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Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence [Hardcover]

by David Benatar
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)

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Book Description

October 19, 2006 0199296421 978-0199296422
Better Never to Have Been argues for a number of related, highly provocative, views: (1) Coming into existence is always a serious harm. (2) It is always wrong to have children. (3) It is wrong not to abort fetuses at the earlier stages of gestation. (4) It would be better if, as a result of there being no new people, humanity became extinct. These views may sound unbelievable--but anyone who reads Benatar will be obliged to take them seriously.

Editorial Reviews


This isn't a new book, but it is generating increasing discussion in university departments and elsewhere: hence this review... If you enjoy an ethical challenge, then read this book. Malcolm Torry, Triple Helix For those who admire really careful and imaginative argumentation, and are interested in either issues of life and death, or the foundations of morality, it's a must read Harry Brighouse, Out of the Crooked Timber Benatar's discussion is clear and intelligent. Yujin Nagasawa MIND [this] volume has the great merit of raising a very basic issue (the intrinsic value of human existence), which is usually assumed but rarely discussed in philosophical terms. Thus, it may be hoped that this book will encourage a thoughtful and rich exchange of ideas on such a fundamental question. Roberto Andorno, Medical Health Care and Philosophy Journal

About the Author

David Benatar is at University of Cape Town.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 250 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (October 19, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199296421
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199296422
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 6.4 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,554,151 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
3.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
181 of 191 people found the following review helpful
In this remarkable book, the South African philosopher David Benatar attempts to solve, in a most unusual way, some related moral problems concerning matters of life and death. Benatar claims, inter alia, that deliberate procreation is immoral; that abortion is morally mandatory if possible before approximately 30 weeks of gestation; and that the morally optimal size of the human population is ZERO. On the face of it, this may strike the reader as absurd, or even insane, but Benatar is most certainly not a madman, as any reader who gives this book a fair chance will soon acknowledge.

The above-mentioned conclusions all follow more or less straightforwardly from Benatar's main thesis, which is almost literally expressed in the title of the book: For any conscious being (whether human or non-human) it would have been better never to exist, since coming into being is always an overall harm, and thus worse than non-existence, for that being (though not necessarily for other already existing beings, e.g. parents and siblings). Benatar argues for this astounding thesis by drawing attention to an alleged asymmetry between pain and pleasure (both understood broadly): Non-existence implies the absence of both pains and pleasures, but whereas the absence of the pains is something good, it is not the case that the absence of the pleasures is bad or something to be deplored. A potential person is not deprived of anything, claims Benatar, by not being brought into existence.

Some immediate, but confused, objections can be dismissed easily. One example is the objection that life must be an overall good for a person, unless that person is willing to commit suicide.
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56 of 60 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Philosophy at its best. December 4, 2010
By J. Fh
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Applied Ethics. Very argumentative. Benatar has caused turmoil in some philosophical circles. He's been read by people in Cambridge, Oxford, Princeton and other great knowledge centers. His ideas are indeed a threat to many of our naive assumptions. He criticizes common moral conclusions using premises that are generally accepted. He assumes for example that the reader agrees that:

1) it is wrong to bring someone into the world if that is going to cause that person too much pain.
e.g. If you are sure that person is going to have AIDS or live in extreme poverty, so that she will suffer an immensely excruciating pain.

He, then, argues that:

2) All lives, even the best ones are very bad. So you know, for sure, that by bringing someone to life, that person is going to suffer so much pain. Far more than pleasure.

3) Therefore, it is wrong to procreate.

Further conclusions:

In this line of thought, abortion, for instance, in the early stages of pregnancy is not only right, but morally mandatory. In addition, he establishes a very important difference between "lives worth continuing" and "lives worth starting", arguing that we are not morally obliged to kill ourselves. Absolutely not. But since by bringing someone into life I will expose this person to serious harm, it is best not to bring anyone into life.

Arguments to defend 2:

1) Pleasures and the hedonistic project are condemned to defeat, since any pleasures you have will not be able to undo the pain you will necessarily suffer.

2) Pain is part of the structure of the world and by bringing someone into life you are, ipso facto, exposing that person to serious harm.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant, compassionate, intelligent book April 11, 2013
It is a rare to find someone with extraordinary perceptive abilities to be fully aware of what existence means and how much suffering it entails and furthermore to put their own needs aside and be selfless and compassionate enough to not inflict that sort of suffering onto an innocent child. Reminds me of a quote from the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: "Life is an unprofitable episode disturbing the blessed calm of non-existence".
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26 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't Have Children - It's Immoral December 29, 2010
A devastating critique of people's intuitive feeling that bearing children is a morally unproblematic enterprise. Never shrill or hasty in reaching his conclusions, Professor Benatar calmly and systematically lays out his arguments and anticipates and reacts to all feasible counter arguments in a manner that suggests he ruminated on these issues for a considerable amount of time and with a clarity of thought that is lacking in most people's ideas about these highly important issues. He never resorts to appeals to emotion or ad-hominim attacks (as many of his opponents seem to do) and he uses no red herrings or other intellectual sleights of hand in order to lend credence to his views. The thrust of his argument is that as:

i) non-existent people are not deprived of the goods in life (happiness, joy, elation et cetera)
ii) non-existent people never suffer or feel any distress and
iii) even the most charmed of lives contain inevitable degrees of pain and suffering

there is an imbalance between the value of being born as opposed to the value of never having come into existence. As long as you accept the three premises above (and Benatar provides more than ample reasons for doing so) one is inexorably led to the conclusion that life confers no advantage over non-existence whilst non-existence DOES confer an advantage over existence. My hat off to you, Mr Benatar sir, this should be compulsory reading for every school student in the world! But of course his compassionate words of wisdom will fall on deaf ears for the most part...."Why don't you off yourself if life is so bad you pessimistic weirdo" the less eloquently spoken rabble might inquire of Benatar. However, making this kind of attack would be to really miss the point of his argument. Would you like me to elaborate? If so, I cordially invite you to read this seminal work and see where his arguments take you. 5 stars!
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Every person thinking of having children should read this important...
For sentient beings and for us humans especially, is life bad? According to South African philsopher, David Benatar, the answer is a resounding "Yes." Life is bad... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Brian W.
3.0 out of 5 stars Benatar's Strong Anti-Natalist Argument Fails --- a Better Argument Is...
I don't think Benatar's argument works because, in essence, he applies zero value to pleasure: intuitively and also mathematically, this is illogical as a utilitarian... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Christoph Dollis
4.0 out of 5 stars A very straightforward book
I'm consider myself to be more of a nonreligious theist, and perhaps I'm one of the few theists who would consider this book to be a positive. Read more
Published 10 months ago by Jamie
2.0 out of 5 stars A flawed thesis.
Benatar's thesis rests on an asymmetry which is entirely artificial. When people are considering having children, they look at the probable outcomes. Read more
Published 10 months ago by Robert Stephens
5.0 out of 5 stars Important and original
Benatar presents a surprising, original argument on a topic that has not been adequately addressed since the recent-ish invention of effective birth control and safe abortion. Read more
Published 11 months ago by glorified lungfish
4.0 out of 5 stars Somwhat confused
While being a thoroughly interesting and challenging read, I was consistently bothered by one point. Read more
Published 12 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars He says what no one else has the guts to say
Excellent read about the harsh realities of our existence and what we should do about it. He takes an intellectually arrogant tone against breeders and optimists, who either put no... Read more
Published 13 months ago by Eric
1.0 out of 5 stars art for the sake of art
It was recommended to me by someone...then I've realized that the person who recommended it to me had a problem... Read more
Published 13 months ago by Matata
4.0 out of 5 stars The Book That Sold Me On Antinatalism
I absolutely love this book. It was recommended to me by a fellow childfree friend and I just had to check it out. Read more
Published 15 months ago by LG
1.0 out of 5 stars "Abject Failure of a Book!" Says fellow Anti-natalist

Regardless of philosophical stance, either pro or con, yes or no to life, DO NOT BUY THIS BOOK. Read more
Published 16 months ago by Paul E. Lovrien
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Better Never to Have Been
Very interesting quote from one of the great minds of our times. Please provide information on where you found this quote. Thanks.
Dec 28, 2007 by Garrett Sullivan |  See all 3 posts
Stop Judging Without Reading...
This book is about answering a hypothetical question "If the act of procreation were neither the outcome of a desire nor accompanied by feelings of pleasure, but a matter to be decided on the basis of purely rational considerations, is it likely the human race would still exist? Would each... Read more
Mar 8, 2008 by penname |  See all 11 posts
People seem genuinely afraid to even entertain a notion towards the subject of this book, let alone take it seriously as a subject of philosophical discussion. But then, most people would choose ignorant bliss over truth no matter how unsavory. Now, I'm not saying whether this author gets to any... Read more
Mar 21, 2009 by M. Burke |  See all 2 posts
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