Extension Material for Paper 2 Medical Ethics – Beginning of Life Issues : Is it Better Never to Have Been Born?

‘ I’d consider myself a realist, alright? But in philosophical terms I’m what’s called a pessimist… I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself – we are creatures that should not exist by natural law… We are things that labour under the illusion of having a self, that accretion of sensory experience and feelings, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody’s nobody… I think the honourable thing for our species to do is to deny our programming. Stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction – one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal. ‘

– Rust Cohle True Detective

This blog entry contains what is called ‘extension material’. In other words, the content goes a long way beyond what students need to know for the A Level course. However, if they did refer to what are called ‘antinatalist’ ideas mentioned below, they would probably impress an examiner. Antinatalism is also a philosophical perspective that has been steadily growing in popularity and so is worth studying for its own sake.

Previous course notes have referred to the fact that many Christians are ‘pro-life’ when it comes to abortion. They believe that the life of an unborn child is something sacred and God-given, right from the moment of conception. So abortion is nearly always wrong. Contrastingly, supporters of the ‘pro-choice’ view of abortion (which may also include Christians) believe that the woman carrying the unborn child should be able to choose what to do if the pregnancy is unwanted, and that this right to choose trumps the fetus’s right to life.

However, there is a third point of view, that of antinatalism. Antinatalists believe that it is better not to have children at all because once you are born you are doomed to suffer. They think it is wrong to have children and believe that the human race should become extinct, in order to spare future generations all the misery they would otherwise experience.

The most famous antinatalist is the philosopher David Benatar, who has argued that the act of giving birth, of bringing a new person into the world, inflicts harm on them, regardless of the feelings of that person once they have been brought into existence. Therefore, he thinks that it is morally wrong to create more sentient (self-aware) beings. Benatar’s ideas were an influence on True Detective creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto, who articulated them through monologues voiced by the character Rust Cohle played by Matthew McConaughey (see above and this clip from Season 1 of the series):

NOTE: This video also appears in the course notes on Utilitarianism where it has been used to flag up a well-known criticism of Negative Utilitarianism

Benatar’s argument that the birth of a new person always entails nontrivial harm to that person, and that there is therefore a moral imperative not to procreate based on the following premises:

(1) The presence of pain is bad.

(2) The presence of pleasure is good.

(3) The absence of pain is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone.

(4) The absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation.

If someone exists, there is the presence of pain and the presence of pleasure. If no one exists, nothing bad happens and pain is avoided. They miss out on pleasure, but it seems ‘ignorance is bliss’ in the sense that non-existent beings cannot know what they are missing out on. For Benatar, “any suffering at all [italics mine] would be sufficient to make coming into existence a harm”. The harm that coming into existence creates is avoidable and pointless. According to Benatar, it is always good to avoid harm whenever possible and therefore it is always good not to come into existence.

Arthur Schopenhauer is another philosopher with a similar point of view. He argued that the value of life is ultimately negative because any positive experiences will always be outweighed by suffering, which is a more powerful feeling.

“Whoever wants summarily to test the assertion that the pleasure in the world outweighs the pain, or at any rate that the two balance each other, should compare the feelings of an animal that is devouring another with those of that other.”

Schopenhauer thought that the most reasonable position to take was not to bring children into the world:

“If children were brought into the world by an act of pure reason alone, would the human race continue to exist? Would not a man rather have so much sympathy with the coming generation as to spare it the burden of existence, or at any rate not take it upon himself to impose that burden upon it in cold blood?

In a more recent work (see above), Benatar continues to develop this line of thinking.

According to Benatar, having children is cruel and irresponsible because life is full of badness. In part, for this reason, he thinks that the world would be a better place if human life disappeared altogether. To support his argument he provides a list of things that are bad about life. The list is meant to show that even the lives of happy people are worse than they think.

For example, he writes, we’re almost always hungry or thirsty, often too hot or too cold, and frequently tired but lacking in opportunities to rest. We suffer from itches, allergies, and colds, headaches, indigestion, anxiety, stress and frustration. Life is a succession of events that frustrate and irritate: being stuck in traffic, standing in queues, filling out forms etc. Forced to work, we often find what we have to do boring or exhausting, and even those who enjoy their work may have dreams that remain unfulfilled.

The author of an ARTICLE in the New Yorker magazine featuring an interview with Benatar quotes him as saying, “Human life is cosmically meaningless: we exist in an uncaring universe and are subject to blind and purposeless natural forces” (like bad weather and natural disasters). When asked about making the world a better place, Benatar responds, “It’ll never happen. The lessons never seem to get learnt. Maybe the odd individual will learn them, but you still see this madness around you.”

Some may have already recognised in Benatar’s views, a reiteration of what is famously known as the First Noble Truth of the Buddha, a teaching that is found at the beginning of the very first sermon he delivered. In Edward Conze’s translation it is expressed as follows:

“Birth is ill, decay is ill, sickness is ill, death is ill. To be conjoined with what one dislikes means suffering. To be disjoined from what one likes means suffering. Not to get what one wants, also that means suffering. “

What is actually being declared here is that life itself is permeated by dukkha, a Pali word that is rich in meaning and nuance, more so than the usual English renderings of the term as ‘suffering’ or ‘ill’ can readily convey. A better translation might be be ‘unsatisfactory experience’.

However, the Buddha is not denying that there is happiness in life. There is even a Pali word for it: sukha or ‘bliss’. But what he is saying is that happiness is transient. It doesn’t last. In fact, a careful reading of the above statement reveals that there are three categories of suffering. The first of these is self-evident suffering. When we are in mental or physical pain there is no question that there is dukkha, and the journey of life inevitably entails that we will encounter this type of suffering.

The Buddha then moves on to state that there can be no happy endings because reality can never be freeze-framed. We therefore either find ourselves in situations we would rather not be in (conjoined with what we dislike), or we get disjoined from what we like, as when pleasurable experiences come to an end. One famous Buddhist scholar, Trevor Ling, once put it this way: ‘After the party comes the hangover’.

However, the whole point of the Buddha’s sermon was to demonstrate that a cure was possible for this unhappy state of affairs. To cut a long story short, and at the risk of oversimplification, as a result of mindfully attending to the process of life as it manifested itself both within and around him, the Buddha eventually realized that there was no enduring self behind this process. The habitual conviction that there was an unchanging thinker behind all this self-centered activity evaporated under the spotlight of sustained meditative awareness.

No longer in thrall to the habitual compulsions, drives and fears that ensnare us over and over again, causing us to not get what we want, the Buddha was therefore able to embrace the Godless and selfless, endlessly morphing reality that unfolded before him in a free and spontaneously empathetic manner. Instead of possessing a mind that – like the rest of us – is full of itself, he became more open, more egoless, more capable of generosity because he was no longer seeking anything for himself.

Or so it might seem. However, it is worth noting that according to Theravada Buddhism, the form of the faith that is both traditional and that arguably preserves the teachings of the Buddha in their original form, the attainment of egoless Nibbana or Nirvana, as well as putting an end to suffering also puts a stop to the cycle of rebirth that we are all subject to. So, in a sense, it achieves both the antinatalist (and negative utilitarian purpose). Indeed, if all human beings achieved Nirvana, we would be left with the kind of world envisaged by Rust Cohle.

Unsurprisingly though, Benatar’s views have drawn a RESPONSE from the Zen Buddhist blogger Brad Warner. For what are known as Mahayana Buddhists (an umbrella term which in theory embraces diverse variants that range from Tibetan Buddhism to Zen) , the aim is to not abandon those who are still suffering. And so, in theory at least, spiritually advanced practitioners vow to keep being reborn until everyone has achieved Nirvana.

Warner’s observations are highly personal and constitute what might be deemed a mystical response to antinatalism. They are also worth quoting at length.

“Without Buddhism, I’d be right with David Benatar. His feelings mirror my own for most of the early part of my life. I resented even having been born. And that resentment only grew when I was told that a horrible genetic disease runs in my family and that my parents had had me anyway, even knowing I might spend a considerable portion of a short life in agony and pain just like my grandmother had, and just like my mom did beginning only a few years after they told me this.

What the f**k?

I made my own decision not to have children after learning that. But, even someone without that kind of sword hanging over their head must often think that simply having been born is a tragedy.

The thing I want to address here, though, is those ideas about the cosmic significance of sentient life. Is human life cosmically meaningless? Do we live in an indifferent universe subject to blind and purposeless natural forces? Is human consciousness a tragic mistake?

I don’t think so.

My feeling, based in a large part on things I’ve encountered through intensive Buddhist practice, is that what we call “consciousness” is a fundamental force within the universe. Consciousness — which, I think, is kind of a rotten word for it, but we’re stuck with the word — is as fundamental as gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak forces of nuclear attraction. Consciousness is not something we generate in our brains, but a fundamental natural force that we experience through our brains as well as through our other senses, much the same as we experience gravity and all the rest.

Sentience is one manifestation of this force, but it’s not the only one. Every thing we encounter is, in some way, alive. It is all just different manifestations of an underlying something. Dogen [a medieval Japanese Zen teacher]writes about it in his essay Inmo (It), which I retitled It Came From Beyond Zen in my book of the same title (how’s that for a shameless plug?). Dogen decided it was better not to name this something, which is why he uses a word that roughly translates as “it” to refer to it. Others call this something “God,” but that word has a lot of baggage.

The fact that I exist as a sentient being indicates to me that this underlying something desires to know itself through the existence of sentient beings. To me, human life, therefore, is cosmically meaningful. The universe is not indifferent. Natural forces are neither blind nor purposeless. And human consciousness is not a mistake.

I know this is a difficult position to defend. I know that it’s easy to appear to demonstrate that what I’m saying is wrong. Yet I know it isn’t.

The problem is, unraveling the ultimate purpose of life, the universe, and everything may be forever beyond the reach of the human mind. I can’t know what the meaning of life is because the very nature of the meaning of life is unknowability. Knowing is a way of limiting things, yet the meaning of life, the universe, and everything is limitless.

But this limitless something that is not only the universe but is the meaning of the universe is intimately connected with you. In fact, it is more you than you could ever be.

Similarly, another teacher within what is known as the Soto Zen tradition has also recently published some strikingly personal remarks that challenge Rust Cohle’s claim that ‘consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution’, again by describing what a more expansive view of the universe looks like:

‘I am writing this some weeks after receiving an esophageal and stomach cancer diagnosis. The doctors are optimistic, but they won’t know the real prognosis until they do surgery a few days from now. Like many twists and turns in life, this news came as quite a surprise to me. In general, I’m doing okay with it, but I am also afraid sometimes, as we humans often are when faced with our own mortality. I don’t want to pretend that I that I am some kind of hero who is beyond all fear. I’m a complete Zen coward! I believe that some level of fear is hardwired into the deepest part of our brains, and it awakens when we ponder our own sickness and death.

But that’s okay because it’s not the end of the story.

Another part of me is beyond all fear. I mean that. Part of me is afraid but part of me is not afraid at all. It’s the part of me that is wonderfully beyond ‘me’, beyond all fear of death – an aspect of my being that is fine with whatever happens. The part of me that knows there is no place to fall to and that does not believe in death in the usual way we think about it. I feel content, even though I am also worried about my upcoming surgery. There are serious risks, and the operation might not work. I want to get the cancer out, but the treatment is painful and without guarantees. I am afraid, and sometimes the fear makes me sweat from head to toe. I realize that I may not be here in a year or two, or even months from now. I may not be here tomorrow. What will become of my family? I miss my kids, my wife, the car. Who will teach my daughter to ride a bike, or show my son how to shave? Sometimes, the loneliness I feel makes me cry at night.

At the same time, I am beyond all fear, and there is not the least resistance to death in my heart. Through Zen practice, I stopped being concerned about death a long time ago. If death comes, let it come. Whatever happens, I’m willing to dive right in. thus, I am content to be here in this hospital room. All is as it should be and I overflow with joy. An amazing aspect of Zen, the essence of the wisdom and compassion at its very center, is that it allows all such to be true at once, each in its own way. Each perspective has its place, and there is not the least bit of conflict among ideas and emotions that at first appear to be contradictory.’

Additionally, Benatar’s views can be criticised on the basis of psychological research carried out by Robert Biswas-Diener.

Biswas-Diener has travelled the world interviewing people about their lives and how satisfied they are with them. Wherever he goes, he has found that most people (with the exception of the homeless) are more satisfied than dissatisfied with their lives. He even found this was the case with sex workers in Calcutta, forced by poverty to sell their bodies and sacrifice their futures to disease. Overall, Biswas-Diener ‘s research suggests that the lives of those we might pity are much better from the inside than they may look to an antinatalist from the outside, something that Benatar and Schopenhauer do not seem to acknowledge.

To Think About

Why does David Benatar think that we should stop having children?

On what basis do Brad Warner and Jundo Cohen disagree with Benatar?

What has Robert Biswas-Diener shown in his research?

What are your own views about the different ideas about life that are in this handout?