The meaning of life is a question that has lingered in the minds of philosophers and other people alike for generations. While some take a positive approach, praising all the joys and experiences that come with existence, others maintain that it is suffering and pain that define it. In his work titled Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, David Benatar comes to an antinatalist conclusion that suffering that comes with living makes it morally objectable to procreate. While he provides reasonable arguments, it does not stop being a morbid view on life that one can challenge with an opposite conclusion that no matter how sad, life is worth living.
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“Better never to have been”
Benatar states in his work that every life, no matter how good, is inevitably filled with pain and that bringing more people into the world benefits no one. He believes it is morally objectable to birth more children and continue the cycle of misery. His position on procreation is that no one should be obliged to bring any children into the world, even ones that might have happy lives. When arguing about the need to have children, he highlights that despite the widespread belief, no one can be sure that children are sure to have a happy life, which is merely their parents’ ideas. In his view, an ideal number for the human population would be zero (Benatar 164). Despite that, he does not support violence as he opposes all suffering, but instead, he believes in a slow and steady decline in population until no human being is left on the planet (Benatar 164). He explains his position by bringing up how much pain people can experience within their lives and questions if the presence of pleasure is genuinely better than lack of either.
Benatar evaluates both existence and non-existence within his models of good and bad, pleasure and pain. It is the foundation of his work: that no matter how much joy a person can experience in their life, there is always a pain in it. Therefore when people do not bring children into life, they save them from experiencing either, and thus no one has a moral obligation to procreate (Benatar 94). His ideas highlight the asymmetry between existence and non-existence (Benatar 38). Existence brings the “bad” with it (pain) and the “good” (pleasure), while non-existence lacks both the “good” (lack of pain) and “not bad” (lack of pleasure) (Benatar 39). His idea defines both “not bad” and “good” as equally positive: pleasure is good, but an absence of pleasure is not inherently bad. Therefore while existing brings both “good” and “bad” elements with it, non-existence has “good” and “not bad” elements, which is preferable in Benatar’s view.
When discussing how people defend their lives, bringing up all the positive memories, he argues that people’s views on their own lives are biased. Benatar opposes an optimistic view on life by stating that people’s idea of their life is never accurate or objective (Benatar 1). Thus, one cannot trust things that a person lists as their reason to love life. They will always prioritize the positives over negatives if not outright ignore the bad. Therefore one cannot take people’s self-image into account without a certain level of skepticism (Benatar 65). He considers it an evolutionary tool: if sentient creatures were to comprehend the misery of their existence fully, they would inevitably either refuse to procreate or lead to suicide (Benatar 1). Therefore any positive outlook on one’s life is to be ignored, as it is not an objective argument. Thus bringing a child into the world can lead to a life full of regret, while a person who never existed can never know the pain of living.
To have been or to never have been
Benatar’s ideas are not baseless, even if they are rather morbid in their conclusion. No matter how good of a life a person has, it will always have elements of misery that cloud the pleasures of life. Therefore, what should be valued more, pain or pleasure? One can argue that lack of pleasure, while not harmful, is hardly a positive outcome. A lack of joy can be seen as a miserable, even if not outright painful, outcome. It is, therefore, questionable to value both “good” and “not bad” moments equally. No matter how miserable a person can be, their lives will always have moments of joy and happiness. A person who lived their life fully always has regrets, but would they rather keep it or never live it at all? Is it always a regret to bring a conscious life into existence, or would it be regrettable never to let a person experience life with its highs and lows? All these questions highlight that while he defends his position with well-built points, his conclusion is not absolute.
Benatar’s antinatalist perspective opposes one extreme with another: he rejects a notion that pleasures of life always make it worth living with the idea that no matter how small, suffering always outweighs happiness. Yet to focus on only negative or positive aspects of life is to ignore how multifaceted and colorful life is. Deciding that no new people should ever be brought into the world may be a way to save them from ever experiencing pain. Still, it also rids them of the ability to experience pleasure and happiness. Just as it is possible that a person may regret their life later, it is also possible for them to enjoy it. Inevitably while personal biases can skew people’s view of their life, they still have the autonomy to decide whether it was worth it or not. So to determine that no new people should ever be brought into the world is a permanent solution to a complex and challenging question.
Benatar’s ideas in his work belong to an antinatalist school of thought, and it shows in the conclusion that he made. That it is better never to have been born than to live at all. While that is true that no one is morally obliged to have children, he goes even further by stating that it is people’s moral duty to never inflict such suffering on a person. Therefore by bringing children into life, their parents create more suffering. His ideas have merit: life can be a miserable existence, and perhaps the quickest and most efficient way to prevent that suffering is never to be born. Yet, one also can say that life can be filled with joyous moments, happiness, and pleasures that make it all worth it. Although some would rather escape existence, others would rather live their life to the fullest despite the negatives. If no people are allowed to be born, they can never answer this question for themselves.
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Benatar, David. Better never to have been: The harm of coming into existence. Oxford University Press, 2008.