Benatar Part Five: Population and Extinction

In part one, I went through Benatar’s argument on why coming into existence is a harm.

In part two, I went through Benatar’s argument on just how harmful coming into existence is.

In part three, I went through Benatar’s anti-natalism.

In part four, I went through Benatar’s “Pro-Death” view of the abortion debate.

Here, I will look through Benatar’s argument on what to do about human population and extinction. In short, we should gradually dwindle our population until it becomes extinct, and the sooner the better. Here is the argument:

  1. Coming into existence is a harm. (from part one)
  2. If coming into existence is a harm, then there shouldn’t be any beings coming into existence.
  3. Therefore, there shouldn’t be any beings coming into existence.
  4. If coming into existence is a harm, and there shouldn’t be any beings coming into existence, then the sooner we become extinct the better.
  5. Therefore, the sooner we become extinct the better.

Thus, if you asked Benatar how many people should there be? His answer is simple: “zero” (p. 164). Even one person on earth is considered overpopulation. All things considered, it would be better if there were no more people. There is a caveat in 4.  Benatar states that “the creation of a limited number of new people may be justified” (p. 164) but for the purpose of helping the human population become extinct.

So how do we solve it? Well, first what is the exact problem that Benatar wants to face? He first looks at Derek Parfit’s non-identity problem and see what could be various solutions to it.

Parfit compares whether it is better to live a poor life than to not exist at all but brings up an interesting problem: how can one compare the quality of life to that which doesn’t exist?  We can’t compare two qualities of life because the non-existent person has no life.  Therefore, Parfit thinks that the quality of life must have some impersonal, objective standard.  Along with this, Parfit examines different ways on maximizing the well-being of future generations.

Possible Outcome 1:  Maximize the well-being of the total population in the future.  Problem: this could lead to a “repugnant outcome” where it’s better to have more people that have a lower quality of life than a smaller number of people who would not.

Possible Outcome 2: Maximize the average well-being of everyone.  This leads to a smaller population, yet with a greater total of well-being.  Problem: this leads to the idea that it would be better to maximize the well-being of two people in the future, rather than aiming for a smaller population who has a smaller, yet has a good qualitative life.

Now, Benatar argues that the reason why these problems come up is because we forget to make the distinction between lives worth continuing and lives worth starting.  What I want to point out is that on p. 179-180, Benatar uses Rawls’ original position as a way to flesh out his argument by talking about hypothetical people, which is what I mentioned in part one.  Given that the people are in the original position are rational, they would seriously consider the arguments that Benatar have made. They would conclude, Benatar thinks, that no one would choose to exist.

Ok, but now, people do exist. So how can we phase ourselves toward extinction? One would assume that ideally, the present generation just stops procreating. However, Benatar notes that it may be possible that simply decreasing the population may be correlated with decreased quality of life. How so? Let’s call the present generation PG. Once PG stops procreating, then no one would take care of PG once PG gets older. PG cannot attain the same skills with rapidity or eagerness because of advanced age. Thus, the quality of life for PG will be lowered. The last generation would have a heavy burden of simply living out their continued lives. In this case, we need some kind of ratio of young to old people where we can have a slow decrease of the population over time. That’s the first problem.

The second problem is when the new generation falls below some thresholds. Benatar gives an example: Adam and Eve are living. Adam dies so Eve’s quality of live is reduced because the human population is reduced by fifty percent. She has fallen below a threshold of necessary company. Thus, “[b]ringing people into existence always inflicts serious harm on those people. However, in some situations failing to bring people into existence can make the lives of existent people a lot worse than they would otherwise have been” (p. 184). But just to make sure we don’t fall into an absurd conclusion, Benatar states that the only purpose of creating new people would be to eventually phase out human existence. It’s an interesting question whether it’s justified to bring new people into existence in order to improve the quality of existent lives. Here’s Benatar’s statement: “we may start new lives in order to improve the quality of existent lives if the harm suffered by existing people in the absence of new people would be greater than the harm done to the new people” (p. 187). But under what conditions? It gets tricky because it seems that we may be violating a deontological principle: we are using (future) people as a means in order to relieve the suffering of present people. Benatar brings up four possibilities and eventually concludes that one form of negative total utilitarianism–which states that creating new people is permissible as long as the total amount of harm is equal or less than the harm that would be suffered by existing people if the new people were not created–and a less stringent view of a deontological view is compatible with anti-natalism–which states that creating new people may be justified by substantial (but not mere) reduction in total harm. It’s because they have the least moral costs. If we go toward a more robust or stringent view of the deontological view, then it becomes incompatible with Benatar’s argument.

Frankly, I find the argument flowing from his argument.  However, it falls apart when Benatar says that the creation of a limited number of new people may be justified.  See especially Objection 4.

Objection 1: This seems like he’s trying to fit an idea into a theory that works for him. Ordinarily, one first finds a theory that is correct, and see the implications of that theory. What if it turns out that a robust deontological view is indeed true? Wouldn’t this suggest that Benatar must give up his anti-natalism? It seems he must first have an ethical theory and then see where that leads one in the ethical applications, not the other way around.

Objection 2: Wouldn’t there be some sort of regret if the human species went extinct?

Benatar’s Reply to Objection 2: The human species will eventually become extinct sometime in the future. But this actually leads to an optimistic conclusion: “Although things are now not the way they should be–there are people when there should be none–things will someday be the way they should be–there will be no people” (p. 193). This doesn’t lead to pro-mortalism: that we should kill off the species. Killing off the species is wrong for the same reason that killing a human is wrong. But why? “Although it may be bad for anyone of us to die, it is still worse to die earlier than we need to” (p. 194). A wrong has been done when there is a killing. But if we delay the extinction, we continue the suffering. Therefore, the sooner we become extinct, the better.

Objection 3: Suppose we all became extinct.  Even though it would take a great amount of time, another rational species will eventually evolve and would continue the cycle.  Because they have limits, they were harmed by coming into existence.  Thus, nature is harming those coming into existence.  In order for this to work, Benatar must assume some sort of metaphysical framework (perhaps through Schopenhauer or Buddhism) that suggests that simply existing is wrong.

Objection 4:  Under this rubric, I don’t think humans will ever become extinct.  If most economists are right, then increasing the human population actually creates competition thereby making everyone better off.  By decreasing the population, the well-being of future beings (until extinction) would be worse off, which goes against Benatar’s claim.  The only way out of this is to say that PG must stop procreating now and forget the criteria where there may be justification to create more people.  Otherwise, I find Benatar’s views on this inconsistent.

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About shaunmiller

I am a Ph. D student at Marquette University. The primary purpose of this blog is to get my ideas out there, and then have other people scrutinize, critique, build upon, and systematize beliefs. This blog will sometimes pertain to what I'm learning in my classes, but it will occasionally deal with non-classroom issues that I'm thinking about as well.
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6 Responses to Benatar Part Five: Population and Extinction

  1. Daniel says:

    Hey Shaun,

    Does Benatar advocate the extinction of other animal species?

    -Dan

    • shaunmiller says:

      Hi Dan, yes Benatar advocates extinction of all sentient beings. However, because we can deliberately choose to procreate or not, it may be easier for human extinction to happen rather than all sentient beings.

  2. Daniel says:

    But don’t we have an obligation to sterilize all higher mammals first, then exit? It would seem to follow. They can’t do it for themselves, right?

    • shaunmiller says:

      That’s a good point. Benatar mentions in the first chapter that he only wants to concentrate on humans, but it applies to any sentient beings as well. Perhaps he only wants to deal with the human problem and anything that deals with animals would be outside the scope of his project. I think you make a good point of trying as much as we can to prevent animals from creating beings. Although with his reasonable disagreement, this may give him some leeway. After all, we can’t forcibly sterilize humans. But this is because they have rights. But can we forcibly sterilize animals? I guess if they don’t have rights, which most people agree to. Hmm…much more complexity ensues.

  3. Pingback: Benatar Part Six: Concluding Remarks « Shaun Miller’s Weblog

  4. Pingback: Particular Interests of Mine | Shaun Miller's Ideas

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