In this paper, I will defend the idea of Antinatalism, a philosophical position that assigns a negative value to birth and procreation, by presenting the main ethical foundations of the school of thought.
I feel this topic is one of the most, if not the most, important existential problems we are faced with. As beings capable of rational thought, we have the capacity to understand what we are and how we fit into the world around us. This has allowed us to question the foundations of our existence, such as "Where do we come from?", "What is good and evil?", "How does one live a good life?" etc.
However, it seems to me as if there is something missing, a question that precedes all others, and that is the question of "Is it moral to create life in the first place?". This question can lead us to valuable insights about the ethics of life and death, and of what our next steps as humanity should be.
In his book, Better Never To Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, David Benatar makes the claim that, by bringing someone into existence, one harms them by causing all the negative aspects of their life, and that one does not benefit them at all by causing all the good aspects of their life. In other words, that by bringing someone into existence, we volunteer them to the woes and suffering of existence, and that this suffering cannot be justified with struggle or pleasure.
David Benatar argues there is crucial asymmetry between the good and the bad things, such as pleasure and pain, which means it would be better for humans not to have been born. This asymmetry can be illustrated as follows:
- That the presence of pain is bad
- That the presence of pleasure is good
- That the absence of pain is good, even if that good is not experienced by anyone
- That the absence of pleasure is not bad, unless there is someone that is being deprived of it
In the scenario in which a person did not exist, the absence of pain would be good, and the absence of pleasure would not be bad, since there is no one being deprived of that pleasure. This asymmetry stacks the odds against existence by demonstrating that the lack of sentience is mostly good, from a negative-utilitarian line of reasoning. Even if we create a human who is guaranteed a perfectly pleasurable and meaningful life (which is impossible due to unpleasantness and suffering being too deeply written into the structure of sentient life to be eliminated), there would still have been no duty served in creating this person- they did not have a need for pleasure before they were born, because the unborn have no needs. It was only after they were created that they gained a need for pleasure, as a result of consciousness.
In the "Human Predicament", David Benatar writes about a surging list of predicaments, meant to prove that even the lives of the happiest people are worse that we think.
"We're almost always hungry or thirsty ... when we're not, we must go to the bathroom. We often experience "thermal discomfort"—we are too hot or too cold—or are tired and unable to nap. We suffer from itches, allergies, and colds, menstrual pains or hot flashes. Life is a procession of "frustrations and irritations"—waiting in traffic, standing in line, filling out forms. Forced to work, we often find our jobs exhausting; even "those who enjoy their work may have professional aspirations that remain unfulfilled." Many lonely people remain single, while those who marry fight and divorce. "People want to be, look, and feel younger, and yet they age relentlessly"
Regardless, even in the impossibility of an existence that is free of pain, in creating new life, we place sentient beings in a great predicament. A common counter-argument against antinatalism is that, "if you do not think life is worth continuing, why not kill yourself (this is my wording of the claim)?" The problem with this claim is that death only exacerbates our problems, and does not solve the underlying problems pertaining to our condition. Life is bad, but so is death. Life is not bad in every way, but neither is death- but they are both awful, in their own respects. As a side note, I do not advocate for killing living things, as it is morally unethical due to the nature of biological organisms and our desire to self-preservation. Ceasing the life of another being, against their will, should be immoral because we violate their autonomy and cause them pain in the process. One can make the claim that we can kill a being painlessly, but that does not eliminate the considerable distress that the thought of death alone causes a being. This all goes to further demonstrate the awfulness in death, and why we should not consider it a solution. Death and suicide are painful, on different levels. It's better not to put people in this predicament in the first place, causing them enough pain to want to consider suicide, which is painful in itself, as a way to solve the problem of life, a predicament they were put into without their consent.
"People sometimes ask themselves whether life is worth living. Benatar thinks that it's better to ask sub-questions: Is life worth continuing? (Yes, because death is bad.) Is life worth starting? (No.)"
The Impossibility of Consent
The next problem is the impossibility of obtaining consent from someone as to whether they would like to be born in the first place. In bringing someone into the world, we do so against their consent, violating their autonomy. In creating life, we create a sentient being who, once born, might not want to exist.
A common counterargument to this is that the unborn do not have rights or autonomy, therefore, we cannot violate their autonomy. This counterargument is one related to the non-identity problem, which is the problem that an act may still be wrong if it is not wrong for anyone. In other words, "How can you violate the autonomy of something that does not exist?"
This problem further expands to a bigger counterargument along the lines "things that do not exist and cannot have states or rights. Potential persons do not actually exist, and therefore it is meaningless to speak of their states, including their rights ('rights' in the loose sense of 'a prohibition from harming')."
I would like to point out that, if correct, this counterargument would only refute some arguments for antinatalism, not nearly all of them. This counterargument simply refutes philantrophic arguments of antinatalism.
Does it make sense to say that potential people do not have rights? This would include fetuses and the comatose- neither possesses personhood, but might possess it at some future time. The non-identity counterargument entails that substance abuse during pregnancy (such as smoking) would not breach any rights. However, our intuition tells us that this is incorrect; when the children are born, and the evils befall them, we clearly see that human life's rights were attacked, even if that life did not exist at the time of the crime.
The non-identity problem appears to really just be a semantics game of trying to escape causality based on the fact that cause and effect are separated in time, and that the final means through which the cause was transmitted did not co-exist with the cause.
On a brighter note
Procreation is unilateral, non-consensual, and it entails the sending of a human into a painful, dangerous, and morally impending situation, which can only be escaped through a painful, but unavoidable, process of death.
This seemingly pessimistic and nihilistic outlook on life seems to turn people off, causing them to miss, what I believe, is a deeper view of who we are, and how we should evolve as a species. When we recognize that we are biological machines wired to perpetuate a cycle of pain, we are forced to ask ourselves, "well, should we just go extinct?"
Some would make the argument that we should go voluntarily go extinct. And to be fair, it would not be a big deal if we did, at a grander scale, as the universe is indifferent to us. I'd like to take a more, relatively, practical approach to an idea of where we should go next. I say relatively because it seems that we do not seem to learn from the mistakes of our past. There are some who do, but you still always see the madness around you.
It seems that stopping procreation is impossible. If, in the extremely unlikely event that, we stopped procreating as a species, there would still be millions of other species that would continue on to perpetuate life, on our planet alone. And even if all life on our planet ceased to exist, it is sure to again arise in the future, as it has before, for as long as the universe exists.
It seems that the only other option to embracing antinatalism, while also preserving life would come in the form of removing pain from life through advancements in biotechnology, and preserving our own lives while not procreating. Making it our goal, as the most advanced civilization that we know of, to remove pain from life, would seem like a moral obligation, but not one we should force onto future generations, our children. However, if we were to go extinct, we would be leaving this burden to the next civilization- to develop over millions of years, and then have to work on this same purpose, no? It seems this is a no-win game unless we were to stop procreating and instead preserve once last generation.
But once again, we seem to never learn from our past mistakes- suffering is just far too deeply wired into life. At the present rate, it does not seem as if we are ever going to do things differently, let alone create a drastically improved world- and even a perfect world does not justify our present suffering. Even as beings capable of rational thought beyond us; we are simply asking for the unacceptable.
Critical Study David Benatar ... - Princeton University. https://www.princeton.edu/~eharman/Benatar.pdf
"The Case for Not Being Born." The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 22 Nov. 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/persons-of-interest/the-case-for-not-being-born
"Better Never to Have Been: the Harm of Coming into Existence.", David Benatar, Oxford University Press, 2008,
"The Non-Identity Problem." The Prime Directive, 27 July 2011, https://francoistremblay.wordpress.com/2011/08/11/the-non-identity-problem/