David Benatar may be the world’s most pessimistic philosopher. An “anti-natalist,” he believes that life is so bad, so painful, that human beings should stop having children for reasons of compassion. “While good people go to great lengths to spare their children from suffering, few of them seem to notice that the one (and only) guaranteed way to prevent all the suffering of their children is not to bring those children into existence in the first place,” he writes, in a 2006 book called “Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence.” In Benatar’s view, reproducing is intrinsically cruel and irresponsible—not just because a horrible fate can befall anyone, but because life itself is “permeated by badness.” In part for this reason, he thinks that the world would be a better place if sentient life disappeared altogether.
For a work of academic philosophy, “Better Never to Have Been” has found an unusually wide audience. It has 3.9 stars on GoodReads, where one reviewer calls it “required reading for folks who believe that procreation is justified.” A few years ago, Nic Pizzolatto, the screenwriter behind “True Detective,” read the book and made Rust Cohle, Matthew McConaughey’s character, a nihilistic anti-natalist. (“I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution,” Cohle says.) When Pizzolatto mentioned the book to the press, Benatar, who sees his own views as more thoughtful and humane than Cohle’s, emerged from an otherwise reclusive life to clarify them in interviews. Now he has published “The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions,” a refinement, expansion, and contextualization of his anti-natalist thinking. The book begins with an epigraph from T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets”—“Humankind cannot bear very much reality”—and promises to provide “grim” answers to questions such as “Do our lives have meaning?,” and “Would it be better if we could live forever?”
Benatar was born in South Africa in 1966. He is the head of the philosophy department at the University of Cape Town, where he also directs the university’s Bioethics Centre, which was founded by his father, Solomon Benatar, a global-health expert. (Benatar dedicated “Better Never to Have Been” “to my parents, even though they brought me into existence.”) Beyond these bare facts, little information about him is available online. There are no pictures of Benatar on the Internet; YouTube videos of his lectures consist only of PowerPoint slides. One video, titled “What Does David Benatar Look Like?,” zooms in on a grainy photograph taken from the back of a lecture hall until an arrow labelled “David Benatar” appears, indicating the abstract, pixellated head of a man in a baseball cap.
After finishing “The Human Predicament,” I wrote to Benatar to ask if we could meet. He readily agreed, then, after reading a few of my other pieces, followed up with a note. “I see that you aim to portray the person you interview, in addition to his or her work,” he wrote:
One pertinent fact about me is that I am a very private person who would be mortified to be written about in the kind of detail I’ve seen in the other interviews. I would thus decline to answer questions I would find too personal. (I would be similarly uncomfortable with a photograph of me being used.) I understand entirely if you would rather not proceed with the interview under these circumstances. If, however, you would be happy to conduct an interview that recognized this aspect of me, I would be delighted.
Undoubtedly, Benatar is a private person by nature. But his anonymity also serves a purpose: it prevents readers from psychologizing him and attributing his views to depression, trauma, or some other aspect of his personality. He wants his arguments to be confronted in themselves. “Sometimes people ask, ‘Do you have children?’ ” he told me later. (He speaks calmly and evenly, in a South African accent.) “And I say, ‘I don’t see why that’s relevant. If I do, I’m a hypocrite—but my arguments could still be right.’ ” When he told me that he’s had anti-natalist views since he was “very young,” I asked how young. “A child,” he said, after a pause. He smiled uncomfortably. This was exactly the kind of personal question he preferred not to answer.
Benatar and I met at the World Trade Center, where The New Yorker has its offices. He is small and trim, with an elfin face, and he was neatly dressed in trousers and a lavender sweater; I recognized him by his baseball cap. On the building’s sixty-fourth floor, we settled into a pair of plush chairs arranged near windows with panoramic views of Manhattan: the Hudson on the left, the East River on the right, the skyscrapers of midtown in the distance.