Absent Pains

Paris - with no Tube smell or Arkansas pigs or monsoons
Yet again, I am thinking about David Benatar's anti-natalism, because I'm writing a chapter of a (possible...emerging...gee-I-hope-this-goes-somewhere...) book about parenthood.  (Academics actually say, more cautiously, "a book-length project" when there's no publisher yet.)  A crucial step in Benatar's argument says that if we don't create a potential child, who inevitably would have had some pains, the absent pains of that absent child will be good.  (He says the same is not true of absent pleasures--but never mind that half of it.)

Jeez--thinking about absent pains of absent people is tricky, so it seems reasonable to think instead about the absent pains of actual people.  After all, we are better at thinking about actual people.

So that's what I'm doing this afternoon.  Fending off my children (now 14 + 14), because today is the first day of summer vacation, and thinking about absent pains.  Ahem.  Somebody's got to do it.

I asked my family the following question at the dinner table last night, and the aforementioned 14s literally ran away.  When they were younger they were much better philosophical guinea pigs.  Question:  Suppose you go to Paris, and there are these good and bad things about your experience---

GOOD:  taste of croissants, pleasure of seeing real Renoirs

BAD: ugh, all the foie gras on the menus, pain when gravel gets into shoes at Tuileries

On the other hand, various pains are absent.  Like for example, that yucky electrical smell in the London Underground.  So... should we count the absent pains as being among the good things?

That was my question, but then, as the kids fled, my husband and I came up with more absences.  If you go to Paris, you also don't have to suffer the smell miseries of an Arksansas pig farm.  And there probably won't be a monsoon that soaks all your clothes.

Are all these absent pains to be added to the above list of Paris "goods"?

Even without help from the 14s, we decided: no.  In fact, obviously not.  The BADS in London, or Arkansas, or Indonesia, are points in favor of going to Paris, but they aren't GOODS in Paris.

This seems really clear.  But if that's so, then why (on earth) would we take the absent pains of absent people as good?  It strikes me that it's all the same.  This ultra-simple point is actually devastating to Benatar, so I'd like to be sure I'm not missing something.


Aeolus said...

Hmmm... Someone who escaped from Syria and went to Texas would no doubt think it a very good thing that the army isn't shooting peaceful demonstrators in the streets. The absence of shooting implies the presence of a certain political culture. And a world without AIDS will entail the presence of a cure. Similarly, the absence of monsoon weather in Paris implies the presence of an alternative climate. No absence without a presence, or, for every absence there is an equal and opposite presence. ??

Jean Kazez said...

OK, but if you're comparing Syria and Texas, and you list all the present goods and present bads in both places, that gives you the basis for a preference. It seems like talking about absent pains in Texas is just double counting the present pains in Syria. That's my thought anyway....

ʨʎɿɕɾʗɣʟɐʯʢɵʫɪɢʮʇɣʞʃ said...

since we are talking about comparisons, A advantages compared to B are B disadvantages compared to A. I think there's only one set of facts and two way to phrase it.

(A-B=2; B-A=-2)

Otherwise you have to step out of comparisons. Parfit does this (if remember correctly), and Benatar too:

"I shall not claim that the never-existent literally are better off.
Instead, I shall argue that 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.
There is no absurdity here, or so I shall argue."

I think it goes to metaethical question of how something can be good or bad without being a comparison to something else. I don't see how your examples shed any light on this.

ɱʇɢɓɩɼʝɥʠʉɞɭʦɣɲʙɟɘɢʈ said...

did you read degrazia's answer to benatar?


Jean Kazez said...

Squiggly Name, Thank you, that's helpful.I take it the passage is from Benatar? If so, it's difficult to reconcile with his tables. In the table, the lack of pain in the never-existent is labeled GOOD. On that basis, he says never existing is preferable, as far as pain goes. (The argument, then, is that we can't say that lack of pleasure in the never-existent is GOOD. Because of that asymmetry, he concludes never-existing is on the whole preferable.)

His table is here at one of my class blogs--


Yes, I read DeGrazia and thought it was excellent. I should read it again.

ɲʨɱʭʈʡɒɮʆʕɔʋʚɶɻɤʤɔɶʓ said...

yes, that's Benatar (Introduction, page 4).

it's not difficult to reconcile with the other statements, I think. One is a statement about the individuals (and somebody who doesn't exist cannot be better off), while the other is a comparison between two state of affairs.

Following paragraph "Once we acknowledge that coming into existence can be a
harm, we might then want to speak loosely about never coming
into existence being ‘better’. This is not to say that it is better for
the never-existent, nor that the never-existent are benefited. I grant
that there is even something odd about speaking about the ‘never-
existent’, because that is surely a referentless term. There clearly
are not any never-existent people. It is, however, a convenient term, of which we can make some sense. By it we mean those
possible people who never become actual."

Anonymous said...

Suppose I refrain from writing a piece of poetry and I am very bad poet. Does not having written my ugly poem make for something beautiful? It seems not, to me at least.

Also, doesn't Benatar's position seem to imply that, since there is an indefinitely large number of absent children, the good of these absent children's absent pain could make up for, on some utilitarian calculus, the pain of the actually born? Or have I misunderstood the position--I can't find my copy of the text and haven't looked at it for a while.


Jean Kazez said...

Squiggle, I think it's important to Benatar to be read as saying that birth "harms"--it's bad for an individual, there's a victim. We don't just "do bad" when we have a kid, but do bad to someone.

My take on it (I could be wrong) is that it's an important part of his argument for harm that, in that key table, absent pains are taken to be good for the person who would have existed if procreation had occurred. The table is comparing the situation for that person, depending on whether he exists or never exists.

Granted, your passages don't say quite the same thing. I need to get my hands on the book again and reread the passages you're quoting.

Jean Kazez said...

Eric, Good question--if there are a whole bunch of absent children (so lots of absent pain), does that make up for the suffering of childless people, who wish they had children? I think an accountant would frown on this sort of assessment. Absent pains are not bad, but it's over-valuing them to say they are good.

ʤʨʮʇɕɗʊɞʓʉʯʬɴɮʆʭʥɵɫʍ said...

hmm, sorry to disagree but I think that your reading "The table is comparing the situation for that person, depending on whether he exists or never exists." is not correct. Nothing can be good or bad for those who don't exist.

Benatar (if I get this right) sets the bar at zero: in the best possible state of affairs there is no sentient life and no suffering. Any new life creates a new set of possibilities that can go wrong (or unsastified preferences if you are a preference utilitarian), and in the best case scenario for that life (all those preferences are satisfied) you are back at level zero (but that is never the case in actual lives). A new life is a non-positive contribution to the utility function, but in actual cases it's always negative (since there is always some pain, some unsatisfied preference, ...)

So the infinite number of potential people who don't become actual don't bring any "good", they simply leave the bar at zero.

It is as if he's not balancing good vs bad and maximizing the utility function. The only good is the absence of bad.

So the bunch of "absent children" don't can't make up for anything. There's no good that can balance the existance of some bad.

Jean Kazez said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jean Kazez said...

Squiggly, As much as the reasoning you impute to Benatar is at least coherent, I don't think it's his reasoning exactly. He's very insistent that he's making an argument using "personal affecting" principles, not an impersonal, consequentialist argument. The problem with creating a child is that doing so harms the child personally, not just that it creates less than the best possible state of affairs. It's not a question of his having a utility function that (generally) ranks pain-free states of affairs higher than ones with the slightest amount of pain.

This passage from the 1997 article that led to his book is central--

"When I say that non-existence is preferable, that judgment is made in terms of the person who would or has otherwise come to exist. The claim is that for any person (whether possible or actual), the alternative scenario of never existing is better. It is because the evaluation is always made in terms of the person that would (or does) exist (that is, the person in scenario A) that my view is not what has been called "impersonalist," even though the comparison is with a state of affairs (scenario B) and not with the state of a person."

The "even though" part is what you've been emphasizing. He doesn't want to be saddled with the idea that there are non-existing persons (unborn ghosts?) who have the good of absent pains. Yet the rest of the paragraph calls into question the idea that he's just talking about states of affairs being better and worse, not about persons being harmed or benefited.

ʝɺɟʕʚɢɕɧʟɟɥəɝʇɹɚʤʎɮʗ said...

I think my quote above "we might then want to speak loosely about never coming
into existence being ‘better’" is quite clear (maybe he refined his thinking from the 1997 article to the 2008 book?).

What is bad is bad for a real people, but the good of non-existance is good for no-one. Everything else seems to be "loose" speak.

So non-existance is good for someone in the counterfactual sense that it would have been bad *for that person* if he/she had existed. That is still personal, but in a very different sense.

Taking non-existence as actual good for the (potential) person is simply incorrect (I think). Benatar also says: "There is even something odd about speaking about the ‘never-

The ideal state (no sentient life) is good (Benatar says) but it's obviously good for no-one.

Harm is real and personal, lack of harm is good in the counterfactual personal sense.

Also, if good was more than "lack of bad" we would run in lots of paradoxes :yes I'm stealing 10$ (which is bad) but I'm not killing 1000 persons (lack of a bigger bad), so I'm doing something good!

ɾʡɦɹʆɓɓɕʣʝɦʞʆɸɛɱʒʏʑɯ said...

Peter Singer attacks this point directly (and makes reference to Benatar's book) in his new edition of "Practical Ethics".

Here's the link to the relevant pages


I think the "moral ledger" concept is very close to Benatar's approach.

Jean Kazez said...

All that sounds plausible, but I don't see how he could be saying a non-existent pain is good *only* in the counterfactual sense that existing pain is bad for someone.

If the good of non-existent pain is completely parasitic on the bad of existing pain (for someone), then there should be no pain/pleasure asymmetry. The good of existing pleasure ought to yield the bad of non-existing pleasure. You ought to be able to say that non-existent pleasure is bad, in the sense that existing pleasure would have been good. (He certainly does think that existing pleasure *is* good.)

So I think non-existent pain really is good, on his view, and not just as an extension of the badness of existent pain. And that does lead to some weird results.

I need to look at the book again ... and Singer's discussion. Thanks for the link, that's helpful.

ɐɽʤʎʂɒɧʆʜɿɒʖʓʑɹɚɣɫɮʌ said...

Here's the relevant quote

(3) the absence of pain is good, even if that good is not enjoyed
by anyone ...

The judgement made in (3) is made with reference to the (potential)
interests of a person who either does or does not exist. To this it might be objected that because (3) is part of the scenario under
which this person never exists, (3) cannot say anything about an
existing person. This objection would be mistaken because (3) can
say something about a counterfactual case in which a person who
does actually exist never did exist. Of the pain of an existing person,
(3) says that the absence of this pain would have been good even if
this could only have been achieved by the absence of the person
who now suffers it. In other words, judged in terms of the interests
of a person who now exists, the absence of the pain would have
been good even though this person would then not have existed.
Consider next what (3) says of the absent pain of one who never
exists—of pain, the absence of which is ensured by not making
a potential person actual. Claim (3) says that this absence is good
when judged in terms of the interests of the person who would
otherwise have existed. We may not know who that person would
have been, but we can still say that whoever that person would
have been, the avoidance of his or her pains is good when judged
in terms of his or her potential interests. If there is any (obviously
loose) sense in which the absent pain is good for the person who
could have existed but does not exist, this is it. Clearly (3) does not
entail the absurd literal claim that there is some actual person for
whom the absent pain is good."

ɷɑɜɵʅʟɷʜɷʭɺɒʪɡʡɕʀʫʚɻ said...

Another blogger is working on the same problem here


he has some interesting comments

Jean Kazez said...

Thanks very much for that passage--that's exactly what we needed. I think you put it well before--"lack of harm is good in the counterfactual personal sense" (on Benatar's view). I think it's questionable whether it's good even in that sense, but I think that captures the view well.

I'll have a look at that link.

ʮɖɵʁɬɭʝʭɩʁɻɘʨɡʚɗʩɯʋɤ said...

I re-read the passages, but there's always something missing. Too much handwaving for my taste. the 2x2 matrix is way too simplistic, there are at least 3 dimensions: pleasure/pain, actual/potential person, presence/absence.

for each of the 8 possibilities there's a value to be given (good, bad, not good, not bad), but it's not some linear metric since the good actual pleasure is no better then the "not bad" missing potential pleasure, etc, ... very complex and I feel he should have some formalism, instead of all that text.

At least it would be clearer to me...

what do you think?

Jean Kazez said...

There are lots of things that bother me.

(1) I think the tables make it seem as if we are figuring out what is actually better FOR X, scenario A or scenario B. That's important to Benatar's case that birth personally harms the person born. But then he's got the problem that X doesn't exist in scenario B, so how can anything be bad or good for X there? He solves the problem by talking about OUR judgments and perspectives--how we pick out X in scenario A, and think about what's good or bad for X in B. But that makes the allegation of harm perspective-relative. It's not a matter of how things really are for X in the two scenarios, but of how we see them, from a certain perspective. That's not satisfactory, considering that Benatar is saying X is really, objectively, harmed by being born.

(2) His argument using the table has two steps. First you evaluate pain and pleasure in the two scenarios, then you decide which scenario is better painwise and pleasurewise. I wonder if these two steps are really separate, though. It's very fishy how he makes absent pain in scenario B GOOD for X, and then uses that as a basis for saying that scenario B is preferable, pain-wise, for X. I have no idea what "good" means there, since absent pain is not intrinsically good, like present pleasure. In fact, it might just mean "preferable." So he's begging the question. He's arguing from Scenario B being GOOD (i.e. preferable) for X, painwise, to B being preferable for X painwise.

(3) Maybe this is the way to sum of what troubles me--those tables look like a standard utility calculus comparing two options for X, but that's not the case at all, when you look more closely. The "for X" part is hazy, and so is his use of the word "good".

I agree when you say "handwaving"--I think another word is "fudging"! Things are not quite as they seem, when you think about it.

ɽɞʧʖʁʖɤɛʟɟʗɜʭʠʈʟɱʫɝʬ said...

I found another thing that bothers me about his reasoning. As the classic example goes it is good to satisfy our thirst, but we don't make ourselves thirsty in order to satisfy one more preference. Benatar has a similar ingenious example about the Sick person who has the good ability to heal quickly, and the Healthy that doesn't have this ability, but never gets sick and so is not worse off for not having this ability.

Now, if life was only a struggle to heal from our diseases or drink to quench our thirst, then maybe, intuitively, I could even agree that we're all harmed by coming into existence.

But that psychological picture seems to me very misleading. The beauty of an alpine landscape, the laugh after a good joke, the embrace of your love, the joy in meeting an old friend ... well, they're not experiences that fill a pre-existing gap, they appear to be something qualitatively very different, something that gives us a "+" not something that brings us back to level zero.

the linear metric he uses doesn't seem to able to express this, and thus loses exactly what gives value to life, in my opinion.

I think there are other strong arguments for not having kids, but his chosen attack doesn't seem very successful to me.