Review of Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence by David Benatar. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006
“Would that I had never been born” is a lament sometimes voiced in the depth of misfortune, a cry of despair we hope may be soon be stilled by something more positive, when the bad things, whatever they are, have run their course. Enter David Benatar, a respected professor of philosophy at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. In the volume here reviewed he offers the extreme view that in fact it would have been better, all things considered, if not one of us had ever existed, or even any sentient life whatever. Life is that bad, he says, and he bases this judgment on certain logical principles along with empirical evidence of the allegedly poor quality of life that most of us are forced to endure in this world. Among the consequences is that no more humans should be born, and the human race (and other sentient creatures) ought to become extinct.
Antinatalism—the viewpoint that birth of sentient life, human in particular, is bad and ought not to happen, is a recurring one theme history, a noted proponent being the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). It can also be founded, as Benatar proposes, on certain assumptions considered reasonable by many people today, particularly those of a scientific, materialist outlook who are not inclined to over-optimism. Among the assumptions are that anyone’s life, overall, is an exercise in futility. Death—eternal oblivion—is the eventual fate of each person, and will happen through the normal aging process if not sooner. (Thus there is no serious prospect of a religious afterlife. Though not stated in the book, it is clear also that radical life extension, whether by imminent medical breakthroughs or through an initial “holding action” such as cryonics, is discounted.) Moreover, the human species will eventually die out, as is the fate of all biological species, so the extinction advocated by Benatar must happen in the end regardless. Another important presumption, in this case justified at length, is that in most people’s lives sorrow and misery predominate heavily over joy and happiness, so that their lives are not worth living.
Benatar denies that any good is done in any act of procreation, even if the life of the offspring is predominantly happy and if that person expresses gratitude for having been given life. The very best that could happen, Benatar says, is that no harm would be done, but only if the offspring never experienced anything bad in his/her entire life, an unlikely prospect. Even then, no good would be done or moral credit accrue in bringing that person into existence—good is done only in not bringing into existence any person who, in the course of his/her life, would at least experience some amount of bad. Harm is done, and in any likely circumstance, unacceptably serious harm, in bringing anyone into the world.
Such arguments seem unpersuasive for any of a number of reasons, and many will also find them offensive. In the matter of family planning, the prospective parents will be motivated by thoughts such as a child would bring them joy even as they in turn strive to provide the child with a happy home life and a good upbringing. Overall the child can be expected to be grateful both during the period of childhood and later in life, something that seems borne out in practice, even if hardship also occurs. As tough as the going may be at times, most people do not feel their parents were morally at fault for having had them, and are not ready to end their lives over any perceived shortcomings in their present situation or future prospects.
Benatar devotes a chapter of his book to arguing, nonetheless, that actually life as most people live it is very bad, suggesting that those who disagree don’t realize just how bad it is and are suffering some kind of delusion. But this begs the question of who is to judge. Turning the argument around, is it not possible that Benatar himself is suffering from depression that clouds his judgment? Natural selection of course favors a brighter outlook: Benatar’s thinking is not conducive to reproductive fitness. Beyond that, it is hard to see that his point of view is more “logical” than a more life-affirming one, both being based, when the rhetoric has run its course, on basic gut feelings about what is pleasant or worthwhile or isn’t, in what relative amounts, and how the mix that occurs in life should be assessed.
Despite life’s alleged wretchedness, Benatar himself is not ready to commit suicide but insists that life once started, his in particular, may be worth continuing even if it should not have been started in the first place. (Sometimes this sort of argument is reasonable. A woman should not be raped, but a child born as a consequence should not be killed.) More generally Benatar’s stance is passive rather than proactive: having children should be legal, even though no one should have them, much as we might favor allowing smoking even though it is medically and socially inadvisable.
Benatar is aware that, despite these limited concessions, his stance will be unpopular and devotes much attention to defending it against various possible lines of attack. Still it is doubtful his arguments will persuade many who are not already strongly leaning his way. The rest of us, surely a robust majority of humanity, will find our varied reasons to demur. Religious people will argue that life is a gift of God, children are a blessing, hardships and sorrows happen but can and will be remedied, all will be well in the end. Secular humanists and others of scientific bent may believe with Benatar that their lives must permanently end, and even accept the eventual extinction of all earthly life, yet still remain optimistic, one of their arguments being that “since life is finite, even sometimes very short, each moment of life, handled rightly, is precious.” Scientific immortalists who are hoping for radical life extension will also discount Benatar’s pessimism, though possibly in an odd way supporting the end of the present human species—in this case, however, by replacing it with something better that includes themselves in an enhanced form.
Meanwhile, an antinatalist movement has grown up that has simple, passive annihilation of the human species as its goal, endeavoring as far as possible to discourage everyone from having more children. In addition to a claimed humanitarian purpose—eliminating suffering as Benatar proposes—there is an environmental motive some endorse, arguing that the earth’s biosphere would greatly benefit if there were no humans to befoul it, as they generally do. Potentially a conflict could erupt between antinatalists and immortalists, who hope to be in the world for a very long time. My feeling, though, is that the antinatalist movement is both unpopular and self-limiting—on both counts, natural selection so wills it. Immortalists in any case are not so much trying to populate the planet as trying to endure as individuals. So probably we should not worry too much. Instead let’s talk to these people. Some of them (Benatar included?) may be willing to rethink their position.
About the author: David Benatar is professor of philosophy and head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Cape Town in Cape Town, South Africa. Though best known for his advocacy of antinatalism in his book Better Never to Have Been, he is also the author of a series of widely cited papers in medical ethics. His work has appeared in such journals as Ethics, Journal of Applied Philosophy, Social Theory and Practice, American Philosophical Quarterly, QJM: An International Journal of Medicine, Journal of Law and Religion and the British Medical Journal.