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542. The abysmal (VII)

David Benatar holds to the old sentiment from Yeats: “Never to have lived is best, ancient writers say / Never to have drawn the breath of life, never to have looked into the eye of day / The second best's a gay goodnight and quickly turn away.” He does not go so far as to venerate Yeats’s earlier statement: “I celebrate the silent kiss that ends life short or long.” Benatar believes that it is prospective birth that is the problem, if he thought life itself were a curse he would have removed himself from it for consistency’s sake. For Benatar, it is just that life considered from nullity is overall too painful to be worthwhile; ergo, we should have no children and let the species die out.

The opposite opinion can be found in Elon Musk and Jordan Peterson, the former with a brood that would please an Old Testament patriarch. They maintain, contra Benatar, that we simply cannot have enough people—every life is a boon. Overpopulation is a somewhat passé panic these days, though it has effectively been folded into the “global climate emergency”—and we are reminded, Westerners especially, to have fewer or even no children for the planet’s sake. This focus on restricted Western birth rates reverses the old “population bomb” concern, mostly centred on the Third World—and so now dismissed as “racist”; hence contemporary population worries are not truly Malthusian, being unconcerned with non-Western births.

For Benatar, these economic concerns are neither here nor there—his position is existential; it is more about the amount we suffer in general, not any population-induced collapse—whether to do with the climate or otherwise. He would agree such an event would be bad, possibly could be avoided if we reduced the population; yet his quarrel is with life itself, not whether a particular mode of life can be more or less materially comfortable.

These two positions are often wheeled out to fight each other, just like novelty characters from a cuckoo clock. *BONG* goes the jolly lumberjack, as the flat of his axe strikes the parson’s head; *THWACK* goes the wiry parson’s Bible as it lands on the lumberjack’s head. The process is mechanical, nobody is hurt—and when the job is done both retreat behind their slatted doors until the next news cycle.

The position that goes unmentioned in this false dichotomy is not should you be born but who should be born—in other words, are you sure we need a billion more (or fewer) people like you? This position is impermissible because we live in a democracy: it is permissible to say nobody should be born—no rich people, poor people, ugly people, handsome people, intelligent people, short people, tall people…If nobody is born, if we have Benatarian nullity, then we will all be equal; we will all be nothing. The other position—spill your seed where you may, me hearties; why stop at two, why not thirteen or eighteen?—also remains perfectly democratic: everyone, from a billionaire to a smelly tramp, should push out more life. A life is a life, a life is good; everything has equal value in a democracy.

Quality is forbidden. It is forbidden to argue that only quality people should breed. It is forbidden to say that the British population should be reduced from 68M to 14M, by about 80%—so that only the productive 20%, the vital core, remain. It is forbidden to say to Benatar: “Yes, life involves immense pain; yet some people feel it less than others, thrive on it as a tool to develop. Let us remove the capacity to reproduce from only he who cannot stand the pain, for his own sake. Let us breed a man for whom this world is more joyful than not.” Again, inadmissible: Benatar is a democrat, he will accept no life but he will not accept better life; and in this he is the same as the procreative patriarchs he supposedly opposes.


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