Original Article courtesy of The New Yorker, November 27, 2017. By Joshua Rothman.
David Benatar may be the world’s most pessimistic philosopher. An “anti-natalist,” he believes that life is so bad, so painful, that human beings should stop having children for reasons of compassion. “While good people go to great lengths to spare their children from suffering, few of them seem to notice that the one (and only) guaranteed way to prevent all the suffering of their children is not to bring those children into existence in the first place,” he writes, in a 2006 book called “Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence.” In Benatar’s view, reproducing is intrinsically cruel and irresponsible—not just because a horrible fate can befall anyone, but because life itself is “permeated by badness.” In part for this reason, he thinks that the world would be a better place if sentient life disappeared altogether.
For a work of academic philosophy, “Better Never to Have Been” has found an unusually wide audience. It has 3.9 stars on GoodReads, where one reviewer calls it “required reading for folks who believe that procreation is justified.” A few years ago, Nic Pizzolatto, the screenwriter behind “True Detective,” read the book and made Rust Cohle, Matthew McConaughey’s character, a nihilistic anti-natalist. (“I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution,” Cohle says.) When Pizzolatto mentioned the book to the press, Benatar, who sees his own views as more thoughtful and humane than Cohle’s, emerged from an otherwise reclusive life to clarify them in interviews. Now he has published “The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions,” a refinement, expansion, and contextualization of his anti-natalist thinking. The book begins with an epigraph from T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets”—“Humankind cannot bear very much reality”—and promises to provide “grim” answers to questions such as “Do our lives have meaning?,” and “Would it be better if we could live forever?”
Benatar was born in South Africa in 1966. He is the head of the philosophy department at the University of Cape Town, where he also directs the university’s Bioethics Centre, which was founded by his father, Solomon Benatar, a global-health expert. (Benatar dedicated “Better Never to Have Been” “to my parents, even though they brought me into existence.”) Beyond these bare facts, little information about him is available online. There are no pictures of Benatar on the Internet; YouTube videos of his lectures consist only of PowerPoint slides. One video, titled “What Does David Benatar Look Like?,” zooms in on a grainy photograph taken from the back of a lecture hall until an arrow labelled “David Benatar” appears, indicating the abstract, pixellated head of a man in a baseball cap.
After finishing “The Human Predicament,” I wrote to Benatar to ask if we could meet. He readily agreed, then, after reading a few of my other pieces, followed up with a note. “I see that you aim to portray the person you interview, in addition to his or her work,” he wrote:
One pertinent fact about me is that I am a very private person who would be mortified to be written about in the kind of detail I’ve seen in the other interviews. I would thus decline to answer questions I would find too personal. (I would be similarly uncomfortable with a photograph of me being used.) I understand entirely if you would rather not proceed with the interview under these circumstances. If, however, you would be happy to conduct an interview that recognized this aspect of me, I would be delighted.
Undoubtedly, Benatar is a private person by nature. But his anonymity also serves a purpose: it prevents readers from psychologizing him and attributing his views to depression, trauma, or some other aspect of his personality. He wants his arguments to be confronted in themselves. “Sometimes people ask, ‘Do you have children?’ ” he told me later. (He speaks calmly and evenly, in a South African accent.) “And I say, ‘I don’t see why that’s relevant. If I do, I’m a hypocrite—but my arguments could still be right.’ ” When he told me that he’s had anti-natalist views since he was “very young,” I asked how young. “A child,” he said, after a pause. He smiled uncomfortably. This was exactly the kind of personal question he preferred not to answer.
Benatar and I met at the World Trade Center, where The New Yorker has its offices. He is small and trim, with an elfin face, and he was neatly dressed in trousers and a lavender sweater; I recognized him by his baseball cap. On the building’s sixty-fourth floor, we settled into a pair of plush chairs arranged near windows with panoramic views of Manhattan: the Hudson on the left, the East River on the right, the skyscrapers of midtown in the distance.
Social scientists often ask people about their levels of happiness. A typical survey asks respondents to rate their lives on a scale of one (“the worst possible life for you”) to ten (“the best possible life for you”); according to the 2017 World Happiness Report, Americans surveyed between 2014 and 2016 rated their lives, on average, 6.99—less happy than the lives of Canadians (7.32) and happier than those of citizens of Sudan (4.14). Another survey reads, “Taking all things together, would you say you are (i) Very happy, (ii) Rather happy, (iii) Not very happy or (iv) Not at all happy?” In recent years, in countries such as India, Russia, and Zimbabwe, responses to this question have been trending upward. In 1998, ninety-three per cent of Americans claimed to be very or rather happy. By 2014, after the Great Recession, the number had fallen, but only slightly, to ninety-one per cent.
People, in short, say that life is good. Benatar believes that they are mistaken. “The quality of human life is, contrary to what many people think, actually quite appalling,” he writes, in “The Human Predicament.” He provides an escalating list of woes, designed to prove that even the lives of happy people are worse than they think. We’re almost always hungry or thirsty, he writes; when we’re not, we must go to the bathroom. We often experience “thermal discomfort”—we are too hot or too cold—or are tired and unable to nap. We suffer from itches, allergies, and colds, menstrual pains or hot flashes. Life is a procession of “frustrations and irritations”—waiting in traffic, standing in line, filling out forms. Forced to work, we often find our jobs exhausting; even “those who enjoy their work may have professional aspirations that remain unfulfilled.” Many lonely people remain single, while those who marry fight and divorce. “People want to be, look, and feel younger, and yet they age relentlessly”:
They have high hopes for their children and these are often thwarted when, for example, the children prove to be a disappointment in some way or other. When those close to us suffer, we suffer at the sight of it. When they die, we are bereft.
The knee-jerk response to observations like these is, “If life is so bad, why don’t you just kill yourself?” Benatar devotes a forty-three-page chapter to proving that death only exacerbates our problems. “Life is bad, but so is death,” he concludes. “Of course, life is not bad in every way. Neither is death bad in every way. However, both life and death are, in crucial respects, awful. Together, they constitute an existential vise—the wretched grip that enforces our predicament.” It’s better, he argues, not to enter into the predicament in the first place. People sometimes ask themselves whether life is worth living. Benatar thinks that it’s better to ask sub-questions: Is life worth continuing? (Yes, because death is bad.) Is life worth starting? (No.)
Benatar is far from the only anti-natalist. Books such as Sarah Perry’s “Every Cradle Is a Grave” and Thomas Ligotti’s “The Conspiracy Against the Human Race” have also found audiences. There are many “misanthropic anti-natalists”: the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, for example, has thousands of members who believe that, for environmental reasons, human beings should cease to exist. For misanthropic anti-natalists, the problem isn’t life—it’s us. Benatar, by contrast, is a “compassionate anti-natalist.” His thinking parallels that of the philosopher Thomas Metzinger, who studies consciousness and artificial intelligence; Metzinger espouses digital anti-natalism, arguing that it would be wrong to create artificially conscious computer programs because doing so would increase the amount of suffering in the world. The same argument could apply to human beings.
Like a boxer who has practiced his counters, Benatar has anticipated a range of objections. Many people suggest that the best experiences in life—love, beauty, discovery, and so on—make up for the bad ones. To this, Benatar replies that pain is worse than pleasure is good. Pain lasts longer: “There’s such a thing as chronic pain, but there’s no such thing as chronic pleasure,” he said. It’s also more powerful: would you trade five minutes of the worst pain imaginable for five minutes of the greatest pleasure? Moreover, there’s an abstract sense in which missing out on good experiences isn’t as bad as having bad ones. “For an existing person, the presence of bad things is bad and the presence of good things is good,” Benatar explained. “But compare that with a scenario in which that person never existed—then, the absence of the bad would be good, but the absence of the good wouldn’t be bad, because there’d be nobody to be deprived of those good things.” This asymmetry “completely stacks the deck against existence,” he continued, because it suggests that “all the unpleasantness and all the misery and all the suffering could be over, without any real cost.”
Some people argue that talk of pain and pleasure misses the point: even if life isn’t good, it’s meaningful. Benatar replies that, in fact, human life is cosmically meaningless: we exist in an indifferent universe, perhaps even a “multiverse,” and are subject to blind and purposeless natural forces. In the absence of cosmic meaning, only “terrestrial” meaning remains—and, he writes, there’s “something circular about arguing that the purpose of humanity’s existence is that individual humans should help one another.” Benatar also rejects the argument that struggle and suffering, in themselves, can lend meaning to existence. “I don’t believe that suffering gives meaning,” Benatar said. “I think that people try to find meaning in suffering because the suffering is otherwise so gratuitous and unbearable.” It’s true, he said, that “Nelson Mandela generated meaning through the way he responded to suffering—but that’s not to defend the conditions in which he lived.”
I asked Benatar why the proper response to his arguments wasn’t to strive to make the world a better place. The possible creation of a better world in the future, he told me, hardly justifies the suffering of people in the present; at any rate, a dramatically improved world is impossible. “It’ll never happen. The lessons never seem to get learnt. They never seem to get learnt. Maybe the odd individual will learn them, but you still see this madness around you,” he said. “You can say, ‘For goodness’ sake! Can’t you see how you’re making the same mistakes humans have made before? Can’t we do this differently?’ But it doesn’t happen.” Ultimately, he said, “unpleasantness and suffering are too deeply written into the structure of sentient life to be eliminated.” His voice grew more urgent; his eyes teared up. “We’re asked to accept what is unacceptable. It’s unacceptable that people, and other beings, have to go through what they go through, and there’s almost nothing that they can do about it.” In an ordinary conversation, I would’ve murmured something reassuring. In this case, I didn’t know what to say.
Benatar had selected a vegan restaurant for lunch, and we set out to walk there, along the Hudson. At the end of Vesey Street, we passed the Irish Hunger Memorial—a quarter acre of soil transplanted from Ireland, in 2001, to commemorate the millions who had died during the country’s Great Famine. At Benatar’s suggestion, we spent a few minutes exploring and reading the historical quotes displayed in the entryway. The famine lasted seven years; recalling it, one man wrote, “It dwells in my memory as one long night of sorrow.”
It was a warm day. In Battery Park, mothers picnicked with their small children on the grass. A group of co-workers played table tennis. Down by the water, couples strolled hand in hand. There were runners on the path—shirtless men with muscular chests, women in stylish workout gear.
“Do you ever feel a dissonance between your beliefs and your environment?” I asked.
“I’m not opposed to people having fun, or in denial that life contains good things,” Benatar said, laughing. I glanced over to see that he had removed his sweater and was now in shirtsleeves. His cap appeared not to have moved. We reached the spot where, eight weeks later, a twenty-nine-year-old man in a van would kill eight people and injure eleven others.
Like everyone else, Benatar finds his views disturbing; he has, therefore, ambivalent feelings about sharing them. He wouldn’t walk into a church, stride to the pulpit, and declare that God doesn’t exist. Similarly, he doesn’t relish the idea of becoming an ambassador for anti-natalism. Life, he says, is already unpleasant enough. He reassures himself that, because his books are philosophical and academic, they will be read only by those who seek them out. He hears from readers who are grateful to find their own secret thoughts expressed. One man with several children read “Better Never to Have Been,” then told Benatar that he believed having them had been a terrible mistake; people suffering from terrible mental and physical afflictions write to say they wish that they had never existed. He also hears from people who share his views and are disabled by them. “I’m just filled with sadness for people like that,” he said, in a soft voice. “They have an accurate view of reality, and they’re paying the price for it.” I asked Benatar whether he ever found his own thoughts overwhelming. He smiled uncomfortably—another personal question—and said, “Writing helps.”
He doesn’t imagine that anti-natalism could ever be widely adopted: “It runs counter to too many biological drives.” Still, for him, it’s a source of hope. “The madness of the world as a whole—what can you or I do about that?” he said, while we walked. “But every couple, or every person, can decide not to have a child. That’s an immense amount of suffering that’s avoided, which is all to the good.” When friends have children, he must watch his words. “I’m torn,” he said. Having a child is “pretty horrible, given the predicament in which it will find itself”; on the other hand, “optimism makes life more bearable.” Some years ago, when a fellow-philosopher told him that she was pregnant, his response was muted. Come on, she insisted—you have to be happy for me. Benatar consulted his conscience, then said, “I am happy—for you.”
At lunch, we sat next to a little girl and her mother. The girl was around eight years old, wearing a dress and holding a book. “Do you want to take these home?” her mother asked, pointing to some French fries.
“Yes!” the girl said.
My conversation with Benatar continued, but I found it hard to talk about anti-natalism while sitting next to the mother and daughter. We spent much of our lunch amiably discussing our work habits. On the street, we shook hands. “I’m just going to walk around a bit,” Benatar said. He planned to wander the West Village before heading to the airport. I walked south and, near the World Trade Center, descended into the Oculus, the vast, sepulchral mall and train station that has replaced the one destroyed in the 9/11 attacks. With its towering, spine-like roof and white-marble ribs, it is part skeleton, part cathedral. Standing on the escalator, I watched as a woman with one arm in her jacket struggled to insert the other. An overweight businessman, his ears plugged with earbuds, brushed past me, jostling me with his briefcase. As he reached the bottom, he held the woman’s coat, and she slipped into it.