How to Test Whether Life is Worth Living (Test Four: Preferring Not to Have Been Born Test)

In part one, I went through Smuts’ article on certain tests on what makes life worth living. I went through Camus’ Suicide Test and showed Smut’s argument on why it fails.

In part two, I went through mainly Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence Test and showed Smuts’ argument on why it fails.

In part three, I went through the third test motivated by Cicero and Hume called the Extra Life Test and showed Smuts’ argument and my thoughts as well.

In this post, I’ll look at the fourth test motivated by Bernard Williams which he obtains from the Book of Job.

Not my image.

Not my image.

Williams quotes from Job where Job laments after losing his children, his wealth, and gains sickness and boils.  From all of his horrible experiences, Job curses the day he was born because he views his life not having any worth.  We have the fourth test:

Preferring Not to Have Been Born Test: Life L is worth living for person P iff P does not prefer not to have been born.

So far, this test has the advantages from the previous tests.  It looks at the life as a whole instead of looking at the remainder of a life, thus it avoids the problem from the suicide test.  This test avoids the problems of repetition from the recurrence test.  And this test avoids the problems of personal identity from the extra life test.  Despite these advantages, there are problems with this test.

Problem 1: One could be wrong about whether one wishes to have never been born, yet one can still live a life worth living.  For example, someone may have severe self-loathing and this may make one wish to have never been born.  However, one may nevertheless live a life worth living.  Moreover, this test still faces the same subjective problems that the simple suicide test faced in Test one.  Recall the distraught adolescent who wishes that she had never been born because her boyfriend of two weeks broke up with her.  If so, then this test is no better than the subjective suicide test.  Subjectively, then, this is a problem. Thus, we have another reason that what makes life worth living must be an objective test.

Could there be an objective test?  What would this look like?  Smuts uses an example taken from Smilansky.  Imagine a self-loathing, yet happy child molester who wishes he was never born, yet he still considers his life having worth, and thus, his life is worth living.  Smuts argues against this suggesting that even if the child molester considers his life having worth, objectively it does not.  Smuts argues that “[j]ust as we might ask if an activity is objectively worth performing, we can ask the same of lives” (p. 12).  I have problems with this, but I’ll come back to it.  Smuts suggests that one can be wrong about whether one’s life is worth living.  For example, Hitler may have been upset that the final solution was not completed right before he committed suicide.  Still he may have been pleased that he executed so many Jews, and that he could have thought that his life may have been better if he had killed millions more.  Even if he thought this, in reality, he would have been wrong.  This is because “any life that furthers hideous evil is not worth living” (p. 18).

Problem with Smuts’ reasoning: I find two problems with Smuts reasoning.  The first is when he says “[j]ust as we might ask if an activity is objectively worth performing, we can ask the same of lives.”  This is ambiguous.  A life may consist of many actions, but a life does not equal the summation of one’s actions.  Of course, one needs to have a life in order to do actions, but the actions themselves do not equal the entirety of one’s life.  

On the other hand, perhaps what Smuts means is that the actions may constitute one’s life.  That is fine, but I still don’t see the logic between seeing the objectivity of performing the action and the objectivity of the worth of a life.  I may enjoy a certain activity, and this activity is so mundane but it gives me great pleasure, and hence is a subjective worth, yet one can still consider whether a life has objective worth.  Either way, Smuts is ambiguous in this phrasing.

However, the second and major problem deals with Smuts’ example with Hitler.  Hitler thought his life had worth, but objectively it was wrong.  Smuts’ reasoning is because “a life that furthers hideous evil is not worth living.”  However, this doesn’t seem true necessarily.  I will provide two examples to problematize to show how.

Example one: suppose you are really charitable and an overall generous person.  There was a recent catastrophic natural event that happened on the other side of the world.  This even could be an earthquake, tsunami, a major hurricane, etc.  You have the resources to go there and help out.  Once you arrive, you do the best you can to make sure that you’re healthy and to provide services to those around you.  After you exercise your generosity, you head back home feeling good that you provided a good service to others, and the recipients are thankful for your service.  Your friends and family members are proud of your generosity and service.  You may think, then, that your actions had worth, and that your life also had worth.  However, you find out that you’re incredibly sick.  You shake it off and think that it’s just a fluke and that you’ll get over it soon.  A week later, however, you get worse and head to the doctor.  You later find out that it is a contagious parasite that you brought back from the other side of the world, and because it’s contagious, you have contaminated your friends and family members.  Everyone is upset with you for bringing this contagion into the USA.  This sickness is so bad, that we can even imagine the same afflictions that Job had: boils, ill health, sheer mental exhaustion, etc.  It has become so bad that you wish that you were never born and that your life doesn’t have worth.  In the first place, I would say that this is untrue.  Your life may still have worth even with this unfortunate event happening.  Thus, the preferring not to have been born test does not hold.  But more to the point, it seems that more evil has been furthered.  Is this “hideous” evil?  It’s hard to say.

Indeed, major governmental officials have to quarantine you, your friends, and family members in a restricted area in order to contain the problem.  This totally upsets you and your loved ones’ life plans and all of your well-being isn’t as great as it was before.  You may think, then, that your life does not have worth.  People are dying because of you, the government has to step in and quarantine the community, this plague is a disaster in epic proportions.  Even though this is a natural phenomenon, I’d still say it’s a hideous evil.  However, this evil was because of your actions.  If you never contracted the contagion, the whole mess wouldn’t have happened.  In a sense, you are responsible for this hideous evil.  Still, I would say that because you didn’t know about it and you had good intentions, your life—considering all other things being equal—still had worth.  You didn’t bring back the contagion with ill intent, even if hideous evil came about.

Example 2: Alternatively, what about a person where their life didn’t have any worth, yet they didn’t further any hideous evil?  In fact, they averted a great evil.  What then?  Suppose we had vicious cannibals that simply loved to eat people.  Once they get a craving, look out!  They’re on the rampage.  Let’s suppose that these cannibals lived in Germany at the end of the 19th century.  They are so cruel and so vicious that it seems that they are living lives not worth living.  Now suppose that these cannibals had a taste for young children.  So they go out sneaking around, snatching young babies to quench their thirst for blood, and then they eat them.  Clearly what they’re doing is morally wrong and that it’s not a life worth living.  However, imagine that the babies they ate were Hitler and other members of the SS party.  By getting rid of Hitler and the rest of his men, a great and hideous evil has been averted, but it was all because of these cannibals.  Yet, these cannibals’ lives are not worth living.  Thus, Smuts cannot be right about how “a life that furthers hideous evil is not worth living.”  (Both these examples come from Sinhababu.)

Despite these problems, I think Smuts is right that this test cannot be correct.  Here’s another problem.

Problem 2: A vice versa example is a life not worth living (suppose one is living a full life of intense pain, misery, and suffering), yet this person still prefers to exist rather than to have never been born, for whatever reason.  According to the test above, this person is being inconsistent and is mistaken that he or she prefers to exist.  This seems out of place too.  Of course, this again depends on some objective criteria on a worthy life, which I’ve mentioned before.

This, however, depends on whether the vice versa test could be an equivalent form of the test.  Recall that the test is Life L is worth living for person P iff P does not prefer not to have been born.  But is this the same as Life L is not worth living for person P iff P does prefer not to have been born?  I’m not so sure.  Vice versa’s are not necessarily equivalencies.  However, I’ll move on with this post.

In the next and final post, I’ll look at Smuts’ own answer on how to test whether life is worth living: the benevolent caretaker test.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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1 Response to How to Test Whether Life is Worth Living (Test Four: Preferring Not to Have Been Born Test)

  1. Pingback: How to Test Whether Life is Worth Living (Test Five: Pre-existence Test) Along with Objections, and Conclusion | Shaun Miller's Ideas

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