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.