This is an essay clarifying Benatar’s argument on why coming to existence is always a harm. I will be concentrating on his book, Better to Never Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, particularly on pp. 30-49. This the crux of Benatar’s argument and I really want to understand his argument, so I’m posting it here to not only help clarify my thoughts on Benatar’s ideas, but hopefully get some feedback from others out there. You’ll have to forgive me if I’m being tedious and repetitive in this post, but this is something that has been on my mind lately and I really want to understand Benatar’s argument. I will also supplement my essay a nice critical study of Benatar from Harmon which you can read here. Specifically, I’m more concerned with what Harmon calls the First View.
These are the four premises that Benatar starts with on p. 30:
(1) The presence of pain is bad.
(2) The presence of pleasure is good.
Seems like the above are not controversial. The next two gets tricky:
(3) The absence of pain is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone.
(4) The absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation.
Notice that (3) and (4) are asymmetrical. (3) is good whereas (4) is not bad. Benatar will later imply that (3) is good whereas (4) is neither good nor bad. It gets complex because they are absence of states for existing persons, but they aren’t states for non-existing persons.
In other words, I think it is safe to say that pretty much everyone will agree that pleasure is good and that pain is bad. The asymmetry comes about in (3) and (4). If there is no one there, then the absence of pain is a good thing. If this seems abstract, imagine something trivial like lightening striking a spot. If someone was there, then that person would be in pain, which is bad. However, if no one was there, then it’s a good thing. We often say things like, “Thank goodness no one was there when that happened.”
For me, (4) is no problem. If someone does not exist, then it does not make sense to say that the being was missing out on pleasure. I understand his asymmetrical argument and I accept it. (3) is the sticking issue for me, especially combined with (4). Why? On the surface, (3) suggests that even if no one is around (which also entails there is no pain), then that state of affairs is good. So here are some problems that Benatar encounters:
Objection 1: Combined with (4), it seems that (3) entails some intrinsic goodness (he even states this on p. 42, where he says that pleasure is an intrinsic good) whereas (4) entails some instrumental badness (he suggests this on p. 41 where he says that badness is relatively, not intrinsically, bad). This suggests that Benatar is equivocating “good” and “bad” to definitions that fits his conclusion. In other words, “good” means “intrinsically good” and “bad” means “instrumentally bad.” If we are going to make the argument valid, the definitions need to stay the same throughout. Interestingly, Harmon makes a similar point, but she deals with impersonal and person goods. While, I see what Harmon is driving at, I think that Benatar can reply as will be shown later. Thus, I don’t think Harmon’s objection holds.
Objection 2: How can the absence of pain be good if no one is around to enjoy that good? After all, if no one exists, then it isn’t good for anybody.
Benatar’s Response to Objection 2: “The judgement made in (3) is made with reference to the (potential) interests of a person who either does or does not exist” (p. 30). If I’m understanding this correctly, Benatar is saying that the absence of pain is good if someone was there to experience that absence of pain. Ok, this may escape objection 1. The absence of pain is good but only for that person (even if that person doesn’t exist). This gets convoluted with a counterfactual in which a non-existent person may possibly exist. However…
Objection 2.1: This response doesn’t matter because under (3), this person doesn’t exist. (3) doesn’t say anything about an existing person.
Benatar’s Response to Objection 2.1: (3) can say something about counterfactuals. For example, I am now existing. I didn’t have to exist. So with (3), if I’m in pain, then the absence of pain would have been better. Continuing farther, “(3) says that the absence of this pain would have been good even if this could only have been achieved by the absence of the person who now suffers it” (p. 31). In other words, (3) says that absence of pain would be good even if the only way to achieve this is that I had not existed. Absence of pain is good to people, even if they don’t exist.
This is where it gets very confusing. But this is what I think Benatar’s getting at. Imagine a place where every possible person happens to “live” there. If they are born, they move from this possible world to the real world. This means that they are no longer a potential person, but an actual person. Ok, so far so good. Now imagine that there’s a poll taken in this imagined land where the question is asked: “Is the absence of pain a good thing?” All of these possible people answer unanimously “yes.” So (3) still holds because it’s judged by the person, even if the person doesn’t exist (yet). This, then, would escape objection 2.1: “Clearly (3) does not entail the absurd literal claim that there is some actual person for whom the absent pain is good” (31). (By the way, Benatar hints that this is plausible. On p. 179, he hints that Rawls’ “original position” could theoretically inhabit possible people: “Why might we not imagine hypothetical people inhabiting a hypothetical position?” (p. 180) After all, there’s no reason against it.) Moreover, when we say that something is good, we can say that it’s something that we like. When something is bad, we can say it’s something that we don’t like, or that we will try to avoid experiencing that.
Objection 2.2: But if good and bad are based on what we like or don’t like, then it all depends on the existence of that person. Good and bad cannot exist if that person doesn’t exist because there is no one there to evaluate it. If there is no existence, there is no good (or bad for that matter). To say that the absence of pain is good, even if no one is there doesn’t make sense. Again, if Benatar is going to aim that good and bad come from what we like or what we don’t like, this already implies existence. That’s like saying a hammer is good, even if there are no people around. That doesn’t make sense. Hammers are only useful in the context of existing humans.
Response to Objection 2.2: Notice that I put a “we” above. Benatar is making a case based off his experiences and he thinks that you share in similar experiences as well. Think of Descartes’ Meditations, the “I” isn’t just Descartes, but it’s supposed to be us following through Descartes’ arguments so that we can follow his beliefs and arguments as if they were our own. Now, if one follows through Benatar’s arguments, one may come to see that anti-natalism is true and that bringing people into existence works against what one believed. It teaches us to be rigorous in our epistemic consistency.
Secondly, this works in the case of counterfactuals. I grab this example from Jim Crawford’s Confessions of an Anti-Natalist on p. 83-84:
Imagine you live in a kingdom ruled by an all-powerful, incredibly sadistic and brutal king. Upon each child’s second birthday, he or she is delivered to the royal castle to be thoroughly tortured purely for the entertainment of the king and his entourage. The child is administered to by court physicians throughout these proceedings, so as to keep him/her from actually dying. In this way, the entertainment can be protracted, sometimes for years! No child ever escapes this fate, for the King’s spies are EVERYWHERE! Under such circumstances, is it truly beyond the bounds of rationality to at least consider the future welfare of a child who does not, as yet, exist? During the potential parents’ conversations regarding the wisdom of bearing a child under such vile circumstances, surely the natural question to arise might be something along the lines of “My dearest husband, do you really think bringing a child into this world, at this time, would be a GOOD thing to do?” (the ‘good’ referring to the future state of the not-yet-existent child, of course).
And of course, not being born would be good, even though that child did not exist. Absence of pain, then, is a good thing, a better thing than pain, even though there is no one there to experience it.
Benatar then argues for the asymmetry between (3) and (4) which I’ll skip over since I accept it. So something exists, then it will experience both pleasure and pain, which has both good and bad features. However, if that being doesn’t exist, it will be deprived of both pleasure and pain, which is overall good. What this means is that no matter what, there will always be a pleasure/pain ratio, which means that one would have been better off not existing. The only way a being’s existence could benefit is if it had no pain at all, which is impossible. Therefore, existence will always be negative because of the fact that pain exists and through the asymmetry, non-existence is better.
Overall, the upshot is that existence is always a harm because it always entails some sort of pain and suffering. That pain and suffering comes about because of the birth of that being. So that being’s birth always brings harm with it; that harm wouldn’t have existed if the being wasn’t born. But of course the being brings pleasure, but Benatar dismisses this because of the asymmetry.
Next, given the arguments above and the asymmetry, Benatar then shows that coming into existence is always a harm. His basic view is that we all harm people once they are created, and we cannot benefit them all. In short, whenever one creates a person, it is always bad because of the harm and suffering that the new beings encounter. When one fails to create a person, that is not bad because there is no being that would experience the pain (there is an absence of pain, in other words).
Compare two scenarios A and B. In scenario A, person X exists. In scenario B, person X never exists. With the arguments above, Benatar gives a very helpful diagram shown below:
Again, (1) is bad and (2) is good. These are uncontroversial. (3) is good even if X never existed. Remember, if you could ask potential people whether absence of pain is good, they will say yes. (4) is not bad because there is nobody there being deprived. Benatar brings up other diagrams if (3) and (4) are symmetrical, but those I will skip.
We can now see which is preferable. Let’s compare (1) with (3), and (2) with (4). Spelling it out, we are comparing:
Comparison 1: (1) Presence of Pain and (3) Absence of Pain.
Comparison 2: (2) Presence of Pleasure and (4) Absence of Pleasure.
With comparison 1, we can see that (3) is preferable. This means that non-existence is more preferable than existence. Non-existence has an advantage over existence.
With comparison 2, both seem to be on equal footing. Remember that (2) is good whereas (4) is not bad. So even though (2) is good, it doesn’t take over (4). This means that existence does not have an advantage over non-existence. In order for (2) to have an advantage over (4), (4) would have be bad, but it’s not.
Objection 3: But “good” is an advantage over “not bad” because anything good is better than some quasi-neutral state. This objection is partially from Harmon: if the absence of a pain is good, then the absence of pleasure may actually be bad. I disagree with Harmon’s analysis as I’ll show later.
Benatar’s Response to Objection 3: You’re treating the absence of pleasure–which is (4), under scenario B–as if it was absence of pleasure in scenario A which isn’t even a possibility.
Objection 3.1: But why? My disagreement with Harmon is as follows, but it may still be an objection to Benatar. I don’t understand why (3) and (4) can’t also be in scenario A. Many existing people have experienced both (3) and (4). As of now, I’m not tasting nectarines, which I consider a great pleasure. So the absence of tasting nectarines is, for me, an absence of pleasure. I’m not in some deprived state either. In terms of pleasure or pain, I’m in a non-bad state. So it seems that I’m in an absence-of-pleasure state. It seems that Benatar needs to add this to his matrix. Benatar reiterates (4) again: the absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation.
Benatar’s reply to Objection 3.1: This is taken from Harmon: “Benatar says that the good things in a person’s life are not better than their absence, because their absence is not bad—indeed it has no value at all. Nor, Benatar points out, is the alternative that the person is in a neutral state; rather, in the alternative, she doesn’t exist at all. He concedes that it is better to have pleasure than to be in a neutral state. However, he says, if what we are comparing is something good with something that lacks any value at all (I think he means it does not even have a neutral value), then it’s not true that the good thing is better than the other. So having the good things in their lives is not better for those who are brought into existence than the alternative. So they are not benefited” (p. 780).
Is this a good reply? I have more questions about it, but let me show the argument in its fullest form. The overall argument can be stated as thus. (I’m getting help from here on this argument):
1) An action harms a person only if experiencing its effects are worse for that person than the alternative of not experiencing its effects; an action benefits a person only if its effects are better for that person than the alternative of not experiencing those effects.
2) When it comes to pain, the effect of non-existence are clearly better than the effects of existence; when it comes to pleasure, the effects of existence is not clearly better than non-existence.
3) Causing someone to exist harms them, but it does not benefit them.
4) It is morally wrong to harm a person.
5) In bringing a person into existence one harm them by causing all the bad aspects of their lives, but one does
6) The act of procreation is the act of bringing a person into existence.
7) Therefore, in all cases, it is morally wrong to procreate.
Ok, so let’s apply this to me: the absence of the pleasure of eating nectarines is not bad unless I see this absence as a deprivation. If I do see this as a deprivation, then it is a pain in which case it becomes (1).
Still, I don’t see why this needs to be scenario B. Ah, but Benatar adds something: “…when I say that it is bad, I do not mean that it is bad in the same way that the presence of pain is bad” (p. 41). Ok, what? Benatar continues: “What is meant is that the absent pleasure is relatively (rather than intrinsically) bad. In other words, it is worse than the presence of pleasure” (p. 41).
Ok, but isn’t that exactly what objection 3.1 states? Stating it in terms of me, Benatar would say that since I exist, it would have been better if I had the pleasure of eating nectarines of which I am deprived. But instead, I’m in a non-bad state. But for scenario B, these aren’t non-bad states. And why is that? It’s because X doesn’t exist! Non-existent entities cannot have states, not even neutral ones. So even though “the pleasures in A are better than the absent pleasures in A, the pleasures in A are not better than the absent pleasures in B” (41). Benatar states that “absent pleasures that do not deprive are ‘not bad’ in the sense of ‘not worse’. They are not worse than the presence of pleasures. It follows that the presence of pleasures is not better, and therefore that the presence of pleasures is not an advantage over absent pleasure that do not deprive” (p. 42).
Ok, so if I’m not having pleasure by not eating nectarines, then I’m in a state of absence of pleasure. Yet, I’m not deprived. So I’m in a “not bad” state. But this “not bad” state is not worse than me getting the pleasure of eating nectarines.
So let’s think about this: I’m eating nectarines and I get pleasure from it. I’m not eating nectarines and I have the absence of pleasure. Am I made worse off because I’m not getting the pleasure of eating nectarines? Assuming that I’m not deprived of anything else (e.g. I’m really hungry or I really need vitamin C), I guess I can concede that I’m not made worse off. So if I’m having pleasure from eating nectarines, that state isn’t better than the absence of pleasure from eating nectarines. This applies to all pleasures and lack there of them. Therefore, presence of pleasures is not an advantage over absent pleasures.
Benatar offers an analogy which may be helpful. Suppose that S (Sick) usually gets sick. But fortunately, he recovers quickly. H (healthy) lacks the capacity to recover quickly, but he never gets sick. So it’s good that S recovers quickly, but it’s bad that he gets sick. It’s good that H never gets sick, but it’s not bad that he lacks the capacity to recover quickly. This is because it’s not a deprivation for H because he never gets sick. Yet, H is overall better off than S even though S is better off than if he lacked the capacity to recover quickly.
Here, we can finally see if Objection 1 holds. Benatar tackles whether the differences between intrinsic and instrumental goods are relevant. Benatar argues that it’s not because because given scenario B, the differences between intrinsic and instrumental goods are irrelevant.
I got confused with this portion (p. 43) but Benatar argues that “there is a deeper explanation of why absent intrinsic goods could always be thought to be bad in analogies involving only existing people. Given that these people exist, the absence of any intrinsic good could always be thought to constitute a deprivation for them. In analogies that compare two existing people the only way to simulate the absence of deprivation is by considering instrumental goods. Because (3) and (4) make it explicit that the presence or absence of deprivation is crucial, it seems entirely fair that the analogy should test this feature and can ignore the differences between intrinsic and instrumental goods.”
Huh? Why only instrumental goods when it comes to existing people? With my thought experiment above, it seems that we could still talk about both intrinsic and instrumental goods, and talk about them in terms of existing and non-existing people.
Overall, since (3) has an advantage over (1), and (2) does not have an advantage over (4), scenario B is preferable to scenario A.
Benatar then tackles the disadvantages and advantages through another route.
Comparison 3: (2) Presence of Pleasure and (3) Absence of Pain.
Comparison 4: (4) Absence of pleasure and (1) Presence of Pain.
Benatar states that there are benefits in both comparisons but “[b]ecause there is nothing bad about never coming into existence, but there is something bad about coming into existence, it seems that all things considered non-existence is preferable” (p. 44). With comparison 4, scenario B is preferable. Now Benatar needs to argue that (3) has an advantage over (2) in Comparison 3. Indeed, he suggests this by the next figure:
The “+” signs indicate positive values, the “-” sign indicates negative value, and 0 indicates no value. So we would assume that Benatar’s argument could be construed as a crude utilitarian cost-benefit argument. He argues in the next chapter that he is not. The ratio of pain and pleasure doesn’t cut it; the sheer quantity of pain is enough to show that life is bad. “Once a certain threshold of pain is passed, no amount of pleasure can compensate for it” (p. 46). In other words, (2) is good for the existing person, but it doesn’t constitute an advantage for the non-existent person. Even if (2) has a + and (4) has a 0, the assumption is that (2) has an advantage over (4). But that’s mistaken. How so? Benatar uses the Healthy Person and the Sick Person as mentioned above.
Again, (2) may be good for S, but it has no advantage over H. No matter how high + is on (2), it cannot topple the + of (4). Therefore, + in (4) will always be higher than (2). In the same way where it’s always preferable to be H rather than S, Scenario B is always better than Scenario A.
The next chapter argued that coming into existence is always a harm and that this harm is very substantial for every person. If one is not convinced by the arguments here, the next chapter argues that our lives (and presumably lives that will come into existence) are actually very bad. This is what Harmon calls the Second View. If needed, I may possibly do a summary on a chapter for a later post, but I think simply giving a book review/summary as a post will suffice.
Overall, there are two more objections that I can bring out that Benatar doesn’t consider. However, these next objections are contentious and aren’t accepted in any mainstream thinking, or even esoteric thinking either.
Objection 4 – The Economic Argument: Most people consider that a huge world population is a problem. It’s a Malthusian outlook where the more people there are, the less resources there will be and that will cause more suffering later on. Now Benatar argues that there is a lot of suffering that many people go through and that’s true. But it also seems that the suffering has been alleviated somewhat over the centuries and that’s got to count for something. Even with his high standards, we’ve reached the bar a tiny bit. Coming from certain economists, such as Steven E. Landsburg, he argues that increasing the population may actually be beneficial and may improve suffering. How so? We basically free-ride from our ancestors. We have more availabilities of goods than in the past. With more people, we get more ideas and one of those ideas may improve mankind. Think of it like this: suppose you take a class by yourself and the professor grades on a curve. If so, you really don’t need to work that hard just to get an A. But now add another person. Suppose the best that this person can do is 50%. Ok, so you need to work a bit harder because you’re competing with this other person, but again, not too hard. You only need to get above 50%. Now add five more people. Now you have work even harder to get that A because you’re competing with more people. Now what about a whole classroom filled with 30-40 people. You have to work even harder now to get that A. The same is said with sports. Better football players comes out of bigger schools. Now increase the population, you increase your chances of having geniuses out there solving problems. This also makes more people which drives up the competition. Now this view is contested, but it may be something to think about. I don’t expect this objection to be as serious as previous objections.
Benatar’s reply: p. 184. He writes, “the creation of new generations could only possibly be acceptable, on my view, if it were aimed at phasing out people.” Thus, it is possible to create more people in order to have the previous generation suffer less than if the new generation didn’t exist. But the purpose of this is to eventually make the human population extinct.
Objection 5 – The Transhuman Argument: This deals with the Singularity that I talked about in a recent post. If AI becomes possible, then suffering of humanity will presumably be gone. Of course, this is also a controversial claim and I also don’t expect this objection to be as serious as previous objections.
However, I think one thing can be said for Benatar. Even though he isn’t a utilitarian (at least that’s his claim), he seems to bring about an idea of higher qualitative plesaures (coming from Mill) and, as mentioned before, no amount of pleasure can compensate for the sheer quantity of pain. Now, this sounds more Benthamite than Millian, but again, this is coming from Harmon. What if there were higher qualitative pains that’s analogous to higher qualitative pleasures? Harmon considers it but doesn’t say much about it. But perhaps the idea that “no amount of pleasure can compensate for the sheer quantity of pain” may be considered as a “higher qualitative pain”. I’m not sure if this Benatar would accept this or not, but it’s something that may add to his argument.
The old cliché is that it is better to have loved and lost, then to have never have loved at all. Most people, I would presume, agree with that statement. (As an aside, I don’t agree with that statement.) Now replaced “love” with the word “lived”: “it is better to have lived and lost, then to have never lived at all.” I think most people would generally agree with that statement. (Of course, most people would also agree that there are a few exceptions. E.g., a baby who is addicted to crack.) However, Bentatar would definitely disagree with the statement: it would have been better to have never lived at all. Or perhaps more specifically, it would have been better to have never existed at all.
UPDATE: June 9, 2011. Benatar may have a reply to Objection 4 as seen above.
UPDATE: July 10, 2011. I have added possible Objection 2.2 and gave a response that Benatar may give.
UPDATE: Aug. 25, 2011. I have added this interesting, humorous youtube clip of an antinatalist superhero. It may be over the top, but it sure is funny: