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Just for the record, this book has actually gotten quite a bit of attention, and Benatar published a reply to a number of rather high-profile critics in the Journal of Ethics earlier this summer:



Premise: Life contains more pain than pleasure.
Conclusion: Life is, on the whole, bad/not worth living.

Now, we need to do what Benetar does not do: supply and defend the missing premise(s). One way of escaping this line of thought is to notice that several thinkers throughout history (particularly in the existentialist tradition) have embraced (1) while consistently rejecting (2). One route into their approach is to ask why you have accepted (1) but presumably don't think that it is now rational for you to kill yourself... a question which Camus said was the only "truly serious" philosophical question.

Contrary to what the anonymous submitter says, Benetar's book has been reviewed in several journals and discussed quite a bit online, but one thing that consistently suprises me is that no-one I know of has taken him to task for his uncritical acceptance of a fairly crude form of hedonism. (This, by the way, is a view which enables him to claim that "science" supports his evaluative conclusions by showing that we systematically suppress memories of unpleasant experiences.) Yet, when you go to the literature on what makes a life worth living or meaningful, you do not find many defenses of hedonism: it's a tough one to defend.

A second undefended premise is moralism: agents are always required to pay significant attention to what is morally permitted in deliberation. Against this, we might say that certain decisions might just be personal enough that agents aren't required to think too deeply about general moral justification.

Third is what has been called the "overridingness" thesis: if X is morally impermissible, then no-one is ever justified in doing X. As far as I know, Benetar does not defend these latter premises, which are almost as vulnerable to counterexample as hedonism is (see Williams' One Thought Too Many and Gauguin, Slote's protective parent, Wolf's Moral Saint...)

In short: the road to Schopenhauer-style pessimism isn't nearly this easy.

Marcus Arvan

Anon and Vanitas: fair enough. It has indeed gotten quite a bit of attention in the press, and significant attention in the literature. Both are still consistent in principle, however, with the claim that the book is *underappreciated* (maybe it deserves even more attention!). In any case, I post submissions as I get 'em, and it is certainly open to debate whether the works submitted are or are not "underappreciated."

Vanitas: I agree that the road isn't nearly as easy to defend as Benatar makes it out to be. I also agree that there are missing premises, and that Benatar seems to uncritically assume hedonism. However, BE THAT AS IT MAY, I still personally find the book's main idea very compelling. First, it seems pretty plausible to me that *however* we spell out well-being (e.g. in hedonist terms, desire-satisfaction terms, or even "objective list" terms), the average human life contains significantly more bad than good. For again, I am a very lucky person, and this seems to me true of *my* life -- not to mention the lives of a great many people I've known. Second, even if it weren't true that the average human life is that bad, my own life experiences raise the question of what gives someone a moral right to create a life that *could* turn out to be very bad. I don't have a moral right to drive a car without brakes, for instance, because I place others at risk of severe harm. My experience in life is that choosing to have a child is very much the same. It is neigh impossible to have any good idea, before having a child, whether the child will have a decent life. Good, healthy well-adjusted people give birth to physically and/or psychologically unhealthy people all the time. I realize some may say this is a "personal" decision, but given that *another* person's life literally hangs in the balance, it seems to me an important issue to debate.

In other words whatever the precise merits/demerits of the book's arguments are per se -- and I wholeheartedly agree that the book has some serious deficiencies -- it still seems to me that the book *itself* has, at the very least, raised some very important questions about the morality of something (childbearing) that almost everyone takes for granted.

In any case, thanks to both of you for weighing in!


I must admit, I find the claim that the average human life contains more bad than good somewhat baffling. Since many seem to share the attitude that our lives are, on balance, well worth living, I think a much more troubling challenge to the permissibility of child bearing is raised be Seana Shiffrin in her "Wrongful Life" paper. Shiffrin's argument presents a challenge to the permissibility of child bearing *even if* our lives contain more good than bad. Check it out!

Marcus Arvan

Anon: the fact that many, or even most, people share an attitude about something doesn't make it true. We all have biases, as well as brains that almost pathologically seek to rationalize outcomes and behavior. So, for instance, prior to reading Benatar's book, if you had asked me, "Does your life contain more good than bad?", I think I would have almost *reflexibly* replied, "Of course!" But now it seems to me that if I think very carefully about it -- if I attend to features of my life we tend to ignore -- then it is not so certain at all. For one thing we do not like to think about (among many other things) is old age. Those of us who are "lucky" enough to live to old age will see vast numbers of our loved ones suffer and die, and chances are that we ourselves will suffer, and die alone, in an old-folks home. We like to ignore this stuff, and yet...I've personally seen people close to me suffer such dates. My paternal grandmother lived a nice enough life...until her husband died and she had to live over 20 years alone. Chances are, given our age difference, that my wife will suffer a similar fate. And indeed, the elderly in general have low levels of subjective well-being and awfully high levels of suicide attempts. It is all too easy to comfort ourselves with the goods of today -- when we are still relatively young (and even here I find it plausible that the bad in a great many lives outweighs the good. For instance, my own life is chock full of stresses and strains -- of worrying about my future, slaving away on papers few people will read, etc. When I seriously think of my future (as an elderly person, perhaps suffering from cancer, etc.) in conjunction with my present -- and again, I presumably count as one of the more fortunate people on the planet -- I'm not so sure anymore that my life contains more good than bad. And I'm *certainly* no longer sure that the lives of far more unlucky people have more good than bad.

In any case, though, thanks for drawing attention to Shiffrin's paper. I will check it out, by all means!



I have a couple of thoughts about this interesting post. First, I think my life is overall good and obviously so. I get to enjoy friends, drink beer, and think about interesting things. Those seem like very great goods to me. Sure, if all of my hopes and dreams were realized then my life would be greater still. But I don't get the thought at all that I'm suffering some great evil just because I don't get to have my hopes and dreams. My life is still super awesome. Like you, I suffer stress and moments of anxiety every day. But the evil of those things seem vastly and obviously outweighed by the great goods of friendship, beer, and thinking about fun things. It never occurred to me that the considerations you raise would imply that my life is on the whole bad. Nor do I think I am idiosyncratic in these matters. Nor do I think I am being dishonest with myself. I just don’t get how not living your hopes and dreams is enough to make your life bad on the whole. It seems obvious to me that most people have great lives. And even more obvious to me that my life is a great good even though my hopes and dreams remain unrealized. Friendship, beer, and thinking about interesting things are great goods. I find it interesting that you see things so differently than I do here.

Marcus Arvan

It might be worth adding that -- however unbelievable it might seem, given my post and accompanying comments -- I am in reality the "eternal optimist." ;) I tend to focus on the good of life. The point, though, is that I'm increasingly coming to believe that there probably is something systematically deluded about my having this outlook. When I think in objective terms, rather than through my naturally rose-tinted glasses, I can't help but see how unduly optimistic such a view of life is.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Scott: thanks so much for your comment. I used to think the same way. But here's the worry. The things you are saying are so great about life seem quite present-focused. It *is* nice to drink beer, have friends, etc. But the present isn't all that matters when it comes to evaluating the quality of a life -- not by a long shot. One must think about a life as a whole. And it is precisely here that I am far less confident. Old-age is, by all accounts -- including suicide and depression rates, not to mention subjective well-being reports -- really quite awful. Second, like I said, I think people like you and I are probably among the most lucky people on the planet. I've seen, and known, too many people stuck in low paying, dead-end jobs, crippled by debt, crippled by regret, with deeply dysfunctional, unhappy families, mental illness, disease, etc., to continue believing, with any real confidence, that most human lives objectively contain more good than bad.

Marcus Arvan

P.S. I have to admit to being surprised that you think it is obvious that most people live great lives. Maybe I've been around the proverbial block one too many times -- I spent quite a lot of time playing music professionally, and so met a lot of lonely, desperate people in bars and clubs -- but my life experience has been that a great many people are profoundly *unhappy*, though it might not be obvious that they are in day to day life (my experience has been that many people hide their distress quite well). And again, your and my life experiences are extremely narrow. We live among the most fortunate lives on earth.


I know I am very privileged (for the same reasons Marcus lists above), but I think I have certainly had more good in my life so far than bad. I am a perfectionist about well-being (not the most popular of views these days), but even on hedonist or desire-satisfaction grounds, I think that's true. And, I have no doubt that, on average, this will continue to be true, even if at some particular moment, my life has more bad than good (as it may someday be). I agree that old age can be awful; one grandfather lived with my family the last year of his life and both his body and mind were failing. When he finally passed away, I know there was some sense of relief that his suffering was done. He had a difficult life at times; his first wife passed away in her 50s from cancer, his second wife left him for another man, and he watched his older daughter go through the same cancer that killed her mother. Yet, talking to him (before he developed dementia), he clearly thought he had lived a good life, overall, and would not give it up to escape the pain he was enduring then. On subjective grounds, then (whether he judged that his life was worth living), I think he would answer yes. And if you adopt a objective view of well-being and meaning, I think the answer would be the same. His life was pretty average, I think, at least for a middle-class American white man in the 20th century, full of his share of sadness but also joy. This sort of defense, further, doesn't succumb to the sunk-cost fallacy, since the question is not whether it was worth it to go on with the life one already has, but rather, whether it would be better to never have had it at all. I would be surprised (at least for those who have escaped the worst tragedies) if there are many who would wish they were never born at all.


Marcus, I never said anything about the truth of your claim. I only expressed that I find it very puzzling, and many others do too, so an argument for a similar conclusion that did not rely on the puzzling premise might be more generally persuasive.

However, regarding the truth of the claim: your methods of establishing its truth has been to exhort the reader to "be honest" with herself and to "think very carefully" about the features of her life. I'm all in favor of non-argumentative methods of establishing the truth of a claim, but this "be honest" "think carefully" rhetoric is a little disrespectful to your reader. It suggests that you have achieved a privileged epistemic position, and that if the reader is just honest with herself (like you are), she will achieve it too. I would suggest that's not a very persuasive tack to take.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Carrie: thanks for the interesting and insightful comment (and for sharing the personal anecdote). I guess I'm on the fence, and I can see how people can judge things (the relative goodness/badness of life) both ways.

I suppose that for this reason, the more salient question to me is -- regardless of what the probabilities are -- a person has a (moral) right to take a *chance* with a given person's life, given that surely (before conception or birth), there surely has to be a non-negligible chance that the person who is born will live a pretty awful life.

It seems to me that, prior to conceiving, a would-be parent knows the following: there is some real chance that they could give birth to a person who, through no fault of their own, are born to live lives of far more misery than happiness. Surely that has to be true. But this, it seems to me, is enough to get a serious worry off the ground. Suppose that I had a button that, were I to press it, it would have an 80% chance of giving someone happiness but a 20% chance of giving that same person lifelong misery. Would it be permissible to press the button? I'm not so sure. I'm inclined to say that no one has a right to take that kind of chance with someone else's life. And yet it seems to me akin to the kind of chance a would-be parent engages in whenever they have a child.

Marcus Arvan

Anon: I'm happy to admit that it may not be the best way to go argumentatively, and I'm sorry you took it as expressing a claim to some kind of epistemic privilege (it certainly wasn't intended that way!). I never meant to say that everyone has to judge things the same way. I was just self-reporting my own reaction to the book, which is that I found it persuasive because when *I* am being honest with myself, things seem to me the way they seem to Benatar. I don't quite see how there's anything disrespectful about making the self-report in the context -- or even in exhorting others to think about aspects of life they could be ignoring (this is, after all, how I came to find Benatar's claim persuasive. I got out of my present-day skin -- when I get to have beers with friends -- and thought more about the lives of grandparents I've known, and people in less fortunate circumstances). Anyway, I appreciate that it's not a great argumentative strategy, which is why, in large part, my deeper worries about childbearing lie elsewhere (see my newest comment on taking chances with people's lives).


Hi Marcus,

I guess I just don't see how to defend the idea that the conclusion I labeled (2) is independent of any theory of well-being or meaningfulness. Obviously being free from certain severe sorts of pain is going to be on any "objective list" list, but so will friendship, community, achievement, growth, etc... each of which necessarily involves some struggle, hardship, and disappointment. A defender of the Objective List view, it seems to me, must also claim that these kinds of suffering aren't only intrinsically bad, since they can also be powerful extrinsic goods. In other words, the existence of various sorts of suffering in a life does not necessarily indicate that the life is bad, indeed, it may be an indication of precisely the opposite. And it seems to me that most of the forms of suffering you've been reporting are of this non-severe kind.

But this is just the old Nietzsche/Camus/Sartre point that life appears meaningless or absurd when viewed hedonistically, and that a revaluation of (some kinds of) suffering is needed to avoid this sort of conclusion. I mention that the point is "old" in order to emphasize how frustrating it is that Benetar doesn't (to my knowledge) engage with it.

Wile E. Coyote

Why don't you all just kill yourselves? I mean, if you really buy this absurd argument.

Perhaps you think you are one of the blessedly lucky ones. But that seems highly implausible. There's no good evidence that being a relatively rich professional philosopher makes you one of the most happy people in the world. (Quite the contrary, according to happiness studies; more plausible that you are neurotically miserable, and would be happier in some pursuit that didn't involve focusing on your own mental states so much.) If Benatar's argument works, it ought to apply to you -- and some of you really seem to think that it does. So: what are you, irrational?

Or maybe the argument is ridiculous and massively understates the value of being alive, even if one rejects the other arguments against suicide (or for having children), and makes these decisions on strictly hedonic grounds.

Dan Dennis

1) As someone states above Benatar’s argument assumes a conception of the good – without an account of what is the correct account of the good we have no grounds for taking the argument to be correct.
2) I don’t have time here to argue for a particular conception of the good. But even if one thinks that having good experience is what counts, life is overall good for most in the west, provided that they choose to have a good character and appreciate their lives. Perhaps this is the case elsewhere too, though I don’t know enough about the details of life elsewhere to comment. The main problem many people have is one of failing to have a good character and failing to *appreciate* life (. NB seeing good experience as being what is best for a person si different to the view that explicit and point-to-able pleasure is what counts – looking at yourself and seeing yourself as experiencing pleasure and perhaps trying to quantify how much pleasure one is having involves a weird sort of self conscious self monitoring which perhaps makes the better forms of epxerinece impossible, for these require that one forget oneself, and rather absorb oneself in the beauty, the conversation, the friendship, the love, the lovemaking, the reasoning etc….).
3) Anyway there follow a few remarks on why one might think life is good even if one thinks of a good life being onethat has the best experience.
4) I cannot really understand why you say you are an optimist Marcus, given what you say about yoru life and about having children. Anyway I don’t want to be personal, so lets imagine a person who has made remarks somewhat like yours, call him Marvin.
5) Marvin is happily married for 50 years but then his wife dies. He thinks of himself as having had great pleasure when he married his wife, but immense sadness at her death. So sum total of goodness in his life due to his marriage is at most zero. Diagnosis: Failure to appreciate the good things in life, such as his marriage to his wife. Every day for 50 years he had his marriage, he had her. Because it was so wonderful having his marriage, and her spirit accompanying his on life’s journey, her loss was grievous. But the reason the loss was grievous was only because the good was so great. The loss, is afterall, only the absence of good that was previously there. If there had not been the good there would not have been the loss. Yet did he appreciate her? No, like a spoilt brat he took her for granted. She was just there, a given in his life. Like the earth beneath his feet.
6) What about those periods of illness he suffered, the agony, the worry the uncertainty? Well but the rest of the time he was healthy. Did he appreciate that? Did he see the good in his every day life, with his health, his marriage, the ability to look at the sky and the trees and the sunlight on the pavement? No, he took it for granted, a zero in the sum of his life.
7) One can imagine an intelligent young man in India stuggling to get by, doing dull job after dull job, looking at Marvin’s life. You get to sit in the dog park and think and write philosophy? How wonderful! And the rest of the time you do things like speak to your students about philosophy? How blessed you are! You communicate with your colleagues on blogs? That must be interesting, and build deep felt camaraderie. You have to do marking and some paperwork and committee work? Hey its not fun but its just one of those things, to make the machine tick over – and you know it is all part of the valuable task of helping educate people.
8) When told that Marvin does not appreciate all this good he has in his life everyday one can imagine him responding ‘Get him to come her and live my life for a while, then he would. I know he says he is lucky, but if he cannot appreciate the immense good he has in his life, day in day out, then he must be going wrong somewhere, and perhaps living this life would give him the kick up the backside that he needs!’
9) The conclusion would be that those in comparable positions who fail to see the good in their lives are culpable for failing to do so. But their failure to see their lives as good does not mean that their lives are not good – though their failure to see their lives as good does not mean their lives are less good.
10) Love your children, bring them up well, educate them well (which includes teaching them to appreciate their lives an dthe good things in it) and then they will probably turn out well and have good lives. And they will spawn future generations who will hopefully be even better brought up and educated, and live even better lives.
11) (BTW Even if lives now were usually not worthi living if you are a utilitarian then you would only accept that mankind should become extinct if you thought that things would not get sufficiently better – but it seems likely they will…).
12) Finally, it might be the case that being an egoistic hedonist of the type Benatar discusses is precisely what makes life not worth living. Solution either a) commit suicide or b) change your character

Marcus Arvan

Dan: I am *totally* on board with everything you say. Quite a bit of my work at the present moment is on precisely this -- on the importance on how one approaches life (indeed, I'm writing a book on it!). I wholeheartedly agree that what matters most is whether one approaches life in the right way. BUT, I also think the point is orthogonal. One can hold, as Benatar does, that life is objectively bad and yet also maintain, as you and I evidently so, that the crucial thing is to make the best of it. But notice how different these things are. One can very much hold that the person who appreciates like is "making the best of a bad situation." I actually expect that this is true of many (or even most) people who appreciate life.

WileE: Things aren't so simple. Benatar is happy to admit that we are "programmed" by evolution to want to continue living -- so *of course* there's a sense in which the argument seems absurd. Heck, I want to continue living! The argument, though, is about whether there is anything rational about being glad to have ever been born. This is a very different issue. One can very much want to live and still think it would have been better never to have been born in the first place. I have known more than a few people in desperate situations who have seriously thought this -- and truth be told, I've thought it more than once in my own life. (Note to Dan -- since you used a variation on my name to make your point: I am *very* appreciative for everything I have in my life, and I try to live in a way that reflects it).

Dan and Vanitas: I get the fact that Benatar doesn't seem to premise his argument on an adequate conception of the good, and that the argument fails in that regard. But philosophy, to me, is not all about making knock-down arguments. To me, it's also about personal reflection. Above all, Benatar's book got me thinking about life in a way that I hadn't seriously entertained before, and which -- whatever the merits or demerits of his actual arguments -- resonated with me. I've simply known way too many people who have lived pretty rotten lives, and been through too many hardships myself (I haven't always lived in anything resembling the kid of comfort in which I now live), to think that life is "obviously" worth living. For my part, I regard myself as very lucky indeed. Things could have gone (and almost did go) very wrong in my life, but somehow things have turned out very good. Anyway, Vanitas, I very much appreciate the point that many good things in life come (friendship, accomplishment, etc.) tend to require hardship and suffering. Part of my can't help but wonder, though, whether it is something of a self-serving story to justify our hardships to ourselves.

Marcus Arvan

Dan: a couple more thoughts in reply. It may seem hard to believe that I am an optimist, given what I have written, but one thing I think I am -- even more than an optimist -- is someone who is willing to take seriously that his optimism is misplaced. Look, as far as my own life goes, I am pretty cheerful. I love and appreciate my wife, my career, my friends, my family, and really, my life quite generally. At the same time, it has been a very hard road, and I have known many people whose lives have not gone well at all. So, despite appreciating the things in my life, I am willing to seriously consider Benatar's argument. Also, your 11th point -- about childrearing -- does not seem obvious to me at all. Over 2,000 years ago, Plato pointe out that if imparting morality and appreciation for life were something we could reliably do, good parents would tend to have good children. But, with all due respect, this isn't the case. I've seen many cases of it firsthand: good parents doing everything they can to raise good children, but the children turning out rotten nonetheless. There is also a great deal of empirical evidence that core personality traits -- including liability to aggression, criminality, neuroticism, etc. -- are primarily genetic and pretty much stable from birth to death.


This discussion has more or less become centered on issues of the balance of good/bad in life, subjective feelings about whether one would prefer never to have been born, and questions about why someone who takes Benatar's argument seriously wouldn't just commit suicide. So before saying anything else, I do want to point out that all of this is completely tangential to his argument. His main argument is really quite short--it is a chapter of the book (and more or less fully captured in his 1997 article, "Why it is Better Never to Have Come into Existence." And the argument, as the original poster notes, rests entirely on the claim that absence of suffering is always good whereas absence of pleasure is only bad for an existent being, so if we compare the relative merits and demerits of existing and never having come into existence, the latter is overall superior. (You really need to read the article/book for the full, diagrammed version, but the point is this: if you had never existed, the absence of your suffering would be a good, while the absence of your happiness would be neutral. If you compare the two scenarios, absence of pain in non-existence trumps presence of pain, while presence of pleasure in existence can't trump the neutrality of non-existence, since had you not existed there would be nothing lost.)

That, at any rate, is his main argument. He *explicitly* argues against people who think the question can be resolved by comparing goods in life to its bads, on the grounds that this is the wrong comparison to make. And he discusses the overall balance of good/bad in a later chapter only in order to tangentially reinforce his main point. Even if you think the pleasures of having a beer, having a family, eating a delicious ice cream, writing a brilliant paper, etc, outweigh *all* the bads (including--feeling hungry or thirsty on occasion, various bodily discomfort that we tend to ignore, etc), he'll reply that (1) if you had never existed, the absence of these bads would have been a good, and (2) you only think all these things about your life are good because you're comparing yourself to other people--but other people's lives are just as dominantly bad as yours, so your judgment is systematically biased.

And suicide is a much further point. Benatar does not take it that his thesis commits him to unequivocally endorsing it. First, death is an evil (and thus on the list of bad things existing exposes you to). Second, your suicide may cause harm to others. And third, suicide as a consideration only comes up if you have already come into existence, and is thus beside the point.

So the strength of Benatar's argument really doesn't rest *at all* in the claim that life typically contains more bad than good (though even this point is, I think, somewhat misrepresented in the discussion so far). It rests on the question of whether, apart from our subjective (and almost certainly biased) positive evaluations of our lives, it would have been better never to have come into existence on the first place.

Marcus Arvan

Thanks for clearing that up, Roman. I wonder, though, what you make of the argument. For my part, I found it the most baffling part of B's book. For some of the reasons people have pointed out above, suffering doesn't always seem to be an evil. It can lead extrinsically to all kinds of goods. And so the question -- for me, at least -- becomes whether the goods outweigh whatever intrinsic badness there is to suffering. I've also always been puzzled by Benatar's claim that suffering is *always* evil but pleasure, etc., only good for a being already in existence. The asymmetry claim here has always puzzled me.


Yeah, the asymmetry claim does somewhat puzzle me as well, in part because Benatar doesn't try to ground or defend it, so I'm not sure what its status is supposed to be. But he does argue that it is a part of our ordinary thinking--that we do typically think that parents should not have children if there is a very strong probability that they will have a life of intense suffering, but we don't think parents whose children have a strong chance at a very good life have any duty to have such children. (A non-philosopher friend of mine suggested that if we switch from pleasure/pain to happiness/unhappiness, the asymmetry disappears--she, at least, had the intuition that absence of happiness is bad in itself; I think that intuition is odd, but there's something odd about the intuitions Benatar is drawing on as well--for one thing, they may themselves be the results of cognitive biases, and so we should discard them rather than building an argument on them.)

But for me, the strongest part of the argument is in the emphasis on contrasting existing with never having come to exist. Even if you don't accept the asymmetry, it at least suggests that one cannot have a child *for the sake of that child*, so that one can *only* have children on the grounds that they will improve someone else's (typically the parents') lives. This isn't a decisive argument, but it alone strongly suggests that having children involves creating a person who will suffer illness, discomfort, aging (or worse), and death in order to satisfy (typically) selfish purposes. This doesn't establish that having children is *always* wrong (I can't remember what he says in the book, but in the article he rejects that view), but it does establish that there is always an ethical reason to avoid it (though the reason can be overridden by other considerations). So like Schiffrin's paper mentioned above, he shows that having children is at least more morally problematic than usually acknowledged. (And I think I prefer the fact that he defends that conclusion without using trolley-style examples. I'm not sure I intuitively have a problem with someone dropping million dollar gold cubes at me...)

And yes, suffering can lead *extrinsically* to good. Benatar does address this: my memory of the whole argument may be faulty, but he notes that deprivation (e.g., hunger) makes the satisfaction of it more pleasant. In response to this case, he asks us to imagine beings who can feel the same amount of pleasure from eating, but without first suffering deprivation. And then he suggests that the only reason we don't take the deprivation to be a negative is that we are comparing ourselves to other entities whose biology requires them to experience deprivation rather than with imaginary beings who can get the same pleasure without the deprivation. That is: we make the best of our flawed existence by painting many of its everyday harms in favorable tones. But this is just the product of bias (as he notes, evolution is likely to weed out those who focus on the negative aspects of existence rather than ignoring them or taking them to be positives because they can lead to extrinsic goods).

dan dennis

Hi Roman

Thanks for your attempt to explain the argument, but I am afraid I still don’t get it. So who is the absence of my suffering good for if I don’t exist? Not for me, presumably – afterall, if I do not exist there is not good for bad for me.

I suppose I tend to think that if I do not bring a child into existence well that’s not good or bad for the child. If I do bring a child into existence then that is good for the child if the child has a good life and bad for the child if the child has a bad life. So if it is more likely that my child will have a good than bad life then in having a child I am more likely making there exist a person who has a good life than a person who has a bad life. If it is better that there exist one more person with a good life than there not exist one more person with a good life, then it is better I have a child.

Where am I going wrong?




Benatar would question the suggestion that "it is better that there exist one more person with a good life than there not exist one more person with a good life". That sounds wrong to me, too (for the same reasons that a certain kind of utilitarianism seems like a reductio of utilitarianism). First, we might ask, better for whom? Not for the child. So, I suppose, you could say: better for the world! That seems unconvincing and, if we start looking at things from that sort of view from nowhere, then we have to bring in all of Benatar's above-mentioned points to the effect that, (1) you can't guarantee your child will have a good life, and (2) that life will actually have a lot of suffering in it, suffering that could have been prevented had the child never existed in the first place. (Good, too. But the point is something like this: there is some sort of duty to prevent suffering; there is no positive duty, however, to increase happiness unless it is happiness for specific individuals.) Perhaps on this point, Schiffrin--who argues that it is wrong to expose people to risk or even to certain harm for their own benefit (without their consent) is wrong--has a more convincing case.

But the asymmetry is the really problematic part. Benatar's claim is this: the absence of suffering is good simpliciter, while the absence of pleasure is only good for someone. So, for example, it's a good thing that there isn't someone suffering on my couch right now. But it's not bad that there is no one feeling pleasure on it (though it may be bad that I--or some other specific individual--am not feeling pleasure on it at the moment). He claims this asymmetry is fundamental, and doesn't defend it by trying to ground it, but rather by showing that it is implied by all sorts of other principles we are committed to. I don't remember all his cases, but I find the one I mention above pretty convincing (i.e., there is a duty to avoid having children you know will live painful, terrible lives but no duty to have children even if you are sure they'll be happy). Anyone who rejects the asymmetry will either have to reject all the principles Benatar claims are grounded on it, or will have to find a different way to ground them.

dan dennis

Thanks Roman, that’s a bit clearer. (Though I may now proceed to show that I don’t understand at all…:-) )

I don’t see why he is entitled to his asymmetry. It is really odd, which is why he gets odd results out of it. Either one talks in terms of goods for persons, or in terms of the view from nowhere. But to have two completely different metrics, one for goods and one for bads – well that you get screwed up results such as he has.

Your discussion also indicates that Benatar talks in terms of fairly shallow conceptions of suffering and happiness, coupled with certain common intuitions which may be completely wrong.

Rather, one needs to first establish firm rational grounds for adopting a particular conception of what is best for a person and then apply it to choosing between the options one faces; or establish firm rational grounds for a conception of the nature of the good as ‘seen from nowhere’ (aka ‘as seen by the ideal observer’) and then use it to chose between one’s options.

So if we think in terms of person goods we can construct the following case. Imagine that Marvin the kind, intelligent philosopher who would make a great parent, has no children. If he and his wife were to have a child then that child would in all probability be well brought up and have a good life. That the child has this good life is good for the child, good for him and his spouse, and good for other people who the child’s life touches. This provides him with sufficient reason to have the child, I would have thought. (NB You talk of there not being a ‘duty’ to have children but I have not talked in terms of ‘duty’ but only in terms of what is good/best for people, including the child; and have suggested that having the child is most probably best for all, so if Marvin aims to do what is most probably best for all then Marvin will have the child.


"That the child has this good life is good for the child, good for him and his spouse, and good for other people who the child’s life touches. This provides him with sufficient reason to have the child, I would have thought."

Okay, let's pick apart these claims: what is the reason for having the child? The reason you give is that it is (1) good for the child, (2) good for the parents, (3) good for other people whom the child's life touches.

What Benatar--I think correctly--rejects is (1). Having a child cannot be good for that child. It is only after they have a child that anything can be good for it (you take it that "that the child has this good life is good for the child"--yes, but is only true after the child is born, so it makes absolutely no sense to take this as a reason to have the child). So again, that's a crucial point: one can have a child for any number of reasons, but never for that child's sake. Benatar allows (2) and (3) as reasons (though note that it is impossible to be certain--with any degree of probability--that the child will make other people's lives better; parents always *hope* their children will end up being good people who make others' lives better, but that's largely not up to them). So the point is that in having a child, you are necessarily acting for the benefit of individuals other than the child.

At the same time, however, you are ensuring that you are bringing into the world a being that will suffer. That you can be absolutely sure of. Yes, the child may also have lots of great, wonderful experiences in its life, but some amount of suffering is inescapable in a human life. So on Benatar's presentation, you are bringing into existence an entity that will suffer for the sake of benefiting yourself and others. That in itself seems obviously problematic, though of course it does not show that having a child in a particular case may not be all things considered good. (Here's another case to consider: what if we can ensure that the child will have a fairly comfortable life *and* its genetically engineered bone marrow will be used to save thousands of others! In that case, reasons that fall under category (3) above will be significantly stronger than they are in most real cases. And yet, that sort of case--creating a child primarily in order to benefit others--is the sort of case people tend to have the most ethical trouble with! What seems to bother people here is that the child, who is being bread primarily for the sake of others, is being created only as a means to others' ends. One of the strongest features of Benatar's argument, on my reading, is the claim that this is *always* the case.)

But again, the asymmetry is obviously in the background of this. If that above paragraph doesn't make sense to you, then maybe you just don't share that asymmetry, or maybe you are already so convinced that having children can be good (for their sake) that you are rejecting it. Benatar tends to think the second option is more likely: as he notes, virtually everyone agrees with the asymmetry until they see the consequences of agreeing with it.

Seriously, though, you should just download his paper and read it. It's very short and quite clear, and gets all the essential elements of the argument across.

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