To be or not to be 30

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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