Wednesday, June 9, 2010

David Benatar: Your Life Is Worth Less...

...than you think it is.

Peter Singer, the well-known ethicist and animal rights philosopher (feel free to put the scare quotes wherever you want), has an essay on David Benatar's book, Better Never to Have Been* giving serious thought to whether or not human life is pretty much worthless.
Benatar also argues that human lives are, in general, much less good than we think they are. We spend most of our lives with unfulfilled desires, and the occasional satisfactions that are all most of us can achieve are insufficient to outweigh these prolonged negative states.

If we think that this is a tolerable state of affairs it is because we are, in Benatar’s view, victims of the illusion of pollyannaism. This illusion may have evolved because it helped our ancestors survive, but it is an illusion nonetheless. If we could see our lives objectively, we would see that they are not something we should inflict on anyone.
There were times when personal confessions of the utter emptiness of one's life were confined to late-nite conversations in bars or Russian plays. Nowadays, it's just about mainstream moral philosophy. (Singer is a professor of philosophy at Princeton. Benatar is identified as "a South African philosopher.")

I suppose the only worthwhile response to this that doesn't consume more time than it's worth is simply to say: "Speak for yourself, pal." But it might be of some value to add: "Dr. Benatar, if you believe you shouldn't inflict your life on anyone, I can't help but agree. Feel free to excuse yourself from the table anytime."

Such is the (literal and figurative) dead end of Kantian utilitarianism.

[Hat tip: Newsreal.]

*[Here is the Amazon Product Description of Benatar's book:
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.]
'Nuff said.


Anonymous said...

The only thing more absurd than Benatar's ridiculous assertion is that there are no end of self-important dolts among the so-called "elites" who will cling to his words as though they actually have some profound significance.

I'm with you. They can all excuse themselves whenever they wish. I sure as hell won't stand in their way.

Imagine David Benatar, or any of those who subscribe to his poppycock, in a situation where they are in immediate and real peril. Say for instance, clinging to a rope over a raging river, knowing that the only way to live is to struggle to climb. How many of them do you suppose would disregard their instinct for survival and simply release the rope, falling to their deaths with the smug certainty that their lives were never worth living anyway?

Like most mush-brained elites, David Benatar attempts to demonstrate his enlightenment by denying human nature.

Please Mr. Benatar. Prove your point. Just go ahead and take yourself out. Get it over with, and spare the world any more of your worthless drivel.

Ken said...

Yep. I say the same thing to the Earth First!ers, Kunstler apostles, and assorted related ilk:

Extinction begins at home.

Ken said...

PS -- C.S. Lewis offers a rather different argument, in Mere Christianity, as to why people have unfulfilled desires. I'll not belabor the point here (because the observer's mileage may vary), beyond mentioning its existence.

VH said...

I'm sure Mr. Benatar would like nothing more for us to line up quietly like good stewards of the earth and have bullets shot into our heads. Idiot.

Well, maybe some of his followers will simply die off and leave more room for the rest of us.

Jeff Perren said...


Pity you didn't sign your post. It's a comment of which you can be proud. It also gave me one of those "right on!" laughs.

Thanks. Hope you'll tune in again.


Jeff Perren said...


Ok, no fair adding to my already absurdly long list of books to read!

I have heard quite a few good recommendations on C.S. Lewis so I'll guess I'll have to bump him up a notch.

Jeff Perren said...

I would agree, VH, except I suspect that "like" is beyond Dr. Benatar's capacity at this stage.


Anonymous said...

Anyone else notice a family resemblance to Dr. Floyd Ferris' "Why do you think you think?"

C. Andrew

Jeff Perren said...

C. Andrew,

Good eye, though I'm leaning toward Ferris as the more cheerful - and rational - of the two. He was just an old-fashioned con man with an intellectual bent. Benatar, like his predecessor Schopenhauer, seems to have something really wrong upstairs.

Anonymous said...

A good characterization. I'm thinking that we could describe this brand of nihilism as "The Universal Self-Excepting Death Wish Impulse." To bad I can't make the Acronym mean anything snappy!

C. Andrew

Jeff Perren said...

Well, C. Andrew, if we add "muy putrid" to the end, it could be USED WIMP, which seems about right. :)

Brian said...

None of you people have actually read Benatar's book otherwise you would see that your ignorant objections had been responded to.

Nowhere does Benatar advocate suicide. He believes that once humans are alive, they should live full and moral lives. He merely argues against human reproduction using solid logic, reason and science.