On Antinatalism

Woman overlooking mountain range

I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while now and have recently listened to a couple of podcasts involving David Benatar, one of the main proponents of antinatalism. He spells out his position in the book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, and has previously appeared on Sam Harris’ podcast Making Sense. Listening to the podcast, I found myself in almost complete agreement with David Benatar on the topic of antinatalism, who seemed to be echoing a lot of my own ideas. However, in the process of writing this blog post and thinking deeper about the subject, I noticed a flaw in my thinking and have consequently experienced quite a dramatic change in world view.

Antinatalism is the idea that it is morally wrong to bring new sentient life into the world, because of the inevitable suffering that it is bound to endure.

There are multiple angles from which one can reach such a conclusion, but perhaps the one which holds the most weight regards a fundamental asymmetry between pain and pleasure.

Benatar argues that, with respect to a non-existent being, that fact that it avoids pain is good, because pain is bad, but the fact that it also avoids pleasure is not bad, because there is no one to be deprived of such pleasure.

Critics rightfully point out that there is a fallacy in this argument. If not experiencing pleasure is not bad because there is no one to miss out on it, then it is also true to say that avoiding pain is not good because there is no one to benefit from being free of pain.

At first I had waved this rebuttal away by appealing to cosmic nihilism. A non-existent being would have no interest in pleasure since life and all experience is, ultimately, meaningless, from a cosmic point of view. Hence, it is pointless to bring sentient life into existence for the sake of pleasure alone. Pain, on the other hand, is better avoided because its experience is bad and as such a non-existent being would be better off not experiencing it.

After previously struggling to write some version of the previous paragraph, I came to realise that the argument is false.

The fallacy lies in the fact that potential pain is as meaningless to a non-existent being as potential pleasure. Only conscious experience gives it its effect, and so only at the moment life becomes sentient can its badness be really attributed to it. Before this moment, both pain and pleasure are neutral, and the goodness of pleasure can only be weighed against the badness of pain once the lights have come on.

The conclusion is that life is worth living insofar as the experience of it consists more of pleasure than of pain, and is thus deemed worth living by those who experience it. Bringing new life into the world thus represents a gamble that the pleasure it feels will outweigh its pain. Life is an opportunity to make it worth the trouble.

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