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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
  • 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
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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. – jobermark Dec 26 '18 at 19:14
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"The whole argument seems to be based on the pre-supposition that existence itself has no value"

Incorrect.

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
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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.

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