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Is It Better Never To Have Lived?

September 3, 2011

Are any of you familiar with a philosophical idea called anti-natalism?  I was listening to various people debate the idea on youtube and found it strange that I’d never heard of it.  I hope I’m not oversimplifying the idea, but from what I gather, it’s the idea that it would be better if we’d never been born.  Wanting to learn more about this idea, I got ahold of a book by David Benatar called Better Never To Have Been.  He is one of the chief authors anti-natalists reference.  After reading a good portion of the book, it seems worthwhile to share what I think of these ideas.

I really wasn’t all that impressed with the book initially, but once I came to chapter 3, I liked the book a little more.  That chapter began as follows,

I have argued that so long as a life contains even the smallest quantity of bad, coming into existence is a harm. Whether or not one accepts this conclusion, one can recognize that a life containing a significant amount of bad is a harm. I turn now to show that all human lives contain much more bad than is ordinarily recognized.  […] The worse a life is, the greater the harm of being brought into existence. I shall argue, however, that even the best lives are very bad, and therefore that being brought into existence is always a considerable harm. To clarify, I shall not be arguing that all lives are so bad that they are not worth continuing. That is a much stronger claim than I need to make. Instead, I shall be arguing that people’s lives are much worse than they think and that all lives contain a great deal of bad.

He next discussed the suffering and pleasures of this life from a hedonistic perspective.  This is a rather long quotation from the book, so forgive me.

Consider first the hedonistic view. Such a view will need to distinguish between three kinds of mental states—negative ones, positive ones, and neutral ones. Negative mental states include discomfort, pain, suffering, distress, guilt, shame, irritation, boredom, anxiety, frustration, stress, fear, grief, sadness, and loneliness. Positive mental states—pleasures, in the broad sense—can be of two kinds. First, there are those which are relief from negative mental states. These relief pleasures include the subsiding of a pain (such as a headache), the mollification of an itch, the abatement of boredom, the alleviation of stress, the dissipation of anxiety or fear, and the assuagement of guilt. Secondly, there are the intrinsically positive states. Intrinsic pleasures include pleasant sensory experiences—tastes, smells, visual images, sounds, and tactile sensations—as well as some non-sensory conscious states (such as joy, love, and excitement). Some pleasures have both relief and intrinsic components. For example, eating a tasty meal while hungry brings both relief from hunger and the intrinsic pleasure of fine-tasting food. (By contrast, eating insipid food while hungry might relieve the hunger, but it would do so without the intrinsic pleasure. Neutral mental states are those which are neither negative, nor positive in either the relief or intrinsic sense. Neutral states include the absence of pain, fear, or shame (as distinct from gaining relief from these negative states).

For the psychological reasons mentioned earlier, we tend to ignore just how much of our lives is characterized by negative mental states, even if often only relatively mildly negative ones. Consider, for example, conditions causing negative mental states daily or more often. These include hunger, thirst, bowel and bladder distension (as these organs become filled), tiredness, stress, thermal discomfort (that is, feeling either too hot or too cold), and itch. For billions of people, at least some of these discomforts are chronic. These people cannot relieve their hunger, escape the cold, or avoid the stress. However, even those who can find some relief do not do so immediately or perfectly, and thus experience them to some extent every day. In fact, if we think about it, significant periods of each day are marked by some or other of these states. For example, unless one is eating and drinking so regularly as to prevent hunger and thirst or countering them as they arise, one is likely hungry and thirsty for a few hours a day. Unless one is lying about all day, one is probably tired for a substantial portion of one’s waking life. How often does one feel neither too hot nor too cold, but exactly right?

Of course, we tend not to think about how much of our lives is marked by these states. The three psychological phenomena, outlined in the previous section, explain why this is so. Because of Pollyannaism we overlook the bad (and especially the relatively mildly bad). Adaptation also plays a role. People are so used to the discomforts of daily life that they overlook them entirely, even though they are so pervasive. Finally, since these discomforts are experienced by everybody else too, they do not serve to differentiate the quality of one’s own life from the quality of the lives of others. The result is that normal discomforts are not detected on the radar of subjective assessment of well-being. That we do not think of how much of our daily lives are pervaded by the discomforts mentioned does not mean that our daily lives are not pervaded by them. That there is so much discomfort is surely relevant on the hedonistic view.

The negative mental states mentioned so far, however, are simply the baseline ones characteristic of healthy daily life. Chronic ailments and advancing age make matters worse. Aches, pains, lethargy, and sometimes frustration from disability become an experiential backdrop for everything else.

Now add those discomforts, pains, and sufferings that are experienced either less frequently or only by some (though nonetheless very many) people. These include allergies, headaches, frustration, irritation, colds, menstrual pains, hot flushes, nausea, hypoglycaemia, seizures, guilt, shame, boredom, sadness, depression, loneliness, body-image dissatisfaction, the ravages of AIDS, of cancer, and of other such life-threatening diseases, and grief and bereavement. The reach of negative mental states in ordinary lives is extensive.

This is not to deny that there are also intrinsic pleasures in a life. These pleasures sometimes occur in the absence of negative mental states, and are best when they do. Intrinsic pleasures can also coexist with the negative ones (so long as the negative states are not of sufficient intensity to undo the pleasure entirely). Neutral states and relief pleasures obviously can also affect the quality of a life. It is better to have a neutral state than a negative one, and if one has a negative state, relief from it (as soon as possible) is better than no relief. Nevertheless, there would be something absurd about living for neutral states or relief pleasures, or about  starting a life in order to create more neutral conscious states or to produce more relief pleasure. Neutral states and relief  pleasures can be valuable only in so far as they displace negative states. The argument that it is better never to come into existence explains why it is also absurd to start a life for the intrinsic pleasures that that life will contain. The reason for this is that even the intrinsic pleasures of existing do not constitute a net benefit over never existing. Once alive, it is good to have them, but they are purchased at the cost of life’s misfortune—a cost that is quite considerable.

Next he looked at our lives from the perspective of desire fulfillment.

Rather little of our lives is characterized by satisfied desires and rather a lot is marked by unsatisfied desires. Consider first how vulnerable our desires are to the vicissitudes of life. No desires for that which we lack are ever satisfied immediately. Such a desire must be present before it can be satisfied and thus we endure a period of frustration before the desire is fulfilled. It is logically possible for desires to be fulfilled very soon after they arise, but given the way the world is, this does not usually happen. Instead, we usually persist in a state of desire for a period of time. This time may vary—from minutes to decades. As I said before, one usually waits at least a couple of hours until hunger is satiated (unless one is on a ‘hunger-prevention’ or a ‘nip-hunger-in-the-bud’ diet). One waits still longer to get rest when one is tired. Children wait years to gain independence. Adolescents and adults can wait years to fulfil desires for personal satisfaction or professional success. Where one’s desires are fulfilled, this fulfilment is often ephemeral. One desires public office and is elected but not reelected. One’s desire to be married is eventually fulfilled, but then one gets divorced. One wants a holiday but it ends (too soon). Often one’s desires are never fulfilled. One yearns to be free, but dies incarcerated or oppressed. One seeks wisdom but never attains it. One hankers after being beautiful but is congenitally and irreversibly ugly. One aspires to great wealth and influence, but remains poor and impotent all one’s life. One has a desire not to believe falsehoods, but unknowingly clings to such beliefs all one’s life. Very few people ever attain the kind of control over their lives and circumstances that they would like.

Not all one’s desires are for that which one lacks. Sometimes we desire not to lose that which we already have. Such desires, by definition, have immediate satisfaction, but the sad truth is that that fulfilment often does not last. One has a desire not to lose one’s health and youth, but it happens all too quickly. The wrinkles appear, the hair goes grey or falls out, the back aches, arthritis ravages one’s joints, the eyes weaken, one becomes flabby and saggy. One wishes not to be bereaved, but unless one’s desire not to  die is thwarted sooner rather than later, one must soon face the death of grandparents, parents, and other dear ones.

As if this were not bad enough, consider next what we might call the ‘treadmill of desires’. Although the fulfilment of some desires is temporary because the fulfilment becomes undone, desire fulfilment is much more often temporary because even though the desire remains fulfilled another desire arises in its place. Thus the initial satisfaction soon gives way to new desires.

Then Benatar takes a quotation from Abraham Maslow, the famed psychologist.

…need gratifications lead only to temporary happiness which in turn tends to be succeeded by another and (hopefully) higher discontent. It looks as if the human hope for eternal happiness can never be fulfilled. Certainly happiness does come and is obtainable and is real. But it looks as if we must accept its intrinsic transience, especially if we focus on its more intense forms.

– Abraham Maslow, Motivation And Personality

That’ll do for quotations from the book.  You should have a general idea as to the sorts of things Bentar focuses on.  Pretty dark eh’?  I decided to reflect on these ideas as I went for my walk today and within ten to fifteen minutes of serious contemplation, I came to one singular conclusion:  the human mind and its incessant chattering makes our lives far more miserable than need be.  If you can’t learn to still your mind and exist in the moment, these sorts of thoughts will consume you and leave you depressed.

Here’s the deal.  A lot of animals out there live entirely in the moment.  Though their lives are nothing but a continuous struggle, they have limited memory capacity, and mostly live in the moment.  They only suffer when they’re actually being eaten, or are in battle, or are truly starving.  Otherwise they seem to enjoy nibbling on your garden’s tomatoes, singing while perched up on a tree limb, or bathing in the sunshine.  Us humans on the other hand, we have the ability to imagine and anticipate things we aren’t currently experiencing.  This helped us survive in the harsh world we live in, but it also makes us miserable.

Very simple animals are like toddler babies.  If it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind.  Us adult humans are different.  You can walk around the corner and I will still be aware that you’re in the hallway.  I will know that you’re still there, and even if you’ve ran away somewhere and hid yourself, I will start reflecting, “Ok, where did he go?  He must be somewhere nearby.”  This powerful ability allowed us to evade and outsmart predators and hunt prey, while also allowing us to control the world around us.  However, this same mental ability allows us to imagine all sorts of things that aren’t there, anticipate upcoming problems, and even foresee our own deaths.  Emotionally it’s a double-edged sword.

Many of the problems Benatar focuses on throughout these first few chapters  are related to what I’d call our “mental model” system.  I’ll try to explain what I mean.  Take the problem of watching yourself growing old, flabby, and wrinkly.  Your mind has this mental model of the world where it stores this time-sequence of your life and the things you experience.  This also includes your body.  So you look into the mirror and think, “I’m not as pretty as I once was.  I used to be thin and attractive.  Now I’m old and fat.”  You remember when you were attractive to members of the opposite sex, and maybe even reflect on past encounters you had thirty years ago in the past.  The brain wanders from the moment and instead of just having an experience, it starts roaming all over the place, comparing this moment to God knows what other moments.  You start comparing yourself Jennifer Aniston, Megan Fox, and other celebrities.  You compare yourself to your friends, neighbors, and coworkers.  You compare and compare and compare.  You contrast and compare.  You contrast and compare.  The mind just keeps working and working and going and going, generating endless discontentment.

Religion is another problem with this mental model system.  Using words we’re able to communicate ideas to others, allowing us to anticipate events that aren’t necessarily happening to us right then and there.  You can say, “Jason, watch out!  There’s a poisonous snake under your bed!”  I might not have ever seen the snake but I’m thankful that you warned me about it.  Yet this is a dangerous tool.  People start warning you about things that don’t exist and put your mind in all sorts of unnecessary fears.  The religious priest starts warning you of the all powerful, all knowing, ever-present deity watching your every move, ready to throw you into the pits of hell if you commit even the slightest transgression against ridiculous laws.  Were you attracted to the beautiful woman that walked by?!  LUST!  Pray to the holy virgin and REPENT!  And if you believe this invisible being exists, and that there is this invisible order with heaven and hell, and all of that, your mind is just going to torture itself for no reason at all over petty things that don’t matter.  It’s natural for a man to be attracted to a beautiful woman.  It’s part of your biology.  It’s ok.

As I walked and walked, I remembered my history classes in school.  Think of what history is.  It’s like a giant warning call for all the madness that happens in this world, and how crazy people can be.  It’s preparing us for all sorts of disasters and how to properly react to them.   But such preparations come with a serious cost.  Our minds are being pounded with negativity and we come out emotionally damaged.  “Ok class, today we’re going to watch what happens when men have wars.  Brace yourselves.”  The little sixth graders come back from their chocolate milk break to watch civil war reenactments, people marching off in lines blasting each other with muskets.  They see a man bleeding on the ground, screaming in pain.  Then they read about the Persian empire, the Macedonian phalanx, and see Alexander the Great roaming around with his troops.  These young minds are imagining men being impaled with spears, blasted with guns, stabbed with swords, hung on crosses and whipped to death, and on and on.

If we lived in the moment, we wouldn’t have to experience all of that unless it actually happened to us, and even then it would probably be a rather short experience.  Somebody may run up to us with a rifle and shoot us, or we may be stabbed and die within a short period of time, and so forth.  But instead we learn what all these things are so that we can be prepared, and the list of dangers is practically unlimited.  So you worry and worry and worry and worry.  Am I prepared for this?  Am I prepared for that?  What am I going to do about this?  What am I going to do about that?

As young children, we roam around the backyard playing with our toys and friends, laughing and having fun.  We’re not worried about anything and don’t know anything.  We just make the most of what’s around us and live in the moment.  And because of that, children are happy.  But by the time we get older, we’ve been pounded with so many warning calls, and are in such fear and dread, most of that simple joy is gone.  But we can’t avoid this.  Oftentimes the only way to avoid future pain and suffering is to properly plan for it and avoid it.  Take this video for example.  A lot of the starvation and misery we face in the world today is due to overpopulation.  We have to stop having babies.

The world is so large and filled with problems, we often want to just shut it off.  We have to reflect on thousands of important things which we’ll never actually experience ourselves, such as planning to avert future disasters.  We have to worry about the welfare of people all the way across the world.  We have to stay up to date on political issues and the economy.  We have to properly watch our financial investments.  We have to hold our government accountable so they don’t drag us off into more wars and destruction.

When we lived in simple small tribes you directly experienced the world.  Our sensory systems were adequate for the task.  It’s not too hard to keep up with a small tribe of people.  You know them all by name, have went out on hunts with them, and they know you as well.  Now that’s no longer possible.  The world is too big and too complicated.  We stay glued to our computers and television sets watching and reading the news.  And what do they feed us?  They tell us about the most important worries we need to deal with.  Dictator such and such is slaughtering thousands for no good reason.  Religious psychos are discovered to be working on nuclear facilities.  Bankers are scheming to implode the economy and leave us poor and in rags.  And then you ask yourself, “What can I do about all of this?”  You then realize that you’re completely powerless, filled with fear of things happening all across the world.

Your mind tries to build a mental model of this super-complicated world, with all of its intricacies and dangers, but it’s inadequate for the task.   You realize that you can’t protect your children.  You can’t protect your friends.  You can’t protect your family.  You’re powerless.  There’s little you can do about anything and you just do what you can.  Your brain runs in circles trying to figure things out but it just never has enough information nor the time to sort it all out.

But that all is just the beginning of the mental chatter!  Just as Benatar points out, that same mind is not just worrying about the world.  Oh no.  It’s also wondering what’s wrong with your personal life and loved ones.  You have all these desires which aren’t playing out how you intended.  Why is your love life so screwed up?  Why are your children such a mess?  What doesn’t your husband love you?  Why are you stuck in a boring job?  What did you do wrong?  Why did all of this happen to you?  Why did things turn out this way?  And on and on and on it goes, chattering away.  It flails away, trying to fix every problem in the world and struggles for even simple answers.

I allow the chatter at times, and I care about the world and the issues we face as a nation and as a people.  I care about helping the poor.  I care about civil liberties.  I care about women’s rights.  I care about pollution.   Yes, I care about all these things.  I also have my share of suffering, but do what you can when you can, and otherwise try not to worry.  Try to shut off the chatter and just experience the life coming in from your senses.  Find good things in your world which you can be thankful for and make the most of your short life.  Bertrand Russell seemed to advocate a similar position.

The wise man thinks about his troubles only when there is some purpose in doing so; at other times he thinks about other things, or, if it is night, about nothing at all….It is amazing how much both happiness and efficiency can be increased by the cultivation of an orderly mind, which thinks about a matter adequately at the right time rather than inadequately at all times.  When a difficult or worrying decision has to be reached, as soon as all the data are available, give the matter your best thought and make your decision; having made the decision, do not revise it unless some new fact comes to your knowledge.  Nothing is so exhausting as indecision, and nothing is so futile.

– Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness

Our emotional systems and mental model system evolved together and they were designed for a much smaller world.  They don’t always work well together in our modern society.  Biological evolution isn’t keeping up with cultural evolution.

Sometimes we just have to experience the moment.  Don’t let your mind stray off all over the place, thinking inadequately about anything and everything at all times.  Keep your mind disciplined.  Lock it in the present in the room with you, learning new interesting things.  There’s a time and a place for thinking about troublesome things, and it’s not all the time.

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