Source: Benatar, David. Better Never to Have Been (2008 1 edn). pp. 3 Bottom - 4 Top.


A version of the view I defend in this book is the subject of some humour:

Life is so terrible, it would have been better not to have been born. Who is so lucky? Not one in a hundred thousand!²

Sigmund Freud describes this quip as a ‘nonsensical joke’,³ which raises the question whether my view is similarly nonsensical. Is it

³ Freud, Sigmund, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vii, trans. James Strachey (London: The Hogarth Press, 1960) 57.

sheer drivel to say that coming into existence is a harm and thus that it is better never to come into existence? Many people think that it is. Much of the argument in Chapter 2 will show that they are mistaken. But first some ground must be cleared of confusion.
  Dr Freud says that anybody ‘who is not born is not a mortal man at all, and there is no good and no best for him’.⁴ Here Dr Freud anticipates an aspect of what is called the ‘non-identity’ problem, which I shall discuss at length in Chapter 2. Some contemporary philosophers offer a similar objection when they deny that one could be better off not being born. The never-existent cannot be benefited and cannot be better off.

4 Ibid. Although this is the deepest concern Dr Freud has with the quip, he has others too. These, however, arise from his version of the quip, which sounds particularly nonsensical. He says: ‘Never to be born would be the best thing for mortal men.’ ‘But’, adds the philosophical comment in Fliegende Blatter, ‘this happens to scarcely one person in a hundred thousand.’ (Ibid.) The embellishment that never being born ‘happens to scarcely one in a hundred thousand’ does add to the joke’s incongruity [emboldening mine]. Never being born happens to not one in a hundred thousand, and not to scarcely one in a hundred thousand. (James Strachey describes the Fliegende Blätter as a ‘well-known comic weekly’. I leave to others the minor, but interesting, historical question whether the Fliegende Blätter drew on Jewish wit or whether it was the source of this particular piece of Jewish humour, or whether both draw on some other source.)

What and where exactly is the incongruity in this joke? How does 'scarcely' add to it?

  • 1
    That it makes no sense to say that something happens to that which does not exist (the unborn), and even less sense to put a number on it. How is this a question about philosophy?
    – Conifold
    Commented May 19, 2018 at 6:43
  • Interesting, where did that number came from? At what point do they start count themselves as themselves? Conception? Still, unrealistic number.
    – rus9384
    Commented May 19, 2018 at 14:08
  • "Life is so terrible" is a thoroughly subjective and faulty premise. Life is rewarding and fulfilling for many people, regardless of hardships, trials, pain, or troubles. Some find that death is the real problem, not life. So Freud's interpretation of it as a "nonsensical joke" is strangely irrational, considering he was supposedly a learned man and a psychologist. To presume that some people don't exist because they never made it out of the womb, is silly. To find the 'joke' amusing, requires certain cultural biases. Furthermore, it's a pretty sick 'joke', therefore: not funny and not a joke.
    – Bread
    Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 1:48
  • It seems pretty droll to me as an example of idiotic thinking and it wouldn't work nearly so well without the faux-statistics. I'm with Freud. A nonsensical joke. .
    – user20253
    Commented Sep 19, 2018 at 16:15

2 Answers 2


I find this pretty funny. It relates to dismissing the fear of death as unbeing, when we have no such fear or concern about before we were born. We mentally generate a probability space, if this, if that. But we cannot truly imagine at a gut level what our non-being is, death is impossible in the mind of anything living. All the 'people' who didn't get born, aren't born. All the people who did, did. It is our human foible to go off imagining counterfactuals, fearing them, longing for them, organising our lives around unrealities. The idea some fraction of 'people' had the fortune to not be born just points to the absurdity of this. Infinite 'people' are unborn, because no 'people' are unborn. Benatar and his ilk begin their thinking in unreality, in this absurdity.


Nobody really believes that there's a magical transition at birth, when the unperson inside becomes person. So the expression, "if I had never been born" has a simple and well-defined meaning: if I had died in utero or during birth.

EDIT: Sentences about persons who don't exist have no bearing on reality. It would be like worrying about the well-being of Harry Potter, Oliver Twist, and Liz Lemon.

  • "Nobody really believes that there's a magical transition at birth", this is arguable that nobody believes in it.
    – rus9384
    Commented May 19, 2018 at 14:04
  • 1
    It's my assertion, though. Can you name a person or "-ism" that does? Commented May 20, 2018 at 3:50

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