January 1, 2008


The “wisdom” of Silenus (The New Criterion, January 2008)

[A]part from professional pessimists like Nietzsche’s mentor Arthur Schopenhauer, most people are rightly repelled by this so-called wisdom of Silenus. They understand that life is an inestimable gift, the denial of which is part folly, part obscenity. We said “most people.” There are exceptions. Suicide bombers, disturbed teenagers, and of course certain grandstanding academics. Take Professor David Benatar, head of the department of philosophy at the University of Cape Town. In 2006, Oxford University Press—that’s the venerable press whose motto is “Dominus illuminatio mea” (“The Lord is my light”)—published Professor Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. Some enlightenment! “The central idea of this book,” we read on the first page of its introduction, “is that coming into existence is always a serious harm.” The publisher’s blurb tell us more:

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. Drawing on the relevant psychological literature, the author shows that there are a number of well-documented features of human psychology that explain why people systematically overestimate the quality of their lives and why they are thus resistant to the suggestion that they were seriously harmed by being brought into existence. The author then argues for the “anti-natal” view—that it is always wrong to have children—and he shows that combining the anti-natal view with common pro-choice views about foetal moral status yields a “pro-death” view about abortion (at the earlier stages of gestation). Anti-natalism also implies that it would be better if humanity became extinct.

One of the comments on this book at Amazon.com complains that people have been rejecting the book without reading it or arguing against Professor Benatar’s position. Doubtless there is plenty to argue with, not to say ridicule, in Better Never to Have Been. One might start by meditating on what words like “harm” and “better” might mean in the world according to Benatar. It is sobering to contemplate what logical and existential armageddon had to have occurred in order for something like this book to have been written. Still, we believe people are right to take that high road and reject the book without engaging its argument. To quote Nietzsche again, you do not refute a disease: you might cure it, quarantine it, or in some cases ignore it altogether. You don’t argue with it. Reason is profitably employed only among the reasonable. Dr. Johnson had the right idea when he employed the pedal expedient against Bishop Berkeley’s doctrine of universal hallucination. Something similar should be employed in the case of Professor Benatar’s Lemmings First doctrine of human fatuousness.

Indeed, we bother to mention Professor Benatar’s offering at all not because of its intellectual or moral merits but because it seems to us a telling sign of the times. Professor Benatar is part of a larger “environmental” movement of like-minded nihilists like Toni Vernelli, an Englishwoman who at twenty-seven had herself sterilized in order to reduce her “carbon footprint” and help “protect the planet.” “Every person who is born,” Ms. Vernelli told a reporter, “uses more food, more water, more land, more fossil fuels, more trees and produces more rubbish, more pollution, more greenhouse gases, and adds to the problem of over-population.” Ms. Vernelli is 35 now, works for an “environmental charity,” and is happily married to Ed, her second husband: “A week before my sterilisation, I went to an animal rights demonstration and met Ed.” Life is good for Ed and Toni. “We feel we can have one long-haul flight a year,” she explained, “as we are vegan and childless, thereby greatly reducing our carbon footprint and combating over-population.” Still, there are frustrations. “A woman like me, who is not having children in order to save the planet, is considered barking mad,” Ms. Vernelli lamented. “What I consider mad are those women who ferry their children short distances in gas-guzzling cars.”

As the Brights go out all over the world....

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 1, 2008 10:44 AM


I not sure I get your drift. I take it you think Islamification of Europe is a good thing, and if so are you not worried about radical Islam over taking a major portion of western civilization?

Or do you think they automatically get membership into the anglosphere and become just like us.

Happy new year.

(I know you are tempted to say 'they are already like us' or something to that effect but...)

Posted by: Perry at January 1, 2008 11:45 AM

I've always wondered---who do these people think they are saving the earth for? Do they think that the optimal human population is zero? If so, why?

Posted by: ray at January 1, 2008 11:51 AM

The drift: better something than nothing ... especially if the something is monotheistic.

Posted by: ghostcat at January 1, 2008 2:03 PM

No, I don't take radical Islam seriously. Muslims aren't fleeing to Europe in order to make it like where they fled from.

Posted by: oj at January 1, 2008 5:25 PM

Your initial summary of David Benatar's core argument is fairer than the usual speen reserved for antinatalist arguments, but your claim that "Professor Benatar is part of a larger 'environmental' movement of like-minded nihilists," is an unfair misrepresentation of Benatar's actual position.

Benatar's antinatalism is very explicitly derived from philanthropic concerns that seek to avoid harm to sentient beings. In the concluding chapter of Better Never to Have Been, he clearly rejects the potentially misanthropic, environmentalist case against procreation with which you associate him.

Ethical antinatalism may countenanced by utilitarian premises (as proffered by Benatar), or through the careful application of widely accepted deontological or libertarian views regarding human rights (as allowed by Benatar) while rejecting appeals to vaguely conceived ideas of planetary welfare.

While I think it is wrongheaded - and lazy - to argue that "people are right to take that high road and reject the book without engaging its argument," it is simply inaccurate to lump Benatar's clearly articulated views in with those that he plainly rejects.

For those who may be interested the ethical case against procreation, I have been writing a multi-part series on antinatalism - with specific attention to Benatar's book - on my blog, "The Hoover Hog" at http://hooverhog.typepad.com/.

Posted by: Chip Smith at January 1, 2008 11:11 PM

Ethical antinatalism? Hatred of humankind (other than yourself, of course) can't be ethical. A truly dedicated person with your views is morally obligated to kill himself. That you don't is why no one takes you seriously.

Posted by: oj at January 1, 2008 11:16 PM

I like your comments here oj. I've always said that the only real nihilist is a dead nihilist - the rest are just posers.

Posted by: Shelton at January 2, 2008 3:36 AM

The anti-natalists should take a tip from Belushi:


Posted by: ted welter at January 2, 2008 9:35 AM

To me, Benatar seems to be the natural result of the modern anti-human/anti-God thinking. We just needed the technology to catch up with the philosophy.

+ + +

Posted by: Jorge Curioso at January 2, 2008 12:10 PM

Your commentary is a perfect example of knee jerk pontification. You've misrepresented Benatar's argument, and called for forming opinions without actually reading the material. What intellectual integrity...bravo!

Posted by: jim at January 28, 2008 11:28 AM

Who would read such twaddle?

Posted by: oj at January 28, 2008 8:57 PM