I have always had a distant image of philosopher David Benatar as having a lot to contend with in a difficult place at a difficult time. I came across one of his actual ideas by chance on the Web. And in what I write below, I base myself on what I find on the Web (here, here and here; and for personal flavour, here, here and here.)
DB begins by conceiving life’s experiences as ones of pleasure and ones of pain, then to observe that the balance in many people’s lives is one of pain, therefore it was not right to bring them into the world in the first place.
Also, that while the balance in some people’s lives may be one of pleasure, it would not be bad if they too had never been born, because then they wouldn’t be around to notice what they had missed! This thinking applies to all sentient life.
As for those of us who insist our lives aren’t so bad, and who therefore continue to have children and not commit suicide, we are just kidding ourselves, says DB. This is, firstly, by having a mistakenly rosy view of our lives; secondly, by lowering our expectations of life; and thirdly, by comparing our lives to people even worse off. DB says that these psychological tendencies encourage the survival and reproduction of the human race.
Also, writes DB: once you are born, suicide is not always the right thing, because people have come to depend on you.
He has extended his thoughts, it seems, into two books, spelling out all the logical steps after his initial postulate. This logicking is sometimes tabulated, so it comes close to looking mathematical.
If people are going to write words on life, here I think are some examples of how they should do it. Here firstly an excerpt from The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins, in 1859:
‘These thoughts came to me, and others with them, which drew my mind away to the little Cumberland churchyard where Anne Catherick lay buried. I thought of the bygone days when I had met her by Mrs. Fairlie’s grave, and met her for the last time. I thought of the poor helpless hands beating on the tombstone, and her weary, yearning words, murmured to the dead remains of her protectress and her friend: ‘Oh, if I could die, and be hidden and at rest with you!’ Little more than a year had passed since she breathed that wish; and how inscrutably, how awfully, it had been fulfilled! The words she had spoken to Laura by the shores of the lake, the very words had now come true. ‘Oh, if I could only be buried with your mother! If I could only wake at her side when the angel’s trumpet sounds and the graves give up their dead at the resurrection!’ Through what mortal crime and horror, through what darkest windings of the way down to death, the lost creature had wandered in God’s leading to the last home that, living, she never hoped to reach! In that sacred rest I leave her – in that dread companionship let her remain undisturbed.’
Also just think how George Eliot in the last pages of The Mill on the Floss deals with the drowning of Maggie Tulliver and her brother, clinging together in the flood. I can only give here the last lines of the penultimate chapter:
‘The boat re-appeared — but brother and sister had gone down in an embrace never to be parted – living through again in one supreme moment, the days when they had clasped their little hands in love, and roamed the daisied fields together.’
And look at this from Tom Brown’s School Days, not exactly recognized as one of the great or seminal works of Victorian literature, probably still laughed at for its muscular Christianity. It concerns Tom Brown himself, when he is saddled with the responsibility for his own good of looking after and protecting Arthur, a frail new boy at Rugby School in the 1830s (where the boys were given weak beer to drink at breakfast, lunch and tea):
‘This increased his consciousness of responsibility; and though he hadn’t reasoned it out and made it clear to himself, yet somehow he knew that this responsibility, this trust which he had taken on himself without thinking about it, head over heels in fact, was the centre and turning point of his school life, that which was to make him or mar him, his appointed work and trial for the time being. And Tom was becoming a new boy, though with frequent tumbles in the dirt and perpetual hard battle with himself, and was daily growing in manfulness and thoughtfulness, as every high-couraged and well-principled boy must, when he finds himself for the first time consciously at grips with self and devil.’
Some pages earlier, Arthur (the frail new boy) had knelt down by his bed before lights out to say his prayers, to the jeering of the other boys. But Tom Brown and Harry East are soon following his example, and then so do some other boys.
OK, so Tom Brown isn’t great but it’s one of the excerpts I had to hand. Better to dip anywhere into Jonathan Swift, Anthony Trollope, D.H. Lawrence, or Jane Austen and many others in the 19th century. Jane Austen’s little chestnut, ‘A very narrow income has a tendency to contract the mind and sour the temper’ is already of a different order and far above anything written by Socrates and other philosophers, on human life.
[These fictional excerpts are laced through with Christianity because they were novels of the 19th century. One could still write profoundly about the lives of human beings on Earth without bringing God into it, but modern novelists since about 1930 don’t. They are smart contemporaries writing about ‘issues’ and stopping short of saying anything worth reading that I can’t get in the newspapers. What happened? I don’t think disbelief in God should necessarily lead to this secular trivialization of life and death. It didn’t in D. H. Lawrence’s case for example. (Anyway, even conventional religion is better than Philosophy when it comes to Wisdom.)]
Compare the above fictional excerpts to David Benatar’s categorizing of human experiences under columns for pain or pleasure, adding them up, averaging them out to see whether one has had an overall painful or pleasurable life; and logicking to further conclusions with the help of some diagrams.
Philosophy, ever since 580 BC, has been an expression of minds that lack that special intelligence and capacity for understanding that human beings have been blessed with. They either lack it or leave it disregarded and fallow. Logic,mathematics and science are presently or historically the extent to which philosophers’ minds work. They inevitably have a facile understanding of the life of the self, and then use this facile understanding as a basis for step-by-step logicking into abstractions which impress people as Wisdom on human life. That certain something of human intelligence that philosophers lack (and no-one can encompass everything) hasn’t even got a name and is considered to fall outside Reason and Rationality.
DB himself hadn’t committed suicide up to the time he was writing these posts, and he refused to tell us whether he had begotten children — on the grounds that he is ‘a very private person’. It is relevant to know because it would indicate whether he himself takes seriously his own views for his own life, or whether they are just part of his professional logicking. Despite the despair of his philosophizing, his photographs show him in a high state of good humour.
I may have got details of DB’s argument wrong, but I feel I’m pretty close. It’s the frame of mind I am interested in.
DB has called the fact that there is more pain than pleasure in life a ‘Crucial Asymmetry’! And his idea as a whole is called Anti-Natalism by other philosophers!
One of DB’s books is called “The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions,” which sounds as if he deals in like manner with the other great questions of Life. I saw in passing that another modern philosopher has written a book on Meaning and Meaninglessness in Human Life, which sounds a similar project. Oi! They were published by great publishing houses and translated into many languages.