My old friend Joe sent me a vitriolic statement in denunciation of David Benatar, both the man and his ideas. I will quote only a relatively benign portion of Joe's rant:
I do not experience life as a predicament but as a great gift. I am surrounded by love and beauty, and even have been able to create some small additional beauty in this world, in my work as an architect and designer. I am hardly unique. Other people have created beauty as well, it is not a rare thing . . . .
Has Benatar bothered to find people like myself? If he has, he is calling us liars. If he has not, then he is lazy.
[. . .]
I could go on. I basically despise people like him.
I would guess that Joe's response is not atypical of those outside of philosophy. Except for alienated adolescents, few if any like Benatar's pessimistic and anti-natalist message. I don't like it either, and I'm in philosophy.
But liking is not the point. What alone is relevant is whether a rational case can be made for Benatar's theses.
I admire the man's courage, the clarity of this thinking, and his resolute grappling with the undeniably awful features of human and animal life. Do I agree with him? No. Do I have good reasons for disagreeing with him? Well, I have until the end of May 2018 to assemble and articulate them. I have been invited to read a paper in Prague at a conference on anti-natalism.
So I accept the challenge that Benatar's work presents. That's the philosophical way. Ordinary people are content to rely on upbringing and emotion; they believe what they believe and reject what they reject on little or no evidence. They stop their ears to contrary views. They are content to live lives largely unexamined.
But our patron, the (Platonic) Socrates, maintained that the unexamined life is not worth living. (Plato, Apology, 38a) So let us examine this life. Should it show itself, upon examination, to be not worth living, then let us accept the truth and its practical consequences. We should be open to the possibility that the examination of life, without which this life is not worth living, may disclose to us that this life is indeed not worth living.
For now I discuss just two questions. Is life a predicament? Is life a gift?
Is Life a Predicament?
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 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.' This seems to accord with Benatar's understanding of the term. He tells us that "Real predicaments . . . are those in which there is no easy solution." (HP 94) He does does not say that real predicaments have no solutions.
Predicaments thus divide into the soluble and the insoluble. Is there a solution to the predicament of life? I say it is reasonable to hope that there is. This is what Benatar denies. Three views, then.
Joe: The human condition is not a predicament.
Bill: The human condition is a predicament but there is, or it is reasonable to hope there is, a Way Out.
Ben: The human condition is a predicament and there is no Way Out.
Religion Implies that Life is a Predicament
My impression is that Joe has a religious sensibility. So I can appeal to him by appealing to it. According to Josiah Royce "the essential characteristic of religion" is the concern for salvation. Salvation from what? Let us listen to Royce from the Golden Age of American philosophy:
The higher religions of mankind -- religions such as Buddhism and Christianity -- have had in common this notable feature, namely, that they have been concerned with the problem of the Salvation of Man. This is sometimes expressed by saying that they are redemptive religions -- religions interested in freeing mankind from some vast and universal burden, of imperfection, of unreasonableness, of evil, of misery, of fate, of unworthiness, or of sin. (The Sources of Religious Insight, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1912, p. 8)
Life is a predicament, then, because we find ourselves under the "vast and universal burden" so eloquently described by Royce, a state of affairs that is obviously deeply unsatisfactory, from which we need salvation.
It may be that no religious or secular solution is availing, but that is consistent with life's being a predicament. For it may be an insoluble predicament.
On the other hand, life here below remains a predicament even if orthodox Christianity, say, is true, and sub specie aeternitatis all is well, Christ's passion has atoned for our sins, we are back in right relation to God, heaven awaits the faithful, every tear will be dried, justice will prevail with the punishment of the evil and the rewarding of the good, and this vale of tears will give way to the Beatific Vision. Even if all of this is true, life here below remains a predicament.
For even if, in the end, from the point of view of eternity, all is well, that is not the case here and now. Hic et nunc man is homo viator: he is on the road, a lonesome traveller through a vale of sorrows, treading the via dolorosa, behind a veil of ignorance. He does not KNOW, he can only believe. But with belief comes doubt and doubt brings torment. He is ignorant of the ultimate why and wherefore and temptations tempt him from every direction. This deep ignorance is part of what makes our condition a predicament, and thus unsatisfactory -- even if all will be well in the end.
Is Life a Gift?
My old friend tells me that he experiences life as a great gift. But of course others experience it in other ways, which shows that the mere experiencing of it this way or that proves nothing. Life cannot be both a great gift and a "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." One of these global perceptions must be non-veridical.
If life is a gift, then there is a presumably an all-good Giver. No donation without a donor. But then whence all the horror?
It is said that there are no atheists in foxholes. Not true: there are theists who become atheists in foxholes. The imminence of death and the absurdity of the carnage around them seems to disclose to them their abandonment in an utterly godless and inhuman universe. It comes to them with the force of a revelation that their theistic beliefs were so much childish optimism.
On the other hand, there are those who when in such a Jaspersian boundary situation have mystical experiences that seem to disclose to them the ultimate rightness of things and the reality of the Unseen Order.
Appeal to experiences, no matter how profound, does not resolve the the big questions. The tedious work of the philosophers, then, is needed to sort this all out, if it can be sorted out.
And that is what Benatar engages in whether or not one likes his conclusions. As I said, it is not a matter of liking or disliking.