Debating the question, To be or not to be?

  • SimonApfelToBeDavidBenetar
“To be or not to be?” This is the age-old question debated in the Talmud, alluded to in Ecclesiastes and ruminated over by everyone from Sophocles to Shakespeare to Schopenhauer.
by SIMON APFEL | Mar 29, 2018

David Benatar, a professor of philosophy at the University of Cape Town (UCT), has answered the quandary – popularised most in Hamlet’s soliloquy – in the negative. By advocating anti-natalism, he meticulously dismantles the foundations of all that we hold dear. Is he wrong?

In 2017, Benatar emerged as a compelling voice against the vandalism and intimidation that occurred on the UCT campus in 2016. It formed part of the struggle for the decolonisation of higher education by the Fallist student movement.

In addition, Benatar has debated everyone from US author and philosopher Sam Harris to Canadian psychologist and cultural critic Jordan Peterson. He was my first-year philosophy lecturer, and, like many others, I hold him in high regard.

Benatar certainly doesn’t seem like a sad sack sort of chap. He conducts his classes with joie de vivre and sports an impish grin and a wonderful good nature. Which makes it somewhat surprising that he was described in a recent profile in acclaimed US magazine The New Yorker as “the world’s most pessimistic philosopher”. The reason for this assessment is a pair of explosive books that Benatar has penned: Better Never to Have Been, published in 2006, and his 2017 book, The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions. In both, Benatar advocates for what one breathless reviewer termed “the most provocative philosophical view ever defended”.

As the title of his first book implies, Benatar cheerily posits that we’re better off having never been born. And while the warm reception of his work in the world of philosophy probably says more about the lives of those inhabiting that world than anything else, he makes an intriguing argument.

Benatar argues that coming into existence is always a serious harm, and consequently, that procreation is always wrong. He says it is wrong not to abort foetuses at the earlier stages of gestation, and that it would be better if, as a result of there being no new people, humanity became extinct.

At the heart of his argument lies an intriguing “asymmetry” relating to the pain-pleasure trade-off. “The presence of pain is bad and the absence of pain is good,” Benatar writes, “but whereas the presence of pleasure is good, the absence of pleasure is bad only if somebody is deprived of that pleasure. If nobody is deprived of an absent pleasure – because the person who would have experienced the pleasure never existed – then the absence of that pleasure is not bad…”

Arguing at length for this asymmetry, he then shows why it is that coming into existence is always a harm. Put very simply: living equals one plus (good) and one minus (pain), and not living equals one plus (no pain) and no minus – hence, it is always “better never to have been”.

I perceive a number of fundamental problems with his position. Firstly, Benatar’s argument seems to rest on a contentious assumption: that pain and pleasure can be compared with, and squared off against, each other on the grounds of a marked oversimplification. It is too simple to suggest that the value or desirability of a given life can be calculated by a simple “pain-versus-pleasure” formula.

There’s no reason to assume pain and pleasure can even be squared off against each other. Pain doesn’t necessarily diminish pleasure. In fact, the two often co-exist in a single experience, and can sometimes even complement each other, as practitioners of sadomasochism would attest. In other words, it’s the classic apples and oranges scenario.

People often realise extraordinary meaning through their painful circumstances. Benatar does concede that people find meaning in suffering. However, he sees this more as a coping mechanism. Assuming he is right and it is just a coping mechanism, the obvious response is: So what? The salient point is that people generate meaning in their response to suffering. How or why this happens is, for the purposes of his argument, largely irrelevant.

Secondly, Benatar discusses at length how people’s subjective assessment of the quality of their lives are unreliable, citing that we are prone to regard ourselves as happier than we are, to recall positive experiences more readily and vividly than negative ones, and to adapt to our adverse circumstances and eventually come to terms with them. In each case, the response, once again, is: So what?

Well-being and suffering – certainly the recollection of past suffering – are largely a state of mind anyway. If memory and the subjective sensation of suffering recedes, that is all that matters. The objective, historical fact of the suffering lies outside the immediate experience of the person and shouldn’t concern us. In other words, if we feel better about life than we “should”, then perhaps our lives are indeed better. How we feel is inextricably bound up with how we are actually doing.

It’s important to note that Benatar doesn’t advocate suicide (or murder). He recognises that death itself is a form of suffering. As he puts it: “There is no interest in coming into existence. But there is an interest, once one exists, in not ceasing to exist.”

To illustrate this point, he offers an interesting analogy – life as a bad movie: “A performance at the theatre… might not be bad enough to leave, but if you knew in advance that it would be as bad as it is, you would not have come in the first place.”

There’s a clear problem with this analogy. If you had prior knowledge that the film or theatre production was going to be terrible, the reason you wouldn’t go is because going would entail an opportunity cost. In other words, you could be doing something more productive or more enjoyable with your time. Opting out of life, on the other hand, involves no such opportunity cost. You wouldn’t be doing something better if you weren’t alive; there would be no you to begin with.

Perhaps the most fundamental flaw in Benatar’s argument is that pain and pleasure cannot be measured. There’s absolutely no reason to believe – even assuming that you’re comparing apples with apples – that they square off neatly against each other in a simple, one-to-one ratio. Benatar would have us believe that it’s a case of the following: three units of pleasure minus four units of pain = a life better not to have been lived.

In reality, though, it’s X – Y = who knows what. We don’t have the relative values for each variable. And even if we did, they’d be infinitely complex, and different for each individual.

In his book The Human Predicament, Benatar has attempted to solve the measurability problem. Arguing that “the worst pains are worse than the best pleasures are good”, he conjures up a thought experiment in which the reader is asked to consider “whether they would accept an hour of the most delightful pleasures in exchange for an hour of the worst tortures”.

And he is correct. No reasonable person would take an hour of intense pleasure in exchange for an hour of extreme torture. But the timing of this question matters. Remove it from of the realm of the hypothetical and ask a burn victim or cancer sufferer this: If they could go back in time, would they choose not to have met their children or to have married their spouse in order to forego this suffering? In almost all cases, the answer will be in the negative.

Ultimately, even if life could be reduced to an accurate and meaningful cost-benefit analysis; even if we could be sure that all the horrific emotional and physical suffering that we all endure in life did outweigh any of the pleasures, I would suggest that it isn’t better never to have been.

Because in my humble opionion, if nothing else, it’s the lives we share with others, and the lives they share with us, that make this whole damn thing worthwhile.


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