In recent weeks, as the national debate over life itself has reached a fever pitch, some abortion-rights advocates have adopted a radical stance. Skirting the question of prenatal personhood altogether, these few extremists suggest that it is better not to be born than to endure a life full of suffering and inevitable death. This argument — notably advanced by actress Jameela Jamil and Alabama state legislator John Rogers (D.) — is reminiscent of a philosophy that has long been lurking in the corners of academia: anti-natalism.
Anti-natalism finds its most passionate defender in David Benatar, a professor of philosophy at the University of Cape Town. Benatar is best known for his book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence (2006). He has expanded on this book’s anti-natalist thesis in multiple subsequent publications, especially The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions (2017), which prompted a widely read profile in The New Yorker — perhaps coincidentally, the profile has been making the rounds on the Internet again in recent weeks. Benatar’s central belief is that human life, since it is meaningless and full of suffering, should be avoided whenever possible. Once sentient life comes into being, however, it should generally not be destroyed, because death only creates more suffering and causes the annihilation of a human life — though he never really explains why the annihilation of something that is irredeemably evil is innately a bad thing. On abortion, he concludes that aborting fetuses prior to the point of sentience is not only permissible but morally obligatory.
Benatar’s foundational claim about suffering is probably the most easily disputed. As Geoffrey Miller, a professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico, has observed, “all the research on human well-being shows almost everyone across cultures is well above neutral on happiness. Benatar is just empirically wrong that life is dominated by suffering.” Benatar has anticipated this objection, however, and proposes that humans have developed a tendency toward optimism as a result of evolution and therefore do not properly evaluate the squalor of their condition. Setting aside the psychopathology that must be necessary to rationalize the claim of “everyone is secretly as miserable as I am and just deluding themselves into thinking otherwise,” there is a clear misunderstanding here of what suffering is. Suffering is a feeling, a category of human experience, so it is necessarily subjective. Benatar might think that people have cause to suffer more than they do, but to suggest that they suffer (i.e., experience pain) more than they realize is entirely irrational.
Interestingly, Benatar’s complaint is not limited to the major evils that might be universally recognized as sources of suffering; in fact, his primary concern often seems to be with the alleged evil of the tedium of daily life — dishwashing, grocery shopping, rush-hour traffic, etc. These same trials, and the temptation to approach them pessimistically, are a central focus of David Foster Wallace’s famous speech-turned-essay, “This Is Water.” Wallace suggests that the natural tendency when faced with such minor pains is to wallow in self-pity, and that this instinct should be resisted in favor of a) consideration of people other than yourself and b) the search for meaning higher than yourself. Wallace was many things, but I doubt anyone, even Benatar, could accuse him of being delusionally optimistic.
Wallace’s own search for meaning was tragically unsuccessful, but Benatar would call it misguided from the start. In Better Never to Have Been, he distinguishes between various levels of meaning: meaning with respect to the individual, to a community, to all humanity, and to the cosmos. After spending a few pages explaining that he will focus only on objective meaning, he suggests that meaning for the individual can be found by accomplishing some self-set goal or having a positive impact on another; meaning to a community is to have some positive impact on the experience of that community; meaning to humanity is to have a positive impact significant enough to apply to the entire species. These are, of course, all textbook examples of subjective meaning, although in all but the first, the person whose meaning is defined is distinct from the person whose experience defines it.
Only on the grand cosmological scale does Benatar even consider the possibility of actual objective meaning, but he dismisses it immediately with all the standard arguments of the best dorm-room philosophers. Someone like Wallace, then, who was quite successful on all the lower levels of meaning, would, according to Benatar, still have no cause for hope, because he is cosmologically insignificant. While admitting that he cannot know this with absolute certainty, Benatar nonetheless demands that any opposing suggestion (i.e., an explanation as to why life has meaning) be logically unassailable and entirely comprehensive; the absurdity of this standard need not be pointed out. Wallace, whose actual thoughts on the meaning of life are nebulous, to say the least, encouraged his audience to seek meaning in some higher power because he believed in a natural human need to give oneself fully to something, to worship, and “anything else you worship will eat you alive.” Benatar’s devotion is to nothing, in the substantial nihilistic sense (as substantial a sense as the word can have at least), and it is no surprise that a life actively and monomaniacally devoted to the notion that life has no meaning might feel meaningless. He has given himself freely to be eaten — in fact, he’s been thoroughly digested and come out the other end — and wants the rest of the world to follow suit.
One of the greatest tragedies of the human condition — though not, I think, a great enough tragedy to warrant the auto-extinction of the species — is the terrible power of the human mind. That is, the mind is powerful enough to create entirely self-sufficient delusions. Chesterton observed this phenomenon in Orthodoxy: “The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable. . . . His explanation covers the facts as much as yours.” For this reason, neither Benatar’s philosophical defense of meaninglessness nor the opposing argument for meaning is likely to change anyone’s mind. Each is, more or less, a coherent and sufficient explanation of the world given the extent of human knowledge and reason. Of course, only one answer can be true. But, since both reason and knowledge have their limits, which side one falls on is likely determined by disposition (in simple terms, pessimism or optimism) more than by dialectic.
The anti-natalist disposition is similar to that of utopians — especially socialists — who seek to bring an end to the world as we know it and replace it with a new one. The motivation for both is the same: a disdain for the world in which we live. The anti-natalists have the revolutionaries’ desire to destroy, just not their desire to recreate. It is essentially the same philosophy, given a few generations to rot.
Despite the plainly anti-conservative nature of his philosophy, Benatar displays an interesting sadness at the loss of things that once were:
One might be wandering around an old graveyard. On the tombstones are inscribed some details about the deceased — the dates they were born and died, and perhaps references to spouses, siblings, or children and grandchildren who mourned their loss. Those mourners are themselves now long dead. One thinks about the lives of those families — the beliefs and values, loves and losses, hopes and fears, strivings and failures — and one is struck that nothing of that remains. All has come to naught.
There is an answer to Benatar’s lamentation here; we call it “conservatism.” Has nobody told him that there is literally an entire broad family of political, social, and cultural thought devoted specifically to the concern that all should not “come to naught”? Stewardship and use of “various devices — words, rituals, records, commemorations, laws — to supply continuity as forgetfulness and death keep dissolving our ties with what has existed before” is a better solution to the sadness inspired by decay than that proposed by Benatar: rather than preserving what we can, simply bring everything to an end so that there is nobody left to mourn.
Benatar’s entire theory rests on the claim that a refusal to bring any more sentient life into the world will simply bring an end to evil. The argument hinges on his apparent conflation of evil with pain: If nobody is left to suffer, there can be no evil. But there is a better, more objective understanding of what evil is that has only recently (in the grand scheme of things) fallen out of favor in popular philosophy: privatio boni, the deprivation of good. The commonplace metaphorical illustration of the concept is that darkness is nothing in itself, only the absence of light. Benatar’s answer to the existence of darkness is to get rid of all the light so that there’s nothing to compare and nobody to compare it. On the small scale, it’s ridiculous: Nobody (or nobody sane, at least) would choose oblivion over the pain of daily rush-hour traffic or weekly grocery shopping. On a grander scale, it still falls short: The answer to the greatest evils — any of whose absolute most extreme result would be the end of the world — is probably not to bring about the end of the world deliberately.
Benatar opens The Human Predicament with a quote from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” This raises the question whether he has ever read the Quartets, or anything by Eliot for that matter. Benatar cherry-picks the line to imply that we delude ourselves into thinking our lives are valuable and worthwhile, to avoid the reality that we’re miserable, meaningless beings stuck on an insignificant planet in some dark corner of a vast and uncaring universe. In context, the line follows a vision of Paradise, and refers to an inability to fully grasp the higher reality toward which Eliot believed humanity, and all creation, were oriented. This inability causes a good bit of disillusionment, evil, and misery, culminating in Little Gidding with the powerful image of Nazi bombers terrorizing London, a horror Eliot witnessed firsthand while writing the poems. All of this suffering is redeemed, and the sufferers saved, in the Christian apocalypse and restoration of Paradise that marks the poems’ triumphant end, a resolution foreshadowed in one of the Quartets’ important refrains: “And all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” (Ironic, isn’t it?)
There is another Eliot quote that would make a far better epitaph for Benatar’s proposal to bring about the slow, sad self-extinction of humankind, and of all we have created, in order to avoid the suffering that comes with life: “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.” In case it’s unclear: Eliot meant that as a warning, not a suggestion.