I. Introduction

Anti-natalism is the view that it is morally wrong to procreate. In this post, I will attempt to refute philosopher David Benatar’s asymmetry argument for anti-natalism.

II. Benatar’s Asymmetry

In his book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, Benatar argues that there is an asymmetry between pleasure and pain. He expresses his asymmetry as follows (p. 30):

  1. The presence of pain is bad.
  2. The presence of pleasure is good.
  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.

Since (3) and (4) include conditions, they assign axiological values to two different propositions. (3) expresses (3.1) and (3.2) in the chart below, and (4) expresses (4.1) and (4.2) in the chart below.

1A person experiences pain.Bad  
2A person experiences pleasure.Good  
3.1A person experiences the absence of pain.  Good
3.2A hypothetical nonexistent person does not experience pain.Good
4.1A person experiences the absence of pleasure.Bad  
4.2A hypothetical nonexistent person does not experience pleasure.Neither good nor bad

Benatar’s asymmetry can be thought of as the proposition “All six of the propositions in the middle column have the correct value assigned to them.” Benatar’s asymmetry is true if and only if this proposition is true.

Benatar’s asymmetry is an expression of certain conclusions rather than an argument for those conclusions. I will evaluate Benatar’s arguments for these conclusions, but first, I must establish what Benatar means when he uses the words “good” and “bad.”

III. Defining Goodness and Badness

It is important to note that things are not affected by how we define them. The thing that we refer to with the word “tiger” is not affected by how we define the word “tiger.” If the things that are referred to by the words “good” and “bad” exist, they are not affected by how we define the words “good” and “bad.” Regardless, it is important for us to define these words.

Benatar does not try to define “good” and “bad.” He seems to assume that readers know what is meant by these terms. I don’t think he think he can make this assumption.

There are at least two different senses in which the words “good” and “bad” are used. Firstly, people may say that something is good if it is effective at accomplishing a certain goal, or if it has accomplished a certain goal. Similarly, people may say that something is bad if it is not effective at accomplishing a certain goal, or if it has failed at accomplishing a certain goal. If a car is constantly breaking down, then we may say that the car is bad. Similarly, if an athlete is effective at helping his team win games, or has won a lot of games, then we may say that he is good at the sport he plays. If the athlete helps his team win a game, then we may say that he did a good job or played a good game.

This is not the sense in which we are using the words “good” and “bad” when we discuss ethics. In ethics, we use the words “good” and “bad” in an axiological sense. Axiology is the study of value. I don’t think value can be defined without using a synonym of either “good” or “bad.” An action or state of affairs is good or bad in an axiological sense if it has an axiological value that does not depend on its ability to accomplish a certain goal. We say that murder is bad even though it is effective at accomplishing the murderer’s goal or has accomplished the murderer’s goal. Similarly, we say that everyone being happy is good even though no goal is accomplished through everyone being happy (besides possibly the goal of everyone being happy).

Now I can try to define “good” and “bad” in an axiological sense. I don’t think it is possible to define “good” or “bad” in a non-circular way. It seems that if a word relating to consciousness, space, or time is defined using words, then the definition will be circular. However, I think words relating to consciousness, space, or time can be defined in a non-circular way by defining them without using words. We experience our own consciousness, we experience ourselves and other things moving through space, and we experience the flow of time. We can define words related to these things without using other words by invoking these shared experiences through an ostensive definition. We could try to do the same with the words “good” and “bad.” However, it is unclear to me how we experience goodness or badness. We experience thinking that something is good or bad. You probably think that someone saving another person’s life is good and that someone committing murder is bad. But what are you experiencing when you think these things? Are you just experiencing your own desires?

Most people would say that losing your wallet is bad. If badness refers to a person’s desires, then what we mean when we say that losing your wallet is bad is that from the perspective of the person who owns the wallet, losing the wallet is undesirable. We can think of scenarios where from someone else’s perspective, a person losing his wallet is desirable. If you find a wallet with $200 in it, you might keep the money for yourself, and be glad that the person lost his wallet. Does this mean that from the other person’s perspective, him losing his wallet was bad, while from your perspective, him losing his wallet was good? This would entail that the goodness of a situation depends on your perspective.

One can see how speaking of “good” and “bad” in reference to your desires is, well, undesirable. Can we speak of an axiological standard that is not determined by your desires? I don’t think such a standard exists in a metaphysical sense, but we can still assign desire-independent axiological values to different actions or states of affairs.

If the words “good” and “bad” refer to a possibly nonexistent desire-independent axiological standard, then I think the best way to understand them is through the notion of possible worlds. A possible world is a way that the world could have been. The actual world is the possible world that actually exists. A possible world can be described by a set of propositions. A possible world is the actual world if and only if all of the propositions that describe it are true.

Imagine a number line that extends from negative infinity to positive infinity. We can assign an axiological value to a possible world by placing it somewhere on the number line. A possible world is worse than all possible worlds that have a higher value, and better than all possible worlds that have a lower value. If a possible world has a negative value, then it is bad. If a possible world has a positive value, then it is good. If a possible has a value of 0, then it is neither good nor bad. 

Suppose we are comparing two worlds on the number line. Even if both worlds have negative values, we can still say that the world with a higher value is better than the other. Similarly, even if two worlds both have positive values, we can still say that the world with a lower value is worse than the other. Saying that one world is better than another does not entail that the better world is good, and saying that one world is worse than another does not entail that the worse world is bad.

Just as we can assign an axiological value to a possible world, we can also assign an axiological value to an aspect of a possible world. In other words, just as we can assign an axiological value to a set of propositions, we can also assign an axiological value to an individual proposition. We can assign an axiological value to the proposition “A man loses his wallet, and someone else finds it and keeps the money.” We can speak as if the axiological value of this proposition is the same for everyone. 

Throughout the rest of this post, I am going to use the words “good” and “bad” under the assumption that they refer to a possibly nonexistent desire-independent axiological standard. This seems to be the sense in which Benatar uses these words.

IV. The Supposed Explanatory Power of Benatar’s Asymmetry

Benatar claims that his asymmetry explains “at least four other asymmetries that are quite plausible” (p. 31). Benatar writes:

“First, the asymmetry between (3) and (4) is the best explanation for the view that while there is a duty to avoid bringing suffering people into existence, there is no duty to bring happy people into being. In other words, the reason why we think that there is a duty not to bring suffering people into existence is that the presence of this suffering would be bad (for the sufferers) and the absence of the suffering is good (even though there is nobody to enjoy the absence of suffering). In contrast to this, we think that there is no duty to bring happy people into existence because while their pleasure would be good for them, its absence would not be bad for them (given that there would be nobody who would be deprived of it).” (p. 32)

I think it is worth reading Benatar’s discussion of objections to this argument in its entirety:

“It might be objected that there is an alternative explanation for the view about our procreational duties—one that does not appeal to my claim about the asymmetry between (3) and (4). It might be suggested that the reason why we have a duty to avoid bringing suffering people into being, but not a duty to bring happy people into existence, is that we have negative duties to avoid harm but no corresponding positive duties to bring about happiness. Judgements about our procreational duties are thus like judgements about all other duties. Now I agree that for those who deny that we have any positive duties, this would indeed be an alternative explanation to the one I have provided. However, even of those who do think that we have positive duties only a few also think that amongst these is a duty to bring happy people into existence.

“It might now be suggested that there is also an alternative explanation why those who do accept positive duties do not usually think that these include a duty to bring happy people into existence. It is usually thought that our positive duties cannot include a duty to create lots of pleasure if that would require significant sacrifice on our part. Given that having children involves considerable sacrifice (at least to the pregnant woman), this, and not asymmetry, is the best explanation for why there is no duty to bring happy people into existence.

“The problem, though, with this alternative explanation is that it implies that in the absence of this sacrifice we would have a duty to bring happy people into existence. In other words, it would be wrong not to create such people if we could create them without great cost to ourselves. But this presupposes that the duty under discussion is an all-things-considered duty. However, the interests of potential people cannot ground even a defeasible duty to bring them into existence. Put another way, the asymmetry of procreative (all-things-considered) duties rests on another asymmetry—an asymmetry of procreative moral reasons. According to this asymmetry, although we have a strong moral reason, grounded in the interests of potential people, to avoid creating unhappy people, we have no strong moral reason (grounded in the interests of potential people) to create happy people. It follows that although the extent of the sacrifice may be relevant to other positive duties, this is moot in the case of a purported duty to bring happy people into existence.” (p. 32-34).

At the beginning of the third paragraph, Benatar writes, “The problem, though, with this alternative explanation is that it implies that in the absence of this sacrifice we would have a duty to bring happy people into existence. In other words, it would be wrong not to create such people if we could create them without great cost to ourselves.” I don’t see what is wrong with this implication. Benatar claims there is also an asymmetry of procreative moral reasons, but I don’t see the justification for thinking this asymmetry exists. It is true that many people do not think they have a duty to create happy people. However, at the risk of sounding elitist, I don’t see why we should trust the moral intuitions of the average person. When deciding whether or not to procreate, the average person does not think about if his child will be happy; he thinks about if having children will make himself happy. If one rejects ethical egoism, then one must accept that the intuitions of the average person cannot be trusted. Someone who claims that humans are tragically optimistic should know that human intuitions cannot necessarily be trusted. If Benatar is claiming that we should trust people’s intuition that they have no duty to create happy people, then he needs to provide support for that claim.

Right before the three paragraphs I wrote above, Benatar wrote the following:

“Sceptics, when they see where this leads, may begin to question the plausibility of these other asymmetries and may want to know what support (beyond the asymmetry above) can be provided for them. Were I to provide such support, the sceptics would then ask for a defence of these further supporting considerations. Every argument must have some justificatory end. I cannot hope to convince those who take the rejection of my conclusion as axiomatic. All I can show is that those who accept some quite plausible views are led to my conclusion.” (p. 31-32)

I agree that every argument must have some justificatory end. A justificatory end will be an intuition. Benatar’s justificatory end is an intuition that I think we have no reason to trust. I would appreciate if Benatar wrote about how he determines which intuitions can be trusted. In Chapter 7 of his book, he has a section titled “Countering the Counter-Intuitiveness Objection.” However, this section is his attempt to refute the claim that his conclusion can be dismissed because it is counter-intuitive. He does not make an argument that we should accept the axioms that got him to his conclusion even if we find them counter-intuitive. Benatar claims that many people have a psychological tendency towards Pollyannaism, or optimism. Perhaps I am optimistic, but I don’t think my possible optimism is the only reason I have the intuition that a person is benefited by being brought into a life with a lot of happiness and very little suffering.

Somewhat tangentially, it seems to me that Benatar’s reasoning is based on trusting people’s intuitions when they favor his conclusion, and discounting people’s intuitions when they do not. I’m sure we are all guilty of this to some extent, but using this to defend Benatar would be to commit the tu quoque fallacy. I am not claiming that I have a perfect method for deciding between competing intuitions, but it seems that Benatar does not either, so his conclusions cannot be believed with the certainty he seems to believe them with.

It should also be noted that even if non-anti-natalists cannot state the exact necessary and sufficient conditions for procreation to be permissible, this does not entail procreation is never permissible. Anti-natalists have a very simple answer to the question “When is procreation permissible?” Non-anti-natalists do not have a simple answer to this question unless they answer “Always,” and I think few would. Answering this question with something other than “Never,” “Always,” or “I don’t know the exact necessary and sufficient conditions, but I have an idea” may require a lifetime of philosophical study. The fact that anti-natalists have a simpler answer does not make their claim any more likely to be true.

I have also included Benatar’s discussions of the second, third, and fourth arguments in their entirety. Here is his discussion of the second argument:

“There is a second support for my claim about the asymmetry between (3) and (4). Whereas it is strange (if not incoherent) to give as a reason for having a child that the child one has will thereby be benefited, it is not strange to cite a potential child’s interests as a basis for avoiding bringing a child into existence. If having children were done for the purpose of thereby benefiting those children, then there would be greater moral reason for at least many people to have more children. In contrast to this, our concern for the welfare of potential children who would suffer is a sound basis for deciding not to have the child. If absent pleasures were bad irrespective of whether they were bad for anybody, then having children for their own sakes would not be odd. And if it were not the case that absent pains are good even where they are not good for anybody, then we could not say that it would be good to avoid bringing suffering children into existence.” (p. 34)

I do not see why it is strange to “give as a reason for having a child that the child one has will thereby be benefited.” Elsewhere in the book, Benatar claims that one cannot be benefitted by being brought into existence. It seems self-evident to me that if a person who will live a life not worth living is harmed by being brought into existence, then a person who will live a life worth living is benefitted by being brought into existence. As Benatar said, every argument must have some justificatory end. I think my intuition that the person who will live a life worth living is benefitted is strong enough to think she is benefitted.

“Thirdly, support for the asymmetry between (3) and (4) can be drawn from a related asymmetry, this time in our retrospective judgements. Bringing people into existence as well as failing to bring people into existence can be regretted. However, only bringing people into existence can be regretted for the sake of the person whose existence was contingent on our decision. This is not because those who are not brought into existence are indeterminate. Instead it is because they never exist. We can regret, for the sake of an indeterminate but existent person that a benefit was not bestowed on him or her, but we cannot regret, for the sake of somebody who never exists and thus cannot thereby be deprived, a good that this never existent person never experiences. One might grieve about not having had children, but not because the children that one could have had have been deprived of existence. Remorse about not having children is remorse for ourselves—sorrow about having missed childbearing and childrearing experiences. However, we do regret having brought into existence a child with an unhappy life, and we regret it for the child’s sake, even if also for our own sakes. The reason why we do not lament our failure to bring somebody into existence is because absent pleasures are not bad.” (p. 34-35)

It is unclear to me why we should think that whether or not the average person regrets something can justify certain axiological conclusions. As I said before, when deciding whether or not to procreate, the average person does not think about if her child will be happy; she thinks about if having children will make herself happy. We are not concerned with how the average person feels, but with how the average person should feel. It seems natural to say that absent pains and pleasures are both neither good nor bad, regardless of it anyone experiences these absences. This is what I think the matrix should look like:

1A person experiences pain.Bad (negative axiological value)
2A person experiences pleasure.Good (positive axiological value)
3.1A person experiences the absence of pain.  Neither good nor bad (axiological value of 0)
3.2A hypothetical nonexistent person does not experience pain. Neither good nor bad (axiological value of 0)
4.1A person experiences the absence of pleasure.Neither good nor bad (axiological value of 0)
4.2A hypothetical nonexistent person does not experience pleasure. Neither good nor bad (axiological value of 0)

I can still say that if procreating will increase the axiological value of the world, then we have a duty to procreate.

“Finally, support for the asymmetry between (3) and (4) can be found in the asymmetrical judgements about (a) (distant) suffering and (b) uninhabited portions of the earth or the universe. Whereas, at least when we think of them, we rightly are sad for inhabitants of a foreign land whose lives are characterized by suffering, when we hear that some island is unpopulated, we are not similarly sad for the happy people who, had they existed, would have populated this island. Similarly, nobody really mourns for those who do not exist on Mars, feeling sorry for potential such beings that they cannot enjoy life. Yet, if we knew that there were sentient life on Mars but that Martians were suffering, we would regret this for them. The claim here need not (but could) be the strong one that we would regret their very existence. The fact that we would regret the suffering within their life is sufficient to support the asymmetry I am defending. The point is that we regret suffering but not the absent pleasures of those who could have existed.

“Now it might be objected that just as we do not regret the absent pleasures of those who could have existed, we do not take joy in the absent pain of those who could have existed. For if we did, the objection goes, we should be overjoyed by the amount of pain that is avoided, given how few of all the possible people ever become actual, and thus how much pain is avoided. But joy is not the appropriate contrast to regret. Although we regret the suffering of distant others, at least when we think about them, we are not usually overcome with melancholy about it. Thus the important question is not whether we feel joy—the opposite of melancholy—about absent pains but whether the absent pain is the opposite of regrettable—what we might call ‘welcome’ or simply ‘good’. The answer, I have suggested, is affirmative. If we are asked whether the absent suffering is a good feature of never existing, we would have to say that it is.” (p. 35-36)

My objection to Benatar’s third argument applies to this one as well. I think absent pains and pleasures are both neither good nor bad.

V. How Benatar’s Asymmetry is Justified by the Schopenhauerian View

Benatar writes the following:

“When I say that coming into existence is always a harm, I do not mean that it is necessarily a harm. As will become apparent, my argument does not apply to those hypothetical cases in which a life contains only good and no bad. About such an existence I say that it is neither a harm nor a benefit and we should be indifferent between such an existence and never existing. But no lives are like this. All lives contain some bad. Coming into existence with such a life is always a harm.” (p. 29)

In addition to defending his asymmetry, Benatar must also defend his claim that “we should be indifferent between such an existence and never existing.” When Benatar says this, it seems he is claiming that a possible world where a person lives a life with only good and no bad has the same axiological value as a nearly identical possible world where the only difference is that the person does not exist. Supposing this person does not increase the amount of badness in the world, this person’s existence would increase the amount of goodness and would either decrease or have no effect on the amount of badness in the world. Either way, this person’s existence will increase the amount of goodness in the world. However, one may claim that a person not experiencing pain by not existing is just as good as the person not experiencing pain while existing. This view is similar to the Schopenhauerian view, which is derived from Schopenhauer’s essay On the Sufferings of the World. Benatar describes the Schopenhauerian view as follows:

“Arthur Schopenhauer would also have rejected Professor Maslow’s claim that happiness is real. On the Schopenhauerian view, suffering is all that exists independently. Happiness, for him, is but a temporary absence of suffering. Satisfaction is the ephemeral fulfilment of desire. In hedonistic terms, there are no intrinsic pleasures. All pleasures are simply passing relief from negative mental states” (p. 77).

Benatar is interpreting Schopenhauer as saying that the only thing that is good is a person not suffering, either because he is experiencing an absence of suffering or because he does not exist. Benatar is also interpreting Schopenhauer as saying that someone not experiencing the absence of suffering is not bad. I agree with Benatar’s interpretation. If Benatar is interpreting Schopenhauer correctly, and one grants that happiness and pleasure are equivalent and that suffering and pain are equivalent (which I think is acceptable for our purposes), then Schopenhauer is essentially stating the controversial parts of Benatar’s asymmetry. Recall that Benatar’s asymmetry is the following:

  1. The presence of pain is bad.
  2. The presence of pleasure is good.
  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.

Benatar’s asymmetry can be expressed as follows:

1A person experiences pain.Bad  
2A person experiences pleasure.Good  
3.1A person experiences the absence of pain.  Good
3.2A hypothetical nonexistent person does not experience pain.Good
4.1A person experiences the absence of pleasure.Bad  
4.2A hypothetical nonexistent person does not experience pleasure.Neither good nor bad

The Schopenhauerian view entails Benatar’s asymmetry. It may be easier to see this entailment of Benatar’s asymmetry is put in a different but logically equivalent form:

1A person experiences pain.Bad  
2A person experiences pleasure.Good  
3.1A person experiences the absence of pain.  Good
4.1A person experiences the absence of pleasure.Bad  
3.2 and 4.2 combinedA nonexistent person does not experience pleasure or pain.Good

The Schopehauerian view can be combined with a well-being-based version of utilitarianism to produce a moral theory that can be summarized by the following two propositions:

  1. A conjunction of present and future moments A (possible world A) is better than a conjunction of present and future moments B (possible world B) if and only if the total amount of suffering in A is less than the total amount of suffering in B.
  2. If a possible world A is better than the world we live, then it is always good for world A to become the actual world.

I will call this moral theory extreme negative utilitarianism. When one first makes sense of ENU, it may seem reasonable. However, it has repulsive implications, which can be demonstrated by the following thought experiment:

Suppose you could press a button that would cause our universe to be replaced by a universe in which the only people who exist are rapists and young girls. The rapists constantly rape the girls. Suppose the rapists and girls do not age, and they will live extremely long lives. Their lives will be equal in length to the remaining amount of time that conscious life will exist in our universe. The hypothetical universe contains the highest possible number of girls for the total amount of suffering in the present and future of this universe to be less than the total amount of suffering in the present and future of our universe (which includes all types of suffering in our universe, not just suffering that results from rape). Suppose the total amount of suffering experienced by 100 girls from being raped for this amount of time is less than the total amount of suffering in the present and future of our universe, but the total amount of suffering experienced by 101 girls from being raped for this amount of time is more than the amount of suffering in the present and future of our universe. If this is the case, then there will be 100 girls in this universe. If the tipping point is between 1000 and 1001 girls, then there will be 1000 girls. However, the number of girls could conceivably be higher than 1000 girls, as rapes occur in our universe, and people also experience suffering that isn’t the result of rape.

Anti-natalists will probably want to give up ENU once they see the above thought experiment. If an anti-natalist wants to hold the Schopenhaurian view but not ENU, then he must reject any well-being-based version of utilitarianism.

VI. Conclusion

The fact that the Schopenhauerian view entails Benatar’s asymmetry does not entail that Benatar’s asymmetry entails the Schopenhauerian view. Benatar does not state whether he accepts the Schopenhauerian view. However, the fact that the Schopenhauerian view explains both Benatar’s asymmetry and his claim that we should be indifferent about the existence of a life that contains only good and no bad suggests that Benatar’s asymmetry entails the Schopenhauerian view. I do not think it is worth trying to prove that Benatar’s asymmetry entails the Schopenhauerian view. We can conclude that since Benatar’s asymmetry seems to entail the Schopenhauerian view, and since the Schopenhauerian view is counter-intuitive, we can reject Benatar’s asymmetry.

In my next post, I go on the offensive and present an argument against anti-natalism.

VII. References

Benatar, David. Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence. https://www.docdroid.net/pPhmtci/david-benatar-better-never-to-have-been.pdf

Schopenhauer, Arthur. On the Sufferings of the World. https://spiritual-minds.com/philosophy/assorted/Philosophy%20-%20Arthur%20Schopenhauer%20-%20Studies%20In%20Pessimism.pdf