A Philosopher's Blog

Better to be Nothing?

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on June 8, 2015

There is an old legend that king Midas for a long time hunted the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, in the forests, without catching him. When Silenus finally fell into the king’s hands, the king asked what was the best thing of all for men, the very finest. The daemon remained silent, motionless and inflexible, until, compelled by the king, he finally broke out into shrill laughter and said these words, “Suffering creature, born for a day, child of accident and toil, why are you forcing me to say what would give you the greatest pleasure not to hear? The very best thing for you is totally unreachable: not to have been born, not to exist, to be nothing. The second best thing for you, however, is this — to die soon.”

 

-Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy

 

One rather good metaphysical question is “why is there something rather than nothing?” An interesting question in the realm of value is “is it better to be nothing rather than something?” That is, is it better “not to have been born, not to exist, to be nothing?”

Addressing the question does require sorting out the measure of value that should be used to decide whether it is better to not exist or to exist. One stock approach is to use the crude currencies of pleasure and pain. A somewhat more refined approach is to calculate in terms of happiness and unhappiness. Or one could simply go generic and use the vague categories of positive value and negative value.

What also must be determined are the rules of the decision. For the individual, a sensible approach would be the theory of ethical egoism—that what a person should do is what maximizes the positive value for her. On this view, it would be better if the person did not exist if her existence would generate more negative than positive value for her. It would be better if the person did exist if her existence would generate more positive than negative value for her.

To make an argument in favor of never existing being better than existing, one likely approach is to make use of the classic problem of evil as laid out by David Hume. When discussing this matter, Hume contends that everyone believes that life is miserable and he lays out an impressive catalog of pains and evils. While he considers that pain is less frequent than pleasure, he notes that even if this is true, pain “is infinitely more violent and durable.” As such, Hume makes a rather good case that the negative value of existence outweighs its positive value.

If it is true that the negative value outweighs the positive value, and better is measured in terms of maximizing value, then it would thus seem to be better to have never existed. After all, existence will result (if Hume is right) in more pain than pleasure. In contrast, non-existence will have no pain (and no pleasure) for a total of zero. Doing the value math, since zero is greater than a negative value, never existing is better than existing.

There does seem to be something a bit odd about this sort of calculation. After all, if the person does not exist, then her pleasure and pain would not balance to zero. Rather it would seem that this sum would be an undefined value. It cannot be better for a person that she not exist, since there would (obviously) not be anyone for the nonexistence to be better for.

This can be countered by saying that this is but a semantic trick—the nonexistence would be better than the existence because of the relative balance of pleasure and pain. There is also another approach—to broaden the calculation from the individual to the world.

In this case, the question would not be about whether it would be better for the individual to exist or not, but whether or not a world with the individual would be better than a world without the individual. If a consequentialist approach is assumed, it is assumed that pain and pleasure are the measure of value and it is assumed that the pain outweighs the pleasure in every life, then the world would be better if a person never existed. This is because the absence of an individual would reduce the overall pain. Given these assumptions, a world with no humans at all would be a better world. This could be extended to its logical conclusion: if the suffering outweighs the pleasures in the case of all beings (Hume did argue that the suffering of all creatures exceeds their enjoyments), then it would be better that no feeling creatures existed at all. At this point, one might as well do away with existence altogether and have nothing. Thus, while it might not be known why there is something rather than nothing, this argument would seem to show that it would be better to have nothing rather than something.

Of course, this reasoning rests on many assumptions that can be easily challenged. It can be argued that the measure of value is not to be done solely in terms of pleasures and pains—that is, even if life resulted in more pain than pleasure, the overall positive value could be greater than the negative value. For example, the creation of art and the development of knowledge could provide value that outweighs the pain. It could also be argued that the consequentialist approach is in error—that estimating the worth of life is not just a matter of tallying up the negative and positive. There are, after all, many other moral theories regarding the value of existence. It is also possible to dispute the claim that pain exceeds pleasure (or that unhappiness exceeds happiness).

One could also take a long view—even if pain outweighs pleasure now, humans seem to be making a better world and advancing technology. As such, it is easy to imagine that a better world lies ahead and it depends on our existence. That is, if one looks beyond the pleasure and pain of one’s own life and considers the future of humanity, the overall balance could very well be that the positive outweighs the negative. As such, it would be better for a person to exist—assuming that she has a role in the causal chain leading to that ultimate result.

 

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  1. Larry Sanger said, on June 8, 2015 at 9:41 am

    Hi Mike,

    What bothers me about such hedonic analyses is that it is quite obvious that we hold at least one sort of thing to be valuable, even fundamentally valuable, completely independently of pleasure or pain, happiness or unhappiness. I refer to the value of life itself. When I value my child, I do of course value my child’s happiness, but that is quite distinguishable from my child, and while I want both my child to live and to be happy, first and foremost I want my child to be alive.

    Why do living systems experience pleasure and pain in the first place? As indicators of well-being, i.e., of whether something enhances or undermines the organism’s life. Physical pleasures are associated with the functioning of biological systems, which keep us alive; we get pleasure from eating because nutrition sustains our lives.

    If hedonistic theories of value cannot answer this question, whether it would be “better never to have been,” that is a reason to favor life-based theories of value. Yes, it’s better to be alive because life itself is an end in itself.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 8, 2015 at 3:43 pm

      That criticism is certainly on the mark. The stock argument for it being better to be nothing does rest on an assumption of the hedonistic calculation. As you note, alternative theories of value can address this challenge. Even utilitarian’s have the option of a non-hedonistic value (or they can go with the standard reply that pleasures do outweigh pains).

      In general, I’m inclined to think that a universe with people is better than one without. But, my love of sci-fi and horror do make me wonder if there could be a universe that actually is worse than nothing–that is, it would be better for that universe to not exist. I suspect that the answer is “yes.”

  2. ajmacdonaldjr said, on June 8, 2015 at 12:00 pm

    There’s is certainly more pleasure than pain in life. Sickness, crime, and accidents are abnormalities, not norms. If sickness, crime, and accidents were norms the insurance business couldn’t exist.

    I think the fact we exist is evidence something is better than nothing, and that being is better than nonbeing.

    But, when considering life after death, I think it’s true that having never been born could be better than having been born, depending upon how we choose to live our lives.

    Judas, for example, would have been better off having never been born.

    Jesus said as much when he said: “The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Matthew 26:24).

    Sometimes, when people are suffering, they believe it would have been better had they never been born, but this is a form of depression and despair.

    When he was suffering, Job despaired and wished he’d never been born when he said: “Why did I not die at birth, come out from the womb and expire?” (Job 3:11)

    Sometimes, when we focus upon all the evils in the world instead of all the good, we despair of life and envy those who are dead and those who have never been born…

    “Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 4:1-3)

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 8, 2015 at 3:46 pm

      I would agree that something is better than nothing.

      You do seem right-there could be a life that is so bad (or a person who does so much evil) that it would be better if that person had not been. This, of course, takes us into the problem of evil: if people exist who are such that the world would have been better if they had not, why did God permit (or cause) their existence?

      • ajmacdonaldjr said, on June 9, 2015 at 2:13 pm

        Because the evil they do is part of His plan. Judas is the prime example. It was God’s predetermined plan that Christ be betrayed and yet Judas is still responsible for his actions. In Christian theology, predestination and free will work together and are not mutually exclusive. It’s impossible to define evil apart from good. Evil is defined in reference to good. For example, the existence of a normal healthy child is a good. That same normal healthy child being raped and murdered is evil. The evil can only take away what was good… evil can only destroy, it cannot create. Evil is a depravation of good. Evil perverts what is good. Good overwhelms evil in the world. Evil is the exception to this overwhelming good. If this were not true there could be no insurance industry. Even if the world were 50% good and 50% evil there could still be no insurance industry. Good is the rule, evil is the exception.


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