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Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence

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Better Never to Have Been argues for a number of related, highly provocative, views: (1) Coming into existence is always a serious harm. (2) It is always wrong to have children. (3) It is wrong not to abort fetuses at the earlier stages of gestation. (4) It would be better if, as a result of there being no new people, humanity became extinct. These views may sound unbelievable--but anyone who reads Benatar will be obliged to take them seriously.

237 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2006

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About the author

David Benatar

21 books232 followers
David Benatar (born 1966) is a South African philosopher, academic and author. He is best known for his advocacy of antinatalism in his book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, in which he argues that coming into existence is a serious harm, regardless of the feelings of the existing being once brought into existence, and that, as a consequence, it is always morally wrong to create more sentient beings.

Benatar is vegan, and has taken part in debates on veganism. He has argued that humans are "responsible for the suffering and deaths of billions of other humans and non-human animals. If that level of destruction were caused by another species we would rapidly recommend that new members of that species not be brought into existence." He has also argued that the outbreak of zoonotic diseases, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, is often the result of how humans mistreat animals.

Benatar is an atheist and has stated that he has no children of his own.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 271 reviews
Profile Image for Erroll Treslan.
179 reviews7 followers
July 28, 2011
Seldom will you find a philosopher who can write this well for laypersons with the courage to advance such a counterintuitive thesis. While people may find Benatar's conclusion repugnant (i.e. coming into existence is always a harm and extinction of the human race should be desired end), it is exceedingly difficult to find any flaw in his logic. This is a great piece of work and philosphically sound. While it may have been better that Benatar had never been, I am sure glad that he is being.
Profile Image for Augusts Bautra.
12 reviews19 followers
April 11, 2011
Mr. Benatar sticks it out alone. In the face of religion and base natural drives he argues that there is nothing intrinsically good about procreation. He goes even further than that and, striking repulsion in the faces most potential and actual parents, denouncing them as "playing Russian roulette with a fully loaded gun—aimed, of course, not at their own heads, but at those of their future offspring".

The book is not without it's problems, of course. If the topic does not scare off most of the readers, who, as Benatar himself admits, probably are not cursing them having been brought into this world (yet), the admittedly convoluted writing will.

Clearly, Better Never to Have Been is not a book for family planners, it is a philosophical text with a consistent, thought-out premise that is delivered in an intellectually honest and steady manner, reflecting the importance of the topic and care taken by the author to lend his position due credence and not to be dismissed on the grounds of fickle emotion.
Profile Image for Steve.
380 reviews1 follower
September 27, 2023
A roommate in college commented he found me quite boring when philosophizing, which may be universally true; with that disclaimer, and with the deepest of breaths, I’ve attempted to compile succinctly my thoughts on what I believe to be the most important work I’ve read in a long, long time. While his book is not revolutionary, anti-natalist thought has been with us for some while, Professor Benatar has summoned the courage to present his case with unabashed, focused energy and to counter effectively the many predictable, and some unpredictable, criticisms levied against these words, risking the customary excoriations.

I feel the underlying assumption in our society that procreation is a good deserves serious reconsideration, particularly for those about to embark on that voyage. For now I believe, after fathering two children myself, that child birth may well be the single greatest of immoral acts; not only do we create sentient life without prior consent, in so doing we doom that being to a spectrum of pains and sufferings, ultimately resulting in death. Is this not a crime greater than murder? I’ll leave it for others to assess whether a crime involving multiple murders is a deed of greater immoral weight.

For me to arrive at this formerly hard to imagine conclusion required a few important elements: (a) a basic understanding of human genetics, particularly DNA replication, (b) abundant free time combined with curiosity, (c) this work, (d) decades of personal observation, (e) a rudimentary awareness of our too-many-to-name cognitive biases, and (f) some familiarity with Darwinian principles. Given these prerequisites, I feel this message is beyond the understanding of most young persons awash in hormones and impressionable societal influences; it’s simply too much to ask and for that reason, procreation will continue on and on and on; no one should worry for the demise of the human race from the effects of anti-natalist thought.

Professor Benatar’s work is difficult to grasp because of an apples-to-oranges conflict. To assess whether it is moral to procreate, we must compare the many qualitative and quantitative factors associated with life to non-existence. Put another way, how do we compare something with a null set? Computer programmers are well familiar with the output from such a comparison: a terse error message. This incompatibility is fertile turf for anti-natalism’s critics. Professor Benatar does a meticulous job assessing this fundamental asymmetry, although with language that is often hard to process. This exhaustive analysis is necessary, because of the enormous collision between dispassionate logic and the interplay among genetics, hormones, and social customs, which forms a massive, for many insurmountable, cognitive dissonance.

I wondered for the consequences of Professor Benatar’s work. It’s one thing to render harm under the banner of ignorance; do we hold early American settlers personally accountable for the deaths resulting from smallpox epidemics inflicted on indigenous peoples? It’s another to have an a priori understanding of an immoral decision, it seems. Perhaps, then, this work is best left unread, so that those wishing to rear children can do so with clear conscience? Such behavior does not lessen the ultimate wrong, though it may excuse an individual’s culpability. Then again, is it not often said that ignorance of the law is no defense? Does the same apply to moral considerations? Thanks to Professor Benatar’s courageous work, what I feel to be the truth is now revealed for the philosophically inquisitive few, in undeniable, unassailable fashion; there is now no hiding from the conclusions once exposed to this analysis.

My only criticisms, slight ones, Professor Benatar strayed a bit in his chapters on extinction and abortion. I suspect there may have been some pressure from the publisher to “heft things up a bit.” See my review of Thomas Metzinger’s The Ego Tunnel for a similar comment. The reader should also be prepared for large doses of logical “nots” and frequent use of the words “good,” “better,” “bad,” and “worse.” I experienced this read, at times, as a bit like playing chess without a board, solely through words, in my head.

If this message succeeds in preventing just one birth, this author will have performed a greater service to humanity than most of us can ever hope to achieve, though I admit it's difficult to accept the kindest, gentlest, most caring and loving act that we can perform is to . . . not bring a child into this world. Until someone crafts a superior, logical argument, I am now persuaded by Professor Benatar’s work; he should have ended with quod erat demonstrandum.

footnote – a real-world anecdote: Some three years after writing this review, I attended a small blood donation event with a twenty-one year-old woman who suffers from sickle cell disease as featured speaker. She described an unremitting, lifelong agony and a constant need for blood transfusions, a procedure that offers her meaningful, though brief, relief. She ended her talk imploring those who are at risk of conceiving a child with sickle cell disease not to have children. When she spoke those words, the audience, about twenty persons, all nodded their heads in understanding agreement. Later I realized the significance of what I witnessed. If we can so unanimously agree with anti-natalism under certain circumstances, then where does that line of thought end? When does it become morally appropriate to conceive?
Profile Image for Forn.
71 reviews1 follower
Want to read
November 29, 2012
Haven't read it, and I don't know if I will, but I'm happy to have found that there are actually other people along the same line of thinking as mine.
Profile Image for Brett Talley.
Author 21 books343 followers
November 23, 2011
Eh. *shrugs shoulders* Shock jock philosophy that fails to be all that shocking. Like a trip to the latest exploitation flick where we find out that we've seen it all before. Did I read every word? No need. As is typical with this type of "philosophy," Mr. Benatar lays out his premise and then spends the rest of the book repeating it, over and over and over. Does he really believe what he writes? Who knows?

It is sad that modern philosophy has fallen so deeply into the nihilism abyss that we literally have a philosopher arguing we should all be dead. Perhaps this is the natural conclusion of Godless utilitarianism. I will take my own nihilistic view, assume that Mr. Benatar is engaged in a brilliant assault on the previously unassailable commanding heights of the predominating utilitarian view, and raise a glass to him for permanently disabusing me of the notion that his brand of quantifiable ethics has any merit whatsoever.
Profile Image for Lea.
892 reviews193 followers
January 24, 2022
This is a really thought-provoking book and I agree with its main take away, but I find some of the arguments not convincing. I am grateful for Benatar's writing style. It's straight-forward and to the point, at least most of the time. It's written the way I wish most philosophy was, very analytical and clear.
16 reviews
April 25, 2013
Better Never to Have Been is a tremendous philosophical work dealing with antinatalism. In it, David Benatar argues for that which no one has the courage to argue for: That coming into existence is always a harm and that sometimes life may not only not be worth starting but also not worth continuing. The book is very well written and extremely clear. You can tell that Benatar really went out of his way to make sure this was an accessible book to everyone. His case is purely logical and you won't be able to find faults in his arguments. In fact, he deals with almost every objection imaginable. Benatar's conclusions will seem counter-intuitive and depressing to most, and indeed they are, but that says nothing about the strength of his arguments. It's also counter-intuitve that the earth revolves around the sun and yet we know that it does. We also cannot reject ideas simply because we don't like them or because they makes us feel sad. Surely, this is one of the most important books out there, one that unfortunately will be either ignored or rejected by most. But that has no bearing on the validity of antinatalism.
Profile Image for Rory Švarc.
6 reviews12 followers
July 12, 2016
As noted on the blurb of this book, Benatar defends a view that 'almost no one accepts': coming into existence is always a serious harm. Indeed, though he doesn't state it in these terms, his conclusions hold not just for the actual world, but also entail that, for any logically possible world, coming into existence is at best morally neutral.

These ideas are based off a commitment to an asymmetry between pleasure and pain. This is the thought that, although it is wrong to bring into existence a child whose existence will be filled with much suffering, there is no similar obligation to bring into existence a child whose life will be worth living. Benatar is probably right in assuming this intuition is at least somewhat widespread. Of course, there are people who wouldn't accept this, namely positive utilitarians, and people sympathetic to this line of thinking (a broad camp I'd situate myself in). Despite the prevalence of people with these leanings, the only real argument against the positive utilitarian and their allies is that positive utilitarianism 'mistakenly assumes the value of happiness primary and the value of persons derivative from this... it is not the case that people are valuable because they add extra happiness. Instead, extra happiness is valuable because it is good for people'. This disappointed me. Benatar's thesis is controversial and interesting, but this perfunctory response to perhaps one of the main challenges to his pleasure/pain asymmetry severely dented his hope of persuading me, and, I imagine, lots of people with a total utilitarian mindset. A positive utilitarian would point out that happiness is, necessarily, happiness *for* someone. Happiness is good no matter in what type of being is instantiated. Rather, a person's life is not necessarily valuable, in and of itself, if there is no happiness, or good of any kind to come from it. Benatar does not address this potential objection to his asymmetry. Given that this is the basis for much of his later reasoning, one is left a little perplexed as to why he did not explore the issue further.

Equally bizarre was the weight Benatar put on the distinction between 'lives worth starting' and 'lives worth continuing', assuming that somehow a life could be 'worth continuing' but not 'worth starting'. I found it very hard to make sense of such a distinction. If a life being lived is good enough to be worth continuing, surely it is, ipso facto, good enough to be worth starting? Again, I find Benatar's examples very unsatisfactory.

Despite the fact I think Benatar could've given fuller responses to these worries, there's much to commend the book. Benatar's writing is very clear, and in a characteristic analytic philosophy style, the presentation of the arguments equally so. Moreover, I found his discussion of 'Pollyanaism', the psychological phenomenon where people assume their lives to be much better than they are an interesting introduction to the topic. Indeed, the force of Benatar's anti-natalist convictions seemed at their strongest when discussing the moral implications of the psychological data, and I wish he'd spent more time arguing from these premises. Not only this, but it would make his arguments less dependent on the particular conceptual carvings he cites, like the pleasure/pain asymmetry, and the lives worth starting/worth continuing distinction. Arguments which could convincingly show such radical mistakes about our own mental lives would provide a more (moral) theory-neutral justification and anti-natalism, and have broader-reaching methodological implications into other fields, like philosophy of mind, and empirical 'positive psychology' more generally. Benatar provided ample reference to interesting studies, and the novelty of the view - in addition to the clarity with which it's expressed - certainly made the book worth reading.

Still, I remain unconvinced that coming into existence can be shown to be a harm on the conceptual grounds Benatar advocates. I hope that Benatar and others dedicate more intellectual energy to the potential arguments that can be made on empirical grounds, citing not just psychological evidence around Pollyanaims, but make references vast suffering people do actually go through, just to what extent this gets blanked out when reflecting on our life, and grounds for pessimism about improving the conditions of the world. Perhaps extinction is the best option, but Benatar has not (yet) convinced me this is so.
Profile Image for J.
194 reviews101 followers
July 24, 2022
This book gives us great advice, but of course we won't take it. No, our extinction will not be deliberate.
Profile Image for Sarah Shaheen.
170 reviews365 followers
March 3, 2020
What's peculiar is that I thought the kernel of Benatar's case against existence to be axiomatic. An asymmetry in judging the (bad) in states of existence and non-existence. The bad being suffering, illness, and human condition variety. The existent is benefited from the good in life, and adversities decrease the quality of life. The non existent isn't affected by deprivation of the good, yet is benefited from avoiding pain, even though there is no one to experience either.

I dismissed my initial acceptance of the premise as biased. However, Benatar managed to reinforce his argument with parallel asymmetries, and refute objections.

The he moves to the case against procreation, a moral one mainly. Draws a distinction between a life worth starting, and there is none of that kind, and a life worth continuing.

He touches on psychology on how really bad our lives are, and how we either adapt or deceive ourselves in assessing its value.

The most intriguing chapter was the one on abortion, basically the nessicity of it and the immorality of carrying the fetus to full-term.

A great read. And however dangerous and sometimes balatantly offensive, it is not essentially misanthropic. And most importantly coherent and convincing.
Profile Image for Leo Robertson.
Author 36 books446 followers
August 14, 2020
I was unconvinced from the very beginning. Which isn’t to say I had a closed mind to these ideas, but I knew that, whether I was swayed, the conclusion on how I should live would be exactly the same anyway: minimise harm where possible, enjoy life when possible, maximise meaning when possible, and don’t have any damn kids.

So I went into this possibly depressing book quite breezily aware that its conclusions, no matter how plausible, would be pretty trivial where my own life was concerned. And I emerged, oddly enough, even more life-affirming than before, given how unconvincing I find the premises with which I am meant to agree.

And it has been a lovely exercise in outlining and challenging my own personal philosophy where possible, because I’ve always believed one of our goals in life is to develop our own personal philosophies and to adapt them along the way in accordance with the influx of new information and experience.

So, here are some ideas in the book and what I thought of them.

Benatar states that, due to the “Pollyanna principle”, we are more likely to see life as more positive than it is. Evidently Mr Benatar has not visited the city of Glasgow, from where I hail. Sorry, what fucking principle are you talking about? The Glasgow thing was a joke but omg almost everyone I meet on a day-to-day basis, they mostly complain. And since they’re all middle class AF, it’s a paradoxical reaction to how nice their lives are. Pretty much the opposite of what Benatar claims is going on. This is anecdotal, sure, but aren’t we all sculpted by our anecdotal experience, and isn’t that what makes us interesting, that we hail from different cultures and so on, even though we are inevitably biased somehow?

Incidentally this reminded me of my mother. My dad obviously felt ashamed that she would insult him by calling him “Polyanna.” Later, my sister confessed to me that she also was made to feel ashamed of her positive tendencies because my mother called her—guess what—Polyanna! I told her, “Hey, she did that to dad too!” And just as well he’d told me that because he sure isn’t here to tell it anymore… Anyway my mum was depressed, dealt with it poorly and thought instead to snuff out happiness because it’s plain easier than admitting, “Omg, I’m in my fifties and still having nightmares about my abusive dad bursting out his grave and attacking me—perhaps I should deal with that, since I can’t deal with it decades ago as I should have started doing? Especially before I told my kids about it?” Parents, am I right? First they make you, then they shame you for being happy, then they both die before you’re even thirty! Anyone?... Anyone?

Look I don’t share this stuff because I want pity. (Even though as Benatar writes, and I agree, there’s nothing wrong with a little self-pity in moderation. In fact it’s like a downright necessary step in your healing process. You start there and move on when you’re ready.) But I share these anecdotes because having a story like this, while never being exactly like this, is part of the human experience. You have one or you will acquire one and it’s okay. That’s why to me everyone deserves the same amount of respect. It’s why I don’t disrespect the young for being so (this too will happen to you) and also why I’m the last person to pity anyone who hits out with an unsolicited sob story.
“Omg can you believe such a thing happened to me?”
Like, fuck yeah I can! Something shit happened to you. Welcome to life. I mean, sorry it happened but also… it was gonna happen. So… get on with it.
I appreciate there are limitations to that attitude, but there is also most definitely a time and place for it, and that’s when you should come to me ;)

I mean look I guess that’s why these dry-ass pontifications don’t scare me: I have seen the abyss, my friend. Bottomless, stares back at you, etcetera. I get the point. I don’t think it’s existence negates the joy of my own existence, even if I have to make another pilgrimage to go back and stare at it again, as I may well have to. Whatever, it’s part of the package deal. You don’t get used to it—in fact losing my dad was, to my surprise, even more painful than losing my mum: I’d assumed I’d at least get some sort of compensatory loss resistance first time around, but nope—but it gets easier to notice that after each abyss visit, there is always a return ticket to normality :)

“For every death there are many more bereft who grieve for the deceased.” You don’t spend as much time missing them as you did loving them, and you only grieve the ones you loved. And you can bond with those who share your pain. It can bring you closer to new people in unexpected ways.

I have always wondered if optimism can be considered a kind of Stockholm syndrome for existing in an indifferent and often cruel universe. That we are in an abusive relationship with the world and brainwashed into being thankful for it. Hey, maybe. And really there is no way of knowing how an individual will respond to their own suffering until they exist and it is up to that non-theoretical person to decide.

Grief is the most painful thing I ever went through. Would I rather never have existed ,or never have experienced my parents love so as not to miss them when they died? Even never have had them make me? One thing's for sure, that's my call. And don't think I didn't ask myself while I was grieving. "Parents, this was always a possibility! Why did you make me? This hurts so much!" No, it’s fine. Those griefs are a life-affirming process even though they feel like death. They do not exist without someone to love. They do not exist without good life quality. At the moment I’m a little sad that one of my best friends has left Stavanger, and my sister left me a kind voice note to remind me that it is a privilege to miss someone, as it means you shared something really special with them.

So how about anti-natalism:

Having a kid is reckless, said a friend of mine. And nothing makes you think about death more. You will die, then she will have to deal with it, then she will die. It all becomes crushingly apparent. (Sidebar: fuuuuuck that! Not doing it.) Love “harm of existence” as a Devil’s Advocate to having kids. It’s not necessarily a good thing. Perhaps the selfish thing is to have them rather than not: it would depend on the kid, I think, and who knows what they’re like?

“Consider the number of people who are raped, assaulted, maimed, or murdered (by private citizens, rather than governments). About 40 million children are maltreated each year. More than million currently living women and girls have been subjected to genital cutting. Then there is enslavement, unjust incarceration, shunning, betrayal, humiliation, and intimidation, not to mention oppression in its myriad forms. Pollyannaism leads most people to think that they and their (potential) children will be spared all this. And indeed there are some, although extremely few, who are lucky enough to avoid non-inevitable suffering.” He lists a number of sufferings including those preceding death from disease and natural disaster. Oh, undeniable. Also obvious scope for harm reduction. Some diseases have as-yet-undiscovered cures, surely, which would reduce the quantity of suffering in the future. And I think it’s fair to say that if I had kids, they wouldn’t be subjected to genital cutting? The humiliation, intimidation and oppression sure, but you can build up an immunity to most of it once you realise the source is almost always idiots who aren’t worth your time. (And I don’t consider resilience “Polyannaism.” It is a toughening to certain potential harms that still acknowledges their existence.) But, like, if I had a kid in Norway, how much of this is relevant, honestly? These are highly relative arguments against existence. And these numbers are going down with time, no? I’m not denying that history is an absolute shitshow, but we can do better, and we are doing better.

“Even the most privileged people could give birth to a child that will suffer unbearably, be raped, assaulted, or be murdered brutally. The optimist surely bears the burden of justifying this procreational Russian roulette.” I don’t mean to minimise the horror of these potential fates, but honestly, how often do you think these things are happening? I’m absolutely terrified of flying--but do I think flying is evil because it potentially subjects passengers to the horror of plane crashes—or is my fear in fact irrational because of the statistical unlikelihood of plane crashes? Is it not far more likely that my experience will be a safe travel to a lovely destination? In which case, I can extol the greatness of the existence of planes, even while fearing them and acknowledging the horror of plane crashes? By that same logic, can I extol the greatness of existence given the unlikelihood of horrible fates, even though they inarguably exist?

If we say, generally speaking, that there are more good people than there are bad, then having kids is a moral good, I suppose, if this is the only consideration. It is not a moral good that I myself will partake in, but we don’t have to partake in all available moral goods, only as many as we can. Or can be bothered with. With time, my threshold for what constitutes a good guy is just plummeting, haha. This life business is really tough! I’m sure you’re doing your best. Or you’re not, whatever, what do I care, honestly? Are you funny, at least? Got any good book recommendations? Then you’re alright with me. Really you don’t need to do anything to please me--you deserve to be here! There’s no evidence that you do, but none that you don’t either, so I choose to act like you do :)

This one is just fascinating to consider, though I skipped the section it was in because it was boring: “Disability rights advocates may note that everybody has inabilities. No human beings have the ability to fly (unaided by machines), but this fact does not disable the wingless, because buildings are made access- ible to the wingless by means of ground-floor entrances and stairs, ramps, or lifts. We do not think about this because winglessness is the human norm. If most people had wings, and a few did not, then those few would be disabled if no accommodations were made for them. Thus the reason why those with impairments are disabled, where they are indeed disabled, is not because they have some inability, but rather because society is constructed in a way that excludes people with that inability.”


If you’ll permit a Thermodynamics analogy (and who doesn’t love those?) perhaps quality of life is a lot like the enthalpy of a substance. It is absolutely meaningless to talk about the inherent enthalpy of a substance, only about the enthalpy with reference to some other state (eg the same mass of the substance at a lower temperature) or the change in enthalpy as it goes from one state to another (heated, undergoing reaction etc.) So imagine it was meaningless to talk about inherent life quality unless talking about it relative to some other available quality. In other words, the inherent quality of life cannot be determined, yet it can be said that life quality gets better over time. Therefore there is no better time than now to be alive, and in the future, even better still.

I am on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication. Medications made by people who focused on relieving suffering for the existing. It’s hard to say what their personal philosophies were. Maybe they thought, “Life isn’t worth living, but others are here doing it, and should not kill themselves, therefore it is valuable to relieve their suffering, while living, if possible.” I don’t know but this is a good example of how a philosophy towards the value of existence doesn't really alter how you should behave. And I do know that these medications fundamentally alter the extent to which arguments in books like these resonate with me.

Sidebar: Benatar isn’t reckless enough to argue, as Ligotti does in “Conspiracy Against the Human Race”, that depression is the true natural state and the correct reaction to existence. But I assure you that, when on anti-depressants, I am much more myself, rather than less. (I will address this idea in more detail once I have re-read Ligotti’s book, but here’s another quick rebuttal: he says that when you have a runny nose and are irritated by it, suddenly you become aware of the many ways in which your body was functioning properly and the many other states in which you could exist. It’s this same logic he uses to state that you are more yourself when depressed. So… are you more yourself if you have a runny nose? More yourself the more impaired you are? If I have scurvy, is my skin “truer”? Like, if I gouge out one eyeball, am I now functioning more like a “real human”? Just ridiculous.)

In Joyce Carol Oates’ novel “Hazards of Time Travel”, I found one of my favourite quotes of all time: “It's only in logical puzzles that x cannot be x and non-x at the same time, whereas in life that's almost always the case.” Isn’t it always the case also that you need to read all over the place to find the nuggets of stuff you need to hear? How was I supposed to know my favourite quote was locked away in that text, amidst like a hundred books, and those are just the ones JCO wrote?!

But what a clever way she has found of expressing, on the page, what life is like off-the-page! Life is a subjective experience that, I believe, cannot be solved by a philosophical puzzle of logic. Even if life looks like a convincingly futile endeavour on paper--as it does here--I don’t even think that is really cause for concern.

Yet there is still immense value in the clear articulation of this argument, and it does affect my thinking in an oddly reassuring way. If it cannot be definitively argued that existing is always, or even ever worth it—and it can’t—what the fuck does it matter what anyone else knows about anything? They cannot guarantee you the most important thing of all: whether the whole endeavour is even worth it. So why should you listen to others about any particular direction within this perhaps pointless sphere of potential endeavours? They don’t even know if it’s worth it at all, so why would they know what you should do with it?

The world is gloriously rudderless. So go nuts, everyone. I, for example, will start giving this book as a baby shower gift ;)
Profile Image for Mooncalf.
37 reviews23 followers
February 3, 2018
There are a couple of times in this book when Benatar just asserts some point that he has not argued for earlier in the book. One example of this is his claim that after a certain amount of pain no amount of pleasure can make a life worthwhile. This seems quite wrong.

He argues that because of the non identity problem coming into existence is always a bad thing. This might be a problem for deontologists, but definitely not for consequentialists.

He talks about how the polyanna principle makes us biased when reporting how good our life is. He takes this principle as an established fact and does not argue for it, he just rests most of his argument on it. I had heard that the reverse of this principle was actually the case in my reading of psychology... He also represents adaptation to harsh situations as being only a matter of adjusting claims of what you want to the the situation rather than becoming okay with the situation experience and readings in psychology tells me it is. There are some other problems with this book and I might add to this review later.
Profile Image for Jeff.
635 reviews42 followers
July 5, 2022
Updates added March 2020 begin with the title below.

I give up. I could only be bothered to read the first three chapters, in which Benatar (1) maps out the book, (2) attempts to show why coming into existence is always a harm to the person brought into existence and (3) attempts to show how bad existence is. I also read the conclusion chapter. Then i attempted to reread chapters 2 and 3 so that i could write down my objections to, counter-arguments to, or criticisms of Benatar's claims. But i tried to reread chapter 2 several times, all of which ended in eye-rolling, sighing and other forms of exasperation that i don't care to continue.

I'm not convinced.

I'm most disappointed by chapter 3, which seemed like Benatar's best venue for garnering converts.

If you already agree with Benatar, you'll probably love this book. If you don't (ie, you're a sappy / stupid / deluded optimist like me), then you'll probably dislike it, too.

David Benatar, Prince of Denmark?

2B ⊕ ~2B

That's Hamlet's famous question translated into pseudo-official logic symbols. Shakespeare has his prince seriously considering the relative value of continuing to exist vs not continuing to exist, ie, "Should i commit suicide?"

Benatar believes that he would've been better off if he had never existed. He believes you would've been better off if you had never existed. He believes i would've been better off if i had never existed. He believes not only that nobody benefits from coming into existence but also that everyone is actually harmed by their own coming into existence.

At this point many ask, "Isn't Benatar a hypocrite since he hasn't ended his own life?" Nope. Benatar strongly agrees with conventional wisdom that continuing-to-exist is preferable to ceasing-to-exist. He has decided that "To be or not to be" is not the question: after you have come to be, it's pretty much a no brainer that you are correct to prefer continuing-to-exist over ceasing-to-exist.

Instead Benatar wants to explore whether coming into existence (becoming) has more value than not coming into existence. On this he takes the unconventional and very unpopular stance of preferring the latter state (not-becoming). Nobody has ever benefited from coming into existence and nobody ever will benefit from coming into existence. Therefore, nobody should come into existence ever again; all nobodies should remain nobodies; zero nobodies should become somebodies.

Benatar's argument in support of such conclusions relies on an allegedly undeniable asymmetry in the following table.
                   (A)       (B)
                 Exist   ~Exist
1. Pain          -1         1
2. Pleasure     1         0
    TOTAL       0         1

{Note: Benatar's table uses "+" and "-" rather than numbers and Pleasure is row 1.}

For column (A), ie, those who exist,
• the reality of experiencing pain is indisputably negative. I have assigned the arbitrary value of -1
• the reality of experiencing pleasure is indisputably positive, ie, +1.

For column (B), ie, those who do not exist,
• the impossibility of experiencing pain is positive, ie, +1,
• the impossibility of experiencing pleasure is neither positive nor negative, ie, 0.

Benatar's unmodified table assigns column A a total value of neutral (reasonably represented by my sum of 0) but column B is net positive (reasonably represented by my 1). Therefore, he concludes, not-becoming (B) is superior to becoming (A). If the table were symmetrical — ie, if the value at 2B were -1 — both columns would add up to nothing.

The asymmetry at 2B is Benatar's key datum.

Benatar insists that the impossibility of pain must be positive for the nonexistent (1B); but he also insists that the impossibility of pleasure for the nonexistent (2B) must have neither a positive or a negative value. He argues that we'd have to accept truly ridiculous subsequent beliefs if we insisted upon assigning any other value.

It's truly indisputable if you agree with Benatar's value assignments. And i think nobody would want to refute that pleasure is positive and pain is negative for (A), people who exist. But how do we assign values of any kind for (B), people who do not exist? Can we even talk about "people" who do not exist?

i, There's the Rub
{I formulated my preceding thoughts during a fit of insomnia and felt they were worth typing and sharing with the world. A couple hours later as i get to this point, i'm starting to think my self-assessment was akin to a drunkard's self-assessment of driving prowess. Nevertheless, i shall press onward.}

I think Benatar's entire book grows out of an opinion and that he strangely believes it to be a fact.

It's difficult enough attempting to assess the value of existence or nonexistence. I might as well attempt to describe my body so perfectly that the description becomes another me. Or attempt to compare the values of each state of being relative to each other in a way that's true for every existent and nonexistent … person? Or assign calculable values to the comparison such that anyone can see that your valid argument is also sound.

If we accept Benatar's 2 x 2 matrix as sufficient, the only values we can reasonably input are 0, ∞, i (ie, the square root of negative 1; aka, the imaginary number), or variables. I choose these difficult values for what i suspect was the same reason Pascal chose ∞ for his famous wager, namely because they tip the scales from discernible to inscrutable, which is exactly what existence and nonexistence are, respectively.

My table might look like this
                   (A)       (B)
                 Exist   ~Exist
1. Pain          -x         i
2. Pleasure     y         i
    TOTAL     y-x       2i

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all
Benatar resembles Hamlet in that he seems focused on "The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks \ That flesh is heir to." He has no serious thoughts about discontinuing his existence, though; he wonders whether he ever should have become. He doesn't blame his parents. He knows they had no ill will and did not intend to hurt him by sentencing him to a lifetime (of consciousness).

Benatar seems to want to reveal to all existent beings that it's a crime to create even one more conscious being. "That nobody was fine!" He seems to shout, "Not deficient in any way as a nothing and now this person must experience consciousness which inevitably includes pain."

But what does it even mean to say that something bad happened to the … person who didn't exist? To the non-existent person? To nothing? To nothingness? To nobody? This language is insufficient. There's no way to express the idea that avoids absurdity. (feel free to offer suggestions for how it can be stated that aren't absurd)

I contend that the only honest way to schematize or quantify the inequality between existence and nonexistence is to use incalculable values as above. I think we must live with this indeterminacy. Benatar can claim, "It's my opinion that every conscious being was, has been, or will be harmed by coming into existence." Only Benatar can really know if that summation of his beliefs is a lie or the truth. And this is my only reply, "I don't share your opinion."
Profile Image for Karl Steel.
199 reviews138 followers
May 22, 2012
needs more phenomenology. we don't live our lives all at once. for this reason, the balance-sheet method to calculating whether existence is a good or an ill doesn't work.

that said, there's almost no good reason to bring another human being into existence. on that point, he and I agree.
Profile Image for Mitch Grady.
49 reviews1 follower
March 13, 2017
Early on, he dismisses with the wave of the hand what is easily the biggest problem for his thesis: what, exactly, is the ontological status of these objects that are better off for never having been?
5 reviews1 follower
January 12, 2009
An absolute must-read for anyone considering having children, either voluntarily or under duress, and for all those who are childless by choice who need to know that they are not alone. Enjoy!
Profile Image for Yousra.
459 reviews78 followers
October 15, 2021
“The story so far:
In the beginning the Universe was created.
This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”

― Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

You’re probably thinking of picking this book up for one of the reasons below:

1. You agree with the author that existence is pointless and life sucks and
you would love to just feel the comfort of knowing someone thinks the same as you.
2. You agree with the author that existence is pointless and life sucks and
you want to spread the idea so you decided to read more about it to build stronger arguments.
4. You find the idea of creating humans always being a harm absolutely ridiculous and
you would like to see how the author would make a smart debate of such a dumb idea. That should be fun.
5. You find the idea of creating humans always being a harm absolutely ridiculous
but listening to other POVs is neither a harm nor ridiculous.. so why not?

I, personally, fall into the first category.

I’m all for enjoying the little things in life and being grateful for what you have and I do religiously enjoy my cup of tea and I find it quite impossible not to be in complete awe of all the beauty that is in this world BUT if I had the choice, I would ALWAYS and undoubtedly choose never to have been born.
So I do share the same view as the author and that means I was never either annoyed nor provoked throughout reading this book.. actually, It was quite comforting most times.

All this babbling just to say I’m not going to go through the actual content of the book because I wouldn’t be the most reliable person to review it as I was already #TeamBeingBornSucks before I even read the very first line so I’m just going to say that it was really well debated though the book was a bit scholarly and dry and it does get repetitive sometimes so if you’re really interested in the subject do give it a try.

Profile Image for Ryan McCarthy.
262 reviews18 followers
March 22, 2020
There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is reproduction.

Seriously one of the top three most important pieces of philosophy I've ever read.
Profile Image for Jeremy.
150 reviews21 followers
September 22, 2010
A fascinating book that stakes out a well-argued if quite unusual position - that given the suffering of human existence (which is bad) and the fact the a non-existent being does not regret missing out on pleasure, it is better not to come into existence. The author is careful to draw a distinction between coming into existence (through being born) and ceasing to exist (via suicide for example.) He is arguing against giving birth to new children, not in favor of suicide. In the course of making his argument, he carefully considers alternatives and related views, which brings him into discussions about disability rights, abortion and contraception. Generally his characterizations and arguments are quite clear and often compelling.

The one portion of the argument I didn't find compelling (at least on first reading) was the portion where he argued that coming into being wasn't just a harm, but always a great harm. I felt he significantly overstated his case in this chapter. And if that portion of the case is weak, I think it has significant implications for some of his later arguments. But in any event, a thought-provoking work and one I may return to in future.
16 reviews
July 22, 2010
There are some interesting arguments in this book about the rationality of continuing to create more people, but everything hinges on the idea that to exist is to be harmed. It seems that because it is unavoidable that we will occasionally be hungry or a little cold or that sometimes people are murdered, we would all be better off never experiencing anything at all. That seems a bit extreme and subjective to me, and I was never fully convinced of the premise but it was enlightening to follow the logical reasoning it was based on. My main conclusion was that philosophers are weird and probably annoying to argue with after about 3 hours. Also, I had assumed this guy was a bit of a crackpot, but apparently there is a huge literature debating the basis for "anti-natalism" and "wrongful life." And the journal articles have some of the best titles I've ever seen..."Pre-Vital and Post-Morten Non-Existence," "The Science and Ethics of Human Extinction," "Why death is not bad for the one who died."
Profile Image for s.
48 reviews
February 23, 2009
this is a remarkably childish and stupid book. better to have never been written. (seriously though)
Profile Image for Andy .
447 reviews71 followers
June 13, 2015

I found this book after reading Thomas Ligotti's "The Conspiracy Against the Human Race." This is a far more philosophical, dry text. Ligotti is focused on the "nightmare of being" and the human condition with a focus on the "curse" of consciousness and it's relation to horror fiction in particular. Benatar is more focused on the traditional anti-natalist viewpoint.

I thought this was a rigorously and deftly-argued book, and while Benatar realizes he isn't likely to change many minds, he feels he needs to say it anyway.

His argument mostly hinges on his asymmetry argument that being born is always a harm and not being born is at least "not bad" and thus preferable. Furthermore, we think our lives are better than they really are because we adapt expectations to worse conditions, we compare ourselves to those who are worse off than ourselves, and we ignore the negatives of life everyone endures. He also discusses the right to procreative freedom, balanced with the harm of bringing new people into existence, including an in-depth chapter with a pro-death view of abortion. He rounds it out with a look at the most painless ways to have a phased-out of extinction.

Some points:
--For those who wonder why anti-natalists don't jump off a cliff, Benetar shows how deciding to bring a life into existence is completely different from decisions about _continued_ existence.
--Perhaps I romanticize, however I still feel glad to have lived, imperfect a life as it may be, and our adaptation to it which Benatar points out is a sort of mercy. We adapt, this is because happiness involved in being alive is relevant, and can depend to some extent on perspective.
--Toward the end of the text Benatar acknowledges that his arguments are using logic against what are psychological forces. He acknowledges that people don't even breed for completely rational reasons either.
--I wonder what Benatar might say if one threw out the following idea: Pain is merely chemical reactions in the brain and doesn't really exist to begin with. After reading Ligotti I could take his view that that all animate forms are merely part of a larger aberrant mutation called "life," and ultimately all pain and suffering amounts to nothing anyway. Matter is just getting passed around, recycled, animated at times and not at others. At this point in my life I am actually more sympathetic to this view.
--In the introduction he shows that if a person has just one child, if over ten generations each of his offspring has three children, that is over 88,000 people.

This is NOT light reading. The second chapter is full of deductive philosophical arguments that some will likely find challenging. Later chapters have the more conversational tone of the introduction at times.

I would suggest Ligotti's book over this one; it's more wide-ranging in what it discusses, has more impact and generally held my interest far better. Indeed, this book is quite dry; keep it away from open flames and sparks.

Here's some notes I took, unedited(!) -- at least what Goodreads will allow me to post within the character limit...


Coming into existence is always a harm, not coming into existence does not deprive anyone. People rarely plan for children's existence. Sentience is a big harm to more evolved beings. Aside on sentient beings bred specifically for food, it is NOT better to have been born to be eaten than to be born not at all. It is not that nonexistence is good, but existence is a harm. It almost seems a joke to talk of nonexistent people. **"Life is a sexually transmitted terminal disease." People wish to spare children suffering, but to do this one must not have children to begin with. Having one child could lead to a mountain of suffering depending on how many children they produce. The likelihood of a person being born are extremely remote -- their parents had to be born, meet and have sex at the exact right time. Therefore being born being always a harm, and having come into existence at all is "really bad luck." Yet there are many people, and someone is always unlucky via procreation. We are evolutionarily biased to be pro-natalist. Procreating is seen as normal/adult/mature -- but going against one's primitive instincts is perhaps MORE mature than simply making babies. But people are pushed to do so, gvt even encourages it if the birthrate falls. Making babies vs. immigration, political concerns. Parents get preferential treatment. Some gvt like China have population control policies, and some people advocate being childfree -- but these aren't specifically anti-natalist views. ...Book Outline...

There are cases where being born CAN be a harm -- genetic deficiencies of parents, unprepared mother, etc. Some will argue the non-existent person however does not exist, so is NOT better off than the impaired person. But a person can be WORSE off than he would have been. Another way to look at it is that one need not have a better condition to compare it to, to say this person is worse off. Analogy of a person deciding they're better off dead, he doesn't expect to be in a better condition dead, but not existing is preferable. Life worth starting vs live worth continuing. We judge a life worth starting on standards of one worth continuing. If someone loses a limb they can continue on with life, but if someone is born without a limb, we would rather not start that life. Coming to exist in any morally relevant sense is a gradual process, thus we would rather kill an impaired fetus, than a man who will be impaired. The man has more interest in continuing to exist. Another objection is that disabilities bad enough to make people wish they'd never existed are very rare, and most with disabilities prefer to exist. Adopting currently existing people's perspectives on this are inadequate -- life worth starting does not equal a life worth continuing. Life is a harm in all cases, everyone experiences pain and death. Absence of pain is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone -- absence of pleasure isn't a bad unless there's someone being deprived. We know bringing suffering people into existence is bad, and believe the absence of suffering is good, even if there's no one to enjoy this absence. We would rather avoid bringing a suffering person into existence than feel a duty to bring happy people into existence. It is strange to claim to have a child for it's sake, but not to avoid having a child because of bad circumstances. Bringing people into existence or not can both be regretted, but only when someone IS brought into existence do we have someone to regret it FOR. When not, we only regret it for ourselves. Finally, we do not feel bad for nonexistent people on an unpopulated island for example, but do feel bad for those who are harmed when a populated one is destroyed by a volcanic eruption. These reasons assert the asymmetry argument. For a non-existent being the absence of pleasure is "not good, but not bad either" instead of being "bad." For an existent person, being deprived of pleasure is a neutral state, worse than experiencing pleasure, but for a non-existent person there is no neutral state. Pleasures of existence not greater than absent pleasures of nonexistence. Ex. It is better to be Healthy who cannot recover quickly from illness, but never gets sick, rather than Sick who recovers quickly, but gets ill often. He is not so far arguing for how great a harm coming into existence is, only that it always is one, categorically. Nonexistence is still better than a life full of pleasure, with only one brief pain. Arguments of Shiffrin who does not see benefit and harm as on a scale, but absolute conditions. One could cause a minor harm to a non-consenting person to avoid a greater one, but wouldn't cause a harm to cause a benefit to them. Since bringing someone into existence can be a benefit, we cannot inflict the potential harm first without their consent. Fehige's argument argues that having a fulfilled desire is better than an unfulfilled one, but no better than having no desire at all. Having UNsatisfied desires is what matters, avoiding frustration is most important. Most would argue they are glad to have lived, with it's sorrows than not at all. But having enjoyed pleasures is a good and evil is something one can experience, but a nonexistent person isn't deprived of the good. And one may enjoy life now, but the future can change their view. But it can't be true that they were better off both existing and never having existed -- it must be one or the other.

One's life is usually worse than one thinks. Being born is always a harm, but there's a quantitative difference. It's not just the amount of good and bad, but how they're distributed through one's life. It's better to have increasing pleasure as one ages, less intense and more mild pleasures. Length of life -- if there's little good it becomes boring. One could argue once a threshold of badness is reached, no amount of goodness makes it worth living. One could have more good in life X than Y, but if X suffers more bad too then Y may have a better life. People think their lives are better than they are -- they recall the positive rather than the negative, and expect a better future. Depressed people, those with low self-esteem have more realistic views. People's perception of their health correlates with their happiness. The rich and poor are both fairly happy groups. Also humans adapt to worse conditions, unhappy at first, but they adjust expectations -- once again this is subjective and unreliable. A third factor is we compare ourselves to others to decide how good our life is, negative features of life EVERYONE endures are ignored. Adaptation and comparison however come from this general optimism -- they reinforce optimism. Quality of life based on hedonism -- experiencing pleasure/pain, desire-fulfilment -- extent desires are fulfilled, "objective lists" -- objective goods irrespective of whether they bring pleasure or pain. As for the hedonistic view -- we are almost always experiencing some sort of pain, desire, but we ignore it largely because everyone else does, and because we adapt to them. And these are merely the states for a HEALTHY life, it's much worse for chronic conditions and aging. The pleasures of life are few and experienced with these pains. Getting relief from pain, neutral states is not being happy, one is only experiencing pain and it makes life absurd to live. As to the desire-fulfilment view -- this does not always include a pleasurable mental state, so we can be wrong about whether a desire has been satisfied, and thus misjudge how good our life is again. Desires are goals one must wait in frustration to achieve, and they're rarely permanent states. Marriages end, vacations end, etc. Desires fulfilled lead to a need of new desires. Maslow said we constantly seek new happiness, Schopenhauer said happiness isn't real, it is only a temporal satisfaction of desires, a state of default dissatisfaction. Some gain satisfaction from the striving to fulfill a desire, but not all, probably not most. And not all striving is to be desired, like striving to beat cancer. Delayed pleasure can make it sweeter, but not striving would make many things better. It would be better not to have to strive for freedom, even if it makes freedom more pleasurable. Deprivation is NOT better than quicker desire fulfillment, and if it makes fulfillment sweeter it is an unfortunate fact, not a good. In reality we adapt desires to that which WILL be fulfilled, not that which is whatever one desires. Buddhists believe in tamping down one's desires to one's situation; this is reasonable to do, however it does not mean that we are better off objectively. Objective lists include desires and pleasurable states, and are general ideas groups have, but depend on a person's situation. But we don't consider a life a failure that doesn't life to 240 years old, yet consider a death at 40 a tragedy. Maybe a good life is unattainable? What of a meaning to life? From the perspective of the universe we are meaningless whatever we do. Declaring that it doesn't matter we're meaningless from the perspective of the universe still takes away a large good when all that is left is subjective, human meaning. Some cannot imagine a better existence -- having human cognitive ability could be a blessing or curse, but certainly it could be more advanced than it is. Some may object we compare people as we might judge students -- but that is a setting in which we have a standard, but in comparing lives there are many ways to do so. Concluding on three views -- we rarely realize how bad life is, and the test on whether to bring a life into the world is whether all the suffering in a life could be decently inflicted on an already existing person for no good reason. The suffering of the world is great, optimism is a mockery of the human condition. Recounting of the millions killed by war, disease, murder, etc. Even a GOOD human life, rare as it is will be full of suffering. The optimists bear the burden of justifying their position, playing "Russian roulette with a fully loaded gun...aimed at their future offspring."

People have no duty to procreate, certainly not for potential, currently non-existent people. Even if one thinks a few potential lives are worth starting must consider the risk and not start them. The harm of coming into existence outweighs the considerations of a theoretical duty. Is there a duty NOT to procreate? These are strong human drives one cannot reject easily. Most people procreate simply because they were satisfying sexual interests, not trying to make babies, and avoiding this is easily done with contraception. Procreation interest aside, if people have a parenting interest, they can adopt. Many have children to satisfy the interests of others, which coincide with their own interests, and to gain a feeling of immortality. Serving one's own interests isn't a bad thing, however in this case it inflicts a harm on another. Some will argue that they are glad to have existed, so they cannot help feeling the same for potential children. But bringing an unhappy person into existence, even if they do not regret their existence, is wrong even if it satisfies the parent's procreational interests -- the cost must be as low as possible. If more people regretted their existence, we would not consider this argument anyway, but because people are adapted to their lives, we engage in a mass self-delusion about how good life really is. We are prepared to tell some not to procreate because their child will be bad off -- but their burden is no less than anyone else's. Given that we cannot know when a child will be bad off, this demand for non-procreation is not too demanding. Is it merely preferable NOT to have babies, or is there a duty to not breed? It can be immoral to breed, but should it be illegal? We allow people to say immoral things, but do not allow them to murder, steal, etc. The harm by a government attempting to control pregnancy would entail great harms and intrusiveness, nor would it accomplish the goal. But what if we could painlessly sterilize everyone? Some will say that most people disagree that existing is a harm, therefore it is up for debate and left open to do. The Harm Principle -- states prohibit harm to the unconsenting, except when there is disagreement. People disagree on harm through abortion, yet it is legal. In a slave-owning society they might say abolitionist views are highly debated and thus exempt from the harm principle. How do we distinguish reasonable disagreement? This is what will decide the issue -- gvts will only ban reproduction after much consideration. We can respect a legal right to procreate, while rejecting it on moral grounds. Even in cases where the baby will have a terrible disease, we still respect the right. Would we impose on a currently existing person a genetic disability or disease? J.S. Mill advocated that the poor should not breed without limit for example. Some disabilities are bad, but not horrific, people with these usually prefer having come into existence, and people who would rather die than have these things happen to them would actually adjust to the disability. Some say disability is part of a social construct -- if most people could fly, those without wings would be disabled in certain ways. It's that society doesn't accommodate itself to these inabilities that makes people DISabled. Another response is that saying disabled people shouldn't be born is hurtful and creates more prejudice. The social construct argument points out human inabilities which most people never consider. People with disabilities find life harder because they must adapt to society as it is, and they cannot compare themselves with people who are worse off typically. We all have inabilities, even if disabilities are socially constructed. Also, those with disabilities believe their lives are better than they actually are, just as do people with NORMAL lives. As to this being hurtful to say, the author is saying that NO lives are worth starting, disabled or normal. Saying it's not worth starting a life exactly like one's own is NOT the same as saying that that life is not worth continuing. "Wrongful life suits" suing parents who brought them into existence -- others with disabilities who are happy with their lives will be considered in the determination. Disability rights activism pushes that the lives of the disabled are only somewhat worse than everyone elses' -- other factors like poverty could be a bigger factor. Some say procreation should only come in certain conditions, a loving marriage, and that all sex should be to make children. For Benatar, for sex to be morally acceptable it must NOT produce children. Furthermore, fertility assistance would be wrong as well. Some people have a second child, hoping it will be a suitable donor for their first child who may have leukemia, this might not be the case and in other cases they will only embryos are implanted which WILL be suitable donors. Cloned people are seen as means to an end too. But then ALL people are made, not for their benefit, they didn't exist in some void, waiting to be pulled into existence. "Children are brought into existence not in acts of great altruism, designed to bring the benefit of life to some pitiful non-being suspended in the metaphysical void..."** In reality, having a child to help a currently-existing person is more ethical than making a child for its own sake.

Profile Image for Mary Slowik.
Author 1 book19 followers
July 17, 2015
No less essential than The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, this book lays out a broad, powerful argument against any further procreation on the basis of harm done. Admittedly counterintuitive (like other facts of life), the central, pro-death, extinction-embracing thesis is actually the most philanthropic route. The sooner human suffering ends altogether, the better. That said, my personal bias on the subject didn't blind me to flaws in this book, such as the almost immediate descent into psychobabble in some chapters, and more than a few impenetrable sentences with double or triple negatives. But at its foundation the author's case is all frighteningly, coldly logical.

Even if you don't read this book, try not to breed. If you're pregnant, please do the moral thing and terminate. We support human pain when we produce more human beings.
Profile Image for Ronald Lett.
219 reviews49 followers
October 27, 2019
I guess I am not this book's target audience. I agree with the author's conclusion somewhat, so I was quite prepared to enjoy this book, but it contained nothing of interest. The entire first chapter was spent telling the reader what the author was going to do in the rest of the book. The rest of the chapters were filled with thought experiments to justify the author's opinions. This would have been okay if the experiments were interesting. They were not. At no point are any empirical cases referenced, even though the thought experiments contain suppositions that actually occur in the world. Too many "imagine that..."'s and "suppose..."'s which show quite a bit of abstracted privilege from the ordinary everyday world, which itself contains more than enough actual reasons for the author's conclusion, that I can't really read this type of abstract work anymore.
Profile Image for Andy McKenzie.
114 reviews22 followers
September 10, 2013
A bit egocentric in its presentation--all about "his views"--although maybe that is typical for philosophy. I want to stress that the 1.5/5 rating is not for the topic itself, which I think is fascinating and worth considering, in appropriate settings, but rather for the actual logic. The outright refusal to make harm/benefit trade-offs, even in theory, is just a non-starter for almost anybody who thinks about this issue. Also it got a bit technical and terminology-heavy at times, which at least from my perspective was not necessary.
10 reviews1 follower
April 21, 2007
Great quote:

"Some know that their baby will be among the unfortunate. Nobody knows, however, that their baby will be one of the allegedly lucky few. Great suffering could await any person that is brought into existence. Even the most privileged people could give birth to a child that will suffer unbearably, be raped, assaulted, or be murdered brutally."
7 reviews3 followers
December 30, 2008
Required reading for folks who believe that procreation is justified. You don't need to be convinced by Benatar's arguments, but you should have tested yourself against them before taking up the awesome potential for harm that comes with procreation.
Profile Image for Manahil.
260 reviews26 followers
July 10, 2022
David Benatar makes the case that giving birth to children is a moral wrong. His argument is surprisingly not explicitly deductive or inductive in nature, but explanatory. He proposes an axiological asymmetry where 4 axioms are equally divided amongst two distinct scenarios: X exists, and X does not exist. I have been pondering over this for a while now and I can't help but think that despite some contentions I have with what Benator suggests, the main and more important bulk of his argument can hardly be easily dismissed.

Given the following axiological asymmetry:

Scenario 1 (X Exists)
1. Presence of harm is bad
2. Presence of pleasure is good

Scenario 2 (X does not exist)
1. Absence of harm is good even if there is no one to experience that good
2. Absence of pleasure is NOT BAD unless there is someone from whom that pleasure is a deprivation.

The one initial aspect of this asymmetry that did not sit right with me is how can one say that the absence of pleasure in a person that doesn't exist is effectively neutral because that person cannot feel that pleasure and indeed does not care for it, while the absence of harm is considered good when there is again no person to experience that good. Good is meaningless in this case and there is no one there who can experience or not experience good. I have since seen many people talk about this, but after thinking about this more, it seems to me that Benatar is here making a comparative assessment between the two alternatives and considering that this is an explanatory argument he uses a subset of other asymmetries to explain how humans employ this Master Axiological Asymmetry. For example, one might look at a distant planet but we do not mourn for all the potential inhabitants that could have been happy had they been - "we regret suffering but not the absent pleasures of those who could have existed". This along with some other asymmetries are explained through this argument that the reason why having children is wrong is that the absence of pleasure is not bad comparatively because the person does not have deprivation that he/she is suffering from, whereas the absence of pain is good comparatively, because had it not been the case that would require us to not care about the suffering we impart on individuals that we have brought into existence. We are not viewing this problem from the perspective of X who does not exist, but it is a comparative assessment from the perspective of a person who exists: what is better having bad or not having bad? Whether X is there to experience that bad or not, we consider the absence of bad to be good. Considering pleasure, which is better: the presence of pleasure or the absence of pleasure? If we consider the example Benatar provides with S (Sick) who gets sick very easily and often but has the ability to recover very very quickly and H (Healthy) who never gets sick but who does not have the benefit of being able to recover quickly. In this particular case, Healthy is not really at a disadvantage as the absence of the benefit or pleasure of quick recovery as it is not deprivation to him. Similarly, the perspective of a person who is living, X who does not exist is not at a disadvantage compared to a person who exists and suffers.

Where I differ from Benatar is in his view of suicide. I think suicide is good and if a person desperately wants to commit it, it should not be prohibited. To prohibit suicide would lead, I think, a person to have a guilty conscious on account of the fact that you forced someone who earnestly hated their life to stay in a dump for you because clearly, they do not want to be here. Of course, there may be exceptions to this, as there are in all things but I have not thought of those deeply enough to comment on, though I am sure they exist.

I am not sure if this makes any sense, I am feeling like this is more my rambling thoughts than a coherent review.

1. “It is curious that while good people go to great lengths to spare their children from suffering, few of them seem to notice that the one (and only) guaranteed way to prevent all the suffering of their children is not to bring those children into existence in the first place.”

2. "Creating new people, by having babies, is so much a part of human life that it is rarely thought even to require a justification. Indeed, most people do not even think about whether they should or should not make a baby. They just make one. In other words, procreation is usually the consequence of sex rather than the result of a decision to bring people into existence. Those who do indeed decide to have a child might do so for any number of reasons, but among these reasons cannot be the interests of the potential child. One can never have a child for that child’s sake.”

3." A charmed life is so rare that for every one such life there are millions of wretched lives. Some know that their baby will be among the unfortunate. Nobody knows, however, that their baby will be one of the allegedly lucky few. Great suffering could await any person that is brought into existence. Even the most privileged people could give birth to a child that will suffer unbearably, be raped, assaulted, or be murdered brutally. The optimist surely bears the burden of justifying this procreational Russian roulette. Given that there are no real advantages over never existing for those who are brought into existence, it is hard to see how the significant risk of serious harm could be justified. If we count not only the unusually severe harms that anybody could endure, but also the quite routine ones of ordinary human life, then we find that matters are still worse for cheery procreators. It shows that they play Russian roulette with a fully loaded gun—aimed, of course, not at their own heads, but at those of their future offspring.”

4. "It is unlikely that many people will take to heart the conclusion that coming into existence is always a harm. It is even less likely that many people will stop having children. By contrast, it is quite likely that my views either will be ignored or will be dismissed. As this response will account for a great deal of suffering between now and the demise of humanity, it cannot plausibly be thought of as philanthropic. That is not to say that it is motivated by any malice towards humans, but it does result from a self-deceptive indifference to the harm of coming into existence.”

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March 1, 2021
It is curious that while good people go to great lengths to spare their children from suffering, few of them seem to notice that the one (and only) guaranteed way to prevent all the suffering of their children is not to bring those children into existence in the first place.

Bold, thorough, and unflinching in its popularly-bewildering arguments. While I agree with some of the arguments of this book - being a 'weak' anti-natalist - I can't find myself agreeing with the moral goodness of human extinction (never thought I'd ever type these words). But Benatar really forces everyone, whatever our existing opinions on the ethics of procreation, to take him seriously:

Although the good things in one’s life make it go better than it otherwise would have gone, one could not have been deprived by their absence if one had not existed. Those who never exist cannot be deprived. However, by coming into existence one does suffer quite serious harms that could not have befallen one had one not come into existence.

The argument for Benatar's anti-natalism must, therefore, rest on a utilitarian argument that pains are always greater than the pleasures of life, or on an argument that the “lottery” of giving birth has the possibility to create pains greater than pleasures, and to take part in such a lottery for someone else’s life is immoral.

Although sentience is a later evolutionary development and is a more complex state of being than insentience, it is far from clear that it is a better state of being. This is because sentient existence comes at a significant cost. In being able to experience, sentient beings are able to, and do, experience unpleasantness.

In Chapter 3, Benatar shows that each life contains more "bad" than most people think. He seems to argue that if there is objective “bad” (he probably means suffering) in our lives beyond what people “usually think”, that is grounds for adopting antinatalism. Yet if there is an ignorance of our suffering and people live merry lives in such ignorance (the concept of maya in many Indian-origin religions), is it really a problem? Perhaps we were never meant to realise this suffering, until sentience was gained through evolution. My point being: if the vast majority of our population has not achieved an advanced sentience to recognise all the suffering that life has, and only feel sad on select occasions, shouldn’t we let them continue in this manner? (this sounds very elitist, but I believe it is in line with Benatar's thought).

Nor is the harm produced by the creation of a child usually restricted to that child. The child soon finds itself motivated to procreate, producing children who, in turn, develop the same desire. Thus any pair of procreators can view themselves as occupying the tip of a generational iceberg of suffering.

Using “good” and “bad” experiences over “better” or “worse” allows Benatar to, for some reason, compare existence to non-existence (this is because good and bad can exist independently of better or worse, and thus can be compared to something which is not good or bad at all, ie. not qualitative). See how he uses this independent notion of "bad" to compare things which can't really be compared (existence with non-existence), this sentence really is the core of Benatar's book:

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.

I think Benatar’s choice of arguing that non-existence is ‘not bad’ is problematic. Personally, I don’t know how non-existence can be rated as good or bad in any situation, it doesn’t seem like something that exists on the range of good and bad at all. And because it’s ‘not bad’ for a person who never existed, it can’t be their own opinion that it is ‘not bad’. This idea of something being 'not bad', yet paradoxically also being comparable to 'good' or 'bad', is really what I think Benatar's thought is built on. I find this argument very doubtful.

His flaw seems to be in thinking that suffering cannot be (albeit, with much difficulty) overcome. Sure, a life without suffering is impossible. Yet to deny that individuals can overcome suffering and live a life that is - on the whole - preferable to non-existence, is to deny that individuals have the free will to reshape themselves. I understand the difference between continuing life and creating life that Benatar stresses, yet if we lived in a world where euthanasia was freely available for all, the difference between the two would be negligible and the arguments for continuing life would also hold for creating life.

Even the most privileged people could give birth to a child that will suffer unbearably, be raped, assaulted, or be murdered brutally. The optimist surely bears the burden of justifying this procreational Russian roulette...they play Russian roulette with a fully loaded gun—aimed, of course, not at their own heads, but at those of their future offspring.

On the whole, a very challenging and stimulating book.
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