What is Anti-Natalism?
The phrase from the German pessimist, Arthur Shopenhauer best encapsulates what anti-natalism is all about – ‘Better never to have been born’. In more recent times, South African philosopher, David Benetar released a book in 2006 entitled ‘Better Never to have Been : The Harm of Coming into Existence’.
To better explain what these phrases mean, we have to start from an existential position (one that starts from existence and all meaning is a posteriori, existence preceeds essence) that suffering, pain and death are the only qualities of life that any one person, animal, or any form of sentience can be guaranteed to experience during a life time and that given this is true we begin to base our ethics in a negative utilitarian sense.
Unlike positive utilitarianism which holds the maxim, ‘I should act if and only if my actions lead to happiness of others’, negative utilitarianism reverses this and asserts ‘I should act if and only if my actions lead to less harm and suffering.’
We also need another existential premise that only a living being who has been born, any form of sentience that is, is capable of desire and valuing. Needs are created whenever a new sentient being is born, they need to eat, have shelter, clothing, clean water and then they develop desires as they get older and will consume, produce and will eventually grow older and older and experience pain and suffering, as well as satisfaction. Satisfaction always leads to more desire, desire is never fulfilled.
As for other sentient beings that are other than human, mainly insects for example, they often live very short lives that have no purpose other than to reproduce and they die either immediately, through starvation, or worse, they become food for other animals.
Anti-Natalism tackles the problem of over-populating the planet. There are as of 2015, around 7.3 billion human beings on the planet. The principle concern is resources. Poverty and inequality is the highest and most divided in human history, climate change is irreversible and the potential for war, famine, climate refugees, lack of employment and many other long term problems that offer fewer and fewer prospects of progress and improvement are likely to unfold in ways that are beyond our control.
Given that there are no guarantees that the future will hold positive prospects and that no individual can possibly change the world on their own, survival becomes difficult without passing on our genes. Given that sentience is the only thing that can create value, need and desire, we can’t say that a non-existent being who is not yet concieved through sexual reproduction has any say, that the desire to reproduce is a selfish (or rather autonomous) decision on behalf of the would-be-parent of the one who is yet to be conceived.
The basic principle of Anti-Natalism then, is that it is unethical given the absolute guarantee of suffering and inability to prevent harm, to bring a sentient being into existence.
The argument is best shown using a kind of game theory, it’s called a zero-sum game. It’s very similar to Prisoners Dillemma, so each player has to act rationally.
Scenario A where x exists shows how the presence of pain is bad and how the presence of pleasure is good. Okay so far, nice and simple.
Scenario B however, where x does not exist reveals how pain is absent and this is a good – obviously as x does not exist and so can’t be harmed in any way. Then we have to consider whether or not the absence of pleasure is good or bad. Well, given that x doesn’t even exist it can’t even experience it.
Before I explain the conclusion, let’s say we have a doughnut that we enjoy and it gives us pleasure and let’s say someone who is torturing us by sticking knives under our toe nails gives us pain. Not hard to see how this gives us good and bad. Now let’s say we didn’t eat a doughnut, we are neither in pleasure but we are not in pain either. Let’s say we are not being tortured any more, or we were never tortured – that’s always a good, or more good than before.
So x not existing to eat the doughnut and not existing to have knives under toe nails gives us an assymmetry. Not having pleasure is niether good nor bad, it’s just not bad.
Absence of pleasure is bad! Is usually the way people repond, but think about it for a moment. Not being in pain is good, obviously, but not eating a doughnut is niether harmful, nor is it pleasureable, it’s just not bad.
The assymmetry looks perplexing at first. The zero-sum game of pleasure being absent as bad, does not contemplate how a non-existent being is incapable of desiring a doughnut in the first place and so creates sentience in the belief that procreation allows others to experience pleasure and this comes purely from a selfish decision to procreate. It does not, cannot, come from the desire of a never existent being.
By not bringing someone into existence, we certainly don’t immediately improve the over all suffering as that is beyond our control in the most general sense. What we can do however, is not add to the problems. This is the basic principles of anti-natalism.
Pleasure outweighs pain!
Another objection is that if we are lucky, we can tally the goods with the bads and a life with more goods was probably worth living. Anti-natalism does not deny the existence of goods, but it can’t guarantee it, it can only guarantee that we will eventually all suffer at some point and die. In developing countries and in more poverty stricken areas of the developed world, pain and suffering are more likely and so pro-creation definitely does more harm than good as parents have to provide, thier life becomes a burden. On the other hand, better off people tend to consume more stuff than a mass of poorer people and this puts a strain on resources for everyone. Rich or poor, no one can avoid climate change, pollution, disease and war if it occurs.
The assymmetry contains the maxim of ‘better never to have been born’ as not harming and not having pleasure are both good and not bad. Existing contains bad and good and so loses the game of rational choice.
Traditional thinking within any society is that having children is what we live for and not having them would make life meaningless. This is easily tackled, what I call the Simpsons argument – ‘Wont someone please think of the children?” when we remember that sentience creates value and although the desire to pro-create was around before we ourselves were born, it is only a desire. We can choose to have or not to have children, but if we do it is because of our own selfish choice. A non-existent being does not have choice, it has no say until it is born.
Relative problems need relative solutions
While we could take negative utilitarianism and anti-natalism to the extreme of ending life gracefully, not only not bringing more life into existence, but to end humanity for it’s own good, I want to stress that the problem is only a problem while it is a problem.
If people stopped having more children, then resources would not be as strained as they are and will become. If people stopped producing more children in poor countries, they would not be so easily exploited by global capitalism. If women stopped having children for now, it actually serves as a positive feminist issue in that it eradicates the roles of a woman as a mother through natural obligation. If we stop having children, we can do more with our own lives instead of trying to raise children in an increasingly uncertain economy. If population started to drop, there would be less panic as a whole. If it dropped low enough and there was too few of us and there was enough to go around and the environment was stable, then by all means – have children again, but within the limits of what is possible to sustain.
A here and now solution
Not acting is a form of action. This is a simple solution that anyone can understand and it’s something that can be done by everyone to stop adding to the global problems and to generally improve life for themselves and others.
Hope that was clear enough, I want to remind everyone I am not trying to offend anyone and it really is up to yourselves whether you choose to have or not have children. If you do, make sure it’s for the right reasons.