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strong issue with the ideas of David Benatar and James Lenman (1997), which I regard as simply absurd, or more likely a case of academics striking a pose and writing in a sarcastic and cynical manner in hopes of getting a rise out of their readers. If the latter is true, they certainly succeeded with me, since I cannot accept the notion that non-existence is always preferable to existence or that it does not matter if the human species becomes extinct. In fact, I assert that such theories run contrary to the basic survival instinct and self-regard that most humans have, even under conditions of extreme suffering and brutality. For whatever reasons, even in the worst situations, something in the human species drives its powerful desire to survive. People may not always be loving and humane with themselves or others, but most of them do have a strong sense of self-interest, which is usually not compatible with death except perhaps in some cases of great suffering, illness or disability. In addition, I claim that the future of humanity may well be an improvement over the present, and that science may even eliminate old age, death and illness and our species gradually takes control over its own evolution and becomes a space-faring civilization.
David Benatar claims that non-existence is preferable to being born, since pain, suffering and death are inevitable for every person who lives, but those who never existed will have no experience of these. All life is full of suffering and hardship, so "being brought into existence is not a benefit but always a harm" (Benatar, 2004, p. 155). This is especially true for the majority of people in the world who live in poverty, experiencing wars, genocide, epidemics and famine. Using the famous utilitarian calculus and cost/benefit analysis, the absence of pain is always good but the absence of pleasure is not always bad unless someone who exists is deprived of it. Those who never existed are deprived of nothing for they are nothing. Non-existence is never bad, but there is always something bad about existence, simply because of the prospect of death at the end. A positive utilitarian would also say that "there is a duty not to bring suffering people into existence," and if pain is unavoidable then no one should have children (Benatar, p. 157). From the negative utilitarian viewpoint, however, the only duty is not doing harm without any guarantee of bringing happiness, nor would such a guarantee even be possible.
In the past, most people had children because they were ignorant of birth control or regarded their offspring as economically useful, but parents in modern society have more free choice. Their motives are still self-centered, such as creating heirs or passing on their DNA, and they "do not regret having brought into existence a child with an unhappy life" (Benatar, p. 158). Of course, parents have no way of knowing in advance whether their children will be unhappy or to what degree, and a positive utilitarian would affirm that even an unhappy child can still be useful just by bringing pleasure to others. For Bentar, though, because of the inevitability of pain and death "there can be no duty to bring people into existence" (Benatar, p. 164). Carrying this argument to its 'logical' conclusion, "it would be preferable for our species to die out," thus eliminating suffering forever, not to mention philosophy (Benatar, p. 167). An alien from an advanced civilization would look down on this world as a relatively backward place, full of misery and pain even for those who consider themselves healthy and happy.
James Lenman argues that death is always viewed as bad, for both individuals and species, especially if it occurs prematurely. Nevertheless, the ultimate extinction of humanity in a million years from now might not be an evil in any objective sense, although if it happened tomorrow the present generation would definitely regard it as such. Death at age twenty-five or twelve "is of a different order from the tragedy of not living to be five hundred" and is not tragic at all for elderly persons whose quality of life is "irrevocably bad" (Lenman, 2004, p. 136). All species will die out just as the dinosaurs and saber-tooth tiger did, as will humans unless they discover some scientific or technological means in the future to overcome death and the aging process. Humanity may be wiped out in a sudden catastrophe or become gradually extinct, and in either case the harm would be great for the people concerned. Lenman also rules out all religious and philosophical theories about life having intrinsic value, leaving only theories of rational calculation and utility. He also makes the incorrect assumption that few people today "have some large philosophical vision of human history," since for good or ill there are obviously billions who do, even if they view the end of the world in apocalyptic terms (Lenman, p. 142). Nor is Lenman convinced that the human species is going to make progress in the future, and in any case only a few great minds are really on the cutting edge of science, technology and culture. To us, it does matter "that we have a posterity" or that our species becomes extinct, but we have no such kind regard for generations that will only exist long after our deaths (Lenman, p. 148).
My first thought was that these writers were simply crackpots, while my second thought was to wonder how they got the idea that life was supposed to be easy or free from pain and suffering. Perhaps it really is for some people, but I have never encountered them. If they did indeed have pain-free lives then they must have been completely insulated from the realities of existence in this world. For the most part, people have managed to endure these, perhaps because their expectations are not so high or their religious faith or sense of duty comforts them. These absurd theories lead to a kind of nihilist dead-end in which nothingness is preferable to existence, even though nothingness is simply a vacuum or an absence of being, intelligence, life and purpose -- a black hole from which even light cannot escape. If this could actually be considered a positive good rather than an evil makes nonsense out of these terms.
Even people who are seriously ill or disabled do not always choose suicide over continued existence, which is even true of these in extremely miserable conditions like prisons, battlefields or concentration camps. Indeed, human beings will often take heroic, extreme or ruthless measures to ensure their own survival and that of their families and loved ones. We share this survival instinct with other animals, and also have a self-regard that often "prompts us to 'stick to life', to try hard to stay alive for better or worse, to resist and fight back against whatever may threaten the premature or abrupt termination of life" (Bauman, 2003, p. 79). Among the survivors of the Nazi camps, for example, where conditions were as terrible as the most sadistic human minds could devise, and entire literature exists on how prisoners managed to stay alive and even fight back against a system whose only purpose was their degradation and destruction. From the time he was arrested in 1938 and sent to Dachau and Buchenwald, Bruno Bettleheim wondered how the prisoners "could endure so much without committing suicide" (Pollak, 1997, p. 62). Some did, of course, while others became merely apathetic, indifferent or infantilized, no longer caring whether they lived or died.
Bettleheim did what was necessary to survive, though, bribing the S.S, guards to obtain more food and better working conditions, manipulating the system in any way he could, and using his connections in Britain and…[continue]
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