Sunday, 25 October 2015

David Benatar on the Harm of Coming into Existence

In his book Better Never to Have Been. The Harm of Coming into Existence (Oxford University Press 2006), David Benatar skilfully defends the seemingly absurd view that we would all be better off if we had never been born and that, precisely for this reason, it is a) morally wrong to bring children into existence, b) morally wrong not to abort a fetus before it comes into existence “in the morally relevant sense at around twenty-eight or thirty weeks gestation” (148), and c) morally desirable that our species (and indeed all sentient species) go extinct earlier rather than later. Even if one’s children are going to have a comparatively good life (which one can never be sure of in advance), it is still never good enough to outweigh the harm of existence, and the longer humanity carries on with prolonging its existence by procreation, the more unjustifiable suffering there will be.

According to Benatar, non-existence (or more precisely not coming into existence, which is different from ceasing to exist) is always preferable to existence. This is so for the following reasons: first, even the most blissful human life is still subject to various forms of inevitable suffering: “pain, disappointment, anxiety, grief, and death” (29). No matter how lucky you are, it is simply not possible to avoid all of these harms once you have started existing. The only way to avoid them is by not coming into existence. “Only existers suffer harm.” (29) Second (and most crucially) this suffering is not outweighed by the many good things that you may enjoy when you are alive, even if those good things in your life by far outnumber the bad things. While this may be sufficient to make your existence worth continuing, it is not sufficient for your life to be worth starting. The good things cannot outweigh the bad things because there is a basic asymmetry between pleasures (positive experiences, satisfied preferences, or goods of any kind) and pain (negative experiences, unsatisfied preferences, or the lack of goods), such that the absence of pain is good even if that good is not experienced by anyone, while the absence of pleasure is not bad unless that absence is experienced by someone (30). So in other words, while non-existence is better than a bad existence, it is not worse than a good existence. This asymmetry explains why we tend to believe that it is a moral duty not to bring people into existence that we know are likely to have a miserable life, but not that it is moral duty to bring people into existence that are likely to have a (comparatively) good life. If we wanted to insist on the symmetry between pleasure and pain, then we would either have to claim that there is nothing wrong with bringing people into the world that we know will have a miserable life, or that we are morally obligated to bring as many happy people into the world as possible. If we are not prepared to subscribe to either of those two views, then we have to accept the asymmetry between pleasure and pain. Yet if it is good to prevent the existence of a life with pain in it, but not bad to prevent the existence of a life with pleasure in it, then it follows that even “a life filled with good and containing only the most minute quantity of bad – a life of utter bliss adulterated only by the pain of a single pin-prick – is worse than no life at all.” (48)

Benatar knows very well that few people will be willing to accept his conclusion, no matter how compelling his argument may be. The world is, after all, full of “cheery optimists” (211) who stubbornly and against all logic cling to the belief that their life is, all things considered, not so bad (and much better than it actually is), that bringing children into the world is a good thing or at least not something that is generally morally wrong, and that we have a moral obligation not to endanger the continued existence of humanity. However, as Benatar argues, these deeply ingrained intuitions are not trustworthy because they are simply the psychological effect of evolutionary pressures. We only think that way because it promotes the survival of the species: “Those with pro-natal views are more likely to pass on their genes.” (8) That is why we are very good at seeing the silver lining, but not so good at seeing the cloud, whose continued existence we tend to ignore. Instead of seeing life as it really is (namely “a piece of shit when you look at it”, to quote not Benatar, but Monty Python), we are “engaged in a mass self-deception about how wonderful things are for us” (100). The fact that most people do not regret having come into existence does therefore not count against the argument because it is not rational reflection that leads people to be happy with their existence, but their “primal” psychological biases, which have been shaped by the process of natural evolution. Benatar thus uses the same kind of evolutionary debunking argument to discredit widely held moral intuitions (in his case: that it is not morally wrong to reproduce and not morally wrong not to abort a healthy child, and that it is morally wrong to prevent the existence of future human life) that Peter Singer uses in “Ethics and Intuitions”[1] in order to debunk anti-utilitarian intuitions.

Now since I am a cheery optimist myself (i.e., I do not regret having come into existence and do not feel guilty of having brought others into this world), I find it difficult to agree with Benatar’s conclusion and would very much like to find fault with it. However, I do accept that while we do not have a moral duty to cause the existence of happy people, we do have a moral duty not to cause the existence of unhappy people. So it seems that I do accept the asymmetry claim: not causing the existence of happy people is not wrong, but causing the existence of unhappy people is. I also agree that we would not be worse off if we had never existed. So I guess what I do not agree with is the claim that we would have been better off if we had never existed. While existence may not be preferable to non-existence, even if that existence is rich and rewarding, neither is non-existence generally preferable to existence (though it might be in some cases). If that is correct, then we do not have a duty to procreate (at least not for the sake of those we bring into existence), but neither do we have a duty not to procreate. It seems to me that Benatar’s claim that non-existence is preferable to even the best possible human existence gains its plausibility not so much from the asymmetry claim, but from the evolutionary debunking argument that suggests we vastly overestimate the quality of our lives. But for this to be even possible we need to assume that we may be mistaken in finding our lives worth living. What Benatar is saying is that even though we may be perfectly happy with our lives, we ought not to be happy, that even though we may not regret at all having been brought into existence, we ought to regret it. Life is in fact pretty bad, but we are constitutionally unable to see it. Yet if we don’t perceive our lives as bad, how can they be in fact bad? Well, we might say that there are certain features that a human life must have in order to be called good. But normally we would seek to establish a list of such objective good-making features by looking at what actual lives we think go well. But this Benatar cannot do because he believes that there are no such lives. What he does instead is postulate a counterfactual state of complete autonomy as the norm for a good life, which, incidentally, feeds into the transhumanist narrative that the current state of humanity is fundamentally deficient and, in comparison to what is theoretically possible, a harmed state, or a state of disability[2]: “Paraplegics may require special access to public transport, but the inability of everybody to fly or to cover long distances at great speed means that even those who can use their legs require transportation aids. Our lives surely go less well for being so dependent. Our lives also go less well because we are susceptible to hunger and thirst (that is unable to go without food or water), heat and cold, and so on. In other words, even if disability is socially constructed, the inabilities and other unfortunate features that characterize human lives are enough to make our lives go very badly – indeed much worse than we usually recognize.” (119)

In other words, our lives are in fact bad because we lack complete independence, because we need stuff and because it is not fully under our control whether we get what we need. I don’t think that neediness is something that makes our lives on the whole bad (and worse than if we weren’t needy creatures). More importantly, I don’t think it is more realistic to regard our various dependencies in that way. It is not in any way closer to the truth of the matter. It simply betrays a different attitude to life and what makes it good. Transhumanists, however, should adopt Benatar’s view and argue that as long as we don’t radically enhance ourselves so that we are no longer dependent on food and water, temperature, and transportation aids, we’d be better off dead, so that the only justification for continuing our existence as a species is a determined effort to pursue a transhumanist agenda of overcoming all our dependencies. It all fits together perfectly: the transhumanist dissatisfaction with the current human condition and Benatar’s “pro-death view”.

And Benatar’s view is even more “pro-death” than he himself cares to acknowledge. If I was convinced that Benatar was right, that it would indeed be better if the human race became extinct sooner rather than later, then I might well feel compelled to conclude that we have a moral duty to “embark on a ‘speciecide’ programme of killing humans” (196). The amount of suffering in the world could, after all, “be radically reduced if there were no more humans.” (224). For obvious reasons Benatar does not encourage this inference, saying that it would be wrong for a moral agent to kill somebody “without proper justification”, mostly because cutting a human life short adds to (rather than diminishes) the harm of their existence. But the problem is that if there is harm in killing people, then we can still weigh this harm against the harm that would result from allowing the human species to continue to exist. In other words, the fact that if I would be responsible for the continued suffering of many more generations of humans that would be brought into existence if I did not kill everyone off surely does give me “proper justification”. It seems that the harm I would inflict on those that already exist would be more than outweighed by the many billions of lives that I would save from “the immense amount of suffering that this will cause between now and the ultimate demise of humanity” (208). I think I’d rather stay a cheery optimist than accept this conclusion.

[1] Peter Singer, “Ethics and Intuitions”, The Journal of Ethics 9 (2005): 331-352. Cf. my reading notes, “Peter Singer on Ethics and Intuitions”:

[2] Cf. John Harris, “Is Gene Therapy a Form of Eugenics?”, Bioethics 7.2, 3 (1993): 178-187; and John Harris, Enhancing Evolution, Princeton 2007.


  1. Thanks for writing this blogpost. I will read it again later and comment on it.

    Some quick comments. Keep the following in mind when reading the blogpost. Benatar writes the following, "I shall not claim that the never-existent literally are better off. Instead, I shall argue that coming into existence is always bad for those who come into existence. In other words, although we may not be able to say of the never-existent that never existing is good for them, we can say of the existent that existence is bad for them. There is no absurdity here, or so I shall argue." Better Never to Have Been, Page 4.

    See the intuitive axiological asymmetry

    Also keep in mind that Benatar constructed the axiological asymmetry (3) (4) between pleasure and pain as a way to solve a number of problems in ethics, including the intuition based non-identity problem. First-order ethical theories (anti-natalism) are efforts to develop systematic views of right action, tested largely by way of compliance with our ethical intuitions (which may be manifest in senses of duty).

    The non-identity problem, widely recognized by ethicists, seeks to understand why we think it would be better to NOT bring into being a child with a seriously harmed life (would be disabled, blind, etc.) than to bring it into being, even if we know that that child’s life would be a net-benefit despite the aforesaid harm. The axiological asymmetry solves this puzzle pertaining to our moral intuitions (by describing them): The absence of significant harm is an advantage (I 3), while the net benefit via never coming into existence is not bad (no real lost benefit/advantage) (I 4). So there is no moral push (intuition) to create a new life where the good things outweighs the bad things. Indeed, a small amount of harm is a moral road block. Deep intuitions (3) (4) on the relationship between existence and non-existence (axiological asymmetry) is usually masked by cultural norms and sancrosanct status of babymaking.) to create a new life where the good things outweighs the bad things. Indeed, a small amount of harm is a moral road block. Deep intuitions (3) (4) on the relationship between existence and non-existence (axiological asymmetry) is usually masked by cultural norms and sancrosanct status of babymaking.

  2. Ignore the last three lines in the previous comment. Sorry.