- Hardcover: 250 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press; First Edition edition (October 19, 2006)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0199296421
- ISBN-13: 978-0199296422
- Product Dimensions: 8 x 0.8 x 5.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 55 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,059,135 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence First Edition Edition
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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.
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This view on procreation is called anti-natalism and is often met with a visceral reaction in most people that learn of it. But, is it really so off target as to be insane, as most people assert or is it a completely rational and logical way in which clear headed people can and should view our lives and the world that we inhabit? Benatar argues that there are scientific reasons that we overestimate the quality of our lives.
In this book, he argues brilliantly, in my opinion, that procreation is not only irrational but it is immoral as well. He holds a candle for the "Pro-death"movement in that he believes women are morally obligated to abort their fetuses at the earliest stages of gestation. The visceral reaction that most people have to his view point is easily explainable, according to Benatar; humans have evolved over billions of years to be optimists. This is the way in which we survive as a species and it blinds us to the reality of our lives. In short, humans are delusional about their condition because nature makes us this way. This is very unfortunate, according to Benatar, because it leads us to the creation of new lives and new suffering.
Why is life so bad? Well, according to Benatar, even the most priveleged and gifted lives are full of suffering and hardship. Humans are "centers of suffering" according to Benatar and we don't even realize it due to our optimism bias instilled by nature. Benatar claims that most people spend a large part of their lives lonely, sad, hungry, thirsty, tired, depressed, anxious, nervous, embarassed, in physical or emotional discomfort or otherwise suffering in some way. He believes that all pleasures are negative in character; that is, it is a relief from some pain that we are in. Benatar argues that pain is much more intense than pleasure. He holds that no one alive would take the option of an hour of pure pleasure if it was followed by an hour of the worst pain imaginable.
Pain is also much easier for people to "catch" than pleasure. For example, everyone has heard of chronic pain but no one has heard of chronic pleasure. It only takes a moment for someone to be seriously injured in an accident that lasts a lifetime but it is impossible for someone to catch a type of pleasure which is as intense or lasts as long.
Benatar implores us to observe the bad in the world we live in. Some facts he presents: There are currently 7 billion people on the planet and that number is expected to skyrocket in the coming decades. Over the past 1,000 years, 15 million people are estimated to have died in natural disasters. Approximately 20,000 people in the world die from starvation every day. The 1918 Influenza epidemic killed 50 million people. HIV kills 3 million people annually. 3.5 million people die each year in accidents. Wars have killed hundreds of millions of people. When the numbers were put together for the year 2001, 56.5 million people died. That is more than 107 people per minute. As the world population increases, the amount of death and suffering only magnifies.
One thing that we humans are guaranteed is death. We all will die, either through the natural aging process or through a disease or accident that take us out prematurely. Our physical prime is only a tiny part of our life and the rest is our gradual, if not steep, decline. We are not guaranteed any pleasures at all.
A potential parent should view themselves as the top of a pyramid, according to Benatar. As that parent creates more humans, they create more suffering and pain that is easily avoidable. If each parent has 3 children, that amounts to more than 88,000 humans over ten generations. To Benatar, that is a lot of pointless suffering that could easily be avoided if we would all just use birth control or have early term abortions.
Part of the brilliance of Benatar's book is that he anticipates the readers objections and responds to them with clear and sound logic. The first argument against Benatar's views on life is that there are good parts of life that Benatar chooses to ignore; Benatar agrees with this but argues that the bad outweighs the good by a large margin.
His key argument against reproduction is his assymetry argument; that is that pain is bad and pleasure is good. The best lives contain a lot of pain and pleasure as well, but, had we not existed, we would not have been deprived of pleasures. Only living beings can be deprived of pleasures, no one that does not exist can ever be deprived. When one does not exist, one does not feel pain, which is good and one does not feel pleasure, which is not bad, since one does not exist. Simply put, non existence means no suffering and no deprivation. Therefore, never existing is better than existing, considering all the suffering that humans must endure.
Benatar urges us to look at Mars as an example. There is no suffering on Mars because there is no sentient life there. The Earth, however, is full sentient life and suffering. There is no pleasure on Mars but this matters not since there are no Maritians alive to be deprived. Do we Earthlings ever look to Mars and bemone the lack of pleasure that Martians do not have since they do not exist? Of course we don't. However, if Martians were alive and suffered as we humans do, we would certainly deplore their condition.
One argument that always comes up against anti-natalism is the reaction that anyone that promotes it, such as Benatar, should commit suicide. Benatar does address suicide and believes that it is an option, but it should be used only as a last resort after one discusses it with many people. In general, he is against suicide because it not only causes the suicidee harm, it also causes harm to people around that person, including their family and those that care about them. Anti-natalism is not the belief that we should all commit suicide, but rather that we should analyze reproduction and our lives and come to the conclusion that we should not create more pointless suffering by creating new humans.
Every person, even those opposed to anti-natalism, can agree that having a child is essentially rolling the dice with another person's life, without their consent. None of us can see into the future; the future that involves our future children may indeed be grim. Reproduction is a form of Russian roulette, according to Benatar. For example, in the United States, 1 out of 4 women in America is raped during her lifetime. That means, if we have 2 daughters, there is a 50% chance that one of them will be raped. Knowing this, is it moral for humans to go ahead and create those daughters? Benatar believes that is it morally wrong to do so.
I loved this book. It can be dense at times as there is a ton of information in each paragraph; some parts of it can be hard to understand. That being said, this book is important and I don't see how Dr. Benatar's thesis can be refuted.
Benatar's asymmetry regarding pleasure and pain is entirely accurate in my opinion, but there are two major flaws of which I've found in the book. I'll cover the first argument that others have made in a critique to this book, that people are poor judges when it comes to evaluating the quality of our lives. This contention is much too subjective to be taken seriously since if I can't trust my own senses then what can I trust? Can I realistically trust another's assessment of my life, but yet not my own? I can only stop at saying that if we feel happy, regardless of what someone else feels about this, then I really am happy as far as I'm concerned. I also don't feel that simple inconveniences in life (such as a papercut) will always offset great pleasures, or should be a motivator for nonexistence in themselves.
My biggest critique perhaps, and one that I havn't seen brought up yet so far, is that there's always the possibility for sentient life to evolve to a point in the future which could make existing a very pleasurable experience for most all of us. Also, if there's an afterlife, and there is a good deal of evidence which points in that direction in my opinion, then perhaps what awaits us could make existing be worthwhile. It is possible if an afterlife exists that it could be very bad too. A good deal of eastern and western mysticism considers physical life to be hells in their own rights. The book covers religious/spiritual arguments on only a brief note, and pretty much dismisses these as being nonfactors. My arguments in this paragraph are: "what if we do have a spiritual nature"? I don't want to get into reductionist/theistic debate here any further but I wanted to make a point.
It's a very quality book, and you don't need to be a philosopher to understand a good deal of the material in it. It's a very straightforward book, and unlike a few other books written by pessimistic philosophers that I've read it stays technical for the most part while avoiding the poetic harshness of other works. Better Never to Have Been is a great conversation piece and a great book for the nonphilosopher or nonpoetic type. I would hope that people would read this book with an open mind, and I've noticed that some of the lower star reviewers admitted that they didn't read the entire (or even most) of the book.