Better Never To Have Been
May 3, 2011 4:15 AM   Subscribe

No Life Is Good, by David Benatar. From The Philosophers' Magazine, via New Shelton.
posted by hydatius (162 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
Thanks for this! His book Better Never To Have Been is also quite smart and well-argued.
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:25 AM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Saw this on the earlier 'four words' link. What a pointless, juvenile argument.

"Oh, you say you'd rather be here than not, but I know better. Look into my eyes, not around the eyes, aaaand...you're under. You will believe me when I say there is more bad in the world than good - yes, yes, they're vague terms, to the point of meaninglessness, but shush, you're under, remember? - and therefore it's all bad - the good can't possibly compensate, or be 'worth it', for anybody, ever. Um, QED, or something. Did I mention I'm a professor?"
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:35 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Nor should anybody convinced by my arguments seek to kill all people against their wishes as an act of mass (involuntary) euthanasia.

Oof, it's a good job I read all the way to the end.
posted by robself at 4:41 AM on May 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


Wow, obiwanwasabi, did you even read the article in full?

I actually quite agree with his reasoning, except for the one point brought up in the first comment on the article: does suffering necessarily equate to badness? It seems intuitive to say it does, but perhaps not. I'd be open to argumentation either way.

However, the bulk of it is quite well argued and I agree with the majority of it. That even the best lives and the best humans could be so much more than we are is a daily frustration to me. And as someone who truly believes the goal of a human life is to live a good life, I find it all but impossible to do so given the constraints of our existence currently. I might have enough food, enough clean water, a good shelter, and an intellectually stimulating existence, among many other needs that I have that are met. But I still must be constrained by the limitations of my own person (physical and mental) - and those limitations put quite a crimp in living a good life.
posted by strixus at 4:42 AM on May 3, 2011


cf. Hell Is For Children and Love Is A Battlefield
posted by BitterOldPunk at 4:44 AM on May 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


You just hit us with your best shot, dude.
posted by jonmc at 4:46 AM on May 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


I played catch with my 5 year old son last night; and then we talked about the clouds passing over in the sky. If that isn't the good life, I don't know what is.
posted by Senator at 4:48 AM on May 3, 2011 [9 favorites]


Chronic pain is common, whereas there is no such thing as chronic pleasure.

Strangely, both my mother and I enjoy this particular condition, as I learned about twenty years ago, when she called me up with the concern that she might be "manic depressive, only without the depressive part." Unipolar on the happiness side, that is. Today, she is 90 years old, blind in one eye, and fairly cackling with happiness night and day.

For my part, my chief existential worry is trying to find the meaning of the extraordinary run of sheer happiness I've enjoyed in my life: the pure, unsummoned, seemingly gratuitous joy that "comes in the morning," and needs actually to be suppressed enough to allow me go to work and accomplish the mundane tasks of daily life. Why is my happiness "set point" so high? Did I somehow earn this incredible boon? Am I tasked with something as a result? Should I feel guilty about this?
posted by Faze at 4:48 AM on May 3, 2011 [16 favorites]


Another Western philosopher 2,000 years and a yawning moral chasm behind the Buddhists.
posted by Abiezer at 4:54 AM on May 3, 2011 [18 favorites]


Faze, I think chronic happiness and chronic pleasure are two very different things. One can be happy but still in pain, trust me.
posted by strixus at 4:58 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


One can be happy but still in pain, trust me.

Let's leave S&M out of this.
posted by jonmc at 5:03 AM on May 3, 2011


People tend to forget how much of their lives are spent tired, hungry, thirsty, in pain and being either too hot or too cold or in need of voiding their bladders and bowels.

This man has never been to my in-laws' house for Thanksgiving.
posted by briank at 5:17 AM on May 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


Abiezer: Another Western philosopher 2,000 years and a yawning moral chasm behind the Buddhists

He also appears to be rediscovering the idea that entropy always increases.
posted by moonbiter at 5:22 AM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Almost everybody would put much more emphasis on the avoidance of this pain, even if it entailed the forfeiture of the pleasure.

Oh, so suddenly we're taking notice of what almost everybody says, are we? Did you happen to notice what almost everybody says about whether life is worth having?
posted by Segundus at 5:26 AM on May 3, 2011


One can be happy but still in pain, trust me.

This I know, having once been afflicted with a chronic pain syndrome. Even when the pain was at its worst and I more or less wouldn't have cared if the house fell on me, there was still this great, bubbling cauldron of golden joy at bottom, keeping me hopeful. "Chronic pleasure" interpreted as a kind of permanent orgasm or something, that's an infantile expectation, since we know that the fleet nature of these experiences is essential to their effect, and that without mundane intervals, they would be unbearable -- and indistinguishable from pain.
posted by Faze at 5:29 AM on May 3, 2011


I'm non-existent myself, as it happens, and I can assure you there's really nothing to be said for it.
posted by Segundus at 5:32 AM on May 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


"I played catch with my 5 year old son last night; and then we talked about the clouds passing over in the sky. If that isn't the good life, I don't know what is."

I think it depends on how okay you are with knowing that your son will some day wither and die, if he's not cut down by some senseless accident before that. It's possibly to find beauty in that thought. Some will argue that the moments in between (like the ones you describe) make all the pain worth it. Some would argue the reverse. For me, it's more about the beauty that we construct despite (and yes, of course, because of) our pain. But I also find refreshing the idea that nothing we do will ever matter in the scale of the universe. The thought that my many mistakes will fade with my few paltry successes is great; it's what allows me to get out of bed in the morning.

As the song says:
"Living, a phantasm of the nerves
Girlfriends, chemicals in your head
Good days... eventually oxidize.
Put them... with thoughts that escape your mind's eye."

One day, everything you've done will be ash, and then less than ash. How okay with that are you? Does it terrify you, make you despondent, or do you find it refreshing?
posted by Eideteker at 5:36 AM on May 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


Also see Edgar Lee Masters' "Elizabeth Childers" . Covered beautifully by Richard Buckner. On YT, but I'm on my phone...

And there's a notorious Econ paper from IIRC the 1920s justifying the rationality of suicide Gary Becker-style.
posted by ifjuly at 5:39 AM on May 3, 2011


So what does this whole story mean? The only way to be happy is to know you won't be happy every single day. La la la la la la.

It sounds better in the original Croatian.

posted by giraffe at 5:52 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Nonsense. This is silly. There are degrees of pain and pleasure. Equating physical pain to the anguish of depression, or presuming that when one feels neither happiness nor pain that this is negative just doesn't stand up.

Don't feel guilt for the pleasure you have enjoyed, Faze! You are blessed. (Atheist speaking). There is you, the I, or nothing. Infinity isn't the option that the author implies.

Life is Life.
posted by bigZLiLk at 5:53 AM on May 3, 2011


This guy is emo as fuck! And articulate about it.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 5:58 AM on May 3, 2011 [8 favorites]


Pain and pleasure, happiness and sadness, gratification and dissatisfaction can all coexist simultaneously, and they're all in continual flux. Except when you're having a really shitty year. But even then.
posted by zeek321 at 6:03 AM on May 3, 2011


People are missing Benatar's conclusion, which is that we ought not to visit the harm of life on others, even if we're still obligated to make already existing lives as good as possible. Personally, I find this be a very important and serious question, one that too many people take too lightly or don't even consider a relevant debate. I've been struggling with antinatalism arguments like Benatar's for a while. Here's a (self-linked) series pf posts on the question: 1, 2, 3, 4.

I don't find many of the derisive comments here very persuasive. They strike me as attempts to reduce the status of the author rather than consider the strength or weakness of his claims or offer a better account of what makes a life go well and what could justify the inevitable pains that we will experience of visit on others.

I'd much prefer to see more measured responses like this one from my colleague David DeGrazia.
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:22 AM on May 3, 2011 [10 favorites]


‘Tis of the essence of life here,
Though we choose greatly, still to lack
The lasting memory at all clear,
That life has for us on the wrack
Nothing but what we somehow chose;
Thus are we wholly stripped of pride
In the pain that has but one close,
Bearing it crushed and mystified.
posted by Miko at 6:23 AM on May 3, 2011


Ack: "series OF posts" and "the inevitable pains that we will experience OR visit on others"
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:25 AM on May 3, 2011


Discussions of philosophy often fare better on Metafilter than this thread did. Benatar is not a crank, and he's doing something that's properly in the wheelhouse of a rigorous and careful philospher -- thinking critically and analytically about intuitions and unarticulated views that many people have about life and its normative status. If you find that annoying, fine, but many would argue that one of the purposes of philosophical argument is to be annoying. I'd rather have philosophers who are skeptical gadflies than sententious confirmers of unexamined intuitions.
posted by a small part of the world at 6:38 AM on May 3, 2011 [10 favorites]


Miko, that's an interesting perspective. But I don't recall choosing to be born, and I think it's a tough sell if one doesn't recall that, especially to atheists. I even doubt that many Christians agree with it. Kierkegaard (and doubtless others) said that despair is a sin. It's certainly one that I struggle with a lot.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 6:50 AM on May 3, 2011


You want four words?

"The horror, the horror."
posted by adipocere at 6:50 AM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


At the risk of being sententious, life may suck, but as Woody Allen doubtless observed, it's a lot better than the alternative.

I used to live in Yorkshire. It was often cold, wet and windy but when a perfect summer's day dawns, there's no more beautiful place in the world. I live in Sydney now. It's sunny most days and the Pacific sparkles outside my window but there's a skin cancer clinic on every corner and I often wish I was home. It's the pain, sadness, loss and heartache in our lives which make the few perfect days we stumble upon all the sweeter. What is more, we can physically re-experience the briefest moment of pleasure a thousand times in memory, doubtless embellishing it a little every time, while it's impossible to physically remember pain. It'll be our first kiss that stays with us, closer than ever, on our dying day, not the long nights of pain of whatever kind of cancer has caught us in the end.

This article read to me like satire, but assuming his tongue isn't firmly in his cheek, he seems to forget that our happiness is a byproduct of action for others - not something we can pursue for ourselves in itself. The purpose of life isn't happiness anyway, it's to pass on our genes to our children and any sacrifice we make for them is worthwhile. The life of any creature on earth is truly nasty, brutish and short. Flowers bloom but for a day, most creatures die young with the lucky few spending their time hungry before they die in a bigger pair of jaws. Compared to some perfect eternal fantasy we fall short, but we are not gods. Compared to anything else on earth, anything else that has ever lived, we live the life of Riley.

His point that we're not able to experience everything in creation because of our limited lifespan and simple senses has been superseded to a remarkable degree by science anyway. We can peer back to the dawn of time, to the furthest reaches of the universe. In a state of nature a 30 year old human would be old and know of nothing beyond the next mountain but today we live like philosopher kings with the world and its wonders at our fast typing fingertips. Sadly, as his article makes clear, all too often the more comfortable and privileged our lives, the less we value them. As Dr. Johnson once kicked a stone, I hear the laughter of a child, and refute it thus.
posted by joannemullen at 6:53 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


"there is no such thing as chronic pleasure."

That's odd, chronic pleasure is fairly apt description for what I feel every time I come home and hug my daughter.
posted by oddman at 6:53 AM on May 3, 2011


His arguments seems stronger in favor of the idea that our concepts of good and bad are neither consistent nor entirely coherent.

If we could engineer away pain and give everyone the choice to always be happy, would that be the greater good? ( I'm still working on my answer. )
posted by thedward at 7:01 AM on May 3, 2011


That's odd, chronic pleasure is fairly apt description for what I feel every time I come home and hug my daughter.

No, it isn't, it's a terrible description, unless you hug your daughter for years at a stretch.

Benatar's conclusions have always seemed patently obvious to me, since I was a child. It seems like the most outrageous and transparent self-deception to claim that the good things in life outweigh the bad when there are so few of the former and so many of the latter.
posted by enn at 7:05 AM on May 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


Yeah, well, that's just, like, your opinion, man.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 7:11 AM on May 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


That's odd, chronic pleasure is fairly apt description for what I feel every time I come home and hug my daughter.

No, it isn't, it's a terrible description, unless you hug your daughter for years at a stretch.


Agreed. The only person here who has described something which might be akin to chronic pleasure would be Faze - and man do I envy you - because to be equated to chronic pain of any sort (physical, emotional, chemical, behavioral, moral, etc) it would have to be generally caused by something external to your own agency as a person. One can be in pain due to things done within your own agency, but I think the sort of chronic pain he alludes to here is more like neuropathology or depression.

And really, that is what the whole argument comes down to: agency. I had no agency in being born, being given life. It seems horrifically cruel to me - at times - that we visit everything that comes with life on new minds every day. That a being might be born into so many situations that they, with no consent and or recourse, can escape sickens me.

The alternative to me is not "stop having children" but rather that our goal as a species should be to minimize these problems and maximize goodness in our lives as best we can with each generation. How we do that? I have no idea.
posted by strixus at 7:19 AM on May 3, 2011


cannot* gah.

Bloody percocet has destroyed my language centers.
posted by strixus at 7:20 AM on May 3, 2011


Okay master, but what is the cause, what is the origin of this suffering?
posted by misterG at 7:43 AM on May 3, 2011


I was gonna make a joke along the lines of "chronic is always pleasurable", but I don't actually totally know what chronic is or if it's even a drug.

My fault with Benetar's argument is that he insists on a seeming objective definition of what "good" and "bad" are with life. Is "bad" simply something happening which we would rather not have happen? Are we to tally up records of all the things which happen that we like and of all the things we dislike and then conclude that, because most of the time things don't happen exactly the way we'd want, our lives are not good?

Because I thought that the fun part of being alive is that we don't get what we want. Because if we got what we wanted, all the time, that would mean that we're the only thing in the universe complex or interesting enough to deserve to dictate everything that happens. Only that's not the case, and we live on a planet that's so vastly complex thousands of years of human experience hasn't taught us to fully understand it. And we live with another six billion people who are each as irreducibly complex as we are.

So whereas when we're in high school and determined to be the center of the universe we hate everybody else for ruining our fun, but then we grow a little bit older and suddenly it's really cool that everybody wants things that aren't in line with us. It's proof that we are just a small part of a bigger picture, which we are free to discover and explore for a whole bunch of years, fucking up all the while, but always learning and finding new things and people. Maybe we even attempt to distance ourselves from our own selfish consciousness and empathize with other people, rejoicing for their successes, mourning for their losses, and growing closer to them in all the while.

Benetar says that the only reason we think things are good is that we don't remember bad experiences as much as we remember the good ones. But doesn't that just say that it's easier to have a good life than Benetar would like to assume? We are capable of forgetting the bad things, and that makes those bad things less significant. There's no point to dwelling on the bad. And there's no point to dwelling on the good, either, except that it's pleasant to do so, and pleasure is an end unto itself.

(I mean, this is undergraduate philosophy stuff, right? Camus asked in "The Myth of Sisyphus" a long time ago whether life was worth living as an end unto itself, or whether suicide was preferable to existence, and he concluded that there is a joy to life which we're usually too preoccupied to notice. And the central idea of Buddhism is that suffering springs from consciousness, and that we should strive to avoid self-obsession and navelgazing and appreciate life for what it is rather than trying to interpret it.)

Benetar draws an arbitrary line between pleasant and painful. He attributes hunger as a strictly painful trait. Yet I enjoy the feeling of being hungry! I see hunger as the first movement in a little lifetime symphony that leads to a walk through a city, a tour through a supermarket, and then a complicated little cooking that results in a joyful meal that, for me, approaches the sublime. Hunger is only "painful" if my wanting to listen to more than one song in my entire life is "painful". But I see the fact that we will always be hungry again as simply an incentive to experience many, many meals, instead of just one.

Every single thing Benetar describes as a pain I see as a boon. Being tired is an invitation to sleep and be renewed. Needing to void bowels — does this guy, like, not enjoy taking shits or something? Loneliness is an invitation to go out and explore — I find it hard to feel lonely when I'm in a new place, unless I'm too self-conscious to interact with my new location, and that's why I think self-consciousness is a challenge to be overcome.

The fact that we feel things other than a constant pleasure stems not from any fault in our composition, but rather from our need for movement and change. Life is dynamic. It is a dance. It is the largest community theater production of all time. And there's no audience (if there ever was one, they walked out a long time ago), so we're free to perform for the joy of performance and nothing else.

If you're really so convinced that life would be better if you were static and simply felt pleasure without movement, pick up heroin. Seriously. If you don't care about the world around you, simply about feeling "good", there are cheat codes. But most of us don't use them because we feel, like any proper player of anything, that the game matters more than the outcome of the game.
posted by Rory Marinich at 7:48 AM on May 3, 2011 [26 favorites]


I've been hugging my daughter for years now (just over 4!). So, got that covered.

And the happiness and pleasure is entirely external to me. Trust me, no matter what mood I'm in, a running head butt and hug (that combo is her current specialty) will indeed put me in a good mood. So it's not a state I put myself in.

Any other objections?
posted by oddman at 7:48 AM on May 3, 2011


Very salient points. So, what about this pervasive human tendency to appreciate existence despite an imbalance of pain, weakness and hardship over pleasure and happiness? Why should anyone resist the error of optimism and dwell upon the reality of life as technically bad? What does that accomplish? If it's human nature to experience life's shortcomings and then continue to cherish living then what harm is in the cherishing? Also, what if humans evolve to a condition in which life will be, by your standards, good? If that were accomplished, then all our lives and our reproduction (and our optimism) will have served a very important purpose.
posted by Serpentio at 7:50 AM on May 3, 2011


As further proof that events in life which we normally interpret as painful and unpleasant can actually be joyful and vital, I submit this video of my 3-year-old cousin running headfirst into a wall.
posted by Rory Marinich at 7:53 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I am familiar with the existentialist and Buddhist arguments. I just don't find them very convincing. They reek of self-justification.

If you're really so convinced that life would be better if you were static and simply felt pleasure without movement, pick up heroin. Seriously. If you don't care about the world around you, simply about feeling "good", there are cheat codes. But most of us don't use them because we feel, like any proper player of anything, that the game matters more than the outcome of the game.

I'm pretty sure that's not why most of us don't use heroin. If it were cheap and safe to be high all the time, I suspect many more of us would do so. I certainly would. But most of the heroin users I've known spent a lot more time wishing very badly that they were high than being high.
posted by enn at 7:55 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


They reek of self-justification.

Elaborate. Isn't any explanation of subjective experience a justification of the self?

If it were cheap and safe to be high all the time, I suspect many more of us would do so. I certainly would.

So if you could make yourself happy at the cost of seeing the rest of the world, or interacting with other people, you would do so?
posted by Rory Marinich at 8:00 AM on May 3, 2011


People don't measure life experiences from an objective perspective though, so this argument of objectively comparing lives as "good" or "bad" is only valid in purely philosophical terms.

The few times in my life where I've been incredibly depressed (due to emotional imbalance or because my situation was pretty dire), the smallest things would also bring me immense joy - pretty flowers growing wild in alleyways, sun bursting through the clouds to illuminate a gorgeous landscape before me, finding fireflies while walking by the river. Why did they make me so happy? Well maybe I can explain it in math terms: If "0" is the neutral point, -50 is where my emotional state would reach its lowest, and +5 is the happiness of seeing something pretty, well going a total of +55 in improving my emotional state is pretty freakin' awesome. I think this is why they always say it's important to enjoy the little things in life. It's a way of self-medicating with happiness.
posted by lizbunny at 8:03 AM on May 3, 2011


Elaborate. Isn't any explanation of subjective experience a justification of the self?

I guess I should say, they seem like attempts to justify, after the fact, the act of taking life seriously and treating it as though it were a boon. They don't come across as serious attempts to investigate whether life is actually valuable, without prejudice regarding the outcome. Reading Camus feels like listening to a smart person who has spent his life as a Scientologist desperately trying to convince himself that he hasn't been played for a fool.

So if you could make yourself happy at the cost of seeing the rest of the world, or interacting with other people, you would do so?

Of course. Are you going to argue that synthetic happiness lacks some quality of authenticity that can only come from "real" happiness? Because I don't think there is much of an argument there.
posted by enn at 8:08 AM on May 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


Philosophers think too much. This guy really really needs a round of shot drinks and a good BJ.
posted by Serpentio at 8:11 AM on May 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


enn: I guess I should say, they seem like attempts to justify, after the fact, the act of taking life seriously and treating it as though it were a boon. They don't come across as serious attempts to investigate whether life is actually valuable, without prejudice regarding the outcome.

At least in Buddhist terms, life is only valuable in that it offers an opportunity to take baby steps toward non-existence via Enlightenment. Everything else in Buddhism is simply the means to achieve ultimate non-existence and help others get there as well.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:15 AM on May 3, 2011


Serpentio, having spent a significant amount of time in a Philosophy department, I can tell you how COMPLETELY true that is.
posted by strixus at 8:16 AM on May 3, 2011


Reading Camus feels like listening to a smart person who has spent his life as a Scientologist desperately trying to convince himself that he hasn't been played for a fool.

This isn't an elaboration, it's a continuation. I'm going to find it very hard to talk Camus with you if you don't attempt to explain exactly what about him sets you off.

Of course. Are you going to argue that synthetic happiness lacks some quality of authenticity that can only come from "real" happiness? Because I don't think there is much of an argument there.

My argument is that "happiness" or "pleasure" as you define it is a shallow and selfish objective. Happiness is authentic inasmuch as you decide for yourself when you're experiencing it, regardless of source (and it doesn't need a source at all); but I don't interact with the world simply because I am unhappy without that interaction. What's more, I see that interaction as more satisfying than simple happiness. I am awed by my ability to connect with the world around me, and value it immensely.

If the only thing in your life that concerns you is your own fleeting emotional satisfaction, then Camus recommends you kill yourself.
posted by Rory Marinich at 8:17 AM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


So if you could make yourself happy at the cost of seeing the rest of the world, or interacting with other people, you would do so?

Yup.

Seeing the rest of the world, fah. Maybe it was a product of having a double-digit number of "homes" while I was still in the single digits for age, but being lost is not a great joy to me. Seeing ... stuff? People in Paris aren't going, "Sacrebleu, let's stay here," they want to go somewhere else, too. Paris is just another bullshit town. The point of travel sounds like bragging rights.

Interacting with other people? Yeah, because that's worked out so well for me so far. Fake it until you make it sounds wonderful until you realize the only thing you've made is a stellar facade that has nothing to do with your interior ruin.

False extraversion is nothing but a pointless, irritating burden if you are not wired for it.
posted by adipocere at 8:19 AM on May 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


I played catch with my 5 year old son last night; and then we talked about the clouds passing over in the sky. If that isn't the good life, I don't know what is.
posted by Senator at 6:48 AM on May 3 [+] [!]


Didn't you read the article? It's been scientifically proven that how you feel about how good your life is doesn't mean shit.

Here I didn't even know such a thing as "antinatalism" existed.

Since (as a religious person) I usually find myself rather on the opposite end of this particular rhetorical fork, I think I'll just kick back and enjoy watching people attempt to practice theodicy for agnostics.
posted by nanojath at 8:20 AM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Interacting with other people? Yeah, because that's worked out so well for me so far.

And yet here you are.
posted by nanojath at 8:24 AM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


"There is no happiness, there are only moments of happiness." --Oscar Levant

Heck, by this author's reasoning, even the term "good" becomes suspect. What, exactly, constitutes a "good" life? One that's enjoyable? Fulfilling? Pain-free? How about: a life spent benefiting others; a life spent creating, especially if the creations bring joy to others; a life spent having only a positive impact on the environment; a life centered upon raising a family. What, really, is "good"?

Everyone has a different definition of happiness as well as criteria for "feeling good." I am constantly told that I have an upbeat outlook; when I was younger I was told that I was a total buzzkill, very depressing to be around. What changed? I watched a whole lot of friends and family suffer and perish from AIDS, cancer, and sundry other terrible things. This made me lower my happiness bar so far that now the sight of a blue sky makes me literally sing for joy. My actual definition of happiness changed.
posted by kinnakeet at 8:28 AM on May 3, 2011


What's more, I see that interaction as more satisfying than simple happiness.

But you're moving the goalposts here. I define "happiness" as "that which is good to experience," and I think that is a fairly standard definition. To say that something is "more satisfying than simple happiness" doesn't seem like a very meaningful statement to me. If you derive satisfaction from something, that is only another way of saying it makes you happy. And I don't buy that there is a difference between happiness (or "satisfaction") that comes from interaction with the world and happiness that comes from chemicals.
posted by enn at 8:29 AM on May 3, 2011


I mentioned the Buddhist take in my previous comment because it's so widespread as to have become part of folk wisdom for millions upon millions - the notion of 苦海 (life as the 'sea of bitterness', 'sea of suffering') in Chinese, for example - and I could and do find a thousand things said by illiterate peasants struggling through lives of privation and violence more pertinent and suggestive when addressing the perennial dilemmas of the human condition than these callow ponderings and useless (given that humans will continue to be born and live until we don't) conclusions from the academy. Antinatalism, ffs.
posted by Abiezer at 8:34 AM on May 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


If you don't like the thread, don't shit in the thread. Nobody is forcing you to read and comment.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:36 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sure, nanojath — at terminal's length. Rory is talking about up close and personal. There's a difference. MetaFilter can go away pretty easily if I like and I do not have to deal with human body language and smells and microexpressions and intonations howling at me when I am here.
posted by adipocere at 8:38 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm fine with the thread and not particularly enamoured of the linked article. This is the place to say so, I believe.
posted by Abiezer at 8:39 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


What twaddle! I guess this is what professors of philosophy have to churn out to be noticed. Manic Panic might be a better idea.

If no life is good, then no life is bad.

Not having children might make our own lives less good, but starting lives that are not good, merely for our own gratification, is unduly selfish.

But who's to say that selfish can't be good?
posted by Ideefixe at 8:40 AM on May 3, 2011


People in Paris aren't going, "Sacrebleu, let's stay here," they want to go somewhere else, too. Paris is just another bullshit town.

This is the attitude I find so silly. I grew up in a small New Jersey suburb, and believe me, after eighteen years I was GLAD to leave. I spent a fifth of my life in a small place and I think the world is too huge to leave unexplored. I wouldn't want to spend eighteen years in Paris, either. Maybe one day I'll see enough of the world to know that I could be happy in just one place. Until then, I'll try to wander.

But my hometown wasn't a bullshit town. It was a happy little town where people knew each other and liked each other, by and large; it had parks and movie theaters and most importantly a bunch of people, and people are always interesting. I'd not recommend it as an end-all be-all cure for dissatisfaction, but I wouldn't recommend Paris as a cure for anything either.

I wouldn't call someplace a bullshit place unless I thought all the people in it were bullshit, and I find myself curiously incapable of dismissing people as bullshit.

To say that something is "more satisfying than simple happiness" doesn't seem like a very meaningful statement to me. If you derive satisfaction from something, that is only another way of saying it makes you happy.

Would you say there's no difference between "content" and "pleased" and "happy" and "satisfied"? I'm pleased when I eat pudding, but I'm satisfied with a home-cooked burger, I'm content with a simple cucumber sandwich, and I'm outright happy when I eat something at Butcher and Singer. These are all positive experiences with nuance, yes? We are not a simple slidey-scale between 0 and 100. There is more to our feelings than that.

Similarly:

I don't buy that there is a difference between happiness (or "satisfaction") that comes from interaction with the world and happiness that comes from chemicals.

I don't mean to sound disrespectful, but if you actually think this then I'm really sorry for you. At college I smoke some really choice weed, I drop acid every few months, I've played with E and salvia and shrooms and opium, and don't get me wrong, chemical experiences are a lot of fun. But I'd take a good May Day celebration, or a choral concert, or a good hike to a special place to see a sunset, or even just a good conversation with two or three close friends, to any of those experiences.

If you've never discovered the kinds of joy that the world has to offer, then I'm sorry. When I was seventeen years old, I went through a few days in my life that almost jolted me into realizing that there was more to happiness and life than I thought. Maybe you've never had a similar experience, and if that's the case, I'm truly regretful. But that doesn't stop me from arguing that a chemical high is by far not the only kind of pleasure in the world, and that you're missing out on a hell of a lot if you really believe that.
posted by Rory Marinich at 8:42 AM on May 3, 2011


"At the risk of being sententious, life may suck, but as Woody Allen doubtless observed, it's a lot better than the alternative."

There are those who would disagree. That some of those people are not bitter, hateful, or depressive, is what's news to some people.
posted by Eideteker at 8:43 AM on May 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


(I hope none of you are upset about this, but I think I'm gonna leave the thread now. It's too pretty outside to be indoors talking about how pretty outside can be. :-))
posted by Rory Marinich at 8:45 AM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


David Benatar, you are not invited to my parties.
posted by millions at 8:48 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Would you say there's no difference between "content" and "pleased" and "happy" and "satisfied"?

Of course there are, but they aren't relevant here in a discussion of good and bad in life; "happiness" in this context is a catchall for desirable subjective experiences in general.

I don't mean to sound disrespectful, but if you actually think this then I'm really sorry for you.

I was speaking in response to your earlier hypothetical:
So if you could make yourself happy at the cost of seeing the rest of the world, or interacting with other people, you would do so?
I'm well aware that actually-existing drugs do not perfectly mimic the best available experiences.
posted by enn at 8:48 AM on May 3, 2011


The point of travel sounds like bragging rights.

That's funny, that's exactly how I feel about this kind of silly posturing people-are-bullshit nihilism.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:58 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


You're quite right. I know that, when visiting, I can hardly keep people from displaying their scrap books and slideshows of nihilism.

"Okay, enough of Wisconsin Death Trip, let's talk local news. *flip* Here is an article about a bag lady frozen asleep in the park. Oh, no. It's not that far. Would you like to see some more?"
posted by adipocere at 9:03 AM on May 3, 2011


The simple answer is that whatever view one might have about what makes a life good or bad, human lives fall short on the good things but abound in the bad

He makes the mistaken assumption that pleasure is what's good about life. It could be that the beauty of life is in its nature as a a story. Bad things happen in stories, as do good things, funny things, and the simply bizarre. But the joy is in the telling and the listening, not in the happiness of the particular events. Stories thrive on imperfection. Their drama is from the tension of dissatisfaction and incompletion, their suspense based on ignorance. Their characters are often tragic or ridiculous, hapless objects of the narrator. And yet in them there's something sublime. Perhaps that's what's good about life.
posted by shivohum at 9:05 AM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


I can hardly keep people from displaying their scrap books and slideshows of nihilism.

Isn't that exactly what you're doing right here?
posted by shakespeherian at 9:08 AM on May 3, 2011


Life is pain.
-The Buddha

Life is pain.
-M. Scott Peck.

Life IS pain, Highness
-Westley
posted by haricotvert at 9:12 AM on May 3, 2011


Chronic pain is common, whereas there is no such thing as chronic pleasure.

I just wanted to add another anecdote to this thread. I actually do experience some kind of "chronic pleasure." It doesn't happen every day and rarely persists for more than six or seven hours and I would neither compare nor contrast it with chronic pain because I don't believe there's any obvious correlation.

Anyway, I'm not even sure what it is; it may be metabolic, but who knows? That's just my best shot in the dark and vague enough for wiggle room. It seems related to my sleep pattern, in that it's fairly strong after an ordinary, restful night of sleep (8 to 10 hours) and typically absent if I can't quite get that much. After a good sleep, it's usually too strong for me to do much besides loaf around for two or three hours, then fades into a quiet buzz that follows me for another three or four hours. Sometimes it just happens spontaneously, though, so I'm not sure how much sleeping really has to do with it.

I've never actually taken an opiate in my life, but I consider myself knowledgeable enough to compare the experiences, at least superficially: blissful oblivion, total relaxation, pleasurable lethargy, etc.

At its peak, it's very easy for me to meditate or fall into what I'd call a mystical state, but on most days I have things I need to do and it's actually quite debilitating. I've gotten better about living with it, and haven't done this in years, but canceling appointments because I'm incapable of moving faster than a foot across the room per half hour isn't a totally unfamiliar thing to me.

Anyway, um. Yeah. I'd always assumed everyone had this, but it's become increasingly apparent that, no, I'm just a weirdo.
posted by byanyothername at 9:21 AM on May 3, 2011


Eideteker: One day, everything you've done will be ash, and then less than ash. How okay with that are you? Does it terrify you, make you despondent, or do you find it refreshing?

It sounds like you believe that the only true life is one in which we are constantly vigilant about the reality of death. In my view, it's not as if we don't have enough reminders on a virtually constant basis of the fragility of life without fetishizing it.

joannemuller: The purpose of life isn't happiness anyway, it's to pass on our genes to our children and any sacrifice we make for them is worthwhile.

I'll never have children. So my life has no purpose, right?

adipocere: Paris is just another bullshit town.

Sorry. No, it's not, unless you're referring to Paris, Texas.
posted by blucevalo at 9:25 AM on May 3, 2011


Truth be known, byanyothername, we're probably all weirdos. It all just depends on your definition.
posted by kinnakeet at 9:26 AM on May 3, 2011


Pain is inevitable.
Suffering is optional.
posted by Smedleyman at 9:27 AM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Hah, no. Not even close.

I'm taking the big big step of nodding and agreeing when we see the rare article suggesting that "Don't worry, be happy" isn't the panacea. I know this discomforts certain kinds of people, but when and where will I be able to give the nod, if not here? Name a more appropriate post, please.

Is that much-cheered happiness so fragile that its proponents must run out into the sun and quell any statement that its universality is widely overstated?

Ah, back to the dark, wretches. And no mumbling, either.
posted by adipocere at 9:28 AM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Life and lifetime are two different things.

What is life but this very instant?

If I am feeling pain, then life is painful. If I'm feeling pleasure, then life is pleasurable.

My lifetime is just a story I carry around in my head. But as far as life is concerned, who's to say that one moment of pure goodness isn't bigger than 80 years of suck?

What scale is there for measuring this kind of thing? Because I don't think a person's lifetime is it.
posted by swift at 9:33 AM on May 3, 2011


Anybody who doubts this should consider what choice they would make if they were offered the option of securing an hour of the most sublime pleasures possible in exchange for suffering an hour of the worst pain possible.

OK. Here's a clue to one of the reasons he's wrong. The reason that deal seems unappealing is that there is no such thing as generic "pleasure." No one gets up in the morning and says "I hope I have several hours of pleasure today!" or "I hope my pleasures are particularly intense today!" Rather they hope for specific things: "I hope I get to see her today. I hope I get to go to the concert tonight. I hope I win the game. I hope I figure out this problem I've been working on."

If you ask someone, What's the one thing you want more than anything in the whole world? Would you go through an hour of the worst pain possible in order to experience an hour of that thing you most want? Lots and lots of people would say yes.
posted by straight at 9:36 AM on May 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


A good piece of philosophy defines its terms (like pleasure), although the endless definition of terms is one thing that makes philosophy so distinctly unpleasant.

When you get to the end of the piece and find that his conclusion entails nothing less than the extermination of the human race (thankfully, not by euthanasia), you have to wonder if he took a wrong turn somewhere in his argument.

Why have my twenty years as a father and a teacher been my happiest, although I had more moments of pleasure wandering around the world getting laid and getting high in my twenties?

Life my be inherently worth living in a way that language can't get at. Or maybe Benatar and the Buddha had it right: Life is suffering. At least the Buddha had some suggestions...Suggestions that, for me, have tended to ameliorate the pain of suffering.
posted by kozad at 9:36 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


The article was clearly written and avoided jargon, which I appreciate. It seemed to want to communicate its ideas rather than obfuscate them. It's a good style to use when writing for laypersons (such as myself) or writing articles for magazines.

Even in a magazine, however, I think it would be appropriate to provide some sort of bibliography, and on a website, there's no excuse not to mention and link to actual studies that demonstrate the things that are claimed to have been demonstrated.

That's pretty minor, though. The idea that people have selective memories and are poor judges of themselves is one that I can accept as being reasonable. The major problem I have with the article is how unreflective it is.

Its exploration of what constituted "good" and "bad" was absurd. Like, almost to the point of being a joke. I can only hope there is a significant body of work behind his categorizations, based on psychology and biology, because from my perspective, it looks as though he just waved his hands around and made shit up without really examining it. And at every junction of his argument, he breaks down complex, subjective situations into simplistic, rigid categories that are self-serving (generating the result he wanted) rather than accurate. That's not respectful of anyone, and doesn't do him or his argument any favors.

The worst thing, the biggest thing, is that he doesn't attempt to define objectivity. I'm fairly convinced that objectivity simply doesn't exist. I don't share the fundamental assumption that makes his argument work, and he makes no effort to explain that assumption or persuade me to agree with it. He doesn't even attempt to describe a system of non-comparative judgment for good and bad. That is understandable, because I think doing so would be impossible, but it would seem to be an important thing to establish early on in an article such as this, which begins with a thesis that "...no lives are good enough to count as (non-comparatively) good."

Amusingly enough in an article about objective good, he brings up only examples of subjective improvement or detriment, as though those could have anything to do with objective standards. It's not a statement of objectivity to say that 10 years of health and vigor is better than 10 years of pain, and worse than 100 years of health and vigor. It's the very definition of subjective, and does nothing but demonstrate a function of numbers, which have no ceiling. It provides no useful information and is barely interesting as a thought experiment. You can always make numbers bigger.

His mythical 1,000 years of prime living humans would still be quite capable of sitting around and arguing about their mythical 1,000,000 years of prime living humans, and whinging about how hard their lives are. I can't imagine a reality in which a sentient being could not find something "good" to be made "gooder" through a similar exploitation of the nature of numbers.

I was disappointed by this.
posted by jsturgill at 9:37 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Not well argued. He tries to sound quantitative and objective - resting a lot on the fact that "more bad things happen than good" and "pain can last longer than pleasure" but only goes partway. Leaving aside the futility of quantifying these events at all, it's still shoddy work. If - as he points out - we tend to remember and focus on the pleasure more, then the sum total of perceived experience may well be positive. If the rare "good" things count for more, the sum may be positive. And then to fall back at the end on some appeal to how "we shouldn't decide things for other people"? Lazy and just trying to be "edgy" and "shocking".
posted by freebird at 9:46 AM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Clearly this guy is a shill for the vasectomy industry.
posted by hellojed at 10:00 AM on May 3, 2011


If it were cheap and safe to be high all the time, I suspect many more of us would do so. I certainly would. But most of the heroin users I've known spent a lot more time wishing very badly that they were high than being high.

And I don't buy that there is a difference between happiness (or "satisfaction") that comes from interaction with the world and happiness that comes from chemicals.


enn are you seriously saying that if I could offer you a quiet room, a feeding tube, and an endless supply of heroin, you'd say yes?

I don't deny that there are people who would take that deal. There are certainly plenty of people unsuccessfully trying to pursue a crappier version of it, trying to escape into a drug-induced high without any guarantees. But a lot of those people seem to have a physical addiction pulling them to that rather than making a free, deliberate choice. And it seems like a lot of people who vote with their feet to take that path at least claim to actually want something different.

So even if you and some other people would take the deal, my guess is most people wouldn't, so it still seems like that thought experiment goes against what he's arguing.

Most people want more than just generic pleasure. For most people it matters what meaning and context they are able to give to their pleasures and pains.
posted by straight at 10:06 AM on May 3, 2011


Reminds me of Thomas Ligotti's Conspiracy Against the Human Race.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:10 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


If no life is good, then no life is bad.

No, the correct inference would be: if no life is good, then all lives are bad. Which is precisely the point.

Some of you seem to misunderstand Benatar's argument. I haven't read the linked article, but I'm familiar with his views as formulated in Better Never to Have Been. Firstly, the question of what exactly constitutes pain is immaterial. All we need to agree on is that all lives contain at least some amount of pain, however you define it. Secondly, the "objective" value of existence (in utilitarian terms) is not found by comparing one existence to another, but by comparing existence to the alternative, non-existence, which contains no pain and no pleasure. Now we have two scenarios, one in which we exist and suffer for it, and one in which we do not exist and do not suffer. The absence pleasure in the latter scenario is of no concern: a non-existent non-person has no need for pleasure. Thus the difference between existence and non-existence boils down to the difference between pain and no pain, making non-existence preferable.

To me, this is all very intuitive. The only counter-arguments I can think of require that some other value system be given precedence over the utilitarian calculus, and most of the proposed alternatives seem phony to me. Take this, for example:

I don't mean to sound disrespectful, but if you actually think this then I'm really sorry for you. At college I smoke some really choice weed, I drop acid every few months, I've played with E and salvia and shrooms and opium, and don't get me wrong, chemical experiences are a lot of fun. But I'd take a good May Day celebration, or a choral concert, or a good hike to a special place to see a sunset, or even just a good conversation with two or three close friends, to any of those experiences.

If you've never discovered the kinds of joy that the world has to offer, then I'm sorry. When I was seventeen years old, I went through a few days in my life that almost jolted me into realizing that there was more to happiness and life than I thought. Maybe you've never had a similar experience, and if that's the case, I'm truly regretful. But that doesn't stop me from arguing that a chemical high is by far not the only kind of pleasure in the world, and that you're missing out on a hell of a lot if you really believe that.


What do you think goes on in your brain when you do these things? How is it not just another kind of "chemical high"? Not everyone will be impressed by a choral concert, regardless of what you or Cioran may say. If it works for you, fine, but don't assume your experience is universal.

I have always disliked the recurring motiff in pessimist writings (cf. Cioran and to a lesser extent Ligotti) where pessimism is presented as a great heresy rather than just a banal truth about the world. However, the hostility on display in this thread, provoked by someone as dry and boring and reasonable as Benatar, almost makes me wonder if there may be something to it after all.
posted by Modlizki at 10:19 AM on May 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


It's them Orphans!
posted by Crabby Appleton at 10:58 AM on May 3, 2011


Firstly, the question of what exactly constitutes pain is immaterial. All we need to agree on is that all lives contain at least some amount of pain, however you define it. Secondly, the "objective" value of existence (in utilitarian terms) is not found by comparing one existence to another, but by comparing existence to the alternative, non-existence, which contains no pain and no pleasure. Now we have two scenarios, one in which we exist and suffer for it, and one in which we do not exist and do not suffer. The absence pleasure in the latter scenario is of no concern: a non-existent non-person has no need for pleasure. Thus the difference between existence and non-existence boils down to the difference between pain and no pain, making non-existence preferable.

This conflates pain and suffering (which is controversial), it tries to treat "pain" and "pleasure" as if they were fungible although people don't generally act as if that were true, but then turns around and denies that pleasure could outweigh pain and finally begs the original question by just asserting that there is nothing bad about the nonexistence of a "non-person" and the absence of that person's pleasurable experiences.
posted by straight at 11:03 AM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


"I don't know why we are here, but I'm pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves."
— Ludwig Wittgenstein
posted by Chrischris at 11:03 AM on May 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


"At least in Buddhist terms, life is only valuable in that it offers an opportunity to take baby steps toward non-existence via Enlightenment. "

This is overly simplistic and old-fashioned. At least in Mahayana Buddhism, life is an opportunity to a) feel gratitude and b) save all beings. Enlightenment is a red herring.

Fundamentally, we are very complex beings who early on learn to believe strongly in the societal and family values we are taught. We then spend a good part of our lives chasing pleasure and avoiding pain, and not paying much attention to what's actually happening around us - which is, after all, what our life experience consists of.
posted by sneebler at 11:18 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Spoiler warning for the links in the following.

OK, I'm sorry. You see, my strategy for getting favorites is to post allusions to obscure novels that nobody has read. (Could that be why I get so few?) The novel I'm alluding to is Flicker by Theodore Roszak.

Anyway, I don't have anything against orphans, just Orphans. And I'm not a Gnostic—quite the opposite, actually. But the Orphans do have a point in the context of this discussion.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 11:27 AM on May 3, 2011


"A man belongs to this world before he begins to ask if it is nice to belong to it. ... To put shortly what seems the essential matter, he has a loyalty long before he has any admiration."
-GK Chesterton
posted by klarck at 11:40 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Philosopher Who Contemplates Suffering Is Not An Optimist - News at 11.
posted by Schwartz_User at 11:50 AM on May 3, 2011


I agree with everyone chiming in that in its definitions this article lacks rigor; what we've seen from this thread is that a lot of the difficulty of working this out is linguistic - how do individual people use words like 'good' and 'bad' or 'happiness' and 'sadness'? Because certainly I might use the word 'happy' to describe what I'm feeling in a particular situation and that obviously may not be the case universally, i.e. there is a certain disregard for the subjectivity of emotional states in this article. I think Wittgenstein would be the first to say that it's probably impossible to make broad claims about notions such as 'pleasure' and 'pain' without looking at the specific situations in which we employ these terms and how we use these terms to communicate our feelings to others. Hunger, for e.g., doesn't seem to be inherently painful; indeed it would seem like whether I am in pain while I am hungry would depend upon things completely external to my hunger - the degree of my hunger, the history of my hunger, the promise or hopelessness of finding food in the near future, my health generally, whether I'm stoned and have the munchies, etc.

But there is a sense, isn't there, that we want to apply words like 'good' or 'bad' generally to, if not life, then at least a life. We are wont to say things like the life of a slave is less good than the life of the wealthy master. Is that true? I'm not sure. Again, it depends on how you want to go about defining things I suppose.

I'm reminded of the story in Herodotus, the details of which I've now forgotten, but the gist of it is that there are two kings - one lives a relatively 'good' life but it all comes crashing down at the end and he dies a very unhappy and unfulfilled man. The other king has a relatively horrible life but then everything sort of comes together at the end and he dies very fulfilled and happy. So, which king was happier? How do we being to measure the goodness of a life? We can't, except by making arbitrary lists of factors and then categorizing lives arbitrarily based on that heuristic.

The article, while certainly not the most rigorous in its deductions and arguments, resonated with me because I do know a deep-running sadness, an enduring sadness. But I've never experienced deep-running joy, or lasting joy. I imagine I might need religion for that, at least.

I guess as a severely depressed person, my sort of default attitude is one of sadness and that life feels more like a struggle to be survived than time to be enjoyed. That, as Kierkegaard famously said, anxiety is the fundamental mood of existence, and that it is punctuated by brief moments of euphoria, whether it's sex or food or drugs or music. I understand that some people are simply happy to be existing - which is something I don't understand philosophically, as there is no reason that mere existence necessarily a good thing, nor do I understand it from a visceral level. There are no objective reasons I should be so sad, that I should find such little pleasure in life. Where being hungry might make Rory happy to begin an adventure, it simply reminds me of the mundane needs of my body, the long hours I must sit at a job I hate just to slake these basic urges, the annoyance that is the need for food - another chore, it is to me. Camus indeed would probably suggest I kill myself, a suggestion I don't take lightly. Perhaps I'm young enough that I have hope I may one day feel differently. Check in in a decade or so.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:55 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Modozili, I'm still finding that scenario has numerous unstated assumptions and limited thought that denies it's claim to universality. For a start, it has an extremely simplistic notion of pain and pleasure as binary, opposed values, trapped in a zero-sum game. This is clearly not the case in real life, where pain and pleasure are often mixed and contribute to a greater whole. For example, on the last major hike I did, I slipped on a rock, fell in a pool, and sprained my ankle. It being late afternoon, I had to hobble down a steep mountain stream, my foot screaming agony, chilled to the point my teeth were chattering, terrified I would miss the trail head in the gathering darkness. Afterwards my foot was extremely painful. Obviously a negative to you and Benetar, but to me, the entire experience was awesome, made even more so by the pain.

Likewise pain, sickness, depression all can be sources of pleasure beyond simple physical or emotional sensation. From the simple pleasure of lying in bed seriously ill, to the glorious wallowing in self-loathing depression, it's all there for my ultimate pleasure. It all serves me.

Consciousness is the greatest pleasure, and since non-existence fails to have that quality, then non-existence fails the preference test.

Now I'm well aware that there are people out there who believe that life on a personal and general scale is not preferable to non-existence. Which puzzles me, since lethal drug cocktails are cheap and painless. My conclusion is that they are getting something out of living, even if it's the smug pleasure of telling everyone around them how worthless life is.

However, even though I think that
he's wrong, I have to admit that Benetar has given me a wonderful couple of writing ideas. From a serial "post-natal abortionist" euthanizing people to take away their assumed pain, to an "involuntary human extinction movement", I've got some pretty good material from someone who's philosophy can be boiled down to "smother babies before they experience the horror of life." (or it would be, if it so narcissistic)
posted by happyroach at 11:58 AM on May 3, 2011


Luckily, if Benetar's position is true, the magnitude of the teeming "never existed" masses so far outweigh in number the few billions of the "ever existed" that we're a mere blip of nothingness ourselves, a finite number divided by the uncountable "never existed", a quotient of zero.

Unlike the question of a person's moral "goodness" or "badness" (which I see as predicated on things external to the individual in question—for instance, most moral systems concern themselves with how individuals interact with others or how they treat other things to which intrinsic moral value is attributed, such as nonhuman animals or the environment), the question of the net balance between pleasures and pains is internal to the person.

When you ask yourself "is my own life up to this moment a net pain or a net pleasure" (and assuming that question is not incoherent), I don't see why you shouldn't take your own answer in lieu of any general answer predicated on studies which compared some measured pains and pleasures to the reports of individuals. Maybe those studies are flawed because philosophers have not yet arrived at an accurate arithmetic of pain and pleasure, or because of reporting problems, or because of other flaws. Just as "cogito ergo sum" is hard to deny despite not really being an argument, neither is "my life to this point seems to me to be a net good", assuming you actually feel that way.

All that said, I find myself more compelled by the argument about homo infortunati. I've argued the position that it may be immoral to deliberately conceive and bring to term an individual that will likely suffer from a severe genetic defect, as compared to the alternative of not having children. But why doesn't my argument extend to a woman who knows she carries the gene for male pattern baldness or colorblindness? Or the potential parent who doesn't carry the gene for 1000-year longevity? Who shall decide where the line should be drawn between sapiens and infortunati?

Of course, this only means that we have a duty to be morally reflective around the act of reproduction, just as we have the duty to be reflective of any act that affects another. And if your own experience or philosophical view is that life is a net pain, then let that inform your actions.
posted by jepler at 11:59 AM on May 3, 2011


After heroin was invented, it became possible to for individuals to dramatically increase the amount of bliss they could experience. Strangely, human society reacted in horror to this technological marvel and those few people who do it are considered deeply pathological. If another species had somehow managed to invent or discover heroin, they almost certainly would have annihilated themselves very quickly.

Benatar believes that life is about maximizing pleasure and reducing pain, and is pessimistic because we haven't been able to do that very well. But an even more pessimistic view is that we actually do have methods to experience far more pleasure than pain, and yet somehow choose suffering instead.

We often hear that the problem with drug-induced pleasure isn't real pleasure and that's why you shouldn't do drugs, but what if the problem is that it is real pleasure? In other words, human life isn't organized around gaining pleasure it's about pursuing pleasure and making sure you never reach it - the problem of drugs is that you can reach it all too easily. The worst thing in life is to get what you want, because then you have nothing left to want. Benatar thinks that the purpose of desire is to get you to what you want, but actually, the purpose of desire is to sustain itself as desire. That means all of our moments of happiness must be flawed, we must experience them as incomplete or lacking something. The prospect of complete and total happiness is a perennial dream, but when it becomes a real option, its utterly horrifying to us.
posted by AlsoMike at 12:11 PM on May 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


The basal purpose of life can be quite easily summed up in one word: Continue.

Happiness. Depression. Pain. Ecstacy. ---in short, all the things being bandied about here and in the article, are products of Consciousness, and, it seems to me, have very little to do with the actual condition of "being alive." And since the shapes and contours of individual Consciousness are protean and inherently subjective and unreachable, the desire to categorize and deliver pronouncements as to the relevance of existence based on them is inherently suspect. I would suggest that Mr. Benetar re-read (one assumes that he has indeed actually read it already) Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception.
posted by Chrischris at 12:12 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


because I do know a deep-running sadness, an enduring sadness. But I've never experienced deep-running joy, or lasting joy. I imagine I might need religion for that, at least.

Yes, when I was religious, I did have some of that as well, and it has been much harder to come by ever since. But then I have long suspected that religion is a coping mechanism for dealing with the burden of consciousness. Consciousness has not been a 100% positive for every member of our species, although it made us smart enough to live longer and have more babies, (or was a side effect of that intelligence) which is why we kept it.

Without religion, I have found that I have to work considerably harder to access joy--I have to consciously seek out experiences, be mindful of trends in my thinking, and to go to counseling if it gets bad enough. Whereas I could dump my fears and anxieties off onto God, when I believed in God, and could see the world as a purposeful whole, which I no longer can.
posted by emjaybee at 12:13 PM on May 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


Seconding Modlizki. Many of the objections posted here are addressed in the article. It's a very short article for the size of the question, which cuts its effectiveness. Many of the defenses of life above fit Benatar's description of secular theodicy. I think this concept is more interesting than the rest of his article, which seems to me to be at least superficially cribbed from Schopenhauer.

Religious theodicies make an account for the existence of evil and suffering in a world created by a benevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient god (or gods, or other variations therof, but I'm primarily familiar with the Christian account). In Christianity, this explanation is tied up with all sorts of other issues, but one of the results is that no individual life would have been better off having never been born. Of course, promising eternal reward is putting the proverbial thumb on the scale, but it is only a comfort for individuals. Misfortune and suffering are part of an unfolding of events that escape our understanding, and a religious theodicy assures us that as life continues, it is Good.

I'm not convinced of my perspective, but I suspect that explaining evil is a corollary to a conservative, anti-change attitude -- if evil is a result of certain conditions beyond our control and/or serves a higher purpose, then it isn't a burning concern. I don't think it is a necessary connection (obviously not, in the case of Mahayana Buddhists brought up above) but instead, is a guiding social value on a larger time frame.

I suspect that the Christian account also colors the objection that suffering is not evil, but it contributes to some higher good. However, without God's benevolence and justice as a guarantee of a higher good, I'm not aware of a higher good that necessarily exists as part of human life, which seems to be the proposition on the table here. If pain isn't bad, what is? If not getting what you want isn't bad, what is?

On preview: Consciousness is the greatest pleasure, and since non-existence fails to have that quality, then non-existence fails the preference test.

That first premise is an incredibly large assumption, but the second premise and your conclusion puts you in the big leagues of faulty reasoning.
posted by anotherbrick at 12:15 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm no philosopher but am amazed and saddened at the number of people who feel the drudgery and difficulty of life outweighs its joys and satisfactions. I would say that I have been lucky enough to experience "deep-running or lasting" joy, and when I am not in touch with that access to joy whenever I want to give it my attention, I'm aware that something is wrong and desperate to fix it. I feel a lot of continuing satisfaction and hope on a daily basis, am happiest when in some kind of flow state, and even suffering is accompanied by consolations. However, saying this kind of thing seems like speaking Greek in this thread. This idea that the bulk of life is not spent in pleasure seems to me fundamentally wrong. Perhaps the problem is one of definitions, in that pleasure to satisfy this argument has to be some rare and exalted state, instead of the walk I just took on my afternoon break and the chocolate chip cookie I just ate and the initial memo I just read about an exciting new project and the prospect of going home tonight, going running and having dinner and setting up my new wireless router. All pleasurable. The ability to do work that supports me, the ability to walk unrestrained, the ability to make plans and enjoy the slow arrival of spring - all pleasurable. I would not say that life's suffering is greater or more important than its pleasures for everyone, and not even for most people I know. To say so seems terribly subjective.
posted by Miko at 12:21 PM on May 3, 2011


Whether you judge life to be good or bad depends on what yardstick you choose to judge "good" or "bad".

If you choose to compare it to an imaginary existence of supreme joy: yes, real life is bad.

If you choose to compare it to an imaginary nightmare of utter misery: yes, real life is good.

He's choosing the first one, but doesn't seem to give any particular reason for doing so. So I see no particular reason to agree with him.

Moreover, these days there's a large body of work around "happiness studies", documented in books like The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt and Happiness: Lessons from a New Science by Richard Layard. They find that reported happiness changes with events less than you might think, and tends to rebound back to previous levels. People who are badly injured in accidents find themselves miserable at first, but their happiness level tends to recover. People who win the lottery are ecstatic at first, but find their happiness returns to its previous level. It's called "hedonic adaptation"

That suggests it's wrong to think that the persistent aspects of everyday life are bad, at least in terms of happiness, since we adapt to persistent circumstances.

He also says this:
Moreover, we spend a very short period of time in our prime. Most of a person’s life, for those who live to old age, is spent in steady decline.
But in fact happiness is U-shaped: middle-aged people are the least happy, older people become happier again. So the "decline" of old age isn't overwhelmingly important in terms of happiness.

Finally, the basic human emotions have likely evolved for particular purposes: to keep us alive and able to reproduce. So if a human being has food, shelter, companionship and sexual stimulation, then the human has the things that emotions seem designed to drive him or her towards. So, you might as well describe that human being's life as "good".

Or:
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread--and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness--
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!"
posted by TheophileEscargot at 12:23 PM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


"David Benatar, you are not invited to my parties."

He can come to my parties, as long as he dresses up like this.
posted by Eideteker at 12:23 PM on May 3, 2011


This is a fascinating article, and what I find most dispiriting about a lot of comments here is the utter refusal to seriously grapple with Benatar's ideas but instead loudly exclaim about the happiness of their own lives, as though that's a genuine counterargument to the article. For what it's worth, I don't agree with Benatar, but I think the ideas he puts forward are serious, important philosophical issues that are very much worth grappling with, rather than dismissing out of hand. (PROTIP: If you truly want to engage with what he's saying, and before you can even admit your own, or others', feelings of happiness, you need to seriously address one of his main -- and incontrovertibly true -- points, which is that peoples' self-assessments of happiness are frequently flawed)

Also, the brilliant Thomas Ligotti has written a book (The Conspiracy Against the Human Race) on antinatalism. Unfortunately I found it to be unfocused and unpersuasive, but it's still interesting reading.
posted by Frobenius Twist at 12:24 PM on May 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


"It sounds like you believe that the only true life is one in which we are constantly vigilant about the reality of death. In my view, it's not as if we don't have enough reminders on a virtually constant basis of the fragility of life without fetishizing it."

I don't know if I'd say "vigilant." Maybe "aware" is a better word. And really, I think it's more to do with facing the fact that you will die some day, and coming to terms with that. Can you do that for yourself, and then can you do that for whatever lives you bring into the world? It's easy to ignore the question, harder to face it; to really embrace it.
posted by Eideteker at 12:28 PM on May 3, 2011


Secondly, the "objective" value of existence (in utilitarian terms) is not found by comparing one existence to another, but by comparing existence to the alternative, non-existence, which contains no pain and no pleasure. Now we have two scenarios, one in which we exist and suffer for it, and one in which we do not exist and do not suffer. The absence pleasure in the latter scenario is of no concern: a non-existent non-person has no need for pleasure. Thus the difference between existence and non-existence boils down to the difference between pain and no pain, making non-existence preferable.

Well, sure, you could interpret this as an argument that non-existence is superior to existence. And yet, few would be willing to make the trade from existence to non-existence, suggesting (not surprisingly) there is something about existence that we value and prize over non-existence. So couldn't you also interpret this argument as a reductio ad absurdam for moral utilitarianism?
posted by en forme de poire at 12:34 PM on May 3, 2011


I think the ideas he puts forward are serious, important philosophical issues that are
very much worth grappling with, rather than dismissing out of hand.


I often find this protestation pops up in discussions of ideas, but it also refuses to answer its own question. Who says these ideas are worth grappling with? I don't consider the ideas much worth grappling with. For what reason are these ideas worth grappling with?

peoples' self-assessments of happiness are frequently flawed


What does this even mean? If I assess myself as being happy, aren't I happy? How can my self-assessment on a totally subjective feeling be flawed? Against what scale is my happiness being objectively measured that shows my assessment is wrong?
posted by Miko at 12:38 PM on May 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


This conflates pain and suffering (which is controversial), it tries to treat "pain" and "pleasure" as if they were fungible although people don't generally act as if that were true, but then turns around and denies that pleasure could outweigh pain and finally begs the original question by just asserting that there is nothing bad about the nonexistence of a "non-person" and the absence of that person's pleasurable experiences.

The pain/suffering distinction is new to me. Could you elaborate? I don't remember if Benatar has anything to say about it.

What do you mean by the fungibility of pleasure and pain? Pleasure can certainly outweigh pain, at least in theory, but that's unimportant when the mere presence of pain is what causes the scales to tip in favour of non-existence. Benatar is very keen on proving that people deceive themselves about their own happiness; I guess he believes (and justifiably so, in my estimation) that nobody will agree with him if they don't have a negative opinion of life. The core of his logic, though, is supposed to be indifferent to all that. You could have a life that was a non-stop endorphin rush interrupted by a pinprick, and non-existence would still be better.

The premise you take to be question-begging is the one I regard as the most self-evident. It's very obvious to me that the absence of painful experience is a good thing, but I can't even begin to see how the absence of pleasurable experience could be a bad thing in and of itself.

Now I'm well aware that there are people out there who believe that life on a personal and general scale is not preferable to non-existence. Which puzzles me, since lethal drug cocktails are cheap and painless. My conclusion is that they are getting something out of living, even if it's the smug pleasure of telling everyone around them how worthless life is.

If suicide is so easy, why do so many people do a botched job of it and end up maimed for life? As far as I know, only strong barbiturates are guaranteed to bring you death without pain, and good luck getting your hands on those without the help of a friendly anaesthetist. Besides, it's quite possible to prefer non-existence to existence and still be afraid of death.

Your other objection to Benatar's argument is misconceived. I already stated that the nature and amount of pain, or pain mixed with pleasure in whatever proportion, is irrelevant as long as there is pain at all. You can certainly deny that people suffer, in which case I guess you do have access to better drugs than the rest of us.

Well, sure, you could interpret this as an argument that non-existence is superior to existence. And yet, few would be willing to make the trade from existence to non-existence, suggesting (not surprisingly) there is something about existence that we value and prize over non-existence. So couldn't you also interpret this argument as a reductio ad absurdam for moral utilitarianism?

I would be more inclined to say that it shows how our instincts override our reasoning. Not at all a surprising conclusion, I know.
posted by Modlizki at 12:53 PM on May 3, 2011


What does this even mean? If I assess myself as being happy, aren't I happy? How can my self-assessment on a totally subjective feeling be flawed? Against what scale is my happiness being objectively measured that shows my assessment is wrong?

Well, happiness studies is a widely-recognized area of research (it even has its own journal) . There are lots of scholarly views on what constitutes a valid metric, and it seems hasty to dismiss Benatar's views without considering a large field of important psychological research.
posted by Frobenius Twist at 12:57 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm aware of and interested in much of that research, but it seems to me that most of it is focused on establishing what increases the measure of self-reported happiness. Is there some document or study you can link to that describes the absolute objective happiness measure, shows where some individuals fall on it, and shows where those same individuals have wrongly assessed their level of happiness?
posted by Miko at 1:00 PM on May 3, 2011


I would be more inclined to say that it shows how our instincts override our reasoning.

But the fact that we avoid pain and prefer pleasure itself is also instinctual and subjective, right? Ultimately there is no "objective" reason to choose this as the basis of our morality.
posted by en forme de poire at 1:01 PM on May 3, 2011


Is the cultist happy? She says so. Why then do we seek to rescue her? If the suicide is miserable as he steps from the bridge, why then thrash as water hits his lungs?

The goad of the survival instinct is cruel and unreasoning; it keeps us alive when we might rather not and similarly prevents a cat from swallowing a bitter, if necessary, pill. It has only to be effective, not pleasant or welcome. The puppeteer of three billion years has had much practice jerking the strings. That smile on the marionette's face is still painted on.
posted by adipocere at 1:12 PM on May 3, 2011


Is the cultist happy? She says so. Why then do we seek to rescue her?

Do we?
posted by Miko at 1:20 PM on May 3, 2011


Likewise pain, sickness, depression all can be sources of pleasure beyond simple physical or emotional sensation. From the simple pleasure of lying in bed seriously ill, to the glorious wallowing in self-loathing depression, it's all there for my ultimate pleasure. It all serves me.

No, your language is ill-formed. Pain cannot be pleasurable by definition. It is not as black and white as, well, black and white, but the principle remains. e.g. I do not think most seriously depressed people find wallowing in self-loathing to be glorious or pleasurable. Just because it is happening to me doesn't mean that it is enjoyable or preferable or even within my control, or that it is serving my 'ultimate pleasure,' whatever the hell that would even mean. And depression, I would not say, serves someone. I think the opposite would be closer to the truth.

Consciousness is the greatest pleasure, and since non-existence fails to have that quality, then non-existence fails the preference test.

What? Why? You're putting a lot of value in merely existing. I don't know how one derives an inherent value from existing. That's fallacious.

Now I'm well aware that there are people out there who believe that life on a personal and general scale is not preferable to non-existence. Which puzzles me, since lethal drug cocktails are cheap and painless. My conclusion is that they are getting something out of living, even if it's the smug pleasure of telling everyone around them how worthless life is.

Well, ignoring the fact that you are being incredibly naive and insensitive, killing oneself, even if one wishes to be dead, is more difficult than one thinks, both mentally and physically. We are built with the biological imperative to survive, and it certainly does not follow that not killing oneself means that one is enjoying life. I think for the true suicidal person, the experience is more like this: Epicurus would say that it did not matter whether he lived or died. A student would ask him, 'then why not kill yourself?' And Epicurus would say, 'what's the point? It doesn't matter.'

There's a lot of bad philosophy and logic in your thinking. Perhaps that is why you are so happy.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:58 PM on May 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


peoples' self-assessments of happiness are frequently flawed

That sentence is either incoherent (How can I be wrong about whether I'm happy?) or assuming as settled an extremely controversial and tendentious definition of "happiness," a definition that comes close to just assuming the conclusion he's trying to argue. Either way, it's not a very convincing foundation for a philosophical argument.
posted by straight at 2:04 PM on May 3, 2011


You can't be wrong about whether you're currently happy, but you can easily be mistaken about your past happiness.
posted by Pyry at 2:13 PM on May 3, 2011


A couple of members of my extended family were involved in a cult. My sister-in-law actually was brought up in a cult, breaking away of her own volition when she was in her teens. She did that because what had formerly made her happy (doing things that fed the ego of the leader and earning rewards for same) no longer made her happy. Her desires, her urge for a different kind of happiness that she herself felt and which were in conflict with her leader's desires for her and her family, drew her away from the group and into an independent adult life. It was happiness she felt as a young child pleasing her elders, and it was her desire to escape unhappiness and seek adult happiness as she changed and grew that led her to leave the group.

When people do try to "rescue" someone from a cult, I don't think they're motivated by concern that the cult member is unhappy. They are motivated more, I believe, by their own unhappiness at having lost the person they knew in the unrecognizable behavior reinforced by the cult. It's likely they feel that the kind of happiness they can offer is different from and better than the kind of happiness found in the cult, but that's not a guarantee that the cult member will agree. And if left alone, the cult member may find satisfaction in the cult, or may leave the cult when satisfaction wanes. I'm just not sure that we can say cult members are never happy while in a cult, or that someone on the outside is always, indeed, a better judge of happiness than the person inside.

In addition, many people who find refuge in cults are fleeing even worse conditions in their family lives. It's actually likely that for at least some of these people, being in the cult increases their feelings of happiness and safety and nurture, at least temporarily.
posted by Miko at 2:17 PM on May 3, 2011


The pain/suffering distinction is new to me.

Numerous people in this thread have given examples of pain that is not suffering. The pain walking down a mountain in the cold with a hurt leg. The hunger pains that precede a satisfying meal. The pain of an athlete training. The pain of watching your child grow up and leave the house. The pain in your stomach when you fall in love or ride a roller coaster.

What do you mean by the fungibility of pleasure and pain?

"Fungible" means stuff like a pound of sugar or a gallon of gas. One pound of sugar is the same as another and it makes sense to lump them together and count them.

This argument assumes that pleasurable experiences or painful experiences can be abstracted from their context and from the meanings we assign to them and considered generically as Pain and Pleasure. To me that's ridiculous, nothing at all like the real human experience of pleasures, pains, suffering, and happiness. He's assuming a spherical cow.
posted by straight at 2:17 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


"A quick test of the assertion that enjoyment outweighs pain in this world, or that they are at any rate balanced, would be to compare the feelings of an animal engaged in eating another with those of the animal being eaten."

-Schopenhauer, "On the Sufferings of the World"
posted by anotherbrick at 2:20 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


You can't be wrong about whether you're currently happy, but you can easily be mistaken about your past happiness.

No. You can have a faulty memory of whether you experienced pain or pleasure in the past, but the question of happiness is much more complicated than that. And it's not at all self-evident that 20-year-old me's opinion of whether I was happy at age 20 should be privileged over 40-year-old me's opinion of whether I was happy at age 20.
posted by straight at 2:21 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Numerous people in this thread have given examples of pain that is not suffering. The pain walking down a mountain in the cold with a hurt leg. The hunger pains that precede a satisfying meal. The pain of an athlete training. The pain of watching your child grow up and leave the house. The pain in your stomach when you fall in love or ride a roller coaster.

These pains are still suffering, albeit suffering endured in a transaction that is a net gain in happiness. Going to the dentist is a net benefit in happiness for me, but that doesn't transmute the process's suffering into joy.

No. You can have a faulty memory of whether you experienced pain or pleasure in the past, but the question of happiness is much more complicated than that. And it's not at all self-evident that 20-year-old me's opinion of whether I was happy at age 20 should be privileged over 40-year-old me's opinion of whether I was happy at age 20.

You can't be wrong about the question "am I happy, right now, at this exact instant". If you wrote, honestly, in a journal at age 20, "I am unhappy right now", then that observation of your happiness at the exact instant you wrote the entry is absolutely privileged over any after the fact observation. Forty year old you might be better at estimating your average happiness over a time period, but that doesn't overrule direct observations of instantaneous happiness.
posted by Pyry at 2:29 PM on May 3, 2011


We often hear that the problem with drug-induced pleasure isn't real pleasure and that's why you shouldn't do drugs, but what if the problem is that it is real pleasure? In other words, human life isn't organized around gaining pleasure it's about pursuing pleasure and making sure you never reach it - the problem of drugs is that you can reach it all too easily.

Again, you're treating "pleasure" as some kind of fungible experience that's essentially the same no matter where it comes from. That's a very crude and unrealistic abstraction.

Why do most people feel that the euphoria achieved from running 10 miles is superior to the same feeling achieved by swallowing a pill? Why would someone think the applause and awards and adulation a winning athlete receives might feel less pleasurable if he knew he had cheated? Because our valuation of the sensations we experience is heavily colored by the context and meanings we give to those sensations.
posted by straight at 2:39 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


These pains are still suffering

I disagree with that definition of suffering.

You can't be wrong about the question "am I happy, right now, at this exact instant".


I disagree with that definition of happiness.
posted by straight at 2:41 PM on May 3, 2011


Sorry, that was too glib. My point here is that this article assumes that several of its basic concepts have simple, obvious meanings when in fact they are hugely controversial, surrounded by huge traditions of philosophical disagreement, and ignoring all that makes the whole thing more of an assertion than an argument.
posted by straight at 2:46 PM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Well, life is shit, I'm not actually happy or enjoying life even when I think I am, and it would be better to just kill myself except why bother. Thanks, Metafilter!
posted by sandraregina at 2:56 PM on May 3, 2011


Metafilter: it would be better to just kill myself except why bother.
posted by Lutoslawski at 3:06 PM on May 3, 2011


"No Life Is Good"

I guess I would point to that as a fine reason that I stick to a hard and fast dictum:

"No Philosophers Are Worth Listening To"
posted by lumpenprole at 3:24 PM on May 3, 2011


Why do most people feel that the euphoria achieved from running 10 miles is superior to the same feeling achieved by swallowing a pill?

Because the prospect of instant, total happiness is horrifying. Mystifying the source of happiness in vague notions like "meaning" is necessary to keep it safely at a distance. This is so we can endlessly postpone the final moment of gratification because the goal is to continuously reproduce the agonizing tension of the struggle to gain access to the object of desire.

Basically, my argument is anti-utilitarian: the problem of life is how to remain unhappy. No other ethical theory accounts for the unique perversity of humanity.
posted by AlsoMike at 3:35 PM on May 3, 2011


This argument assumes that pleasurable experiences or painful experiences can be abstracted from their context and from the meanings we assign to them and considered generically as Pain and Pleasure. To me that's ridiculous, nothing at all like the real human experience of pleasures, pains, suffering, and happiness. He's assuming a spherical cow.

True, the argument is very abstract, but I don't think the fact that the scheme is abstract means that it must also be wrong. After all, the discussion is about the potential experiences of potential beings. My individual perception of things isn't worth much when it comes to judging how bearable or unbearable something is or will be for someone else, which is yet another reason why reproduction is morally wrong.
posted by Modlizki at 3:41 PM on May 3, 2011


The only reason everyone dosen't kill themselves is an irrational survival instinct. We are born to die in pain and fear, and every action has the same destination.
Like the Woody Allen joke says, 'The food is bad and it's too short'.
OTOH my shrink & my band are telling me to stay positive so I guess I'll focus on the videogames and the good music and all that jazz.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 3:50 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


What does follow, I think, from the conclusion that life is not good, is that we should not create more of it. When we bring new people into existence we start more lives that are not good – and we necessarily do this without the permission of those who will live those lives. We have no duty to create new people and failing to create people can do no harm to those we fail to create. Not having children might make our own lives less good, but starting lives that are not good, merely for our own gratification, is unduly selfish.

Only a religious breeder would have a major problem with this.
posted by Brian B. at 4:22 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I thought this part of DeGrazia's response to Benetar was interesting. It reminds me of the tension between Bentham and Mill's ideas of how much we should weigh different types of "pleasure" (Bentham weights them basically uniformly, whereas Mill values some kinds of pleasure much more highly than others):
The possibility, stressed by Benatar, of collective human underestimation of what is required for a good life does not strike me as a compelling ground for overturning our human-centered prudential value judgments on the basis of something more perfectionistic and super-humanly impartial. It is not obvious that we are even capable of understanding value sub specie aeternitatis.
As others have pointed out, within this kind of utilitarian framework, it really matters what you define as "pleasure" and "suffering." I would add that an ethical system based on balancing units of pain and pleasure, regardless of type or source, is really no less arbitrary than one that takes into account the "prudential values" DeGrazia enumerates (things like autonomy, accomplishment, health, living peacefully with others, etc.).
posted by en forme de poire at 4:57 PM on May 3, 2011



What does follow, I think, from the conclusion that life is not good, is that we should not create more of it. When we bring new people into existence we start more lives that are not good – and we necessarily do this without the permission of those who will live those lives. We have no duty to create new people and failing to create people can do no harm to those we fail to create. Not having children might make our own lives less good, but starting lives that are not good, merely for our own gratification, is unduly selfish


Yeah, I've always thought this. Having a child is murder.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 5:15 PM on May 3, 2011


Because the prospect of instant, total happiness is horrifying. Mystifying the source of happiness in vague notions like "meaning" is necessary to keep it safely at a distance.

Your alleged "horror" we supposedly have at the idea of total happiness is far more of a hand-waving mystification, given that we can actually observe and talk about and are aware of and have reasons for all the ways in which we distinguish between kinds of happiness based on context, whereas this "horror" you posit is something I guess most of us are unaware of but that you somehow have secret knowledge of.
posted by straight at 5:15 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


We have no duty to create new people and failing to create people can do no harm to those we fail to create.

Good luck coming up with a compelling rationale for the idea that we have negative duties to do no harm but no positive duties to do good.
posted by straight at 5:20 PM on May 3, 2011


Your alleged "horror" we supposedly have at the idea of total happiness is far more of a hand-waving mystification

There's nothing mysterious about this, people are horrified by heroin use, so they don't do it. You say no, it's because they don't find it meaningful, but that doesn't explain anything. Why isn't it considered meaningful? In fact, why is there a concerted social effort made to prevent it from becoming meaningful? Why is it necessary to repeat over and over again that drug experiences aren't authentic if there was no risk of us mistaking them as authentic?
posted by AlsoMike at 5:51 PM on May 3, 2011


Philosophers think too much. This guy really really needs a round of shot drinks and a good BJ.

The resulting happiness would last, what, an hour? At the end you're still mortal and alone.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 5:53 PM on May 3, 2011


Good luck coming up with a compelling rationale for the idea that we have negative duties to do no harm but no positive duties to do good.

Where is the good in burdening someone with all the worries of existence, though? Benatar regards birth as an unconditional harm, and so no positive duty can apply.
posted by Modlizki at 6:07 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Where is the good in burdening someone with all the worries of existence, though? Benatar regards birth as an unconditional harm, and so no positive duty can apply.

Think of it as murder. You are creating the conditions that will lead to somebody's slow, lingering death. Like the old goth slogan says, "Life is a 100% fatal, sexually transmitted disease".
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 6:21 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wow, obiwanwasabi, did you even read the article in full?

Oh, I disagree with you, so clearly I'm some sort of cretin who didn't RTFA. I mean, I explicitly stated that I'd read it earlier, but I guess that wasn't enough. Shall I insert a snarky comment, too? Yes, let's.

Wow, person whose name I've forgotten and can't be arsed scrolling back up to find, did you even read my comment in full?

those limitations put quite a crimp in living a good life.

So let's just call the whole thing off? 'Ooh, I wouldn't want a future little Johnny to be crimped, God no. I mean, I'm OK and not about to top myself, and this is true for pretty much everybody I know, and this appears to have been true for most if not all of human history, but poor Johnny will doubtless wish he were dead from the moment he wakes up til the moment at night when he tumbles into fitful dreams of suicide. I know, because unlike that moron Kant, I can see the future and all its consequences.'
posted by obiwanwasabi at 6:37 PM on May 3, 2011


No life is good.

However instead of demonstrating my commitment to this worldview and offing myself, I think I'll write a redundant book about it instead. Maybe I can drag a few down with me.

At the end you're still mortal and alone.
Ignoramus et ignorabimus. Yes, those are the terms of the dance. Some manage it with great style and panache... cisterns contain, fountains overflow ... while others piss and moan. As they must; without the dark there is no light.
posted by Twang at 6:39 PM on May 3, 2011


There's nothing mysterious about this, people are horrified by heroin use, so they don't do it.

Not so fast. You said that people were horrified by "the prospect of instant, total happiness," which is a pretty extravagant claim, given that's not what people claim horrifies them about heroin use.

People claim that they are horrified by heroin because it tends to crowd out things that they say are of greater value than simple pleasure. It's not that people want to "remain unhappy" as you put it. In fact, people don't generally think about their lives in terms of generic "happiness." They have specific goals they want to accomplish, specific people they want to be with, and they value those goals and those people more than they value the feeling they could get from taking heroin.

Why is it necessary to repeat over and over again that drug experiences aren't authentic if there was no risk of us mistaking them as authentic?

Some drugs are physically addicting in ways that mess with your ability to make decisions. There are people who try drugs, find them unsatisfying, but find their ability to choose something else impaired by the physical addiction, so it makes sense to give warnings to people ahead of time. Also from a purely selfish standpoint, heroin addicts tend to be a net drain on society so it's no surprise that society tries to discourage heroin addiction.
posted by straight at 6:45 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Where is the good in burdening someone with all the worries of existence, though? Benatar regards birth as an unconditional harm, and so no positive duty can apply.

But since he doesn't present a compelling case that the harm is unconditional (lots of people clearly don't buy it and present significant reasons not to), I think it makes more sense to lean toward the widespread intuition that giving people life is a positive good.
posted by straight at 6:51 PM on May 3, 2011



But since he doesn't present a compelling case that the harm is unconditional (lots of people clearly don't buy it and present significant reasons not to), I think it makes more sense to lean toward the widespread intuition that giving people life is a positive good.


But we also have a widespread intuition that taking life is bad. There's also a widespread intuition that torture is bad.
You are giving life. But by giving that life you are guaranteeing that life will end and, before it ends, it will be filled with pain and suffering. How is that not murder?

The last thing I do before I go to bed every night is yell "I don't want to die!". I'm not subjecting somebody else to that.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 7:11 PM on May 3, 2011


Why do most people feel that the euphoria achieved from running 10 miles is superior to the same feeling achieved by swallowing a pill?

Well, I'll take a stab at that. The euphoria from running feels as great in itself as the same feeling might be if swallowed in a pill. But complementing that feeling is a complex of other very positive feelings: the knowledge that I have just done something to maintain and maybe even increase my fitness, which allows me to enjoy many other pleasurable activities much more than I would if I didn't run, and much more than I would if I took the pill all the time but remained out of shape. It allows me to set goals and work to achieve them and sometimes actually achieve them, gaining a kind of pleasure in pushing myself beyond my ususal boundaries and achieving something I was once incapable of. It allows me to share an interest and a pastime with a particular group of people, and to be united with them in events like races and charity runs, and to build lasting friendships around the shared ups and downs of this difficult but rewarding thing we do. It allows me to maintain mental sharpness and function for just about anything else I might be called to do immediately after the activity - it doesn't sideline me for some period of time in an internal world in which I'm cut off from other productive activities. It gives me a topic of interest to research, read magazines about, go to lectures about, go shopping for, etc, giving me many more hours of enjoyment than just the time spent with the runner's high. In other words, the happiness caused by running in the hour after the running event takes place, if you could isolate something like that, might be exactly the same, brain-chemical-wise, as the happiness caused by a hypothetical pill. Even one with no side effects. But the ancillary benefits also increase happiness in ways that a hypothetical happiness pill can't do alone.
posted by Miko at 7:41 PM on May 3, 2011


They have specific goals they want to accomplish, specific people they want to be with, and they value those goals and those people more than they value the feeling they could get from taking heroin.

I have no disagreement with that. Heroin cancels desire, that's the specific thing people want in their lives. Heroin doesn't crowd out other goods in the same way as a demanding career or time-consuming hobby, it doesn't make you too busy to do other things. It makes you not want to do anything else. You can't really explain why that's such a bad thing within the standard utilitarian frame: if you don't want anything else, then you don't want it. But if you resort to vague "other, higher" values than simple pleasure, then the question arises, why can't those higher values be ultimately reduced to another form of pleasure? Because this other value is simple non-pleasure, unhappiness, dissatisfaction, desire itself. I'm not saying that we want pain, I'm saying we want a kernel of dissatisfaction or incompleteness in our pleasures plus a fantasy that our happiness can be made complete, that there's still something "out there" that we can recover to fill that gap.
posted by AlsoMike at 9:51 PM on May 3, 2011


But if you resort to vague "other, higher" values than simple pleasure, then the question arises, why can't those higher values be ultimately reduced to another form of pleasure?...I'm saying we want a kernel of dissatisfaction or incompleteness in our pleasures plus a fantasy that our happiness can be made complete, that there's still something "out there" that we can recover to fill that gap.

I still think there's something unreal and missing the point about this kind of attempt to abstract an enormous range of human experiences and attitudes and desires into these generic categories of "pleasure" and "happiness" and I don't trust moral judgments built on such flimsy scaffolding.

Sometimes when you have a bunch of diverse phenomena and you find something they all have in common, that something is the least interesting or illuminating thing about them.
posted by straight at 10:22 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


This guy and Andrew WK would make for an awesome dinner party.
posted by lrobertjones at 2:36 AM on May 4, 2011


Good luck coming up with a compelling rationale for the idea that we have negative duties to do no harm but no positive duties to do good.

The DeGrazia response linked above says that one of Benetar's key arguments is that harm and good are asymmetric, which (if accepted) would be that rationale:
The absence of harm is good, even if there is no subject of that good, yet the absence of benefit is not bad unless there is a subject for whom the absence is a deprivation.
It's a pity that this article doesn't go into much depth, because it looks like Benetar does have responses to most of the criticisms in this thread. Best not to RTFA, just RTFBTAIATSLEO.
posted by ffrinch at 4:08 AM on May 4, 2011


There are plenty of people that take heroin regularly and lead normal lives. They have jobs and can afford and are prepared to take a drug that immediately releases intense pleasure while simultaneously diminishing pain. Heroin is a small part of their lives, which are otherwise comparable to yours. There might be as many people that take heroin casually and temporarily as there are those that fall into desperate addiction.

Heroin users are as acutely familiar with the difference between suffering and pain as they are with the difference between pleasure and happiness. Long term heroin addicts are also familiar with the relationship between an addiction to pleasure and depression. Long term addiction can eventuate in a psychological disconnection with emotions caused by the artificially induced alternating cycle of pleasure and pain.

This ruminating on artificially induced experiences of which most will be familiar (if not the extremes of heroin), shows that words like pleasure and pain don't describe experiences that are opposites. They can be experienced consecutively and in wildly varying degrees that makes comparing them nonsensical.

I can't help thinking of the Shakespeare quote, "it is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so". Perhaps quoting Shakespeare is taking oneself too seriously, but not so seriously as to choose to think that perhaps life would have been better had I not been born at all.
posted by bigZLiLk at 4:40 AM on May 4, 2011


Some background on natalism and antinatalism:

A lot of this starts with the work of a guy named Derek Parfit on population ethics (Malthusianism basically.)

Parfit starts with something called the No Difference View, in which he asks us to imagine two scenarios in which a woman suffers from an easily treatable illness. In the first scenario, the woman is pregnant, and the illness will irreparably handicap the child if she does not receive a cheap and simple treatment. Obviously, the woman ought to receive that treatment. In the second scenario, the woman is thinking of becoming pregnant, but discovering the illness, she must decide between becoming pregnant now and postponing her pregnancy a few months for the treatment to take effect. Not postponing her pregnancy would leave the resultant child with an irreparable and serious handicap.

Parfit then points out that in the second scenario, we tend to think that the woman ought to postpone her childbirth so that her child may live without the handicap. But in so doing, the second woman guarantees that the child who lives without a handicap will be a different one than the child who would have suffered from the handicap. They might both have been named “Tom” for instance, but the earlier, handicapped child would have been the product of a different ovum and spermatazoon than the later, disability-free child. So in that scenario, it seems like we’ve effectively proclaimed that it is better for disabled-Tom not to exist at all than for him to exist with an irreparable handicap. And this seems a strange response to the question: “Is existence better than non-existence?” Here, it’s not the mother whose rights are at issue, but the child’s right to simple medical treatments. We commonly assume that an unborn child has a right to adequate medical care, but it’s strange to believe that that right could trump his right to exist at all!

The only way to justify the No-Difference View’s claim without also subscribing to some horrendous eugenics program is to specify that non-existent humans don’t have the same right to exist that existent humans have, and further, that we ought to be guided by some form of impersonal welfare-maximizing principle in making procreative decisions. Parfit calls the the Impersonal Totality Principle, and it’s a version of consequentialism: we ought to act so as to maximize the welfare of those who come to exist without regard for kinship or individuality.

From this, we then begin to wonder whether and how a person's welfare can be maximized, and what the *minimum* welfare should be to trump the inevitable suffering of life. Does a child's life have to be as good as mine? As good as a very poor American's life? Is it better not to exist rather than die of malaria or diarrhea before the age of 5, as almost 22,000 do each day? We make decisions on the basis of our views in these questions whenever we donate to charities that supply birth control over food aid or mosquito nets, whenever we debate the American tax credit for children, whenever we decide whether or not to have children of our own. So it seems like it's an important question to get right!
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:14 AM on May 4, 2011


Dude is totally harshing my mellow.
posted by cherrybounce at 6:53 AM on May 4, 2011


one of Benetar's key arguments is that harm and good are asymmetric, which (if accepted) would be that rationale

I'm not saying he doesn't have any argument. I'm saying lots of people don't think his argument is very convincing, so it seems a little premature for him to trumpet radical conclusions "We should stop having children! Having children is immoral! It would be better if we'd never been born!" based on that argument.
posted by straight at 7:08 AM on May 4, 2011


it seems like we’ve effectively proclaimed that it is better for disabled-Tom not to exist at all than for him to exist with an irreparable handicap.

We don't generally have considerations about nonexistent people at all. There is no "disabled-Tom" because he was never conceived. There's not a "later, non-disabled" child, there is an existing child on the one hand, and NO child on the other. There are no children at all who do not exist. To keep advancing this view, wouldn't you be forced into arguing that EVERY egg a woman's body ovulates and then discards must be considered a nonexistent child for whom we have elected non-existence as a better option than existence?

Anyway, I'm not sure this scenario makes sense at all levels. I'm not sure we "commonly assume" a fetus' "right" to "adequate medical care," let alone that this would trump its right to exist. When the argument said "the illness will irreparably handicap the child if she does not receive a cheap and simple treatment" my immediate thought was that the cheap and simple treatment was an abortion. I would hesitate to state that we, whoever we is, commonly assume fetal rights at all - it's an extremely contentious idea and one that is difficult to support. You could look at a scenario where we prefer the cheap and simple (non-abortive) treatment simply to spare the stress on the mother or a waste of money for hospital bills, not thinking about the child at all.

Or complicate it, and assume that 50% of the time, the treatment cures the fetus, and 50% of the time, it kills the fetus. What then would we prefer the pregnant woman do? Take the treatment, or have the disabled baby who is much more likely to survive than if the treatment is taken? If we adjust that percentage on a sliding scale, does it change what we think she should do?

I'm so not versed in these discussions but it also seems like there are just a couple of huge leaps here. "Non-existent humans don’t have the same right to exist that existent humans have" - is this not a tautology? They don't exist, therefore they don't have any rights, let alone same or different rights. They don't and never did exist. "Rights" are for existing people (and some pro-lifers would argue, increasingly for fetuses who have become likely to soon exist). But how do you get from there to "therefore, we ought to be guided by some form of impersonal welfare-maximizing principle in making procreative decisions." Says who? Whose procreative decisions? Who decides and who's procreating? I can support the general idea that we tend to lean toward maximizing welfare, but certainly not demanding that it be maximized or expecting that it will of course be maximized. I can list off a number of people in my own life who made decisions which resulted in the "inevitable suffering of life" - having a spina bifida baby who could have been aborted early on, but whose parents refused that option, and gave birth to the baby, who lived three days in constant pain after birth and then died; also, a relative whose teen (and then adult) son lived in a coma for 9 years with no brain activity, but who she preferred to sustain using life-support machinery until he died of pneumonia. Those lives may not have met the demands of a "minimum standard" but I think the decisionmakers there basically rejected the idea that there was any required minimum standard. I think they rejected the same basic problematic idea in this piece: that an absence of suffering was a workable definition of "good" and that pain vs. pleasure is a paramount (or maybe even relevant) consideration in decisions about efforts to continue life.

I get so impatient with these discussions even though I know they are in earnest. They are so abstract, absurdist, and theoretical and so unable to be of use to real people in the real world. Constructing a fake scenario like that and extrapolating what people "should" do in such a scenario - what can be learned by that? Behaviorally, these are not real people or real situations and so we have actually no idea what such people would really do or articulate as their own moral reasoning, and it's a near guarantee that some people would choose different actions than what the argument says "we" should agree they would. Some people would stay pregnant and refuse all treatment and invoke the will of God or the decisions of Fate, and some would say that suffering is not an important criteria in their decisionmaking or that the definition of what is "good" might determine the good being gained is greater than the suffering happening. Who knows? Who can say what justifications or new ideas those people might offer? None of us, because the situation is not real.
posted by Miko at 8:34 PM on May 4, 2011


Miko, I think part of what's causing you difficulty there is trying to cram your thoughts about the subject into "rights" language, as if the only way to decide on the moral value of something is to weigh the rights of everyone involved.

I think you could say (if you disagree with Benetar and say that it's better to exist than not to) that when people conceive and bear a child, they are giving that child a good gift, without any reference to whether the child had a "right" to live or whether other non-existent but possible children had/have any rights. I think that it's possible to believe that giving a good gift is a morally good act without necessarily implying that withholding that gift is morally evil.
posted by straight at 11:03 PM on May 4, 2011




The scenario is an intuition pump. There are plenty of philosophers who reject intuition pumps and thought experiments for some of the reasons you give. In my own writing I try to only use actual situations and historical incidents. But just because we recognize that hypothetical scenarios aren't real doesn't mean we can't evaluate them as a means to clarify the general principles that guide us, or ask, couterfactually, what we would have done if things had been slightly different.

I believe that it is wrong to deny easy and effective treatment to a fetus that you intend to give birth to, even though I recognize and respect a woman's right to abort the fetus. I don't really think that is a controversial view, and I doubt that you do, either. If five minutes and fifty dollars during a pregnancy will save our child from cleft palate, shouldn't my wife and I do it? If not, why not?
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:32 AM on May 5, 2011


Miko, I think part of what's causing you difficulty there is trying to cram your thoughts about the subject into "rights" language, as if the only way to decide on the moral value of something is to weigh the rights of everyone involved.

I'm just using the language in the scenario.

I think that it's possible to believe that giving a good gift is a morally good act without necessarily implying that withholding that gift is morally evil.

I personally agree with that, but that's not the extension of the argument in the example.

But just because we recognize that hypothetical scenarios aren't real doesn't mean we can't evaluate them as a means to clarify the general principles that guide us, or ask, couterfactually, what we would have done if things had been slightly different.

I just don't think this is true or that these kinds of situations are that useful. My reasoning is that we have absolutely no evidence about what people would actually do in such situations and no way to evaluate them in the abstract, isolated from the real-world surrounding conditions that impact any moral evaluation. I see why this kind of thought experiment is called an "intuition pump," but given the frequency with which intuition is totally wrong, it seems a very shaky basis for reasoning and I can understand why some would reject it as a strategy. I don't think we can meaningfully evaluate a non-real situation, especially one with no close analogues (in other words, we can assert that a future instance of murder would probably be judged to be wrong based on experience of past murders which were judged to be wrong, but we can't assert that someone chose non-existence over existence for a non-baby, because there are no entities that are non-babies and it seems futile to reason about non-entities and then try to extrapolate that reasoning to entities).

I believe that it is wrong to deny easy and effective treatment to a fetus that you intend to give birth to, even though I recognize and respect a woman's right to abort the fetus.

Wrong for whom? From whose point of view? Or just wrong in the abstract? To me, this right/wrong determination really depends on the surrounding conditions. I could probably comfortably say that it would be wise to approach such a situation medically and psychologically with a strong prejudice toward recommending the intervention, but not that if it was decided against it would always necessarily be 'wrong' because there may or may not be overriding concerns which I don't know about. If there were no overriding concerns at all of any kind, then sure, I suppose it would be better to do it.
posted by Miko at 6:36 AM on May 5, 2011


Do you also think it would be better to delay pregnancy for a few months while a cheap and effective treatment takes effect?
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:49 AM on May 5, 2011


If it were me, and if there were no other overriding concerns, sure, I guess it would be better. it might not be better if I've undergone fertility treatments, am out of money and this is my one final ovulation cycle, or if I my partner is terminally ill, or if I am so poor I'm unable to afford even the cheap treatment, or if I am planning to use a pregnancy for an extortion, but since those would be overriding concerns, let's set them aside and say sure.
posted by Miko at 1:55 PM on May 5, 2011


So in that scenario, it seems like we’ve effectively proclaimed that it is better for disabled-Tom not to exist at all than for him to exist with an irreparable handicap.

But if she doesn't wait, then she's condemning non-disabled-Tom to non-existence. That's where the hypothetical breaks down, I think.
posted by shivohum at 5:32 PM on May 5, 2011


it might not be better if I've undergone fertility treatments, am out of money and this is my one final ovulation cycle, or if I my partner is terminally ill, or if I am so poor I'm unable to afford even the cheap treatment, or if I am planning to use a pregnancy for an extortion, but since those would be overriding concerns, let's set them aside and say sure.

Well, that's an illuminating answer, I think. You're suggesting that if a person wants a child, then they (and the child) would be better off if that child is born disabled than if they didn't have a child at all.

So we can rank the possibilities you've described:

1. Having a child free from disability.
2. Having a child with a disability.
3. Not having a child.

In that sense, you seem to hold that existence is (intrinsically) better than nonexistence, and the lives we bring into being can be pretty bad before it'd be "better never to have been." I think that's the most popular position, but people like Benatar think that we ought to push #3 up to #1. I'm not persuaded of that, though, mostly for the reasons that David DeGrazia identifies: human flourishing need only meet human standards, however flawed or biased, and so long as more children increase the amount of flourishing in the world, it seems better for those children to come into existence.

I do wonder whether we owe it to all the other children who will be born not to contribute to overpopulation by bringing more competitors for the earth's scarce resources. It's my understanding that American children are likely to consume much more than their fair share of the planet's raw materials, to produce much more that their fair share of carbon dioxide, and therefore to leave other children with much less. In that sense, Americans who bring children into the world may end up, in aggregate, decreasing the amount of flourishing in it.
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:35 PM on May 5, 2011


But if she doesn't wait, then she's condemning non-disabled-Tom to non-existence.

That's right: if only one child is going to exist, it seems better to Parfit that that child should be as well-off as possible. So on this view, we don't care who exists, so long as the people who exist are as happy (in the sense of having lives that go well in the various ways that lives go well) as possible.
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:38 PM on May 5, 2011


human flourishing need only meet human standards, however flawed or biased

I agree with this.

posted by Miko at 5:46 PM on May 5, 2011


That's right: if only one child is going to exist, it seems better to Parfit that that child should be as well-off as possible. So on this view, we don't care who exists, so long as the people who exist are as happy (in the sense of having lives that go well in the various ways that lives go well) as possible.

Really, you could take this even farther and simply say that any change to the child makes for the non-existence of a future version of that child.

If a different spermatozoa constitutes a different child, then why not the absence of a major illness -- that seems it could have just as much of an effect or more. So when we treat a fetus to prevent illness, we are preventing the existence of that fetus-as-it-would-have-been. And we have no problem with that.

Or when one chooses door A instead of door B, don't we condemn the one-that-would-have-chosen-door-B to non-existence?
posted by shivohum at 5:58 PM on May 5, 2011


I think you're misreading me: we agree Nonexistent beings don't have a right to exist, but they do have a right to be as well off as possible. In your terms: we should pick the best door.
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:06 PM on May 5, 2011


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