For the past few months I have been gingerly perusing works that, in their own idiosyncratic ways, make the case that human, namely, conscience-oriented, existence is a positive evil. I have looked into works such as E. M. Cioran’s The Trouble with Being Born, Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Colin Feltham’s Keeping Ourselves in the Dark, Jim Crawford’s Confession of an Antinatalist, Gerald B. Lorentz’s HOMO, 99 and 44/100% NONSAPIENS, Edgar Saltus’s The Philosophical Writings of Edgar Saltus: The Philosophy of disenchantment & Anatomy of Negation, Schopenhauer, and David Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. (These readings have dovetailed very nicely with my late-in-the-game discovery of the brilliant first season of True Detective.)
Benatar’s academic-esque work may be the standard-bearer in the surprisingly fertile field of antinatalism. Benatar, however, is notoriously private, so to read about him recently in The New Yorker was a treat. The following from the article captures the essence of Benatar’s thinking:
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.”
In the absence (or even in the presence) of the Faith, I can understand the potency of this line of thinking. On a purely quantitative/experiential level, the worst pains (physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, social) we have ever experienced stand out much more vividly than do their pleasurable rivals. Thought experiment: would we endure the worst pain we have ever experienced or could imagine for five minutes to experience the best pleasure we have ever experienced or could imagine for five minutes? Perhaps this signals a lack of imagination on my part, but I would not agree to such a sensory quid pro quo. Also, more analytically, we can understand his argument (from his aforementioned work, p. 30):
1. the presences of pain is bad, and that
2. the presences of pleasure is good.
However, such a symmetrical evaluation does not seem to apply to the absence of pain and pleasure, for it strikes me as true that
3. the absence of pain is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone, whereas
4. the absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation.
Thus, according to Benatar, denying someone pleasure is a bad if and only if there is someone who experiences that specific denial in space/time. However, even if no one in particular benefits, the absence of pain is (an absolute?) good. Teasing this out: not bringing a person into existence cannot be considered a true denial, for no one yet exists to deny. Furthermore, even though the non-existent person will never exist to appreciate what pain he/she has been spared, the preventative absence of pains that would necessarily have come if a person were to have been brought into existence still ranks as good.
Traditional Christians, however, ascribe to pain and pleasure relative values, though, within the larger context of general estimations. Yes, generally speaking, pain is bad, and pleasure is good. This notwithstanding, no pleasure–no matter how great–can be validated by Christians if it is illicit. As for pain, our salvation comes through, though is not primarily the result of, our willingness to unite our sufferings to the sufferings of Christ and to pick up His cross and to follow Him. Thus, pain does not leave checks only on the negative side of life’s registry. Yet, what about the writings of most of the saints throughout history? Any even-handed study–and I would love to hear to the contrary–will show that they, with a few prominent exceptions, have believed most of humanity to belong to the seemingly innumerable massa damnata. If this is the case, why have children–and lots of ’em? What would be the traditional responses? We are not to use artificial birth control anyway, so the question is moot. (However, we will leave unaddressed the Church’s prohibition against artificial birth control, which would necessarily have to be disregarded [more so than it already is] by all sex-loving antinatalist couples, Catholic or not.) Or: everyone will be given the grace he/she needs to be saved (though most will reject it). Or: the (very slight) possibility of divine union with God justifies all the certain sufferings we will undergo in this life and the (very likely) risks of damnation we may face every day. Let us speculate that for every thousand people, only ten will go to heaven. This may be a liberal estimate according to saints like St. Leonard of Port Maurice. How egotistically wretched is it to say that the salvation of those few (aka the fewness of the saved) justifies the loss of the other hundreds? Does having children to ensure the continuation of a family line justify the likelihood that most branches of that tree will burn for eternity? I would think that Catholics who took this saintly speculation (for it is not Church dogma) seriously would deny themselves the comforts of marriage and family for the sake of “leading” fewer souls to hell and either take vows or live as intentional bachelors and spinsters out of Christian charity. If most are going to hell, then why have children–future fodder for God’s flaming justice? Even Jesus Himself said regarding Judas, one whose fate did not look too promising at the close of the Gospels, that it would have been better for him never to have been born.