Benatar’s asymmetry.

Antinatalism was given a huge boost by David Benatar’s book Better Never to Have Been. For the first time someone cogently and logically laid down the arguments against procreation in a way that can’t fail to give anyone pause. The asymmetry he contends exists between pleasure and pain is the fundamental claim of his book, upon which everything else, to a large extent, rests. I find that people don’t always understand it when I explain it as an aside, so I decided I might as well write a whole entry about it.

The asymmetry is illustrated by Benatar in this manner:

And he reviews it as such:

It is uncontroversial to say that
1)The presence of pain is bad
and that
2)The presence of pleasure is good

However, such symmetrical evaluation does not seem to apply to the absence of pain and pleasure, for it strikes me as true that

3)The absence of pain is good even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone,
whereas
4)The absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom that absence is a deprivation.

This is a little obtuse, so let me rephrase it in a simpler manner:

(1) If a person exists, then eir pain is a bad thing.
(2) If a person exists, then eir pleasure is a good thing.
(3) What does not exist cannot suffer (therefore this non-existing pain is a good thing).
(4) What does not exist cannot be deprived of any pleasure (therefore this non-existing pleasure is not a bad thing).

The end result is that there is a clear asymmetry between pleasure and pain, because of (4).

What evidence do we have that these premises are valid? (1) and (2) are fairly self-evident; humans wish to experience pleasure and to evade pain. For us moral agents, pain is bad, pleasure is good (if you don’t like good and bad, then use desirable and undesirable).

(3) and (4) can also be easily understood if one does not fall into the “non-existing person” trap. Using the term, I think, confuses people because, even with the adjective “non-existing,” the mind is drawn to imagining a person. This is why I wrote “what does not exist” (Benatar’s formulation is more rigorous but harder to follow).

One thing we do know about what does not exist is that it cannot experience anything, because only that which exists can have experiences. So that which does not exist cannot feel pleasure or pain, neither can it be feel deprived at the pleasure it could be missing or suffer from the pain it cannot receive. No matter how many ice creams you list, there is no non-existing thing out there suffering from being deprived of them.

As for those of you who believe the argument is pointless because we cannot speak meaningfully about what does not exist, I’ve already debunked that position in my entry on the Non-Identity Problem.

Before I continue, I want to address an objection I’ve heard before about (1). It could be argued that pain is not always bad, that we sometimes seek out pain for a higher good (such as going to the dentist). But this is a misunderstanding of the situation. It is not the pain that we seek but the higher good; if that higher good could be obtained without the pain, we would choose that option instead. If your two options going into a long and painful operation is to bite a literal bullet or get anesthetized, which would you choose? Unless you are an inveterate masochist, the pain of the operation is not what you seek.

The consequence of the asymmetry is, I hope, obvious: a hypothetical person’s non-existence is more desirable (or better) than an actual person’s existence. When we bring a new person into the world, we create a situation which is worse than the one where this person was not brought into the world. It is bad to procreate.

Beyond the objection to (1) which I addressed above, usually people try to reject the asymmetry by rejecting (4). They argue that to not start new lives is a deprivation of pleasure. But for whom is this a deprivation? It cannot be a deprivation to the non-existent, since that which cannot exist cannot be deprived. Is it a deprivation to the parent, or to humanity?

We can imagine that the world might contain 12 billion people. That’s a whole 5 billion people that do not actually exist. And yet no one is mourning the loss of pleasure of these 5 billion imaginary people. A mother may regret that an expected child was stillborn, but the person whose death she regrets exists solely in her imagination. That which does not exist cannot be a person, or anything else.

At any rate, the fact that another person may feel deprived of the child’s non-existence does not affect the argument, which pertains to either a person’s existence or an alternative state of affairs in which this person does not exist. The fact that a parent might feel sorrow about an imaginary person is regrettable but there’s little we can do about imaginary sorrows.

Besides that, what if we reject (4)? This is where the real problems come in. If we reject (4), that means we posit that what does not exist can be deprived of pleasure. This means there is some space-fetus (or similar non-existing-and-yet-experiencing paradoxical creature) out there feeling the pain of not being able to taste ice cream, just waiting to be born in some woman’s uterus. And if this is the case, then we have an ethical duty to start as many new lives as possible. By that standard, only the Duggars are not avatars of pure evil.

Not only is this a claim that no one would be ever ready to make, but it is also paradoxical. To claim that women must be enslaved to their reproductive faculties nonstop is to use women as a means to an end, which is clearly evil (a similar sort of argument could be made against anti-abortion or pro-PIV advocates).

It can be said that antinatalism is unacceptable for many people. However, I think the consequence of rejecting (4) is just as unacceptable. The difference is that there’s no clear reason for rejecting the asymmetry, but there are clear logical and ethical reasons to reject any position which rejects (4).

What people who reject (4) really want you to believe is that having children is not bad, that it’s fulfilling some good. They don’t want you to draw the logical conclusion that rejecting (4) means that not having children is evil. They want to justify voluntaryism by making having children be equally ethical to not having children. But if (4) is false, and what does not exist is deprived and suffers from a lack of procreation, then not having children becomes the equivalent of deliberately starving children.

The natalists’ intuition is based, I think, on the false premise that starting new lives brings good with it because it creates pleasure. But this fact is only relevant if what does not exist is somehow deprived of pleasure; otherwise, creating pleasure does not make the universe a better place.

I think some people may still miss the point about absence of deprivation, so let me try to make an analogy to explain it more simply. Suppose Sober has no desire for alcohol whatsoever (because ey does not drink any alcohol, doesn’t use it for any other purpose, and has no need for the money ey’d get if ey sold it). In such a case, giving Sober a bottle of wine may appear to you to be a positive for Sober (since you gave em something), but to Sober this would not be an improvement, since Sober never feels any deprivation towards alcohol. All that’s been added is a net negative, since Sober now has to dispose of the bottle without offending you.

Obviously the analogy is not perfect (for instance, Sober actually exists in this hypothetical), but I hope my point is clear: an inability to be deprived entails the impossibility of improvement.

One may ask, why should we care about the asymmetry, anyway? People will have children or not have children regardless of ethical considerations. But people do consider ethical considerations when having children (just very stupid and stunted ones), while they disagree on what values should be instantiated.

What I am saying is that we should convince others that not creating suffering is a good value to instantiate, a better value than the very flimsy ones proposed as a support for reproduction. It’s stupid to want to propagate “your” genes (which are not “yours” to begin with), it’s stupid to want to continue the “bloodline” (another fantasy concept), it’s stupid to be irrationally scared of abortion (as much as it’s stupid to be irrationally scared of an appendectomy), and it’s not stupid to not want to create suffering.

My contention is that rejecting the asymmetry is far more absurd than accepting it. Two premises must be true for us to get to antinatalism:

1. Accepting that the asymmetry is true.
2. Accepting the principle that creating harm is bad.

Again, rejecting the asymmetry leads us to the conclusion that we must have as many children as possible, a conclusion which few would accept. Rejecting the principle that creating harm is bad leads us either to moral nihilism or to anomie, again conclusions which few would accept. I think it should be intuitively obvious to most people that antinatalism is less illogical or absurd than either conclusion. Certainly few people like the idea of human extinction, but it is still more desirable than procreation at all costs or a society in a state of total anomie.

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23 thoughts on “Benatar’s asymmetry.

  1. anyasok February 12 2013 at 23:58 Reply

    Excellent post Francois. Benatar’s position and the superiority of the antinatalist position were very well explained in a language that is easily accessible to everyone.

    I will reference this post in the future :)

  2. […] have previously written an entry about Benatar’s Asymmetry, an antinatalist argument which seeks to prove that procreation is […]

  3. Michael July 11 2013 at 1:21 Reply

    Hi! I have been reading up on Benatars book lately. The asymmetry seems true. Your entry was very helpfull. However, I’d like to clarify Benatar want ro resist the question about assigning values to the quadrants (+, -, 0) because it is the wrong question to ask. The value assigments in the figure confused me a bit. The text is very clear. However, people tend to focus on the figure.

    The whole point is that (2) is good for a person in scenario A but does not constitute an advantage over X never exists in scenario B. By assigning positive charge to (2) and a ’0′ to (4), it is suggested that (2) is an advantage over (4), but it quite clearly is not. “Now it might be asked what the correct value assigments are, but I want to resist that question because it is wrong one to ask” says Benatar (p 48).

    So I don’t think you are not entirely correct when you say “the asymmetry is illustrated by Benatar in this manner” figure 2.4 (p 46). The figure 2.1. (p 38) shows the true asymetry without value assignments.

    • Francois Tremblay July 11 2013 at 1:36 Reply

      Yea, I agree with you, but I think that’s just an error by Benatar. On page 46 he analyzes this graph as if it was in line with his argument.

  4. pavel July 22 2013 at 5:25 Reply

    Each individual has a certain balance. How this balance will *ultimately* turn out to be is what really matters. It’s the result of: X (amount of pleasure) – Y (amount of pain), over one’s *entire* existence. But since we can’t know or control this result, the anti-natalist argument should be based solely in preventing even a single potential negative result. A potential [infinite positive results + one negative result] is worse than no results at all.
    That’s why Benatar’s asymmetry is flawed. Pain and pleasure shouldn’t be treated separately…

    • Francois Tremblay July 22 2013 at 13:16 Reply

      The problem with your objection is that pleasure and pain do not actually cancel each other out. We experience each in a separate, distinct manner, and there are harms so great that pleasure does not alleviate them (and vice-versa).

  5. pavel July 22 2013 at 14:31 Reply

    I don’t quite understand your objection to mine. Are you saying that’s impossible/wrong to do arithmetics with pain and pleasure? If so, why? If not, then this the way to show the asymmetry. All is needed is to replace in Benatar’s asymmetry pain with “ultimate negative result” and pleasure with “ultimate positive result”. Without this refinement the asymmetry doesn’t make sense… Hypothetically all humans can experience pain, but in the end the pleasure to prevail (what if all go to heaven after death? this is just as a thought experiment).

    • Francois Tremblay July 23 2013 at 0:11 Reply

      “Are you saying that’s impossible/wrong to do arithmetics with pain and pleasure?”

      Yes.

      “If so, why?”

      Because pleasure and pain are not things that cancel each other out. We experience them as separate experiences. And as previously mentioned, there are harms so great that pleasure does not alleviate them (and vice-versa).

      Even if it did, it wouldn’t refute the Asymmetry because it doesn’t change the Asymmetry in any way. The state with non-existence of person P is still better when you compare it to the state with existence of person P. Why do you think your canceling out changes anything?

  6. pavel July 23 2013 at 4:03 Reply

    If you’re saying that “there are harms so great that pleasure does not alleviate them (and vice-versa)” why isn’t that the same as my arithmetic? We don’t seek the pain we receive after an accident. But depending on the gravity of the accident that pain can be cancelled by the healing. Or enduring for some years diseases, emotional distress etc. can be outweigh by an hypothetical eternal life in paradise… why aren’t those valid arithmetics with pain and pleasure? But since nobody knows (or can control) what the ultimate outcome for each individual will be, basing the antinatalist argument solely on pain vs pleasure is pointless. The antinatalist argument should be about preventing potential negative outcome, should consider the sum of pains and pleasures during one’s *entire* existence.

    • Francois Tremblay July 23 2013 at 4:09 Reply

      Again, how does that change anything in the Asymmetry? Stop blabbering and answer the question.

  7. pavel July 23 2013 at 4:24 Reply

    The way the asymmetry stands now is pointless. The asymmetry is still there but needs redefining as I pointed out.

    • Francois Tremblay July 23 2013 at 13:25 Reply

      For a reason you are apparently utterly unable to defend or even explain.

  8. pavel July 23 2013 at 14:27 Reply

    If I were a natalist I would reject separation of pain and pleasure. You would have to argue for the validity of such separation. Because what matters is how one feels (ultimately) after experiencing both. It’s (1)+(2) vs (3)+(4) ? vs ?. Pointless.

    • Francois Tremblay July 23 2013 at 14:41 Reply

      Are you just gonna keep whining or are you actually going to argue the Asymmetry?

  9. pavel July 23 2013 at 14:52 Reply

    No whining. Invalid separation of pain and pleasure, thus invalid asymmetry. Bye.

    • Francois Tremblay July 23 2013 at 17:47 Reply

      You haven’t explained how this invalidates the Asymmetry, no. The comparison between the two states is still the same. You’re fucking wasting my time.

  10. pavel July 25 2013 at 14:21 Reply

    If you’re interested I made a thread “Benatar’s Asymmetry revised” on philosophyforums(dot)com …

    • Francois Tremblay July 25 2013 at 14:36 Reply

      Since you are a fucking time-waster, I don’t expect anything you say about the Asymmetry anywhere else to be worth any time to examine. Leave me alone.

  11. Julius October 20 2013 at 11:06 Reply

    The assymetry makes no sense.

    • Francois Tremblay October 20 2013 at 11:46 Reply

      What premise do you reject and why?

    • Michael October 28 2013 at 8:16 Reply

      @Julius
      The basic insight is quite simple (but hard to accept):
      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 not one come into existence.

  12. […] “life is a good thing” has a clear, intuitive and powerful defeater: Benatar’s Asymmetry. The Asymmetry is completely reducible to a basic moral intuition and a basic logical […]

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