Better Never To Have Been: the harm of coming into existence by David Benatar

The Harm of Coming into Existence
by David Benatar
Oxford University Press, 2006, 238pp., $45.00 (hbk), ISBN 0199296421

Book Description

"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. Better Never to Have Been challenges these assumptions. David Benatar argues that coming into existence is always a serious harm. Although the good things in one's life make one's 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 were 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 foetal moral status yield 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."

* * *

David Benatar's Better Never To Have Been (2006) challenges a deep source of status quo bias. Benatar argues that coming into being is always a harm. Consequently the ideal population size is zero. "Best not to have been born", observed Sophocles. Or in the words of German poet Heinrich Heine, "Sleep is good, death is better; but of course, the best thing would to have never been". David Benatar concurs. Better Never To Have Been advocates the merciful extinction of all sentient life. Benatar is realistic about his prospects of success.

Benatar's argument rests on a critical asymmetry, outlined in Chapter Two. If someone had never existed, Benatar argues, the absence of any pleasure s/he might have experienced wouldn't be bad - even granted that any pleasure in his or her life would have been good. [This asymmetry underlies the widely acknowledged intuition that no one is morally obliged to have children.] By contrast, Benatar argues, if the suffering undergone in someone's life hadn't existed, then the absence of suffering would be a good thing. From this fundamental asymmetry - i.e. suffering is intrinsically harmful, but there is nothing morally bad about an absence of pleasure - Benatar draws his nihilistic conclusion.

Benatar's policy prescription is untenable. Radical anti-natalism as a recipe for human extinction will fail because any predisposition to share that bias will be weeded out of the population. Radical anti-natalist ethics is self-defeating: there will always be selection pressure against its practitioners. Complications aside, any predisposition not to have children or to adopt is genetically maladaptive. On a personal level, the decision not to bring more suffering into the world and forgo having children is morally admirable. But voluntary childlessness or adoption is not a global solution to the problem of suffering.

Yet how should rational moral agents behave if - hypothetically - some variant of Benatar's diagnosis as distinct from policy prescription was correct?

In an era of biotechnology and unnatural selection, an alternative to anti-natalism is the world-wide adoption of genetically preprogrammed well-being. For there needn't be selection pressure against gradients of lifelong adaptive bliss - i.e. a radical recalibration of the hedonic treadmill. The only way to eradicate the biological substrates of unpleasantness - and thereby prevent the harm of Darwinian existence - is not vainly to champion life's eradication, but instead to ensure that sentient life is inherently blissful. More specifically, the impending reproductive revolution of designer babies is likely to witness intense selection pressure against the harmfulness-promoting adaptations that increased the inclusive fitness of our genes in the ancestral environment of adaptation. If we use biotechnology wisely, then gradients of genetically preprogrammed well-being can make all sentient life subjectively rewarding - indeed wonderful beyond the human imagination. So in common with "positive" utilitarians, the "negative" utilitarian would do better to argue for genetically preprogrammed superhappiness.

The negative utilitarian ethicist might dismiss this alluring prospect as pie-in-the-sky. Like negative utilitarianism itself - and Benatar's argument that sentient existence entails intrinsic harm to its victims - the superhappiness solution invites ridicule, ad hominem attacks, and incredulity. But a cruelty-free world is technically feasible. And unlike anti-natalism, there are strong sociological and technical grounds to predict that the application of biotechnology will wipe out the substrates of suffering for good.

Homo sapiens is the only species capable systematically of preventing harm to the rest of the living world - despite the frightfulness of what we do to non-human animals today. So it is vital that humans survive in the face of existential risks to bring the abolitionist project to completion. Presumably its implementation will entail the use of depot-contraception, ecosystem redesign, CRISPR-based gene drives, and rewriting the vertebrate genome - a formidable but not impossible challenge.

If we succeed, then coming into existence will be intrinsically good.

DP (2007, 2017)
(Br. Port. translation (2014)

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