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