-> Philosophy -> Is nonexistence good?

Posted 2021-03-19.

In Suffering-Focused Ethics, Vinding quotes this argument from David Benatar:

[T]here is a crucial difference between harms (such as pains) and benefits (such as pleasures) which entails that existence has no advantage over, but does have disadvantages relative to, non-existence. Consider pains and pleasures as exemplars of harms and benefits. It is uncontroversial to say that

However, such a symmetrical evaluation does not seem to apply to the absence of pain and pleasure, for it strikes me as true that

I'm unconvinced. For all four statements to be plausible, the words "bad" and "good" have to be used in different senses in (1), (2), and (4) than in (3).

To conclude "pain is bad", all you need to do is consider a scenario where pain is happening. If I have a toothache, for example, the way it makes me feel is what makes it bad; there's something intrinsic to the feeling of suffering that is just awful. The statement "pleasure is good" is similar: the evaluation is rooted in a quality of the experience itself; being happy is good because of what being happy feels like.

"The absence of pain is good" is not like that. Imagine a world where nothing exists, so nothing is in pain. Is there anything intrinsic to that scenario that makes it good, analogous to how the way happiness feels makes happiness good? No. Rather, it's good by comparison to other scenarios. We instinctively compare this hypothetical empty-world with other possible worlds, and since we know some of those possible worlds are awful, this one seems relatively good. If we didn't make such comparisons, (3) would no longer be plausible.

Since for (3) we're implicitly involving comparisons to other counterfactual worlds, we should allow ourselves to do so for (4) too. And then (4) seems false. Sure, there's nothing intrinsically bad about a world with no pleasure (just as there's nothing intrinsically good about a world with no pain; both are intrinsically neutral). But since I can imagine worlds where, for example, trillions of people are perpetually experiencing pure unmitigated joy and never experience anything even mildly unpleasant, the empty-world seems quite bad in comparison.

Now, if we just ask, "is a world where nothing exists good, or bad?", it's natural to compare that world with the whole range of possible worlds - hellscapes, paradises, and everything in between - and answer according to where along that spectrum the empty-world falls. And from that perspective, an empty world seems relatively good: it's far from being the best, but it's perhaps much, much further from being the worst. This does support (or reflect) the intuition that there is an asymmetry between pleasure and pain, that pain is more bad than pleasure is good. But that asymmetry need only be a matter of degree, not a categorical difference.