Have we created a monster?

Life as we humans have created it over thousands of years and live in most parts of this world has something antibiotic, i.e. against life, about it. What is meant by this? If we think about how much time we spend doing gainful work to earn our living (one could also think about this designation), it seems that nowadays we do not work to live, but rather live to work, and the trend is increasing.

There is such a great imbalance in this world as well as in our individual lives that, intuitively, cannot be natural. On the one hand, there are many people who have working hours that only allow them to get barely enough rest, not to mention time for other things they want to do. They are able to support themselves financially, but not even able to do much more. And on the other hand, there are people who are struggling to have just enough to survive, who want to work but can’t get a job. They can’t do much either because they have to worry about finances, food, and survival. (Of course, there are also cases between the extremes). So, it seems that some are working for two or three while others don’t even get to work? Those who have the goods to stay alive don’t have the time to live and the others have the time but not the goods? Isn’t there a middle way?

Many years ago, people started to settle down, build houses, farm, and build more and more of a (world) economy. And it goes on steadily. It seems that everything we ever have is never enough. We have smartphones, cars, houses, etc., but we need bigger, smaller, faster, and so on. To get there, we (as humans) need to perform and work, but at what cost? We will never get where we want to go, there is always something that could be better, smaller, bigger, and so on – there is always more profit to be made. It has long ceased to be about providing us with what we need to live, to live well. It has long ceased to be about the living, rather it’s about the inanimate such as money and the power of those who have it.

This is neither healthy for the world nor for us. We are getting sicker and sicker – physically, mentally, and socially. That’s a high price to pay, and that’s not all – think about it: For all we know, we have to assume that as human beings we have only this one, finite life, and to spend it predominantly in a rush of achievement, attainment, earning and providing seems like a waste of that life – especially when there is not even enough time (and/or energy) left beside it for joy, play, love, creativity, self-development, seeing, hearing, feeling and being – for living.

Life should not mean work and work should not mean hardship, pressure, and burden. Working – understood as being productive and creative – is a part of life (any life – even the smallest microorganisms actively take care of their survival and we humans have always hunted and gathered for food and built for shelter), but it needs to be balanced in itself and with all other aspects of life.

So, I’m not arguing that development, innovation, and activity are bad things per se, but they should not be mainly about profit and power, but about us as humans, as individuals and as a community. Above all, we should develop positively as a human race. And life and all its parts should be in favor of living.

The questions that arise and that we need to think about are therefore: Is, paradoxically, the price of the way of life which we have created and which is supposed to sustain our lives, life itself? Is there a way out of this paradox? The point is: not only did we get ourselves into this mess, but the way of life as we have created it now seems to be a self-runner, and to stop it – to defeat the monster we have created – we need a huge shift in our thinking, in the way we deal with life and the way we make things (and ourselves) work – towards a balanced way of living.

An essay on “Better Never to Have Been” by David Benatar.

In his book “Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence” David Benatar advocates the conclusion that bringing a sentient being into existence is not a benefit but always a harm, that is, all good things cannot outweigh the bad things. This rather shocking conclusion is primarily based on four premises, namely (1) “the presence of pain is bad”, (2) “the presence of pleasure is good”, (3) “the absence of pain is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone” and (4) “the absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation” (Benatar, 2006, p. 30). Whereas (1) and (2) are symmetrical, (3) and (4) appear to be asymmetrical, i.e., the absence of pain is good at any rate whereas the absence of pleasure can be bad. According to Benatar, this asymmetry is substantiated by four other asymmetries: (i) “[W]hile there is a duty to avoid bringing suffering people into existence, there is no duty to bring happy people into being.” (Benatar, 2006, p. 32), (ii) “If absent pleasures were bad irrespective of whether they were bad for anybody, then having children for their own sakes would not be odd. And if it were not the case that absent pains are good even where they are not good for anybody, then we could not say that it would be good to avoid bringing suffering children into existence.” (Benatar, 2006, p. 34), (iii) “Bringing people into existence as well as failing to bring people into existence can be regretted. However, only bringing people into existence can be regretted for the sake of the person whose existence was contingent on our decision. […] One might grieve about not having had children, but not because the children that one could have had have been deprived of existence.” (Benatar, 2006, p. 34) and (iv) “Whereas, at least when we think of them, we rightly are sad for inhabitants of a foreign land whose lives are characterized by suffering, when we hear that some island is unpopulated, we are not similarly sad for the happy people who, had they existed, would have populated this island.” (Benatar, 2006, p. 35). Furthermore, premises (3) and (4) inherit the concept of the non-existent, which will be illuminated in more detail later. For now, I want to bring back the reader’s attention to the question whether Benatar’s conclusion is too harsh and if another perspective may be able to open up the possibility for a more subtle and benevolent evaluation of bringing new sentient life into existence. Thus, this essay will examine Benatar’s theory and argumentation in detail, including his view on non-existent people and his hard-to-believe conclusion which appears somewhat generalizing. It will also be shown that the epistemic contextualism may be utilized to tackle the rather paradox seeming conclusion in question and that there exists (at least one) intriguing alternative to antinatalism.

Firstly, and according to the philosophy of language, I claim that “Being brought into existence is not a benefit but always a harm” (Benatar, 2006, p. 28) is a generic generalization. But why is it generic? Benatar’s book offers numerous arguments underlining his antinatalist point of view which ought to persuade the reader to believe as he says. However, because of the expression always the conclusion is stringent and restricted in every way and entails that there does not exist any other possibility – not even in another possible world – than that to harm when bringing new life into existence. In this way the concept of harm is crudely mobilized to implicate the necessity that nobody should (equivalent to everybody should not) have children. Because of this view being – admittedly – presented semantically sound by the author but, at the same time, morally questionable from nature’s point of view, the conclusion must be rejected – simply because of being discriminating and wrong. This is as well emphasized by the fact that generics presuppose. Benatar’s conclusion thus presupposes that (i) nature, by giving us the opportunity to reproduce, is erroneous or, respectively, has gone mad, (ii) people must come to the conclusion that reproduction necessarily causes more harm than good and (iii) if even, let’s say, the good compensates for or outweighs the bad, bringing new life into this world has to be prevented (at any cost). Moreover, it presupposes that (iv) people (optimally) think and conclude the way that Benatar does, thereby neglecting the concepts of pluralism, diversity, complexity et cetera.

Secondly, and according to epistemic contextualism, I claim that Benatar’s view on procreation should be treated as a paradox. But why is it paradoxical? I advocate the opinion that most people feel and, hence, inherit a profound understanding that a life – may it be one’s own or another – is worth living although it is going to entail harm and pain, which may or may not outweigh the pleasure. Worth living here is meant in the context of valuing a life positive or at least neutral, both applicable to a life to be started or continued. In an unsettling and irritating way, Benatar’s birth itself enables his arguing that nobody should get pregnant, that is, he himself can be viewed as the basis for making his argument a paradox. In other words, although he may have the opinion that his mother should not have been pregnant to give birth to his person, which somehow automatically entitles him to think as he, without doubt, does but, nevertheless, providing the basis for this easy to miss paradox. To explain this in more detail, let us, for a moment, assume that a person is depressive – not in a mild, but in a serious, deep, and compromising way. This person even may commit suicide because life appears to be overbearingly pointless. Although the pointlessness may be the reason for the person in question to plan and finally take his/her life, it is founded in a – roughly said – malfunction of the person’s mind with which the person thinks, and, despite that, even argue in a sound way, that committing suicide is the right thing to do. If treated properly, depression is known to be healable by – again, roughly said – reprogramming the mind. It is the dysfunctional and misguided beliefs that cause the mind, the thinking, to argue soundly but (morally) wrong, destructive, and paradoxical.

With that said, David Benatar’s paradox needs proper treatment and the epistemic contextualism may provide the means to do so. Thus, in a first step, it must be clarified in which context the term non-existent is used since, as stated by the author, the term is “multiply ambiguous” (Benatar, 2006, p. 30). In a second step, premises (1) to (4) will be reformulated and premises (3) and (4) split or divided, respectively, in a way that they contain a single statement about whether applicable to the existent or non-existent. In the third and last step I will show that Benatar’s argumentation is indeed context-sensitive and that there is even a hint given by the author himself, that this assumption is true. Thus and according to “The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Contextualism”, the premises will be assessed consistently true when the evidential standards set by the context in which they are made shift (from low to high) and true/false when the evidential standards set by the context in which they are made remain constant (Buckwalter, 2017, p. 45).

Benatar grants “that there is even something odd about speaking about the ‘never-existent’, because that is surely a referentless term. There clearly are not any never-existent people. It is, however, a convenient term, of which we can make some sense. By it we mean those possible people who never become actual.” (Benatar, 2006, p. 4f) So, in Benatar’s book and this essay’s context, the term non-existence denotes those who never exist.

With that in mind Benatar’s premises may be reformulated, namely (1.1) the presence of pain is bad for those who exist, (2.1) the presence of pleasure is good for those who exist. Additionally, although Benatar states that “Clearly [premise] (3) does not entail the absurd literal claim that there is some actual person for whom the absent pain is good.” the term even used in the premise entails that, in fact, the absence of pain may as well be good for some person, thus: (3.1) the absence of pain is good for those who exist, and (3.2) the absence of pain is good for those who never exist. Premise (4) may be reformulated as well, namely (4.1) the absence of pleasure is bad for those who exist with the disposition to feel deprived by this absence, and (4.2) the absence of pleasure is to be appraised neutral for those who never exist. Please note that premises (3) and (4) were split up to (3.1) and (4.1), solely applicable to those who exist, and (3.2) and (4.2), solely applicable to non-existence, i.e., those who never exist.

It can be taken for granted that premises (1.1) and (2.1) are known to be true relative to ordinary standards (similar to the expression everybody knows that…) which is likewise substantiated by Benatar himself, as he puts it: “It is uncontroversial to say that [premise] (1) the presence of pain is bad, and that [premise] (2) the presence of pleasure is good.” (Benatar, 2006, p. 30). I am willing to go a bit further and say that premise (3.1) is also known to be true relative to ordinary standards. It gets more complicated when taking premise (4.1) into account, since it must be evaluated whether people exist who actually can have the disposition to feel deprived by the absence of pleasure and, presuppose that these people truly exist, it still remains unclear how to appraise or weigh the feeling of deprivation, since one can only evaluate this with his/her own senses and mind to then project the outcome onto others, thereby biasing objectivity. However, I as well may be inclined to say that premise (4.1) can be known to be true relative to ordinary standards.  But certainly, I will not admit that premises (3.2) and (4.2) are known to be true relative to ordinary standards, that is, everybody does not know that the absence of pain is good and that the absence of pleasure is to be appraised neutral for those who never exist. As the author puts it, simply the use of the term non-existence entails a multiple ambiguity creating the necessity to – in the first place – clarify the term’s context. Furthermore and acknowledging the fact that these premises can be known to be true, but only relative to high standards, i.e., one has to be able to develop, let’s say, the concept or idea of a contingent world in which those exist who never exist or the ability to think something like The non-existent has no clue about existing, and vice versa. If anything, one can be curious about the other condition/state. But what does that mean and are we (actually) supposed to appraise or ascribe a value to pleasure and pain considering those who never exist? These are questions not easy to answer and again, without doubt, the context shifts (from low to high). Taking into account the low context in which premises (1.1), (2.1) and (3.1) (and maybe premise (4.1) as well) were evaluated true, premises (3.2) and (4.2) must be evaluated wrong while determined not to shift the context.

But where to go from here? I myself am inclined to, at least partially, agree to Benatar’s view that “Being brought into existence is not a benefit but always a harm.” (Benatar, 2006, p. 28) – partially, because harm or pain does not necessarily mean that these are unbeneficial. Let us, for instance, return to the abovementioned example of depression which, undoubtedly, belongs to a harmful condition causing pain to the affected person and to others (relatives, loved ones etc.). But when treated with care and overcome, I claim that an unprecedented sense for life emerges from which a healed person surely benefits. This point of view is not new though: “In the end, lest what is most important remain unsaid: from such abysses [harm, pain], from such severe sickness, also from the sickness of severe suspicion, one returns newborn, having shed ones skin, more ticklish and malicious, with a more delicate taste for joy, with a tenderer tongue for all good things, with merrier senses, with a second dangerous innocence in joy, more childlike and yet a hundred times subtler than one has ever been before.” (Nietzsche, 1974, p. 37).

Thus, I suggest premise (1) to be reformulated, namely that the presence of pain is bad unless there is somebody (an ‘exister’) for whom this presence is a source of personal development and, by this, bringing asymmetry to premises (1) and (2). Hence and leaving premises (3) and (4) unchanged, I conclude that existence (and non-existence) is to be weighed neutral, i.e., a person may be indifferent about existence and, too, because of the fact that the bad (harm, pain, suffering) entails the deprivation of the good (pleasure, joy, fun), and vice versa.

David Benatar surely is not just chitchatting when he argues that coming into existence is always (!) bad. His conclusion is designed to concern every single sentient (and thus human) being, the existent and the existent-to-be. Not only does he provide a semantically sound argumentation for those who tend to have equal or similar beliefs but also for those who take a sceptic position against antinatalism. But is a sound argument necessarily valid? The answer shall be No.

Therefore, this essay laid out that Benatar’s conclusion can be viewed as a generic generalization and that, because of this, it implicates and presupposes. One may tend to ask if only good can come if generalizations are made. The answer shall, too, be No. Generalizations neglect the concepts of plurality, diversity, variety and so forth and thereby discriminate.

Furthermore, and by utilizing the epistemic contextualism, it was shown that Benatar’s main argument – depending on asymmetry in regard of the appraisal of pleasure and pain – shifts in its epistemic context from low to high, provided that all four premises shall be rated as true. If the context is fixed either low or high, roughly speaking, two out of four premises are rendered invalid.

Taking these statements into account, the reader may still ask for alternatives to Benatar’s point of view. Hence, one may find Nietzsche’s remarks rather uplifting. Nietzsche represents the opinion that suffering or pain, respectively, may help a person to grow and develop a “tenderer tongue for all good things”, “merrier senses” as well as “a more delicate taste for joy” (Nietzsche, 1974) and, thus, a subtler attitude towards birth and life. I like to agree with this concluding view and appeal to all people to do everything they can to avoid being drawn towards dark thoughts à la David Benatar’s.

Works Cited

Benatar, D. (2006). Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. Oxford University Press.
Buckwalter, W. (2017). Epistemic contextualism and linguistic behavior. In J. Jenkins Ichikama (Ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Contextualism (pp. 44-56). Routledge.
Nietzsche, F. (1974). The Gay Science. (W. Kaufmann, Trans.) Vintage Books.

I am human.

I am not black – I am a human (who happens to have dark skin).

I am not gay – I love another human (who happens to have the same sex as I do).

I am not “trans” – I am a human (who happens to make some changes).

I am not a woman – I am a human (who happens to have breasts).

I am not a Muslim – I am a human with beliefs (which happen to be different from those of others).

I am not disabled – I am a human (who happens to not being able to walk).

We are all humans – no matter what circumstances we happen to live in or which we’re born into. Our circumstances differ in countless ways. But don’t we all breath the same air, live on the same planet, need to eat and drink to live, digest, bleed if we’re hurt, feel pain, get sad and laugh? The one thing which definitely connects us all is being human. Hating and hurting another because of skin color, sexuality, gender, ethnical background, religious beliefs etc. is to hate humans! Hating humans means to hate yourself! Stop projecting your own hatred and fear on to others! Stop hurting others because you’ve got issues with yourself and your own circumstances, your own life. Not only is this intolerable – it is unacceptable!

So, start dealing with your own being human and be gentle to yourself and to others! And if this isn’t something you can fully comprehend, just think about the term “human rights” – these are rights any human being possesses just because of being human and not because of having a certain skin color or nationality or whatever crap we make up to distinguish between inferior and superior or any other similar bias to cover up our own insecurities. And for all avowed egoists: If you’re not willing to care about the human rights of others, think about that: Violating human rights means to violate your own rights in the same instant. So be careful how you treat these rights, because with every violation which remains unpunished, ignored or accepted these rights lose worth and strength, and humans lose humanity.

For the record, I am a heterosexual white girl living in a European country. I have no experiences of being a victim of racism, homophobia or religious prosecution, so I have no expertise on that matter whatsoever, but I feel that if I would remain silent or withdraw due to the feeling of not being worthy or qualified to share my thoughts I would miss the chance of contributing anything beneficent at all. If I can inspire only one person to reflect on what I just said to maybe act more consciously or even change his/her/its mind or only a single person to feel seen or heard, I think it’s save to say: “It was worth it!”

Reestablishing pre-COVID-19 “normality”?

These days many people seem to be longing for normality. Dreaming about “normal times”, a lot of people may ask: “When will everything go back to normal again?”. This desire for normality brought several other questions to my mind, which I want to elaborate on: What is normality? Has it been “normal” before the COVID-19 pandemic? Do we really want to go back to this so-called normality?

“Normal” or “normality” for me holds a great problematic potential. Isn’t it highly subjective what “normal” is? Or at least it is relative to the subjectivity of a group. But in its use “normal” implicates somewhat of an objectivity around things described that way, while there is none. Often “normal” too is understood as a certain average or common ground. I myself would like to exchange the word “normal” by “healthy”, which is indeed as well a subjective term. But: I think it isn’t implicitly linked to universality or objectivity. And if we would start asking the same questions we used to ask by using the words “normal” or “normality” and replace them with “healthy” or “health” these questions would turn into quite different questions, as well as their possible answers. Questions like “When will everything go back to normal again?” or “What can we do to restore our old, familiar normality?” become questions like “What does a healthy society look like?”, “What does a healthy world look like?” or “What has to be done/what can we do to achieve a healthier life/society/world?”.

On the one hand and without doubt this global crisis is a tragedy in so many ways and I don’t want to dismiss this. On the other hand it is also an opportunity for us as people to evolve into a healthier community/society. But to be honest, I’m really worried about the world letting this opportunity pass – more than about the virus itself at times. We’ve seen things work out nobody would have believed before, we’ve seen potential we stopped believing in. We’ve been witnesses of how forgiving the world and its nature can be – like dolphins returning near the coast of Sardinia, clear water in the canals of Venice or the vanishing smog which hovered the big cities, now offering a clear view of the blue sky and so on – if we acted more consciously and empathically. So, making excuses has become much more difficult.

This crisis is an opportunity to grow, it’s a wake-up-call. It’s a time to reevaluate life and how we treat ourselves, each other and the planet we’re allowed to call home. Humans work in a way that constantly seeks the familiar. The familiar serves the human pursuit of safety. We want the familiar, because it suggests safety. However, familiarity doesn’t necessarily mean safety, health or to lead a good life. We need to reflect on what we are used to and reevaluate its worth and meaning! There’s a shift in our thinking necessary: We may need to let go of the familiar – let go of things that have been passed down from generation to generation – to find the authentic, healthy way of life.

Longing for the old times – for “normality” – is a step backwards, a step in the wrong direction or even more a non-step, a stop. We’ve been given a chance to grow beyond ourselves, to outgrow our conditioning, to start living more consciously and to not settle for the familiar “normality”. So let’s not miss this chance. Let’s not try to restore the status quo. Let’s do better!

COVID-19, spreading humanity?

In the past few days some thoughts came to my mind that I would like to elaborate on.

The first thought, it’s more of a question though, appeared as I left the drug store after my first visit since the corona virus outbreak had reached Austria: Why is it so hard to be friendly while keeping spacial distance? I know, we have to wear face masks and keep a certain distance and that these times are not easy, but does that mean we cannot greet each other? “A smile goes a long way” it says and, yeah, while wearing masks we don’t see each other’s mouths, but we can smile with our eyes or our voice or our words or even our body language.

There’s kind of a paradox going on it seems. While on the one hand people get out on their balconies to sing and cheer together, excited to show solidarity, on the other hand they just stare and don’t have a single “hello” to spare or buy so much toilet paper that the others can’t get any. I’m puzzled. For Austrians keeping distance emotionally seems to be a lot easier than keeping distance spatially, not only during corona though.

Second, it is often stated these days that people show more solidarity and humanity in this time of crisis. And I begin to wonder: What is humanity? What distinguishes ‘to act humanly’? What makes a certain behavior being considered inhumane? I always liked to think of behaving humanly as being respectful, giving, compassionate and understanding, which is surely true. But while reflecting on the meaning of it I came to think that there are characteristics which as well are part of humanity, like fear and suspicion that are not considered as praiseworthy. Of course, these could in a way be connected to our survival instinct.

So what shows up in this time of crisis? What is it we truly choose when we choose to show more humanity? Is it the compassionate and helping facet? Or is it the distrusting one? Or is it both, but intensified? I think for the most part we are able to decide which part gets stronger and which part we want to give to this world – not only in times of crisis. I would like to raise two subsequent questions to reflect on: Is there another disease spreading besides corona that is much more powerful and much more to be feared? And is this why we now have to face the corona virus pandemic to make meaningful decisions as humans?

Now more than ever.

Whether the unit is length or time, these days keeping sufficient distance constrains us. “Keep at least 2 seconds safety distance from other cars” and “keep at least 1 meter distance from other humans” they say. The former rule already existed when the corona virus was released into our world, the latter results from it. Sometimes it seems we have a problem with these rules – we obviously like closeness. All the more we are hit by the latest development that obliges us to stay at home.

Driving certainly is a different experience these days. Trucks mainly use the roads, but hardly any vehicle can enjoy the spacial freedom now available – our personal freedom suffers tremendously. Today the government announced that we must wear masks when shopping, which seems to be a necessary step in controlling the corona virus outbreak but changing our lives in so many ways.

People try to maintain closeness by increasing the use of social media. Phone, Skype, WhatsApp, Telegram, Facebook, Youtube, Instagram, Twitter, e-mail and internet providers are more important than ever. Life challenges us by not being able to continue our daily routine, but we are humans, clever in finding new ways and possibilities.

It’d be great if we could learn from the current situation and if we embrace and take advantage of the opportunities the corona virus opens up. For example, to minimize individual traffic by thoroughly rethinking our behavior in this regard. Do we absolutely need to take our car to get here and there? Must we reduce the time of travel? Do we have to maximize our comfort?

Now, more than ever, we have the opportunity to reevaluate our thinking, decisions and beliefs. Now, more than ever, we have the chance to learn to be alone but not lonely. Now, more than ever, we can shift our physical closeness to psychic closeness.

COVID-19, the moral thing to do.

I have some thoughts I want to share about the current situation regarding the corona virus outbreak happening all over the world. Not only here in Austria the government has initiated measures such as to prohibit leaving our homes – with certain exceptions and rules, i.e. buying groceries or going for a walk while maintaining a distance to others of at least 1m (if sufficient at all?). Therefore a lot of people stay at home, but there is also a significant number that do not.

It seems some people just do not see the importance of these measures. Maybe some of them are afraid of giving up their freedom – as for sure many are, whether they stay home or not. The fear of loosing our freedom surely is of meaning and absolutely understandable considering not only Austrias national-socialistic past. This is why I hypothesize that it is healthy not to feel comfortable with limiting our own freedom, because it shows awareness of yourself as an individual – among other things and mechanisms. I’m certainly not saying you should give up your fear, or rather your wish for freedom.

What I want is for you to consider that our own freedom ends where the freedom of another starts. And analogically, our obligations start where rights of others emerge and vice versa. People do have the (human) right to live as well as the (human) right of not being harmed (in German: Recht auf Unversehrtheit). Also, one of the basic principles of biomedical ethics is to do no harm. If you go outside to live on your social life and to act out your freedom you are interfering in these rights of other individuals. Especially of the ones who are older or have underlying health problems – such as people who have asthma or your grandparents, for example. By doing so you put their lives and welfare and those of the healthcare workers out there at risk. How can any healthcare worker help you or me or anybody if he or she is exhausted to an extent that he or she needs care or gets sick, mentally or physically?!

Frankly, you don’t have to be ok with the state enforced limitations, but please consider shifting your focus from defending your own freedom to protecting the safety of others for the time being, because it is our moral obligation to do so.