Usually, the first reaction people have to antinatalism, when it is explained to them, is “well then, if you have such a low view of human life, why don’t you kill yourself?” or “why don’t you kill people?” Some people even call for the proponent’s death; although that has never happened to me, it’s happened to other antinatalists I know.
It’s important to understand this because it is a fundamental distinction in antinatalist arguments: a potential life (currently non-existing) and an actual life (currently existing) are not the same thing at all. Actual people have values and desires, potential people don’t (since they do not yet exist). Potential lives, again, are not actual people, who have values and desires, including the desire to live, or who can experience pleasure and suffering.
So, to reiterate the obvious, it is wrong to hurt or murder actual living individuals; antinatalism has nothing further to add to such a statement. Antinatalism is the position that lives should not be created, that potential lives must never be realized. Antinatalism is not the position that actual lives are worthless or must be eliminated.
I think it should be obvious now that there is a huge qualitative difference between “ensuring that a life does not come into being” and “ending a life.” The former implies merely that some amount of suffering will not enter the world. The latter implies a great deal of suffering and an attack against the rights of an actual human being.
The examples of abortion and circumcision may help illustrate this difference. Abortion is ethically right because no human being will exist that will suffer. On the contrary, abortion removes suffering from this world. On the other hand, circumcision (male or female) is ethically wrong because it causes suffering to an actual human being, who will have to deal with it for the rest of eir life. Antinatalism has nothing further to say on the topic of circumcision (apart perhaps to mention it as another form of suffering that people go through), but it has plenty to say on the topic of abortion (see chapter 5 of Better Never to Have Lived for a full discussion), because it pertains to potential lives, not actual lives.
I do not wish to kill myself because I have a vested interest (because of my values, desires, etc) in staying alive. But a potential life has no such vested interest. In fact, it has no interests at all, since it doesn’t exist. So there is no contradiction between saying that we should not bring about potential lives and that I do not wish to kill myself.
People often believe that being an antinatalist means that I hate life or see no benefit in living. This is not true at all. I see plenty of reasons to live… especially since I am already alive and wish to remain so. I also see plenty of benefits in living. I do not deny that such benefits exist and that they are many.
One may argue, like Benatar does in his book, that we constantly and pretty dramatically overstate these benefits. This is a good argument but it is also important to remember that there would still be human suffering even if we lived entirely pleasant lives with few desires unfulfilled. The quality of one’s life is not relevant to the argument.
One profoundly retarded commentator claimed that Benatar’s position justified giving birth to as many people as possible, since they could just kill themselves if they felt unhappy. Now, I hope I don’t have to explain why this idea is deeply, profoundly retarded.
But my important point here is that this is the exact opposite of the antinatalist position. Antinatalists do not want new life to be created, but they think that we should treat living human beings with care. It is precisely the high worth they put on human happiness and well-being which makes them reject the creation of more human suffering, as well as wish for a world with a constantly lower population where life gets easier for those who are already here.
The simplest argument for antinatalism, I think, is the argument that not creating new lives doesn’t create any harm, while creating lives does create harm, and that it is wrong to create harm (incidentally, many people think this is a utilitarian argument: I am not sure why, especially since it makes no utilitarian calculations whatsoever). This argument is, at its core, a profoundly philanthropic one, insofar as it is founded entirely on the desire to prevent human suffering. The fact that other people believe this is a misanthropic argument betrays their own failure at understanding it.
There are many misanthropic arguments for antinatalism, and I do not want to demean their importance in antinatalist thought. I would argue that these misanthropic arguments, however, have a part of philanthropy as well. I definitely agree with the misanthropic followers of antinatalism that human civilization and humanity as a whole is a horrible failure. However, I do not wish for all humans to suffer for their failings, and neither do any misanthropic followers that I know. Our goal is not to hate mankind with no constructive goal in mind. Our goal is to find the truth of the matter and hold fast to it. And antinatalism is it.