Better Never to Have Been

A South African philosopher by the name of David Benatar believes that the world would be a better place if sentient life disappeared altogether, i.e., no remaining life-form capable of undergoing pain or suffering. As a consequence he claims it would have been better if no one had children ever again since reproducing is intrinsically cruel and irresponsible – not just because a horrible fate can befall anyone, but because life itself is permeated by badness.

Benatar is a proponent of what has been termed the anti-natalist position. In a 2006 book titled Better Never to have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence he writes that

While good people go to great lengths to save their children from suffering, few of them seem to notice that the one (and only) guaranteed way to prevent all the suffering of their children is not to bring those children into existence in the first place.

The disappearance of sentient life on this planet would be of no consequence to anyone or anything according to Benatar, and in that context he joins earlier existentialist writers such as Sartre and Camus when he believes the universe is indifferent to our fate; it is without meaning, and other than that “we are subject to blind and purposeless natural forces”.

But when at least Nietzsche would find some purpose in suffering (and hence life) when he wrote “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering” Benatar does not believe that human suffering and the struggle to survive are capable of providing meaning to existence.

While one might want to argue about all the good things in life providing value to it, he would claim that they can never offset the badness of all terrible tragedies that might happen during one’s lifetime, including one’s death. I guess he has a point when you think of all the natural disasters that have happened – and are likely happen again – be they earthquakes, floods, famine, and what have you.  Or man-made tragedies, such as the 9/11 terror attack, the holocaust or the slaughter of millions of people  in the various wars. What kinds of positive experiences might one put on the other scale to suggest that all this will balance out in the end?

This is not to say that on an individual basis someone might not be able to look back at one’s life and conclude that it has by and large been a very positive experience – but I’m assuming that Benatar has appraised the human condition from a species perspective, and from there concluded that it – life – just isn’t worth it when it is all added up. So why bother; sentient life is just a waste of time, causing much unneeded pain and suffering

I have some sympathy for the view that planet earth would be better off without the likes of us,  given our longstanding and well established record of harming ourselves and the  environment.  And no doubt there is something to say for discontinuing the amount of pain and suffering we have inflicted onto our fellow creatures in the animal kingdom through our thoughtless practices of whatever nature – such as the asinine practice of trophy hunting certain animal species into extinction, to give just one example.

And so the question remains if the continuation of sentient life – and in particular human life – is a value added experience of sorts, and the point being that – regardless of incredible misery, pain and suffering being regular features of human existence – life is worth the effort of sustaining it.

Clearly, professor  Benatar thinks not, but I have already argued that it is, since just because we appear to be unable to determine the meaning or purpose of life today  beyond the immediacies of survival doesn’t mean it has no meaning or purpose in a larger context. (I suspect this question is too large for us today).