A Defense of David Benatar Against a Scurrilous Attack

Not a defense of his views but of the courageous practice of unrestrained philosophical inquiry, inquiry that follows the arguments where they lead, even if they make people uncomfortable.

By a defense of Benatar, I do not mean a defense of his deeply pessimistic and anti-natalist views, views to which I do not subscribe. I mean a defense of the courageous practice of unrestrained philosophical inquiry, inquiry that follows the arguments where they lead, even if they issue in conclusions that make people extremely uncomfortable and are sure to bring obloquy upon the philosopher who proposes them.

The New Criterion hit piece is entitled The 'Wisdom' of Silenus. It bears no author's name and looks to be something like an editorial. The view of Silenus is easily summarized:

Best of all for humans is never to have been born; second best is to die soon.

We should first note that while Benatar subscribes to the first independent clause, he does not embrace the second. One might think that if life is bad, then death must be at least instrumentally good insofar as it puts an end to suffering.  Benatar's view, however, is that "death is no deliverance from the human predicament, but a further feature of it." (The Human Predicament, Oxford UP, 2017, 96)

Benatar outdoes Silenus in pessimism. We are caught in an existential vise, squeezed between life which is bad and death which is also bad. Everyone alive will die. While alive we are in a bad way. When dead we are also in a bad way, Epicurus notwithstanding. There is no escape for those who have had the misfortune of being born. So being born is a misfortune twice over: because life is bad and because being dead is bad.

My first point, then, is that the NC author wrongly assimilates Benatar to Silenus. But why should that bother someone who thinks it acceptable to criticize a book he has not read? I have no problem with someone who dismisses a book unread. My problem is with someone who publishes an article attacking a book he hasn't read.

. . . apart from professional pessimists like Nietzsche’s mentor Arthur Schopenhauer, most people are rightly repelled by this so-called wisdom of Silenus. They understand that life is an inestimable gift, the denial of which is part folly, part obscenity. We said “most people.” There are exceptions. Suicide bombers, disturbed teenagers, and of course certain grandstanding academics. Take Professor David Benatar, head of the department of philosophy at the University of Cape Town. In 2006, Oxford University Press . . . published Professor Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. [. . .] “The central idea of this book,” we read on the first page of its introduction, “is that coming into existence is always a serious harm.” 

Understandably repelled, but "rightly repelled"?  How does the author know that? How does he know that "life is an inestimable gift"?  If life is a gift, then it has to have a donor, and who might that be, God?  I'm a theist myself, but surely the existence of God is not self-evident to one whose critical faculties are in good working order. If life is a gift of an all-good God, why is life so horrible for so many in so many ways? Of course there is goodness and beauty in the world as well.  The point here is that the existence of the Giver and the goodness of the gift can be reasonably questioned.

And if life is a gift, and God is the donor, to whom is the gift given? Before I came to be, I was not, and simply not there to be given any gifts including the putative gift of life. But after I came to be, I already had what the Giver was supposed to bestow. Talk of life as a gift is logically problematic. No one can give you a gift unless are there to receive it, whence it follows that your being there cannot literally be a gift.

I should think that an intellectually honest person would admit that it is just not clear whether life is an "inestimable gift" or "a business that doesn't cover its costs." (Schopenhauer)  Such a person would admit that it is an open question and if he were inquisitive he would want to examine the arguments on either side. But not our NC author who is content to psychologize and ridicule and dogmatize in a manner depressingly ideological but most unphilosophical.

One of the comments on this book at Amazon.com complains that people have been rejecting the book without reading it or arguing against Professor Benatar’s position. Doubtless there is plenty to argue with, not to say ridicule, in Better Never to Have Been. One might start by meditating on what words like “harm” and “better” might mean in the world according to Benatar. It is sobering to contemplate what logical and existential armageddon had to have occurred in order for something like this book to have been written. Still, we believe people are right to take that high road and reject the book without engaging its argument. To quote Nietzsche again, you do not refute a disease: you might cure it, quarantine it, or in some cases ignore it altogether. You don’t argue with it. Reason is profitably employed only among the reasonable. (Emphasis added.)

The irony here is that the NC author is using Nietzsche of all people to clobber Benatar.  Assuming one thinks it acceptable to engage in quarantine and prohibition, is there any Western philosopher more deserving of quarantine and inclusion on the index librorum prohibitorum? Has our author ever read Nietzsche's The Anti-Christ? If you do not refute a disease, you also do not invoke the product of a diseased mind to dismiss as diseased the work of some other thinker.

As for rationality, Benatar is a paragon of rationality compared to Nietzsche who rants and raves and forwards incoherent views. For example, his perspectivism about truth collapses into an elimination of truth.  

Dr. Johnson had the right idea when he employed the pedal expedient against Bishop Berkeley’s doctrine of universal hallucination. Something similar should be employed in the case of Professor Benatar’s Lemmings First doctrine of human fatuousness.

This is the worst kind of pseudo-philosophical journalistic cleverness and name-dropping. It shows a thorough lack of understanding of Berkeley's idealism. Berkeley was not an eliminativist about material objects.  He did not maintain that rocks and trees do not exist; he did not question WHETHER they are; he offered an unusual ontological account of WHAT they are, namely ideas in the divine mind.  If you know your Berkeley you know that what I just wrote is true and that the good bishop cannot be refuted by the pedal expedient of kicking a stone.

The gross facts, the Moorean facts, are not in dispute and philosophers are not in the business of denying them. I would have no trouble showing that even with respect to the characteristic theses of Zeno of Elea, F. H. Bradley, and J. E. M. McTaggart.

I do not deny that there are claims that are beneath refutation.  It is not always wrong to dismiss a statement as false or even absurd without proof.  Some claims are refutable by "the pedal expedient." Suppose you maintain that there are no pains, that no one ever feels pain.  Without saying anything, I kick you in the shins with steel-tipped boots, or perhaps I kick you higher up.  I will have brought home to you the plain falsehood of your claim.  Or suppose sophomore Sam  says that there is no truth.  I would be fully within my epistemic rights to respond, 'Is that so?' and then walk away.

But Berkeley is not denying the self-evident. Neither is Benatar. It is not self-evident that human life is an "inestimable gift."  That's not a datum but a theory. Maybe it's true. But maybe it isn't. Inquiry is therefore not only appropriate but necessary for those who seek rational justification for what they believe.

When James Burnham published The Suicide of the West in 1964, what he chiefly feared was the West’s lack of resolve to stand up to encroaching Communism. Quite right, too. Burnham was well endowed with what Henry James called the “imagination of disaster.” But we think that even Burnham might have been nonplussed by a Western intellectual who went beyond political capitulation to total existential surrender and whose proclamation of that gospel found a home at one of our greatest university presses. Even as we were absorbing Professor Benatar’s repackaging of Silenus, we stumbled upon an article revealing that sun-drenched, life-loving Italy had become “the least happy” country in Europe. “It’s a country,” said Walter Veltroni, the mayor of Rome, “that has lost a little of its will for the future.” It’s also a country that has eagerly adopted the philosophy of Professor Benatar and Ms. Vernelli: Italy’s birth rate is an astonishing 1.23, among the lowest in Europe. This is “anti-natalism” with a vengeance.

This is disgusting tabloid stuff. First of all, Benatar is not repackaging Silenus. He is saying something different from Silenus, as we have already seen, and his books are chock-full of challenging arguments and distinctions. There is a lot to be learned from his discussions. I don't find his arguments compelling, but then no arguments in philosophy for substantive theses are compelling. 

Second, our journalist subordinates the search for truth to ideology.  I don't doubt that the West is under demographic threat.  Anti-natalist doctrines, if taken seriously by enough people, will tend to weaken us over against the Muslims and others that aim to displace us. But the philosopher seeks the truth, whatever it is, whether it promotes our flourishing or not.

Finally, if one is going to urge the ignoring of  Benatar because of the possible consequences of his views, then one should do the same with others including Herr Nietzsche. His views were input to the destructive ideology of National Socialism. (See Nietzsche and National Socialism) And then there is Karl Marx . . . .