Review of Better Never to Have Been by David Benatar. Posted by Jacob Williams on 2022-02-27. Send feedback to


Benatar believes in what I'm going to call the Existential Asymmetry:

...the absence of pain is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone, whereas ... the absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation.

Now consider the fact that all children will experience pain at some point. If you buy the Existential Asymmetry, then bringing a child into existence causes something bad (the pain), while not bringing them into existence causes something good (the absence of pain) without causing anything bad. Now it's just a short step to Benatar's rather extreme conclusion: having children is morally wrong.

I explained my main objection to the Existential Asymmetry in another post, so I won't repeat that here, but I'm going to discuss one of the arguments Benatar gives for it. He points out that it would explain why people tend to believe in certain other asymmetries (for which I've added names):

  1. Duties Asymmetry: "...while there is a duty to avoid bringing suffering people into existence, there is no duty to bring happy people into being."

    I think there are a few factors that don't depend on the Existential Asymmetry that can explain why we don't feel such a duty:

    Benatar addresses the last point, but only by asserting that the intuition that there is not any kind of a duty to create happy people is strong and unconditional: "the interests of potential people cannot ground even a defeasible duty to bring them into existence". I disagree. Imagine a scenario where you could push a Big Green Button to bring a billion perpetually-ecstatic people into existence, and it would cause no suffering to anyone. I think there would be a strong moral imperative to press it. If you don't press it, you're consciously choosing a world with less good over a world with more good, for no reason; there's something perverse about that.

  2. Interests Asymmetry: " is strange (if not incoherent) to give as a reason for having a child that the child one has will thereby be benefited, [but] it is not strange to cite a potential child's interests as a basis for avoiding bringing a child into existence."

    I don't think it's unreasonable for a person to believe they're having a child for the benefit of that child. More on this below.

  3. Regret Asymmetry: "Bringing people into existence as well as failing to bring people into existence can be regretted. However, only bringing people into existence can be regretted for the sake of the person whose existence was contingent on our decision."

    Benatar and I have very different views on the role that personal identity should play in morality. He says it's a mistake to think "that people are valuable because they add extra happiness" as opposed to "extra happiness is valuable because it is good for people". The latter has intuitive appeal, but I've become pretty convinced of the former for a couple reasons:

    Since I view good/bad experiences as the ultimate bearers of value, I would (for example) regret passing up an opportunity to press the Big Green Button mentioned above. Whether you think of such regret as being for the sake of the people who won't exist or simply for the sake of the happy experiences that won't exist, it's inconsistent with Existential Asymmetry.

  4. Sorrow Asymmetry: "...we rightly are sad for inhabitants of a foreign land whose lives are characterized by suffering, [but] when we hear that some island is unpopulated, we are not similarly sad for the happy people who, had they existed, would have populated this island."

    Such sorrow would be useless, since we can't go back in time and create those people. That's disanalogous to sorrow for existing suffering people, who we might be able to help. Also, again, the quantity and intensity of suffering in the world makes the problem of fewer additional happy people than possible seem relatively unimportant. But consider the Big Green Button again: if everything else in the world were perfect, and you tried to create some more happy people but failed (you pushed the button too hard, it broke), you might reasonably be sad about it. The sense that there would be something sad about a world where nobody exists - given that worlds in which people experience great joy are possible - is a part of what makes the Existential Asymmetry seem wrong to me.

Future people

One can never have a child for that child's sake. That much should be apparent to everybody, even those who reject the stronger view for which I argue in this book—that not only does one not benefit people by bringing them into existence, but one always harms them.

Benatar makes variations of this claim multiple times throughout the book, but it's not clear to me why he believes it (apart from the Existential Asymmetry).

The fact that the child doesn't exist yet doesn't seem problematic. Surely you can do things for the sake of a future benefit. When I put money into a savings account, nobody benefits now, but I benefit in the future. (OK, I guess at least the bank benefits now, but I'm certainly not doing it for them.) When I conceive a child who will eventually be happy, nobody benefits now but the child benefits in the future. Why shouldn't I say this has been done for the benefit of the child? More generally, why give privileged treatment to the present? As Parfit put it, "not real here is like not real now", i.e., people who are dead or not yet alive do exist, they just exist at different points on the timeline.

Also note that you can do things for the sake of other people without being able to pick out an individual that you are doing it for. (I think Benatar agrees: his discussion of the Regret Asymmetry notes "[w]e can regret, for the sake of an indeterminate but existent person that a benefit was not bestowed on him or her"). When I give money to GiveDirectly, I'm doing it for the sake of individuals suffering from poverty, without having any specific individual in mind. But if tomorrow that charity sent me a report showing that my money had been directed to Alice Bobberson, who was living on $1 a day and used the money to put a new roof on her house, in a certain sense once I get the report I know that I actually gave the money for her sake. In other words, it's possible to do something for someone else's benefit, and only later learn whose benefit that is. That's the situation with a parent who has a child for the child's sake: they're trying to give someone the gift of life, they just don't know who yet.

(Charitable giving can also be directed to future people. This is one motivation behind environmentalist donations: preserving the world for future generations. Alternatively, imagine that a poverty-focused charity held onto my funds for many years before distributing them, and the beneficiary turned out to be a child born in the interim. This would imply that unbeknownst to me, my donation was for the sake of a person who did not exist when I donated.)

Benatar seems sympathetic to, though does not directly endorse, frustrationism: "According to this view, a satisfied preference and no preference are equally good." This would justify his belief that procreation cannot be for the benefit of the child, since (like the Existential Asymmetry) it would mean nothing that could possibly happen in the child's life could be better than not existing. But this sort of view, where the only "good" is simply the absence of "bad", seems wildly implausible. Wouldn't a day consisting of nothing but your favorite things be better than a day of unconsciousness? Pleasure is not the absence of pain; even when merely being relieved of pain causes pleasure, the pleasure is a separate subjective experience, as evidenced by the fact that it often subsides long before the pain comes back again.

Degrees of harm

You could reject the Existential Asymmetry and still think that actual human lives are so bad that the good they contain rarely, if ever, makes up for it. If so, you might see the human race as a self-perpetuating mechanism of ever-increasing misery:

The child soon finds itself motivated to procreate, producing children who, in turn, develop the same desire. Thus any pair of procreators can view themselves as occupying the tip of a generational iceberg of suffering.

...and you might conclude it would be better for the machine to stop. Benatar pursues this line of thinking in chapter 3, arguing "that even the best lives are very bad".

First he gives some reasons not to trust people's positive evaluations of their own lives:

  1. The Pollyanna Principle, which "inclines people ... towards more positive assessments of how well their life is going."
  2. Adaptation: "...the subjective sense of well-being tracks recent change in the level of well-being better than it tracks a person's actual level of well-being..."
  3. Comparison: "It is not so much how well one's life goes as how well it goes in comparison with others that determines one's judgement about how well one's life is going."

In my view, "the subjective sense of well-being" is what matters. If these psychological factors actually make us feel good on a day-to-day basis despite our circumstances, then they're forces preventing our lives from being bad. But maybe they just make us feel good while we're answering surveys. I'm sympathetic to Benatar's skepticism of happiness data, but also think we should be careful of simply projecting our own assumptions about how people should feel onto them.

Next Benatar considers three theories about what makes a life good, to argue that life is bad no matter which one you adhere to. Unfortunately he spends the least time on the one I think is true (hedonism, i.e., what people experience is what counts). Some of the bads he focuses on seem like quite a stretch: sure, perhaps a typical person who has easy access to food and water is still "likely hungry and thirsty for a few hours a day", but do many of us really care? Whatever low-level unpleasantness I endure while waiting for dinner is generally more than offset by just the minor daily pleasures of life.

Of course, he discusses the more serious evils as well. This is where I'm most sympathetic to his arguments. There are powerful reasons to worry that the good things in our lives are insufficient to compensate for the enormous quantities of intense suffering. However, simply listing horrible things does not establish this, any more than listing wonderful things establishes that life is worthwhile. The real challenge is to find a principled way to compare the awful and the wonderful and reach an overall judgment. But I don't think Benatar has a proposal for this other than the Existential Asymmetry. Rather than engaging with the good parts of life in detail, he simply reiterates the claim "that even the intrinsic pleasures of existing do not constitute a net benefit over never existing."