Sunday, April 27, 2008

Better Dead

This is the thrust of a book—Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence—that carries the environmentalist generated concept that humans are a virus on the earth and the philosophy known as utilitarianism, to its bitter end by proclaiming that it would be better for all life if human life were reduced, drastically.

Google led me to this blog posting about this from last year, pretty good comments.

Michael Cook | Tuesday, 2 October 2007
The ultimate miserabilist

Just when you thought philosophers couldn't get any more pessimistic, one of them surprises you.

What is there about utilitarians that makes them such miserabilists? The greatest happiness for the greatest number is the heart of their philosophy, but just try to find a happy utilitarian. The first of them, Jeremy Bentham, was such a sourpuss that he seemed pickled in vinegar. And in fact, he was, sort of. His embalmed body (pictured) still sits in a cabinet in University College London, one of its principal tourist attractions. He had no wife and no children. The greatest of them, John Stuart Mill, made utilitarianism a mainstream philosophy. But he suffered a nervous breakdown at the age of 20, stole another man's wife and had no children of his own. And while Peter Singer, the most notorious of contemporary utilitarians, may be a karaoke champ in private life, his writings suggest otherwise.

However, these are bit players in the drama of miserabilism compared with South African academic David Benatar, author of Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. Although the book has not been widely reviewed in the popular press, it was published by Oxford University Press and has been presented as a serious contribution to the increasingly influential philosophy of utilitarianism.

Professor Benatar's thesis is that life is so horrid that we all would be better off had we never existed. And not just us, but all sentient life. He introduces his thesis with a Jewish witticism: "Life is so terrible, it would have been better never to have been born. Who is so lucky? Not one in a hundred thousand!"

But Benatar is serious. "The central idea of this book is that coming into existence is always a serious harm." And, he continues, "coming into existence is always bad for those who come into existence. In other words, although we may not be able to say of the never-existent that never existing is good for them, we can say of the existent that existence is bad for them."

How does he reach this conclusion, which, even by his own reckoning, seems absurd and repellent? As a utilitarian, he calculates the benefits of existence by balancing benefits against harms. What possible benefit could a non-existent person receive that would outweigh a pinprick of pain? Since most people find this hard to accept, Benatar spends a chapter demonstrating that "human lives contain much more bad than is ordinarily recognised".

Given his distaste for life, why has he hung around so long? Hard to say. Perhaps he agrees with American writer Dorothy Parker:

Razors pain you, Rivers are damp,
Acids stain you, And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful, Nooses give,
Gas smells awful. You might as well live.