Does it make sense to say that someone would have been better off, had he never been born?
Jim was born with a disease that has throughout the years
caused him intense agony, and for which he has no hope of a cure. Jim has no friends because the pain makes him
extremely aggressive. In fact, he
behaves so aggressively that not even his family can stand him. He has no opportunity to achieve important
goals, such as acquiring interesting knowledge or developing an artistic
talent. Jim lives a life that is not
worth living. Jim’s life is a life that
is bad for him.
However, despite the intuitiveness of the claim that Jim
would have been better off if he had never been born, there is a problem. Had Jim never been born, he wouldn’t have
existed at all. And it isn’t clear that
it even makes sense to say that Jim would be better off than he is now in a
situation in which he doesn’t exist. We have a puzzle. In this post, I attempt to solve it.
Bernard Williams writes that while
someone “can thinking egoistically of what it would be for him to live longer
or less long, he cannot think egoistically of what it would be for him never to
have existed at all” [Williams 1973]. In
general, it seems that you cannot meaningfully compare the degree to which an
entity might have had a particular property with the degree to which it
actually has that property – unless
the entity exists in both the counterfactual and the actual situations.
illustration of this principle, consider Kenny. Kenny is extremely ugly. His
limbs are deformed, his face is a wreck, and he has large open sores on his
forearms. Although Kenny is extremely
ugly, it doesn’t make sense to say that Kenny would have been prettier had he
never been born. Assume for a minute
that there are facts about how attractive people are, that it makes sense to
talk of degrees of attractiveness, and that beauty and ugliness can be placed
on the same scale. In order for someone s to be prettier in situation A than in situation B, s must have some
amount of attractiveness in A that is
comparable to the amount of attractiveness that s has in B. But if s
doesn’t exist in A, then s has no amount of attractiveness; s does not have zero amounts of attractiveness in a situation in which s does not exist.
in order for someone s to be better off in situation A than in situation B, it seems that s must
enjoy more welfare in A than in B. But this seems to require that s exists
in both A and B, since it seems that one must exist in order to enjoy some amount
of welfare. So it doesn’t seem to make
sense to say that someone would be better off not existing.
In some circumstances, people are
better off in possible situations in which they do not exist. What we need is a reasonable theory that
tells us how this is possible. In what
follows, I sketch such a theory. Here is
a preview: the theory that I endorse holds that (1) the primary objects of
prudential evaluations are the lives that person’s lead and (2) person’s have
lives even in possible worlds in which they do not exist. This initially sounds outrageous, but,
fortunately, each element of the solution is defensible (and has been defended).
The solution makes use of the following claims:
(LIVES): A person’s life at a world w is the class of
propositions about that person that are true at w.
(BASICS): The basic bearers of intrinsic value are fine-grained propositions; classes of propositions have intrinsic value in virtue of containing such propositions.
obtaining would be better for s than B’s obtaining iff the life that s would have if A obtained is intrinsically better than the life that s would have if B obtained.
(NULL): If a life
contains nothing that has positive or negative intrinsic value, then the
intrinsic value of that life is zero.
I will argue that persons have
lives even at possible worlds in which they do not exist. Let us consider
Jim. Since Jim is a human being, he is a
contingent being; he could have failed to exist. Since Jim could have failed to exist, there
is a possible world w at which he
does not exist. Since Jim does not exist
at w, the proposition that Jim does
not exist is true at w. So propositions about Jim can be true at worlds at which Jim does not
exist. In general, propositions about
actual objects can be true at worlds at which they do not exist.
fact, we are in a position to exploit an interesting feature of LIVES. Since a person’s life at a possible world is
simply the set of propositions about him or her that are true at that world,
every actual person has a life at every possible world. Even if Jim does not exist at w, he has a “life” at w, i.e., there is a set of propositions
about Jim that are true at w.
This set is
not the empty set. It has at least one
member: the proposition that Jim does not exist. And presumably it has many other members as
well, e.g., the proposition that Jim does not exist and 2+2=4. Although it seems strange to call this set
“Jim’s life at w” since Jim is not
alive at this world, it is an appropriate object of axiological
evaluation. Jim’s life at w, whether we are comfortable calling it
that or not, has an intrinsic value. Presumably, the intrinsic value of Jim’s life at a world at which he
does not exist is zero. It is hard to
see how there could be anything intrinsically good or bad about Jim’s life at a
world in which he does not exist. Standard hedonism, for example, implies that Jim’s life at a world at
which he does not exist has an intrinsic value of zero, since it does not
contain any propositions of the form “Jim feels pleasure (or pain) to degree n from t1 until t2.” Any other reasonable axiological theory, such
as desire satisfactionism, perfectionism, or various versions of the objective
list theory, will have similar consequences. So unless sheer non-existence (or existence) is intrinsically valuable
(bad or good), then Jim’s life at a world in which he does not exist has an
intrinsic value of zero.
Suppose that things are going bad
for Jim, and that there is no hope of them getting better. In
the actual world, Jim has a bad life; his life is in itself bad for him. It seems that Jim would have been better off
if he had never existed. BETTER implies
that Jim would be better off not existing if and only if the life that Jim
would have had if he hadn’t existed is intrinsically better than the life he
has now. In order to evaluate whether
this is the case, we go to the nearest possible world in which Jim does not
exist and see what the intrinsic value of his life at that world is. At that world, Jim’s life has nothing in it
that is intrinsically good or intrinsically bad. NULL implies that the intrinsic value of
Jim’s life at the nearest possible world at which he does not exist is
zero. Since Jim’s life is quite bad, the
intrinsic value of his life at the actual world is less than zero. So the life that Jim would have had if he had
never existed is better than the life that Jim actually has. So Jim would have been better off if he had
never been born.