In a previous post, I went over Benatar’s argument on why coming into existence is always a harm, even if there is a small amount of it. Now, I will look at his next chapter and see how he argues that human lives suffer much more than they realize, thereby showing that we are indeed harmed by coming into existence. Even the best of lives that most humans consider are still bad according to Benatar.
Because this chapter is much easier, I won’t do much critical remarks here and I will simply present his argument.
Benatar doesn’t want to go down a simple utilitarian calculation. “How well or badly a life goes depends not simply on how much good and bad there is, but also on other considerations–most prominently considerations about how that good and bad is distributed” (p. 61-62), such as the order of pleasures, the intensity of the good and the bad, and the length of one’s life. Here, one could argue that Benatar is giving a clue to what Harmon calls “higher qualitative pains” on p. 63: “Arguably, once a life reaches a certain threshold of badness (considering both the amount and the distribution of its badness), no quantity of good can outweigh it, because no amount of good could be worth that badness.” Doing a simple utilitarian addition or subtraction isn’t going to cut it.
The Flaws of Self-Assessment
Objection 1: But if I can look within and see whether I’m suffering or not, I can judge whether I’m being harmed. Since I’m not suffering right now, I’m not being harmed. Indeed, most of my life I’m not suffering. Thus, I’m not harmed. In other words, most people deny of actually seeing their life as being bad. After all, most people are actually pleased that they have come into existence.
Benatar’s reply to Objection 1: Actually, I am suffering. We are all suffering and thus, we are all harmed. This is more of a psychological assessment rather than a metaphysical explanation. Benatar calls this the Pollyanna Principle (PP). (Actually, he footnotes that he got the term from another book, but it still applies.) PP is a tendency towards optimism.
Objection 1.2: Could Benatar be tend toward pessimism? In other words, is he falling into an “Anti-Pollyanna Principle?” He answers this question in the last chapter of his book. At any rate, I’ll continue…
There is a lot of evidence for PP:
1. If you can think about your previous experiences, most people are inclined to recall positive rather than negative experiences. Benatar cites this from a paper in the American Psychologist. I have some reservations on this. In a general setting, I’ve been around people that talk about their day and there’s positive aspects that come out, but I’ve also been around people that simply complain about their whole day. Now, I don’t know how it is for people on the whole, but I think the complainers don’t see the worldview or their experiences as positive overall. On the other hand, optimism may be something that we are biased toward evolutionarily speaking. Benatar even mentions this. We all hope for something, even at the worst of times because that helps us survive. Time magazine did an article about it recently. The majority of people do consider themselves happy or very happy and most people consider themselves better off than the average person. But Benatar points out that this projection biases our past as well as our future expectations: we expect good things. Perhaps it’s a sign of hope. In a footnote quoting from another book, Benatar writes that “[t]here is quite a bit of evidence that happier people with greater self-esteem tend to have a less realistic view of themselves. Those with a more realistic view tend to either to be depressed or have low self-esteem or both” (p. 65).
2. We can quickly adapt to worse situations. If one gains a disability to one’s well-being, one may, at first, be disappointed but one can then adapt to the new situation, even though one had become worse off. “Because the subjective sense of well-being tracks recent change in the level of well-being better than it tracks a person’s actual level of well-being, it is an unreliable indicator of the latter” (p. 68).
3. We compare our well-being to others instead of some objective criteria.
With these three criteria, we start with a bias toward optimism. “Thus, in the best cases, adaption and comparison reinforce Pollyannaism. In the worst cases, they mitigate it but do not negate it entirely” (p. 68).
Three Views About the Quality of Life
There are three theories about the quality of life: hedonism, desire-fulfilment theories, and objective list theories. I shall go over them one at a time and show why Benatar thinks that all of them lead to the conclusion that either that theory is false or how that theory must eventually lead one to believe that coming into existence is a harm. In other words, no matter which theory we take, life is still bad.
Hedonism–according to this theory, life is considered good or bad depending on the the positive or negative states–which are usually characterized by pleasure and pain. You can take it in it’s simplest or complex form. We avoid pain and go for pleasure.
So why does this theory fail? As mentioned before, we forget about the negative states and focus on the positive aspects. For example, there are more negative mental states than we realize everyday of our lives. “These include hunger, thirst, bowel and bladder distension (as these organs become filled), tiredness, stress, thermal discomfort (that is, feeling either too hot or too cold), and itches” (p. 71). These are things that we experience everyday and we usually don’t relieve these pains immediately. We experience them and we must wait for a while (perhaps a long while) to relieve that pain. “For example, unless one is eating and drinking so regularly as to prevent hunger and thirst or countering them as they arise, one is likely hungry and thirsty for a few hours a day” (p. 71). The same could be said about being tired and thermal discomfort. We don’t think about these things because of all three principles of PP. There are just too many negative elements in our lives, and we don’t think about them because we are used to them.
There are other negative things as well: allergies, headaches, frustration, colds, menstrual pains, nausea, itches, negative feelings (such as guilt, shame, boredom, sadness, lonliness), diseases. Based on this, it’s just simply not worth it to come into existence because of the overwhelming negative aspects of life.
Desire-fulfilment theories–”the quality of a person’s life is assessed in terms of the extent to which his desires are fulfilled” (p. 69). This can include desires of mental states or obtaining something in the external world.
Now why does this theory fail? Just like Buddhism, we actually don’t have all of our desires fulfilled and that just frustrates us. There is actually a lot of dissatisfaction in our lives. More than that, this theory is actually worse than hedonism because we can actually be mistaken about whether our desires have been fulfilled (unless the desire was for pleasure). Accordingly, “we have less privileged access to whether our desires have been satisfied” (p. 74). We are more prone to error under this theory and therefore, cannot assess our well-being. With PP, we may actually overestimate on how good our lives are.
Moreover, this theory falls under the same flaws under hedonism: there are many desires, even little desires, that we don’t immediately fulfill and so we are constantly frustrated everyday. For example, if we are tired in the middle of the day, we have to wait to fulfill that desire at night time. Fulfilling that desire is very temporary because there is another desire that we would want to immediately fulfill. It’s a treadmill of desires. Benatar brings up Schopenhauer (which is very appropriate) suggesting that life is just a constant state of striving, a pure state of dissatisfaction. According to Schopenhauer, suppose we did fulfill our desires, then we become bored, which is just another dissatisfaction. The only way to stop these dissatisfactions is to stop living.
Objective list theories–”the quality of a life is determined by the extent to which it is characterized by certain objective goods and bads” (p. 69). Thus, things are good for us regardless if they bring us pleasure or whether we desire them. Accordingly, things are bad for us regardless if they don’t bring pain or we don’t desire them. So what possibilities could be on this list? What are some things that are objectively good for us? Benatar mentions some possibilities from various authors which include: agency, basic capabilities, liberty, understanding, enjoyment, deep personal relations, moral goodness, rational activity, development of one’s abilities, having children, being a good parent, knowledge, awareness of true beauty.
What are some objectively bad things? Some various answers include: being betrayed, manipulated, slandered, deceived, being deprived of liberty or dignity, enjoying sadistic pleasure, taking in aesthetic pleasure of what is in fact ugly.
There are two types of objective list theories.
The first type is a sub specie aeternitatis type, meaning that they are objective from an eternal point of view. These truths would be true even if there were no humans around, in the same way that 2+2=4 is true even if there were no humans around.
The second type is a sub specie humanitatis type, meaning that they are objective but from a human perspective. This applies to all people. Objective here means that they don’t vary from person to person like desire-fulfillment theories do. Under this type, we can determine if a life goes well only in comparison with other human beings.
So what’s wrong with this theory? Benatar argues that it if we were to take up this theory, the first type is more reasonable than the second. In other words, we should use the pure objective type. Later in Part Three, we’ll another argument on why objectivity from a human perspective (i.e. life goes well only in comparison with other human beings) is a wrong perspective. With the previous two theories, Benatar uses a reductio ad absurdum to show the flaws, but here, Benatar simply points out the problems with the second type by presenting two objections.
Objection 2: One objection is that one cannot simply imagine a purely objective perspective, this sub specie aeternitatis.
Benatar’s Reply to Objection 2: One isn’t just imaginative enough. One can easily imagine eternal truths.
Objection 3: Judgements of quality of life must be context specific. For example, teachers don’t have an all-out criteria for grading students. A teacher is sensitive to the context. We would not use the same standards of grading post-university students to twelve year olds. Similarly, we can only judge based on human standards and not through objectivity.
Benatar’s Reply to Objection 3: We have standards for age criteria of students, but just because a twelve year old gets an “A”, this does not mean the student should be offered a departmental chair. In other words, there are criterium for all sorts of situations, but nevertheless, they can be objective. It could be the case that letting five year olds do heavy manual labor wouldn’t be appropriate, but this could even be judged objectively without going the route of a human perspective. More than that, it may be better to judge people by objective (read, non-human) standards. In other words, “knowing how well a particular life goes in comparison with other lives tells us very little about the baseline–how good human life is. If one’s aim is to determine how good human life is, then the human perspective [the second type], given the psychological phenomena mentioned earlier, is manifestly an unreliable perspective from which to decide on what should be on the list of goods” (p. 82).
As a reminder, this is to argue that all lives are not worth starting. This is not an argument that live is so bad right now that they are not worth continuing. But what Benatar wants to show is that we have assumed that the criteria for judging whether one has a good life is by comparing it to other people, which Benatar disagrees with. We must look at it from an objective point of view and under this view (the first type), the standard is much to high for us to reach. We will always fall short of living a good life.
Objection 4: But in his earlier chapter, he argues that good and bad are relative to the individual. Here, it seems that he is arguing that existence is objectively bad. Can he have it both ways? Is it compatible to say that harms and benefits are relative to the individual, yet that it is objectively bad for a person to exist?
Benatar’s Reply to Objection 4: You’re misunderstanding the application of relativity to the individual. Individuals have different preferences, and that is the relative part. However, by using the three criteria above, they all show that life is not worth starting, and that’s the objective part.
Objection 5: Isn’t this form of pessimism just a form of whining?
Benatar’s reply to Objection 5: This suggests that the optimist is simply blind to the suffering of humanity. Combine the natural disasters, hunger, diseases, etc. we get about 11 million deaths per year (based on the WHO report). Combine this with accidental deaths, this just adds more to the toll. This is equivalent to 107 people dying per minute. Higher population means more death. The death of a loved one causes more grief and pain, thereby increasing the suffering. There’s more. Think of the atrocities committed by humans: wars, rape, murder, torture, assaults, muggings, enslavement, betrayal, oppression. This is just too much. But PP leads to the idea to the idea that people (and their children) will be spared from all of this. But avoiding all of this seems unlikely. To avoid this seems to be pure luck. Suffering could come to anyone born at any minute. Even your child could go through the atrocities mentioned above. If one is willing to take that chance, this is equivalent of taking a chance with someone’s life. “The optimist surely bears the burden of justifying this procreational Russian roulette” (p. 92).
How can this be justified? Don’t think of the extreme sufferings above, but even the ordinary sufferings that we all go through everyday. This is like playing Russian roulette with a fully loaded gun aimed at one’s descendants. Next time, I’ll look at Benatar’s argument for anti-natalism.