What Is Anti-Natalism Good For?

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.

Conclusion

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.

8 comments

  1. Joe

    Would you mind elaborating on why you think antinatalism implies pro-mortalism? I’m an antinatalist and as I see it there are a few issues with your post but this is the biggest one. There could be several reasons for this assumption so any clarification would be helpful.

    I’m not as familiar with Belshaw’s arguments, this specific argument may imply pro-mortalism based off the paragraph you’ve posted. That said I don’t think that his line of argumentation implies pro-mortalism for all other antinatalist arguments such as Benatar’s which I’ll focus on.

    There are some other issues I’d like to address as well if you have time to respond but this seems like a good place to start given how much of your argument revolves around this.

    Like

    • R.N. Carmona

      Benatar’s argument falls on those horns clearly enough that this is the main line of objection to his argument. I relied on no other philosopher to reach the conclusion, but truth, being objective, will draw people to similar conclusions.

      In any case, a position that is not prescriptive is ultimately vacuous. What are you telling people when you say you’re an anti-natalist? You are saying you think it is immoral for people to have children because there is suffering in the world, which the anti-natalist overstates as though every baby that is born is born into poverty and adverse conditions. So, by extension, if you truly believe this, you would make the following prescription: people should stop having children. If you truly believe this, you would back legislation to institute something like a one child policy, only it would be a no child policy.

      If your position entails no prescriptions, then why subscribe to it? If it does involve prescriptions, then yes, eventually your prescription will result in the extinction of the human species. Anti-natalists, were they to adjust and say, “well, we want to mandate that people stop having children temporarily—at least until we can greatly reduce disease, suffering, as the like,” are now making a case for a different position altogether, one that I am also partial to and have defended. This is why I am pro-choice because I believe people in poverty should not be forced to have children they cannot properly take care of.

      If no prescriptions, it is a vacuous position, devoid of content. To my mind, it is akin to moral nihilism and radical skepticism: completely and utterly unlivable, as in, impossible to put into practice. If you offer prescriptions, then pro-mortalism is absolutely entailed. There is no way to mandate people not having biological children without ending bloodlines and eventually, the human race as a whole.

      Furthermore, such a prescription does not guarantee more adoption. It does nothing to reduce suffering. Anti-natalism is an empty position championed, not surprisingly, by mostly men who consider it “logical.” Reducing suffering does not necessitate a mandate to stop people from having children. If the anti-natalist cannot show this, and I am convinced that they cannot, it is incumbent on them to abandon their position.

      Like

      • Joe

        “If your position entails no prescriptions, then why subscribe to it?” It’s possible a position entails one thing but not another, I’m not convinced antinatalism entails pro-mortalism specifically. What it does imply is an abstention from procreation, provided you agree and take these ideas seriously. That said, the most important consideration you haven’t acknowledged when it comes to pro-mortalism is how bad death is for the person who dies.

        If death is not bad for the person who dies then at least some antinatalists should be pro-mortalists, (Benatar’s view would imply this, but there are some complexities) this argument however is not without controversy. It seems to me like you’re assuming the epicurean view on behalf of the antinatalist. At the same time though you’re acknowledging that death can be bad for the person who dies judging from your adoption of Don Marquis’ quote. I’m going to assume your somewhat familiar with the arguments, it’s probably not productive to discuss it here but know that Benatar does think death is bad for the person who dies and it’s thus a part of the human predicament rather than a release from it.

        With that in mind I don’t see how antinatalists are committed to pro-mortalism, provided you think death is bad for the person who dies. For a moment though let’s grant your point that all antinatalists should be pro-mortalists. Even if this were true I don’t see how this makes antinatalism incompatible with veganism or pro-choice policy. You posted this quote earlier “What I am saying is that whether a person decides their life is worth living is entirely their judgment call”, why would this not apply to pro-mortalists?

        I can respect a persons right to make the choice of whether or not they want to continue living, if they’re wrong, they have to pay the price. A parallel point can be made about pro-choice policy/veganism as well, I may think someone should abort in the case of pregnancy but I wouldn’t force the person to do so. “The question has always been about whether it is my place to interfere with a woman’s decision to have an abortion.” This is exactly the point. The ultimate goal of antinatalism is to reduce unnecessary suffering but that doesn’t imply that any means is acceptable to that end.

        “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.” I’m not sure what you’re getting at when you say that pleasure is good despite no one being around to experience it. We’re comparing the value of two possible worlds relative to the interests of a potential person, not the intrinsic value of pleasure or pain. Also, Benatar provides proof in the form of four underlying asymmetries he believes most people would accept so if you’re going to say it’s an unsubstantiated claim at least provide some reason why that might be the case.

        “It is inconsistent to idealize a thesis but not its antithesis.” The asymmetry is between (3) – the absence of pain being good and (4) – the absence of pleasure being not bad in reference to a currently nonexistent person. The antithesis of the argument would be to claim that the absent pleasure of a potential but currently non-existent child is bad. This objection is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the argument, it’s not a logical argument.

        Benatar also advances the argument that a child cannot be brought into existence for their own sake, certainly you can want a child to do well but if there is no one who currently exists they don’t have any need for the benefits within a life. This is true even if you deny that coming into existence is always a serious harm. If we cannot have a child for the sake of the child itself then we are violating the Kantian principle. The objection being that the child is being treated as means to an end rather than as an end in itself.

        Benatar notes that this kind of argument is regularly advanced against those who would consider cloning. He points out that there is no relevant difference between reproductive cloning and procreation for those that would raise this objection. He says “Children are brought into existence not in acts of great altruism, designed to bring the benefit of life to some pitiful non-being suspended in the metaphysical void and thereby denied the joys of life. In so far as children are ever brought into existence for anybody’s sake it is never for their own sake.”

        Further antinatalism isn’t nihilistic, it stems from a sensitivity to the way the world is. If it were nihilistic I don’t see why antinatalists would care about procreation in general, we want to avoid bad things befalling people. “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 strikes me as repugnant, I don’t see how we’re justified inflicting non-trivial harms on someone in order to bestow a benefit on already existing people. Benatar calls this a procreational ponzi scheme, and it will eventually go bust as you’ve pointed out.

        “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” Clearly we have a biological drive to reproduce but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s rationally informed. We have a biological urge to have sex in order to facilitate reproduction but that doesn’t mean I can go around sexually assaulting whomever I please. We evaluate these drives and deem them inappropriate where we need to, I don’t see why procreation should be any different.

        You also mentioned earlier that antinatalism was idealistic and maybe that’s the case for some people but I would wager most antinatalists aren’t delusional, it’s obvious these ideas aren’t going to lead to human extinction. In the meantime it makes sense to improve the conditions of those around us, so again I don’t see how this practically precludes us from adopting a humanistic mindset.

        Like

      • R.N. Carmona

        Anti-natalism entails pro-mortalism iff the definition of anti-natalism is kept consistent: procreation is morally wrong, universally and invariably. Mere abstention, especially in impoverished areas, is not anti-natalism. Assigning it that monicker because one is attached to the idea or one likes the name or one thinks it’s more provocative if called such is simply dishonest. It is a potential solution to alleviate poverty and the abject suffering in such areas. It is not the equivalent of anti-natalism. If anti-natalism means it is always, universally wrong to have children, then of course it absolutely implies pro-mortalism, and not only for humanity, but for the rest of the animal kingdom. Suffering in the animal kingdom is arguably more frequent than among humans.

        As for death being bad for the person who dies, some people die before “their time” as people often put it; an old person suffering of a terminal illness may volunteer to die, greeting death as an old friend because for them, it is preferable to die than to continue to survive rather than living, especially in light of their debilitating condition. Children with terminal illnesses, for instance, desire to have a normal life like other kids do. The fact that they suffer and die, without having experienced much pleasure, can be qualified as bad for them. Later you assert that the absence of pain is good. If an early death is a kind of pain, and I do not see how it isn’t, then ensuring that we continue our research into childhood terminal illnesses so that fewer children die early is good; we should strive toward the absence of that particular pain, setting aside the very real pain their parents and loved ones have to live with.

        It is not pro-mortalism that is incompatible with pro-choice; it is anti-natalism that is incompatible with it. If you think it is universally and invariably morally wrong to have children, then you do not believe a woman has a real choice in the matter. If you have no prescription for your view, then why subscribe to it? In other words, if you claim, in vain, that it is universally and invariably morally wrong to have children, and yet do not seek injunctions on people having children, then what’s the point? There is a fundamental disconnect between saying women have a choice in whether or not they get or stay pregnant while in the same breath claiming that it is universally wrong to have children.

        Pro-mortalism is at odds with veganism because if the point is extinction, what does it matter that animals die sooner rather than later, in factory farms as opposed to a slow, inevitable death? If animals who suffer as much or more than humans are to permanently abstain from procreation, then the species will eventually go extinct. There is a god complex here because we cannot rewrite nature. Prey has to suffer so that the predator does not; wiping out entire species does not solve the problem. We have to be more creative if, in fact, we agree that this is an issue. If we want the cheetah to stop butchering gazelle and zebra calves, then we need a solution other than a mandate prohibiting cheetahs, other big cats, and scavengers like vultures and hyenas from procreating. Never mind that we throw an entire ecosystem into disarray by severely limiting and ultimately eliminating apex predators. We cannot play God.

        With respect to Benatar’s asymmetries, again it is a mere assertion that pain has a metaphysical status that pleasure does not. There is no sense in where we can say the absence of pain, with respect to nonexistent persons, is good, but the absence of pleasure, with respect to these same persons, is not bad. This can be recontextualized. The absence of pain, with respect to living persons, is undeniably good. Then we can assert, for sake of seeing whether it works: “The absence of pleasure, with respect to these same persons, is not bad.” The absence of pleasure, for anyone who has ever gone hungry or has experienced thirst, as simple examples, is bad. We cannot talk about pain and pleasure as it pertains to nonexistent persons. This is in the same vein of overstating suffering, pretending as though everyone, everywhere, and at all times experiences greater levels of pain than pleasure. No one who is living detests a predominantly happy life without the presence of a mental illness, e.g., clinical depression, bipolar disorder. It is possible to detest one’s life given that it is rife with abuse, pain, melancholy, and too many instances of suffering. Even then, there are people who have lived a life full of adversity and remain resolute in their belief that circumstances will improve, that they deserve, after all of that, to find happiness, and so they continue living and often overcome that adversity. Nonexistent persons have no consciousness, no will, no drive to continue an adverse or abundantly pleasurable life. It makes zero sense to speak of preventing nonexistent persons from experiencing pain, as though pain takes metaphysical precedence over pleasure; they are both experienced by sentient beings and more importantly, are physically reducible and have no asymmetric metaphysical relationship. Benatar begs the question.

        A parent-child relationship is, early on, a symbiosis. The end in itself is the child, by way of the parent, until the child is of age to be recognized as an independent being with its own goals, desires, and so on. On a separate note, one thing that strikes me about anti-natalists is that they are predominantly males, many with no children of their own. Easy to see why the statement may strike you as repulsive, if it is true that you have no children that have added value to your life. And it goes both ways. Some children actually love their parents and feel the same way; their parents add value to their lives and they can often express gratitude for being raised well, being loved, protected, cared for, and so on. Children can grow to become adults who find meaning in their own lives, adults who think they can succeed in much the same way their parents did and so, they then desire to have children. No one is universally wrong for having this belief because it is an objective fact that good parents exist and that people who are raised in loving families often nurture their own families, employing the same values they were taught and imparting the same level of care, support, and love into their own children. I am a case in point. My daughter would never say that I’m a bad, neglectful, abusive parent, and that because of this, she hates her life. She now has goals, desires, dreams, ambitions. She has identified meaning in her own life. She is a recognizable end in herself, no longer in symbiosis with myself and her mother. So while that “repugnant” statement sounds one-sided at first, if one takes pride in being a good parent, eventually the child will say similar things about the value their parents bring to their lives. Perhaps you have a positive outlook about your own parents now that you certainly did not in your infancy. Not so repulsive when considered from that angle, is it?

        I think anti-natalism, properly understood, as the notion that it is universally and invariably wrong to procreate, is nihilistic. I also think that you are not defending that particular position at all. You take a more deflationary approach, which I do not call anti-natalism. Yes, I think procreation while living in poverty is patently absurd, but I also recognize that a lot of these people don’t make the choice to have children in such conditions. They often live in countries that have prohibitive abortion policies or countries that make affordable access to contraceptives and abortion impossible. Some countries don’t allow it even when a woman has been raped. Poverty, therefore, is not the fault of the women in poverty, but the powers that be. So the solution isn’t to mandate abstinence from having children because, as we’ve seen, if these women had a choice in the matter, they wouldn’t give birth. The added layer is that the women that choose to, feel it is their duty to do so, a duty either to God or husband. Anti-natalism wouldn’t stop them from being fruitful and multiplying. Greatly reducing the power and influence of the major monotheisms will mitigate that problem. What you are calling anti-natalism is very deflationary and not at all what Benatar and Belshaw are arguing. Abstinence from procreating makes sense in impoverished countries; not so much within affluent circles. But it is a partial solution, as I have shown. There are other, more powerful and insidious factors that require our attention.

        Like

  2. Joe

    Sorry in advance, I believe comment replies are limited in some way so I can’t reply directly to your last post.

    I’m still not sure why you think antinatalism implies pro-mortalism, if death is bad for the person who dies then pro-mortalism doesn’t follow automatically. Of course death could be the lesser of two evils in some cases, I don’t deny that, but to say death is always in someone’s best interests in all cases ignores this qualification. If there’s another reason for this conclusion I’d be happy to address it, but I don’t think you can reasonably assert that antinatalism implies pro-mortalism without any underlying reason.

    Beyond that I don’t think the definition of antinatalism implies pro-mortalism in any way (at least most definitions wouldn’t, including the one you’ve cited). The definition varies but the way I understand it, it would be “A position that argues that procreation is morally wrong and that we should abstain from bringing any new sentient life into existence.” What is common across all of these definitions (at least the ones I’ve seen) is that none of them include a mandate to force others to act on these arguments. I’m not being dishonest here, it seems like you’ve integrated this mandate idea together with the philosophy, as outlined previously in order to produce this conclusion.

    I also didn’t say only certain people should abstain, the philanthropic argument Benatar advances is a categorical opposition to procreation. Things like poverty, societal or environmental conditions aren’t an important factor on this view. I want to be explicit, I think other people should not procreate, but I don’t believe I am obligated to interfere in their lives, nor do I believe any good will come of it. I also don’t believe that taking this stance detracts from the argument, Benatar adopts this same view.

    I don’t see any contradiction in holding both antinatalist and pro-choice views, “If you think it is universally and invariably morally wrong to have children, then you do not believe a woman has a real choice in the matter”. This is a non sequitur, I can be vegan for example and think it’s always morally wrong to kill and eat animals, and yet I’m not required to force meat eaters to abstain from eating meat, It’s not my place to do so. I don’t see how there’s any contradiction in that case or the pro-choice case.

    There’s a difference between thinking something is wrong and mandating that someone else subscribe to the view that you hold. Antinatalists are not the final arbiters in these matters, it’s not my responsibility to prevent people from having kids. Most other views aren’t held to this standard, I don’t see why antinatalists should be.

    “what’s the point?” We can only do so much realistically, but each couple that doesn’t procreate is sparing future generations an immeasurable amount of suffering. Just imagine if they had children and those children had children, etc. I also don’t endorse pro-mortalism as a default solution and I don’t think that humans should kill animals in general (if we can reasonably avoid it). Still though even if pro-mortalism were to follow from antinatalism I don’t think that implies we have an obligation to kill them. I can recognize an animal has some rudimentary interest in continuing its life, it’s all that animal has, and it probably cares a lot about it. There are additionally the other practical reasons you’ve outlined that would serve as a reason not to act on pro-mortalist ideas.

    “it is a mere assertion that pain has a metaphysical status that pleasure does not.” This objection rests on a confusion, Benatar isn’t making a metaphysical point here, it’s an axiological claim. The function of the basic asymmetry is explanatory, it explains the four underlying cases Benatar puts forward as a justification for the asymmetry. If you agree with those cases then you should accept the basic asymmetry.

    I also don’t agree that Benatar is begging the question, “Nonexistent persons have no consciousness, no will, no drive to continue an adverse or abundantly pleasurable life” the basic objection that I’m seeing here is that non-existent beings don’t have any interests in anything since they don’t exist and that’s true in a sense ,but I think this objection moves too quick, to provide context Benatar says:

    “Now it is obviously the case that if somebody never comes into existence there is no actual person who is thereby benefited. However, we can still claim that it is better for a person that he never exist, on condition that we understand that locution as a shorthand for a more complex idea. That more complex idea is this: We are comparing two possible worlds—one in which a person exists and one in which he does not. One way in which we can judge which of these possible worlds is better, is with reference to the interests of the person who exists in one (and only one) of these two possible worlds. Obviously those interests only exist in the possible world in which the person exists, but this does not preclude our making judgments about the value of an alternative possible world, and doing so with reference to the interests of the person in the possible world in which he does exist [see Benatar2006, p. 31 (and p. 4)]. Thus, we can claim of somebody who exists that it would have been better for him if he had never existed. If somebody does not exist, we can state of him that had he existed, it would have been better for him if he had never existed.”

    “they are predominantly males, many with no children of their own. Easy to see why the statement may strike you as repulsive” It’s not that I don’t see the other side of it, It’s repulsive to me because if we apply intuitions that I believe many would share regarding harming and benefiting existing people procreation would be unacceptable (that’s not to say everyone shares these same intuitions). This is exactly the point of Seana Shiffrin’s consent argument, providing a benefit to a person doesn’t serve as a justification for inflicting significant burdens on that same person.

    I commend you for taking good care of your daughter, I actually agree this is morally virtuous and I’m also sure she appreciates all you’ve done for her. All I’m saying is that if she didn’t exist she wouldn’t need any of the goals, desires, dreams or ambitions in her life. I can’t see how the decision to procreate can ever be for the sake of that child since as I said there is no person before they come into existence that is deprived of benefits. Benatar notes, “If having children were done for the purpose of thereby benefiting those children, then there would be greater moral reason for at least many people to have more children” yet I would imagine most people would deny any obligation to bring a happy child into existence.

    Once a person comes into existence it’s admirable to do things for them but in determining whether or not to have a child people are almost always going to have them because at some level they want the child. Honestly, I believe most people have good intentions, I’d wager most people don’t seriously think about these kinds of arguments when deciding if they should have a kid. Whether intentionally or unintentionally we are putting our wants ahead of the harms that the child will suffer.

    I would also admit that antinatalism is nihilistic in the sense that it denies any cosmic meaning (at least Benatar does) but I don’t think it’s nihilistic in the general sense for the reasons I gave earlier. “What you are calling anti-natalism is very deflationary and not at all what Benatar and Belshaw are arguing.” For clarification there’s very little difference between my view and Benatar’s view on antinatalism, what we’ve been discussing is essentially Benatar’s view as I understand it. Of course there are some topics unrelated to antinatalism and pro-mortalism that we’ve covered, there I don’t know what his view would be so that is an important distinction. If you do think Benatar is an antinatalist though, I don’t think there’s a relevant difference between his position and mine.

    Like

    • R.N. Carmona

      This is Benatar’s cop out to try to avoid pro-mortalism, but I don’t think he does. This is what happens when philosophers do philosophy while ignoring the insights of science. It gets frustrating and what ends up happening is that my opponent repeats themselves, as you are already beginning to do. More frustrating than that is having to repeat myself. So let’s break this down. Anti-natalism implies pro-mortalism on the individual level because the survival of my genes is ensured only if I pass them on. So if I do not have children, there is no sense in which I continue to live, unless I leave behind some kind of legacy.

      To nip a possible retort in the bud, being homosexual does not preclude passing on biological genes. A lot of homosexual couples have children through a surrogate mother. Also, mimetic transmission is important as well, so homosexual couples who adopt children leave behind a legacy with the children they raise; the values and ideas they imparted live on in their adopted children. On the species level, there is no escape from this entailment: if everyone believed Benatar’s bleak point of view, the human race would stop having children and eventually go extinct.

      If there is no prescription or mandate, then there is no point in rehearsing arguments for anti-natalism. You lack conviction. If you cannot live by your philosophy, then you are just adopting controversial positions for clout. That is what I think Benatar is doing. I do not think he actually believes any of this. I think he took up the position to get attention, and it worked; it is hard to draw attention to your work in philosophy and one recommendation I hear is to adopt fringe and controversial positions because if you are one of the only people defending this view, you ensure that everyone in the debate has your work in their foot/endnotes. In any case, if it is wrong to begin a life, it is wrong to continue a life.

      An analogy: falling asleep has been paralleled with death; waking up has been paralleled with birth. Invoking the ship of Theseus and non-essentialist metaphysics of identity, every seven or so years, every single cell in my body is replaced. I am essentially born anew. I am not the person I was when I was 10-years-old no matter any illusions to the contrary. When I wake up, it is as if I am being born again. If it is wrong to start a life, then it is wrong to wake up, i.e., to continue a life. To prevent future suffering, especially if I accept that it is as overstated as Benatar claims, then it is better for me to die sooner than later. It is better for me to die today than to experience chronic pain in my 70s from the onset of neuropathy, arthritis, etc. Anti-natalist arguments do not avoid these pitfalls and I think it is clear enough, and is primary reason why people should abandon this view altogether.

      Poverty, inequality, and the like absolutely impact Benatar’s view. In every instance of overstating suffering, he is alluding to such conditions. In other instances, he is embracing subjectivism, which is untenable from an epistemic point of view. The sort of minor frustrations we all deal with, e.g., thermal discomfort, are not the kinds of things that bother normal people so much that they start to wish they were never born. The same goes for momentary hunger and thirst. So the only recourse Benatar and anti-natalists really have is to turn our focus to people who experience these discomforts far more often than the average person: people in poverty. There is no way to overstate suffering if we instead focus on first-world middle class citizens and the affluent. Of course, it is worth repeating: we can do something to alleviate poverty; giving up the way Benatar has is not the answer and if it is, to stave off future suffering and the potential to begin new lives, we should all join hands and drown ourselves in the ocean.

      Vegans very often impose their dietary restrictions on other people; many of their opponents see them as quasi-religious and they do a whole lot of proselytism. I give them credit! They have more conviction in their ethical point of view than anti-natalists have. If you felt conviction, you would absolutely tell people to stop having children. If you were so convinced that the suffering in the world, not just that of people in poverty, is so bad, you would be telling people to refrain from procreation every chance you got. You would try to get anti-natalist legislation passed in government. Otherwise, this philosophy is just hot air. I, for example, am a philosophical atheist and I absolutely champion legislation against religious abuse and encroachment. I do not want creationism in the classroom. I do not want prayer in public schools. I do not want the Ten Commandments on public grounds. I do not want circumcision to be mandatory. I do not want Christianity dominating philosophy of religion.

      I have a strong conviction in my views and I will argue tooth and nail to beat someone out views that contradict my own because I recognize the real-world impact the views of my opponents have. I recognize that if anti-natalists had any real conviction, they would not be pro-choice and they would ensure the extinction of the human species and, in fact, every species on the planet. If a drosophila is born to live two measly months give or take, what is the point? If an elephant calf is born to be eaten by a pride of lions the next day, then what is the point? Suffering in the animal kingdom far exceeds human suffering. Whales are poached in droves in some parts of the world; overfishing is a common problem as well. We should not want for these species to procreate, according to the anti-natalist. If we extrapolate your conclusions onto other species, the world will be practically lifeless, save for the microbes and viruses we fail to command.

      The anti-natalist, where there is conviction, can take practical routes. Greatly reducing the influence of the Catholic Church in impoverished regions would lead to pro-choice legislation. That, in turn, would lead women to choose contraception and abortion. Fewer children will be born into poverty and suffering will be mitigated and reduced. There are practical ways for an anti-natalist to ensure anti-natalist results in areas of high poverty and I do not see anti-natalists on these fronts. The only places we find Benatar’s gross overestimation of suffering is in areas of high poverty. We have viable solutions that would please anti-natalists. If the point is to not have children at all, then taking these routes would ensure that people in poverty will not have children. As for middle-class Westerners and the affluent, there is no point in demanding that they refrain from procreating. They and their children generally suffer significantly less than people in poverty.

      “If somebody does not exist, we can state of him that had he existed, it would have been better for him if he had never existed.” This is flat-out false. Though I have had my fair share of hardships, I do not think this way. There is a reason Benatar is on record saying he is private; he wants people to deal with his arguments directly rather than psychoanalyzing him. People who overstate their own suffering tend to suffer from anxiety, depression, or are covert Narcissists. Perhaps Benatar overstates suffering because he begins by exaggerating his own. This might indicate clinical issues or a full-blown mental illness; this may suggest Narcissism. He is right to keep private.

      I have also observed that many anti-natalists I come across online are predominantly male, single, fatherless, and have clinical issues like anger management problems, depression, and anxiety. Some are also mentally ill. This is why they do not seem to comprehend when I say: anti-natalists overstate suffering. They do not understand what it is like to not exaggerate one’s own suffering and by extension, suffering in general. Ultimately, I do not care for the anti-natalist’s gross exaggerations; we cannot state of anyone that it is better than they did not exist and again, I do not see how the implicit pro-mortalism in that statement escapes you. The only person that can wish to never have existed is the person who actually feels that way. I do not believe in speaking on behalf of others.

      “If having children were done for the purpose of thereby benefiting those children, then there would be greater moral reason for at least many people to have more children.” This avoids what it takes means to raise a child. If a couple has the means to raise ten or more children, then they may think toward having more children. Knowing that I cannot give the same quality of life to several other children, I refrain from having them. This is where I am consenting to their suffering. They will experience scarcity more often than not. Benatar’s statements ignores that people do not have children in vacuums. The problem is this: consent to have children should always belong to parents.

      In areas of high poverty, consent is ignored; birth is mandated by theocratic interests in governments, e.g., the Catholic Church in Chile and in the Philippines; Islam throughout the Muslim World and parts of Northern Africa. Sure, the unborn cannot consent to live or die, but knowing this, we should always ensure that consent remains in the hands of the people with the child’s best interest at heart: (usually) the child’s parents. Thankfully, we have agencies that take children from neglectful and abusive parents; some of these children find loving homes. Again, anti-natalists are adopting a position they lack conviction in. The more startling issue for them is that there are things they can be doing to reduce suffering and instead of doing that, they are debating the imagined merits of a view that even Benatar himself is reluctant to talk about often. It is painfully clear that he lacks conviction. He would not preach anti-natalism from a church pulpit; I would, ironically, share my naturalism from a church pulpit because unlike Benatar, I have conviction in my philosophical positions.

      “Whether intentionally or unintentionally we are putting our wants ahead of the harms that the child will suffer.” This is naive. Most people do think about whether they have the means to raise a child. This is why people choose to have an abortion; in the vast majority of cases, they are not ready to raise a child. If my child falls and scrapes his knee, I am not going to feel guilty about “putting my wants ahead of his harms.” Nor will I think it is better for him to never have been born. Again, this is only a perspective the fatherless can adopt.

      There is also this sneaky dualism within anti-natalism that makes the position even more untenable. The necessary pain of a vaccine shot will certainly make most children cry, but it makes the pleasure of getting a pet turtle or an ice cream cone all the more pronounced. Even in the brain, pain and pleasure can cohere to increase pleasure; this is why some people “like it rough” and thoroughly enjoy receiving pain and pleasure simultaneously. While there is an overabundance of evil in the world and suffering, especially in high poverty regions, the fact remains that without the experience of pain, there is nothing the experience of pleasure can be contrasted with. It is clear, given our neurophysiology, that both experiences play a pivotal role in our consciousness. Put it this way, if you were to strip all trauma and pain from the memories of every single person, you would drastically change the identities these people think they have. You would fundamentally change them. While pain and trauma are powerful and have a way of lingering, it is through it that we get courage, resilience, bravery, tenacity, ambition, and the resolution to give our children a life better than the one we had and to do what we can to reduce suffering in the world. Anti-natalism does away with a lot of important context, but I digress.

      Benatar’s view, if you are accurately defending his view, is already deflationary. If it is invariably morally wrong to procreate, then would do everything in our power to ensure that people stop having children. Benatar does not mean this it seems. I am also unsure whether he thinks a temporary ban on having children will help reduce suffering in the world or whether we should stop having children until we reduce overall suffering by some meaningful percentage, i.e., if we can reduce suffering by five percent, we can resume procreation.

      These things would naturally happen if we reduced the power of religious institutions in some parts of the world; women in poverty do not want to be forced into staying pregnant and doing so continues the cycle of poverty. It appears then that Benatar is alluding to some temporary measure because (and given his affinity for possible worlds, he cannot get around this) if we created a world with complex algorithms to anticipate every instance of pain a child might suffer, along with recommended actions to avoid this pain, then the child will never suffer. In other words, imagine a world in where we designed a microchip that is implanted in children at birth; this chip essentially allows the child to see themselves falling if they go in that direction or if they engage in a certain activity, so then the program would recommend that they do not go in that direction or even worse, rewire their brain so that they do not override the recommendation. If we ever developed such technology, children would never suffer, even if it means stripping them of their free will to ensure this outcome. Would Benatar still be an anti-natalist in this world? No, he would not. So, per his view and yours, what is entailed is this: if suffering can be drastically reduced, then procreation is no longer morally wrong. The issue, as I have repeated, is that in some parts of the world, suffering is not as pronounced as it is in impoverished areas. This is crucial: we certainly suffer far less than our ancestors did; we have done away with small pox, measles, tuberculosis, hepatitis, and various other viruses that plagued earlier generations.

      Ultimately, it follows that subsequent generations will suffer less than earlier ones. A human in the stone age would take a spill, suffer a deep gash, develop an infection, go into septic shock, and die. This was a slow and painful process, even worse on the loved one powerless to do anything about it. Eventually, AIDs, cancer, various terminal illnesses, and a plethora of mental illnesses will have bonafide cures. While there will still be instances of pain and suffering, in that future, there are fewer instances than we have in today’s world. The irony here is that a continuation of our species is the answer to greatly reducing instances of pain and suffering. Anti-natalism, therefore, is destined for obsolescence even if I were to grant Benatar’s exaggerations. Even if I granted that suffering is as he claims it is, given the trajectory of instances of suffering since the dawn of homo sapiens, I can readily predict that there will be fewer instances in subsequent generations; eventually, there will be such few instances, that life will be mostly pleasurable for people alive in the future.

      In that world, a world where children have microchips that alert them of every possible danger, for instance, anti-natalism is obsolete and unnecessary. So, anti-natalism cannot mean that it is invariably morally wrong to have children. It just is a temporary measure, a deflationary view, a misapprehension of a viable solution. We do not need to mandate not having children; we simply need to make it possible for women in poverty to withdraw consent during pregnancy, and thus, we need to go after the institutions that force them to stay pregnant. We can do something about poverty and in doing so, alleviate pain and suffering on a broad scale. For people to sit at their keyboards and defend anti-natalism even more than Benatar himself does is a waste of time; the position is not even one that inspires conviction and so, my prescription is this: we should both move on and adopt a moral imperative to donate to charities, feed the hungry, fund cancer research, and so on. We can be far more productive with our time if pain and suffering is something that weighs on us. It certainly weighs on me; my only reservation is whether we allowed certain structures and institutions, e.g., Capitalism, the Church, to become too powerful. Our enemies are dismayingly powerful and I think Benatar knows this and has basically surrendered; an anti-natalist, aside from overlooking a great deal of historical context, has simply given up. Ironically, therefore, the anti-natalist increases suffering and pain in the world by adopting an apathy toward it, by refusing to offer and implement solutions to the problems we face.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s