If there is one inevitability when arguing about antinatalism, it is that the ice cream salesmen (or as Gary would call them, the trivialists) will inevitably show up and try to sell you their particular laundry list of ice creams as an argument for making children. The ice creams, of course, can be anything nice and fluffy that make people feel good.
The Ice Cream Argument goes something like this:
1. Ice cream is great.
2. It would be terrible to deprive potential children of ice cream, wouldn’t it?
3. Therefore it is good to have children.
To begin with, this is just not a logical argument. Potential human lives cannot be deprived of anything. There is no life-void floating somewhere in the universe going “I wish I could be born so I could eat ice cream.” The universe does not experience pain from the fact that millions of potential people whose potential existence is made impossible (say, when a man masturbates) will never get to eat ice cream. There is no deprivation here.
There is no reason to believe that the experience of the ice cream is necessary. We love ice cream because we crave calories. It’s nothing but DNA programming. There is no objective merit to ice cream or anything else we crave.
The ice cream salesmen try to sell long laundry lists of nice fluffy things that DNA makes people chase. It’s really all just a reiteration of DNA-worship with no critical examination of whether these ice creams compensate for the harm of coming into existence. They are not arguing with you, they are trying to sell you ice creams, which means hyping the ice creams at the expense of any alternative viewpoint.
Obviously antinatalists do not deny that there are plenty of nice, fluffy things in life. Ice cream is a nice thing. So are orgasms, having a good night’s sleep, kittens, baby hedgehogs, having good friends, love, righteous anger, a cool shower on a hot day, and so on and so forth. There are also more abstracts fluffy things, like a sound argument which pleases the mind, a sense of dignity or justice or honor, the feeling of being recognized, understanding something, and so on and so forth. No one’s denying that there is a long list here.
The bare fact is that these things are only good for people who already exist. Only existing people can enjoy these ice creams, and potential people are not deprived from not having them. Therefore they are of no relevance in determining whether we should bring a potential person into existence.
The underlying premise seems to be that, if we compare the harm we encounter during our life with all the pleasures we experience, we’ll come out on top. Consider that, as Benatar rightly points out in his book, we have powerful motivators to overestimate the amount of pleasure we experience and to underestimate the harm we experience (for one, this evaluation is done before one’s ultimate end, which usually involves a great deal of suffering), so there’s no way our evaluation will be fact-based. But beyond that, how would one even start making such a comparison? There is no way for anyone to compare experiences from their past and determine which was more or less intense. So the whole idea falls on its face.
But suppose that by some unknown magical method we are able to compare experiences objectively and to overcome these distorting motivators. What if we determine that a given human life ended up positive on the whole? Then such a person would be very lucky indeed compared with the average human being; it would still not justify the hard life that most human beings go through. It also would not 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 a duty to create pleasure.
Another major problem with the Ice Cream Argument is that it logically leads to the quiverfull position. If potential persons are being deprived, being harmed, by not being brought into existence, then we have a duty of bringing into existence as many potential persons as we possibly can. The only logical outcome of this reasoning is a constant frenzied production of children. And yet no one who ever uses this argument has twelve children. Could it be that they don’t really believe there are ghosts of their potential children haunting the universe and lamenting their lack of ice cream?
Now consider the opposite argument, the Flesh-Eating Bacteria Argument:
1. Flesh-eating bacteria are terrible.
2. It would be terrible to risk unleashing flesh-eating bacteria on potential children, wouldn’t it?
3. Therefore it is evil to have children.
This argument makes no more sense than the Ice Cream Argument. Possible children cannot suffer, and therefore flesh-eating bacteria can have no effect on them. However, rephrase both arguments around the act of bringing persons into existence:
1. Experiencing ice cream is great.
2. It is desirable for people to experience ice cream.
3. Therefore we should bring potential people into existence so they can have ice cream as well.
1. Experiencing flesh-eating bacteria is terrible.
2. It is undesirable for people to experience flesh-eating bacteria.
3. Therefore we should not bring potential people into existence lest they suffer from flesh-eating bacteria as well.
Now we can easily see that the first argument is still nonsensical, while the second is perfectly reasonable. Potential people do not experience suffering, while existing people can; on the other hand, potential people are not deprived from the pleasure of eating ice cream, so there’s nothing lost by not forcing them to exist. Another way to phrase it would be “it is bad to keep from potential people the future possibility of existing and eating ice cream” and “it is good to keep from potential people the possibility of existing and suffering from flesh-eating bacteria.” This is, again, rephrasing the issue around procreation, with the same results.
A related complaint is that the human race can’t “give up,” that people who follow antinatalism have just “given up” and that the human race shouldn’t “give up.” What exactly is it that we would be “giving up” by ceasing to reproduce? A chance to continue the endless cycle of consumption, addiction, cannibalism and reproduction? A chance to raise new generations of beings that get addicted to new ice creams, always only temporarily satisfying their desires? What’s the harm in giving that up?
I am not “giving up” anything by not having children. I am preserving a lot of what I would otherwise lose: my money, my free time, my well-being, my peace of mind, and my integrity, just to name those. To have children is to more or less give up one’s freedom for the next eighteen years, that’s the real truth of the situation. That’s what’s being “given up.”
There may, however, be something deeper to this “given up” paradigm. I suspect that deep down they are falling prey to the fallacies about evolution which I have discussed before, that evolution is a game with winners and losers, that our DNA-given purpose (the rule of the game) is to reproduce, and that species “win” by surviving. By abandoning reproduction, we “give up” the game and become losers, like the dodos.
(modified from a Cat and Girl cartoon)
There is even a team element to it. The people on the “human team,” that is to say all humans, have to keep the human race surviving to “win.” Antinatalists, then, are nothing more than traitors. If the players start believing antinatalism and stop reproducing, the “human team” will lose. Therefore you’d have to be a chump to believe them, or so the reasoning goes. Other teams, other species, will thrive on our “loss.”
Life is not a game. There is no goal or purpose in evolution. We exist due to purely mechanistic, unguided, unintelligent processes which have no concern whatsoever with human life or life in general. As a mechanism, it’s more inefficient and murderous than anything humans have ever produced. There’s no shame in giving something like that up unless you think human beings are eventually going to create some Garden of Eden that will make life worth it. But we are not even starting to go in the direction of trying to make life better, and such optimism is not really worth the time it takes to consider it. The only rational position is to stop feeding the mechanism.