As part of my morning reading, I came across this article by David Benatar, “Kids? Just say no” on Aeon Magazine. I must be something of a masochist, because I read the entire piece. In short, the article is a utilitarian argument against procreation because life is more bad than good–an argument that Benatar has evidently been making since at least 2006–considered both in terms of what benefits a human individual reaps for him or herself, and in terms of what damage a human being inflicts upon the rest of the world.
Before I begin my critique, let me say this: the world needs more philosophy, and it needs more philosophers. Both the ability and the freedom for thinking have been systematically undermined in what was once Western civilization. But, based upon this article, Benatar is no philosopher, but rather a sophist hellbent on updating the arguments of earlier sophists–like Hume and Bentham. But the air of cleverness usually turns out to be the vapor of sophistry.
The leading cause of…
Given how much misfortune there is – all of it attendant on being brought into existence – it would be better if there were not an unbearable lightness of bringing into being.
In my first year of undergraduate studies at the ill-fated Southern Catholic College, in Dawsonville, GA, we had a chaplain who would regularly join us for our meals–if not to eat, at least to chat and sometimes to cause mischief. In a joking manner, he would approach the students, particularly those fond of showing public displays of affection, and tell them that they should become priests, monks, and nuns, rather than get married. Why? Because marriage is the leading cause of divorce.
Such is the structure of Benatar’s main argument against being born (or causing others to be born): it is the main cause of suffering, and 100% of people who are born end up dying.
Only, whereas Fr. Simburger was joking, Benatar is serious. Stupidly, stupidly serious. It is hardly an intelligent argument, and that is what, I think, makes it so dangerous. While the work of intellectuals and academics has seldom had a direct and immediate effect upon the general populace, there is a kind of cultural trickle-down; thus, what Benatar says might “make sense” to many inasmuch as that trickle-down from the utilitarians of the 18th and 19th century proposed similar tracks of thought. The argument “fits” into the framework of an already-established and unconsciously adopted worldview–not for all people, but for some–that what “good” means is equivalent to the feeling of pleasure, and what “bad” means is equivalent to the feeling of pain. Lacking this worldview, one would find nothing compelling or even sensible in Benatar’s argument.
But even for someone who posseses such a perspective (which I think is deeply flawed), the argument in favor of non-existence does not really make a lot of sense, if considered beyond the superficial presentation of “pleasure good, pain bad” Benatar gives it: that is, if pleasure is ever to outweigh pain, that can only ever happen through what exists. The grounds for the possibility of either pleasure or pain is existence, and though it may be the fact that pain currently outweighs pleasure, it can never be the case that the opposite is true if we cease to exist or if future existences never come into being.
Let me tell you why you really think that…
Life is simply much worse than most people think, and there are powerful drives to affirm life even when life is terrible. People might be living lives that were actually not worth starting without recognising that this is the case.
One of the cheapest tricks among academics is to ascribe causality to an unexamined but accepted force. Any time someone explains a behavior by appeal to a “drive”, as either psychological or biological or whatever highly specialized discipline someone else might throw in, narrow your eyes and ask, “What does that mean?” Your interlocutor probably won’t have much to say of substance beyond a fancy dressing up of, “Well, it’s just that way. It just is.”
Benatar here does just that. We have biological, evolutionary drives to affirm life. Our genes dictate that we think life is good, because our genes–have you ever noticed how much agency has been ascribed to unthinking genetic patterns, to evolution?–want to propagate themselves into new generations. How genes want anything, let alone how they could make us think things or, even further, affirm something, is beyond me.
It seems not even considered by Benatar that, people who do not hold the worldview of “pleasure good, pain bad” might have reasons other than an unconscious biological drive to affirm life as valuable. It seems, in fact, that he’s trying to use the idea of the biological drive to discount any reason he does not like, or which contradicts his argument. I suppose it is not surprising for a utilitarian to be guilty of begging the question: David Hume–though not a utilitarian by name, having preceded Bentham by some decaes, he was most certainly one in spirit–did it (and quite often), most famously in his argument against miracles (“Nothing can contravene the laws of nature”; “In order for miracles to exist they must contravene the laws of nature”; “Therefore miracles cannot exist”).
It’s too hard…
In other words, life is a state of continual striving. We have to expend effort to ward off unpleasantness – for example, to prevent pain, assuage thirst, and minimise frustration. In the absence of our strivings, the unpleasantness comes all too easily, for that is the default.
It is a sad day when a grown man with a PhD and a full professorship reminds me of a tired and cranky 7-year old child, but that is precisely what this passage brings to mind. I almost do not even know what else to say, and am struggling to say much of anything without mockery. How awful it must be to have to expend effort! Why is not a life of unending, uninterrupted pleasure given to us freely? Unpleasantness (not even pain, necessarily, just the lack of what is pleasant) is the default? How terrible! Horrible! Who would want to live such a life!?
Life is a state of more or less continual striving, it is true; though today we in what was once Western civilization probably have to strive far less to continue living than any generation previous. I, for one, enjoy a bit of striving. The struggle is nice for the reward, true, but even in the absence of reward, being able to struggle, to strive, to improve oneself in the process–these are themselves things I find good, even if I do not find them always pleasant as such.
The scales of pleasure and pain…
Given all the foregoing, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that all lives contain more bad than good, and that they are deprived of more good than they contain.
What Benatar here says is absolutely true but if and only if we accept that “good” means “pleasure” and “bad” means “pain”. I oftentimes think of utilitarianism as an extremely adolescent philosophy: that is, it has realized that one word can be explained by another, sees that there is something comparable in what the two words mean, and so assumes uncritically that they are identical. Pleasure, undoubtedly, is good, and pain, undeniably, is bad; but each is good and bad in a qualified sense. Pleasure is good only in the right circumstances; and pleasure is not a thing we grasp nor is it an action we perform, but rather, a feeling consequent to something else–hence why one and the same thing or action can produce varying amounts of pleasure in one and the same person. Likewise with pain. So although it is true that life contains more pain than it does pleasure (at least, for almost everyone), to say that it contains more bad than good is simply a false equivalency.
As I wrote in the previous post on perception, we are able to understand things in what they are in themselves, independently of the subjectively interpretative perceptions that we have. This includes that things are good or bad: as, for instance, we may find no pleasure in the taste of certain foods but recognize that they are nevertheless good inasmuch as they promote health; or that certain behaviors, such as infidelity, may be pleasurable, but are nevertheless bad not only because they may harm other people or relationships, or even one’s own moral habits, but also because such behavior disrespects the proper way of treating other human beings.
In short, intelligent moral evaluation relies upon factors far more complex than the simplistic “pleasure good, pain bad” calculus–which seems to me to make Benatar’s article an exemplar for unintelligent moral evaluation.