Saturday, May 10, 2008

David Benatar's 'Better Never to Have Been'...Chapter 2

To my readers:

David Benatar’s book, ‘Better Never to Have Been’, is an exhaustive treatise, and I have no intention of taking the scalpel to every philosophical fine-point, lest this review become longer than the book itself (tempting as the thought is!). My intention is to give you a little taste of the cream, and leave you to procure your own pudding. In other words: BUY THE BOOK (get used to seeing this little dictum). Preamble done...on with the review...

The scales are tuned, the portions weighed;
no order found, nor balance struck.
The jury finds we’re out of luck-
by sheer measure, all are betrayed!

To ease us into his argument that existence is always a harm, Mr. Benatar opens with the question, ‘is coming into existence EVER a harm?’ In other words, is there ever an agglomeration of disadvantageous life conditions under which it can be reasonably said “it would have been better if such-and-such a life had never begun?” Concrete examples are cited to flesh out this question. He then goes on to address the ‘non-identity problem’, whose proponents would assert renders the question meaningless, since comparing an existent entity to a fictitious, non-existent entity is invalid. This premise is refuted through some rather nifty argumentation (BUY THE BOOK). He then goes on to outline the differences between ‘starting lives’ as opposed to ‘continuing lives’; which, on the surface, might seem unnecessary, but it’s been my experience that a lot of folks often seem to get these ideas mixed up, i.e. “If you’re against bringing life into existence, why don’t you just kill yourself?”


On to the meat of the chapter, and about the only idea that most of the critic’s I’ve read actually address (one is forced to wonder if they got much beyond chapter 2). The fundamental asymmetry is thusly stated:

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

From this basic asymmetry flow several sub-asymmetries, as well as many pages of charts divided into quadrants, with much accompanying analysis (BUY THE BOOK). Refutations and alternate analyses are also addressed. Being a formally philosophical approach, parts of the argument might feel a bit redundant to the average reader, not less so because Mr. Benatar takes pains to consider and address the possible disagreements with his position. A necessity, to be sure, but he lays himself open to critics who might prefer to interpret diligence as convolution; or, at best, emotionally unpersuasive. However, keep in mind that this is just groundwork being’s only chapter 2, after all!

In my opinion, the real weight of the fundamental asymmetry lies in the term ‘deprivation’. From the moment life begins, we are deprived in one form or another; continuing, to one degree or another, throughout a lifetime, until the very moment of death. This fact cannot reasonably be denied; and, in fact, most of the human condition resides in the temporary patching of holes in this ubiquitous continuum of deprivation- whether it be in the constant devouring of food to temporarily satiate hunger, in the seeking of transient ‘highs’ to escape ever-encroaching tedium, or sadness, or despair, or in the grasping at tangibles as substitutes for emotional fulfillment (everybody knows the feeling of ‘buyer’s remorse’). The list goes on. Of course, in answer to this accusation against existence, one might simply posit the question, “Oh well, that’s life...what did you expect?” However, this is just a re-stating of the problem, as if offhand rhetoricizing somehow does away with the issue.

On the other hand, someone who never exists is NEVER deprived. Want me to prove it? Close your eyes, and conjure up an imaginary friend. Give him/her the physical attributes of your own choosing, as well as the emotional makeup you’d prefer. Really try and flesh him/her out to your heart’s content...make him/her as real as you possibly can. I’ll wait...

Now, open your eyes (of course, this is a bit of rhetoric on MY part...I didn’t REALLY want you to close your eyes, but you get my point). Stop thinking about your imaginary friend, and instead continue reading this. Is he/she gone?

Ok, now tell me...has your imaginary friend been deprived in any way, in any real sense at all? Of course not! And there’s my point...a non-existent person can only be deprived as much as your imaginary friend was, i.e. not at all. Perhaps YOU’VE been deprived, if you somehow became emotionally attached to your imaginary friend; but then, that’s just another case of the difference between the already existent, who live in a constant state of deprivation, and the non-existent, who by definition can never be deprived at all. No pain. No hunger. No fear. No death. And also, no missing out on the good stuff, such as it is, by the very fact that there’s nobody around to miss it. Contrary to the old adage, life is NOT a gift, since there is no one before the creation of a particular life to receive that particular gift. In reality, life is the bringing into existence a vessel of deprivation, a vessel that will eventually be shattered against the cold, hard wall of temporality...back to where it came from. Ashes to ashes, etc. Mr. Benatar’s question is...why start the process in the first place? That is also my question.


Anonymous said...

I have the book and I'm impressed by the argument and the basic viewpoint. I really have reservations about the quality of life any human can expect to enjoy (if that's the right word) these days. I think the writing style is fairly typically academic (a bit convoluted). A literary type might even wince and say "That's bad writing!") but you have noted that yourself. If the book were written in a more readable style and in a way to prevent nut-cases from using it to justify murder or suicide (which Benatar explicitly denies in the book), I would even sugggest that the book should be mandatory reading for high-school students and adults who are considering parenthood.

I'm not very familiar with his writing style, but having read his book and an excerpt of his inaugural speech as Prof. of Philosophy at UCT, it strikes me that he concentrates on a clinical application of logic to language and does not make any concession to sentiment, although he acknowledges its influence - note the frequent acknowledgements to objections to his views as "counter-intuitive". I think he would say, if presented with the written text of any argument, "This is what it says. If that's not what the author meant, then the author should not say it that way!". He is a stickler for logical accuracy.

As for his book, I must say that I mainly tend to follow and agree with the evidence he rolls out to support his views in chapter 3, which is of the empirical kind - i.e. an argument a fortiori.

But chapter 2 leaves me a little less convinced and I intend reading it again, carefully. To me the argument here is ok if it is also intended a fortiori. But the way he employs asymmetry and presents the arguments and matrix diagrams to support his claim that life is always harmful, smacks of an attempt at an argument a priori and, if so, I'm not sure it succeeds. There is an interesting contrapuntal juxtaposition with the basic Existentialist dictum "Existence before essence" that occurs to me when I consider his proof based on the 4 asymmetry points. In particular this one (item 3 as you posted):

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

The universe cares not a jot about our suffering. If we confront it, we are met with silence, as Camus said. If it would be a good thing for the human race to become extinct, then that good thing ceases to exist the moment the last human dies. I don't see a way around that. I'm not sure we can devise any objective proof about the negative value of human life. Nietszche points out that there are no moral facts and Popper reminds us that we can't really prove anything, only falsify it. I don't know how we can prove that we should not exist. We can only point out that life generally sucks (and is getting worse). To use the lingo Benatar and other academics use, it would be odd to claim that we can't really know anything - except that life is not worthwhile.

But as long as the evidence is empirical and the proof is presented as being a fortiori, I can't see any way of disputing the claim that life is harmful and to be avoided.

As I say, I want to read chapter 2 again. Once I have done that, I would be very keen to resume the thread here with you - or anyone else that is interested.

Anonymous said...


I'll admit Benatar's book can seem dry, as well as a bit redundant, at times. He's taking pains to cover his back against challengers, and I'll admit that sometimes his approach doesn't make an easy read. Nevertheless, its thoroughly academic tone makes it a valuable touchstone to pikers like me. And while it hasn't exactly shaken the foundations of the literary world, at least a bit of dust's been stirred up...all to the good, IMHO.

Concerning your criticism of chapter two, I believe his proposition that life is ALWAYS harmful, while being technically defensible, is probably one of the weaker facets of his overall case. It's like telling someone, "your life really sucks, but you just don't know it." That's probably a less-than-persuasive approach; I'd stick to laying out my case by example, and let the reader come to the conclusion inductively. Though having said that, I DO ultimately agree with that conclusion.

As for my item #3, I guess it depends on what one thinks of the statement 'the absence of suffering is a good thing'. In one sense, since good is a value judgement, and since all value judgements disappear with extinction, then at the end, nothing's left, good or bad. The baby indeed goes out with the bathwater.

But is it really meaningless to posit an non-existent entity or state, and to attach value judgements to it? If, for instance, our universe somehow 'floats' in a sea of nothingness, isn't that nothingness a distinct 'something', in some way? Admittedly, probably only in a relativistic way, like my own death has meaning for me only up to the point of my dying (precluding some afterlife surprise, of course).

Ugh! I think I'm floudering in self-referential semantics here. Bottom line- non-existence is better than existence, because a neutral trumps a negative, in my view. Whether that neutral, standing alone, becomes a positive is one for the logicians (or, maybe, the linguists). At the end of the day, I'll take your 'life generally sucks', and run with it.

One more thing: WELCOME to my blog!!! Your contribution is much appreciated (and here's to hoping I made SOME sense above...I'm stuck in bed with the flu this week, and am starting to see faces in the acoustic ceiling!).

Take care, jim

Sister Y said...

Benatar's book is not a general interest book, but a professional philosophy book. Philosophical writing has different audience, purpose, and standards of quality from general-interest writing.

It's actually extremely readable as professional philosophy books go. I'd say writers from UK/Australian/South African schools tend to be much more readable than American philosophers. (John Leslie is another excellent example of this - a philosopher who's rigorous but with a sort of cross-over popular appeal.)

And Benatar only argues that antinatalism doesn't mandate suicide - he certainly isn't anti-suicide, though he recognizes the ethical problems facing a would-be suicide in his discussion of the "trap of existence."

Anonymous said...

Good points, Curator. And after having spent my latter youth chewing through a cornucopia of Western philosophers, not to mention all that quantum physics stuff (most of which I've forgotten), I actually find Benatar quite accessible; though I prefer Stephen King on a stormy night.