This essay is about the philosophy of efilism. Efilism is the view that life is bad. The term “efilism” is based on “life” spelled backwards.
Efilism is the creation of Inmendham, an early YouTuber who promoted the philosophy on YouTube and other platforms. Most of his content is in video format. You can visit his website.
Efilism is based on three premises:
- Hedonism: Pleasure and pain are the ultimate source of value. Experiencing pleasure has positive value. Experiencing pain has negative value. (By “pain” I mean all bad feelings, such as hunger, fear, etc., not just the “physical” pain of a stubbed toe. Likewise for “pleasure”.)
- Altruism: There is a moral imperative to do good for others. This applies to all others. Given (1), this means trying to minimize the pain and maximize the pleasure experienced by sentient beings.
- Sentient beings experience more pain than pleasure, on average.
From these three premises, efilists derive the conclusion that sentient life has negative value on average, and that ending the existence of sentient life would be morally good.
Efilism exists within a larger frame that includes atheism and biological realism. Efilists are atheists, and they believe that life evolved by natural selection. From this, they conclude that life has no cosmic purpose. But they still view the minimization of pain and maximization of pleasure as a cosmic purpose — something that we ought to strive toward, even though life was not designed to have that effect.
Efilism still has the “ghost of God” in its worldview. Efilists don’t believe in God, but they believe in objective value, and objective rights and obligations. They believe that sentient experience is objectively valuable: that pain is objectively bad and pleasure is objectively good. They also believe that we have a moral imperative to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. So, they believe in objective, universal normativity and imperativity. They also often anthropomorphize the universe or evolution.
To reject efilism, you must reject one of its three premises. As it happens, I reject all of its premises. I reject hedonism. I reject altruism. I don’t believe that there is more pain than pleasure in life. However, I am not going to make the argument against efilism in this essay. Instead, I am going to show that efilism is a powerful counterpoint to humanism.
Most humanists implicitly or explicitly accept premises 1 and 2. They believe that subjective experiences of pleasure and pain are the ultimate source of value. They believe that the essential moral principle is to be nice to others. Of course, few people ever try to explicitly state the core premises of their worldviews. Core premises have to be extracted by Socratic questioning or induced from downstream words and actions. So, I can’t say that most humanists explicitly accept premises 1 and 2, just that they seem to tacitly accept them.
If so, that leaves premise 3: that on average there is more pain than pleasure in life. Most humanists implicitly reject premise 3. In the online debates over efilism, this premise seems to be the crux of the disagreement between efilists and humanists. The humanists believe that pleasure does outweigh pain on average, so that life has net positive (hedonistic) value.
Instead of addressing that belief directly, I am going to take a detour through sentientism. Sentientism is the philosophical perspective that underlies ethical veganism. Sentientism is in between humanism and efilism. Like efilists, sentientists expand their circle of altruism to include all sentient beings, not just human beings. Humanists are usually more exclusive, and either limit altruism to humans or set humans above other sentient beings as more worthy of care and concern. Sentientists and efilists rightly criticize this as contrived and arbitrary. Why should a dog or a monkey be accorded less moral worth than a human being? Sentientists and efilists believe that all sentient beings are worthy of care and concern, and that their suffering is just as meaningful and value-laden as the suffering of human beings.
I agree with the sentientists and efilists on this point: the attempt to exclude other sentient beings from altruistic concern is arbitrary. It is contrived to avoid an obvious conflict between the moral principles of humanism and how most people act: with indifference toward the suffering of animals. Of course, most people also act with indifference toward the suffering of other human beings, but in less obvious ways. At least they aren’t eating them. A pretense of altruism toward human beings is easier to maintain than a pretense of altruism toward animals.
So, sentientism is closer to efilism than humanism is. Yet, most sentientists are not efilists, presumably because they reject premise 3. So, let’s consider how a sentientist can reject premise 3.
Ethical vegans are opposed to farming animals for meat or other products. Their opposition to farming is based mainly on the suffering of farm animals. They believe that the lives of farm animals have net negative value: that the animals experience more pain than pleasure, due to the circumstances of their lives. Most ethical vegans believe that farm animals are better off not being born. Yet, few would say the same about a wild animal, let alone a human being.
Is it biologically realistic that farm animals suffer more than wild animals? Farm animals live in enclosed spaces and are often denied the full range of behaviors that wild animals have. On the other hand, farm animals are fed on a regular basis and protected from parasites and predators to a greater extent than wild animals. Most farm animals die young in a slaughterhouse. Most wild animals die young from predation, disease or hunger. It is far from obvious that farm animals have a worse life than wild animals, in terms of having more bad experiences.
I believe that pain and pleasure balance out. See Motivation. But even with ordinary assumptions about the attainability of happiness, it is hard to argue that wild animals are more happy, on average, than farm animals.
Nature is brutal. Most living beings are losers, not winners. The majority die young without reproducing. That is just how life works. Life is the product of evolution, and evolution is based on excess reproduction. All life forms have the capacity to generate more offspring than would be necessary to replace the population. Excess reproduction causes competition. Life is a struggle. The balance of nature is maintained by the perpetual culling of life forms before they can reproduce. The winners pass on their genes, but they too die in the end.
For sentient beings, both winners and losers experience pain. Pain is part of the mechanism that drives them to reproduce.
If, as most people believe, life can be made more painful or more pleasant by the conditions of life, then what conditions are necessary to tip the balance from positive to negative? If your value system is hedonistic, then that is a very important question. The answer has huge implications. It classifies lives into those worth living and those not worth living.
To the sentientist vegan, some lives are not worth living. Most vegans implicitly believe that it is better for a farm animal not to be born. That is implied by the moral arguments for veganism, because the effect of veganism is to prevent farm animals from existing. If vegans believe that a farm animal is better off (so to speak) not being born, they should establish the criteria for that value-judgment, and apply the same criteria to the lives of other sentient beings, including human beings. What lives are worth living, and why?
Again, the main difference between sentientism and humanism is the greater intellectual honesty of sentientists in rejecting an arbitrary distinction between human beings and other sentient beings. If sentientists have no justification for claiming the goodness of life, then neither do humanists. The positive value of life is just a default assumption of the humanist worldview, as it is of most other worldviews. It is almost never given any philosophical justification.
Is life worth living?
Some humanists will dodge the question by saying “Let individuals make their own decisions. If they want to die, give them the option of committing suicide.”. There are three problems with that view.
One is that it might be very difficult for a person to commit suicide, even if he or she truly believed that life was not worth living. After all, we evolved to struggle toward reproduction, not to kill ourselves. The fear of death creates a huge barrier to suicide. Even if a person believed that non-existence was preferable, he might not be able to overcome his innate fear of death.
Another problem is that people might be deceiving themselves, and others, into believing that life has positive value. The default cultural assumption is that life is worth living. Culture affects people’s beliefs and choices. If their culture contains a major deception about life, people’s choices could be wrong.
The third problem is that we already make the choice of life for other sentient beings. Bringing a child or a farm animal into the world is making the choice of life for that being. A farm animal is not capable of consciously reflecting on the conditions of its existence and choosing life or death. A child might eventually acquire that ability, but only after living for many years. Also, most people never acquire the ability to think philosophically. Most simply blunder through life without ever pondering whether life is worth living.
The question needs to be answered. It cannot be dodged by an appeal to “freedom of choice”.
Some might try to dodge it by appealing to ignorance instead. A humanist might say that he doesn’t know whether a given life is worth living, so the decision to live or not must be a personal choice. He might argue that we can’t sample the subjective experiences of others, so we can never know if their lives are worth living or not. However, that is simply a cop-out. The same argument could be made to reject altruism. If we can’t know what others are experiencing, then we can’t know whether we are being nice to them or not, or how to manage trade-offs between the hedonic welfare of different beings. Thus, there is no point trying to be altruistic.
Efilists and sentientists believe that we can infer the experiences of other sentient beings from their actions, by analogy to our own experiences and actions. We know how we feel, and we know how we act when we feel certain ways. By analogy, we can infer the subjective experiences of others from their actions, and we can base moral choices on those inferences. The humanist would either have to agree that we can infer subjective mental states, or else admit that (hedonistic) altruism is impossible in principle.
As an aside, I reject the claim that we know how we feel on average, or in summation. We have direct awareness of our feelings in the moment, but those feelings cannot be stored, and they do not accumulate in any way. So, there is no way to sum or average them over time. We only know the changes in our feelings from moment to moment, and how those changes are related to our actions and circumstances. We don’t know ourselves as well as we tend to assume. But that is an aside.
The humanist might say that most living beings seem to enjoy life, so it is reasonable to infer that life has (hedonistic) value. But is it true that most living beings seem to enjoy life?
It is true that most animals tend to act in ways that prevent rather than cause death. However, that doesn’t imply that they enjoy life. Evolution created the motivation mechanism. It drives us through life, and it generates the experiences of pleasure and pain. It did not evolve to make us happy. It evolved to make us reproduce. Sentient beings try to stay alive because they are motivated to act in ways that lead to (short-term) survival and reproduction, not because they sum up all their subjective experiences, weigh them, and come to a rational decision about continuing to exist.
Consider an animal that is shivering in a cave, hiding from predators. It is avoiding death, but does it seem to be enjoying life? The fact that living beings avoid death is not evidence that life is generally pleasant.
Humanism does not establish the value of life. It merely assumes that life has positive value, and that human life is special. Ethical veganism claims that the lives of farm animals have negative value, but it does not establish the basis for that value judgment, nor does it explain why it applies to farm animals but not to wild animals or to human beings. Efilism claims that life has negative value on average, based on the brutality of nature and common assumptions about how objective events affect subjective experience. I disagree with that claim, but I respect efilism for posing the philosophical question of whether life is worth living. I also respect efilism and sentientism for their moral consistency in applying altruism to all sentient beings.
I reject the three core premises of efilism, two of which are shared by humanism and sentientism. Thus, I reject all three worldviews. Nevertheless, I respect efilism for its realism about life and its willingness to question cherished assumptions. Life is not a romantic adventure full of joy. Nature is not a loving “mother”. Efilism raises profound philosophical questions about the meaning, purpose and value of life.