“Better never to have been”

A couple of students and I are reading David Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been, alongside our reading of Schopenhauer, which, among all the ways of passing sunny summer days, must count among the most inappropriate. Benatar’s book is an argument for the claim that bringing people into existence causes them harm. He admits that, once you exist, there may be plenty of good reasons to continue to exist; but there are no good reasons to cause anyone to begin to exist, and in fact strong reasons for not doing so.

His whole argument turns on an alleged asymmetry. We DO think it is a good idea not to bring a being into existence when we know that being’s life will be unrelentingly horrible. Indeed, we are apt to censure someone who brings suffering beings into existence. (Set aside the abortion debate; think of couples who are genetically determined to bring about suffering children, or AIDS babies, or whatever; they ought to refrain from doing so.) But – here’s the alleged asymmetry – we DO NOT think it is a bad idea not to bring into existence a being whose life will be pleasant. That is to say, we are not apt to censure couples who decide not to have children when it is clear that the lives of those children would be very pleasant.

So what? Well, Benatar draws from this alleged asymmetry two claims: (1) it is bad to create a being who suffers; and (2) it is not-bad, or just plain neutral, not to create a being who has pleasure. Now think of all the beings who have been brought into existence. All of their pleasures, or high points, count as morally neutral with respect to the act of creating them. But all of their pains count as “bad” with respect to that act. Since every human life includes some suffering, we can say, of every human life, that it was better for that person never to have been brought into existence in the first place.

I keep calling the analogy “alleged” because I think the contrast is between claims of different logical structure. Take claim (1) above – “it is bad to create a being who suffers.” Now it is GRE time: which of the following is its asymmetrical counterpart?

(2) “it is not-good to create a being who has pleasure”
(3) “it is not-good not to create a being who suffers”
(4) “it is good not to create a being who has pleasure”
(5) “it is good to create a being who has no pleasure”

And, as with any good GRE question, after this you should feel like you no longer understand your own language. I have no idea which of (2)-(5) is the asymmetrical counterpart to (1), though Benatar is sure it’s (2). But after trying to think through all of these, it seems to me that a symmetrical counterpart to (1) – namely, “it is good to create a being who experiences pleasure” – seems to me at least sometimes true. I see a happy couple, with wisdom and means and love; they have children, and I think “How wonderful that these kids have such great lives!” Or I see the same couple without kids, and think “That is a loss; the world is a bit worse off for their surplus of loving support never having been spent.” I’ll admit that my complaint in this latter case is not nearly as strong as my censure when couples stupidly bring into existence suffering children; still, my feelings are a bit more colorful than neutral. And this is exactly what Benatar denies.

Now maybe my logic is limp; it wouldn’t be the first time. But I am so far unconvinced that we always do harm in bringing anyone into existence. It seems to me the truth is messier – sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t, and usually we don’t know, or there just isn’t a fact to the matter. Once again, flat-footed skepticism prevails. No shortcuts to case-by-case thinking.

But despite my disagreement, I think Benatar’s book is a great model for contemporary philosophy. It pursues a question that gets at our philosophical hearts – to be, or not to be, that is his question – and it does so with clear prose, short sentences, good analogies, elegant insights, and without getting bogged down in citations and narrow in-fights among the experts. It’s a noble and worthy effort. The world is better off for the book’s having been.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
This entry was posted in Books, Meanings of life / death / social & moral stuff. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to “Better never to have been”

  1. Rob Sica says:

    What a great discussion group!

    A couple thoughts.

    To the extent that, contra Epicurus, death is a harm — and that’s setting aside the painful anxiety about death (I believe) many people face, with varying degrees of intensity and clarity, throughout various or even most phases of their lives — then though it may not be the case that progenitors are the agents of harm, it does seem hard (for me) to deny that very serious bad has been brought into the world, however fortune the life (or lives) attached to that bad turn out. (And maybe the harm of death is proportionate to how good the life brought to an end by it is.)

    I have a somewhat different reaction to seeing that childless couple. The world seems a bit worse off because they don’t adopt children who have already been brought into existence, rather than because they haven’t themselves brought anyone into existence. In fact, I sometimes have that reaction when seeing such couples with young children: they could have spared those kids the uncertain hazards of life and the certain harm of death, but made the world better taking loving custody of already existing children.

    My favorite part of Benatar’s book is his repurposing of the arguments and widely held intuitions against Epicurus on death to support his argument against bringing new lives into existence.


  2. Rob Sica says:

    Also, your fine concluding sentiment recalls the conclusion of a recent review of Benatar’s book:

    “In all, Better Never to Have Been has made me think, and I submit to the reader that engaging with it
    would, at the very least, prevent one’s life from being as bad as it would have been without doing so.”


  3. shaunmiller says:

    Hi Dr. Huenemann. I’m sad that I can’t join your reading group: a Benatar/ Schopenhauer discussion sounds like it’s up my alley. I want to look at the various asymmetries (2)-(5). (3) and (5) seem to be obviously false. (4) sounds like the example you gave at my blog (which, by the way, I’m still thinking about).

    Maybe my intuitions are different, but when I see or hear about a couple who purposely choose to be childless, I’m actually happy for them and wish others would join in their lifestyle. When I hear that someone is pregnant, I actually feel disappointed and frustrated for the couple. Yes, I know it’s not the usual emotion to feel when others are purposely trying to get pregnant. I feign celebration just to keep up the appearance. On the other hand, when I hear that a couple had a miscarriage, I actually feel bad for them. Maybe it’s because my sympathy goes toward their harm. Perhaps my feelings are less colorful than neutral, which is probably why I’m sympathetic to Benatar’s/Schopenhauer’s work. But is there a way to get beyond our “colorful” worldview and see that argument as it is? Perhaps Nietzsche is right that philosophers’ worldviews are expressions of their temperament. On the other hand, Benatar has a response to the optimist on p. 210: “It is like being grateful that one is in a first-class cabin on the Titanic as one awaits descent to one’s watery grave. It may be better to die in first-class than in steerage, but not so much better as to count oneself very lucky.” Yet, maybe it’s me who’s being deceptive in looking at the awful things in life while saying that the pleasures are merely fleeting.

    Also, it does seem that Benatar considers your symmetrical counterpart to (1): that it is good to create a being who experiences pleasure.” Wouldn’t this lead to the odd conclusion that we have a moral obligation to create people because they’re missing out on this pleasure? Shouldn’t we feel bad that there are no beings on Mars that can experience this pleasure? Benatar gives other examples as well. Or are you suggesting that it’s good to create such beings, but we have no obligation to do so? I think Benatar offers a nice, critical view of how there’s a lot of suffering within existence, thereby showing that it’s simply a harm to come into existence. In a way, it’s sort of like a secular version to the problem of evil.

    Now my temperament may be coloring my worldview, I must admit that. Perhaps this comic may be helpful: http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2314&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+smbc-comics%2FPvLb+%28Saturday+Morning+Breakfast+Cereal+%28updated+daily%29%29


  4. shaunmiller says:

    I should also mention Benatar’s site where he looks at various replies to his view and Benatar’s responses. Some of which may take a while for him to respond: http://web.uct.ac.za/depts/philosophy/staff_benatar_betternevertohavebeen.htm


  5. Huenemann says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful replies. I still can’t quite get my head into Benatar’s main perspective, that none of the goods in life count, and all the bad things do count, in evaluating whether coming into existence is a benefit or a harm. I’m guessing this is because my intuitions about the alleged asymmetry just aren’t very clear. I think that’s where I was going with the (2)-(5) business; do you guys really have intuitions about them?! I keep imagining cases where God is trying to decide whether to create a world of just rocks, and whether doing so would be good/bad/neutral, not doing so would be good/bad/neutral, and I inevitably end up concluding that God would be most poorly served by having me as an advisor.

    Shaun, yes, Benatar does consider my symmetrical counterpart, but again I don’t share his confidence. A student (Mike Linford) and I imagined having extra tickets for a cruise, and we feel like it would be lousy of us if we didn’t share them. Is that sufficiently similar to a bringing-into-existence case? What if we were on Nearly Perfect Island and could create new beings to enjoy it with the push of a button? My own weak inclination is to push the button (while keeping a close check on population, sustainability, etc.), though I can also get myself to see it as a morally neutral affair; but it’s harder for me to imagine regarding the pushing of the button as a moral crime (“For God’s sake, don’t do it” I scream, threatening my friend with a torch. “Think of the relatively few pinpricks they will suffer, the occasional rotten mango!”). Ah, intuitions.

    Great comic!! An undervalued venue for good philosophy.


  6. shaunmiller says:

    I’ll give an attempt on (2)-(5). I find (3) bad because suppose I approached someone and said that I did not create a being who suffers. I would find it odd if the reply was, “well, that’s not good.” I think it a good thing that one did not create a being who suffered because suffering is a harm. Not creating that being would actually be a good thing.

    (5) is tricky. I know in my previous comment I said it was false, but I may need more information. If I created a being that had no pleasure, does this also entail that this being would then feel pain, or is this simply a neutral being? If it feels pain and only that, then I think it would be bad. But if it’s a neutral state, then it’s not good or bad. That would be like me creating a rock, or a swing set, or a chair. Now, maybe those things would produce pleasure (or pain) in others, but the objects themselves wouldn’t feel anything. So is creating these things good? They can be, sure. If I need a chair or a desk and I have a great use for it, then it’s a good thing. Or is this restricted to sentient beings? I don’t think it necessarily needs to be restricted to it. If a rock can experience pain, that’s bad. If it has the absence of pain, that’s good. If it has the absence of pleasure, then I don’t see a problem.

    (4) can be good sometimes. Suppose I pushed a button and it created an extreme sadist who gained immense pleasure from torturing the innocent. By not pushing that button, it was a good thing not create that being who could’ve had pleasure.

    This leaves (2). I’m having a hard time formalizing my intuitions so let me give an example. (It’s actually your example from my blog.) Suppose my friend approached me and said, “Shaun, I have the power to create a being that will have intense pleasure. This being will come into existence for a full minute and then go out of existence. However, my window of opportunity is within 5 minutes. Isn’t this wonderful?” My reaction would be that it’s a pretty neat thing to do. But is it good? It may be good once it exists, but is the goodness within coming into existence? Suppose that I’m having all sorts of questions and I ask my friend about the process and he’s so enraptured by the whole deal that he explains in great detail about how it works. Unfortunately, his explanation took too long that the window of opportunity passed. I wouldn’t look at this as a great misfortune. I wouldn’t even see this as a missed opportunity. My friend may be devastated, and I may feel bad. But my sympathy goes to him, not to the potential being.

    Now here’s the other thing, suppose my friend approached me and offered me to push the button. Would I do it? I actually would. Maybe it’s because I’m curious to see a being come into existence just by a press of a button. But I would do it. Now while my friend is giving me the device, it accidentally slips out of his hands and shatters onto the ground. I regret that his device broke, but I wouldn’t regret the being not coming into existence. The being isn’t being deprived and so I wouldn’t feel bad for it.

    I like your other examples as well. However, I’m not convinced that having extra tickets for a cruise is similar to a bringing-into-existence case. I think it only works for beings that already exist. Let’s say you had an extra ticket. You would already give the ticket to someone who already exists. To push this example, let’s say that you can only give these extra tickets away but only to newly created beings. But the condition is that as soon as you have created this being, this being will continue to exist even after the cruise. This being will eventually die of course. Now you have a choice: you can either waste the tickets (because the condition is that they’re only meant for newly created beings, in which these beings will continue to exist after the cruise), or you can waste them. I’m sure Benatar would say to waste the tickets. Sure the cruise might be fun for this newly created being, but then once the cruise is over, it’s “back to life” with the pains, harms and sufferings. It’s not worth it for Benatar.

    You second example of the Nearly Perfect Island may work. Suppose I changed the example and made it into the Perfect Island. No matter how many people you add to it, no one will suffer. There’s enough food and everyone is enjoying themselves, no matter how many people you add to this island. But if this is a good thing? Should we do it? My intuitions say there’s nothing wrong with it, but we’re not obligated to do it. If we were obligated to do it, then we would have to constantly push the button and add more people, otherwise, there are potential people who are missing out on all of this pleasure. Someone takes a break from button-pushing and one says, “What are you doing? These possible people are missing out on these fantastic coconuts, the warmth of the sun, the shade of the palm tree. Keep pushing you fool!” To me, that’s harder to imagine.


  7. Good-when? And good-for-whom?

    Suppose Possible Al would have developed into a person who’s life is not worth living. And by assiduous use of prophylactics, we’ve forestalled his coming into existence. Benatar’s argument appears to be that we’ve fulfilled some kind of moral duty. Well, a duty to whom? To Possible Al, who never is, and who never will have been? How can that be? I don’t know what to make of Benatar’s asymmetry, but it sure seems fishy, like Anselm’s ontological argument—clearly sick, if hard to diagnose.

    In any case, the countervailing intuitions have has as much force as any of the other intuitions Benatar brings to bear. If we bring a person into existence who has a Wonderful Life, that outcome just can’t plausibly be described as value-neutral. Bringing Wonderful Lives into existence is plain good. It’s good for the persons who live those lives, good for the others who encounter them, and good for the world. (“You great star, what would your happiness be had you not those for whom you shine?”)

    I don’t say any of this because I think Benatar’s conclusion is wrong. Actually, I think it’s clearly right with respect to some lives. (I’m thinking of Louis CK’s observation, while lamenting his own evil, pleasure-filled life: “There are people who starve to death, and that’s all they ever do.”) And it might be right with respect to all of them. (I have at times gravely doubted the worth of living my own.) But I don’t think you need to postulate any fishy-seeming asymmetries to get there. Just show that there’s never been a wonderful (or even half-way decent) life, and you’re good to go.


  8. Dennis Hermanson says:

    I am not trained in the ways of thinking as most of these folks are, but I appreciate and enjoy reading, thinking and living.
    However, I think that human-centric thought, belief and living are close-minded.
    I seem to always want to go back to Korzybski, and null-A thinking. That is, the answer to many (networked, commonality, complex, fuzzy) problems in life and understanding isn’t EITHER/OR. It’s BOTH/AND.

    BOTH/AND solves alot of problems, and serves as a philosophical springboard for cooperation, complexity and environmental understanding. Human-centric, survival of the fittest (even if nature’s principle) is not the way. The way is multiplicitous. Networked. Symmetrical. Harmonic. Energy-fed (which is not ultimately individual.)
    Individuality and complexity are cosmically married. Like love and marriage, you can’t have one… without the other.
    Or the otter, either.

    On the topic, my wife and I didn’t have our own kids, but we’ve enjoyed other’s kids, and in addition to having more person lives, we feel that a sense of having all the rest of the kids in the world is what we all do anyway.
    It’s a truth that being a parent is a way of seeing the world, and it takes away from your more-personal centric self. Even the most careless parent is aware of that. For many, parenting and family are the profession in life, and the rest is just a job or leisure.

    As for the human family, now, more than ever, we know we’re all in the same boat. It’s a big boat, this ball spinning around in space, and we’re all related, really, aren’t we? Both science and religion say so. When those two agree, you can take it to the bank… the river bank, that is. Local is still around us, but the rest is becoming closer, faster, cheaper and more complex.

    The world is becoming one, in spite of us all.

    “I am the same kind of moron as the rest of you, it’s the method that does the work, for me as well as for you.”
    — Alfred Korzybski

    As for suffering, and deep thoughts, hey, I always say, irritation makes the pearl.
    If you have time for deep thought, you’re living the good life.
    If you are a staving african child in an internment camp or Haiti… well, welcome to the real world.

    Den NC USA
    amateur in the best sense


  9. Kleiner says:

    Disclaimer: I have not read the book you are discussing.

    I don’t want to hijack the conversation, but I can’t help but wonder about the terms of the debate. It seems like such a flat utilitarian analysis. Instead of asking if a life is pleasant or not, isn’t the better question to ask whether or not a life is meaningful? And a meaningful life can include very genuine suffering, since suffering does not rid life of its intrinsic purpose and meaning.


  10. Hi Kleiner, despite the references to “pleasure” or “suffering,” the argument doesn’t necessarily turn on the underlying theory of value. Rather, the question is about a purported moral asymmetry between bringing into existence a life that’s not worth living, on the one hand, and on the other, failing to bring into existence a life that’s worth living (same)—whatever theory of value informs one’s notion of “worth.”


  11. Jon Adams says:

    I remember discussing this book briefly at the USU Philosophy blog a few years ago. I’m glad to see that we’ve revisited the book again. Maybe this will finally motivate me to read it.


  12. Marcello says:

    It’s not quite “to be, or not to be,” which at least in its most famous utterance is a question of whether or not to commit suicide. The topic in hand is whether or not to exist at all, and more importantly, whether or not to create a human being.
    What makes this a tricky question is that almost everyone confronted with it thinks in terms of “to be, or not to be,” i.e. do I want to die, which almost always is answered, with good reason, in the negative.
    Being responsible for creating a human being has to be the most serious act a person can perform. But, think about it, in all the many hundreds or even thousands of scenes, real or fictional, of couples deciding whether or not to have a child that you‘ve witnessed, never is the question whether existence is better than nonentity is considered. Would-be parents at most convince themselves they will be good parents, providing a child with a loving environment. The choice to have a child is strictly based on their own needs – how could it be otherwise?
    For me the scale is tipped towards a preference of nonexistence. All the suffering of life, if lucky, is neutralized by its joys. But, there’s one thing which in my mind nothing on the positive side could match and that is the realization that you and everyone else, including those lovely babies you produce are going to die.


  13. Dennis Hermanson Hillsborough, NC says:

    “there’s one thing which in my mind nothing on the positive side could match and that is the realization that you and everyone else, including those lovely babies you produce are going to die.”

    Marcello. You think too much about too little. Getting old is the greatest philosophy ever “made”, since it comes to each that lives on, even the least learned or understanding. All the moral and ethical and spiritual and political and religious and even physical or scientific understandings you accumulate, will, like the rise and fall of the sea, or the in and out breaths you take, come to show you that you were stupid to despair about the enevitable, and offer you the imagined ways of ultimates that belief offers, while your body and your memory calls to you to remember the childhood and adulthood of sweet joys, imagined pains and personal triumphs, while you walked with all living life through the spinning balls of night and day to achieve your ultimate loss, not triumph, of death. With a life to show for it.

    So much has been written, so much has been ignored. Each of us finds our way. Life goes on. Why brood?

    Poetry is what you lack, Marcello. The love of life itself. The understanding that this earth is our cosmic place to dance the dance of sex and life. If you want to sit and brood, by all means, enjoy it. Create a grand analysis, a synthesis of values and your truth. And thank you for sharing it.

    I’d prefer to eat, drink and be merry.




  14. Marcello says:

    Dennis. Thanks for responding to my comment above.
    You’re probably right, that I lack poetry. I read a lot of it when I was younger. Didn’t understand a lot of it, though I tried. Perhaps I’ll get back to reading some again. Who knows maybe I’ve smartened up over the last 50 years.
    A lot of what you wrote sounds like you might be a poet. If so, I probably wouldn’t enjoy your stuff. Too saccharine for me.
    You might also be right that I think too much about too little. I know I think a lot; the scope of my thinking always appeared pretty diverse to me, but I’ll consider what you wrote.
    You said I’m going to come to learn how stupid to despair about the “enevitable.” Any idea when exactly that will be?
    Imagined pains? So all that stuff that I felt hurting me over my lifetime was imagined. You lost me on that one Dennis.
    I do brood. Interestingly, practically never about death, at least, never directly. Dennis, you never have heavy thoughts, worry about anything? If not, you’re fantastic.
    But enough of this. My comment really wasn’t about death or dying. I’m sorry I put that last paragraph in there. It’s about creating human lives and what that means, and that practically no one gives it more thought than scratching his ass when considering having children.
    So Dennis, thanks for sharing all those pretty metaphors of yours with me. Oh yes, what “belief” are you talking about. Don’t bother answering. You’re from N C, so I can guess.


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