Culture of Death

For those that think the talk of a ‘culture of death’ is overblown, check out this book from philosopher David Benetar called ‘Better Not to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence”.  He defends an ‘anti-natalism’ view that suggests it is always a serious harm to come into existence.  It is, on this view, always wrong to have children.  He then argues that, when combined with pro-choice views, you get a pro-death view that sees abortion as something of a moral mandate.   

Among the central claims: ‘Those that never existed cannot be deprived’.  Apparently our psychology tricks us into thinking life is worth living when it isn’t, so we are ‘resistant to the suggestion that they were seriously harmed by being brought into existence’.  Umm … isn’t that basically nonsense?  If what he is referring to are things that are not, then ‘who’ is he talking about?

Can anything get published now, so long as its politics are on the right (well, left) side?

Author: Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

10 thoughts on “Culture of Death”

  1. Another thought on this:
    I think books like this disclose something fundamentally wrong with contemporary academic philosophy.

    John Paul II speaks of an ‘Implicit Philosophy’ in Fides et Ratio. The Implicit Philosophy is sort of common sense – the pre-theoretical way people have answered questions for themselves. JPII ends up having quite a bit of trust in Implicit Philosophy, and ends up using it as a means of appraising far more technical philosophical systems. In short, JPII trusts common sense (so do I).
    But most academic philosophers today are fundamentally modern in their approach. Descartes is their model, not Thomas. They are deeply distrustful of any common sentiment (moral or epistemological), of ‘Implicit Philosophy’. Their approach to the common man and to the tradition is one of suspicion. As a result, the more radical and the more harebrained an idea, the more attractive it is to them.

    What is sad and ironic, is when these same people gripe about how no one thinks philosophy is relevant anymore. Of course it isn’t! Why would people think that an academic discipline that is fundamentally oriented toward undermining Implicit Philosophy (common sense) is at all relevant to their lives?


  2. I don’t think the book’s thesis is nonsense. The claim that “they were seriously harmed by being brought into existence” can’t mean, of course, that they would have been happier not existing. But if existing means being harmed (as Schopenhauer claimed), then you are harmed when you exist.

    This book seems to me to be oriented against a sizable tide of academic philosophy, which aims at problems that really have nothing to do with anything someone other than an academic would ever think about. The question of whether it is good to exist — that seems to me a decent question worth considering.


  3. Your take is much more charitable, mine was probably knee-jerk. The way you frame it, it does seem a legitimate question to ask. (Though I trust Implicit Philosophy enough to disagree with Camus when he suggests that suicide is the fundamental philosophical question).
    His claim seems different in an important way than Schopenhauer’s. (Well, you know a lot more about Schopenhauer than I do, so correct me it I am wrong). Schopenhauer’s position is much more nuanced. It does not seem to think that human existence is always a serious harm. There is something – a ‘release’ in the aesthetic experience – that gives us glimpses of beauty. In other words, Schopenhauer is a part of a very old tradition – negotiating between the imminent and the transcendent. (This begins in the West at least with Socrates, who often wonders about the value of this life). It is this possible encounter with the Beyond that is presumably the reason Schopenhauer does not just kill himself.
    I am assuming that Benetar is an atheist (seems a relatively safe guess). His reflections don’t ask the great question (imminent-transcendent, city of man – city of God), they simply seek nullification.

    Anyway, I still think the basic thesis flirts with the absurd. It is hard to avoid positing as a subject the non-existent in the discussion. Even if it is not absurd, the claim of the book seems at least false, and it is probably more than that (morally reprehensible comes to mind). And I still think the thesis is basically abstracted from anything that resembles ordinary experience.

    Forgive the smart-ass and insensitive remark here, but those that think life is not worth living should make that confession, then kill themselves. Interesting that he will solve the world’s problems by encouraging the death of others (the unborn) while not doing something about the ‘problem’ himself.

    Setting aside the smart-ass remarks, common sense suggests that life is a mixed bag, a tension between the good and the bad, pleasure and pain, joy and suffering. It would seem odd to ordinary people (I include myself here) to think that life is ENTIRELY harm. We need to make sense of suffering precisely because suffering stands out against our joys. But that is a very different thing than claiming life is simply suffering. Our Implicit Philosophy immediately rejects his more radical claim as being fundamentally at odds with our ordinary experience and our Implicit Philosophy’s way of working out the human question.

    Which makes me wonder. Why think that life is entirely suffering, and that our joys are psychological tricks? Benetar relies on ‘psychological evidence’ that people tend to overstate the quality of their lives. But might it be the case the people perpetually understate their blessings and overstate their woes? What if the suffering is a self-imposed ‘psychological’ movement, and that life is fundamentally good? Well, we already have traditions that teach that (religion), they are just not very popular in academia.


  4. My understanding is that Sch thinks the aesthetic experience (and, somehow, sympathy with fellow sufferers) provides only a temporary respite from life’s continuous suffering. It’s not a lasting release, and life still sucks overall. He says suicide is senseless because you’re bound to get reborn again into the misery of existing. Life itself sucks because to live is to crave and to crave is to suffer. Very Buddhist, minus nirvana, I guess.

    Assuming that Beneter doesn’t buy reincarnation, or some analogue, I don’t know why he wouldn’t kill himself. Maybe he plans to. I’m reminded of Woody Allen: “Claudette hated reality, but it was still the only place to get a good steak.”


  5. One of my favorite reviews of this book remarked, “You need a PhD to be this stupid.” Haha.

    I am glad that you brought this book to my attention, though. I’d like to give his arguments a fair reading. Like Huenemann, I think the book poses a question well worth considering.

    As for the question of suicide: This is an objection that Benatar anticipated in his book. He has a chapter on the question of suicide, and he insists–from what I’ve gleaned from the reviews of the book–that his philosophy is not a mandate for suicide.

    I suppose his objection to suicide would be as follows: Over the course of our lives, we acquire many responsibilities (work, parenthood, etc.). To commit suicide would be to shirk those responsibilities, and only cause harm to those to whom you had these responsibilities. Benatar already things life is suffering, so why compound the suffering of others’ with your suicide?

    That, or there is another explanation volunteered by American poet Dorothy Parker:

    Razors pain you, Rivers are damp,
    Acids stain you, And drugs cause cramp.
    Guns aren’t lawful, Nooses give,
    Gas smells awful. You might as well live.


  6. So don’t kill yourself so you don’t pile on? This makes me think of two things:
    a) If suffering can be reduced, does that weaken the claim that existence is always a harm? Woody Allen’s Claudette found some pleasure, if only in the good steak, after all.

    b) See about the 2:55 mark of this clip:

    “Making it worse? How could it be worse?”

    Anyway, read away at it if you like. I am sure this will make me sound ‘close-minded’ (a cardinal sin these days, right?), but I just don’t take arguments like this all that seriously. I trust Implicit Philosophy too much. Hell, I don’t take Schopenhauer all that seriously, in a sense. That extreme melancholic view has very little traction for me, it just does not speak to my experience. Perhaps Benatar would diagnose me with some kind of ‘psychological disorder’ – that generally happy people are just inauthentic and hiding from the real truth of their existence. For my part, I think the habit of those consumed by questions of authenticity (Sartre comes to mind) of accusing those who don’t find their own existence to be ‘nauseous’ of being ‘inauthentic’ or in ‘bad faith’ is more than a little prideful and frankly excessively self-involved. I’ll make the argument in the Contemporary Euro class that this phenomenon is an almost necessary outgrowth of the modern project in general. It is why I don’t read Sartre in my Cont Euro class, I think Sartre is a modern philosopher.
    Kierkegaard diagnoses the problem brilliantly – the inward search for meaning (modernity in a nutshell) will always lead to despair. But this does not mean that life is despair, rather one becomes a self by turning out toward the Other.

    Anyway, sad that it is an alleged mark of naivete (if not outright psychosis) to think that life is basically good and that man is made to be happy. Whose psyche needs to be examined? It is mine, not Benatar’s??


  7. Perhaps this is an over-simplification (in fact I am sure it is, but it is not an altogether bad one):

    Those that think there is no God tend to think life is not a value.
    Those that think there is a God tend to think life is a value.

    Though the matter is complicated, reproductive rates hint at this conclusion. An article in First Things, which relies on Weigel’s nice little book called ‘Cube and Cathedral’ discusses this.

    The issue is related to the Benetar book – is life good or not? The failure to reproduce illustrates a crisis in confidence in the basic goodness of existence and the good of man.


  8. Jon Adams said
    “I suppose his objection to suicide would be as follows: Over the course of our lives, we acquire many responsibilities (work, parenthood, etc.). To commit suicide would be to shirk those responsibilities, and only cause harm to those to whom you had these responsibilities. Benatar already things life is suffering, so why compound the suffering of others’ with your suicide?”

    This reasoning is a good strategy for convincing a person not to attempt suicide. I have heard of therapists using this on patients with a nihilistic point of view.

    Sadly the adoption of David Benetar’s view is how many suicidal people justify their reasoning in the first place. My opinion is based on an assumption that Benetar doesn’t provide an good counter-argument for living. (I disclose to you that I have not read Benetar’s book)


  9. The most interesting review of The God Delusion I’ve yet read is by Benatar:

    The delusions that help people cope with the human predicament are often theistic, but they are not always so. Professor Dawkins is quick to debunk the theistic consolations and to begrudge those who seek comfort in them. Yet he does not cast the same critical light on his own delusions and consolations.


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