The case for anti-natalism. [1/2]

NOTE: Due to the constant lack of substance in natalist comments to my previous entries on the subject, I am enforcing a new rule for this entry and part 2: if your comment addresses anything that is not related to the arguments I discuss, your comment will be rejected.


I have discussed various aspects of anti-natalism, including the coercion of parenting, the lack of rationale behind the belief that mankind must perpetuate, and anti-natalism as a challenge against Christianity. However, I have not yet written any entry describing the various arguments for anti-natalism in any detail.

The main problem with such an endeavor is that there are so many reasons why one might be against the addition of new human lives to this world that one cannot list them in any authoritative manner. So I make no pretense of doing so here. I have grouped arguments into six general classes. If anyone wants to present new classes of arguments, or new arguments within each class, please write them in the comments.

1. Future human lives are used as means to an end.

These arguments are based on the fact that the decision of bringing about new human life is necessarily unilateral, insofar as the child is not, and cannot, agree to be born. This has a number of ethical consequences, by far the most obvious and powerful being the fact that it means children are used as means to an end (other arguments include the child not consenting to being born, and the child not consenting to being born in the world as it exists). It is impossible for an adult to want to have a child for the sake of the child’s values, since they do not yet exist. Therefore any child being born is necessarily born for the sake of the adult.

We reject the concept of people being used as means to an end to be evil. If there is a principle underlying our most basic ethical intuitions, then this must be it; murder, violence, theft, fraud, are wrong precisely because they entail pushing aside the victim’s values for the sake of the perpetrator’s values. Helping someone to kill himself is not murder, it’s suicide; the difference being that the latter entails helping someone arrive at an end they have chosen, and the former being the exact opposite.

I wanted to take the time to explain why “using people as a means to an end” is a fundamental principle, because it is such a powerful defeater to the proposition that making children is good. For a proponent of natalism to simply declare that it is good to use people as means to an end would be argumentative suicide. Any counter-argument would have to try to propose that childbirth is somehow an exception to this rule.

I foresee one probable objection of this type, which would be something like “they are unable to make decisions, so it’s okay to take the decision for them,” but this only seems to move the problem around. In the case of the mentally deficient, for instance, we have some idea of what it is they can or cannot make reasoned decisions about. In the case of the unborn, there is no “they” to examine. It is trivially true that the unborn, like all that does not exist, cannot in fact do anything. And there is nothing wrong with thinking about using a future human being as a means to an end without ever doing it, any more than it is wrong to think about enslaving another human being without ever doing it. But when the children are born, they are human beings that exist to be used as means to an end. And that is evil.

I want to come back to one of the other arguments, the one that the child does not consent to live in the world as it is. When arguments about suffering are brought up (see class 2 below), inevitably the anti-natalist is either called a pessimist on utilitarian grounds, and it is argued that the world is plenty good enough for children to be born in, or an alternate world construct is given as an objection (e.g. “what if the only suffering in the world was pinpricks?”).

The problem with these kinds of objections is that they assume the person’s perspective as being universal. But it is patently false that there is any equality in the way all individuals perceive the balance of suffering and pleasure in this world. Therefore, what relation could there possibly be between the objector’s perception of suffering in this world and the future child’s? Whether any objector thinks the world has less suffering than would be needed to declare the world unworthy of new human lives has nothing to do with what the future child might believe. Therefore to assume such is, again, to use the future child as a means to an end.

2. Creating new human lives also creates more harm in this world.

Again, we are talking about fundamental ethical principles. One of these surely must be “do no harm.” The creation of harm is an activity which we refrain from, for the same general reasons as given in 1. For example, if you set up a machine to hurt the next person who uses it, you would rightly be considered as endangering innocent people.

In the same way, creating new human lives also creates harm. When we give birth to a human being, we know that this being will eventually die, and that between these two times, it will experience (some unknown amount of) suffering.

One may note that it will also experience pleasure. This is factual. But it is important to note that here I am not primarily making a utilitarian argument (I will discuss those in a bit): I am not saying that on the whole there is more suffering than pleasure in this world, or that the the suffering has a greater impact on people than the pleasure. The argument relies on no such equation.

The main point is that, while we do not have a duty to create pleasure, we do have a duty to not create harm. The fact that we have created a human being that can experience pleasure is, no doubt, nice for that human being, but of no relevance to our duties towards others (it may be argued that we have a duty to relieve suffering, but this does not prove we have a duty to provide pleasure in itself). The fact that we have created a human being that can experience harm, on the other hand, is of great relevance. If it is true that we should not create harm or suffering, then creating a human life is inherently problematic unless it can be shown that the principle does not apply.

One may also make utilitarian arguments of the same nature, arguing that on the whole a human life comprises more suffering than it does pleasure, and that thus creating lives is a net negative, or that within human lives suffering is more important or primary than pleasure. Now, I am not a utilitarian, and I do not support such arguments, but the arguments can be made.

The natalists may counter that such arguments are invalid, but the only way to respond would be to claim that creating new human lives is a net positive. Unfortunately for my opponents, this mode of reasoning leads to horrendous implications. For if having one child is a net positive, then, following utilitarian logic, we should have as many children as possible in order to produce the most positive outcome! The only logical outcome of this approach is the quiverfull doctrine, that we should simply breed as much as we are possibly able, regardless of ethical or practical considerations. Most natalists would recoil at being associated with the quiverfull doctrine, but it is the logical consequence of such a reasoning.

Furthermore, babies who die a few days or months after childbirth add to the problem. If children being born is, on the whole, a net positive, but some children are a net negative, then we should produce even more children to compensate for those who die too early to experience enough pleasure. So the incentive of quiverfull is even greater if we take this into account.

The upshot of all this is that anyone who thinks the utilitarian argument is wrong, and still supports utilitarianism in general, must necessarily adhere to the quiverfull doctrine. There is no other logical outcome.

And the argument “life is not so bad” is also a very personal one, and therefore does not apply to any potential new human life. There are certainly plenty of people for whom life has been “so bad,” including the babies previously mentioned. We have no way of knowing whether any particular human life that will be created will be “so bad” or “not so bad.” In view of this, the most reasonable attitude is to say that whenever this new human life is “so bad” or “not so bad,” it still entails the creation of suffering or harm at some level.

Note that I would also put David Benatar’s argument from Better Never to Have Been in this “creation of harm” class. His argument is based on a fundamental asymmetry between the existence and non-existence of pleasure and pain. It is somewhat complicated and I refer people to his book for a deeper explanation.

The frustration argument, which Benatar also discusses in his book, is also related, but pertains to desires instead of the asymmetry or duty. It holds that, in essence, fulfilled desires are the same as having no desires at all; if you induce in John (by some chemical means, say) a desire for the closest tree to the Sydney Opera House to be blue, and you then paint the tree blue, you have functionally done nothing at all. An unfulfilled desire, on the other hand, are a net negative compared to the absence of the same desire. Ergo, seen from that perspective, being born can only be a net negative.

Continued in part 2.

11 thoughts on “The case for anti-natalism. [1/2]

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  2. filrabat March 15, 2011 at 22:49

    In the end, all we need is point 1 – birthing people is simply a means to an end. This is especially true in cases of deliberate procreation (although “accidents” are almost always both back-rationalized and genuinely believed as true as “the best thing that ever happened to me”). In fact, procreation, by its very nature, ultimately can’t help but be an aggressive act, since aggression is an action that needlessly violates the comfort of another. Some may say “humanity needs to continue”, but that’s just their DNA programming and neurological architecture overpowering their reasoning ability. That makes the claim “the human race needs to continue” just a bald assertion, the product of looking at the issue through “life sustaining glasses” rather than provable chiseled-in-stone truth. Therefore, it’s the pro-continuance (of humanity) crowd who as the burden of proof vis-a-vis the antinatalists, much less the run-of-the-mill childfree.

    To me, the consent issue is especially relevant here. Forcing someone into life and into the “game of life” seems akin to forcing someone into a business contract whose terms they do not agree with. I think most people would find this wrong even if the signee does benefit from it.

    Also, procreation if gambling with someone’s future well-being. This is like a financial planner selling, without the client’s permission, half the client’s 401k and investing it into futures contracts – VERY high risk investments – said to be “hot”. The investment may well make money for the client (a benefit), but it could also wipe out the client (a harm). It’s one thing for the planner to invest his or her own money in futures contracts, another thing entirely to risk the client’s money. Same thing with childbirth: The lack of consent is not proportionate to the risk undertaken.

  3. Kirk March 16, 2011 at 14:09

    Great blog! Another idea is that perhaps the reason why we appear to be alone in the universe is because every intelligent alien race that has ever existed has at some point come to these anti-natalist conclusions and realised that imposing existence on others is ultimately a dead-end and morally questionable endeavour. If my feeble brain can grasp the truths in Benatar’s assymetry then I imagine that an intelligent alien race could also reach the same conclusions and have the intellectual honesty to act on these conclusions.

  4. filrabat April 15, 2011 at 13:28


    Do you happen to have an old site? Your name showed up on there as the poster.

  5. filrabat April 15, 2011 at 13:29


    Do you happen to have an old site? Your name showed up on there as the poster on my site and I’m wondering if it’s really you.

    • Francois Tremblay April 15, 2011 at 17:18

      Yes, I used to participate to a group blog called Goosing the Antithesis.

  6. filrabat April 17, 2011 at 22:39

    Then you should know that I also that blog you posted my response on “Why I’m sold on antinatalism”. I left my appropriate response to you at the bottom of the page you posed on.

  7. […] justify the harm that we inflicted on that person by bringing them into existence. Remember that, as I’ve pointed out before, harm and pleasure do not cancel each other: we have a duty to not create harm, but we do not have […]

  8. […] This is one of the standard antinatalist arguments. You can read more about this and other arguments in my entry The case for antinatalism [part 1]. […]

  9. […] of Strong Antinatalism. The source I will be using for Antinatalists arguments is the blog posts The case for anti-natalism by Francois Tremblay. Today I will be addressing the arguments in the part 1 and then tomorrow i […]

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