Anti-natalism, or antinatalism, is the philosophical position that assigns a negative value to birth. In other words, it is the position that procreation is morally bad. Some append this by saying no one consents to being born, but this is not (necessarily) included in the philosophical position.
I was aware of people being anti-natalist given the context of climate change, but had never heard the philosophical argument. Nevertheless, I will still produce an alternative argument, not just the philosophical one.
David Benatar has formalised an argument supporting the anti-natalist position in his book Better Never to Have Been. His argument relies on four premises:
- 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 (i.e. what does not exist cannot suffer);
- The absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody whom is being deprived of that pleasure (i.e. what does not exist cannot be deprived of pleasure)
There’s some terms that pertain to meta-ethics and for sake of complexity, I do not discuss them further. Moreover, the premises have the underlying axiom that maximizing pleasure is good.
From these premises, one can arrive at the conclusion that procreation is bad. This being the case as the absence of pleasure is not bad when there is no one being deprived of it and the absence of pain being good even if it is not enjoyed by anyone. It is important to notice how this pertains only to non-existing beings, as existing beings may be deprived of pleasure if they cease to exist.
I intentionally use the word ‘beings’ in the previous paragraph, as Benetar makes the argument that all life suffers more than they do enjoy pleasure, making the argument extend to non-human animals as well.
The argument that I hear made often from the point of view of climate change and its repercussions, is that having children is the worst thing you can do to combat climate change. Arithmetically, this is probably true. However, would we then not also arrive at the conclusion that continuing to live and pollute as a consequence is the second worst thing you can do?
This argument is different from anti-natalism in the sense that it does not focus on morality per se. Of course, climate change does pertain to morality in the sense that its effects are destructive so contributing to it is morally bad. However, I find the argument less convincing than David Benetar’s.
To accept Benetar’s asymmetry, it is also important to accept that pain weighs more heavily than pleasure. Benetar often uses the example of people not wanting to trade five minutes of complete euphoria for five minutes of the most excruciating pain. Ask yourself: would you? If not, it would be the case that a potential being would need to endure more pleasure than pain for them having been created to be perceived as morally good.
Now, I do accept the asymmetry, and I also accept that pain is worse than pleasure is good. However, I feel there is an arithmetic way, or a probabilistic way, of viewing whether bringing a potential being into life is moral.
This probability of leading a pleasurable life would depend on many factors such as socio-economic status, whether the potential child would have loving parents, the opportunity for education and genetic ailments. I trust that anyone would be able to name ten more factors that weigh into this probability. In other words, approaching the problem probabilistically is enormously complex. Is it then even useful to consider it in such a fashion? Probably not.
Accordingly, I have come to the conclusion that it is safe to assume that any potential being would endure more pain than pleasure, as a shorthand. This is because I think it is nigh impossible to consider all factors or compute a statistically significant confidence interval which lies completely above the desired threshold of pleasure versus pain. Moreover, to determine such a threshold (or ratio), one would have to assign a value to pleasure and pain such that the two can be compared, but this also seems close to impossible as all pleasures and pains weigh differently.
Moreover, I also feel that someone who would want to produce an argument for natalism needs to produce a reasoning as to why the continued existence of mankind (or that of any animal) is important. It could be that we treat life as having value by means of an axiom, though I do not think that from that axiom follows that continuing the existence of mankind must therefore also have value.
Motivation for writing: Cosmic Skeptic
Cosmic Skeptic and Humane Hancock recently had a talk about anti-natalism which prompted me to think about the topic repeatedly for a period of two weeks. I highly recommend to give it a listen, though, as Cosmic Skeptic’s stance on it is quite nuanced. He was willing to entertain anti-natalism but rejects the asymmetry.
Those are my thoughts on anti-natalism.
What do you think?