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David Benatar: Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence.

David Benatar

Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence.

Toronto and New York: Oxford University Press 2006.

Pp. 250.


(cloth ISBN-13: 978-0-19-929642-2); Cdn$36.00/US$30.00

(paper ISBN-13: 978-0-19-954926-9).

The title of this book is intriguing, and for those who are looking for something to give their undergraduate students to read and exercise their minds, this must surely be on the list, but first things first.

The book is divided into an introduction, which gives a brief overview of the argument of the book, five chapters that present the argument in detail, and a conclusion. Most of the work is done in Chapters 2 and 3 ('Why Coming into Existence is Always a Harm' and 'How Bad is Coming Into Existence'). The next three chapters ('Having Children: The Anti-Natal View', 'Abortion: The "Pro-Death" View' and 'Population and Extinction') present the implications of the position that is argued in Chapters 2 and 3. In the conclusion Benatar wraps everything up by 'countering the counter-intuitive objections', 'responding to the optimist', in general taking care of outstanding matters, and dotting the I's and crossing the T's.

Why is this a good book for undergraduates? Because it is a very smooth piece of writing on a subject that will immediately engage their attention, even if they are not philosophy majors. Is it well-argued? Does it have philosophical merit? Well, that's another matter.

There is an old Jewish joke that goes something like this: A young man is walking down the street, wringing his hands and generally bemoaning his fate. Finally, he says, 'Life is miserable! I wish I had never been born!' A rabbi who is walking by overhears the young man and says, 'Ah, yes--but only one in a hundred thousand is so fortunate!'

Benatar begins his book with a version of this joke. However, unlike Freud (who also knew the joke), he takes it seriously. Benatar briefly considers what philosophers like Feinberg and Parfit have said about coming into existence as possibly constituting a harm, but he distinguishes his position from theirs by arguing that while they have focussed on special cases where the children that are borne suffer from serious conditions, etc., he is looking at human life in general. So far as he is concerned, coming-into-existence is always a harm. He argues that when we look at life without any preconceived notions and purely factually, we find that there is a preponderance of suffering over good experiences not only on an aggregate global level--Benatar points to natural disasters that affect us, hunger, war, disease, oppression, etc.--but on the level of every individual case as well. No exceptions. Being born is always a harm. As he puts it, 'pleasure and pain are asymmetrical in a way that makes coming into existence always a harm.'

The reason that existence is always a harm, argues Benatar, is that it inevitably involves some measure of pain and suffering, which would not exist if the individual had never been born. Therefore birth always introduces harm into a universe, where that harm would not exist if there were no birth. As to the counterargument that birth also introduces pleasure and joy into the world, and that a comparison between amounts of pleasure and pain would show that there are many cases where the total amount of pleasure outweighs the total amount of pain, Benatar dismisses this. He does so on the grounds that 'pleasure and pain are asymmetrical' and therefore that such claims are ill-founded. He therefore espouses what he calls an 'anti-natalist view' that is concerned 'to avoid the suffering of future children and the adults they would become.'

As to the fact that most people do not regret having come into the world, Benatar dismisses this as 'less than rational'. In order to make his point, he appeals to the concept of adaptive preference, which is the psychological tendency to endorse what one cannot help, and he argues that such an attitude is psychologically not surprising given that everyone has had to come to terms with the fact that they have had no control over having been born. Moreover, so he continues, the fact that (most) people do not regret having come into the world is hardly probative. What has to be shown is not that people have this attitude but that it is justified; and here, so he argues, the facts all point his way.

Benatar's book really stands or falls with this reasoning. At its centre is the claim that 'pleasure and pain are asymmetrical in a way makes coming into existence always a harm.' He outlines this asymmetry by arguing that while 'the absence of pain is good, even if that good is not experienced by anyone ... the absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom the absence is a deprivation.'

However, there are conceptual difficulties with this reasoning. Specifically, it involves two distinct notions of pleasure/pain: one is relativistic, the other intrinsic. That is to say, in the one case Benatar is talking about an epistemic property (pain) and says that its non-existence is good, whereas in the other case he maintains that the non-existence of another epistemic property (pleasure) cannot be bad unless there is someone whose experience it would have been, i.e., unless it would have been experienced. Benatar is here making two logically distinct kinds of claim and is treating them as though they were logically the same. In fact, they are not. In the case of the non-existence of pain, Benatar is treating pain as a property that has an intrinsic value and that can be talked about it independently of anyone whose property (pain) it is. On the other hand, when he is talking about pleasure, he is treating pleasure as a property that has only relative value and that can be talked about only if we can point to someone whose property (pleasure) it would have been. In other words, Benatar is treating pleasure and pain, which are on a par as epistemic properties, in logically distinct ways. No wonder he finds an asymmetry! By this treatment, he is defining the asymmetry into existence.

Having thus questioned Benatar's thesis at its core, why do I still say it is a good book for undergraduates? Precisely because the error is so subtle. Students will feel that there is something wrong here, but won't be able to put their finger on it right away. They will puzzle. They will argue. And that's all to the good. For that reason alone, a 'Thank you!' to Benatar.

Eike Kluge

University of Victoria
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Author:Kluge, Eike
Publication:Philosophy in Review
Date:Oct 1, 2008
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