go for the maximum pleasure excess over pain. Let’s even ignore the problems of the presupposed quantifications and of the conversion rates between these two currencies. It remains not at all clear to me that this could say anything about whether any potential bearer of these experiences should or should not come to exist. For at least on one possible understanding, utilitarianism in the first place presupposes the existence of those conscious beings who could be affected by our actions. On this understanding, utilitarianism suggests that if there is some conscious being, X, such that this action, A, I’m contemplating would produce some of the designated good or bad for X — in its hedonistic version, pleasure or pain in X — then I must first do the arithmetic and decide on A in accordance. By this take, the theory has nothing to say about whether, given the option, I should or should not bring some such X into existence. Similarly if my action could thus impact on individuals X1, X2…Xn, I’d need to tot up all the pleasures and pains I’d produce in them and act to maximize the pleasure-pain advantage; but the theory won’t have told us whether or not to bring these people into being. Rather, the directive of the hedonistic calculus becomes applicable only when there’s some existent field of conscious beings who are potentially affected by one’s action. Put otherwise, on this understanding of hedonistic utilitarianism, pains and pleasures are not some logically free-floating items, intrinsically evil and good, such that we’re obligated to maximize the excess of the latter over the former (or vice-versa); and such that, in order to fulfil this obligation we must, as needed, bring persons into or out of existence, just so that they can be the carriers of those items.

    But to understand utilitarianism otherwise — to accept that the need to maximize this pleasure-pain excess could decide whether or not the carriers of those pleasures and pains should exist — seems to me outrageously, even horrifically false. Were it true, then a person could, given some reliable predictions about the miserable fate of some nation, be entitled to painlessly eliminate that nation (say, by a highly developed nuclear bomb which instantly exterminated its mass victims), especially if this could guarantee the advantage of another nation (assuming these could go on living guilt-free, or if the deed were kept secret from them). The Nazis could, with improved technology, have been doing the Jews a favor?!! Or, on the brighter side, imagine if I could, by clicking my fingers, bring a conscious being into existence who, for five minutes will experience an untold bliss and then instantaneously vanish from reality (unmourned by anyone else). Surely, if this would not be downright evil, there could be nothing worthy achieved by my doing so; considered in the larger scheme of things, it would be at best futile, and ethically flat. In contrast, a similar five minutes induced, as recommended by a utilitarianism, within some enduring life — especially if within someone’s uneventful or miserable life — might even be ethically laudable.

    It seems to me, moreover, that the idea that pains and pleasures are logically free-floating evils and goods, for the occurrence or non-occurrence of which a conscious being’s existence could justifiably be introduced or prevented as a means, is founded on a certain conception of what pains and pleasures consist in; whereas on an alternative, quite plausible understanding of pains and pleasures, that idea becomes less tenable. On this other view, an event of having a pleasure is not opaque or irreducible. It usually occurs as part of a life-scheme, involving the embracing of a goal, possibly (but not necessarily) some quite remote goal led to through some hierarchy of means and ends, together with one’s belief that one is moving towards the successful achievement of that goal. Having the pleasure is accordingly that state of perceiving progress towards one’s goal. There are exceptions (e.g., the pleasure of frolicking on the beach); but we can also assert a value-preference for those pleasures which involve larger, life-enclosing goals, or goals which have some objective merit in themselves. Likewise, pains will involve the belief that some such goal is frustrated. Now, if we accept some such idea, in outline at least, of what pleasures and pains are, then we must reject the idea that we should decide whether to bring a person into being by predicting whether or not this will increase the excess of pleasure over pain in the world. For it is then one thing to consider what impact my possible action will have on other existing persons; and this idea of pleasure and pain might, to this end, not be incompatible with the resort to guidance by a hedonistic calculus. But it is then quite another thing to consider whether or not to bring a person into existence, a question demanding an evaluation of that possible life as a whole, including the larger pursuits which that person might adopt — their objective worthiness, as well the extent to which we can envisage her fulfilling them. For this purpose, we’d need to evaluate not just the pleasures and pains we expect her to have, that is, not merely how fulfilled or frustrated she perceives herself as being in relation to the pursuits she’s adopted; surely we should then also bring to bear the objective worthiness of her adopted pursuits, as well as some more objective evaluation of how close or far she is to fulfilling them — which may differ from her own evaluations. For instance, someone might be in the process of contributing some great work of art to the human spirit, or might be creating a family filled with light and love, or be a teacher enlarging the understanding and spiritual fulfillment of a thousand students, yet fail to prize these achievements, thus never deriving pleasure from them, and instead constantly and obsessively frustrated — and consequently pained — by some comparatively petty matters in her life such as the neighbor’s car being fancier than hers or some imagined flaw in her appearance. We surely should not then say: better not to have brought this person into the world.

    This is not to say that the candidate for life must be expected to be capable of large or exceptional accomplishments. Let this future person give his working life to a factory line, then come home to excitedly follow his local soccer team, to his wife’s loving smile and to laughing over a beer with his pub mates. Let him or her, that is, become part of the general flow of human life. And this is the point: it’s a life, with real content and yearning and passion, next to which the calculus of pains and pleasures becomes all but immaterial. I fail outright to see how such a life could be denied.

    1. David Benatar

      It is unclear whether Michael Haruni is suggesting that my argument is a hedonistic utilitarian one. If he is making that suggestion, he is mistaken. My argument is theory neutral, although I do sometimes point out its implications for different theoretical views.

      In any event he is mistaken in thinking that utilitarianism has nothing to say about procreative decisions. While there are some who seek to restrict its application to actions that affect existing people, or at least to those who will exist independently of one’s reproductive decisions, that seems like an arbitrary restriction. (Michael’s phrasing is odd: He says that it “remains not at all clear to [him] that this could say anything about whether any potential bearer of these experiences should or should not come to exist”, but then says that “at least on one possible understanding, utilitarianism … presupposes the existence of these conscious beings who could be affected by our actions”. However, showing that there is “one possible understanding of utilitarianism” that does not say anything about whether new people should be brought into existence is not evidence that utilitarianism cannot say anything about such procreative decisions.)

      Finally, if Michael is suggesting that my anti-natalism implies pro-mortalism, he is mistaken there too. There is a vast difference between not creating people who have no interest in being brought into existence, and killing people who, given that they now exist, have a very strong interest in not ceasing to exist. I have argued at length elsewhere that my anti-natalism implies neither murder nor speciescide, but I shall not rehearse those arguments here.

      1. Michael Haruni

        Many thanks, Prof. Benatar, for your reply to my comment. Certain questions inevitably remain, which may find answers in the earlier chapters of your book. But I continue to be especially troubled by the question of whether a moral assessment of one’s prospective action could correctly be based on the foreseen impact of the action upon an individual, where this includes that individual’s *coming into being*. It’ll be most convenient for me to phrase my difficulty in consequentialist terms, if only because I’m taking up a claim of yours which pivotally concerns the harms and deprivations caused by an action. (This, as well as your considerable discussion of the asymmetry of pains and pleasures, gives me the impression, despite your assertion to the contrary, that your arguments are not moral theory-neutral; though possibly my seeing this out of the context of the book as a whole and your other connected writings leads me to misunderstand this.) Admittedly, therefore, if anything is implied by the following remarks, this may be correspondingly limited by their dependence on the theoretical approach.
        I’m looking, then, at what you write on page 205:
        “First, why should we think that it is acceptable to cause great harm to somebody—which the arguments in Chapter 3 show we do whenever we create a child—when we could avoid doing so without depriving that person of anything?”
        I hope I’m not misrepresenting you with the following explication of this statement.
        For any possible person X,
        (1) if you bring X into existence, then you cause X great harm,
        (2) if you don’t bring X into existence, then you don’t deprive X of any good,
        (3) it’s unacceptable to perform an action, K, which would cause X great harm if, by desisting from that same action, you would not deprive X of any good,
        (4) hence (from 1-3), bringing X into existence is unacceptable.
        I take it that, when morally assessing some prospective action, A, we must compare the situation created by one’s performing of A, to the situation sustained by one’s desisting from A. If so, then we don’t get a complete assessment by looking only at the consequences of performing A — in this case, in your view, the harm to X caused by one’s bringing X into being, together with the non-deprival of any good had by X. We need, rather, to compare this outcome with the situation of X that’s produced by one’s not bringing X into being. But this is clearly problematic, given that, if you don’t act to bring X into being, then there is no such X whose situation we can compare to the situation of X after you so act.
        You may, then, draw attention to it’s being quite straightforwardly true that if you’d not brought X into existence, then since X would then not have existed, things would not have been worse for X than they’re made by your bringing X into existence. But if we can assert that much, then we can also assert, and it will seem no less true, that if you had not brought X into existence, then since X would then not have existed, nor would things have been *better* for X than they’re made by your bringing X into existence. Hence this brings us no closer to the relevant comparison. Indeed, these two claims would be better stated as follows: If you’d not brought X into existence, then there would have been no such thing as a situation of X, hence none that is worse, or better, than X’s situation after you bring X into being. And this tells us nothing about the comparison between the consequences of, respectively, your action and inaction.
        In that case, perhaps a better track is to seek the comparison by focussing, with (2), on the absence of any good which X would forfeit if you bring X into being. Thus it might be asserted:
        (2’) There exists no good, G, such that before you bring X into existence, X has G, and such that, by bringing X into existence, you deprive X of G.
        Saying here that X had G, even though X did not exist, might seem unproblematic enough, since the assertion here is that there is no such G as this; and that much may seem true. But we can then equally assert:
        (2”) There exists no *evil*, H, such that before you bring X into existence, X is burdened with H, and such that, by bringing X into existence, you relieve X of H.
        Again, therefore, we’ve made no progress towards making a comparison between the situations issuing (respectively) from your bringing, or not bringing, X into being. Nor do I see any other way. But please enlighten me if you know of one.

        1. David Benatar

          Thank you, Dr Haruni, for your further comments. The problem you raise is a version of the famous non-identity problem, which assumes that to be harmed one must be made worse off and that the “worse off” relation is a relation between two states. Thus, to be worse off in one state, the alternative state must be one in which one would have been less badly off. Because non-existence is not a state, one cannot be made worse off by being brought into existence.

          I don’t deny that this problem has to be confronted, and I do engage it in the second chapter 2 of Better Never to Have Been. Following Joel Feinberg, I deny that to be worse off one must have existed in the alternative scenario. (Here there is a parallel with ceasing to exist, in which we can say that continuing to exist with appalling quality of life is worse than ceasing to exist.) I grant that coming into existence and ceasing to exist are unusual cases in not requiring the comparison of two states in which a person exists. However, given that procreation (just like death) is an unusual case, we should not apply the concept of harm in a procrustean manner to it. I thus propose that we consider two scenarios – one in which X exists and one in which X never exists, and that we evaluate each of these scenarios with reference to the interests of the person, X, who exists in one of these scenarios. In the book I explicate further how we can do this.

          In closing, I should note that impersonal theorists, such as utilitarians, can bypass the non-identity problem because they certainly do not need to compare two states of X. It is sufficient for them to compare two states of affairs. If the state of affairs in which X is brought into existence is worse than the state of affairs in which X is not brought into existence, then one ought not to bring X into existence irrespective of whether coming into existence is bad for X. However, these impersonal theories face other difficulties.

  4. Dani Rabinowitz

    Posted on behalf of David Benatar:

    Thanks to Andrew for his comments. In the book I do acknowledge that while X’s coming into existence is bad for X, it may be good for Y. (Indeed, that acknowledgement first appears in the book’s dedication, where I refer to my brothers, “each of whose existence, although a harm to him, is a great benefit to the rest of us”). I have argued in Better Never to Have Been and in Debating Procreation that these benefits to others can’t justify typical procreation, although I do suggest that on some (but not other) theoretical accounts limited procreation might be permissible as part of a phased extinction. I also argue that an unpopulated world would be better than a populated one.

    Commenting on my concluding irreligious postscript, Andrew says that even if bringing new Jews into existence harms them, whether that provides a reason not to produce them depends on the precise quantities of harm caused to them and of the good they cause. Given the context of my discussion, I had in mind the kind of harm done to victims (and many survivors) of the Holocaust. I’m sceptical that there is any foreseeable amount of good that could outweigh that. (I’m not pinning my hopes on a messiah!) This is partly, but only partly, because of the empirical asymmetries between harms and goods. For example, the former tend to be much worse than the latter are good. This is one reason why there is and there can only ever be much more bad than good in the world.

    This is all necessarily very sketchy, but the fuller discussions are available elsewhere.

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