Remember that scene in Frank Capra’s classic 1946 film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” where George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) has hit rock bottom and is seriously considering jumping off the bridge into the icy cold waves below to end it all? But before George can go through with it, his guardian angel, Clarence, jumps into the frigid water so that George has to save Clarence, instead of ending his own life. One could make the case that philosopher David Benatar’s life consists of many of George’s dark-night-of-the-soul moments.
Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey
When Steve Paulson posed the question “Do you wish you had not been born?” to Benatar, he replied, “Yes, I’d rather not have existed. That’s different from would I rather be dead.”
Benatar says that it’s important to make the distinction between not already existing and already existing. “If somebody is not existing yet and they may never exist, they have no interest in coming into existence. And so we don’t need as much to defeat the harms that they will suffer.”
Benatar is a philosophy professor at the University of Cape Town and the author of “Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence.” The dedication of his book reads: “To my parents, even though they brought me into existence; and to my brothers, each of whose existence, although a harm to him, is a great benefit to the rest of us.” It reads almost like a piece of Swiftian satire but Benatar assured Paulson that he is dead serious. “So long as a life will contain some bad in it, there’s a net harm to coming into existence.”
Benatar believes that the Pollyanna effect—where our minds tend to remember our more pleasant experiences—keeps us accentuating the positive. “I think we tend to radically underestimate the amount of bad that there is. And so I point to ample psychological literature which shows that humans have this bias towards optimism.”
But Paulson countered that the trials and tribulations of life are often what give it meaning. By overcoming adversity, you will find more meaning and your life will be richer for it. Benatar responded by saying that if you take that idea too far, it could be an argument for inflicting suffering.
Benatar’s ideas about the harms of coming into existence mean that we should never have children. He admits that it’s a radical idea but argues that our biological impulses are not rationally informed. Paulson asked him what that means in the case of someone being pregnant; does Benatar believe the fetus should be aborted? He says that it depends.
“If you’re dealing with a presentient fetus and you say, ‘Well, look in the relevant sense, it hasn’t begun existing,’ then this might imply that you ought to abort, that the morally preferable thing would be to abort. But that’s a spearate view from the anti-natalist view. You have to combine anti-natalism with some views of fetal moral status in order to generate what I call the pro-death view on abortion.”
Although his thoughts are bleak and in many ways life-nagating, Benatar says they’re worth taking seriously. “There are prospective benefits to be gained here because I think if you have a certain sensitivity to the way the world is and to the amount of suffering that there is in the world, not just your own but other people’s, then you might think twice about having children, about participating in a culture that encourages people to have children, that frowns on people who don’t. So I think there’s something to be gained from these things.”