The controversial conclusions in David Benatar’s “Better Never to Have Been” – that coming into existence is always a serious harm and that procreation is always wrong – are not likely to be popular, especially since it raises uncomfortable questions about human well-being and having children. The subsequent arguments that it is wrong not to abort babies at earlier stages of pregnancy (premised upon anti-natal and pro-death views) and that it would be better if humanity became extinct are not likely to be popular either. In summary: “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”.
Two questions I had in the beginning relate to perceptions of well-being as well as definitions of a good or bad life. First, even though personal perceptions of (subjective) well-being matter – which may correlate with but are not entirely captured by some of the socio-economic indicators highlighted – they were not addressed. In other words, should it not matter if one thinks that his or her life is good? Second, and relatedly, what is bad, pain, harm, suffering (in and of themselves, and relative to good or pleasure)? The problem with the first, it would appear, however, is that life in the aggregate for most people and not just for a few charmed lives is not always great. The second can be contested, yet again in the aggregate different definitions may not be significant too, especially in view of the range and intensity of serious harms.
“That coming into existence is a harm is a hard conclusion for most people to swallow. Most people do not regret their very existence. Many are happy to have come into being because they enjoy their lives. But these appraisals are mistaken for precisely the reasons I have outlined. The fact that one enjoys one’s life does not make one’s existence better than non-existence, because if one had not come into existence there would have been nobody to have missed the joy of leading that life and thus the absence of joy would not be bad. Notice, by contrast, that it makes sense to regret having come into existence if one does not enjoy one’s life. In this case, if one had not come into existence then no being would have suffered the life one leads”.
Understanding some of the philosophical and logical explanations can be challenging, though Benatar is elaborate and deliberate, anticipating counter-arguments in the face of what is described as “a very powerful pro-natal bias”. Having established in the second and third chapters that coming into existence is always a harm – given “a crucial asymmetry between the good and the bad things” and how they are experience – the chapters which follow revolve around the preferability of non-existence. “Better Never to Have Been” makes a further distinction between future-life cases (whether lives are worth starting) and present-life cases (whether they are worth continuing), and in this vein challenges the status quo in which having children is deemed to be necessarily beneficial.