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Benatar’s Account of Value (It’s Not Nihilism)

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Some have accused David Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence of nihilism. Where nihilism is taken to mean a rejection of intrinsic value, this is at least partially a mischaracterization of Benatar’s theory of value. While Benatar’s book does not explicitly detail the values that underlie his antinatalist position, it is unfair to say that there are no values to be found. I will try to unpack his account of values and take a look at its implications.

It is important to distinguish, as Benatar does, between value as seen from a universal perspective (things that are meaningful sub specie aeternitatis), on the one hand, and value to a particular person or to humanity (things that are meaningful sub specie humanitatis, on the other. Benatar’s theory in no way derogates, and in fact respects, values held by individuals and by humanity as a whole, so his position cannot be seen as nihilistic in that respect.

It is when it comes to value from the perspective of the universe that Benatar might be seen as nihilistic. In Benatar’s view, the pleasure, happiness, projects, and satisfaction that might be of value to an individual or to humanity are not actually valuable in a universal sense – that is, they are not valuable in the sense that if no one existed to experience them, it would not be a shame. But this is not quite nihilism, because suffering and pain, in Benatar’s view, have a sort of universal negative value – that is, if no one exists to experience pain, it is an intrinsically good thing. Put another way, from the perspective of nonexistence, someone coming into existence and experiencing pain would be a bad thing.

That this is an exclusively negative value is not much of an objection. If suffering and pain have negative value sub specie aeternitatis, then prevention of suffering and pain must have a sort of positive value.

Benatar’s views accord well with my own – that, although individual humans may find things valuable in relation to their lives, there is no universal meaning or value, except that suffering is, in a sense, a universal wrong. (Of course, suffering can only be experienced by sentient beings, so suffering will always be bad in relation to them, because without sentient beings, there can be no suffering. But in the sense that it is objectively worse for a sentient being to experience suffering than for the being not to have come into existence at all, it is a universal (negative) value.) I do not see any value in sentience or consciousness or life, compared to its utter absence in the universe. However, I prickle at the notion that this is nihilistic or misanthropic, because my feeling comes from the experience that human suffering is horrible, animal suffering is horrible, and there is nothing in the world to compensate for it.

However, I recognize that this view rests on a particular intuitional theory of value. Some might posit that sentience itself has value, or even that suffering itself has positive value. Some seem to take the continuation of humanity (non-extinction) as the primary value, such that no amount of suffering could ever make it not worthwhile to continue humanity. I currently see this as a clash-of-intuition situation, and am not sure how to counter it.

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Written by Sister Y

May 8, 2008 at 11:42 pm