Examining the natalist and antinatalist metaphors.


The “life as toxic substance” metaphor. :)

I’ve made the comparison many times between what natalists say about life and what antinatalists say about life. So on the one hand you’ve got the following natalist statements:

1n. “Life is a gift.”
2n. “Life is precious.”
3n. “We are extremely lucky to be alive.”

Contrast these statements with their antinatalist equivalents:

1a. “Life is an imposition.”
2a. “Life is a cancer.” (or in a literal sense, CAnCeR)
3a. “We are extremely unlucky to be alive.”

None of these statements are literally true, they are all uses of metaphorical language (in this entry I’m using Lakoff’s theory of metaphors from Metaphors We Live By). Life is not literally a gift, precious, an imposition, it’s a biological process. It’s also not a form of cancer, or the result of luck or lack of luck. So what do both sides really mean by these statements?

Let’s start with the metaphor “life is a gift.” A gift is something one person gives to another with benevolent intent. The metaphor obviously refers to procreation. In that sense life cannot be “given” from one person to another, since life is a prerequisite for a person to exist.

So the metaphor looks at life as an object that is being passed from the mother (the generator of life) to the child (the recipient of life). The gift is brought into effect by the mother giving birth to the child and raising it. We see this metaphor of life as an object used in other expressions like “taking a life,” “the threshold of life,” “their life was destroyed,” “life was flourishing,” and so on.

This seems to clash with another natalist bromide, that children are indebted to their parents for being alive. How can you be indebted to your parents for being alive if life is a gift?

Now look at its counterpart metaphor, “life is an imposition.” An imposition is something laid on someone to be borne, endured. So basically what we have here is the same metaphor, but with life as a burden instead of a benefit.

We use metaphors to model one concept (in this case, life) on the basis of another, simpler concept. We are familiar with how gifts and impositions work and can use aspects of both to understand something about life, or emphasize certain facets of life and omit others. It’s as interesting, if not more interesting, to see what’s omitted as what’s included. So what aspects does each metaphor use?

Well, a gift makes other people happy, and natalists believe the vast majority of people alive do not kill themselves and therefore must be happy. A gift implies that the giver spent some of their resources, which is certainly the case here.

An imposition makes people experience hardships and suffering, and antinatalists point out that life does as well. An imposition is not chosen by the individual; neither is life, although we can also say the same about gifts.

The last aspect is that, while a gift is a one-time event with no further consequences, an imposition is seen as an event with a duration (either limited or for one’s life).

These metaphors structure the way we think about the concept “life.” The natalist essentially sees procreation as one point in time on a generational cycle. The antinatalist sees procreation as the creation of a new source of suffering, which only ends at the person’s death.

Now take “life is precious.” Again we have life as object, but an object of great value. What does this metaphorical value consist of? Life can be precious for those who do not wish to die, but this is not an innate property. The most common use of that phrase is in reference to God, but there’s no way for anyone to know how much or how little God values human life (and if the Bible is true, then that value is very low indeed).

Either way, the metaphor leads us to believe that life must be preserved. This corresponds well to the general belief that suicide and abortion are immoral.

“Life is a cancer” refers to the proliferation of humans on this planet and their depletion of its resources. Unlike the “life is precious” metaphor, “life as cancer” portrays humans as an unhealthy, grotesque outgrowth of the evolutionary process, a disease that must be excised from this planet.

The “humans as disease” metaphor, from the antinatalist perspective, is pretty extensive: both have a biological cause, a beginning, a process by which they spread and exploit resources from their host, symptoms (e.g. global warming, deforestation, massive species extinction), and an end.

Now take the issue of life being lucky or unlucky. Taken literally, neither makes much sense: luck can only be meaningful when there is a person involved. Life itself cannot be lucky or unlucky, only events within a life can be lucky or unlucky. I think this is connected to a larger metaphor of life as gambling (“you win, you lose,” “his luck ran out,” “he’s a winner,” “she hit the jackpot,” “he was dealt a bad hand,” “life is a gamble”).

Life is a gamble, at terrible odds- if it was a bet you wouldn’t take it.
Tom Stoppard

But this only puts us straight into the antinatalist playbook. The belief that life is a gamble is, after all, the basis of an antinatalist argument: life is a Russian Roulette, with an almost infinite number of chances of suffering or dying, and while you can take any gamble you want with your own life, you surely are not allowed to do so with someone else’s life. Of course life is not literally a game of Russian Roulette, but it sure is a sucker’s bet.

My point in this entry is not to argue that the antinatalist metaphors are true and the natalist metaphors are false. The truth is a matter of reasoning, not metaphors. Metaphors are tools that provide us with a greater, or narrower, conceptual understanding. Every ideology adopts the narratives and metaphors that suit its understanding of the world.

Neither the gift metaphor or the imposition metaphor give us much conceptual understanding; they are mostly used to illustrate the difference between the two ideologies (life as journey, for example, has a lot more conceptual content).

Life as cancer, I think, is a much better metaphor from the antinatalist standpoint. It not only includes the imposition metaphor (cancer is not willingly chosen after all), but encompasses the positives and the negatives of life, transposes the “positive thinking” dogma imposed on cancer victims to the general blind optimism about life, and glorifies people who spare us from suffering.

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