Does the Higher Power of the Bad Make Life Meaningless?
Although the bad is more powerful than the good, lives can still be meaningful.
Posted Mar 04, 2020
In his important The Human Predicament (2017), David Benatar presents many arguments for the claim that all lives are bad. Benatar believes that all lives are so bad that it would have been better for all people not to have been born at all. I discussed a few of Benatar’s arguments in some previous posts. Here, I will focus on his arguments on the asymmetry between the good and the bad in life.
Benatar makes some very interesting points, which many often miss, about the asymmetry of the good and bad. For example, he emphasizes that usually strong pleasures (e.g., orgasms) are usually short-spanned, while strong pains (e.g., burns, backaches) are long-spanned. There are chronic pains, but not chronic pleasures. We also experience the strongest pains as more awful than we experience the strongest pleasures as wonderful. An indication of this is that most people would not choose to undergo an hour of the strongest pains even if this would enable them to enjoy afterward an hour of the strongest pleasures.
Likewise, it can take only a second to be harmed, but weeks, months, or years to heal. All that can be healed can be harmed, but not all that can be harmed can be healed. And it usually requires much more effort to heal than to harm, to build than to destroy, and to make things go right than to allow them to go wrong. Therefore, often, good states of affairs are less stable than bad ones.
I think that Benatar’s observations are interesting, perceptive, and (unfortunately) correct. However, they do not suffice to prove Benatar's pessimistic claim that all lives are bad, or, moreover, that they are so bad that it would have been better for all people not to have come into existence at all. The reason is that in some lives there is much more good than bad. Concededly, in such lives, too, there is some asymmetry between the good and the bad, so that each bad “unit” is “heavier,” or more impactful, than each good “unit.” But since there are so many good “units” and very few bad "units" in such lives, these lives are, all in all, good.
For instance, assume that in the life of a certain person—call her Alice—there are a lot of strong pleasures and just a few faint pains. Although it may well be the case that, as Benatar argues, pleasures are usually shorter-lived than pains, Alice’s life will still all in all be much more pleasurable than it is painful. It is also true that Alice would not wish to experience an hour of the strongest pains even if this would grant her an hour of the strongest pleasures; that harming is often quicker and easier than healing; etc. But this, too, doesn't change the ratio between the overall good and the bad in Alice’s life.
I suggest, therefore, that Benatar's asymmetry arguments are insufficient to show that "there is much more bad than good even for the luckiest of humans" (2017, 77). Quite the opposite: If we accept Benatar’s criteria for good and bad lives (e.g., amount and degree of pleasures vs. pains), we should conclude that, in fact, some lives are good.
Benatar, D. 2017. The Human Predicament. New York: Oxford University Press.