Sam Harris and David Benatar Debate Anti-Natalism: Breaking Through the Philosophical Quibble / by Sam Abelow


Sam Harris and David Benatar Debate Anti-Natalism: Breaking Through the Philosophical Quibble

1. Introduction:

Basic Benatar

David Benatar is a philosopher and writer who insists that a universe without human beings is better off than one with them. He believes, that because sentient beings can suffer, in varying degrees, it is better that they never lived. Additionally, once living, suicide is, in the majority of cases, a moral wrongdoing.This school of thought is known as “Anti-Natalism.” 

Arguments for this philosophy include stark reductionism of human emotion regarding the inherit “sadness” of suffering. The recent podcast with Sam Harris, who is also a writer and philosopher, was the latest in an ongoing stream of publicity for this melancholic theorizing. 

Because Benatar’s arguments are rational, Harris accepts them readily enough for a lengthy discussion, albeit with resistance, saying that his own “intuitions” differ. On the podcast, a long back and forth eventually nailed down that Benatar’s immense pessimism regarding the reality of living, is the substantial mover in his ethical claim about abstaining from procreation. In other words, for an Anti-Natalist, there is no situation in which life would, or could ever be, worth it.

Underlying Axioms

The root of the issue with Benatar’s line of argument, stems from the essential axioms of Anti-Natalist philosophy. Most fundamentally, the case rests on the view that suffering is simply bad. There is an inherent subjectivity with such judgments, which are littered throughout the larger claims of his morbid philosophy.

The vast reductionism and oversimplification of life leads Benatar to generalizations about what all people should do: stop having children. However, in the process, he makes cogent points about the immense responsibility, that is often ignored, of bringing new life into this conflicted and confusing world.

Benatar admits that he hopes to view matters as if from a perspective outside himself. In this way, he postulates that a conscious being, such as himself, can make a value judgment about the quality of other people’s lives and how the universe itself views them. It is as if he postulates a cosmic view — I might say a “godly” view. This is ironic, considering that both Harris and Benatar are rational-materialists, objectivists and, of course, atheists.

Jungian perspective

An alternative perspective is offered in the work of Carl Jung. This renowned psychologist applied his personal and clinical knowledge of the psyche to moral philosophy, ethics and the largest questions about human existence. Jungian works reveal how rationalizations are only a partial view of reality, because the capacities of our conscious mind is limited. Spontaneous images of the unconscious psyche, found in dreams and mythology, offer another perspective to these poignant questions.

Additionally, the conclusions that David Benatar espouses are typical of a certain psychological type described in Jungian psychology. This is known as the peur aeternis, or eternal child: A situation in which the dualities and burdens of living seem unbearable and are disregarded, often through intellectualizations.

Many with peur ateternis tendencies will gravitate towards Benatar’s work, which functions as a cynical nihilism towards the difficulties of life. There is a pivotal distinction between theoretical debates and the implementation of such ideas by individuals, the latter of which is not challenged by Harris. Ideas and systems of belief do not just exist in the abstract, but are co-opted by living individuals, influencing their psychological situation and relationship to the world.

2. Reductionistic Axioms

a. Basic Assumptions:

Throughout the podcast, “Is Life Worth Living?” both Harris and Benatar accept the basic premise that suffering is “bad.” The basic quibble between the two brainy men is that pleasure does not balance out the badness of suffering. This made double, in Benatar's mind, by what he calls the “crucial asymmetry.”

In his view, the absence of suffering is good, and the absence of pleasure is neutral. So, by not having a child we reduce of suffering in this world — an ethical achievement — and impact no loss by depriving potential pleasure. 

Harris entertains these musings, posing a hypothetical future where people live “nearly blissful lives.” But, Benatar defers on several accounts. Firstly, he cannot conceive of a world without some suffering; secondly, generations of suffering individuals would have had to live before that time, and that is not worth it.

The reduction of a life to a binary evaluation (Pleasure = good; Pain = bad) is the type of absurdity that only cold reason can achieve. Harris fails to step back to notice this oversimplification because he is also so hyper-rational. There is also the inherently subjective value judgment of pain as “bad,” which has axiomatic weaknesses.

Viewing suffering and pain on mass, it is clear that atrocity and disease are dreadful, existentially agonizing aspects of human life. However, making a claim about how individuals experience and deal with pain introduces immense subjectivity to the matter — the sort of subjectivity that psychologists understand more aptly. Benatar cites various psychological ideas and sociological studies, cherry-picking evidence which backs up his initial outlook. He repeatedly reduces the studies which conclude that most people feel their lives are worth it, and that they are mostly happy, by saying that we are evolved to be optimistic. He claims we are ignoring the harsh reality. Therefore, Benatar is making a series of assumptions about pain being intrinsically bad, and also about all people’s subjective experience of the less than wonderful aspects of life.

In reducing human experience and moral decisions to a simple binary statement, Benatar makes sweeping claims, which are inherently subjective, nuanced and highly personal. Generalizations have their place, and certainty some lives are unduly filled with atrocity, but his claim is that all lives are unjustified. He argues that procreation should simply be ended.

a. Historical Backdrop

The philosophical focus on pleasure has many variations. Famously, the Epicurean school advocated for the ultimate balance of one’s life, in which “the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul” is achieved. [1]

Even these ancient Greek’s realized that we do not want an infinity of pleasure, all the time. Upon observation, we can see that many people willingly pursue challenge and difficulty, which is experienced as fulfilling. One step further, we might note that possibly — it could be considered! — unexpected pains and strifes in life could be keys to our growth and maturity. Harris and Benatar never mention this sort of folk wisdom. In fact, it is easily disregarded as the sort of machinations that people tell themselves, which are not real — even, Benatar admits, if they have some benefit.

Another school of thought, Utilitarianism, looks at ways in which a philosophy can promote the greatest amount of well-being and pleasure to humanity. Anti-Natalist state that we can scrap all of that, and just not have children in the first place — doing away with suffering all-together!

So again, because the ongoing existence of hell on earth is an unbearable reality, the Anti-Natalist implore everyone to stop bringing children into this world. Also, yet to mention, is that Benatar puts us all in an existential pickle: Since death would also entail an ethical negative. Therefore, once we are born we are condemned to continue living, that is unless we know for certain that “our leg is going to get sawed off tomorrow” — then suicide is permitted. No, I’m not making this up. These are the thought puzzles that confirm Benatar’s Anti-Natalism, which abstains from Pro-Mortalism (that we should all kill ourselves). Harris sand Benatar spends ample time debating these minor points.

b. The unlikely adoption and uselessness

Benatar readily admits that his beliefs “run counter to a deep biological drive to have children.” [2] However, he insists that “thoughtful people” should strive to set aside those instincts, and strive to understand the ethics of human existence.

And rightfully so, as a discussion about general unconsciousness and a lack of ethical consideration concerning child rearing is crucial. For modern philosophers, evangelizing an awareness of these specific concerns would likely be more effective too.

In cold application of Kant’s Moral Imperative, Benatar designates a condemnation of all parents. He states that we fail to abide by Kant’s notion that a person should be an end of their own, not a means to an end. In other words, he believes we have children only for our own biological desires, rather than for the benefit of the prospective child. 

Follow David Benatar through in a section of his book, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence:

“Creating new people, by having babies, is so much a part of human life that it is rarely thought even to require a justification. Indeed, most people do not even think about whether they should or should not make a baby. They just make one. In other words, procreation is usually the consequence of sex rather than the result of a decision to bring people into existence. Those who do indeed decide to have a child might do so for any number of reasons, but among these reasons cannot be the interests of the potential child. One can never have a child for that child’s sake.” 

Certainly, people should consider why they are having children more deeply, especially with the levels of population, which are currently impacting the environment and other species. Further, his observation of the incredible suffering people experience in poverty and war is valid. Parents may have a lack of awareness and responsibility of what sort of condemnation being born in those circumstances might ethically mean. However, expecting those of privilege to become overwrought by the absence of a perfect paradise and entirely stop procreating is ludicrous. Furthermore, evidence of increasing consideration of circumstances is evident in lowering birth rates and use of contraceptives in the West. 

3. Assuming a Cosmic Perspective

Only the detached rational mind can suppose that the universe would be “better off” without us. It is the hubris of a depressed ego-mind, which extrapolates itself to godly heights.

It is interesting to watch as the conversation evolves with Harris, and the audience can see how the Anti-Natalist claims rest on two matters: The evaluation of personal and widespread suffering as unjustifiable, no matter how great our pleasure; and, the notion that universe is indifferent to human existence.

Therefore, Benatar postures himself able to see from the perspective of the universe. From this imagined perspective, the inevitable reality of human suffering and the imposition we pose on animal life, means we shouldn’t exist. However, this is an assumption of the universe as having a moral view. From the atheistic view, we could say that the universe doesn’t care! We could argue just the opposite from Benatar; maybe cruelty and destruction are a part of some sort of meta-natural order, cycles of chaos and order.

Benatar reduces the qualities of life and then piles up the evidence on one side. Confrontations with the realities of living are inherently individual ethical questions. Benatar extrapolates his own regret over having existed in what he considers dry intellectual argument:

“The worst pains, for instance, are worse than the best pleasures are good. If you doubt this, ask yourself – honestly – whether you would accept a minute of the worst tortures in exchange for a minute or two of the greatest delights. And pains tend to last longer than pleasures. There are chronic pains, of the lower back or joints for example, but there is no such thing as chronic pleasure.”

This is all subjective opinion. Many people experience immense psychological and physical pain and pull through. Life can open up to indescribable heights that would’ve been unimaginable in the early state. Genuinely, his argument can be chalked up, in neuro-chemical language, to a lack of dopamine, and in mythopoetic language, to a lack of sufficient meaning.

The cosmic view that Benetar supposes — that of absence being preferable — may be incorrect; the “universe” may benefit from the iterations of dualities, the game of life, and suffering may be but another bizarre jewel in a limitless basket.

The answer is that nobody knows how the universe sees itself, or us. What we can know empirically is how the individual psyche responds to this world, and what moral philosophies emerge from the unconscious psyche itself.

4. A Personal Vendetta

All philosophical ideas reflect the individuals and culture’s espousing them. Acceptance of some of Benatar’s concerns may lead to the prevention of needless suffering. But, his work isn’t reaching those in war-torn countries, or dictatorships. A recent article in The New Yorker, and increasing academic attention reveal that the erudite concern themselves with such matters, influencing their approach to life. This outlook will mostly reach and influence those already predisposed to his anti-life premise. Benatar’s work has no global significance, it can only function as an excuse, for the highly educated, to avoid fully engaging with life.

The philosopher insists that his personal life should stay out of argument over his doctrine. This is the intellectual move that makes Benatar’s game a bloodless one. 

While speaking on a panel for TEDx, Benatar refused to be shown on camera; he avoids photographs for his interviews, but his humanness manages to slip through:

“‘Unpleasantness and suffering are too deeply written into the structure of sentient life to be eliminated.’ His voice grew more urgent; his eyes teared up. ‘We’re asked to accept what is unacceptable. It’s unacceptable that people, and other beings, have to go through what they go through, and there’s almost nothing that they can do about it.’ [3]

Benatar may claim that moral truth can exist in a vacuum, Harris can entertain a discussion poised as pure logic, but it is precisely their lack of psychological experience and depth that renders them biased. Benatar is especially susceptible to a stance predetermined by his unconscious predispositions. He admits to The New Yorker that “he’s had anti-natalist views since he was ‘very young,’” Admitting that these ideas began as a ‘child,’ The interviewer noted: “He smiled uncomfortably. This was exactly the kind of personal question he preferred not to answer.”

It is this type of question he prefers not to ask himself, which generates hugely overrated conclusions. This causes his deep thinking to become an abstruse means of personal insulation.

A final slip up, in regard to this personalistic protectionism, is at the beginning of Benatar’s first book. He dedicates the work to his parents, “even though they brought me into existence,” and brothers. The mistake is twofold. Firstly, he hints that it is the connection to one another that is meaningful. Secondly, he, by omission, admits he has no wife or primary partner. The undervaluing of relatedness and the lack of commitment are important aspects of the peur aeternus, which we will return to later.

5. Introduce The General Jungian Thesis

The effect that philosophies and any other model of the world and life have on individual psychologies is an important emphasis. The ideas that one is attracted to reflect their own psychological make-up, whether limited and conflicted, or broad and well integrated.

Intellectualism offers a compelling way of describing the world, but prefers to narrow in and make essential, what is inevitably multifaceted. This is why academics specialize, and focus narrowly. Rational thinking is a powerful, mechanistic function of the mind. It can determine likely scenarios, compute and define. Feeling adds a sense of value, purpose and personal connection. The tendency of those who are overly rational is to neglect the personal.

These sorts of detached mind games are often associated with a certain psychological pattern known in Jungian psychology as the Peur Aeternus. This “eternal youth” type has great difficulty accepting the reality of living, and pursue ways of avoiding life. In this essay I will mainly focus on the male pattern, as associated with Benatar, however, the ideas generally apply to women as well.

One pattern of this sort, is to use intellectualizations and lofty philosophy to escape engaging, or committing to life. Poignantly, people stunted in this way, have a hidden wish for suicide — that is if life becomes to unbearable — which is explicitly stated as a commitment in Benatar’s system.  

Part II - The Peur Aeternus

1. Jungian Psychology

In order to explain the peur aeternus situation we will have to start with some basic Jungian psychology.

The ego-mind is the centerpointpoint of consciousness, which encompasses everything presently known or easily brought to awareness.

The unconscious is populated by what could be called the instinctual psyche, in that it is built up from below. This view of the psyche has a correspondence in the structures of the brain. The cortical and reptilian brain correspond to the most basic and animalistic instincts. Opposingly, the frontal lobe accounts for our most developed and cultured aspects. The left and right hemispheres divide themselves into general qualities: The left being known patterns, related to practical reasoning and the right being abstractions, problem-solving and creativity.

Depth psychologists have been aware of the way in which the unconscious is divided amongst itself, and these disparate influences effect emotions, thoughts and behaviors. Jung and his colleagues observed the ways in which the unconscious psyche manifested itself historically in mythology and art, and presently in the dreams and fantasies of modern people.

“Instincts form close analogies to the archetypes, so close, in fact, that there is good reason for supposing that the archetypes are the unconscious images of the instincts themselves, in other words, that they are patterns of instinctual behavior.” [4]

Carl Jung discovered that there are patterns to the unconscious. These repeating themes are the images of the collective unconscious, which are constituted by archetypes. A few key archetypes, which act within individuals, are the mother, anima and animus.

a. Key Archetypes

 Sandro Botticelli, "The Virgin and Child,"  Copyright President and Fellows of Harvard College

Sandro Botticelli, "The Virgin and Child," Copyright President and Fellows of Harvard College

The mother archetype is a vast and central theme. A tour of the artifacts of ancient history will reveal the consistency of the mother. Mesopotamians represented the mother as a goddess of fertility. She is, materialistically speaking, the place from which each of us emerged from. And this perennial and deeply rooted theme makes the mother a diverse and powerful image.

The “great mother” archetype is the furthest way form consciousness; she represents a undifferentiated, non-dualistic state of being, in which all opposites are contained. The qualities associated with this image are absent of distinction between good and evil, life and death.

It is the personal mother which overlays this archetypal backdrop. The individual’s genetically determined personality traits, in combination with their mother’s own personality and approach to parenting, effect the psychological make-up of each individual. There are typical patterns that Jung has described.

The anima is a label which reckons with an area of contents, nearing consciousness, which the male ego cannot yet integrate. It is the counterpart to the ego’s abilities and understandings, representing in female form. It is observed in Jungian dream analysis that:

Because of the difference in sex, a son’s mother-complex does not appear in pure form. This is the reason why in every masculine mother-complex, side by side with the mother archetype, a significant role is played by the image of the man’s sexual counterpart, the anima. [5]

The animus is the counterpart to the female ego, and mediates the contents of the unconscious, often in the image of a man.

Depending on the development of the ego, and the influences of the personal parents, the anima and animus may have a more or less unruly effect on one’s thoughts.

The peur aeternus, is term, derived from mythology, that is used to encompass a general typology, which has been observed by psychoanalyst. The peur aeternus, is an archetype, and therefore just one aspect of the unconscious, by which an individual is overly-identified with and therefore lives out, at a detriment to the potential fullness of their personality and ego development.

For the male psyche, a peur aeternus is overly influenced by his mother complex. The complex represents the entire psychological system by which the personal and archetypal associations and imprints are bound and active.

For the female psyche, the peulla aeternus, has an overly influential, and unintegrated animus. The resulting affects of these two influences, on the given genders, are similar, in that a full commitment to life — work, relationships and parenting — ranges from difficult to impossible.

Eduard Edinger, a Jungian analyst and writer explains that the “danger for the son, in the mother complex, is that it will poison his masculine urge to engage life; and that for the daughter, the danger of the father complex is that it will corrupt her relation to spirit or to meaning. These are the perils of the infantile relation to the anima or animus.” [6]

Both the animus of the puella, and the mother complex of the man often induce an eery detachment, either through intellectualization or vastly disregarding complaints.

2. Anti-Natalism Argument and Depth Psychology

a. Cold Rationality

Unbridled logic can become neurotic. Isolated, cold reasoning can detach itself from life and become a modality which is capable of constructing intricate reasons for pathological attitudes, transforming weakness into the illusion of strong and worthy beliefs.

Anti-Natalism is a philosophy that claims to answer all of big and little questions. Once subscribed to, all of experiential, incarnated life is reduced to two categories. In Benatar’s thinking, all subjective valuing of life and its worthiness are discounted. In his article on, Benatar supposes an objective lens, which, of course, the rest of us tend to ignore:

“Many desires are never satisfied. And even when they are satisfied, it is often after a long period of dissatisfaction. Nor does satisfaction last, for the satisfaction of a desire leads to a new desire – which itself needs to be satisfied sometime in the future. When one can fulfill one’s more basic desires, such as hunger, on a regular basis, higher-level desires arise. There is a treadmill and an escalator of desire. In other words, life is a state of continual striving. ” [7]

It is this reality of striving — the bad outweighing the good — which Benatar reduces life to. He argues that our instinctual psychology counteracts an acknowledgment of this reality. Conversely, it is possible that Benatar’s psychology distorts life coldly.

Jungian psychologist, Marie-Louis Von Franz wrote a book on The Problem of the Peur Aeternus. She writes that many of this type tend to “escape into the realm of philosophy. Such people prefer philosophy, pedagogy, metaphysics and theology, and it is a completely unvital, bloodless business.” [8] From her experience, it is the influence of the mother archetype, which is driving a man towards such endeavors. This is distinct from a philosophy or moral understanding which accepts and engages with life; it is only the case with those beliefs which smartly find an excuse, a reason why living is irrational.

Von Franz cites the mythological representation of this in the form of “The great mother image who asks torturing questions of those who want to remain innocent.” [9]

For example, “The motif of the Sphinx who propounds the riddle, leads to an essential problem which is widespread. It has to do with what I call pseudo-philosophy, the wrong kind of intellectualism induced by the mother complex.

Benatar cheerfully ponders the day when humans will become extinct and gleefully mentions that “it would be better, all things being equal, if this happened sooner rather than later.” It is this exact type of cynicism about human existence, and the desire to return to the totality of the mother archetype, which is characteristic of the intellectual peur aeternus.

3.  The Lack of Eros

The comfortability in intellectualization and rationalization is an outcome of lack of feeling. It is feeling which defies objectivity and reductionism; feeling is personal and specific to one’s own life. It is the quality of one’s feeling towards projects and relationships that gives meaning to life.

In Jungian psychology, the terms "Logos" and "Eros" stand for two modalities of being. Logos function is associated with thinking, and stands also for the inherited ways of a culture — that is laws. Eros has to do with feeling, and our relatedness to each other and nature. The Logos is associated with the archetypal masculine, and the Eros with the archetypal feminine.

Because the female ego is identified with her femininity, her Eros comes naturally; for the man it is opposite.

a. Eros and Logos and the Unconscious Complexes

In the male psychology of the peur aeturnus, Eros may be entirely lacking, or passive. Edinger explains the case of an infantile relatonship to the feminine in a man:

“His Eros is passive like a child's; he hopes to be caught, sucked in, enveloped, and devoured. He seeks, as it were, the protecting, nourishing, charmed circle of the mother, the condition of the infant released from every care, in which the outside world bends over him and even forces happiness upon him.”

This situation often comes across practically in a complaining about the struggles of life, and an unwillingness to accept pain and strife as part of what it means to be truly alive.

Although a woman’s strong Eros will allow her to consciously have a sense of personal feeling towards her place in the world and relationship to others, unconscious complexes can still impose in other ways. An attitude that says that is pessimistic and classifies everything in extremes — and either/or, with no middle ground.

Both of these types, as eternal children, unconsciously devalue the nuances of life, and make the type of overreaching, sweeping statements that are throughout Benatar’s writing and interviews.

The philosophy of Anti-Natalism is completely devoid of Eros, the highest form of which is represented as Sophia: “She is an intuit of love towards mankind, which naturally means being human among other human beings and loving them. That is the highest form of eros.” [10]

b. Avoidance

And so, it can be seen in a philosophy such David Bentar’s that Eros can displaced by pure Logos. The dedication, in Bentar’s first book, points to the hidden feeling that our personal lives and relationships are meaningful. To argue that our lives were better never have to been, means to undervalue what it means to be together, to commit to one another. Further, Anti-Natalism rests on an undervaluation of the instinct to have children of our own, and to commit ourselves to that process. The former, a feeling attitude, and the former, a natural process, are both contained in the Eros which is apparently lacking in Benatar’s psychological outlook.

This is why the absence of any mention of a wife is important. Theoretically, because a typical woman is more in touch with her Eros, a marital relationship balances out what had been lacking in the man. The peur aeternus avoid marriage, because his Eros, his love and feeling, is tied up with either the personal mother, archetypal mother, or likely both. This tangle, has simultaneous aspects of the feminine archetype functioning: The real life woman would be his vehicle towards overcoming the mother complex, while it is the mother archetype itself which imposes the block.

There are a whole slew of nuances at this point, because whatever woman a man comes into contact with with have her own unconsciousness as well. Von Franz explains how, in many cases, women respond to a man with a mother complex by taking on the devouring role. This creates a cycle, whereby a man is affirmed by his initial excuse, and runs off.

It is this escaping that characterizes the peur aeternus, and which continues his life-abating ways. Von Franz explains that, if one is not living completely, then one “can be pretty sure that either the animus or the anima has put something between you and reality in a very clever way. With a woman, it is the animus who whispers something at the back of her mind, some kind of ‘nothing but’ remark.” [11]

The implementation of Anti-Natalism in an individual psychology would promote animus ideas like: 

“It’s nothing but another cycle of desire, gratification, and another desire.”

“It’s nothing but another day which is not worth living, because it was too much pain.”

It also promotes mother complex narratives like:

“I would get married, but it creates more problems then it’s worth.”

“It would be worth trying, but this entire world is so messed up, so there’s no point.”

c. Statistical Thinking

The book “Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence” and Benatar’s other work, rests on the basis that individually and generally, life is, on average, more suffering than good. As already mentioned, the binary reductionism is problematic. Additionally, the beliefs that construct Anti-Natalist consistently focus on dry calculations of suffering vs. pleasure.

Benatar supports his case that life is predominately misery with statistics: War-related injuries led to 310,000 deaths in 2000; about 40 million children are maltreated each year. [12]

Further, in speaking of individuals, he cites the fact that “rape” and “major depressive disorders” are underreported. “Even if we take the low estimates, in the cumulative risks of all the different misfortunes that can befall people, the odds are stacked deeply against any child.” [13]

These are strong points, and awareness of the burden of parenting should be more widespread. However, the effect of this far-reaching philosophy on the intellect, is that of dismissing life’s troubles. Carl Jung speaks of wounds — that is these horrible circumstances — and so-called neurosis, as material for transformation. In Jungian philosophy, the process of individuation is one in which life is enriched by way of confrontation with the unconscious, which holds our traumas. From this, one can emerge whole and find vitality in incarnated interrelatedness.

Benatar’s views, so dependent on labels and statistics, diminishes this potential for immense individual resiliency and transformation.

Von Franz explains further:

“To think of oneself in a statistical way is most destructive to the process of individuation, because it makes everything relative. It is completely destructive poison, and what is worse is that it is not true; it is a falsified image of reality. If we begin to think statistical, we begin to think against our own uniqueness. But it is not only thinking but a way of feeling.”

“A statistical mood is overwhelmed by the manifoldness and ordinariness of life. This is wrong, because statistics are built up on probability, which is only one way of explaining reality, and as we know, there is just as much uniqueness and irregularity.”

There is a lack of distinction in the propagation of Anti-Natalism, between consideration of the awfulness of so many situations in this world, which may in fact be better to avoid, from the lives of sufficient privilege, which, still not a paradise, still hold the opportunity for individuation and immense feeling of belonging and purpose.

a. Provisional Life

The personal implications of David Benatar’s ideas are revealed, in a stunning way, when he states repeatedly on the podcast that the possibility of suicide is always an option, even if life appears to be worth living for now. Marie-Louise Von Franz describes this as the “provisional life” and it is among the tendencies of the peur aeternus.

Although Benatar is an Anti-Natalist — believing it’s better not to have been born — he is not a Pro-Moralist — believing that it is best to commit suicide. However, his logic says that if “somebody’s life is not worth continuing, the bad things in life do need to be sufficiently bad to override the interest in not dying.” [14] The dramatic subjectivity over that decision becomes the crucial issue. And the pattern identified by Jungian psychologists, suggest that many people will unconsciously and consciously insist suicide is the answer. Benatar’s philosophy becomes an intellectual stamp-of-approval for those who have developed reasons why life isn’t worth it. This is especially so, because one’s current view could justify suicide, while baring through it could result in eventual renewal.

This notion that we should be looking to tomorrow, weighing the bad against the good, is typical of the peur aeternus, who “constantly plays with the idea of getting out of life if things get too hard.” [15]

Marie-Louis Von Franz goes onto explain how the mother complex effects a man’s commitment (although it could also be a woman’s animus talking):

“He is never quite committed to the situation as a whole human being; there is a constant mental reservation: ‘I will go into this, but I reserve my right as a human being to kill myself if I can’t stand it anymore. I shall not go through the whole experience to the bitter end if it becomes too insufferable, for if it does I shall walk out of it.”

It would be a shame for a young student of philosophy to become attracted to Anti-Natalism, which could emphasis such predilections. The concentration on pleasure and pain, also misses what Jungians find central to life. Practically speaking, following Jungian philosophy, an individual can continuously find the symbolic meaning in their life, which transcends the transient affects of pleasure and pain. Of course, this is only obtainable after certain base needs are met.

When an individual is reticent about committing fully to life, it “cuts off the wholeness of the experience, one cuts oneself into bits and remains split because transformation can only take place if one gives oneself completely to a situation.” [16]

b. Guilt of Living

Although Anti-Natalism can rightfully apply to people who have no means to reasonably support a child, Benatar extends it to all human life.

David Benatar writes extensively on the wastefulness and complicity in harm to the planet, other species and each other that a life entails. This is all true. This is the bargain of life — we are all wasteful to some degree or another. 

Benatar shows an inability to accept the guilt of living. So, he sets up an either/or premise, which proposes: “Because life is a guilty business, we must end it.”

In Jungian psychology, the tension between the opposites is a central idea. The more mature an ego, the more it can hold the immense tension between disparate aspects of being. Carl Jung describes it best:

The one-after-another is a bearable pre-lude to the deeper knowledge of the side-by-side, for this is an incomparably more difficult problem. Again, the view that good and evil are spiritual forces outside us, and that man is caught in the conflict between them, is more bearable by far than the insight that the opposites are the ineradicable and indispensable preconditions of all psychic life, so much so that life itself is guilt.” [17]

If an individual expands their consciousness they are confronted with such massive problems as Benatar confronts. However, the mature ego will notice that a perfect world is a fantasy — an ancient vision of paradisiacal Eden. It is a compelling wish for the peur aeternus, because the mother archetype is strong in him, and the call to paradise is a call to the symbolic womb of the great mother. 

Letting go of this fantasy, and overcoming the negative influence of the mother complex means accepting that, “Life is a double obligation, it is a conflict in itself — because it always means the collision, or conflict, of two tendencies.” [18] This could be, for example, the desire to be kind to animals and the planet, and yet feeling hungry for meat.

By abandoning the side-by-side, life itself (which is defined by such mixtures) also abandons the peur aeturnis. For those who cannot accept conflict and difficulty will abstain from experiencing a wife, and her pregnancy, a child, and the sacrifice and maturity that such a task demands.

It takes strength and depth to watch a child suffer with flu, or a broken leg, but to know that one is strong enough to let that pass and do one’s best to help a soul flower in this world. Benatar's philosophy does enough to recognize the immense suffering inherent in life, but his ethic is simple and limiting, denying and ascetic. He has rationalized a reason to remain in the ivory tower, cynically deferring life in the expectance of its inevitable ups and downs

8. Conclusions

In the course of this review, we have seen how Anti-Natalism is based on vast reductionism, which extrapolates subjective evaluations of life onto the masses. Because these views are inherently subjective, the personal psychology is important. Further, because philosophical ideas live in individual actors, it is important to analyze who is effected by Anti-Natalism and why. The contrast with Jungian ideas sheds light on the hyper-rational assertions by Benatar. And finally, the patterns of the peur aeturnus neurosis run throughout Bentar’s work.


1: Epicurus, "Letter to Menoeceus", contained in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book X

2: David Benatar, Kids? Just Say No,, (2017)

3: Joshua Rothman, The Case For Not Being Born,, (2017)

4: Carl Jung, Collected Works Volume 9i, Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, par. 91

5: Ibid, par. 162

6:  Edward Edinger, The Aion Lectures, pg. 30 (Inner City Books, 1996)

7: David Benatar, Kids? Just Say No,, (2017)

8: Marie-Louis Von Franz, The Problem of the Peur Aeturnus, pg. 168 (Inner City Books, 2000)

9. Ibid, pg 167

10: Ibid, pg. 219

11: Ibid, pg. 89

12: Statistics in David Benatar’s book, as mentioned in the “Antinatalism” wikipedia entry,

13: David Benatar, Kids? Just Say No,, (2017)

14: Ibid

15: Marie-Louis Von Franz, The Problem of the Peur Aeturnus, pg. 84 (Inner City Books, 2000)

16. Ibid

17: Carl Jung, Collected Works Volume 14, Mysterium Coniunctionis, par. 206

18: Marie-Louis Von Franz, The Problem of the Peur Aeturnus, pg. 199 (Inner City Books, 2000)

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