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The Vise Side of Life

Rhys Southan

David Benatar The Human Predicament
Oxford University Press
288 pp
£16.99 (hbk)







As David Benatar sees it, discomfort, dissatisfaction and pain are life’s default settings. In The Human Predicament, he writes that good things mostly seem to require work – work that mostly ends up failing to produce much good anyway – while some basic level of badness is effortless and assured. Do absolutely nothing, and it won’t be long before we are plagued with hunger, thirst, itchiness, mild soreness, a distended bladder, restlessness, boredom and perhaps a headache. The bad eagerly descends upon us; the good we have to chase down and tackle and cling to for a brief reprieve before it slips out of our grasp yet again.

The sensations that drive our behavior seem to favour the stick over the carrot. For every pleasure that tempts us to action with reward, there’s a noxious inverse that whips us into obedience. The pleasure of eating encourages us to nourish our bodies, but so does the averseness of hunger, and perhaps we spend more time with growling stomachs and cravings than satisfied palates. Even our fullness is almost never ideal. We either eat a little too much, or not quite enough, and then must struggle against the urge to take a nap we don’t have time for. The pleasures of sex, conversation, and partnership inspire us to look for love, but so do the pangs of loneliness and frustration that torment so much of our lives.

Destruction is easier than creation. Relationships that take months or years to build can crumble with a few words or a glance. Our bodies and minds are quick to injury and slow to heal, and can be destroyed by a single impact. Desires are easy to form and difficult to fulfill. Pain tends to be more intense and enduring than pleasure. Bads are more bad than goods are good, and the former are closer at hand.

And yet, most of us are attached to life. We think that coming into existence benefitted us, and that outside of extreme circumstances, most lives are worth continuing. If Benatar is right that the bad things in life far outweigh the good, this widespread embrace of life requires an explanation. Benatar thinks he has one: we’re just wrong about the quality of our lives. We have an optimism bias that twists our gaze away from the bad and towards the good. We remember positive experiences more readily than negative ones, and we expect our futures to be less mediocre than they’ll actually prove to be. Many bad things are so commonplace that we take them for granted. We judge the quality of our lives by comparing ourselves to other people, and since they have most of the same bad things in their lives as we do, we ignore these overlapping travails as comparatively irrelevant. And then there’s a powerful, biologically-coded instinct to survive, compelling us to tolerate the bad things in our lives that we don’t manage to ignore, if only to extend our double-helix-entwined legacies.

There’s no question that much of what we believe about the world is false. Life might indeed be worse than most of us think. Yet something is missing from Benatar’s despondent analysis. It’s easy to imagine how we could overlook the suffering of others. That we are deeply mistaken about life’s badness for ourselves, on the other hand, is at least a little puzzling. Bad things happen to us directly. If the horrors of life were as unrelenting and the goodness of life as inadequate as Benatar tells us, it’s hard to see how biases and instincts would be enough to trick self-conscious creatures into being enthralled with such grim lives. Instinct might make us jerk back from a speeding trolley, but if the good in life were really no match for the constant assault of little nuisances and worse, the imbalance would quickly defeat us.

A better explanation may be that Benatar has overlooked something importantly good about life. This wouldn’t be too surprising. As a pessimistic philosopher in the tradition of Arthur Schopenhauer, he sees himself as waging a war against the delusional optimism that inspires us to perpetuate a nearly joyless and meaning-bereft world of pain and suffering. We shouldn’t expect him to be as alert to the less obvious goods in life as we might demand of an inspirational speaker, for instance. Here it seems reasonable to accept some division of labour. When we open a book by Benatar, the point is not to get a balanced account – the point is to dwell on life’s miseries. And in his further defense, the major good in life that he’s failed to spot is something that most of us probably don’t think much about. Yet Benatar is on its trail in his chapter called “Death.”

With life as bad as it is, we might expect Benatar to see death as a glorious return to the non-existence that he thinks we should never have left. But surely we know by now that nothing is glorious to Benatar. Instead he sees the inevitable cessation of experience as yet another thing to hate about existence. “[B]oth life and death are, in crucial respects, awful,” Benatar writes. “Together, they constitute an existential vise–the wretched grip that enforces our predicament.” For Benatar, death is bad in two main ways. The first is that since there are some good things in life, as even Benatar must admit, death is bad for snatching all future prospects of this good away from us. This is the deprivation objection to death. If we had never existed, we wouldn’t have developed interests in whatever meagre goods we manage to wring out of our brief time here, and non-existence couldn’t have represented a loss to us. For Benatar, the good things in life are ultimately bad as well, because it’s terrible to lose them. Existence is such a troublemaker that it even manages to spoil the pain-free paradise of non-existence.

The other problem Benatar has with death is that it entails our own annihilations. That is, not only does death demolish the possibility of our having future good – it demolishes us. This is similar to what Frances Kamm calls the “extinction factor,” which she takes to be death’s most terrifying feature. The obliteration of ourselves is the sort of thing that if you think about it in the right way, in the right mood, you might start shaking a little. Benatar imagines someone lamenting their own annihilation this way: “This person, about whom I care so much, will cease to exist. My memories, values, beliefs, perspectives, hopes—my very self—will come to an end, and for all eternity.”

If we wanted to be parsimonious, we could fold annihilation into the broader deprivation objection to death. Doing this would mean treating the destruction of the self as a loss of “self goods,” which would include things like memories. Yet the annihilation framing of death’s sting does capture something that a more straightforward deprivationist account doesn’t. Kai Draper illustrates the oddness of fearing the loss of future goods when he writes, “To sincerely say, ‘Not living it up in Barcelona scares the hell out of me,’ would be an indication that I suffer from a rather unusual phobia.” By comparison, fearing the loss of one’s very self does not seem quite as absurd as shuddering in terror at the prospect of, say, never eating lentils again.

This fear of annihilation gets us close to that good in life that Benatar breezed past in his half-hearted search. “[M]emories, values, beliefs, perspectives, hopes—my very self” is a decent starting summary of the self-goods, but this doesn’t capture everything that’s lost when an experiencing subject is obliterated. In his essay “Death,” Thomas Nagel better describes what looks to be the missing piece. He writes that general “perception, desire, activity, and thought” are benefits in themselves, “despite the fact that they are conditions of misery as well as of happiness, and that a sufficient quantity of more particular evils can perhaps outweigh them.” He continues:

That is what is meant, I think, by the allegation that it is good simply to be alive, even if one is undergoing terrible experiences. The situation is roughly this: There are elements which, if added to one’s experience, make life better; there are other elements which if added to one’s experience, make life worse. But what remains when these are set aside is not merely neutral: it is emphatically positive. Therefore life is worth living even when the bad elements of experience are plentiful, and the good ones too meager to outweigh the bad ones on their own. The additional positive weight is supplied by experience itself, rather than by any of its consequences.

Think of tapping your fingers on a table. Typically, there’s no obvious pleasure in this. There may even be slight pain. But somehow there’s value in getting to do that, because of the almost unbelievable fact that there is a world at all, and that we’re conscious beings who get to be in it, feelings its sensations, and interacting with it and other similarly improbable existers.

Yes, when we do nothing, we are met by a coterie of minor bads that can only get worse, but at the same time that hunger, thirst and itchiness gang up against someone who is listlessly lying in bed, there remains this underlying good of experience itself. We can blink at the ceiling, flick the wall, have a random thought, feel ourselves breathing. We have this good of mere conscious existence even if we feel our life is meaningless, and that no one cares about us and we will never be happy again. Despite the heartbreak, there’s still the ceiling! Existence itself is perhaps one of our most valuable goods, strangely, and while we’re here, it’s always there. As long as the bads are tolerable, they can be an acceptable price for the opportunity to exist at all.

Benatar indirectly suggests the value of basic conscious existence when he grieves our eventual annihilations, but what he doesn’t clearly acknowledge is that experience itself is a powerful, continuous good while we are alive, and might even be significant enough to outweigh many of life’s misfortunes. Leave it to a pessimist to regret the harm of losing oneself without recognizing the value of being oneself.



Rhys Southan is studying for a BPhil in Philosophy at Exeter College. His work has appeared in Aeon and the New York Times, and he plans to start regularly posting on his blog this summer.