Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Avoiding the problem

I keep talking about David Benatar without reading his book, so I was sort of glad to find that he has an essay online that is short enough for me to read. But I still can't bring myself to read the whole thing. Here is one part that caught my eye:
This problem would be avoided if everybody took their own lives at roughly the same time, but that is not going to happen.
He is referring to the fact that saying that life is bad does not mean we should all commit suicide, because (in part) the resulting grief in those who survive would make their lives even worse.  (It's my inability to take such thoughts seriously that prevents me from reading the whole thing.)

Another eye-catcher is his claim that there is no such thing as chronic pleasure. The comments by Nick Smyth and Jennie Kermode ("No such thing as chronic pleasure? Have you never been in love?") are worth reading. 


  1. Yeah, a friend sent me the link to the article. I'd been thinking (vaguely) about the assumptions at work in calculating the overall balance, say, of pleasures and pains. And it doesn't strike me that, e.g. a 50% cutoff makes any sense. I.e. that if pleasure constitutes less than 50% of one's overall experience, then life, on the whole, is bad. Think of baseball, and batting in particular. I don't know who said it, but the thought was roughly that only in baseball can a person fail 2/3 of the time and be considered great. (I.e. a .333 batting average is great.) Now maybe the intensity and duration of getting-a-hit pleasure is greater than strikeout pain, etc., etc. I dunno. (I sort of doubt it since most hits don't lead to a run scored, etc.) I guess my point is that Benetar hasn't clearly explained what the context is for evaluating our "batting average" as it were, in life. And I don't know if we can evaluate our game/form of life against possible worlds, or how much that helps. (Even so, it would seem to give us just as much reason to aspire to do better as to conclude that the game is not worth playing...)

  2. (Just lost a longish reply. Shorter version follows.)

    Yes, as far as I can tell (using amazon's "look inside" feature) Benatar does not say anything about Nietzsche's objection to Schopenhauer that you cannot objectively assess the value of life; it's all how you look at things. That is, Nietzsche is not in the index and is only once mentioned by name, in a footnote explaining a pun. But this seems to me to be an objection worth taking seriously, even if it is ultimately flawed.

    Schopenhauer's practical goal was to help people find enlightenment, which seems noble. Benatar's appears to be to encourage people not to have children, which seems more weird than anything else. (Is he secretly concerned about natural resources or starvation? Does he want to defend childless couples from hostile judgments?) Perhaps his book could provide consolation for the involuntarily childless. Otherwise it seems strange to advocate childlessness for the sake of the (better-not-to-be-conceived) children.