Tuesday, 27 May 2014

THE HARM OF COMING INTO EXISTENCE

Fans of True Detective the TV series may know that one of the influences that shaped its nihilistic vision was the anti-natalist position as espoused by philosopher David Benatar, who believes that "coming into existence is always a serious harm".  His infamous book on the subject, while cogent and serious, is perhaps the funniest book I have ever read, probably unintentionally so, as it reads like A Modest Proposal as dryly written by a logician.  Sometimes, well-argued philosophy can sound insane, and this book often does. I do not wish to use an ad hominem attack, though, to dispense with the central idea of his anti-natalist position, which is that no one should be born (all should be aborted, and the human race gradually made voluntarily extinct) because it is better to have never been born than lived at all.

To his credit, Benatar admits few other human beings are ever likely to assent to his view; that it seems counter-intuitive; and that it may even fly in the face of most biological imperatives; nor does he recommend killing already living humans.  Indeed, since his moral outlook is based on attempting to remove as much harm as possible, once born, he seeks to limit human suffering, and he sees death as the major cause of that pain.

Benatar's argument falls at the first hurdle though, because it is either a) a tautology or truism and thus uninteresting; or b) it is fallacious and/or both.

I would argue firstly that to define harm, as Benatar does as "pain" (versus pleasure) and then say that even the smallest pinprick is a harm, renders his statement tautological:

consider this logic:

a) to be born all humans must come into existence
b) all humans are mortal
c) all mortals eventually die
d) to come into existence one must eventually die
e) to die is a serious harm
f) humans that come into existence will suffer a serious harm

I think this is very clear, and also, uncontroversial.  Benatar, however, then argues that:

It is better not to suffer serious harm than to suffer serious harm by coming into existence.

But really, he has not offered a meaningful choice, because his choice is between either coming into existence (birth = harm) and not coming into existence (no-birth = no-harm).

Benatar claims that no-birth possible persons cannot feel, as they do not exist, so they do not suffer.  This is tautological.  Anything which does not exist is therefore better than what exists.

The same argument could be phrased as it is "better to be a non-existent purple God than to come into existence".

In short, Benatar is simply arguing, not that there is a better option than existence, but that existence is imperfect. That is, existence has both pain and pleasure.

Benatar sets the bar at viable life too high - he suggests that perhaps godlike creatures that lived to be 240, had wings, and super-human IQs, and never felt pain, hunger, or desire, or suffered disability, would have a better life quality - but even then due to the law of thermodynamics, their world would end, and they would suffer extinction - thus, even their lives would include some measure of harm, and be not worth living.

Like the most finicky human ever, Professor Benatar equates ANY HARM with A FATE WORSE THAN NON-EXISTENCE, even though he admits most humans, other than suicides, would not think so.  He argues that due to the possibility of rape, torture, starvation, murder, war, disability, cramping and ageing, anyone using the sort of Rawlsian idea of an Ideal Starting Point might conjecture the risk of coming into existence without suffering serious harm would be too great - especially since there is 100 per cent likelihood of species extinction one day.

This makes no sense. It is not anti-natalist, but anti-biotic.  It is a view which suggests that ALL SENTIENT LIFE is TOO HARMFUL to bring into existence.

Dr Benatar's argument, if not truistic ("being born is painful; pain is to be avoided; being born must be avoided") mistakes degrees of harm.  He suggests we are Polyannas making sweet lemonade from our suffering, but, though he cites pestilence and disaster and war as reasons not to live, he need only have observed that being born is the first moment of alarm (a harm for Benatar) and more than intolerable from his zero-harm moral position.

But what good is a moral position that, in seeking to protect life from harm, advocates that no life should exist.

Think thusly:

Benatar's model can be restated as:

a) the best possible world is one without serious harm
b) sentient beings coming into existence is what causes serious harm
c) therefore a world without sentient beings coming into existence is the best possible world

However, this fails to address the following:

in the ideal world, without any coming into existence, who would be able to frame the moral position above?  In the absence of sentient beings, what sense is there in advocating ideas about best or worst?  Best is only valid in terms of comparison to what is.  A world that never was is not better than a world that was, or is, for it cannot be meaningfully compared - since non-existent worlds are fictive, one can say what one wants about them - they will always be weight against what is, and found excelling - so, it is better to not-exist because not-existence is like having a billion orgasms at once is a plausible argument for Benatar; now, Benatar thinks non-existence (rather pre-existence) is harmless, because he defines moral existence as a thinking wakeful living being with interests.  As such it is better to be awake than asleep, but that does not mean one must only choose one state.

Benatar has confused the idea of choosing between goods and evils.  Choice is not necessarily zero-sum - you can choose to be awake more than asleep. You needn't choose between a zero-harm and low-pleasure state (pre-existence versus existence).

In short, Benatar is arguing for the best world being one that could never have existed vs.a world that we know did come to be.  He has used his hindsight to argue for an impossible (ideal world) - for the best possible world would not have Benatar, thus Benatar's ideas, in it.

This is like saying the best houses are ones that cannot burn or collapse - since houses are made of things, and things can burn or collapse - then the best house is the one that is never built.

This is the sort of argument for the existence of God in reverse (God must exist because the idea of God contains the idea of perfection, and to be perfect, you must exist), except here, to be perfect you must not exist.

Indeed, the absence of any mention of an after-life, souls, or a God, makes Benatar's arguments unpersuasive, if only because in order for his logical definitions to be plausible, life must come into being in a world without a) Heaven; b) God; c) Reincarnation.

Heaven, by definition, is a future pleasure so great it undoes all past harm. If we come into existence with souls, in order to reach Heaven and come into union with God, then coming into existence does us a serious pleasure.

In other words, Benatar's nihilism only works in a mechanistic and atheistic world, which, though a hypothesis, is not a given.  It is hard to advocate phased extinction before checking to see if life may have some countervailing anti-harms.

For he says little of anti-dotes, the anti-harms of music, thought poetry, love - obviously to him, sweet lemons.  But if a pinprick is worse harm than never being born, then isn't a kiss a better pleasure than a pin prick?  We can walk on coals without noticing, if focused on something better.


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