Over at Spiked, Michael Cook files a snarkily dismissive review of David Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been, the book that informs my recent — and still unfinished — series on ethical antinatalism (here are parts one, two, three, and four). While Cook allows that Benatar "deserves a few rounds of fisticuffs with a fellow academic," his graveman centers on the logical implications of a dour and bedoomed utilitarian discourse, which he sees as inherently, if paradoxically, misanthropic and, um, worse. In Cook’s estimation the only real value of Benatar’s thesis is that it demonstrates how the precepts of negative utilitarianism are but watchwords for….what’s that word? Oh yeah, nihilism.
Myself, I rather like the n word. I dig the old west coast punk aesthetics it conjures, and from the cosmic lens, there’s simply not much to to grasp in refutation. That the weft and weave of this atomized dumb-show untethers without objective Truth or Meaning, I take as a given. Background static. What you do is the rub, as ever. Even if you never had a choice. And so fucking what.
But this doesn’t mean Cook isn’t cheating. He is. More specifically, he’s following the lazy script of every other Amazon reviewer who dismisses Benatar’s arguments without engaging them. While the utilitarian caricature he deploys serves to buttress a tried-and-false appeal to common sense, it neatly avoids the content of Benatar’s argument, which is only incidentally predicated on utilitarian grounds. All you need is a harm principle, folks. Posit that much, in whatever flavor, and you have some explaining to do.
Nor is it fair to color Benatar’s argument as "misanthropic" — as Cook does — without at least acknowledging — as Cook does not — that Benatar addresses this inevitable complaint. To be clear, Benatar’s foundational reasoning is couched in explicitly and inherently philanthropic language. Hence the centrality of harm. People aren’t the problem. Pain is. It’s right there in Benatar’s concluding remarks, under the heading, "Misanthropy and Philanthropy," where he writes:
Bringing a sentient life into existence is a harm to the being whose life it is. My arguments suggest that it is wrong to inflict this harm. To argue against the infliction of harm arises from concern for, not dislike of, those who would be harmed. It may seem like an odd kind of philanthropy — one that, if acted upon, would lead to the end of all anthropos. It is, however, the most effective way of preventing suffering. Not creating a person absolutely guarantees that that potential person will not suffer — because that person will not exist.
Perhaps Cook believes Benatar is being disingenuous. He should say so. He doesn’t. To him it’s so obviously, so comically, absurd. And, er, nihilistic. Apparently, Samuel Johnson kicked a rock. Or something.