Partway through the New Yorker’s profile of leading philosopher David Benatar, there is an anecdote that sums up his ethical position neatly.

A colleague at Benatar’s university announces to the department that she is pregnant. Benatar is pushed by the colleague as to whether he is happy about the news. Benatar thinks, then replies: “I am happy,” he says. “For you.” 

Benatar is a leading advocate for the philosophical school known as anti-natalism. For such thinkers, being born is a harm. As it is so cleanly put in the title of his best-known work, Benatar believes that for each of us, it would have been better for us to never have been – non-existence is preferable to existence. Benatar might be happy for his colleague, but he is not happy for the conceived child who now faces a future of pain, distress and fear. 

For such a seemingly pessimistic outlook, Benatar’s arguments in favour of anti-natalism are shockingly elegant. Take, for instance, his foundational view: the asymmetry of pleasure and pain. According to Benatar, pain is bad; pleasure is good. An absence of pain is good. But an absence of pleasure is not bad for the person for whom that absence is not a deprivation. 

Imagine, for instance, that one day, on a morning stroll, you encounter a branching path. You take the left road. A few metres ahead, you spot a $100 bill lying on the ground. This brings you a deep pleasure. But now let’s say that you never took the left road – that you instead veered right. In this possible world, you do not encounter the $100 bill. If you had taken the left path, you would have. But you don’t know that. You have not been promised any money; you are not aware of what you have lost. Thus, Benatar thinks, you have not been harmed. 

This is the key to the anti-natalist position. The child who is never born does not know that they are missing out on the pleasures of life; there is no entity who has been deprived, because there is no entity that exists. Moreover, the child who is born might encounter these pleasures, but they will also encounter a great number of pains. For Benatar, life is a myriad of tiny, complicated discomforts, from being hungry to needing the bathroom. Not bringing a child into the world means avoiding the perpetuation of suffering, saving an entity from a long, painful life for which the only escape – suicide, death, illness – is more pain. 

These views may sound, for some, deeply psychologically distressing, and Benatar acknowledges that these are not easy pills to swallow. But he believes that they are necessary truths; that they are, in a sense, inevitable conclusions to be drawn from the nature of being a conscious entity in the world.  

“I think that there is something hopeless and psychologically distressing about the nature of sentient life that makes anti-natalism the correct position to hold,” he explains.

Benatar’s position has been criticised by a number of thinkers, most recently by the stoic philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, who argued against the asymmetry of pleasure and pain in a recent blog post. According to Pigliucci, pain need not be morally bad; pleasure need not be morally good. For the stoic, these are “indifferents”, their moral value neutral. 

But Benatar believes that Pigliuicci has misattributed claims to him. “The asymmetry I describe is not itself a moral claim – even though it supports moral claims about the ethics of procreation,” he explains. “My claims about pain and pleasure are claims about their prudential value for the person whose pain and pleasure they are – or would be.”  

“Anybody – and I am not suggesting that Professor Pigliucci is among them – who denies that pain is intrinsically bad for the person whose pain it is, and that pleasure is intrinsically good for the person whose pleasure it is, does not understand what pain and pleasure are, and how and why they arose evolutionarily. If pain does not feel bad, it is not pain. If pleasure does not feel good, it is not pleasure.” 

Others still have compared Benatar’s positions to those held by ecofascists, thinkers who believe that humanity is a virus that is wreaking a havoc on the natural world, and that the only way to avoid this suffering is to force the extinction of the human race. Indeed, there is at least some overlap between ecofascist beliefs and anti-natalist ones – both argue in favour of the end of human life – but Benatar is untroubled by such a connection, for the same reason that “those of us opposed to smoking should not be troubled that the Nazis were also opposed to smoking.” 

“Even though (some) anti-natalists think that humans are bad for the environment, this shows only that they agree with the ‘eco’ part of ‘ecofascism’,” Benatar explains. “Anti-natalists are not committed to the ‘fascism’ part – and should, I argue, be opposed to it.” 

Benatar’s position might seem deeply cynical, even nihilistic, but there is a strange kind of hope in it too. “Part of the reason why some people may find anti-natalism unthinkable is that they cannot correctly imagine what a world without sentient life would be like,” he explains. For the anti-natalist, there is some comfort to be taken in this potential, consciousness-free world – a world without suffering, without pain, without suicide or famine or death. After all, what, paradoxically, is more optimistic than that? 


Image by Aarón Blanco Tejedor