By Sensei Alex Kakuyo
David Benatar is the head of philosophy at Cape Town University and the author of Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence.
In his book, David argues that bringing new life into the world is an immoral act. In order to make this argument he uses an axiological asymmetrical argument, which states:
“If a being exists, suffering is bad and pleasure is good. However, if a being does not exist, missing out on pleasure isn’t bad, however missing out on suffering is good.”
In other words, life is suffering. Suffering is bad. Therefore, it’s better to not be born, so that we never experience suffering. It’s important to note that Benatar does not include any caveats to this argument. In fact, in this interview with Sam Harris, he suggests that there is no way to make a life good enough that it is better than not existing. Naturally, this view point has received push back in the philosophy community. For my part, I’d like to tackle Benatar’s understanding of suffering and how it relates to human life.
At its core, anti-natalism is a pessimistic philosophy.
That is to say, it takes a negative view of existence and leaves no room for optimism or hope. Life is suffering. Suffering is bad. Therefore, we should not create life. Similarly, Buddhism is also a pessimistic philosophy. It also states, “Life is suffering,” as part of the first noble truth, however, it differs from anti-natalism in how it copes with that suffering.
This occurs for two reasons. First, Buddha and Benatar disagree on the source of human suffering. According to an anti-natalist worldview, we suffer when we grow old, get sick and die. However, we also suffer in smaller ways like trying to cut the grass and having the mower breakdown, or being forced to wash dishes when we’d rather be watching TV.
In Benatar’s estimation, the endless list of unpleasant tasks that we must complete each day amounts to unimaginable suffering that shouldn’t be inflicted on anyone.
However, Buddhism teaches that it’s not the the thing itself that causes suffering. Rather, humans cause suffering to themselves by how they react to the thing. Washing dishes is only unpleasant if we spend the whole time wishing that we could watch TV. Aging is only a source of suffering if we’re obsessed with youth.
Thus, we don’t suffer because we’re born. Rather, we suffer because we have untrained minds that separate the world into “likes and dislikes.” Yes, we could solve the problem by not giving birth to future generations, but Buddhism teaches the more life-affirming approach of training individuals so that they won’t create suffering for themselves.
As each successive generation does this, the number of well-trained minds in the world grows until everyone is making decisions based on wisdom and compassion and we live in a world with little to no suffering; a pureland.
Second, Buddha and Benatar disagree on the nature of suffering itself. The philosophy of anti-natalism states that suffering is intrinsically bad and pleasure is intrinsically good. However, there are issues with this line of thought; the main one being that it places us on a hedonic treadmill where our lives center around chasing pleasant experiences and hiding from unpleasant ones.
And Benatar is correct in his belief that anyone who endures this cycle is in for a life of endless pain. However, Buddha taught that the way to end suffering isn’t to move towards pleasure. In fact, he listed pleasure as one of the Eight Worldly Winds that keep us from realizing enlightenment.
Instead, we must learn to accept suffering as a natural part of life. If we do this, it no longer falls into the duality of good or bad. It becomes neutral, and our focus shifts from avoiding it to working with it skillfully.
One way to think about this is to consider chicken manure. If we think of manure as bad, then it will awaken unpleasant thoughts within us, and we may have ill-will towards chickens every time they poop. In contrast, if we think of chicken manure as good, then we may allow it to pile up in unhealthy ways; spreading disease to the humans and chickens that come in contact with it.
However, if we work with chicken poop skillfully, we can use it to make compost, and then we can use that compost to fertilize soil and grow food. When we expand our understanding of manure to suffering as a whole, we see the stark contrast between the Buddha and Benatar.
Bentar’s philosophy of anti-natalism would argue that chicken manure is bad, thus we should avoid it at all costs. And if that means not allowing more chickens to be born… so be it. This goes double for human beings.
Buddha, on the other hand, holds that both suffering and chicken manure are neutral.
It is through the function of our minds and our actions that we make them good or bad. Thus, if our life is full of suffering, the answer isn’t to wish we were never born. Instead, we must learn how to use our suffering so that something good can grow from it.
In this way, Buddhism teaches that birth is a gift, and so is suffering. But if we take this gift for granted, it will destroy us.
Instead, we must study it, learn from it, and use it to create happiness for ourselves and others.
Editor: Dana Gornall