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I’m relatively new to philosophy. Been doing some soul-searching, and asked myself ‘is good empirically better than evil’. Found a thread on here, where people pointed out that science cannot really determine morality. But that’s a whole other question. One person commented on that thread that, according to Sam Harris, the foundational principle of good and evil is that we have to assume existence is better than non-existence. But can this be justified somehow? What is the basis for this assumption? I understand that the word ‘better’ is an extremely loaded word. I don’t feel that enhancing hedonism Vs reducing suffering is the right reasoning—-what can cause one person pleasure can cause the suffering of another. Any thoughts are appreciated!

I apologize in advance if i mistag this, please let me know what would be more appropriate tags.

Link to other post here: Is it possible to scientifically determine good and evil?

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    As Harris uses it, his language notwithstanding, this is not an assumption, it is a proposed value/imperative to guide our behavior. Harris is an atheist, so his use of "good and evil" is not referring to any objective morality that we can literally "assume" something about, he reinterprets them in man-made terms, so to speak. The idea is that "existence is better than non-existence", life is better than death, is a common sentiment among 'normal' humans, so it can be the basis of shared (utilitarian) morality that human societies are called to establish and promote.
    – Conifold
    Jun 6, 2023 at 23:51
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    @AgentSmith: He might not technically qualify as a fool, but he is extraordinarily bad at doing philosophy. Discussed here: 'Is Sam Harris's view of morality innovating?' philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/70896/…
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 7, 2023 at 18:51
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    "what can cause one person pleasure can cause the suffering of another" - this doesn't undermine the "increase pleasure and reduce suffering" framework. It just means how you go about doing that shouldn't be to try to fit everyone into the same box, but rather listen to people when they tell you what causes them pleasure or suffering, and treat everyone how they wish to be treated (within some reasonable scope).
    – NotThatGuy
    Jun 8, 2023 at 6:16
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    @AgentSmith: No amount of studying biology can tell us how we ought to behave in future en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Is%E2%80%93ought_problem
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 8, 2023 at 6:42
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    @anongoodnurse It is an interesting situation. Perhaps one could ask the family members, "Would you be willing to trade places with the patient?" If they want what is best for that person, it might help them conceive of it, instead of thinking selfishly.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jun 8, 2023 at 11:44

10 Answers 10

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"Is it possible that existence is our exile and nothingness our home?"

-Emil Cioran, in 'On the Heights of Despair'

Aquinas regarded having been Created, as a blessing from God, a gift. So no wonder he could regard existence as having a greater degree of perfection than non-existence, his theological attitudes required it. To hear a proper challenge to such assumptions, you need to go to the Philosophical Pessimists, like Cioran above.

David Benatar makes an explicit argument that non-existence is better, in his book 'Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence'. His case is that there is a fundamental assymetry between causing a being to exist vs not exist, in that suffering is a harm and it's absence is good, but absence of pleasure is not bad, unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation.

I see the value of Cioran and Benatar, and indeed Schopenhauer, as giving a workout for people who for whatever reason have not yet experienced reasons to wish never to have been. Like how young firebrand idealists in politics, should have to respond to Hobbes and Locke and so on, regardless of the unlikelihood they will become converts. We should try to expose ourselves to experiences and minds not like our own, to make sure we don't just drift into habits of mind, but choose them.

Personally I suspect good philosophers, like good artists and poets, will not limit themselves to a pre-defined domain of emotion and experience, but instead seek to plunge into examining the world as they find it, and speak to that. That is the path of authenticity, and before arriving at dark places it would be wise to learn of tools from those who have been there.

Camus identifed a fundamental anguish about our need to find meaning in the world, and the world's inability to give it to us. We must make our own meanings, but then we play a shell-game with ourselves, pretending the thing we made had to be that way for whatever reasons. But Camus argued the honest response is to recognise our situation is absurd, we confront a fundamental disconnect between what we want and what we can have, we wish to imbue our made-up meanings with some greater weightiness.

A lot of superficial readers into Buddhist theology, don't recognise it's fundamental pessimism. It's theology identifies the root-causes of our suffering in not grasping the disconnect between what we want and what the world can give, summarised in the Three Marks of Existence: impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and no unchanging self or essences. These chime very well with our modern science: with entropy, with the psychological recognition we motivate ourselves seeking things we won't be happy if we get, and things like the Bundle-Theory of the self. But for Buddhism, there is also no escape, there is no non-being, our desires give rise to dependent-origination, until we can understand a way to seperate how we use our minds from the wishes for other things in other places at other times, and instead simply reconcile with right now. In Buddhist thought we are each the latest stitch of an infinite thread.

The fundamental objection to the question you pose is, it involves a counterfactual. Could the universe have been the same, except for a being's non-being? It is cognitively useful for us as humans doing what we do, to have fantasies of counterfactuals, like, what if the dice roll had been different. But in games of chance, or quantum experiments, we purposefully pare down the complexities, to make multiple instances comparable. In reality, there is just one timeline, what happens happens, and if you have the blessing or curse of having come to be, then here you are to find how to situate yourself in regard to it. This very moment, the breath you are taking, will never be again. And right now, you have this vast freedom to decide why to be, how to be, a freedom we constantly seek to avoid or diminish. And cannot escape.

If you welcome this very moment, existence is a blessing. For Buddhists there is a way to situate ourselves to welcome all moments, and it is deeply linked to recognising we don't need to wish anything is different, as we express being this instance of the universe. By recognising intersubjectivity, we can see there is no isolated being or not-being, but we arose together, and the proper attitude is then concern for all sentient beings, from your unique moment. Wishing for something else, cannot help you be present to what you are.

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    Sorry to be responding to this post so many months later. Thank you for your answer, it makes a ton of sense. Any suggestions on some of Camus’s works I can read? Oct 31, 2023 at 20:20
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"the foundational principle of good and evil is that we have to assume existence is better than non-existence." is a good example of the tendency of philosophers to made grand pronouncements that fall apart the moment you actually think them through.

(Actually, non-philosophers tend to do this as well. When everything is going well in my life and the weather is good, I think "Life is wonderful. I'm glad I'm alive." When I'm suffering and dying from one of the many ghastly diseases, I think "Life is terrible, pointless suffering. I wish I were dead". Both are true at the time. Neither is true of all life everywhere.)

This claim involves what are probably the most complicated and most argued over concepts in philosophy, so in what follows, I'm only trying to start you on your journey.

However, it is possible that this pronouncement is based on an actual philosophical theory. SEP - The Concept of Evil says (Section 2.1) "According to the Neoplatonists, evil does not exist as a substance or property but instead as a privation of substance, form, and goodness (Plotinus, Enneads, I, 8; See also O’Brien 1996). For instance, the evil of disease consists in a privation of health, and the evil of sin consists in a privation of virtue." If so, it is a misinterpretation.

There may be another kind of mistake being made here, both about good/evil and existence/non-existence.

It doesn't really make sense to speak of "good" or "evil" on their own. It only makes sense to speak of good things and evil things, and very often any specific thing will only be good or evil in certain circumstances or from a specific point of view. Whether a weapon is a good thing or a bad one depends on who you are giving it to and what they are going to do with it and which side of the fight you support. In other words, someone can be a freedom fighter to one person and a terrorist to someone else. See SEP - Moral Theory

The same is true of existence. It doesn't mean anything to speak of "existence" on its own. It only makes sense to speak of existing (or non-existing) things. See, for example, SEP - Existence

So, whether existence is better than non-existence depends what existing thing you are thinking of. The non-existence of COVID-19, of AIDS or of multiple sclerosis would be better for human beings than their existence. But then, the existence of potatoes and carrots is better (for human beings) than their non-existence. Again, the existence of drugs to cure disease is better than their non-existence and the non-existence of poisons is better their existence. But then, the same substances can be drugs and can be poisons. Just as generalizing from my life at one specific time does not establish anything about about life in general, evaluating specific existing things does not establish anything about existence in general.

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    And the goodness/badness of something is not only based on the binary of exist/not-exist, but amount matters. Water is good, but you can still die from water intoxication.
    – Nelson
    Jun 8, 2023 at 3:43
  • @Nelson A nice example. Isn't it also important to recognize that the binary of good/bad is also very misleading and unhelpful?
    – Ludwig V
    Jun 8, 2023 at 8:28
  • Isn't it the case that in this context, they're referring specifically to existence of a person? E.g. that's why murder is "bad" -- it deprives the victim of their existence. It's not about existence as a general concept.
    – Barmar
    Jun 8, 2023 at 15:06
  • @Barmar I'm sorry to be so dense, but again, I don't see which context you mean and who "they" are. You're right, though that murder is bad because it wrongfully deprives someone of their existence and that is not about existence as a general concept. I'm afraid I don't quite get the point, though.
    – Ludwig V
    Jun 8, 2023 at 16:27
  • In this case, "they" is Sam Harris.
    – Barmar
    Jun 8, 2023 at 16:30
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Here is why I prefer existence to non-existence.

Two years ago I had cancer surgery. Three different teams of practitioners worked on me in sequence, a process which took almost 6 hours in total.

I was of course anesthetized the whole time using an IV drip where the anesthesiologist told me right when he turned the drip on. The drip struck and instantly transported me to the recovery room, where my wife and the recovery room nurse were asking me if I could wiggle my fingers and toes.

For the intervening 6 hours, I. Did. Not. Exist.

Based on this personal experience, I prefer existence to non-existence, and will further assert that Sam Harris does not know what he is talking about, since good and evil did not enter into the picture in any way whatsoever.

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    +1 Harris has a tendency to speak in the language of religion despite his claim to fame as a New Athiest as part of his approach of appealing to a wider audience, to be sure.
    – J D
    Jun 8, 2023 at 16:58
  • @niels nielsen I take your point. But it is over-simplified to think of existence vs non-existence as a choice like the choice between tea and coffee. While you did not exist (and I wouldn't describe your situation under the anaesthetic in that way), did you prefer existence to non-existence? Did you prefer non-existence to existence? And you are forgetting that sometimes people actually choose non-existence, and it is not always obvious that the "balance of their minds is disturbed".
    – Ludwig V
    Jun 10, 2023 at 8:44
  • @LudwigV, I have lost six acquaintances to suicide: three of them extremely bloody and violent, and three by lethal prescription as they lay dying of incurable cancer. The bloody cases were the result of despair and mental pain so overwhelming that it was beyond my imagining. The cancer cases represented the decision to escape physical pain from which medical arts could provide no hope of any cure. At age 71 I continue to struggle to come to terms with those events, and will most likely carry that struggle to my own grave of non-existence. Jun 10, 2023 at 15:12
  • @niels nielsen If I had known that I would upset you, I would not have posted as I did. So I apologize for that; it was entirely unintentional.
    – Ludwig V
    Jun 11, 2023 at 9:54
  • @LudwigV, No need to apologize, this is just part of my work Your comments are thoughtful and I appreciate them. -NN Jun 11, 2023 at 19:14
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I had a similar experience as niels nielsen; I was anesthetized for surgery, and from my perspective it seemed like I was teleported from the operating room to the recovery room. No intervening experience whatsoever. Was the ~2 hours I was out better or worse than any other 2-hour period in my life?

I don't think the question really makes sense to even ask. How can one make such a comparison? You can't experience non-existence. If you can't experience non-existence, how can you compare it to existence?

It seems a bit like an algebraic inequality with something divided by zero on one side. Is 5 > 3/0? You can't even calculate it.

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    +1 from Niels. Thanks for your answer. Jun 9, 2023 at 4:55
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the foundational principle of good and evil is that we have to assume existence is better than non-existence.

This is a theme originating in ancient philosophy, which I believe originally arose from the sense of wonder at the abundance of nature. This was symbolised in ancient mythology by the goddess Fortuna holding 'the horn of plenty' - the Cornucopia - out of which flowed an abundance of fruits, grains, and other goods, symbolising nature's abundance. It is also associated with the 'pleroma', the over-flowing abundance of nature and also with the idea that 'nature abhors a vacuum'. From this, the idea became accepted that being itself possessed a kind of perfection or virtue which non-being could neither exhibit nor displace. I think that's the historical intuition behind the many forms of the ontological argument which are based on the argument that if being is a perfection, then God must necessarily possess it, as the absence of being is a defect. (I'm not saying that this should be regarded as a cogent argument in today's terms, but that this is the origin in the history of ideas.)

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  • A sense of wonder seems very good. Lots of the big science guys like Carl Sagan showed it. It's too bad humans have to think there must be an opposite to everything. There is no opposite of being, it is one big thing.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jun 7, 2023 at 10:03
  • I don't see any link between the Cornucopia & any positivity about being - instead, Pandora seems to imply a deep link between receiving Prometheus' fire & concomitant plagues. Pleroma as a term may have originated with Greek language, but it's theological meaning is really Christian. Aquinas with his Argument From Degrees of Perfection had a very clear specific motive, so retroactively projecting his view that an existing thing is more perfect than a non-existing one onto previous peoples seems unwarranted without evidence.
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 7, 2023 at 20:33
  • Existence and non-existence do seem, however, rather a primal duality. As reflected in the structure of language, 'is/is not', and the fundamental logical axioms that arise from that. Didn't mention Pandora, or Pandora's box, but Fortuna and Cornucopia.
    – Wayfarer
    Jun 7, 2023 at 23:56
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There are two ways one can split the question. One can ask, should I or should I not use my powers to create a ham sandwich. Surely the existence of a ham sandwich is subject to the Hume's is-ought dichotomy. (I weigh that ham sandwiches in the abstract should exist, btw., but my Muslim acquaintances demur.)

But what you might be asking after is should I or should I not kill myself. That's in a separate class of is-ought, and one that is addressed in the Myth of Sisyphus by Camus. According to WP:

Camus undertakes the task of answering what he considers to be the only question of philosophy that matters: Does the realization of the meaninglessness and absurdity of life necessarily require suicide?

Ultimately, Camus argues no. That existence is to be preferred. Again, from the same WP article:

To embrace the absurd implies embracing all that the unreasonable world has to offer. Without meaning in life, there is no scale of values. "What counts is not the best living but the most living."

Camus's appeal to exist, therefore, lies on his defense of intuition. In fact, Camus rails against dogmas and ideologies elsewhere as a acts perpetrated on people to ignore their intuition that existence is better than non-existence. From a modern physicalist standpoint, the explanation can be simply attributed to biological and psychological notions of self-preservation. The article says:

Self-preservation is a behavior or set of behaviors that ensures the survival of an organism.1 It is thought to be universal among all living organisms... Self-preservation may also be interpreted figuratively, in regard to the coping mechanisms one needs to prevent emotional trauma from distorting the mind (see Defence mechanisms)

Thus, in this regard, one might consider our bodies and minds inducing us to prefer existence over non-existence. One might even go so far as to recognize that an ethical precept claiming existence is good is nothing more than an emotivist utterance, detached from logic entirely.

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  • You don't make it clear your quotes are from the Wikipedia page, I'd say you imply you are quoting Camus. You say 'Camus argues' then give someone's intetpretation, which I don't thinkbis good practice.
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 7, 2023 at 19:02
  • @CriglCragl Good call. Got lazy.
    – J D
    Jun 7, 2023 at 19:10
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A system of ethics which did not value existence above non-existence is ultimately self-defeating. The question of whether any thing is preferable to any other thing is meaningful only to those who exist and who seek to perpetuate their existence. A person who despairs of ever finding happiness, and seeks only oblivion, brings himself to a state (non-existence) in which all other value judgements become moot.

Why even have any values of any kind, if existence is not desired above non-existence?

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  • I don't quite understand "A system of ethics which did not value existence above non-existence is ultimately self-defeating." Do you mean that a system of ethics that concluded that it is better that we all kill ourselves than that we go on living is self-defeating? That's true. But it isn't the same as the suggestion that existence of anything is better than the non-existence of that thing, which is what I thought SH was saying.
    – Ludwig V
    Jun 10, 2023 at 8:51
  • A system of ethics which cannot be put into practice is useless. If following a system of ethics kills you, then you're not around to follow it, and its dictates become moot.
    – EvilSnack
    Jun 13, 2023 at 20:33
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What is "better"? Its something that is more "good". If A is good and B is doubly good then B is better than A.

Whats "good" then? Good is something thats desired. That a person want. In normal speech a person say "Good" about something he want to happen.

What do you want to happen and what do you dont want to happen? It all boils down to pleasure vs pain. We and all biological beings are hardwired to want pleasure and avoid pain.

Now to your main question" "Is existence better than non-existence?" It is, if you want to exist. When will you want to exist? When you are having more pleasure than pain, or when you hope to have more pleasure than pain in future because hope itself is a pleasure.

If you are convinced that you are not going to get - cannot get / will not get - more pleasure than pain neither now nor in future then you wouldnt want to exist anymore.

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Perhaps the kind of question you ought to start asking to answer this is something like : "what are the kinds of things that are better when they exist compared to when they don't exist". For example, most people would agree that the existence of a cheesecake is better than it's non-existence. But the same cannot be said for something like a strawberry-KFC chicken cake, most people would rather this cake to not exist. The justification for this is really simple : I like cheesecake and detest KFC-strawberry cake. Notice that there doesn't appear to be any moral motivation for the preference of either cakes' existence. In this regard, there doesn't appear to be any good/evil juju surrounding the existence of one's life. I prefer my existence simply because I like it.

In order to make some sort of claim about good/evil in the context of existence/non-existence you first need to determine what are the kinds of things that could be characterized to have some quality of moral goodness/evilness to them. For example, when I say a cake is bad I don't mean it is evil or something like that, I just mean I don't like it. It is bad simply because I do not like it. On the contrary, when I say murder is bad, it seems it is bad not because I don't like it but because of some inherent quality of murder that makes it 'evil'.

So in conclusion, you could say the existence of someone's life is good simply because I and most other people like it, just like we like cheesecake.

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    strawberry-KFC chicken cake..? That does sound like bad juju...
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 7, 2023 at 20:07
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    But if we like chicken, which involves the end of a chicken's life...
    – Scott Rowe
    Jun 7, 2023 at 22:57
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As regards existence, the fundamental question is "why does the universe exist?" My understanding of panpsychism is that the universe exists because it found its existence necessary. Existence is then the fundamental value of the universe. Other values develop as the universe and consciousness develop.

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