Pain and sorrow, toil and trouble;
perturbations on the skin of a big bang bubble
that came out of nowhere, and is headed towards same-
we've no place to turn to, and no one to blame.
So, just how bad is coming into existence? Very bad, according to David Benatar. Then why is it that most people, when asked, tend to assess their own lives as good...to VERY good? The answer, says Mr. Benatar, is that there are various psychological mechanisms running in the background of our awareness which serve to mitigate, and even distort, our valuations of the world, as well as the true estimation of our own happiness. He categorizes these self-deceptive phenomena as...
1. The Pollyanna Priniciple- whereby we tend to use selective recall and projection to overestimate, or exaggerate, the postive aspects of a given situation, while downplaying or ignoring the negative.
2. Adaptation, accomodation, or habituation- where we change the dimensions of our hopes and expectations, as well as the actual interpretations of our subjective experience, in order to conform to changing, and often diminished, circumstances.
3. Comparison- instead of judging the quality of our lives against any kind of objective, idealized scale, we resort to measuring ourselves relative to other peoples’ happiness, or misery (as we perceive them).
He then goes on to outline three views about the quality of life...
1. Hedonistic theories- life judged according to positive or negative mental states.
2. Desire fulfilment theories- life judged according to the extent to which desires are fulfilled.
3. Objective list theories- life quality judged in relation to an ‘objective list’ of good and bads.
Obviously, there is some overlapping here...human conciousness is a pretty sophisitcated matrix, against which this rather stark outline seems awfully simplistic. However, the author does his best within the constraints of a chapter section, and establishes his case commendably, all things considered (BUY THE BOOK). His conclusion, of course, is that by whatever set or sub-set of theories we ultimately choose to gauge the quality of existence, life comes up short. The human species is running a race on a treadmill, knows it’s doing so, and so invents an illusory world of attainments to belie the fact. Thus the great and varied ‘life lies’, of which religion is probably THE prime example, as well as all the daily lies we tell ourselves and our children in order to cope (I just noticed how close ‘cope’ and ‘hope’ are...funny).
A WORLD OF SUFFERING
THIS is the part of the book I’ve been waiting for! For while the author’s arguments thus far have been excrutiatingly detailed, as well as acutely cogent, I’m afraid the flavor of his message has been a wee bit too sophisticated for the palates of his critics, if I’m reading them correctly. And so, dear readers... the LIST!
This list, with all the sub-categories it implies, MUST give even the brightest optimist pause to reconsider, before he allows that most misleading of all axioms, “life is good”, to fall off his tongue, and into the metaphorical (and literal) blood that all of God’s green earth is saturated with. Life is a killing and eating machine, folks, and Mr. Benatar takes up a few pages in rubbing our noses into this almost universally pooh-poohed fact. All of us will suffer at the hands of at least SOME of the items on this list, either directly or vicariously. And then, of course, each and every one of us will die, inflicting even more suffering on the ones we leave behind. Seeing that THIS is the reality that we choose to bring our children into, is it any wonder the author ends this chapter by pointing out that we “...play Russian Roulette with a fully loaded gun- aimed, of course, not at our(sic) own heads, but at those of our(sic) future offspring.”?
One other thing I failed to mention, that the author briefly touches upon, is the subject of suicide. It is estimated that around a million people take their own lives every year, with perhaps twenty to thirty times as many failing in the attempt, for various reasons. Recognizing the many psychological barriers against killing one’s self (fear of pain, fear of failure, shame to one’s self and to loved ones, familial duty, societal duty, etc.), it must be acknowledged that, at least for some, life is a horror beyond the capacity to cope. Of course, the knee-jerk response is to label these unfortunates as ‘mentally ill’, but I’m wondering...is there a context in which suicide can be seen simply as a failure to adopt the ‘life lie’ of the prevailing culture? I also question the capacity of people to be truly happy in the midst of universal (not to mention animal) suffering, without the dulling of the empathetic sensibility required to ‘shut out’ the unattractive elements of existence. If this is the case, and taken to its logical extreme, it might just be that the egotistic sociopath is the happiest of us all. Just a thought.