David Benatar (born 1966) is a South African philosopher, academic and author. He is best known for his advocacy of antinatalism in his book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, in which he argues that coming into existence is a serious harm, regardless of the feelings of the existing being once brought into existence, and that, as a consequence, it is always morally wrong to create more sentient beings.
- Those who consume animals not only harm those animals and endanger themselves, but they also threaten the well-being of other humans who currently or will later inhabit the planet.
- Killing people or helping them to kill themselves is usually wrong, because continued life is, we assume, usually in those people’s interest. It is extremely implausible, however, to think that continued life is always in a person’s interest. Quality of life can fall to abysmal levels. While there can be reasonable disagreement about how poor the quality must be before life is not worth continuing, it is an indecent imposition on people—an unconscionable violation of their liberty—to force them to endure a life that they have reasonably judged to be unacceptable. Accordingly, it is incumbent on liberty-respecting states to allow assisted suicide or euthanasia for those whose lives have become a burden to themselves.
- "Should there be a legal right to die?", Current Oncology, Vol. 17, No. 5 (2010), pp. 2–3
- A few of my critics have claimed that I am committed to the desirability of suicide and even speciecide. They clearly intend this as a reductio ad absurdum of my position. However, I considered the questions of suicide and speciecide in Better Never to Have Been and argued that these are not implications of my view.
First, it is possible to think that both coming into existence is a serious harm and that death is (usually) a serious harm. Indeed, some people might think that coming into existence is a serious harm in part because the harm of death is then inevitable.
- "Still Better Never to Have Been: A Reply to (More of) My Critics", The Journal of Ethics, Vol. 17, No. 1/2, Special Issue: The Benefits and Harms of Existence and Non-Existence (June 2013), p. 148
- The question is not whether humans will become extinct, but rather when they will. If the anti-natalist arguments are correct, it would be better, all things being equal, if this happened sooner rather than later for, the sooner it happens, the more suffering and misfortune will be avoided.
- It is these very conditions that facilitate the emergence of new infectious diseases and that also inflict horrific harms on animals — being kept in confined conditions and then butchered. Simply put, the coronavirus pandemic is a result of our gross maltreatment of animals.
- "Our Cruel Treatment of Animals Led to the Coronavirus", The New York Times, April 13, 2020.
Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence (2006)
Oxford University Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0199296422.
- Each one of us was harmed by being brought into existence. That harm is not negligible, because the quality of even the best lives is very bad—and considerably worse than most people recognize it to be. Although it is obviously too late to prevent our own existence, it is not too late to prevent the existence of future possible people.
- Creating new people, by having babies, is so much a part of human life that it is rarely thought even to require a justification. Indeed, most people do not even think about whether they should or should not make a baby. They just make one. In other words, procreation is usually the consequence of sex rather than the result of a decision to bring people into existence. Those who do indeed decide to have a child might do so for any number of reasons, but among these reasons cannot be the interests of the potential child. One can never have a child for that child's sake.
- p. 2
- One particularly poor argument in defence of eating meat is that if humans did not eat animals, those animals would not have been brought into existence in the first place. Humans would simply not have bred them in the numbers they do breed them. The claim is that although these animals are killed, this cost to them is outweighed by the benefit to them of having been brought into existence. This is an appalling argument for many reasons [...] First, the lives of many of these animals are so bad that even if one rejected my argument one would still have to think that they were harmed by being brought into existence. Secondly, those who advance this argument fail to see that it could apply as readily to human babies that are produced only to be eaten. Here we see quite clearly that being brought into existence only to be killed for food is no benefit. It is only because killing animals is thought to be acceptable that the argument is thought to have any force.
- p. 3
- It is curious that while good people go to great lengths to spare their children from suffering, few of them seem to notice that the one (and only) guaranteed way to prevent all the suffering of their children is not to bring those children into existence in the first place.
- p. 6
- Assuming that each couple has three children, an original pair's cumulative descendants over ten generations amount to 88,572 people. That constitutes a lot of pointless, avoidable suffering. To be sure, full responsibility for it all does not lie with the original couple because each new generation faces the choice of whether to continue that line of descendants. Nevertheless, they bear some responsibility for the generations that ensue. If one does not desist from having children, one can hardly expect one's descendants to do so.
- pp. 6–7
- Although, as we have seen, nobody is lucky enough not to be born, everybody is unlucky enough to have been born – and particularly bad luck it is, as I shall now explain. On the quite plausible assumption that one’s genetic origin is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for having come into existence, one could not have been formed by anything other than the particular gametes that produced the zygote from which one developed. This implies, in turn, that one could not have had any genetic parents other than those that one does have. It follows from this that any person’s chances of having come into existence are extremely remote. The existence of any one person is dependent not only on that person’s parents themselves having come into existence and having met but also on their having conceived that person at the time that they did. Indeed, mere moments might make a difference to which particular sperm is instrumental in a conception. The recognition of how unlikely it was that one would have come into existence, combined with the recognition that coming into existence is always a serious harm, yields the conclusion that one’s having come into existence is really bad luck. It is bad enough when one suffers some harm. It is worse still when the chances of having been harmed are very remote.
- p. 7
- Some anti-natalist positions are founded on either a dislike of children¹ or on the interests of adults who have greater freedom and resources if they do not have and rear children. My anti-natalist view is different. It arises, not from a dislike of children, but instead from a concern to avoid the suffering of potential children and the adults they would become, even if not having those children runs counter to the interests of those who would have them.
- p. 8
- On my view there is no net benefit to coming into existence and thus coming into existence is never worth its costs.
- p. 13
- The argument that coming into existence is always a harm can be summarized as follows: Both good and bad things happen only to those who exist. However, there is a crucial asymmetry between the good and the bad things. The absence of bad things, such as pain, is good even if there is nobody to enjoy that good, whereas the absence of good things, such as pleasure, is bad only if there is somebody who is deprived of these good things.
- p. 14
Why Coming into Existence is Always a Harm
- We infrequently contemplate the harms that await any new-born child—pain, disappointment, anxiety, grief, and death. For any given child we cannot predict what form these harms will take or how severe they will be, but we can be sure that at least some of them will occur. None of this befalls the nonexistent. Only existers suffer harm.
- p. 29
How Bad Is Coming into Existence?
- A charmed life is so rare that for every one such life there are millions of wretched lives. Some know that their baby will be among the unfortunate. Nobody knows, however, that their baby will be one of the allegedly lucky few. Great suffering could await any person that is brought into existence. Even the most privileged people could give birth to a child that will suffer unbearably, be raped, assaulted, or be murdered brutally. The optimist surely bears the burden of justifying this procreational Russian roulette. Given that there are no real advantages over never existing for those who are brought into existence, it is hard to see how the significant risk of serious harm could be justified. If we count not only the unusually severe harms that anybody could endure, but also the quite routine ones of ordinary human life, then we find that matters are still worse for cheery procreators. It shows that they play Russian roulette with a fully loaded gun—aimed, of course, not at their own heads, but at those of their future offspring.
- p. 92
Having Children: The Anti-Natal View
- Disability rights advocates also correctly note that quality-of-life assessments differ quite markedly between those who have impairments and those who do not. Many of those without impairments tend to think that lives with impairments are not worth starting (and may even not be worth continuing) whereas many of those with impairments tend to think that lives with these impairments are worth starting (and certainly are worth continuing). There certainly does seem to be something self-serving about the dominant view. It conveniently sets the quality threshold for lives worth starting above that of the impaired but below normal human lives. But is there anything less self-serving about those with impairments setting the threshold just beneath the quality of their lives? Disability rights advocates argue that the threshold in most people’s judgements about what constitutes a minimally decent quality of life is set too high. However, the phenomenon of discrepant judgements is equally compatible with the claim that the ordinary threshold is set too low (in order that at least some of us should pass it). The view that it is set too low is exactly the judgement that we can imagine would be made by an extra-terrestrial with a charmed life, devoid of any suffering or hardship. It would look with pity on our species and see the disappointment, anguish, grief, pain, and suffering that marks every human life, and judge our existence, as we (humans without unusual impairments) judge the existence of bedridden quadriplegics, to be worse than the alternative of non-existence.
- p 120
- [T]he optimist’s impatience with or condemnation of pessimism often has a smug macho tone to it (although males have no monopoly of it). There is a scorn for the perceived weakness of the pessimist who should instead ‘grin and bear it’. This view is defective for the same reason that macho views about other kinds of suffering are defective. It is an indifference to or inappropriate denial of suffering, whether one’s own or that of others. The injunction to ‘look on the bright side’ should be greeted with a large dose of both scepticism and cynicism. To insist that the bright side is always the right side is to put ideology before the evidence. Every cloud, to change metaphors, may have a silver lining, but it may very often be the cloud rather than the lining on which one should focus if one is to avoid being drenched by self-deception. Cheery optimists have a much less realistic view of themselves than do those who are depressed.
- pp. 210–211
- Although there are many non-human species — especially carnivores — that also cause a lot of suffering, humans have the unfortunate distinction of being the most destructive and harmful species on earth. The amount of suffering in the world could be radically reduced if there were no more humans. Even if the misanthropic argument is not taken to this extreme, it can be used to defend at least a radical reduction of the human population.
- p. 224
- It is unlikely that many people will take to heart the conclusion that coming into existence is always a harm. It is even less likely that many people will stop having children. By contrast, it is quite likely that my views either will be ignored or will be dismissed. As this response will account for a great deal of suffering between now and the demise of humanity, it cannot plausibly be thought of as philanthropic. That is not to say that it is motivated by any malice towards humans, but it does result from a self-deceptive indifference to the harm of coming into existence.
- p. 225
The Second Sexism: Discrimination Against Men and Boys (2012)
Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. ISBN 978-0470674512.
- A third belief about males has both descriptive and normative forms. It is the belief that males are, or at least should be, tough. They are thought to be able to endure pain and other hardships better than women. Whether or not they do take pain and other hardships “like a man,” it is certainly thought that they should. When it is said that they should take pain and hardships “like a man,” the word “man” clearly means more than “adult male human,” but rather one who stoically, unflinchingly bears whatever pain or suffering he experiences, including that which is inflicted on him precisely because he is a “man.” This is true even when he is not a man, but rather a boy. Boys are taught early that they must act like men. Crying, they are told, is what girls do. They are discouraged from expressing hurt, sadness, fear, disappointment, insecurity, embarrassment and other such emotions. It is because males are thought to be and are expected to be tough that they may be treated more harshly. Thus, corporal punishment and various other forms of harshness may be inflicted on them but often not on females, who are purportedly more sensitive.
- Chapter 3, part 1: Beliefs about Males
Debating Procreation: Is It Wrong To Reproduce? (2015)
With David Wasserman, Oxford University Press, 2015. ISBN 978-0199333554.
- To procreate is thus to engage in a kind of Russian roulette, but one in which the "gun" is aimed not at oneself but instead at one's oﬀspring. You trigger a new life and thereby subject that new life to the risk of unspeakable suﬀering.
- p. 65
Permissible Progeny? The Morality of Procreation and Parenting (2015)
Oxford University Press, 2015. ISBN 978-0199378128.
- Our species is prone to a flattering view of itself. Humans have regarded themselves as the pinnacle of creation, formed by and in the image of an omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent God, and inhabiting a planet at the center of the universe—a planet around which all others revolve. Science has done much to debunk some of these ideas. We now know that our planet is not at the center of the universe: the earth revolves around the sun rather than vice versa. And we know—or at least some of us do—that we are Johnny-come-lately products of a long, blind evolutionary process.
- Chapter 1: The Misanthropic Argument for Anti-natalism (2015), p. 35-36
- Humans may exceed other animals in their sapient capacities, but we also surpass other species on our destructiveness. Many animals cause harm, but we are the most lethal species ever to have inhabited our planet. It is revealing that we do not refer to this superlative property in identifying ourselves. There is ample evidence that we are Homo pernicious – the dangerous, destructive human.
- Humans inflict untold suffering and death on many billions of animals every year, and the overwhelming majority of humans are heavily complicit.
- Some of the harm that humans cause to other humans and to animals is mediated by the destructive effect that humans have on the environment. For much of human history, the damage was local. Groups of humans fouled their immediate environment. In recent centuries the human impact has increased exponentially and the threat is now to the global environment. The increased threat is a product of two interacting factors–the exponential growth of the human population combined with significant increases in negative effects per capita. The latter is the result of industrialization and increased consumption.
- Certainly in the case of the treatment of animals, the scales are heavily weighted against us. Although it is true that some humans do some good for animals, much of this is merely rescuing animals from the maltreatment of other humans. At the level of the human species such benefits cannot be used to offset the harms. If there were no humans to inflict the harms, these benefits would not be necessary. Of course, humans do bestow some other benefits, such as veterinary care for their companion animals. However, the number of animals affected and the amount of good done is massively outweighed by the harm the human species does to non-human animals.
- Humanity is a moral disaster. There would have been much less destruction had we never evolved. The fewer humans there are in the future, the less destruction there will still be.
- Few prospective procreators consider the aesthetic impact of their potential children. But how many more producers of excrement and urine, flatulence, menstrual blood and semen, sweat, mucus, vomit, and pus do we really need? How much more human waste do we need to process? How many more corpses do we need to dispose of? It would be an aesthetic improvement if there were fewer people.
The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life's Biggest Questions (2017)
Oxford University Press, 2017. ISBN 978-0190633813.
• We are born, we live, we suffer along the way, and then we die—obliterated for the rest of eternity. Our existence is but a blip in cosmic time and space. It is not surprising that so many people ask: "What is it all about?"
- In a sentence: Life is bad, but so is death. Of course, life is not bad in every way. Neither is death bad in every way. However, both life and death are, in crucial respects, awful. Together, they constitute an existential vise—the wretched grip that enforces our predicament.
- pp. 1–2
- Life's big questions are big in the sense that they are momentous. However, contrary to appearances, they are not big in the sense of being unanswerable. It is only that the answers are generally unpalatable. There is no great mystery, but there is plenty of horror.
- p. 7
- [T]he overwhelming urge to repeat the optimistic messages, especially in the bleakest times, suggests that they are not quite reassuring enough. It is as if the repetition of the “good news” is essential because it is so at odds with the way the world seems to be. While the optimists have answers to life’s big questions, they are not the right ones, or so I shall argue. Their answers are believed, when they are believed, because people so desperately want to believe them, and not because the force of arguments supporting them makes it the case that we must believe them.
- p. 13
- People’s coping mechanisms are so strong that the pessimist has a difficult time getting a fair hearing. Bookshops have entire sections devoted to “self-help” volumes, not to mention “spirituality and religion” and other feel-good literature. There are no “self-helplessness” or “pessimism” sections in bookstores because there is a vanishingly small market for such ideas. I am not seriously advocating self-helplessness. I think that there are some matters about which we are helpless, but even on a realistic pessimistic view, there are things we can do to meliorate (or aggravate) our predicament.
- p. 14
- A pessimistic book is most likely to bring some solace to those who already have those views but who feel alone or pathological as a result. They may gain some comfort from recognizing that there are others who share their views and that these views are supported by good arguments.
- p. 14
- Moreover, it is thought that there is something absurd about the earnestness of our pursuits. We take ourselves very seriously, but when we step back, we wonder what it is all about. The step back need not be all the way to the cosmos. One does not need much distance to see that there seems something futile about our endless strivings, which are not altogether different from a hamster on its wheel. Much of our lives are filled with recurring mundane activities, the purpose of which is to keep the whole cycle going: working, shopping, cooking, feeding, abluting, sleeping, laundering, dishwashing, bill-paying, and various engagements with ever-expanding bureaucracies. Even if these mundane activities are thought to serve other goals, the attainment of those goals only yields further goals to be pursued. There is plenty of scope for questioning the significance of even the broader goals of one’s life. This (personal) cycle continues until one dies, but the treadmill is intergenerational because people tend to reproduce, thereby creating new mill-treaders. This has continued for generations and will continue until humanity eventually goes the way of all species—extinction. It seems like a long, repetitive journey to nowhere.
- p 15
- The prospect of one’s own death, perhaps highlighted by a diagnosis of a dangerous or terminal condition, tends to focus the mind. But the deaths of others—relatives, friends, acquaintances, and sometimes even strangers—can also get a person thinking. Those deaths need not be recent. For example, one might be wandering around an old graveyard. On the tombstones are inscribed some details about the deceased—the dates they were born and died, and perhaps references to spouses, siblings, or children and grandchildren who mourned their loss. Those mourners are themselves now long dead. One thinks about the lives of those families—the beliefs and values, loves and losses, hopes and fears, strivings and failures—and one is struck that nothing of that remains. All has come to naught. One’s thoughts then turn to the present and one recognizes that in time, all those currently living—including oneself —will have gone the way of those now interred. Someday, somebody might stand at one’s grave and wonder about the person represented by the name on the tombstone, and might reflect on the fact that everything that person—you or I— once cared about has come to nothing. It is far more likely, however, that nobody will spare one even that brief thought after all those who knew one have also died.
- p. 15
- We are ephemeral beings on a tiny planet in one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe (or perhaps the multiverse)—a cosmos that is coldly indifferent to the insignificant specks that we are. It is indifferent to our fortunes and misfortunes, to injustice, to our hopes, fears, values, and concerns. The forces of nature and the cosmos are blind.
- p. 15
- [T]he somewhat good news is that our lives can be meaningful—from some perspectives. One reason that this is only somewhat good news is that even by the more limited standards, there are some people whose lives either are or feel meaningless. Moreover, the prospects for meaning generally diminish as the scope of the perspective broadens. That the prospects tend to diminish in this way does not imply that lives that are meaningless from a more limited perspective are never meaningful from a broader perspective. There are those, for example, who have no family left or who have no meaning for their family or community, perhaps because they have been shunned, but who make an impact at a broader level. Another reason why the news so far has been only somewhat good is that even those whose lives have meaning from more expansive terrestrial perspectives are rarely satisfied with the amount of meaning their lives have. Not only do people typically want more meaning than they can get, but the most meaning that anybody is capable of attaining is inevitably significantly limited.
- p. 22
- Debates about the existence of God are interminable (...) In my view, though, the persistence of this debate is not surprising for one reason only: the depth of the widespread human need to cope with the harsh realities of the human predicament, including but not limited to the fact that our lives are meaningless in important ways. Upton Sinclair famously remarked that it “is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” It is similarly difficult to get somebody to understand something when the meaning of his life depends on his not understanding it.
- p. 24
- It would indeed be wonderful if there were a beneficent God who had created us for good reason and who cared for us as a loving parent would for his or her children. However, the way the world is provides us with plenty of evidence that this is not the case. Imagine you were to visit a country in which the evidence of repression is pervasive: There is no freedom of the press or expression; vast numbers of people live in squalor and suffer severe malnutrition; those attempting to flee the country are imprisoned; torture and executions are rampant; and fear is widespread. Yet your minder tells you that the country, the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” is led by a “Great Leader” who is an omnibenevolent, infallible, and incorruptible being who rules for the benefit of the people. Other officials endorse this view with great enthusiasm. There are impressive rallies in which masses of people profess their love for the Great Leader and their gratitude for his magnificent beneficence. When you muster the courage to express skepticism, citing various disturbing facts, you are treated to elaborate rationalizations that things are not as they seem. You are told either that your facts are mistaken or that they are reconcilable with everything that is believed about the Great Leader. Perhaps your minder even gives a name to such intellectual exercises—“Kimdicy.” It would be wonderful if North Korea were led by an omnibenevolent, infallible, and incorruptible ruler, but if it had such a leader, North Korea would look very different from the way it does look. The fact that many people in North Korea would disagree with us can be explained by either their vested interests in the regime, by their having been indoctrinated, or by their fear of speaking out. The presence of disagreement between them and us is not really evidence that deciding the matter is complicated. Not all of earth is as bad as North Korea, but North Korea is part of “God’s earth”; so are Afghanistan, Burma, China, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Syria, and Zimbabwe, to name but a few appalling places for many to live. Even in the best parts of the world, terrible things happen. Assaults, rapes, and murders occur, injustices are perpetrated, and children are abused. Fortunately, the incidence of such evil in places like Western Europe is lower than in worse places on earth, but my point is that they all occur within the jurisdiction of a purportedly omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God. Nor should we forget the horrific diseases from which people suffer around the globe, or the fact that every day, billions of animals are killed and eaten by other animals, including humans.
- p. 25
- The (nonhuman) animal predicament is particularly revealing. Confronted with the awful spectacle of billions of animals being eaten, often alive, by predators, humans typically do not attempt to propose any cosmic meaning to those lives. Indeed, the usual monotheistic response is to say that the (or at least one) purpose of animals is to be eaten by others higher up the food chain. It is hard to reconcile that with the existence of a purportedly benevolent God, who surely could have created a world in which billions did not have to die each day to keep others alive.
- p. 26
- Consider an analogy. If one is playing a game of backgammon, it is entirely reasonable to make various moves. Indeed, one is not playing backgammon unless one is making (permitted) moves. There are justifications for this move and for that one. It is an entirely different matter to ask what the point of backgammon is, whether one should be playing backgammon at all, and whether one should pass it on to the next generation (by teaching it to children—or by creating children to whom one can teach it). Similarly, it can be entirely reasonable to relieve headaches and prevent harms to children and yet worry that one’s life as a whole—or human life in general—has no cosmic purpose. The absence of cosmic meaning may provide one with a reason to regret one’s existence or to desist from perpetuating the whole pointless trajectory by abstaining from bringing new people into existence.
- p. 29
- Description: about discounting the cosmic perspective.
- Consider another analogy. If you are worried about your father’s health, it does not make you less worried about his health if you are told that your mother is entirely healthy. It is obviously good that your mother is healthy. If she were not, you would worry about that too. However, being told that you need not worry about her health does not diminish your worry about his. Similarly, while things would be much worse if our lives lacked any meaning, those who are concerned about the absence of cosmic meaning are not consoled about that by the observation that at least some kinds of terrestrial meaning are attainable. The point can be expressed another way. I may derive some meaning from helping another person, and that person may derive some meaning from helping a third person, but that provides no point to our collective existence. We can still say that human life in general is meaningless sub specie aeternitatis. There would be something circular about arguing that the purpose of humanity’s existence is that individual humans should help one another. Moreover, even if an individual human’s life has some terrestrial meaning (perhaps by helping others), it does not follow that that individual’s life also has cosmic significance.
- p. 30
- Meaning from the cosmic perspective would be good for extensions of the same reasons that meaning from the other perspectives is good. People, quite reasonably, want to matter. They do not want to be insignificant or pointless. Life is tough. It is full of striving and struggle; there is much suffering and then we die. It is entirely reasonable to want there to be some point to the entire saga. The bits of terrestrial meaning we can attain are important, for without them, our lives would be not only meaningless but also miserable and unbearable. It would be hard to get up each day and do the things that life necessitates in order to continue. One writer has sniffed at this suggestion, saying that the “idea that the natural consequence of finding one’s life meaningless is to commit suicide is somewhat ridiculous.” In fact, however, failed social belonging is, at least according to some, the most important factor in predicting suicide. Failed social belonging is one consequence of perceiving one’s life to have no meaning from the perspective of some other humans.
- p. 31
- There are some who will characterize my view as “nihilistic." Left unqualified, that characterization is false. My view of cosmic meaning is indeed nihilistic. I think that there is no cosmic meaning. If I am right about that, then calling me a nihilist about cosmic meaning is entirely appropriate. However, my view is not nihilistic about all meaning because I believe that there is meaning from some perspectives. Our lives can be meaningful, but only from the limited, terrestrial perspectives. There is a crucial perspective—the cosmic one—from which our lives are irredeemably meaningless. In thinking about meaning in life, two broad kinds of mistakes are made. There are those who think that the only relevant meaning is what is attainable. They ignore our cosmic meaninglessness or they find ways either to discount questions about cosmic meaning or to minimize the importance of cosmic meaninglessness. The other kind of mistake is to think that because we are cosmically insignificant, “nothing matters,” where the implication is that nothing matters from any perspective. If we lack cosmic meaning but have other kinds of meaning, then some things do matter, even though they only matter from some perspectives. It does make a difference, for example, whether or not one is adding to the vast amounts of harm on earth, even though that makes no difference to the rest of the cosmos.
- p. 32
- Life is meaningless, but it also has meaning—or, more accurately, meanings. There is no such thing as the meaning of life. Many different meanings are possible. One can transcend the self and make a positive mark on the lives of others in myriad ways. These include nurturing and teaching the young, caring for the sick, bringing relief to the suffering, improving society, creating great art or literature, and advancing knowledge. We are nonetheless warranted in regretting our cosmic insignificance and the pointlessness of the entire human endeavor. As impressed as (some) humans often are about the significance of humanity’s presence in the cosmos, our absence would have made absolutely no difference to the rest of the universe. We serve no purpose in the cosmos and, although our efforts have some significance here and now, it is seriously limited both spatially and temporally. Even those who think that we ought not to yearn for the greater meaning that is unattainable must recognize the immense tragedy of beings who suffer such existential anxiety over their insignificance. That suffering is indisputably a part of the human predicament.
- p. 32
- Our lives contain so much more bad than good in part because of a series of empirical differences between bad things and good things. For example, the most intense pleasures are short-lived, whereas the worst pains can be much more enduring. Orgasms, for example, pass quickly. Gastronomic pleasures last a bit longer, but even if the pleasure of good food is protracted, it lasts no more than a few hours. Severe pains can endure for days, months, and years. Indeed, pleasures in general—not just the most sublime of them—tend to be shorter-lived than pains. Chronic pain is rampant, but there is no such thing as chronic pleasure. There are people who have an enduring sense of contentment or satisfaction, but that is not the same as chronic pleasure. Moreover, discontent and dissatisfaction can be as enduring as contentment and satisfaction; this means that the positive states are not advantaged in this realm. Indeed, the positive states are less stable because it is much easier for things to go wrong than to go right. The worst pains are also worse than the best pleasures are good. Those who deny this should consider whether they would accept an hour of the most delightful pleasures in exchange for an hour of the worst tortures. Arthur Schopenhauer makes a similar point when he asks us to “compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is engaged in eating the other.” The animal being eaten suffers and loses vastly more than the animal that is eating gains from this one meal. Consider too the temporal dimensions of injury or illness and recovery. One can be injured in seconds: One is hit by a bullet or projectile, or is knocked over or falls, or suffers a stroke or heart attack. In these and other ways, one can instantly lose one’s sight or hearing or the use of a limb or years of learning. The path to recovery is slow. In many cases, full recovery is never attained. Injury comes in an instant, but the resultant suffering can last a lifetime. Even lesser injuries and illnesses are typically incurred much more quickly than one recovers from them. For example, the common cold strikes quickly and is defeated much more slowly by one’s immune system. The symptoms manifest with increasing intensity within hours, but they take at least days, if not weeks, to disappear entirely.
- p. 37
- Things are also stacked against us in the fulfillment of our desires and the satisfaction of our preferences. Many of our desires are never fulfilled. There are thus more unfulfilled than fulfilled desires. Even when desires are fulfilled, they are not fulfilled immediately. Thus, there is a period during which those desires remain unfulfilled. Sometimes, that is a relatively short period (such as between thirst and, in ordinary circumstances, its quenching), but in the case of more ambitious desires, they can take months, years, or decades to fulfill. Some desires that are fulfilled prove less satisfying than we had imagined. One wants a specific job or to marry a particular person, but upon attaining one’s goal, one learns that the job is less interesting or the spouse is more irritating than one thought. Even when fulfilled desires are everything that they were expected to be, the satisfaction is typically transitory, as the fulfilled desires yield to new desires. Sometimes, the new desires are more of the same. For example, one eats to satiety but then hunger gradually sets in again and one desires more food. The “treadmill of desires” works in another way too. When one can regularly satisfy one’s lower-level desires, a new and more demanding level of desires emerges. Thus, those who cannot provide for their own basic needs spend their time striving to fulfill these. Those who can satisfy the recurring basic needs develop what Abraham Maslow calls a “higher discontent” that they seek to satisfy. When that level of desires can be satisfied, the aspirations shift to a yet higher level. Life is thus a constant state of striving. There are sometimes reprieves, but the striving ends only with the end of life. Moreover, as should be obvious, the striving is to ward off bad things and attain good things. Indeed, some of the good things amount merely to the temporary relief from the bad things. For example, one satisfies one’s hunger or quenches one’s thirst. Notice too that while the bad things come without any effort, one has to strive to ward them off and attain the good things. Ignorance, for example, is effortless, but knowledge usually requires hard work.
- p. 38
- Even the extent to which our desires and goals are fulfilled creates a misleadingly optimistic impression of how well our lives are going. This is because there is actually a form of self “censorship” in the formulation of our desires and goals. While many of them are never fulfilled, there are many more potential desires and goals that we do not even formulate because we know that they are unattainable. For example, we know that we cannot live for a few hundred years and that we cannot gain expertise in all the subjects in which we are interested. Thus, we set goals that are less unrealistic (even if many of them are nonetheless somewhat optimistic). Thus, one hopes to live a life that is, by human standards, a long life, and we hope to gain expertise in some, perhaps very focused, area. What this means is that, even if all our desires and goals were fulfilled, our lives are not going as well as they would be going if the formulation of our desires had not been artificially restricted.
- p. 38
- Further insight into the poor quality of human life can be gained from considering various traits that are often thought to be components of a good life and by noting what limited quantities of these characterize even the best human lives. For example, knowledge and understanding are widely thought to be goods, and people are often in awe of how much knowledge and understanding (some) humans have. The sad truth, however, is that, on the spectrum from no knowledge and understanding to omniscience, even the cleverest, best-educated humans are much closer to the unfortunate end of the spectrum. There are billions more things we do not know or understand than we do know and understand. If knowledge really is a good thing and we have so little of it, our lives are not going very well in this regard. Similarly, we consider longevity to be a good thing (at least if the life is above a minimum quality threshold). Yet even the longest human lives are ultimately fleeting. If we think that longevity is a good thing, then a life of a thousand years (in full vigor) would be much better than a life of eighty or ninety years (especially when the last few decades are years of decline and decrepitude). Ninety years are much closer to one year than to a thousand years. It is even more distant from two thousand or three thousand or more. If, all things being equal, longer lives are better than shorter ones, human lives do not fare well at all.
- It is not surprising that we fail to notice this heavy preponderance of bad in human life. The facts I have described are deep and intractable features of human (and other) life. Most humans have accommodated to the human condition and thus fail to notice just how bad it is. Their expectations and evaluations are rooted in this unfortunate baseline. Longevity, for example, is judged relative to the longest actual human lifespans and not relative to an ideal standard. The same is true of knowledge, understanding, moral goodness, and aesthetic appreciation. Similarly, we expect recovery to take longer than injury, and thus we judge the quality of human life off that baseline, even though it is an appalling fact of life that the odds are stacked against us in this and other ways.
- p. 39
- The psychological trait of comparison is obviously also a factor. Because the negative features I have described are common to all lives, they play very little role in how people assess the quality of their lives. It is true for everybody that the worst pains are worse than the best pleasures are good, and that pains can and often do last much longer than pleasures. Everybody must work hard to ward off unpleasantness and seek the good things. Thus, when people judge the quality of their own lives and do so by comparing them to the lives of others, they tend to overlook these and other such features.
- p. 39
- Human life would be vastly better if pain were fleeting and pleasure protracted; if the pleasures were much better than the pains were bad; if it were really difficult to be injured or get sick; if recovery were swift when injury or illness did befall us; and if our desires were fulfilled instantly and if they did not give way to new desires. Human life would also be immensely better if we lived for many thousands of years in good health and if we were much wiser, cleverer, and morally better than we are.
- p. 39
- [M]any atheists, while critical of theodicy, are themselves engaged in a kind of secular theodicy—an attempt to reconcile their optimistic views with the unfortunate facts about the human condition. There are many secular theodicies. One of the most commonly expressed is that the bad things in life are necessary.
- p. 39
- It is also suggested that the bad things in life are necessary in order to appreciate the good things, or at least to appreciate them fully. On this view, we can only enjoy pleasures (as much as we do) because we also experience pain. Similarly, our achievements are more satisfying if we have to work hard to attain them, and fulfilled desires mean more to us because we know that desires are not always fulfilled. There are many problems with this sort of argument. First, these sorts of claims are not always true. There is much pain that serves no useful purpose. There is no value in labor pains or in pain resulting from terminal diseases, for example. While the pain associated with kidney stones might now lead somebody to seek medical help, for most of human history, such pain served no purpose, as there was absolutely nothing anybody could do about kidney stones. Moreover, there are at least some pleasures we can enjoy without having to experience pain. Pleasant tastes, for example, do not require any experience of pain or unpleasantness. Similarly, many achievements can be satisfying even if they involve less or no striving. There may be a special satisfaction in the ease of attainment. There may be some individual variation. Perhaps some people are more capable of enjoying pleasure without having to experience pain and more capable of taking satisfaction in achievements that come with ease. Second, insofar as the good things in life do require a contrast in order to be fully appreciated, it is not clear that this appreciation requires as much bad as there is. We do not, for example, require millions of people suffering from chronic pain, infectious diseases, advancing paralysis, and tumors in order to appreciate the good things in life. We could enjoy our achievements without having to work quite so hard to attain them.
- pp. 39-40
- Finally, and perhaps most important, to the extent that the bad things in life really are necessary, our lives are worse than they would be if the bad things were not necessary. There are both real and conceivable beings in which nociceptive (that is, specialized neural) pathways detect and transmit noxious stimuli, resulting in avoidance without being mediated by pain. This is true of plants and simple animal organisms, and it is also true of the reflex arc in more complex animals, such as humans. We can also imagine beings much more rational than humans, in which nociception and aversive behavior were mediated by a rational faculty rather than a capacity to feel pain. In such beings, a noxious stimulus would be received but not felt (or at least not in the way pain is), and the rational faculty would, as reliably as pain, induce the being to withdraw. It would be much better to be that sort of being than to be our sort of being. It would similarly be better to be the sort of being who can appreciate the good things in life without having to experience bad things or without having to work really hard to attain the good things. Lives in which there is “no gain without pain” are much worse than lives in which there could be “the same gain without pain.”
- p. 40
- Although analytic philosophers have said much about suicide, their focus has been almost exclusively on the question whether suicide is ever morally permissible, as distinct from whether there is ever something stronger to be said in its favor. Moreover, most (but not all) such philosophical writing considers this question within the context of terminal disease or unbearable and intractable (usually physical) suffering. For some, these are the only bases for suicide that are even worthy of discussion. Others are prepared to extend the discussion to a limited range of other cases, such as those involving irreversible loss of dignity. Suicide on any other grounds, according to this view, must surely be wrong. I take this view to be mistaken. We cannot preclude the possibility that somebody’s life may become unacceptably burdensome to him even though his death is not already imminent and he is not suffering the most extreme and intractable physical pain or irreversible loss of dignity.
- p. 67
- A fourth way in which suicide is criticized is by claiming that it is a cowardly act. The idea is that the person who kills himself lacks the courage to face life’s burdens and thus “takes the easy way out.” Courage, on this view, requires standing one’s ground in the face of life’s adversities and bearing them with fortitude. One way to respond to this criticism is to deny that accepting life’s burdens is always courageous. This will seem odd to those who have a crude conception of courage according to which the unswerving, fearless response to adversity is always courageous. More sophisticated accounts of courage, however, recognize that a steely response may sometimes be a failing. This is what lies behind the adage that sometimes “discretion is the better part of valor.” On the more sophisticated views, too much bravado ceases to be courageous and is instead foolhardiness or even foolishness. Once we recognize that courage should not be confused with its simulacra, the possibility arises that some of life’s burdens may be so great and the point of bearing them so tenuous that enduring them further is not courageous at all and may even be foolish.
- p. 71
- In coming into existence, we are guaranteed to suffer harms. The nature and magnitude of those harms vary from person to person. However, it is more common than not for these harms to include formidable ones: grinding poverty (and its associated costs), chronic pain, disability, disease, trauma, shame, loneliness, unhappiness, frailty, and decrepitude. Sometimes, these mark an entire life. Other times, they begin to intrude into a life that was previously devoid of them. For example, no matter how youthfully robust one may be now, a time will come when one will become enfeebled, unless something else gets one first. Although there are some things we can do to prevent or delay some of these harms, our fate, to a considerable extent, is out of our control. We may attempt to preserve our health, but all we can do thereby is reduce, not eliminate, the risks. Therefore, we have some, but relatively little, control over whether these harms will befall us.
- p. 78
- Instead of steering between optimism and pessimism, one can embrace the pessimistic view, but navigate its currents in one’s life. It is possible to be an unequivocal pessimist but not dwell on these thoughts all the time. They may surface regularly, but it is possible to busy oneself with projects that create terrestrial meaning, enhance the quality of life (for oneself, other humans, and other animals), and “save” lives (but not create them!). This strategy, which I call pragmatic pessimism, also enables one to cope. Like pragmatic optimism, it also attempts to mitigate rather than exacerbate the human predicament. However, it is preferable to pragmatic optimism because it retains an unequivocal recognition of the predicament by not compartmentalizing it to coexist along with optimism. It allows for distractions from reality, but not denials of it. It makes one’s life less bad than it would be if one allowed the predicament to overwhelm one to the point where one was perpetually gloomy and dysfunctional, although it is also compatible with moments or periods of despair, protest, or rage about being forced to accept the unacceptable. Although I have described pragmatic optimism and pragmatic pessimism as two (distinct) responses to the human predicament, this is a simplifying taxonomy. For example, the distinction between a denial of reality and distractions from it is not a sharp one, not least because there are ambiguities in the word “denial.” It can be used literally, but sometimes it is used more metaphorically to refer to what I have called distractions. Thus, there is actually a wide range of responses along a spectrum from thoroughly deluded optimism to suicidal pessimism. In extremis, suicide may be the preferred option, but until then, I am recommending a response within the approximate terrain of pragmatic pessimism.
- p. 84.
- If we take a cold, hard look at the human condition, we see an unpleasant picture. However, there are powerful biological drives against fully recognizing the awfulness of the human predicament that explain why so many people succeed in putting it out of their minds for much of the time. This is a mixed blessing. Ignorance is an existential analgesic, but those who do not sufficiently feel the weight of the human predicament are also vectors for its transmission to new generations.
- p. 85