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.