I have previously written an entry about Benatar’s Asymmetry, an antinatalist argument which seeks to prove that procreation is wrong based on an asymmetry between existence and non-existence. The argument is popular, so it attracts attention from detractors as well.
There is a certain level of confusion and difficulty created by Benatar’s formulation, which is why I reformulated it in a more accessible way. Nevertheless, people still get stuck on the original wording, which is:
It is uncontroversial to say that
1)The presence of pain is bad
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,
4)The absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom that absence is a deprivation.
The objection is that in 3, something is declared good independently of being enjoyed by anyone, while in 4, something is declared not bad on the basis that no one is being harmed by it. How can ethics be determined both independently of any person, and also depend upon a person?
First, let me clear out one related confusion. Benatar states clearly that the Asymmetry does not compare (existing and non-existing) persons, but rather states of affair:
Comparing somebody’s existence with his non-existence is not to compare two possible conditions of the person. Rather it is to compare his existence with an alternative state of affairs in which he does not exist.
Better Never to Have Been, p22
This is the more basic premise here. When Benatar writes that “[t]he absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom that absence is a deprivation,” he is stating this in the context of a state of affairs; it is the result of the premise that in a state of affairs where person X does not exist, no one is being deprived of the pleasure that person X would otherwise have experienced.
My simplified argument highlights the justification for Benatar’s statements:
(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).
Or to be more specific:
(3) In a state of affairs where person X does not exist, no one is experiencing the suffering that person X would otherwise have experienced.
(4) In a state of affairs where person X does not exist, no one is being deprived of the pleasure that person X would otherwise have experienced.
However you formulate it, (3) is always better than (1), and (4) is always no worse than (2).
Julio Cabrera wrote a paper called “Quality of Human Life and Non-existence (Some criticisms of David Benatar’s formal and material positions)” (PDF here). His main objection is that by transposing the counter-factual formulation of (3) to (4), we can get the following proposition, which contradicts the Asymmetry:
Of the pleasure of an existing person, (4) says that the absence of this pleasure would have been bad even if this could only have been achieved by the absence of the person who now enjoys it.
But with my rephrasing, you can now see that Cabrera is wrong in his transposition. The absence of this pleasure cannot be bad, because no one is being deprived of it. Cabreba continues:
Claim (4) says that this absence is bad when judged in terms of the interests of the person who would otherwise have existed. We may not know who that person would have been, but we can still say that whoever that person would have been, the avoidance of his or her pleasures is bad when judged in terms of his or her potential interests”.
In the absolute, Cabrera is right, the absence of pleasure is worse than the presence of pleasure given a potential person’s interests. But we are comparing two states of affairs, not examining a state in the absolute: in the comparison, (4) cannot be worse than (2) because pleasure in fulfillment of a need is not any better than the absence of need in the first place.
To explain this, Benatar uses the concept of anti-frustrationism. Suppose we give Kate a pill that gives her the desire to see the tree closest to the Sydney Opera House be painted red. This desire is frustrated because that tree is not actually painted red. Now suppose we go to the Sydney Opera House, paint the tree closest to it in red, and show Kate the result. Now we are back to where we were before: the manufactured desire, fulfilled, now gone. The upshot of this is that an absence of need is no worse than a fulfilled need, and better than a frustrated need.
Now, what do I mean when I say that the state of affairs where person X does not exist is “better” than the state of affairs where person X does exist? What does “better” apply to in this case? Benatar bases the Asymmetry on two uncontroversial premises, that pleasure is good and that pain is bad. But we don’t even need to accept these two premises to sustain the Asymmetry: all we really need is to posit that pleasure is better than pain.
But when we say “pleasure is better than pain,” we are not claiming that it is better relative to anyone or anything. We’re simply stating that it is an objective fact that the experience of pleasure is objectively better than the experience of pain. You may reply that no evidence has been presented for that statement, and that it must be better for someone. Well, anyone who disagrees with the statement is free to disbelieve the Asymmetry, but humans are programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain.
Besides that, there is a bigger point that is being missed. When we talk about ethics, what is good or wrong, we are not talking about what benefits a person, prudential reasons for doing something. Prudential reasons are part of our motives for action, but they cannot be an ethical judgment, because they are themselves predicated on ethical judgment.
I have a future entry explaining this in detail, so I won’t go into it extensively, but the gist of it is that a proposition such as this:
(B1) It is good for me to steal this car.
Necessarily implies the following proposition:
(B2) It is good for me to steal this car because it will give me some benefit, such as making me richer (for example).
But this is a factual claim, not an ethical claim, therefore B1 is also a factual claim, not an ethical claim. It may provide evidence for doing something (such as stealing a car), but it is not an ethical judgment.
The objection I’ve seen from many detractors that pleasure cannot be “better” than pain because it is not good “for anyone” (because of the non-identity problem, which is wrong in itself) is a confusion between ethics and prudential reasons. The good, by definition, cannot be good relative to a person. One person saying “abortion is good” and another saying “abortion is bad,” if both individuals are merely expressing a relative position which is only true insofar as they are concerned, has the same weight as one saying “chocolate ice cream is good” and another saying “chocolate ice cream is bad.” It must either collapse into nihilism or be relabeled as mere preference. Likewise, stating that “pleasure is good for person X” cannot sustain a logical argument because it is not in itself relevant to anyone else but person X. It is not a viable ethical position.