What is the good life?

After thousands of years, philosophers have yet to settle on an answer. But most agree that it’s worth asking.

Today, one philosopher is turning that question upside-down. David Benatar, head of the philosophy department at the University of Cape Town, asks not what the good life is, but whether there is a good life to be had.

Benatar, an “anti-natalist,” is  best known for his controversial argument that humans should not procreate. “The one (and only) guaranteed way to prevent all the suffering of children is not to bring those children into existence in the first place,” he writes in his book, Better to Have Never Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, quoted in a recent profile in The New Yorker. His position seems viscerally wrong. But his arguments raise difficult questions about the value of bringing life into the world and the extent of human suffering.

A key assumption is that life is more painful than pleasurable. Upon close examination, Benatar argues, almost all lives are full of too much pain to be worth living, but psychological resilience tricks people into believing otherwise. On the most basic level, we have aches and pains, urges like hunger and thirst, and feelings of fatigue and exhaustion, among many other daily sources of suffering. Worse, most people suffer emotionally, whether from personal failure or the loss of a loved one. In many parts of the world, disease, warfare, and starvation are part and parcel of everyday life.

In arguing against human procreation, Benatar supposes an asymmetry between pleasure and pain: The presence of pain is bad and the absence of pain is good, he says, but the presence of pleasure is good and absence of pleasure is not bad. So, bringing new life into the world is doing a disservice to that life. Why create pain, when creating nothing would lead to nothing bad?

While Benatar’s asymmetry argument is intuitively tempting, it suffers from a conflation of perspective. The claim is a phenomenological one: It concerns itself wholly with the brute fact of how things seem to people. Nevertheless, the conclusion of the argument—that procreation is bad—is an impersonal claim, divorced from the brute fact of how the vast majority of people feel. And from the impersonal perspective, the asymmetry does not hold up. Benatar claims that the absence of pain is good, but the absence of pleasure is neutral. However, this can only be treated as a phenomenological claim, since there is no logical disparity between the absence of pain and the absence of pleasure.

If Benatar is going to use the phenomenological perspective for the premises, he is also logically bound to use it for the conclusion, and likewise for the impersonal perspective. In the former case, his position will be rejected because the vast majority of people do in fact believe that procreation is good, or at least not bad. In the latter case, his conclusion does not follow from the premises because there is no impersonal difference between the absence of pain and the absence of pleasure.

In addition, Benatar brushes off the psychological resilience that makes us believe our lives are worth living. Granted, certain events seem to universally induce suffering, an emotional experience. Yet psychological studies have shown that life-altering trauma does not, on average, significantly lower participants’ ratings of their own happiness. In the classic 1978 study comparing the happiness ratings of lottery winners and victims of catastrophic accidents, researchers found that members of the two groups rated their happiness similarly. If we have an innate tendency to be psychologically resilient, how we experience what happens to us may not follow predictably from the fact of what happens to us. It seems odd, then, to focus on the pain-inducing events themselves, when our experience of those events determines happiness. 

The existence of higher-order pleasuresa position advanced by John Stuart Mill in  Utilitarianism called “qualitative hedonism”complicates Benatar’s argument further. Mill writes, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” Higher-order pleasures include emotional and intellectual pleasures, rather than physical ones. As a result, the happiness of winning a race, reading a book, worshiping a deity, making a friend, falling in love, orGod forbidhaving a baby, could foreseeably outweigh the lower-order discomforts and pains that fill daily life. For some, such joys could offset even the hardships Benatar references as proof that living is just not worth the trouble.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Benatar is rightthat pleasure is homogenous, and that his argument is valid, despite the shift in perspective from premise to conclusion. Why should we not all commit suicide? Death is bad, too, Benatar contends. Life may not be worth starting, but once it has begun, it is worth continuing.

His response to the suicide objection undermines his anti-natalist argument. One might pose the question: How can death itself be bad, if no one is alive to experience it? “Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not,” writes the ancient philosopher Epicurus in his Letter to Menoeceus.

But perhaps Benatar is referring to dying, not death. Once alive, though, would not the aggregate awfulness of a long life only add to the singular pain of dying? Why not cut life short, to avoid adding suffering to the suffering that mortality guarantees?  Benatar’s attempt to save his argument from becoming a promotion of suicide reveals a contradiction in his reasoning, and ultimately weakens his anti-natalist position.

Still, setting aside strict analysis of the premises, Benatar’s argument taps into the relatable and widespread feeling that the world is getting smaller. Skyrocketing populations, globalization, and climate change stoke fears of hunger and environmental collapse. The world has enough food to feed 10 billion people, but almost one billion people are victims of chronic hunger, according to Oxfam. In the U.S., the 21st century rivals the Gilded Age in income inequality.

“The lessons never seem to get learnt,” Benatar laments in the New Yorker profile, referring to mistakes of history. “Maybe the odd individual will learn them, but you still see this madness around you.”

Haven’t some lessons been learned, though? In many ways, the world has become a better place in recent history. According to Forbes, 75 percent of the world was living in extreme poverty in 1950, while less than 10 percent of the world lives in extreme poverty today. Modern medicine has virtually eliminated several diseases, drastically increased life spans, and decreased the infant mortality rate from about 40 percent in 1800 to less than 5 percent today. Over 80 percent of the world is now literate, as opposed to only 10 percent in 1800. Almost all measures of material well-being indicate that overall quality of life has improved. The extent of the improvement is arguable; statistical evidence may neglect less quantifiable factors that could influence happiness, like community and culture. Even so, Benatar himself largely ignores such “higher-order” factors. 

Nevertheless, Benatar’s arguments offer trenchant cultural commentary. Despite some fatal theoretical weaknesses, his emphasis on the pervasiveness of human suffering may have some instrumental value. His arguments suggest two solutions: stop procreating or change the world into a radically happier place.  The consequence is a surprisingly progressive conclusion: If we won’t stop procreating, our work is far from done.