Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim.— Arthur Schopenhauer
Nietzsche’s contemporary, Schopenhauer, had a remarkably pessimistic view of life, which Nietzsche himself characterized as a form of nihilism. Existential nihilism is the stance that life is meaningless, that there are no objective goals one ought to strive towards. It is based on a deep-seated belief that there is no intrinsic purpose to life. The existential nihilist worldview is distinct from moral nihilism, which holds that nothing is inherently right or wrong. For example, whether I kill someone or not, is of no importance in the grand scheme of things (existential nihilism), and, moreover, cannot be considered good or bad (moral nihilism). Moral and existential nihilism can coalesce to create a worldview wherein anything is permissible.
Julian Young of Wake Forest University explains Schopenhauer’s worldview thus: “The pleasures of achieving a goal are either fleeting or non-existent. And, once achieved, we must rush on to the next goal in order to escape the ever-present threat of boredom.” Schopenhauer does not see goals as good in themselves (this is evidence of his existential nihilism), but only in their utility in bringing about feelings of pleasure. Due to the fleeting nature of pleasure, however, he believes that it is better to detach ourselves from life because at least then we can escape suffering. Such views have quite rightly gained him the post-mortem title of the first western Buddhist.
Schopenhauer’s view of life as suffering is akin to that of the contemporary philosopher David Benatar. Benatar is a proponent of the anti-natalist philosophy and author of Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. In that book, he contends that the bad a human experiences over a lifetime outweighs the good she experiences. Furthermore, Benatar claims that not bringing bad into the world is good. However, we are not morally obligated to bring good into the world, since an absence of good is not necessarily bad. Based on the do no harm principle, humans should stop having kids altogether, in order to prevent a surplus of pain from coming into existence. Therefore, humans have a moral obligation to stop procreating and end the disproportionate suffering inherent to life.
Benatar bases his anti-natalist position on a variant of the consequentialist ethic, wherein the good and bad humans experience are paramount when contemplating the ethics of a predicament. However, Benatar does not build his philosophical system around pleasure and pain per se. He concedes that there are things that are considered good, regardless of the pleasure or pain they may engender. For instance, Benatar claims that knowledge is preferable to ignorance and is thus a good within his philosophical system, but he does not provide a robust justification for why. One way this might be justified is through an existential claim: we might say that it is our purpose, as humans, to pursue the truth, but it would be hard to make a case that truth is a morally good thing to achieve, especially when attaining knowledge does not necessarily bring pleasure. And, as Benatar points out, knowledge can be lost by a mere bump on the head, despite the large amounts of time it often takes to attain—a fact that further exacerbates the gap between good and bad.
Since Benatar obviously believes in the axioms upon which his philosophical position is predicated, this necessarily precludes him from being a moral nihilist. Although one can’t help but feel an eerie pessimism towards life emanating from his words. Benatar’s pessimistic nihilism, not unlike Schopenhauer’s, stems from a marked existential nihilism, in spite of his seemingly existential claim about the importance of knowledge. The most pressing error Benatar has made in his philosophical system stems directly from what I have diagnosed as his existential nihilism. In a debate between Jordan Peterson and David Benatar, Peterson makes their differing existential views apparent:
During the discussion, Peterson says, “I don’t have any disagreement with the idea that the claim that life is suffering is a valid claim.” Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Peterson has most likely heard his oft-repeated phrase life is suffering, which suggests a pessimistic standpoint not unlike Schopenhauer’s or Benatar’s, in which suffering is perceived as endemic to life. Peterson and Benatar clearly agree that life may have a skewed calculus towards pain and suffering, yet Peterson does not agree with anti-natalism for one crucial reason: he is not an existential nihilist. This is most apparent when he claims, “voluntary confrontation with tragedy and malevolence … that’s a pathway that produces a quality of being that transcends the suffering and limits the malevolence … there are modes of being that justify existence.” Peterson maintains that a noble way of life, achieved through the adoption of responsibility, can make the chronic suffering worthwhile. This is made possible through what Peterson calls meaning. Meaning is a common theme throughout Peterson’s work—the topic has been written about extensively elsewhere in Areo (see, here, here and here).
Meaning is not a feeling of happiness, nor can it be characterized as pleasure: meaning is a feeling of immersion and fulfillment, and, in fact, may involve pain and suffering. It occurs when there is moderate stress and uncertainty about the future, but also sufficient know-how to continue progressing towards a goal. Meaning is not material, nor can it be achieved by acquiring material objects. For example, working towards a PhD is a long and arduous process, yet receiving the actual PhD is not what makes the process worthwhile. It is the long nights, overnighters and copious amounts of stress that were actually worthwhile—yes, you read that right. Working towards a noble goal is what is meaningful, whereas achieving the goal—the PhD in this instance—is a temporary pleasure, which lasts no longer than a week or so after the ceremony. As Schopenhauer points out, the pleasure associated with the realization of a goal is often fleeting. On the other hand, the process of working towards a goal is meaningful in itself.
The reality of meaning is demonstrated by the remarkable accounts of PhDs who feel depressed or lost after achieving what some of them have spent as long as eight years—most of their adult lives so far—trying to achieve. This phenomenon has been called post-dissertation stress disorder. Elizabeth Rodwell has written about this phenomenon: “As newly minted PhDs know, we’re not supposed to be any less driven simply because we’ve graduated. If anything, the hustle is supposed to begin anew.” However, she often finds that post-docs are aimless and have no idea what to do with their lives, now that the future is open to them. Rodwell does not provide a robust explanation for why this may be, but I believe meaning is the key to understanding their predicament.
While working towards a PhD, one is oriented first and foremost towards the superordinate principle of the truth, of which the material consequence will be the acquisition of a PhD. The seemingly tireless pursuit of a PhD is full of stress and suffering, both of which must be faced and overcome in order to become aligned with the truth. Existential reality usurps in importance any material feedback one may receive during the journey, including the achievement of the PhD. After all, the orientation and striving towards the truth is what made the journey worthwhile, as it supplied the individual with a sense of meaning strong enough to overcome her unfavorable material circumstances.
Given the universities’ tenuous relationship with scientific rigor and truth in what have been called the disciplines of grievance studies, you might be thinking that PhD students are not necessarily as aligned with the truth as I have claimed. I would agree—but this actually strengthens my point. Consider this: those in grievance studies programs tend to be the most involved with social justice issues, often striving to enact material change on campus and in society writ large. They must see continuous material change as a consequence of their actions, to justify their journey, since they are not receiving the same meaning that one who is fully oriented towards the truth would. They confide in temporal material actions, rather than aligning with the higher principles of life (e.g. truth, freedom, justice, etc).
On a podcast called The Psychology of Redemption, Peterson claims that there is an “existence of a deep state of meaning that justifies the tragedy of being and the possibility of transforming your own life in the most beneficial positive direction, while simultaneously doing that for the people around you.” Meaning implies that we humans are moving towards a greater purpose. It occurs when in pursuit of a noble goal, such as truth or freedom. Peterson justifies living in the face of a pleasure-pain calculus that may be skewed towards pain from a material perspective, by considering the alignment with our existential purposes as a good, thus balancing and perhaps even shifting the good/bad calculus towards the good.
Anti-natalism is predicated upon the eventual demise of the human species: no substantial weight is afforded to existential goals or achievements. If existential goals were considered good in and of themselves (as those who are not existential nihilists would claim), then not fulfilling these existential goals—for instance, due to the demise of the human species—would be neutral. A bad with regards to these existential realities would occur not when someone does not strive to be aligned with the truth, for instance, but when they consciously attempt to subvert the truth or to pervert justice. Since existential realities often supersede material reality, especially when experiencing meaning, the addition of this existential reality to the anti-natalist philosophical system might tip the scale more heavily towards the side of the good, since good tends to be more commonplace and it is much easier to enact good than it is to enact bad with regard to these existential realities.
To prove this claim, I will employ historical empiricism. Overall, all over the world, although particularly in the west and Pacific east, societies have inched closer towards justice, truth and freedom. There have been setbacks, but on the whole we are continuously improving and could not have got where we are without these predicaments. Thus, there is good evidence to suggest that there is more good than bad with regard to these existential realities, as is apparent from our continued progress towards these asymptotic goals. Michael Shermer has written about our evolution towards these existential realities in his book, The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice and Freedom. The fact that these noble pursuits can be more important than pain and pleasure, compounded with the fact that enacting good with regard to these virtues is much more common than enacting bad, it is conceivable that—in a moral system that accommodates not only material realities, but also existential realities—the good will outweigh the bad.
In short, since Peterson is not an existential nihilist, he believes that there are goals and real purposes to strive towards in our lives. We may not know what these goals are definitively, but when we find something that is meaningful, it is a sign that we are aligned with a greater existential good—that is good despite the pain or pleasure it may or may not bring humans, since meaning is strong enough to enable us to overcome mere pleasure and pain. Benatar’s failure to account for this existential reality leaves his philosophical system incomplete. While he acknowledges the importance of pleasure, pain and even knowledge, he fails to account for the existence of meaning and its implications more deeply. Consequently, he accords too much value to pain and pleasure within his moral system. The addition of meaning as a potential avenue to counteract bad human experience, and indicate alignment towards the good, would skew the good vs. bad experience scale towards the good. In this new philosophical system, anti-natalism would not be a tenable conclusion, since pursuing our existential purpose is of much greater importance than the material conditions we may experience in our day-to-day lives. And doubly so—since we are rewarded with meaning as a consequence of our existential alignment.