Monday, January 30, 2012

Why Not Commit Suicide? (Part 1)

Last Updated April 3, 2013


The reason not to commit suicide is based on both grief study research and the view that the rights of the individual sometimes are inferior to the rights of others. This is so when, in the process of the individual reducing or eliminating their own suffering (or pursuing their own wants), he or she creates more suffering for others, or even one single other individual, without any compensatory gains for either the one who suffers more or for the greater society itself (so long as the individual's suffering is not considered a harbinger of a potential menace to all other members of society, especially human rights violations). 

 Aside from “Physician-assisted” situations, suicide causes for friends and family greater anguish and psychological problems than does the same person's natural death.  To call this an excuse or a cop-out is to imply that we should disregard the negative effects our acts can impose onto others. This would create ethical problems in many respects, often well beyond the antinatalism issue.    

Fundamentally, we all have a duty to both not cause and to prevent bad occurrences from happening to others - especially those that are pointless, unnecessary, avoidable, nonproductive, and offer nothing of sufficiently compensatory value to others in return for the said suffering(s).  To deny this is to effectively say that even the most egregious wrongdoings do not matter, which ultimately undermines the core point for having any kind of rules, laws, and ethics in the first place.

First, disregarding trauma and anguish of the scale created by a close one’s suicide allows anitnatalists to disregard lesser but still great negative effects on others with regard to other acts, even those which practically all people and societies oppose.   

Second, permitting antinatalists to disregard the fundamental well-being of family and friends in the name of following their own beliefs out to the supposed "logical conclusion” allows subscribers to many, if not most, other points of view to likewise disregard the fundamental well-being of others when deciding to act on the supposed logical conclusion of their own views.   

Third, assuming we should not allow nepotism to influence any moral or ethical issue, disregarding the well-being of family and friends exactly equates to doing likewise for others’ well-being, and even that of society in general.  

Fourth, due to the above, asserting people may (or ought to) disregard such traumas in others in the name of following their beliefs or lifestyles also severely undermines, if not outright eliminates, the ultimate basis for most, if not all, laws, ethics, moral codes, etc.; given that laws, morals, etc.  ultimately are also largely, if not entirely, based on suffering prevention.

Fifth, even if despite all the above one still insists antinatalism’s logical conclusion is suicide, the fact remains that practically all people refuse to follow out even cherished systems like democracy and competition to their logical conclusion (i.e. rigidly following "majority makes the rules" and "unfettered struggles against rivals results in superior outcomes"), namely to protect the well-being of others and even society as a whole (specifically by introducing "impurities" into democracy and competition that protect the minority and/or the losers of a competition from the tyrrany of the majority and/or strong). Therefore, it is a form of special pleading to insist antinatalists disregard the negative effects that suicide would impose others yet at the same time oppose any insistence that both democracy and competion be followed to their logical conclusion due to the negative effects that unfettered forms of both democracy and competition would impose on others.
Suicide’s failure rate is actually quite high, as discussed by suicide expert Thomas Joiner of Florida State University.  In fact, often the very power of the in-born survival instinct instills a built in risk of a botched attempt, often leaving the committer even worse off than before.  This would create more pointless, unnecessary, and non-productive suffering that serves no higher purpose, for both the attempter, the close ones.
Last but not least, history shows that not only does suicide do nothing to advance any view outside society’s mainstream, it is more likely to cause society to dismiss it even more readily.  Only suicides committed in the name of advancing a cause or issue position already widely embraced by the mainstream have any meaningful chance of inspiring substantive changes in society.


This is probably the most common initial reaction to antinatalism when a person first hears about it.  To be fair, it is not always a “cheap shot” response, even if the question is often asked in that spirit.    As such, this question deserves serious treatment.

So, antinatalists, why not kill yourselves?  As just mentioned, there are two ways to interpret it: (a) an expression of reactive personal distaste toward antinatalism, or (b) believing it is contradictory to think new life not worth creating yet also say life is worth continuing. 

The first interpretation needs no in-depth response, for it is obviously just the result of petty personal distaste, as opposed to being a product of the rational thought process; no more substantive than a six-year-old spitefully spitting out spinach, then claiming that spinach is a terrible food because he and others like him say so. The latter interpretation, though, does deserve serious treatment.   

To fully understand the philanthropic antinatalism position on this issue, it must be kept in mind that philanthropic antinatalism is sourced in the following ethics:   net suffering prevention and net suffering alleviation. Together, these can be called The Least Net Suffering Principle, the principle that people should keep net suffering to the greatest reasonable minimum.  Net suffering is when the totality of suffering endured outweighs the totaility of benefits received from the state of afffairs.   Debates do happen about what constitutes a reasonable minimum, but the principle itself seems on very safe ethical ground. These will be discussed in more detail in a later post. For now, it is enough to say these are the prime drivers behind philanthropic antinatalism.  These ethical principles have significant implications for the suicide argument, especially when considering how one's action affects others - which in fact is the very basis of the philanthropic arguments against childbirth. From here, it inevitably enters into the issue of individual vs. group, and even societal rights; which has yet to be fully settled, if ever it will be. 

Some claim that it is illogical for an antinatalist to refuse suicide out of concern for the well-being of family and friends (even if especially only one); for it imples that the feelings and/or general well-being of the individual is less important than that of others.  That could - but not necessarily be - plausible only in three cases:

(1) All parties, antinatalists and all his or her family and friends, were suffering equally before the suicide,
(2) The agony negated by the antinatalist is greater than the agony created in the antinatalist's friends and family as a result of the antinatalist's suicide (rarely, if ever, the case outside serious health or disability issues like agonizingly painful illnesses/conditions, severe physical disability, untreatable major mental illness, etc. that are usually the reasons given by supporters of physician-assisted suicide)
(3) The antinatalist were abusive toward them, or even to non-family acquaintainces.

If none of these above the case, it is hard to see how an antinatalist should, or even be supported, in any efforts they may take toward suicide. 

Another claim also made about philanthropic antinatalism is that the individual's rights always supercedes those of others. This claim is outright false. Indeed, as shown throughout this post, it is ultimately incompatible with philanthropic antinatalism. After all, that claim implies we should all should disregard even the greatest net suffering of others when pursuing our own interests.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to see how this assumption can escape moral nihilism; which in turn would invalidate the Least Net Suffering principle (a moral value) and hence flies in the face of at least philanthropic antinatalism.

It seems hard to disagree that the method through which an individual gains of a good or reduces a bad (i.e. increse in well-being or decrease in net suffering) would be unethical if that method directly (or near-indirectly) results in another person experiencing an even greater loss of a needed good or greater increase of a bad than which the individual gained their own good or reduced their own bad.  For example, in most cases, a married person's net gain from an extramarital afffair with someone more attractive than their spouse is likely to be good for that person, yet just as likely to produce a net loss in their spouse.  In other words, the good gained for one partner is less than the bad imposed onto the other partner. Therefore, cheating is generally immoral, even assuming the cheating spouse never feels guilt about the affair, and likewise never feels bad about any resultant divorce.

By contrast, a husband may well choose to spend his twentieth wedding anniversary with his wife, which happens to fall on a weekend. However he could only do so by sacrificing his once-a-year weekend fishing trip with close his close male friends to distant mountains six hours away.  Practically the same principle would apply to spending a similar such weekend at home to be with his daughter at her eighth birthday party. Assuming his family is reasonably healthy and functional, in both cases the husband's losses are more than made up for by the gains his other family members will have as a result of his presence with them, even if the husband does hide mild disappointment at his absence from the fishing trip.  All three examples immediately discussed seem to show we do indeed have a duty to prevent both pointless harm in others, which extends to net suffering in others in general so long as our own current or likely future net suffering does not that of others.

With suicide the situation is more complex because it involves an event that is inevitable for for all of us anyway, death. Though even natural deaths usually cause significant grief and suffering for friends and family, it is still a mistake to simply assume that earlier-than-otherwise deaths generate the same level of grief as does natural death after a long life. As further explained later, suicide causes additional layers of grief for friends and family that simply do not exist in the case of natural death, or perhaps even with a loved one's deliberate murder. As argued below, this extra level of suffering and grief is so great that the suffering elimination of the suicide can easily be exceeded by far by the grief of other family and friends, or even merely one single such person.  This makes suicide, at best, of questionable ethicity, namely dependent on how intensely others (even if just one other person) grieve and suffer would grieve at person's suicide relative to the grief and suffering of the suicidal person while they were alive.

The reasons one can legitimately refuse to commit suicide are as follows:

(a) It overlooks  suffering of family and friends in the event of a suicide attempt (successful or not)

(b) It implies that people ought to follow their beliefs to their ultimate conclusion, then act on those beliefs without any consideration for how and to what extent their actions hurt others.

(c) Suicide failure rate is quite high (at maximum, one of every six U.S. attempts succeed), often leaving the attempter worse off than before.

(d) Suicide does not accomplish anything to advance antinatalism, nor the suffering prevention cause in general (antinatalism-oriented or not).

The first two can go under another heading: Pointless harm, suffering, anguish, and pain are bad things.  Therefore we have a duty to not inflict such harms, sufferings, and anguishes onto others; lest we surrender our own right to not experience the same at the hands of others. 

Here, "Pointless" means

"insufficiently meets reasonable standards of 'necessary, productive, and/or compensatory for the person, the group and/or the society", or

"sufficiently compensatory for the same described";

is reasonably avoidable or mitigated against; or

above and beyond what is necessary or reasonable to prevent loss of well-being (physical or psychological), or to undertake actions vital to the reconstruction or legitimate enhancement for the said people or groups thereof, especially if the harm and/or suffering resulting from it fails to offer in return to the person, group, or society as a whole anything of sufficient value to compensate for the that harm and/or suffering.

For the sake of clarity, the term "pointless" will be shorthand for the above definition.  As will be shown in the discussion of point (a), suicide can indeed impose pointless suffering onto others, especially family friends and (to varying degrees) many acquaintainces.  In fact, suicide often causes more pointless harm to that person's friends and family (henceforth called "close ones") than would that person's natural death, or even other type of untimely involuntary death; perhaps even more so than even the loved one's murder.

This introduces two of perhaps most fundamental flaw in the critics' claims: the impled assumption that we have no duty to respect the emotional and psychological well-being of others when deciding whether we should act upon the logical conclusion of our world views. As said earlier, claiming we have no duty to consider other's well-being when deciding to take a course of action negates our own rights to likewise have our own well-being taken into account by others when they decide their own course of action.

Another difficulty lies in the fact that the less severe the net harm caused by our actions, the more likely that action is to be morally legitimate.  From here, it follows that if we have no duty to respect the well-being of close ones and others when even highly egregious harms would plausibly accrue to them, then it is difficult to see where any duty exists to prevent other harms of equal and especially lesser intensity. 

Indeed, if we had no duty to prevent pointless harms, sufferings, and pains to others, then it becomes difficult to see any point at all in establishing laws, morals, rules, and other codes of conduct - formal or informal.  After all, the whole purpose of having codes of conduct is to prevent pointless harm from occuring to fellow human beings.  If no duty to prevent that net harm exists in any way, then every action would be permissible regardless of how heinous its consequences for those who would suffer from the act's commission. In the context of this discussion, it certainly leaves little, if any, reason to refuse to commit actions that will likely generate less anguish than than a close one's (friend or family member) suicide would.

At this point, some will object that suicide is a private act that does not affect the greater society as a whole; and that favoritism toward close ones generates inconsistencies in the matter. The first objection misses another aspect of the issue, the second assumes that favortism does in fact exist in the argument.  To the first, it does not matter if the action produces trauma only in close ones. The point is that some people or group will be harmed as a result of another's gain (in this case, pain cessation via suicide). That gain is made at others expense (pointlesss pain and anguish resulting from the suicide). If if is permissible to achieve gains at such an expense for one group of people (close ones), then how can we justly oppose someone making an immensely great gain achieved at similar expense to others? For example, a businessman speeding recklessly through dense traffic who causes a pile-up yet not actually part of it, resulting in a serious injury to another - in order to meet a deadline to close a business deal netting $10 million for himself or his small group of investors.

As for the favoritism accusation, it does not work because if "in group" status does not matter, then one should treat all people the same way under the same circumstances, barring strong justification to do otherwise.  So insisting one perform an action likely create pointless grief and anguish for close ones means that one is also permitted to perform actions creating similar levels of grief for others.  Contrawise, if one should not cause great anguish to strangers and/or the wider society in general, then it is likewise impermissible to cause the same level of anguish to close ones. Put another way, if close ones ought not receive preferential treatment, then while one should not treat them as more privileged than the rest of society, it still does not follow they should receive less privileged treatment than the said rest of society. Indeed, in this context, to disregard close ones in favor of society simply because they are within your close social circle would be "reverse nepotism", which is every bit as unjust as traditionally-defined nepotism.

Therefore, we should not cause pointless harm to others even if that harm is completely limited to one's own social or familial circle. That includes suicide, which indeed is more likely to cause much greater pointless harm to close ones than would one's natural death, and even most unnatural deaths; even if the suicide him or herself does get the benefit of suffering cessation.

(a) It overlooks the anguish and general suffering of family, friends, and even some acquaintances due to the suicide.

While suicide would end an antinatalist's own sufferings, it does so at the expense of other's well-being.  Critics may say this is just a convenient excuse for the antinatalist to continue living, thus discrediting the claim that life is not worth living though still worth enduring.  However, this is too glib a dismissal, for the critics' charge implies that antinatalists ought to ignore how devastating one's suicide is for close ones and that any failed attempt would leave the attempter worse off than before, and other factors.  In effect, critics are asking philanthropic antinatalists, at least, to violate their own Least Suffering Principle.

Various researchers have consistently shown that suicide of a first degree relative or spouse does indeed affect family members more negatively than their natural death does.  A 2006 Dutch study indicates that, regarding the self-reported psychiatric and mental health of a suicide's first-degree relatives, the relatives whose loved ones died of suicide rated their own psychological and even physical health significantly lower than did the first-degree relatives of those who died a natural death.  The study showed that for every suicide, 2.067 such relatives of the suicide reported being in worse health (physical or mental) compared to 1.794 relatives of those dying a natural death.[1]  Furthermore, a Japanese study indicates that any "sudden death" but especially suicide produces a very distinctive level of profound grief and depression in surviving parents and spouses.[2]  To be sure, another study indicating no difference in depression, PTSD, and similar such conditions between relatives of a suicid and relatives of the naturally deceased, though even in this case the overall level of grief was less clear. Even so, this same study's abstract states,

 "Considering specific grief variables, suicide survivors report higher levels of rejection, shame, stigma, need for concealing the cause of death, and blaming than all other survivor groups."[3]

Also, a UK study revealed that surviving relatives also experienced high levels of grief, stigmatization, and shame compared to those whose loved ones died a natural death.[4]  In addition, a 2008 Australian thesis shows that a suicide's relatives and associates suffer feelings of "betrayal, abandonment, confusion, anger, blame, etc." in addition to the anguish felt by their premature demise.[5] That  same thesis's literature review indicated a large plethora of unique reactions to suicide that make it, to quote the title chapter, "a special case of grief"; including but by no means limited to social stigma and depression.[6]  Last but not least, the thesis cited a New South Wales Centre for Mental Health study showing a five-fold increase in suicide among the suicide's own family members.[7]

All this is strong evidence that suicide does in fact produce stronger negative effects for surviving close ones than would that same person's natural death.  Therefore, suicide clearly violates both the suffering prevention and suffering mitigation principles in most of their forms - barring very specific circumstances the great majority of people will not experience, at least not while in good health or physical condition.[8]  It does not matter that the antinatalist would no longer suffer after their suicide.  What matters is whether their successful suicidal act would create great pointless suffering for others .  Even an unsuccessful attempt is at least fairly likely to leave the attempter worse off than before. In the event of significant incapacitation as a result of the suicide, it diverts close one's attention, time, money, and efforts to caring for the attempter that could otherwise been devoted to that close one's own family and friends, or to more profitable or emotionally satisfying undertakings. 

Thus, if suicide is very likely to cause greater anguish for more people (especially first degree relatives) than natural death would, then antinatalists are being perfectly consistent within their Least Suffering Principle to refuse to commit suicide; particularly if on the grounds of the aforementioned negative impacts their suicide would have on their close ones. 

From all this, it follows that any implicitly suggestions by critics that philanthropic antinatalists should commit suicide is effectively asking the said antinatalist to be the very hypocrites their critics claim they are being by refusing to commit suicide.  This alone makes it rash to accuse antinatalists of hypocrisy in this regard.

As mentioned previously, another basic problem exists with suggesting antinatalists commit suicide in order to be purportedly consistent with their beliefs: it opens up a lot of ethical difficulties in other areas, even well outside the scope of the antinatalism debate. In particular, it opens the door to the legitimization of everyone disregarding the well-being or feelings of others when deciding whether or not to follow their own viewpoints, philosophies, etc. out to their own logical conclusion.  After all, if antinatalists ought to do so despite the negative impacts it has on others, then why not practitioners of every other viewpoint, school of thought, and philosophy?

(b) It permits, if not mandates, everyone to disregard the grief and suffering caused to others resulting from following their own beliefs out to their logical conclusion.

There are two aspects to the problem of disregarding the well-being of others when following actions out to their logical conclusion.

First, it seems to permit antinatalists themselves to commit other actions whose consequences are less harmful than suicide. If antinatalists should disregard even the severe anguish that their own suicide would generate in others, then why should they care care about lesser degrees of sufferings that would be generated in others by other acts?

Second, it allows all people, not just antinatalists, to disregarding the negative effects their acts would have for others as the result of following their own views, opinions, and even philosophies out to their logical conclusion. If antinatalists, in the name of following their view out to its logical conclusion, should disregard the traumatic effects of their actions on close ones, then why not practitioners of other belief systems? In either case, this legitimizes everyone disregarding the well-being of others in the name of acting upon the end conclusion of one's belief system. Such legitimization leads ultimately to either Moral Nihilism or something close to it.

It allows us to disregard the suffering of others if the suffering likely would be less severe than that of a close one's suicide.

If it is permissible for people to disregard emotional traumas and overall loss of well-being for others as acute as suicide is for family and friends, then how can we object to committing any act whose consequences for others is less hurtful than suicide is for family and friends? Examples of such acts against others are stealing $100 from a close relative's wallet or purse, committing a severe but non-lethal assault against a relative when angry at them (e.g. beer bottle to the face, crowbar to the leg), and unethical but still legally permissible dealings with others in business and/or legal matters (this can definitely cause great grief and embarrassment for loved ones and friends). Still more do they include hurtful or unjust activities usually not considered criminal behavior (outright abusive behavior, cutting insults, rudeness, even if they do not rise to the level of a tort). Should critics insist that these acts are permissible on the grounds that they cause less grief and anguish than suicide of a close relative or friend would be?

It does no good to claim that these are examples of acts against others. It is not a matter of the act itself, it is a matter of the <i>net suffering</i> of the victim. After all, if the act itself did not cause suffering, then it would be difficult to argue that it was morally indefensible. 

Nor does it do good to counter with the claim that society already deems the said acts outside the bounds of civilized behavior, for now we can ask what compels society to ban certain actions. This leads to the next section.

Society's Rationale for Laws, Rules, and Morals

All societies consider certain acts outside the bounds of civilized behavior precisely because they somehow inflict hurt and grief onto either others or to society as a whole. This includes the most heinous wrongdoings, ones reasonably expected to be more traumatic than a loved one's suicide (the said loved one committing murder, rape, child molestation, etc. - especially if against a member close one). It even includes all the unquestionably lesser offenses. Laws against these most hurtful acts exist in large part (if not completely) because of the consequent non-trivial emotional trauma and suffering for the victim, with the rest of the reasons based in the potential well-being of society as a whole. Were murder, rape, child molestation not hurtful or harmful acts in any way, then it would be difficult to see any point behind forbidding them - and hence even why society would bother forbidding these acts in the first place. Furthermore, were harms and hurts themselves not prone to cause pain and suffering in others, then it would be likewise difficult to see how they could be considered a bad thing by anyone - even the "victims" (quotes appropriate in this case, for if one cannot be hurt by the action then it is impossible to be a "victim" of it). The same framework also applies to deeper questions of justice in general. We seek to prevent injustice precisely because injustice hurts individuals and/or society in some manner and to some extent.

In reality, many harms and hurts - and by characteristic all injustices - can and do cause great and grievous pain and suffering. Thus, all these acts are bad, whether to the individual or to society as a whole (often both). Because certain bad things can cause egregious suffering in others, we have laws, rules, and other social admonishments against acts that cause such pointless  pain or suffering to and for others. This is especially true regarding acts that generate no sufficiently compensatory good desired by either the victim, family, social group, or greater society. Murder, rape, and child molestation certainly are such acts in all the described respects, and hence we consider them outside the bounds of permissible actions (in this case, far outside). Therefore, society does establish laws, rules, and moral values against such actions precisely because they cause pain, suffering, grief and anguish for other people.

The same essential reason for banning the most harmful crimes also applies to crimes less harmful and/or hurtful than even the (usually) non-crime of suicide, e.g. the less hurtful wrongdoings described previously. By the same token, it is difficult to see how society could consistently maintain laws against theft, physical attacks, certain unethical (i.e. hurtful) business practices, etc. if these acts did not cause pain and suffering for others. Ditto for moral and ethical admonishments against cheating on spouses, committing legally permissible but still unethical business practices, and many other acts that cause significant suffering not just to the victim but potentially to other members of society. How could we say these activities were immoral if these actions did not impose hurtful consequences onto others in a very fundamental way - all of which boil down to hurting to grievous extents others' peace of mind and/or significantly disrupt the smooth functioning of society as a whole?

Note: This is not to be construed as any support on my part for criminalizing suicide. While suicide does indeed cause greater anguish to close ones than do even many well-established crimes, it conventionally is not a great threat to fundamental public safety and it is usually the result of great mental anguish beyond the suicidal person's ability to control.  Thus it is an expression of a medical condition rather than a bona fide threat to others'.  Continuing...

So it is that justifications for any law, rule, or moral value will ultimately find their source in the desire to prevent suffering, pain, and other deprivations of others' peace of mind. Hence, the goal of preventing or mitigating against suffering, pain, etc (i.e. bad things) is a well-established moral value at all levels of all societies, whether via laws or social admonitions. Thus, prevention of suffering, pain, and other deprivations of other's peace of mind is a sound basis for morally (if not always legally) forbidding any action.

Hence, critics cannot merely appeal to society's say-so or definitions of justice prohibiting the relatively minor offenses (in terms of hurtfulness) while calling for antinatalists to commit suicide on the grounds that many in society sympathize with the latter. This is because, as discussed earlier, in the overwhelmingly vast majority of cases, a close relative's or friend's suicide causes much greater anguish and even harm to a person than would that relative's or friend's theft of $100 or assault with a blunt object. If the consequent pain and suffering is reason enough for society to forbid one from engaging in the relatively minor offenses, then the antinatalist can rightly refuse to commit suicide on the grounds of the consequent greater pain and suffering accompanying their suicide, even if one continues insisting that suicide is the strict logical conclusion of antinatalism.

Therefore the antinatalists are right to claim that giving moral permission to commit an action with highly traumatic consequences for others (suicide) gives all of us moral permission (even if not legal or societal) to commit acts with less traumatic consequences. To repeat, if one person is allowed to disregard others' well-being when following out their beliefs to their logical conclusion, then it is difficult to see why others ought not be permitted to do the same - at least not without undermining the very core reason society establishes laws, rules, and morals against certain actions in the first place. Thus the critics contradict themselves when they appeal to societal say-so to support their implicit claim that it is legitimate for the sake of logical consistency for one group to cause a greater suffering (even if the action causing it is not illegal) while insisting that another group not follow their claims out to their logical conclusion due to it causing a lesser anguish than suicide would, especially if the action causing the lesser anguish is forbidden by society and the critics themselves agree it should remain forbidden. It is not the society's say-so that makes something morally permissible or forbidden - it is whether the act causes unproductive and unnecessary anguish that does.

Therefore, it is safe to say that antinatalists can indeed appeal to the potential or actual violations of others peace of mind, physical security, dignity, and other non-trivial emotional disturbances resulting from certain actions (in this case, suicide) as legitimate grounds for calling a behavior improper or immoral, regardless of its legal status or societal say-so. This includes suicide carried out in the name of following out antinatalism to its alleged logical conclusion. While I do not put suicide in the category of behaviors that ought to receive criminal status, its devastating effects on others are indeed an excellent reason to consider it an inappropriate route for an antinatalist - or even a typical distressed person - to travel; except in extreme circumstances such as serious degradation of physical abilities or cognition.

All this shows that it is beside the point whether or not society prohibits the action or not. It is also beside the point that the action - carried out in the name of following one's assumptions out to their logical conclusion - will impose trauma only on close family and friends and not society as a whole. The point is the extent or degree of the pointless and unreasonable anguish thrust onto others as a result of those actions - in this case, suicide. If the activity would impose such suffering onto others, then the activity ought not be carried out, regardless of its legal standing or societal permissibility (or lack thereof).

Therefore, critics overlook the fundamental reason why we have laws, rules, morals, etc. when they respond that it is legitimate, if not mandatory, that antinatalist commit suicide despite trauma caused to loved ones and friends even greater than any trauma caused to them due to theft, assault, illegal or unethical business practices, etc. with the claim that society has already decided that theft, assault, and illegal business practices are unacceptable. For if critics claim that it is society's rules, laws, and concepts of justice that automatically delegitimize acts usually causing the lesser sufferings while permitting antinatalists to commit acts that generate the greater trauma, then they undermine the very reason those laws exist in the first place - to prevent harm, pain, and suffering that serves neither any productive purpose, nor unavoidable, and offer no compensatory good for either the person or to others in return for the resulting pain, harm and suffering. If the harm, pain, and suffering caused to others by the above discussed acts is the reason society bans or looks down on them, then those same reasons also make it right for antinatalists to take into account their own relatives' and friends' harm, pain, and suffering suicide that would result in the event of their own self-inflicted death.

So the question still stands: If critics insist that antinatalists disregard others' emotional well-being and interests in matters like suicide, then what grounds do they have for disregarding the emotional well-being and interests of family members with regard to the aforementioned unethical activities (or society's in general for that matter)?

Therefore, if we agree that one legitimate reason not to commit theft, assault, and "white collar crime", etc. is the likely resultant grief and shame for family and friends, then it is difficult to see how we can exempt suicide from the list. In short, if claim people can or ought to disregard the interests and general concerns of loved ones when it comes to suicide, then why not when it comes to the other discussed matters? In fact, this can open the door to disregarding the well-being and concerns of people in general. In fact, saying the well-being of others (physical or emotional) do not matter where it concerns suicide and acts causing lesser trauma than a suicide usually does would render the whole field of ethics irrelevant for matters whose consequences are as or less severe than a suicide's consequences would be for friends and family. Very possibly, this can lead to Moral Nihilism.

It allows disregarding the negative effects of following other views out to their logical conclusion.

Our society already places limits on following out at least two sacrosanct belief systems to their logical conclusion: democracy and competition - precisely because failure to do so would inevitably create great suffering for others. In fact, history shows that following out to their logical conclusion the principles underlying democracy (the majority makes the rules) and competition (struggling against rivals results in superior outcomes) actually undermines both democracy and competition respectively; in other words, the strict, ultimate conclusions of the principles underlying either system, if actually followed out, bring forth the very undesired results that democracy and competition are supposed to prevent: an unfree society with numerous human rights violations for the former, and lower quality goods and services for the latter.

Pure Democracy's Logical Conclusion

If democracy is defined by the rule of the majority, then the logical conclusion of democracy, at least in its purest and most basic form (call this "pure democracy"), is the doctrine of "the majority rules" - majoritarianism. Stopping there, it permits, if not mandates, that the majority disregard even the most basic human rights, interests and concerns of the minority when it comes to proposing, passing, and implementing new laws. That leaves "pure democracy" vulnerable to the possibility that the majority will run roughshod over the minority (Thomas Jefferson and James Madison especially wrote about this danger).

If one objects that democracy and majoritarianism are not the same thing (democracy contains the whole bundle of rights to protect the well-being of others while majoritarianism does not), then why do we add those bundle of rights in the first place? If to "protect the rights of the minority from the tyranny of the majority", then it is agreed that others' well-being does indeed matter, even in matters where the logical conclusion of the basic rationale and/or system does permit or mandate we disregard the well-being of others.

It was for precisely this reason that both the drafters of the US Constitution added the first ten amendments to the US Constitution; likewise for France's National Constituent Assembly in respect to The Declarations of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. Both recognized that pure democracy itself was not sufficient to safeguard the very rights they fought to secure. Therefore, both assemblies drafted the aforementioned documents to create a firewall between "majority rules" and tyranny. The centuries since then proved the wisdom of this decision. Even with these restrictions, many locales still passed unequal or unjust laws even if the majority did favor them (many eventually struck down by the courts on constitutional grounds, most specifically those aspects dealing with fundamental human rights).

Thus, democracy is one example of a sacrosanct belief being modified (i.e. "watered down") for the sake of promoting the greater good of the people - which is the whole point of democracy. Thus, if we claim the purpose of "pure democracy" is to make government responsive to the needs of all the people, then history shows "pure democracy" will ultimately contradict itself; for there is no guarantee this form of democracy will protect the interests of the person who supports it. Even so, it does not follow that democracy in general is a nonsensical system of government, as evidenced by the fact that democratic governments proved to be more responsive to the needs of their people than dictatorships, monarchies, oligarchies, etc. despite that their constitutions usually limit the underlying "majority rules" principle. Therefore, democracy can be a reasonably sound system of government despite our forced abandonment of the ideologically pure position of "majority rules".

Similarly, even if it does turn out that - despite all arguments to the contrary - the strict logical conclusions of both "suffering prevention" and "suffering alleviation" do indeed mandate that an antinatalist commit suicide, it still doesn't follow that the modifying the principles underlying antinatalism into a "no suicide necessary" position undermines antinatalism. This is particularly true in light of the first reason not to commit suicide - do not cause pointless and reasonably avoidable suffering.

Competition's Logical Conclusion

Competition is an essential feature of life. History shows that it is usually the most reliable way to provide society with the maximum quantities and qualities of goods and services at the lowest reasonable cost and the maximum possible efficiency. Hence, restricting competition easily can reduce the quality and / or quantity of those goods and services. This leaves the society less efficient, more impoverished, and generally worse off than otherwise.

If we stop there, the logical conclusion of all this is that we should winnow inefficiencies and noncompetitive elements from not just the marketplace, but from the society as a whole; for the society’s existence itself creates the market for not just the goods and services sold, but the workers producing these things. In other words, the maximum quality of life and people cannot emerge unless we allow only the most competitive people survive.

If one accepts all the following: We should follow our assumptions to their logical conclusion regardless of how and to what extent or degree they hurt others; competition is indeed the best system for producing the quantity and quality of goods and services with the greatest possible efficiency; and that competition is best for society to have such goods and services produced in such a way; then it is difficult to see how the logical conclusion of all this is the acceptance - in fact, mandating - of no-holds-barred competition in all endeavors, no matter how agonizing the results may be to the "losers".

From the above, some people argue that there are two reasons we should not give aid to those too weak, stupid, or timid to compete effectively: (1) It perpetuates the very inefficiencies and other inferiorities holding back society and the market place that competition is supposed eliminate, and (2) It diverts resources away from the most deserving (i.e. most competitive) to the least deserving (i.e. least competitive), in effect a state-sanctioned theft. Therefore, under this view, the uncompetitive do not deserve even the slightest amount of society’s productive fruits or perhaps even protection (given to them via social services, charity, etc). It follows that we should not care about the interests or even well-being of the weak, stupid, or otherwise uncompetitive. Such doctrines are the core assumptions of Social Darwinism, various forms of "hyper-capitalism", extreme libertarianism, fascism, and other ideologies.

Thus, the same rationale behind the claim that antinatalism logically necessitates suicide (that we should not care about how our actions affect others' well-being) also rationalizes the belief that we should, in the name of competitive efficiencies that bring about the supposed greater good, disregard concerns about how unrestricted competition damages the well-being of other people.

No doubt the vast majority of antinatalism’s critics do not support such unrestricted free-for-alls, particularly when the rationales justifying such environments effectively trivialize, if not legitimize, the inevitable abuses of even the most basic of human rights that would occur under such a dog-eat-dog system like pure and unrestricted competition. This includes the rights and dignities of the weak, dull-witted, timid, and otherwise uncompetitive. So as with democracy, critics themselves undoubtedly believe we should place limits on competition – precisely because such practices inevitably cause unreasonable hardship and anguish for others.

The Discrepancy Between Many Critics Beliefs and Their Charge to Antinatalists

As demonstrated above, insisting we should in all instances act out the logical conclusion of our beliefs, even in sacrosanct matters, handwaves away any violation of even basic human rights that others might suffer due to the person or society acting on the ultimate conclusion of their beliefs. Thus, we insist on impure forms of democracy and competition precisely because these systems in their pure forms and/or the logical conclusions of these systems inevitably lead to great, even horrid, detrimental to both societal well-being and individual human rights.

Undoubtedly most critics of antinatalism firmly agree with the restrictions we place on democracy and competition, and for the above described besides. Yet, many of those same critics insist that antinatalists ought to follow their own belief system (the least suffering principle) out to its purported logical conclusion (i.e. suicide); even if acting on that conclusion would impose strongly negative consequences onto others.

Thus, such critics place themselves in a dilemma when they claim antinatalists ought to commit suicide if they are to remain true to antinatalism. If antinatalists ought to commit suicide in spite of the anguish it would cause others, then it's difficult to object to harmful or anguishing acts committed by practitioners of other belief systems in the name of following out that other system’s views to its logical conclusion –including adherents to the systems of democracy and competition. In fact, such urgings to antinatalists open the door to others likewise insisting they follow their own beliefs about politics, philosophy, economics, religion, etc to their on logical conclusions regardless of how badly the hurt others.

On the other hand, if there actually arelimits to how far out we should follow out the logic of our beliefs on the grounds that going beyond those limits (i.e. following out those beliefs to their logical conclusion) could violate another person’s rights, peace of mind, or quality of life, then it is hard to single out the antinatalist for hypocrisy if he or she draws the line before suicide, especially if they believe their suicide would cause great anguish to surviving loved ones. This also includes those who stop short of the logical conclusions of democracy (“majority rules”) and competition (“struggling against peers brings out the best in society”).

Given all this, it should be clear that entreating antinatalists to commit suicide is not just overly hasty; it opens up a whole ethical can of worms in other areas. The only way around this objection is to provide a way for antinatalist to commit suicide that does none of the following:

(1) Causes anguish in others.
(2) Permits followers of other philosophies, ideologies, religions, etc. to disregard the well-being and concerns of other people in the name of following their own beliefs out to their logical conclusion.
(3) Legitimizes, if not proves, Moral Nihilism or something very close to it (which necessarily entails they abandon their suffering prevention and suffering mitigation ethics, thereby compelling abandonment of at least philanthropic antinatalism).

Anyone seeking to provide antinatalists with a way to commit suicide that does none of the above is going to have a difficult task on his or her hands.

(c) It underestimates the difficulties of carrying out the act of suicide, plus unsuccessful attempts can well leave the person worse off.

Even were we to choose suicide, the response also assumes that suicide is very easy to commit. While the act is simple enough in concept, there are several deep instinctual and other mental hurdles one must jump over in order to complete the act. No doubt this explains why the majority of suicide attempts fail, and of those attempts a substantial percentage can leave the attempter in a significantly worse condition than before. The latter especially adds the burden of being potentially crippled by a self-inflicted injury with intent to kill one's self and compelling loved ones to care for the person, thus depriving both of productive potential that could otherwise be devoted to making a living or alleviating suffering in ways other than caring for the attempter had the suicide attempt not taken place.

First, there’s the already discussed issue of how suicide affects others, particularly those close to us. For those who care deeply about how their suicide would affect their loved ones, this alone is an almost impossible barrier to cross. Beyond this, there are several other facts demonstrating the actual difficulty of committing suicide.

High probability of an unsuccessful attempt. This has a substantial probability of leaving the attempter even worse off than before (specifically non-trivial disabilities, perhaps lifelong). In 2001, there were 400,000 emergency room visits for self-inflicted injury in the US. That same year, there were only 30,622 suicides.[9] Dividing the emergency room visits by the number of successful suicide, there are about 13 emergency room visits for self-inflicted injury. Also in that same year, there were 2,146,426 total deaths.[10] Dividing the total deaths by the deaths from suicide yields one suicide for 70 deaths (to the nearest whole number). Also consider that 17.6 million Americans - 1 in 6 - are diagnosed with depression every year.[11] This means that even were all suicides caused by depression (which is not even close to the truth), there would still be only one self-inflicted injury (let alone successful suicide) for every 44 differential diagnoses for depression. While the figure does not address depression conditions lasting longer than one year, it still suggests that even depression alone is insufficient to prompt people into attempting suicide.

These facts alone signify that popular opinion overestimates how easy it is to commit suicide. Very likely, the reason why suicide is likely more difficult to commit than many people think is due to the next factor.

The survival instinct itself is quite strong. In an episode of "The Wise Counsel" podcast, show host Dr. David Van Nuys interviewed leading suicide authority Dr. Thomas Joiner of Florida State University, author of Why People Die By Suicide?, about the motivational factors behind suicide. Joiner's model includes three prime motivations:

"1) a sense of being a burden to others, 2) a profound sense of loneliness, alienation and isolation, and 3) a sense of fearlessness. All three of these motivations or preconditions must be in place before someone will attempt suicide." [12]

Joiner elaborated about this in an interview with Neal Conan on the National Public Radio show Talk of the Nation,

CONAN: And yet you think of the story, the famous writer Raymond Chandler once described how he went into a shower stall and put a gun to his head and missed three times - and then decided that probably, he didn't really want to kill himself, and went on to write some great books.

But nevertheless, it is so difficult for some people to go ahead and finish the act.

Prof. JOINER: I would respond, of course it is. Of course it is because this is such a fearsome and such a daunting thing. I mean, if you just -consider the following true-false question. True or false: Death is a fearsome prospect. Virtually all your listeners will answer that question with true.

And therefore, if you try to stare down death, it's going to be a struggle. It's going to be a fight. Our bodies are wired for survival, and even desperately suicidal people are in for quite a fight if they're going to try to enact suicide. In fact, there are many anecdotal stories just of that sort, where someone is desperately suicidal, they've truly wanted to die, and yet their bodies wouldn't let them. [13]

This is before how difficult it is to find even a painless and bloodless method to commit suicide that does not fall under legal definitions of physician-assisted suicide in locales whose governments permit it; barring sufficient levels of presently-felt and/or anticipated (i.e. quite extreme) pain and misery resulting from the Joiner paradigm.

Many social and cultural inhibitions must be overcome in order to commit suicide. These includes social stigma, religious beliefs, etc., all of which profoundly shape our psychology, including those of antinatalists. Also, there is little reason to doubt that many suicidal people in general are just as vulnerable to caring how others will speak of them after they die as non-suicidal people are. The same goes for antinatalists as well, particularly those whose rationale behind their beliefs are rooted in the "least suffering" principle.

All this, plus the previously discussed reasons, shows just how oversimple it is to suggest that antinatalism’s necessary logical conclusion is suicide. Regarding the difficulties themselves, that the vast majority of people possesses a deeply-programmed survival instinct that is difficult to overcome even if in cases where the dying process is painless or nearly so. In fact, the vast majority of unhappy people do not even attempt suicide, even if they do experience suicide ideation. That the vast majority of self-inflicted wounds requiring hospitalization do not end in death, and that most suicide attempts do not succeed supports the claim that most people's survival instinct is simply too strong to allow them to succeed at suicide. In other words, it is simply much harder to commit suicide than most people think due to the fact that This also answers the related claim that we should give birth to others if we want to, and if the birthed person doesn’t like his or her life then he or she can always commit suicide. Therefore, it is premature to say that antinatalist should commit suicide, even if it does have a kind of commonsense appeal on the surface.

(d) Suicide would do nothing to advance the cause of antinatalism, nor would it do anything to mitigate the overall sufferings of this world.

Presumably some critics imply antinatalists ought to commit (or at least advocate) suicide if they want people to take them seriously. As shown below, this is frankly naive.

It should be obvious that suicides do nothing to advance most causes. The only known exception is political dissidents protesting against a repressive regime. Even in these cases, it works only because there were already widespread strong grievances well-established among the mainstream segment of that society's population (the Tunisian's self-immolation that sparked the Arab Spring is the latest such example).

Beyond the above example, there is no evidence that it advances any other social or political cause, particularly highly unpopular ones - including antinatalism. In fact, there is strong evidence against the idea that suicide would advance antinatalism's cause. The Heaven’s Gate and Branch Davidian cults of the 1990s and Jim Jones’ People’s Temple cult of the 1970s all ended in mass suicide. None of these actions did anything to open the public’s minds to the possibility that these movements had profound truths humanity desperately needs to hear; quite the opposite, in fact. Given that antinatalism is likewise well outside society’s mainstream, there is little reason to think that antinatalism would fare much better at convincing others of the correctness of their view via suicide (individual or mass) than the aforementioned cults did.

As for the second part of the reason– suicide would not reduce the sufferings of this world – that is best left for the next post. For now, it’s enough to say that any one suicide, including that of an antinatalist, would reduce suffering by a microscopically trivially amount at most. In fact, the reductions are so tiny that the purported beneficiaries of the antinatalists’ suicide would not even notice


[8] This, of course, excludes "heroic sacrifices", deliberate sacrifices of one's own life for a higher purpose (e.g., combat soldiers, emergency workers, parents for their children, and other less well-known but certainly no less noble acts on behalf of others).  The health reasons refer specifically to "Death With Dignity" and similar such movements, which promote the legalization of physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill or otherwise severely incapacitated.
[9] US Suicide Statistics, 2001 Accessed June 28, 2012   

[10] Death by Single Years of Age, Race, and Sex: United States 2001. National Center for Health Statistics, US Center for Disease Control. Atlanta, GA, USA

[11] Depression (differential diagnosis) Accessed June 28, 2012

[12]  An Interview With Thomas Joiner .  Accessed June 28, 2012; (Interview Transcript) accessed July 6, 2012

[13] Deconstructing 'Myths about Suicide', National Public Radio, Washington DC. Broadcast date April 28, 2010. Accessed July 9, 2012.

Front-Loading Some Rebuttals - Responses to Common Inital Argments Against Antinatalism

Last Updated August 13, 2012

Just as with any other philosophical, political, or religious belief system, Antinatalism has a potentially infinite number of objections.  Because of this, it’s unreasonable to expect blogs (by their very nature) and certainly a blog to answer every objection to antinatalism in the greatest of details.  That would require at least large book to accomplish, and likely several volumes of them. Therefore, I will address only the most commonly-expressed initial reactions to antinatalism.  With this said, I will continue.

It should be no surprise that a controversial philosophy like antinatalism has all kinds of misconceptions about both the system itself and its adherents; many of them the product of either logical fallacies or blind spots natural to human thinking. Frequently encountered fallacies about antinatalists and their beliefs include the following, but certainly not limited to them: non sequitors (unwarranted leaps in logic), ad hominem (personal attacks, appeals to caricature, appeals to personal distaste, “Poisoning the Well”, and similar such kneejerk responses), genetic fallacies (assuming the argument is wrong simply because you can prove the cause of the belief; often just another variant of the ad hominem), and general appeals to popular stereotype (self explanatory).  These types of arguments are universally considered inadequate, simplistic, or just plain wrong – particularly if they attack the person instead of the argument.  Therefore, they have no place in any kind of debate, including this one - except as showcase examples of how personal distaste can blind us to deeper truths.

In fact, I almost chose not to respond to them, especially the ad hominem type of “cheap shots”. Doing so would imply they are in fact worthy of a response (which they aren’t, except to the extent that they offer a teachable moment in recognizing demagoguery and appeals to emotion, dubious appeals to “common sense”, etc).  Truly serious and openminded people already see such false arguments for what they are. Therefore, why should I waste time discussing them?  

On the other hand, if I did not respond to them, some people would say that it was because I could not respond, thereby giving these opponents the illusion of victory.  Therefore, I decided to compromise - make one response to these “cheap shots”, then refuse any second-level responses to my response unless they demonstrate how my rebuttal was wrong-headed without any resort to name calling or appeals to caricature.   At any rate, the rest of this blog is likely to address many higher level questions and doubts about antinatalism many of you probably have; and therefore any such objections are likely addressed in other posts.

The objections addressed in this section include the following. Those not finished are designated as a WIP (Work in Progress)

  •  Why Not Commit Suicide? (Part 1 Complete, Part 2 Complete, Part 3 WIP)
  •  Antinatalism is Unrealistic  (WIP)
  •  Antinatalism is Nihilistic  (WIP)
  •  Antinatalists Seek Forced Cessation of Breeding (WIP)
  •  We Are The Universe Getting to Know Itself (WIP)
  •  Arguments from Caricature (the ad hominem, straw men, red herrings, etc. discussed above) (WIP)

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Benatarian Asymmetry

South African antinatalist philosopher David Benatar, author of Better Never to Have Been, asserts that coming into existence is always a harm because (a) suffering is an inevitable part of life,(b) a nonexistent person is not harmed by not having pleasures (c) there is no reason to bring a happy person into existence.   Therefore, whatever pleasures a  person may enjoy in life come at the price of experiencing pain.  From this, he concludes that the pain aspect of life is gratuitous.

He backs up this claim by asserting there exists an “asymmetry” between pleasure and pain. The differences in our value judgments toward pleasure and pain are sound only with regard to their presence – but not to their absence.  These judgments are based on the perspective of the person actually experiencing the pain or pleasure, as opposed to an outside observer making judgments for that person.  However, this is not relevant for the question “Is it good or bad to come into existence?”, for only the person experiencing the pleasure or pain can rightfully judge whether their own life is worth living.

The asymmetry argument has four premises, divided into two parts: symmetrical and asymmetrical.  

Before further discussion proceeds, it is important to say that masochism is not relevant here, for it is actually a form of pleasure, albeit it bears pain’s disguise.  Therefore, it is inappropriate to discuss it in the context of pain as used by Benatar.  With that said, here is the argument.

(1)    The presence of pain is bad 
(2)    The presence of pleasure is good

This is the symmetrical part of the argument, which is noncontroversial.  However, these value judgments apply only to their presence. It says nothing about their absence. 

Hence, we come to the second - the asymmetrical - part of Benatar’s argument, which implicitly addresses “What ifs” – counterfactuals (alternate scenarios) that could well have happened (or not), but did not (or did). Again, these judgments are based on the standpoint of the interests of the person in question.  

(3)    The absence of pain is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone 
(4)    The absence of pleasure is not bad unless there exists somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation
The asymmetrical part of the argument addresses at least two scenarios at the same time: “What if a person who does in fact exist did not exist?”  (in point 3) or vice versa (in point 4). [1]  The phrasing also implicitly addresses people who do in fact exist as well. In other words, (4) says the absence of pleasure is a bad thing only for people who do exist. Conversely, if nobody exists who can’t experience pleasure, then the absence of pleasure is not a bad thing.

Some object that it is nonsensical to say that the absence of pain is a good thing for nonexistent people, for nonexistent people cannot benefit from a good thing.  Benatar responds that (3) talks of counterfactual scenarios.  Also, an actual nonexistent person would have felt pain had they come into existence.  In the latter case, it is good that that person did not feel the pain; even if only because of their not coming into existence.


Benatar contends his asymmetry explains other asymmetries: 

*We have a duty to avoid bringing suffering people into existence but none to bring happy people into existence. We have no duty to bring children into existence if it either (a) unduly burdens us or (b) would clearly be bad for the child.  Otherwise, if having children involves no sacrifice on our part, why not simply have as many children as possible? In either case, we are not taking the interests of the child into account because we are not considering how their lives might turn out.

*A child’s potential interests are a reason not to have children, yet it makes no sense to say a child’s potential pleasures are a reason to have them.  The last part of the claim is discussed under the next point (Retrospective Judgments); the first part of the claim draws from the fact that children should not be brought into a harmful environment. Furthermore, there is no assurance the child would actually benefit from a living existence.

*Retrospective Judgments.  It is said “Hindsight is 20/20” (perfect vision, for non-American readers).  We can and do regret that a child was brought into a bad existence, because the child suffers from it.  On the other hand, if child who would have been happy is not brought into existence, the child cannot suffer from that lack of happiness simply because it cannot do so.  Therefore, we cannot regret failure to bring a happy child into existence for the child’s sake; we can only regret it for ourselves because we don’t enjoy the presence of that child.  

*Asymmetrical judgments about distant suffering and suffering in uninhabited parts of the earth (or universe for that matter).  For example, we may feel sorrow for people who suffer in distant lands, but we do not feel sorrow for (obviously non-existent) people who otherwise would have inhabited an uninhabited island, or even non-existent intelligent Martians.[2]  We regret suffering but not absent pleasures.

Positive utilitarians (those who believe utility increases happiness) would say “the more happy people, the better”.  However, Benatar counters with the famous distinction between making people happy and making happy people.  Positive utilitarians are consistent within their philosophy when they insist that we “make existing people happy”, but are not so if they insist on “making (i.e., creating) happy people”.  

The above counterclaim leads to many ethical difficulties.  Among these is assuming that people are made to enjoy happiness, which implies that happiness must (in the moral sense) exist for its own sake.  This overlooks the fact that happiness is merely a means to achieve a desired end. That end is contentment, not happiness for its own sake. After all, if no people exist, then happiness is not very useful.  Thus, happiness is less important than people themselves.   If we assume happiness to be more important than people, then people are merely bottles with which to fill with happiness, no matter how much pain they inevitably receive along with the happiness; as opposed to independent entities with their own will, opinions, and desires that deserve to be respected. 

Thus, Benatar show there is strong evidence supporting his asymmetry, namely due to its great explanatory power regarding other, less controversial, asymmetries.  
Point (4) is sound because If we assume the absence of pleasure is bad in and of itself, then we presuppose the following: (a) we are sorry for the nonexistent child’s sake, as opposed to our own, that it did not come into existence; which in turn presupposes (b) a non-existent child suffers from having no pleasures.  Point (b) clearly is not true, thereby undercutting the logic of (a).  In this case, it is difficult to see how the absence of pleasure in and of itself is bad.

In addition, there are other well-established notions suggesting that we have a duty to not commit harm, yet have no duty to do good to provide them with pleasures beyond what they need to survive.  For example, we have a duty to help desperately needy people but no duty to give them a lump sum of money equivalent to a twenty-year salary of a typical corporate employee.[3] In non-material matters, we also we have a duty to not rape people, yet we don’t have a duty to give them sex if they want it.  


Consider the same argument, but suppose the absence of pleasure (Point 4) is judged bad; which is symmetrical to “the absence of pain is good”.  In this case, we rewrite this point “The absence of pleasure is bad even when there is nobody around for whom this lack is a deprivation”.   Recall this deals with “good” and “bad” from the perspective of the person in question, not from our own perspective.  In this case, if nobody were around, then “nobody” could be deprived.  If there is no deprivation, then nothing bad happens.  To argue this is to imply that a nonexistent person suffers from not experiencing pleasure.  While it is true that we can regret a person’s nonexistence of those children, the regret is only on behalf of ourselves and not the said children.

Alternate judgments of Points 3 and 4 do no better.  In this case, we rewrite this as (3)“The absence of pain is not bad, even if the person does not exist” and (4) “the absence of pleasure is not good, even when there is nobody around for whom this lack is not good”.  Here, “not bad” does not mean “good”, nor does “not good” mean “bad”.  The lack of pleasure appears to be an almost neutral state for the nonexistent, for “not good” is not the same as “bad”.  By contrast Benatar states merely calling the absence of pain “not bad” is not informative enough, for it implies the lack of pain can be merely “not bad” understates how bad pain in and of itself is.[4] Therefore, the absence of pain is a good thing .  Even sticking “not good” onto the absence of pleasure will not work, for as Benatar says,  

If pain is bad and pleasure is good, but the absence of pain is good and the absence of pleasure is not good, there is no asymmetry between pleasure and pain


To claim that “good” is an advantage over “not bad” is to treat the non-existent and existent in the same way.  It also confuses relative bad with intrinsic, absolute bad. “Good” is better than “not bad” only if a person exists.  If the person does not exist, then is irrelevant if their don't experience “good”.  Indeed, the absent pleasure is simply “not bad”. This is because nonexistence cannot create the conditions necessary for a sense of deprivation (objective deprivation or not).  Hence, it makes more sense to focus on whether the pain intrinsic in living is a better state of affairs than the lack of pain intrinsic in nonexistence.

Benatar, David: Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence.

[1] Hypotheticals (i.e.“What ifs”) are a widely accepted form of reasoning because they are a crucial part of planning ahead and preparing for what is plausibly possible.  After all, failure to ponder about how your proposed actions may affect the future well-being of others is considered incompetent at best and criminally negligent at worst. For example, hypotheticals are crucially important in strategic planning by corporations and by governments (e.g, land use rezoning, disaster planning, changes in foreign policy, war, etc.).  The same goes for passing or repealing laws.  Therefore, dismissing a hypothetical simply because it is a hypothetical is to deny that different situations often lead to different results; clearly an absurd position to begin with.
[2] While there may still be some dispute as to whether Mars actually had life in any form shortly after its complete formation, conditions on Mars almost certainly were more conducive to creating and sustaining life then than they are now.  If Mars actually did have life, then the argument is even more relevant to the antinatalism issue, for we can now ask “Had intelligent Martians actually come into existence, would they really be better off living?”.  
[3] Even assuming one receives an enormous compensation package for reasons of being the victim of gross neglicence (e.g., faulty product, false arrest, etc), it is still realistically conceivable that the victim could say “No level of compensation is enough to truly make up for my suffering, for no amount of money can reverse the damage of those precious years.”
[4] Income levels (or in this case the lack thereof) illustrate the difference between “good”, “bad” and “not bad”. The typical middle class family would not consider their inability to afford a Beverly Hills mansion a bad thing; not a good thing, to be sure, but merely “not bad”.  By contrast, an impoverished person not earning income adequate to avoid late rent payments is not merely “not good”, it is “bad”.