Better Never to Have Been

by Harry on September 3, 2008

I see that David Benatar’s excellent book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence has just come out in paperback. It’s almost enough to make me regret that I am on sabbatical this coming year. In my Contemporary Moral Issues course I always teach abortion as the first topic, because it gets them to read two of my favourite pieces of applied philosophy, Thomson’s A Defence of Abortion, and Marquis’s Why Abortion is Immoral. I also take a bit of time to discuss conceptual space, and used to use the view that abortion is always obligatory as an example of conceptual space that no-one occupies. Now, however, I include chapter 5 of Benatar’s book (Abortion: the ‘Pro-Death’ View) in the course packet. Benatar is a terse, unfussy, and careful writer: the argument is complicated, but the writing is excellent, and it is an easy, and compelling, read. I was annoyed that it first came out in an expensive hardback which I could not, in good conscience, assign, and feared that it would not sell well enough to be paperbacked. So, now I’ll be happy to assign it.

The opening lines give the basic structure of the argument:

Each one of us was harmed by being brought into existence. That harm is not negligible, because the quality of even the best lives is very bad-and considerably worse than most people recognise it to be. Although it is obviously too late to prevent our own existence, it is not too late to prevent the existence of future possible people. Creating new people is thus morally problematic.

His conclusion is that there is a powerful moral reason to try to bring about the extinction of the human species, using whatever means are morally permissible (which include refraining from having children and choosing to have abortions, but do not include murder, even of children, or forced abortion). This is, obviously, a conclusion most people will resist. Personally, I’m probably pretty far on the other end of the spectrum of pro/anti-natalism. The interest is not so much in the conclusion, but in the argument. Benatar’s major premise is that there is an asymmetry between pleasure and pain:

It is uncontroversial to say that
1)The presence of pain is bad
and that
2)The presence of pleasure is good

However, such symmetrical evaluation does not seem to apply to the absence of pain and pleasure, for it strikes me as true that

3)The absence of pain is good even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone,
whereas
4)The absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom that absence is a deprivation.

I’d be happy to reject this premise, but it is, as Benatar discerns, a standard part of common sense morality. He then observes that people who have children put them at great risk of harm. But there is no-one who is harmed, or put at risk of harm, by the choice not to have them. Together with some arguments about the awfulness of many lives, the fact that the harms we impose on our offspring are wrongs which are not compensated for by the goods they receive, and the observation that from the inside most of us who evaluate our lives positively are victims of our own bounded rationality, the conclusion follows rather neatly. Figuring out exactly why you disagree with him is a frustrating business. This is definitely not a book for those of you who judge the quality of a book by its conclusions. But for those who admire really careful and imaginative argumentation, and are interested in either issues of life and death, or the foundations of morality, it’s a must read. And, now, an affordable one.

{ 138 comments }

1

Kieran 09.03.08 at 7:26 pm

Sounds like the content of “This Be the Verse” processed into prose suitable for publication in Analysis.

But there is no-one who is harmed, or put at risk of harm, by the choice not to have them.

But think of all the kids who would have been born, and thus severely harmed, were it not for the parents of Carl Djerassi and Frank Colton.

2

rickm 09.03.08 at 7:29 pm

Or, as Neil Young said,

“There’s one more kid that will never go to school
Never get to fall in love, never get to be cool.”

3

Adam Roberts 09.03.08 at 7:30 pm

“It is uncontroversial to say that the presence of pain is bad and that
the presence of pleasure is good” s/b “an early nineteenth-century utilitarian would find it uncontroversial to say that the presence of pain is bad and that the presence of pleasure is good, but for most 21st-century folk it’s more complex than that.” ‘Pain’ and ‘pleasure’, as Freud understood, are not a simple dichotomy, and certainly not a zero-sum game. The second part of the premise strikes me as a shifting of goalposts from actual pain/pleasure (which I take to be the reference in the first part) to the idea of pain and pleasure … from real to conceptual.

4

Righteous Bubba 09.03.08 at 7:35 pm

But there is no-one who is harmed, or put at risk of harm, by the choice not to have them.

Is a nagging unfulfilled desire not harm?

5

abb1 09.03.08 at 7:40 pm

The pain/pleasure thing sounds like a good argument for suicide. I seem to remember there was some nihilist with similar ideas in Dostoevsky’s Demons.

6

Righteous Bubba 09.03.08 at 7:41 pm

Why stop at people?

7

Jeff R 09.03.08 at 7:43 pm

“But there is no-one who is harmed, or put at risk of harm, by the choice not to have them.”

Does he address the counterargument that there is a non-zero possibility that any given potential person might, in his or her life, save or improve a large number of other lives (including some who are already in existence at the time of decision)?

8

richard 09.03.08 at 7:46 pm

The absence of pain is good even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone
…evidently there’s some literature within which this statement makes sense. For those of us who lack rudimentary skills on this topic, can you provide a basic bibliography?

9

jim 09.03.08 at 7:56 pm

The absence of pain is good even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone

is, I think, uncontroversial.

Two worlds: one where there is a torturer torturing a man in Abu Ghraib, the other where neither of these people exist, have ever existed. Clearly the first world, one where there is torture, is worse than the second world, where there is no torture, even though there is no-one in that second world who would have been tortured in the first world and can therefore be said to enjoy the good.

10

ingrid robeyns 09.03.08 at 8:00 pm

Harry: did this book make you start doubting your pro-natalist views?

11

abb1 09.03.08 at 8:06 pm

is, I think, uncontroversial

If we are talking about physical pain, it is very much controversial indeed. “Not by bread alone,” as they say.

12

joel turnipseed 09.03.08 at 8:09 pm

Well, there are a lot of things wrong with even the premises, as people are pointing out. For a stimulating counter-argument to the first premise, I’d encourage anyone to watch Melody Gilbert’s documentary, A Life Without Pain, about people who suffer from a congenital defect which prevents them from feeling pain.

Still, if there were an 8,000 word version I’d be interested in reading it.

13

Bloix 09.03.08 at 8:23 pm

“the quality of even the best lives is very bad”

Presumably the idea is that we can develop indicia of “quality of life” that permits us to assign a single scalar value to all lives, actual and imagined, on a scale from “best” to “good” to “fair” on down to “bad” and “very bad” and “worst,” and when we place on this scale all the actual lives ever lived we find that they all fall on the short continuum from “very bad” to “worst,” while only imagined lives make into those portions of the scale from “bad” on up.

In order to make this work, we are told, we must accept that the subjective ranking that “most people” would make is “considerably” at odds with the correct ranking.

Okay then. Give us some objective criteria, tell us how you measure quality, and measure some lives. Until you do it, you’re not ranking. You’re wanking.

PS- the statement “no-one who is harmed, or put at risk of harm, by the choice not to have” children is far from non-controversial. There are many people who suffer from the absence of children in their lives, and many who devote much time, money and effort to have children. And if any society chose, as a whole, to have no children at all, the individuals making up that society would suffer considerably, both mentally and physically, as the entire society passed into history.

14

Anderson 09.03.08 at 8:39 pm

Although it is obviously too late to prevent our own existence

It can be curtailed pretty easily.

His conclusion is that there is a powerful moral reason to try to bring about the extinction of the human species

If you haven’t looked already, some parts of Tolstoy, “The Kreutzer Sonata,” would be on point there.

15

Gdr 09.03.08 at 8:51 pm

Figuring out exactly why you disagree with him is a frustrating business

What makes you think we disagree with him?

16

Currence 09.03.08 at 8:53 pm

abb1:

Benatar actually addresses the issue of suicide and the question, “If Benatar’s argument is sound, oughtn’t we all commit suicide?” His answer is, in my opinion, both clever and correct: there is a distinction to be made between starting a life and continuing a life. He argues that while no life is worth starting, perhaps many lives are worth continuing — that is, not worthy of ending (suicide) — for all the traditional reasons (I can’t remember exactly what he says, but I’d say e.g. the pain of the act of suicide, the pain caused to loved ones, etc.).

Even so, I think there is a case to be made that suicide — as a potentially rational and even virtuous action — has really received short shrift, both in popular consideration and elsewhere. Of course that argument would be distinct from Benatar’s.

A (rather weak) thought experiment that helped me to bring my initially foggy agreement with Benatar’s reasoning and conclusion into greater relief: compare an imaginary Earth on which life had never begun (for whatever reason — the soup was disturbed, or not disturbed enough) with the one we’ve got now, or even any Earth that we could plausibly have had (e.g. were we a more socially, politically, and environmentally virtuous species). Framed in these terms, I would strongly prefer No Life Earth to This Earth and most plausible variants of This Earth that I can imagine.

That said, I was strongly anti-natalist prior to reading BNTHB, so I wasn’t exactly a neutral reader.

17

geo 09.03.08 at 9:00 pm

the quality of even the best lives is very bad-and considerably worse than most people recognise it to be

What piffle. As Shaw pointed out in the course of demonstrating Bunyan’s superiority to Shakespeare, this great passage from the end of Pilgrim’s Progress is a sufficient answer to the portentous emptiness of “To be or not to be …” and all other effete complaints about the hollowness of existence: “ ‘ … though with great difficulty I am got hither, yet now I do not repent of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I leave to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought His battles, who will now be my rewarder.’ … So he passed over and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.”

Do the Lord’s work — at present, smiting Republican politicians; in the socialist future, succoring the unfortunate and delighting in the fortunate — and you’ll find your philosophical misgivings about the continuation of human existence will disappear.

18

Colin Farrelly 09.03.08 at 9:11 pm

Benatar’s conclusion is certainly provocative and I have not read his work (though I will now).

From what is stated here, he seems to run together two different principles- one a person-affecting principle (which applies to the absence of pleasure) and the other a non-person affecting principle (which applies to absence of pain). So the claim (4) that the absence of pleasure is not bad is interpreted as a person-affecting claim- if there is no one for whom the pleasure is absent, its absence cannot be bad. And yet the absence of pain is thought to be a good even if it is not good for anyone (3).

I would be inclined to reject both (3) and (4). Before any sentient beings inhabited the planet there was no pain on earth. But I can’t see why one would view the absence of pain itself as being good. Furthermore, before any human being existed there was no love (the highest of pleasures) on the planet. And I think that is bad. So my intuitions run counter to (3) and (4), but I guess my views simply run counter to common sense morality!

Cheers,
Colin

19

Michael Drake 09.03.08 at 9:28 pm

Pshaw. Mere footnotes to Silenus (and maybe Sam Kinison).

20

Slocum 09.03.08 at 9:40 pm

Two worlds: one where there is a torturer torturing a man in Abu Ghraib, the other where neither of these people exist, have ever existed. Clearly the first world, one where there is torture, is worse than the second world, where there is no torture, even though there is no-one in that second world who would have been tortured in the first world and can therefore be said to enjoy the good.

But that’s not clear at all. Many people have been tortured at one time or another — but spent most of their lives untortured and, taking all things into account, would not have wished themselves out of existence.

Isn’t one such person running for president of the U.S. right now?

21

John Quiggin 09.03.08 at 9:42 pm

To extend the point made by others, given that Benatar is arguing from a utilitarian rational choice position, his argument leads straight to the (more or less standard utilitarian) conclusion that there should be no moral weight attached to suicide. That is, people should commit suicide if they reasonably judge that their future pains outweigh their future pleasures. Sympathetic others should not deplore the fact of suicide (though they should be saddened by the facts leading to the decision).

Once that position is established there’s no problem bringing new people into the world. If they don’t like it they can always kill themselves. That, it seems to me, is orthodox utilitarianism, with a bit of a helping hand from revealed preference.

Of course, this kind of thing is all very well in a philosophy class. In reality, suicide is more commonly the result of momentary despair and is a tragedy for both the person concerned and their friends and family.

22

abb1 09.03.08 at 9:50 pm

That is, people should commit suicide if they reasonably judge that their future pains outweigh their future pleasures.

I think it’s much stronger than that: when you’re dead you don’t miss your future pleasures, you’re not worse off. So, the logical conclusion is that you should commit suicide as soon as you experience any pain.

23

Ginger Yellow 09.03.08 at 10:04 pm

Doesn’t the phrase “It is uncontroversial to say…” set off alarm bells for professional philosophers? It screams: “I can’t be bothered/am unable to argue this, and it probably is controversial.” That said, I’m not sure I do disagree with his conclusion intuitively, but I do disagree with his premises and his conclusion rationally.

24

Slocum 09.03.08 at 10:07 pm

I think it’s much stronger than that: when you’re dead you don’t miss your future pleasures, you’re not worse off. So, the logical conclusion is that you should commit suicide as soon as you experience any pain.

Except that anticipation of future pleasure may balance or outweigh present pain. Hence graduate school.

Or, to put it another way, the anticipation of lost future pleasures may be experienced as current pain. And actually, the mental aspects of pain may be much greater than the physical aspects, and the mental aspects may depend heavily on one’s concept of the future. So a person in a hospital bed in great physical pain but expecting a full recovery may be in much less pain overall than a person experience only mild physical pain who has an fatal disease.

25

Righteous Bubba 09.03.08 at 10:07 pm

That harm is not negligible, because the quality of even the best lives is very bad-and considerably worse than most people recognise it to be.

There’s a gaping hole here in “worse than most people recognise it to be.”

26

g 09.03.08 at 10:19 pm

“Once that position is established there’s no problem bringing new people into the world. If they don’t like it they can always kill themselves.”

You’re making an assumption about the interval between “brought into world” and “deciding to kill themselves”. In practice that is many years, at least. If that interval is sufficiently likely to be a net loss, then there is a problem with the scheme. Kill-self is not a remedy for whatever came before.

“There’s no problem with hitting people. If they don’t like it they can always tell me to stop.”

27

Bloix 09.03.08 at 11:24 pm

I’ve now gone to Amazon.com and read many pages of Benatar’s book. The premise is that existing is always worse than non-existing, because if one does not exist, then one has not been deprived of the pleasures one would have experienced, as a non-existent being cannot be said to have been deprived of anything. However, if one exists, then one certainly experiences suffering that one would not experience if one had never existed.

I have to say that it’s shame for intelligent people to spend their days in this sort of argumentation, instead of, say, adjusting insurance claims. But if one must – well, then the flaw is that we are comparing non-being with being, and they cannot be compared.

Or, one might say, they can be compared, but only by God. There must be a vantage point for the comparison.

If you read a few pages of Benatar, you’ll see that the unstated premise is that the proponent of the argument stands outside of existence. Implicitly, we are asked to imagine that we are arguing with God over the value of our own existence – or with the devil, more likely. But not with a human being living in the material world.

28

Ronald Brak 09.03.08 at 11:43 pm

Not saying I agree with Benatar, but superstitious people who believe in heaven and hell should pay attention. Currently people only live a limited period of time and have the option of killing themselves once they’re old enough if they decide life isn’t worth it. However, if you believe that there is even a small chance of a new person suffering the eternal torment of hell, then you might want to think long and hard about the morality of having children. (Although thinking long and hard about the evidence for the supernatural may ultimately be more productive.)

29

Matt 09.03.08 at 11:52 pm

_If you read a few pages of Benatar, you’ll see that the unstated premise is that the proponent of the argument stands outside of existence. Implicitly, we are asked to imagine that we are arguing with God over the value of our own existence – or with the devil, more likely. But not with a human being living in the material world._

Isn’t this a normal part of a utilitarian position, though? To look at the world from the point of view of the “impartial spectator” and judge what’s best from that? As for the general argument I often find myself think “yes, better not to have existed. You, I mean. Better _you_ didn’t exist. _My_ existing is perfectly good.”

30

Dan Simon 09.04.08 at 12:16 am

That harm is not negligible, because the quality of even the best lives is very bad-and considerably worse than most people recognise it to be.

That last bit is the crucial part. After all, if people can in fact judge the quality of their lives accurately, then the simple fact that most people don’t commit suicide–and hence judge their own lives worth living–is powerful evidence against Benatar’s position. So how, exactly, does he go about arguing that most of us are actually suffering a good deal more than we think we are? And what could such an argument possibly mean?

31

novakant 09.04.08 at 12:36 am

And if any society chose, as a whole, to have no children at all, the individuals making up that society would suffer considerably, both mentally and physically, as the entire society passed into history.

With the world population having doubled since 1950 and projected to grow by another 50% in the next 50 years I’m not really that bothered – if in doubt just create a few tax breaks or change the immigration laws. Actually, in the light of such figures and the problems they create, tough questions have to asked about the morality of having children and reproductive policies need to reflect that. Soylent Green is People!

That said, citing the potential harm our offspring might have to endure is silly as a general argument against reproduction in the vast majority of cases. Of course we wouldn’t want to advise people to bear children with severe and painful genetic defects. And conceiving children in a concentration camp type scenario with little hope for change, would probably be immoral. But apart from such extremely rare cases, in which children would likely be exposed to guaranteed continuous harm, the harm encountered in people’s lives might be terrible, yet the question, if it hadn’t been better not to be born at all, can only be asked by a conscious individual and is thus wholly paradoxical. This is not to say that suicide is necessarily an irrational act, since the decision to commit it is taken by an individual that possesses consciousness.

32

almostinfamous 09.04.08 at 1:32 am

so basically this is the premises of Buddhism, taken to the maxxxx in a different direction.

the author sounds like he would love to be part of this group

33

J Thomas 09.04.08 at 1:43 am

How much value somebody’s life has, is a judgement. It isn’t true or false, it’s a choice people can make.

If you decide that you (or someone else) is better off dead, that’s your own judgement. there’s no objective standard to go by, people just make the judgement and it’s true for them until they change their minds.

Objectively, people who believe they’re better off dead and who act on it, don’t stick around to present their arguments as much as people who want to keep living. They probably don’t get to present their views as much and so that’s a bias against them. The big majority of people have parents who did not commit suicide while they had dependent children, and they knew lots of people who did not commit suicide while they were growing up.To the extent that people are influenced by the customs of the tribes they meet, they will be influenced away from suicide. This says nothing about whether it’s right for that to happen, just that it does.

34

Matt McIrvin 09.04.08 at 3:38 am

However, if you believe that there is even a small chance of a new person suffering the eternal torment of hell, then you might want to think long and hard about the morality of having children.

Then there’s that whole problem of the disposition of the souls of aborted fetuses, for people who believe that fetuses have souls. If they go to heaven, then abortion is good for them: it sends them there without the ever-present threat of losing their chance that the rest of us have to deal with. Perhaps abortion is a sin that will send the person who does it to hell; but that person is still a hero in a larger sense, sacrificing their own soul to eternal torment for the sake of the baby’s eternal bliss.

If, on the other hand, aborted fetuses go to hell, then there’s no problem declaring abortion an unalloyed evil; but even if you do believe in original sin, it’s hard to love a God who would send a new baby soul to hell.

I always figured this dilemma (or, before the morality of abortion became a big deal, the equivalent question of why it’s wrong to kill newborn babies) was part of the reason limbo was once a popular if non-canonical idea in Catholic theology. But I could be wrong.

35

Tom T. 09.04.08 at 3:46 am

Presumably Benatar supports the Large Hadron Collider, and is in fact rooting for it to destroy the entire universe.

36

Matt McIrvin 09.04.08 at 3:51 am

or, before the morality of abortion became a big deal, the equivalent question of why it’s wrong to kill newborn babies

Uh, let me stress that here I’m talking about equivalency in the mind of a person who accepts all these premises, which I do not…

37

Righteous Bubba 09.04.08 at 3:57 am

Benatar’s argument makes a lot more sense if you advance it before television gets invented.

38

Peter Whiteford 09.04.08 at 4:07 am

” Sleep is lovely, death is better still, not to have been born is of course the miracle.”

This was written by someone who spent the last eight years of his life paralyzed, partly blind and heavily sedated on his “mattress grave”, which may explain why he took this philosophical position.

39

weserei 09.04.08 at 4:32 am

@25: Agreed. And it also bears mention that committing suicide is pretty difficult if you don’t know exactly what you’re doing and if you don’t want to kill other people in the process. And that a failed suicide attempt can be further damagaing to one’s quality of life (though it is also often the opposite).

40

Glen Tomkins 09.04.08 at 5:23 am

Silenus was so obviously right…

… that the point doesn’t seem to at all invite philosphic inquiry. But to each his own. People who actually imagine that it wouldn’t have been better never to have been born, have to, I guess, pursue a question that seems perfectly frivolous to me.

Please don’t object that someone who believes as I do is somehow compelled to support aborting every fetus. People who believe as I do would have long since arranged for our own speedy exit from this existence (this was Silenus’ third best alternative for mortal man), did we not acknowledge the hold that our attachments to this life exert on us. This hold is exactly what makes it better never to have been born. Just because we can imagine non-existence does not itself magically dissolve this hold, and put us somehwere that allows impartial discussion of the future existence of the human race. We’re already stuck. We are not God. We have no choice but to continue our own lives, and that of the human race, because we are not such beings as can stand outside this question to judge it free of constraint.

41

john 09.04.08 at 5:37 am

I have a wonderful six-year-old daughter who I love beyond compare, and who, generally speaking, seems to be a very cheerful and happy child. Nonetheless, I do occasionally wonder if it would not be kinder for the world to end instantaneously, and without warning, for the both of us at some time before, say, age 12.

The pains of adulthood are not the pains of childhood, nor are the joys.

42

Chris Bertram 09.04.08 at 6:17 am

Hmm. I guess I don’t find it hard to disagree with the premises. I don’t regard it as “uncontroversial” that all pain is bad, nor that all pleasure is good, nor do I think that the value of lives is helpfully evaluated via a pain/pleasure calculus alone (or even mainly) and as soon as you let other values in then the argument is weakened.

43

adipex 09.04.08 at 6:30 am

One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential.
Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency.
adipex p
http://adipexadipexonl.blog.ijijiji.com

44

abb1 09.04.08 at 7:10 am

Slocum 23: Except that anticipation of future pleasure may balance or outweigh present pain. Hence graduate school. (also Dan Simon in 29)

But this is not the whole story. You’re forgetting a powerful biological mechanism – self-preservation instinct. It’s vital for the species as a whole, but from the individualistic angle (what should I do with my life?) it manifests itself as irrational fear of death.

When you decide to go to graduate school you take it into consideration, otherwise, if built-in fear of death was not an issue, a heroin addiction followed by quick death would probably constitute a better plan.

45

Lex 09.04.08 at 7:33 am

Blimey, you’re a cheery lot.

46

eff 09.04.08 at 7:40 am

(I haven’t read the book.)

It is commonly believed that 10^-200 is so close to zero as to be indistinguishable. Now let’s see what follows from this by really careful reasoning, without prejudice.

I won’t judge though — reasoning can be fun. There’s a new coal plant in Germany which emits no CO2 into the atmosphere. Took some reasoning to get there, I would bet.

47

Lisa 09.04.08 at 8:21 am

I for one love it when philosophers defend a thesis that is both true and patently absurd. I was told in graduate school that the truth is often obvious and therefore it is perfectly fine if one’s argument defends the obvious. But where’s the fun in that?

I can’t wait to tell my daughter: ‘My decision to have you was not just unjustified but morally wrong to boot.”

48

Stuart 09.04.08 at 8:29 am

Surely if you accept his oversimplification that pain and pleasure are the only things that matter in life, you don’t end up suggesting abortion, but rather a world in which a minority of people sacrifice themselves growing crops and opium (and other essential services) so the majority can spend the entire of their lives taking heroin.

49

Tracy W 09.04.08 at 8:50 am

3)The absence of pain is good even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone

I don’t understand this. If no one cares that there’s an absence of pain, then why is the absence of pain good in and of itself? Surely it is inherent in pain that it be painful? If I chucked a baby against a brick wall, I would be causing pain to that baby (assuming that the baby has a functioning nervous system) and my act would be bad because it was painful. But if I chuck a rock against a brick wall, that is a morally neutral act (excluding any consequences such as the rock bouncing off and hitting someone) because rocks can’t feel pain.

So I don’t feel that this premise flows. For the absence of pain to be good means that there must someone be around who actually finds some benefit in there being an absence of pain.

50

abb1 09.04.08 at 9:53 am

a thesis that is both true and patently absurd

Not absurd at all. Sounds like a more or less standard nihilist angle with a slight twist, i.e.: “moral reason to try to bring about the extinction of the human species”. Though if thinking about extinction of the human species gives him pleasure – that’s fine too, along the same line.

51

Lex 09.04.08 at 10:11 am

It gave the marquis de Sade a lot of pleasure, too. Though it probably made his wrist ache a bit, fnarr-fnarr…

52

Dominic Fox 09.04.08 at 10:31 am

It seems to me that a consequence of Benatar’s argument is that one should not only not have children, but also strive to render the surface of the earth (and any other planet one is capable of affecting) incapable of supporting the evolution of sentient life at any point in the imaginable future.

53

Hidari 09.04.08 at 10:52 am

Didnt this guy have a similar idea? Maybe he was the ghost-writer (sic) of the book under discussion….

54

Hidari 09.04.08 at 11:00 am

More seriously: (or slightly more seriously)

‘1)The presence of pain is bad
and that
2)The presence of pleasure is good’

is self-evidently bollocks, as Max Mosley would be the first to tell you. Nor is it a part of ‘common sense morality.’ Generally speaking people who spend their lives avoiding pain and seeking pleasure are not looked up to by the community. Au contraire.

55

John Quiggin 09.04.08 at 12:00 pm

3)The absence of pain is good even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone

I was just going to make the same point as Tracy W – what on earth (or off it) is this supposed to mean? Is the emptiness of interstellar space good because it is a pain-free zone?

Coming to human beings, does this mean that it would be wrong to give birth to a child who was certain to experience a life of continuous unlimited bliss, because the moment of birth would be painful? That seems to be what is wanted for the argument, but it also seems crazy.

56

J Thomas 09.04.08 at 12:35 pm

Glen Tomkins has a valid point. Similarly, lots of heroin addicts will tell you that it’s better never to start heroin, and yet they have compelling reasons not to quit.

I want to repeat that what is being argued here are questions of individual judgement, individual choices which are not right or wrong but matters of free choice.

Surely no one would argue that esthetic questions have right and wrong answers? It’s a matter of taste. No, I take that back. I know someone who argues that some music is intrinsicly good (Beethoven, Tchaikovsky) while other music is intrinsicly bad (Elvis, the Beatles, Metallica).

But surely nobody sensible would agree with him, right?

57

Hidari 09.04.08 at 12:51 pm

‘But surely nobody sensible would agree with him, right?’

I might grant him Metallica.

58

mitchell porter 09.04.08 at 1:10 pm

I’m pleased to see antinatalism being discussed here.

Antinatalism is incredibly easy to defend. Just think of the worst things that can happen to a person. What’s a little harder to defend is the decision to be an antinatalist and nonetheless remain alive – for reasons other than spreading the antinatalist gospel or otherwise being a utilitarian, that is. I know my preference is to be an antinatalist who affirms the lives of those already living. And yet there seems to be a potential inconsistency just in deciding to continue my own existence. If I say that a person should categorically not create a human life, because of the nonzero probability that their offspring will one day meet their end in agony and terror (whether buried alive, burned alive, trampled to death, etc), why not apply this reasoning to myself? It seems I should kill myself now, rather than face the risk that any of those things will happen to me one day. But because I hope for something better in my own case, I don’t do it. It seems hard to defend this difference in attitude without leaving the door open for a step away from categorical antinatalism. E.g. if I am willing to argue that a rational inspection of my life circumstances suggests that out of pure luck, utter contingency, my life has a good chance of being one of the lives that is worth it, then it may sometimes be possible to argue similarly even before a life is created.

The usual defense of this particular asymmetry of attitude is, I think, that there is a moral difference between gambling with your own life (by choosing to go on living) and gambling with someone else’s (by creating a whole new life). Does Benatar have anything to say on this point?

59

novakant 09.04.08 at 1:12 pm

I want to repeat that what is being argued here are questions of individual judgement, individual choices which are not right or wrong but matters of free choice.

That sounds right on a very abstract level, but things become a lot murkier when one looks at reality. Both addiction and the contemplation of suicide are generally characterized by the absence of sound judgement and free will. The myth of the sovereign individual is unhelpful and counterproductive in such cases, instead outside intervention is called for. For every individual that has made a conscious decision to succumb to addiction or commit suicide, there are thousands that are simply in the grip of a terrible mental state and that will be thankful a couple of weeks, months or years down the road for somebody having helped them get through it.

60

Nick 09.04.08 at 1:19 pm

“I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”

If Benatar’s analysis is correct, then why should one’s methods be restricted to means that are “morally permissable?” Forget suicide. This is an argument in favor of genocide, as efficiently and rapidly as possible. If it is better not to have been born, then it is probably also better for adults to die now, since the amount of pain in their remaining lives will outweigh the pleasure. By killing lots of people, you not only minimize the pain in their lives, but you prevent the pain of all their hypothetical descendents. By killing their loved ones at the same time, you minimize the pain of grief. It would probably be best to kill everyone as painlessly as possible, but even a horribly slow and painful death would prevent incalculably more pain the the years to come. Bonus points for exterminating all life with a central nervous system, but to do a thorough job, you need to kill everything to prevent evolution producing more organisms that can feel pain.

I agree with John Quiggin (#55) that point 3 is meaningless. That basically leaves points 1 and 2 in the utilitarian equation. We should probably add the word “some” before both “pleasure” and “pain,” but even then it is woefully incomplete.

61

Lex 09.04.08 at 1:37 pm

Just in case there is a shred of credibility left in the poor dude’s argument – and the OP said there was, so I’m curious – when we take the two linked statements “the quality of even the best lives is very bad-and considerably worse than most people recognise it to be”, what is Benatar using as his standard of judgment, for either half?

62

stefan 09.04.08 at 1:42 pm

Given that suicide is readily available, it would seem the revealed preference shows that non-existence isn’t what people prefer for the most part. Living is optional and this option protects people from possible bad outcomes of living. Benatar perspective would seem to suggest that making suicide more ready available is the right way to go and would eliminate most of the force of his argument for not creating people.

I recognize that one problem here is that other people come to depend on one over time and that suicide creates losses for those left behind, which complicates the analysis above.

63

abb1 09.04.08 at 1:44 pm

Unfair, Nick. It’s certainly possible to believe that “creating new people is morally problematic” (‘having too many children is selfish and irresponsible’ is a relatively common view) without going all the way to “let’s nuke the entire site”. There’s a clear difference between existing and yet-non-existing people, unless, of course, you’re a devoted Catholic.

64

Bloix 09.04.08 at 1:48 pm

“For the absence of pain to be good means that there must someone be around who actually finds some benefit in there being an absence of pain.”

Tracy W (#49) and John Quiggin (#55) – this is what I meant when I said that one must imagine that the proponent of the argument stands outside of material existence – it can be God or the devil, but not another human being (#27).

65

Nick 09.04.08 at 1:55 pm

abb1:

But the excerpts from Benatar’s argument seem to indicate that creating new people is problematic because the pain experienced by currently existing people outweighs the pleasure. That being the case, why would it be immoral to end the currently existing people while also preventing the creation of new ones?

If there are moral reasons not to end the currently existing people, then the utilitiarian equation in the original post must be incomplete. That being the case, then it’s not obvious that creating new people is any more problematic than allowing the current ones to live.

66

Dominic Fox 09.04.08 at 2:08 pm

Better still would be a time machine, so one could send the nukes back to the dawn of creation and prevent all suffering of sentient creatures from ever having occurred. The only drawback is that this course of action requires sentient creatures to have evolved, developed the nukes and the time machine (and the philosophical argument in favour of using them), and acted accordingly. I guess temporal paradox makes the sum total of human suffering up to this point a kind of moral sunk cost.

67

Righteous Bubba 09.04.08 at 2:08 pm

But the excerpts from Benatar’s argument seem to indicate that creating new people is problematic because the pain experienced by currently existing people outweighs the pleasure.

Why not just give everyone heroin?

68

Matthew Kuzma 09.04.08 at 2:20 pm

That’s an entertaining argument and one that at least one person I know has used in his own reproductive choices for the last ten years.

Another argument I enjoy is the one that our planet is currently the equivalent of an ocean life-raft. There’s limited food and space and bringing someone aboard means kicking someone else off, however discreetly indirectly it may happen on a global level. Every person born consumes resources that others will miss and taking them aboard the raft is the moral equivalent of asking someone else to die or risk death for the safety of someone close to you. How comfortable are you with that?

69

Dominic Fox 09.04.08 at 2:22 pm

“How was your day at work, dear?”
“Oh, you know – suffering…”

70

Tracy W 09.04.08 at 2:24 pm

Bloix, even taking your point about someone standing outside material existance, I don’t see how Bentar’s point follows. I’ll pick as my someone standing outside material existance the Devil, who wants to cause pain. So the Devil doesn’t enjoy the absence of pain, by my definition, and if there is no one else around who cares that there is an absence of pain (which is the assumption Bentar states), how can the absence of pain be good?

71

novakant 09.04.08 at 2:24 pm

why would it be immoral to end the currently existing people while also preventing the creation of new ones?

hmm, maybe because the currently existing people would like to have some say in this, while the not existing people really do not exist at all, which is a rather significant difference ;) – but, as stefan has pointed out, the argument falls flat anyway, since the only real data point we have are the currently existing people and the ratio of 1 million suicides per year (or even the 10-20 million attemps) to 6 billion who somehow manage to get by is rather overwhelming

72

abb1 09.04.08 at 2:50 pm

…since the only real data point we have are the currently existing people and the ratio of 1 million suicides per year (or even the 10-20 million attemps) to 6 billion who somehow manage to get by is rather overwhelming

That doesn’t prove anything. One may conclude that most of them are simply prolonging the agony because of their superstitions and other irrational beliefs. One who sees clearly that human life is void of any meaning whatsoever will not be deceived by these statistics.

It’s the same sort of thing as the fact that most of the US military vote Republican.

73

Dominic Fox 09.04.08 at 2:52 pm

Sentient people can delude themselves about how great their suffering actually is, believing life to be worth living when in fact their own lives, judged against their conscious criteria for evaluating quality of life, are not. No undeludable sentient being would continue its existence for a moment beyond the achievement of sentience. The creation of new human beings is the creation not only of new suffering but also of new delusion. The never-born is the never-deluded.

Why should I mind having children if I know that they, like me, will successfully delude themselves into thinking that their lives are basically OK?

74

Dominic Fox 09.04.08 at 3:08 pm

Thomas Ligotti does this whole thing a lot more stylishly, btw.

75

Dominic Fox 09.04.08 at 3:35 pm

The other thing to bear in mind is that it’s possible that most people’s conscious criteria for evaluating quality of life are overly narrow. Not a few of the things that make life less unworth living are practically nameless. And then there’s objet petit a.

76

Dan S. 09.04.08 at 3:36 pm

I think I need to go play with my cat now.

77

Bloix 09.04.08 at 3:38 pm

Tracy W – I said the arguer was more likely to be the Devil than God (tongue firmly in cheek) because it’s a devilish argument – the Devil argues to the reader that the reader would be better off dead – not because I was implying that the Devil would actually be better off if the reader were dead. But I was serious when I said that the argument requires a non-material intellect which neither suffers nor feels pleasure, because it’s from that intellect’s point of view that the argument must be made.

And abb1: Benatar is not making the argument that pain outweighs pleasure. His argument holds regardless of how much pleasure a person experiences. As long as there is any amount of pain or suffering in any life, that life would be better off not lived at all, because pleasure counts for nothing (you don’t miss it if you don’t exist). Only the elimination of pain counts in his calculus.

78

Righteous Bubba 09.04.08 at 3:47 pm

Sentient people can delude themselves about how great their suffering actually is

Then their life is great.

79

novakant 09.04.08 at 3:48 pm

I don’t have a cat, but what Dan said.

80

Dominic Fox 09.04.08 at 3:48 pm

re: playing with cats – Current 93: “Black Ships Ate The Sky”

I had already seen
Black Ships ate the sky
I was sweet sixteen
The fences folded
And the trees surrounded
Black Ships in the sky
Devouring the clouds
And the thought came to me
Just sweet sixteen and full of night
Who will deliver me from myself?
Who will deliver me from myself?
And I looked up at the sleeping lion
Black Ships ate the sky
Colours untold
Kissing my eyes
To unmake myself
And to be unborn
To be unborn
And not to see
Black Ships in the sky
With their cypress night
Following in the wake
Of the churning rudders
Of Black Ships in the sky
Cartoon Messiahs became
Cartoon Destroyers
If I was unborn
I would have nothing to be grateful for
I would have never seen love
I would have never held cats
I would have never buried my friends
And prayed for their souls
In reddening churches
I would never have kissed
And I would never have wept
And I would never have seen
Black Ships eat the sky
And I would have been unborn
And not have seen circuses
Whilst watching the flowers
Rise flags made of atoms
Who will deliver me from myself?
Who will deliver me from myself?
Who will deliver me
From Black Ships in the sky?
Black Ships ate the sky
And I am unborn…

81

Hidari 09.04.08 at 4:11 pm

If one of David Benatar’s students committed suicide after reading this book, and their parents sued, what would Benatar say in his defence?

82

Dominic Fox 09.04.08 at 4:12 pm

They’ve gone to a better no-place.

83

Righteous Bubba 09.04.08 at 4:32 pm

If one of David Benatar’s students committed suicide

I don’t think he’s advocating suicide as that would cause pain to family and friends, plus the risk of unsuccessful suicide can be dreadful pain as well.

On the other hand there are a lot of homeless loners nobody would miss.

84

Righteous Bubba 09.04.08 at 4:33 pm

plus the risk of unsuccessful suicide can be dreadful pain as well.

Ugh. Can’t write: unsuccessful suicide attempts can cause awful pain.

85

Tracy W 09.04.08 at 4:39 pm

Bloix – but if the non-material being neither suffers nor feels pleasure, and there is no one else around to care about the absence of pain (Benatar’s assumption), then how can the absence of pain be a good thing?

Is it a standard part of common sense morality that rocks are good simply because they do not suffer pain? I had not noticed it, but then of course I have long ago concluded I am doomed to go through life without any common sense. But yet, if it was a standard part of common sense morality, I am surprised that no one with common sense has ever mentioned to me how good rocks are for that reason.

86

abb1 09.04.08 at 5:07 pm

how good rocks are for that reason

I suppose it goes something like this: it’s ‘good’ that rocks don’t feel pain when it’s cold or, say, when you hit them with a hammer. But it’s not ‘bad’ that rocks don’t enjoy, say, the warmth of sunshine; it would’ve only been ‘bad’ if they were actually suffering from not being able to have that pleasure.

Sounds kinda silly, but here it is.

87

abb1 09.04.08 at 5:21 pm

IOW: pain is a normal state of nature (which is ‘bad’), no pain is ‘good’, pleasure is an extra bonus. Therefore ‘nothing’ is better than ‘normal state of nature’.

88

The Angry Three Rights 09.04.08 at 5:29 pm

Eskimo: “If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?” Priest: “No, not if you did not know.” Eskimo: “Then why did you tell me?” Annie Dillard

89

Richard 09.04.08 at 5:53 pm

For any who are interested, my post ‘Moral Asymmetries of Existence‘ shows how an indirect utilitarian can accommodate commonsense moral principles whilst avoiding Benatar’s conclusions.

90

Roy Belmont 09.04.08 at 6:13 pm

This one is fun.
It’s like listening to a bunch of brains in pyrex canisters communicating (telepathically maybe!) (or maybe wireless!) back and forth across the lab.

Pain is a signal, pleasure likewise. That’s all, there’s no moral component.
In a consumer nightmare hellscape like the contemporary, these processes of signal awareness are seen as qualitative states, conditions, modes of being.
So that the signal becomes Other, object, thing. This is a perversion, but merely one among many.

They can turned off or amplified, ignored or allowed to dominate the bandwidth of the receiving processor. For consumers that dominating is birthright, now. Things are bad because they hurt, good because the please.

Yet inasmuch as anything has a purpose they’re only there, as signals, to help stabilize gene transport across spacetime.

Sex is so intensely desirable because organisms with intense sexual appetites tend to out-produce their less-libidinous cousins, thus out-gene-transferring them.

Pain helps keep the organism from destroying itself, by linking “bad” sensation with “bad” behavior. Helping to maintain the gene-transfer vehicle. This, obviously, is the origin and rationale for corporal punishment.

Trying to re-conceive pain and pleasure in that context, as economic commodities subject to moral arbitration, is a downward reduction of life toward game.
Flattening, making it 2-dimensional.

Any objective moral eval done from outside the gene architecture collapses from its own weight, because there’s no floor, no ground. No other point toward which to make things relative. Cosmic solipsism. Who on earth cares if someone on a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri has a really bad day?

Any objective eval done from within the gene architecture will have bias-by-affinity.
My genes, or their hardware/software bundles, respond a certain way to the sight of lovely maidens dancing on a green sward by a murmuring fountain surrounded by flowers and bounteous trees.
The genes of a Komodo Dragon respond quite differently to the same sight.

Pain and pleasure aren’t things that can be assessed without their originating stimuli; why is this condition/event causing this sensation?
Why does my stomach turn when the President comes on the TV?
Why does my heart go pitty-pat when Amy Goodman comes on the TV?
Affinities, or their opposite.

Lugging genes up and down the landscape.
Either because things just evolved randomly to this order of complexity, or because it’s all actually going somewhere.

Figuring out which one of those conditions pertain will align any moral system we produce or encounter, either with that destination, or with the nihilist void.

Doing that figuring is actual work, and vital service to sentient beings such as ourselves.
The rest is bodiless uncommitted abstract wankery.

91

J Thomas 09.04.08 at 6:30 pm

“I want to repeat that what is being argued here are questions of individual judgement, individual choices which are not right or wrong but matters of free choice.”

That sounds right on a very abstract level, but things become a lot murkier when one looks at reality. Both addiction and the contemplation of suicide are generally characterized by the absence of sound judgement and free will. The myth of the sovereign individual is unhelpful and counterproductive in such cases, instead outside intervention is called for.

It’s an individual choice to intervene in somebody else’s choices because they’re doing it wrong.

I’ve tended not to do that, and I didn’t like the result. I’ve resolved to interfere in other people’s lives more when I think they don’t know what they’re doing. But that’s my choice, there’s nothing right or wrong about it.

92

Katherine 09.04.08 at 6:31 pm

Unless I’m missing something, he seems to have missed that neither “pain” nor “pleasure” are single, absolute things. There are different levels of both. Is “a bit of pain” equivalent to “a bit of pleasure” and the same at the other end of the scale? And how about asymetries – does “a lot of pleasure” trump “a bit of pain”? How much pain trumps a bit of pleasure, and vice versa?

93

Katherine 09.04.08 at 6:32 pm

And what about masochists?

94

Righteous Bubba 09.04.08 at 6:38 pm

And what about masochists?

Enjoying particular pain is not enjoying general misery. I don’t imagine a masochist chooses the longest line at the supermarket or asks sneezers for a drink from their cup.

95

Katherine 09.04.08 at 6:50 pm

Ah, so is he talking about general misery or particular pain? Or has he, in fact, used the word “pain” without giving much thought to what that actually means?

96

Dan Kervick 09.04.08 at 7:59 pm

Well, this sounds like a book worth reading and puzzling about. But when I have dealt with similar arguments in the past, I have usually concluded that the author is leaving out of account massive amounts of important positive pleasures because he is working with a crude, simplistic and inattentive account of pleasure and pain.

I usually walk my dog late at night, when it is dark and quiet, and often stop just to watch and wonder at the amazing world he seems to inhabit, filled with smells and tastes and sounds that escape me. He’s an incredible creature, and the pleasure of just appreciating that as fully as I can- I’m not sure whether to call it an intellectual pleasure or an aesthetic pleasure – seems to me to be of a very high order and weight.

It is not a hot, passionate pleasure, or an ecstatic one. It isn’t a busy and colorful pleasure. It isn’t obviously corporeal, although it can sometimes bring a secondary feeling of lightness and relief from bodily pains and heaviness. And I’m not even convinced that it is a pleasure available to cognitively developed humans alone, since my sense is that other animals experience something like rapt wonder, but without the same kind of discursive accompaniment. But nevertheless it is a rich and profound pleasure that seems more than ample compensation for most of the griefs and anxious sufferings experienced during the day.

So even when my life has been at its lowest point, I wouldn’t have dreamed of ending it. Everything is just too marvelous and beautiful – even my own sufferings – and it all points in some way at wonders beyond our grasp. Even on days when my sensory experience of the world is little but an insubstantial gray nothingness, the sense of “nothingness” itself seems stunning and remarkable, since it only seems possible to me by virtue of a subtle emotional and intellectual comparison with an internally experienced infinite expanse of something else and better.

It seems to me that these experiences are available to anyone who stops for even for a moment to take things in, and their routine occurrence in even the busiest lives, and continuous presence as a kind of beautiful background hum, makes almost all the surface agonies endurable – which is part of the reason why most people do in fact endure them.

97

djw 09.04.08 at 8:36 pm

Lots of people have already made this comment in various ways, so I´ll phrase it as a question: Does this book have anything to offer to people who think JS Mill totally pwned Bentham on the whole ¨pleasure/pain as the key concepts in moral theory¨ thing¿

98

James Ladyman 09.04.08 at 8:39 pm

“Life is so full of pain and misery it would be better not to have been born.”
“But how many are so lucky? Not one in a hundred thousand.”
Anon.

99

Bruce Baugh 09.04.08 at 8:51 pm

Random thoughts about pain…

I have a small burn on one of my fingertips right now. I was reaching for a pan that was hotter than I realized. I quickly let go, and did not burn any of my other fingers, or palm, or anything else, because that bit of pain alerted me.

I used to have the usual calluses from playing viola and guitar a lot. Forming the calluses wasn’t fun in itself, but being able to play better was, and after I lost the neurological precision for it, the calluses were for several years a reminder of happinesses to recall.

It’s healed up now, but for several weeks I had a nasty set of cuts on my ankle. I was going to take out trash one evening, and my cat was in an uproar as soon as I had the back door open. The claw swipe he gave me discouraged me from going out, because it hurt and bled like crazy. And an hour later, as I looked out back, I could see a whole family of raccoons chasing one of the neighbors’ cats. I think that they’d been there when I was going to go outside, and my cat was agitated from their presence. Regardless of the specifics, that attack on my ankle spared me a confrontation with animals later found to be rabid.

100

abb1 09.04.08 at 9:38 pm

Hmm. I have 2 dentist appointments next week, and that’s just the beginning, ’cause I was putting it off for a long time. I wish it could be done under general anesthesia – a form of nothingness, albeit temporary. Incidentally, I was under general anesthesia twice so far and each time I noticed that my-self wasn’t too happy to come back. It was, like, hey, don’t wake me up, people, leave me alone. Probably doesn’t mean anything.

101

Brautigan 09.04.08 at 9:57 pm

Well, I’m reading this quickly before I dash off to a well-deserved vacation, so I offer this simple, vapid, but no-less valid response: All the pain I’ve suffered in this world has been more than offset by a single evening spent in the company of a singular brunette back in 1993, and being the very first skier to ever lay tracks in the chest-deep powder of one of the bowls at the just-opened Beaver Creek.

Oh, and Benatar maybe should see “Children of Men”

102

Matt McIrvin 09.05.08 at 4:50 am

Furthermore, before any human being existed there was no love (the highest of pleasures) on the planet. And I think that is bad.

A whole conversation about a book by somebody named Benatar and nobody has yet observed that love is a battlefield.

Let me, then, be the one.

Anyway, a while back I started getting rather afraid that under some reasonable set of utilitarian assumptions, love might actually be immoral, since it compels people to distribute goods and affection in an uneven manner not conducive to efficient use of their declining marginal utility. Kindness to people you love is kind of like selfishness, unless you love everyone equally. But if I have to love everyone in the world equally, can I really love anybody? Maybe I have to be anti-love! Once again, a reasonable set of moral postulates leads to something that sounds like it came out of the mouth of a supervillain, in this case one who probably fights fuzzy creatures on a cartoon for very small children.

103

Jim Buck 09.05.08 at 5:28 am

Benatar’s argument is just a tedious inflation of this simple sentiment:

‘…the universe is a flaw in the purity of non-being.’ (Paul Valery)

How about discussing this one:
http://www.springerlink.com/index/N22G804232763315.pdf

104

Tracy W 09.05.08 at 7:45 am

Abb1 – yes, that is how you could justify it. But the claim was not merely that a possible moral case could be made that the absence of pain is a good even if the reason that pain is absent is that rocks can’t feel pain in the first place. It was that this belief is a standard part of common sense morality. But, as far as I can tell, when people count their blessings, they don’t normally include a long list of things like all the rocks that can’t feel pain.

And what does it mean to say that something is good even if there is no one around that can think it is good? Would a universe merely consisting of rocks moving in curves really be a good universe? This is the bit I can’t make sense of.

105

Lex 09.05.08 at 7:46 am

Sounds to me increasingly like there’s a Buddhist monastery out there somewhere missing a few novices…

106

Tracy W 09.05.08 at 7:59 am

On thinking more about it, while I am not an expert in philosophy, my understanding from philosophers is that there is no one, inarguable, view about what is good which every rational person must agree to, similar to the proof that there is an infinite number of prime numbers. People have strong intuitions about what is good, and often find agreement, but there’s no absolute mathematical-level certainty about what is good.
Yet Benatar bases his argument on the premise that there is a good (the absence of pain) even if there are no people around to think that it is good.
I can believe that even in a universe without any sentinent beings there would still be an infinite number of prime numbers. What I have trouble with is believing that in a universe without any sentinent beings it will still, definitely, be a good thing for there to be an absence of pain. I can’t make sense of Benatar’s premise.

107

Dominic Fox 09.05.08 at 8:27 am

Would a universe merely consisting of rocks moving in curves really be a good universe?

The best.

There’s a slight snag, though: what if the rocks moving in their curves were but the constituent parts of some cosmically vast sentient entity? And what if it was suffering? Oh! such suffering

Another way of seeing this is to regard my personal misfortunes as a small price to pay for the happily pain-free survival of the bacteria in my colon.

108

Sydney 09.05.08 at 9:25 am

We could always adopt the principles of :

“They hold that the unborn are perpetually plaguing and tormenting the married of both sexes, fluttering about them incessantly, and giving them no peace either of mind or body until they have consented to take them under their protection. If this were not so (this at least is what they urge), it would be a monstrous freedom for one man to take with another, to say that he should undergo the chances and changes of this mortal life without any option in the matter. “

Hence, all newborn infants must sign (by proxy, naturally) a disclaimer clearing their parents of responsibilty for their entry into this vale of tears, otherwise surely there would be lawsuits.

109

Dan Simon 09.05.08 at 10:35 am

That doesn’t prove anything. One may conclude that most of them are simply prolonging the agony because of their superstitions and other irrational beliefs.

That would distinguish them, I suppose, from all those purely rational sources of pleasure and pain that dominate our lives–love, heartbreak, pride, humiliation and so on, right?

A scientist, observing human behavior, would respond to Benatar by positing that simply being alive confers enough pleasure to more than counterbalance, in all but a few people, the pain he attributes to all human life. Wht philosophers would conclude, I don’t know.

I was under general anesthesia twice so far and each time I noticed that my-self wasn’t too happy to come back.

Indeed, those were two quite painful moments for all of us…

110

Brett Bellmore 09.05.08 at 11:17 am

“and used to use the view that abortion is always obligatory as an example of conceptual space that no-one occupies. “

Actually, it is occupied by some fraction, (Thankfully small!) of the environmental movement.

111

abb1 09.05.08 at 12:00 pm

Indeed, those were two quite painful moments for all of us…

Of course they were, ’cause that would’ve been the end of you all.

112

Estèbe 09.05.08 at 3:03 pm

I am truly amazed. What is the fouding of the assertion : pain is bad, pleasure is good ?

113

geo 09.05.08 at 4:22 pm

Tracy: there is no one, inarguable, view about what is good which every rational person must agree to

Except that Dick Cheney should be boiled in oil. Inarguably good.

114

Righteous Bubba 09.05.08 at 4:41 pm

What kind of oil? I won’t stand for coconut oil.

115

seth edenbaum 09.05.08 at 5:17 pm

The problem with language is that you pick one definition for a term you’ll be able over time, and often through a process of proximity and drift, to have the word come to mean the opposite. You can’t do that with numbers. Liberalism is optimism. “The pursuit of happiness” as anything other than the happiness of pursuit is the pursuit of banality.

Liberalism as individualism stands for generalized as opposed to individual experience.
Howzzat?

The book is silly, not because it’s illogical or wrong, but because it’s rational and logical and unobservant.

I remember picking up The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World when it came out and expecting some sophisticated argument. [I hear it’s now called a classic by some people] I figured after Foucault et al., there had to be some reference to the obliteration of the body in pain and pleasure. Nada. Zilch. I thought of writing “The Body in Ecstasy: The Making and Unmaking of the World” but got bored and gave up.

From Marquis’ essay.

The argument is based on a major assumption. Many of the most insightful and careful writers on the ethics of abortion-such as Joel Feinberg, Michael Tooley, Mary Anne Warren, 1-1. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr., L. W. Suiiiner,,Iohn T. Noonan, Jr., and Philip Devine’believe that whether or not abortion is morally permissible stands or falls on whether or not a fetus is the sort of being whose life it is seriously wrong to end. The argument of this essay will assume, but not at-gue, that they are correct.

It isn’t. The social world is not the world of simple moral logic. and the issue of abortion centers not on the fetus but the state. But as in economics I guess… “Assume ‘A’ “

This is similar to the attempts to construct a formal moral logic of illegal downloading. But at some point if a crime has become ubiquitous its time to change not the law, but the system that made the ubiquity inevitable. But of course no one I know has ever had an abortions for pleasure, or even jouissance.
If philosophy is to be more than the philosophy of knots, it has to include the philosophy of knives, the philosophy not only of untying but of cutting.
An expansive and vibrant philosophy can never be more than a philosophy of engagement. The philosophy of solutions is risible.

What sort of critique is possible?
Everything is a critique. That means nothing.
Sado-masochism is a critique of the Humanist ideology of the body and the self.
Monarchism is a critique of democratic idealism and of our supposed need to be free.
I’ve always liked The Story of O.
I once had a girlfriend who told me that while she lay on the beach in the south of France reading that book she thought of me.
What happened to that relationship?
Ended badly.
Why?
She was a monarchist.
And what about you?
Oh, you know… king for a day.”

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The Modesto Kid 09.05.08 at 6:19 pm

I would strongly prefer No Life Earth to This Earth

Seriously? It is difficult for me to imagine earnestly holding this preference.

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The Modesto Kid 09.05.08 at 6:20 pm

(And I say that as someone who is pretty familiar with the line of thinking that prefers, on a personal level, never having been born.)

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Michael Drake 09.05.08 at 10:40 pm

I suspect that those who want completely to deny there is any force to the argument are more or less smuggling their own pro-attitudes toward and attachment to existence into the picture. Most of us commenting here have an unusually good shot at a groovy kind of life; so if one thinks it’s just obvious that human existence on the whole is better than its nonexistence, I’d have to wager that the thought is due to a failure to imagine the vast suffering that suffuses the world outside the world of one’s own personal experience.*

That being said, with all the valuation-relevant facts in view, there’s no accounting for taste. (Full disclosure: I choose existence too. Kind of presupposed by the existence of this comment.)

What I really want to question, then, is the ease with which some want to dismiss premise (3). Consider the following thought experiment:

A universe contains all and only that which is necessary for the existence of its sole sentient inhabitant S. S exists for a total of 20 minutes in a state of the most excruciating pain imaginable, then vanishes. During his brief existence, S had no opportunity to begin, or even conceive of meaningful projects. Indeed, the only thought that occurred to him, when any thought did, was “Please make the pain stop!” There are no other witnesses to S’ existence, and no one will ever no S existed.

Consider then the claim:

(T) It would be better had S never existed.

Now, are we really all that puzzled about what T is “supposed to mean“? I think not. Maybe there’s an argument that it makes “no sense”to talk about a “better” state of affairs that is void of valuers. Maybe. But if anything should be prima facie puzzling, it is T’s denial.

* SIDE NOTE: I also think it’s rather too easy to dismiss the argument based on its use of the value terms ‘pain’ and ‘pleasure’, when these could be so easily recast in the terms of whatever theory of value you prefer. (Sorry Chris.)

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Michael Drake 09.05.08 at 11:47 pm

(Dan Kervick, your point is well-taken, however.)

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J Thomas 09.06.08 at 12:43 am

Michael Drake, I’ll give you an answer that seems reasonable to me.

When we try to imagine worlds and think about which ones would be better, it’s only natural for us to imagine more pleasures and fewer pains. Like, the world would be a better place if there were lots of simulacra who had lots of money who gave money to anybody who wanted it whenever they wanted it. Nobody would have to lose money when you get more, only the simulacra lose it. You could have as much money as you wanted!

Similarly, in an ideal world, any time you wanted a cow would walk up to you and prepare a barbeque pit, and then it would carefully and happily slaughter itself. Meanwhile lobsters would walk out of the ocean to jump on your barbeque. Put another shrimp on the barbie, mate!

In an ideal world every woman would be ready to have sex whenever a man wanted to, there would be no STDs, and there would only be pregnancies when everybody involved wanted them and all the details would work out for the best.

In an ideal world everybody would win when they attempted great feats, except occasionally they might have losses and setbacks that would make the eventual victory feel better. Whenever there was a competition both sides would win.

And nobody would ever die unless they decided the whole world was such a horrible place that they wanted to die.

Well, but the way it is now, we have feedback loops. The money goes in a cycle, people do things for money because they want other people to do things for their money. Women don’t generally enjoy having sex with every man who wants them. Lobsters do what works for their own survival, to the extent they can. Destroy the feedback loops to give people only successes, and what happens to the system? Why have a world where women are always available instead of a world where everybody is happy with no sex? Why have a world with easy food when you could have one where you’re happy without eating? Wouldn’t the best world be one where an infinite number of S’s do nothing but live forever, and are blissfully happy the whole time?

But I digress. Apart from such fantasies, people make choices about what to do. In general people want to make the world a better place for them, and their choices reflect that desire. And in that context, it makes sense to try to make good things happen more than it makes sense to try to prevent bad things from happening. It’s a matter of outlook. If you try to make good things happen then every time something good happens is a success. If you try to eliminate bad things then every time something bad happens it’s a defeat. One way you get a lot of successes. The other way you get an almost unlimited sequence of defeats.

In that context, what does your twenty-minute universe mean? It has no connection to anything else. I have no chance to help anything good happen there, or prevent anything bad either. It sounds sad about the creature who wants everything to end for 20 minutes before it gets its wish. It sounds sad about the universe where nothing happens except to help S survive in agony for 20 minutes. The difference between S being in agony and S being blissfully happy is only a minor difference in S. If I could change that for him without undue cost, I would. But I get no choice in that.

So, let’s imagine there are an infinite number of universes which last for varying amounts of time, and an infinite variety of things happen in them. If I had the ability to destroy some of those universes because I thought it was better that they not exist, would I? I think probably not. My thought is that I wouldn’t reduce the variety of experience available in the universes.

If there are an infinite number of universes, and you could destroy every one of them that contained any unhappiness, would you?

Would you destroy all but one of them, the one you thought was the best?

Well, but I don’t know how to destroy universes. How about this lesser goal. Instead of killing everybody in the world, would you want to kill everybody in the world except the one who’s had the happiest life?

Would you have a cutoff? Kill everybody whose life has fallen below some minimum of average happiness, and leave the rest?

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Michael Drake 09.06.08 at 2:43 pm

J Thomas, the unfortunate tale of S was only aimed at showing that (pace John Quiggin and some others) there’s nothing prima facie puzzling or incomprehensible about Benatar’s thesis that “[t]he absence of pain is good even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone.” I totally agree that (happily) our existential situation is a lot more ambiguous than that befalling S!

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Tracy W 09.06.08 at 7:05 pm

Michael Drake – Benatar’s claim was that an absence of pain was a good thing even when there was no one around to enjoy it. The claim (T) “It would be better had S never existed” makes sense because I can think it. But if I couldn’t think it because I had never been born, and if no one else had ever thought it as they had also never been born, then how can that claim make sense? What basis is there for that claim?

I can grasp the concept that the square root of two would still be irrational even if there was no one around to think that it was irrational. But I’m having trouble grasping the concept that there is something that is good even if there is no one around to think it is good.

Let’s imagine a case like yours but S exists for 20 minutes and spends them doing whatever you think makes up a good life, given that it lasts only 20 minutes and there’s no one else in the universe. My candidate for this is that S spends the 20 minutes eating really good Belgium chocolates, but your mileage may vary. However also assume that S does not get to the point of drawing any conclusions about what is good anymore than he did in your scenario. Consider then the claim “(U) It was a good thing had S existed”. I can make sense of (U), as I can make sense of your claim (T). Benatar’s argument rests on there being no such symmetry, that (T) is different to (U).

As for “I’d have to wager that the thought is due to a failure to imagine the vast suffering that suffuses the world outside the world of one’s own personal experience.” Indeed, I am guilty of failing to imagine the vast suffering that suffuses the world outside my own personal experience. I do however have an ideal that one’s views of the world should be based on evidence where available, not on imagination. And the evidence is that most people around the world prefer being alive to being dead. Countries around the world show continued increases in poplation (see http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/idb/country/aoportal.html) which is not compatible with the hypothesis that a majority of people are committing suicide because they don’t consider life with living. If you look at http://worlddatabaseofhappiness.eur.nl/hap_nat/nat_fp.htm, lots of people around the world report happiness. The link records self-reported happiness around the world. Using the standardised scale of 0-10, and looking at the populous countries of China and India, in China the average score for happiness was 6.73 in 2007, in India it was 6.67 in 2006. If you wish to convince me to abandon my pro-attitudes, I suggest you either come up with some convincing evidence that life for most people is not worth living, or that you come up with some argument as to why we should base our views on imagination rather than on evidence. I can’t promise to be convinced by whatever argument you come up with, but at least it would lead to a more interesting debate than the ploy of “well, you believe that because you haven’t imagined something totally different”.

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abb1 09.06.08 at 7:46 pm

Benatar’s claim was that an absence of pain was a good thing even when there was no one around to enjoy it.

The claim seems to be that the absence of pain is good even if this absence “is not enjoyed by anyone”, which is different from “there is no one around to enjoy it”.

So, you don’t need to take yourself out of the picture. Your non-existent child is not suffering and that’s good. Also, your non-existing child is not rejoicing, but that’s not bad, since she is not being deprived of any pleasure, on account of her non-existence.

I too find it kinda sophistic.

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J Thomas 09.06.08 at 8:16 pm

M Drake, I don’t see anything puzzling about Benatar’s claim. It just seems silly to me.

Like, say I have a toothache. That’s not good. The toothache tells me that I have a problem that needs to be fixed. If a dentist can fix the tooth so it heals up, that’s good. If the dentist instead cut the nerve so that I no longer felt pain from that nerve, it wouldn’t be nearly as good. I’d still have an infection. I woudn’t have the feedback that told me when I was doing other things that damaged those teeth.

Often pain is part of a useful feedback loop. Pain isn’t evil, it’s a signal that is often useful. I find it more plausible that tooth decay is evil than tooth pain.

The problem is that things happen that are bad for me. The problem is not that I find out about things that are bad for me and that knowing about them disturbs me.

And I get to choose what I think is bad. There’s nothing particularly startling about deciding that everything’s bad on average and everybody would be better off dead. But it doesn’t lead anywhere I want to go. In my observation this view has mostly been propounded by guys who think it will get them laid. And it sometimes works.

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J Thomas 09.06.08 at 8:21 pm

The claim (T) “It would be better had S never existed” makes sense because I can think it. But if I couldn’t think it because I had never been born, and if no one else had ever thought it as they had also never been born, then how can that claim make sense?

Tracy W, you are arguing a counterfactual. The truth is you have been born and you have thought it.

We can argue about what things would be like if they were different, but this is how it is. We can argue all we want about how things would be if nobody had ever been born, just as we can argue what the world would be like if Truman never nuked japan or if Kennedy didn’t die in office.

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Adam 09.06.08 at 10:43 pm

You put your students through this shit?

So many things are wrong with this argument, I don’t know where to begin.

I am flabbergasted.

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Tracy W 09.06.08 at 11:27 pm

Abb1, I do not know what you see as the difference between Benatar’s claim and my restatement of it. Is it possible for you to explain the difference you see further?

J Thomas, I am arguing a counterfactual because Benatar is arguing a counterfactual – that it would be better if we had never been born. I am enjoying this argument for its own sake, I don’t need it to reflect the real world in any way. I find the mental exercise of contemplating different universes to this one interesting.

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seth edenbaum 09.06.08 at 11:59 pm

” I am arguing a counterfactual because Benatar is arguing a counterfactual – that it would be better if we had never been born. I am enjoying this argument for its own sake, I don’t need it to reflect the real world in any way. I find the mental exercise of contemplating different universes to this one interesting.”

Yup
An experiment in formal logic and rhetoric. A sub-genre of a sub-genre. Scholasticism. At best brilliant, but brittle always.

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Dave 09.07.08 at 7:40 am

You should read ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ by Ursula Le Guin. It at least has the merits of being literature.

http://harelbarzilai.org/words/omelas.txt

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mere mortal 09.07.08 at 11:46 am

So, David Benatar’s conclusion supports the idea that if someone could be murdered by an overdose of pleasure, that would be moral, or perhaps even imperative?

Morphine overdoses all around!

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J Thomas 09.07.08 at 1:59 pm

Tracy W, when your premise is a counterfactual then all conclusions are considered true in formal logic. If we had never been born we would be better off. If we had never been born we would be worse off. If we had never been born we would be radishes in heaven. You can say whatever you like about what things would be like if they were different, because in fact they are as they are.

But I claim that what we are discussing are not statements that are true or false. We’re talking about judgements, about choices, about what we think is good and bad. If you decide that the unexamined life is not worth living, that the examined life is not worth living, that life under Communism is not worth living, etc then that’s your choice. It’s true for you because you chose it.

Benatar gets to choose whatever values he wants, and he gets to act on them. If I disagree the most I can do about it is try to stop him.

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SusanC 09.08.08 at 6:17 am

I would imagine that my commitment to existing is stronger than my commitment to Reason; so if reason shows I would be better off not existing, then I’m willing to reject reason and take existing as one of the many irrational things we do, because that is the kind of creature we are.

For that matter, I’m more committed to existing than I am to being good. So that if you manage to convince me that exisiting is evil, then OK, I’m evil. Compare Nietzsche, for example.

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Tracy W 09.08.08 at 7:45 am

J Thomas Tracy W, when your premise is a counterfactual then all conclusions are considered true in formal logic. If we had never been born we would be better off. If we had never been born we would be worse off.

If you say so. I am not an expert on formal logic.

You can say whatever you like about what things would be like if they were different, because in fact they are as they are.

I agree. I can also say whatever I like about things as they are now, as the Surrealists have shown. What I do find interesting though is trying to say consistent things about what things would be like if they were different (and trying to say true things about the world is now). This is one of the things I like about the best SF – eg the way Asimov made up this imaginary set of rules of robotics, and then teased out all the implications of those rules. He could have said whatever he liked, what makes his stories interesting is that he tried at least to say consistent things, given his starting point.

I have a feeling I am repeating myself here over my last two comments. Does it really bother you that I like to think and talk about imaginary universes? Are you trying to persuade me to stop? I’m not sure what point you are trying to make.

But I claim that what we are discussing are not statements that are true or false. We’re talking about judgements, about choices, about what we think is good and bad.

I rather agree with you. This is the problem I have with Benatar’s premise number 3. I find the idea of a situation being good even if there is no sentinent being around to care rather incoherent. Good/bad are inherently judgments, choices, and for those words to have meaning there must be some one doing the judging and choosing.

Benatar gets to choose whatever values he wants, and he gets to act on them. If I disagree the most I can do about it is try to stop him.

You also have the option of trying to convince him that he is wrong. Or you can try to convince other people that he is wrong.

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J Thomas 09.08.08 at 12:03 pm

What I do find interesting though is trying to say consistent things about what things would be like if they were different (and trying to say true things about the world is now).

Yes, it’s a pleasure to do that. But there are subtleties in deciding how that applies to the world we know, because it involves assumptions that are false.

I’m not sure what point you are trying to make.

That conclusions drawn about imaginary universes may not apply to the one we’re in.

So for example we have the imaginary universe that lasts only 20 minutes, with only one sapient entity in it. This was carefully chosen. When there are many entities and we try to decide what’s good for them, there’s the question about present good versus future good. How do you know the thing that looks bad now isn’t going to lead to something very very good later for somebody else? How do you balance out the people and the times? If you admit you don’t know how things are connected together, how can you be sure the current badness won’t result in something that’s worth it 20 years down the road, beyond the time you can predict? Well, none of that matters in a universe that only lasts 20 minutes and only has one individual in it.

But our universe will probably last more than 20 minutes and unless I’m a practicing solipsist it probably has more than one person in it.

“But I claim that what we are discussing are not statements that are true or false. We’re talking about judgements, about choices, about what we think is good and bad.”

I rather agree with you. This is the problem I have with Benatar’s premise number 3. I find the idea of a situation being good even if there is no sentinent being around to care rather incoherent. Good/bad are inherently judgments, choices, and for those words to have meaning there must be some one doing the judging and choosing.

When Benatar imagines a world with nobody in it, Benatar is doing the judging. It’s an imaginary world inside Benatar’s head. Benatar gets to decide what he thinks is good or bad about it.

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Tracy W 09.08.08 at 2:29 pm

J Thomas – I don’t know what position you are trying to argue, especially since you keep on saying things that I agree with in ways that sound to me like you thought I might disagree with them. On the one point where we apparently do disagree, I’m going to go right on thinking that Benatar’s premises 3 and 4 are wrong regardless of what Benatar thinks in his own head about it.

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J Thomas 09.08.08 at 2:53 pm

OK, Tracy W, let’s agree to agree about it.

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Buck 09.08.08 at 11:16 pm

One should birth the child and leave her or him on a hillside—Feed for the wolves who enjoy a tasty meal.

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Sister Y 09.09.08 at 1:25 am

I’ve read many dismissive, angry comment threads dealing with Benatar’s book, so it’s refreshing to see people taking it seriously here, even if they don’t agree with Benatar’s conclusions.

One misconception that seems to appear here is the idea that Benatar does not take happiness or pleasure seriously. In fact, Benatar merely argues that, in deciding whether to bring someone into being, that person’s happiness and pleasure do not weigh against his future suffering in the decision to procreate or not.

The asymmetry that is the core of Benatar’s argument is that, while absent suffering is good, absent pleasure or happiness (where no one will miss it) is – no matter its profundity – merely neutral. This asymmetry seems strange, and many are quick to claim they don’t see it when faced with its consequences, but rejecting the asymmetry leads to some morally hideous consequences. While I agree with Benatar, the argument is relatively new, and I think there are good arguments on the other side (for instance, is coming into existence – or the existence of humans or life in general – an agent-neutral value?). As Benatar argues, we should hold off on nuking the planet just yet (especially since people who exist have a moral right to continue to exist, even if death would be instantaneous and wouldn’t cause them to subjectively suffer). Benatar argues that death is often a harm.

A final note on suicide – suicide and antinatalism don’t really have much in common. One doesn’t imply the other, although antinatalism does give support to the idea of rational suicide, and the suicide-minded are more likely to take suffering seriously, and therefore be psychologically prepared to hear Benatar’s argument. People who equate them are conflating evaluations of present lives with those of future lives. Benatar, however, is sympathetic to the suicide and the would-be suicide. He does not think a right to suicide solves the problem of antinatalism, because through existing we form attachments that make existence into a kind of trap. See especially pp. 219-220 for his discussion:

Procreators would do well to consider this trap they lay when they produce offspring. . . . Once somebody has come into existence and attachments with that person have formed, suicide can cause the kind of pain that makes the pain of childlessness mild by comparison. Somebody contemplating suicide knows (or should know) this. This places an important obstacle in the way of suicide.

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