Rozhovor s Davidem Benatarem

By | 08/03/2018

David Benatar je známý filosof, profesor na University of Cape Town v Kapském městě v Jihoafrické republice. Benatar je zřejmě nejznámějším a nejsofistikovanějším obhájcem antinatalismu (jeho nejdůležitější práce vyšla i v českém jazyce pod názvem Nebýt či být). Prof. Benatar bude v květnu hostem Ústavu státu a práva AV ČR v.v.i. a následující rozhovor se zaměřuje právě na jeho antinatalismus.

DČ: “La Vita è Bella” is a movie directed by Robert Benigni who also impersonated the role of Guido Orefice, an Italian waiter who is after five happy years of marriage deported to a concentration camp with his whole family. Life, as the title suggests, is beautiful but sometimes all goes wrong and what previously was a beautiful life can turn out to be disastrously unhappy. But you, professor Benatar, are worldwide known for theoretically deeply rooted pessimism: life is not beautiful, life is not happy, life is not even good. You consider bringing a new life into existence to be a serious harm. How have you arrived at such a terrifying conclusion?

DB: I do not deny that life can contain some beauty, some happiness and even some goodness. What I deny, as you imply, is that life is good enough (or happy or beautiful enough) to warrant bringing a new sentient being into existence. A conclusion such as that requires a full argument, and that is obviously impossible to provide here. In summary, though, we have excellent reason for thinking that there is much more bad than good in even the best human lives. Consider, for example, that the worst pains are much worse than the best pleasures are good. Pain also lasts much longer than pleasure. Injury comes quickly, but recovery, even if possible, takes a long time. We have more desires than we have satisfied desires. On the spectrum from complete ignorance to omniscience, we much closer to the former than to the latter. This is just some of the evidence. The situation is even worse for the more unfortunate people, such as those who are languishing in poverty. Moreover, there is, I believe, an important evaluative asymmetry between harms and benefits. The absence of harm is good even if there is nobody who thereby benefits, whereas the absence of benefit is not bad unless there is somebody who is thereby deprived. The upshot of this is that there is something to be lost by being brought into existence but there is no net gain.

DČ: Well, at this point I think that we should distinguish two argumentative strategies involved in your reply. The first line of argument, which might be dubbed “empirical”, concentrates on how well or badly one’s life goes and how reliable a self-assessment of our welfare is. The second argument is by its nature more theoretical and is based on the evaluative asymmetry between harm and benefit; we will return to it later in this interview.

Your argument to the effect that a life, any life, contains too much bad which overweighs good is necessarily general. That is, for any X, if X is a sentient creature then X’s life is all things considered bad. But consider Adam the Stoic. Adam has only a few desires and mainly the kind of desires that can be easily satisfied. Furthermore, the majority of his desires are indeed satisfied in truth. Adam occasionally feels pain or discomfort but he doesn’t mind. He considers his life overall good and on all major theories of welfare his life is in effect good. His personal subjective assessment of his welfare goes hand in hand with the way we would be inclined to judge it. Then, at the age of 40, he dies abruptly and painlessly. If his life was good according to both subjective (as he assesses it) and objective (as we judge it) assessment, how could we say that this evaluation is biased by some unconscious evolution-created psychological mechanisms? Moreover, if there is at least one X, X is a sentient creature and X lived a good life, then your theory is no longer general and applicable to all possible lives. Do you categorically exclude the possibility of there being an Adam the Stoic?

DB: There are a few things to be said about Adam the Stoic. First, you’ve stipulated that he only occasionally feels pain or discomfort, but he doesn’t mind. In the actual world, people who live to the age of 40 do not only occasionally have pain and discomfort. Even if some people claim not to mind pain and discomfort, the presence of those sensations is intrinsically bad. They are, after all, pain and discomfort. Their unpleasantness is part of their description. You’ve also suggested that Adam has only few desires, which are mainly ones that can easily be satisfied. Insofar as people’s desires are restricted in this way it seems designed to prevent frustration. This is too convenient to give us comfort.

You’ve also stipulated that Adam dies suddenly and painlessly at age 40. That, on my view, is a terrible fate, even if dying painfully would have been still worse. There are some who deny that death itself is bad, but that’s a view that I – along with most people – reject.

Adam’s subjective assessment (obviously before his untimely death) is not decisive, not least because people are capable of self-deception and other error. (Your particular interpretation of subjective assessments – namely subjective assessments not just of the current moment but of extended periods of one’s life – can generate contradictory results. If, for example, one judges one’s life positively until time T1 but later offers a negative assessment of the same period, one would be committed, according your view, to accepting as accurate both the positive and the negative subjective assessments of the same period.)

You’ve also not covered all major theories of welfare. Notably absent are objective list theories, according to which, I have argued elsewhere, all human lives also fare badly.

Finally, even if there were an occasional person who did lead a charmed life, another of my arguments for anti-natalism would kick in, namely the risk argument. If one in ten million, or even one in a million or one in a thousand were to lead a charmed life, procreation would still be too risky to be justified.

DČ: In your book “Better Never to Have Been” (translated into Czech with maybe a slightly misleading title “Not to Be or to Be”) you have aptly and carefully distinguished between a life worth starting and a life worth continuing suggesting that we should set the quality threshold for a life worth starting higher than the quality threshold for a life worth continuing. Now, let’s consider Adam the Hermit. Adam lives in the wild, completely isolated from the rest of civilization. Adam only possesses one book: “Better Never to Have Been” and after reading and re-reading it he comes to the conclusion that his life is indeed very bad. He realizes that his life is not worthy of continuing and consequently commits suicide.  Since Adam’s life was in truth bad, his death didn’t deprive him of a good life and therefore couldn’t be bad for him. Moreover, Adam the Hermit had no relatives whatsoever and his death couldn’t possibly harm anyone. Do you agree that in committing suicide Adam the Hermit did not act wrongly?

And now consider a slightly strange but nevertheless possible world populated by adult people in which everybody got convinced by your book that life is very bad and consequently, all desires have been adjusted in a way to make any life unworthy of continued existence. As a consequence, everybody commits suicide. Wouldn’t you agree that such a possible world, in which the people are no longer deluded about the quality of their lives and calmly accept the inevitability of suicide, is morally better than our actual world? And morally speaking, isn’t it that we should approximate this possible world as closely as possible?

DB: You have stipulated that Adam the Hermit’s life is not worth continuing. If that is indeed the case, then I think that he does no wrong in taking his own life, tragic though that is. However, you seem to be implying that he, along with everybody in the “strange but nevertheless possible world” you describe, learn that their lives are not worth continuing only from reading my book. I can’t see how that could be the case. I argue in the book that no lives are worth starting. I do not make the further claim that no lives are worth continuing. I certainly don’t think that no longer desiring to live is a decisive indication that one’s life is not worth continuing. People can mistakenly think that their lives have ceased to be worth continuing. What this suggests to me is that although you have noted my distinction between a life worth starting a life worth continuing, you might in fact be slipping between these two.

DČ: I did mean to imply that all inhabitants of that strange possible world had indeed come to realize that their lives were very bad after reading your book. But not because they had been slipping between a life worth starting and a life worth continuing. I think that they might have come to that conclusion by being persuaded by your arguments concerning psychological mechanisms making the self-assessment of the quality of their lives unreliable. If it is possible, and I claim it is, then depopulating the entire possible world by committing suicide seems to be the right and prudentially rational choice.

But what if your assessment of others’ quality of life is overly optimistic, deluded by all the psychological mechanism you describe in your book. And what if you come to realize this nefarious situation making yourself believe that all lives are, all things considered, deep bellow any reasonable standard of a life worth continuing? Imagine that you have in fact come to this conclusion and moreover, an ingenious friend of yours tells you about his newest invention – a sentient-being-instantly-killing machine. If you pushed a big red button, you are told, you would instantly and painlessly kill all sentient beings. Would you push the button?

DB: You have suggested that the inhabitants of your imagined world reached the conclusion that their lives were not worth continuing, and that they reached this conclusion by being persuaded by my arguments that their self-assessments were unreliable. However, one can recognize that one’s self-assessments about life’s quality are overly optimistic, and even that life as a whole is very bad, without reaching the conclusion that one’s life is now not worth continuing. This is because, once one exists one has an interest in continuing to exist – or so I argue. For that interest to be defeated, it is not sufficient that one’s life as a whole is very bad. It has to be bad enough now or imminently so to make death the lesser of two evils.

Now, it is possible that our optimism bias leads us to set too high a threshold for judging the interest in continued existence to be defeated, but it is very difficult to know where the sour spot is. Given the conflicting interests – avoiding unpleasantness and avoiding death – there is no side of caution on which to err. (The same is not true for bringing people into existence because there can be no interest in coming into existence and thus unpleasantness in a possible life is decisive.)

Given the interest in continued existence, it is extraordinarily unlikely that every existent person will have reached the point where continued existence is no longer in their interests. Young and healthy people, for example, are generally not likely to have reached that point. This is what is incredible about your scenario. However, even if we imagine some dystopian situation in which everybody’s life is miserable, there would still be reason not to push the big red button: It’s not my place to make the decision for everybody else. Anti-natalism is not a warrant for murder.

DČ: My preceding questions concerned welfare, our self-assessment of welfare and some possible consequences that one might be tempted to draw from your reflections. In my last question I would like to turn to your famous argument for the conclusion that coming into existence is always a harm, grounded in an asymmetry between the absence of pain and pleasure. You have distinguished two scenarios, one in which X exists and one in which X never exists. One important step in your argumentations is the claim that the presence of pain is bad (for an existing being), whilst the absence of pain is good.

What exactly does it mean that the presence of pain is bad? I think that the following:

  1. i) There is an X such that X is in pain and being in pain is bad for X.

Now, if this analysis is correct—and it seems to be correct to me—then the meaning of the predicate “is bad” is partially specified by the reference to an existing subject. It seems straightforward: “P is bad for X” then means that “P is prudentially bad…” and “prudentially” cannot be omitted from the analysis of the meaning of “is bad”.

Now, consider the claim that the absence of pain is good. Since you evaluate the truth of this claim within the second scenario in which X never exists, the following analysis seems to be correct:

  1. i) There is no X such that X is in pain and that is good.

There is a difference between saying A: “There is an X such that X is not in pain and not being in pain is good for X” and saying B: “There is no X such that X is in pain and that is good”. The first claim is consistent with “There is an X such that X is in pain”, whilst the second is not. In A, the meaning of “is good” is partially specified by the reference to an existing subject and therefore, “is good” means “is prudentially good”. We can, of course, make a comparison between scenarios in which something is prudentially bad and prudentially good. However, that is not the kind of comparison you have made because the meaning of “is bad” in your first scenario is “is prudentially bad” whilst the meaning of “good” in the second scenario is “is (impersonally?) good”. Since I’m not sure that we can compare the two different evaluations (prudential and impersonal), I have doubts whether your argument is sound or not.

DB: You suggest that while the presence of pain in an existing person is prudentially bad, the absence of pain in a scenario where that person does not exist can only be impersonally good. I deny the latter. If we wish to determine whether coming into existence is good or bad for X, we must evaluate the absent pains and pleasures in the scenario in which he never exists with reference to X, even though X only exists in the alternative scenario. That is not an impersonal assessment but rather a personal (or prudential) one. We are not asking whether the absence of X’s pain is good “for the world”, but rather whether it is good for X.

I grant that there is something unusual about evaluating the absence of pain with reference to a person who exists only in an alternative world. However, that is to be expected given that procreative decisions are unusual ones precisely because a person exists only if one decides (and then acts) one way. Given this feature of procreation I see no reason why we must insist on treating procreation exactly the same as decisions where the affected person exists whichever decision we make. We should resist the procrustean impulse, and rather respond to the special character of procreation.