I’ve some doubts regarding the epistyle of David Benatar's thought, the “asymmetry of pleasure and pain”. In Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence he writes that:

Both good and bad things happen only to those who exist. However, there is a crucial asymmetry between the good and the bad things. The absence of bad things, such as pain, is good even if there is nobody to enjoy that good, whereas the absence of good things, such as pleasure, is bad only if there is somebody who is deprived of these good things.

Everything is well explicated by his famous square

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(3) the absence of pain is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone, whereas (4) the absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation.

We can put it also this way:

a) (3) If the hypothetical person x will never be born, she can’t experience any bad things (and this is good).

b) (4) If x will never be born, she can’t experience the lack of good things. (and this is not bad)

So, there’s an asymmetry between good and bad that will always hangs on the side of bad things and “coming into existence is always a harm”. It looks very powerful and sound. But we can also put (a) more like (b), this way:

c) (3) If x will never be born, she can’t experience the lack of bad things (and this is not bad).

If we put the same specific weight on “good” and “bad” like he does, the asymmetry disappears. Later in the book he writes that

the absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation.

But we can also state that "the absence of pain is not good unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a good thing". Have I misunderstood?

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    philosophy.stackexchange.com/q/52304/8572 may interest you? – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Dec 25 '18 at 23:49
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    it's badly worded but not necessarily contradictory. he seems to be saying that good does not necessarily mean good things that happen to people – user35983 Dec 26 '18 at 4:41
  • @confused in the book with good he means any positive things – Francesco D'Isa Dec 26 '18 at 7:46
  • @FrancescoD'Isa "The absence of bad things, such as pain, is good even if there is nobody to enjoy that good" so good does not mean "good things that happen to people", surely? – user35983 Dec 26 '18 at 10:35
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    As a depressive, I assure you that the absence of pain is not necessarily good. There are times when pain is better than no pain. Therefore, I reject the whole line of argument. – David Thornley Dec 27 '18 at 0:01

The whole argument seems to be based on the pre-supposition that existence itself has no value. As you already stated, if no-one existed, the question of pain and pleasure would be void.

This seems to me more of a religious than of a philosophical question. The Buddhist take seems to be that it is better not to exist than to suffer, while the Christian view is that existence (with the hope that pain will be healed at a later time in the suffering individual's existence) is of such high value that it is worth whatever temporary pain one might suffer.

  • interesting take on buddhism, i had not seen it before. buddhists say we / everything that seems to does not exist, but that is suffering. and that it's better to realize that, because it will extinguish suffering – user35983 Dec 26 '18 at 10:50
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    There is also the question of whether existence is actually optional, so that it can have a positive or negative value. What is mandatory and unavoidable, is pretty much by definition neutral in value. Many pantheist approaches split the difference here, existence itself simply is the baseline against which other things have to be measured. Things can exist in good or bad ways, but nonexistence is not possible, only difference in form. – user9166 Dec 26 '18 at 19:14

"The whole argument seems to be based on the pre-supposition that existence itself has no value"


Existence clearly contains

(1) pleasure is intrinsically good (value) (2) pain is instrinsically bad (value)

Whereas the absence of pain can be thought of as something relatively better/good about the counterfactual scenario (3) and the absence of bad (4) not bad (for anyone).

Sometimes I like to put it more bluntly to get the point across: You cannot possibly be worse off on account of absent goods in the counterfactual scenario, while existence invariably brings harms in its wake, so there is no advantage in coming into existence.

The diagram is really about comparison and relative advantages and disadvantages. The right side are relative values. Left side instrinsic values.

Please take note that this four quad offers an explanatory framwork, it is descriptive of four other commonly accepted value judgments and dissolves the "non-identity paradox". Rejecting any of the values generates explanatory problems.

Take note that this axiological asymmetry by itself is insufficent to reach the antinatalist conclusion (categorical ban on procreation), but it creates a first presumption against procreation, that is, there is no advantage in coming into existence, every exister is worse off. His second argument is about the magnitude of harm (among other things).

Also take note that the naïve weighing of (1) bads and (2) goods within existence - is not a comparison between existence and never existing.

David Benatar's book Better Never to Have Been is well worth a read, it presents a well defended challenge.

Thanks for reading.

  • Thank you for your interesting answer and welcome to SE. Yes, it's a great book! I also agree with his conclusions, but I still have doubts about the asymmetry. I will think about your 'blunt' answer, it's very similar to the asymmetry: it persuade me but looks like there's something wrong, since there are two different use of 'non-existence' at stake. – Francesco D'Isa Dec 26 '18 at 18:51
  • "(x) You cannot possibly be worse off on account of absent goods in the counterfactual scenario, while (y) existence inevitably brings bads in its wake, so there is no advantage in coming into existence". Here in (x) I exist, while in (y) I don’t. But as in the (c) version of my question, I've to exist to enjoy the absence of bad things... The (B) scenario depicted by the author seems quite neutral to me. Maybe I'm wrong, I'll think about it, thank you again. – Francesco D'Isa Dec 26 '18 at 18:56
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    The point I wanted to make is: the aim of the argument is that, because of the asymmetry between pain an pleasure, it is better not to exist. But if existence had an intrinsic value beyond feeling pleasure or pain, it might be possible that this value outweighs all pain one could ever experience. The present argument clearly discounts this possibility. – hbarck Dec 27 '18 at 19:13

Yes, it's wrong.

If you think that the 'absence of pleasure' is merely 'not bad' then you are simply failing to imagine a pleasure which is equal in magnitude to your imagined pain. A standard-issue human brain might be evolutionary adept (and indeed in good tune) when conjuring this prejudiced mistake - as living in fear is an evolutionary stable strategy.

But if you imagine that the worst-worst might be merely losing a dollar, and the best-best might be simply finding a dollar (yay!), we can easily see that there is no difference between existing in a day where you 'lost-then-found a dollar' versus not existing in that day at all. If the two magnitudes are equal then there is no weight to the idea that not existing would be, in any way, 'better'.

And that's a pity - because antinatalism can be more effortlessly justified on the basis that Darwinian life is a zero sum game. That is to say, if new life manages to win some pleasure in its competitive environment, somewhere a loser is surely paying the price in the natural currency of pain.

  • see also: philosophy.stackexchange.com/q/56011/33787 – christo183 Jan 4 '19 at 6:16
  • Darwinian life is not zero sum. If I suffer and die to save my family, that's positive sum. – Hierarchist Dec 4 '19 at 17:25
  • @Hierarchist Totally, but that’s just in the macro case. When that same cycle occurs indefinitely and yields no positive externality, that’s when it starts to look zero sum. – dave Dec 5 '19 at 19:16
  • @dave, you're confused. Darwinism has intrinsic value because through its process, it creates valuators who give Darwinism value. Just that alone means Darwinism is not zerosum because the final outcome is positive. You're asking for extrinsic value now, you're looking for a valuator outside this Darwinism. There are solutions to that, but it's a completely different argument. – Hierarchist Dec 6 '19 at 14:14
  • @Hierarchist Just to check.. zero-sum meaning there has to be losers for there to be winners, and, non-zero-sum meaning everyone wins? I agree the winners would value this, but my proposition is that it’s at the expense of the losers. – dave Dec 7 '19 at 18:07

sorry this is both an attempt to answer at least subjectively and a question.

perhaps i am misunderstanding here, but when looking at the scenarios it appears to me that something is missing. maybe a discounting of the value of life itself. it seems to me i could make a similar grid with whether the existence of life is good, possibly because this is subjective?

presence of life | absence of life
(good)           | (not bad)

even still these seem very subject because of the ambiguity and subjectivity of as an example if deprived of stimulus people will often hurt themselves for their own pleasure. terrible things can come from pleasure and wonderful things from pain. it's very different from the typical discussion i hear of with wellbeing/suffering/pleasure that i prefer and then i can do the following:

suffering            | absence of suffering
(bad for wellbeing)  | (not bad for wellbeing)
pleasure             | absence of pleasure
(bad for wellbeing)  | (not bad for wellbeing)

i only really have heard of this through CosmicSkeptics channel. i very much value his reasoning and would like to understand how someone given the above comes the conclusion it may be better to "press a red button" that ends everyone to end all suffering. even though it is only a discussion in theory in leaves me a bit unnerved that rational people like this can feel "backed into a corner" to the point where they would push this button.

perhaps others won't agree with me but at least for me even when my life is somewhat painful there is still value to me in just living. perhaps that is my own evolved bias to live and because overall the net sum of my life has been positive.

i am very new to this topic i apologize for responding in ignorance.


This philosophy sounds to me like total nihilism founded on an irrational hatred of reality.

But in any case, that the absence of good and bad--rather than just good and bad--are even included here is bizarre. Assigning a moral evaluation to the absence of something in particular, rather than to something in particular or just to nothing, seems arbitrary. If regarded in isolation independent of all context, the absence of pain would be the same thing as the absence of pleasure (or of anything else). It would be nothing and nothing has no identity. How can something that is nothing have moral stature?

And why is the absence of pleasure just neutral if pleasure is good? That makes no sense. That's just a bias for pain against pleasure in terms of significance. Further, how could anything be good or bad for someone who isn't alive? Moral values refer to the one valuing (from an egoist standpoint at least, which as far as I'm concerned is the only coherent conception of morality). That's what makes them valuable.


I feel that is incomplete when we have 4 choices the table is really more long for the eight cases.

  1. X Exist and presence of pain
  2. X not Exist and Presence of pain
  3. X Exist and no presence of pain
  4. X not Exist and no pro presence of pain
  5. X Exist and presence of pleasure
  6. X not Exist and Presence of pleasure
  7. X Exist and no presence of pleasure
  8. X not Exist and no pro presence of pleasure

With this I will put numbers, let's say that 1 to good, -1 to bad and 0 to (not bad) he argues that is this

  1. -1
  2. 1
  3. 1
  4. 0

for the result, we can see the sum of exists vs no exists and he argues that exist is a 0 and no exist is a 1 so better not exists. Even if we agree on these numbers (I don't) that is not the end of all history cause we forgot the rest I will put the rest of the numbers thinking that exists is better always that there is no pain, or that pleasure is always better even if none exist.

  1. -1
  2. 0
  3. 1
  4. 1
  5. 1
  6. 1
  7. 1
  8. 0

The last number is 0 cause no exist is not good or bad per se, also if there is no pleasure then no matter if you exist or not. With this we get an interesting number that exists is a 2 and no exist is 2... wait ... is a tie. Well honestly I'm semi surprised but we get symmetry again (i thought I had to change his numbers). Basically exist and no exist is independent of feel pleasure and pain. so with good values in all 8 options, we get symmetry between exist and no exist.

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