“Better Never to Have Been,” is the slogan of anti-natalism. Procreation is immortal and selfish. It is better for the human race to be extinguished. We have a pro-natal bias that has to be corrected (especially in a democracy, because the more people that are born under a certain demographic group the more power they wield!).
Reading about anti-natalism, an interesting and polemical topic, is almost comical in the seriousness of these statements. But although the conclusion is absurd, it deserves, I believe, consideration. It is a good opportunity for us to consider the value of human life.
The knock-down argument, supposedly, goes as follows. There is an asymmetry inherent in pleasure and pain. Decrease in pleasure is not bad if there’s no one to feel the pleasure. Decrease in suffering is always good even if no one senses it. This establishes a more radical thesis than the Schopenhaurian “the pain in life overweighs the pleasure, therefore it is better to not be alive; it is only the will-to-live that pretends us from suicide”, for what the argument tries to show is: no matter how wonderful one’s life, so long as there is a trace of suffering involved, it is better for us to not have been. (Though whether one has to continue one’s life involves, at least allegedly, a different set of concerns than whether one should begin life.)
Unfortunately, perhaps because of the limitations of my intellect, or maybe a difference in outlook (or even, God forbid, my pro-natalist bias), I can’t understand the sway of the “killer” argument. Pleasure, it seems to me, should be a good-in-itself and the deprivation of it, bad, even when no one is feeling the pleasure.
But this still leaves the main question unanswered: Why is it better to be than to not be?
One self-evident answer is that the mere fact of being alive, conscious, capable of feeling, is a good-in-itself. In fact, it may even be a supremely “blissful” state, judging by how many yearn to be purely sentient through meditation. (I will have trouble with this second sentence later.) It is as much a good as being-in-love—good despite all the anxiety and turmoil involved in it—or understanding the laws of physics.
This, though, does not answer the ruthless utilitarian critique (which I christened above as Schopenhauerian) that, even taking into account of the good of mere being, the suffering still outweighs the pleasure, all things considered, therefore we should still be an anti-natalist, though in a weaker version than the “better [always] never to have been”. The problem with this utilitarian critique is that it either works on an incredibly vague notion of pleasure/pain that encompasses experiences of different qualities (MIll’s distinction between higher and lower pleasures), else it reduces all goods into a basic pleasure–pain matrix, against our basic phenomenal experience). What it primarily overlooks in such a reductive analysis is the often positive character of suffering. A life cannot be judged by the balance of pleasure and pain, but as a whole, encompassing a wide range of experiences, even ones that are bad. Hence we enjoy watching tragedies, despite all the tears that we have dropped—hence some cancer patients, though I’m not sure whether I am willing to go this far, see the illness as the best thing that has happened to them. If this basic criterion for judging the goodness of one’s life is wrongly conceived, then the conclusion cannot have too much validity.
But there is even a stronger point that can be raised against anti-natalists, which has something to do with, I think, the religious objections against suicide (though it is normally not put into these terms): A human being is capable of experiencing certain events that are so incredibly meaningful that they justify all suffering. These events may be momentary, but they’re of such quality that the duration does not matter. Therefore, so long as one is alive, such life-redeeming moments remains a possibility to oneself, ergo, perhaps it is always better to be.