Is Birth Good?

Current topic in my "meaning of life" class: three puzzles of existence. Is death bad, is birth good, and is immortality best of all? I haven't taught this stuff before, so there have been lots of surprises. I see Epicureanism ("death is nothing to us") as sophistry, and dangerous too. Now I find out that this view appeals to a lot of people.

More shocks could be in store. Next week we'll talk about David Benatar's view that coming into existence is always harmful, so nobody should have kids. It will be wonderfully thought-provoking discussing this, especially because one of my students is due to give birth next week. This should be very interesting.

Benatar's book Better Never To Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence is highly readable, and you can also get the main idea from an article in this anthology (which contains lots of other good material).  See here for a very sane review of the book by David DeGrazia,

Here's Benatar's argument in a nutshell (explained with the help of my graphic, above)--
(1) In some respects coming into existence is harmful.  Any life is bound to contain pain and other bad things.  If Rod and Penny (see above) choose future #2, the absence of Lydia's pain (etc) will be good. If they choose future #1 they will harm her, as far as pain (alone) is concerned.

(2) In fact, though, they foresee that Lydia's life will be like most people's--mixed.   Surely the pleasure she'll enjoy will make up for the pain!  But no.  Focusing now on the good--e.g. all the pleasurable moments in her life--the absence of them in future #2 would not be bad. If she never exists, it won't be bad for her that she doesn't have those pleasures.  So choosing future #1 won't benefit her pleasure-wise.
(3) Final score:  choosing future #1 harms Lydia (painwise) and doesn't benefit her (pleasure-wise).  So they shouldn't have her.
This argument has the upshot that parents (most people) have done something wrong, while childless people are innocent of this wrong. What if you reject (2) and say that Lydia is benefited by the good parts of her life in Future #1?  Then you acquit all parents, but must see a problem with childless people.  They could have made new people, thereby benefiting them, but didn't.   So one way or another, you're going to find some degree of fault with a procreative choice--either faulting parents or non-parents.

Ideally, you'd fault no one, right?  But it's hard to see how to justify that, to say the least.  I'm inclined to think we should reject (2) and see Lydia as being benefited in Future #1, pleasure-wise  (and so overall, if her life will be predominantly pleasurable).  That means acquitting parents, but seeing a problem with childless people.  But don't worry, not much of a problem, and I think we can live with it.

Essentially, by admitting that coming into existence is beneficial, you admit that having kids is one of the beneficial things people can do. It's not neutral. That doesn't mean everyone should have as many kids as possible, or even that everyone should do this good thing rather than other good things.  It just means that there's "credit" for having kids, and childless people don't get the credit--but of course can get credit for other things.  Some will find that intolerant, but why?

It seems there's a touchiness about childlessness that nobody has about other sorts of -lessnesses.  We don't hesitate to recognize the benefit of being a Peace Corps volunteer, just because most people don't do it.  There seems to be a worry here about childlessness in particular.  Since the childless are in a small minority, and sometimes people are not childless by choice, our thinking becomes politicized.

It would be awfully strange if we allowed solicitude for the childless to incline us toward Benatar's argument, and therefore toward welcoming the extinction of human life (yes, that's what Benatar is arguing for).  In fact, so strange I think it would make a marvelous plot for a movie (screenplay by Margaret Atwood, please).


Wayne said...

I wonder if Benatar and VHEMT have been introduced to each other. http://www.vhemt.org/

The argument strikes me as kind of a buddhist sort of argument. Avoidance of pain seems to get the preference regardless of how much pleasure could be produced.

Also there is something suspicious for saying that I am the cause of the child's life. Lets say for the sake of argument that I have a child who ends up being tortured and murdered by a stranger. Is Benatar saying that I am responsible for this pain? I may have some causal influence in it, but surely I didn't cause it.

Faust said...

The Buddhist connection does seem strong.

s. wallerstein said...

Some people are not qualified to be parents and should not be parents for that reason.

Others are gay, and still others are not fertile. In some places, gay people cannot adopt children, and not all non-fertile people meet the requirements for adoption.

Normal people have children, and normal people tend to see what is not normal as bad. That hardly means that what is not normal is bad. In fact, normal people do not tend to reflect much about what is good and what is bad and do tend to use morality or moralism to reinforce their self-image as "good" people.

Finally, I do not feel that I have a duty to maximize pleasure and minimize pain in the universe.

By the way, who is handing out "credit" and who elected or appointed the being who is supposed to hand out credit?

Jean Kazez said...

Hmm...this debate is really not about utilitarianism at all. Nobody's assuming utilitarianism is true.

The question is simply whether you benefit kids by having them, or you harm them. Benatar aays "harm" and I lean toward "benefit." When I say "benefit," that involves a certain tilt toward parents. It implies that a parent has done something good for someone, just by creating a child, and a non-parent hasn't done that thing. Is that a benign or a pernicious thing to say? That's the question.

s. wallerstein said...

It doesn't make sense to say that you benefit a child by having one.
You can benefit or harm a child after she exists.

To say that you can benefit a child by having her assumes that the child somehow exists before she exists.

In fact, the whole discussion about whether life is pleasurable or life is painful makes no sense, since pleasure and pain are concepts that only refer to living things. Without life there is neither pleasure nor pain. When the Buddhists say that life is suffering (1st Noble Truth), I answer: compared to what?

Sam Vega said...

"When the Buddhists say that life is suffering (1st Noble Truth), I answer: compared to what?"

A small point for amos, but very important. If Buddhists say this, they are misepresenting what the Buddha said. The first Noble Truth is not that "Life is suffering", but something more like "there is suffering". (There are two other bits to the First Noble Truth as well, but they remain unaffected by this). So the unanswerable question "compared to what" is redundant. According to the Buddha, suffering exists, compared to those parts of existence where it does not exist.

s. wallerstein said...


Buddhanet translates it as
"life is suffering."


However, from a rapid Google search, I see that many Buddhists translate the phrase as you do.

Thanks for the clarification.

Sam Vega said...


Yes, Buddhanet is unreliable in many respects - I recommend "Access to Insight" which is American but informed by the Pali Text Society. Apologies if this comes across as pedantic, but you can probably see the difference it makes! Translating it as "Life is suffering" makes nonsense of the other Noble Truths and makes Buddhism mere metaphysics.

Anonymous said...

Parfit thinks we can benefit a person is we cause this person to exist


Jean Kazez said...

Anonymous--My class discussed that Friday--



Wayne, Benatar doesn't have any general position that pain matters and pleasure doesn't. The point is that intuitively there's a different significance to absence of pain and absence of pleasure in Future #2, where Lydia doesn't exist. One seems more obviously good (absence of pain) than the other one is bad (absence of pleasure).

(I don't see the relevance of Buddhism....)

As to your point about creating people--do you create their entire life, so every bad thing that happens to them is your doing? Well, you do create an entire life, so you will be ONE cause of everything that happens to them. But just one. That doesn't means no one else is ever responsible for things that happen to them (like the murderer in your example). Responsibility doesn't mean being the complete cause of an event.

s. wallerstein said...


What you are saying isn't pedantic at all.

Perhaps you can clarify some of my confusions about Buddhism.

I had always thought that Buddhism postulates that existence (or life) is suffering and that liberation from suffering involves not being reborn or attaining Nirvana, Nirvana "being" not being reborn, that is, liberation from the cycle of rebirths.

I know that this is not the topic of this thread, but since we've strayed into Buddhism, with the kindly tolerance of the blog owner, perhaps you can correct my erroneous ideas about Buddhism.

Jean Kazez said...

The problem with the tangent is that it would give any new reader the impression the post was about Buddhism. But it isn't--not even slightly, as far as I can tell. Benatar doesn't in the least hold that pain is worth avoiding, but pleasure is not worth pursuing.

s. wallerstein said...


You're saying, if I read you correctly, that Benatar is a hedonistic, while Buddhism isn't hedonistic.

For Benatar, in life the pain generally outweighs the pleasure, but a life with more pleasure than pain would be a good life, while for the Buddhists, the essence of life (craving) implies that pain is necessarily (almost a priori) going to outweigh the pleasure.

Jean Kazez said...

Benatar's book is about whether coming into existence harms the person born or benefits them. He says "harms". The argument is in my post--(1), (2) and (3). The argument doesn't turn on any claim about the ratio of pain to pleasure in people's lives. If the ratio were 99 (pleasure) to 1 (pain), he'd still make this argument. So we don't really need to think (here, anyway) about what outweighs what--it's tangential to Benatar's core argument.

Wayne said...

I linked it to Buddhism in my mind only because it seemed the ultimate way to avoid pain. Buddhism aims to minimize suffering and pain through desire denial specifically, but Benatar is aiming to minimize the suffering we CAUSE. One is directed (usually) inwardly, the other is outwardly to the pain that we cause others. I don't think it would be inconsistent for a Buddhist to try to minimize pain caused to others, so....

So anyways, back to Benatar. Lets try another three other tactics.

#1 Is Benatar putting on us an obligation to non-existent people? I can't bring this potential currently non-existent person into existence, because I have an obligation not to harm it.

#2 Is Benatar assuming that doing harm is always wrong? It seems so, since its not about the balance of pleasures versus pain. Its the fact that I caused harm at all. I'm not sure this is a tenable assumption. I may have to harm an animal to get some medicines that someone else needs.

#3 Is Benatar making a fallacy of composition? Individuals may live lives that are filled with harm, including the ones that I create. Does this mean that their lives are not worth existing? If we focus on what composes their life, we may not be able to see the sum of their life, an emergent quality of goodness or pleasure, rather than few acts of pain.

Jean Kazez said...

#1 Is Benatar putting on us an obligation to non-existent people? I can't bring this potential currently non-existent person into existence, because I have an obligation not to harm it.

I think that's an unnecessarily paradoxical way to put it. If I create a child, the actual child will have been harmed. No needed to talk about obligations to non-existent people.

#2 Is Benatar assuming that doing harm is always wrong? It seems so, since its not about the balance of pleasures versus pain. Its the fact that I caused harm at all. I'm not sure this is a tenable assumption. I may have to harm an animal to get some medicines that someone else needs.

No--not saying that. The main thing is that he thinks that if you create a child who has even the slightest misery, you will have harmed the child--that's what the argument purports to show. There's reason not to create that misery, and no reason to create the child's happiness. That's what the argument (1, 2, 3) is supposed to show.

But then he goes on to argue that most of the time, children have more than a little misery--and in fact a lot. So the argument against having them becomes even stronger, and doesn't turn on the idea that "doing harm [any amount] is always wrong."

#3 Is Benatar making a fallacy of composition? Individuals may live lives that are filled with harm, including the ones that I create. Does this mean that their lives are not worth existing? If we focus on what composes their life, we may not be able to see the sum of their life, an emergent quality of goodness or pleasure, rather than few acts of pain.

The argument (see 1, 2, 3 in the post) really doesn't involve any fallacy of composition, as far as I can see.

s. wallerstein said...

Isn't it up to us, real existent people, to judge whether our lives are worth it or not?

Benatar can judge whether his life is worth it or not, not that of others, simply because he cannot experience what others experience.

s. wallerstein said...

Isn't it up to us, real existent people, to judge whether our lives are worth it or not?

Benatar can judge whether his life is worth it or not, not that of others, simply because he cannot experience what others experience.

Jean Kazez said...

I don't think your response connects to the argument he's making. His reasoning really has nothing to do with making any "is it worth it?" judgment...I think you'll see that if you look at (1) - (3).

s. wallerstein said...

Arguments 1-3 surely are based implicitly on a judgment about whether life is worth it.

In fact, the title of the book is "Better Never to Have Been".
The very title brings in the concept of worth.

Jean Kazez said...

1-3 aren't three arguments--it's one chain of reasoning, leading to (3). This reasoning is the core of Benatar's argument why it's "better never to have been." The core of it is a very subtle asymmetry with respect to absent pain (1) and absent pleasure (2).

Unknown said...

The most plausible (to me) understanding of coming into existence is a suggestion in Parfit's Reasons and Persons (that he credits to a young Jeff McMahan)

Coming into existence is good for an individual - but it is not a 'benefit', in the sense that we usually understand benefit (ie counterfactually).
Someone can't be better off for existing, (since they would not otherwise exist), nor can they be worse off if they fail to come into existence.
But they can experience a non-comparative 'good' - they come into existence and experience something (life) that is in itself worth having. (benatar would disagree).
Similarly they can experience a non-comparative harm if their life turns out to be worse than nothing (for example they have some dreadful, painful condition with a short life expectancy). They are not worse off than they would otherwise have been, but it does make sense to say that it is bad to have brought them into existence - and bad *for* them.


Jean Kazez said...

My poor students had to read that appendix last week--it was found completely unintelligible. I think they also found the idea of non-comparative benefit odd...which it is. But perhaps it's the least odd of all the things you could say about coming into existence.

Spencer said...

I’m having trouble understanding the claim in (2) that choosing future1 won’t benefit Lydia pleasure-wise. By choosing future1, the one where Lydia exists, it seems to me that Lydia will both be harmed and benefited. Rather, I understand Benatar’s argument to be the following:

1. If Lydia’s parents choose future1, they will harm Lydia, which is bad.
2.If Lydia’s parents choose future2, they will not harm Lydia, which is good.

(2a).If Lydia’s parents choose future2, they will prevent Lydia from experiencing pleasure (and all the other good things in life).
(2b).Preventing a not-yet-existent person from experiencing any pleasure (and all the other good things in life) is not bad.
(2c).But preventing a non-yet-existent person from being harmed is good.

3.Therefore, choosing future2 is only good and not bad (for Lydia), whereas choosing future1 is both bad and good for Lydia.
4.Therefore, Lydia’s parents should choose future2.

Is this reading of Benatar’s argument inaccurate?

Jean Kazez said...

He really is saying that Lydia won't be benefited at all in (1), but only harmed. The subtitle of his book is "the harm of coming into existence" --and he thinks there's only harm. The pleasurable parts of Lydia's life don't make coming into existence beneficial for her, he argues. After all (this is the key point), had her parents chosen future #2, it would have been neither good nor bad that her pleasures were absent. It would have been just totally insignificant. If that's so, how could having her pleasures in future #1 be beneficial to her?

The same reasoning doesn't hold where pain is concerned--now it seems like it IS good for pains to be absent in future #2, so the way is clear to see her pains in future #1 as harmful to her.

That's the core of the argument...

It's probably not possible for me to do it justice here--I highly recommend the book. Not because I agree with any of it--but because it's very thought provoking and well-written.

Spencer said...

I am combing through Benatar's book now, though hopefully throughout the week I'll be able to take a deeper look at it.

On page 43 of chapter 2, he writes: "There are benefits both to existing and non-existing. It is good that existers enjoy their pleasures. It is also good that pains are avoided through non-existence. However, that is only part of the picture. Because there is nothing bad about never coming into existence, but there is something bad about coming into existence, it seems that all things considered non-existence is preferable."

So as I read Benatar, he does appear to acknowledge that choosing to procreate can and does benefit the "exister." It's just that not coming into existence is better, all things considered, since that isn't bad at all.

Jean Kazez said...

That passage is not on pg. 43 of my edition, so I don't know what's going on there. I suspect context will shed a lot of light.

It's very clear his position is that coming into existence does not benefit the "exister." For example, he says that even someone whose life will be 100% pleasurable does not benefit from existing. See pg. 29: "About such an existence I say that it is neither a harm nor a benefit and we should be indifferent between such an existence and never existing."

There are passages like that throughout the book.

Spencer said...

I will give this more thought. The passage I quoted should appear at very the bottom of 43 going into 44.

Spencer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Spencer said...

I suspect that Benatar is understanding "benefit" differently from the way I am. For instance, I don't think he would deny that in future1, the presence of pleasure would be good for Lydia, and thus he appears to be drawing a distinction between pleasure being "good for" Lydia and it being "a benefit" to her. On page 21, he writes (speaking about Figure 2.1): "If I am correct then it is uncontroversially the case that (1) is bad and (2) is good."

He later goes on to claim on page 41 that, when comparing (2) and (4), "the pleasures of the existent, although good, are not an advantage over non-existence, because the absence of pleasures is not bad." So on Benatar's understanding, "benefit" appears to mean "net benefit": that is, the presence of pleasures in future1, although good for Lydia, will only be a benefit to her if their presence is better than their absence in future2. In other words, in order for Lydia to be benefited pleasure-wise, (2) would have to be better than (4). But this isn't to say that the presence of pleasures in future1 wouldn't benefit Lydia in the sense that they wouldn't be good for her (which strikes me as completely absurd). Am I way off here?

(For those who don't have the book, Figure 2.1 is a four box diagram depicting two scenarios, Scenario A and Scenario B, that compares two states: X exists and X never exists. There are two boxes under each scenario: (1) and (2) under A, and (3) and (4) under B. (1) is matched up against (3), and (2) is matched up against (4).
(1) = Presence of pain (Bad); (2) Presence of pleasure (Good); (3) Absence of pain (Good); (4) Absence of pleasure (Not bad).)

kuy said...

this is a link to Benatar's article


and this is the matrix


For me the biggest issue is that there are a lot of unknowns and choosing to create a life is always playing "russian roulette" with someone's else life. Even if in most cases you can "win", the cases where you don't are really troubling, and I don't feel that suffering in a life can be "balanced" by happiness in another, or any statistic consideration.

Jean Kazez said...

Spencer, OK, now I see it. That's a back-up argument, not the main argument. I can see how that passages does make it look like he recognizes pleasure as giving existing a benefit, but then he says otherwise in other passages. The key thing (he says) is to compare the pleasures of the existing with the absent pleasures of the non-existent. Since the latter are not bad, the former don't make for any advantage of existing over not existing. Even if a life was all pleasure, existing would have no advantage over not existing (he says).

Jean Kazez said...

Thanks for all the comments everyone...

In keeping with my Saturday only blogging rule (already broken), I need to bow out and get other things done.

Aeolus said...

I have a cold right now and I may not be thinking clearly, but surely one can neither be benefited nor harmed until one already exists. It makes no sense to speak of doing good or harm to Lydia until she is already a someone (i.e., until conception or probably later). So Lydia is neither benefited nor harmed by being brought into existence. (I will assume for the sake of argument that reincarnation is not true and that she does not exist before conception.) Admittedly, before her conception her prospective parents may foresee that, if she comes to exist, she will have a good or a bad life, and this fact has moral implications.

Philip K. Dick has one of his characters say: "Birth, I decided, is not pleasant. It is worse than death; you can philosophize about death -- and you probably will: everyone else has. But birth! There is no philosophizing, no easing of the condition. And the prognosis is terrible: all your actions and deeds and thoughts will only embroil you in living the more deeply."

Wayne said...

Aeolus- I think the harm is the bringing into existence with the likelihood of pain, when we could have instead not have brought her into the world. Precisely because we can't harm non-existent people, non-existence is preferable.

Jean Kazez said...

Breaking my Saturday only rule (ouch...)..

I think it's a very tricky question whether we should or shouldn't think about birth as potentially harmful or beneficial to the person born. The reason to think that way is primarily because there are cases where people do seem to wrongly decide about creating a new child--they know the child will be constantly miserable and die young, e.g. It seems like they do something wrong to the child, and not just to others, or to the extent that they bring down total, aggregate happiness.

If you agree to that, then you may also want to say coming into existence can benefit the child. If you admit it can harm, but don't admit it can benefit, then you're heading directly into Benatar's anti-natalist arms!

Spencer said...
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Spencer said...

Benatar's asymmetry claim, of course, is key to his argument: the presence of pain bad and the absence of pain is good, but while the presence of pleasure is good, the absence of pleasure is bad only if somebody is deprived of that pleasure.

However, if the asymmetry claim holds, then even the very best lives are necessarily VERY bad. Suppose Lydia lives a life only of pleasure and experiences no pain whatsoever. Necessarily, then, there are countless pleasures that Lydia could have experienced but didn't, and countless pleasures that she won't ever be able to experience. Thus, Lydia is deprived of a whole lot of pleasure -- infinitely more than she could possibly experience -- and each deprived pleasure is bad for her.

So even if the presence of pleasure in Lydia's life is good for her, the absence of countless pleasures is bad for her (because she would be deprived of them), and there are far more pleasures absent in her life than there are present. Thus on balance, Lydia's life is extremely bad even if she experiences only pleasure! How, then, could Lydia's life ever be worth living? It would seem to follow that Ldyia has every rational reason to commit suicide.

Jean Kazez said...

Hmm...but he says the absence of pleasure is bad ONLY IF somebody is deprived of that pleasure. So somebody being deprived is a necessary condition, not a sufficient condition.

If Lydia's entire life is crammed with extreme pleasure, should we really take her as deprived, just because she experiences the pleasures of Indian food, but not French food? I don't think Benatar would have to say yes.

Spencer said...

True, perhaps there is a point where any further deprivation of pleasure wouldn’t be bad, but I suspect that that point is very hard to delineate.

But even if every deprivation is bad, I suppose Benatar could still say that each deprivation is canceled out by each absence of pain, so Lydia’s life – if filled only with pleasure – would be good.