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Still Better Never to Have Been: A Reply to (More of) My Critics

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In Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, I argued that coming into existence is always a harm and that procreation is wrong. In this paper, I respond to those of my critics to whom I have not previously responded. More specifically, I engage the objections of Tim Bayne, Ben Bradley, Campbell Brown, David DeGrazia, Elizabeth Harman, Chris Kaposy, Joseph Packer and Saul Smilansky.

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  1. One of the few advantages of being a pessimist is that one can be only pleasantly surprised.

  2. Reviews and responses are being collected here:

  3. There are a few competing definitions of “harm”. In most instances in which I use the word in this paper, it makes no difference which of these definitions one employs. One context in which one’s definition of harm can (but does not have to) make a difference is in the case of the so-called “non-identity” objection to the claim that coming into existence can be a harm. For more on this see Benatar (2006, pp. 19–28; 2010, pp. 80–84).

  4. However, it may be helpful to such readers to refer back to the names I give in this section to the four asymmetries that I believe are explained by my basic asymmetry.

  5. This argument is discussed in Benatar (2006, Chapter 2).

  6. Some people, failing to see that pains and pleasures were intended only as exemplars of harms and benefits have mistakenly identified my argument as hedonistic. [See, for example, Brown (2011, p. 46), and possibly Bradley (2010, p. 1)] Another common error it so identify my argument as a utilitarian one. While my arguments are compatible with most (but not all) forms of utilitarianism, they do not presuppose utilitarian foundations and are equally compatible with deontological views.

  7. While all the following asymmetries were mentioned in Benatar (2006), the names I give to them below are new.

  8. The second argument is presented in Chapter 3.

  9. Others who have this worry are: Harman (2009: 781) and Bayne (2010: 48; 53).

  10. This is the response to, for example, David DeGrazia’s claim that it does not make sense to avoid having a child for that child’s sake. See DeGrazia (2010, p. 323).

  11. DeGrazia considers the exact version I discussed (2010, p. 322) but he too does not consider my response.

  12. Those who think we have positive duties but deny that these include a duty to bring happy children into existence could reconsider and accept that we have such a duty. However, that is a considerable commitment with significant implications. It is one thing to state that one could adopt this position. It is another thing actually to adopt it and follow through on the implications.

  13. For more on the relative sense of “good” and “bad” see Benatar (2006: 41–42).

  14. Professor Kaposy’s failure to see this distinction explains why he mistakenly thinks that I contradict myself in stating that “Neutral states include the absence of pain” (Kaposy 2009, p. 106).

  15. If Professor Kaposy is merely denying that absent pain is good in itself (and is not denying that it is good relative to the presence of pain), then he is not denying (3) and it is thus unclear how what he says constitutes an argument against my basic asymmetry.

  16. It has been suggested to me that perhaps Professor Kaposy means that (iii) and (iv) are not relevant to (3), or to the asymmetry between (3) and (4). It was further suggested that if he means that then he is correct, because (3) and (4) are merely about the absence of pain and pleasure. This suggestion cannot rescue Professor Kaposy. Remember that he writes that (iii) and (iv) are “clearly examples of actual suffering” and accordingly “are not examples of the positive value of the absent suffering of those who never exist”. But this is only partially true. (iii) and (iv) are about both actual suffering and the absence of pleasure. Although (iii) and (iv) have no bearing on (3), they do have bearing on (4)—and on (2). Since the basic asymmetry is between Scenario A [that is, the combination of (1) and (2)] and Scenario B [that is, the combination between (3) and (4)] both (iii) and (iv) are relevant.

  17. Professor DeGrazia considers the exact version I discussed (DeGrazia 2010, p. 322).

  18. It might be suggested that it is sufficient if a person would consent if he could. However, there are many problems with this suggestion. Whereas we might be able to employ such subjunctive consent in cases of existing beings incapable of consenting, it is much harder to say of a person who has never existed that he would consent if he could. The only condition under which a person who has never existed could consent is if he already existed, in which case the consent would post-date that to which the consent is required. Even if the suggestion is that we may bring people into existence if those people would later give consent to our having brought them into existence, further problems are faced. First, we cannot know which potential people would later consent to being brought into existence. Although most people might consent, many people would not and the infliction of harms on them without their consent is problematic. (For more on this, see Benatar 2006, pp. 152–155.) Second, given the evidence that the preference for having come into existence is an adaptive preference, we should be skeptical of giving it the moral weight that an argument from either subjunctive or retrospective consent accords it. (See Benatar 2006, p. 100).

  19. Because I write about pleasures and pains as exemplars of good and bad things within a life, Dr Bayne’s point could be expressed a little differently—as a focus on good and bad lives rather than on good and bad features of (rather than merely experiences within) a life.

  20. It is true, of course, that when most people accept the retrospective beneficence asymmetry they do so thinking that not all children brought into existence count as suffering children whose existence is to be regretted. However, this fact is not going to help Dr Bayne. Obviously my anti-natal conclusion is one that most people would reject. What my argument does is show how my conclusion in fact follows from other views people do accept. People accept the retrospective beneficence asymmetry (which is neutral on how many regrettably existences there are) and this asymmetry is best explained, I argued, by my basic asymmetry. Dr Bayne fails to provide an alternative explanation of the retrospective beneficence asymmetry by citing the retrospective beneficence asymmetry, even if in doing so, he were to note that most people think that some lives are not to be regretted.

  21. See the section entitled “Further Thoughts about the Basic Asymmetry”.

  22. This is something that my argument has in common with the arguments of Professors Shiffrin (1999) and Fehige (1998).

  23. See my response below (in “What is the Quality of Human Life?”) to Professor Harman’s claim about “higher order pleasures”.

  24. In the section on “What is the Quality of Human Life?”.

  25. Professor Bradley suggests that I must put something in place of the Brogan-von Wright and Chisholm-Sosa definitions and theorems (if I reject them). It is not clear to me that I must do so. A complete account of “good” or of “betterness” must take many things into account. I have stated just some of the things that it needs to take into account. One can note this without claiming to have the full account.

  26. And the relevant negation of (3) is (1), and judging (3) to be good is thus also compatible with the Brogan-von Wright view.

  27. There is a very reasonable transitivity assumption here.

  28. He also considers whether I could appeal to the notion of incomparability. I shall not consider that option here because there is no need to, given that, as I shall show, he too hastily rejects the first possible reply.

  29. I considered this objection in Benatar (2006, pp. 42–43).

  30. The notion of intrinsic value is much less clear and more contested than this objection seems to allow. See, for example, Kagan (1998), Zimmerman (2010).

  31. I do not think that something’s being good for somebody precludes its being an intrinsic good (in some sense). Even though the good is good for somebody it is good in itself for that person rather than good as means to something else.

  32. I might add that it is very hard to comprehend Dr Brown’s World A. I presume that when he states that Jemima exists, he does not mean in a vegetative state—that she is fully conscious. There are no actual cases of people who lead fully conscious lives and yet experience neither pleasure nor pain. Moreover, as I indicated above, a conscious life deprived of all good things would in fact be quite bad, if only on account of the sheer boredom.

  33. Professor DeGrazia has also been, among my critics, the most generous in his praise of my book, despite his criticisms. For this I am very grateful.

  34. Professor DeGrazia focuses on these in his argument, ignoring the more serious negative mental states I mention.

  35. Professor Harman denies that “we do each have experiences on a regular basis that can be described as ‘being hungry’, ‘being tired’, and ‘being thirsty’ that are actually bad experiences” (Harman 2009, p. 782). Instead she thinks that “these experiences are often neutral or even good” (Harman 2009, p. 782). She does not state why she thinks this and it very difficult to fathom what he reason might be. I can see how being hungry, tired or thirsty might be instrumentally good, but that cannot be what she means because paradigmatic pains can also be instrumentally good but that does not make them experiences that feel good or even neutral.

  36. And not because some later development made it the case that the earlier period could now be seen as necessary for some later good.

  37. They can be found here: Benatar (2006, p. 74f.).

  38. While she refers to higher order pleasures it does seem that she is using the term more generically to refer to positive features of a life.

  39. She does not explicitly define what she means by “higher quality pains”. The concept seems intended to parallel “higher quality pleasures” and thus higher quality pains are pains that are qualitatively very bad.

  40. There are people who believe that they have an abiding sense of contentment or satisfaction, but that is not the analogue of chronic (occurrent) pain.

  41. Consider, for example, the fact that people have endorsed the following practices: burning witches, heretics and homosexuals; enslaving or torturing people, or engaging in acts of genocide. Nor are the errors restricted to moral judgments. People have believed in the divinity of idols that they created themselves, the flatness of the earth and in the therapeutic value of phlebotomy for dozens of conditions that are only exacerbated by bloodletting.

  42. I provide more detail about this in Benatar (forthcoming).

  43. There is a temptation for socio-economically privileged people who are not carriers of any (known) genetic diseases to think that their children will be spared terrible suffering. This naïve optimism is a manifestation of Pollyannaism, comparison and adaptation, and is refuted by a full list of all the bad things that can happen to anybody.

  44. For more on this matter, see Benatar (forthcoming).

  45. Sadly, the number of people on the planet has increased by a few million since he wrote this. At the time I am writing this note, there are over 6.9 billion people.

  46. Mr Packer’s paper is replete with these sorts of errors.

  47. Professor DeGrazia makes a similar point (DeGrazia 2010, p. 324).

  48. There are dozens of examples of this, but as I write this conclusion, my attention has been drawn to Cowley (2011). Professor Cowley suggests that I am a “crack-pot” (Cowley 2011, p. 26). He clearly does this on the basis of my conclusions because he says absolutely nothing about my arguments. Indeed, labeling me a crack-pot is a convenient way of absolving him of the need to engage my arguments. What Professor Cowley does state is that he is embarrassed, as a philosopher, by “technicians” such as I. He would do well to consider the following: No technical philosophical arguments are necessary to see that there is a deep moral insensitivity in those who blithely dismiss the likelihood or the significance of the suffering of their prospective children. At the very least, this suffering needs to be considered—and considered very seriously. My arguments suggest that if we do take it seriously we must arrive at an anti-natal conclusion. The fact that people, in the grip of an evolutionary vice, are resistant to this conclusion is no grounds for dismissing it.


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I am grateful to Jens Johansson for very insightful and helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

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Correspondence to David Benatar.

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Benatar, D. Still Better Never to Have Been: A Reply to (More of) My Critics. J Ethics 17, 121–151 (2013).

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