Harvard Theological Review 112 (1):33–54 (2019)

Jesse Peterson
Durham University
Contemporary philosopher David Benatar has advanced the self-evidently controversial claim that “coming into existence is always a harm.” Benatar’s argument turns on the basic asymmetry between pleasure and pain, an asymmetry he seeks to explain by the principle that those who never exist cannot be deprived. Benatar’s import is almost incredible: humans should cease to procreate immediately, thereby engendering the extinction of the species—a view known as “anti-natalism.” According to many of his readers, the ancient Hebrew sage Qoheleth expresses a pessimistic nihilism that runs as thick as Benatar’s. Prima facie grounding for this assertion is that Qoheleth, like Benatar, raises the issue of whether coming into existence may be a harm—and gives an affirmative answer. In two passages, Ecclesiastes 6:1-6 and 4:1-3, Qoheleth declares that an unborn hypothetical person is “better off” than their existent counterpart. Yet the meaning and implication of these words is far from obvious. Does Qoheleth imply that the non-exister’s state, and non-existence in general, is universally superior to existence? Or is he instead speaking exceptionally, of particular persons in rare circumstances? By examining the two “better”-statements in their literary context, I will argue that Qoheleth intends these examples as exceptions. He does not go so far as to make the supremely nihilistic claim that coming into existence is always, or even generally, a net harm; yet, he does concede that in certain cases, it can be. Beyond this, I will explore how the two thinkers’ divergent conclusions can be traced to a deeper difference of philosophical method. This question concerning non-existence opens a window to Qoheleth’s broader scheme of values and therefore serves as a surprisingly useful entry point by which to engage his philosophy. The paper utilizes the methodology Jaco Gericke has recently termed “philosophical criticism,” but specifically applied to Qoheleth.
Keywords David Benatar  anti-natalism  value of existence  pessimism  Bible and philosophy  Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth)  Jewish philosophy
Categories (categorize this paper)
Edit this record
Mark as duplicate
Export citation
Find it on Scholar
Request removal from index
Revision history

Download options

PhilArchive copy

 PhilArchive page | Other versions
External links

Setup an account with your affiliations in order to access resources via your University's proxy server
Configure custom proxy (use this if your affiliation does not provide a proxy)
Through your library

References found in this work BETA

Wrongful Life and the Counterfactual Element in Harming.Joel Feinberg - 1986 - Social Philosophy and Policy 4 (1):145.

Add more references

Citations of this work BETA

No citations found.

Add more citations

Similar books and articles

Better No Longer to Be.Ema Sullivan-Bissett & Rafe Mcgregor - 2012 - South African Journal of Philosophy 31 (1):55-68.
Sick and Healthy: Benatar on the Logic of Value.Skott Brill - 2012 - South African Journal of Philosophy 31 (1):38-54.
Better to Exist: A Reply to Benatar.S. D. Baum - 2008 - Journal of Medical Ethics 34 (12):875-876.
How Best to Prevent Future Persons From Suffering: A Reply to Benatar.Brooke Alan Trisel - 2012 - South African Journal of Philosophy 31 (1):79-93.
Is It Wrong to Impose the Harms of Human Life? A Reply to Benatar.David DeGrazia - 2010 - Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 31 (4):317-331.


Added to PP index

Total views
345 ( #21,187 of 2,362,031 )

Recent downloads (6 months)
76 ( #7,975 of 2,362,031 )

How can I increase my downloads?


My notes