Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Better never to have been?

This is a book by David Benatar. Of course, one is tempted to accuse this guy of inconsistency, since he finished the book before he slashed his wrists. Or is he still alive?

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.  Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.  All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards.  These are games; one must first answer [the questions of suicide].”- Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus


James M. Jensen II said...

Initial gut reaction:

Really?? Has modern philosophy sunken so far that we're taking this sort of argument seriously?

Calmer, more reasoned response:

The most critical reviewer, M. Taylor, is right on at least one thing: $44 is way too much to pay for something like this.

Moreover, while I agree with his critics that M. Taylor's review is pretty knee-jerk and even a little juvenile, I think he's actually on to something when he says life is worth the suffering because it's "an opportunity to become real and eternal."

The argument, as I understand it, seems to hinge on the argument that either (a) it is categorically wrong to expose someone to risk and suffering or (b) that the hope of happiness is not worth that risk.

I reject (a) outright. If it serves a great enough purpose, exposing someone to risk and suffering can be right.

I'm not sure whether I agree or disagree with (b) given usual conceptions of happiness.

I definitely disagree if happiness means the neo-/Aristotelian notion of eudaimonia, hence my sympathy with the quote above.


Does the quote above remind anyone else reminded of C.S. Lewis' "The Great Divorce"?


one is tempted to accuse this guy of inconsistency, since he finished the book before he slashed his wrists.

Read the review by Philonous. He does deal with this argument

Mike Darus said...

Love is worth the risk. End of story.

James M. Jensen II said...

I got to thinking about this, and it strikes me how throughly this would have to be based on the the categorical imperative argument I explicitly reject.

A utilitarian argument would seem to me to hinge on the argument that no one's life is worth living. But how many of us would agree with that? I'm glad I was born.

I would agree that if the odds are that a particular child's life would not be worth living, then the child shouldn't be conceived.

Of course I can't respond fully to the book's arguments without reading it, and I'm just not willing to spend that much time and money on it.

Jason Pratt said...

Hm. When I was writing CoJ, I realized that the initial despondency of one of the main characters pointed toward him having to solve a question of suicide before he continued--and that how he answered this question would make a fundamental difference in how he approached the rest of what happens in the book, compared to how differently another character in similar circumstances answered the same question (against suicide).

So I took time out for a brief chapter (3) to have him resolve that question before going on.

I didn't have Camus' quote in mind when I did that--but I'm more than a little bit amused at a few of the overlaps there.


Anonymous said...

Aren't theists equally guilty of engaging in the sort of hedonistic pursuits that they typically accuse amoral materialistic atheists of engaging in? In the case of theism, the gratification that's pursued is delayed (infinite pleasure in the presence of God, talking with angels, beautiful eschatology reminiscent of scenes from C.S. Lewis' Perelandra, etc.), unlike the materialist's gratification, which is immediate. Nevertheless, in the case of both, the chief life project is undoubtedly and irreducibly a pursuit of hedonistic gratification.

Is this a fair assessment? Or am I omitting something essential to the essence of religious desire?

Clayton Littlejohn said...

Is slashing your wrists a way of changing the past and preventing your own birth?

Rasmus Møller said...

To anonymous.


"Scripture and tradition habitually put the joys of Heaven into the scale against the sufferings of earth, and no solution of the problem of pain which does not do so can be called a Christian one. We are very shy nowadays of even mentioning Heaven. We are afraid of the jeer about 'pie in the sky,' and of being told that we are trying to 'escape' from the duty of making a happy world here and now into dreams of a happy world elsewhere. But either there is a 'pie in the sky' or there is not. If there is not, then Christianity is false, for this doctrine is woven into its whole fabric. If there is, then this truth, like any other, must be faced, whether it is useful at political meetings or no. Again, we are afraid that Heaven is a bribe, and that if we make it our goal we shall no longer be disinterested. It is not so. Heaven offers nothing that the mercenary soul can desire. It is safe to tell the pure in heart that they shall see God, for only the pure in heart want to. There are rewards that do not sully motives. A man's love for a woman is not mercenary because he wants to marry her, nor his love for poetry mercenary because he wants to read it, nor his love of exercise less disinterested because he wants to run and leap and walk. Love, by definition, seeks to enjoy its object."

Jason Pratt said...

A purely hedonistic pursuit would involve seeking pleasure regardless of acting to fulfill righteousness ('fair-togetherness') between people.

Old southern 'apocalypse' story, from here in Tennessee: a man dies and, while dead (he got better), an angel shows him a vision of hell where he sees a giant table laid out with the finest foods and drinks. Everyone sitting at the table has their weakest hand tied behind their back, and a three foot spork lashed onto the forarm of their best hand. They're starving and desperately trying to reach their mouths with their sporks (that's a spoon with fork tines, btw), but it's impossible.

"I guess in heaven they got their arms free, huh?" he asks his guiding angel.

"Nope," says the angel. "But to them it's a grand game--because they're feeding one another."

That's the difference between seeking pleasure without regard for righteousness (pure hedonism), and seeking pleasure in righteousness.

(Thus, as in the beatitude: "Happy are those who hunger and thirst for fair-togetherness; for they shall be filled!")

That's also why we're supposed to seek first after the righteousness of God; and then all other things will be added to that.


James M. Jensen II said...

@Anonymous 8:14

Replace "hedonistic" with "eudaimonic" and I'd agree. But there's a world of difference between pursuing pleasure and pursuing happiness conceived of as the pleasure of practiced virtue.

I also like the Lewis quote Rasmus gave.

Victor Reppert said...

Clayton: Victor,Is slashing your wrists a way of changing the past and preventing your own birth?

Victor: No, but it puts a stop to the misery. Though, actually, if you can prevent more births by staying alive, you might have an altruistic reason for sticking around, even though the suicide would probably be the best choice from an egoistic standpoint.

Victor Reppert said...

But that's collective wrist-slashing, as opposed to individual wrist-slashing.

Clayton Littlejohn said...

I know your post was probably intended in jest, but a key assumption in Benatar's argument is that there's an asymmetry between the harms that someone suffers post-creation and the benefits, which is that you don't benefit by creating but you do benefit by harming. That asymmetry doesn't apply to existing persons, so the suicide/non-creation parallel doesn't really hold up.

There's a second sort of argument in the book that might give a kind of justification for committing suicide, but Benetar offers some reasons for rejecting the view that it is imprudent not to check out early.