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Saturday, October 06, 2007

Compare this to Ayn Rand's philosophy

From the Journal of Medical Ethics comes this review of the book "Better to never have been" by one D. Benatar:
One of the merits of Benatar's analysis is its simplicity. Life is always a bitch to some extent; it always entails some degree of harm, including that of the experience of dying. Are the potential benefits of human existence ever worth the candle of such experience? According to Benatar, the answer is no. The reason is that for existers, harm is bad and benefit is good.2i However, non-existence entails no harm (which is good) and no absence of any benefits that existers may experience (which is not bad). Thus, non-existence guarantees no harm of any kind and harm of some kind is guaranteed by existence. Note that, in arguing as much, Benatar is aware of the importance of linking the good of the absence of harm entailed by non-existence to existing persons. He does so through arguing that since only existers suffer harm, it is better—"preferable"—for possible persons not to become actual persons and thereby have to then also have to suffer it. This view is an interesting twist on the Epicurean argument against fear of death: once death brings non-existence, no further harm or absence of benefit can be experienced, so why worry? In developing his argument, Benatar applies the same logic to the creation of all human life, no matter how absurd he recognises that this may seem to others.

For example, he claims that if there is no absence of benefit associated with non-existence then no level of harm is sufficient to justify existence; not even a pinprick! To this degree, his argument does not depend upon the levels of harm already encountered in human life. However, he goes on to attempt to strengthen the plausibility of his logical argument through empirically documenting types and degrees of harms that even fortunate humans inevitably encounter—all of the common illnesses and anxieties associated with everyday life, as well as the often negative experience of dying. As for the unfortunate, the levels of harm that they must endure can be unending and monumental, grinding poverty and disease along with other forms of endemic insecurity. If this were not bad enough, there is a well-documented tendency of humans to underestimate the harm in their lives and to overestimate the benefits. Thus, Benatar dismisses declarations that the benefits of life still outweigh its harms. He argues that they are based on wishful thinking and, as such, are not creditable evidence of the value of the benefits of life when compared to the harm.

I follow the arguments but the biggest problem I see is that Benatar's entire argument relies on interpersonal utility comparisons, which economists long ago abandoned as futile. As soon as IUC's are taken off the table, the argument that having never been born is "preferable" to having been born (or being born? - this seems a subtle difference) cannot be made, at least from an economist's point of view, and therefore the book's premise evaporates.

I appreciate the review because it seems to outline the arguments presented adequately and provided something of value to me: substitute for reading the actual book and therefore saving considerable time for other things which I prefer.

Although I am definitely not a Randian scholar, I always found Rand's philosophy to be much more optimistic about life. I wonder how she would have responded to this.

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