Friday, August 19, 2011

Irreligiosity - Better Never to Have Been?

From tomorrow's edition of the Owen Sound Sun Times:

" And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 4: 2-4 (NIV).

Religious believers spend considerable time worrying about death and hoping for an afterlife. However, aside from those who believe in reincarnation, little attention is paid to the time before we came into existence. When Hamlet famously asks: “To be, or not to be, that is the question”, most people would readily choose to be. This is simply taken for granted.

Once you exist, it is natural to want to continue to exist unless you are dying in extreme pain and wish an early exit from this mortal coil (a right currently denied to Canadians but available in Oregon, Belgium and a few other jurisdictions). However, are we better off coming into existence than never having been in the first place? Once again, most people respond to this question with “of course” and answering no would be heretical to most religions. For example, the Bible directs humanity to “be fruitful, and multiply”.

David Benatar is a South African philosopher who advances the shockingly counter-intuitive argument that coming into existence is always a serious harm. Benatar’s argument appears philosophically sound: although the good things in your life make it better than it would have otherwise been, you wouldn’t miss them if you weren’t around to enjoy them. Benatar poses 2 scenarios: one where X exists and one where X never exists. In the case where X exists, the presence of pain is usually considered bad and the presence of pleasure is usually considered good. However, in the case where X never exists, the absence of pain is good while the absence of pleasure is “not bad”. It is difficult to argue that the absence of pain is a good thing even if nobody endures the pain. If a couple planning to have children were told that genetic testing indicated that any child of theirs would suffer excruciatingly painful abnormalities and survive only a few days at most, few would blame them for deciding to adopt instead. In fact, one could argue that the couple would have a moral duty not to conceive a child in such circumstances. On the other hand, if a person never comes into existence and misses a good meal (or any other pleasurable experience that life has to offer) that non-existent person will never know what they missed. Although it would be strange to describe a nobody missing a good thing as good, surely it isn’t a bad thing for that non-existent person. It might well be bad for somebody already in existence (such as a parent desiring the child or a child desiring a sibling) but that is not the question. The question is whether it is better for the non-existent person, from the perspective of that potential being, to come into existence or not. Professor Benatar answers Hamlet’s soliloquy with a resounding “it’s always better not to be”!

It’s difficult in a column of this length to take you through the complexities of Benatar’s position but he lays it all out in his provocatively titled Better Never to Have Been (Oxford University Press, 2006). Basically, Benatar argues that no matter how good a life might end up being, every life involves inevitable pain and suffering. Of course, billions of people around the world lead downright miserable lives.

Benatar is not suggesting that people who already exist should prematurely end their lives although that clearly is a preferable option for some for whom continued existence involves excruciating suffering. He does, however, offer the radical opinion that the extinction of the human race (which is inevitable at some point) should occur sooner rather than later.

What do I take from Benatar’s work? Simply the realization that the decision of my wife and me to have children was for our benefit - not theirs. While I obviously hope that they will lead long and happy lives, the simple fact of the matter is that they wouldn’t miss that if they weren’t here. However, we are sure glad they are here. Benatar offers a similar view in the dedication to his book:

"To my parents, even though they brought me into existence and to my brothers, each of whose existence, although a harm to him, is a great benefit to the rest of us."

* Note - Thanks to the gentleman who took the time to review this piece and offer a few editorial suggestions prior to its publication. This quote is for you: A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops. ~Henry Brooks Adams.


  1. TAM,
    Interesting article. From a hedonistic point of view of pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain this makes some sense.
    The deep yearnings of most people to procreate shows there is more at work in our humanity than hedonism.

  2. Question 1: If "Absence of Pain" is good (because we are avoiding pain), then "Absence of Pleasure" should be bad (because we are avoiding pleasure). Stands to reason, doesn't it?

    Question 2: How can there be any qualitative difference between the states of "Absence of Pain" and "Absence of Pleasure"? If these states are qualitatively the same, then what justifies labeling one of them "good"?

  3. Hi Pastor Jud, nice of you to drop by. I fear that pleasure seeking (or, more accurately, the fulfilment of desires) may well explain all human action. I'm not sure how familiar you are with the concept of desire utilitarianism (as propounded by Alonzo Fyfe) but I find it quite persuasive.

    Paul, first of all, I commend a reading of Benatar's book because I have only scratched the surface with this post. In response to both of your questions, consider a scenario where a bomb is defused that would have otherwise killed a thousand existent people. We clearly consider the absence of that harm to be a good thing even though nobody ever experiences the harm that was avoided. Similarly, as noted in my post, almost everyone would agree that it would be prudent for a couple not to conceive a bay if they knew with certainty that the child's life was likely to only last for a few days in excruciating pain. We consider the absence of this harm to be a good thing even though there is no person is existence to suffer that harm.

    IMHO, the absence of pleasure is far different, qualitatively, than the absence of harm. Surely the fact that my fourth child who was never conceived (my wife and I only have 3 children) will not enjoy supper this evening cannot be described as "bad", can it? I agree with Benatar that the absence of pleasure from the perspective of a non-existent person (say, for example, the 10th additional child that my wife and I never had) is simply "not bad". It's neutral. It's a nothing from the perspective of a nothing.

  4. TAM,
    I had to look up Desire Utilitarianism. It is interesting how complex thinking needs to get to try to squeeze out some sense of good and evil without God.
    You ponder in this article the meaning of life which is, IMHO, beyond our ability to comprehend.
    Good to chat again. I am done with summer travels with the family and youth.

  5. I'm somewhat perplexed that you call this counter-intuitive. It's made sense to me since I was a wee lad.

  6. Hi TAM,

    This is one of those hypotheticals that only makes sense in the perspective of a potential. If a person could potentially exist then the question can be debated as to whether their existence be good or bad for them. Without the potential to exist the hypothetical loses relevance.

    I expect an individual's take on this would depend on what sort of life they've led. I think, that for most people, they find meaning in their lives through having children. I'm speculating as I've never had children.

    By the way, we cannot live without pain - it serves the purpose of protecting us from harm. And emotional pain affects the same area of the brain, and to the same degree, as physical pain, which is why it can be so devastating.

    I once read an account of a young man who was on his way, by bicycle, at night, to a well-known suicide spot in Sydney. But on his way he was nearly hit by a truck and the experience made him realise that he wanted to live (no, it wasn't me).

    Regards, Paul.

  7. If 'energy is neither made nor destroyed, but changed from one form into another'...and if matter and energy are 'interchangeable' per 'Relativistic Mechanics'...from a purely 'scientific' standpoint HOW does one explain what 'happens' to the human body (or any other living body, for that matter) after death? I ask because the assumption here seems to be that 'from nada we become 'something' and then it is to nada that we return'. How can that be? Anyone...Anyone....Bueller? : )Blessings-Rev. Barb

  8. Problems with the box model above: Not all pain is bad. You make some good points, Paul. To a recovering paralytic, those first 'pins & needles' are a blessing, indeed. Exercisers get endorphin 'highs' along with athletic achievements at times. Pathologically, 'cutters' feel alive when they inflict pain upon themselves and will even engage in it when subject to suicidal ideation, thus forestalling actual attempts at suicide. A certain 'Master' would inflict especially stinging pain upon his female student many moons ago, prompting her to train harder & want to excel, finally drawing the entire matter to a close one day when she inadvertently front snap-kicked her Master's uncupped crotch accident, of she lay on the floor about to be defeated. These are GOOD kinds of pain, as is natural childbirth--a means to a ('good') end. Pain WARNS us. As we say in the chem lab, "Hot glass looks the same as cold glass". Finally we have that frustrating sense of sacred suffering we Christians embrace whenever we are truly in pain and we remember what Jesus went through for US! Our MIND takes the edge of your hand past the 'pain' and to the other side of a stack of wood boards. And so our FAITH takes our entire being-heart, mind, body & soul-through whatever we must endure and ONTO THE REMAINDER of our short lives here on earth doing whatever God expects of us. That's why I think 'pain can be good'--although, ladies, get that epidural by all means. The track record on it is very good now, unlike 29 years ago. God Bless You-Rev. Barb

  9. The Title: Shouldn't it be 'Atheism/Agnosticism Rather than 'Irreligiosity'? That quote from Ecclesiastes--like the entire theme there of 'Meaninglessness'--speaks of life apart from God, not apart from 'religion(s)' or disdain for the same. Maybe a different Scripture verse? Or am I misreading this? Rev. Barb