TOP 2020-08-14

A Further Defence of David Benatar's Asymmetry Argument for Antinatalism

When deciding whether to perform an action, we tend to weigh up the costs and benefits. When considering whether to bring X into existence, we know that they will experience harms if we perform the action, but the benefits they might experience after coming into existence are not benefits at all unless X exists, so they cannot form part of an argument for creating X. If X is not created, they are not deprived of anything, but if X is created, they are harmed. This is the essence of David Benatar’s assymetry argument[1] (Fig 1), which shows that coming into existence is always a net harm[2].

Fig 1
X does not exist X exists
(2) Absence of harm = Good (1) Presence of harm = Bad
(4) Absence of benefit = Not bad (3) Presence of benefit = Good

Much is made of the idea that coming into existence is “sui generis” - there is nothing else quite like it. And although I agree that matters of existence and non-existence are indeed sui generis, I do not believe that this is what makes the asymmetry argument special.

Suppose I am trying to decide whether I should burn the house down. The flames will be bad, but the arrival of the fire brigade will be good. It would be absurd to say “I should burn the house down because the arrival of the fire brigade will be good for us”, since as it stands, nobody has any desire for the fire brigade to arrive since there is no fire. No matter how relieved we might be about the arrival of the fire brigade following the arson, it provides no a priori argument for arson. Hence, in the absence of any other considerations, setting fire to the house will be a net harm. Though there is an asymmetry between the harms and benefits, it is a perfectly explicable one.

Clearly the asymmetry does not arise because it has anything to do with a transition between existence or non-existence. It arises because the benefits - and not the harms - are not benefits at all until the act has happened. For want of a better term, I will call this an experiential asymmetry.

Naturally, some people may take issue with my use of an example (arson) that most people already find intuitively bad. So let me propose a more elaborate analogy.

You are the CEO of NeuroMod, a high-tech transhumanist corporation in a futuristic society. The company has just finishing developing Oculux, a brain implant which has the following four properties:

O1) Users of Oculux experience a slightly wider variety of colours, and gain the ability to adjust the brightness and contrast of their vision at will.

O2) Most users of Oculux experience mild headaches as a result, and a small minority experience severe migraines.

O3) In the majority of cases, the brain implant causes the user to evaluate Oculux positively and to give it a 5 star review.

O4) Market research has regrettably shown that there is zero demand for Oculux.

If a potential customer were to do a cost-benefit analysis of having Oculux installed in their brain, they might devise something like Figure 2.

Fig 2
Oculux not installed Oculux installed
Absence of harm = Good Presence of harm = Bad
Absence of benefit = Not bad Presence of benefit = Good

We see that property O1 does not provide any compelling reason to have Oculux installed, because we won’t lament the absence of this benefit due to O4. However, property O2 certainly gives us a compelling reason not to have Oculux installed. Hence it is always a harm to have Oculux installed. Consumers have no reason to hurt themselves for the sake of a benefit which they have no interest in.

The asymmetry that we see here still has nothing to do with existence or non-existence. In addition, it does not arise because of some inherent asymmetry between harms and benefits per se. We can in fact devise examples of asymmetry where the harms and benefits are reversed and where we conclude that there is always a net benefit for the action.

Consider NeuroMod’s next endeavour, Cleanmath, which has the following properties:

M1) Cleanmath massively augments the user’s skill at mental arithmetic.

M2) If users previously had a beard, Cleanmath causes the beard to fall out and prevents future beard growth.

M3) If a user has a desire to have a beard, Cleanmath removes that desire.

X is a man with a beard who likes having a beard. Should he be interested in Cleanmath? The cost-benefit analysis for X looks like this:

Fig 3
Cleanmath not installed Cleanmath installed
Beard = Good No beard = Not bad
Worse mental arithmetic = Bad Better mental arithmetic = Good

We can see that the improvement in mental arithmetic is a big advantage, but the loss of the beard is really no loss at all, because Cleanmath will make sure that you will not suffer from the beard’s absence. So it would seem that because of the asymmetry, installing Cleanmath is always a net benefit, even for happily bearded men. (Of course we do need to assume that all other things are equal - for example, we have to abstract away from any innate preference for the status quo, or any risks that might arise during surgery; we should also assume that everyone else in the world is completely neutral about X’s facial hair.)

Many critics of Benatar’s assymetry are incredulous that an asymmetry should exist. Rivka Weinberg, for example, insists that there is no asymmetry between existing and non-existing, because non-existent beings are just as incapable of having an opinion about harms as they are about benefits[3]. Benatar has already defended his argument against this claim: such a criticism fails to realise that the assymetry arises only in comparing the case of existence with non-existence[4]. It’s not that we examine X as a non-existent being and try to work out what they are thinking - we will be disappointed, because X has no thoughts at all. What we are doing is looking at whether X’s state of existence is preferable to their state of non-existence.

Julio Cabrera - although he has an argument for antinatalism of his own - presents a similar argument[5], but in this case he claims that Benatar has never responded to him. Cabrera argues that Benatar has committed a fallacy of equivocation. He claims that for quadrant 1, Benatar has used a “counterfactual” definition of non-existence that involves a comparison (X suffers when they otherwise would not), but for quadrant 4, he defines a non-existent person differently, as one that is “nothing”, incapable of experiencing either harms or benefits. But this is not true. In both cases, the counterfactual definition is used. In comparing quadrant 3 with quadrant 4, the relevant information is that X perceives the benefits of quadrant 3 to be benefits if and only if they come into existence - consequently, those benefits provide no compelling argument one way or the other for bringing X into existence. Moreover, it is clear that Benatar’s asymmetry has not made an error about the definition of non-existence, since the same asymmetry crops up in analogous cases that have nothing to do with non-existence (such as Oculux).

I do not believe that we can arrive at all moral conclusions via cost-benefit analysis alone. An understanding of rights and responsibilities is also important. But procreation fares no better in this light. It treats X as a means to our ends, and forces them into a state that they could not have chosen. We do it not for X’s benefit - as we have seen, there is none - but for our own purposes, whether or not we realise this.

Some argue that a non-existent being cannot have rights. But I think it still makes sense to talk of a “victim of procreation” if only as a circumlocution for “the person who was caused to live without having been able to consent”. Consider the case of a mad scientist, Y, who uses an advanced device to make X, an adult human, materialise from nothing over the edge of a cliff. On X’s creation, they promptly fall to their death. I think it makes perfect sense to say that Y violated X’s rights by creating them, and is guilty of X’s murder. Consider an alternative scenario where X wants to test some artificial wings and asks Y to push them off a cliff to help them. X still dies, but Y is much less morally culpable because X consented to the action that killed them. The fact that X could not consent in the ‘magic creation’ scenario is therefore crucially relevant to the moral outcome.

Let’s refer back to the NeuroMod analogy. Someone might object that because the brain implants are installed under anaesthetic, the unconscious person is incapable of having any opinions about the matter and therefore has no rights. But this would be a very strange view indeed. If nothing else, unconscious people have rights by virtue of the state they will find themselves in when they are no longer unconscious. So we should certainly be able to say the same about “not yet existing” persons.

Others might argue that property O3 of Oculux makes it ethical to install it in people’s brains, even without their consent. They might reason that although nobody has any a priori desire for Oculux (O4), they will (probably) gain such a desire upon having the implant installed. Because of property O3, most users would actually thank us for installing the implant and would give the product a 5 star review. But notice that installing Oculux manipulates users into having this evaluation. Nobody would freely choose to have Oculux installed (O4). We have no right to make that decision for them.

It is precisely because procreation manipulates a person into wanting their life that objections of the kind “most people are glad to have been created” are spurious. If this idea made procreation permissible, it would also make installing Oculux permissible without a person’s consent, even if that person goes on to experience the more serious harms that it can cause (the “severe migraines” of property O2). Indeed, we find that in some cases, even people born with a missing limb, or born into severe poverty, or with a terrible genetic disease, can nevertheless express a gladness at having been created. But by giving these people an animal brain - a brain which by virtue of natural selection has evolved a tendency to value life even when it contains overwhelming suffering - the parents of these people manipulated them into having a positive evaluation of the terrible condition that they forced upon them.

Nobody freely chooses life - that is, free of manipulation and coercion. On the contrary, every single being ever created has been both coerced and manipulated. We cannot right this wrong with more manipulation and more coercion - e.g. through killing - but we certainly can prevent future wrongs by ceasing to bring sentient beings into existence.

  1. Note that I use the terms “harm” and “benefit” in accordance with Benatar’s later views, rather than his original use of “pain” and “pleasure”  ↩

  2. David Benatar, 2006, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence  ↩

  3. Rivka Weinberg, ‘Is Having Children Always Wrong?’  ↩

  4. David Benatar, ‘Every Conceivable Harm: A Further Defence of Anti-Natalism’  ↩

  5. Julio Cabrera, ‘Better the Asymmetry Never to Have Been’  ↩