A Fun Argument that You Should Have Never Been Born

Life is so terrible, it would have been better to not have been born. Who is so lucky? Not one in a hundred thousand! –An old Jewish joke

A few weeks ago, Prof Phelan lead us in a discussion that began with the intuition that morality takes into account not just possible harms to actual people, but possible harms to possible people.

This week, we’ll explore a different puzzle beginning from the same place. And again, we’ll have to say some odd things in order to compare the life that a merely possible person would live if they came into existence with the state of affairs in which that person does not come into existence.

David Benatar argues for “anti-natalism,” the position that it’s always wrong to bring people into existence. He tries to show this by showing that coming into existence is always a harm. The basic argument is pretty simple, but we’ll discuss some of the complications on Monday.

The first step is to show that sometimes coming into existence can be a harm. Benatar suggests that you are harmed if you are put into a state that is bad for you while the alternative would not have been bad for you. Of course, not existing is not bad for anyone, because there’s no one for it to be bad for. So, if someone’s life is not worth living (which is bad for them), then they are harmed because not existing would not have been bad for them.

The second step is to show that not coming into existence is never a harm. When we talk about existing people, we say that missing out on good things, such as pleasure, is bad for them. Or that getting the good thing is better for them. But for “someone” who never comes into existence, there’s no one that it’s bad or worse for (nor is there someone who “misses out” on the good thing).

So, prospectively, before “someone” is brought into existence:

With respect to the pains, harms, and other bad things that would be in the life lived, existing is worse than not existing.

With respect to the pleasures and other good things that would be in the life lived, not existing is not worse than existing.

So, if someone is harmed when they are put into a state that is worse for them than the alternative state, coming into existence always is a harm.
That also means that, for all of us, no matter how good our lives may be, we were all harmed by being brought into existence. (This is perfectly compatible with saying ceasing to exist would be a harm or bad for us.)

This conclusion likely strikes you as incorrect, as it does many people.

The challenge is to identify where the reasoning goes wrong (in this and in Benatar’s parallel arguments that I’ll have on hand), so we can see what justifies rejecting the conclusion. And if we can’t find where it goes wrong, perhaps we’re not justified in rejecting it.

Don’t be a stranger (in the sense of not showing up–please be a stranger in the sense of coming to Strange Philosophy Thing!)Join us in the Strange Lounge of Main Hall on Monday, 2/13.