Thursday, June 2, 2011

Is life worth living?

is a provocative article arguing that it is not (at least for humans). I touched on similar topics (here, here, here and here) arguing that the premise David Benatar uses that the accounting of happiness and pleasure versus pain and suffering are the only things to consider in evaluating life is wrong. Benatar's conclusion is that we should stop producing successive generations and effectively end our species's time here on the planet. His argument is surprisingly Schopenhauerian (and even more pessimistic for at least Schopenhauer had a soteriological component to his philosophy!)

But even if we concede for argument sake with Benatar that that accounting is the only criteria for judging the value of life, I still have reservations about his specific supporting arguments in the article. He uses much empirical data from psychology and personal reflection to support his claim that there is bound to be far more bad than good in just about every human life. Consider this extended passage:

Consider pleasures and pains. Most lives contain both, to varying degrees, but there is an unfortunate asymmetry between these that seems to apply to even the best of lives. The upshot of this is that there is much more pain than pleasure. For example, while the most intense pleasures, such as sexual or gustatory ones, are short-lived, the worst pains have the capacity to be much more enduring. Indeed, pleasures in general tend to be shorter-lived than pains. Chronic pain is common, whereas there is no such thing as chronic pleasure.

This is a one dimensional account of pleasures and pains, only looking at duration and not intensity. It is not clear that when intensity is taken into account, the shorter periods of pleasure will make up for the longer but less intense periods of desire/pain. Also, Benatar ignores the fact that people tend to relive (and relish) their sexual conquests and great meals. I've known people, several gourmands, who will go on and on in the most vivid detail about their best meals, reliving them in their minds and displaying with, no doubt to my mind, the highest satisfaction of those memories. The memories of a good meal or a good romp with a fine woman/man last for a life time for many people.

Now consider this passage from Benatar:

Moreover, the worst pains seem to be worse than the best pleasures are good. Anybody who doubts this should consider what choice they would make if they were offered the option of securing an hour of the most sublime pleasures possible in exchange for suffering an hour of the worst pain possible.

This seems positively false. Some drug addicts will endure long periods of intense misery (some have even sold their own children for example) for brief periods of intense pleasure. Also athletes also must endure a long period of pain, exhaustion and let-downs lasting for many years for the small opportunity to experience a relatively brief period of intense pleasure. I'd wager that the calculus of pleasure versus pain is made worthwhile because of the intensity of the pleasure of succeeding in athletic events at the highest level.

Now consider this passage:

Consider how an injury can be incurred in a split second and the effects felt for life. While it is true that we can also avoid an injury in an instant, we do not gain benefits that are comparable in their magnitude and longevity in a mere moment.

I think this passage ignores the psychological literature showing that even the worst injuries, the kinds that we normally think devastating for all those afflicted in regards to their quality of life such as paralysis and blindness are not as devastating as one may think. People who suffered those harms almost always recover their previous level of life satisfaction and happiness after 2-3 months. People are also remarkably resilient in the loss of their children or spouse or other loved ones recovering previous levels of happiness in only 2-3 months and this is common in all cultures. Here's a good paper detailing the research so far on this topic.

Next, Benatar says:

Second, even when desires are fulfilled, this usually occurs only after the exercise of effort. This means that there is a period of time in which the desire is not yet fulfilled. Finally, when desires are eventually fulfilled, the satisfaction is typically only transitory. Satisfied desires give way to new desires. (For example, one is hungry, eats to satiety, but then becomes hungry again.) Thus a relatively small proportion of life is spent satisfied.

I think the argument here ignores the fact that often, the effort and striving in obtaining a goal or object of desire is pleasurable. The details are complicated but it has been known that the act of willing and the active pursuit of a goal that is considered desrable produces the same neurochemicals as when the goal is achieved. These neurochemicals are similar to cocaine (especially dopamine). Consider a artist at work. The act of working towards the production of a piece of art itself produces pleasure independently of the end result. A child's play also produces pleasure in a similar neurochemical pathway. There is no end result here, just the act itself. Often when we desire and actively pursue a goal, the journey is more meaningful and produces far more pleasure than the end result of obtaining the goal. See this book which covers the dopamine mechanism of desire and desire satisfaction.

I also think that Benatar misses all the ambient pleasures of life most notably expressed by the insights of Nietzsche and Zen monks. When Nietzsche says that even the act of willing bodily muscle movements in doing many humdrum actions produces trace amounts of pleasure, he notices something subtle and truthful. There is a small amount of pleasure for example, even in dish washing and floor sweeping or talking before the experience of the pleasure of a job well done or the end satisfaction of a clean house as many house wives and even Zen Monks have noticed and attested to. These pleasures in performing bodily actions in some humdrum action and of speech add up and may cancel or even surpass the persistent ambient (but also mild) dissatisfaction in not getting most of the things one wants Benatar uses to argue his case.

Empirical psychological literature today also suggests that there are some events that give many people a consistent source of pleasure such as a happy marriage, a good education and good friends. It's the gifts that keeps on giving.

I think in the end, Benatar makes interesting points throughout despite my disagreement to the points he raised above. I only want to show that there are considerations that could be made to show that Benatar's accounting is off and that an accurate accounting may be far closer to break even or even on the positive side for many.