On the alleged harms and benefits

of coming into existence and go­ing out of existence (death)

Karim Akerma

Does it make sense to speak of THE HARM OF COMING INTO EXISTENCE?1 I think it doesn’t. This might please quite a few people as the topic of THE HARM OF COMING INTO EXISTENCE serves as a mind-tool for antinatalists in order to argue for an abstention from procreation. However, things are much more intricate than that. THE HARM OF COMING INTO EXISTENCE uses a logic which presupposes a transition from non-existence into existence in such a way that we can harm people or other sentient beings by causing their existence. In my (and others’) view, however, a being has to exist in the first place in order to be harmed. Thus, having come into existence is a conditio sine qua non to be harmed. Coming into existence cannot do harm to a sentient being because this would imply that it exists while it experiences the harm of coming into existence. Which is contradictory. Many will readily agree to this. – As they would presumably agree to the assumption that an elementary particle is not affected by its coming into existence.

Now, if we do not accept transitions from non-existence into existence in the above mentioned manner, we should, for similar reasons, not accept any transitions between non-existence and existence as being harmful for the beings in question. Although many may welcome the refutation of THE HARM OF COMING INTO EXISTENCE, many more will perhaps dislike at least some of the results that ensue if we take seriously the argumentation according to which the existence of a sentient being is necessary in order for it to be affected. This is so because what applies to harm should also apply to benefits. And what applies to the so called COMING INTO EXISTENCE of sentient beings should also apply to their GOING OUT OF EXISTENCE. If transitions between existence and non-existence never affect sentient beings or people, it yields four claims:

  1. No living being is harmed by coming into existence

  2. No living being is benefitted by coming into existence.

  3. No living being is harmed by having gone out of existence.

  4. No living being is benefitted by having gone out of existence.

1 No living being is harmed by coming into existence

Some antinatalists say we should abstain from procreation because any sentient being is harmed by coming into existence. To this a pronatalist may reply: By adding an additional sentient being to the world, you do not harm the as yet non-existent additional being, not even if it suffers from the very first moment of its existence on. Prior to “its” coming into existence, the living being wasn't there in limbo in order to subsequently experience the alleged harm of coming into a lamentable existence. Before it had come into existence it existed only in our imagination and expectations. Unless you resort to pre-existence, transitions between non-existence and existence are not person-affecting.

2 No living being is benefitted by coming into existence.2

In the same manner in which the beginning of their existence did not harm living beings that are around us, it did not benefit them. While antinatalists cannot point to the harm that is done to additional living beings when we cause their coming into existence, pronatalists cannot point to the pleasure of coming into existence. This translates also as: There is no gift of life. Even so, Derek Parfit stresses that “starting to exist and ceasing to exist both happen to actual people. This is why we can claim that they can be either good or bad for these people.” (Reasons and Persons, p 489). Here, Parfit seems mistaken. Rather than to actual people, “starting to exist” happens to the world or, if you like, to being. If “ceasing to exist” refers to the process of dying, then it really happens to actual people. – Whereas “the end of someone’s existence” (death) doesn’t happen to actual people but rather to encompassing being.

To defend antinatalism, Benatar posits his viewpoint on one side of an ontic gap (the gap between non-existence and existence), against the backdrop of which all comparisons with respect to people are vain – because those people do not exist. He is nonetheless convinced that people are harmed by coming into existence. Side by side with Benatar, this time in order to defend pronatalism, Nils Holtug claims that people can be benefitted by their coming into existence and speaks of “the harm of non-existence” (Holtug: ON THE VALUE OF COMING INTO EXISTENCE, in: The Journal of Ethics 5: 361–384, 2001).

3 No living being is harmed by going out of existence.

There is a wide consent on the view that going out of existence permanently – also known as death – harms the living being that goes out of existence.

I am a living being and a person at that. What do I have in mind when claiming that my going out of existence (my death) would do me no harm? Think of a situation in which I am at the mercy of a relentless kidnapper who announces to me that he will shoot me the next day. Such an announcement would cause considerable harm to me, namely as long as I am alive. Take a different scenario: I go out for a walk. As I pass an archway a falling icicle is hitting my head. I am dead in the fraction of a second, I didn’t see or hear the icicle coming and felt no pain. Was I harmed when I ceased to exist permanently? I think not. Before I could ponder on the harm that might go along with my ceasing to exist I had already ceased to exist. I for one would even subscribe to not being harmed if someone would shoot me from ambush causing my ceasing to exist in the fraction of a second. Things are different, of course, if I survive. Usually death is consi­dered the severest harm that can befall a man. In the light of sober (that is: Epicurean) reflection it is no harm at all. What is bad is the prospect of death, while death, my ceasing to exist forever, isn't bad for me – however bad it may be for others.

I can lose everything – except my life. The end of my life amounts to the end of my existence, ie the one whose existence is necessary in order to experience harm and losses.

All this does not imply that I do not want to live on. It simply amounts to my conviction that in order to be harmed I have to continue to exist in the first place. Which in turn implies that a thorn in my flesh would do me more harm than my death.

4 No living being is benefitted by going out of existence.

Quite a few people are convinced that some living beings are benefitted when they go out of existence, namely those who suffer substantially. In a similar manner in which I hold that coming into existence never harms or benefits the living being that will exist from now on, I hold that no living being is benefitted by its ceasing to exist. Consider: I survive a gun attack in in the wake of which I am harmed considerably. There is no remedy and I want to die. A benign doctor gives me a lethal injection saying: “This will help you.” If I had the spirit I would contest: “Thank you for the lethal injection. However, it won’t help me. This is so because shortly I, the one you wanted to help, will have ceased to exist. Thank you anyway for diminishing the amount of suffering in the world.”

Is there a lesson we can draw from the inadmissability of moral judgements that rely on transitions between existence and non-existence? Parfit concedes: “I ought to save a drowning child’s life. If I do not thereby benefit this child, this part of morality cannot be explained in person-affecting terms.” (Reasons and Persons, p. 490) With respect to ethical reflections on living beings that comprise both sides of the borderline of existence and non-existence we apparently have to leave person-affecting terminology and should resort to an impersonal viewpoint.

1 This is the subtitle of David Benatars book BETTER NEVER TO HAVE BEEN, Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press 2006.

2 Cf. Derek Parfit on „Whether causing someone to exist can benefit this person“ in his REASONS AND PERSONS, Oxford University Press 1984, p. 487ff.

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