Professor William Reville examines the controversial philosophy of David Benatar
My colleague Dr Tom Moore, senior lecturer in the biochemistry department, UCC, gave a public lecture at UCC on January 18 that attracted a lot of interest. Tom described a proposal outlined by the South African philosopher David Benatar in his recent book, The Harm of Coming into Existence (Oxford University Press, 2006).
Benatar argues that the human race has a moral obligation to become extinct because this would reduce the amount of human suffering on the planet.
Tom Moore is impressed by Benatar’s proposal as a work of philosophy and finds it very difficult to logically refute.
In my opinion, Benatar’s proposal is an interesting intellectual conundrum, but no more than that. Whatever merits Benatar’s proposal might have — and I believe it has few — it could not be seriously entertained by a Christian.
The following description of the book is taken from the Oxford University Press website: ”Most people believe that they were either benefited or at least not harmed by being brought into existence.
”Thus, if they ever do reflect on whether they should bring others into existence — rather than having children without even thinking about whether they should — they presume that they do them no harm. David Benatar argues that coming into existence is always a serious harm.
”Although the good things in one’s life make life go better than it otherwise would have gone, one could not have been deprived by their absence if one had not existed.
”Those who never exist cannot be deprived. However, by coming into existence one does suffer quite serious harms that could not have befallen one had one not come into existence.
”Drawing on the relevant psychological literature, the author shows that there are a number of well-documented features of human psychology that explain why people systematically overestimate the quality of their lives and why they are thus resistant to the suggestion that they are seriously harmed by being brought into existence.
”The author then argues for the ‘anti-natal’ view — that it is always wrong to have children — and he shows that combining the anti-natal view with common pro-choice views about fetal moral status yields a ‘pro-death’ view about abortion (at the earlier stages of gestation).
”Anti-natalism also implies that it would be better if humanity became extinct. Although counter-intuitive for many, that implication is defended, not least by showing that it solves many conundrums of moral theory about population.”
At first glance, this argument seems to lack balance. In other words, if we are to attribute good to the avoidance of pain through non-existence, must we not also attribute harm to denying pleasure by not coming into existence?
We could then conclude that if the pleasure outweighs the pain, the net result of coming into existence is good.
However, Benatar argues that, if we never existed, we cannot miss pleasure we never had and therefore such ‘missed’ pleasure is not a negative.
On the other hand, pain suffered in existence is a real negative. Therefore, in a mathematical sense, his argument holds up. But there is more to life than mathematics.
Science shows us that humans are the product of a chain of increasing and amazing complexifications that began about 13 billion years ago in the simplicity of the Big Bang.
We humans are possibly the only intelligent life in the universe. What an amazing adventure we find ourselves in.
What excitement and pleasure we should feel in trying to understand it all more fully. But, despite this, all Benatar can advocate is that we should deliberately throw away our wonderful inheritance to avoid feeling any pain.
We are evolving animals programmed with an instinct to reproduce. We are gradually improving our social and material conditions, but a quota of suffering is an inevitable part of the average life.
We are equipped to live with this and to work to reduce suffering and increase pleasure — and we are succeeding. Most of us know how to live fulfilled and satisfying lives despite enduring some suffering. This is not foolish optimism — it is our lived experience.
And, of course, Benatar’s arguments can have no attraction for Christians, who believe that humans are made in ‘God’s image’, have a purpose in their lives and a mission to accomplish.
In this view, we will indeed encounter suffering in our lives, but once we do our best to live in accordance with God’s plan, as revealed in the teachings of Jesus Christ, the books will eventually be balanced and we will be rewarded in the next life.
Benatar does not advocate suicide, which might seem to be a logical consequence of his arguments. He argues that even if coming into existence is always a harm, it does not follow necessarily that death is better than continuing to exist.
Of course, it never occurred to him that no publisher would touch his book if he advocated suicide!
Benatar’s argument makes for an interesting intellectual exercise and it is a serious piece of professional philosophy — the Oxford University Press doesn’t publish third-rate material.
However, it seems to fail the test of ordinary human common sense. To me, it is an extreme example of a type of zany conclusion you can reach at the end of an orderly sequence of logical reasoning steps in a materialistic philosophy.
On the other hand, Christianity anchors us against the buffeting of an often cruel world and protects us from the consequences of bleak materialistic reasoning.
Of course, Benatar’s proposal is not new as illustrated by the lines penned by Sophocles (c. 496-406 BC)
‘Never to have been here is best
But if we must see the light, the next best
Is quickly returning whence we came’
Philosophers used to know what to do when ‘smart-ass’ reasoning came up with crazy conclusions.
Remember Xeno’s Paradox? How can a man on a journey ever reach his destination? After all, he must first travel half the distance. Next he travels half the remaining distance, and then half the remaining distance, and then . . . He can never arrive at his destination because there will always be a remaining distance, half of which must first be travelled.
The answer to this puzzle was — just step it out and you will get there. That is also my advice to Benatar — you need to step out more.
William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry and public awareness of science officer at UCC — http:// understandingscience.ucc.ie