David Benatar

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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.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

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.[2]

Academic career[edit]

Benatar is professor of philosophy and head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Cape Town in Cape Town, South Africa.[3]

Philosophical work[edit]

Pain[edit]

Benatar argues from the premise that pain is, in itself, a bad thing.[4] 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.[5]

Nevertheless, he offers defenses of the corporal punishment of children[6] and the circumcision of male infants (which he deems a matter for parental discretion).[7]

Asymmetry between pain and pleasure[edit]

Benatar argues there is an asymmetry between pleasure and pain, which means it would be better for humans not to have been alive:

  1. the presence of pain is bad;
  2. the presence of pleasure is good;
  3. the absence of pain is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone;
  4. the absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation.[8][9]
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[edit]

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:

  1. We have a moral obligation not to create unhappy people, and we have no moral obligation to create happy people. The reason why there is a moral obligation not to create unhappy people is that we believe the presence of pain is bad for those who are hurt, and the absence of pain is good also when there is no someone who is experiencing this good. By contrast, the reason for which there is no moral obligation to create happy people is that although the feeling of 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.
  2. It is strange to mention the interests of a potential child as a reason why we decide to create it, and it is not strange to mention the interests of a potential child as a reason why we decide not to create it. That the child may be happy is not a morally important reason to create it. By contrast, that the child may be unhappy is an important moral reason to not create it. If the absence of pleasure is bad even if someone does not exist to experience its absence, we would have a significant moral reason to create a child, and to create as many children as possible. If, however, the absence of pain wouldn't be good even if someone would not experience this good, we would not have a significant moral reason not to create a child.
  3. Someday we can regret for the sake of the good of a man whose existence was conditional on our decision, that we created him – a man can be unhappy and the presence of his pain would be a bad thing. But we will never feel regret for the sake of the good of a man whose existence was conditional on our decision, that we did not create him – a man will not be deprived of happiness, because he 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.
  4. We feel sadness about the fact that, somewhere, people came into existence and suffer, and we feel no sadness about the fact that, somewhere, people did not come into existence, and that in this place there are no 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 do not suffer is good. This is because the absence of pain is good even when there is no one experiencing this good. On the other hand, we do not feel sadness about 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 there is someone who is deprived of this good.[10]

Humans' unreliable assessment of life's quality[edit]

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:

  1. Tendency towards optimism: we have a positively distorted perspective of our lives in the past, present, and future.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

He concludes;

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.[11]

Sexual discrimination against men and boys[edit]

Benatar's The Second Sexism: Discrimination Against Men and Boys (2012) has been met with controversy: The philosopher Simon Blackburn writes: "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 as a philosopher he is especially careful both about the interpretation of evidence and the use of terms such as "discrimination". [...] I do not at all doubt that there is a case to be made for the recognition of a second sexism, nor that Benatar makes it well. And it is not as if he himself is taking sides in these invidious comparisons. He is not a participant in the sex wars but a peacemaker who wants them to wind down. All that he aims to show is 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."[12] The philosopher Iddo Landau writes: "Benatar suggests 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. / This is a very well-argued book that presents an unorthodox thesis and defends it ably. It would be a useful text in both undergraduate and graduate courses in philosophy and gender studies, where it is certain to arouse a lot of discussion, much of it excited. [...] Most importantly [...] it is likely to change our understanding of gender relations."[13]

Suzanne Moore, a columnist for The Guardian and The Sunday Mail, wrote: "... abundant tripe trickles down from on high, even academe. Every so often a new tome details how men, not women, are discriminated against (apart from rape, murder, equal pay, genital mutilation, the power imbalance in politics, business, education, law and arts they may have a point). Things are tough for some guys. Really, I know that. I just find it hard to accept feminism has gone too far, that a bit of underarm hair signals the end of western civilisation."[14] In a brief letter to The Guardian, Benatar sought to correct some errors in Moore's account of his views; [15] Benatar had predicted criticisms in the book: "Given the prevailing orthodoxy in the academy and the sensitivity of the issues I shall be discussing, the views I defend in this book will be deemed threatening by many. I am under no illusions. My position, no matter how clearly stated, is likely to be misunderstood."[16]

Publications[edit]

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).[17][18]. 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.

Cultural influence[edit]

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).[19]

Personal life[edit]

Benatar is vegan, and has taken part in debates on veganism.[20] 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."[21]

Bibliography[edit]

  • 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. Clarendon 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.

As editor[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Steyn, Mark (14 December 2007). "Children? Not if you love the planet". Orange County Register. Retrieved 29 April 2008.
  2. ^ Rothman, Joshua (27 November 2017). "The Case for Not Being Born". The New Yorker.
  3. ^ University of Cape Town Philosophy Department Staff
  4. ^ Benatar 2006.
  5. ^ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y0Q59w8CY0k&t=2002s
  6. ^ Gert et al. 1998.
  7. ^ Michael Benatar, David Benatar, "Between Prophylaxis and Child Abuse: The Ethics of Neonatal Circumcision," in: David Benatar, ed., Cutting to the Core: Exploring the Ethics of Contested Surgeries (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006), pp. 23–46.
  8. ^ D. Benatar, Why it is Better Never to Come Into Existence, American Philosophical Quarterly 1997, volume 34, number 3, pp. 345-355.
  9. ^ D. Benatar, Better..., op. cit., pp. 30-40.
  10. ^ D. Benatar, Better..., op. cit., pp. 30-57.
  11. ^ D. Benatar, Better..., op. cit., pp. 64-69.
  12. ^ Times Higher Education review, 5 July 2012, retrieved 27 August 2012.
  13. ^ Metapsychology online reviews, 21 August 2012, retrieved 27 August 2012.
  14. ^ The Guardian, 16 May 2012, "The Second Sexism is just victim-envy", retrieved 27 August 2012.
  15. ^ The Guardian, 18 May 2012, "Men and sexism", retrieved 27 August 2012
  16. ^ Benatar 2012, p. 16.
  17. ^ Benatar & Benatar 2003.
  18. ^ Benatar & Benatar 2001.
  19. ^ "Writer Nic Pizzolatto on Thomas Ligotti and the Weird Secrets of True Detective."
  20. ^ The Species Barrier, around 30 minutes in
  21. ^ [1] We Are Creatures That Should Not Exist: The Philosophy Of Anti-Natalism, The Critique, July 15, 2015.

References[edit]