Better never to have been?

(feel free to apply Betteridge’s Law)
(also: note that I discuss nonexistence, and suicide in passing, and if you’d rather not read about that, maybe skip this post.)

I read this article, and I had one of those moments where I felt like I finally connected with someone, or some intellectual subculture, somewhere, that I didn’t previously know existed. I had to get his book.

The book in question, Better Never To Have Been by David Benatar, tries to make the case that existence (as a human) is worse than nonexistence, and then explore what that means. I… kinda agree? So I read this book. Here are my thoughts.


Before we go further, I think I should make it very clear that I’m not at all suicidal. This post is in no way a cry for help or anything. I’m trying to approach this question coldly and intellectually; it is no more about me, personally, committing suicide than a Trolley Problem discussion is about some urge to commit vehicular manslaughter. Besides, even if existence is bad, suicide is way worse. So, don’t worry there.

(if you are in that place, though, maybe try the suicide prevention lifeline? or 1-800-273-8255. Also, I’m always willing to talk about depression and stuff, and non-judgmentally, and I won’t jump to any conclusions or anything; I’m not a professional, but if you want to talk, you can reach out to me.)

Existence. Is It Bad?

I’ll try to lay out Benatar’s argument, and then my reaction.

Benatar’s argument for why existence is bad

Basically, pains are worse than pleasures. Why are pains worse? Because the absence of pain is good, but the absence of pleasure isn’t bad.

Imagine 2 scenarios: in scenario A, I exist, and in scenario B, I never existed. In scenario A, I have some pleasures and some pains; some good and some bad. In scenario B, I don’t have any pain (that’s good!) but I don’t have any pleasures (well, who cares? I don’t exist.) Therefore, scenario B will always be better.

He presents this as an axiom, referring to it as “asymmetry.” He says, if you disagree, well, ok; but you probably agree. Here are 4 examples in which you probably agree:

  1. If person X said, “I’ve got a rare genetic disease that would make my kids suffer a lot and die, and therefore I won’t have kids,” you’d say “yes, that makes sense.” There’s a responsibility to avoid theoretical beings' suffering. But there’s no responsibility to provide theoretical beings' pleasure; if X said “eh, I’ve got a nice house and no genetic diseases; if I had kids, they would probably be pretty happy,” you wouldn’t say “X, you have a responsibility to create some happy kids.”
  2. He has a #2 example, but it sounds to me just like #1, so I’ll skip it.
  3. If person X said “I regret bringing my son into existence; he had a sad, miserable life,” we would nod and say “hmm, bummer, but I agree.” If X said “I regret not bringing my son into existence, he would have had a great life”, we’d say “huh?” We can’t really regret the absence of pleasure, but we can regret the presence of pain.
  4. If I said “there are people on Mars, and they are suffering!” you would say “bummer for them!” If I said “no, just kidding, there are no people on Mars”, you would say “whew! I am glad they’re not suffering.” If I said “there are no people on Jupiter, and therefore they’re not enjoying their lives” you’d say “well, ok, I don’t care.” This shows, again, we regret present suffering, and we celebrate both present pleasure and absent suffering, but we don’t regret absent pleasure.

Some other arguments he brings in too

Shiffrin’s punch-for-money argument

We allow people to inflict pain in order to reduce future pain. (Say, you might have to pull out a tooth so that it doesn’t cause more pain down the road.) But we don’t allow people to inflict pain in order to cause pleasure, without permission. Imagine if I said “I’m super rich and I like punching people, so I’ll punch someone, but then I’ll pay them $1 million. I think the pain of the punch is not as bad as the pleasure of $1 million, so it’s ok.” But you still wouldn’t say I’m ethical; it still feels wrong. Now, if I made a deal with you, and I proposed “let me punch you, and I’ll give you $1m”, and you said “OK, it’s a deal”, then this is ethical. But it wouldn’t be ethical if I didn’t ask your permission first.

When you bring a baby into the world, you’re doing exactly that: you’re saying “I’m going to cause some suffering and some pleasures for this baby by making it exist, and I think the pleasures outweigh the pains, but I couldn’t ask it whether it wanted to do that deal,” and therefore it’s unethical.

(I made up this name; neither Benatar nor Shiffrin call this the “punch for money” argument :P)

Fehige’s frustrationism argument

This guy says life is not ups and downs, it’s just wants/needs that either get satisfied or frustrated. When we say we’re happy, we mean “a need got satisfied”; when we’re unhappy, we mean “a need is unmet.” Therefore, if a person exists, they will be satisfied sometimes and frustrated sometimes; but if they never existed, boom, no frustration, so no problems!

This sounds like Buddhism to me too: life is dukkha; life is suffering/difficult. You can stop suffering by reducing your clinging to things.

The quick healing person

Imagine two scenarios: you get sick a lot, or you never get sick. And imagine you either have a superpower that you can heal quickly, or you don’t have that power.

1. You get sick a lot, and you can heal quickly: this is fine.

2. You get sick a lot, and you can’t heal quickly: ugh!

3. You don’t get sick ever, and you can heal quickly: this is fine.

4. You don’t get sick ever, and you can’t heal quickly: this is fine.

Suffering in life = getting sick; pleasures = healing quickly. Cases 3 and 4 are analogous to never existing; cases 1 and 2 are like existing. Life’s pains are like getting sick; life’s pleasures are like healing.

This argument feels a lot like the frustrationist argument.

Life’s worth is not just additive - and even if it were, it’d fall short.

You don’t decide whether a life is good or bad by just adding up all the good parts and subtracting all the bad parts. I mean, do you? Is that how you experience life? Probably not. Even if you did, look back at your day; probably most of it was in the negative. And your negative/traumatic experiences loom way larger than your really good ones. I mean, maybe you’re one of the rare people who have a positive sum; in that case, imagine that 90% of the world is negative - would you want to bring a baby into the world with a 90% chance they’d have a mostly-negative life?

My reaction

Benatar’s argument isn’t ironclad. I really wanted to be convinced, but his argument bottoms out to a bunch of “well, it sure seems like…” points.

The Asymmetry Point

He … kinda just says this whole asymmetry thing, and I’m not sure if I’m on board. Maybe we should be regretting pleasures missed, or nonexistent people on Jupiter who can’t experience the miracle of life. Or maybe the absence of pain is only “not bad”, it’s not “good” - after all, it’s not happening to anyone.

But I feel you, David! Look at all this dukkha!

I mean, life is kinda a series of suffering! Isn’t it? Sure, there are good things, but… having an ego is a solid trip to finding things unsatisfactory! I challenge anyone who disagrees with me here to spend more time with their own thoughts. It’s kinda nuts in there.

However, the Remembering Mind

Daniel Kahneman points this out most clearly and popularly (quick article). We literally experience the world in two very separate ways, the Experiencing Mind and the Remembering Mind, and the Remembering Mind has some weird biases. For example, we’ll go on a vacation during which we’re kinda miserable, sick, sleep-deprived, over-touristed, and just crummy 95% of the time, but we’ll only remember that great 5% and say it was a great trip.

By extension, say your whole life is that vacation. Benatar would say “Look at you! You’re really mostly miserable!” But at any point he says that, your Remembering Mind would take over and says “nah, my life is pretty good. Look at (great thing X)! See, I’m happy.”

Who’s to say that that Remembering Mind is wrong?

Similarly, ok, I’ve got low-grade chronic depression, so I can kind of see life as being a constant struggle/frustrated desire/suffering/dukkha. But if I asked 100 people, probably 90 would say “nah, my life is pretty good.” Even if it’s not their experiencing mind talking, who am I to tell them they’re wrong?

So, all in all, I’m not really any more convinced that existing is bad for everyone.

I mean, I think it’d be better if I hadn’t existed. (refer again, if you like, to the above disclaimer about how I’m not suicidal.) I don’t have high confidence in that, though; I’d guess that the net Goodness of my existing is a normal distribution centered at -0.1, with a standard deviation of 1. So, I could easily be wrong; ask me again in 10 years.

Regardless of whether I think it’d be better if I hadn’t existed, I don’t think I’ve learned anything about whether other people would be happier if they never existed. I imagine a very happy, fulfilled person reading this book and saying “meh, I disagree on your premise, it sure doesn’t feel right to me,” and I don’t have a ton of great ammo to convince them.

Some easier side points that Benatar and I agree on

Suicide is bad

As bad as existing is, suicide just makes things worse! It’s probably really painful, and it sucks a lot for everyone around you. So, Benatar argues that you shouldn’t create more kids, but given that you already exist, you’ll cause more suffering by killing yourself than if you just let yourself live normally, so don’t kill yourself. I agree on this.

It’s not just dumb pleasure and pain here

Not just talking about ice cream vs. electric shocks. Whenever I say “pleasure”, replace it with whatever you think is actually good, like falling in love or enjoying a sunset or being one in ecstatic union with your deity of choice or something. Whenever I say “pain”, replace it with a terrible breakup or losing a loved one or whatever else is actually painful. Related:

There’s no “meaning” that you can jump to to get out of this one

Well, I mean, maybe there is; if you’re convinced that Jesus is God and that makes your life meaningful, don’t let me talk you out of it. Or if you think you exist for the glory of Allah, or you’re just part of Vishnu’s plan, or you really get meaning from your Shinto deities, great! But some of us aren’t so lucky. And if you’re not, either, then it’s kind of a dodge to say “well, life maybe isn’t pleasant, but it’s meaningful.” Define your meaning, and tell me how that makes life worthwhile, and then we can get somewhere.

Anti-natalism (Benatar’s belief) does neatly solve the Repugnant Conclusion

Derek Parfit talks about the Repugnant Conclusion, which goes something like this: Say you have 10 people on Earth, and they are all living great lives; 100 happiness points each. If we want to maximize total happiness, then you’d say surely it is better to have 11 people with 99 happiness points: 99*11=1089 happiness points total, instead of 1000. And therefore, 15 people with 98 happiness points each would be better still. How about 1 million people with 10 happiness points? That’s 10 million total happiness! or, 1 billion people, each with 0.1 happiness - that’s 100 million total happiness!

But I can’t imagine the world with a billion people, each of them living lives that are barely worth living, is better than the world where 10 people live 100-point great lives. But, if you’re a strict “maximize total happiness” utilitarian, the math works out. Therefore, “the 1 billion people world is better” is the repugnant conclusion.

If you instead look at every life as some amount of negative, it works out great. A very good life is maybe only -0.1 points; a -100 point life would be very bad indeed. Therefore, you want to decrease total misery, not increase happiness, and the mathy conclusions fit with our intuitions.

If you agree that existence is bad, it opens up a ton more questions

Should you have kids? Should you abort them, if you’re pregnant? Should we as a species become extinct, and how should we do so? These are all very interesting; I didn’t really care about these chapters because I wasn’t convinced by the base argument.

I’m frustrated about the typography in Blogger

I feel like I have a pretty good outline of ideas, but their hierarchy won’t come across in the published post, because of relative sizes of headings or something. Eh, Benatar didn’t say this, but he would.

One other side point Benatar and I disagree on

He makes a point of saying “I’m going to use ‘him’ for the generic singular third person pronoun.” Whatever, dude. You and the Jesuits both. Language moves on, you can use singular “they” now, it’s way easier. That point aside, though, I found him a pretty thoughtful and generous writer, which I appreciate.


Daniel -

Nice post, it’s good to hear what you thought of the book! This doesn’t respond to most of your post, but talking to Killian I came up with a sort-of-relevant thought experiment:

Dan -

Very relevant! And, I’m glad to hear your thoughts. This feels like an old timey philosophers-sending-letters-to-each-other debate, which I think is super cool. I responded there.

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