Christopher Belshaw’s Review:
Better if it had never been

David Benatar

In the preface to my book, Better Never to Have Been1, I predicted that many “readers will be inclined to dismiss my arguments and will do so too hastily”. “When rejecting an unpopular view”, I noted, “it is extraordinarily easy to be overly confident in the force of one’s responses” (p. vii).

If Christopher Belshaw read those words before he wrote his glib review2 of my book, then he certainly did not take them to heart. That, however, is in keeping with his reading of the rest of the book.

Dr Belshaw’s review of my book bears a number of hallmarks of unfairness. These include mischaracterizing, ignoring or trivializing my central arguments, and raising objections without mentioning that I anticipate these and respond to them. Unfortunately this will be apparent only to those who have already read the book, whereas the primary readership of a book review consists of those who have not read the book being reviewed.

Dr Belshaw’s reconstruction of and response to my central argument is meandering. Instead of stepping us through an argument systematically, he makes three attempts at characterising and responding to my argument.

In his first attempt, he asks his readers to consider an “initial asymmetry”: whereas we have an obligation not to start lives that will be very bad, we have no obligation to start lives that will be as good as human lives get. Most people think, however, that although we have no obligation to start good lives, it is permissible for us to do so. “If your life is going to be good”, he says, “you’re not harmed by being brought into existence”. He then says that I think “that while this is true of a uniformly good life – it isn’t true for mixed lives, those that contain perhaps a lot of pleasure but still some degree of pain”.

This is a shoddy representation of my argument. The deontic asymmetry to which Dr Belshaw refers is not the initial (or most basic) asymmetry in my argument. Thus, contrary to his misrepresentation of what I said, I did not attempt to infer that coming into existence is always a harm from the deontic asymmetry. I did refer to the deontic asymmetry, as well as to many other widely accepted claims, but I suggested that these are all best explained by a much deeper asymmetry between pleasure and pain. According to this deeper asymmetry, the presence of pain is bad and the absence of pain is good, but whereas the presence of pleasure is good, the absence of pleasure is bad only if somebody is deprived of that pleasure. If nobody is deprived of an absent pleasure – because the person who would have experienced the pleasure never existed – then the absence of that pleasure is not bad. I argued at some length for this asymmetry and then showed why it entails that coming into existence is always a harm (unless a life contains no pain). Dr Belshaw ignores all this, preferring a sloppily constructed straw man. In a second attempt at presenting my argument, Dr Belshaw does obliquely refer to the deeper asymmetry, but he considers none of the arguments for it.

One response to my argument, he says, “is to abandon the asymmetry” because “it is more likely that Benatar’s claim is false than that the asymmetry is true”. Here he makes no mention of the fact that I anticipate this very objection. It goes without saying, therefore, that he does not consider or reply to my detailed response to it. Instead he gives his readers the impression that considering this objection simply eluded me.

Dr Belshaw then proceeds to offer another response – denying that my conclusion follows from the asymmetry. This too is a response that I considered in my book. I did not consider Dr Belshaw’s specific way of denying the inference, but that is only because his way has so little to be said for it. He argues as follows. First he considers a situation in which one can bring seven lives into existence, six of which will be good while the seventh will be very bad. Of this case, Dr Belshaw says that “we can’t justify starting this bad life by appeal to the good in other, separate, lives”. “So far”, he says, “things are going Benatar’s way”. But then he asks us to consider another situation – one in which one can bring a “mixed life into existence”. Of such a life he says as follows:

“Depending on the mix, this life may well not be bad. Even if a life contains elements which, on their own, would make it worse than nothing and no element which makes it better than nothing, still, when mixed, these elements might render the life not worse than nothing.”
He concludes that a “view that is plausible over separate lives is not obviously plausible over blended elements within a life”.

Dr Belshaw seems oblivious to how little argumentative work he has done here. Indeed, all he has done is gesture at the fact that most people reject my conclusion.

However, in doing so he has not shown that my arguments do not lead to my conclusion. This is because instead of actually considering my argument, he considers only the palatability of my conclusion. He has shown only that most people’s initial reaction to his “mixed life” case is that it may, under the right circumstances, not be a harm to start. He has certainly not shown what he wants to conclude: “give Benatar a charitable reading and there are still objections to be made. Give him what may in the end be a fairer reading, and the objections are stronger”.

In his third characterization of my argument, Dr Belshaw says that I argue as follows:

“suppose you can choose between two packages. The first contains something good and something bad, while the second contains something good and something neutral. The second package is to be preferred. But the first package is one in which we exist … The second is one in which we don’t exist …. So on balance, existence is worse than non-existence”.
This argument, Dr Belshaw pronounces to be a “dreadful argument”. It is, he says, “most obviously dreadful in taking no account of the quantities of pleasure and pain involved”.

This diagnosis presupposes that the quantities of pleasure and pain are indeed relevant. My arguments show that they are relevant in many cases, but not in cases where the absent pleasures do not constitute a deprivation for anybody – that is, in cases where we are choosing whether to bring somebody into existence. In dismissing my argument as “dreadful”, Dr Belshaw surreptitiously appeals to people’s intuitions in cases where somebody is deprived of absent pleasures, and he completely ignores my arguments for why these judgements should not apply in cases of bringing people into existence.

Here, finally, Dr Belshaw does at least admit that I consider his objection. However, he does so begrudgingly. He says: “You might think that Benatar must at least anticipate this objection”. This sounds like a prelude to an announcement that I do not. Yet he then concedes that I do anticipate the objection. You might think that he would then spell out my response and reply to it. Instead, in the final sentence of his review he baldly states, without offering any justification, that I appear “almost altogether to misunderstand” the objection. Here he seems not to have followed NDPR reviewer guidelines to “give reasons for any evaluations, particularly negative ones”.

In my response to Dr Belshaw’s review I have focused on his criticism of my central argument. However, the first three quarters of his review are devoted to the rest of the book. Here he summarizes my views, again often simplistically or inaccurately, while taking numerous unsubstantiated sideswipes. I shall not respond to each of these, both because they are less important and because I have already demonstrated the quality of his review. Those who want to know just how compelling my arguments are would do better to read my book rather than Dr Belshaw’s glib dismissal of my conclusion, a dismissal that he mistakenly thinks is a refutation of my arguments.

1 David Benatar, Better Never to Have Been, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
2 Christopher Belshaw, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, 9 June 2006,

Dr Belshaw's review

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David Benatar, Univ. of Capetown
(more reviews of Better Never to Have Been plus author's response)
Edmund Gurney
Arthur Schopenhauer
The Pinprick Argument
The Abolitionist Project
Reprogramming Predators
The Repugnant Conclusion
Better Never to Have Been?
R.N. Smart's reply to Popper