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Thursday, January 11, 2018


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Firstly, thank you for the excellent ongoing analysis of Benatar's latest book. The gulf in quality between your criticism and that of other recent commentators, especially Jordan Peterson, is immense.

The distinction between Benatar and Silenus was essential in this instalment. In regard to the Epicurean argument, I lean towards accepting the Hedonistic premise and therefore the full argument as it is defined above.

Intuitively it does seem that betrayal (and death) are intrinsically bad events, despite the bad feelings experienced being the crucial element here, but it's possible this is a view that changes with the passing of time. Discovering that a former girlfriend was unfaithful to me 20 years ago for example is unlikely to induce as much anger or harm to my self-esteem today, if any, as it would have done at the time. Similarly, a person who is anxious about his health and wellbeing in middle age may approach some degree of serenity and acceptance of death as an octogenarian.

I find the Epicurean argument of "No dead person is in an intrinsically bad state" persuasive because I consider a dead person to be intrinsically in a neutral (null) state. Living people are either in good states - the tiny majority, the "most fortunate of human lives" (and here I disagree with Benatar), or bad states - the vast majority of us.


Thanks for your posts on The Human Predicament. I’ve read only the first chapter, but I’ve also read Benatar’s Why Coming into Existence is Always a Harm. (See Exploring the Meaning of Life: An Anthology and Guide, 2013)

I appreciate Benatar’s careful reasoning, fair-mindedness, and willingness to address this issue -- which many philosophers have ignored. I agree that human life is a predicament, and that an honest pursuit of truth requires a careful treatment of the subject. I like this line from Ch. 1 of The Human Predicament:

“Does a pursuit of the truth not require that one speak honestly rather than engage in polite collusion with what one takes to be untruth?”

You quoted Benatar: “negative feelings are not the only things that are intrinsically bad.”

I wonder what else he takes to be of intrinsic value. When I read Why Coming into Existence is Always a Harm, it seemed to me that Benatar’s arguments rested on two tacit assumptions: (1) that human life is not intrinsically good (at best, it is an instrumental good); and (2) that objective moral values and duties exist.

Regarding (1), Benatar did not support it. I think this assumption requires a plausible supporting argument, and a treatment of arguments that life is intrinsically good. Regarding (2), it seems that Benatar is a metaphysical naturalist. If so, the ground for his assumption of objective morality is unclear.

Perhaps he answers these questions in The Human Predicament.

I meant to write the following:

(1) that human beings lack intrinsic positive value; at best, they are instrumental goods. Or, if human beings have intrinsic worth, this worth can be outweighed by the bad aspects of the human predicament.


As for your (1), I don't think B. assumes this; he argues that human life in every instance is objectively bad.

As for (2), I agree: he assumes that objective values exist. But how this coheres with his metaphysical naturalism is unclear to me. I discussed this in an earlier installment.

If you want to combine an objective ethic with metaph. naturalism, then it seems you have to go the Aristotelian route of, say, Philippa Foot. But then B. couldn't say, e.g., that it is bad that we are not omniscient or don't live a thousand years.

Michael L,

Thanks for the kind words.

Here is another example. Suppose Tom is the executor of my will. The will states that after my demise, Tom will care for my dogs and cats. But then I die and Tom does no such thing. He uses the money allotted to animal care for gambling in Las Vegas.

Have I been harmed or not? Has a wrong been done me?


Proceeding to Chapter 2, I read the following: “Put another way, one does not have to transcend limits in order for one’s life to have intrinsic value. Because meaningless lives can have such value …”

Here, B. seems to affirm that human beings can have intrinsic value. Is his use of ‘can’ modal or epistemic? Or perhaps he means to say that human beings actually have intrinsic value.

In Why Coming into Existence is Always a Harm, he wrote: “When I say that coming into existence is always a harm, I do not mean that it is necessarily a harm…my argument does not apply to those hypothetical cases in which a life contains only good and no bad.”

Here, he admits it is logically possible for human existence not to be a harm, and suggests that a human lifetime which contains only good and no bad would not be a harm. Does he mean to say that such is a sufficient condition for a non-harmful life? Or a necessary condition?

If the latter, then it would seem he does not deem the intrinsic worth of a human being very highly (or perhaps he deems all bads to be extremely bad), since a human lifetime with one bad thing would outweigh the intrinsic worth of the human person and all the good things of his lifetime. Thus, one bad thing would make the existence of an intrinsically valuable human person a harm. It is as if B. places the intrinsic value of a human person and all the goods of that person's life on side one of a scale. On side two, he places one bad thing. Side two outweighs side one, thus making the person's life a harm.

If this is his position, it seems an unrealistic standard. Suppose a person of intrinsic value lives a long life filled with thousands of goods and only one bad. Is one bad sufficient to make his existence an overall harm, and thus to make it the case that it would have been better had he not come into existence?

Right. If B. were to take Foot's approach, he couldn't appeal to such high standards for human existence.

One apparent complication with Foot's view, it seems to me, is that it affirms the existence of natures, particularly human nature. It is committed to some version of essentialism. But natures don't fit very well in an ontology of naturalism. They seem better suited to a theistic metaphysics or an ontology that includes Platonic Forms. If B. were to take Foot's approach, he'd face this apparently odd match of naturalism plus essences/natures.

I think we agree about Foot. See the critical remarks about her view in http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2016/11/natural-norms.html


That is a clearer example. There is a wrong somewhere, as Tom is breaking the terms of the will by accepting the money without caring for the animals, but Tom's actions cannot harm you after your death as you are in a null state that is safe from harm. The cats & dogs obviously experience the direct harm, but I'm not clear where to assign the abstract harm (or if it is purely objective and doesn't need a subject).

If you'll allow me to tweak this example slightly - suppose Jim was a closet Islamist and you were the executor of his will. The will states that you pass on the money to an ISIS cell who as a result of the new funding will be able to commit an atrocity in the West.

Is there a wrong, an abstract harm, if you choose to withhold the money and inform the police of the cell's location? If the wrong cannot exist without a good cause then can it be objective? Can Jim, who incidentally was seduced by Islamism late in life, be said to have been harmed by your intervention?


You say: "The real question ... is whether you are in a bad way after you have finished dying."

Does Benatar employ (something like) this wording? It's incoherent if read literally and if death implies the end of one's existence.

You know I likewise drafted a paper where I argue that Benatar has not provided us with any clear sense for his thesis that (regardless of the balance of one's benefits and harms) it's better never to have been.


Those are my words. What B is maintaining is that it is bad to be dead for the person who is dead. The person who is dead no longer exists. But it is still bad for that person to be dead.

I don't buy it, and you don't either. But is it obviously incoherent? Is it not bad for a person who dies young to be deprived of the goods he would have enjoyed had he lived? When is it bad? After he no longer exists.

This suggests that a person can be harmed or deprived even if he doesn't exist.


In which sense exactly IS it bad FOR the young person to BE deprived AT the time he NO longer exists? It's a nice sentence to say but I just don't know what it is supposed to mean.

And I think you've laid out a nice Epicurean suggestion it makes no sense at all. maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2016/11/the-horror-of-death.html

Also in ch. 7, sect. "Death and Suicide", of Better Never to Have Been (2006), Benatar discusses the Epicurean objection, but I'm finding there no clue either.

I don’t buy it either. I agree with David Oderberg, who makes the following point when discussing euthanasia: “It is incoherent to suppose that the death of a human being can be good *for him*. On the contrary, if an action is good for a person, it improves his condition, or makes his life go better than it would have had the action not been performed.” (Applied Ethics: a non-consequentialist approach, p. 70)

It seems this point applies, mutatis mutandis, for the claim that the death of a human being is bad *for him*.

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