Ok. So while picking up bits and pieces of what was left from my mind-blown brain, I’ll use this opportunity to reconstitute some thoughts along the way.
First, reading this book is like eating that stupid spicy Samyang noodle shit. You can’t help but dare yourself but it’s all pain while doing it. You kind of question if the whole thing was worthwhile afterwards, but also get quite satisfied once it’s over.
All in all the book is very tightly argued. The noodles are firm and it’s not entirely devoid of flavor. There is sweetness, except for when the author strings double, triple, sometimes even quadruple negative assertions in one sentence. That’s when your head starts spinning and you can’t help but suspect that you are being taken for a ride.
The crux of his argument is this: It may not be good if a hypothetical person who otherwise would have had pleasure had never been born, but because the hypothetical person, not having been born and never to be, is a non-identity anyway, no one is actually being deprived of anything, so it is not so bad either.
However, the same cannot be said of a hypothetical person who otherwise would have had experienced pain but had not been born and never will be, because were this person to exist, it would definitely be bad for the person, and thus sparing such pain is not only not bad, it is also definitely good (even if, technically, no one is also actually spared of anything).
He calls the whole shebang the asymmetry of pain and pleasure. Basically, in Benatar’s moral scale, alleviation of pain weighs more than deprivation of pleasure. And then he goes on about how since every life will definitely experience some pain, it is better never to have been for everybody.
The book is then a catalog of conclusions he drew from this asymmetry and explorations of their implications to usual subjects of small talk – i.e. disability rights, abortion, population control, human extinction, suicide, death – very comfortable topics people are keen to think about. Not.
The brilliant thing about Benatar, in my opinion, is his insistence, supported by really clever argumentation, that his approach to all these is not misanthropic but philanthropic. I literally had a chuckle when he explained a way to view human extinction not as pessimistic, but optimistic. I’d like to rehash how he did it, but then I’d be parroting the book.
So, charms aside, do I agree? Well, I don’t really know. Perhaps the right question is whether I disagree. But then for me to do that not only do I have to logically refute his claims but also come up with some better explanation. Let’s just say that the pain of having to do that is not something I intend to inflict upon myself, so I’ll just admire the cleverness, and keep my conclusions up in the air.
Nevertheless, I do have feelings about the matter. I mean, is it weird that I’m thinking about Naruto the whole time I’m reading this book? It just strikes me as something someone like Pain or Sasuke would write, and to which he would reply,「そんな事言うな! 仲間があるから, 俺達は違う! お前, どういうことだってばよ!」
Perhaps there’s something there too, to the tune that this whole thing could be construed as just one particularly bitter aftertaste in the many possible distillations of Western individualism and its persistent dichotomization of pain and pleasure, wilting in opposition to Eastern collectivism and under a lens where experiences are viewed as a spectrum, thus encapsulating the whole debate inside a supervenience to sidestep the whole premise etc., but as I said, what do I know? These are just words to me. I can barely even read books. Benatar has references to everything.
All that being said, I’d say this book is a must read. It would also make for a very interesting engagement/wedding gift. I don’t suppose anybody can really acquiesce to mediocrity as a parent after reading this. Not for the easily offended nor the easily swayed, the strongly opinionated nor the faint of heart.
So, yeah. Finally. After a decade in my to-read list, I can cross this one out. Shoutout to Richard Stallman’s blog, where I first learned about this book long ago. Also, Tom Rosenthal’s Little Big Mistakes is apt.