The case for being born

The New Yorker is running a profile of the anti-natalist philosopher David Benatar. Reading it, I was unconvinced by the implied response to the obvious objection, “if life is so bad, why not kill yourself”, namely that suicide is painful in itself and causes pain to others.

I searched a bit, and discovered that, not only had Harry Brighouse covered the book at Crooked Timber soon after it came out, but I had made the same objection in comments[1], which I’ll reproduce for convenience

given that Benatar is arguing from a utilitarian rational choice position, his argument leads straight to the (more or less standard utilitarian) conclusion that there should be no moral weight attached to suicide. That is, people should commit suicide if they reasonably judge that their future pains outweigh their future pleasures. Sympathetic others should not deplore the fact of suicide (though they should be saddened by the facts leading to the decision). Once that position is established there’s no problem bringing new people into the world. If they don’t like it they can always kill themselves. That, it seems to me, is orthodox utilitarianism, with a bit of a helping hand from revealed preference. Of course, this kind of thing is all very well in a philosophy class. In reality, suicide is more commonly the result of momentary despair and is a tragedy for both the person concerned and their friends and family.

Since 2008, most Australian states have introduced assisted dying laws, which seem to strengthen the case against Benatar’s claim (at least as applied to Australians). People who face suffering that outweighs any future pleasure can end their lives painlessly and without causing harm to their loved ones (most people who have faced the painful death of loved ones supported the legislation).

It’s true that this option is only available to the terminally ill (12 months to live), but there was no apparent demand for broader access, and the number of people taking the option has remained small.

So, if painless suicide is possible, and those who care about us should (and mostly will) support our choices if life seems unbearable on careful reflection, Benatar just seems to be saying that we are all making the wrong choice in staying alive. How (except in the extreme nature of his suggestion) does this differ from someone saying we are all wrong in our choices of food, music, life partners etc and would be truly happy if we only ate food listened to music, and shared our lives with people we hated?

fn1. This happens to me a lot, either because of failing memory or excessive opinionating.

16 thoughts on “The case for being born

  1. Anti-natalism has some interesting real-world precedents. Early Christian theologians thought the single life (devoted to god, of course) preferable, as did many pagans. One historian linked this to the high child mortality of classical Greece and Rome (five births on average just to keep the population stable). A high proportion of men and women in high medieval times were childless, and I read somewhere that one reason that north-east Native American populations recovered so slowly from the initial pandemics was that women refused to bear children only to lose most of them to disease. I’ve seen a lot of opinions on the web that it is wrong to bring children into this environmentally-afflicted world, given what they will face. Anecdote, but maybe supported by the rapid declines in population growth almost everywhere outside sub-Saharan Africa.

  2. Hummmm….. On a global scale that absolut no children thing is a super minority position. Pretty much a thing in nations that have low birthrates in the first place and where children have the best objective conditions. Theres a racist subtyp of it that is more popular, the one that the wrong people should not get children which is sometimes crossed with environmental arguments, where wrong means naturally people in poor countries and poor people in rich ones. The natural instinct to compensate for death through increased birthrates usually works rather well, leading to a boom in pregnancies under rather unfortuante conditions like refugee camps. In many nations having many children remains a preconditions for social acceptance.

    That said, its still unforunate when some people get to such an extreme point and since my environment is sufficently non representative for the world at large, i´ve encountered it and not just in people with mental health issues. It´s a fine line between not alowing optimism bias run wild on environmental topics and entering a doomsday cult mindset oneself. This is not a new phenomen among environmentalists since global warming. Goes back at least to the club of rome calculations.

  3. The case for being born (human) is dubious in that the capacity of life to deliver pain is greater than its capacity to deliver pleasure. But occupation and purpose can be made to suffice instead of pleasure. In any case, we do not get to make, on our own behalf, the case for being born. Breeding is a “decision” made by adults’ animal appetites as much or more than it is made rationally. As John Ralston Saul said; when in the throes of passion few men are thinking about the possible result. Women may be thinking that way as women are capable of thinking about more than one thing at a time.

    “I’m the son of a simple man, didn’t ask to be born” – Author unknown.

    Don’t worry about any future need for euthanasia. Omicron will make the decision for you. If not omicron, then one of the worse variants yet to come. Climate change + novel zoonoses = mass depopulation and possibly human extinction. If people want to survive they better get cracking on comprehensive solutions for these problems. The time for blind growth and consumption is over. The time for trying to save something from this mess is upon us.

    Maybe denialists and elitists have a deep seated death wish. Suicide by wilful ignorance, rank selfishness and complete self-indulgence seems to be their lodestar.

  4. In standard economic theory a “distortionless” birth (wanted and willingly supported by parents) followed by a distortionless maturity into an economic agent (no education or other subsidies, agents paid their marginal contribution in the workforce) delivers social gains to humans in the sense of “gains from trade”. There are increased trading and socializing opportunities. A death does the reverse- exactly as a labor emigration reduces the human welfare of a source country under the same conditions.

    With distortions – public goods, externalities and with concern for non-human life this simple picture reverses. But anyway, the theory of competitive markets welcomes births and sees deaths as a loss.

  5. “… the theory of competitive markets welcomes births and sees deaths as a loss.” – Harry Clarke.

    If human life and society are good, or can be good under enlightened knowledge and adequate conditions then births are a gain and deaths are a loss. That is my philosophy. Competitive market theory is beside the point. To see everything through an economic lens is mere economism. In any case, competitive markets do not and cannot exist. Where attempted they do not work. Neoliberal capitalism is the proof of that. It is collapsing and destroying the climate, environment and carrying capacity of the earth. What more empirical proof does anyone need that capitalism does not work in the long run? Capitalism destroys free gifts from nature (encloses and destroys them) and destroys or harms the lives of all persons it expropriates from, exploits and oppresses.

    The entire case for competitive markets is a fallacy. The refutation of that fallacy is seen in the fact that unlike goods (unlike utilities and disutilities) cannot be valued in a common and fictitious dimension, namely that of the numeraire or money. If we value all things in money then money is our only value. Under capitalism we now see the results of valuing everything in money. It leads to the destruction of man and nature. This was a long-run process. It has taken about 600 years from imperialism and proto-capitalsim to the current impasse. Now, of course, it is a rapidly accelerating, exponential process about to reach its denouement in total collapse. This is unless we radically change our system, though I think quite possibly it is already too late.

    I would advocate people try reading political economy outside of the narrow economism of Mankiw et al. On this blog, Quiggin and Gross are not trapped in narrow economism and it shows in their insights. Others, still relatively “conventional” in my book, whom we could name, are Thomas Piketty and Joseph Stiglitz. They are not nearly radical enough for me of course but are a good start to avoid the basic myths of monetarism, market fundamentalism and economism.

  6. I haven’t read Benatar, but I’ve read various bits of commentary. On that basis, it seems a mistake — in Benatar’s terms — to think of his anti-natalism as a rational-choice-type view about what an individual should do to maximise utility. Rather, it is a claim about the overall value of different states of affairs, comparing which of two possible worlds (as philosophers say) is better — from the point of view of the universe, as Sidgwick would put it.

    AFAICT, Benatar’s distinctive contribution to anti-natalism is to claim an asymmetry of pleasure and pain based on non-existence. To elaborate: the presence of pain is intrinsically bad and the presence of pleasure is intrinsically good; whereas the absence of pain is intrinsically good, but the absence of pleasure is *not* intrinsically bad. The absence of pleasure is only bad if there is someone for whom it is a deprivation. When people a,b,c, etc. don’t actually exist, the universe is no worse because there’s no one who is worse off. (Apart, of course, from any actually existing people d,e,f etc. whose lives might have been improved by a,b,c…)

    From this it’s supposed to follow that a world with n actually existing people is generally worse than a world without n people, given some assumptions about the distribution of pleasure and pain. The N-world has a total value of [(W presence of pleasure + X absence of pain) – (Y presence of pain + Z absence of pleasure)] while Not-N-World simply has [X absence of pain]; the overall value of N-World < the overall value of Not-N-World provided W < Y+Z.

    Certainly one can disagree with this picture at various points. But it doesn't straightforwardly reduce to
    a standard decision-theoretic form of pessimism, IMO

  7. “It’s true that this option is only available to the terminally ill (12 months to live), but there was no apparent demand for broader access,”

    We may be hopeful that this for now is indeed the “thin end of the wedge”. Those who want qualified painless to them assisted suicide should have it available. What may meet that test and how it does so may well be complex and, for some, thorny painful problems. So it goes.

    There is a long persistent religion centred on the fact that for sentient life forms to live is to suffer. All largish religions propose that an escape from and absence of suffering and an experience of lasting “true happiness” is a possibility only for certain qualifying cases after death, or many deaths. They have generated an enormous associated body of learned literature on the subject… However it is clear the only way to avoid human and much other suffering is by not being born, and that simply results from not giving birth to other humans and extended suffering.

  8. There are macro implications of suicide: those who, when young, choose to avoid the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” will typically not choose to save. This is good from a Keynesian point of view but not so good from a longer-run growth point of view.In fact, it can lead to a poverty trap if capital’s share of income is too high.

    This is examined in a paper by Chen, W., M. Engineer, and I. King (2008) “Choosing Longevity with Overlapping Generations: To Be or not to Be in Diamond’s Model”, The BE Journal of Macroeconomics (Contributions), 8(1) Article 6. If you cite it, and get in early, you face the exciting prospect of raising its citation rate by 50%!!!

  9. Jones. I sort of get that, but if being alive is better for me than being dead, it comes down to Benatar saying he wishes I (and everyone else) hadn’t been born because he disapproves of my existence. My response is that he should either put up (by removing himself from this unsatisfactory universe) or (preferably) shut up.

  10. I’m not an anti-natalist, though I from the little I know of Benatar‘s work, from the New Yorker article, I am sympathetic. Coincidentally, I first studied philosophy in the department which Benatar is a professor, though well before Benetar’s time. But there are a couple of comments to make on the reasoning in your piece, albeit in the that contained in the Brighouse quotation which you endorse.
    The first is on the statement that for the utilitarian there is “no moral weight attached to suicide”. This is incomplete, and it’s incompleteness indicates the flaws in the critique you/brighouse make of Benetar. It should rather be amended to say that is no moral weight to attach to suicide ‘in itself’. This because the key moral issue for the utilitarian position on suicide is in the latter’s consequences.
    The second is on the implications drawn from this, which also abbreviate and distort the utilitarian argument by ignoring the consequentialism inherent to it. Brighouse says once one accepts Benetar’s utilitarian position then “people [can always] should commit suicide if they reasonably judge that their future pains outweigh their future pleasures.” Note that this is an implication of the amended and not the original statement on the utilitarian position on suicide. But more importantly the reasoning st this point is strange. It goes: “Once that position is established there’s no problem bringing new people into the world. If they don’t like it they can always kill themselves” . This takes no account of precisely the events that any utilitarian ethics must, that actions have consequences and it is the latter that constitute its moral weight. And in this case there is a whole range of consequences to take into account. One is that a suffering child is not in a position practically to commit suicide for many years, or cognitively to evaluate the situation. That surely is exactly the sort of consequence the utilitarian anti-natalist holds is better obviated. In the same vein: the experiences that bring an individual to consider suicide, the social, practical objections to it are all consequences of being born into what the anti natalist says is the likely suffering of life and to be avoided.
    Your/Brighouse’s claims confuse whether for the utilitarian it is morally problematic for someone to commit suicide with whether it is morally problematic to bring a person into the world to suffer – given that they have the suicide option which bears no moral weight in itself.

  11. @NM Where are these suffering children? The children I see down at the park don’t look suicidal to me. And I can’t remember any when I was a kid myself. Certainly the thought never occurred to me, and if it occurred to any of my friends they didn’t let on.

  12. It’s rather sad right now to see the entire human race behaving suicidally via lack of intelligent and committed action on climate change and Covid-19.

  13. Well, again, I think the idea is that there’s an asymmetry here. A universe where we had never existed would have been better than this one. But given that we’re actually here, it doesn’t follow that the future universe would be better without us (e.g. if we all committed suicide). This is because, given that we actually exist, it will be bad for us when we die (because we are thereby deprived of future utility).*

    To use the fanciful metaphor that a certain kind of philosopher likes to use, imagine God choosing between two possible worlds. A world without any sentients is better than a world with them. So God should choose the former. But taking the actual world as given, God need not choose a future where we are all dead; that world might be better than a future in which we are alive, but it need not be. (In a sense, it’s too late to make this world the best it could have been)

    …at least, that’s as I understand/have reconstructed the view based on second or third-hand accounts

    * this is assuming that a Benatar-type view can make sense of the badness of death. But prima facie it would struggle to respond to the old Epicurean claim that “death is nothing to us” because we’re not around to suffer disutility from it. One standard way of responding to Epicurus is to compare counterfactual worlds in which we continue to exist vs worlds in which we don’t. And it’s not clear to me that Benatar can claim that the latter are better than the former, even given that we currently actually exist.

  14. If I understand Nigel Mackay’s reconstruction of Benatar, the claim isn’t that children are suicidal. Rather, the claim is that they *should* be, if they rationally assessed their situation along Benatar’s lines.

  15. Trying to have it both ways here. If he is only concerned with a hypothetical alternative universe, Benatar shouldn’t be telling us not to have kids. And if he’s concerned with this one, he should have the guts to follow through on the logic of his own position, rather than worrying about making his friends and family (whom he apparently can’t persuade with his arguments) unhappy about his passing

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