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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

enter image description here

(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? – Accounting 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
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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.

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  • 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
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I have not read Benatar's book, so I'm likely missing subtleties, but the argument as presented here seems specious. Why would the absence of pain be good for a non-existent being? Pain and pleasure are contingent on experience, and experience is contingent on 'being-ness'. If no being exists, no experience can exists (no pleasure or pain), and no valuation can be assigned to non-existent experiences.

As I see it there are two cases here, which Benatar conflates. First is the case of the experience of the being itself, which (as I've already discussed) in contingent on the being having existence. If a being does not exist (is never born) then it cannot have experiences, and it cannot evaluate experiences it does not have. Second is the case of third parties (bystanders) who can look at the non-existence of a being and say "It's good that this being was never born, and thus will never experience pain and misery." But those same bystanders could just as easily say "It's bad that this being was never born, and thus will never experience pleasure and joy."

Now when Benatar says this:

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.

He is invoking the language of case 2 to talk about the absence of pain — i.e., he is implicitly invoking the concept of 'good for others' by leveraging an abstract universal — but he is invoking the language of case 1 to talk about the absence of pleasure. The asymmetry isn't in the experience; the asymmetry is in the logical paradox he's created by mismatching cases.

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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.

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  • 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
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    "(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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  • 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
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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.

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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.

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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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  • Welcome to SE Philosophy! Thanks for your contribution. Please take a quick moment to take the tour or find help. You can perform searches here or seek additional clarification at the meta site. – J D Jan 18 at 19:39
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Thought about this and I realised why the asymmetry argument isn't convincing to me. It is because I don't measure the meaningfulness of conscious experience in terms of good and bad experiences. Consciousness is subjectivity itself, it is by definition and character meaning, and then after that the experiences within it can be good and bad. So bad experiences, unless they have some upside, may not be worth having, but that does NOT mean they are part of some equation measuring up the worthiness of the consciousness having them. If consciousness has value then that value isn't necessarily subject to change dependent on it's contents. Now you can absolutely have an argument about whether or not consciousness is worth having at all, but for me the goodness or badness of it's content would probably never be considered a justified factor in such an argument. In other words if lives are worth living or creating isn't really about the amount of suffering involved. I'm still open to other arguments for why life isn't worth living or starting though.

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  • Welcome to SE Philosophy! Thanks for your contribution. Please take a quick moment to take the tour or find help. You can perform searches here or seek additional clarification at the meta site. Don't forget, when someone has answered your question, you can click on the checkmark to reward the contributor. – J D Feb 4 at 16:19
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Ok it took me a few days but I think I finally got it. From what I read and listened to, Benatar is doing an extremely bad job (for me) at explaining this asymmetry properly... I think this is because he's mixing that with the existence/non existence issue and that completely overshadows the asymmetry concept. So I came up with my own simple analogy which I believe is much simpler to explain the asymmetry. It's still completely debatable but at least now I don't find it utterly non-nonsensical anymore!

Here goes and feel free to add details/variation/questions, I try to keep it very simple first in hope you can get the idea instinctively.

A - You walk on the street and pass by a total stranger, you can think that not harming him without reason is a good thing. B - While the stranger you come across might give you 100 bucks and you would find that good! you don't think it's a bad that he doesn't.

so A illustrates instinctively that the absence of BAD is GOOD. Indeed we think it's a good thing we civilized people's behaviors. and you don't need to think about the person itself that feels secure or anything, you can just consider a town you'll never go to and think that after some reforms the mayor changed the streets from a place where people would attack each other to a quite secured place and you would find this good.

And so B illustrates the absence of GOOD as not being BAD (I was confused with Benatar since you could interpret not bad in his formulation as "not that bad"...). While definitely you find any act of benevolence toward you or from you to others as a good thing, you don't consider NOT doing it as doing a BAD thing.

Voilà, hope that also helps you and if you think it missed the point let me know! I believe a lot can be said and made more explicit but that does the job illustrating the asymmetry and not confusing people by adding the issue of existence in the middle!

thanks!

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  • I would change a bit the narrative to say something like: if you can push a button and change the situation from "people attack each other on the streets" to "they don't", you would do a good thing. if you can push a button and change the situation from "people give each other 100 bucks on the street" to "they don't", you would do a thing that is NOT BAD. – prince2phore Apr 30 at 3:12

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