Better Never To Have Been: An Interview with David Benatar

· | Comments

Better Never To Have Been: An Interview with David Benatar
Disclaimer: some of the opinions expressed in this article are extremely controversial. There are significant, spirited, mostly reasonable debates on the r/philosophy and r/vegan subreddits (among other places) which explore some of the analytical philosophy surrounding Professor Benatar’s claims. This article does not constitute an endorsement of antinatalism; rather, it is intended to be a critical introduction to a position that is held by many vegans, and which some people consider intrinsically linked to veganism.

There’s a lot of talk in the vegan community about whether having children is a good idea or not. Obviously the default human position is that giving birth is encouraged, or at least accepted. Most of us exist as a result of the decision to create life, and government policies that attempt to restrict procreation are met with harsh criticism. Conversely, almost every nation offers paid paternity leave*, and only a minority of nations allow abortions when health is not a factor*.

In philosophy, the pro-birth position is called natalism (or sometimes pronatalism), and the moral objection to procreation is called, unsurprisingly, antinatalism*. Contemporary antinatalists, like many contemporary vegans, tend to focus on the problem of suffering: put simply, every child will necessarily suffer if they exist, but they can’t suffer if they don’t exist, so procreation results in suffering. Some vegan antinatalists see the act of refusing to partake in animal industry as an expression of antinatalism – without adequate financial incentive, farmers won’t breed more animals for industrial abuse.

While many humans’ lives are not as bad as those of factory-farmed animals, everybody will suffer considerable evil. The only way to prevent that is not to bring them into existence.

Antinatalism has a long and storied history. Socrates is credited with the remark ‘to live is to be sick for a long time’; the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer advanced the idea in the nineteenth century*, and the philosopher/comedian Peter Wessel Zapffe continued in the following century*. More recently the character Rustin Cohle in the television show True Detective expresses clear antinatalist (if misanthropic) tendencies, the comedian Doug Stanhope has proposed paying people not to have children*, and the maniacal YouTube personality Freelee the Banana Girl has made her antinatalist views known.

The most comprehensive argument for antinatalism to date was given by the philosopher David Benatar* in his 2006 book Better Never to Have Been. His book made me reconsider many of my prior beliefs about the moral issues surrounding procreation, and I highly recommend it. It’s not a coincidence that Benatar is a vegan, and I was delighted to get the chance to ask him some of the burning questions that I and the community have wondered about.

RVGN: Antinatalists often describe the choice to have a child as a gamble. In Better Never to Have Been you discuss the different potential outcomes of procreation by comparing a scenario in which a person exists to one in which they do not:

Can you explain why you think the odds favour a negative outcome for the offspring of people who chose to procreate?

DB: My view is not merely that the odds favour a negative outcome, but that a negative outcome is guaranteed. The analogy I use is a procreational Russian Roulette in which all the chambers of the gun contain a live bullet. The basis for this claim is an important asymmetry between benefits and harms. The absence of harms is good even if there is nobody to enjoy that absence. However, the absence of a benefit is only bad if there is somebody who is deprived of that benefit. The upshot of this is that coming into existence has no advantages over never coming into existence, whereas never coming into existence has advantages over coming into existence. Thus so long as a life contains some harm, coming into existence is a net harm.

RVGN: In the last few years consent has become an important issue for those of us concerned with human rights. Generally, we believe that potentially harmful actions should not be enacted without the express consent of all those involved. Vegan advocates have pointed out that non-human animals are unable to consent to any of the harms we regularly subject them to. Like non-human animals, non-existent people do not have the ability to consent to being brought into existence, and yet we often believe that making the decision to bring new people in the world is acceptable because we can be reasonably sure that they will retrospectively consent once they are able to do so.

Why do you think this assumption fails to solve the issue of consent?

DB: The assumption that most people brought into existence will retrospectively consent to their creation is likely true. However, it does not justify our bringing children into existence. This is partly because we have reason to think that the preference of most people to have come into existence is an “adaptive preference” — a preference that people develop in order to cope with an unfortunate situation. When the infliction of harm causes the person harmed to come to consent to it, we should be very wary. If, for example, lobotomizing somebody caused that person to endorse the lobotomization, we would not – and should not – think that the retrospective consent justifies the practice.

RVGN: You advance the argument that ‘coming into existence is always a harm’ based on the indisputable fact that all sentient beings will, at some point in their lives, experience suffering. In your work you point out that many people suffer from chronic ailments in addition to the everyday suffering of existence, and how the few neutral or pleasant states we experience are outweighed by these negative experiences. To take an example from my own life I recognise that my chronic (though thankfully mild!) back pain gives me more negative experiences than pleasurable experiences. That said, weighing my back pain against my general ‘chronic happiness’ (or contentment) I think my back pain loses.

Do you contend that suffering outweigh our contentment for those of us lucky enough to experience chronic happiness?

DB: I do think that the bad outweighs the good in even the happiest lives. The reason why this seems so strange is that (most) humans have psychological traits that lead to their underweighting the bad and thus thinking that in their lives as a whole there is more good than bad. The most prominent of these traits is an optimism bias, but there are others too.

RVGN: In your book you cite several studies demonstrating the optimism bias. Even people who experience extreme misfortunes and suffering tend to have an optimisic view of their lives. This hedonic adaption is obviously evolutionarily advantageous – those of us who found our suffering unbearable were less likely to live long enough to pass on our genes. You draw our attention to how inaccurate humans are in assessing the quality of their lives. But couldn’t this very misjudgement be used as an argument for procreation? That is, if all potential people are going to believe they are happy, then why not create more seemingly happy lives?

DB: First, it’s not true that all potential people are going to have a positive outlook. There are many who find life a struggle. Second, while the misjudgement may make lives less bad than they would otherwise be, it does not follow that the quality of life is as good as it is misjudged to be. It is still possible for life to be worse than one thinks it is. The concern about adaptive preferences applies here too.

RVGN: When someone contends that the pleasure in their lives outweighs the suffering, many antinatalists might remind them of the optimism bias and suggest that they could be incorrect in the assessment of their own wellbeing. This seems to make the claim that suffering outweighs pleasure practically unfalsifiable, and therefore suspect.

Is there any way that someone could satisfactorily disprove the antinatalists’ ‘suffering outweighs pleasure’ theory?

DB: Noting the optimism bias and other psychological traits that lead to overestimation of the quality of life is only the first step in the argument. We can then point to a host of facts about the good and bad things in life. Here we should recognize some important empirical asymmetries that support a pessimistic conclusion. For example, the most intense pleasures are short-lived but pain is much more enduring. The worst pains are also worse than the best pleasures are good. Injury is swift but recovery is slow. These are but a few examples. All these claims can be assessed against the facts. They are not unfalsifiable.

RVGN: Some opponents of antinatalism accuse antinatalists of falling prey to a ‘pessimism bias’, which is common in people who suffer from depression. How do you respond to people who suggest that your assessment of the relative quantities of suffering and happiness is affected by your own emotional state, and not measurable evidence from the external world?

DB: I am not depressed. I do have a pessimistic view, but that, I argue, is what the evidence warrants. Thus I invite opponents of antinatalism to consider the evidence fairly. I have only gestured at it here, but your readers can find a fuller treatment not only in Better Never to Have Been but also in Debating Procreation (where I debate the issues with David Wasserman).

RVGN: Another question often levelled at antinatalists can be generalised as, if existence is so awful, why not end your life? Does an antinatalist have to be pro-suicide in order to be logically consistent?

DB: No, being an antinatalist does not entail being pro-mortalist, at least not always. An antinatalist can think that it is bad both to begin existing and to cease existing. Indeed one reason why it might be bad to begin existing is that we shall die. This is not to say that death is always bad all things considered. At some point the quality of life may become so bad that death is the lesser evil. It does not follow that one should kill oneself well before that point. However, the prospect that life will get so bad that death is the least bad option is excellent reason for thinking that coming into existence is bad. If we never exist we face neither the suffering of life nor the annihilation brought on by death.

RVGN: Although many vegans either have—or look forward to having—children, we are staunch antinatalists when it comes to the breeding of non-human animals for human consumption or entertainment. Few of us believe we are saving animals’ lives by abstaining from animal products; rather, we realise that we are saving animals from being born by decreasing demand for certain products. How does your antinatalism influence the way you think about veganism?

DB: You’re quite right about the inconsistency. One commonly hears the following sort of argument from meat-eaters: “If we did not eat the sorts of animals that are bred for food, those animals would not have had an opportunity to live. Thus we have done them a favour by breeding them for human consumption.”

This is an appalling argument. Imagine somebody proposing to give many more humans the “benefit” of life by breeding them and then killing them after a short life of suffering. The fundamental flaw in the argument is that nobody has an interest in coming into existence.

While many humans’ lives are not as bad as those of factory-farmed animals, everybody will suffer considerable evil. The only way to prevent that is not to bring them into existence. Since that course of action has zero cost for those not brought into existence, we should desist from creating suffering humans, just as we should desist from creating suffering non-human animals.

RVGN: As vegans we are concerned with non-human animal suffering, but as researcher Brian Tomasik has pointed out* we tend to predominantly focus on human-caused animal suffering.

We know that wild animals suffer from predation, disease and injury and that the majority of suffering experienced on earth is borne by wild animals. Brian argues that as human populations increase, wild animal populations decrease due to our encroachments on their habitats and resource use, and therefore the overall level of suffering decreases.

If Brian is right* and the number of humans is inversely proportional to overall net suffering, shouldn’t those of us concerned about suffering be pronatalists, or at least not oppose the desires of other humans to procreate?

DB: I agree that the vast majority of (non-human) animal suffering is that of wild animals - caused by other wild animals or by naturally induced starvation, disease and injury. This is cause for deep gloom – another way in which pessimism is supported by the evidence. I also agree that human rapaciousness has encroached on animal habitats and reduced animal populations – in the case of many species to the point of extinction. However, we cannot infer pronatalism from this. Indeed, Brian Tomasik himself recognizes this, and calls only for the inclusion of wild animals’ suffering in our moral calculations and for further research.

The problem is that attempting to do good by harmful means is controversial at the best of times. It is still more problematic when the causal networks are so complex that we may well end up having inflicted much more harm than we will have prevented. This error is so common in human history that we ignore it only at our moral peril. The very human activities that reduce animal populations, thereby preventing suffering, also have many (non-lethal) harmful effects on present and future beings. Those who would confidently argue that the benefits outweigh the costs should be reminded that even mass extinction does not reduce suffering if other (sentient) species emerge or proliferate in the vacated niche. It is estimated that 99.9% of all species that ever existed have become extinct. Suffering has not ended. Instead it has instantiated in new species. This is not to say that the extinction of all sentient life will never occur. I am only saying that we should not assume that this will result from rampant human pronatalism.

RVGN: Many vegan parents hope that, by raising compassionate children, they will contribute to future improvements in the world for animals and humans. Though not every child raised vegan will continue that lifestyle, it does seem plausible that a child raised to care about the suffering of others is more likely to make a positive contribution to the world. Because your argument for antinatalism is built upon a concern for the suffering of others, it seems likely that altruistic people would be more likely to adopt that sort of philosophy.

Are you concerned that by encouraging people not to procreate you could be decreasing the number of altruists in the human population, and therefore slowing ethical progress?

DB: If I am correct that bringing somebody into existence inflicts a terrible harm on that person, we should be worried about prospective parents who are willing to inflict that harm on their potential children in the hope that those children will help spare others suffering. Part of the worry is about those parents instrumentalising their children. How compassionate is it to do that? And what example are they setting? Another worry, however, is whether any child raised even by compassionate people would indeed make the world a better place. In The Misanthropic Argument for Anti-natalism*, I point to just how much harm humans cause. Vegans, all other things being equal, do less damage than their omnivorous conspecifics. However, even vegans do some damage. Moreover, all other things are rarely equal.

Those who still want to raise compassionate children might consider adopting, thereby saving two birds from one stone. Those who adopt care for a child who would otherwise have had no parents, and they rear it as well as possible. They prevent suffering (of the otherwise parentless child) and they prevent suffering (that that child would cause if it were raised less well).

RVGN: Thank you so much for your time! We hope interested readers will go on to explore your ideas in more detail in your book Better Never to Have Been, and that this interview can contribute to the vegan conversation about antinatalism becoming better informed and more productive.

David Benatar is a professor of philosophy and head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Cape Town. His books Better Never To Have Been and Debating Procreation: Is It Wrong to Reproduce? (in which he debates David Wasserman), are available on Amazon and well worth your time.

Rebecca Fox is as likely to be found meditating and burning incense as she is in an academic library, and yet is a passionate atheist and a skeptic. Her artistic career is fuelled primarily by ingestion of soy lattes. Her artwork can be found at Her vegan and skeptical activism is fuelled by critical thinking and compassion.

« Previous article Next article »

We want your feedback

Reasonable Vegan is a constantly evolving community project. While we strive to research thoroughly and aspire to perfect correctness, we fully acknowledge that we make errors and omissions. The only way we're going to find out how wrong we are is if someone tells us. If you'd like to contact the author of this article or anyone involved in Reasonable Vegan directly, please email us at .