Absurdity Slider

No, it’s not a small, tasty, metaphysical snack.  It’s a review of a review — big time-saver! — and a digression into the meaning of life.  The slider is explained below.  (Look!  A teaser!)

I minored in philosophy.  At Swarthmore.  You’d think this would have trained me to overthink almost anything.  And honestly, I can overthink important things like the font in my email or whether to get the 90 Shilling or the 1554.  But I recently* read a review in the New Yorker of a book that I think may represent the gold standard in overthinking: David Benatar’s “Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence.”  The thesis: since it’s worse to suffer pain than to forego pleasure and since — in the words of the reviewer, “[e]ven the best of all possible lives consists of a mixture of pleasure and pain” — it is better never to have been born.

Yes, you read that correctly.  As the review notes:

The volume is dedicated to his parents, “even though they brought me into existence,” and to his brothers, “each of whose existence, although a harm to him, is a great benefit to the rest of us.”  (It’s fun to imagine what family reunions with the Benatars are like.)

But I think I’ve found the Rosetta Stone of disability discrimination.  As the reviewer explains it:

Benatar’s case rests on a critical but, in his view, unappreciated asymmetry. Consider two couples, the A’s and the B’s .  The A’s are young, healthy, and rich. If they had children, they could give them the best of everything — schools, clothes, electronic gaming devices. Even so, we would not say that the A’s have a moral obligation to reproduce.

The B’s are just as young and rich. But both have a genetic disease, and, were they to have a child together, that child would suffer terribly. We would say, using Benatar’s logic, that the B ‘s have an ethical obligation not to procreate.

They have a WHAT?

The case of the A’s and the B’s shows that we regard pleasure and pain differently. Pleasure missed out on by the nonexistent doesn’t count as a harm. Yet suffering avoided counts as a good, even when the recipient is a nonexistent one.

And what holds for the A’s and the B’s is basically true for everyone. Even the best of all possible lives consists of a mixture of pleasure and pain. Had the pleasure been forgone — that is, had the life never been created — no one would have been the worse for it. But the world is worse off because of the suffering brought needlessly into it.

Is this guy an android?  Everyone suffers at some point.  In fact, how does life have any meaning without suffering?  Hell, without pain, how do you learn basic things like not to touch a hot stove and not to listen to the Beach Boys?  I suppose if you never existed, you wouldn’t have to go through any bothersome learning processes.  But then, what’s the point?  I guess that is his point.

“One of the implications of my argument is that a life filled with good and containing only the most minute quantity of bad — a life of utter bliss adulterated only by the pain of a single pin-prick — is worse than no life at all,” Benatar writes.

He acknowledges that many readers will have difficulty accepting such a “deeply unsettling claim.” They will say that they consider their own existence to be a blessing, and that the same goes for their children’s. But they’re only kidding themselves.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is not The Onion and as near as I can tell, this dude expects his theory to be taken seriously.  On one level, it merits only derision.  Or this year’s Hitchhiker’s Guide Philosophy Award, an award I just started for philosophical arguments that measure up to my favorite ever, from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, explaining the existence of the Babel Fish:

Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindboggingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as the final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.

The argument goes something like this:

`I refuse to prove that I exist,’ says God, `for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.’

`But,’ says Man, `The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.’

`Oh dear,’ says God, `I hadn’t thought of that,’ and promptly vanished in a puff of logic.

`Oh, that was easy,’ says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.

But on another level, the concept that it is better to avoid all pain than to experience any pleasure explains disabiliphobia.  It explains why the non-disabled world regularly projects on to people with disabilities a far lower quality of life than the latter actually experience.  This, in turn, leads non-disabled windbags like Peter Singer to opine that it is better for infants with disabilities not to be born or to be killed in infancy.  Benatar’s theory is simply the apotheosis of Singer’s: If it’s better not to be born than to be born with quadriplegia, where do we draw the line?  Better not to be born than to be born and later in life get the sniffles.  Perhaps it’s helpful to imagine this scale as a slider of the type I’m just now learning to use in Lightroom.  We’ll call it the Absurdity Slider:

The Absurdity Slider


Benatar took the Absurdity Slider and dragged it all the way to the right — up to 11 — where not only is it best to euthanize disabled infants, but it’s best that none of us ever have been born.

Given the highly accurate “that’s bullshit!” response most people will have to Benatar’s theory, I think he’s done us a service in placing Singer’s arguments along this all-important scale.  If only I had control of the actual slider.  Any coders out there want to help me develop a working Absurdity Slider, one that could tone down the absurdity in an argument the way you adjust the contrast in a digital photo?

*************

* Yes it was in the April 9 New Yorker, but it is true that I only recently read it, as I have just now reached that archeological layer in the New Yorker pile next to my comfy chair.

  1. July 26, 2012 at 11:01 am

    Hey! Lay off the Beach Boys! They were a formative part of my junior high experience!

    But how can we take this “philosophical” argument at all seriously? Who does it benefit? Anybody who can read it is already here, so it’s too late for them. Maaaaaaybe (the drawn-out vowels indicate skepticism) it could be construed as an argument for the ethics of suicide? Death with dignity? If I were Ma Benatar, I’d be hustling his rear end into a evaluation for depression and suicidal ideation. If he came out clean, then I’d smack that same rear end for his obvious trolling (and bid for attention).

    I agree with you–it is deeply insulting, especially as applied to disability, as you have done.

    Is there any good news? Possibly, if you consider that in the months since the New Yorker article, that book has made NO impact on the cultural conversation, and nobody else has championed it in any way.

  2. Joe Spivack
    July 26, 2012 at 11:22 am

    I don’t think you covered the entire Absurdity Scale – you left out the entire range of people who say (or act on) such things as, “Because you were not born a _____ (insert religious or ethnic group), it’s OK for me to kill you” or “Because you were born a ______, I have the obligation to kill you.”

  3. July 26, 2012 at 11:32 am

    Joe – You’re right, of course. Those arguments are waaaaaay out at the extreme end of the absurdity scale. But — to Joe & Amy — what blows my mind is that we acknowledge that Benatar is absurd and that genocidaires are absurd, evil, and dangerous, but we give Peter Singer a perch at Princeton to philosophize that it’s OK to kill disabled infants. It is this contrast that makes me simultaneously eye-poppingly furious and head-smashingly bewildered. If he philosophized that it was ok to kill people who were born _______ (insert religious or ethic group), I doubt he’d be taken seriously as a radio host, much less a Princeton professor.

  4. AJ
    July 27, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    I love your blog, Amy. Don’t know if you ran across it in college, but in the 19th Century the Brazilian author Machado de Asis wrote an astonishingly modern novel called something like “Las Memorias Posthumas de Braz Cubas” — but generally translated under the title “Epitaph of a Small Winner” — in which he completely and hilariously skewered precisely the same “philosophy” espoused by the hockey puck Benatar. (The narrator having been a “small winner” because at least he did not bring any children into this miserable world).

  5. July 27, 2012 at 4:18 pm

    AJ – We must have skipped that in my 19th Century Brazilian Lit class. Are you kidding!? The future ADAAG nerd was too busy pondering the philosophy of mathematics to actually read anything.

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