This episode of the podcast hosts a debate between University of Cape Town Professor of Philosophy, David Benatar, and the University of Toronto’s Professor of psychology, Jordan B Peterson. David is a proponent of antinatalism, which posits that birth is an overall negative event and as such it follows that humans should stop procreating. Jordan considers this view antithetical to human existence, and a passionate discussion ensues.

 

 

The Renegade Report – Jordan B Peterson & David Benatar

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  • Simon Elliot
    Reply

    It’s been a few weeks since I listened to the brilliant exchange between Sam Harris and David Benatar, and I just wanted to say that, even though I think David is 100% right about the quality of life being overwhelmingly negative, and that this negativity is more intense and enduring than the positivity, I remain convinced that there are some inconsistencies with his philosophy.

    On his blog, Helian Unbound notes that anti-natalism is built on an inverted morality, in that it takes evolutionary mechanisms that we use to survive (compassion, empathy, and aversion to suffering), both as individuals and as a species, and uses them as the basis to advocate for our self-imposed extinction, which is what these mechanisms are meant to prevent in the first place. Maverick Philosopher has attempted to solve this dilemma on his blog, with some success.

    I agree with Harris that it’s a blatant double standard for Benatar to apply an experiential mode of argumentation for one scenario (“people who aren’t born aren’t deprived of pleasure”) and an abstract, non-experiential mode for the other scenario (“absence of suffering is good even if there’s nobody to appreciate it”).

    I guess Benatar could say that, if it really is a double standard, then we are not justified in our practice of mercy killing when it comes to deformed fetuses or euthanasia for people who wish to end their lives, since the deformed fetus and the depressed person won’t benefit. But then all that leaves us with is the option to allow the deformed fetus to be born, to allow the depressed person to go on living against their will, which would of course be experientially bad. It’s all very paradoxical, but I may have thought of a solution. Anti-natalists say the absence of suffering is good even if there’s nobody there to appreciate it. I retort that, if one is going to say that something’s good in an abstract (that is, non-experiential) sense, then in order to be consistent, one would have to accept that a lack of happiness in the universe would also constitute an abstract negative. I managed to circumvent the aforementioned stalemate after reconsidering Benatar’s main asymmetry: that pain and suffering are more intense and enduring than pleasure and happiness. Therefore, one could say that, while the total absence of pleasure in the universe may constitute an abstract bad, one should place higher status on the abstract good of a universe completely devoid of suffering, since suffering is the more intense of the two states.

    And finally, I just wanted to highlight the problems with some of Benatar’s oft-repeated sentiments. “You can’t have a child for that child’s sake” is true, but it is equally true that you cannot *not* have a child for that child’s sake. “Non-existent people cannot offer consent to being born” is true, but they also cannot *withhold* consent. And as for his analogy about absent life on other planets, it occurs to me that we aren’t constantly rejoicing about the absence of suffering on Mars.

    • David
      Reply

      The principle of consent is to not put another in a situation without their consent. In procreation the application and breaking of the principle is virtually simultaneous. The only way to avoid breaking that principle is to not create the person.

      The problem is further exaserbated by the fact that once a person is in existence, they have an interest in continuing that existence, so once the person exists, it is too late to ask for consent. Therefore, the principle of consent should give us reason to refrain from imposing life onto another a priori.

      • Simon Elliot
        Reply

        Who is it you’re putting in a situation? The person doesn’t even exist yet, they’re completely hypothetical. In saying that life is imposed on the unborn, the anti-natalist is implying that a person and their life are two separate things, which we know they’re not. Unless you believe in souls, but let’s face it, if you were dumb enough to believe in souls I seriously doubt you’d be listening to this debate in the first place.

        If you are David Benatar, I’m very glad you’ve come across my objections. If not, well I’m glad someone’s paying my comment the attention I feel it deserves. Care to address any of the other things I said?

        • David
          Reply

          I am not David Benatar, but I think I understand the argument enough to respond.

          Agreed, before conception there is no actual person you are putting into that situation. The argument DB puts forward is to consider the two hypothetical situations of a either creating a new person or not doing so.

          First, we can both agree there is no harm done to a none existent person by not creating them. There is no soul knocking on your door begging to be given a home. Not creating someone harms no one.

          On the other hand, one can rationally say a person has done something wrong by creating a person knowing that the new person will suffer immensely. For example, I’m guessing you have no objection saying a couple that share a genetic flaw that makes it very likely their child will be born with no arms or legs does something wrong by not refraining from conceiving. In other words, it is good if they don’t procreate because of the potential harm that would come to their child. If you agree with that, I would have to ask your question back, who is it harming to create the child? Certainly not the child, since by your rationale, the child has no interests before it is created, so how could it be harmed?

          Alternatively, think about our concern for the environment. Who is harmed by us dumping millions of tons of garbage into the oceans? Certainly not people who are alive today. Doesn’t it make sense to say “I wish those people back 100 years ago didn’t put so much carbon into the atmosphere.” If that makes sense, then you can imagine 100 years from now people saying “I wish those people hadn’t dumped so much trash into the oceans.” Well, under your model, those future people don’t matter because they don’t exist yet.

          Under the antinatalist reckoning, we imagine the kind of harm that will befall a person and decide no benefit to existing people is worth the guaranteed and potential harm that person will face. Even the good parts of their life will only be as a contrast or rebellion to the harm/pain/suffering they will experience. There is nothing that justifies creating them.

          • Simon Elliot

            I’ve already been through all that. Read my main post again, you’ll see I solved the problem of abstract goods and bads.

          • Eva Khatchadourian

            I also think you really do understand the argumentation of anti-natalism quite well. 🙂

        • David
          Reply

          I also wanted to address this objection:

          //On his blog, Helian Unbound notes that anti-natalism is built on an inverted morality, in that it takes evolutionary mechanisms that we use to survive (compassion, empathy, and aversion to suffering), both as individuals and as a species, and uses them as the basis to advocate for our self-imposed extinction, which is what these mechanisms are meant to prevent in the first place.//

          If you understand how evolution works, then you realize these mechanisms aren’t “meant” at all. There is no intention of them doing this or that. They just happen to be the ones that caused our species to survive, but there is nothing intrinsically valuable about them, nor about the human race. You happen to find the idea of the human species going extinct deplorable because those are the sentiments that drove the continuation of the species.
          But we have developed a conscience now, and for better or worse, we make decisions based on it. People have no problem saying contraception is acceptable even though sperm is “meant” to fertilize an egg. So any talk of what some features of biology are “meant” to do is simply a kind of naturalistic fallacy.
          I can no longer, under good conscience, impose this life onto another being. By doing so I am ultimately responsible for all the tradgedy that will befall that creature since I had no external motivation for procreating in the first place. All reasons for having a child are necessarily selfish.

          • Simon Elliot

            Compassion, empathy, and aversion to suffering are also sentiments that drove the continuation of the species. I’m not implying purpose in evolution as such, but these mechanism do serve a biological function – the continuation of the species – and by using them as the basis for ending the species, that is the inversion aspect. Helian Unbound was the first to note this, but Maverick Philosopher has, at least in part, found a way to negotiate around this dilemma. I did try to inform Helian about this here: http://helian.net/blog/2016/04/13/morality/anti-natalism-for-thee-but-not-for-me/

  • Cathar Knight
    Reply

    Benatar devastated Peterson here, it was embarrassing to witness how flustered Peterson got whilst failing to provide anything approaching firm refusal of Benatar’s points. Props to benatar and host both for keeping their cool.

      • Eva Khatchadourian
        Reply

        Benatar does have some points that are stronger and some that are weaker, yet in general he’s alright. After all, he’s an internationally-known professional philosopher who has managed numerous serious debates on this particular subject with many other people actually holding a degree in philosophy. He’s been doing this since the last millennium and he still isn’t drowned by the professional philosophical community. That tells something about how weak his argumentation is.

  • Neutrino Increasing
    Reply

    Peterson was way out of his depth here… Some cheap rhetoric, too. “B…b…but muh anti-natalist school shooters!”

    • machio
      Reply

      I think Peterson had a hard time wrapping his head around Benatars arguments but Benatar had his own weakpoints, especially the intrinsic interest in staying alive for people that are already alive as a convenient excuse for why hes not encouraging killing anyone.

      You can say its unfair but nihilistic mass murderers and anti natalist do start from the same premise that being is undesirable, so i think its fair enough. It’s not dissimiliar from the early eugenics trends of trying to breed the strong to culling the weak stemming from the same core beliefs.

      I also thought it was strange how Benatar didn’t expect to stop the entire human race from procreating but hoped he could stop just a few couples. wouldn’t the, perhaps misguided, but in his mind more moral couples not procreating while others do make the world worse for everyone?

      You may as well say that as much evil as you do wiping everyone out it would be balanced out by the prevention of suffering of humans that could be born for thousands of years after.

      Alternatively you could make a sort of communist utopia argument that the suffering now and in the past will be worth it if we reach a high level soceity without suffering that persists for a long time. I don’t agree with that but it fits in Benatars moral framework.

      • Eva Khatchadourian
        Reply

        I also don’t agree with this communist utopia argument, yet such things never fitted in Benatar’s framework in any case. Even perfectly good lives of those merely possible people in some distant future are not worthy of suffering of generations between now and then, he always specifically mentions this.

        And even though there might be things with the potential to make the previous sentient beings’ suffering become at least not entirely futile, that things would be something like various kinds of help to non-human creatures who lack human intellectual capacity and thus unable to do much about their suffering without us. But surely that something possibly rendering the previous tragedy and bloodbath less in vain, that can’t be the happiness of the people who don’t even need it (or anything at all) because they never existed and never will exist unless we make them to.

      • Eva Khatchadourian
        Reply

        By the by, of course, he doesn’t encourage killings. For non-optimistic people there’s nothing inique in this. Anti-natalists are obviously not the only sombre kind in the world. Also we anti-natalists (even Benatar with his extinction wish!) are not even the gloomiest among others. Some worldviews claim rather more than our philosophy does. For instance, one such perspective, i.e. Buddhism, claims that life is suffering (whereas we mostly say that the suffering of life is severely underrated). And yet these various different kinds of other pessimists still don’t really recommend murdering.

  • singh99@gmail.com
    Reply

    Benatar is very nihilistic in his worldview. scary! I do not agree with other people’s assessment that Dr. Peterson lost this discussion.

    • Eva Khatchadourian
      Reply

      Well, given there’s some very alternative definition of nihilism then, of course, it’s possible to label him as having a nihilistic worldview.

      There’s only one aspect in which his view is nihilistic and that’s his denial of cosmic meaning. However, that is all.

  • singh99@gmail.com
    Reply

    I am seeing an increased anti -human, anti -life , nihilistic perspective coming from die – hard atheists and many regressive leftist thinkers and I find that rather alarming. Dr. Peterson is the reasonable one in this debate. What about the argument that instead of people coming into the word and doing harm, many are doing good as Doctors, inventors, teachers etc The Buddha said, life is suffering but we are to nobly carry our suffering and accept it.

    • Tom More
      Reply

      Postmodernism is the last train station at the end of the line. Where materialism leads. Nowhere. A materialistic view.. one that ignores the west’s form and matter from Aristotle ends up without even the possibility of understanding life. Final cause is the end or purpose of things,, intentionality.. Materialism is necessarily stupid in an idiot-savantish manner. We know subatomic physics but don’t know why we shouldn’t kill ourselves. That’s deeply unintelligent. Again.. I’d recommend philosophers like Ed Feser, Mortimer Adler and discover why your best intuitions and hopes are perfectly well founded. Suffering has meaning and is no necessary obstacle to joy. Cheers

      • Montague
        Reply

        I thought I smelt Thomism before I saw you mentioned Ed Feser. That’s the good stuff.
        I second Mr. More. What we need is a return to talking about final cause, form, intention, etc.

    • pernath's hat
      Reply

      Whether or not one agrees or disagrees with folks like Peterson, it is hard to deny that they are honest seekers. David Benatar, on the other hand, acts as if he is in the possession of absolute Gnostic truth. From Voegeling: “… a type of thinking that claims absolute cognitive mastery of reality. Relying as
      it does on a claim to gnosis, gnosticism considers its knowledge not subject to
      criticism.”

      • Eva Khatchadourian
        Reply

        Benatar acts merely like a man relying on an extensive body of psychological research. It’s not him himself claiming he knows better than all other people, it’s the abundant evidence of human cognitive biases. Also he considers what his opponents have to say and always recognizes the posibility of him being wrong, as any clever person should do yet so many still refuse to.

        Peterson, btw, doesn’t really look like an honest seeker to me. More like a pretty pushy and rather cunning businessman who promotes his profitable consulting services among those who are susceptible to his image of a ‘harsh yet just’ spiritual leader, the part of whom he plays so well.

        • konfab
          Reply

          Except all of Peterson’s lectures on this stuff are free on Youtube and Podcasts.
          Can you point me to Benetar’s Youtube channel where I can listen to him flesh this out? Of course not.

          Instead of casting your biases on Peterson because he disagreed with someone you agree with, listen to his lectures on the Psychological significance of the biblical stories. They are good listen, even if you are an atheist

          • Eva Khatchadourian

            My goodness, that’s so bluntly, so patently silly! Impressive. No, I’m not going to even waste my time explaining anything to you, young man. Believe whatever you desire.

  • Tom More
    Reply

    The frame of what constitutes existence, life’s context is at issue. I think Aristotle and Aquinas.. classic western metaphysics.. show that there is a God.. final cause, Actus Purus or pure act and do so on the basis of the nature of something we all experience, change. And I think its pretty obvious that we have free will .. we need it to decide whether we have it or not.. and that this faculty can’t be physical .. and free at the same time.. so there’s something about us that is “spiritual” or an active principle that is not reducible to matter. And the Pure Actuality necessary to explain contingent and finite being.. willed us here as we see in formal and final causation. I’m really glad I was able to be exposed to Plato , Aristotle, Aquinas and the greats of western intellectual life. How many of us were never told and never knew that our basic word “information” comes from Plato’s theory of “forms” cleaned up by Aristotlle , Aquinas and the Scholastics. Ed Feser is a good philosopher to read on this stuff. Life is more, not less than we think it.

  • Spencer Tasker
    Reply

    And if antinatalism finds a foothold where will it be? Who is it that will take on this dismal creed? Will it be internalised by communities where birthrates are high and opportunities few or by the self-flagellating, angst-ridden West which already has trouble replacing its own population?
    Given the obvious answer to this question it is hard to see this as anything but another line of attack on Western Civilisation by an increasingly unhinged left.

    • Simon Elliot
      Reply

      Well anti-natalism is an apolitical philosophy, and although it might be disruptive to the white western world at this very crucial time, I don’t see how that has any bearing on its validity.

      • pernath's hat
        Reply

        I’d be interested in any proofs to the contrary but, in my experience, while there is a lot of far left anti-natalists, I am yet to encounter a single right wing or conservative who is also an anti-natalist. While some key thinkers and their followers might see their philosophy as apolitical, it indeed seems to be attractive to one “side” but not the other. To quote another major modern anti-natalist, Thomas Ligotti, “I am a liberal who wishes to see the destruction of the human race.”

        • Simon Elliot
          Reply

          Well you have now. I used to be in the white nationalist camp, although I’m of course an atheist and have never been a trad-con. I still have a lot of sympathy for the white nationalists, but I have too many disagreements with them now to ever consider myself one of them again.

          • Simon Elliot

            White nationalism isn’t synonymous with conservatism, I don’t think. Anti-natalism certainly isn’t synonymous with nihilism, because that would be a contradiction in terms. Nihilists have only the most rudimentary values; other than their own immediate welfare, they don’t care about anything. Anti-natalism is motivated by compassion, so clearly it’s not nihilistic.

  • Manfred Arcane
    Reply

    Benatar was unwilling to face the possible evil consequences of his philosophy – something that even the hosts, who seemingly sided with him, acknowledged when they said how dangerous anti-natalism might be. I refuse to believe that he is so naive.

    • Eva Khatchadourian
      Reply

      Almost anything might have bad consequences. And coming into existence is the first thing falling into that category.

  • konfab
    Reply

    There is a simple way to disprove Benatar’s point of view. Someone not existing causes good for the world according to Benatar.
    If you kill someone, that is a negative, but that is outweighed by all the good by preventing them from having any children. So it is one large negative vs millions of small positives. According to the philosophy that Benatar has put forward, Hitler did nothing wrong by preventing all those millions of Jewish children being born.

    This would therefore justify all murder and all genocide. You don’t even have to resort to killing a person, simply sterilizing them would cause the good of not having any suffering descendants.

    • Eva Khatchadourian
      Reply

      Except, of course, this’s just not Benatar’s viewpoint.

      NEVER EXISTING IN THE FIRST PLACE is what’s better. Not STOPPING to exist.

    • vetiarvi
      Reply

      You’re misunderstanding what he said. You’re not allowed to kill someone against their choice. That’s unethical. The net suffering that didn’t happen because the descendents of the jews didn’t exist is a positive thing indeed. However, you’re still not allowed to kill someone to get that positive thing. Makes sense now?

      • konfab
        Reply

        Benetar’s whole thesis is based on utilitarianism, which means you have to sum up positives and negatives of not existing. This means putting in an evil like killing someone on the table is perfectly valid because people killing other people is a perfectly reasonable thing to discuss when you are discussing morality. It is even more of a reasonable thing to discuss when you are describing a moral system which ascribes value to living and not living.

        You can’t use a utilitarian argument, then reject it in the same thesis.

        • Eva Khatchadourian
          Reply

          What exactly made you think he’s a utilitarian at all? I’ve been reading his stuff for years and have always suspected he’s quite possibly a deontologist.

          • konfab

            “That alleged utilitarianism thing has to do with the Asymmetry, I take it. With the misreading of its nature (which is really axiological and not arithmetical). ”

            You will need to explain more why it is axiological and not arithmetical. Especially when you can very clearly argue with the premise that preventing one person from being born, prevents more than one person from suffering.

            It is arithmetical in my view because Benetar is very clearly stating (for this purposes , negatives is suffering, positives is not suffering), that 0>-1, or that the absence of suffering is a better moral standpoint than a life in that will have both positive and negative.

            Peterson is the one here who is going out and saying that the utilitarian argument doesn’t apply. Peterson is arguing that just because life is most likely going to contain suffering, it doesn’t make it less meaningful. Who knows, maybe we are required to suffer some amount such that we actually know what non-suffering feels like.

            And you still haven’t addressed my second part where I offer a more ethical option of sterilizing everyone. With that you are not killing anyone, and yet it would be the 2nd place for Benetar in terms of moral high ground.

  • Matthew Brough
    Reply

    Crucially, Benatar’s ‘philosophy’ doesn’t even get off the ground because it’s whole function is to limit the role of our most sensitive/altruistic people. The most extreme version of this is to hand creative power entirely back to amoral nature. It fails even by its own weird standards.

    There are other reasons why I find his ideas appalling, but this one objection seems to cut them off of the legs. He’s trying to use weapons he doesn’t have to reduce suffering.

  • Matthew Brough
    Reply

    Crucially, Benatar’s ‘philosophy’ doesn’t even get off the ground because its whole function is to limit the role of our most sensitive/altruistic people. The most extreme version of this is to hand creative power entirely back to amoral nature. It fails even by its own weird standards.

    There are other reasons why I find his ideas appalling, but this one objection seems to cut them off of the legs. He’s trying to use weapons he doesn’t have to reduce suffering.

  • Matthew Brough
    Reply

    Crucially, Benatar’s ‘philosophy’ doesn’t even get off the ground because its whole function is to limit the role of our most sensitive/altruistic people. The most extreme version of this is to hand creative power entirely back to amoral nature. It fails even by its own weird standards.

    There are other reasons why I find his ideas appalling, but this one objection seems to cut off their legs. He’s trying to use weapons he doesn’t have to reduce suffering.

    • Eva Khatchadourian
      Reply

      And this’s why not exactly all anti-natalists think that Benatar’s vision of anti-natalistic implementation is the best practical approach. There are other, not so dramatic, more realistic and less fringe ways, things that are actually doable and can yield better results with smaller downsides. Obviously, trying to persuade general population not to have children since it’s better never to have existed would be hugely less effective than managing just some decrease in pro-life nonsense or than just some increase in contraception use.

  • Matteo Manferdini
    Reply

    This was so painful to listen, almost to the point of being unbearable.

    Practically, all Benatar does is make a nihilistic claim, and then try to justify it with the most absurd examples to not concede any ground when his claims are challenged by sensible arguments.

    • Eva Khatchadourian
      Reply

      Examples which aren’t real are actually rather common in philosophy. That doesn’t make them unworthy of attention. But I can say even more: it’s not just philosophy which operates that way. Even science builds quite enough on things that one will never observe in the actual world. Yet all of that has value regardless.

  • Eva Khatchadourian
    Reply

    So it’s very simple. Actually, not at all every anti-natalist wants humanity to go extinct. There are also those who definitely don’t, because human is the only known sapient species, moreover, it’s possible no other species will ever evolve enough to become capable of doing something about the nature red in tooth and claw and the suffering inherent in it.

    Now it can be seen that any counterpoints against anti-natalism which are based on “oh, these frightening anti-natalists want the mankind to die out!” – are not in fact counterpoints against anti-natalism per se, they’re only arguments against the most dramatic subversion of it. There are also very devoted anti-natalists holding that humans are, whether we like it or not, pretty much needed, because no other known creatures can possibly provide anti-natalistic and all other help for all the rest of the sentience (and potential sentience) in the universe.

    Of course, we anti-natalists do respect Benatar (what with his scrupulous work and his enviable composure), yet his dying-out wish is his own wish, not every other anti-natalist’s. So even in the event that extinction-desiring Benatarianism after all falls through something, anti-natalism in general will stand regardless and be largely unaffected by it.

  • Eva Khatchadourian
    Reply

    Nazis were in fact combining both pro-natalism and pro-mortalism. Real anti-natalism would be far too altruistic and ethical for such inhumane individuals. And generally, scaremongering claims were an extremely shaky ground in this debate precisely because of the huge amount of awful things that so many people – not in one’s imagination but IN REALITY! – have been doing for ages and all in the name of this or that faith, or in the name of some social system, or in the name of their love, for that matter.

    Said amount of awfulness is just huge already. Yet things can go even much, much worse in the future (which is a very possible perspective). However, it’s very doubtful this means that various confessions, social systems and even love should be subjected to blanket condemnation on the basis of the fact that some people for their own ends can abuse and distort practically anything around their disgusting selves.