What does it mean to say that procreation is unethical?

I usually define antinatalism as the position that procreation is unethical. But what does that mean exactly? First, I think we should differentiate between procreation being “wrong” and procreation being “unethical.” To me, “wrong” implies a value-judgment, while “unethical” implies that it breaks ethical principles.

My position is not that having children is always “wrong” in the sense of being morally undesirable for the individual. Surely I think that people vastly underestimate how wrong having and raising a child can be, because we are told fairy tales about the miracle of life, women’s motherly instincts, the joy of raising a child in accordance with our imaginary ideals, and so on.

I think in most cases it is wrong for people to have children. I conceded that there are cases where it is not wrong, but in order to make that evaluation, we have to look at the situation a posteriori. From a prospective breeder’s perspective, there’s really no way to tell (because the risks are so great, even if they are individually unlikely), so my judgment doesn’t exculpate them.

But that is irrelevant anyway, since my position is that it is unethical to procreate. By unethical I mean that it goes against the proper ways we should treat each other.

This is not understandable by natalists because they do not see procreation as an ethical issue at all, they do not see it as an issue of how we treat each other. Procreation is a triangle, involving a father, a mother, and a child. Natalists completely omit the mother and the child, and make it all about the father and his mania of extension, upon which their logic rests. They have no words, not even lip service, about what the mother goes through, and a frank disdain of, if not outright anger towards, any consideration of the well-being of the child.

When I talk about the mania of extension, I am talking about the “reasoning” that we need more children as means to some social end: we need more children so we have a bigger economy; we need more children to take care of the old; we need more children to invent more and better products; we need more children to spread the word of God; we need more children to perpetuate the race; the list of reasons goes on and on. Of course, to the father himself, the child is a piece of ownership and his greed for children follows the same logic as any other form of greed. He may not necessarily have any of these social ends in mind, although to the natalist the mere fact of procreation is enough.

To come back to the triangle: the natalists see it not as a triangle but as a point, where only the father’s (male dominant figure) values and needs are relevant. To them, there is no ethical issue here.

Of course, anyone who thinks about the issue for more than a few seconds will realize that this is addle-headed, even if one rejects all antinatalist arguments or viewpoints. Any child being born is a burden on society’s resources, people’s freedom and peace of mind. I know this may sound callous, but that’s just a fact. In this, as in all things, I don’t blame the children, I squarely blame the parents.

Well, this is more of a population growth argument, so I won’t get into it. Suffice it to say that each new life is, at least in its infancy, a burden on society as a whole, and that it is unfair to impose this burden on us without some kind of collective agreement on how much of these resources should be allocated.

To the antinatalist, on the other hand, we have a full triangle, with three points, none of which can be dissociated from the reproductive act. Reproduction entails numerous physical and psychological (and, in many cases, economic and social) hardships that are specific to the mother. After the child is born, it is assumed that the mother will use her “maternal instincts” to raise the child, which may also cause tremendous psychological suffering. All of this is irrelevant or silenced in the neat natalist analyses.

The point of the child is what concerns antinatalists the most. Many antinatalist arguments expose the disconnect between the way we treat children in the context of procreation and the way we treat anyone else in any other context. Other arguments expose the disconnect between the “life is good” conceit and the facts.

Natalists do not recognize children as being part of the procreation issue because of the Non-Identity Argument, which holds that we cannot pass judgments on a future child’s rights, consent, or anything like this, because the future child does not yet exist. As I have demonstrated, the Non-Identity Argument is easily and decisively refuted both intuitively and logically, so I will not dwell on that. But it is more sophisticated than the usual rhetoric because at least it tries to prove that children don’t belong on the triangle; most natalists just don’t bother and reject the idea a priori.

So the question arises, how should we treat children? Well, this question is the same as asking how we should treat people in general. We should not impose harm on people. We should not treat people as means to an end. We should not take decisions for other people without their consent. We should treat other people as our equals and respect their values. And this is how we should treat children as well, but procreation entails the opposite premises.

The woman-hating, child-hating that implicitly underlies natalist ideologies is not particular to them. In fact, phallic morality (to borrow a phrase from Mary Daly), wherever it can express itself, is permeated with these hatreds. Psychiatry is an obvious example of this. Economics is another example: women and children have typically been subsumed as part of the family unit, and their needs have never been taken into consideration. In every discipline where subjectivity asserts itself, you will find these hatreds, either through omission or active oppression.

Now, people have different ideas of what ethics is about. Personally, I put no stock in utilitarian reasoning, but many people do. David Benatar, the antinatalist philosopher, uses negative utilitarianism (what is good is what inflicts the least suffering to the fewest people) as his ethical method. This leads him to the conclusion that the most ethical stance is antinatalism, because suffering can only exist if new people are brought into the world.

To me the negative utilitarian principle makes more sense than the positive principle; after all, we have a duty not to impose harm on others, but we don’t have a duty to provide happiness to others. So in that regard, I think Benatar’s argument is the strongest utilitarian argument one could make, and it clearly falls on the side of antinatalism. But deontological arguments, including the ones Benatar presents in his book, are equally powerful. I believe that if the antinatalist movement progresses and incorporates more viewpoints, we should see equally powerful support from other quarters as well.

13 thoughts on “What does it mean to say that procreation is unethical?

  1. Cann Abyss October 2, 2013 at 06:16


  2. derivedabsurdity October 2, 2013 at 13:41

    “So the question arises, how should we treat children? Well, this question is the same as asking how we should treat people in general. We should not impose harm on people. We should not treat people as means to an end. We should not take decisions for other people without their consent. We should treat other people as our equals and respect their values. And this is how we should treat children as well, but procreation entails the opposite premises.”

    This pretty much sums it up. Thanks.

    • Francois Tremblay October 2, 2013 at 13:42

      Thank you. :)

      Any relation with DerivedEnergy on Youtube?

      • derivedabsurdity October 2, 2013 at 19:02

        Nope. Well not technically, although I know of him and I’m a subscriber. It’s actually a reference to Albert Camus and of how existence is essentially an absurdity. The story of my name is that I stopped going on Youtube for several months, forgot about several channels I was subscribed to, and then when I was trying to come up with an Internet handle the phrase “Derived” something was floating in the back of my mind. I thought I remembered hearing it somewhere, but I didn’t remember where, so I deluded myself into thinking I had made it up myself. Human memory isn’t very reliable. Then I got back on Youtube and realized that I had subconsciously stolen someone else’s username. I emailed DE, apologized, and he said no worries.

        The name is a reference to human existence being an absurdity, and how human experience derives absurdity from the universe. It’s somewhat dorky and pretentious, but I still like it. :)

        • Cann Abyss October 2, 2013 at 20:39

          Recently read The Stranger. Great book.

  3. ardegas October 8, 2013 at 10:05

    Why is procreation unethical? You say it’s because people are vulnerable to harm, and creating new people amounts to harm them. Have considered you’re stretching the do-no-harm principle beyond recognition? After all, ethics are born amidst society to help society flourish, not to destroy it.

    • Francois Tremblay October 8, 2013 at 16:24

      How is using a principle consistently “stretching it beyond recognition”?

    • Brian L February 14, 2015 at 21:50

      Does a society flourish, or just those that impose their ethics upon society. Besides, if you agree with the do no harm principle, what is your issue with it being all-encompassing?

  4. rae October 9, 2013 at 20:34

    ardegas….for what reason does society need to exist? Who is even benefitting here? And if anyone really is, certainly it is not worth the horror and pain inflicted on so many others. Even if there were just one sufferer, that’s just not right. Procreation is unethical because (have you ever taken a real good look at this world? Not the sugar-coated suburbs but the reality) procreation is a vehicle for tossing somebody into the unknown. There is a curtain standing before each life, a veil through which we cannot see and cannot know what horrors or what degradations lie beyond. Procreation is forcing somebody else behind that curtain. If the curtain were transparent and we could see beyond each individual one, we know we’d be seeing ones through which we ourselves would never be willing to cross. So how in gods name could it ever be ethical to throw somebody else in there? “Oh but the joys of heaven will outweigh any bad things we go through on earth….” Bollocks. You have a right to believe that for yourself, but no right to subject someone else to any kind of mistreatment or horror thinking that someday it’s going to be made up to them.

  5. jdshark November 3, 2013 at 04:45

    ‘Wrong’ and ‘unethical’ are human-invented concepts, by which I mean that they did not exist for people to discover them. Pain, on the other hand, is not invented. It waits for us, and when we encounter it we feel it. Pain is a negative physical experience, distinct from thought. Pain is impossible without life. No life is, therefore, the logical option.

  6. comprimarius March 15, 2015 at 06:09

    “Then … the United States took the floor and outlined seven different measures to halt the population explosion, namely: mass media and mass arrests, compulsory celibacy, full-scale deeroticization, onanism, sodomization, and for repeated offenders – castration. Every married couple would be required to compete for the right to have children, passing examinations in three categories, copulational, educational and non-deviational. All illegal offspring would be confiscated, for premeditated birth, the guilty would face life sentences … Copies of a draft for a new penal code, in which fertilization constituted a major felony, tantamount to high treason against the species, were promptly passed around.”

    LEM, STANISLAW “THE FUTUROLOGICAL CONGRESS” page 22 Trans. Michael Kandel, Published by Harvest Orlando, Fla. 1974

    • Francois Tremblay March 15, 2015 at 13:17

      Now there’s a utopia if I’ve heard one!

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