Benatar and the Logic of Betterness
Bradley, Ben, Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy
THE PRIMARY ARGUMENT OF DAVID BENATAR'S Better Never to Have Been is an argument for the claim that coming into existence is always harmful, because it is always worse for an individual to begin to exist than never to have existed (Benatar 2006: 30-49). Thus, it is always morally wrong to procreate. Several commentators have objected to this argument, including Persson (2009), Doyal (2007), McMahan (2009), Harman (2009) and Kaposy (2009). While each of these commentators raises important points, the most fundamental problem has not been identified. in what follows, I explain the argument and identify the problem.
I. Benatar's Asymmetry Argument
We will follow Benatar and suppose, for the purposes of this argument, that hedonism is true: pleasure and pain are the only basic intrinsic goods and evils. (1) Benatar asks us to compare a situation (A) in which an individual comes into existence, and thereafter experiences some pleasures and pains, with a situation (B) in which the person never comes into existence. Benatar argues that we should accept the following two claims concerning these two scenarios:
(1) The absence of pain in (B) is intrinsically better than the presence of pain in (A).
(2) The presence of pleasure in (A) is not intrinsically better than the absence of pleasure in (B) (2006: 41-2).
Given these two claims, we can conclude that (B) is better than (A)--that is, it is better not to exist than to exist--since not existing is better in one way than existing, but existing is not better in any way than not existing. Thus, coming into existence is always harmful, and nobody should ever have children.
The asymmetry between (1) and (2) is supposed to be justified by the explanatory work that it does. For one thing, it is supposed to explain why it is obligatory to fail to procreate when procreating would result in a bad life for the child, but it is not obligatory to procreate when the resulting child would have a good life. Having a bad life is a disadvantage relative to having no life, per (1), but having a good life is not an advantage relative to having no life, per (2). Furthermore, it would help solve Parfit's "non-identity problem" (Parfit 1984: 358); it would explain why it is impermissible to procreate knowingly in cases where (i) the resulting person would have a painful disease, (ii) the person would nevertheless have a life that is good overall, but (iii) the parents could have instead conceived a different child who would not have had the disease. The pains experienced by the child count against conception, per (1), but the pleasures do not count in favor, per (2); thus procreation is wrong in this case too.
An important point of clarification: Benatar does not claim that pleasure is never better than its absence. it is better when there is a person who is deprived of the pleasure. When the person never exists, on the other hand, there is no deprivation. in such cases, pleasure is not better than its absence (2006: 41). This distinction is taken to be critical by Benatar but, as I will show in section III, it does not help Benatar's argument at all.
II. The Logic of Betterness
There are many ways in which one might wish to object to Benatar's argument. We might ask for whom the absence of pain is better. We might argue that we can better explain the difference in our claims about procreation by appealing to a distinction between positive and negative rights, or some other important distinction. But none of this is necessary, for the problem with Benatar's argument is very simple: (2) is incompatible with the meanings of "good" and "better." if pleasure is intrinsically good, and the absence of pleasure is not, then pleasure must be intrinsically better than the absence of pleasure. To claim otherwise is to wreak havoc with the logic of preferability or betterness. i suggest (uncharitably) that, despite the extensive discussion Benatar's asymmetry has generated, nobody in fact understands what Benatar is asserting with his asymmetry claim--for if they did, they would recognize that it is incoherent. …