Antinatalism, or anti-natalism, is a philosophical position that assigns a negative value to birth. Antinatalists argue that people should refrain from procreation because it is morally bad (some also recognize procreation of other sentient beings as morally bad). In scholarly and in literary writings, various ethical foundations have been adduced for antinatalism. Some of the earliest surviving formulations of the idea that it would be better not to have been born come from ancient Greece. The term "antinatalism" is in opposition to the term "natalism" or "pro-natalism", and was used probably for the first time as the name of the position by Théophile de Giraud (born 1968) in his book L'art de guillotiner les procréateurs: Manifeste anti-nataliste.
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.
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.
Peter Wessel Zapffe
Peter Wessel Zapffe (1899–1990) viewed humans as a biological paradox. Consciousness has become over-evolved in humans, thereby 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: 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 the natural consequence would be its extinction by abstaining from procreation.
Julio Cabrera proposes a concept of negative ethics in opposition to what he views as affirmative ethics which affirm being. He describes procreation as an act of manipulation; sending a human into a painful and dangerous, one way situation (being-towards-death, being-towards-illness, being-towards-aggression) in which it is impossible to be moral towards everyone (for Cabrera this is the worst thing in human life – the impossibility of being moral). In this structurally bad situation, pleasures and positive values are reactive, and the human 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 even to a minimal extent). Also, from the first moments of life, the human is subject to a painful temporal process of decomposition leading to death. He distinguishes structural death (SD), i.e. mortality, the process of dying initiated by birth from punctual death (PD), i.e. the dated event of factual disappearance. In his view, if someone regrets that they will die and recognizes death as evil, they should also regret that they were born and recognize birth as evil, since it is not possible to be born in a non-mortal way. Cabrera argues that procreation is a violation of autonomy, because we lack a human's consent when we act on this human's behalf through procreation and that a rational subject, having reliable information about the human condition and the ability to speak about its possible coming into existence (this is a thought experiment proposed by Richard Hare and he assumes that it would be obvious to choose birth), might not want to be born and experience the harm associated with existence. According to Cabrera, in ethics (also in affirmative ethics) there is one overarching concept which he calls the Fundamental Ethical Articulation (FEA): the consideration of other people's interests, the non-manipulation and non-harm of others. Procreation for him is an obvious violation of FEA. In his view, values widely accepted by affirmative ethics such as not causing unnecessary pain, non-manipulation of others and respect for human liberty – if approached radically – should lead to refusal of procreation. Cabrera also considers the issue of being a creator in relation to theodicy and argues that just as it is impossible to defend the idea of a good God as creator, it is also impossible to defend the idea of a good man as creator. In parenthood, the human parent imitates the divine parent, in the sense that education could be understood as a form of the pursuit of "salvation", the "right path" for that child. However, a human being could decide that it is better not to suffer at all than to suffer and be offered the later possibility of salvation from suffering. In Cabrera's opinion, evil is associated not with the lack of being, but with the suffering and dying of what is alive. So, on the contrary, evil is only and obviously associated with being.
Julio Cabrera, David Benatar (born 1966), and Karim Akerma all argue that procreation is contrary to Immanuel Kant's practical imperative (according to Kant, a 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 human did not have any opportunity to defend himself and avoid this act. Heiko Puls argues that Kant's considerations regarding parental duties and human procreation in general imply arguments for an ethically justified antinatalism. Kant, however, according to Puls, rejects this position in his teleology for meta-ethical reasons.
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.
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 non-procreation.
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 wouldn't be good even if someone would not experience this good, we would not have a significant moral reason not to create a 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 come into existence and suffer, and we feel no sadness by the fact that somewhere people did not come into existence and in this place there are happy people. When we know that somewhere people came into existence and suffer, we feel compassion. The fact that on some deserted island or planet people did not come into existence and suffer is good. This is because the absence of pain is good even when there is not 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 did not come into existence and are not happy. This is because the absence of pleasure is bad only when someone exists to be deprived of this good.
According to 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 descendants 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 descendants. Nevertheless, they bear some responsibility for the generations that ensue. If one does not desist from having children, one can hardly expect one's descendants to do so.
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).
In addition to the philanthropic arguments which "emanate from concern for the humans who will be brought into existence", Benatar also posits that another path to antinatalism is the misanthropic argument, which may be described as follows:
According to this argument humans are a deeply flawed and a destructive species that is responsible for the suffering and deaths of billions of other humans and non-human animals. If that level of destruction were caused by another species we would rapidly recommend that new members of that species not be brought into existence.
Harming other animals
David Benatar, Gunter Bleibohm (born 1947), Gerald Harrison and Julia Tanner, are attentive to harm caused to other sentient beings by humans. They would say that 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 the 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 immoral. They consider the human species the most destructive on the planet, arguing that without new humans, there will be no harm caused to other sentient beings by new humans.
More than a few anti-natalists are also vegans, and postulate that the two philosophies complement each other under the broad umbrella of "harm reduction" to other sentient beings and also in reducing humanity's carbon footprint. Devid Benatar himself is a vegan.
Impact on the environment
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".
Adoption instead of procreation
Herman Vetter, Théophile de Giraud, Tina Rulli and Karim Akerma argue that presently rather than engaging in the morally problematic act of procreation, one could do good by adopting already existing children. De Giraud emphasizes that, across the world, there are millions of existing children who need care.
Some antinatalists believe that most people do not evaluate reality accurately, which affects the desire to have children.
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, lyric or comic 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". Some studies seem to confirm this, it is said about the phenomenon of depressive realism, and Colin Feltham writes about antinatalism as one of its possible consequences.
David Benatar citing numerous studies, lists three phenomena described by psychologists, which, according to him, are responsible for the fact that our self-assessments are unreliable:
- Tendency towards optimism (or Pollyanna principle) – we have a positively distorted picture of our lives in the past, present, and future.
- Adaptation (or accommodation, habituation) – we adapt to negative situations and adjust our expectations accordingly.
- Comparison – for our self-assessments, more important than how our lives goes is how our lives goes in comparison with lives of others. One of the effects of this is that negative aspects of life that affect everyone are not taken into account when assessing our own well-beings. We are also more likely to compare ourselves with those who are worse off than those who are better off.
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.
Thomas Ligotti (born 1953) 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 can lead to a particular position on abortion.
David Benatar argues for abortion from a "pro-death" perspective. 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 moral, whereas continued pregnancy would be immoral. 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 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 problem of abortion is significantly different from the moral problem of procreation, because in the case of abortion, the individual already exists. 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 abstention from procreation and in his view abortion of healthy fetus is killing a human, and therefore morally unjustifiable. According to Cabrera it is a violation of autonomy and is immoral for the same reason as procreation.
Criticism of antinatalism may come from views that see positive value in bringing humans 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. David Wasserman in his criticism of antinatalism, criticizes, among other things, David Benatar's arguments and the consent argument.
- K. Akerma, Antinatalismus – Ein Handbuch, epubli, 2017.
- W. Tatarkiewicz, O szczęściu (On Happiness), Warszawa: Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1979, pp. 420-421.
- K. Akerma, Antinatalismus – Ein Handbuch, epubli, 2017, p. 301.
- H. Singh Gour, The Spirit of Buddhism, Whitefish, Montana: Kessinger Publishing, 2005, pp. 286–288.
- H. Jonas, The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity, Boston: Beacon Press, 1958, pp. 144–145.
- Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, Books 1–3 (The Fathers of the Church, volume 85), Washington D.C.: CUA Press, 2010, pp. 263–271.
- P. Karavites, Evil, Freedom, and the Road to Perfection in Clement of Alexandria, Leiden: Brill, 1999, p. 94.
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- D. Elliott, Spiritual Marriage: Sexual Abstinence in Medieval Wedlock, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995, pp. 133–134.
- P.W. Zapffe, The Last Messiah, The Philosophy Now, 2004, number 45, pp. 35–39.
- P. W. Zapffe, Om det tragiske, Oslo: Pax Forlag, 1996.
- P. W. Zapffe, H. Tønnessen, Jeg velger sannheten: En dialog mellom Peter Wessel Zapffe og Herman Tønnessen, Oslo: Universitets forlaget, 1983.
- J. Cabrera, Projeto de Ética Negativa, São Paulo: Edicões Mandacaru, 1989 (second edition: A Ética e Suas Negações, Não nascer, suicídio e pequenos assassinatos, Rio De Janeiro: Editora Rocco, 2011).  English translation of the first chapter of Projeto de Ética Negativa.
-  J. Cabrera, A critique of affirmative morality (A reflection on death, birth and the value of life), Brasília: Julio Cabrera Editions, 2014 (English edition). J. Cabrera, Crítica de la moral afirmativa: Una reflexión sobre nacimiento, muerte y valor de la vida, Barcelona: Editorial Gedisa, 1996 (original Portuguese edition, second edition in 2014).
- J. Cabrera (editor), Ética Negativa: problemas e discussões, Goiânia: Editorial UFG, 2008.
-  J. Cabrera, T. Lenharo di Santis, Porque te amo, Não nascerás!: Nascituri te salutant, Brasília: Editora LGE, 2009.  English translation of the first chapter of Porque te amo, Não nascerás! Nascituri te salutant.
-  J. Cabrera, T. Lenharo di Santis, Porque..., op. cit, pp. 52–67.
- D. Benatar, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006, pp. 129–131.
-  K. Akerma, Theodicy shading off into Anthropodicy in Milton, Twain and Kant, Tabula Rasa. Die Kulturzeitung aus Mitteldeutschland, 2010, No 49.
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- J. Narveson, Utilitarianism and New Generations, Mind 1967, LXXVI (301), pp. 62-67.
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- K. Akerma, Soll eine Menschheit sein? Eine fundamentalethische Frage, Cuxhaven-Dartford: Traude Junghans, 1995.
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- D. Benatar, Why it is Better Never to Come Into Existence, American Philosophical Quarterly, 1997, volume 34, number 3, pp. 345–355.
- D. Benatar, Better..., op. cit., pp. 30–40.
- D. Benatar, Better..., op. cit., pp. 30–57.
- D. Benatar, Better..., op. cit., pp. 6–7.
- D. Benatar, Better..., op. cit., pp. 88–92.
-  International Association for Suicide Prevention, World Suicide Prevention Day.
- D. Benatar, D. Wasserman, Debating Procreation: Is It Wrong To Reproduce?, Oxford University Press, New York 2015, pp. 87-121.
-  We Are Creatures That Should Not Exist: The Philosophy Of Anti-Natalism, The Critique, July 15, 2015.
- D. Benatar, Better..., op. cit., pp. 109.
- D. Benatar, D. Wasserman, Debating..., op. cit., pp. 93– 99.
- G. Bleibohm, Fluch der Geburt – Thesen einer Überlebensethik, Landau-Godramstein: Edition Gegensich, 2011.
- G. Harrison, J. Tanner, Better Not To Have Children, Think, 2011, volume 10, issue 27, pp. 113–121.
- Pelley, Virginia (January 29, 2018). "This Extreme Sect of Vegans Thinks Your Baby Will Destroy the Planet". Marie Claire. Retrieved July 30, 2018.
- Rothman, Joshua (27 November 2017). "The Case for Not Being Born". The New Yorker. Retrieved July 30, 2018.
- V. Baird, The No-nonsense Guide to World Population, Oxford: New Internationalist, 2011, p. 119.
-  An NBC interview with Les U. Knight.
-  The official Voluntary Human Extinction Movement website.
- T. de Giraud, L'art de guillotiner les procréateurs: Manifeste anti-nataliste, Nancy: Le Mort-Qui-Trompe, 2006, p. 51.
- T. Rulli, The Ethics of Procreation and Adoption, Philosophy Compass 11/6, 2016, pp. 305–315.
- K. Akerma, Antinatalismus..., op. cit., p. 74.
- C. Feltham, Depressive Realism: Interdisciplinary perspectives, Routledge, Abingdon 2016.
- D. Benatar, Better..., op. cit., pp. 64–69.
- T. Ligotti, The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror, New York: Hippocampus Press, 2010, pp. 112–113.
- D. Benatar, Better..., op. cit., pp. 132–162.
-  Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Fetal Awareness – Review of Research and Recommendations for Practice, London: RCOG Press, 2010.
-  M. W. Platt, Fetal awareness and fetal pain: the Emperor's new clothes, Archives of Disease in Childhood, 2011, volume 96, issue 4.
-  J. Cabrera, T. Lenharo di Santis, op. cit, pp. 68–69, 77.
- D. Benatar, D. Wasserman, Debating..., op. cit., pp. 133–259.
- B. Contestabile, The Denial of the World from an Impartial View, Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal, volume 17, issue 1, Taylor and Francis, 2016.
- D. Benatar, D. Wasserman, Debating..., op. cit., pp. 148–181.
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