Twice in the last month I stumbled across David Benatar, an anti-natalist philosopher, first in a podcast with Sam Harris and again in a profile of him in The New Yorker. Benatar is certainly an interesting fellow, and I suspect earnest in his beliefs and academic work, but I couldn’t avoid shrugging as he gets caught in the sort of logic traps that plague hyperintellectual folks. (Sam Harris is prone to the same problem.) The anti-natalist philosophy in a nutshell is finding, after tallying the pros and cons of living (sometimes understood as happiness or enjoyment versus suffering), that on balance, it would probably be better never to have lived. Benatar doesn’t apply the finding retroactively by suggesting folks end their lives sooner rather than later, but he does recommend that new life should not be brought into the world — an interdiction almost no parent would consider for more than a moment.

The idea that we are born against our will, never asked whether we wanted life in the first place, is an obvious conundrum but treated as a legitimate line of inquiry in Benatar’s philosophy. The kid who throws the taunt “I never asked to be born!” to a parent in the midst of an argument might score an emotional hit, but there is no logic to the assertion. Language is full of logic traps like this, such as “an infinity of infinities” (or multiverse), “what came before the beginning?” or “what happens after the end?” Most know to disregard the former, but entire religions are based on seeking the path to the (good) afterlife as if conjuring such a proposition manifests it in reality.

The other shrug-worthy aspect is that we all possess instinctual drives toward self-preservation and procreation. We all ultimately lose the battle for self-preservation, though Transhumanists believe technology will eventually deliver not the Fountain of Youth (another mythical yearning) but at the very least disembodied immortality. Defeating these twin instincts (i.e., relishing death and being childless) is possible for humans, who possess rational minds capable of suppressing innate drives, but that is more exceptional than not. The line from the movie Jurassic Park, “life … finds a way,” is more generally applicable. Yet Benatar indulges the thought experiment of life avoidance in spite of ample evidence (the population explosion) that such groups as the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement will never gain any traction with the masses. (In truth, higher levels of education correlate with childlessness.) He is well prepared to answer logical challenges to his philosophy but relies upon a highly rational mindset among interlocutors. Regular folks would more likely laugh him off or shrug him off as I did.

It’s not that I am characterized by The Unbearable Lightness of Being (novel by Milan Kundera, also a movie), floating above the fray in a hedonistic fantasy about reality. No, the reality principle is pretty convincing, which accounts for my fatalism and misanthropy. My understanding of the world is penetrating enough to recognize the awfulness and tragedy that accompany existence, but I’m not distracted by abstract argumentation (nor is the public) or convinced that my life is only worthwhile by jiggering some enjoyment/suffering equation over an imaginary threshold.

  1. Simon Elliot says:

    It’s been a few weeks since I listened to the brilliant exchange between Sam Harris and David Benatar, and I just wanted to say that, even though I think David is 100% right about the quality of life being overwhelmingly negative, and that this negativity is more intense and enduring than the positivity, I remain convinced that there are some inconsistencies with his philosophy.

    On his blog, Helian Unbound notes that anti-natalism is built on an inverted morality, in that it takes evolutionary mechanisms that we use to survive (compassion, empathy, and aversion to suffering), both as individuals and as a species, and uses them as the basis to advocate for our self-imposed extinction, which is what these mechanisms are meant to prevent in the first place. Maverick Philosopher has attempted to solve this dilemma on his blog, with some success.

    I agree with Harris that it’s a blatant double standard for Benatar to apply an experiential mode of argumentation for one scenario (“people who aren’t born aren’t deprived of pleasure”) and an abstract, non-experiential mode for the other scenario (“absence of suffering is good even if there’s nobody to appreciate it”).

    I guess Benatar could say that, if it really is a double standard, then we are not justified in our practice of mercy killing when it comes to deformed fetuses or euthanasia for people who wish to end their lives, since the deformed fetus and the depressed person won’t benefit. But then all that leaves us with is the option to allow the deformed fetus to be born, to allow the depressed person to go on living against their will, which would of course be experientially bad. It’s all very paradoxical, but I may have thought of a solution. Anti-natalists say the absence of suffering is good even if there’s nobody there to appreciate it. I retort that, if one is going to say that something’s good in an abstract (that is, non-experiential) sense, then in order to be consistent, one would have to accept that a lack of happiness in the universe would also constitute an abstract negative. I managed to circumvent the aforementioned stalemate after reconsidering Benatar’s main asymmetry: that pain and suffering are more intense and enduring than pleasure and happiness. Therefore, one could say that, while the total absence of pleasure in the universe may constitute an abstract bad, one should place higher status on the abstract good of a universe completely devoid of suffering, since suffering is the more intense of the two states.

    And finally, I just wanted to highlight the problems with some of Benatar’s oft-repeated sentiments. “You can’t have a child for that child’s sake” is true, but it is equally true that you cannot *not* have a child for that child’s sake. “Non-existent people cannot offer consent to being born” is true, but they also cannot *withhold* consent. And as for his analogy about absent life on other planets, it occurs to me that we aren’t constantly rejoicing about the absence of suffering on Mars.

    • Brutus says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. You’ve clearly given the anti-natalist philosophy some attention, more in fact than I can muster. Your points are well taken and expose further logic traps. In particular, I appreciate that argumentation in the abstract fails when it doesn’t account for its inverse. My sense continues to be that the implied question — is life worth living? — is not really answerable with the arithmetic and logic that compose Benatar’s basic tool set.

      I do appreciate at least that the philosophy addresses an essential human question, not some irrelevant point of logic only taken up by academics. However, I daresay Benatar’s anti-natalism still fails to connect with people. As I understand it, the question is addressed somewhat better through literature in the 19th century by Goethe and Dostoevsky (among others), though I can’t summarize their arguments. Story always wins out over logic, I surmise. Also, the Buddhist concept of dukkah acknowledges that life is suffering, and French existentialism acknowledges the absurdity of life. Neither concludes (so far as I understand them) that it would be better never to have been born.

      • Simon Elliot says:

        I see other dilemmas too. For instance, Benatar says that life is an imposition, but an imposition on whom? A potential person doesn’t even exist, they’re completely hypothetical. In saying that life is imposed on the unborn, the anti-natalist is implying that a person and their life are two separate things, which we know they’re not. Unless you believe in souls, but let’s face it, anyone dumb enough to believe in souls wouldn’t be drawn to this debate in the first place.

        There may well be the potential for a perfect future, or at least a future which is a lot less miserable than the present, but the path to that future is paved with gravestones. It’s forever on the horizon, and for every step we take towards it, it moves a step back. You and I are part of yet another intermediate generation; stepping stones to a destination that’s constantly within our sights, yet forever out of reach.

  2. Brutus says:

    the anti-natalist is implying that a person and their life are two separate things, which we know they’re not. Unless you believe in souls, but let’s face it, anyone dumb enough to believe in souls wouldn’t be drawn to this debate in the first place

    Plenty of evidence from years of writing this blog that I’m not a believer. However, I’m never too eager to call believers dumb or shit on their faith. As an expression of human culture, it’s far too mainstream to be so arrogant and dismissive. That said, you’ve pointed out another paradox or logical fallacy.

    Potential for an perfect, idealized, or utopian future is another rhetorical trap precisely because, as you point out, it’s like a hallway that telescopes away as one moves (note lack of “progress” in that statement). That’s not to say that conditions in life or the world can’t be improved (or degraded), only that perfection is an abstract state of affairs, can never be attained, and wouldn’t be recognizable even if we could approach it.

  3. Simon Elliot says:

    Many people like to argue that suffering is not inherently bad and can create positive value in one’s life. Benatar uses extreme examples of people living in chronic pain, which, in the view of some, is not intellectually honest. Benatar’s opponents claim that most suffering that people experience is temporary and the subsequent decisions that come from suffering are entirely subjective to the person who undergoes the suffering. “Some people rise above it, while some people sink deeper, and it all depends on their decisions and outlook after the suffering has abated.” I call this the ‘the struggle is the glory’ argument, and it’s not only pitiful and desperate, but downright indecent. In a pathetic attempt to minimise, or perhaps even trivialise the tragedy of suffering, they wind up effectively endorsing it, by giving it meaning. But as Benatar says, it would still be better if those bad things were not necessary for character development, or whatever contrived bollocks the people espousing this view are driving at.

    Others have opposed the asymmetry argument because it doesn’t explain exactly how the measurements are being done. It “merely postulates” that there is more pain than pleasure. “What metrics does Benatar use? He starts with the conclusion that pain is overwhelmingly more prevalent than pleasure. And even if suffering was more prevalent, it does not follow that a being would prefer non-existence rather than suffering.” I tell these people to consider Benatar’s wager: would you endure 30 minutes of the worst torture imaginable in exchange for a whole day, or even a whole week, of the most sublime pleasure’s imaginable? Most people reject the offer, proving that suffering is indeed more intense than happiness, even of shorter duration. Now, one might say that pain is only more intense than pleasure because avoidance of injury is a higher priority for an organism than acquiring benefit. True, but clearly pain, as qualia, is much more intense than pleasure. For instance, if we specify in the wager that you will survive the torture, that you will only experience the pain but will not be permanently disfigured, most people would still decline the wager.

    Souls are an anthropocentric concept, and while anthropocentric facts (in distinction to cosmic facts) certainly exist, the universe itself is not anthropocentric. An anthropocentric universe is the principle requirement for the existence of the human soul, and we don’t live in one, as is attested by the fact that humans have existed for the equivalent of a nanosecond in the cosmic timeframe. Some people might ask why human souls can’t exist in a non-anthropocentric universe, and the answer to that would be, in order to be consistent in not showing humans any cosmic favouritism, all other creatures would have to be endowed with a soul as well, especially considering how all life, regardless of complexity, shares the same humble origins. Now, would you seriously postulate that dinosaurs have souls? How about insects, or bacteria? It’s patently absurd.

    • Brutus says:

      Hmm. The struggle-is-the-glory gambit draws from the paradox that human often draw meaning out of suffering. I don’t agree that means we should valorize suffering, but no doubt some twisted thinkers do. Wizened folks also recognize that certain euphoric states can’t be experienced without first enduring some hardship and discomfort. Crossing the finish line of an endurance race is an example I’ve experienced many times. Why cessation of strenuous effort (as distinguished from the runner’s high during a race) so reliably delivers a profound sense of wellbeing is a puzzle I haven’t bothered to analyze. However, this example does not compare well with the sort of tragic suffering some might argue as an inversion of Benatar’s anti-natalism. I can think of lots of instances where one might elect “just kill me now” quite literally.

      The thought experiment regarding trading torture for intense pleasure is not convincing or instructive. I’d decline the wager simply because it’s BS. Human perception and experience are too vague, faulty, and subjective to balance some contrived experiment. For instance, hospital patient reports on pain thresholds are notoriously unreliable. Moreover, epileptics who experience regular ecstatic seizures are known to lose interest or engagement in life, preferring to simply sit around and wait for the next seizure. That’s how certain extreme drug states are typically depicted (checked out), as well, though I have no experience beyond the usual mild stimulants and depressants (sugar, caffeine, alcohol, etc.). It’s fair to say that we’re not wired for sustained extremes on either end of the spectrum.

      We’ve already agreed that the idea of an eternal soul is pretty silly. However, as already stated, I’ve no desire to disabuse anyone of the notion. Those arguments hold little interest for me.

      • Simon Elliot says:

        The moment anyone says “that’s subjective” I start rolling my eyes. The alethic relativism of postmodernism is unfalsifiable and self-refuting, so I would avoid trying to shoot down obvious truths by invoking the is/ought dilemma and fact/value distinctions. Besides, isn’t the supposedly immutable maxim “you can’t get an ought from an is” itself an “ought” based on an “is?” It presumes a matter-of-fact “is” that leads directly to the claim itself.

  4. Brutus says:

    I’m afraid you’ve lost me. I’m not trained in the formal logic that modern philosophy has become. Even though the is/ought problem well predates the analytical/semiotic style especially characteristic of academic American philosophy (so far as I understand it), subjectivity cannot be drained away from this bogus thought experiment leaving behind an arithmetic problem. That’s my main criticism of Benatar. I’ve yet to discover what alethic relativism of postmodernist is, but I’ve railed against PoMo repeatedly, so you’re unlikely to find me in much agreement with that unless accidentally.

    • Simon Elliot says:

      Alethic relativism simply refers to the epistemological (cognitive) relativism that characterises postmodernism. But regardless of the intricacies, I have always maintained that Hume’s pernicious is/ought dilemma is the lynchpin of postmodernist thought. The alethic relativism that plagues our society will not be vanquished until the dilemma is overcome. To do that, we require axioms that are undeniable. That is to say, there must be no forks in the road, and perhaps even no road at all.

      Hume’s distinction between facts and values, or more specifically facts and feelings, can be specious. With regards to morality, it is biological and rational facts that give rise to the feelings themselves. The moment a truth (in this case, Hume’s dilemma) starts facilitating anti-rational cults like postmodernism, that is the moment the utility of that truth comes into question.

      “But what’s so bad about values being subjective?” you might ask, but I think you instinctively know already. Calling a value judgement subjective does indeed threaten the primacy of that judgement, because it demotes it. One subjective judgement cannot be sovereign over all other subjective judgements. To secure that privilege, it must be either cosmically objective (which is impossible in a non-anthropocentric universe) or rationally objective. No doubt the postmodernists would insist that, in order for an axiom to be rationally objective, it would have to be so self-evident as to be impossible to deny or disagree with, in the same way that we cannot honestly deny that one plus one equals two.

      Using ideal observer theory, I think an “is” can lead the rational mind to an ought, so there is a rationally (not cosmically) objective element to it. But to determine whether rationality is immutable, we must determine whether it is conditioned by our biology, or whether our rational principles would be self-evident to all conscious beings, as mathematics would.

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