Life: Why Bother?

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Christian Rohlfs, "Death as a Juggler" (1921)

Human life on Earth is much less appealing when compared with the alternatives, if there are any

We should work toward the total extinction of sentient life on the planet.

David Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence defends this repellent claim – and defends it well. He argues that having children is selfish, both for parents and for the world we hope to improve, and that it’s nonsense to speak of having children for the good of the nonexistent.

He reaches these conclusions through the following logic, his strongest proof in favor of antinatalism:

(1)   Those who exist experience suffering, which is bad.

(2)   Those who exist experience pleasure, which is good.

(3)   The absence of suffering for the nonexistent is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone.

(4)   The absence of pleasure for the nonexistent is not bad, because there is nobody for whom this absence is a deprivation.

In Benatar’s estimation, since existence includes suffering (claim 1), it loses to nonexistence’s lack thereof in claim 3. But existence and nonexistence tie in the clash over pleasure in claims 2 and 4. Benatar calls this “the Asymmetry.” The fact of suffering means there are negative aspects to existing, but since you can’t miss pleasure if there is no you to miss it, there is nothing bad about never being born. Therefore, having a child creates suffering that wouldn’t otherwise exist, and since suffering is bad and nonexistence isn’t, let’s never breed again.

I can't help but admire a philosopher who thinks Dr. Strangelove has a happy ending and that megalomaniacs bent on world destruction are accidental heroes. Nevertheless, as I assemble my mental checklist of positives and negatives, I find that the Asymmetry is as irrelevant to me as pleasure is to the nonbeing. Breeding would need to be distinctively worse than every other harmful activity we tolerate for me to join Benatar’s call for the end of conscious life, and as much as I enjoy his cynicism, I’m not convinced that it is.

It’s not that I disagree with Benatar’s logic. He’s right that without existence, no one would ever brave injury, heartbreak, or bladder distension (one of the more mundane quibbles Benatar has with life). There’s something to be said for the lack of suffering on Mars, and it’s not as if there are hypothetical potential Martians clamoring in frustration to be born. But somehow I don’t find Mars’s unstirred sand dunes all that inspiring. Life may be pointless, difficult, and absurd, but it’s far more interesting than the barren, lifeless landscapes that cap off a victorious Benatarian revolution.

Like a cruel hazing ritual for a ludicrous fraternity, suffering is the price we pay to be witnesses to the universe’s beauty and indifference, and participants in life’s satisfactions and intrigues. Yet for most of us, the trade-off somehow seems worth it. This may very well be down to individual and cultural delusions or biological imperatives our species has evolved to keep us alive and breeding, but perhaps there’s something to be said for the occasional delusion too. Utilitarians like Benatar tend to aggregate all the world’s suffering into a unitary metaphysical reservoir of concentrated, pulsating agony – like that river of psychomagnotheric slime in Ghostbusters II that exploded from the sewers as New York City got grumpier – and who wouldn’t want to pull the plug on that? But we experience life as individuals, not as a collective mind, and one advantage of this is that throughout the entire world, there is no more pain perceived at any one moment than what a single person is capable of experiencing – and most of us are pretty well equipped to handle that. Life may not lead anywhere, and it’s certainly not easier than never being born, so you could say “why bother?” to it … but it’s a lot more audacious to say “Why not?”

Benatar anticipates this objection with the book’s other main argument: Life is a lot worse than we realize. But assuming that’s true, the stakes remain low. After all, if existence is so unfortunate, it’s at least a travesty with an out: death. If we grant to Benatar that, “the quality of even the best lives is very bad,” existence is like a prison with no locks, protected by unarmed guards who can plead with us to stay but cannot block the exits. We the prisoners may fear what the outside holds for us, and we may not want to hurt the guards by abandoning them, but if we decide we would be better off leaving, we’re free to go. And no matter what we decide, we’re all released before too long.

It’s that ease of exit that makes Benatar’s antinatalist alarmism look so overblown. But there are many people who think there is no way out: those who believe in an indestructible soul and an eternal afterlife. It is the deeply religious, then, who really need to hear out the atheistic Benatar – especially if they believe in hell.

Most people who intentionally have kids don’t do so with the expectation that their offspring will suffer eternal damnation, but if an afterlife of endless torment is a real possibility, every soul we create faces that terrible risk. Even if you think you follow God’s favored religion, you cannot be certain that your children will practice it their entire lives, nor that it really is the right one for hell avoidance.

So it makes sense to reconsider Benatar's Asymmetry, rephrased with eternity in mind:

(1)    Those who exist experience suffering and may end up forever thrashing about in a forsaken pit of violence, agony and despair, which is bad.

(2)   Those who exist experience pleasure and may enjoy everlasting bliss, which is good.

(3)   Those who do not exist do not suffer, which is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone.

(4)   Those who do not exist do not experience pleasure, which is not bad, because there is nobody for whom this absence is a deprivation.

Eternalizing the Asymmetry like this wouldn’t affect Benatar's ranking of the claims. He would still say that 3 beats 1 and that 2 and 4 tie, affirming nonexistence as the reigning champion. But for me, the prospect of extreme everlasting suffering in claim 1 sure magnifies the potential perils of being.

No matter the odds of eternal punishment, if Hell is real, the souls of this world are born into a casino with incredibly high stakes. We are all forced to gamble with a series of action- and belief-based “bets,” and if we choose poorly, we could face unremitting torture with no escape – a destiny that is undoubtedly worse than never being born. And if Benatar is right, the best possible outcome of this existence game is no better than nonexistence, since the nonexistent cannot lament their lack of eternal joyous bliss. All of which means that for those who believe in hell and acknowledge that there is even a minute chance of their own offspring going there, having kids is perhaps the most selfish and irresponsible thing they could possibly do.

Presumably everyone who believes in hell and has kids anyway sees matters differently. One thing they might say against this sectarian antinatalism is that producing obedient, God-fearing children leads to fewer souls in hell overall, because the children set a positive example and steer other souls from damnation. This rebuttal could work if we knew precisely what our kids would do before we conceived them, but we don’t. Most of us like to imagine that our hypothetical children would fight injustice, invent paradigm-shifting technologies, create art or save souls, but we can’t count on it. Instead of shepherding spirits to glory, our children might lead themselves and others to eternal disgrace. And even if they didn’t jeopardize other souls, their own would be in the balance with every theologically significant decision they made. Supposing some of us could be certain that our theoretical children would get their souls to heaven with a few traveling buddies, it would still be better for everyone to stop having children if there is a hell, because then there would be no new souls that needed saving.

But by no longer having children, wouldn’t the religious be depriving the nonexistent of heaven? Not according to Benatar, who claims that deprivation is impossible for nonentities. Heaven may seem superior to nonexistence, but that’s because we see the world through an existence-centric lens (of course, the only lens through which we see anything). Heaven purportedly neutralizes our desires by satisfying them all, but nonexistence neutralizes desire too – through desire’s absence. So for the nonexistent, the lack of bliss is not a hitch. But for the existent, the threat of hell certainly is.

To prove otherwise, the religious need to make a powerful case that eternal satisfaction (heaven) is so much better than a lack of dissatisfaction (nonexistence) that it’s worth the deplorable risk of eternal suffering (hell).

I don’t know what that case would be, but regardless of its specifics, it would spawn a new complication. Because there is an endless pool of potential souls that will never get a shot at heaven if we don’t conceive them, arguing that the nonexistent are so disadvantaged that life is worth the risk of hell suggests that the decent thing to do is create as many heaven-bound souls as possible. If life begins at conception and aborted zygotes go to heaven, the most humanitarian of the devout would act as soul farms, devoting their most fertile cycles to nights of unprotected sex, followed by morning after pills and repentance. Or, if zygotes don’t have souls, infanticide or killing children right after they consciously accept the correct beliefs could be necessary to manufacture as many souls as possible while shielding them from hell’s ire.

This is basically a sectarian rendition of Derek Parfit’s “Repugnant Conclusion,” his assessment that if any and all conscious life is better than never existing, we should create as much life as possible, no matter how it would decimate overall quality of life. But how many religious believers would want to purposely kill all those zygotes, infants and/or pre-adolescents to swell heaven’s ranks?

A more palatable solution might be for hell-believers to accept the logic of the sectarian repugnant conclusion but duck the consequences by copping to imperfect altruism, inverting my solution to secular antinatalism. In other words, they could say that the nonexistent really are missing out and that the possibility of heaven is definitely worth chancing hell, but that they can’t be bothered to become human soul factories and would selfishly prefer to have a few kids and let them grow into adulthood.

“I’m not against all selfishness” could explain why the religious don’t create as many Heaven-bound souls as they possibly could, but not why they would allow any children they do have to grow up and quite possibly make the wrong choices and spend all of eternity treading flames in a lake of fire. At the very least, the religious owe their children the courtesy of killing them before puberty to assure their heavenly ascent.

Hell-believers could alternatively concede that nonexistence isn’t bad enough to mandate colossal breeding and culling programs, but this takes us back where we started. If nonexistence is fine, bringing children into the world just because you want to is a profoundly selfish act with potentially horrific consequences for the souls that might now end up in hell because you pulled them into a world where eternal suffering is one feasible end result.

So unless they have a taste for baby killing or don’t mind the thought of their children enduring endless torment, those who believe in hell must accept Benatar’s logic, load up the church bus and head for the vasectomy clinic.