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My Ideal Foil?

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Tyler calls Better Never to Have Been the "ideal foil" to my natalism. Book summary:

Most people believe that they were either benefited or at least not harmed by being brought into existence... David Benatar argues that coming into existence is always a serious harm. Although the good things in one's life make one's life go better than it otherwise would have gone, one could not have been deprived by their absence if one had not existed. Those who never exist cannot be deprived. However, by coming into existence one does suffer quite serious harms that could not have befallen one had one not come into existence... The author then argues for the 'anti-natal' view---that it is always wrong to have children---and he shows that combining the anti-natal view with common pro-choice views about foetal moral status yield a 'pro-death' view about abortion (at the earlier stages of gestation). Anti-natalism also implies that it would be better if humanity became extinct.
This book confirms my theory that every logically possible view will eventually have a proponent somewhere. Unfortunately, life is already too short to read it. If only I had an infinite supply, I might spend some of it hearing why my optimal supply of life is zero.

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COMMENTS (24 to date)
Rue Des Quatre Vents writes:

This is why I left Oxford philosophy. Such nay-sayers!

Jeff writes:

If Benatar (the author) actually believes what he writes, why didn't he just kill himself and save a few trees along the way?

Scott Scheule writes:
If Benatar (the author) actually believes what he writes, why didn't he just kill himself and save a few trees along the way?

Now, now, that's not a good argument. He could conceivably believe that on net staying alive and preaching will inspire more suicide than killing himself now, which only guarantees the one.

mjh writes:

I really don't think I could read this guy's book. I can't look at his last name w/out thinking "Hit me with your best shot". After reading the book, and having the song stuck in my head for that long, I might be more open to suicidal thoughts.

TGGP writes:

Jeff, I think Benatar believes that living entails suffering and so does dying, only non-existence does not.

Chip Smith has been writing a series of posts on anti-natalism. I recommend them.

Jeff writes:

I think Benatar believes that living entails suffering and so does dying, only non-existence does not.

But how can he know that without dying? Makes me think of the second verse of the Blood, Sweat and Tears song "And When I Die":

Now troubles are many, they're as deep as a well.
I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell.
Swear there ain't no heaven and I pray there ain't no hell,
But I'll never know by living, only my dying will tell.
Yes only my dying will tell.
Yeah, only my dying will tell.

Troy Camplin writes:

I try not to read works of evil by evil people.

If humans are highly complex, and highly complex things have high value, and value is good, then it is good to have more humans, since each new human adds much more complexity to the world.

If increasing complexity is good, then decreasing it (or even preventing its increase) is bad.

Someone is merely bad id they do not do the good out of ignorance.

Someone is evil if they know what the good is, and choose against it anyway.

I have little doubt that the author of this despicable book is evil, according to the above definitions.

Bill Kruse writes:

I don't intend to read Benatar's book either, but I noticed that Pete Singer is cited. It has always seemed to me that Singer's prescription to everyone (well, bourgeois humans, anyway) boils down to: die, but give us your money first.

Morgan writes:

Sounds like almost pure Schopenhauer.

Dennis Mangan writes:

El deleito mayor del hombre
Es haber nacido.
- Pedro Calderon de la Barca, quoted throughout Schopenhauer. "Man's greatest crime is having been born."

Kyle writes:

One thing about those who never exist...they will not have to even consider reading this book. Or this post for that matter.

Chip Smith writes:


Benatar addresses this. I recommend his book, which goes into some depth about moral distinctions between prenatal and post-vital nonexistence (with a fascinating discussion of the Stoic view of death), but the short version is that once alive, sentient beings have a presumptive interest in continuing to exist; hence the special harm of death.

jb writes:

Frankly, Benetar gets it wrong. It's not suffering that's the greatest harm in the world, the thing that must be avoided and/or eradicated.

Tickling is, in fact, the greatest harm in the world, the thing that must be eradicated. I'm going to write a book about this: "Better to Never Have Been Tickled". I will explore how we must exterminate birds, destroy all feathers, and cut off everyone's fingers, so we can finally eliminate, once and for all, the worst possible thing in the Universe.

I would not be surprised if Benetar is a computer geek. He seems to have the quality of "recursing" down the tree:

Q1: what is the worst thing in the world?
A1: The pain of wanting things
Q2: What causes the pain of wanting things?
A2: Desire!
Q3: What causes Desire?
A3: Greed.
Q4: What causes Greed?
A4: Our genes.
Q5: How do we eliminate this pain, caused by our genes?
A5: We could ensure that everyone has everything they want at all times.
Q6: Can we achieve that
A6: No
Q7: How else could we eliminate the pain, caused by our genes?
A7: By eliminating our genes.

Benetar: Aha! There we go. We just have to eliminate all life, and the pain of desire of wanting things will go away forever.

Sorry Benetar, but the actual worst pain in the world for me is seeing blowhards like you trying to tell everyone that their view of what's important in life should be shared by everyone else. But unlike you, I can live with that pain, because I have a sense of &$&%( perspective.

Chip Smith writes:

...unlike you, I can live with that pain, because I have a sense of &$&%( perspective.

That's fine, jb, provided you speak for yourself alone. Benatar's argument remains relevant to the very practical question of whether it is ok to create people who might not share your "sense of &$&%( perspective." If you do, and they don't, then it would have been better not to. No?

Victor writes:

How does anti-natalism weigh the (apparently) unmitigated joy a 9 month old baby experiences when being bounced?

If you recall your own such pleasure, or as a parent watched your child experience it, I don't know how you could write such a book.

Troy Camplin writes:

Indeed. The person who wrote such dribble clearly never had a child, and has never felt that kind of joy. I am pretty certain that if anyone said to me that it would have been better for my baby girl to have never existed, I would punch him in the face. Repeatedly. There's not a jury in the land that would convict me for assault.

8 writes:

I don't see how this substantially differs from early 20th Century eugenics. And imagine someone with Benatar's philosophy bioengineered the flu virus.

Chip Smith writes:

There is something fascinating about the fulminations percolating in these comments. Where the topic of ethical antinatalism comes up, I've noticed the immediate reaction is invariably characterized by severe hostility and often willful misapprehension. I suspect this is not merely because antinatalism directly challenges cherished and genetically rooted moral intuitions, but also because the logic of the central argument derives from well-accepted moral sentiments. It would be hard to arrive at a surer recipe for cognitive dissonance.

Those of you who are willing to set aside your long-evolved procreative biases would do well to give Benatar a fair hearing. His book is short and lucid, and you may be surprised by how carefully he anticipates and addresses the reflexive attacks being leveled in this thread. And he dedicates the book to his parents, which suggests he at least has a sense of humor.

Mercher writes:

So, if you are never born, you benefit from the absence of bad things in life but aren't harmed by the absence of good things in life.

Isn't this a pretty straightforward inconsistency in the way counterfactual costs and benefits are dealt with? Can anyone who's actually read the book comment?

Chip Smith writes:


Briefly, it comes down to an intrinsic asymmetry in the pleasure/pain calculus; persons who are never brought into existence do not have good or bad experiences, but they are not deprived or harmed by the absence of good things for the simple reason that they do not exist.

Here's a relevant passage from Benatar's book:

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 good only if there is somebody who is deprived of these good things.

When a potential person is not brought into existence, there is no deprivation of suffering or pleasure, so the absolute lack of potential harm trumps the postnatal stakes every time.

People may argue that pain isn't necessarily bad in every context, but when you consider that it is impossible to determine in advance just how severely a potential person may suffer during their life (and in world-historic terms the likelihood is that they will suffer considerably), refraining from creating that potential person is the surest guarantee that they will suffer no ill, while no experiential deprivation will attach to any absent good.

Never existing means never being depressed, never having one's heart broken, never being assaulted or raped, never fearing death, and never dying. It also means never missing out on the sublime joy of being bounced on Dad's knee as a child. It's a win-win.

Benatar's book goes into great detail in defending this view against various rejoinders, but if you want to take in my "underview," just follow the links in TGGP's comment above.

Troy Camplin writes:

Te assumption being made is that suffering is itself bad, and if we didn't exist, we wouldn't suffer. But suffering creates growth. Growth is good.

I would have to see proof that he addresses my argument from complexity before I believed he addressed it. THe universe is a better place because there are people in it, since people are the most complex entities on earth (and that we know of). Thus, our existence adds to the complexity of the universe.

Further, the universe has evolved inexorably toward more complexity, so anybody coming out against humans as humans is coming out against one of the natural laws of the universe. Which makes any arguments against it as idiotic as complaining about the very existence of gravity. Without it, there would be no one here to complain about it -- but then, what kind of argument would you expect from a nihilist?

Rimfax writes:

The progressive may quit the Catholic Church, but apparently the Catholic Church never quits the progressive.

This drivel is just Original Sin recast in a secular mold.

Corzich writes:

Troy Camplin:
I know you were writing in jest, but I am extremely offended at your belief that it is morally justifiable to assault anyone who makes a negative comment about your daughter's existence. This is a prime example of the (to me, false) morality that says that children are more special than others, and that parents are entitled to moral and legal privileges denied to non-parents. Just because you love the little girl doesn't require me to as well, or give you the right to silence opposing views through thuggery. For all I know, she might be horrible, at least I would have a more objective and unclouded view. If I was on your jury, I would convict, and agitate for the longest incarceration possible. Parenthood does not trump the First Amendment!

Robert Gressis writes:

To Chip Smith:

The passage you cribbed from Benatar reads:

"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 good only if there is somebody who is deprived of these good things."

First, I think this passage as you've quoted it is incorrect. I take it you mean:

"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."

Let's take a look at the two claims being made in this passage (which I shall call "The Asymmetry Passage"):

(1) The absence of something bad can be good even if no one is around to enjoy its absence.


(2) The absence of something good can be bad only if there is someone around to enjoy its absence.

So, let's unpack (1) a bit; let's reduce the kinds of good things to (a) mental states and (b) states of affairs that are not (i.e., do not include) mental states.

According to (1), both mental states and states of affairs can be good. This seems plausible -- pleasure is good, and rain forests are good. So is, say, the absence of pain. All good things.

Now let's unpack (2). The absence of something good is bad only if there is someone who is deprived of it; does this rest on the claim that there in order for something to be bad it has to be experienced by someone?

If so, then (2) is ludicrous, at least if (1) is admitted. This is because it amounts to the claim: (2a) pain is bad, because it is a mental state that can be experienced by people; but (2b) the absence of rain forests is not bad because no one is deprived of them. Or: the world's oldest tree exploding is not bad because it doesn't have mental states.

But if (2b) is really what you're claiming, why on earth should I believe it? So far as I've seen, Benatar has given no reason. Compounding this is the fact that Benatar seems to admit that there can be good states of affairs that have nothing to do with experience.

So this is brute intuition mongering at its most preposterous. Plus, it's advocated by people who fancy themselves on their unflinching commitment to the truth. But really, they're just farts.

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