Is it better to not have existed?

David Benatar, recognized as a professor of philosophy who is best known for his advocacy of anti-natalism, argues that it is always better to never have existed. He bases this on the grounds that existence always comes with some harms, but the benefits of existence is not a real advantage over non-existence as described in his renowned article released in 1997, "Why It Is Better Never to Come into Existence," and his book published in 2006, "Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence." By following this claim, if one were to consider the well-being of their future children in deciding whether or not to have them, then they ought to decide not to have children so that it is in their best interest never to exist in order to avoid these harmful experiences that will occur to the child in the future.
It is universally presumed that humanity does nothing immoral bringing future people into existence if their lives will, on balance, be good for the most part. This assumes that being brought into existence is largely beneficial for the population. But in contrast, Benatar disputes that: "Being brought into existence is not a benefit but always a harm." While most maintain that living is beneficial as long as the benefits of life outweigh the evil, Benatar argues that this conclusion does not follow because: one) pain is bad, and two) pleasure good; but three) the absence of pain is always good whether people exist or not, whereas four) the absence of pleasure is only bad if people exist to be denied it.
In order to support this basic asymmetry model, Benatar presents three arguments. The first argument states that humans are not obligated to essentially reproduce because it will be neither good nor bad. The second argument outlines that there is more harm in bringing people to life than good. Next, the third argument explores the second further by discussing that there is nothing gained from people who have been born versus those who haven't been born.
To elaborate on the first argument more, he reasons that while there is a duty not to bring people who will suffer into the world, and there is no duty to bring people who will be happy into the world. This similar to the Asymmetry of Procreational Duties where we have a duty to a child to not to bring them into existence if they will be harmed by for example, genetics or poverty or bring them into life if they will thrive based on benefiting circumstances. While we have a duty to avoid bringing into existence people who would lead miserable lives, we have no duty to bring into existence those who would lead happy lives. Hence according to Benatar, a lack of suffering and pain is always good, whether or not someone exists to enjoy this absence; whereas a lack of happiness and benefit is not always bad unless people exist to be denied it.
In his second argument, he debates that though most people think it strange to say we, society as a whole, have children so they will benefit, it is normal to think to say we should not have children because they will be harmed. The Prospective Beneficence Asymmetry says it is strange to cite as a reason for having a child that that child will thereby be benefited. It is not similarly strange to cite as a reason for not having a child that that child will suffer. Essentially, Benatar doesn't think people should have as many children as they can to benefit those children, but he does think people should refrain from having children if this will cause them suffering. The Retrospective Beneficence Asymmetry says when one has brought a suffering child into existence, it makes sense to regret having brought that child into existence and to regret it for the sake of that child. By contrast, when one fails to bring a happy child into existence, one cannot regret that failure for the sake of the person.
His third argument in order to support the asymmetry is that while not having children may be bad or good for the living, he broadens that not having been born is no deprivation for those who have never been born. The Asymmetry of Distant Suffering and About Happy People states we are rightly sad for distant people who suffer. By contrast we need not shed any tears for absent happy people on uninhabited planets, or uninhabited islands or other regions on our own planet.
This fundamental asymmetry where suffering is an intrinsic harm, but the absence of pleasure is not, allows Benatar to draw his radical conclusions. In other words, the measure by which the absence of pain is better than its presence is itself greater than the measure by which the presence of pleasure is better than its absence. This means that not existing is either a lot better than existing, in the case of pain or a little worse, in the case of pleasure. Or to think of it another way, the absence of pain and the presence of pleasure are both good, but the presence of pain is much worse than the absence of pleasure.
Now a brief shift to the topic to apply this asymmetry towards the ethics of whether or not to have offspring will be for well-being of the child. Referring to the four principles of bioethics: autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice, these raises ethical concerns as it touches on the issue of anti-natalism and the controversial topic of abortion.
To define these doctrines, autonomy requires that the patient have freedom of thought, intention, and unrestricted of coercion when making decisions regarding health care procedures. In order for a patient to make a fully informed decision, the person must understand all risks and benefits of the procedure and the likelihood of success. Justice is the idea that the burdens and benefits of new or experimental treatments must be distributed equally among all groups in society, so this requires that procedures uphold the spirit of existing laws and are fair to all players involved. Abortion is universally defined as, "The deliberate termination of a human pregnancy, most often performed during the first 28 weeks of pregnancy." According to these terms, the mother and father should have the freedom of choice or "procreative liberty" whether or not to keep the child after knowing what good or bad will come out of their decision if they do decide to keep the child. At the same time, on the flipside, the unborn child has no say whether or not they want to live. If there are complications in the current circumstance where bringing the child to life would be bring more harm than good, then maybe it is for the best not to come into existence. But then again, the values of each and every person varies from one another. If the parents deem that would be harmful if the child is brought to life, then maybe there is justice in that decision. Because of this, there seems to be no right or wrong answer because it is still an ongoing controversial matter that is still being discussed today.
Beneficence requires that the procedure be provided with the intent of doing good for the patient involved and non-maleficence requires that a procedure does not harm the patient involved or others in society. Providers operate under the assumption that they are doing no harm or at least minimizing harm by pursuing the greater good but at the expense of the emotional state of the patient which may be impacted negatively. By choosing to not keep a child that has already been conceived, it is basically murdering the unborn child. In addition, choosing to not keep the child can have a significant emotional impact to the parents or it may not. In almost all cases, it is near impossible for the doctors to successfully apply the do no harm principle to both parties.
Going back to Benatar's argument with this example scenario, suppose that before a person was born, the gods from the ancient myths were trying to decide whether or not to create this theoretical person. If they decide to create supposed said person, this person will suffer much if they have a bad life, or this person will gain much if they have a good life. If they decide not to create this person, then this person will gain much by avoiding a bad life but suffer only slightly if at all by not existing, as one wouldn't know what this person had been deprived of.
To further his argument, Benatar notes that most people underestimate how much suffering they will endure throughout their lifetime. If their lives are going better than most, they count themselves lucky. However, they fail to consider death. It is a tragedy at any age and only seems acceptable at ninety because of our expectations about lifespans. While non-existence does not harm a possible person, death is another harm that will come to those in existence.
In response to the claim above, one could say that they can't be mistaken about whether they preferred existence to non-existence. Benatar grants that they may not be mistaken if they claim that they are currently glad to have been born, but they could still be mistaken that it was better to have been born at all. One might now be glad this person was born and then suffer so badly later that one may change one's mind in the future.
Benatar claims that, "no one should have children," goes against a basic drive to reproduce, so humans must be careful not to let such drives bias their analysis. Having children satisfies many needs for those who bring children into existence, but this does not mean it serves the interests of the children but in fact, it causes them great harm.
One could reply that the harm is not that great to the children, since the benefits of existing may outweigh the harm, and, at any rate, we cannot ask future people if they want to be born. Since we enjoy our lives, we assume they will too, thus be providing the justification for satisfying our procreational needs. Most people do not regret their existence, and if some do, we could not have foreseen it.
Nonetheless one might be deceiving about how good life is. Most of us assume life would be unbearable if we were in certain situations. More often than not, when we find ourselves in these situations, we adapt to these circumstances. And the reason we deceive ourselves is that we have been wired by evolution to think this way, as it aids our survival. Benatar views people's claims about the benefits of life skeptically, just as he would the reflections of the slave who claims to prefer slavery. As Benatar declares, "One implication of my view is that it would be preferable for our species to die out." He claims that it would be heroic if people quit having children so that no one would suffer in the future. Many think it tragic to allow the human race to die out, but it would be hard to explain this by appealing to the interests of potential people.
I do not find his "it is better to not have come into existence," argument very compelling because that conclusion leads to "no one should exist." It takes away the very essence of living and the meaning of life. It would be pointless because life would be painful and there will always be harm inflicted upon you if you breathe. The feeling of emotions and going through experiences are what it means to be a human. Some objections and questions I would raise is how can Benatar claim that not being born does not lead to harm whereas, being born allows harm to arise into our lives? He champions the view that it is always a harm to be born but in order to deem something that is "beneficial" or "harmful," one must have experienced it before, or to expect a certain outcome, or by seeing other people's experiences. There is no creditability where he can state such a thing if he is existing now. It is hard to say he never existed because he is existing and breathing as he is alive today. But then after all the points he has made, maybe it is better never to come into existence as being born is always a harm. One will never know unless they don't exist.
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