better not to have been

     „Niemals geboren zu werden wäre das beste für die sterblichen Menschenkinder“, „Aber“, setzen die Weisen der „Fliegenden Blätter“ hinzu, „unter hunderttausend Menschen passiert dies kaum einem.“
    Der moderne Zusatz zum alten Weisheitsspruch ist ein klarer Unsinn, der durch das anscheinend vorsichtige „kaum“ noch dümmer wird. Aber er knüpft als unbestreitbar richtige Einschränkung an den ersten Satz an, kann uns also die Augen darüber öffnen, daß jene mit Ehrfurcht vernommene Weisheit auch nicht viel besser als ein Unsinn ist. Wer nie geboren worden ist, ist überhaupt kein Menschenkind; für den gibt es kein Gutes und kein Bestes. Der Unsinn im Witz dient also hier zur Aufdeckung und Darstellung eines anderen Unsinns wie im Beispiel vom Artilleristen Itzig.
Never to be born would be the best thing for mortal men.’ ‘But’, adds the philosophical comment in Fliegende Blätter, ‘this happens to scarcely one person in a hundred thousand.’
    This modern addition to an ancient saw is an evident piece of nonsense, made sillier by the ostensibly cautious ‘scarcely’. But the addition is attached to the original statement as an indisputably correct limitation, and is thus able to open our eyes to the fact that this solemnly accepted piece of wisdom is itself not much better than a piece of nonsense. Anyone who is not born is not a mortal man at all, and there is no good and no best for him. Thus the nonsense in the joke serves to uncover and demonstrate another piece of nonsense, just as in the example of Artilleryman Itzig.

—Sigmund Freud,
Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewussten‎, Deuticke, 1912, p. 45
Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, translated by James Strachey, Norton, 1990, pp. 65-66

I got a real depressing letter from my folks about two weeks ago, because I haven’t been taking real good care of my money. They said, ‘Sam, we can’t send you any more money. You’re out of control, and you don’t know what the fuck you’re doing with your cash. And… you’re old enough to be on your own.’ I said, ‘Oh, okay’… and I called them. I said, ‘Mom, get dad on the phone too, wake him up, I know it’s late, but I want you both to hear this. You know, before I was your little son—before I was your baby—before I was your loan—I was a free spirit in the next stage of life. I walked in the cosmos, not imprisoned by a body of flesh, but free, in a pure body of light. There were no questions, only answers. No weaknesses, only strengths. I was light, I was truth, I was a spiritual being, I was a God!!! But you had to FUCK and bring my ass down HERE! I didn’t ask to be born! I didn’t call and say: ‘Hey, please have me so I could work in a fuckin’ Winchell’s someday!’ Now you want me to pay my own way? FUCK YOU! PICK UP THE FUCKIN’ CHECK, MOM! PICK IT UP!

This year’s winner of the Bookseller/Diagram prize for the oddest title of the year is Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Other finalists included How Green were the Nazis?, Tattooed Mountain Women and Spoon Boxes of Daghestan, and the book I’m reviewing here. The title is indeed odd. But it isn’t intended merely to be catchy, another one of those volumes appealing on the cover but deadly dull within. Benatar appears genuinely to believe that we are all harmed, and fairly seriously harmed, by being brought into existence and that it would really be better, and better for us, had we never been born. There are two important and immediate objections: how can something that odd, that strange, possibly be true? And, if it is true, why don’t we all, or at least those who believe it, go and put an end to things now? Why is Benatar still with us? Is he still with us? He is, and he thinks he has an answer to these objections. I’ll come to these below.
[…]
So, give Benatar a charitable reading and there are still objections to be made. Give him what may in the end be a fairer reading, and the objections are stronger. Both in the paper and the book he argues thus: suppose you have to choose between two packages. The first contains something good and something bad, while the second contains something good and something neutral. The second package is to be preferred. But the first package is one in which we exist, and where our lives involve both goods and bads, or pleasures and pains. The second is one in which we don’t exist, and so there are no pains—something good, and no pleasures—something not bad, or neutral. So, on balance, existence is worse than non-existence. This is a dreadful argument. It’s most obviously dreadful in taking no account of the quantities of pleasure and pain involved. You might think that Benatar must at least anticipate this objection. Certainly in the paper he doesn’t. Not so in the book. There (pp. 45-47) he does attempt to address this challenge. But as he appears almost altogether to misunderstand it, there is just no force in his reply.

Reviewed by Christopher Belshaw, The Open University

Let us follow David Benatar, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 45-47:


[…]

Quadrant (1) must be negative, because it is bad, and quadrants (2) and (3) must be positive because they are good. (I assume that (3) must be as good as (1) is bad. That is, if (1)=−n, then (3)=+n.) Since (4) is not bad (and not good either), it should be neither positive nor negative but rather neutral.

Employing the value assignments of Figure 2.4 we add (1) and (2) in order to determine the value of A, and then compare this with the sum of (3) and (4), which is the value of B. Doing this, we find that A is preferable to B where (2) is more than twice the value of (1).35 [Where (2) is only twice the value of (1), A and B have equal value and thus neither coming into existence nor never coming into existence is preferable.] There are numerous problems with this. For instance, as I shall show in the first section of the next chapter, it is not only the ratio of pleasure to pain that determines the quality of a life, but also the sheer quantity of pain. Once a certain threshold of pain is passed, no amount of pleasure can compensate for it.

But the best way to show that Figure 2.4 is mistaken is to apply the reasoning behind Figure 2.4 to the analogy of H (Healthy) and S (Sick) mentioned earlier.

Following Figure 2.5, it would be better to be S than H if the value of (2) were more than twice the value of (1). (This presumably would be the case where the amount of suffering that (2) saves S is more than twice the amount S actually suffers.) But this cannot be right, for surely it is always better to be H (a person who never gets sick and is thus not disadvantaged by lacking the capacity for quick recovery). The whole point is that (2) is good for S but does not constitute an advantage over H. By assigning a positive charge to (2) and a ‘0’ to (4), Figure 2.5 suggests that (2) is an advantage over (4), but it quite clearly is not. The assignment of values in Figure 2.5, and hence also in Figure 2.4, must be mistaken. 36 [To take the implications of the value assignments in Fig. 2.5 for Fig. 2.4 as evidence that the analogy between the two cases must be inapt is another instance of treating the avoidance of my conclusion as axiomatic.]

To recap, David Benatar argues that uncontroversial symmetry between the presence of pain being bad and the presence of pleasure being good does not seem to apply to the absence of pain and pleasure. On the contrary, it strikes him as true that the absence of pain is good even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone, whereas the absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom that absence is a deprivation. Consequently, the absence of any possible subject of pain and pleasure would amount to an overall good in the balance of his absent pains and pleasures.

It is equally uncontroversial, and uncontested by Benatar, that absence of pleasure in an extant subject does add up to a deprivation, whence the traditional recognition of acedia, a condition of sloth or torpor leading to listlessness and want of interest in life, as one of the seven deadly sins. It might be argued that the absence of any possible subject of pain and pleasure would amount to a deprivation to his potential creators. Thus within the same framework of sin and salvation, potential parents may suffer from a lack of progeny required to honor them pursuant to the Fifth Commandment, just as God may suffer from a lack of humans required to honor Him pursuant to its predecessors. But this teleological account preempts the utilitarian reckoning of the presence and absence of pain and pleasure. Likewise the human duty recognized by Socrates in the Phaedo at 62b-c, to live as a ward (κτῆμα) of the gods, consigned to their care (ἐπιμελέομαι). The key consideration here is that utilitarianism arises as an exclusive alternative to imputations of human duties or purposes and narratological construals of human lives not lending themselves to a scalar summation of pleasures and pains. It is therefore pointless to bring up such imputations and construals as conclusive rebuttals of Benatar’s utilitarian argument. There are good reasons for rejecting utilitarianism, but the spirit of charity requires the philosopher to set them aside in assessing the merits of arguments made within its tradition.

In this context belongs a critical response to a passage from John Bunyan cited in an earlier discussion of Benatar on Crooked Timber:

The figure in the Sermon on the Mount, contrasting the straight and narrow way to salvation with the broad highway to destruction, has been the basis of a number of sustained allegories, the best known being Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. To keep the figure of a way going for a whole book, the course pursued has to be a very labourious one: this is theologically defensible for Bunyan, even though we can see that the difficulty of the journey is a technical as well as a religious requirement. Toward the end of the second book Bunyan says:

Some also have wished that the next way to their Father’s house were here, that they might be troubled no more with either hills or mountains to go over; but the way is the way, and there is an end. [fn. 41 See John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners and The Pilgrim’s Progress from this World to that which is to come, ed. Roger Sharrock (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), 355 (pt. 2).]

One wonders if there is not a suppressed voice also in Bunyan’s mind asking why we have to be stuck with this spiteful and malicious God who puts so incredibly difficult an obstacle course between ourselves and himself. In the great danse macabre with which the second book concludes, the dying Valiant-for-Truth says, “Though with great difficulty I am got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am,” [fn. 42 Pilgrim’s Progress, 397 (pt. 2).] where the suppressed voice is almost audible. When there are dissenting voices like this murmuring in the subtext, one wonders if the author does not feel some difficulty about his choice of metaphor.

—Northrop Frye, Words With Power: Being a Second Study of ’The Bible and Literature,
The Collected Works of Northrop Frye, Vol. 26, University of Toronto Press, 2008, pp. 90-91

Northrop Frye’s apprehension of a suppressed voice in Bunyan’s mind belongs to the spectrum of legitimate reasons for purging ethical thought of duties and purposes along with narratives that give rise thereto, reducing it to a dispassionate calculus of scalar values. As a famous philosopher pointed out, there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Accordingly, saying that an argument is bad without a thought to back it up, amounts to nothing. Likewise gainsaying a premiss in the calculus of utility, in so far as it amounts to its thoughtless contradiction. The utilitarian project may be a failure, but it begins and ends in rational thought, and deserves to be addressed by rational means.

Insisting in response to Benatar, that some pleasures are worth the pains, let alone recognizing the existence of masochists taking pleasure in pain, gets us nowhere near an argument as an intellectual process comprising a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition. The correct utilitarian response to invocations of sadomasochism is reflected in Harsanyi’s distinction between self-regarding and other-regarding utility functions and preferences. Benatar’s argument would stand after discounting all social and empathetic factors. All such factors ought to be discounted in considering, of an individual life, whether or not it is worth being brought into existence. After all, the masochist patient does not take pleasure in any old pain, but revels in being inflicted pain by another agent. So the pain of natural suffering, as distinct from the social kind, suffices to motivate the top half of Benatar’s Figure 2.4. Pain is bad and pleasure is good; whereas lack of pain is bad, but lack of pleasure is indifferent, unless it is a privation. In the balance, better not to create a potential subject for such privation.

It might be objected that a masochist before God could take pleasure in the pain of cancer, as a means of proving himself equal to the challenges raised by his heavenly Father. This is the position of John Bunyan’s Valiant-for-Truth, shored up by many modern luminaries. Thus George Bernard Shaw:

All that you miss in Shakespeare you find in Bunyan, to whom the true heroic came quite obviously and naturally. The world was to him a more terrible place than it was to Shakespeare; but he saw through it a path at the end of which a man might look not only forward to the Celestial City, but back on his life and say: “Tho’ with great difficulty I am got hither,—yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get them.” The heart vibrates like a bell to such an utterance as this: to turn from it to “ Out, out, brief candle,” and “ The rest is silence,” and “We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded by a sleep” is to turn from life, strength, resolution, morning air and eternal youth, to the terrors of a drunken nightmare.

—“Better than Shakespeare”, in Dramatic Opinions and Essays with an Apology by G. Bernard Shaw, New York, Brentano, 1906, Vol. 2, p. 147

And thus Robert Louis Stevenson:

Last and most remarkable, ‘My sword,’ says the dying Valiant-for-Truth, he in whom Great-heart delighted, ‘my sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it.’ And after this boast, more arrogantly unorthodox than was ever dreamed of by the rejected Ignorance, we are told that ‘all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.’

—Robert Louis Stevenson, “Bagster’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’”, in Sketches, Criticisms, etc., New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1898, p. 215

The anticipation of trumpets sounding on the other side may well inspire the faithful to withstand the pains of earthly existence. But merely pointing out that the ultimate pleasure of reuniting with God, or some interim ersatz thereof, would be worth the pains that precede it, is irrelevant in the setting of Benatar’s decision matrix. For this point amounts to a postulation that foreclosing the possibility of future pleasure in an as yet unrealized subject always already amounts to a privation. While this postulate is well suited to a hopeful narrative of posthumous salvation, it is less apt for a pure spiritual being about to be imprisoned by a body of flesh, and bears no relevance to a reckoning of worldly utility in prospective lives.

While social and empathetic factors are essential constituents in a worthwhile life, their role in evaluating whether an ongoing life is worthwhile does not find any counterparts in deciding whether a prospective life is worth being brought into existence. There may be no grounds for disputing that all social and empathetic factors ought to be discounted in considering, of an individual life, whether or not it is worth being brought into existence, just as there may be no actual lives having been brought into existence in complete disregard of these factors. In other words, while people invariably have children for selfish reasons, the only good reason to have a child is for its own sake. Some variety of methodological solipsism is indispensable as the correct framework for such deliberation. It may be impossible to understand a person in separation from other people or in separation from his environment. But there is a crucial difference between understanding an actual person in his connection with other people and his environment, and deliberating on the merits of bringing into existence a potential person with merely conjectural interpersonal and environmental connections.

In this regard, Benatar’s observation has devastating consequences for the utilitarian assessment of the choice to bring a new life into existence. If there is nothing bad about never coming into existence, whereas there is something bad about coming into existence, it is always preferable to choose a scenario that involves nothing bad. The same conclusion extends to the voluntary acceptance of bad pains in order to achieve greater pleasures, pursuant to Benatar’s analogy between existence versus non-existence and sickness versus health, as reproduced above.

—Reproduced for, and summarized from, a discussion on CHORA; also see an earlier discussion on Crooked Timber.

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