|Born||8 December 1966|
|Occupation||Academic, professor, writer|
|Alma mater||University of Cape Town (BSocSc, PhD)|
|Sub-discipline||Moral philosophy, social philosophy, philosophy of religion|
|Institutions||University of Cape Town|
|Notable ideas||Asymmetry between pain and pleasure|
David Benatar (born 1966) is a South African philosopher, academic and author. He is best known for his advocacy of antinatalism in his book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, in which he argues that coming into existence is a serious harm, regardless of the feelings of the existing being once brought into existence, and that, as a consequence, it is always morally wrong to create more sentient beings.
Early life and education
Benatar is the son of Solomon Benatar, a global-health expert who founded the Bioethics Centre at the University of Cape Town. Not much is known about Benatar's personal life as he deliberately guards his privacy. He has held antinatalist views since his childhood.
Benatar is professor of philosophy and head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Cape Town in Cape Town, South Africa. He is a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Controversial Ideas.
Benatar argues from the premise that pain is, in itself, a bad thing. His work has often been associated with contemporary philosophies of nihilism and pessimism. Benatar has stated his lack of approval toward the benevolent world-exploder view.
Asymmetry between pain and pleasure
Benatar argues there is crucial asymmetry between the good and the bad things, such as pleasure and pain, which means it would be better for humans not to have been born:
- The presence of pain is bad.
- The presence of pleasure is good.
- The absence of pain is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone.
- The absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation.
|Scenario A (X exists)||Scenario B (X never exists)|
|(1) Presence of pain (Bad)||(3) Absence of pain (Good)|
|(2) Presence of pleasure (Good)||(4) Absence of pleasure (Not bad)|
Implications for procreation
Benatar argues that bringing someone into existence generates both good and bad experiences, pain and pleasure, whereas not doing so generates neither pain nor pleasure. The absence of pain is good, the absence of pleasure is not bad. Therefore, the ethical choice is weighed in favor of non-procreation.
Benatar raises four other related asymmetries that he considers quite plausible:
- We have a moral obligation not to create unhappy people and we have no moral obligation to create happy people. The reason why we think there is a moral obligation not to create unhappy people is that the presence of this suffering would be bad (for the sufferers) and the absence of the suffering is good (even though there is nobody to enjoy the absence of suffering). By contrast, the reason we think there is no moral obligation to create happy people is that although their pleasure would be good for them, the absence of pleasure when they do not come into existence will not be bad, because there will be no one who will be deprived of this good.
- It is strange to mention the interests of a potential child as a reason why we decide to create them, and it is not strange to mention the interests of a potential child as a reason why we decide not to create them. That the child may be happy is not a morally important reason to create them. By contrast, that the child may be unhappy is an important moral reason not to create them. If it were the case that the absence of pleasure is bad even if someone does not exist to experience its absence, then we would have a significant moral reason to create a child and to create as many children as possible. And if it were not the case that the absence of pain is good even if someone does not exist to experience this good, then we would not have a significant moral reason not to create a child.
- Someday we can regret for the sake of a person whose existence was conditional on our decision, that we created them – a person can be unhappy and the presence of their pain would be a bad thing. But we will never feel regret for the sake of a person whose existence was conditional on our decision, that we did not create them – a person will not be deprived of happiness, because he or she will never exist, and the absence of happiness will not be bad, because there will be no one who will be deprived of this good.
- We feel sadness by the fact that somewhere people come into existence and suffer, and we feel no sadness by the fact that somewhere people did not come into existence in a place where there are happy people. When we know that somewhere people came into existence and suffer, we feel compassion. The fact that on some deserted island or planet people did not come into existence and suffer is good. This is because the absence of pain is good even when there is not someone who is experiencing this good. On the other hand, we do not feel sadness by the fact that on some deserted island or planet people did not come into existence and are not happy. This is because the absence of pleasure is bad only when someone exists to be deprived of this good.
Humans' unreliable assessment of life's quality
Benatar raises the issue of whether humans inaccurately estimate the true quality of their lives, and has cited three psychological phenomena which he believes are responsible for this:
- Tendency towards optimism: we have a positively distorted perspective of our lives in the past, present, and future.
- Adaptation: we adapt to our circumstances, and if they worsen, our sense of well-being is lowered in anticipation of those harmful circumstances, according to our expectations, which are usually divorced from the reality of our circumstances.
- Comparison: we judge our lives by comparing them to those of others, ignoring the negatives which affect everyone to focus on specific differences. And due to our optimism bias, we mostly compare ourselves to those worse off, to overestimate the value of our own well-being.
The above psychological phenomena are unsurprising from an evolutionary perspective. They militate against suicide and in favour of reproduction. If our lives are quite as bad as I shall still suggest they are, and if people were prone to see this true quality of their lives for what it is, they might be much more inclined to kill themselves, or at least not to produce more such lives. Pessimism, then, tends not to be naturally selected.
Sexual discrimination against men and boys
Benatar's The Second Sexism: Discrimination Against Men and Boys (2012) examines various issues regarding misandry and the negative socially-imposed aspects of male identity. As a work within the men's liberation movement, it does not seek to attack or diminish the ideas of feminism, but rather to shine light on the parallel existence of systemic and cultural discrimination against men and boys, and how it simultaneously contributes to the oppression of women. In a review of the book, philosopher Simon Blackburn writes that "Benatar knows that such examples are likely to meet snorts of disbelief or derision, but he is careful to back up his claims with empirical data," and through this book, he shows that "if it is all too often tough being a woman, it is also sometimes tough being a man, and that any failure to recognise this risks distorting what should be everyone's goal, namely universal sympathy as well as social justice for all, regardless of gender." In another review, the philosopher Iddo Landau praises the work as "a very well-argued book that presents an unorthodox thesis and defends it ably," agreeing with Benatar that "in order to cope with the hitherto ignored second sexism, we should not only acknowledge it, but also dedicate much more empirical and philosophical research to this under-explored topic and, of course, try to change many attitudes, social norms, and laws".
Benatar is the author of a series of widely cited papers in medical ethics, including "Between Prophylaxis and Child Abuse" (The American Journal of Bioethics) and "A Pain in the Fetus: Toward Ending Confusion about Fetal Pain" (Bioethics). His work has been published in such journals as Ethics, Journal of Applied Philosophy, Social Theory and Practice, American Philosophical Quarterly, QJM: An International Journal of Medicine, Journal of Law and Religion and the British Medical Journal.
Nic Pizzolatto, creator and writer of True Detective, has cited Benatar's Better Never to Have Been as an influence on the TV series (along with Ray Brassier's Nihil Unbound, Thomas Ligotti's The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Jim Crawford's Confessions of an Antinatalist, and Eugene Thacker's In The Dust of This Planet).
Benatar is vegan, and has taken part in debates on veganism. He has argued that humans are "responsible for the suffering and deaths of billions of other humans and non-human animals. If that level of destruction were caused by another species we would rapidly recommend that new members of that species not be brought into existence." He has also argued that the outbreak of zoonotic diseases, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, is often the result of how humans mistreat animals.
- Benatar, David (2001). Ethics for Everyday. McGraw-Hill. ISBN 978-0-07-240889-8.
- Benatar, David (2006). Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-929642-2.
- Benatar, David (2012). The Second Sexism: Discrimination Against Men and Boys. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0-470-67451-2.
- Benatar, David; Wasserman, David (2015). Debating Procreation: Is It Wrong to Reproduce?. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-027311-8.
- Archard, David; Benatar, David (2016). Procreation and Parenthood: The Ethics of Bearing and Rearing Children. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-874815-1.
- Benatar, David (2017). The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life's Biggest Questions. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780190633813.
- Benatar, David, ed. (2006). Cutting to the Core: Exploring the Ethics of Contested Surgeries. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-0-7425-5001-8.
- Ethics for Everyday. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002.
- Life, Death & Meaning: Key Philosophical Readings on the Big Questions (2004)
- Steyn, Mark (14 December 2007). "Children? Not if you love the planet". Orange County Register. Retrieved 29 April 2008.
- Rothman, Joshua (27 November 2017). "The Case for Not Being Born". The New Yorker.
- "David Benatar". Department of Philosophy. Retrieved 15 April 2020.
- "Editorial Board". Journal of Controversial Ideas. Retrieved 20 April 2020.
- Benatar 2006.
- MOWE (22 July 2018), #060 - The Curse of Existence (Prof. David Benatar), retrieved 5 April 2019
- CosmicSkeptic Podcast (26 April 2020), Is It Immoral To Have Children? - Talking with David Benatar, retrieved 26 April 2021
- Benatar, D. (1997). "Why it is Better Never to Come Into Existence". American Philosophical Quarterly. 34 (3): 345–355.
- Benatar 2006, pp. 30–40.
- Benatar 2006, pp. 30–57.
- Benatar 2006, pp. 64–69.
- Times Higher Education review, 5 July 2012, retrieved 27 August 2012.
- Metapsychology online reviews, 21 August 2012, retrieved 27 August 2012.
- Benatar & Benatar 2003.
- Benatar & Benatar 2001.
- Calia, Michael (2 February 2014). "Writer Nic Pizzolatto on Thomas Ligotti and the Weird Secrets of 'True Detective'". WSJ. Retrieved 15 April 2020.
- The Species Barrier, around 30 minutes in
- Benatar, David (15 July 2015). "'We Are Creatures That Should Not Exist': The Theory of Anti-Natalism : The Critique". The Critique. Archived from the original on 17 July 2015. Retrieved 5 April 2019.
- "Do Humans Have a Moral Duty to Stop Procreating?". Big Think. 18 August 2015. Retrieved 5 April 2019.
- Wiebers, D., & Feigin, V. (2021). Heeding the call of COVID-19. Animal Sentience, 5(30)
- Benatar, David (13 April 2020). "Our cruel treatment of animals led to coronavirus". The New York Times. Retrieved 22 April 2020.
- "Antinatalism – should we let humanity go extinct? David Benatar vs Bruce Blackshaw". YouTube. 13 March 2020. Retrieved 14 March 2020.
- "The Harm of Coming Into Existence". YouTube. 13 June 2020. 8:36 minutes in. Retrieved 13 June 2020.
- Gert, Joshua; Costa, Victoria; Dancy, Margaret; Benatar, David (1998). "Corporal Punishment". Social Theory and Practice. 24 (2): 237–260. doi:10.5840/soctheorpract19982423. ISSN 0037-802X.
- Benatar, Michael; Benatar, David (2003). "Between Prophylaxis and Child Abuse: The Ethics of Neonatal Male Circumcision". The American Journal of Bioethics. 3 (2): 35–48. doi:10.1162/152651603766436216. ISSN 1526-5161. PMID 12859815. S2CID 10798287.
- Benatar, David; Benatar, Michael (2001). "A Pain in the Fetus: Toward Ending Confusion about Fetal Pain". Bioethics. 15 (1): 57–76. doi:10.1111/1467-8519.00212. ISSN 0269-9702. PMID 11699550.
- Kolbert, Elizabeth (9 April 2012). "The Case Against Kids: Is procreation immoral?". The New Yorker. Retrieved 6 April 2012.
- Haupt, Adam (14 May 2007). "We dare not erase race from debate". Mail & Guardian. Johannesburg. Retrieved 21 February 2011.
- London, Leslie (4 June 2007). "Affirmative action and the invisibility of white privilege". 26 (8). University of Cape Town. Retrieved 21 February 2011.
- Raditlhalo, Sam (25 April 2007). "So much remains hidden behind those plastic smiles at UCT". Cape Times. Retrieved 29 April 2008.[dead link]
- "Affirmative Action and UCT – the debate". Monday Paper. 26 (5). University of Cape Town. 23 April 2007. Retrieved 21 February 2011.