David Benatar – Better Never to Have Been

If you want a prescription, go to a doctor, not a philosopher.

For too long, mankind has stubbornly held onto the Platonist ideal of the philosopher ruler. The divided line, the simile of the Sun and the cave all contribute to our widely held metaphysical presuppositions of hierarchy, from knowledge, to those who have that knowledge.

We seem to be loaded with categorical imperatives these days, everyone puts forward the philosopher who has the best argument, which is fine to me, but where it gets really messed up, is when those maxims are put across as prescriptions for mankind to adhere to. I propose that instead of prescribing a new normative moral philosophy, we instead percieve it as an existential contemplative.

Take David Benatars’ “Better Never to Have Been – The Harm of Coming Into Existence” for example. The title ought to give away what is essentially Benatars argument – that bringing a human being into existence, will always lead to serious harm and that existentially speaking, not existing in the first place is more valuable, therefore “Better” than existing.

This takes into account the stubbornness of humanity in general, the fact we are always at war and always draining resources, damaging the environment and having to survive day by day in an economic state of collapse and disaster that never seems to improve. Adding to this problem, are the issues surrounding over population and the idea that we are fighting for the people of tomorrow.

What Benatar argues, is that we only ever have children for selfish reasons anyway, the interests of a non-existent person are quite obviously, well, non-existent and that therefore our fight for the improvement of the world for those of tomorrow, is not really a fight for them at all, as they have no say until they come into existence.

Benatar provides an asymmetry game theory style argument, that looks very much like the paradox of cooperation and rationality, also known as prisoners dilemma. As there is an “end” to this game, which is to minimise suffering and as an ontological fact of our existence we include those nonexistent people in this game that aims to reduce harm, we can see that no matter what, we increase harm by bringing people into existence in order to prevent harm.

To win the game with an “end”, the final cause, also known as teleology, just like in prisoners dilemma, the way forward is to not have children, to not bring anymore people into existence, as that paradoxically increases harm. Yet, as we know from experience, mankind will never cooperate here, it will add more beings, increase harm and act, rationalise and react to the premise that the symmetry to harm/pain/suffering, is supposed to be preventing harm, while enhancing  pleasure, being able to act autonomously. Benatar gives us another paradox based on our projective thoughtfulness towards those who don’t exist yet, in the fact that they can’t experience pleasure or pain anyway and therefore preventing pleasure of a nonexistent person isn’t actually a bad thing and neither is it good, but the prevention of suffering by not bringing someone into existence, is in fact good, as we have preventing suffering as a guarantee of bringing someone into existence, is always a harm.

Benatar Asymmtery

As infuriating this argument appears to be, it does actually make a lot of sense, over population is a problem, disribution of wealth and resources are problems, the future looks bleak for mankind with the constant threat of war, imperialism, general shit luck and the possibility that we could be facing natural disasters, nuclear war, or even another Holocaust, concentration camps or famine in the future, are all to be considered as real threats, the question Benatar provokes, is that providing you are not a deluded fuck wit who will deny this is all going on, why would you bring someone into existence knowing that they may face such horrors in the future? Isn’t there enough to clean up since the first spillage of milk? Wouldn’t we be more effective without adding to the problem?

These are all great questions that have finally been bought onto the table of discussion that not only provide the great paradox of rationality and cooperation, but it also challenges the privilege and entitlement presupposition of those who use the argument “Wont someone please think of the children?”, that in fact, not having children is the responsible thing to do, whereas having children isn’t, it is incredibly wasteful, disastrous given the current climate of existence and this applies to all sentience, not just humans, or particular groups of humans.

Going back to the opening claim in this video, Benatar is an existentialist, he is providing a life affirmation and utilising amor fati – oddly, but he is using it. He’s accepted the fate of his existence and is looking for the best possible way in which we can reduce suffering and this is it!

I have a problem with this normative prescription. To instantly turn this into a maxim and universal law, given that it makes sense to not have children, many will interpret this as a prescription, instead of just looking at it in terms of a thought experiment, a revaluation of what is important (as existentialism is the philosophy of values) and as a paradox that is not easily answered, or refuted.

The only way I can continue after digesting this argument, is to conclude that yes, it makes sense not have children, but that doesn’t mean I have the right to tell people not to have children, or that certain groups of people should not have children and ought to be forced into not having that choice themselves.

When we act we are making a choice, although we can forget we have made choices in the past that affect us in the future and the present time. When we act, we are including others in our choices too. Existentialism starts from the subjective, as there is no God, there must be at least one being that precedes the essence of another in existence, that being is, to Heidegger “Dasein”, the human reality.

Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world and then sets out to define himself afterwards, if we can’t at first define ourselves, it is because first and foremost, he is nothing.

Man is, something that propels itself towards a future and is aware of itself doing so.

What is usually called our will is probably a manifestation of a prior and more spontaneous decision. The responsibility of human existence rests solely on man, humans. Man chooses for himself, but he also chooses for all men in doing so.

To choose between this and that, or in the case of Benatar, between choosing to have a child or not to have a child, is to at the same time value that which is chosen, what we choose is always the “better” and nothing can be better unless what we choose is better for all. We choose what is relative to our epoch in which we are thrown into.

Our responsibility is much greater than we first let ourselves believe, for it concerns mankind as a whole. In fashioning myself, I fashion mankind. If I choose to have children, even though my decision proceeds from my situation, from my passions or desires, I commit to myself and humanity as a whole.

This is why Benatars arguments are to me, existential and instead of looking at it as a prescription and a new normative philosophy, I believe it more beneficial to regard it as an existential contemplative.

In the teachings of Sartre, anguish is seen when an utterly captured being realizes the unpredictability of his or her action. For example, when walking along a cliff, you would feel anguish to know that you have the freedom to throw yourself down to your imminent death.

What is at the very heart and center of existentialism, is the absolute character of the free commitment, by which every man realises himself in realising a type of humanity – a commitment always understandable, to no matter whom in no matter what epoch – and its bearing upon the relativity of the cultural pattern which may result from such absolute commitment.

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