May 26, 2024

South African bioethicist David Benatar explores the human predicament

And finds that it is not pleasant

For about four years, it seemed likely that Cape Town would become the world’s first major city in modern times to run out of water. Fortunately, that danger was averted by about March this year, but not before millions of words were spilled about the hopelessness of its plight.

Whether or not this bleak situation influenced David Benatar’s latest book, The Human Predicament, it certainly is an emblem of his pessimism. Professor Benatar, the head of the bioethics centre at the University of Cape Town, became a kind of intellectual celebrity with his 2006 book, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence. The New Yorker has even described the bioethicist as “the world’s most pessimistic philosopher”. With the shade of Schopenhauer hovering over history's cavalcade of philosophers, this is a very big call, but Benatar's anti-natalist view that bringing children into the world is a kind of cruelty, may support it.

His latest book continues in the same vein. According to the publisher, Oxford University Press:

Benatar argues that while our lives can have some meaning, cosmically speaking we are ultimately the insignificant beings that we often fear we are. A candid appraisal reveals that the quality of life, although less bad for some people than for others, leaves much to be desired in even the best cases. But death, David Benatar argues, is hardly the solution. Our mortality exacerbates rather than mitigates our cosmic meaninglessness. It can release us from suffering but even when it does it imposes another cost – annihilation. This unfortunate state of affairs has nuanced implications for how we should think about immortality, about suicide, and about the aspects of life in which we can and do find deeper meaning.

Perhaps the pessimism has something to do with Benatar’s utilitarianism, upon which his arguments are largely based. While academic utilitarians may be karaoke champs on their weekends off, reading their dour and earnest prose suggests otherwise.

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