This is the fourth in a series on David Benatar's The Human Predicament (Oxford UP, 2017). This entry covers pp. 64-71 of Chapter Four, pp. 64-91, entitled "Quality."
The Meaning Question and the Quality Question
These are different questions. Although for Benatar no human life has what he calls "cosmic" meaning, a life can have a high degree of what he calls "terrestrial" meaning even if its quality is low, and a life can have a low degree of terrestrial meaning even if its quality is high. The life of Nelson Mandela, for example, had a high degree of terrestrial meaning despite its low quality due to his long incarceration. On the other hand, "The meaningless life of a jet-setting playboy millionaire might be regarded as a life of high quality (by some)." (66)
Though distinct, meaning and quality are related. If I feel my life to be meaningful, then this feeling will enhance its quality whether or not my life really is meaningful. Conversely if I feel my life to be meaningless. Or suppose the quality of my life degrades drastically. This may cause me to question its meaning. If one's life is of high quality, however, this is no guarantee that one will not question its meaning.
Benatar's Thesis on the Quality of Life
The common view is that while some lives are on balance bad, others are on balance good. Benatar rejects the common view holding that "while some lives are better than others, none are (noncomparatively or objectively) good." (67) No human life, then, is good, not even the best life. This is a very strong thesis. Benatar is not telling us that many or most human lives are objectively bad, but that every single instance of human life is objectively bad. Some lives are worse than others but all are objectively bad. One can appreciate how this will feed into his anti-natalism.
An Obvious Objection
One might object that the sole authority on the quality of one's life is the liver of that life. As a philosophizing gastroenterologist once said, "It all depends on the liver." (Is the James attribution to the left accurate? Paging Dave Lull!) So if my life seems to me to be good, then it is good, and no one can tell me otherwise. How could one be mistaken about the quality of one's own life? If the quality of one's life is the felt quality thereof, the quality as it appears to the subject of the life, and the felt quality is good, then it would make no sense to say that the quality is in reality worse than the subject feels it to be and that one is mistaken about the quality of one's life.
If, on the other hand, one meant by the quality of a human life a wholly objective feature that it has, irrespective of the thoughts, feelings, and attitudes of the subject or 'liver' of the life, then one could be mistaken about its quality. But obviously the quality of a life is not a wholly objective feature of it. This is because a human life concretely understood is a lived live, a conscious and self-conscious life, a life from a point of view, a felt life, a life in which subjectivity and objectivity are blended in such a way as to be teased apart only by a process of abstraction that is arguably falsifying.
Clearly, quality of life is neither wholly subjective nor wholly objective. Not wholly subjective, because we have animal bodies that are parts of the physical world. Not wholly objective, because we are conscious and self-conscious beings. Given this blending of subjective and objective, the question is whether there is nonetheless an objective fact of the matter as to the quality of one's life.
Response to the Objection: Judgments About Quality are Unreliable
Benatar tells that there are three psychological phenomena that impair self-assessment of well-being.
a) Optimism Bias. People tend to see themselves as happier than they really are. One reason is that people tend to suppress negative memories. Another is that people are irrationally prone to think that good things will happen to them in the future. Because of optimism bias, subjective assessments of well-being are unreliable.
b) Adaptation. Suppose something very bad happens: you lose the use of your legs. Your subjective self-assessment of well-being drops precipitously. "In time, however, subjective assessment of quality of life will improve as one adjusts to the paralysis." (69) And this despite the fact that one's objective condition has not improved. The point, them, is that the subjective assessment of well-being does not accurately track one's objective quality of life and is therefore unreliable.
c) Comparison. Subjective assessments of well-being and quality of life involve comparisons with others. Suppose you note that you are no worse off than many others. This contributes to the illusion that the bad features of all human lives are not as bad as they actually are. If what I just written is less than clear, it is because what Benatar wrote at the bottom of p. 69 is less than clear.
The main point, however, is clear. Benatar is claiming that for most of us our subjective assessments of well-being are inaccurate and tend toward the optimistic. Most of us fail to see that the quality of our lives is worse than we think it is. It doesn't follow from this, however, that the quality of our lives is very bad. To show this requires a second step. I will discuss the second step in a subsequent post. What we now must decide is whether Benatar's response to the objection is tenable.
Can One Be Mistaken About the Quality of One's Life? Is There an Objective Fact of the Matter?
Benatar is telling us that for most of us the quality of our lives is objectively worse than we think it is. The objection above was that my life has the quality I feel it to have, and that about this I cannot be mistaken. Benatar's response, however, seems merely to beg the question by assuming that one can be mistaken about the quality of one's life. By assuming that one can be mistaken, Benatar assumes that there is some objective fact of the matter about the quality of one's life and of human life generally. Benatar assumes that each human life has an objective quality that is what it is regardless of what the agent of that life believes or feels. But that is precisely what is denied by someone who holds that the subjectively felt quality of one's life is partially constitutive of the quality of one's life.
The latter view can be defended.
One thing we can all agree on is that objective factors bear upon the quality of one's life. These are factors that don't depend on what we feel or how we think or what our attitudes are. No matter how stoically I endure a sprained ankle, the objective fact is that the ankle is sprained. Equally true, however, is that if I were an insentient robot with a sprained ankle, there would be no point to talk of the quality of my life. A robot, not being alive, has no quality of life. Quality of life is felt quality just as life is sentient life. Quality in this discussion has an ineliminable subjective component. Quality of life includes both an objective and a subjective component. This reflects the fact that I am not merely an object in the physical world, but also a subject who experiences his being an object in the physical world open to its rude impacts.
I submit that what I have just said is part of the non-negotiable data of the problem. If so, it is hard to see how one's life could have an objective quality independent of what one feels and thinks.
Imagine two physically indiscernible hikers on a hike together. Each sprains his left ankle in the same way at the same time. The physical damage is the same in both cases. But the hikers differ in their attitudes toward their injuries. The one is a philosopher who has practiced Buddhist and Stoic mind control techniques. He is adept at mastering aversion. The other is a person who wails and complains and exaggerates the badness of the negative event. He blames his partner for hiking too fast or for taking him on a route that is rocky and dangerous, etc. He makes things worse for himself with his negative attitude. Clearly, the quality of life of the second hiker is worse than that of the first at the time of the accident. And this despite the sameness of objective conditions.
This seems to cast doubt on the idea that one could be mistaken about the quality of one's life. I grant of course that one could be mistaken about the objective factors bearing upon the quality of one's life. In the above example, I might not realize the severity of the sprain, or I might mistake a bone fracture for a sprain. But if the quality of one's life is compounded of both objective and subjective elements, it is hard to see how I could be subject to correction by an outsider observer.
A Temporal Consideration
Benatar speaks of the "overall quality of one's life." Part of what he means by this is the quality of one's life as a temporal whole including past, present, and future. Whether or not a person is a primary substance in Aristotle's sense, a person's life is a process and thus a whole of temporal parts or phases. The past phases are subjectively real only in memory, and the future phases only in anticipation. The present alone counts for my happiness. From the lived first-person perspective, if I am happy now, then I am happy. One cannot be tenselessly happy. Whether or not in general to exist = to exist now as presentists in the philosophy of time maintain, our mode of existence is such that to exist = to exist now.
If so, one is well-advised to avoid dwelling on negative memories. For they adversely affect the only happiness there is, the happiness of the present. And this is what most happy and healthy people do: they either forget the past insofar as it was painful, or they learn to regard it with cool detachment, preseving its lessons, but without affect. In this way they enhance the happiness of the present. And similarly with regard to future ills. They hope for the best and prepare for the worse, but without worry.
If I suppress negative memories, thereby enhancing the quality of my life, does this lead to an inaccurate assessment of the quality of my life? Only if my life is a whole each phase of which is equally real. Then, to have an accurate objective view I would have to consider each phase of my life past, present, and future. I would have to adopt an atemporal perspective on a life which is essentially temporal. But such a perspective is falsifying. My life wells up moment by moment in a moving present: my mode of existence is not tenseless but essentially tempotal. The present phase alone is subjectively real and relevant to happiness or well-being.
So one could say that the suppression of negative memories (which, qua memorial acts, are in the present) is just good happiness-hygiene, and not the source of an inaccurate view of the quality of my life as a whole. There is no such thing as my life as a whole except by a falsifying abstraction from my lived life in the standing-streaming present. Hence there is no objective fact of the matter concerning my life as a whole.
I should think that the philosophizing gastroenterologist is right in the end: the quality of one's life depends on the liver and his attitudes and mental hygiene.