David Benatar, "Better Never to Have Been"

Utilitarianism, prioritarianism and other varieties of consequentialism.
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David Benatar, "Better Never to Have Been"

Post by Rupert » Mon Aug 13, 2012 8:49 am

What do people think of Benatar's thesis that coming into existence is a harm?

http://www.amazon.com/Better-Never-Have ... +Have+Been

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Re: David Benatar, "Better Never to Have Been"

Post by Gedusa » Mon Aug 13, 2012 1:51 pm

Extremely interesting as a thesis. I'd put some credence that it's correct. Maybe 10% or something (probably lower).

Weirdly, I don't agree with his thesis (arguably the most important part of the book) that there is an asymmetry in how we should regard pain and pleasure with regard to bringing beings into existence. He argues that it's not good to bring a being into existence because of the pleasure it will experience, but it is good to not bring a being into existence because of the amount of suffering it will experience. I'm not sure there is asymmetry, and so it is good to bring things into existence because of the pleasure they will experience. But I'm very unsure of this.

However I do agree that everyone's lives are much worse than they think they are and that biases prevent us from realising this. I agree as well that most people's lives don't really go well on the basis of the objective goods/preference satisfaction/hedonic conceptions of a good life. I'm not sure he really deals with the objection that a strong desire to be alive - independent of whether one is deluded or not, is a thing that means people should reproduce. I.e. if someone thinks you should

He also doesn't take into account that people might be a lot more happy in the future (or have more objective goods or have more preferences satisfied or whatever). This might mean we should just grin and bear the suffering now and wait for a happier future (if we were fairly sure the future would be better)

It's also worth mentioning that there is practically zero chance of his views being taken seriously by a large section of the population. There are massive selection effects that would prevent people acknowledging this. And acknowledging it on a personal level would simply mean there are less people like you in the future to do good, which would be bad.

For an interesting utilitarian perspective on this, see David Pearce.
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Re: David Benatar, "Better Never to Have Been"

Post by Rupert » Mon Aug 13, 2012 3:40 pm

I was talking with someone about the suffering reduction argument for veganism and he said that taking the suffering reduction argument to its logical conclusion would entail the extinction of all sentient beings, citing Benatar.

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Re: David Benatar, "Better Never to Have Been"

Post by Michael Dickens » Mon Aug 13, 2012 9:28 pm

Benatar says that it is not good to bring happiness to a being. This is where he conflicts with positive utilitarianism, and this is where the flaw in his argument lies.

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Re: David Benatar, "Better Never to Have Been"

Post by peterhurford » Mon Aug 13, 2012 10:06 pm

I always get a little scared when negative utilitarians don't take "your view means you should painlessly destroy the world" as a reductio, and instead go "yep, let's get to work". Though I do think it would make an interesting motivation for a movie villain...
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Re: David Benatar, "Better Never to Have Been"

Post by Hedonic Treader » Tue Aug 14, 2012 1:27 am

I agree mostly with Gedusa's view. However, I'm more certain by now that I reject the asymmetry, or at least I would reject it if we had symmetry of intensities and quantities.
And acknowledging it on a personal level would simply mean there are less people like you in the future to do good, which would be bad.
You don't need to reproduce to spread memes. The desire to do good is more of a meme than a genetic phenotype. There sometimes is a similar argument from resources (if you don't reproduce, others will reproduce more). But you can always just increase per-capita consumption and burn more resources on non-suffering things instead of having kids.
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Re: David Benatar, "Better Never to Have Been"

Post by sethbaum » Sat Sep 15, 2012 6:50 pm

I disagree with Benatar's use of benefits/harms and existent/non-existent asymmetries. See
http://sethbaum.com/ac/2008_BetterToExist.pdf
http://sethbaum.com/views
Still, it's interesting how effective Benatar's scholarship has been at prompting discussion and getting people to think differently, even if they ultimately disagree with him. It's a worthy case study for people considering careers as high-impact professional philosophers.

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Re: David Benatar, "Better Never to Have Been"

Post by Ubuntu » Fri Nov 09, 2012 7:18 pm

I don't believe that pleasure and pain are asymmetrical in value but there are still valid reasons why it might be best to avoid procreating and adopt instead.

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Re: David Benatar, "Better Never to Have Been"

Post by DanielLC » Sat Nov 10, 2012 7:44 am

Though I do think it would make an interesting motivation for a movie villain...
Goblins has a villain like that. He's working on making the dungeon some of the characters are in (along with hundreds of alternate universe versions of them) cease to have ever existed.

That story arc starts here, if you're interested.
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Re: David Benatar, "Better Never to Have Been"

Post by Jesper Östman » Tue Nov 27, 2012 6:04 pm

I am puzzled by these ideas ideas that human lives are typically bad that seem somewhat widespread here on Felicifia. My own personal experience is that very few moments in life are even below hedonic 0 - which I conceive as the hedonic point where I would prefer to be an unconscious zombie for a certain time period rather than being conscious (far fewer, if any, moments are so far below 0 that they would cancel out the goods of a significant portion of all the good time). Also, happiness research studies keep coming up with results about how even people we think are having very bad lives (the blind, paralyzed people, prostitutes in the slums of calcutta, subsistence farmers, et cetera) perhaps have slightly lower hedonic levels than those who are best off in the world but still seem to have pretty decent lives.

My suspicion is that people project their own psychology on others (or perhaps even a view of their own psychology that might be bleaker than the reality), and that this might be an underlying cause behind whether utilitarians are positive or negative utilitarians. Thus, I might myself be a positive outlier and projecting - but still, even using an outside perspective it seems the data, for example from Kahneman's National Time Accounting paper, suggests that it is only a minority who experience a significant portion of negative affect.

Briefly, what are the reasons? The best reasons I could think of would be to argue that some ways of dying involve extreme suffering (cancer perhaps), or that even if it is just a small part of the population that experiences much suffering, these people feel such bad and constant psychological suffering that it could outweigh all the positive moments of the majority.

Now, I do not think this question is very important since what matters is not average 2012-human welfare but our expectations for the hedonic levels of far future beings. Thus, I am mostly asking out of curiosity.

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Re: David Benatar, "Better Never to Have Been"

Post by peterhurford » Wed Nov 28, 2012 2:13 am

Jesper Östman wrote:My own personal experience is that very few moments in life are even below hedonic 0 - which I conceive as the hedonic point where I would prefer to be an unconscious zombie for a certain time period rather than being conscious
I think this is a good enough estimate of what 0 utility should "feel like", however it's worth pointing out that even if I did have a negative utility experience, I might still prefer to have been conscious because my actions could dig myself back to positive utility.

~
Jesper Östman wrote:Also, happiness research studies keep coming up with results about how even people we think are having very bad lives (the blind, paralyzed people, prostitutes in the slums of calcutta, subsistence farmers, et cetera) perhaps have slightly lower hedonic levels than those who are best off in the world but still seem to have pretty decent lives.
If only nonhuman animals could participate in these studies. ;)

~
Jesper Östman wrote:My suspicion is that people project their own psychology on others (or perhaps even a view of their own psychology that might be bleaker than the reality), and that this might be an underlying cause behind whether utilitarians are positive or negative utilitarians.
This has been my hypothesis too.
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Re: David Benatar, "Better Never to Have Been"

Post by Hedonic Treader » Wed Nov 28, 2012 4:21 am

Jesper Östman wrote:Briefly, what are the reasons? The best reasons I could think of would be to argue that some ways of dying involve extreme suffering (cancer perhaps), or that even if it is just a small part of the population that experiences much suffering, these people feel such bad and constant psychological suffering that it could outweigh all the positive moments of the majority.
That's one possibility. There is also survivor bias: Once someone burned alive in a factory fire, they no longer participate in Kahneman studies.
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Re: David Benatar, "Better Never to Have Been"

Post by Jesper Östman » Wed Nov 28, 2012 5:17 pm

Peter:

Ah, a reason I included "zombie" in the "0-test" was so that the same actions would be carried out anyway (including actions to bring me up to a higher hedonic level at the moment, or to gain long-term hedonic gains) but without me experiencing it.

I agree that a more relevant question is the hedonic level of animals, which seems far harder to measure. For instance, I am myself highly uncertain whether the biosphere contributes a surplus of pleasure or suffering. The most important, and perhaps hardest, question is the hedonic level of posthumans.


Hedonic:
Agreed. Still, among humans I think the typical deaths are quite well studied - although typically not included in happiness studies but rather in "suffering studies". It is also a tough question how to weigh say cancer pain against some time period of positive experiences.

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Re: David Benatar, "Better Never to Have Been"

Post by peterhurford » Wed Nov 28, 2012 8:59 pm

Jesper Östman wrote:Ah, a reason I included "zombie" in the "0-test" was so that the same actions would be carried out anyway (including actions to bring me up to a higher hedonic level at the moment, or to gain long-term hedonic gains) but without me experiencing it.
Good point, but I'm not really sure how a zombie could act upon the relevant information without feeling it. But I understand the general concept of "I wish I didn't have to feel that moment of time", and can think of it as a compelling example of 0 utility. So I'm not really objecting.
Jesper Östman wrote:Agreed. Still, among humans I think the typical deaths are quite well studied - although typically not included in happiness studies but rather in "suffering studies". It is also a tough question how to weigh say cancer pain against some time period of positive experiences.
I think one of the hardest balances is trying to figure out the weight between preventing years of nonhuman animal suffering (via The Humane League and Vegan Outreach) and adding years of human (animal) happiness (via AMF). Not only is there a difference in cost-effectiveness between organizations and a difference in our certainty of that estimation of cost-effectiveness, but there is furthermore a need to balance between nonhuman and human and then preventing and allowing. It's been really hard for me to get my head around.

...And I'm not even sure how to go about calculating the future.
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Re: David Benatar, "Better Never to Have Been"

Post by Verrian » Sat Jul 05, 2014 1:20 pm

A moltitude of thinkings throngs my head.
  • After all, why to be a negative-utilitarian? Only when the positive way is blocked as failed surplus of pleasure over pain, if I’m not mistaken. That is, similarly when we think about a rational suicide.
  • Is it foundamental a scientific mensuration of all life's feelings? Maybe not, since we can observe the human life generally, and the measure in which a psychological hedonism would conduct* men into a suicidal action. Nor can be valid a scientific accuracy when this cannot be conceived by the individual's consciousness.
  • Are all surplus' feelings acceptable? The 51% or 56% ones, seems not, for calling oneself "happy".
  • Then, what about the moment?! Against the improbable and often meaningless balance of an entire life, in front of a very painful moment or period. I think (to the detriment of me) that most of men seems to have a generally happy life where the great pains are minority. Still, there is some intuitive or truly utilitarian thinking that pretends a greater effort to maximise happiness or minimise unhappiness. Let's consider this example: a man lives his first 50 years in a relative tranquillity; the others 30 years in serious uneasiness. On the whole, there seems to be a surplus of pleasures over pains, but that's not enough on my moral intuition, 'cause we often divide such a life in two lifes ("Now my life sucks!") and we're irresolute about how much weight **give to the Past and to the Present. For the Present has an obvious importance for us with its higher or highest intensity of feelings.
  • So, what we talking about?! About a case (the reproduction) of Malevolence or Imprudence?
  • Is the reproduction useful? If so (if yes), for who? Of course, for the parents, not for the children because in the Nothingness nobody can need nothing - so to say. What about a just distribution of pleasures?
Gedusa wrote:He also doesn't take into account that people might be a lot more happy in the future
Also, people might be a lot more unhappy in the future.
Gedusa wrote:It's also worth mentioning that there is practically zero chance of his views being taken seriously by a large section of the population. There are massive selection effects that would prevent people acknowledging this. And acknowledging it on a personal level would simply mean there are less people like you in the future to do good, which would be bad.
Right. But this may be the so-called "Nirvana fallacy" or "Perfectionist's fallacy", when we think about the omnipresence of common crimes. So: preventing insofar as possible, greatest possible effort.

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* "conducts"?
** "to give"?
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Re: David Benatar, "Better Never to Have Been"

Post by peterhurford » Sat Jul 05, 2014 4:31 pm

Verrian wrote:After all, why to be a negative-utilitarian? Only when the positive way is blocked as failed surplus of pleasure over pain, if I’m not mistaken.
This wouldn't be the reason that Bentar or most negative utilitarians would give. Instead, it's about how pain is so much more salient than pleasure, especially in (contrived) thought experiments.
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Re: David Benatar, "Better Never to Have Been"

Post by Verrian » Sat Jul 05, 2014 4:53 pm

Mh, I see. So, those thinkers see Happiness as a sole presence of pleasure with no pain; and, of course, only an happy life is worthy to be. More exigent, intransigent.

(I also remember a traditional pessimistic argument faced by Mill, that no life can assure such a surplus even if not perfect and total.)

How to settle on this?
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Re: David Benatar, "Better Never to Have Been"

Post by Darklight » Sat Jul 05, 2014 8:42 pm

I remember reading an essay by Benatar in a textbook he edited that was for a course I didn't end up taking. Apologies in advance if I get some of the following wrong, it's been a while since I read it, and I don't particularly care to read it again right now.

In a word, I just disagree with Benatar. If I remember correctly, his main idea was basically that somehow it is a harm to create beings that would suffer more than be happy, but not a benefit to create beings that would be happy more than suffer, that these two situations are not equal, and I simply am not convinced by his arguments why. He also seems to make the very strong assumption that suffering in life is just about guaranteed, while happiness is not.

I of course, have the probably overly optimistic view that beings that prefer happiness over suffering will naturally act in a biased way towards achieving happiness and avoiding suffering. Thus in the grand scheme of things, this bias will reflect on the kind of lives that such beings will live. This explains why even people living in poor third-world countries still report being happier than not. So my own probably unjustified opinion is that the vast majority of lives are worth living, that the overall balance of happiness to suffering in the universe is net positive.

Maybe I believe this because the alternative is to believe that the universe shouldn't exist, and I just find such a notion to be intuitively abhorrent. So I tend to be biased towards optimism.

I suppose I could make a better argument like this. The reality is that we are ignorant of whether or not the universe is a net positive or a net negative. Given this uncertainty, I believe we should act to try to optimize and maximize happiness and minimize suffering, in the ways that we realistically can. Speculating about whether or not it is better to never have been is not conducive to this goal. We exist, and have the potential to be happy and live net positive lives, even if it is not always realized in reality. But this potential exists. The possibility exists that the universe -could- be a net positive, and so I believe we should pursue that potential, to try and create the best of all possible universes.

Thus, I am perhaps a bit of an oddity in that I am tentatively pro-natalist. I think that the more lives capable of experiencing potential happiness the better. Perhaps it means that I do bite the bullet of the Repugnant Conclusion, on the belief that lives just worth living are actually not bad lives to live, as some people seem to always assume. I just imagine that a universe teeming with many happy lives is simply better than one in which no one exists to experience the universe and its wonders.

Though in practice I know the situation is more complicated than that, and I don't think that we should irresponsibly pro-create wily-nily. Obviously we need to look at ecological constraints and sustainability and all that, to in practice ensure that those lives are actually good ones. And before someone interjects with the problem of R-selected species, I'll admit that my view is not for just any beings, but ones where it is reasonable to expect that they could live good lives, which I assume that human beings are one such species.

And, I'll admit that I've been really rather optimistic and positive lately (life has just been going a lot better lately), and that if you'd asked me what I thought about Benatar and lives worth living a few years ago, I'd probably have given a much different answer.
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Re: David Benatar, "Better Never to Have Been"

Post by Verrian » Sun Jul 06, 2014 1:52 pm

Darklight wrote:The reality is that we are ignorant of whether or not the universe is a net positive or a net negative. [...] But this potential exists. The possibility exists that the universe -could- be a net positive, and so I believe we should pursue that potential, to try and create the best of all possible universes.
This seems a contradiction. Anyway, I fear that if we (i.e. most of us) had perceived in our lifes a surplus of pain, we would have suicided ourselves. [Third conditional form correct?] Sure, this prediction presumes a form of psychological hedonism (let's call it the P.H.proof, if you want). And if I'm right, this Universe is on the whole good.

On the other hand, if we're in that ignorance, the more altruistic way of action is a precautionary abstention (from reproduction). Because to improve this Universe would need[s?] new generations who, if not generated, have no need of improvement. I don't know if I'm clear. I mean, the improvement is a difficult way full of self-sacrifices, but only the living beings need it; and I think that if the Happiness is not easily close to hand, this World have to finish. Is the "Problem of Happiness" the great problem of our sentient lives?
Darklight wrote:Perhaps it means that I do bite the bullet of the Repugnant Conclusion, on the belief that lives just worth living are actually not bad lives to live, as some people seem to always assume. I just imagine that a universe teeming with many happy lives is simply better than one in which no one exists to experience the universe and its wonders.
As you know by the other topic, I don't understand the R.C. dilemma; but I protest against your last statement. When "one" doesn't exist, "he" has no need of Happiness, so there is no improvement. Further, if the result of birth is an intense and durable Happiness, I see no problem in view, and the act of reproduction is not immoral.
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Re: David Benatar, "Better Never to Have Been"

Post by peterhurford » Mon Jul 07, 2014 4:36 am

Verrian wrote:So, those thinkers see Happiness as a sole presence of pleasure with no pain; and, of course, only an happy life is worthy to be. More exigent, intransigent.
No, just that pain is more prevalent than happiness, especially when weighted for salience.

-
Darklight wrote:If I remember correctly, his main idea was basically that somehow it is a harm to create beings that would suffer more than be happy, but not a benefit to create beings that would be happy more than suffer.
That's correct, but you trail off before the argument finishes, and thus avoid what persuasive force it may have. More like "it is a harm to create beings that would suffer more than be happy (because that's a net negative life, which is bad), but not a benefit to create beings that would be happy more than suffer (because beings who do not exist cannot be harmed by failing to come into existence), and therefore this asymmetry means we gain nothing by creating people and have a chance of losing a lot, and therefore we should not create people ever."

I believe it requires a very person-affecting form of utilitarianism where things are only good if they are good for someone (who exists), and that's where I don't buy the argument. (I also think Bentar overestimates the amount of suffering in a typical life.)

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Darklight wrote:The reality is that we are ignorant of whether or not the universe is a net positive or a net negative. Given this uncertainty, I believe we should act to try to optimize and maximize happiness and minimize suffering, in the ways that we realistically can.
But I think it's an important question whether we should try to prioritize maximizing happiness or minimizing suffering, from a practical standpoint. Bentar is pretty into minimizing suffering first.

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Darklight wrote:Speculating about whether or not it is better to never have been is not conducive to this goal.
I agree from a practical point of view (anti-natalism will never catch on enough to end the world), but I disagree from a philosophical point of view (as anti-natalism could be the utility maximizing thing to do if suffering is that prevalent, that difficult to outweigh, and that inevitable).

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Darklight wrote:Thus, I am perhaps a bit of an oddity in that I am tentatively pro-natalist. I think that the more lives capable of experiencing potential happiness the better. Perhaps it means that I do bite the bullet of the Repugnant Conclusion, on the belief that lives just worth living are actually not bad lives to live, as some people seem to always assume. I just imagine that a universe teeming with many happy lives is simply better than one in which no one exists to experience the universe and its wonders.
Agree here. Though I do think there is something important that is missing in a potatoes-and-muzak life -- something that could be captured by the ability to form meaningful goals and pursue them.

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Verrian wrote:Anyway, I fear that if we (i.e. most of us) had perceived in our lifes a surplus of pain, we would have suicided ourselves.
Not necessarily. There are lots of irrational reasons why people avoid suicide, even when very unhappy. Many highly depressed people can't even summon the will to commit suicide. Therefore it's an interesting case how anti-depressants can occasionally increase suicidal episodes, as people become more motivated to try to do something.

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Verrian wrote:Third conditional form correct?
No. "We would have committed suicide", not "we would have suicided". It's an irregular verb. Sorry, we have a lot of those. :(
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