This is the penultimate draft of the paper I will be presenting in Prague at the end of this month at the Benatar conference. Comments are welcome from those who are familiar with this subject.
IS THE QUALITY OF LIFE OBJECTIVELY EVALUABLE ON NATURALISM?
William F. Vallicella
This article examines one of the sources of David Benatar's anti-natalism according to which “all procreation is [morally] wrong.” (DP 12) This source is the claim that each of our lives is objectively bad whether we think so or not. The question I will pose is whether the constraints of metaphysical naturalism allow for an objective devaluation of human life sufficiently negative to justify anti-natalism My thesis is that metaphysical naturalism does not have the resources to support such a negative evaluation. Metaphysical naturalism is the view that causal reality is exhausted by nature, the space-time system and its contents.
The gist of my argument is that the ideal standards relative to which our lives are supposed to be axiologically substandard cannot be merely subjectively excogitated but must be objectively possible; they cannot be on metaphysical naturalism; ergo, failure to meet these ideal standards cannot show that our lives are objectively bad.
David Benatar maintains that "while some lives are better than others, none are (noncomparatively or objectively) good." (HP 67) The claim is that each of our lives is objectively bad whether we think so or not, and no matter how good an individual's life is compared to that of others. This is a very strong thesis since it says more than that some human lives are objectively better than others. It says in addition that no human life is objectively good. This is one of the sources of Benatar's anti-natalism, according to which “all procreation is wrong.” (DP 12) What sorts of considerations could persuade us that no human life is objectively good?
The Allegedly Poor Quality of Human Life
In The Human Predicament 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 the usual run of aches and pains and annoyances. 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. (HP 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. It is this sort of move that I want to examine. It strikes me as dubious because there is no species of animal relevantly similar to us that never experiences anything like the discomforts mentioned above, and it seems to me that such a species of critter is nomologically impossible. If 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?
This opening consideration brings me to the central question of this paper: Do the constraints of metaphysical naturalism allow for an objective devaluation of human life sufficiently negative to justify anti-natalism? My thesis is that metaphysical naturalism does not have the resources to support such a negative evaluation. But first we need to review further features of our predicament that cast doubt on its quality.
Besides the minor discomforts of the healthy, a second class of negative states includes those experienced regularly though not daily or by all. These include 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. If the only bads were the ones so far mentioned, then most of us well-placed individualswould say that they are outweighed by the goods.
When we get to the really horrific events and setbacks, however, 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 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 from the quality of life for the extreme thesis that every human life is such that the objectively bad outweighs the objectively good, and that therefore all procreation is morally wrong.
Is There More Bad Than Good for All?
Benatar nevertheless insists that "There is much more bad than good even for the luckiest humans." (HP 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, the frustration of desires and aspirations, and the constant 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." (82) The point is that the brevity of human life, when measured against “an ideal standard” is an objective reason for a negative evaluation of the quality of our lives. 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 this philosopher 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. But of course no appeal to God as an existing ideal standard is possible within Benatar's naturalism.
Towards a Critique
At this juncture we need to ask again: How can anything be objectively devalued relative to an ideal standard that is not only nonexistent but also impossible of realization? Such a standard is an axiological analog of an unperformable action. If I cannot do action A, then I cannot be morally obliged to do A and morally censured if I fail to do A. An agent cannot fairly be judged morally defective for failing to perform actions that it is impossible for him to perform. Analogously, if a thing fails to meet a standard that it is impossible for it to meet, then its failure to meet it is no ground for its objective devaluation. Merely subjective complaints about the brevity of life are understandable enough, but given the nomological impossibility of achieving extremely long life spans it is no argument against the value of our short lives that they are short. Let me see if I can make this clear.
The Generalized Ought-Implies-Can Principle: What Ought to Be Must be Possible
Pain is far worse than pleasure is good. That this is so strikes us as a very bad natural arrangement. It would be better if this were not the case. One way to express this is by saying that animals ought to feel only as much pain as is necessary to warn them of bodily damage. Or humans ought to be wired up in such away that “aversive behavior [is] mediated by a rational faculty rather than a capacity to feel pain.” (DP 56) These are examples of an ought-to-be as opposed to an ought-to-do.1 For they make no reference to any (finite) agent who is morally obliged to bring about the state of affairs and has the ability to do so. But what ought to be must be possible. Or so I maintain. The principle may be expressed as follows:
GOC: Necessarily, if state of affairs S ought to be, then S is really possible and not merely imaginable or conceivable.
The principle covers both the ought-to-do and the non-agential ought-to-be. (The non-agential ought-to-be is a state of affairs that ought to be, but is not in the power of any finite agent to bring about.) If I ought to do A, then it must be really possible for A to be done in general and for me in particular to do it. And if there ought to be less animal pain in the world than there is, then it must be really possible that there be less animal pain than there is. By contraposition, if it is nomologically impossible that there be less animal pain than there is, then it is not the case that there ought to be less animal pain than there is. If so, then it cannot be objectively bad that there is as much as there is. If what I desire is impossible, then it cannot be objectively bad that what I desire is not the case.
By 'conceivable,' I mean thinkable without narrowly-logical contradiction. By 'really possible,' I mean possible in reality and not merely conceivable by a finite mind, or imaginable by a finite mind, or epistemically possible (possible for all we know/believe), or not ruled out by the law of non-contradiction (LNC). That which is possible for all we know might be impossible in reality. And that which is not ruled out by LNC merely satisfies a necessary condition for being really possible. But satisfaction of LNC is not itself a type of real possibility. If a state of affairs is merely logically possible, then it is not (really) possible at all: 'logical' in 'logical possibility' is an alienans adjective. One must not assume that for each different sense of 'possible' there is a corresponding mode of real possiblity. That would be to conflate semantics with ontology. One principle governing real possibility is as follows:
CNP: Conceivability or imaginability by finite minds does not entail real possibility.
So if we ought to live longer than we do then it must be possible that we do. If we ought to be more knowledgeable than we are then it must be possible for us to be. If we ought to be morally better than we are, or even morally perfect, these states of affairs must be possible. If we ought to have the capacity “to breathe not only in air but also in water,” (DP 57) then this too must be really possible.
Like Benatar I find it horrifying that some animals are eaten alive by other animals. Those of us who are sensitive are regularly struck by the horror and heartlessness of predation and the vast extent of unpalliated animal pain. Some of us who are theists feel our theism totter when we wonder how a loving and omniscient and all-powerful God could create such a charnel house of a world red in tooth and claw. We feel that such a world ought not be! It ought to be that all animals are herbivores, or zombies as philosophers use this term, or machines, which is what Descartes thought they were. But these oughts-to-be are normatively vacuous unless they are nomologically possible, unless the (contingent) laws of nature permit them. In the case of the usual run of aches, pains, maladies and miseries to which our mortal flesh is heir I should think that they are nomologically necessary if we are to have animal bodies at all. If this right, then it is no good argument in devaluation of the quality of our lives that we suffer in the ways Benatar reports.
Why Accept the Generalized Ought-Implies-Can Principle?
I grant that the principle is not self-evident, but I consider it evident. For suppose you deny it. Let S be a 'mere ought,' a state of affairs that is not, but ought to be. Then you are maintaining both that S ought to be, and that it is not the case that S is really possible. You are saying that S ought to be but cannot be. This is incoherent since it severs the link between oughtness and being (existence). What OUGHT to be, ought TO BE.
OB. Necessarily, every ought is an ought TO BE.
But if the ought in question is a 'mere ought,' one that as a matter of contingent fact is not, then the only possible link between oughtness and existence is forged by real possibility. Therefore, GOC. Nothing ought to be unless it can be.
The situation is analogous to that of the possible and the actual. The merely possible by definition is that which is possible but not actual. Although not actual, the merely possible cannot be out of all relation to the actual. The possible is by its very nature as possible, possibly actual: it is actualizable. If you tell me that talking donkeys are possible but not actualizable, then you are telling me that talking donkeys are both possible and impossible. Thus:
PPA. Necessarily, if a state of affairs S is really possible, then S is possibly actual or actualizable.
But nothing is actualizable unless there is an agent that can actualize it.
AA. Necessarily, if a state if affairs is actualizable, then there is an actual agent with the power to actualize it.
The really possible is grounded in the causal powers of actual agents. For if a state of affairs is really possible, but there is no actual agent having the power to actualize it, then it is not possibly actual, in violation of (PPA).
Would it be Better if We were Amphibious?
As far as I know, Benatar does not speak of the ought-to-be. Instead he says things like the following: “it would certainly be better for humans if they could not drown – that is, if they had the capacity to breathe not only in air but also in water.” (DP 57) Of course, he means objectively better, not just subjectively desirable. So clarity bids us supply a connecting principle: what is better than what is, ought to be.
BOB. If state of affairs S is objectively better than actual state of affairs T, then S ought to be instead of T.
Now I can run my argument. If it were better for us to be amphibious, then it ought to be that we be amphibious. (BOB). If it ought to be that we be amphibious, then it is really possibly that we be. (GOC) But it is not nomologically possible, and therefore not really possible. Therefore it is not the case that it ought to be that we be amphibious. And if it is not the case that we ought to be amphibious, then it is not objectively bad that we are not amphibious.
But I hear an objection coming.
Granted, it is not nomologically possible that we breathe both air and water, but it is metaphysically possible. Why should nomological possibility exhaust real possibility? Metaphysical possibility satisfies the Generalized Ought-Implies-Can principle.
The answer is that what is really possible or not is grounded in the actual causal powers and causal liabilities of actual agents, and on metaphysical naturalism, the only agents are those found in the space-time world. No natural agent has the power to actualize a possible world in which humans breathe both air and water. God has the power but God cannot be invoked by the naturalist.
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 evaluate as bad even the most fortunate of human lives, are merely excogitated or thought up by him and others: they can have no basis in physical or metaphysical reality given his naturalism. 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 converse with 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, given 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 or metaphysical (broadly 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, on naturalism, it is no argument against the value of human life that human longevity maxes out at about 122 years or that our science is closer to nescience than to omniscience.
The Problem Summarized as an Aporetic Tetrad
As I see it, the underlying problem is that not all of the following propositions can be true even though each has a strong claim on our acceptance:
1. The quality of life is objectively bad for all and ought to be other than it is.
2. GOC: What ought to be is really possible.
3. If naturalism is true, then it is not really possible that human life be other than it is (in the respects that Benatar mentions including longevity, moral perfection, etc.).
4. Naturalism is true: Causal reality is exhausted by space-time and its contents.
A fairly strong case can be made for each of the limbs of our tetrad. But they can't all be true.
I can think of three possible solutions to the tetrad. I'll call them Platonic-Theistic, Anti-Platonic or Nietzschean, and Hybrid. (Needless to say I am not engaged in Plato or Nietzsche exegesis.)
The Platonic-Theistic Response
On Platonism broadly construed as I am construing it the ideal standards relative to which our lives are substandard actually exist and are therefore possible. They don't exist here below in this merely apparent world of time and change, but up yonder in a true world of timeless reality. Moral perfection, for example, exists as a Platonic Form, or in Christian Platonism as God. (Thomists, by the way, are Platonists in heaven even if they are Aristotelians on Earth.) Since Moral Perfection exists, it is possible of realization; indeed it realizes itself as the paradigm case of moral perfection thereby serving as a standard for other moral agents. This allows us to say, coherently, that it is objectively the case that we humans fall short of moral perfection, and that it is objectively bad that we do so.
Clearly, we ought to be much better than we are and perhaps even perfect. “Be ye perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” (MT 5:48) But this normative statement cannot be objectively true unless Moral Perfection exists, up yonder in a topos ouranos, if not here below. On this scheme one solves the tetrad by denying (4). One rejects naturalism while retaining the other propositions. One argues from the first three limbs taken together to the negation of the fourth. On this approach one agrees with Benatar that the quality of natural life is objectively bad and ought to be other than it is. If so, then naturalism is false.
The Anti-Platonic or Nietzschean Response
Benatar maintains that human life is objectively bad for all regardless of what a particular human feels or thinks. A Nietzschean could solve the problem by rejecting (1), by denying that life is objectively bad . (Obviously, if it is not objectively bad, then it is not objectively bad for all.) It cannot be objectively bad because the quality or value of life cannot be objectively evaluated at all, either positively or negatively. As Nietzsche writes in The Twilight of the Idols, “The Problem of Socrates,”(W. Kaufmann, The Portable Nietzsche, Viking 1968, p. 474):
Judgments, judgments of value, concerning life, for it or against it, can, in the end, never be true: they have value only as symptoms, they are worthy of consideration only as symptoms; in themselves such judgments are stupidities. . . .the value of life cannot be estimated. (Der Wert des Lebens nicht abgeschaetzt werden kann.) Not by the living, for they are an interested party, even a bone of contention, and not judges; not by the dead, for a different reason. For a philosopher to see a problem in the value of life is thus an objection to him, a question mark concerning his wisdom, an un-wisdom. Indeed? All these great wise men -- they were not only decadents but not wise at all?
As I read Nietzsche, he is telling us that life is in every case an individual's life. There is no human life in general and no fact of the matter as to whether or not human life is objectively more bad than good. Judgments of the quality of life are all essentialy subjective, reflecting as they do nothing more than the quality of the particular life that is doing the judging. The negative evaluations of the weak and decadent are merely symptoms of their weakness and decadence. And similarly for the positive evaluations of the strong and healthy. The affirmations of the robust are not objectively true; they are merely expressions of their robustness. Life is the essentially subjective standard of all evaluation; as such it cannot be objectively evaluated. There is nothing outside of it against which to measure it and find it wanting. As a philosophizing gastroenterologist might say, “The quality of life depends on the liver.” Pessimism and anti-natalism are merely symption of physiological-cum-cultural decadence on the part of those who advance such doctrines.
The Hybrid or Mixed Response
On the third response to the problem one attempts to retain the ideal standards while rejecting their Platonic-theistic non-naturalistic foundation. This is what I see Benatar as doing. He rejects (2) and/or (3) while accepting (1) and (4). Life is objectively more bad than good and concrete reality is exhausted by the space-time system and its contents. And yet the ideal standards that we fail to satisfy and that render our lives objectively bad do so regardless of their being nonexistent and impossible.
Evaluating the Three Responses
The hybrid response of Benatar strikes me as incoherent. For either there is a fact of the matter concerning the value/quality of life or there isn't. If there is, then the standards of evaluation cannot be merely subjectively posited by us or mere expressions of what we like or dislike. There seem to be two possibilities. One is that the ideal standards objectively exist in nature. I am thinking of an approach like that of Philippa Foot. But this approach is of no use to Benatar. So the ideal standards must exist beyond nature. But Benatar cannot countenance this either. On the other hand, if there is no fact of the matter as to the quality/value of life, then Benatar's case is just a tissue of subjective complaints, to which the appropriate response would be : Man (or woman) up! Or Nietzsche's “Become hard!” (Zarathustra).
I would say that if there is a genuine solution, if the tetrad is not an aporia in the strict sense, we must choose between the Platonic and the Nietzschean solutions, and given the untenability of Nietzsche's doctrines, I choose the former. This allows me to agree with Benatar that it is objectively the case that the bad preponderates, and for all, and that it does so despite our optimistic illusions and denials. Human life, viewed immanently, is wretched for all and no amount of Pascalian divertissement can ultimately hide this fact from us. But precisely because this is objectively the case, naturalism is false: concrete reality is not exhausted by nature. There has to be an Unseen Order relative to which this world and we in it are objectively defective. Our lives are defective because this world is a fallen world, one in need of redemption.
How does this bear upon the question of anti-natalism? If Benatar is right and the quality of life is objectively bad for all, then anti-natalism follows. But if I am right, Benatar's view is inconsistent and does not support anti-natalism.
I agree with Benatar that the human condition is a predicament. We are in a state that is drastically unsatisfactory and from which there is no easy exit, and certainly no exit by individual or collective human effort. Pace Leon Trotsky, there is no 'progressive' solution to the human predicament. We are objectively wretched, all of us, and there is nothing we can do about it. Pace Nietzsche, this wretchedness is not a symptom of remediable weakness or decadence. It is an objective condition all of us are in. But precisely because it is objective, metaphysical naturalism is false. That is what I have argued.
My central thesis, then, is that Benatar's position is logically inconsistent. One cannot maintain both that life is objectively bad for all and that naturalism is true. If nothing else, I have shown that Benatar's position is not rationally compelling and that therefore it can be rationally rejected.
I myself favor the Platonic-Theistic approach sketched above. But intellectual honesty forces me to admit that it too has its problems. So my fall-back position is that the terad above is simply insoluble by us, a genuine aporia.