“Bebé Incubadora” by Netito777 licensed under CC by 3.0, 2.5, 2.0, and 1.0.

Existence vs Non-existence: Is One Better Than The Other?

Existence vs. Non-existence. That is the question.

David Benatar’s chapter “Why Coming Into Existence is Always a Harm” from his book Better Never To Have Been (2006) is a delightfully clever way of addressing this question. It challenges our intuitions and escapes our initial objections.1 But upon reflection, I find myself unconvinced. Here’s why: the argument relies on the assumption that existence and non-existence are commensurable. In other words, Benatar’s argument requires us to countenance the possibility that non-existent states of affairs can be better off or worse off than existing states of affairs. In what follows, I will explain why I find this unsatisfactory. But before I do that, I will need to say a bit about Benatar’s argument.

1.  Benetar’s Argument

Benatar frequently uses a table to show various comparisons between existence and non-existence. His favored table looks like the one below.

 This table sets the stage for Benatar’s conclusion that never existing is a better state of affairs than existing. It seems patent however that non-existence entails more than a mere absence of pain or pleasure; it entails a lack of qualitative value altogether. This means that nothing qualitative can be said about Scenario B, and nothing with qualitative value can be compared (qualitatively) with Scenario B. So Benatar’s table has at least one error: assigning qualitative value to non-existence.

2.  Here’s The Thing About Non-existence…

At one point in his chapter, Benatar describes pleasures and pains as having values that are either greater than, less than, or no greater/less than one another. In this same section, he poses the possibility of appraising the value of non-existence as nil, zero, nada, …you get the idea (Benatar, 44). He says this move has a problem: it does not agree with his inaugural table. I propose that there is a more pressing problem: non-existence has no qualitative value. It is not even a zero value; it is non-value. So the table I propose looks more like this.

This seems to be a more accurate and reasonable account of non-existence. And if this is how we should conceptualize non-existence, then we should not be able to make the comparison that Benatar needs to make in order to draw his conclusion.

3.  Let’s Get More Precise

But perhaps I have not made a sufficient case for true non-existence. To help with this, we can appeal to quantified logic. Imagine trying to compose Benatar’s proposition in logic-ese. It would go something like this:

There exists an  X and a Y such that X does not exist and Y does exist, and X is better off than Y.

Notice the contradiction? (It’s underlined.)

Here we have only one proposition and we seem to have encountered a contradiction. That’s a bad sign.

Now, it might be that this proposition can be saved via some elaborate proof. If such a proof manifested, then my argument would no doubt be less severe. However, the argument that Benatar puts forth is not such a proof.

4.  Benetar’s Disclaimer

To be fair to Benatar I should include his disclaimer. He told us that when we are comparing existence with non-existence, we are not comparing two conditions of a single person. Instead, we are “[comparing] his existence with an alternative state of affairs in which he does not exist” (Benatar, 22).

Though this might seem like a clever work-around, Benatar’s state of affairs model will still have to deal with a proposition like “a state of affairs S in which some X exists and X does not exist.” It is clear that I do not take Benatar to have dealt satisfactorily with this proposition.

5.  Does Benetar’s Comparison Support The Conclusion?

Before moving on to the next point, I will give an example of a true attempt to compare existence and non-existence and demonstrate its inability to produce Benatar’s conclusions. Rather than completely reinvent material, we can reuse some of Benatar’s material.

Imagine two people: S (Sick) and H (Healthy). S has a severe chronic illness and H is a spitting image of health. Now imagine that both S and H do not exist. Are they more healthy or less healthy by not existing?

This question will strike many as wrong-headed, and rightly so. The reason is that it demands an impossible comparison: that between the quality of health of existing persons and the non-quality of true non-existence. Since my example is more apt than Benatar’s example—in virtue of the fact that it actually compares existence and true non-existence—and it does not support Benatar’s conclusion, we can feel comfortable not adopting the conclusions that Benatar draws from his example.

6.  A Closer Look At Benetar’s Words

So how did Benatar’s argument ever get off the ground? We might claim that it never did. This is my position.

Still, to many it will seem that it did get off the ground. This seeming might be a result of the fact that Benatar never really compares existence with true non-existence; he compares it with counterfactual existence. This is apparent in his language throughout the chapter:

“…we understand the claim that somebody would have been better off not coming into existence as the assertion that that being’s never existing would have been preferable” (Benatar, 26).

A grammatical examination of this sentence reveals that Benatar is trying to talk about a being that possesses the quality of not existing. If such a concept if even conceivable, then it is surely not the concept of true non-existence.

“…one harms somebody by bringing him into existence if his existence is such that never bringing him into existence would have been preferable” (Benatar, 28).

In this case, non-existence has some quality that makes it preferable to some other possible quality. But true non-existence does not have quality, so Benatar is still not talking about true non-existence.

“…pain, disappointment, anxiety, grief, and death….None of this befalls the non-existent (Benatar, 29).

In this sentence Benatar mentions “the non-existent” as if it is a set of stuff that exists in one way or another—after all, he gives it a rigid designator. We can deduce this from his sentence by looking at how Benatar tries to draw attention to the fact that certain things cannot befall this set. If he was talking about true non-existence, there would be no stuff (or set of stuff) to be the victim of anything, and his statement would be platitudinous. Here too then we cannot take Benatar to be talking about true non-existence.

“…with reference to the potential interests of a person who either does or does not exist” (Benatar, 30).

Benatar takes persons who either do or do not exist to have potential interests. This implies that it is possible, with the help of other premises, to say that persons who do not exist have potential interests. So this too is not true non-existence he is talking about.

“[the claim that the absence of pain is good] says that this absence is good when judged in terms of the interests of the person who would otherwise have existed. We may not know who that person would have been, but we can still say that whoever that person would have been, the avoidance of his or her pains is good when judged in terms of his or her interests. If there is any (obviously loose) sense in which the absent pain is good for the person who could have existed but does not, this is it” (Benatar, 31).

7.  The Problem: A Suspicious Assumption

Benatar alleges that the interests and persons that “would have been” should serve as a proxies for non-existent persons and non-existent interests. If this argument is conceivable, then we might take Benatar as actually talking about true non-existence. However, even if this argument is conceivable, we are entirely without reason to accept its reliance on yet another suspecious claim:

Benetar’s assumption: there exists a qualitatively commensurable relationship between counterfactual existence and non-existence.

So we see clearly that Benatar is not actually making the comparison he needs to be making (despite his assurance in footnote 22 that he is). And if he was making the proper comparison, then his conclusions would not follow. This second point becomes transparent when we translate one of his alleged comparisons into a comparison between existence and true non-existence:

[the claim that the absence of pain is good] says that this absence is good when judged in terms of [nothing]. We may not know [nothing], but we can still say that [nothing] is good when judged in terms of [nothing]. If there is any (obviously loose) sense in which [nothing] is good for [nothing], this is it (translated from Benetar, 31).

If we do this type of translating on Benatar’s comparisons, then we find that his conclusions do not follow (and Benatar’s table will look more like figure 1.2). One might be tempted to criticize Benatar for not being more careful about this, but I think we might also admire his impressively careful wording and clever use of the conditional tense, which make his otherwise unconvincing argument seem convincing.

8.  One More Attempt To Save Benetar’s Argument

At this point I have shown what a proper qualitative comparison between existence and true non-existence would look like—namely, a non-comparison. We have also shown how Benatar has deviated from what is proper. This brings us to a final plea for Benatar’s conclusion.

One might respond to this paper by saying, “Listen, maybe Benatar’s comparisons are good enough. Perhaps counterfactual existence is close enough to non-existence to make his argument work.”

This is another argument which might seem to do some work at first glance, but it loses its force when we try to answer the following question: from where do people “come into” existence? We do not come into existence from counterfactual existence. If existent people cross existential barriers on their way to existence, then it would be the barrier between true non-existence and existence.2 To say otherwise would be to commit to a bizarre dualism about personal identity that would rival the most primitive and otherworldly metaphysical theses. Though some people might be willing to believe in such a dualism, I imagine they would amount to a small minority in the philosophical community. And although beliefs are not falsifiable in virtue of their being held by a mere minority, they can be shown thusly to lack overall appeal.

9.  Recap

At this point we have reviewed the proper relationship between existence and non-existence, shown how Benatar deviates from this propriety, and shown how an attempt to rescue Benatar will fail. So, on the proper view, when we are wondering about whether it is better not to exist (than to exist), then our most prudent response might be to stop wondering. Without a meaningful comparison between the two, there is simply no way to adjudicate.3

 

Image credit: “Bebé Incubadora” by Netito777 licensed under CC by 3.0, 2.5, 2.0, and 1.0

 


  1. See also Pitcher, George. “The Misfortunes of the Dead.” Amer. Phil. Quarterly. Vol. 21 No. 2 1984, 183-188.
  2. Benatar hedges himself from this issue by espousing a gradualist view of coming into existence, morally speaking (Benatar, 26). He says that there is no point that could be described as the “stage ‘just after one comes into existence’” (ibid.), but he does not tell us where he thinks people come into existence from. His silence on this point might also contribute to the seeming that comparisons between existence and counterfactual existence is ‘good enough’ for his argument.
  3. As always, I concede that I might have erred somewhere in the post, so I welcome feedback and objections. Also, I welcome your suggestions for further reading.

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. When he is not teaching, in the lab, writing, exercising, or relaxing, he is blogging at www.byrdnick.com/blog

7 thoughts on “Existence vs Non-existence: Is One Better Than The Other?”

  1. Hello,

    I like your post. It’s hard to find others that talk about Benatar and his ideas. I understand your qualms about whether we can talk about non-existence effectively. However, couldn’t we look at ordinary language and ordinary circumstances where non-existence is preferable? I’ll give three examples that I notice around me. Please note that I don’t necessarily agree with these propositions, but that they could give an example where non-existence is preferable.

    1. In the 1960s, there was a fear that a nuclear war could happen. There have been many people who didn’t want to bring children into the world because of this impending doom. Thus, these people decided not to have children because the alternative would’ve been worse. Thus, these people implicitly thought that non-existence was preferable to those who never were.

    2. Many American conservatives tout the idea that we need to work on our economics and budget, or “our future grandchildren are going to be paying for it.” This implies that future generations would be in pain, and burdened if they were born. If the economy doesn’t pick up—according to these people—then it may be so disastrous that perhaps not being born may be preferable. Now, this is an extreme example, but I could imagine a situation where the world is in dire circumstances that brining more people into the world is disastrous.

    3. Many environmentally conscious people tout that if we don’t do something about global warming, then the world will be worse off. Indeed, some suggest that it’s too late and that future generations will be suffering already. Thus, if it does get worse, perhaps it’s best not to bring more people into the world because of the future world.

    Let me add another. Most eastern religions, specifically Buddhism suggest that all of life is suffering, and that the goal of life is to get off the wheel of life. Thus, non-existence seems to be preferable in that case. Note: I could be totally misrepresenting Buddhism, but I hope that the overall picture is presented.

    Anyways, these are my thoughts, what do you think?

    1. Shaun. Thank you for your comment. I read some of your posts on Benetar in preparing this post. I appreciated being able to find someone else’s thoughts on the matter.

      I am currently in a season of non-stop business but I will have a break in the next week or so, and I hope to respond to these comments during that time—they are worthy of a response!

      All the best,
      Nick

    2. Shaun: I finally have some time to respond.

      I appreciate that cases 1-3 and the Buddhism case are real-world examples. In preparing this post, I came across numerous thought experiments that were rather unbelievable.

      Still, I am not inclined to say, about any of the cases, that it would be “preferable” not to exist. Further I have no inclination to say that, all things considered, coming into existence in any of the proposed cases is bad. I am perfectly comfortable saying that the quality of existence of future people in each of your cases might not be very good, or it could even be bad. Moreover, I am also (less than perfectly) comfortable saying that the quality of existence of future people is worse than the quality of existence of existing people.

      However, I struggle to conceive of a qualitative comparison between existence and non-existence. You say, “…couldn’t we look at ordinary language and ordinary circumstances where non-existence is preferable?”

      After looking at ordinary language I do not understand how non-existence could be preferable to existence. The furthest I get in judging these cases is that the quality of existence of future people is (a) so minimally good (or even bad) as to not provide enough motivation to bring someone into existence or (b) so comparatively worse than current existence, that we would feel badly for those who will exist in the future in virtue of their life being worse than ours.

      I realize my response is a bit stubborn, but I honestly cannot conceive of how to make a meaningful qualitative comparison between existence and non-existence, whether I am thinking about ordinary cases like yours or the bizarre ones I find in others’ work. I still find no way to make the judgment Benetar needs to make to get his conclusion.

      1. What if scenario A exists:present pain/bad negative-value is scenario B (x never exists):absent pain/bad negative-value.

  2. Due to having experienced undesirable qualia for the majority of my life, I wish that I had never been born at all. I have chosen not to reproduce based on the chance that, were I to have a child, one day he/she may be able to claim the same thing about his/her own life. If a person exists, then there is a chance that he/she may feel something undesirable. If a person does not exist, then that chance is mollified. I would prefer a state of nothingness, having no qualities or characteristics whatsoever, than to live my life. Spoken from the perspective of the living, the concept is perfectly tractable. It cannot be considered from the perspective of a non-existent thing because there is no perspective to consider. So drop the right side of the chart with non-existence. The left side still remains, where there is a chance of something “bad” happening to anyone who exists. The threshold of the amount of “bad” experienced before nothingness would be preferable to existence is unique to each person. In any situation involving a potential person coming into existence, there is a chance that the potential person could have a low tolerance, and therefore prefer non-existence. So for the love of god, don’t bring another soul into this world unless you can guarantee that the potential person will not have unfavorable experiences beyond the threshold of tolerance.

    1. Hi Matt,

      First of all, I can relate to your experience — depending on the day, at least.

      Second, someone might respond to you (and me, depending on the day) by pointing out that the demand for a guarantee is too high. In reality, we can deal only in probabilities. So we usually demand — at most — only a preponderance of evidence. So why not demand just a preponderance of evidence? I.e., perhaps we should only demand that the requirement for having a child is that it be more likely than not that the child will not have unfavorable experiences. Thoughts?

      Third, it would seem that the probability that a potential person will not have unfavorable experiences is an empirical question. If that is right, then it would seem that it would require empirical investigation to make any decision about having a child. But it’s not clear how, in practice, this investigation would proceed. After all, we have trouble predicting the quality of extant people’s experiences — see, for example, the conflicting evidence about the hedonic treadmill effect. Surely it would be even more difficult to predict non-existent people’s experiences. And if this is right, then it might not even be possible to estimate the probability of a potential person having unfavorable experiences — let alone provide a guarantee. So I wonder if the demand for any evidence/prediction/guarantee is a non-starter.

      I wish you well!

      Nick

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