David Benatarʼs Argument from Asymmetry: A Qualified Defence

Paper by Oliver Hallich, published on March 16, 2022 in The Journal of Value Inquiry

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).

Conditional Reasons and the Procreation Asymmetry

Paper by Johann Frick, published on August 9, 2020 in Philosophical Perspectives

This paper sketches a theory of the reason-giving force of well-being that allows us to reconcile our intuitions about two of the most recalcitrant problem cases in population ethics: Jan Narveson's Procreation Asymmetry and Derek Parfit's Non-Identity Problem. I show that what has prevented philosophers from developing a theory that gives a satisfactory account of both these problems is their tacit commitment to a teleological conception of well-being, as something to be ‘promoted’. Replacing this picture with one according to which our reasons to confer well-being on people are conditional on their existence allows me to do better. It also enables us to understand some of the deep structural parallels between seemingly disparate normative phenomena such as procreating and promising. The resulting theory charts a middle way between the familiar dichotomy of narrow person-affecting theories and totalist or wide-person affecting theories in population ethics.

Still Better Never to Have Been: A Reply to (More of) My Critics

Paper by David Benatar, published on October 5, 2012 in The Journal of Ethics

In Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, I argued that coming into existence is always a harm and that procreation is wrong. In this paper, I respond to those of my critics to whom I have not previously responded. More specifically, I engage the objections of Tim Bayne, Ben Bradley, Campbell Brown, David DeGrazia, Elizabeth Harman, Chris Kaposy, Joseph Packer and Saul Smilansky.

Asymmetries in Benefiting, Harming and Creating

Paper by Ben Bradley, published on September 15, 2012 in The Journal of Ethics

It is often said that while we have a strong reason not to create someone who will be badly off, we have no strong reason for creating someone who will be well off. In this paper I argue that this asymmetry is incompatible with a plausible principle of independence of irrelevant alternatives, and that a more general asymmetry between harming and benefiting is difficult to defend. I then argue that, contrary to what many have claimed, it is possible to harm or benefit someone by bringing her into existence.

Antinatalism, Asymmetry, and an Ethic of Prima Facie Duties

Paper by Gerald Harrison, published on April 15, 2012 in South African Journal of Philosophy

Harrison shows an argument for antinatalism based on Davind Benatar’s procreational asymmetry, which he finds superior because it does not depend on the view that coming into existence is always a harm for the created being.

His argument is based on the moral duty to prevent pain as well as the duty to promote pleasure. However, since duties need a victim, he suggests that only the former applies to the act of procreation and thus:

  • We have a duty to prevent the harms procreating causes, because there would be a victim (the created person experiencing the harms).
  • We don’t have a duty to cause the pleasure procreating causes, because there would never be a victim missing out on or being deprived of those pleasures.

Harrison concludes that other things being equal, these generate a duty not to procreate.

Every Conceivable Harm: A Further Defence of Anti-Natalism

Paper by David Benatar, published on January 1, 2012 in South African Journal of Philosophy

Many people are resistant to the conclusions for which I argued in Better Never to Have Been . I have previously responded to most of the published criticisms of my arguments. Here I respond to a new batch of critics (and to some fellow anti-natalists) who gathered for a conference at the University of Johannesburg and whose papers are published in this special issue of the South African Journal of Philosophy . I am also taking the opportunity to respond to two other critics whose articles have previously been published in South African philosophy journals. Clearly I cannot respond to all the arguments in each of these papers and thus I shall focus on what I take to be some of the central issues in each. None of the arguments to which I shall respond have caused me to revise my views. However, I am pleased to have the opportunity to show why this is the case

Why Have Children?: The Ethical Debate

Book by Christine Overall, published on January 1, 2012 in Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

A wide-ranging exploration of whether or not choosing to procreate can be morally justified—and if so, how. In contemporary Western society, people are more often called upon to justify the choice not to have children than they are to supply reasons for having them. In this book, Christine Overall maintains that the burden of proof should be reversed: that the choice to have children calls for more careful justification and reasoning than the choice not to. Arguing that the choice to have children is not just a prudential or pragmatic decision but one with ethical repercussions, Overall offers a wide-ranging exploration of how we might think systematically and deeply about this fundamental aspect of human life. Writing from a feminist perspective, she also acknowledges the inevitably gendered nature of the decision; the choice has different meanings, implications, and risks for women than it has for men. After considering a series of ethical approaches to procreation, and finding them inadequate or incomplete, Overall offers instead a novel argument. Exploring the nature of the biological parent-child relationship—which is not only genetic but also psychological, physical, intellectual, and moral—she argues that the formation of that relationship is the best possible reason for choosing to have a child.

Quality of Human Life and Non-existence: Some criticisms of David Benatar’s formal and material positions

Paper by Julio Cabrera, published on June 3, 2011 in Revista Redbioética/UNESCO

In his book, Better Never to Have Been (Oxford, 2006), David Benatar attempts to show that coming into existence is always a serious harm. In order to prove his point, he develops two lines of argument, one formal, another material. In this paper I intend to show that: (1) There is a logical problem in the formal argumentation that affects the soundness of the supposed “asymmetry” between the absence of pleasure and the absence of pain, which constitutes the core of this line of argumentation. (2) Although the material argument is basically correct, I maintain that it suffers from the limitations of the theoretical approach adopted, of empiricist and Utilitarian type. (3) I discuss briefly the alleged “independence” of the two lines of argument trying to show that the formal line depends on the material one

Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence

Book by David Benatar, published on October 12, 2006

This book argues for a number of related, highly provocative views: (i) coming into existence is always a serious harm; (ii) procreation is always wrong; (iii) it is wrong not to abort foetuses at the earlier stages of gestation; and (iv) it would be better if, as a result of there being no new people, humanity became extinct. Although these conclusions are antagonistic to common and deeply held intuitions, the book argues that these intuitions are unreliable and thus cannot be used to refute it's grim-sounding conclusions.