Saturday, August 14, 2010

Better Never To Have Been (Written)

This is a book review of a philosophy book I haven't read. I just want to get that out of the way up front: I have not read this book, and I doubt I will ever read it, despite the fact that its thesis resonates very deeply with me. The book is Better Never To Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence by David Benatar. The book is summarized as follows:

Most people believe that they were either benefited or at least not harmed by being brought into existence. Thus, if they ever do reflect on whether they should bring others into existence---rather than having children without even thinking about whether they should---they presume that they do them no harm. Better Never to Have Been challenges these assumptions. David Benatar argues that coming into existence is always a serious harm. Although the good things in one's life make one's life go better than it otherwise would have gone, one could not have been deprived by their absence if one had not existed. Those who never exist cannot be deprived. However, by coming into existence one does suffer quite serious harms that could not have befallen one had one not come into existence. Drawing on the relevant psychological literature, the author shows that there are a number of well-documented features of human psychology that explain why people systematically overestimate the quality of their lives and why they are thus resistant to the suggestion that they were seriously harmed by being brought into existence. The author then argues for the 'anti-natal' view---that it is always wrong to have children---and he shows that combining the anti-natal view with common pro-choice views about foetal moral status yield a "pro-death" view about abortion (at the earlier stages of gestation). Anti-natalism also implies that it would be better if humanity became extinct. Although counter-intuitive for many, that implication is defended, not least by showing that it solves many conundrums of moral theory about population.

The first thing that occurs to most people after reading this, I think, is if existence is that terrible, why bother writing a book about it? That would just seem to add to the problem. The second thing is that writing a book like this ranks right up there with making pornography as "things you can't do until your parents are dead".

However, I'm a very pessimistic person (I have to be heavily medicated to be as pleasant as I am), and this kind of perspective fits in well with how I instinctively view things. I used to think that the best thing I could do was to minimize the effect I had on the world -- not in an environmental sense, but in a social sense. I should just try not to infect others with my presence by avoiding personal contact and relationships as much as is reasonable. But of course, this wouldn't work because I always had some people who cared for me and to shut myself away from them would cause them distress. So it seems, either way, I'd cause harm.

The way God got me out of this was my wife. She is the rarest of all people: someone who is a) intrinsically happy, even cheerful, and b) not annoying. I had tricked myself into thinking that even though my pessimism was my instinctive and uncritical way of looking at the world it was nevertheless the more intellectual and responsible way of thinking of things. Optimism, I thought, was a naïve refusal to recognize the bad things about life. What I've discovered is that this is not the case. Pessimism is a refusal to see the good in things that is actually there, while optimism recognizes it. The fact that most good things have been polluted by the bad doesn't justify ignoring the good that is still there. I could say more about this, but I'll stop with that.

Now, from the description of Better Never To Have Been given above, Benatar would counter that we subconsciously trick ourselves into thinking existence is better than it is. Even though this is not the way I think, I could see myself believing this about others very easily. The way God gets me out of this is my kids. Both of my children are very happy, inherently happy. Being children, they of course have plenty of things that make them cry. But I was expecting them to be colicky, I guess because I thought that was just what all young kids were. Yet they give every indication of thoroughly enjoying existence. They behave, and have behaved since the days they were born, as if they perceive their existence as good; not just good, but as overflowing with wonder and glory. My point being that it's difficult to think of existence as bad when those who are thrust into it seem to think the opposite.

Now I suspect Benatar's claim is that even if you live a life characterized by great joy, as long as you experience one bad thing, all the goodness is negated; it would be better not to have any bad or good things happen to you rather than one bad thing and millions of good things. But I still think my kids' obvious delight in existence refutes this. And even though I have a strong inclination to agree with Benatar before I think about it, once I do think about it, I don't see any reason to think that negative experiences so outweigh the positive ones. Perhaps I'd have to read Better Never To Have Been before I can say that, since Benatar probably goes into some detail about it. But I fear that, for me at least, to read this book would be to enflame an unhealthy aspect of my personality, an aspect that is better left to atrophy.


Tyson said...

Hear him, hear him! I love the fact that you allow yourself to be convinced out of pesimissim by the examples of your wife and children. I often find myself consciously allowing myself to be convinced by people that I respect, even though it goes against what I am thinking. I rationalize this by acknowledging that I am often wrong and that I prefer the way of looking at the world that is more pleasant and agreeable. For example, sometimes my pastor will teach something that I might question, but I decide to allow myself to be convinced because I respect him and his life example. Moreover, it is possible that he might be right and I might be wrong. And, furthermore, if he is right, then the world is a much happier place than I would have otherwise seen it. I believe this is the sense of Hebrews 13:17, where we are asked to submit to our leaders in the church.

CM said...

Most people who review this book haven't read it, so you are not alone:)

If you had read the book, you would know that the author does not claim that negative things negate whatever positive things happen in a life. Rather, as the blurb you quote says, those positive things cannot be considered an advantage over never existing because if you had never existed, you wouldn't miss them.

As a Christian, don't you worry about the possibility that your children will end up in hell? I'm not sure what your particular beliefs on this are, but the Bible seems to imply that few will be saved, so there is a very good chance that your children are hell-bound. How do you justify the choice to have them, given that possibility?

You should check out Jim, the host, advocates non-procreation for philanthropic reasons and has also published a book on the subject. Jim was a Christian for many years, and even though he is now an atheist, as well as most of the commenters, he understands the Christian perspective. I myself am an ex-Christian, as well.

As far as optimism and pessimism goes... I think you present a false dichotomy. It's possible to be overly optimistic and possible to be overly pessimistic, sometimes simultaneously.


WTF! I reveiwed that book @ moi's blog too AND also didn't read it.

Atheists and Christians DO have somethings in common.

Jim S. said...

Hi CM, thanks for commenting. My view on hell, which I think is pretty standard Christian fare, is that it ultimately rests on the individual's choice to accept or reject God. C. S. Lewis wrote (in The Great Divorce) something to the effect, "There are only two kinds of people, in the end. Those who say to God 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says 'Thy will be done.' All that are in hell choose it. Without that self choice there could be no hell."

So my concern for my children would be that they might choose to reject God. This worry, therefore, is not a product of their existence but of their freedom. And my views on whether it was wise of God to give us free will cannot be expressed quickly.

You're right that my take on optimism vs. pessimism was too simplistic, but I found myself writing a much longer blog post to get into it, and then decided to just cut the majority of it.

I hope you don't mind me saying it, but I encourage you (and the other Jim) to reconsider Christianity. I came into it with a view somewhat similar to what you hold now, so I was very predisposed to reject Christianity because of its view on the value of life. But I argued myself into it. In fact my attempt to refute Christianity has transmogrified into my pursuit of a PhD in philosophy. My point being that it's possible to be an intellectually fulfilled Christian.

jacob longshore said...

Just as a side question (which is probably addressed in that book none of us has read), how can existence be harmful? It seems odd that harm could be inflicted on a being that doesn't exist, simply by virtue of its coming into being.

"But we inflict harm on not-yet-existing people every day! Look at what happened with Agent Orange." Yes, but that's a modification of potential existence, not existence as such - which seems to be Benatar's contention. Existence = harmful.

It's interesting that folks who are pessimistic by nature have an interest in this book (myself included), and yet are inclined to oppose its thesis. My soap-box suspicion is that we distinguish between our inclinations and the facts; we may feel down about the world and all that, but we recognize that it's our *personal* sentiment and are loath to generalize it. Peirce mentions a woman he knew who later committed suicide; she told him she only found her own existence intolerable, not the world's.

CM said...

Jim -

thanks for the encouragement. I can't say I don't miss thinking there is an omnipotent being out there who cares about my petty affairs, but examining the evidence has left me with the conviction that belief in such a being is unwarranted.

Re: hell. I used to read a lot of C.S. Lewis, so I know exactly what you are talking about. However, I now know from personal experience that he was wrong. I was much happier believing life had some sort of ultimate meaning (of course, that doesn't undermine the epistemic validity of atheism). But it's not like I can just make myself believe in God again and consequently care about what his will might be, even though I have a motive to believe.

Even if your children were free in that sense, their freedom is a product of their existence, and their existence is a product of your reproductive choices. So my question still applies.

CM said...

jacob -

I'm not sure who Agent Orange is, but your question is indeed addressed in the book, and you actually seem to have the same view of harm as David Benatar. Technically, existence need not be harmful, but, as he points out, it so happens that in this reality, every life contains harmful experiences and/or death. That is why coming into existence is always a harm (for the exister).

Professor Benatar claims (uncontroversially) that

(1) the presence of pain is bad
(2) the presence of pleasure is good.

But his main argument for why coming into existence is a net harm is the asymmetry of pleasure and pain (as examples of benefit and harm, not as the only values that matter), which, as he argues, underlies many of our moral judgments:

(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.

For instance, if a natural disaster strikes somewhere, we naturally feel bad for the victims and we also often feel glad that there were not even more people in the affected area (3) because otherwise, it would have been bad for them, too. On the other hand, if we discover a beautiful empty island, we don't feel bad for the non-existent natives for missing out on all that beauty (4).

Re: inclinations. It goes both ways. See my reply to Jim about meaning.

Jim S. said...

Sorry to take so long to respond CM, I've been swamped. I don't think your question does still apply. If someone did not have the freedom to deny God, then there would be no problem of hell, even though they existed. So, again, the problem isn't a problem of existence but of freedom, and freedom with regard to a particular issue: the ability to reject God. This has further application beyond the problem of hell; it has a great deal of relevance to the larger problem of evil.

Jake's reference to Agent Orange is about a chemical agent used against people in the Vietnam War. Some of the people exposed to it had children years later who were affected (so I've heard, never having investigated it), so he was pointing out how it harmed people who did not yet exist.