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The Harms of Existence: A Review of David Benatar, The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions

The Harms of Existence: A Review of David Benatar, The
Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Lifes Biggest Questions
Rachel M. James
&Todd K. Shackelford
#Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018
Life is bad, but neither death nor immortality is a solution; this
is what David Benatar, a philosophy professor at the
University of Cape Town in South Africa, argues in his latest
book, The Human Predicament. Benatar is best known for his
work on antinatalism, a philosophical position that regards
procreation as morally indefensible because it produces cen-
ters of suffering(e.g., Benatar 2006). His most recent book
describes what he calls the human predicament: once one
exists, life will be bad, but death is often worse. Thus, exis-
tence inevitably leads to suffering. Benatar suggests that a
pessimistic perspective on human existence is more realistic
and appropriate than an optimistic perspective. He clearly de-
scribes, however, that pessimism is not synonymous with ni-
hilism, a philosophical position that suggests that life is utterly
meaningless. Benatar artfully weaves through topics such as
meaning, meaninglessness, quality of life, death, suicide, and
immortality to articulate the human predicament. Benatars
writing style is accessible to readers with little philosophical
background or experience; having a sincere interest in con-
templating existence and death is sufficient.
To eliminate semantic and definitional distractions, Benatar
explains that when people question whether they have a mean-
ingful life, they are asking whether our lives are significant,
whether they have import, or whether they have some purpose
(p. 17). Although significance,”“importance,and purpose
do not have precisely the same meanings, Benatar suggests that a
confluence of these features describes a meaningful life, at least
for descriptive purposes. Benatar clearly conveys his conviction
that humans cannot achieve any sort of cosmically meaningful
life; the universe is indifferent to human existence. Perhaps sur-
prisingly, however, Benatar argues that humans can obtain
terrestrial meaning, which refers to limited but achievable mean-
ing in this life (e.g., through individual and group/community
interactions or across humanity). One could complete vocational
goals set for oneself or provide comfort to family members, for
example. Only rarely can an individual achieve meaning sub
specie humanitatis,orglobalmeaning, in which one makes
an impact on all of humanity (e.g., Einstein, Darwin, and
Shakespeare). These terrestrial instances of meaning do not dis-
tract from Benatars main point: humans desire cosmic meaning,
but this is not possible. Cosmic meaning is more expansive than
terrestrial meaning and humans wish to be and feel more impor-
tant than they are or can be. Benatar argues that, objectively,
humans are insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe,
regardless of whether we personally feel subjective meaning.
Although terrestrial meaning can be good, it will eventually cease
because all humans inevitably die. Terrestrial meaning is also
severely limited because it can never be as expansive or as satis-
fying as the never-to-be-obtained but ever-sought-for cosmic
meaning. Life cannot be as meaningful as individuals wish, if
this wish refers to cosmic meaningfulness.
Transitioning to the meaninglessness of human life,
Benatar notes that humans evolved by natural selection, an
unguided, purposeless, and uncaring process, thereby aligning
his philosophical perspective with evolutionary science.
Benatar provides a devastating dismantling of theistic argu-
ments for cosmic meaning. Theistic accounts of lifesmeaning
center around god-bestowed purpose, and Benatar provides a
satisfying presentation of the circularity of this perspective:
Even in the best-case scenario, it is hard to understand why
God would create a being in order to prepare it for an afterlife,
given that no afterlife would be needed or desired if the being
had not been created in the first place(p. 39). Given that
humans (and all other species) have evolved by a meaningless
process, religious arguments do not provide a foothold for
universal meaning. Benatar remains intellectually honest and
consistent in extending his argument to secular perspectives
on meaning. Benatar suggests that secular interpretations of
meaning are often equally confused and empty. For instance,
*Rachel M. James
Department of Psychology, Oakland University,
Rochester, MI 49309, USA
Evolutionary Psychological Science
atheists might agree with Dawkinss(2006) claims that evo-
lution by natural selection is beautiful and that humans are
lucky to exist. Benatar argues, however, that secular perspec-
tives that claim that life is inherently valuable and thus uni-
versally meaningful are naive and ignore reality. He forces
readers to confront their biases, be they secular or religious.
Religiously inclined readers may begin to question theistic
interpretations of purpose, whereas secular readers are guided
to think skeptically about optimistic perspectives of life.
Benatar compassionately addresses the dismal quality of
human life. He argues that most humans incorrectly perceive
the quality of their livesmost believe that life is better than it
actually is. Psychological research supports Benatarsargu-
ment. An optimism biasoccurs when an individual per-
ceives circumstances more favorably than they actually are
(Sharot 2011). Humans often judge negative or neutral events
in positive terms, especially in hindsight. Sharot (2011)argues
that this optimism bias may be the product of evolved psy-
chology (e.g., encouraging an individual to marry, have chil-
dren, and otherwise continue striving to achieve desired out-
comes and goals). Benatar concedes that this optimism bias
may alleviate some suffering. According to Benatar, however,
this bias does not eliminate or extract one from the human
predicament. Life is objectively bad, even if one perceives it
favorably. To persuade the reader of this point, Benatar argues
that persistent and pervasive struggles with hunger, disease,
mental anguish, pain, and social problems (to name a few) are
evidence of the deplorable quality of life. No matter how good
certain pleasures are, pains are more enduring and impactful.
Having defended a pessimistic perspective on existence,
one might expect that Benatar would suggest that death re-
solves the sufferings of life. This expectation would be wrong.
According to Benatar, life is bad, but so is death. He articulates
a compassionate perspective on death, one that is nevertheless
deeply pessimistic. In detailing his perspective on death,
Benatar addresses other philosophical arguments about death,
which he dismantles or assimilates into his perspective. The
deprivation account of death, for example, posits that death is
bad because it denies the individual who has died the future
goods that may have been secured if life had continued (e.g.,
death occurs before reaching a desired goal). Benatar argues
that this deprivation account is incomplete. He adds another
component: annihilation. Death is bad not merely because it
deprives one of the future good that one would otherwise have
had, but also because it obliterates one(p. 102103; italics in
original). Although life is bad, death is often worse because it
deprives and annihilates, exemplifying a feature of the human
predicament. Benatar effectively explains why death is bad for
an individual, even though in death, they eternally cease to
exist, which, according to alternative perspectives, is not bad.
Benatar disagrees. Additionally, Benatar suggests that evolu-
tionary psychology may account for human aversion to or
anxiety about death. Humans typically do not want to die,
even if life is bedeviled with suffering. In fact, risk aversion
research suggests that our ancestors are those individuals that
avoided risky situations or behaviors and, therefore, were
more likely to survive to reproduce than conspecifics who
took more risks and perhaps were less fearful or anxious about
death (Levy 2015). Although this evolved desire to avoid
lethal risks may have been ancestrally adaptive, it does not
diminish the severity of the human predicament. Humans
who successfully (albeit temporarily) avoid death thereby
are assured to extend their suffering and those who die sooner
rather than later are thereby deprived of future goods they
might otherwise have secured and are annihilated sooner rath-
er than later. Either way, existence leads unequivocally and
irrevocably to bad outcomes.
Considering that suicide is one way of achieving death, it
should not be surprising to the reader, at this point now
nearing the end of the book, that Benatar argues that suicide
is not a solution to the human predicament. In some cases,
however, when the quality of life is so low that death is not as
bad as continued living, suicide may be appropriate and de-
fensible. This is Benatars qualified defense of suicide.
Benatar is sensitive in explaining that his argument should
not be taken lightly by the reader. He is not attempting to
convince any reader to suicide. Instead, Benatar recognizes
some highly qualified(p. 165) instances in which suicide
might be an understandable response to unmitigated suffering.
Some researchers have argued that there are circumstances in
which suicide may have been ancestrally adaptive. For exam-
ple, de Catanzaro (1991) provides evidence that suicide is
most likely to occur when an individual inhabits circum-
stances in which net contributions to ancestral inclusive fit-
ness are unlikely. According to de Catanzaro, when opportu-
nities for reproduction are dismal, it may ancestrally have
benefitted genetic kin if that individual suicided. More re-
sources could then be dedicated to surviving kin who carry
copies of the suicidesgenes.
Benatar addresses immortality to elaborate on the human
predicament. He uses a discussion of immortality to highlight
issues of mortalitynotably, the fact that death is an unavoid-
able fate that evokes fear or anxiety in many humans. Benatar
discusses several delusional perspectives on mortality, includ-
ing the denial of mortality and the rejection of mortality. He,
again, dismantles both theistic and secular arguments about
immortality, remaining honest and consistent. According to
Benatar, optimistic theistic beliefs in an immortal soul, al-
though comforting, are baseless and derive from wishful
thinking. On the other hand, optimistic secular beliefs about
immortality, often facilitated by an overestimation of scientific
progress, ignore sundry negative implications and conse-
quences of eternal (or very much extended) life. Benatar notes
that true immortality (i.e., one cannot die in any circumstance,
ever) is not possible, but engages the topic to show the reader
how bad life is and would be, even if, hypothetically, we could
Evolutionary Psychological Science
live forever. He argues that immortality is bad because it
would extend the sufferings of life (e.g., experiencing the
deaths of friends and family members). Benatar contends,
however, that the option of immortality would be as bad as
compulsory immortality because it does not solve the human
predicament: an eternally bad life is still a bad life.
In a previous work, Benatar (2006)suggeststhatabstaining
from procreation is morally requisite given the human predic-
ament. Throughout The Human Predicament, this antinatalist
perspective is enriched and corroborated. Although Benatar
does not discuss at length abstaining from procreation until
the final chapter, he subtly encourages the reader throughout
to consider the net negative consequences of bringing an in-
dividual into existence by presenting evidence for the low
quality of life and the inevitable harms of death.
Unfortunately, humans are motivated by powerful evolved
mechanisms that facilitate reproduction; widespread
antinatalism is unlikely. Benatar argues that whether humans
collectively decide to stop reproducing (he is not optimistic on
this count), human extinction is inevitable and all instances of
terrestrial meaning will eventually disappear.
In sum, Benatars central thesis is that once we are brought
into existence, neither continued life nor death can resolve the
human predicament described by our cosmic meaningless-
ness, low quality of life, and inevitable suffering. Human life
is bad, but death is often worse, leaving us in a Catch-22 once
we exist. Throughout the book, Benatar eloquently argues that
pessimism is realism and he constructs sturdy bridges between
his philosophical stance and psychological science, making
frequent reference to the results of empirical research to sup-
port his argument. Benatar thoughtfully concludes the book
with a clear suggestion for how we, as individuals, might best
respond to the human predicament: do not procreate.
Benatar, D. (2006). Better never to have been: the harm of coming into
existence. New York: Oxford University Press.
Dawkins, R. (2006). The god delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
de Catanzaro, D. (1991). Evolutionary limits to self-preservation.
Ethology & Sociobiology, 12,1328.
Levy, M. (2015). An evolutionary explanation for risk aversion. Journal
of Economic Psychology, 46,5161.
Sharot, T. (2011). The optimism bias. Current Biology, 21,R941R945.
Evolutionary Psychological Science
Full-text available
The South African philosopher David Benatar argues that not being born is preferable to coming into existence as only the fact of non existing can prevent suffering. From an ethical and pragmatic viewpoint this means that we have to forego procreation. Benatar's main line of argumentation is the claim of an asymmetry between harms and benefits such that not being born does not withhold benefits from anybody whereas it surely prevents suffering. The present paper will argue that the persuasiveness of Benatar's claim depends fundamentally upon a premise which in fact remains totally undiscussed by the philosopher himself. This crucial premise is revealed, however, if one analyzes Benatar's philosophy in the light of the metaphysically grounded anti-natalist ethics of Schopenhauer.
This book argues for a number of related, highly provocative views: (i) coming into existence is always a serious harm; (ii) procreation is always wrong; (iii) it is wrong not to abort foetuses at the earlier stages of gestation; and (iv) it would be better if, as a result of there being no new people, humanity became extinct. Although these conclusions are antagonistic to common and deeply held intuitions, the book argues that these intuitions are unreliable and thus cannot be used to refute it's grim-sounding conclusions.
A simple mathematical formula can be derived, on the basis of inclusive fitness theory and notions of reproductive value, to represent the residual capacity of an individual to influence his inclusive fitness. This formula involves the individual's remaining reproductive potential in his expected natural lifetime, plus the summated impacts of his continued existence on the remaining reproductive potentials of each of his kin, each weighted by the coefficient of relationship. In theory, this quantity should predict the extent to which self-preservation is optimally expressed in that individual. For asocial species, the value will vary from zero up to the maximal reproductive value observable, and the logic of the Medawar-Williams theory of senescence should apply directly. However, for highly social species like our own, it can be demonstrated that negative values can also obtain, given the conjunction of low residual reproductive potential and burdensomeness toward kin. Much empirical evidence suggests that outright self-destructiveness is often found in circumstances of such conjunction.
The ability to anticipate is a hallmark of cognition. Inferences about what will occur in the future are critical to decision making, enabling us to prepare our actions so as to avoid harm and gain reward. Given the importance of these future projections, one might expect the brain to possess accurate, unbiased foresight. Humans, however, exhibit a pervasive and surprising bias: when it comes to predicting what will happen to us tomorrow, next week, or fifty years from now, we overestimate the likelihood of positive events, and underestimate the likelihood of negative events. For example, we underrate our chances of getting divorced, being in a car accident, or suffering from cancer. We also expect to live longer than objective measures would warrant, overestimate our success in the job market, and believe that our children will be especially talented. This phenomenon is known as the optimism bias, and it is one of the most consistent, prevalent, and robust biases documented in psychology and behavioral economics.