Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Better Never to Have Been?


“I am expecting to kill myself.” 
Not my words, I hasten to add, but those of the writer and broadcaster, Will Self, speaking on Radio 4’s ‘A Point of View’ back in January.
The reason he gave for this gloomy prognosis was that life will eventually become so intolerable that suicide will be the preferable alternative. Many of us wind up with painful illnesses for which the only relief is morphine. Others suffer mental degeneration. What is needed, he argued, is the honesty to admit that this is the case and the courage to make the appropriate provision in medicine and law.
But what do we mean by an ‘intolerable’ life? Just a few days later, the papers carried the story of 46 year old Belgian twins Marc and Eddy Verbessem, who apparently chose euthanasia when they discovered they were going blind. According to reports, the twins, who had lived together since birth, were already deaf and could not bear the idea of a future in which they would also be unable to see one another.
Meanwhile, at the same time I was hearing Will Self and reading about the Verbessem brothers, I picked up a book by South African philosopher David Benatar titled Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence.
Benatar’s thesis is simple. Life always involves suffering and this suffering generally increases as we get older. But it is there even while we are young. Think how much babies cry. And it is more of a feature of life than we care to admit. (Are you sitting comfortably? I thought not.)
Now this doesn’t mean we should all immediately rush out and kill ourselves, Benatar argues. Once we are alive, we will naturally want to prolong our existence — provided the positives, or potential positives, outweigh the negatives.
But, says Benatar, not existing means not suffering at all. Therefore, as the title of his book says and taking everything into account, it is ‘better never to have been’. Hence, he concludes, a completely rational approach to suffering would mean, as far as possible, avoiding procreation.
And given Will Self’s gloomy outlook, he surely has a point. Why have children who are just going to grow up, grow old, get ill and kill themselves?
“But what about all the fun they might have in between?” you ask.
“Ah, but you said ‘might’,” we can imagine Benatar replying, “My point exactly. But they are certainly going to suffer. Better never to have been than to experience suffering, to know it is just going to get worse and eventually to contemplate killing yourself.”
It’s enough to put you off your breakfast. But there may be an alternative. The other thing Will Self and David Benatar have in common, apart from a gloomy view of life, is that they are both atheists. (What I admire about Benatar is that he is a consistent atheist, ready to admit that whilst our lives may be worth prolonging, there is a reasonable argument that life itself is better not begun.)
Christians, however, have just been commemorating Easter and remembering a life which began in a food-trough and ended on a cross — the life of someone whom the Bible calls “A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”
Yet Christians also believe that the man who died on the cross rose from the dead three days later, appeared to his followers and commissioned them to preach his resurrection to a world living in the shadow of death. Many people today dismiss this as irrational. Actually it is one of the few things that makes rational sense of life as we know it.

This post first appeared as the 'Vicar's Letter' in our Benefice village magazines for April 2013
 
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6 comments:

  1. Will Self, professor of contemporary thought: "There seems to be this view abroad that marriage is only made of a man and a woman, whatever they may be".

    When a man cannot recognise the physical reality of his own body, what chance does that man have of recognising his own life?

    With regard to life and suffering, Benatar is doing what those in favour of abortion have to do: throw language at the truth, and hope people fall between the cracks in his language.

    Suffering is a possibility arising from being alive (there is no possibility of snooker balls suffering. They cannot suffer because they are not alive). But "cannot" is not the same as "do not". If we are not alive, we cannot suffer (suffering is an impossibility). If we are alive, we can suffer (suffering is a possibility). That possibility allows us to experience "i do suffer", and "i do not suffer". Benatar experiences "i do suffer", and his answer is "i cannot live". But in not living, it is no longer possible for him to experience "i do not suffer". In contrast, our answer to our experiencing "i do suffer" can be "i can live".

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