‘What is life all about?’ In his new book, The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions, David Benatar argues, ‘ultimately nothing’ (p xi). Human existence is devoid of cosmic meaning. If we are honest, our quality of life is generally poor. But for most people death is no real escape since it removes what little meaning we do have. It would be best, therefore, if we had never been born.
Benatar is a philosopher at the University of Capetown, and a self-described pessimist. He has previously written a defence of his controversial anti-natalist position, arguing that it is always morally wrong to bring another human being into existence. In The Human Predicament, he advances a more comprehensive assessment of the human condition. Benatar calls his book a work of unpopular philosophy; this specifically refers to its message rather than its accessibility. Most people, he argues, are naïvely optimistic about their lives and not inclined to listen to ‘bad news’, no matter how true it is.
The Human Predicament advances three main arguments regarding meaning (chapters two and three), quality of life (chapter four), and death (chapter five), and applies these arguments to the topics of immortality (chapter six) and suicide (chapter seven).
Benatar defines ‘meaning’ as whether one’s life ‘transcends one’s own limits and significantly impacts others or serves purposes beyond oneself’ (p18). The partly good news is that at a limited perspective (what Benatar calls ‘terrestrial’ meaning), such meaning is possible. Most people influence their family and friends, some have an impact on their local communities. As the scope broadens, however, prospects diminish.
Although meaning is possible at the terrestrial level, the same cannot be said at the cosmic level. Benatar notes that ‘Whatever other kinds of meaning our lives might have, the absence of this meaning is deeply disturbing to many’ (p36). This, he believes, is what makes theism so seductive. His chief argument against theism is the universal suffering of animals and humans, which forces him to conclude: ‘This does not look like a world created by a beneficent deity with unbounded knowledge and power’ (p44).
Benatar then makes a case for the generally poor quality of life of human beings. He includes the rather trivial examples of everyday hunger and thirst, the discomfort of full bladders and bowels, as well as the more severe suffering of burns, quadriplegia, locked-in syndrome, and cancer. There is little comfort, he claims in ‘secular optimistic theodicies’, which are only palliative care and do not escape the fact that ‘the quality of human life is not only much worse than most people think but actually quite awful’ (p91).
Death receives a lengthy and detailed treatment, including a refutation of the Epicurean position of indifference. Benatar argues that there are intrinsic goods and evils apart from those you can sense, and proposes two such evils that result from death: deprivation of potential good and annihilation. Although death provides an escape from assaults on the quality of life and the sense of meaninglessness, it does so at great cost. Never existing has the advantage of avoiding all of these problems.
The conclusion that death is always bad does not mean that immortality would be good—particularly if we continued to age, suffer, and face logistical problems like overpopulation. Here his words approach lament: ‘it is possible that we are damned if we die and damned if we don’t’ (p162). This is followed by what Benatar calls a ‘highly qualified’ defence of suicide (p165). He believes that we should be less averse to suicide than has traditionally been the case, not because death is not bad, but because life is worse than we normally acknowledge.
What advice does Benatar give for facing up to the human predicament? His central exhortation is to stop creating more humans! Although having children provides terrestrial meaning for parents, there are other ways for this to be found without participating in a ‘procreative Ponzi scheme’ (p208) that only perpetuates human suffering. For people who already exist, the most extreme solution—though sometimes the rational response when quality of life is very poor—is suicide. Yet this is never a good solution, since death itself is bad. A more moderate response is that of ‘pragmatic pessimism’, which involves embracing the reality of the human predicament, but distracting oneself with endeavours that create terrestrial meaning.
Many, especially Christian readers, will find Benatar’s views so extreme as to not warrant consideration. Yet a lot of what he says resonates strongly with the biblical pessimist known as Qohelet (or Ecclesiastes).
Like Benatar, Qohelet is something of a ‘philosopher’. His existential search is for some ‘gain’ in life (Eccl 1:3). But at every turn he is frustrated by the futility of his endeavours: wisdom, pleasure, achievements and wealth (2:1-11). He wrestles with cosmic meaninglessness, finding the works of God impenetrable (3:9-11). He also observes the low quality of life: excessive toil (3:22-23), the loss of wealth (5:13-15), and unchecked injustice (Eccl 3:16). And all of these problems are exacerbated by the problem of death, which undermines any limited gain or significance that is achieved (2:16; 9:1-6). Qohelet concludes that ‘everything is meaningless’ (1:2; 12:8). Though he does not counsel suicide, he agrees that it would have been better to never have been (4:2-3; 6:3). Similar to Benatar, Qohelet’s advice to cope with life’s meaningless is to seek distraction in some terrestrial meaning: food, drink, a wife, and work (5:18-20).
Given such biblical affirmation, could it be that Benatar’s work is truer than many would care to admit? The Human Predicament is an honest look at life that confronts naïve optimism and provides a strong critique of the cult of self-help. It is unexpectedly refreshing to read an atheist who admits that much about the human condition is a cause for despair.
Unsurprisingly, Qohelet and Benatar also disagree at a number of key points. Despite the frustration of his every endeavour to find gain in this life, Qohelet does not give up on God (3:17). True, he lays blame upon God for the human predicament (7:13), yet, at the same time, he also recognises the good which also comes from him (2:26; 7:14; 12:1). Maintaining his faith in God also permits him the use of a category that is alien to Benatar: ‘sin’ (7:20). Finally, Qohelet’s teaching receives a qualification by the narrator, who has the final word on ‘the human predicament’. He makes explicit what Qohelet did not, namely that the true source of wisdom is rooted in the divine revelation: ‘fear God and keep his commands, for this is the whole duty of man’ (12:13; cf. Prov 1:7).
Without the aid of divine revelation, one can only make assumptions about God’s existence or what lies beyond the grave. Benatar’s arguments build upon these such assumptions using analogies that appeal to common sense. Yet this leads him to an anti-natalist conclusion that defies common sense. Though he would argue that most people are blinded by their optimism bias, it is far more likely that one of his assumptions has led him astray from the very beginning.
The Christian reader will clearly disagree with Benatar in many places. Nevertheless, his work remains a useful testimony from ‘the other side’ to the fallenness of the human condition. He is right to a point: the world has indeed been ‘subjected to futility’ (Rom 8:20). Yet without biblical revelation, Benatar fails to provide an adequate account of the cause, or of the remedy so loudly declared by the resurrection of Christ.
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