Coming to exist is always a harm. Or so argues David Benatar in his provocative book, Better Never to Have Been.
A central pillar of Benatar's defense of this offputting 'anti-natalist' thesis is what he calls the asymmetry argument (BNHB, p. 30):
Pleasure benefits us and pain harms us.
(1) The presence of pain is bad.
(2) The presence of pleasure is good.
So far, pleasure and pain are symmetrical in their goodness and badness. But they are not symmetrical with respect to their absence. More specifically:
(3) The absence of pain is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone, but
(4) The absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody (an actual somebody) who is deprived by its absence.
If sound, the upshot of Benatar's asymmetry argument is that by not coming to exist, a prospective person is benefitted by not suffering the pains that inevitably color human existence, but a prospective person (being merely prospective, not actual) is not harmed by being denied the pleasures that come from actual existence. Thus, all other things being equal, coming to exist is a net harm.
I'm not sure if I'm convinced by the asymmetry argument as it stands, but I would like to raise a different worry. Does the argument generalize to other harm/benefit or good/bad pairs? In other words, is the following reasoning sound?
G benefits us and B harms us.
(1) The presence of G is good.
(2) The presence of B is bad.
(3) The absence of B is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone.
(4) The absence of G is not bad unless there is somebody (an actual somebody) who is deprived by G's absence.
Now even if the pleasure/pain version of the asymmetry argument is sound, it weakens Benatar's case for his anti-natalist position if it does not generalize to other good/bad pairs. If it doesn't generalize, then perhaps, once the other goods and bads are taken into account, coming to exist will be neutral or a net benefit to us. In other words, the asymmetry argument can be more readily dismissed if its soundness requires that a hedonistic theory of value or well-being (a philosophically controversial theory) be assumed.
(A sidenote: It's not clear what Benatar would say about my generalization worries. He does not explicitly endorse hedonism, and later in the book, he argues that whichever plausible view we take human welfare or "quality of life", hedonistic or otherwise, life goes worse than we thought. So I'm not trying to pin hedonism on Benatar. I am instead questioning whether the asymmetry argument is persuasive only on the condition that hedonism is true.)
And my own intuition, inchoate though it may be, is that the asymmetry argument does not generalize. It strikes me as far less obvious that, for instance, virtue and vice, wisdom and ignorance, or friendship and friendlessness are asymmetrical in the way Benatar proposes pleasure and pain are asymmetrical. At this point, I don't have much to support this beyond my inchoate intuition, but here's one small idea: I dimly recall that Scholastic philosophers were fond of pointing out that opposing properties (or predicates, if you prefer) can oppose each other in two different ways. Some oppose each other because they are qualitatively antagonistic. Pleasure is not simply pain's absence, nor is pain pleasure's absence. They have opposing 'feels' or qualities. (Indeed, what makes pain bad is not its pleasantlessness, nor is pleasure good because of its painlessness.) But some oppose each other as presence and absence. Darkness is light's absence, rather than being antagonistic to lightness. (Forgive the imprecision of this. I'm sure I'm also getting the vocabulary wrong too!) I wonder if the pleasure/pain version of Benatar's asymmetry argument works because of the antagonistic relation between them, whereas it is less persuasive for good/bad pairs that are related as presence and absence (wisdom/ignorance, say). If so, then the argument would not generalize.
But again, I'm groping about for some insight into whether some good/bad pairs are not 'Benatar-asymmetrical,' and if so, why. Any help appreciated!