Better Never to Have Been?

by Benjamin Studebaker

I have recently finished reading a fascinating and thought-provoking book by political theorist David Benatar, entitled Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. In this book, Benatar makes a rather unconventional argument–that to bring someone into existence is to harm that person, and that it is consequently generally wrong to have children, because to have children is to harm them. While I found Benatar’s argument most interesting, I ultimately found it unpersuasive. Here’s why.

Benatar’s argument turns on his belief in an asymmetry between pleasure and pain. Benatar observes an interesting difference in many people’s attitudes toward creating new people–while people are often inclined to argue that we should not create people whose lives will be full of suffering, they tend not to accept the flip side of that argument, that we have a moral duty to create people whose lives will be happy.  If you knew that, were you to create a new person, that new person would experience tremendous suffering, and you decided to create that person anyway, most people would find that decision morally repellent. However, if you knew that, were you to create a new person, that new person would experience tremendous happiness, and you decided not to create that person, most people would say that the decision of whether or not to have children in that case was yours to make.

Benatar decides to accept that the intuition many people have for asymmetry is a good intuition. He argues that the reason we have this intuition is that while creating people does introduce them to harms that they otherwise could not experience, non-existent people cannot have experiences and so cannot be denied the hypothetical pleasures they would enjoy if they came into existence. On Benatar’s view, a non-existent person is spared suffering but is not denied pleasure. You can harm a non-existent person by bringing that person into existence, but you cannot harm a non-existent person by not bringing that person into existence, because non-existing people by definition cannot be benefited or harmed.

Benatar argues that all lives contain some suffering (indeed, he argues that human beings grossly underestimate the amount of suffering in their lives). Since all suffering is avoidable if we never came into existence, and if we never came into existence we could never regret the pleasures we would miss out on, Benatar argues that in every case, individuals would be better off if they did not come into existence. He applies this argument not merely to humans, but to all sentient beings, including most animals, whose lives also contain some amount of pain.

I think there is something contradictory about the asymmetrical view of pleasure and pain. Both pleasure and pain are experiences of the same broad type–if we can be spared one, we ought to be able to miss out on the other, or if we can’t regret the one, we ought not to be able to take solace in avoiding the other. Benatar anticipates this thought and notes two ways of rejecting the asymmetry:

  1. Non-existent people can both be spared pain and regret missed pleasure–in this case, the implication is that we have a duty to create people whom we have good reason to anticipate would be happy.
  2. Non-existent people can neither be spared pain nor regret missed pleasure–in this case, it doesn’t seem wrong to create people who are likely to have very unhappy lives.

Benatar argues that the conclusions that result from both of these symmetrical views are more counter-intuitive than his asymmetrical view, that it’s better not to come into existence. I agree that the proposition that we have a duty to create happy people whenever possible is rather preposterous. However, I’m not convinced by Benatar’s argument against 2.

Firstly, I don’t see why we would need asymmetry to come to the conclusion that we ought not to create people who will live miserable, unhappy lives. Presumably, parents generally love their children, or at the very least, they plan to love them in the event they do decide to have them. Parents derive much of their sense of self from the success (or lack thereof) that their children enjoy. Parents do not want to have miserable, unhappy children. When parents’ children are unhappy, parents feel responsible for that unhappiness and suffer in turn. Parents are likely to wish to avoid creating unhappy children for their own benefit. In addition, unhappy people are likely to be economically less productive, or even potentially parasitic, so the state also has a vested interest in not creating miserable people. It may feel better to ground our desire to avoid creating miserable people in an argument that it’s wrong to bring miserable people into existence for their own sake, but we have many good reasons not to create miserable people that have nothing to do with the interests of said people.

On a deeper level, I find myself rejecting one of the premises of Benatar’s argument–that non-existent people can benefited or harmed in any way. Non-existent people by definition cannot have experiences, and it seems to me that this means not, as Benatar argues, that non-existent people are spared pain but do not regret missed pleasures, but that non-existent people are spared nothing and regret nothing. The notion that we could do something to benefit or avoid harming a non-existent person seems nonsensical to me by definition. The question of whether or not people ought to have children is a question that those people ask first and foremost in reference to themselves. They ask “Do I want children?” “What kind of children do I want?” “Am I capable of providing the genetic background and good environment necessary to get the kind of children I want?” The focus is on their wants and desires, not the wants and desires of any specific child–at the point at which the parents are asking themselves these questions, no child yet exists, and the potential nature of that child is as of yet indeterminate.

They instinctively avoid unhappy children, because they don’t want unhappy children. They don’t feel duty bound to create happy children because the question of whether or not to have children is a question that is based on their interests. If parents want children, then they want happy children. But parents do not decide to have children because the children are likely to be happy, they decide to have children because they want them, and they only go through with having children they believe will be happy because they want happy children.

Human beings are very talented at convincing themselves and others that they are motivated not by their own interests, but by the interests of other people. There are hosts of moral theorists investigating the question of whether or not different people in different circumstances should have children based on the interests of the hypothetical children. All of these moral theorists are making a mistake–we cannot owe duties, either positively or negatively, to non-existent people. Whether or not we create new people is and ought to be entirely a function of what we want. We care about future generations not because they have intrinsic value, but because we want our offspring to be happy because they are our legacy, and we want to leave a good legacy. We want our children and their children to be happy because their happiness makes us happy.

A species in which parents did not connect their own happiness to the happiness of their children is a species that would not survive long. It is biologically inevitable that children and parents have a broad harmony of interests. There is no need to attempt to justify that harmony with appeal to altruistic moral characteristics that real people do not possess, despite their self-aggrandizing desire to believe that they do.