Objectivism v Antinatalism: the breakdown…

The site Objectivist Answers offers an Objectivist stance on antinatalism. I wanted to go through it, not because I think it’s particularly notable, but because it’s pretty much the only criticism of antinatalism (not of Benatar’s book: there’s plenty of those) so far on any written Internet format, and it raises some interesting issues that I’d like to discuss.

Objectivism holds the Benevolent Universe premise — that the universe is auspicious for human life. In other words, Objectivism focuses on the potential for joy in life, rather than on the potential for suffering, which the antinatalist is fundamentally concerned with.

The main reason why antinatalists focus on suffering is because this issue is completely ignored by everyone else, and it has very real logical consequences which must be discussed openly; if antinatalism is even partially true, then it has profound repercussions on how we should judge the conduct of human life on Earth. That is part of what makes suffering worthy of discussion. If Objectivism focuses on joy, then that’s fine, but that doesn’t bring any new information or arguments to the table. Everyone else is already focusing on the positives.

Objectivism is a philosophy for living on Earth, and it holds life as the ultimate value.

This is an equivocation that must be addressed, because it is very common in discussions of antinatalism. When we say “life,” we mean this property which gives rise to biology, this “life-system” which encompasses all organisms that grow and move about on this planet and which was brought about by the evolutionary process. But “life” can also mean the sequence of events that a person goes through, one’s “persistence.”

When Objectivists say they hold life as the ultimate value, they mean “life” as in “persistence,” not as in “life-system.” And I agree with that, insofar as I do value my persistence. I do value my survival. But I do not value the life-system, and there is no necessary connection between valuing your own persistence and valuing this whole life-system.

That’s like saying that anyone who eats a hamburger must necessarily support factory farming, because the hamburger was ultimately caused by factory farming. I like hamburgers because of my brain wiring, not based on any objective fact, just like how we all want to persist because we are made that way. But rationally I know that factory farming is evil, just like how I know the life-system is inefficient, cruel and pointless. The fact that it has some “good” or “beautiful” by-products (“good” and “beautiful” as hardwired by the very evolutionary process that creates said by-products) doesn’t justify its existence.

While having children is by no means morally required by Objectivism, it certainly does not regard giving birth as immoral, unless one does it for immoral reasons such as to gain social status as a parent, or out of some sadistic intention to make a child suffer.

The answerer here seems to imply that it is fine to have children… unless they are used as means to an end. The little point which seems to have slipped eir mind is that by simple logic all children are means to an end. Since a potential person has no values to fulfill, the only values present at the time of decision are those of the parents. Therefore all children are conceived for “immoral reasons.”

While it is understandable that if you live in a concentration camp you would not want to try to raise a child, for the sake of the child, life in general is not a concentration camp.

Why draw the line at “concentration camp-level harm”? A child dying of AIDS in a modern hospital is perhaps under less hardship than a child dying in a concentration camp. Would it therefore be worth it to bring a child into this world so ey can then die of AIDS? But if you then draw the line at “child dying of AIDS-level harm,” you’re still drawing an arbitrary line.

Most importantly, the crux of the problem is that you are drawing the line for someone else. You may believe that concentration camp-level harm is where the line should be drawn, but other people draw the line somewhere else. Because there is going to be disagreement, you simply cannot bring a person into this world based solely on your belief that the world is “good enough.” It is wrong to impose your risk preferences on other people, and you cannot judge for other people whether this world is “good enough.”

Life in general is not a concentration camp. So what? It still carries with it an innumerable number of bad lotteries, and each of these lotteries carries a risk of considerable or fatal harm. You have no right to force another human being to participate in these lotteries on the basis that you think the risk is low enough.

The antinatalist is unduly pessimistic about life.

We are looking at the issue of suffering and drawing logical conclusions from it. Is that really “unduly” pessimistic? Most people give a wide berth to the issue of suffering because it awakens their fear of death. So when anyone publicly starts talking about the issue of suffering and where it leads, there is this knee-jerk reaction that we must therefore think that “life is all suffering” or that we believe that suffering is the only thing that matters.

But this is not the case. Unlike the Objectivists, we acknowledge both the positive and negatives of life. However, we are also aware that the positives of life only exist because of the negatives. That’s all.

By the antinatalist’s logic, since life is the source of suffering, and suffering is bad, each man should instantly commit suicide to reduce his potential for suffering. That is, if it really were immoral to give birth, then it would be irrational to want to live, once born.

I have already addressed this. For an Objectivist answer, it’s not very rational. Surely any rational person would realize that people who are alive have vested interests in continuing to live, which potential people do not; potential people do not, and cannot, value their own persistence.

Clearly, though, it’s only a small minority of living people who want to die, because life can be quite enjoyable.

So what? It’s obvious, again to any rational person, that we are biased, both biologically and ideologically, to believe that life is better than it actually is. We routinely downplay, downright ignore or even deny, the negatives and routinely overplay the positives, because of the way memory works. Through the process of hedonistic adaptation, we get used to suffering and lower our expectations about life. So there’s really no objectivity there. Yes, life can be quite enjoyable, but emotional appeals do not prove anything.

Most of those espousing antinatalism also espouse nihilistic and depressive interpretations of the world.

That’s a very common thing for people to say about antinatalism, but I don’t get it. Is it really a nihilistic and depressive interpretation to say that suffering exists, is meaningful, and has logical consequences? Or is it simply acknowledging the facts that everyone else is ignoring? I am not nihilistic or depressive; I am actually pretty happy about my life, but unlike natalists I don’t treat those emotions as objective truth.

The quotes in the Wikipedia article consistently rue having been born and subjected to the evils of life. Contrast this with one of the basic premises of Objectivism: humans have a right to life. Indeed, the right to live is at the foundation of the rights found in free societies. Humans who love their life and their capacity to create beauty, knowledge, and productive additions to the life of all humans do not fall in love with depression and nihilism.

Again, this is an equivocation between “persistence” and “life-system.” Antinatalism is about the “life-system,” not about “persistence.” So arguing that “persistence” is good has no relevance at all to the topic of antinatalism. Indeed, a lot of antinatalists would agree with such an assertion to a high degree. They would also agree that we all have some right to persistence. But we do not have a right to support the perpetuation of the life-system. And that’s the real issue.

11 thoughts on “Objectivism v Antinatalism: the breakdown…

  1. Srikant August 3, 2011 at 21:32

    OBJECTIVIST: While having children is by no means morally required by Objectivism, it certainly does not regard giving birth as immoral, unless one does it for immoral reasons such as to gain social status as a parent, or out of some sadistic intention to make a child suffer.

    FRANCOIS: The answerer here seems to imply that it is fine to have children… unless they are used as means to an end. The little point which seems to have slipped eir mind is that by simple logic all children are means to an end. Since a potential person has no values to fulfill, the only values present at the time of decision are those of the parents. Therefore all children are conceived for “immoral reasons.”
    Francois, I think you slightly misunderstood Objectivist. What the Objectivist seems to say is like saying, if I point a gun at someone and pull the trigger, I’m not doing anything immoral, unless I want to kill or seriously injure them. As long as I just like to point a gun at people and pull the trigger, what I’m doing is absolutely fine.

    We have some capacity to foretell results of our actions, and we must use that with any urge to act. Merely not having evil motives is not enough.

  2. Srikant August 3, 2011 at 21:35

    And I wonder why “gaining social status as a parent” is an “immoral reason”.

    • David Gendron August 4, 2011 at 12:18

      Are you crazy or what, Srikant? You don’t know the answer for that!

      Parenting, hierarchy…..

    • David Gendron August 4, 2011 at 12:23

      Even the objectivist is right about this.

    • David Gendron August 4, 2011 at 12:30

      @Srikant

      From your point of view, why It could be morally acceptable to give birth?

      • Francois Tremblay August 4, 2011 at 21:47

        David, Srikant is an antinatalist. No worries. :)

        • David Gendron August 5, 2011 at 10:47

          Oops! :( Sorry, so I was too tough on him. My bad (but I maintain that my questions was legitimate)

  3. Srikant August 4, 2011 at 19:09

    Gaining social status in itself isn’t immoral (while it is arguable that the very concept of “social status” isn’t good).

    No, giving birth isn’t morally acceptable, but that’s because of what happens (could happen) at the child’s end.

    • David Gendron August 5, 2011 at 10:45

      Gaining social status as a parent is immoral and you know why.

      “No, giving birth isn’t morally acceptable, but that’s because of what happens (could happen) at the child’s end.”

      I agree!

  4. estnihil August 5, 2011 at 14:44

    Just like the Overcoming Bias community, Objectivists and other apparently ‘rational’ people fail to see that logic and empathy for other people MUST culminate in antinatalism. There is no other way about it. Their arguments here read like a list of excuses a kid makes up to try to get out of detention. It isn’t that they don’t understand where they went wrong from a rational point of view, it’s that they are maliciously skewing the premises of antinatalism to reassure themselves that it is not the case.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: