(edited from Akimbo Comics)
You may be wondering how there can be more to say on this topic. After all, I already analyzed the only Objectivist attempt to address antinatalism, and Ayn Rand could not possibly have addressed antinatalism, since it only recently started in earnest.
Well, it is true that Ayn Rand could not have addressed antinatalism. However, her successor, Leonard Peikoff, has addressed the closest thing there is to it, antinatalism’s morose grandfather Arthur Schopenhauer.
In Objectivism, there is a premise called the “benevolent universe” premise. It conveys the belief that the universe is favourable to human life and that good things are sure to come to those who act rationally. To quote Leonard Peikoff:
The “benevolent universe” does not mean that the universe feels kindly to man or that it is out to help him achieve his goals. No, the universe is neutral; it simply is; it is indifferent to you. You must care about and adapt to it, not the other way around. But reality is “benevolent” in the sense that if you do adapt to it—i.e., if you do think, value, and act rationally, then you can (and barring accidents you will) achieve your values. You will, because those values are based on reality.
Pain, suffering, failure do not have metaphysical significance—they do not reveal the nature of reality…
One feels certain that somewhere on earth—even if not anywhere in one’s surroundings or within one’s reach—a proper, human way of life is possible to human beings, and justice matters.
Because Ayn Rand held that human nature was malleable and entirely amendable to human will (ironically, much like most communists do), she believed that as long as we understand reality and act in accordance with that understanding, we can achieve our goals. Human will, in her view, can overcome all obstacles. This leads to the belief in ideas as being primordial. She was resentful of philosophers who took different views from her because she believed that ideas literally run the world, that history can be seen as the result of the intermingling of various philosophical ideas.
There’s two aspects to this discussion. First, the fact that the the Benevolent Universe premise is a form of optimism, loosely defined as a set of views that include the expectation of positive outcomes as the norm, that life has a positive value, that life has meaning, and that history is on the whole going in a positive direction. Second, the position that suffering is not primary (as Peikoff says, it “do[es] not have metaphysical significance”), but that “success” (presumably, in fulfilling one’s values) is primary and suffering is secondary.
Antinatalism holds the opposite position on both aspects. It is widely recognized as a form of pessimism, and holds suffering to be primary. Schopenhauer is recognized as the most well-known pessimist thinker, and is, as I said, recognized as the grandfather of antinatalism.
Rand called this the malevolent universe premise:
The altruist ethics is based on a “malevolent universe” metaphysics, on the theory that man, by his very nature, is helpless and doomed—that success, happiness, achievement are impossible to him—that emergencies, disasters, catastrophes are the norm of his life and that his primary goal is to combat them.
Compare this to antinatalist Gary Mosher’s statement that the best a human being can be is a janitor cleaning up other people’s messes, a metaphor for combating the harm of existence, or to Schopenhauer’s statement that “[u]nless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim” (all Schopenhauer quotes presented here are from Studies in Pessimism). Also compare to Schopenhauer’s statement that if we take his view of life, we will “cease to look upon all its disagreeable incidents, great and small, its sufferings, its worries, its misery, as anything unusual or irregular; nay, [we] will find that everything is as it should be, in a world where each of us pays the penalty of existence in his own peculiar way.”
Peikoff is the one who involves Schopenhauer:
If men hold values incompatible with life—such as self-sacrifice and altruism—obviously they can’t achieve such values; they will soon come to feel that evil is potent, whereas they are doomed to misery, suffering, failure. It is irrational codes of ethics above all else that feed the malevolent-universe attitude in people and lead to the syndrome eloquently expressed by the philosopher Schopenhauer: “Whatever one may say, the happiest moment of the happy man is the moment of his falling asleep, and the unhappiest moment of the unhappy that of his waking. Human life must be some kind of mistake.”
Continuing the theme of human will being supreme, Peikoff tells us that pessimism probably comes from holding “values incompatible with life.” in the case of Schopenhauer, this doesn’t really work, since his ethics came from his pessimism, not the reverse. Anyhow, Peikoff is basically correct in his summation of Schopenhauer’s position.
The questions that should concern us, however, are these: why is optimism valid, and why is suffering not primary? The premise of these Objectivist positions is the belief that human nature is entirely amendable to human will. You may think this is an exaggeration, but here is what Ayn Rand said:
The use or misuse of his cognitive faculty determines a man’s choice of values, which determine his emotions and his character. It is in this sense that man is a being of self-made soul.
It turns out that Ayn Rand was not a believer in tabula rasa: she was a believer in a perpetual tabula rasa, where man’s basic nature (not woman’s: women are meant for admiring men, according to Ayn Rand) is constantly updated in real-time by his hierarchy of values. Incidentally, this is the reason why she wouldn’t accept the theory of evolution, calling it “only a hypothesis”: it contradicted her heroic view of man and her view of man as “self-made.” How can you believe that fixed traits are inherited if you don’t even believe in fixed traits?
But even if we accept this anti-scientific belief in man as a perpetual tabula rasa motion machine, how do we get from here to the Benevolent Universe premise? Objectivism does not only make claims about the person, but about eir success in the universe, that a person who thinks and acts rationally can fulfill eir values, that suffering is not primary. And yet we know that in reality this is absolutely, completely false. So how can the self-made soul somehow bend, not only the meat body it inhabits, but all of reality to its will?
For a supposedly objective and anti-mystic philosophy, we sure are plunging into the realm of the subjective and the mystic. In fact, it sounds downright New Age, insofar as both believe that if you think the right thoughts and do the right things, reality will bend to your desires or values. In Letters of Ayn Rand, p583-584, we witness the climax of such delirium:
What Dagny expresses here is the conviction that joy, exaltation, beauty, greatness, heroism, all the supreme, uplifting values of man’s existence on earth, are the meaning of life—not the pain or ugliness he may encounter—that one must live for the sake of such exalted moments as one may be able to achieve or experience, not for the sake of suffering—that happiness matters, but suffering does not—that no matter how much pain one may have to endure, it is never to be taken seriously, that is: never to be taken as the essence and meaning of life—that the essence of life is the achievement of joy, not the escape from pain.
It sounds noble and uplifting, as long as you read it in a novel. When you start analyzing this within the confines of reality, not the world of the imaginary, it crumbles to the touch. Joy, exaltation, beauty, greatness, heroism, are all fleeting qualities. They are also the products of the fixed human desires which Rand thought did not exist. We may seek them over and over to try to give meaning to our lives, but such compulsive behavior can only produce more suffering. Wanting to be great, wanting to be heroic, pursuing emotions like joy or trying to follow our brain’s standards of beauty, are all very ego-centered actions, all very… subjective.
If the person is to become more rational, then these ego-centered feelings must eventually give way to the escape from pain, and to taking suffering seriously. The most ironic part of all this is that heroism, as most people would define it, consists almost entirely of fighting suffering: firefighters saving people from a burning building, people being saved from a shipwreck, people standing up for the oppressed who have no voice in our society, someone standing up against a tyrannical regime for what is right, and so on. The common thread amongst all these examples of heroism is that they are not ego games or attempts at achieving some fleeting state, but rather acts of self-sacrifice, something which Objectivists are absolutely against. So Objectivism is incompatible with real heroism! Their brand of heroism, as exemplified by Atlas Shrugged, is being a successful businessman or businesswoman, “going Galt,” and making extremely long pedantic speeches of noble sentiments (or as exemplified by The Fountainhead, blowing up a whole building out of childish frustration).
Rand deluded herself to not take suffering seriously because she believed suffering was not primary, on the basis of her “self-made soul” delusions about human nature. But this is surely false. Suffering is primary, not joy, beauty or heroism. Again to quote Schopenhauer:
It is the good which is [contingent]; in other words, happiness and satisfaction always imply some desire fulfilled, some state of pain brought to an end.
Without the possibility of suffering, no pleasure could exist. Suffering is the bedrock upon which all the positive qualities exalted by Rand are built. They are contingent, and cannot be the meaning of life. At best, they can only be the meaning of desires and suffering. But surely the moments of exaltation and heroism that a person experiences are not worth the 16000 children who die of starvation every day. How much suffering by other people is a moment of exaltation worth?
Of course, Objectivists believe they should not sacrifice others for themselves. But herein lies the problem. To accept the life-system as a worthy thing to support, we must also accept that all the suffering that living being go through is justified. To promote the life-system does mean to support the sacrifice of others for ourselves. Granted, there is no direct connection between our pleasure and someone else’s suffering, but we know that life necessarily entails harm. To glorify life as a whole also means glossing over that harm, as Rand had to do if she was to remain consistent.
The net consequence of Rand’s idealization of reality is to start people on an endless ego chase for a defining moment of their existence, blinding them to the reality around them, especially to the massive exploitation on which their silly ego chase relies on. In a sense, it is appropriate that Rand was a capitalist, because this process of constant ego chase is the essence of capitalism’s hold on people’s hearts. It is pointless, meaningless craving.
Rand’s optimism, therefore, is based on a constant chase for the fleeting positives, with the real substantial issues being literally ignored; trying to convince yourself that the most important aspect of human experience and human purpose doesn’t matter or is unnatural can only lead to a profoundly distorted view of reality, in this case, a deeply optimistic view. The only way to believe that life is about being “uplifted” is to erase from one’s mind everything that is not “uplifting.” To the Objectivist, the role of harm is reduced to that of an emergency situation, such as someone contracting a disease or a ship sinking, which is to be solved as fast as possible and then forgotten.
No wonder, then, that Objectivists and their derivatives (such as voluntaryism and anarcho-capitalism, two more intellectual abominations which I have often attacked on this blog) cannot understand antinatalism. No wonder they are fixated on present-time coercion and ignore the coercion embodied in our current institutions. That’s the role they have given coercion. Coercion is the bad guy in the black hat, “individualists” are the guys in the white hats, and all the white hats have to do is shoot down the black hats and everything’s all right again. This is a Western movie view of life.
Ultimately, this issue is about procreation. Objectivists have argued that, while they don’t encourage procreation, they also see nothing wrong with it. The former is very surprising, given how much Objectivists love selfishness and their own egos, and how completely selfish and ego-driven procreation is (on the other hand, having children does severely cut down on one’s heroism, joy and exaltation quota). The latter, on the other hand, is not very surprising, since Objectivists are dedicated to ignoring harm, so we should hardly expect them to see anything wrong with starting new human lives.
Objectivists will likely reject my arguments and claim that I have a malevolent sense of life, which makes everything I say worthless, that I believe what I believe because I hold the wrong values or have the wrong thoughts. The former is correct, insofar as I hold that only suffering has metaphysical importance. Whether that makes everything I say worthless depends on who you believe has the best arguments in their favor. I believe I have demonstrated that the Objectivist argument is unscientific and irrational. Of course, I don’t expect Objectivists to be convinced, but I think my other readers can judge both sides well enough, including the extensive quotes I gave, and draw their own conclusions.