Thursday, June 10, 2010


There are moments we all have, I think, that we do more than collapse our face in to the palm of one of our hands and think to ourselves, "Oh, good God!". We might encounter something so grossly stupid that, in our mind's eye, our brain now rests in the palms of our hands, and we whisper to ourselves, "There, there. It's OK, really."

Such just happened as I read Peter Singer's review of South African philosopher David Benatar's Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. In all honesty, I'm not sure which is more stupid, the very existence of a book arguing that existence itself is a morally negative choice, or a review which takes the view seriously enough to draw up a counter-argument.

This is the kind of thing that gives philosophy a bad name. Really. I have nothing against this kind of thing in a graduate seminar; to publish it, to offer an argument that, precisely because existence involves suffering to some degree or another, non-existence is actually a better moral choice than existence is just, well, silly.

While it is true that there are those, many perhaps, whose existence involves extensive suffering - consider children born with extremely debilitating disorders, such as anencephalia, or even something like spina bifida. Or a child born HIV+. Or a child born in to a family, community, or whole nation defined by desperate poverty. Does "suffering" define the entirety of their existence? I cannot imagine that it does. There are, to be sure, those who choose to define their lives that way. Such may even be the case.

Yet, they do, indeed exist. Whether it's a child born with a rare condition in which their brain develops outside their skulls, or a young man who was once active and athletic who suffers a traumatic injury leaving him a quadriplegic, or a woman raised in a home filled with domestic violence who grows up and continues the cycle by marrying an abusive man, subjecting yet another generation to the cycle of violence - these cases (some, admittedly, more common than others) do not negate the simple fact, because these people exist they should be the center of our ethical concern. Rather than figuring out how to argue that it would have been preferable they never existed at all - the George Bailey Syndrome - we should be figuring out how to alleviate their suffering. That and that alone should be the focus of our ethical concern.

Virtual Tin Cup

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