I have been a political animal all my life, mostly as an anarchist, and as such I have read a great deal of political and philosophical literature. Much of this literature would be on what many would consider the extreme ends of politics and philosophy, including the work of nihilists who would see the destruction of all organisational principle. But there is a philosophy that believes that even nihilists don’t go far enough.
David Benatar is an anti-natalist. He believes that life is so bad, so painful, that human beings should stop having children for reasons of compassion. As reported in this New Yorker profile, he says:
“While good people go to great lengths to spare their children from suffering, few of them seem to notice that the one (and only) guaranteed way to prevent all the suffering of their children is not to bring those children into existence in the first place.” In Benatar’s view, reproducing is intrinsically cruel and irresponsible—not just because a horrible fate can befall anyone, but because life itself is “permeated by badness.” In part for this reason, he thinks that the world would be a better place if sentient life disappeared altogether.
He wrote the basic thesis in his 2006 book “Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence.” He followed this up with “The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions.”
Benatar is no dummy. He is head of the philosophy department at the University of Cape Town, where he also directs the university’s Bioethics Centre, which was founded by his father, Solomon Benatar, a global-health expert. He disagrees with the viewpoint that life is good, that the benefits outweigh the problems.
“The quality of human life is, contrary to what many people think, actually quite appalling,” he writes, in “The Human Predicament.” He provides an escalating list of woes, designed to prove that even the lives of happy people are worse than they think. We’re almost always hungry or thirsty, he writes; when we’re not, we must go to the bathroom. We often experience “thermal discomfort”—we are too hot or too cold—or are tired and unable to nap. We suffer from itches, allergies, and colds, menstrual pains or hot flashes. Life is a procession of “frustrations and irritations”—waiting in traffic, standing in line, filling out forms. Forced to work, we often find our jobs exhausting; even “those who enjoy their work may have professional aspirations that remain unfulfilled.” Many lonely people remain single, while those who marry fight and divorce. “People want to be, look, and feel younger, and yet they age relentlessly”
An obvious solution for this viewpoint is simply to kill oneself. But Benatar doesn’t think that death is any better than life, so what’s the point? Another “solution” would be to actively try to make the world a better place. But Benatar doesn’t think that works either:
“It’ll never happen. The lessons never seem to get learnt. They never seem to get learnt. Maybe the odd individual will learn them, but you still see this madness around you,” he said. “You can say, ‘For goodness’ sake! Can’t you see how you’re making the same mistakes humans have made before? Can’t we do this differently?’ But it doesn’t happen … unpleasantness and suffering are too deeply written into the structure of sentient life to be eliminated.”
I definitely cannot agree with Benatar on a lot of this. But the piece is a fascinating look at how one highly intelligent human being looks at the world and our place in it.