What is there about utilitarians that makes them such miserabilists? The greatest happiness for the greatest number is the heart of their philosophy, but just try to find a happy utilitarian. The first of them, Jeremy Bentham, was such a sourpuss that he seemed pickled in vinegar. And in fact, he was, sort of. His embalmed body (pictured) still sits in a cabinet in University College London, one of its principal tourist attractions. He had no wife and no children.
The greatest of them, John Stuart Mill, made utilitarianism a mainstream philosophy. But he suffered a nervous breakdown at the age of 20, stole another man’s wife and had no children of his own.
And while Peter Singer, the most notorious of contemporary utilitarians, may be a karaoke champ in private life, his writings suggest otherwise.
However, these are bit players in the drama of miserabilism compared with South African academic David Benatar, author of Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. Although the book has not been widely reviewed in the popular press, it was published by Oxford University Press and has been presented as a serious contribution to the increasingly influential philosophy of utilitarianism.
Professor Benatar’s thesis is that life is so horrid that we all would be better off had we never existed. And not just us, but all sentient life. He introduces his thesis with a Jewish witticism: “Life is so terrible, it would have been better never to have been born. Who is so lucky? Not one in a hundred thousand!”
But Benatar is serious. “The central idea of this book is that coming into existence is always a serious harm.” And, he continues, “coming into existence is always bad for those who come into existence. In other words, although we may not be able to say of the never-existent that never existing is good for them, we can say of the existent that existence is bad for them.”
How does he reach this conclusion, which, even by his own reckoning, seems absurd and repellent? As a utilitarian, he calculates the benefits of existence by balancing benefits against harms. What possible benefit could a non-existent person receive that would outweigh a pinprick of pain? Since most people find this hard to accept, Benatar spends a chapter demonstrating that “human lives contain much more bad than is ordinarily recognised”.
Given his distaste for life, why has he hung around so long? Hard to say. Perhaps he agrees with American writer Dorothy Parker:
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
As you might expect, the extinction of the human race seems like an excellent idea to Prof B, although he acknowledges that it might be difficult for society to manage in a humane fashion. However, if a couple of asteroids could be persuaded to collide with Earth, it would be a positive outcome for all concerned.
The 19th century German Arthur Schopenhauer is generally reckoned the most pessimistic of all philosophers, but in Benatar he has no mean rival. For the South African has more than a philosophy, he has a practical bioethical program. Although, as a libertarian, he acknowledges that people have a right to have children, he feels that it is generally unethical, since it brings them into a world of harm. Supporters of abortion contend that women have a moral right to have abortions, but Prof B begs to differ: they have an moral obligation to have abortions, lest they add to the total amount of suffering in the world. Needless to say, this applies to animals, too. He describes his standpoint, somewhat defiantly, not as pro-choice, but as “pro-death”.
Philosophers have often inspired poets. Epicurus had Lucretius; Thomas Aquinas had Dante; Shaftesbury had Pope; Kant had Coleridge; Mme Blavatsky had Yeats. But I can’t think of a poet who could bear to warble on about Prof Benatar’s vision. Perhaps the novelist H.G. Wells comes closest. In his classic The Time Machine, the Time Traveller goes so far into the future that all life is extinct:
“All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives — all that was over. As the darkness thickened, the eddying flakes grew more abundant, dancing before my eyes; and the cold of the air more intense. At last, one by one, swiftly, one after the other, the white peaks of the distant hills vanished into blackness. The breeze rose to a moaning wind. I saw the black central shadow of the eclipse sweeping towards me. In another moment the pale stars alone were visible. All else was rayless obscurity. The sky was absolutely black.”
Sounds like a great place to send Prof B for his Christmas holiday.
As one Amazon reviewer of Better Never to Have Been pointed out, “you need a PhD to be this stupid”. Benatar’s pessimism is the blind elaboration of the central utilitarian thesis: that good is a balance of pleasure and pain. But everyday life gives the lie to this. Utility is a soulless way to assess happiness and to know what is good. You don’t have to be a martyr to realise that the pain of raising children is amply compensated by their love. Or that the pain of work is outweighed by the joy of achievement. Or that a sunrise over Everest obliterates the pain of climbing there.
Are these watertight refutations? No, and, to be fair, Benatar deserves a few rounds of philosophical fisticuffs with a fellow academic. But common sense is enough. The great Samuel Johnson was once challenged to counter Berkeley’s theory that matter was a figment of our imagination: “I never shall forget,” says his biographer Boswell, “the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, ‘I refute it THUS.'”
Nonetheless, Better Never to Have Been has its own utility. It unveils “the greatest good of the greatest number” as the secret password of nihilism. And it is a lesson in intellectual history: after two centuries, the bitter streams gushing from Bentham and Mill have finally trickled into the Dead Sea of the University of Cape Town philosophy department. Anyone toying with the seductive arguments of Peter Singer and his ilk should read it. There they will see what happens when the precepts of utilitarianism are taken to their logical conclusions.
PS: I borrowed the useful term “miserabilist” from Spiked.