I think the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.—Rust Cohle, True Detective
the question is not what we would do if we were God … The question is: What lies within our knowledge and control, given that we are only human, with all the severe limitations which that implies?—Thomas Sowell, The Quest for Cosmic Justice
In the modern world, we are both blessed and cursed with the luxury of choice. Blessed, because we can choose what to study, where to live and work, and whom to befriend and marry. Cursed, because we can become paralyzed by doubt, uncertainty and regret in the face of so many options. More often than not, our lives are improved by the freedom to choose, but it also gives rise to a moral obligation.
When we have knowledge about the outcomes of various options, we enter the realm of morality. Our foresight, combined with our versatility, makes us moral animals. We make countless moral choices each day: whether to drive or bike to work, whether to eat caged or free-range eggs, whether to contribute to investments or to charity. Much of the time, we make these decisions with little deliberation; it’s simply easiest to do what we’ve always done. But occasionally, when a choice is sufficiently consequential, we step back and assess the moral landscape before moving forward.
Increasingly, the decision to procreate is being viewed as a moral choice. In times past—with farm hands in short supply, old age pensions nonexistent, and birth control not yet invented—most people had little option but to be fruitful and multiply. But having children is no longer a necessity. We can lead healthy, meaningful lives whether we procreate or not. Faced with a future beleaguered by climate change, nuclear weapons, and a deteriorating sociopolitical sphere, more and more people are choosing the latter.
For many of us, the decision to reproduce is the most momentous choice we’ll ever make. To create a human being is to create happiness but also misery, knowledge but also ignorance, life but also death. Over the course of a lifetime, many things can go right, but they also can—and surely will—go very wrong. Bearing this in mind, we must ask ourselves: When is it right to have children?
What is Anti-Natalism?
A growing minority of people would answer: never. According to a philosophical position known as anti-natalism, it is always wrong to procreate, no matter the situation. Anti-natalists hold that coming into existence is the source of all of life’s harms. Combined with the fact that human existence is so far from ideal, they believe that reproduction is morally wrong.
The father of the modern anti-natalist movement is a man named David Benatar, a professor at the University of Cape Town who, in 2006, published an uncompromising defence of anti-natalism. Despite the fringe nature of his position (Benatar himself has said that “it runs counter to too many biological drives” for widespread adoption), he is gaining popularity, having discussed anti-natalism with Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, and the New Yorker in recent years.
As anti-natalism’s audience has grown, it has come under fire from many sides. To the religious, it provides a dangerous justification for abortion; to parents, an indictment of their moral character; and, for most of us, it is simply too repugnant to contemplate. Consciousness may underlie all suffering, but few of us feel that creating new conscious beings is always wrong.
Because it is so easily reviled, anti-natalism rarely gets a full hearing before being written off. Most critiques of anti-natalism ignore Benatar’s actual arguments, focusing instead on subsidiary issues such as the suffering that awaits us on the road to extinction, or on how anti-natalism forecloses the possibility of a vastly better future.
This oversight is unfortunate because, while it’s true that the pragmatics of anti-natalism are important, few people were convinced by the pragmatics in the first place. Anti-natalists are often first principle thinkers for whom Benatar’s compelling logic carries the day. To critique anti-natalism without critiquing its principles seems, to many of them, like critiquing geometry solely by pointing out nature’s lack of perfect shapes. Physical reality may have no perfect circles, but this does not mean that the formula for a circle is false. Likewise, anti-natalism may get messy in the real world but, at least for committed anti-natalists, this does not mean that anti-natalism itself is false.
If true, anti-natalism could be the most significant moral fact of existence, which has, until lately, been mostly ignored. If true, every birth is a heinous act and the continuation of the human race a moral failure of the highest degree. Thus, anti-natalism deserves a full hearing—which accounts for both its logic and its real-world impact—before we condemn or condone it.
It’s hard to be unbiased when discussing morality because morality is, at base, the product of feelings; absent feelings, it makes no sense to call anything good or bad. Moreover, how we think affects how we feel, meaning that our thoughts about morality influence that morality. Just as the act of observing fundamental particles can change their behaviour, the act of investigating morality inevitably alters it. This philosophical observer effect—in which our thoughts, feelings and intuitions are inseparable from morality itself—muddies the waters of moral philosophy, making precise moral statements hard to lock down.
Because morality is composed of both facts and feelings, it’s easy to confuse personal biases for universal moral principles. Benatar appears to have taken his personal cynicism, dressed it up in rational garb, and mistaken it for rigorous philosophy. Although anti-natalism purports to follow from hardheaded reasoning, it reads more like the pessimistic beliefs of a logician who is unable to accept the tragic character of existence and so doggedly wishes it did not exist.
Of course, pessimism can be applied skillfully, and bias does not, in itself, invalidate an opinion. But Benatar’s anti-natalism rests on internal inconsistencies, a capricious disregard of human nature, and an outlook that, if adopted, could actually make the world worse. This article will focus first on the logic of anti-natalism, then on its bleak view of life and finally on its misguided prescription.
Thinkers throughout history have tried reducing morality to a set of fundamental principles. Kant’s categorical imperative, Bentham’s utilitarianism, and the near-universal golden rule are all attempts to prescribe moral behaviour in as few statements as possible. Though admirable, such efforts are too narrowly defined to serve as effective moral prescriptions.
For instance, even if well-being is worth maximizing (a utilitarian statement few could find fault with), we still need scientific knowledge, personal insight, proper institutions and good social norms to actually realize this goal; unless we work towards such ends, we are utilitarian in name only. In this sense, morality is a multi-disciplinary pursuit which cannot be reduced to first principles.
Benatar’s anti-natalism suffers from a similar narrowness. He takes a truism—procreation is the reason we suffer—and then attempts to use just four axioms to show that non-existence is better than existence. He calls this the asymmetry between good and bad, which goes as follows:
- Suffering is bad;
- Well-being is good;
- The absence of suffering is good;
- The absence of well-being is not bad unless someone is deprived of it.
Benatar argues that existence entails bad (suffering) and good (well-being), whereas non-existence entails not bad (an absence of well-being which nobody misses) and good (the absence of suffering), so we should prefer non-existence to existence. In other words, existence can be good and bad, but non-existence can only be good.
If you think this argument seems specious, you’re in good company. According to Benatar’s asymmetry argument, the presence of any suffering whatsoever biases the moral calculus in favour of non-existence. Benatar writes, “Because every life includes some bad, coming into existence is always a harm.” If true, then a single stubbed toe amidst a life of bliss is enough to make non-existence trump existence. This absurd outcome doesn’t pass the sniff test, so we’re right to be suspicious.
Benatar knows that many people, faced with this asymmetry, will protest that the absence of well-being is actually bad (as opposed to merely neutral), whether there’s someone to be deprived of it or not. After all, if well-being is good doesn’t that make its absence bad? And if a lack of well-being is bad, doesn’t that nullify the asymmetry argument? But Benatar claims that his formulation is consistent with common sense attitudes and practices, because we think and act as though unrealized well-being is not worth missing.
For instance, none of us feel a duty to bring as many happy people into the world as possible—so how can we claim that the absence of well-being is bad? If well-being’s absence were indeed bad, wouldn’t we have a moral duty to make happy babies whenever possible? And why do we spend time worrying about the suffering of people both near and far, but not about the absence of happy people on uninhabited islands or other planets? If a lack of well-being were truly bad, shouldn’t we decry this absence?
Benatar’s assessment of human intuition is largely correct: we behave as though suffering is bad (and should be avoided), well-being is good, and the absence of well-being is neutral. In this regard, his asymmetry seems true. But there are a couple of issues with his argument.
First, there is Benatar’s arbitrary handling of common sense. He appeals to common intuitions when arguing that a lack of well-being is not bad, despite showing utter disdain for them elsewhere. He spends many pages in multiple books talking about how our everyday beliefs and actions lead to abject misery. If he wants to turn around and enlist common sense when it suits him, he should account for this discrepancy.
Most moral philosophers (Benatar included) are wary of using intuition as a guide to morality. If moral intuitions were already optimized, there would be no need for moral philosophy to begin with. Perhaps our intuitions happen to be on point when it comes to Axiom 4 of Benatar’s asymmetry, but, if so, one can’t help wondering why they’re so wrong elsewhere.
This brings up the possibility that our intuitions about the absence of well-being are simply wrong—in which case, Benatar is relying on them to support a faulty premise. True, we don’t spend time bemoaning the happy people who don’t exist in, say, northern British Columbia. But our intuitions evolved not to usher in moral perfection, but to help us survive in the here and now (or, more accurately, because they happened to lead to reproduction in ancestral environments).
Life is rife with uncertainty, making it difficult to map abstract moral claims onto reality. When Benatar defends his asymmetry by speaking of idealized duties—such as the duty to create happy people or abstain from creating unhappy people—I wonder what this actually means in reality, where knowledge is imperfect and foresight limited.
Duties or no, I tend to think that the absence of well-being is bad, whether there is someone to be deprived or not, and the only reason we discount this fact is because we have more practical concerns to deal with. Surely, such a conclusion is more plausible than Benatar’s, in which the harm of a single hangnail is sufficient to make procreation morally wrong.
The second issue is Benatar’s unpredictable treatment of preferences. In support of his asymmetry, he says that fulfilled preferences and no preferences are equally good: “Compare, for example, a bird that needs a nest and a fish that neither has nor needs a nest. It seems highly implausible to suggest that it is better to have a fulfilled need for a nest than to have no such need.” Put another way, having food is just as good as not being hungry. In this view, existence can be bad (hungry) or neutral (not hungry), while non-existence can only ever be neutral (no preference). Therefore, if fulfilled preferences are comparable to no preferences, existence can never surpass non-existence.
Besides ignoring the psychological gradation of well-being—not being hungry and enjoying a good meal are two very different kinds of benefit (and a wide range of food is further benefit yet)—Benatar goes on to contradict himself by holding people’s lack of preferences against them. He says that we abstain from holding certain preferences merely “because we know that they are unattainable.” Even if all our preferences were fulfilled, Benatar claims that “our lives are not going as well as they would be going if the formulation of our desires had not been artificially restricted.” Despite having said that a lack of preferences is not bad, he claims that our lives are impaired due to our lack of preferences.
And not only does Benatar claim that we lack desirable preferences; he claims that a more enlightened view would have preferences approaching perfection. He writes that our expectations are calibrated according to the “unfortunate baseline” of human existence, and not relative to an ideal standard. By ignoring this ideal standard, we fail to appreciate how awful existence really is.
Benatar wants to have his philosophical cake and eat it too. When it supports his asymmetry, he argues that freedom from preferences is as good as it gets. But to support another conclusion, he argues from a point of view informed by perfectionist preferences. Such inconsistency is not a sign of a rigorous logical proof, but a trademark of motivated reasoning—which, in this case, seems propelled by pessimism.
This is confused moral philosophy: instead of counseling us on how to make the world better, Benatar argues as though we should hold expectations and preferences that would actually make life worse. And things get little better as he shifts from anti-natalism’s logical structure to a discussion of people’s actual quality of life.
ii. Quality of Life
Regardless of the asymmetry argument, nearly everyone accepts that some people are so miserable that it would be better had they never been. Most people believe that if children born to war, abuse, poverty or debilitating disease had never existed, the world would, for the most part, be a better place. Where a person’s quality of life is sufficiently bad, we recognize the harm of existence. We even take steps to preempt such cases, through means like contraceptives and abortion.
Therefore, quality of life is what ultimately determines whether existence is good or bad. And Benatar argues that most of us are deluded about how good life truly is. He claims that no lives are objectively good, no matter how lucky we are. If he’s right, anti-natalism might still ring true, even without the asymmetry.
To make his case, Benatar ignores people’s self-assessments of well-being: though some people claim to lead good lives, Benatar says they’re mistaken. If only we could see life clearly, he says, we would understand the level of misery we’re up against.
Benatar has a point. People often are mistaken about what makes them happy: we’re overly optimistic about our abilities, we edit our memories to forget the pains of the past and we selectively employ attention to ignore how bad much of existence really is. But we’re not nearly as mistaken as he claims. Like a jaded doctor who resents his own patients, Benatar tells us why we’re wrong to be so sanguine, suggesting that we’d be right to adopt a more sober—and sullen—outlook on life.
Benatar writes as though we’re fools about our own discomfort. He says, “if we take discomfort to be bad then we should take the daily discomforts that humans experience more seriously than we do” and that “[m]ost humans have accommodated to the human condition and thus fail to notice just how bad it is.” Academics are known for being confused about human nature and sanctimonious with their advice, a trend which Benatar doesn’t buck here. He ignores the fact that good and bad are defined by human psychology (and, by extension, animal psychology). If we don’t take daily discomforts seriously then, by definition, daily discomforts are not serious! And if we have accommodated to enjoy the human condition, then, by definition, it is not that bad!
Responding to the critique that his standards for wellbeing are too high, he simply says that a more pragmatic view “fetishizes human life” and that “to prefer a human life to a better life suggests a distracting sentimentality about humanity.” In his reaching pessimism, he may have forgotten his previous argument for the value of holding no preferences. If he dropped his perfectionist standards, perhaps he could be as satisfied as the aforementioned fish who has no nest.
Up to now, we’ve focused on anti-natalism’s relation to the individual. But, although it flounders when focusing on single people, might it still be the answer to our larger, societal ills? After all, only those who have been born can contribute to global warming, overpopulation, inhumane labour, factory farming and the like.
iii. The World at Large
Whichever way you cut it, our species is a menace to the Earth. As Benatar writes, “Humans cause vast amounts of pain, suffering, and death.” No matter how conscientious we are, every modern life leaves a wake of misery behind. And though we’ve been improving, the suffering we inflict on the world remains unreckonable. How could any of us make up for the lives we’ve ruined—human and otherwise—through our unthinking habits of consumption? The honest answer is that we can’t: the suffering of child slaves, suicidal workers in China, billions of farm animals, and billions more “pests” cannot be made right, even if we could be bothered to try. Given the misery we cause, perhaps we’re right to denounce our programming, stop reproducing and welcome the end of the human reign.
Let’s assume (not unreasonably) that the extinction of the human race would be best for the world. Even then, anti-natalism is not a morally viable position. When assessing what’s moral, you have to, at some point, consider what’s practical. Yes, we want to be as idealistic as possible, but those two words—as possible—are of exceeding importance.
Anti-natalism cannot lead to the extinction of our species because most people will never accept it. Homo sapiens is malleable, but not infinitely so. We can shape our social norms, interests and desires, but only within Darwinian reason. Many people will always want babies, and not even the greatest of dictators would believe it possible to stamp out this impulse (nor would any political leader want to). Humans are with us, anti-natalism or no. Benatar is well aware of this fact, having written, “The sad truth is that the human species is not voluntarily going to cease reproducing, and any attempt by a minority to prevent the rest from procreating is unlikely to work.”
We should therefore not be posing such highfalutin questions as existence or non-existence? or even natalism or anti-natalism? Barring some global catastrophe, existence and natalism are here to stay. The real question is whether anti-natalism could ever, realistically speaking, make the world better. The answer, I have to think, is no. In fact, if anti-natalism ever reached its widest possible audience, the world would likely be made worse.
Great moral visions often fail, not necessarily because of their content, but because of how that content interfaces with human nature. The Civil Rights Movement was (mostly) a success because it imposed an equality that aligned with human nature. In contrast, the great Communist regimes crumbled largely because they imposed an equality that human nature found intolerable. The true test of an ideal lies not in its lofty aspirations or philosophical truth (whatever that means), but in how it affects on-the-ground reality.
Keeping the real world in mind, we have to ask: what types of people are susceptible to anti-natalism? They won’t be religious people (whose god or gods tend to encourage reproduction). Nor will they be the incurious masses (who, through no fault of their own, have more practical concerns to worry about). They will likely be educated, overly analytical types who lament the tragic character of existence and wish to do something about it. In other words, the people apt to be convinced by anti-natalism are those inclined to ruminate over how to live a moral life.
Worried that we might use human virtue as licence to procreate, Benatar writes, “If pro-natalists think that the good humans do does indeed outweigh [the bad], then we need to hear some explicit details. Approximately how much good outweighs the dismemberment of a living being? How much outweighs mass rape? How much outweighs the Rwandan genocide or Joseph Stalin’s purges?” But this is beside the point, practically speaking, because those disposed to anti-natalism are unlikely to take part in dismemberments, rape and genocides in the first place! Rather, those given to anti-natalism are likely to be disproportionately concerned with the moral good (if they weren’t, why would they take up such a fringe moral philosophy to begin with?).
If anti-natalism gained traction, it would wipe out the types of people who—along with their genes and psychological traits—Benatar views as most moral. He argues, rightly, that the human tendency to conformity has caused great evil (such as witch hunts and Nazi Germany). He also thinks that most potential procreators are poor judges of the greater good, who often succumb to Pollyanna-ish rationalizations of their life choices. But anti-natalists are, almost by definition, non-conformist, concerned with the greater good, and as far from Pollyannas as one can get. Thus, anti-natalism would wipe out the virtues Benatar values most. (That said, in some people anti-natalism may be a sign of insuperable depression. For them, abstaining from procreation could be the merciful thing to do—at least until we see improvements in psychiatry and psychology.)
Benatar writes as though he cares deeply about the horrible treatment of animals and the human suffering caused by war, illness and natural disasters. I don’t doubt his sincerity, but wonder how he can push a philosophy that, taken to its saturation point, would eliminate those whose attitudes he cherishes, while clearing space for attitudes he abhors.
A friend of mine, who is sympathetic to anti-natalism, has told me that my critique misses the point: anti-natalism is not about making the world a better place, but is about whether life is worth starting. However, paying such little heed to the well-being of the world at large strikes me as a moral regression. As Peter Singer and others have long pointed out, moral progress is closely tied to our ability to care about those beyond our immediate circle. It’s a great shame that the quest to make a better world inevitably involves misery, including that of our potential offspring, but reality has never been known for dealing out perfect solutions—she prefers trade-offs.
For every discerning, industrious person who abstains from having children, there will always be many others happy to procreate. Waxing philosophical about the harms of existence has never done much good (aside from the very real benefit of letting the odd depressive know that they’re not alone). The only way to improve the lot of life on Earth is by encouraging the spread of knowledge, kindness and technology as widely as possible; this is how 128,000 people have escaped poverty every day for the past 25 years, and it is our best bet for ensuring that the future outshines the past. This does not mean that we must have children, but it does mean that we must take the long view when it comes to the human race and our place in the natural order. And such a view is at odds with anti-natalism.
If we could snap our fingers, Thanos-like, and instantaneously end all conscious existence (and with it all suffering), perhaps we’d have a moral duty to do so. But, in the real world, no such option exists—the universe is stuck with consciousness, whether we like it or not. Of course, in this imperfect world, there will always be potential parents who, for whatever reason, shouldn’t have children. But anti-natalism is not the way to make that call.
*All quotations are taken from Debating Procreation: Is It Wrong to Reproduce?