In his book Better Never to Have Been (recently translated in Italian by Carbonio Editore), David Benatar takes further the famous idea by Albert Camus that “there is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide,” by expanding the perspective to all sentient beings and focusing on the very act of coming into existence. It is an essential topic in philosophy that the South African philosopher addresses with clarity and insight. The main theses are simple and straightforward: coming into existence is always a harm and the quality of life is much worse than most people think. Benatar then meticulously draws the logical implications of these theses: it is better not to have children; in some cases, abortion is morally preferable; and it would be preferable if humans (and other sentient beings) became extinct though non-procreation.
Even if it is not a cheerful line of thought, we cannot reject it just because it is unpleasant – pace Benatar’s numerous detractors. Over the years many readers have found that the book resonates with their own pessimistic views, and derived comfort from knowing that there are others who share their opinions and that there are good philosophical arguments to support them.
Compared to his predecessors, Benatar is pretty extreme: even if he does not consider life to be a good deal, he dislikes death as well. Against the latter, it could be argued that since we are “programmed” to live, we do not want to end our lives unless suffering is unbearable. Nonetheless, from this sort of biological diktat it does not follow that death is bad – just that it seems to be so. Why should the loss of life, something that is mostly bad, be lamented? For Benatar, while we have no interest in coming into existence, once we do exist we have an interest in not ceasing to exist: death deprives us of that good which we would have otherwise enjoyed and brings about the annihilation of the self. It is not a cost-free solution to life’s burdens. By contrast, never coming into existence is cost-free.
Benatar and other antinatalists do not argue for extermination of people. Their goal is to avoid bringing people into existence, not to kill those who already exist. Moreover, taking these ideas seriously brings many improvements: an increased respect for our fellow animals, women’s right to abortion, a non-violent solution to overpopulation, and so on. It seems like the pitfalls of optimism and the benefits of pessimism are not widely recognized.
Throughout the book the philosopher unmasks many self-illusions that prevent us from seeing how bad our lives are. For example, he put forth an interesting thought experiment about how we set our own parameters to evaluate the quality of our lives. He imagines an extra-terrestrial with a charmed life, devoid of any suffering or hardship that looks with pity on our species and see the suffering that marks every human life, judging our existence, as we (humans without unusual impairments) judge the existence of bedridden quadriplegics, to be worse than the alternative of nonexistence.
But, we could say, can we likewise rejoice the fact that life occupies a very small place in the universe? If life is bad, evil is very limited within the universe. The Benatarian pessimist would concede that yes, we can rejoice about that – but this sort of good news should not detract us from recognizing the awful tragedy that there is so much suffering here on Earth. Moreover, given that we can prevent more such suffering by desisting from bringing new sufferers into existence, we should ensure that we do not contribute to the suffering, even if that is circumscribed to a small part of the universe.
If we presume a qualitative difference between pain and pleasure, these conclusions could change. One could argue that good is qualitatively greater than bad. A mystic, for example, who claims that her enlightenment transfigures all the evil things of her life, could reasonably say that Benatar is wrong. The philosopher dismisses this very case in a note about Buddhism, but even if the mystic (or anyone devoting herself to some faith or idea) is deluded, nevertheless, from a subjective perspective, her devotion could work to counter the evil of life. Benatar rebuts that in this case life would not be as bad. However, given the asymmetry in the presence and absence of good and bad, it would still be the case that coming into existence would always be a net harm. The harm would be less, but it would still be a harm. Moreover, we do not have good reasons for thinking that the good is qualitatively greater than the bad. All the evidence, as he argues in the book, suggest that there is more bad than good.
Here comes the keystone of Better Never to Have Been, the “asymmetry of pleasure and pain.” It is worth a brief quote:
“Both good and bad things happen only to those who exist. However, there is a crucial asymmetry between the good and the bad things. The absence of bad things, such as pain, is good even if there is nobody to enjoy that good, whereas the absence of good things, such as pleasure, is bad only if there is somebody who is deprived of these good things.”
Everything is well explained by the famous square:
Benatar also writes that “the absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation,” but we can also state that the absence of pain is not good unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a good thing. Benatar’s answer is quite unexpected. He agrees that one can logically make a symmetrical claim about the absence of the bad and of the good. However, the asymmetry he defends is not a logical one but rather an axiological one, i.e., one that is value-based. The problem with introducing axiological symmetry is that this is incompatible with important moral judgements that we would be ill-advised to give up.
The debate about the value of life and death still open. But what is sure is that Benatar’s work has brought philosophy back to measure itself with its deepest issue – the meaning of life.