David Benatar impresses me the more I learn of his work. I must confess that he is pushing me toward his brand of philosophical pessimism. In this note I want to explore a Benatar-inspired hypothesis: that evolution through natural selection will favour dissatisfaction, fear, and pain, respectively, over satisfaction, calm, and pleasure, respectively. In short, that we are bound for unhappiness.
Let’s start with satisfaction. The hypothesis is that evolution will favour dissatisfaction over satisfaction because the cost of error in the direction of the latter is greater than the cost of error in the direction of the former. If we are, say, prone to feel satisfied too early, then we will cease the activities that promote survival such as hunting, seeking, preparing, defending, and basically anything that requires serious effort. If, on the other hand, we are prone to err on the side of dissatisfaction, even when something survival-promoting has happened, then we are simply prone to continue to engage in those activities that promote our continued existence. Dissatisfaction is, in effect, the motivation to continue to fight for survival. Hence, we are selected to become and remain dissatisfied more easily than to become satisfied.
Let me illustrate what I mean by way of a thought experiment (perhaps a very silly one in many ways). Assuming the sensation of hunger pushes one to seek food, then having found something to eat, one ought not to become over-satisfied and too deeply relaxed at that point, for then one opens oneself up to all kind of risk: that someone will steal one’s food while one is taking it easy; that excess food will go bad because not preserved while one is off enjoying the feeling of satisfaction; that one will be unprepared for the next day’s hunt because one spent no time thinking of the next bout of hunger and preparing as a result; and so on. In short, creatures who quickly get over the joy of securing food to focus on protecting what they have and preparing for future hunger will be better suited for survival. So, the feeling of satisfaction, which needs to be there to reward the effort, should be, from an evolutionary point of view, relatively fleeting and easily replaced with its opposite.
Next, let’s consider fear. There are many things to be fearful of in this world, but to narrow things down here I will focus on fear of death. Any creature who lacks a substantial fear of death will be less prone to fight and resist threats to its survival and hence the lack of fear will decrease the odds of making it. It is, again, better from an evolutionary point of view to err on the side of more fear rather than less. Evolution ought, then, to select for beings who are maximally disturbed by death, up to the point of becoming paralyzed. We would not be well placed to survive if we froze in the face of threats, but below that level, more fear is probably an evolutionary advantage.
Finally, as for pain, let us assume here that it is an indicator of damage. Hence, pain can linger, and even be chronic, because damage can. Pleasure, on the other hand, usually either: (1) indicates the cessation of pain, and hence the return to normal, in which case it will pass in favour of a feeling of normalcy; or (2) accompanies some positive good for the body or mind, in which case it will cease as soon as the good achieved its purpose. For example, eating will give pleasure to the body because it corresponds to the inputting of nutrition, but once the nutrition is in, the body returns back to normal, and indeed needs to start thinking about its next meal. So, there is reason for pleasures to, in general, quickly recede precisely because if they lingered they would tend toward excess satisfaction which would bring with it the risks mentioned earlier. Pleasure has had to go down relatively quickly to ensure people will re-seek the good thing it accompanies.
So, I hypothesize that, given the evolutionary realities of our species' past, we are likely to be dissatisfied, fearful, and hurt more often than not. If so, then Benatar’s anti-natalism seems psychologically well grounded. Of course, it becomes counter-productive to become de-motivated by these things, as mentioned above, so we would expect people to have a built-in sense of optimism that works in opposition to dissatisfaction, fear, and pain. So I think we should expect that people profess more satisfaction than their situations might otherwise suggest, because in doing so they are more likely to continue the struggle. Moreover, natural variation will ensure that exceptions are born regularly: some will face all of the reasons for negativity with great equanimity and even happiness. But if I am right, then unhappiness should be more widespread.
All of this is meant as speculation as to the psychology of happiness. It isn’t intended to argue that life is objectively worthless or meaningless. Indeed, it is quite compatible with the reverse. Life may very well be filled with objective goodness in every measure, and be more than worth fighting for in every way, yet it still be the case that human beings are more likely than not to be unhappy with their lot in life. Indeed, given how many people report unhappiness after achieving the highest levels of success and fortune, the unhappiness-by-evoution hypothesis strikes me as likely. Nonetheless, I remain optimistic myself in the existence of objective value, though I am unsure as to its ability to produce happiness.