Meditations of a 21st century incarnation of Socrates as composed by Brent Silby
David Benatar has written a book called Better Never To Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. In this remarkable book, Benatar argues that because bringing a person into existence causes them harm, we should not procreate.
Elizabeth Harman has written a wise response to Benatar. Her admirable paper can be read online here: Critical Study – David Benatar. Better Never To Have Been. I recommend that you read her work, my friends. Myself, I am eager to learn and will do so by examining Benatar’s main argument directly.
By the dog, the argument is interesting. Has Benatar come up with a convincing argument to stop us procreating? Let us take a closer look. He suggests that when a person is brought into existence, they will, during their lives, experience pain, which is bad, and pleasure, which is good. If a person is not brought into existence, they experience no pain, which is good, and no pleasure, which is neither good nor bad. So, assuming we want to minimize the bad in the world, after weighing these options, we should decide not to bring people into existence.
Forgive my ignorance, I am sometimes slow, but to me it seems that the gist of Benatar’s argument can be expressed in this form:
P1. (premise) During life people experience pain and pleasure
P2. (premise) A person who is not brought into existence will experience no pain and no pleasure
P3. (premise) Pain is bad
P4. (premise) Pleasure is good
P5. (premise) Absence of pain is good
P6. (premise) Absence of pleasure is neither good nor bad
P7. (premise) Because we want to minimize the bad, we should minimize pain in the world
P8. (premise) The best way to minimize pain in the world is to not bring people into existence
C1. (conclusion) Therefore, we should not bring people into existence
Do we agree with this conclusion? When I ask people if they would have preferred not to have come into existence, they all say “no”. They are happy that they exist and seem to consider pain to be part of a good life. Can there be pleasure in pain? People I asked didn’t think so, but they did think that pain is needed for pleasure. They suggest that without the contrast of pain, pleasure would not be possible. I am unsure that this is true. But even if it is, it does not defeat Benatar’s assumption that no pain is good and some pain is bad.
My response to Benatar is directed at premise #7 and #8. My thought is that there may be a way to minimize the bad other than minimizing pain. Consider this: Because bad is opposite to good, a world with increasing good will be a world with decreasing bad. Am I correct, or am I talking nonsense? If I am correct, a world of infinite pleasure is a maximally good world. And if it is maximally good, there is no bad. So we can remove the bad by building a world of infinite pleasure.
P1. (premise) A world of infinite pleasure is a maximally good world
P2. (premise) A world that is maximally good contains no bad
C1. (conclusion) We can remove the bad by building a world of infinite pleasure
Now, we can extend this argument as follows:
P3. (premise) We should make a maximally good world
C2. (conclusion) Therefore, we should build a world of infinite pleasure (from C1, P3)
I am certain that you, good readers, have identified the suppressed premise: the only way a world can be maximally good is if it is a world of infinite pleasure. Now you will be asking: how can such a thing be achieved? The answer is a Tipler machine.
P4. (premise) A Tipler machine will make a world of infinite pleasure
C3. (conclusion) Therefore, we should build a Tipler machine (from C2, P4)
But what is this thing called a Tipler machine? It is a machine envisaged by Frank Tipler in his 1994 book, The Physics of Immortality. Tipler suggests that future people will develop the technology to build a machine that contains a simulated universe in which copies of all the people who have ever lived can enjoy everlasting lives with no pain and infinite pleasure.
It will, of course, take many generations to build such a machine. And during this time people will experience pain. But because the machine produces a world of infinite pleasure, the finite amount of pain experienced in the centuries leading to its development are outweighed. I must add to the argument that even if the machine is unlikely to be built, the possibility of infinite pleasure outweighs any risk of pain prior to its development.
P5. (premise) Because a Tiper machine produces infinite pleasure, if it is possible to build a Tipler machine, the risk of pain in the centuries prior to its development are outweighed
P6. (premise) It is possible to build a Tipler machine
C4. (conclusion) Therefore, the risk of pain in the centuries prior to its development are outweighed (from P5, P6)
P7. (premise) It will take many generations of people to build a Tipler machine
C5. (conclusion) Therefore, we should risk pain and continue to bring people into existence (from C3, C4, P7)
Unless I am wrong about it being possible to build a Tipler machine, I believe, good reader, that this response offers an alternative to the conclusion that we should stop bringing people into the world. And until the machine is built, let us live a just life and take care of eachother.
— Socrates (as written by Brent Silby)