To be or not to be 14

A professor of philosophy named David Benatar published, some eight or nine years ago, a book titled: Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence. 

He makes the case that to live is to suffer and so it is best not to live. Just coming into existence is “a serious harm”. People should not have children. All babies should be killed in the womb. Humanity should become extinct.

He argues that the pain living beings endure is always much greater than the pleasure they enjoy. So they should not live. To avoid pain is a good thing; to miss pleasure is merely not a bad thing. The harm must always outweigh the joy.

It would not matter – he contends – if the human race ceased to exist: human existence has no value. 

His argument is derived from the experience of each sentient being; that he [she, it] feels pain. Feels pain more acutely and more often than pleasure.

It is on subjective experience that Benatar builds his case.

But subjective experience and the judgment of it is confined to each subject, each individual. Pleasure and pain are entirely subjective. I can feel only my own pain and pleasure. Only I can know if it is worth it to me to endure the pain. Only I can determine what is pleasurable to me, and how intense the pleasure is, and how much it is worth to me.

Benatar even goes so far as to claim that all people overestimate the pleasure they have, or can possibly have.

How can he know? He can’t. He cannot know the subjective experience of any other single person, let alone of all people.

On the face of it, the claim that all people suffer more than they enjoy or hope to enjoy, is nonsensical. If it were true, suicide would be the rule. The population of the world would have been very small, probably entirely youthful, and would long ago have dwindled away. But it didn’t.  And that’s probably why he had to deduce that people don’t realize how much they suffer – the chumps!

All that is hardly worth debating. Though the Oxford University Press takes his contention seriously enough to put it in print. (And there must be at least some people who are willing to fork out a whopping $21 for the kindle edition!)

Why take notice of it now?

Because, when he comes to his declaration that human life has no value, one hears the voice of the Zeitgeist. A cold hand clutches one’s heart, and one must protest.

Value to whom? As measured by what? Relative to what?

How can the value of human life be objectively assessed? Value is a human idea. Take away all human beings, take away the human mind, and there are no ideas, no values. No goodness. No truth. No beauty. No joy. No jokes.

No world. No universe. As the only begetter of ideas, the human consciousness is the creator of “the universe”.

Mathematics, physics, computers, the Ninth Symphony, Hamlet and The Tempest, the palace of Versailles, the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome, Americans walking on the moon … all are valued as long and only as long as human beings exist. Then, eventually (and it could be billions of years from now), our revels will be ended. “The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,/ The solemn temples, the great globe itself,/ Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve/And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,/Leave not a rack behind.” And after that, nothing will matter. There will be no one for anything to matter to.

The statement “human life has no value” is meaningless.

Yet it is stated. Not just by one (deeply unhappy?) philosopher. Who lives, incidentally, in the loveliest part of the world, the magnificent Cape of South Africa, with its clement climate and breathtaking natural beauty of mountains, valleys, oceans, beaches, vineyards, forests, and more wild flowers than anywhere else on earth. But what is beauty and plenty and a professor’s generous salary when metaphysical angst, toothache, and the prospect of death ineluctably confront a man?

As I said, it is the Zeitgeist speaking. It is common now among the intellectual elite of the Western world, habituated to a sociological way of thinking – which is to say, seeing human beings as a swarm, like insects – to affirm that this species is a bad thing. They say we are bad for the planet. They say we should be fewer in number. Humanity should give up its cities, its industries, its farming, its civilization, its arts, its investigation of nature. We should live as our most primitive ancestors did. (Only with cell phones.)

The most radical of such thinkers – among them some who live in the greatest luxury like Professor Benatar – say the entire human species must go. Whether slowly over a few generations by not breeding, or quickly within a few years by abortion, murder and suicide, go it must.

How are they different from those cranks who used to patrol the main streets of cities with billboards proclaiming, “The End is Nigh“?

They are different in this: while the old cranks considered it a frightening prophecy, the Benatars of our time think it is a good plan.

Do we not see that it is good?

Well no, Professor. I do not.

 

Jillian Becker    January 10, 2016

Posted under Articles, Philosophy by Jillian Becker on Sunday, January 10, 2016

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This post has 14 comments.

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  • Thanks for bringing this absurdity to our attention. I keep a store of these reducio absurdum arguments for family and friends. They think I make this up. Now I have a reference.

  • João Henrique

    Hi, Jillian.

    Anti-natalism is one of my interests in practical ethics, and so, I would like to comment about your text and, hopefully, point out some “flaws” in your reasoning. I would also like to say that english is not my first language, and so, I apologize for possible errors (and for the length of my commentary).

    “How can the value of human life be objectively assessed? Value is a human idea. Take away all human beings, take away the human mind, and there are no ideas, no values. No goodness. No truth. No beauty. No joy. No jokes.”

    Well, that’s not actually true, in fact, it’s more of a somewhat idealist fallacy. At least when truth is concerned. Of course, everything we perceive and do is managed by our counsciousness’ capacity to represent reality, and in that sense I agree we could say that truth is dependent on one’s capacity to ascertain that, for example, “snow is white”. But it not follows from that that truth is METAPHYSICALLY dependent on the existence of some epistemic agent, that is, reality and truth are independent from us. For instance, what makes “snow is white” true is the fact that snow is white. Long story short, though I need someone with the capacity to know for knowing that snow is white, this truth’s very existence relies only on there existing snow and the property whiteness related to it.

    “They say we are bad for the planet. They say we should be fewer in number. Humanity should give up its cities, its industries, its farming, its civilization, its arts, its investigation of nature. We should live as our most primitive ancestors did. (Only with cell phones.”

    “The most radical of such thinkers – among them some who live in the greatest luxury like Professor Benatar – say the entire human species must go. Whether slowly over a few generations by not breeding, or quickly within a few years by abortion, murder and suicide, go it must.”

    Well, that’s a missreading of Benatar’s argument, as long as I see. Benatar is not some kind of nihilist who thinks suicide is the best solution, in fact, somewhat like Camus on “The Myth of Sysiphus”, he thinks pleasure can outwheight suffering in some cases, but that’s not what his anti-natalism is about, that is, whether if we should kill ourselves, as you posited it.

    His main argument could rather be postulated like this:

    P1- We don’t know if one’s life will be worth living, due to the uncertainty of whether the pleasure in it could outwheight the possible suffering entailed by living.

    P2- It would be imoral to breed persons in conditions where that persons’s suffering outwheights pleasure.

    C- Therefore, we should abstain ourselves of procriating.

    Or, formally:

    P1 > P2

    P1

    P2

    My final point:
    “As I said, it is the Zeitgeist speaking. It is common now among the intellectual elite of the Western world, habituated to a sociological way of thinking – which is to say, seeing human beings as a swarm, like insects – to affirm that this species is a bad thing.”

    Let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that it is true what you said about the Zeitgeist and the way people behold human value today. Let’s now suppose that I happen to think that human life is not worth living. Then, I read your text and realize that what you said is indeed true. I now know that there’s a sociological trend in thinking that human life is worthless. What do I next to find an answer to the question of whether human life is worthless or not? The answer is that I stil have to analyse the best arguments for and against human life’s possible value, because moral questions repose themselves, no matter how many reductionist interpretations about the very questions are made.
    I can’t help but recommend the excellent article “Truth and Objectivity: You’d better believe it” by Ronald Dworkin, where he talks exactly about what I said in the last paragraph.

    Given that, sorry for the huge text, hope to see a reply. 🙂

    • Thank you, João Henrique, for your interest in the post and your careful argument.

      Truth applies only to statements. The statement “snow is white” is true if snow is white. Snow being white may be called a fact, but cannot be called a truth.

      You have put part of Benatar’s argument only – the part about whether we should breed. His argument about the species is another argument. It is as I have summed it up sufficiently.

      It is a great many years since I read, with irritation and disdain, works by Ronald Dworkin. I remember discussing them at length with a scientist friend and a philosopher friend. I mostly criticized his political assertions. All three of us found fault with him, but the different faults mattered more or less to each of us. I have now forgotten his arguments, fortunately, and I wouldn’t think of subjecting myself to them again. With no disrespect intended towards you, I don’t even want to be reminded of them. I found them provokingly wrong then, and I would do so again however many times I read them.

      A question for you: How is value measured?

  • liz

    What a shining example of the excrement that passes for intelligent thought these days! Our “intellectuals”, who presume to speak for all humanity in declaring it worthless, are the product of centuries of philosophical decay.
    Ayn Rand, who rescued philosophy from that cesspool of subjectivism, and placed it on the solid ground of Objectivism, called Benatar and his kind “the cult of despair in the modern jungle of cynical impotence…”
    If he spoke only for himself it wouldn’t matter. But people like this are running the world now, making policy at “climate change” summits!

    • Jamie Flower

      Just because Ayn Rand called it Objectivism doesn’t mean that is was remotely objective.

      • liz

        Right. Not even remotely. I’m sure you’ve studied Objectivism quite objectively, and come to the oh-so-original conclusion that it’s as flawed as it’s critics claim it is. Because they’re so objective and unbiased.
        Even with whatever flaws Objectivism may or may not have, it still surpasses the crap that passes for other philosophies by light years.

        • Jamie Flower

          “Even with whatever flaws Objectivism may or may not have, it still surpasses the crap that passes for other philosophies by light years.”

          That is your claim. Nobody is obliged to take it seriously.

          • Please tell us your own philosophy and why you think it is superior.

          • liz

            Just as nobody is obliged to take your insinuations seriously, either.

      • Oh? How is it not? Please tell us.

  • Twelvis

    Just an FYI, his name is spelled Benatar, with an e. But other spelling variations conjure some levity…. like, Be-Not-er, etc.

    • Thank you, Twelvis, for the correction. And the apt pun.

      I have now put the spelling right throughout.

  • This is a bunch of anti-natalist nonsense, of course. You notice who the one group who are not dead are? The anti-natalists! Let me know when they all commit suicide. If they want humanity to go extinct, let’s start with them. Anyone think that’s going to happen? Of course not, they’re all hypocrites. But what can you expect with wingnut ideological ideas?