Tag Archives: Existentialism

Anti-Natalism | Ethics |

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.

Over-population

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.

Basic assertion

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.

Assymmetry

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.

[Image: benatar-asymmetry15122011eh.png]

Argument

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.

Usual counter-argument

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.

Implications

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.

Other objections

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.

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Incorporation | You are the world around you |

What is incorporation?

We all like to believe that we are original and autonomous individuals, soveriegn individuals that are authentic. This is an impossible occurence and the concept of incorporation describes the process of our ‘thrown-ness’ into existence. It’s sometimes referred to as a ‘ready-to-hand’; ‘present-at-hand’ or ‘readymade’ quality that affects our ontical-ontology in existence. We are born into a world of history and talking about incorporation is a study of historology (history of being) and historciality (ontical history of a being). Incorporation is a process we can’t avoid, it is a heteronomous will, a determinism of our being in being.

To incorporate something means to take it from the world around you and then make it part of your own body.

For example, when we ingest food we extract nutrients from it and some of these nutrients are transformed into cells in our bodies. In a similar sense, we are educated in society and we pick up ideas, beliefs, norms and practices from other people around us and then make them ‘our own’.

Parasitic and Symbiotic

From the example of ingestion and nutrients in the body, incorporation is not strictly harmful in and of itself. Some forms of incorporation are symbiotic, which means that two bodies co-exist in a way that is beneficial for both bodies. For example, there is bacteria in our bodies that helps to break down food and remove harmful toxins, without them we would not be able to survive. A tic however, which feeds off our blood, is a parasite. The tic needs me to live, but I can live without the tic.

Some of these ideas are dug in very deep in our subconscious and may seem like instincts, they become emotional, unconscious and unthinking, ‘physical’ reflexes and ‘gut feelings’, or knee-jerk reactions. This is usually apparent when what we have incorporated is challenged or violated and a cognitive dissonance occurs.

There are four main processes of incorporation – mimesis, performativity, normativity and the formation of subjects.

Mimesis

Human beings have a strong and largely unconscious tendency to imitate each other, especially from what they consider to be ‘role models’. Some philosophers and psychologists use the Greek term mimesis to describe this phenomenon. Children start to imitate the people around them within hours of them being born, starting with facial expressions. After a few months, it gets more complex and they copy and repeat practices and routines that they are shown.

Mimesis or ’embodied unconscious imitation’ is a very early and powerful way in which we incorporate values, desires and actions of those near to us. The drive is for power – we have an unconscious desire to have more and more control over our bodies and we copy routines and practices, ideas and values from others in order to get the ball rolling. This doesn’t stop after childhood however, it continues through the rest of our lives.

There are even earlier ‘transmission processes’ for appetites that are passed on while we are in the womb, what our mothers eat determines what our tastes are.

Mimesis can sometimes be referred to as a ‘herd instinct’, ‘chameleon effect’ and subconscious ‘priming’.

Performativity

One way in which we incorporate values, norms and practices is by repeatedly performing and practicing them. When we learn a new song or dance, we start off awkward and rigid, but eventually through practice and repitition, the moves and sounds flow more naturally until it is like a ‘second nature’.

Developmental Psychologists studied how children learn ‘scripts’, or repeated patterns of social interaction. There are determined scripts for bedtime and dinnertime, or ‘going to the park’. Like a theatre script, it can include a typical sequence of events or scenes and can feature and number of roles (mummy, baby etc).

Built into it are expectations of what happens next, desires and emotions about what is happening and values, of right and wrong actions and responses. Basic structures of human memory seem to favour learning through scripts. Infants have little memory for particular objects and one-off events, buthave strong memory for repeated sequences.

Like mimesis, script learning is not something that stops when we grow up, it continues throughout our adult lives too.

Normativity

Norms and practices – also interpretations, values, desires, or even whole scripts combining a number of these – that people in a group feel to be normal or expected and to be right. Norms are supported through rewards and punished through sanctions.

Norms are unofficial rules, often unwritten that are enforced by nieghbours, informal groups, as opposed to laws, which are more formal rules that are enforced by the state or other ‘specialist’ agent. We don’t have to make the distinction here, some official laws work like norms, if they are accepted as right and normal.

Many norms are implicit, rarely put into words, perhaps even entirely unconscious. Many Developmental Psychologists think children start to learn norms before they can speak. They are ‘moral feelings’ that we learn and then later rationalise into ‘moral concepts’. So they are largely unconscious and can go unquestioned, even when we consciously rationalise and justify them.

It’s another aspect of the ‘herd instinct’ – that we cling to groups seeking approval and belonging.

Enforcement

The traditional way of training people into a groups’ norms is through humiliation and violence for norm-breakers. By contrast, rewards of status for conformity.

Note how norms involve a number of different people in different roles, they depend on the type of encounter. The norms, or what you are expected to do in certain situations – and want, and value, and expect, how you are supposed to interpret the world, will be different depending on how you are identified, what role you are expected to play.

Subjects

Humans become subjects – who can reflect on themselves and their actions, make conscious plans and projects over time. We can become self-governing or self-policing. For example, I measure myself by what I ‘should be’, strive to become more like the ideal and feel inadequate or guilty if I fail.

This is a paradox of subjectivity – while we seem ‘free’ to make and re-make ourselves in new ways, persuing our chosen projects, what we choose doesn’t come from a pure source ‘inside of us’: we have incorporated these choices, too, from the cultures around us.

You might be a strong, commited and independent subject, but the ideal you aim for comes right off the shelf of norms and stereotypes, let’s say from capitalism, or patriarchy for instance – ruthless money maker, model worker, family guy, housewife, object of desire, gangster, consumer, or playboy.

Subjectivation

Thinking about and working on yourself as an individual is an important form of social domination in modern life. Think about how we are sold ‘aspirational lifestyles’ or the need for ‘self improvement’ to name a couple of examples.

Self-transformation

Mimesis, performativity, normativity and subject becoming don’t mean that the subject is ‘doomed’ to cultural slavery. Having ‘care of the self’ is a vital starting point for developing new cultures and forms of life, freer ways of living. But just being a ‘soveriegn individual’ is not all there is to being free. Subjectivation, or techniques of the self can be used in a number of ways, they can be used to defend or reinforce forms of life dug deep into our bodies (such as capitalism and patriarchy), or they can be used to destroy and overcome them.

Summary

  • We incorporate values, desires and practices of the cultures around us through a range of processes
  • Some of these processes are deeply unconscious, they work on us even when we are not aware of them and without conscious effort on our part
  • These unconscious incorporation processes start in early childhood and continue throughout our adult lives
  • This doesn’t mean we are unthinking slaves of the cultures around us where we grow up and live. We can learn to understand these processes that shape us and use our self-consciousness to help transform our ways of life.

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