Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Better Never to Have Been

  • Simon ReeveEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_459-1

Keywords

Child Abuse Individual Experience Good Thing Painful Experience Underlying Assumption 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

Synonyms

Definition

A book by the philosopher David Benatar, published in 2006, advocating the antinatalist claim.

Introduction

According to David Benatar, it is “better never to have been” and it would be morally better if the human race was extinct. That is, coming into existence always causes serious harm to the individual, and therefore, procreating is always morally wrong (the antinatalist claim). In this way, it would be best if the human race became extinct as then there would be no one to suffer this harm. This is not to say that the antinatalist claim is one that promotes human death (mass suicide, genocide or speciacide, devastating natural disasters, etc.). In some cases, the antinatalist would support the death of an individual but typically only when the individual is experiencing immense suffering and would prefer to die sooner rather than later. This is not a particularly radical view and many, if not most, people would concur in at least some possible cases. Instead, the antinatalist is against the creation of new lives and not (necessarily) the premature end to existing lives. The word “premature” is particularly significant as, again, it is important to keep in mind that every single person that is born will die at some point. Therefore, if the antinatalist ideal was realized, this would actually reduce death as there would be no more people to die. In this way, the view that death is typically a bad thing is proposed to be supportive of the antinatalist claim as procreators effectively create a death every time they create a life: As anyone who is born will eventually die, extinction would technically minimize death overall as once extinction is achieved, there will be no more death.

Antinatalism

Although death is – more often than not – an extremely unpleasant and painful experience, it is not the only suffering an individual will experience by coming into existence, and it is suffering that is particularly central to the antinatalist claim. If you consider an existing person first, when they experience pain, it is clearly bad and when they experience pleasure, it is good. Likewise, when they are deprived of experiencing pleasure, it is bad and when they are “deprived” of experiencing pain, it is good. These axiological values could theoretically be weighed and summed to produce an overall axiological value of a particular life relative to an alternate life. That is, it is easy to evaluate a person’s life as better if they experience more pleasure and/or less pain than an alternative life. However, this logic relies on comparing one possible life to another possible life and has the underlying assumption that there has to be some sort of life: It is this aspect that the antinatalist claim refutes. Instead, the antinatalist claim considers the axiological value (the abstract value and “goodness” of all varieties) of any possible life to no life at all. When there is no person, there is nobody who can be directly benefitted or harmed. Therefore, the point of reference for a comparison is drawn solely from the scenario when a person would have existed. Essentially the claim is comparing two possible worlds rather than two possibilities within one world: one world in which a person exists and one in which that same person does not exist. We then evaluate which world is better with reference to the interests of this individual (Benatar 2013, p. 125). As the individual only exists in one of these two possible worlds, that world is our point of reference for comparison.

As it is possible to assign an axiological value to one possible life compared to another possible life, the antinatalist reasoning can be illustrated by comparing two such cases and then comparing these to a world where the individual did not come into existence at all. Firstly, when a world where the individual experiences a great deal of pain (a lot of bad) and experiences very little pleasure (very little good) to a world where they never came into existence at all, it is reasonable to conclude that the latter is better. More so, the lack of the pain that could have been in this world (had the individual been born) is argued to be a good thing, even though there is nobody who directly benefits from not experiencing this pain. That is, the absence of pain is considered a good thing even if there is nobody to experience the pain.

Second, when a world where the individual experiences a little bit of pain (a little bit of bad) and experiences a great deal of pleasure (a lot of good) is compared to a world in which this person never came into existence, it may, at first glance, seem reasonable to conclude that the former is better. However, according to the antinatalist claim, this logic does not follow: Benatar asserts that for this world to be better, we would be stating that the lack of the pleasure that could have been in this world is clearly a bad thing, even though there is nobody who is deprived of experiencing this pleasure. However, if there is nobody who is deprived of experiencing this pleasure, then the lack of pleasure in the later world is not, according to the antinatalist claim, axiologically bad. Conversely, it is proposed that the lack of the small amount of pain that the individual would have experienced is still a good thing even though there is nobody who is benefitted by not experiencing this pain (as with the first world considered but to a smaller scale). Therefore, even in this case where there would only be a little pain, it is still proposed by the antinatalist that it is actually also better if this person had never existed: That is, it is not bad that they do not experience the pleasure they would have if they had existed (no matter how much pleasure there would have been), but it is still good that they avoid the pain they would have experienced if they had existed (no matter how small the amount of pain would have been). Although it is clearly not as much of a good thing that this person did not exist in the second world than it is that they did not exist in the first world, in both cases not existing, it is still deemed better than existing. Essentially, this logic forms the basic asymmetry in axiological value between possible worlds that justifies the antinatalist claim: Coming into existence always causes harm to the individual because the absence of pleasure is only bad when there is someone who is being deprived of that pleasure, but the absence of pain is good even if there is nobody around to benefit from its absence, so it is not possible for the axiological value of existing to outweigh not existing (see Fig. 1; the asymmetry manifests between cell #4 and cell #3 and #6). Benatar’s antinatalist claim has been challenged by other philosophers. For example, Bradley (2010) points out that when considering “betterness,” the laws of logic (citing the Albert Brogan and G. H. von Wright view) dictate that the presence of pleasure in existing people is better than the absence of pleasure in nonexisting people, even if the absence of pleasure in nonexisting people is considered neutral (see also Harman 2009).
Fig. 1

Replication of “The basic asymmetry amplified” (Benatar 2013; pg. 136)

Conclusion

“Better Never to Have Been” is a book by the philosopher David Benatar advocating the antinatalist claim that it would be better for the human race to stop reproducing and become extinct. The argument is based on a logical asymmetry when comparing two theoretical worlds: one where a person exists and the other where they do not exist. Although the presence of pleasure in the first world is a good thing and the absence of pain is a good thing in both worlds, the absence of pleasure is only a bad thing (as deprivation) in the world where the person exists and the absence of pain is greater (i.e., no pain at all) in the world where they do not exist. The text is highly controversial and its logic challenged.

Cross-References

References

  1. Benatar, D. (2006). Better never to have been: The harm of coming into existence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Benatar, D. (2013). Still better never to have been: A reply to (more of) my critics. The Journal of Ethics, 17(1–2), 121–151.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bradley, B. (2010). Benatar and the logic of betterness. Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy, 15, 1–5.Google Scholar
  4. Harman, E. (2009). David Benatar. Better never to have been: The harm of coming into existence. Noûs, 43(4), 776–785 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Oakland UniversityRochesterUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Lisa L M Welling
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyOakland UniversityRochesterUSA