By R.N. Carmona
Skepticism that results from the bias of the skin over one’s eyes is unhealthy. When considering whether skepticism of a view is healthy, what I consider is systematization. In other words, I consider how well a given view coheres with other views one holds. Philosophy is the impetus of systematization because when reasoning, one is to avoid fallacies and cognitive biases, or at least, that is the hope. Unfortunately, I find that there are views, even in philosophy, that put a great deal of stress on making an individual’s philosophy systematic. In truth, I am not so sure most people who fancy themselves philosophers even care or they hold incongruous views with a sort of negligence with regards to whether or not the positions cohere with one another.
Anti-natalism is precisely one of these positions that has fatal issues as far as its coherence with other views. Even more fatal is its allegiance to undeniable implications, some that have been exhausted for over a decade and others that I intend to point out. After outlining David Benatar’s arguments and Christopher Belshaw’s argument for anti-natalism, I will demonstrate the number of ways in which it fails to cohere with other positions an individual might hold.
Arguments For Anti-Natalism
Benatar offers two arguments for anti-natalism: 1) if one’s daughter were to suffer even a pin-prick, then procreation is wrong, the happiness and pleasure that she would have experienced had she been born notwithstanding; 2) despite the accumulated good she might experience, the good is outstripped by the bad (see Benatar, David. “Why it is better never to come into existence.” American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 34, no. 3, 1997 and Benatar, David. Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.). His rationale is that “the absence of pain is good, i.e., better than its presence, with regard to one who could have existed but in fact never will. In addition, the absence of pleasure is not bad, in the sense of no worse than its presence, unless there is someone who exists and would have been deprived of it” (Metz, Thaddeus. Contemporary Anti-Natalism, Featuring Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been. South African Journal of Philosophy 31 (1):1-9., 2012).
Belshaw offers a different argument in where he tries to avoid a fatal implication already present in Benatar’s arguments. Metz summarizes it as follows:
Belshaw suggests that anti-natalism follows from the principle that is wrong to exploit the misfortunes of others, specifically, human babies. The lives of babies, Belshaw argues, are not qualitatively different from those of animals such as rabbits and sheep, where these beings lack an awareness of themselves over time, or at least a very sophisticated one. Instead, they tend to be ‘caught in the moment’, meaning that, for them, a later pleasure cannot compensate for a present pain. Although we might want to keep an animal alive and hence be willing to let it suffer now in the expectation that it will be happy down the road, Belshaw maintains that, from the perspective of the animal’s welfare, it would be better for it to die painlessly than to undergo the burden. And if it would be better for such an animal to die painlessly rather than face any harm, the same is true for babies, whose mental states are more or less the same and who are bound to suffer from hunger, colic, gastrointestinal discomfort, emotional distress, etc. (Ibid., 7)
With both arguments clearly stated, we can now turn to the litany of problems anti-natalism has. First and foremost, we will go through a systematic exercise. We will imagine adopting anti-natalism while subscribing also to other prominent perspectives. After that, the implications of anti-natalism will be made more clear. Finally, I will show that despite Belshaw’s Kantian language, his new argument in favor of anti-natalism misses the mark and is actually not in keeping with neo-Kantian ethics.
The Systematic Exercise and The Fatal Implications Of Anti-Natalism
To reiterate, a systemic exercise can be thought of in the following way. Imagine a collector of puzzles who is not the most organized person. He puts the puzzles together meticulously, often spending hours on them, and even frames the ones he finds aesthetically pleasing. The ones that do not appeal to him as much are partially taken apart and put back in the box. Sometimes, he does not notice when pieces hit the ground and so, over time, pieces from one puzzle end up in the wrong box. A philosopher, apart from ensuring that his philosophy is one of example, in that it is one that he is able to live by, should ensure that his views fit together like pieces of a puzzle. It is often the case that people have incongruous views. What is worse is that some people are fully aware of the dissonance and choose to leave it unaddressed. The point of a systematic exercise, then, is to ensure that the your pieces fit together like a puzzle.
With this in mind, we can now adopt anti-natalism in our philosophy. We can then ask whether it coheres with a given view we are already subscribed to. To my mind, there is no viable way for someone to be pro-choice on the issue of abortion and an anti-natalist. As Benatar and Belshaw have made clear, they have no intention of resigning their view to silence. They very much intend to convince other people that it is wrong to have children. Invariably, therefore, it is their intention to persuade all women not to have children. They, therefore, cannot claim to be pro-choice on the issue of abortion and by extension, any form of birth control. Benatar and Belshaw must argue that all women should avoid pregnancy at all costs.
From this, we can see a fatal implication that has already cropped up in the literature. Anti-natalism implies pro-mortalism, which implies the extinction of the human species. This is what Belshaw is looking to avoid in his argument. Metz states that “Belshaw points out that, although a future good cannot make up for a present bad for a being unaware of its future, it can do so for a being that is aware of its future, namely, a person” (Ibid.). What a person maintains is an optimism that their circumstances will improve. This is not tantamount to actually knowing the future. In fact, no one knows whether they currently have a terminal illness like pancreatic cancer. By the time the symptoms drive one to the hospital, the cancer is likely already in its later stages, in where the chances of survival have dramatically decreased. While one may have it in their heads that their circumstances are bound to improve, it is also likely that they are going to end up worse than anticipated. Babies clearly cannot know their own futures and parents, even if they were to extrapolate from their own experiences, cannot predict that their child’s life will improve beyond gastrointestinal discomfort and emotional distress. Setting aside that not all babies suffer from colic and the lives of all babies are not bogged down by the sort of helpless suffering Belshaw has in mind, he does not avoid the pitfall of pro-mortalism. To add insult to injury, his argument implies a very specific pro-mortalism, namely infanticide.
Briefly, pro-mortalism is the view that if one’s goal is to prevent the suffering of any given individual, then one should ethically kill this individual or put another way, to prevent the suffering of humanity, it is ethical to kill all of humanity. So even if one is too squeamish about pushing an overweight man onto the tracks to save five other people from an oncoming train, it would appear that anti-natalists are just fine with pulling a lever to meet the same end. In other words, while anti-natalists certainly will not go as far as creating a super virus that is guaranteed to kill us all, they are content with prescribing an equally lethal pill that will ensure the same consequence. This is precisely why Belshaw’s argument is not Kantian in spirit. We will circle back around to this shortly.
Continuing on with our systematic exercise, imagine now that you are adopting anti-natalism, but you are a self-described vegan and environmentalist. If an anti-natalist is committed, by implication, to pro-mortalism, then they are in favor of birth control for animals that understand their own suffering and the suffering of other individuals. This means that our favorite pets, cats and dogs, are to be spayed and neutered across the board. This also means that the very animals exploited by the meat industry should be marched to the ultimate slaughter, extinction. It follows, therefore, that one cannot be an anti-natalist and a vegan. Environmentalism is harder to see, but we usually care about deforestation, warming oceans, and so on. The reason for this is because human activity is having detrimental effects on habits that belong to, for instance, polar bears, the great apes, and cetaceans. Anti-natalism would entail the extinction of these higher mammals as well because they no doubt comprehend and even reflect upon their own suffering.
In the same vein, anti-natalism would imply suicide. If the goal now is to prevent your own potential suffering, then you should kill yourself. This is ultimately why I cannot make this view cohere with my neo-Kantian bents. I cannot, from the seat of my own existence, interfere with the will of other ends who see fit to bring children into existence. Inherent in the idea of exploitation is any attempt to dissuade someone from something they want to do, especially if their action harms no one else. While life definitely offers a bundle of experiences that are evaluated as bad, it also offers experiences that are good. To say that it is better for someone to never have existed because pain is bad, despite no one being here to experience it, smacks of unsubstantiated idealism. I can ready a retort: pleasure is good, despite no one being here to experience it. It is inconsistent to idealize a thesis but not its antithesis. It is either that both pain and pleasure exist without a person to experience and evaluate them or that they only exist in a conscious biological being that has physical and psycho-emotional ways to experience pain, and a mind through which it evaluates them and puts them into perspective. The latter is more cogent.
Now, to the charge that I have to be a utilitarian to make an argument concerning the evaluative weights of good and bad in a person’s life; I think it misses the mark. The argument is utilitarian in character, but not ultimately because it does not extend to other persons. I am not saying that if an outsourced factory full of underpaid, outsourced workers leads to the production of expensive phones that will make millions of people happy, then the suffering of the relatively fewer workers is justified, and that in light of this, the practice of exploitative outsourcing should continue. What I am saying is that whether a person decides their life is worth living is entirely their judgment call and that if they choose to assess the value of their life by weighing good versus bad experiences, it is a typical and valid form of assessment. The view is ultimately Kantian because if I recognize this rational being as an end in themselves, and not a means, then their evaluative judgment has to be suitable for their purposes. Insofar as they are not intentionally harming other persons in the process, their choices are entirely theirs to make. I will set aside collateral harm as the result of one’s choice to get euthanized. Like suicide, euthanasia is a complex issue, but I think with respect to suffering, it is better for a family to suffer the loss of their loved one than to see their loved one in a great deal of incessant and tortuous pain. In any case, if upon completing their assessment they decide that they are fit to raise a child and then pursue having one, and they make this decision on the basis that their child can have a life equal to or better than the one they have led, it is not my place to interfere with their choice. This is the true position of a Kantian. Belshaw misses the mark by a wide margin.
The following questions are in order. Why have Benatar and Belshaw put so much weight on suffering? What has driven them to grossly overstate the amount of suffering an individual experiences? This is why I think anti-natalism is fatalistic and ultimately, defeatist. When considering the scourge of poverty, proliferated by restrictive abortion policies, despotism, Capitalist exploitation, and so on, it is easy to resign oneself to the idea that maybe we are better off not having children at all. It is easier still to feel hopelessly small and powerless to effect real change. If we had no way to address suffering, then perhaps anti-natalists would be right. What lies before us, then, are two pills. On the one hand, the anti-natalist is offering a pill that works very much like a slow-working but lethal venom. Take it and humanity is doomed to extinction; higher mammals and other cognitively advanced animals, e.g. ravens and eagles, are also doomed to extinction. On the other hand, the pill of the pro-natalist is the promise of human flourishing by way of reducing suffering. It is better to raise awareness of the myriad problems we face as a species, so that we can come together to articulate, plan, and implement working solutions. With the systematic exercise in mind, it should be obvious that anti-natalism does not cohere with humanism.
To review, anti-natalism is incongruous with veganism, environmentalism, humanism, Kantian ethics, and pro-choice politics. If one subscribes to any of these views, one cannot subscribe to anti-natalism without significant difficulties. The most immediate issue, apart from being defeatist with respect to the problems we face as a species, is that the anti-natalist has succumbed to base individualism. Anti-natalism, therefore, does not cohere with collectivism. In other words, Kant does not speak of one rational being and one end in itself, but ends in themselves and rational beings. It is clear that he is approaching ethics with others in mind as opposed to himself, so again, to think that you have the right to interfere in a person’s decision to procreate is a form of exploitation because in order to convince someone of something that does not benefit them, you have to exploit the fact that they are gullible or, in other words, psychologically weaker than yourself. You have to see them as someone you can manipulate into believing something that is, in the end, ineluctably fatalistic. The thinking goes that even if humanity dodges every bullet, it ultimately will not survive the heat death of the universe. But for us very finite beings, with lifespans of 80 or so years, the prospect of billions of more years for our species is like an eternity. Anti-natalists have no right to prematurely take that from us just because they have given up on offering resolutions for the vast amounts of human suffering in our world.
That is ultimately the main problem stemming from anti-natalism’s incongruity with collectivism. Convincing everyone, everywhere to not have children will be to guarantee an increase in suffering the closer and closer we get to extinction, suffering that would have been avoided had their been just a few more farmers, a few more doctors, a few more people to listen to someone about their mental health struggles, and so on. What you are ultimately taking away is every chance the living will have to meet someone who will add enormous value to their lives. This can be a cutting edge scientist or engineer who solves a longstanding problem, like the incapacity for us to regrow severed limbs. Or it can be someone who would have become an incredible friend, partner, child, or parent.
One might now say that some of these arguments sound suspiciously pro-life. Well, the question has never been whether someone who is pro-choice values human life. The question has always been whether a fetus’ hypothetical rights override the rights of living, breathing people, specifically the mother and her extant family. The question has always been about whether it is my place to interfere with a woman’s decision to have an abortion. My resolve to not interfere in these decisions does not mean I do not value human life at all. Furthermore, my resolve is informed by the fact that forcing women to bring children into poverty or into a household in where domestic violence is a regular occurrence results in a vicious cycle that benefits parties fully intent on exploiting the poor. There is a reason why the more affluent and educated have significantly less abortions.
More specifically, I am fully aware that I am paraphrasing Don Marquis’ Future-Like-Ours Argument:
The loss of one’s life deprives one of all the experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments which would otherwise have constituted one’s future. Therefore, killing someone is wrong, primarily because the killing inflicts (one of) the greatest possible losses on the victim. To describe this as the loss of life can be misleading, however. The change in my biological state does not by itself make killing me wrong. The effect of the loss of my biological life is the loss to me of all those activities, projects, experiences, and enjoyments which would otherwise have constituted my future personal life. These activities, projects, experiences, and enjoyments are either valuable for their own sakes or are means to something else that is valuable for its own sake. Some parts of my future are not valued by me now, but will come to be valued by me as I grow older and as my values and capacities change. When I am killed, I am deprived both of what I now value which would have been part of my future personal life, but also what I would come to value. Therefore, when I die, I am deprived of all of the value of my future. Inflicting this loss on me is ultimately what makes killing me wrong. This being the case, it would seem that what makes killing any adult human being prima facie seriously wrong is the loss of his other future.Marquis, Don. “Why Abortion is Immoral”. Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 86, 183-202, 1989.
I do not deny the strength of this argument given that the child in question is not born into poverty or domestic violence and more importantly, that the child’s mother is not giving birth under duress, i.e., giving birth because her government leaves her with no other option. Marquis’ argument has considerable force given that a mother or couple are in good position to raise a child. While it is still ultimately her choice, it would be strange if she did not find other recourses to prevent pregnancy, especially given that she is sufficiently educated and affluent. It will be an instance of a bad choice begetting another bad choice, but even cases like this are outside of my jurisdiction. More importantly, this is all beside the point.
We have now come full circle. Anti-natalism overstates the value of suffering while overlooking the fact that good parents want their children to have better lives than their own. We cannot prevent pin-pricks, paper cuts, fevers, and broken bones, but we can be sure to create happiness that far exceeds the pain they experience; one can therefore, explore whether anti-natalism coheres with Libertarian free will or compatibilism because prima facie, it appears that it is at odds with yet another hallmark assumption in philosophy: humans have free will. The position, aside from failing to agree with a number of views people can have, is fatalistic, defeatist, and anti-naturalist. As a naturalist, I cannot ignore the dissonance inherent in a view that would have me argue against the evolutionary drives of species to survive and pass on their genes. While I am in agreement with ethical reasons to avoid pregnancy, e.g., specifically when one is in poverty, I do not condone telling everyone, everywhere to stop reproducing. A good alternative to reproducing is to adopt children that are currently orphaned. Even with that sort of ethical advice, I am not asking everyone, everywhere to solely adopt children.
Ultimately, anti-natalism is useful for sake of systematic exercises. The view is perfect to demonstrate how a wayward puzzle piece finds its way into the wrong box. It is incumbent on a philosopher to ensure that his views cohere with one another. If not, the dissonance that results from two views in conflict implies that at least one of his views is false. In the end, I think an anti-natalist has to resign to participate in no forms of activism. Feeding the homeless, clothing the naked, aiding the needy, and all humanitarian efforts are just arbitrary ways to extend a life that is, according to the anti-natalist, rife with suffering. It is a defeatist, nihilistic, fatalistic position that cannot be made to fit in any philosopher’s puzzle because it is patently false. Let us relegate anti-natalism to a checkpoint in our history of philosophy books, to the dustbin with other thought experiments. Whatever you do, however, do not allow the venom to be injected into your veins.