A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Friday, 10 February 2017

Why Benatar is (Trivially) Wrong

David Benatar is a philosopher who appears to delight in controversy, and in that sense is a man after my own heart. Unfortunately, his arguments for the thesis his most celebrated work, Better Never To Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence, are not only sufficient to establish his conclusion but in fact do not even provide support for it. Much of my forthcoming MA dissertation will be showing problems with his arguments; this post discusses one central issue, of whether or not it is conceptually possible to benefit from coming into existence.

I: What does Benatar believe, and what is his argument for this?

Benatar argues for an "asymmetry of pleasure and pain" such that "existence has no advantage over, but does have disadvantages relative to, non-existence". I understand this to mean the following set of claims:
(a) When one comes into existence, one inevitably suffers some bad things (e.g. pain) and in most cases enjoys some good things (e.g. pleasure).
(b) Pains are harmful relative to the alternative of non-existence.
(c) Pleasures are not beneficial relative to the alternative of non-existence.
(d) The combination of (a), (b), and (c) entails that coming into existence is in all cases overall harmful.

He thinks that we should accept this on the grounds that it provides the best explanation for several other asymmetries which he takes to be rather more intuitive. (I do not share all of these intuitions). These are:
(1) That there can be a duty to avoid bringing someone into existence if their life would be characterised by suffering; there is no duty to bring someone into existence merely because their life would be a good one, nor would there be even if doing so came at no cost to oneself.
(2) One might decide not to bring a child into existence on the grounds that the child would suffer certain harms; it would be strange to cite, as a reason for bringing some child into existence, that the child would enjoy certain benefits.
(3) One can regret bringing a person into existence for that person's sake; while one can regret failing to bring a person into existence, one cannot do so for the sake of the person who would have existed.
(4) We feel sad when thinking about people living far away whose lives are characterised by suffering; we do not feel sad that various uninhabited places are not full of people enjoying happy lives.

If one accepts Benatar's asymmetry, then one will believe that so long as one's life contains anything at all that is bad for you (which it will, since someday you will die) you are harmed by being brought into existence.

II: Being more precise about Asymmetry

In the dissertation I draw several distinctions between different types of asymmetry, but here I will look at only one distinction: between "strong" and "weak" asymmetries. Benatar defends what I call a "strong" asymmetry, according to which coming into existence is always bad. A "weak" asymmetry would agree that coming into existence is never good, but would deny that it needs to be bad. If the good in one's life outweighs the bad, then one is neither benefited nor harmed by being brought into existence.

In other words: while pleasures are not independently good relative to non-existence, they can cancel out pains that would otherwise render existence harmful.

I do not defend weak asymmetry either: my view is that one can be either benefits or harmed by being brought into existence. The point here is that Benatar's arguments, as we will see, support only weak asymmetry.

III: Problems for Strong Asymmetry

Benatar's conclusion that coming into existence is always harmful is already pretty weird and extreme. A further problem, which I don't think anyone else has previously picked up on, is that it gives very strange judgments about how bad it is to come into existence. Compare two lives: one is a long and generally happy existence, while the other is very short and very painful with almost no pleasure at all. Due to their longer life, the first person undergoes greater total suffering; however, if asked they would confidently say that the good in their life vastly outweighed the bad. Intuitively, the second person was harmed by being brought into existence whereas, if the first person was harmed at all, the harm was fairly trivial.

This is not what Benatar's view implies, however. According to Benatar we count only the pains and ignore the pleasures, with the result that the person with a happy life suffers greater harm in existing than the person with a miserable life.

Both of these problems go away if one rejects strong asymmetry in favour of weak asymmetry.

IV: Why Benatar's arguments only support Weak Asymmetry

There are two important things to note about the intuitions from section I: firstly, that they are all explained just as well by weak asymmetry as by strong asymmetry. Second: they concern the existence of people whose life are characterised by suffering, not merely by people who suffer at some point in their lives.

There is probably a duty not to bring into existence someone whose life would be generally unhappy; there is no intuitive duty to avoid bringing someone into existence merely because they would experience suffering at some point in their life. Perhaps it would be strange to bring someone into existence so that they could enjoy life (though Benatar merely asserts this without defending it in the slightest), but it would be just as strange to avoid bringing someone into existence merely because in some moment of their life they would be unhappy. One would not regret bringing someone into existence merely because that person was briefly sad. And we are not sad about far away people whose lives are generally happy but include moments of sadness.

All this suggests that strong asymmetry does not really explain our intuitions in these cases. Benatar elides the difference between strong and weak asymmetry, providing arguments for weak asymmetry and then mistakenly claiming that this constitutes support for strong asymmetry.

V: Why this is a problem for Benatar

What does this mean? Well, Benatar goes on to mount a general defence of anti-natalism, the view that we ought not to reproduce. He defends a "pro-death" view of abortion, according to which abortions are not merely permissible but in fact mandatory. He argues that humans should attempt to extinguish ourselves. But neither of these conclusions follows from weak asymmetry.

Weak asymmetry still concedes far too much to the anti-natalist, in my opinion. But the fact that strong asymmetry is unsupported by his arguments, and has highly counter-intuitive implications which weak asymmetry does not, is sufficient to refute the argument that Benatar actually makes.

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