Does human life have a negative or positive value? Or, in other words, do we experience more pain or happiness?
Through the character Philo in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, David Hume expresses his belief that human life contains a negative value by claiming we experience more pain than happiness. Fyodor Dostoevsky, on the other hand, believed that, given the correct circumstances, we have a positive value (an interpretation of how the reader is supposed to feel about the characters with “negative” personalities in The Brothers Karamazov that, even if an inaccurate interpretation of Dostoevsky’s personal views, is still a legitimate argument).
This question is by all means incredibly important to ethics, but just how answerable is it? If we discover that we, as a species, suffer more than we experience pleasure, would we alter our actions to fit the principles of utilitarian ethics? Would we even recognize the negative value of human life? If some are generally happy while others are generally sad, what actions concerning life and death would we consider moral?
Would reaching a conclusion even change the way we treat life?
If there existed a way to know whether or not a life will contain more pain than pleasure, it would be moral to end a painful life or prevent it from ever occurring. This is a bit hard to swallow. Proponents of antinatalism, however, believe the human race should die out by voluntarily preventing all births. 19th century philosopher and antinatalist Arthur Schopenhauer went as far as to call life the ultimate crime against humanity. He also noted that those who think themselves happy are either in denial or cling to the false hope of being happy in the future. However, Schopenhauer lived a somewhat unfortunate life—the details of which I won’t dive into here—and there is reason to believe he made the claim against life mostly based on his own.
Even if Schopenhauer was a generally unhappy man, we should note that such unhappiness exists. Neither a god nor evolution constructed humans to exist “happily.” Instead, we simply exist. Antinatalists and philosophers such as Hume point out that happiness is fleeting while pain lingers. I personally understand their point, but it is still difficult to gauge if life has a positive or negative value. It might be best to just come away from all this asking this: we should follow humanitarianism as blindly as the religious follow God?