Antinatalism, or anti-natalism, is a philosophical position that assigns a negative value to birth. The term is in opposition to the term natalism. The French term "anti-natalisme" as a name for the position was probably used for the first time by Théophile de Giraud in his book L'art de guillotiner les procreateurs: Manifeste anti-nataliste. The English term "anti-natalism" as a name for a position was probably used for the first time by David Benatar in his book, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence.
- 1 The ancients
- 2 The moderns
- 2.1 Arthur Schopenhauer
- 2.2 Peter Wessel Zapffe
- 2.3 Julio Cabrera
- 2.4 Seana Shiffrin
- 2.5 Kantian imperative
- 2.6 Negative utilitarianism
- 2.7 Asymmetry between pleasure and pain
- 2.8 Deprivationalism
- 2.9 Suffering of future offspring
- 2.10 Statistical effects of creating people
- 2.11 Environment
- 2.12 Harm to other animals
- 2.13 Adoption instead of procreation
- 3 Antinatalism and realism
- 4 Antinatalism and abortion
- 5 Criticism of antinatalism
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 External links
"Not to exist", Mὴ φῦναι, is the best that can meet man. This conviction was given expression by Sophocles in his great lamentation about life, in the... chorus of Oedipus at Colonus: "Not to be born, O man, is the highest, the greatest word. But if you have seen the light of day, then consider it best to depart as quickly as possible to whence you came." It was not Sophocles, however, who invented the idea, "not to exist", and he was not the only one to voice it; the elegiac poets — such as Theognis — expatiated on it no less than the tragedians. Tradition placed the thought already in the mouth of Homer; in response to the question, What is best for man?, he is reputed to have said: "It is best not to be born or, failing that, it is best to pass as soon as possible through the gates of Hades."
In the Bible's book of Ecclesiastes (dating from c. 450-180 BCE) we find:
So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter. Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive. Yea, better is he than both they, which hath not yet been, who hath not seen the evil work that is done under the sun.
Buddha states his propositions in the pedantic style of his age. He throws them into a form of sorites; but, as such, it is logically faulty and all he wishes to convey is this: Oblivious of the suffering to which life is subject, man begets children, and is thus the cause of old age and death. If he would only realize what suffering he would add to by his act, he would desist from the procreation of children; and so stop the operation of old age and death.
The Marcionites believed that the visible world is an evil creation of a crude, cruel, jealous, angry demiurge, Yahweh. According to this teaching, people should oppose him, abandon his world, not create people, and trust in the good God of mercy, foreign and distant.
Manichaeans, Bogomils and Cathars
The Manichaeans, the Bogomils and the Cathars believed that procreation sentences the soul to imprisonment in evil matter. They saw procreation as an instrument of an evil god, demiurge, or of Satan that imprisons the divine element in matter and thus causes the divine element to suffer.
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) held that the world is governed by a will to live: a blind, irrational force, manifested by wanting, which constantly strives to manifest itself but is never satisfied with its manifestations, which is the cause of suffering. Existence is filled with suffering. In the world there is more pain than pleasure; happiness and the pleasure of thousands cannot compensate for the anguish and agony of a single one; and, all things considered, it would be better if life had never occurred. The essence of ethical conduct is compassion and the denial of the will to live, consisting in overcoming one’s own desires through asceticism. Once one denies the will to live, placing a human being in the world is a superfluous, senseless, and morally very questionable act.
Peter Wessel Zapffe
Peter Wessel Zapffe (1899–1990) viewed humans as a biological paradox. Consciousness has become over-evolved in humans, therefore making us incapable of functioning normally like other animals: cognition gives us more than we can carry. We want to live, and yet because of how we have evolved, we are the only species aware that it is destined to die. We are able to analyze the past for broad expectations of the future, both our situation and situations of others; we expect justice and meaning in a world where neither occur. This ensures that the lives of conscious individuals are tragic. We have desires and spiritual needs which reality is unable to satisfy, and our species still exists because we limit our awareness of what that reality actually entails. Human existence amounts to a tangled network of defense mechanisms, which can be observed both individually and socially, in our everyday behavior patterns. According to Zapffe, humanity should cease this self-deception, and in consequence, passively end its existence by living out the lives already created but actively abstain from procreation, thus ceasing to create new lives.
Julio Cabrera proposes a concept of negative ethics: an ethics that opposes the affirmative ethics that affirms being. He describes procreation as sending a person to a painful and dangerous situation, where pleasures and positive values are reactive, where the person is constantly exposed to disease, injury, damage, other misfortunes and death (including being exposed to physical pain so intense that it precludes the possibility of a dignified, moral functioning), and where from the first moments of life, the person begins to be subject to a temporal process of decomposition leading to death. Cabrera argues that we lack the consent of this person when we act on his behalf through procreation, and that we should respect the idea that someone may prefer never to be born, away from pain and death. Gerald Harrison and Julia Tanner also write about lack of consent, arguing that we have no moral right to significantly affect others without their consent.
- great harm is not at stake if no action is taken;
- if action is taken, the harms suffered may be very severe;
- the imposed condition cannot be escaped without high costs (suicide is often a physically, emotionally, and morally excruciating option);
- the hypothetical consent procedure is not based on features of the individual who will bear the imposed condition.
Julio Cabrera, David Benatar, and Karim Akerma all argue that procreation is contrary to Immanuel Kant's practical imperative. (According to Kant, man should never be used as a means to an end, but always be an end in himself.) They argue that a person can be created for the sake of his parents or other people, but that it is impossible to create someone for his own good; and that therefore, following Kant's recommendation, we should not create new people. Cabrera believes that procreation is an example of total manipulation, because the person has no opportunity to defend himself and avoid this act.
Negative utilitarianism argues that minimizing suffering has greater moral importance than maximizing happiness.
- There is no moral obligation to produce a child even if we could be sure that it will be very happy throughout his life.
- There is a moral obligation not to produce a child if it can be foreseen that it will be unhappy.
However, he disagrees with the conclusion that Narveson draws:
- In general – if it can be foreseen neither that the child will be unhappy nor that it will bring disutility upon others – there is no duty to have or not to have a child.
Instead, he presents the decision theoretic matrix:
|child will be more or less happy||child will be more or less unhappy|
|produce the child||no duty fulfilled or violated||duty violated|
|do not produce the child||no duty fulfilled or violated||duty fulfilled|
It is seen immediately that the act "do not produce the child" dominates the act "produce the child" because it has equally good consequences as the other act in one case and better consequences in the other. So it is to be preferred to the other act as long as we cannot exclude with certainty the possibility that the child will be more or less unhappy; and we never can. So we have, instead of (3), the far-reaching consequence: (3') In any case, it is morally preferable not to produce a child.
Karim Akerma claims we should refrain from procreation because the good things in life do not compensate for the bad things. First and foremost, the best things do not compensate for the worst things such as, for example the experience of unspeakable pain, the agonies of the wounded, sick or dying.
Miguel Steiner claims we should refrain from procreation because the larger the population, the more victims of all types of misfortunes there are. Morally important is to minimize the number of victims and we should act in such a way that there will be fewer and fewer of them.
Asymmetry between pleasure and pain
David Benatar argues that there is a crucial asymmetry between pleasure and pain:
- the presence of pain is bad;
- the presence of pleasure is good;
- the absence of pain is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone;
- the absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation.
|Scenario A (X exists)||Scenario B (X never exists)|
|(1) Presence of pain (Bad)||(3) Absence of pain (Good)|
|(2) Presence of pleasure (Good)||(4) Absence of pleasure (Not bad)|
Regarding procreation, the argument follows that coming into existence generates both good and bad experiences, pain and pleasure, whereas not coming into existence entails neither pain nor pleasure. The absence of pain is good, the absence of pleasure is not bad. Therefore, the ethical choice is weighed in favor of nonprocreation.
Benatar explains the above asymmetry using four other asymmetries that he considers quite plausible:
- We have a moral obligation not to create unhappy people, and we have no moral obligation to create happy people. The reason why there is a moral obligation not to create unhappy people is that we believe the presence of pain is bad for those who are hurt, and the absence of pain is good also when there is no someone who is experiencing this good. By contrast, the reason for which there is no moral obligation to create happy people is that although the feeling of pleasure would be good for them, the absence of pleasure when they do not come into existence will not be bad, because there will be no one who will be deprived of this good.
- It is strange to mention the interests of a potential child as a reason why we decide to create it, and it is not strange to mention the interests of a potential child as a reason why we decide not to create it. That the child may be happy is not a morally important reason to create it. By contrast, that the child may be unhappy is an important moral reason to not create it. If the absence of pleasure is bad even if someone does not exist to experience its absence, we would have a significant moral reason to create a child, and to create as many children as possible. If, however, the absence of pain would not be good even if someone would not experience this good, we would not have a significant moral reason not to create an unhappy child.
- Someday we can regret for the sake of the good of a man whose existence was conditional on our decision, that we created him – a man can be unhappy and the presence of his pain would be a bad thing. But we will never feel regret for the sake of the good of a man whose existence was conditional on our decision, that we did not create him – a man will not be deprived of happiness, because he will never exist, and the absence of happiness will not be bad, because there will be no one who will be deprived of this good.
- We feel sadness by the fact that somewhere people came into existence and suffer, and we feel no sadness by the fact that somewhere people not came into existence and in this place there is no happy people. When we know that somewhere people came into existence and suffering, we feel compassion. The fact that on some deserted island or planet, people not came into existence and not suffer is good. This is because the absence of pain is good even when there is someone who is experiencing this good. On the other hand, we do not feel sadness by the fact that on some deserted island or planet people not came into existence and are not happy. This is because the absence of pleasure is bad only when there is someone who is deprived of this good.
Marc Larock presents a theory which he calls deprivationalism:
- Each person has an interest in acquiring a new satisfied preference.
- Whenever a person is deprived of a new satisfied preference this violates an interest and is thus a harm with a finite disvalue.
- If a person is deprived of an infinite number of new satisfied preferences, then she suffers an infinite number of harms.
- Death deprives us of an infinite number of new satisfied preferences.
- Taking into account that death is infinitely great harm and everyone will die, we should not create new people.
Suffering of future offspring
According to David Benatar, by creating a child, we are responsible not only for this child suffering, but we may be also co-responsible for the suffering of further offspring of this child:
Assuming that each couple has three children, an original pair’s cumulative descendents over ten generations amount to 88,572 people. That constitutes a lot of pointless, avoidable suffering. To be sure, full responsibility for it all does not lie with the original couple because each new generation faces the choice of whether to continue that line of descendents. Nevertheless, they bear some responsibility for the generations that ensue. If one does not desist from having children, one can hardly expect one's descendents to do so.
Statistical effects of creating people
Benatar cites statistics showing where the creation of people, leads. It is estimated that:
- more than fifteen million people are thought to have died from natural disasters in the last 1,000 years,
- approximately 20,000 people die every day from hunger,
- an estimated 840 million people suffer from hunger and malnutrition,
- between 541 ce and 1912, it is estimated that over 102 million people succumbed to plague,
- the 1918 influenza epidemic killed 50 million people,
- 11 million people die every year from infectious diseases,
- malignant neoplasms take more than a further 7 million lives each year,
- approximately 3.5 million people die every year in accidents,
- approximately 56.5 million people died in 2001, that is more than 107 people per minute,
- before the twentieth century over 133 million people were killed in mass killings,
- in the first 88 years of the twentieth century 170 million (and possibly as many as 360 million) people were shot, beaten, tortured, knifed, burned, starved, frozen, crushed, or worked to death; buried alive, drowned, hanged, bombed, or killed in any other of the myriad ways governments have inflicted death on unarmed, helpless citizens and foreigners,
- there were 1.6 million conflict-related deaths in the sixteenth century, 6.1 million in the seventeenth century, 7 million in the eighteenth, 19.4 million in the nineteenth, and 109.7 million in the twentieth,
- war-related injuries led to 310,000 deaths in 2000,
- about 40 million children are maltreated each year,
- more than 100 million currently living women and girls have been subjected to genital cutting,
- 815,000 people are thought to have committed suicide in 2000 (currently it is estimated that someone commits suicide every 40 seconds, more than 800,000 people per year).
Volunteers of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement argue that human activity is the primary cause of environmental degradation, and therefore the refraining from reproduction is "the humanitarian alternative to human disasters".
Harm to other animals
David Benatar, Gerald Harrison, Julia Tanner, and Gunter Bleibohm are all attentive to harm caused to non-human animals by humans. Billions of non-human animals are abused and slaughtered each year by our species for production of animal products, for experimentation and after the experiments, when they are no longer needed, as a result of destruction of habitats or other environmental damage, and for sadistic pleasure. They tend to agree with animal rights thinkers that the harm we do them is unethical. They consider the human species the most destructive on the planet, arguing that without new humans, there will be no harm caused to animals by new humans.
Adoption instead of procreation
Théophile de Giraud and Miguel Steiner state that presently, across the world, millions of children are without parents. They argue that, rather than engaging in the morally problematic act of procreation, one could do good by adopting existing children who need care and love.
Antinatalism and realism
Some antinatalists believe that most people do not evaluate reality accurately, and are actually incapable of doing so.
Limitation of consciousness
Peter Wessel Zapffe identifies four repressive mechanisms we use, consciously or not, to restrict our consciousness of life and the world:
- isolation – an arbitrary dismissal from our consciousness and consciousness of others of all negative thoughts and feelings associated with the unpleasant facts about our existence. In daily life, this manifests as a tacit agreement to remain silent on certain subjects – especially around children, to prevent instilling in them a fear of the world and what awaits them in life, before they will be able to learn other mechanisms.
- anchoring – the creation and use of personal values to ensure our attachment to reality, such as parents, home, the street, school, God, the church, the State, morality, fate, the law of life, the people, the future, accumulation of material goods or authority, etc. This can be characterized as creating a defensive structure, "a fixation of points within, or construction of walls around, the liquid fray of consciousness", and defending the structure against threats.
- distraction – shifting focus to new impressions to flee from circumstances and ideas we consider harmful or unpleasant,
- sublimation – refocusing the tragic parts of life into something creative or valuable, usually through an aesthetic confrontation for the purpose of catharsis. We focus on the imaginary, dramatic, heroic, lyrics or comics aspects of life, to allow ourselves and others an escape from their true impact.
According to Zapffe, depressive disorders are often "messages from a deeper, more immediate sense of life, bitter fruits of a geniality of thought".
Tendency towards optimism, adaptation and comparison
David Benatar cites three psychological phenomena which he believes responsible for our unreliable assessment of life's quality:
- tendency towards optimism: we have a positively distorted perspective of our lives in the past, present and future.
- Adaptation: we adapt to our circumstances, and if they worsen, our sense of well-being is lowered in anticipation of those harmful circumstances, according to our expectations, which are usually divorced from the reality of our circumstances.
- Comparison: we judge our lives by comparing them to those of others, ignoring the negatives which effect everyone to focus on specific differences. And due to our optimism bias, we mostly compare ourselves to those worse off, to overestimate the value of our own well-being.
The above psychological phenomena are unsurprising from an evolutionary perspective. They militate against suicide and in favour of reproduction. If our lives are quite as bad as I shall still suggest they are, and if people were prone to see this true quality of their lives for what it is, they might be much more inclined to kill themselves, or at least not to produce more such lives. Pessimism, then, tends not to be naturally selected.
Terror management theory
Thomas Ligotti draws attention to the similarity between Zapffe's philosophy and Terror Management Theory. Terror Management Theory argues that humans are equipped with unique cognitive abilities beyond what is necessary for survival, which includes symbolic thinking, extensive self-consciousness, and perception of themselves as temporal beings aware of the finitude of their existence. The desire to live alongside our awareness of the inevitability of death triggers terror in us. Opposition to this fear is among our primary motivations. To escape it, we build defensive structures around ourselves to ensure our symbolic or literal immortality, to feel like a valuable member of a meaningful universe, and to focus on protecting ourselves from immediate external threats.
Antinatalism and abortion
David Benatar argues for a pro-death position on abortion. According to Benatar, a person begins to exist – not as an organism in the biological sense, but as a being in the ethical sense (as the entity with valuable moral interests) – when consciousness arises, when a fetus is sentient, and up until that time, an abortion is ethical, whereas continued pregnancy would not be. Benatar refers to EEG brain studies and studies on the pain perception of the fetus, which states that fetal consciousness arises no earlier than between twenty-eight and thirty weeks of pregnancy, before which it is incapable of feeling pain. Contrary to that, the latest report from the Royal Academy of Obstetrics and Gynecology in the United Kingdom (2010) showed that the fetus gains consciousness no earlier than week twenty-four of the pregnancy. Some assumptions of this report regarding sentience of the fetus after the second trimester were criticized.
Julio Cabrera believes that the moral issue of abortion is significantly different from the moral issue of procreation. He emphasizes that it is difficult to determine whether we kill someone, when we have abortion, but believes that in its strictly manipulative aspect abortion is closer to procreation than to refraining from procreation and in his view abortion of healthy fetus is killing a human, and therefore morally unjustifiable.
Criticism of antinatalism
Criticism of antinatalism comes from views that see positive value in bringing a person into existence. Results of surveys on subjective life satisfaction, which show a vast surplus of happy people, could suggest that the overall benefit of procreation is greater than the harm, and that therefore procreation is morally justified. Another basis for criticism of antinatalism may be religious. In the Book of Genesis, God enjoins people to "be fruitful and multiply."
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