This is the fifth in a series on David Benatar's The Human Predicament (Oxford UP, 2017). This entry covers pp. 71-83 of Chapter Four, pp. 64-91, entitled "Quality."
In our last installment we discussed whether Benatar is justified in his claim that the quality of life is in most cases objectively worse than we think it is. (I cast doubt on whether there is an objective fact of the matter.) But even if the quality of our lives is worse than we think it is, it does not follow that the quality of our lives is objectively bad. You will recall that Benatar holds that "while some lives are better than others, none are (noncomparatively or objectively) good." (67) In other words, each of our lives is objectively bad whether we think so or not. To arrive at this conclusion further argument is required. To its evaluation we now turn.
The Allegedly Poor Quality of Human Life
Benatar begins with the minor discomforts suffered by the healthy on a daily basis: thirst, hunger, distended bladders and bowels, heat and cold, weariness, and the like. Now most of us consider these sorts of things inconsequential even if we add to them humidity, mosquitoes, and the usual run of aches and pains and annoyances such as irritating noises and smells, etc. But for Benatar they are "not inconsequential" because:
A blessed species that never experienced these discomforts would rightly note that if we take discomfort to be bad, then we should take the daily discomforts that humans experience more seriously than we do. (72)
This is a signature Benatar move: adopt some nonexistent, and indeed impossible point of view, and then, from that point of view, issue a negative value judgment about what actually exists or some feature of what actually exists. There is no species of animal that never experiences anything like the discomforts mentioned above, and it seems to me that such a species of critter is nomologically impossible. Or to put the point a bit more cautiously, there is no species of animal relevantly similar to us that never experiences anything like, etc.
So why should the fact that I can imagine a form of animal life free of everyday discomforts have any tendency to show that we should take more seriously, i.e., assess more negatively, the everyday discomforts of our actual animal lives?
How can anything be devalued relative to a nonexistent standard of value? I will come back to this in a moment.
A second class of negative states includes those experienced regularly though not daily or by all. Itches, allergies, colds, fevers, infections, menstrual cramps, hot flashes, and so on. And then, beyond physical sensations there are the various frustrations and irritations of life: waiting in lines, having to put up with the bad behavior of others, traffic jams, boring work, loneliness, unrequited love, betrayals, jealousies, the list goes on.
But even these things are not that bad. If we stop here we don't have much of an argument for the claim that the quality of all our lives, even the lives of the luckiest, is objectively bad.
When we get to the really horrific events and setbacks, Benatar's case gains in credibility. Cancer and the miseries attendant upon its treatment, clinical depression, rape and murder and the tortures of the gulag, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and so much else bespeak the poor quality of human life. And don't think only of the present; consider also the horrors of the long past of humanity. Anyone who without blinkers surveys these miseries must admit that the quality of human life for many or most is very bad indeed. People like Roberto Benigni who gush over how wonderful life is, what a gift it is, etc. should be made to visit insane asylums, prisons, torture chambers, and battlefields. And even if my life is good, how good can it be given that I am aware of the horrific fates of others and that it is possible that I end up where they are?
But surely many are fortunate and escape the evils just enumerated and their like. So we still don't have a good argument for the extreme thesis that every human life is such that the objectively bad outweighs the objectively good.
But is There More Bad Than Good?
Benatar returns an affirmative answer: "There is much more bad than good even for the luckiest humans." (77) So no matter how well-situated you are, your life is objectively more bad than good, and if you think otherwise then your assessment of the quality of your life is biased and inaccurate.
The first consideration Benatar adduces is the empirical fact that "the most intense pleasures are short-lived, whereas the worst pains can be much more enduring." (77) There is chronic pain but no chronic pleasure. Then there is the fact that the worst pains are worse than the best pleasures are good. (77). No one would trade an hour of the worst torture for an hour of the best pleasure. A third fact is that in a split second one can be severely injured, "but the resultant suffering can last a lifetime." (78) And then there is the long physical decline of the mortal coil, and the frustration of desires and aspirations, and the constant toiling and moiling, striving and struggling, that life involves to keep the whole thing going. We are effortlessly ignorant, "but knowledge usually requires hard work." (80) We value knowledge and longevity, but can realize these values only to a tiny extent. We are far closer to nescience than to omniscience.
Why Do We Fail to Notice the Preponderance of the Bad?
In short, the bad preponderates and for all. Why do we fail to notice the heavy preponderance of the bad in human life? Because we have accommodated to the human condition. (82) "Longevity, for example, is judged relative to the longest actual human lifespans and not relative to an ideal standard."
And similarly with respect to knowledge, understanding, and moral goodness. We measure ourselves against the human baseline and not against an ideal standard. This is why we fail to notice that the bad outweighs the good. If the standard of knowledge is the human baseline, then your humble blogger feels good about himself; but if the standard is omniscience, then he must sadly confess that he knows next to nothing. And while he fancies himself a better man than most, he owns to being an utter wretch, morally speaking, in comparison to Moral Perfection itself. In religious terms, we are all sinners in the eyes of God, and the moral differences between us shrink into insignificance relative to the divine standard of holiness.
Towards a Critique
At this juncture we need to ask again: How can anything be devalued relative to a nonexistent standard? If God exists, then we are by comparison miserably defective in every way. But Benatar's metaphysical naturalism rules out the existence of God along with such other entities as Platonic Forms and the Plotinian One. For on a full-throated naturalism the real is exhausted by space-time and its contents. So neither Omniscience nor Moral Perfection nor the Form of Justice, etc., exist. There is nothing supernatural whether concrete or abstract. The New Testament exhortation, "Be ye perfect as your heavenly father is perfect," (Matthew 5:48) presupposes for its very sense the existence of a perfect heavenly father. If there is no such being, then the exhortation is empty.
On metaphysical naturalism, the normative, if it is to be objective, can only be grounded in natural facts independent of our subjective attitudes. For on metaphysical naturalism, there can be no existing ideal standards for a species of living thing except actual perfect specimens. But any actual perfect specimen, whether leonine, human, whatever, will fall short of Benatar's demands. Even the best human specimen will be limited in longevity, knowledge, moral goodness, and the rest.
My point is that Benatar's ideal standards, without which he cannot denigrate as bad even the most fortunate of human lives, are merely excogitated or thought up by him: they can have no basis in physical or metaphysical reality given his naturalism. It seems to me that to fall short of a standard that is nowhere realized and has never been realized is not to fall short. But the point is stronger when put modally: to fall short of a standard impossible of realization is not to fall short. A lion without claws is a defective lion; he falls short of the standard, a standard that actually exists in non-defective lions. But a lion that cannot learn to speak Italian is not a defective lion since it is nomologically impossible that lions learn human languages.
One can imagine a cat that talks, and wouldn't the world be better if we could speak to our pets? But neither imaginability nor conceivablity entail real possibility, and if a state of affairs is not really possible, then no actual state of affairs can be devalued relative to it. It is not bad that cats can't talk. And it is not bad, give that human beings are just a highly-evolved species of land mammal, that they can't know everything or live to be a thousand years old. Thus it is no argument against the quality of human life that it falls short of a standard that is nowhere realized but is merely dreamed up as an empty logical possibility.
What Benatar is doing is a bit like complaining that turkeys don't fly around ready-roasted. That is no argument in denigration of the value of turkeys because it is nomologically impossible that turkeys fly around ready-roasted. Similarly, it is no argument against the value of human life that human longevity maxes out at about 122 years.
Generalizing: if it is impossible that a state of affairs S obtain, there is no actual state of affairs T such that T is devalued by S.
The objection I am making is conditional upon the acceptance of naturalism. Given that Benatar accepts naturalism, he is in no position to argue that every human life, even the best, is objectively bad.