Finally, we’re in our last chapter. This last one is reserved for a hodgepodge of replies and responses that Benatar encounters. Just to recap:
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.
In part five, I went through Benatar’s argument on why the humans should become extinct.
Here, Benatar reiterates that just because a theory sounds counter-intuitive, it doesn’t entail that the theory is wrong. Intuitions are often unreliable; they are simply prejudices for the status quo. What makes this all interesting is that Benatar hardly uses intuitions to support his argument (aside from the fact that pleasure is good and pain is bad, which I believe are uncontroversial intuitions).
Couldn’t We Use This Argument as a Reductio ad Absurdum?
One possible objection is that if we accept the asymmetry that Benatar proposes in part one, this leads to a reductio. Therefore, one must make a choice between accepting the conclusion or rejecting the asymmetry. With the reductio, people choose the latter. But Benatar points out many problems if we reject the asymmetry. Let’s look at some possibilities:
Absent pleasures–switch “not bad” to “bad”. This leads us to an absurd conclusion that we have a (strong?) moral reason, and thus a duty, to create people because they are missing out on these pleasures. This would also lead us to say that not creating people is something that is regrettable.
Absent pains–switch “good” to “not bad”. This commits us to saying that there is no moral reason to avoid creating a person. Moreover, “[w]e could no longer regret, based on the interests of a suffering child, that we created that child. Nor could we regret, for the sake of miserable people suffering in some part of the world, that they were ever created” (p. 204). So we could embrace the reductio by giving up the asymmetry, but could one seriously embrace the conclusions of rejecting the asymmetry?
Based on evolutionary patterns, those who hold on to pro-natalistic beliefs pass those beliefs down to their children, which, in turn, passes those beliefs down. It becomes a meme. And those who have anti-natalistic beliefs eventually die out. To say that there is something still wrong with the argument but without giving any justification as to why is embracing dogmatism.
Responding to the Optimist
Benatar endorses the idea that there is more pain than pleasure in the world, and also that the pain is not worth the pleasure. But the optimist has a response: “cheer up.” In other words, we already do exist, so why not make the best of it?
In a sense, I honestly don’t think this is what the optimist would say. The optimist would totally disagree with Benatar’s pessimism by suggesting that there is more pleasure than pain in the world, and/or that the pain is worth the pleasure. The “optimist” that Benatar is talking about is, I believe, still a pessimist, but decides to “move forward” with one’s life. It’s the pessimist that regrets the beginning of existence, but still continues with it. Benatar mentions that one can regret one’s existence without being self-pitying, but we are still being deceptive into thinking that coming into existence is a grateful thing. “It is like being grateful that one is in a first-class cabin on the Titanic as one awaits descent to one’s watery grave. It may be better to die in first-class than in steerage, but not so much better as to count oneself very lucky” (p. 210). Besides, one can still take on a compassionate attitude by showing others to not procreate because it will harm those that could come into being.
One may conclude that if coming into existence is a harm, the ceasing to exist would be better. However, that is too much of a logical leap. Keep in mind that there is a difference between beginning to exist and continuing to exist. The existent still has interests in continuing living whereas the non-existent has no interests. Beginning to exist is a harm. But continuing to exist may be preferable than suicide. So even though beginning to live is a harm, it’s still worth continuing one’s life (unless it goes below a certain threshold). Below is a figure illustrating Benatar’s point:
Above the plus sign is where life is worth starting and worth continuing. However, there are no such lives. Below the minus sign, life is not worth starting. This is where all lives are. No one is interested in coming into existence. But once one exists, one now has an interest in continuing that existence. If the interest falls below a threshold (at the threshold line), one loses interest in continued existence.
As long as one does not fall under a certain threshold (and this threshold may actually be subjective; Benatar doesn’t give a criteria for a threshold), then one may have interests in continuing one’s life. E.g., life is so bad (and Benatar means the quality of that life) that taking away a life may actually be better than continuing it.
Benatar actually holds suicide in high regard. Many cultures regard suicide as cowardly or selfish. (Ironically, suicide was considered as one of the most courageous activities in the ancient world.) But Benatar sees suicide as a rational decision. Yet, to cease to exist by voluntary suicide still makes loved ones suffer, which is a harm. As Benatar notes, “We find ourselves in a kind of trap. We have already come into existence.” And this is a great harm, but “to end our existence causes immense pain to those we love and for whom we care” (p. 219).
Therefore, one must consider what suicide may affect to loved ones because it will cause suffering to loved ones. However, if the quality of continued existence has been lowered to a certain threshold, then suicide may be permissible. I think the paradigm case for this would be end-of-life scenarios.
Harmon, however, is not covinced of this answer. She thinks that if one accepts Benatar’s argument, then one must commit suicide. But I’m not so sure about this. While thinking about this issue, I wonder if this could be true in general. Are there activities where it’s worth starting x and worth continuing x? Obviously yes. For example, many people view their relationships with others valuable that was worth starting and continues to be valuable. Are there activities where it’s not worth starting and not worth continuing? Sure. Joining a group that one has no affinities would be an example. Now, are there any activities where it’s not worth starting but worth continuing? I think the answer is yes. Suppose I join a class and I later find out that it wasn’t what I expected it to be. I would like to drop out but it’s past the deadline. Thus, I continue with the class. There, the class was not worth starting but worth continuing. Now, if it goes below a certain threshold, I may just not show up and end up with an “F”, and I’m sure there are people who feel that way, but with this example, I want to show that Benatar’s logic is still sound: there are activities where it may not be worth starting, yet worth continuing and life falls under this example for Benatar. I find Benatar’s logic consistent.
To sum up, Benatar’s argument would be thus: Coming into existence is a harm. However, once we exist, we have an (unfortunate?) interest in continuing our existence. If one considers suicide, one must consider how this would affect loved ones. Yet, if quality of life goes below a certain threshold, it may be rational to commit suicide.
This has a tragic ring to it if we accept Benatar’s argument. But I would add more to Benatar’s argument–some evolutionary argument about how evolution has made suicide against our interests. Once we do coming into existence–which is a great harm–nature has instilled in us a desire to continue our harmful existence. It is as if we have Stockholm Syndrome and nature is our kidnapper. The “unfortunate” in parentheses seems to be something that Benatar needs. If nature didn’t instill us with an interest to continue living, then we could be free of this burden of an interest to continue living and leave our existence. Maybe a qualifier that Benatar needs is that not only do we have an interest in continued existence, but this interest is so strong that we will instinctually do anything to keep our continued existence, unless that interest goes below a certain threshold.
Coming into existence is bad in part because it invariably leads to the harm of ceasing to exist, namely death. That we are destined to die is itself a great harm.
There is a view that counters this: it’s the Epicurean view. Basically, the Epicurean view’s argument towards death is something like this:
1. If one exists, one is not dead.
2. If one is dead, one no longer exists.
3. One cannot experience death.
4. If one cannot experience x, one cannot judge that x is bad.
5. If one cannot experience death, one cannot judge that death is bad.
6. Therefore, one cannot judge that death is bad.
I’ve always found premise five problematic. To me, the consequent should read as “one cannot judge that x is either good or bad.” So the conclusion should read as, “one cannot judge that death is good or bad.” There’s more to what Epicurus says about death, but this is how Benatar presents Epicurus.
Lucretius, a follower of Epicurus, advances the argument:
1. To regret x means that one has at least experienced x in order to regret it.
2. I have never experienced anything before my birth.
3. If I have never experienced anything before my birth, then I cannot regret my non-existence before my birth.
4. Therefore, I cannot regret my non-existence before my birth.
5. Death is to become non-existent.
6. By analogy, if I cannot regret my non-existence before my birth, then I cannot regret my non-existence after my death.
7. Therefore, I cannot regret my non-existence after my death.
Let’s start with Lucretius’ argument. Benatar attacks premise 6. It’s a false analogy because there is a difference between pre-vital and post-mortum non-existence. Any of us could live longer; none of use could have come into existence earlier. Why couldn’t we have come earlier? As Benatar points out, coming into existence earlier may have been have resulted in a completely different person than you, which stems from Parfit’s non-identity problem.
With Epicurus’ argument, Benatar looks at what it means to be deprived of something. Can the dead still be deprived of something? Surely, those who are murdered seems to be deprived of something rather than those who die of natural causes. For the dedicated Epicurean, neither of them are deprived and they have good arguments for doing so. Benatar splits the middle and argues that death is sometimes a harm, and sometimes a benefit, which he calls the “common sense view” of death. Now, we have three pictures of death:
By now, I’m sure you’re wondering when the topic of religion would come up. The religious argument, basically, is that we are commanded to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” and so we must procreate. Benatar has four arguments against religious views, which I consider somewhat weak:
1. Many Biblical Commandments are no Longer Binding. For example, no religion endorses killing a rebellious son even though Deut. 21:18-21 has that injunction. There are many laws and rules in the first five books of the Bible that many people, including religious people, no longer see as binding.
My response: but how do we know that this particular commandment falls in the category of bound commands or not? I’m not a biblical scholar, but neither is Benatar. He has not given much of a theological reason as to why this commandment is no longer binding. Thus, it seems that, at best, we must remain agnostic on whether this commandment is still binding. If, however, religious commands are more of a social phenomena rather than a divine ontological phenomena, then he may pull some weight. Still, if we go this route, we’re only describing what people do rather than giving a normative claim.
2. Most Religions no Longer see this Command as Absolute. Catholicism, for example, gives priests and nuns an exception to this rule. Shakers even advocated celibacy for everyone.
My response: The exceptions don’t prove the rule wrong. In order for there to be an exception, there must be a reason for that exception. If there is a reason for it, then we can look at it. But Benatar has not given us the reason.
3. This Assumes a Too Monolithic View of Religion. There are various and divergent views on just one topic, even within religion itself.
My response: this is true. But certain elements cannot be too divergent or else if falls out of religious belief. For example, there are a variety of views of how to view science and religion on how (if ever) they are compatible. But within the Christian community, one must accept Jesus Christ as the Son of God. Denying that is to deny the Christian religion entirely. There are certain beliefs that remain dogma and if one denies that, one is denying an essential element of that religion. Is the command to procreate dogma? Again, this is stepping into the bounds of theology and I don’t know the answer. But Benatar doesn’t provide one either.
4. Various Religious Texts Do Show an Argument that Coming into Existence is a Harm. Jeremiah and Job rued the day they were born, indicating that they wished they had never existed. Even the author of Ecclesiastes seems to indicate that it would have been better if nothing had gotten started. In the Talmud, there was a debate between two houses. The question was whether or not if was better for humans to have been created. The house that usually set Jewish precedent lost the debate. It’s noteworthy because the house that usually loses won this debate.
My Concluding Remarks
At the same time, I’m reminded of a famous quip: one man’s modus ponens is another’s modus tollens. Let me explain.
Modus Ponens is a logical move like this:
1. If P, then Q.
3. Therefore, Q.
So a classical one is this:
1. If I don’t know that I’m in a Brain in a Vat, then I don’t know if I have hands.
2. I don’t know that I’m in the Brain in a Vat.
3. Therefore, I don’t know if I have hands.
Now, Modus Tollens is a logical move like this:
1. If P, then Q.
3. Therefore, Not-P.
Using the classical one above works like this, (which was used by G.E. Moore):
1. If I don’t know that I’m in a Brain in a Vat, then I don’t know if I have hands.
2. I do know that I have hands.
3. Therefore, I know that I’m not in a Brain in a Vat.
Notice that they are both logically valid.
So now, let’s use this in our case. Let P = Humanity is worth going. Let Q = Life is Worth Starting.
May people may see it as:
1. If humanity is worth going, then life is worth starting.
2. Humanity is worth going.
3. Therefore, life is worth starting.
Benatar may see it as:
1. If humanity is worth going, then life is worth starting.
2. Life is not worth starting.
3. Therefore, humanity is not worth going.
Is this what it boils down to?
Overall, Benatar argues that this is actually a very philanthropic argument: in order to relieve the suffering of existence, it would be better to get rid of that existence. Moreover, humans cause a substantial amount of suffering. The suffering would be reduced if there were no more humans.
Now many will find these arguments silly and so they will be ignored or dismissed. I, however, cannot stop thinking about this issue. After all, I have blogged on this book for six posts. I will continue to think about these issues and I hope people do take these seriously. I may even blog on the replies against Benatar. If anyone would like to follow along, here is a site (from Benatar) on replies against Benatar and Benatar’s responses to them. He continuously updates his site.