Better never to have been

Rene Lopez asks:

Are there any good arguments against David Benatar’s antinatalism?

Answer By Craig Skinner

I dont think so. Benatar’s arguments in his book Better Never To Have Been (OUP 2009) are convincing.

His thesis is that a world without sentient beings (or no world at all) would be better than the actual world.

He has two arguments:

1. The vale of tears argument.
2. The asymmetry argument.

  1. The vale of tears view says that we humans are natural born reproducers and optimists (adaptive evolved traits). We overestimate the joys of life as compared with the sorrows, keep having children and hoping for better things for them, whereas an impartial assessment of how things really are for humans and other sentient creatures, will conclude that, whilst transient joys occur for most of us, and more joy for some of us, overall the balance is suffering.
  2. The asymmetry argument says that a world without sentient beings prevents both suffering and joy, but, whereas avoidance of suffering is a good thing FULL STOP, prevention of joy is not a bad thing because nobody exists to be deprived of it.

Of course, even if it would have been better for me never to have been born, it doesnt follow, now I do exist, that suicide would be best. A nonexistent person has no interests, rights or agenda, whilst an existent one has, and usually wants to live and make the best of it. Hence, Benatar recommends planned extinction of humanity by birth control. I doubt it will ever catch on, but unplanned extinction is a distinct long term possibility.

Meantime, driven by my evolved biases, and aware that although the Grim Reaper isnt quite knocking on my door, he may be lurking in the shrubbery, I best close and get on with living.

Metaphysical necessity

John asks:

Is there ANY notion of ‘metaphysical necessity’ that you consider to be defensible ?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Yes, metaphysical necessity as the strictest or strongest grade of necessity: absolute;  necessity in virtue of the essences of things.

The grades, in increasing strictness, are:

1. Practical

2. Physical

3. Nomological

4. Logical

5. Metaphysical

Practical necessity refers to things we need to do in ordinary life to ensure our plans go smoothly eg before setting off to drive to Italy it’s necessary to check tyres, oil, insurance etc. But we could ignore this need and set off without doing any of it.

Physical necessity refers to something forced on us, not by logic or the laws of nature, but by the limits of our powers eg inability to time travel because we cant make big enough exotic wormholes in space or make a cylinder the mass of a galaxy spinning at half light speed. But maybe one day we will be able to do these things.

Nomological (Greek nomos = law) necessity is forced by the laws of nature eg on Earth a book dropped falls to the ground (law of gravity). But there may be other universes with different laws of nature where such a thing doesnt necessarily happen.

Logical necessity is necessity in virtue of the meaning of words (or symbols) plus the laws of logic eg “all bachelors are unmarried men”, “all red balls are red” are necessarily true. But maybe some other universes are illogical. Indeed, there are some true contradictions in our world eg “This sentence is not true” is both true and untrue.

Metaphysical necessity is absolute necessity, simply must be, no ifs, no buts. Examples are that I am necessarily the child of my specific parents (a child of somebody else couldnt be me); or that water is liquid H2O; or gold is the element with atomic number 79. We can say metaphysical necessity is due to the essences of things (the properties that make a thing the very thing it is). Nothing exists by metaphysical necessity though – any item in the world, or the entire universe itself, might not have existed. Of course we can define God as the being whose existence is his essence, in which case, if God exists, then his existence is metaphysically necessary.

The term “natural necessity” is sometimes used to mean physical, or nomological,  or both these necessities, but is confusing and best avoided.  Likewise “conceptual necessity”, due to definitions or meanings of words, which I include under logical necessity.

Causation and necessary connection

Vipin asked:

How do we define necessary connection essential for a cause-effect relationship? As per David Hume, there is no necessary connection found in matters of fact; but is it true? Can we not find any causal relationship between any two facts in this world?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I was hoping Craig would answer this one. I seem to have different intuitions about cause and effect from most philosophers coming to this topic. So you should take my answer with a big pinch of salt.

Hume saw the basis for the alleged ‘necessary connection’ between cause and effect in the operations of the mind, the tendency of the mind to pass from one ‘idea’ to another associated ‘idea’. He is careful to explain how this psychological process is consistent with a ‘logic’ of causes (see his ‘rules by which to judge of causes and effects’, Treatise of Human Nature Book I, Part III: Section XV). The frequently cited objection that merely noting regularities would fail to distinguish genuine cases of causation from accidental connections would leave him cold.

It’s a good theory, so far as it goes. Carl Hempel developed the idea in his ‘deductive-nomological’ (D-N) model of explanation. Various weird examples have been concocted, which attempt to show how the D-N model sometimes fails to track causation. One I remember from my Birkbeck days is ‘Valberg’s Bomb’, which greatly exercised G.A. Cohen, famous expositor of Marx, when he ventured into what was for him relatively unfamiliar territory of philosophy of science in a lecture series I attended. (I’ve just searched Google, but the only reference I could find to Valberg’s Bomb was an email I wrote back in 2011 Jerry Valberg was a colleague of G.A. Cohen at UCL.)

Elizabeth Anscombe, in her essay ‘Causality and Determination’ (E. Sosa, M. Tooley eds., Causation. OUP. pp. 88-104, 1993) challenged the Humean orthodoxy, arguing for a more traditional, pre-Humean notion of a cause as the ‘source’ from which the effect flows. On this account, there need be no universal law under which the cause-effect pair falls.

What is a genuine ‘effect’ of a ’cause’? The cause must be the ‘source’ of the effect. The cause must be the thing from which the effect ‘really comes’. This is something we all believe. But just repeating the belief, or finding some new word to describe it, is no help at all. The examples Anscombe cites in her paper are unpersuasive. In her impressive oeuvre, this essay seems somewhat of an oddity.

I used to be Humean, but I’ve come round, or at least half come round. What I now believe is that causation can be a one-off, just as Anscombe said. She was right. But I also believe in a Humean fashion that, in principle, anything can cause anything. Logically, anything is possible. It is logically possible that I could sneeze and as a result the universe could disappear in the next second. My typing a full stop at the end of the last sentence, could, in principle, have caused a plumber in Delhi to die of a heart attack.

Impossible, you say?

Let’s run the universe again in our total-universe simulator, and see what happens. We can stop Kennedy’s assassination, but only (on the ‘official’ theory) by preventing Lee Harvey Oswald from firing his rifle, or else spoiling his aim. In a similar way, we can try various ways of altering the course of world history, each more or less amusing. But every single time I type that period, Mr Singh’s heart stops. This is no mere accidental connection. We can’t explain it. Nor is there any ground for thinking that an explanation could, in principle, be available. It’s just a fact. Blame the glitch on whoever it was who designed the universe.

That’s my intuition. In practice, just as Hume said, we must always as a methodological principle look for a causal law to explain cause-effect relationships. But there is no guarantee that we will find the law in question, or even that it exists. Many of the things we take to be ‘effects’ of ’causes’ might not be such, and we would never know. Many of the things that we would never in a million years imagine could be ‘effects’ of ’causes’ might indeed be such, and we would never know. (For roughly Kantian reasons, we should add ‘hopefully not too many’.)

I honestly don’t think that was what Anscombe believed, not for one second. But that’s just the way with taking an argument, or an idea, to its logical conclusion.

As Plato said, you have to follow the argument wherever it goes.

Kant on organ donation

Elisabeth asked:

What would Kant say if keeping a promise or fulfilling a duty, and using oneself as an end, conflicted? For example, someone selling their kidney in order to use the money to buy life-saving surgery for their child?

Answer by Paul Fagan

Here we are faced with a conundrum that pushes us into the world of contemporary medical ethics. However, by just concentrating upon Kant’s opinion, the fact that Kant was never faced with such a situation would mean that we would be foolish in assuming that we would know what he would ‘say’ with complete certainty.

Nevertheless, by applying a very reduced version of deontology, we may say that we should never be using others as a ‘means’ to an ‘end’. And in the example provided, voluntarily using oneself as a ‘means’, by selling a kidney would seem to be acceptable. Moreover its status as a dutiful and moral act would seem to be reinforced as it allows two others, the child and the recipient of a kidney, to be treated as ‘ends’. Hence, I cannot see any conflict here: of course, all of this rests on there being no risk in any surgery involved, the kidney’s donor retaining a working kidney, and the kidney’s recipient being easily able to afford her purchase.

That said, there may be other reasons why this situation would fall foul of Kantian reasoning, and this may be unveiled by focussing upon a famous line from Kant’s Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.

Following this, we may ask, could the aforementioned organ-swapping scenario ever become a universal law by which we could all live? I am not sure that it could. Furthermore, I am immediately reminded of a thought experiment, referred to by some as ‘The Eyeball Lottery’, that may provide strong intuitive arguments against instituting such a law.

The thought experiment goes as follows. Imagine that a completely, safe operation is developed to transfer eyes from the sighted to the blind allowing the latter to see. A society that wished to give all of its blind citizens some sight may then institute a lottery whereby all two-eyed citizens donate an eye when their number comes up. Although, some persons would willingly donate eyes, others may recoil at being forced to donate an eye, and would consider any forced ‘donation’ to an assault (and at  least two interesting websites are available for further reading concerning this matter: and

Hence, although benefitting two persons by a personal sacrifice may seem laudable, many may feel that attempting to engender widespread acceptance of such a sacrifice is distorting any duty we have to others. Even where medical procedures are totally safe, any theorising promoting the normalisation of organ transfers from living donors would have its detractors and could not possibly expect to gain unanimous agreement. At present, the provided scenario is one area where medical ethicists may hope to make progress and set tentative norms.

Is it worth reading Plato’s dialogues?

Anne asked:

What is the best order to read Plato’s Dialogues in? Does it matter regarding understanding them and is it worth reading them all?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The very first philosophy book I picked up was one of the five volumes of Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Plato’s Dialogues. That would have been around late 1971 in Swiss Cottage Library, London. I remember that it was a heavy tome, but have no recollection at all of which volume it was.

What captured my imagination was the polite and respectful way in which the participants in the dialogues spoke to one another. In Jowett’s translation, they sound a bit like Oxford dons debating in the Senior Common Room. Yet I was charmed.

Occasionally the participants get flustered or even angry. Socrates had that effect on people. But reading these conversations, some of which record actual discussions that took place two and a half millennia ago, I got a powerful sense of how important reason is, man’s highest faculty — and woman’s too.

There are no women in Plato’s dialogues, although Plato on occasion makes positive use of female imagery — for example, Socrates as midwife, or when various Greek goddesses make an appearance.

Anne, I don’t want to tell you which dialogues to read, but can only echo what Giddy said in his advice to Richard:

I could tell you that the Phaedo, recounting the last day of Socrates’ life and exploring arguments for the immortality of the soul, is a dramatic masterpiece, sufficient to move a reader to tears — and all that talk about the ‘soul’ might leave you cold.

Or I could say that the Republic is an epic journey into Plato’s ethics and metaphysics, every bit as gripping as Lord of the Rings, and you’d just get bored by the interminable length of it.

The Theaetetus is a startlingly modern exploration of the nature of knowledge and problems around relativism of truth and perception, and yet the arguments might just leave you flummoxed. Similarly the Parmenides, where Plato manages the extraordinary feat of admitting seemingly fatal objections to his prized Theory of Forms.

These days, the complete Jowett translations are available in a single volume. I’m guessing you have that, as like Shakespeare’s Complete Plays it is so widely available. Why not just start at page one? Keep a notebook of your progress. It might very well be the case that the ‘lesser’ dialogues, the ones the scholars don’t discuss so often, succeed in getting you hooked just because of their relatively modest, down-to-earth ambitions.

As a default strategy, reading a book all the way through isn’t that bad. And you have the pleasure of seeing, day by day, or week by week, how far you’ve come. Read it like a novel. As you progress, you will learn more and more about the character of Socrates, a man of charisma and passion, so very different from ‘philosophers’ (so-called) today.

As for the order, the only thing you need to know is that, although there is some debate around this, Plato’s dialogues are roughly divided in to his early, middle and late periods. The early dialogues are more like actual records of discussions that Socrates had. In the later dialogues, although still featuring the figure of Socrates, Plato is speaking directly to us.

Is it worth reading Plato’s dialogues? How can you say that? On this forum?! — Only joking. All I can say is, Try it, you might like it.

— And if you don’t, try something else.

I want to be a Superman

Jose asked:

I am interested in becoming the Superman (Nietzsche) giving that prototype a try. What would be the requirements or how could it be possible in modern times?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

What a great ambition!

You will need all your strength and passion, and then some. You could start by reading all the works of Nietzsche, including the collection of writings published posthumously as The Will to Power (with caution because these were Nietzsche’s notebook jottings selected by his sister Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche, who later was to become a supporter of Adolf Hitler).

But what exactly are the requirements for becoming a — no reason why there should be only one — Nietzschean Ubermensch (literally, ‘Overman’)?

Here’s Walter Kaufmann:

The Ubermensch — even if one considers Nietzsche’s reverence for Napoleon and Caesar, rather than his admiration for Socrates and Goethe… is the ‘Dionysian’ man who is depicted under the name of Goethe at the end of Gotzen-Dammerung [Twilight of the Idols] (ix, 49). He has overcome his animal nature, organized the chaos of his passions, sublimated his impulses, and given style to his character — or, as Nietzsche said of Goethe: ‘he disciplined himself to wholeness, he created himself’ and became ‘the man of tolerance, not from weakness but from strength,’ ‘a spirit who has become free.’

Kauffmann, W. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist p.316

I stand to be corrected by Nietzsche scholars, but it is not clear that for Nietzsche any historical or (then) contemporary character had fully succeeded in this self-transformation. There are stages along the way, and some progress further than others. In Thus Spake Zarathustra Nietzsche talks of a ‘rope stretched over an abyss’ which conveys the sense of danger — one can fall into the abyss at any point on the journey — but also a distance that has to be travelled, comparable (metaphorically, if not literally) to the distance between an ape and a human being.

As Desmond Morris vividly demonstrated, we are, in fact, apes (The Naked Ape). Actually, to get the best taste of this, rather than watching the ‘Planet of the Apes’ movies, you could read Aldous Huxley Ape and Essence, a very disturbing work which I came across in my youth.

We are apes. We share with chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutangs the tendency to get overcome by the feelings of the moment. As Freud noted, we are prisoners of our drives, which the process of civilization has enabled us only partially to sublimate. I am writing these words today, because I was in the mood to write, and if I had not been in the mood your question might have remained unanswered. I have to be in the right mood, or the words don’t come. That’s how apelike I am.

In modern times, strange as it may seem, you might stand the best chance of overcoming your ‘all-too-human’ nature by getting psychoanalysed. Once you’ve done that, in theory at least, you have become like a musician who has mastered the art of the biological instrument that evolution has created, an instrument that was never ‘intended’ to be anything but a faster, cleverer ape.

Power over others is something you might, as an Overman, acquire — if you are a writer, say, who is able to move others by the power of words, or possibly a political leader (Churchill would be closer to this model than Hitler, but still a long way off). However, in a similar way to the ‘overcoming’ of Neanderthals by Homo Sapiens, it would take significant numbers of Overmen to pose any threat to humanity. Given the present ‘decadent’ state of our culture, that scenario is a long way away from being realised.

Although the National Socialists were totally wrong in thinking that Nietzsche’s idea had anything to do with their brutally animalistic interpretation of the ‘Will to Power’, there is a sense human beings would be in danger — for example, if we were visited by an alien species who had succeeded in realizing Nietzsche’s ideal. It would be incredibly hurtful to truly see ourselves as they saw us, perhaps that alone would be enough to destroy our reason to continue living on this Earth.

Nietzsche’s vision is, in a way, brutal because in stark contrast to Kant — or indeed any ‘Christian’ reading of his works — Nietzsche sees humanity as a means, not an end. Ultimately, the only thing that gives meaning to human life, is the possibility we will be succeeded by the Overman.

Advice to a newbie

Richard asked:

I’m just starting with philosophy non professionally so this site is an amazing help!

Sometimes I have a philosophical idea or question and I would like to research it and write it down. The point is I haven’t a clue how and where to start. You start with a question, ok, but how about the next step? Is there some sort of plan or standard to follow? For example ‘always start with logic’ or something? Maybe this question itself is to vague. Please let nne know if it is.

Anyway thanks a lot for this super website!

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

Mmmm… fresh meat!

Well, I could tell you a thing or two, Richard. Recommend some book that you’ll find way too difficult, and then imagine you… squirming, despising yourself for your pathetic stupidity. Not what we do here on Ask a Philosopher? Well…

Ever see the 1955 movie, Kiss Me Deadly?

Listen to me, as if I were Cerberus barking with all his heads at the gates of hell… don’t… don’t open the box! 

Every single one of us has been there. The really clever ones don’t go in for philosophy because they tend to hate open-ended problems and questions. They get impatient. They want to solve the problem and move on. Are you like that? Hope not.

(Sorry, I forgot Bertrand Russell. No doubting he was clever. He suffered from a rare condition: he ran out of problems to solve.)

Find a book, or, better, find a philosopher. It could even be Russell. It’s worth taking the time to search. Someone you can admire, even wish to emulate (in your dreams). Put your heart and soul into it, be willing to endure the pain and disappointment of multiple false starts.

No-one just starts with a question. Actually, that’s not true, the Internet is crowded with people who think that all you need to do is think about some philosophical question for a day and then post your opinion on a forum.

But if you have a question that really gnaws at you, then look for an author who has written a book on that topic that you like the look of. Difficult enough to set you a challenge but not too difficult to put you off philosophy for life. Your judgement is not necessarily reliable on this. But at least it’s your call. And that’s really important. Because your judgement is you rmost valuable asset.

Logic is more often than not a great excuse for bad judgement. ‘This follows from that… so it must be right.’ Or, worse, ‘My theory is free from any inconsistency except with the facts. So the ‘facts’ must be wrong.’

Believe me, I’ve heard almost exactly that from a professional philosopher.

Really glad you like our site. You could spend months — or weeks, anyway — just reading over twenty years worth of materials we have here. You could start with our home page and follow the links. Ask a Philosopher has been going nineteen years so there’s a pretty large backlog you could explore.

Amazingly, we still get questions that we’ve never been asked before. Maybe you can think up one…