Bioethics Discussion Blog: "The Best is to have Never Been Born" or...?

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Saturday, December 08, 2007

"The Best is to have Never Been Born" or...?

Read the Oxford University Press description of their book by the author David Benatar titled "Better Never to Have Been. The Harm of Coming into Existence":

Most people believe that they were either benefited or at least not harmed by being brought into existence. Thus, if they ever do reflect on whether they should bring others into existence--rather than having children without even thinking about whether they should--they presume that they do them no harm. Better Never to Have Been challenges these assumptions. David Benatar argues that coming into existence is always a serious harm. Although the good things in one's life make one's life go better than it otherwise would have gone, one could not have been deprived by their absence if one had not existed. Those who never exist cannot be deprived. However, by coming into existence one does suffer quite serious harms that could not have befallen one had one not come into existence. Drawing on the relevant psychological literature, the author shows that there are a number of well-documented features of human psychology that explain why people systematically overestimate the quality of their lives and why they are thus resistant to the suggestion that they were seriously harmed by being brought into existence. The author then argues for the "anti-natal" view--that it is always wrong to have children--and he shows that combining the anti-natal view with common pro-choice views about fetal moral status yield a "pro-death" view about abortion (at the earlier stages of gestation). Anti-natalism also implies that it would be better if humanity became extinct. Although counter-intuitive for many, that implication is defended, not least by showing that it solves many conundrums of moral theory about population.

An ethicist on a bioethics listserv in response to this topic provided this added bit of historic philosophic writing:

In his 1835-1846 poem, Morphine, the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) wrote:

Gut ist der Schlaf, der Tod ist besser - freilich
Das beste wäre, nie geboren sein.

Freely translated:

Sleep is good.
Death is better,
but
the best is to have never been born.


Obviously all my visitors are existing for the present at least. What do you think about the virtue of non-existance? ..Maurice.

10 Comments:

At Saturday, December 08, 2007 2:00:00 PM, Blogger MY OWN WOMAN... said...

"the virtue of non-existence" can not be virtuous because it wouldn't exist.

I for one am glad that I was born and by the same token, I am fortunate to have brought two productive human beings into this world.

I can understand that a Holocaust victim may feel that it is better to have "never been born." I have never walked in his shoes so I do not know how deep that reality may have been at the time those words were spoken. But thoughts are sometimes fleeting. The author of "Night" never mentioned that he wanted to die, but he wrote of his struggle to survive, and he wrote of other's struggle to live and become free.

I think the author of "The Best is to have Never Been Born," may be able to say those words because he is already here. If he truly felt that it would be better to have never been born, why did he choose to write a book to prove that he, in fact, was here and wanted to have an impact? You can't prove non-existence is better if you choose to exist, and let other know you exist as well.

 
At Saturday, December 08, 2007 10:37:00 PM, Blogger Maurice Bernstein, M.D. said...

"If he truly felt that it would be better to have never been born, why did he choose to write a book to prove that he, in fact, was here and wanted to have an impact? You can't prove non-existence is better if you choose to exist, and let other know you exist as well."

I can't disagree with your statement. My only explanation of the author's behavior would be that he may think that if he exists then he might as well make the most of it! ..Maurice.

 
At Thursday, June 19, 2008 6:35:00 AM, Anonymous D C Godfrey said...

Heine is correct. The misery and futility of a brief life in a universe we can never understand is not preferable to the perfection of non existence. The human race is no better for Earth than a harmful virus or plague. Overcoming our most basic urge and chosing to not procreate at least shows we are not total automatons being ordered about by our DNA.

 
At Thursday, June 19, 2008 7:28:00 AM, Blogger Maurice Bernstein, M.D. said...

d.c. Godfrey, I can think of many non-beneficial and non-contructive activities that humans have performed on planet earth..but can you think of any benefit we humans have accomplished that will make a difference in 100,000 or a million years from now? Our years of messing around with the genetics of plants and animals might be considered but probably the effect will be insignificant by then and maybe we humans will not even be around to evaluate what we have accomplished. ..Maurice.

 
At Wednesday, February 11, 2009 2:49:00 PM, Blogger Lewin said...

In my opinion Heine is right but only to a certain extent.

The human life is only then truely fulfilled when one does give in to the urges programmed in our DNA.
(Reproduction and co.)

From this view, human life is an endless cycle of struggles to reach fulfillment, of which a large part is reproduction.

Living is better than non-existence as long as we actively partake in the struggle.

That said, someone who deliberately does not partake in this cycle will almost certainly agree with Heine because a large part of the natural reason for his existence is inactive.

If this cycle is broken, if people decide to deliberately not struggle and try to find fulfillment in other ways (Budhists?)... well i guess you could call it the persuite of "perfection of non-existence".

-Doesnt that seem awkward?

 
At Sunday, August 09, 2009 1:29:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just a comment on the use of Heine's lines. He wrote a poem with three characters. One of the characters states these lines at the end of a poem about her relationships with these two men. Heine was not necessarily stating his own view. Therefore, I would not say "Heine was right." He was just alive enough to write some good lines for a character who connected morphine and her desire for these two men with a desire for oblivion. -pyotr

 
At Monday, January 04, 2010 11:04:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a very old concept discussed not only by Greek philosophers but it is also covered several times in the old and new testament.

It's worth noting that there is a VERY big difference between wanting to die and preferring not to have existed in the first place.

For me, at least, I'd never think it'd be better to die but I still believe it could well have been better if I hadn't lived to begin with. It doesn't stop me from trying to live a fulfilling and ethical life and doing my best to help my fellow travelers.

Once you are here, your untimely death will almost certainly add to the suffering of those who love you. If you don't have any family or friends, it could still be argued you should be spending your time here trying to reduce the suffering of others.

Even in a perfect world without suffering, there's no harm in not having existed as you'll not be around to know what you missed.

I don't mean to preach (I'm an secular humanist and atheist/theological noncognitivist so that's really not my thing) but I do have respect for some biblical authors. Kohelet (son of King David) is one of those authors and while I don't always agree with him, my two favorite passages on the subject are his:

So I congratulated the dead who are already dead more than the living who are still living. But better off than both of them is the one who has never existed, who has never seen the evil activity that is done under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 4:2,3)

If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, however many they be, but his soul is not satisfied with good things and he does not even have a proper burial, then I say, “Better the miscarriage than he, for it comes in futility and goes into obscurity; and its name is covered in obscurity. It never sees the sun and it never knows anything; it is better off than he.” (Ecclesiastes 6:3-5)

Even Jesus agrees at least in the case of one man -- Judas Iscariot:

The Son of Man is to go, just as it is written of Him; but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born. (Words attributed to Jesus in both Matthew 26:24; Mark 14:21)

 
At Friday, December 23, 2011 8:06:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry but that is a terrible translation of the last line of Heine's great poem, Morphine.
"--freilich
Das beste wäre, nie geboren sein."


You ignore the key word "freilich" completely, and wäre is subjunctive.

Try: "Of course, the best would be never to have been born." or to use your word right below your translation: "Obviously..."

 
At Thursday, August 02, 2012 10:10:00 AM, Anonymous James said...

All this guff about "might have been" or "would have been better if..." is a waste of time. We have, here, what is the case - and we are stuck with it.
Yes, I take the point that non-existence means considerably less suffering (life being basically a series of events of suffering, culminating in death, the final one) - and existence necessarily means impacting (usually negatively) on the life of others, and of course on the planet itself. BUT - all this blether assumes that we have a choice.
In a block universe (for which there is considerable evidence in particle physics) there are no choices, because there is no free will, because past, present and future are of equal validity - i.e. of none, because all we can do is to hitch a ride on the arrow of time - we cannot influence the trajectory.
As nothing we can do will alter, by one iota, the "course of events" (which is not actually a "course"), then even discussing whether - or not - we should be here is an utter waste of energy.
Of course, we always were going to have this discussion - however useless - so that, also, cannot be changed - as also cannot be this statement that I'm typing - and so on... No - I don't know why I'm bothering either - but I always was going to, so...

 
At Thursday, January 10, 2013 8:58:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to say that I'm one of those people who shouldn't have been born. My life's been a tragedy from day 1: dysfunctional family, parents unable to take care of me, no one in my family wanted or were capable of caring for me, bullied mercilessly as a child, tried therapy but it didn't help 'cause the "therapists" were wealthy, privileged kids who'd never struggled much in life, the types who tried to convince me that nothing was really wrong, that my parents really loved me, blah, blah, blah but wouldn't help me with my real problems. Now thanks to our previous President, I'm struggling financially and can't afford to live. Can't afford to eat, can't afford health care, etc. Yet if I tried to commit suicide I'd be labeled "mentally ill."

I could end up homeless and just get raped and murdered on the street and that would be okay with those people--just as long as I don't die from suicide. Really, if you're not going to provide jobs for all of us and not going to provide safety nets for those of us who can't find jobs what do you expect us to do?

If I stay alive, I have to eat, have to pay for a roof over my head, etc., but I can't. So what do I do with that conflict? Rob a bank? Camp out as a homeless person on the street? (And there again, I'd just end up dead there because I'm not streetwise.)

Our society needs to make a choice. Do we value human life or not? If we're going to discourage abortions then we should create a livable society. Otherwise, we should just start encouraging people to abort their babies 'cause we aren't ready as a society to create a world they can live in.

 

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