Better Never To Have Been:The Harm of Coming into Existence

David Benatar, Oxford, 2007


copyright 2007, Jean Kazez




††††††††††† Itís hard not to react defensively to the nihilism of David Benatarís book Better Never to Have Been (Oxford 2007).The title sums up his position nicely:it would be better never to have been.Not just for people born into extreme poverty or violence or disability, though such claims would be controversial enough, but better for everyone never to have been.†† Itís bad to be alive, and not just a little bad.Benatar thinks we all live lives that are quite, quite bad -- much worse than most of us realize.


††††††††††† Benatar doesnít shrink from drawing practical conclusions:we shouldnít have children, women should have early abortions.It is to be hoped that some day humans (and all other animals) go extinct. Is Benatar planning on shooting himself?He doesnít say, but he does make a distinction between coming into existence and continuing to exist.†† Itís better not to come into existence, but once weíre around, it can be a drag to bow out.Now that youíre here, it could be you do have some fun to look forward to, and a bullet in the head can be unpleasant.Killing yourself might be bad for those around you as well.


††††††††††† All the bleakness proceeds from an argument thatís made in the second chapter of the book.The pivotal idea involves an intriguing asymmetry.The pleasure in a personís life is something good, but if the person hadnít existed, the missing pleasure wouldnít have been a bad thing.That intuition seems to underlie the belief that nobody has a duty to have children, not even if the children would be perfectly happy.On the other hand, the pain in a personís life seems different; if the pain hadnít existed, the missing pain would have been a good thing.


††††††††††† Imagine a couple with a child named Charlie, a very happy boy with occasional miserable moments, like anyone else. He exists, but might not have.Which scenario is better?In No-Charlie, thereís the good of missing misery.Apart from that, thereís just the ďnot badĒ of missing happiness.So No-Charlie is quite a good scenario.Yes-Charlie has the bad of the misery, and all the good of his happiness.But should we count that good as a point in favor of Yes-Charlie?How can we, considering that in No-Charlie, the missing happiness is not bad?This is the crux of Benatarís argument:the claim that the happiness in Yes-Charlie doesnít count.So what we have to go on is the misery in Yes-Charlie vs. the missing misery in No-Charlie.After careful comparison, No-Charlie turns out to be the better scenario.His parents should have thought of that and he should never have been born.


††††††††††† Now, I think this is an awfully fragile basis on which to build the idea that we should stop this whole business of human existence.The whole argument has a ďnow you see it, now you donítĒ quality, at least for this reader.But then, I do like existing quite a bit, and I think itís good, not bad, that I have brought two additional humans into existence, with the help of their father. So I might be guilty of ďpro-natalĒ bias, as Benatar calls it.Let me see if I can overcome the bias and look at the argument objectively.


††††††††††† Hereís a train of thought a migraine-sufferer could have:ďI really hate these headaches.I wish I had never been bornÖbut no, of course I donít really, because all the happiness in my life outweighs the headaches.ĒPart two of the train of thought is illegitimate, according to Benatar.The happiness doesnít count, it canít outweigh anything.This is an intriguing idea thatís worth some thought, but in the end I donít find it persuasive.Happiness is good, and something good is better than something merely not bad.The good happiness in Yes-Charlie is better than the not bad missing happiness in No-Charlie.If Charlie is very happy, and not very miserable, then itís better for him to exist than not exist.


††††††††††† Benatar offers an analogy to try to counter this reasoning.†† He says comparing Yes-Charlie and No-Charlie is like comparing two people, Sick and Healthy.Sick has both a disease (bad) and the power to quickly recover (good).Healthy, on the other hand, has no disease (good) and no power to quickly recover (not bad, since he doesnít have the disease).Supposedly my reasoning, above, would have it that itís better to be Sick, when we all know itís better to be Healthy.Giving weight to the happiness in Yes-Charlie is as erroneous as giving weight to Sickís powers of quick recovery.


††††††††††† But there are goods and then there are goods.Pleasure is a substantive good that can compensate for pain.We can think, coherently: it was worth suffering the headaches, because the pleasures of life compensated for them.But the power to recover is not a substantive good.Itís like the antidote to a poison.The antidote isnít inherently good; it doesnít compensate for the bad of the poison. It just undoes the poison.Of course it is better to be Healthy than Sick:thatís because the plusses Sick has arenít compensatory, theyíre just curative.But happiness is another matter.Charlieís happiness, if itís extensive enough, can compensate for his misery.(To anticipate a point Benatar makes in a later chapter: I donít meant to say thereís a simple formula to determine the good in a life:pleasure minus pain, for example. The point is that pleasure can make pain worth suffering.We all know that, from personal experience.)


††††††††††† The good news is that the good parts of our lives do count when we ask ourselves whether coming into existence harmed us.The bad news is that Benatar goes on to argue in chapter three that there isnít much good in our lives.Or rather, thereís a whole lot more bad than we usually realize.Whatever the framework for measuring the goodness of livesóthe happiness theory, the desire theory, the objective list theoryóhe manages to find a preponderance of bad.Benatar vigorously defends the notion that the bad is what counts, when comparing existence with non-existence; but here his tendency to focus on the bad just comes across as a strange prejudice.We are not to overlook problems like feeling sleepy and feeling full, but he seems to overlook all the good stuff of every day life, not to mention the great stuff that happens once in a while:exploring Antarctica, writing a great song, falling in love, and (dare I say) looking into the face of a beautiful newborn baby.


††††††††††† If Iím right, and the Yes-Charlie scenario is better, does that show that thereís actually a duty to have children, contrary to contemporary assumptions?To begin with, No-Charlie is not a bad situation; in fact, itís somewhat good, because of the missing misery.Yes-Charlie is better, narrowly considered, because of all the happiness, but his parents still might have decided not to have him, without doing anything immoral.They might have thought heíd stand in the way of his motherís life-saving medical practice.They might have calculated that, in environmental terms, he and his progeny would wind up more a debit than an asset to overall good.All we are admitting if we see an existent Charlie as better than a non-existent Charlie is that thereís some good reason to bring him into existence, not that the reason is decisive.We can admit that people do some good when they have children, most of the time, without also saying they do the best thing they could have done, or that they are models for everyone else, or that they should have the largest number of kids they possibly can.


††††††††††† Since Benatar didnít convince me that itís bad to exist, I didnít linger long in the chapters that unravel whether it should be illegal to have children (no), what it will be like for the last generation of humans (not pleasant), and how late in pregnancy itís still doing a future child a favor to abort him (around the mid-point).Instead, I kept wondering about the author, the person behind the arguments.


††††††††††† Benatar is an extremely clear writer, but an invisible one.He observes one of the first principles of academic writing to a T:no self-disclosure.I couldnít help but wonder what kind of a life he lives.Whatís it like thinking that existence, your own and everyone elseís, is regrettable?††