Better Never to Have Been

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Better Never to Have Been
Better Never to Have Been.jpg
AuthorDavid Benatar
PublisherOxford University Press
Publication date
Followed byThe Second Sexism 

Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence is a 2006 book by South African philosopher David Benatar, best known for being associated with antinatalism and philosophical pessimism. The book was preceded by Benatar's 1997 paper "Why It Is Better Never to Come into Existence",[1] where he expounded on what would eventually become the book's major concepts.[2]


Better Never to Have Been directly concerns Benatar's antinatalist philosophy: human beings are hurt by their parents when they are given birth to, and to bring them into existence is to thereby wrong them, meaning all human life is in a prolonged state of pain and harm as a result of being born. He writes towards this conclusion with two concepts: an asymmetry of pleasure and pain, and the concept that human beings have an unreliable assessment of life's quality. These concepts indicate not just what Benatar sees as the conflict ingrained in continued existence that leaves it without justification, but also the pain that is to be avoided by simply not existing. These conflicting factors become increasingly complicated as human beings continue to exist and thrive through generations, and to Benatar, this further serves as an indictment of willing human life: the sheer conflict ingrained in continued human existence, alongside it having no moral justification, leads to his conclusion that "it would have been better not to have been born."

Asymmetry of pleasure and pain[edit]

Benatar writes that there is what he calls an asymmetry of pleasure and pain:

  1. the absence of pain is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone, whereas
  2. the absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation.[3]

His reason for this concept is that the absence of pleasure is only harmful when pain is still present; to not exist at all and to thereby experience neither pleasure nor pain is the greater good. On the subject of childlessness, he further writes that "the reason why we do not lament our failure to bring somebody into existence is because absent pleasures are not bad."[4] As well as this, if pleasure is to be achieved through pain, it does not eclipse the pain that it came from; it instead further establishes this asymmetry between pleasure and pain, and yet again leads to Benatar's conclusion that it would be better to not give birth at all, which would continue the asymmetry.

Critical reception[edit]

In his review, philosopher Yujin Nagasawa questioned why Benatar framed Better Never to Have Been as a positive thesis, rather than as a counter-intuitive philosophical puzzle. As a result, Nagasawa felt that he could not recommend the book to everyone.[5] Bioethicist David DeGrazia published a rebuttal to Benatar's arguments in 2010; despite the disagreement with Benatar's position, DeGrazia commended the book, stating: "I conclude with praise for his work and the intellectual virtues it embodies."[6] In 2013, Benatar responded to critics of the book, in the paper "Still Better Never to Have Been: A Reply to (More of) My Critics".[7]

In popular culture[edit]

The creator of True Detective, Nic Pizzolatto, has cited Better Never to Have Been as an influence on the creation of the character Rust Cohle.[8]


  1. ^ Benatar, David (1997). "Why It Is Better Never to Come into Existence". American Philosophical Quarterly. 34 (3): 345–355. ISSN 0003-0481. JSTOR 20009904.
  2. ^ Belshaw, Christopher (9 June 2007). "Review of Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence". Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. ISSN 1538-1617.
  3. ^ Benatar, David, Better Never to Have Been (2006, 30).
  4. ^ Benatar, David, Better Never to Have Been (2006, 35).
  5. ^ Nagasawa, Yujin (1 July 2008). "Review: David Benatar: Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence". Mind. 117 (467): 674–677. doi:10.1093/mind/fzn089. ISSN 0026-4423.
  6. ^ DeGrazia, David (1 August 2010). "Is it wrong to impose the harms of human life? A reply to Benatar". Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics. 31 (4): 317–331. doi:10.1007/s11017-010-9152-y. ISSN 1573-1200. PMID 20625933. S2CID 10284785.
  7. ^ Benatar, David (1 June 2013). "Still Better Never to Have Been: A Reply to (More of) My Critics". The Journal of Ethics. 17 (1): 121–151. doi:10.1007/s10892-012-9133-7. ISSN 1572-8609. S2CID 170682992.
  8. ^ Calia, Michael (2 February 2014). "Writer Nic Pizzolatto on Thomas Ligotti and the Weird Secrets of 'True Detective'". WSJ. Retrieved 31 May 2020.