The asymmetry argument, expounded in chapter 2 of his book Better Never to Have Been, is the backbone of David Benatarʼs anti-natalism. If correct, it lends support to Benatarʼs central claim that it is always a harm to be brought into existence. Accepting this claim does not decide the question whether bringing someone into existence is only a minor or a grave harm. However, in conjunction with Benatarʼs quality of life argument – i.e., the argument that our positive judgements about the quality of our lives are systematically distorted because the quality of our lives is much worse than we usually think it isFootnote 1 –, the asymmetry argument yields the conclusion that each of us has been not only slightly but very seriously harmed by being brought into existence.
In this paper, I offer a qualified defence of the asymmetry argument. It is a qualified defence because I defend the argument only after criticizing it, and I attempt to offer a defence of the argument that incorporates this criticism. My claim is that the argument is basically correct, but that it needs to be refined and qualified in the light of this criticism. After shortly recapitulating the asymmetry argument (1), I criticize it in two steps (2). First, I argue that, in contrast to what Benatar claims, we can harm potential persons by not bringing them into existence (2.1). Second, I criticize Benatarʼs attempt to defend the asymmetry argument as an argument from the best explanation for other moral intuitions that we normally hold (2.2). In part 3, I defend the argument in a way that is compatible with this criticism. The first step in my defence is to apply a distinction between harming de re and harming de dicto. When we harm potential persons by not bringing them into existence, we harm them in a de dicto, not in a de re, sense. This, I argue, shows that my claim that we can harm potential persons by not bringing them into existence is compatible with the claim that existing persons could never have been harmed by not having been brought into existence (3.1). Moreover, this latter claim is true: no existing person would have been harmed by not having been brought into existence (3.2). In sum, the asymmetry argument, together with plausible empirical assumptions, shows that each of us has reason to regret our existence, though it does not establish the truth of anti-natalism (4).