This is the sixth in a series on David Benatar's The Human Predicament (Oxford UP, 2017). We are now in Chapter 5. I will need to proceed slowly through this rich and detailed chapter. There is a lot to learn from it. The entry covers pp. 92-101.
Does Death Release Us From the Human Predicament?
Logically prior questions: Is the human condition a predicament? And what does this mean?
Benatar holds that the human condition is a predicament. I agree. But it depends on what exactly a predicament is. I would define a predicament as an unsatisfactory state of affairs that calls for some sort of solution or amelioration or redemption or salvation or escape. I would add, however, that the solution cannot be easy or trivial, but also not impossible. Thus I do not build insolubility into my definition of 'predicament.' Call mine the weak sense of 'predicament.' This seems at first to accord with Benatar's understanding of the term. He tells us that "Real predicaments . . . are those in which there is no easy solution." (94, emphasis added.) 'No easy solution' conversationally implies that there might be a hard solution.
But he also speaks of 'the intractability of real predicaments, of which the human predicament may well be the paradigmatic example." (94) If our predicament is intractable, then it is insoluble. I suspect that this is what Benatar really holds. Call this the strong sense of 'predicament.' Accordingly, he holds, not that our predicament is difficult of solution, but that it is insoluble, and thus that a solution is impossible.
If so, then death, which he takes to be total annihilation of the person, is no solution and "only deepens the predicament." (94) This is a curiously counter-intuitive claim. If life is as objectively bad as Benatar says it is, then one might naturally see death not as a Grim Reaper, but as a Benign Releaser. One might think that if life is bad, then death must be at least instrumentally good insofar as it puts an end to suffering. Benatar's view, however, is that "death is no deliverance from the human predicament, but a further feature of it." (96)
How is that for a deeply pessimistic view? We are caught in an existential vise, squeezed between life which is bad and death which is also bad. Everyone alive will die. While alive we are in a bad way. When dead we are also in a bad way. There is no escape for those who have had the misfortune of being born. So being born is bad twice over: because life is bad and being dead is as well.
Benatar versus Silenus
Some confuse Benatar's attitude toward death with that of Silenus.
Silenus holds that death is not an evil. Death is not an evil because it removes us from a condition which on balance is not good, a condition which on balance is worse than nonexistence. This, the wisdom of Silenus, if wisdom it is, is reported by Sophocles (Oedipus at Colonus, ll. 1244 ff.) and quoted by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, section 3:
There is an ancient story that King Midas hunted in the forest a long time for the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, without capturing him. When Silenus at last fell into his hands, the king asked what was the best and most desirable of all things for man. Fixed and immovable, the demigod said not a word, till at last, urged by the king, he gave a shrill laugh and broke out into these words: "O wretched ephemeral race, children of chance and misery, why do you compel me to tell you what it would be most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is -- to die soon."
Benatar agrees with the first sentence, but not the second. For if dying and being dead are bad, then there is nothing good about dying sooner rather than later.
But Is Death Bad?
To be precise, the question is whether death is bad for the person who dies. If your child dies, then that is bad for you; the question, however, is whether it is bad for the child. And note that by 'death' we mean the 'state' of being dead, not the process of dying. There is no question but that dying, with its miseries and indignities, is bad for many. The real question, however, is whether you are in a bad way after you have finished dying. And to reiterate the obvious, Benatar is a mortalist who assumes that physical death is the annihilation of the person.
The Epicurean Challenge in its Hedonistic Form
Benatar maintains that death does not release us from the objectively bad human predicament because "death is an evil [a bad thing] and thus part of the human predicament." (110) Death is no escape, but part of the problem. But then he faces the arguments of Epicurus and his followers according to which death is not bad. If Epicurus and Co. are right, then, even if life is objectively bad for all, there is a Way Out, there is a solution to our predicament. The first Epicureasn argument to consider invokes a hedonistic premise.
When I am dead I won't be conscious of anything: I won't sense or feel anything. I won't feel pleasure or pain or be aware of being dead. So how can being dead be bad? This assumes that conscious states alone, or what Benatar calls "feelings," are intrinsically good or bad. The argument, which is close to what the historical Epicurus maintains, is this:
Hedonism: Only conscious states are intrinsically either good or bad states.
Mortalism: No dead person is in a conscious state.
No dead person is in an intrinsically bad state.
The soundness of the argument may be doubted since the hedonistic premise is not self-evident. It implies that nothing is bad for a person of which he is not aware. Suppose your spouse cheats on you but you never find out. Intuitively, you have been wronged even if you remain forever in the dark about it and thus never have any negative feelings about it. Benatar:
It seems that your spouse's dalliances are bad for you even though they do not lead to any bad feelings in you. If that is so, then perhaps death can be bad for the person who dies even though it leads to no bad feelings. (99)
The hedonist might respond by saying that one could become aware of one's spouse's infidelity and come to feel negatively about it but one could not come to feel negatively about being dead. Or the hedonist might just insist on his premise. But suppose you do become aware of your spouse's infidelity and come to feel negatively about it. Do you have negative feelings because it is bad to be betrayed? Or is it bad to be betrayed because of the negative feelings?
Intuitively, what makes the betrayal bad is not the negative feeling elicited when and if the betrayal is discovered. The betrayal is intrinsically bad in and of itself. What justified the bad feelings is the underlying fact of the betrayal which is bad in itself whether or not it causes bad feeling when discovered.
If this is right, then hedonism is not the correct account of good/bad. If so, "negative feelings are not the the only things that are intrinsically bad." (100) And if this is right, then the Epicurean argument in its hedonist form is no refutation of Benatar. I think we should agree that the argument in its hedonist form is not compelling.
But there are other arguments!