2020 was bleak, wasn’t it? I think this last year has made us realise how bad things can get, and things are only gonna get worse. Yes, the vaccine rollout has been tremendously successful and this whole pandemic thing seems to be coming to an end soon (fingers crossed). But there are still fatally important issues that remain unresolved, and that the pandemic has distracted us from: rising temperatures, rising sea levels, more catastrophic weather events, devastating droughts, increasing air pollution and toxicity, more wars, more diseases, a refugee crisis, and the list unfortunately goes on. To be frank, the planet is trending downward pretty rapidly, and the forecast for humans is not good. In a world where standards of living are invariably getting worse, should we still have kids?
This is in fact a debate currently going on in philosophy, ethics, and environmental studies, and it goes by the name of Anti-Natalism — the belief that procreation (bringing human lives into existence) is morally wrong. An Anti-Natalist believes your parents did something objectively wrong and unethical having you (don’t worry, I think your great). The idea actually goes as far back as the Tragedies of Ancient Greece, with the Ancient Greece tragedian Sophocles writing, “Never to have been born is the best thing but if we must see the light, the next best is quickly returning whence we came.” It is important to note that Anti-Natalists (at least the respectable and sane ones) DO NOT advocate for killing your kids: taking life is very different to choosing not to create life. David Benatar, a South African philosopher and the most notable contemporary Anti-Natalist, argued in his book ‘Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence’ that sparing humans from suffering is one of the key arguments for bringing the circle of life to a hard stop. To quote Benatar, “While good people go to great lengths to spare their children from suffering, few of them seem to notice that the one (and only) guaranteed way to prevent all the suffering of their children is not to bring those children into existence in the first place.” Existence, the Anti-Natalist suggests, creates unnecessary suffering for humans who never asked to be born. All humans suffer, so why create a human? That being said, there is a difference in thinking procreation is immoral and forcibly sterilising people — one is Anti-Natalism, the other is eugenics.
In his book ‘No Future’, Lee Edelman lays out his argument on the destructive tendencies of the ‘Figure of the Child’. It is a common trend seen in almost all parents that they sacrifice their lives so that their children can have better lives, or perhaps less common is politicians arguing their political or environmental agendas are so important because they’ll help the future generations. However, for Edelman, the child is an end that is endlessly postponed. So much of human existence is aimed at some magical infinitely and indefinitely deferred future. In the name of our children, and their children, and the future’s children, we go to war, persecute people, and do a lot of terrible things. The Nazis, for example, went about ethnic cleansing in an attempt to create a racially pure ‘utopia’…for the kids.
Most Anti-Natalist thinking can find its routes in the work of the German 19th Century philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer was the first serious Western philosopher to be interested in Buddhism, and his thought is best read as a Western reinterpretation and response to the enlightened pessimism of Buddhist thought. In an autobiographical text, Schopenhauer wrote: “In my 17th year I was gripped by the misery of life, as the Buddha had been in his youth when he saw sickness, old age, pain and death. The truth was that this world could not have been the work of an all-loving Being, but rather of a devil, who had brought creatures into existence in order to delight in their suffering.” In his work ‘The World As Will and Representation’, Schopenhauer outlines a force within us more powerful than anything, more than our reason, logic, or moral sense, which he calls the ‘Wille Zum Leben’ or The Will-To-Life. The Will-To-Life is a constant force that causes us to cling to existence and always look to our own advantage — it is blind, dumb, and very insistent.
Schopenhauer suggests that The Will-To-Life mostly makes us focus on sex. From adolescence onwards, The Will-To-Life makes us erotic and makes us do weird things like…fall in love Schopenhauer resented the disruption caused to intelligent people by love, but refused to conceive of these disruptions as disproportionate or accidental. Love is connected to the most important underlying project of The Will-To-Life: having kids. “Why all this noise and fuss about love?” wrote Schopenhauer. “Why all this urgency, uproar, anguish and exertion? Because the ultimate aim of all love affairs […] is actually more important than all of the aims in anyone’s life; and therefore it is quite worthy of the profound seriousness with which everyone pursues it.” Love dominates life because, “what is decided by it is nothing less than the composition of the next generation […] the existence and special constitution of the human race in times to come.” But I’m sure you and I don’t think about children when we ask someone out on a date. Well Schopenhauer said that’s because the intellect is excluded from the secret decisions of its own will. Why though? Why must we deceive ourselves? Because, according to Schopenhauer, we quite literally need to lose our minds to reproduce in a life as painful as this, or as he put it, “Directly after copulation the devil’s laughter is heard.”
Anti-Natalism can actually be divided into two stances: local and global. Local Anti-Natalism claims that there are certain situations where procreation is wrong. Maybe the parents lack the skill or the means or the environment to raise a child, or the child is going to be born with a debilitating and painful condition. Essentially, there are situations where bringing a child into the world will do more harm than good, and as taking an action that does more harm than good is ethically wrong, there are situations where bringing a child into the world is wrong.
However, parents cannot know all of the possible positive and/or negative impacts a child may have on the world, or what they will experience. For example, just because a child is born into extreme poverty, does not mean that child is going to live a life full of pain or cause pain to others. On the contrary, precisely because of that background, because of that experience, because that child was born from nothing, it may escape from poverty or assist others to do so. On the other hand, just because a child’s parents are wealthy or more skilled, does not mean they won’t suffer. Local Anti-Natalism makes epistemic assumptions that are harmful. In truth, we cannot determine whether a child will have a good or bad life, or whether they will help or hinder humanity, before they are born… we are rarely able to do that after they die.
Global Anti-Natalism suggests procreation is wrong full-stop. David Benatar is a proponent of this stance. Life brings both pain and pleasure — nonexistence brings neither, and is therefore preferable. Humans invariably suffer and harm other humans, and so creating more of them is unethical. From this came Argentinian philosopher Julio Cabrera’s ‘Negative Ethics’. Cabrera suggests that philosophy is asking the wrong questions — we shouldn’t be asking how to live, but whether we should live at all. He argues that if we can’t live a good life, it is wrong to bring about life. A true assessment of the value of existence and non-existence will, according to Cabrera, find existence wanting, partly because of pain, but also because all life must end — what is the purpose of existence when we invariably die anyway, and have to suffer? Cabrera asks whether life has a positive value, and answers his own question with ‘Life sucks’. Cabrera seems to be echoing Schopenhauer, who wrote, “There is only one inborn error, and that is the notion that we exist in order to be happy […] So long as we persist in this inborn error […] the world will seem to us full of contradictions. For at every step […] we are bound to experience that the world and life are certainly not arranged for the purpose of being happy.” “Every life history is the history of suffering”, said Schopenhauer. “Life has no intrinsic worth, but is kept in motion merely by desire and illusion.”
The Anti-Natalists are not, however, opposed to the concept of parents — as long as there are people who already exist, whose lives would be made better by you raising them, it seems wrong to make a new person than to potentially eliminate the harm of a child being raised by no one. Thus, many Anti-Natalists support adoption.
Anti-Natalism assumes we experience more pain in life than we do pleasure. Of course, there are people who experience who more pain than pleasure and/or do more harm than they prevent, but the opposite is true also; many people live very happy lives. Just as with the local stance, it is impossible to know before birth whether a person will experience more hurt than happiness. If Cabrera or Schopenhauer or any other Anti-Natalist were able to categorically prove most people lived more painful lives than pleasurable ones, then this stance would be agreeable, but as that is nearly impossible, the matter remains underdetermined. We can all attest that life is full of pain, but it is equally full of pleasure. What is the point of living if we eventually die? The fact we even get to live. As another philosopher, and one of my personal favourites, Soren Kierkegaard said, “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.”