Last week there was a cute item in the news about a wacky book title contest in which one of the finalists was "Better Never To Have Been: The Harm Of Coming Into Existence" by one Professor David Benatar. According to a cursory web search, Benatar argues that (quoting from the cover copy) "Although the good things in one's life make one's life go better than it otherwise would have gone, one could not have been deprived by their absence if one had not existed. Those who never exist cannot be deprived. However, by coming into existence one does suffer quite serious harms that could not have befallen one had one not come into existence." In other words, if I stub my toe (Bad Event) on my way to my Dream Date with Gillian Anderson (Good Event) then I come out behind. A Bad Event (stubbed toe) is inherently more significant than the Good Event (Dream date with Gillian Anderson).
The obvious response to this logic is to move to the other side of the bus. Or to tell Prof. Emo to get off the cross cuz we need the wood. Still, I feel compelled to s--b this argument in the groin, because once I would have found it a fairly persuasive notion, with possibly horrid results.
Caveat: Admittedly I haven't read the book, but I'll tear up the cover copy, by gum.
So, for starters, only someone who's been hiding out in the academic oxygen tent for a lifetime could ever buy the arithmetic of Benatar's logic (not that academia is bad, but there are those who use it to hide out from the real slings and arrows). This notion that Bad Things in a life always have more "weight" than the Good Things doesn't add up. Get your thumb off the scale, Benatar! If I get to skip through the park hand-in-hand with Gillian Anderson, I'll happily kiss a stubbed toe up the The Man Upstairs.
And Another Thing: Professor Weteyed Wimpywuss seems to think that Good Things and Bad Things are steady-state. No. Often what seems like a Bad Thing in one's life (say, working as a carpet cleaner, and thus spending 12+ hour days driving all over the county, cleaning filthy homes and/or bowing and scraping to the idle rich) turns out to be a good thing (got me out of my insular poor-little-rich-boy bubble, showed me how a diverse array of humans live, taught me that happiness and sadness aren't tied to income). I'm not a moral relativist, but often good and bad aren't Good and Bad, they're "good" and "bad." A life is open to interpretation, and attitude is key. For example, is the sadness of heartache bad? Sometimes it's achingly delightful. Sometimes it motivates one to seek more successful love.
Also from the cover copy: "...it would be better if humanity became extinct." You first, Dave. I sometimes suspect that humanity has done more harm than good, but I could be wrong, and we may do better with time. I also suspect that we are accidental side effects of cosmic forces, rather than the glorious end product, but so what? Grant Morrison pointed out in an interview (that I can't find right) now that once England realized it couldn't be the Big Bad Empire anymore, it also realized it could have The Beatles and Swinging London and other fun, relaxed things. Perhaps humanity should adopt a similar attitude. If we don't matter in the cosmic scheme of things, that's cool. Stop grubbing for power and have a good time.
You know that popular quote from Reverend Chuck Swindoll about attitude? It ends with "I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it." Preach, Chuck!
P.S. Holla to Frank Thompson for inspiring the Sondheim quote in the title.