A picture of a newborn human's foot in a hospital.

The Anti-natalism Comparison: Contradiction, Equivocation, & Incommensurability

To be or not to be. That is the question. (Seriously.) David Benatar argues that it’s better not to be in “Why Coming Into Existence is Always a Harm” from his book Better Never To Have Been (2006) and follow-up paper “Still Better Never to Have Been: A Reply to (More of) My Critics“. This comparative claim seemed intuitively plausible at first.1 After all, I lean towards non-natalism: creating new life does not seem necessarily good. However, upon reflection, that claim about bringing something into existence is different from Benetar’s comparative claim about both existence and non-existence. And the more I think about Benetar’s comparative claim, the more I find myself puzzled by it. I worry that this anti-natalism comparison involves contradiction, equivocation, and/or a false sense of commensurability. In this post, I’ll explain.

1.  Benatar’s Anti-Natalism Comparison

We can make a table to compare existence and non-existence. Benatar’s anti-natalism table looks like the one below.

David Benetar's anti-natalist table comparing the value of existence and non-existence.
Table 1. Benatar’s Existence vs. Non-existence

This table sets the stage for Benatar’s conclusion that non-existence is always better than existence. The idea is that the column on the right has more net good than the one on the left. Therefore, we should prefer the one on the right—non-existence—to the one on the left—existence.

2.  Here’s The Thing About Non-existence

At one point, Benatar describes pleasures and pains as having values that are either greater than, less than, or no greater/less than one another. Here’s the problem: non-existence has no value. And I don’t mean that the value of non-existence can be defined in terms of an absence or as zero; its value does not exist, so it is undefined. Indeterminable.

Asking, “What is the value of non-existence?” is like dividing by zero or analyzing datasets with missing data: the result is an error, not a definable value.

So, the table that compares existence and actual non-existence looks more like the one below.

An table comparing existence and actual non-existence.
Table 2. Existence vs. Actual Non-existence

This seems to be a more accurate account of non-existence. And if this is how actual non-existence works, then I do not understand how we can make the comparison that Benatar needs to make in order to infer anti-natalism.

3.  An Example of the Incommensurability

To get more concrete, consider an example of the comparison of existence and actual non-existence and its inability to support anti-natalism. Rather than completely reinvent material, we can reuse some of Benatar’s material.

Imagine two people: S (Sick) and H (Healthy). S has a severe chronic illness and H is the exemplar of health. Now imagine that both S and H do not exist. Are they more healthy or less healthy by not existing?

This question might strike you as wrong-headed. The reason is that it demands an impossible comparison: the health metrics of existing persons vs. the missing health metrics of non-existence. It’s simply not clear how any value can be compared to a missing value. I understand how, in one case there is something and, in the other case there is nothing. However, I am at a loss when I am asked to compare the value of something that exists to a non-existent value. That’s just not how comparison works. Comparisons require an alternative. Without an alternative, there is no comparison. So, I struggle to traverse the gap from Benetar’s something-nothing comparison to anti-natalism.

4.  Contradiction?

Perhaps I have not been clear enough about actual non-existence. To help with this, we can appeal to logic. Imagine trying to compose a proposition about actual non-existence in logical form. It would go something like this:

There exists an  X and a Y such that X does not exist and Y does exist, and X is better off than Y.

Notice the contradiction? (Of course you do. I underlined it for you.)

If we encounter a contradiction when we lay out the logical form of a view, that’s usually a bad sign for the view. One way to proceed would be to try to save the view from contradiction. Let’s see how that could work.

5.  States of Affairs

Perhaps Benatar is not really comparing existence with non-existence. Rather, Benatar might be “[comparing] his existence with an alternative state of affairs in which he does not exist” (Benatar, p. 22). Does this avoid the contradiction?

Test it out. Can you describe the logic of the Benatar’s state of affairs model without a proposition like “a state of affairs S in which there exists an X such that X does not exist and…”? I’ve not been able to do this. So, I don’t see how appealing to states of affairs avoids the contradiction.

6.  A Closer Look: Equivocation?

If you are thinking like I am, then you might wonder how the anti-natalism comparison ever got off the ground. We might claim that it never did. I guess that is my current view.

But surely someone besides Benatar thought that the anti-natalism comparison got off the ground! (E.g., the publisher?) I wonder if this is the result of some clever wording. See, I’m not sure that Benatar ever really compared existence with actual non-existence; he compared it with counterfactual non-existence or some other kind of non-existence. Check it out:

“…we understand the claim that somebody would have been better off not coming into existence as the assertion that that being’s never existing would have been preferable” (Benatar, p. 26).

While this sentence seems to talk about somebody that does not exist, it never makes the claim that somebody is actually non-existent. This is a common occurrence in the chapter.

“…one harms somebody by bringing him into existence if his existence is such that never bringing him into existence would have been preferable” (Benatar, p. 28).

In this case, we are considering counterfactual non-existence, not actual non-existence. It’s more like woulda coulda shoulda non-existence.™️

“…with reference to the potential interests of a person who either does or does not exist” (Benatar, p. 30).

In this case, Benatar is considering some kind of disjunctive, Schrödinger-style existence: a state of either existing or not. That disjunction is not actual non-existence.

“…pain, disappointment, anxiety, grief, and death….None of this befalls the non-existent (Benatar, p. 29).

This one is interesting. The claim seems to be that there exists some non-existent stuff and that certain things cannot befall that stuff. Now, part of this claim about “non-existent” stuff is obviously correct: stuff that does not exist cannot be the victim of pain, disappointment, and the rest. Of course not. It doesn’t exist. That’s platitudinous. However, we cannot accept the implication that the non-existent exist. That’d be a contradiction.

There are also times in which Benatar makes a series of claims about counterfactual non-existence and then, at the end, suggests that those claims apply to actual non-existence as well.

“[the claim that the absence of pain is good] says that this absence is good when judged in terms of the interests of the person who would otherwise have existed. We may not know who that person would have been, but we can still say that whoever that person would have been, the avoidance of his or her pains is good when judged in terms of his or her interests. If there is any (obviously loose) sense in which the absent pain is good for the person who could have existed but does not, this is it” (Benatar, p. 31).

In this case, we have two options. Both are bad for the intended conclusion that existence is worse than actual non-existence. On the one hand, we can let these claims apply to something other than actual non-existence. In that case, we don’t get to conclude that existence is worse than actual non-existence. At best, we would get the conclusion that existence is better than counterfactual or coulda woulda shoulda or Schrödinger-style existence.

On the other hand, we could let the claims apply to actual non-existence. In that case, we face the problem that has been looming in the background all along.

7. Incommensurability

Even if we take Benatar to be talking about actual non-existence, it is not clear why we should accept anti-natalism’s implicit assumption about commensurability.

Commensurability assumption: the value of existence and non-existence is commensurable.

This is what I struggle to make sense of. How can we compare the value of existence with non-existence? Perhaps you don’t see the problem as I do. One way to convey my concern becomes more apparent when we translate one of Benatar’s comparisons into a comparison between existence and actual non-existence:

“[the claim that the absence of pain is good] says that this absence is good when judged in terms of [nothing]. We may not know [nothing], but we can still say that [nothing] is good when judged in terms of [nothing]. If there is any (obviously loose) sense in which [nothing] is good for [nothing], this is it.” (Benatar, p. 31).

Does that make sense? After rereading it many times, I remain confused. And until the confusion is resolved, I struggle to understand how Benetar’s anti-natalism comparison can get off the ground.

8.  The Close Enough Response

At this point, I have shown why comparing existence and actual non-existence leads to problems: it involves contradiction, equivocation, or a false sense of incommensurability. This brings us to a response to Benatar’s anti-natalism comparison that I get a lot.

Listen. Don’t get too caught up in the details of the comparison of existence and non-existence. Counterfactual or coulda woulda shoulda or Schrödinger-style existence is close enough to actual non-existence. And, sure, strictly speaking, actual non-existence has no value or valence, but we can just assign a value of ‘0’ or ‘not good’ or ‘not bad’ to that to make the anti-natalism comparison work.”

I admitted at the outset that I found the anti-natalism comparison intuitively plausible at first. It was only after considering the details and the implications that I found problems. In general, I like the idea of fixing problems to fix a view. However, in this case, the proposed fix is either (a) overlook the problems or else (b) change the view. The former is a strange recommendation. And the latter changes the game from a comparison about existence and actual non-existence to something else: a comparison between existence and another kind of existence—i.e., an existence that has determinable value or valence.

9. The Bizarre Metaphysics Response

This idea of comparing two kinds of existences is implied not only by the anti-natalism comparison; it is also implied by the notion of “coming into existence” from the title of Benatar’s chapter. Let’s stop to think about this for a moment.

If existent people cross existential borders on their way to existence, then it would be the border between actual non-existence and existence.2 However, if we accept that, then we run into the problems that I’ve raised about actual non-existence—e.g., the contradiction in “there exists an X such that X does not exist at T1 but exists at T2“. So that version of “coming into existence” won’t work.

To avoid those problems, we could propose that we come into existence not from actual non-existence, but from some prior state of existence—a kind dualism about existence that rivals the most bizarre metaphysics in the history of philosophy. If anyone can accept bizarre metaphysics it’s philosophers. Nonetheless, I imagine only a small minority in the philosophical would accept this dualism about existence. And although philosophical views are not falsified by their minority status, we might be worried about why they lack widespread appeal—especially if they were motivated only after one’s claims about existence showed signs of contradiction, equivocation, and a false sense of commensurability.

10. Conclusion

The anti-natalism comparison between existence and non-existence seems like a non-starter. Of course, this does not mean that anti-natalism is a non-starter. After all, procreation may be undesirable even if existence cannot be compared to non-existence. Further, procreation can be worse than (existing) alternatives—e.g., adoption—even if existence cannot be compared to non-existence. So, the only claim that I am disputing is that actual non-existence has value or valence that can be commensurable with the value or valence of existence.

11. Further Reading

Related Posts

  1. See also Pitcher, George. “The Misfortunes of the Dead.” Amer. Phil. Quarterly. Vol. 21 No. 2 1984, 183-188.
  2. Benatar hedges himself from this issue by espousing a gradualist view of coming into existence, morally speaking (Benatar, p. 26). He says that there is no point that could be described as the “stage ‘just after one comes into existence’” (ibid.), but this does not tell us where people come into existence from. If it’s actual non-existence, then the other problems rear their heads all over again.

Published by

Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog