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The case for being born

Summary:
The New Yorker is running a profile of the anti-natalist philosopher David Benatar. Reading it, I was unconvinced by the implied response to the obvious objection, “if life is so bad, why not kill yourself”, namely that suicide is painful in itself and causes pain to others. I searched a bit, and discovered that, not only had Harry Brighouse covered the book at Crooked Timber soon after it came out, but I had made the same objection in comments[1], which I’ll reproduce for convenience given that Benatar is arguing from a utilitarian rational choice position, his argument leads straight to the (more or less standard utilitarian) conclusion that there should be no moral weight attached to suicide. That is, people should commit suicide if they reasonably judge that their future

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The New Yorker is running a profile of the anti-natalist philosopher David Benatar. Reading it, I was unconvinced by the implied response to the obvious objection, “if life is so bad, why not kill yourself”, namely that suicide is painful in itself and causes pain to others.

I searched a bit, and discovered that, not only had Harry Brighouse covered the book at Crooked Timber soon after it came out, but I had made the same objection in comments[1], which I’ll reproduce for convenience

given that Benatar is arguing from a utilitarian rational choice position, his argument leads straight to the (more or less standard utilitarian) conclusion that there should be no moral weight attached to suicide. That is, people should commit suicide if they reasonably judge that their future pains outweigh their future pleasures. Sympathetic others should not deplore the fact of suicide (though they should be saddened by the facts leading to the decision). Once that position is established there’s no problem bringing new people into the world. If they don’t like it they can always kill themselves. That, it seems to me, is orthodox utilitarianism, with a bit of a helping hand from revealed preference. Of course, this kind of thing is all very well in a philosophy class. In reality, suicide is more commonly the result of momentary despair and is a tragedy for both the person concerned and their friends and family.

Since 2008, most Australian states have introduced assisted dying laws, which seem to strengthen the case against Benatar’s claim (at least as applied to Australians). People who face suffering that outweighs any future pleasure can end their lives painlessly and without causing harm to their loved ones (most people who have faced the painful death of loved ones supported the legislation).

It’s true that this option is only available to the terminally ill (12 months to live), but there was no apparent demand for broader access, and the number of people taking the option has remained small.

So, if painless suicide is possible, and those who care about us should (and mostly will) support our choices if life seems unbearable on careful reflection, Benatar just seems to be saying that we are all making the wrong choice in staying alive. How (except in the extreme nature of his suggestion) does this differ from someone saying we are all wrong in our choices of food, music, life partners etc and would be truly happy if we only ate food listened to music, and shared our lives with people we hated?

fn1. This happens to me a lot, either because of failing memory or excessive opinionating.

John Quiggin
He is an Australian economist, a Professor and an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland, and a former member of the Board of the Climate Change Authority of the Australian Government.

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