Misanthropic antinatalism is the only area of antinatalism to which I haven’t yet devoted much space. After reading Debating Procreation and Benatar’s excellent exposition of it there, I was inspired to write this entry.
My intention here is not to repeat the main lines of evidence for misanthropic antinatalism (a task which has been already done at length by David Benatar in his books on antinatalism), but rather to try to frame the discussion in a somewhat different way.
Misanthropic antinatalism, in general, is the position that it is wrong to procreate because of the evils of human nature or mankind in general. Unlike philanthropic arguments (e.g. the Asymmetry, the risk argument, or the consent argument), which revolve around the imposition on the new person, misanthropic arguments revolve around the people, societies and institutions that already exist and how they make the world a bad place to bring new life into.
I see three main misanthropic arguments:
1. Nature is too harmful to bring new sentient life into it.
2. Human societies are too harmful to bring new people into them.
3. Humans inevitably inflict harm, therefore any new person will inevitably inflict harm on other sentient life.
I am going to keep my points general. As I’ve said, there are already works detailing all of them, and I have little to add to that particular discussion, so my aim here is only to give an overview of the kinds of lines of evidence that can be invoked.
The first argument is pretty straightforward. The natural world is full of lifeforms, and most of those lifeforms depend on the death of other lifeforms in order to survive. Predation is everywhere and engenders an incalculable amount of suffering. Some viruses and bacteria inflict yet more suffering on top of that: crippling diseases, epidemics, plagues. The Black Plague alone (a tiny bacteria called Yersinia pestis) wiped out more than a third of Europe’s population.
As for humans, the human body can come into this world with a great number of defects, going from the mundane to the fatal. And the same viruses and bacteria can give us a wide variety of diseases.
We are born with many biological needs: hunger (not just to eat anything, but to eat enough of a number of nutrients), thirst, to stay away from pain, to be shielded from the elements and extreme temperatures, to keep our organs in working order, and so on. We are also born with many psychological needs, many of which depend entirely on the goodwill of others. All these needs must constantly be satisfied, because failure to satisfy them brings us suffering.
The natural world is not kind to sentience. The necessities built into our bodies, and the exquisite violence of nature, make a mockery of our desire to be free from pain. As I’ve previously quoted from Dawkins:
The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice.
In a previous entry, I commented on the contrast between this quote and Dawkins’ starry-eyed view on procreation, arguing that anyone who seriously holds the view quoted cannot view procreation in a kind way.
My argument here is the same. The process of evolution which has guided the development of all life on this planet is a blind, stupid, thoughtless mechanism. While this may seem obvious, given that natural processes are not the product of design, it bears repeating because such considerations seem to disappear when we talk about putting new lives into this world. The natural order is inimical to sentience and it is wrong to bring new sentient life into it.
I know there are a number of potential replies to this argument. A common reply to antinatalism in general, which I think would be applied to this as well, is “well, suffering is a part of life so you should just deal with it.”
The answer is obvious: of course I “deal with it,” like anyone else who exists, but the implication is that reproduction should still happen, which makes no sense. If it’s such a bad thing that it must be “dealt with,” then why should I make a new person “deal with it”? The reply is similar to a person living in a sewage-infested marsh kidnapping people and forcing them to live there because he “dealt with it” and so others should too. It is a bizarre, illogical mentality.
A more sophisticated reply might be that this argument alone does not provide a decisive case against procreation. This much is true. I see misanthropic antinatalism as more of a cumulative case: the three arguments together all lend their weight to the conclusion that the world is not good enough to bring children into it, and make what I think is a persuasive case.
The second argument, that human societies are too harmful, hardly needs any explanation. The amount of war, genocide, executions, jailings, poverty and neglect perpetrated in the name of the nation or the government would give nature a run for her money. One must then also include the lives ruined by pollution (currently reckoned to be the most important cause of death in the world), workplace negligence, land seizures, slavery, and servitude in the name of money. Then all the murders, assaults, rapes, frauds, and other mischief that individuals inflict on each other which, while being far lower in number than the previous two categories, still can make life a living Hell.
It will do us no good to be told that one can disconnect from society. Who would be stupid enough or desperate enough to forego all the benefits of living in a modern Western society by living as a hermit? As much as one might hate human society, the alternatives involves as much, if not more, suffering.
There is a contingent which (mistakenly) believes that social violence has been lessening throughout history, mainly bolstered by the fraud research of Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature. I’ve made posts on this blog highlighting the fallacies of this book. Like evolutionary psychology, which he supports, Pinker’s belief in moral progress is a just-so story used to support a political viewpoint, and has no empirical connection with reality.
But even if he was right, I don’t see how the conclusion that we are less violent than we’ve ever been helps the natalists. It actually completely sinks their position: if this is really the least violent humans have ever been, then humanity surely deserves to go extinct as soon as possible. Unless the hope is supposed to be that humanity will somehow continue on the path to lower violence to the point where we’ll will ourselves to become entirely peaceful, which seems absurd on the face of it, Pinker’s conclusion doesn’t give us any hope that this world will ever be a good place.
The third argument is the one which is perhaps less straightforward, and therefore I will spend more time on it. Apart from the fact that (as the second argument makes clear) human society entail massive suffering, there are properties of this suffering that deserve greater examination.
One of them is that anyone who lives in a Western society will inflict suffering or benefit from someone else’s suffering, no matter how hard they try to not do so.
A good example of that is that slavery is intertwined with Western imports, and any consumer of Western goods is living off of slave labor. This is a natural consequence of neo-liberalist predation, where organizations like the IMF and the World Bank leverage their money to devastate third-world welfare systems and services, or the US government overthrows worker-friendly governments, leaving Western corporations free to exploit desperate workforces.
Another important way in which we all benefit from suffering is in our diet. Despite claims made by vegans, the sort of mass food system necessary to feed millions of people implies massive sentient death, even if you don’t eat meat. Granted, our current meat-oriented food system does generate enormous amounts of wasteful suffering, but no one is entirely blameless.
As a very general rule, we can say that there is a certain quantity of suffering inherent to human life, and that Western capitalism and neo-liberalism seem to be particularly well developed ways of outsourcing misery and containing it. Low low prices for consumer goods depend on slave labor or servitude, and vastly underpaid workers at home. The demeaning part of sexual fulfillment is left to porn actresses, prostituted women, and women and girls in third-world countries. The demand for “law and order” is met by containing “criminality” and “disorder” within certain specific groups of people (drug users, black people and other “minorities,” women, anti-capitalists) and destroying their lives.
The argument here is very similar to the anti-harm arguments: if a person’s existence necessarily implies harming others in some way, then their existence is undesirable, because we should seek not to harm others.
It would be unhelpful to point out that it’s just “part of life.” It is precisely the status of “life” that is under question here. Saying “that’s just part of life” only reinforces the antinatalist point that “life” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Another property which I think deserves attention is the hierarchical nature of our societies. Western societies, and really most societies to some extent, are highly hierarchical. This implies that in a myriad of ways we are all either superiors or inferiors, we are all either victimizers or victims, we all either harm or are harmed, in relation to those hierarchies.
In some ways, this is an extension of my previous discussion. The delegation of suffering is overseen by a number of powerful hierarchies, and we are all either part of those hierarchies or we’re not. We’re either the kind of person who benefits (or is supposed to benefit) from the hierarchy or the kind of person who is a victim of the hierarchy.
I think this presents a particular, specific challenge to a lot of people who want to have children. I’ve already done this analysis as related to Christian believers, but there’s a lot of other areas where it can be applied.
An obvious one is feminism. From the feminist standpoint, a new human being will either become a man, the gender which performs almost all violent crimes and almost all rapes, or a woman, the gender which is usually victimized by men. If the gender system is so aberrated and violent (as I believe it is, and as I think most feminists believe), then it would be cruel to bring new human beings into it, to become either superior or inferior, victimizer or victim. What could be worth bringing a child into this world if there’s a risk of it either being a rapist (and therefore harming others) or being raped?
The same challenge can be issued to people who are anti-racists or anti-capitalists. Why bring a child into this world if it will become either part of an oppressor race or of a subjugated race? Why bring a child into this world if it will become either an economic exploiter or an economically exploited? There is no middle ground to hide in.
People with a strong sense of ethics are particularly vulnerable to this argument. People who don’t give a shit about others will not care, but then again it’s unclear why anyone would bother arguing with such people to begin with, since antinatalism is primarily an ethical position.
An argument I see people bleat in response to these things is that their child can help change the world. This is nothing more than childism: the child is seen not as a human being with its own values and needs, but as a tool which will do whatever you think it will, or raise it to be. I cannot see this as anything but pure arrogance.
So these are my three arguments. First, I want to note what these all have in common: they are all about the principle of CANCeR (Consumption, Addiction, Cannibalism, and Reproduction). You can see these four elements into all of the arguments I’ve presented. Nature is cruel because all living things need to consume in order to survive, and most of them must cannibalize each other. Human societies are harmful because of our mishandling of these four elements.
Humans necessarily entail harm because we’ve evolved societies where people delegate suffering by cannibalizing each other’s well-being and lives. And reproduction is, as always, what keeps this cycle going over and over (and generates a substantial amount of consumption, addiction and cannibalism in itself).
Before I move on to the general objections, I do want to address the important point of “how much is too harmful?” After all, my argument is not that nature and human societies are “harmful,” a point which anyone should concede immediately if they are at all rational, but that they are “too harmful” to warrant procreation. How much is “too harmful”?
There is a sense in which the question is moot. If we accept the risk argument, then the answer is that one cannot decide acceptable risk levels for another human being, and therefore the answer is “what you think about it is irrelevant.”
Likewise, the idea that we could ever quantify and compare levels of harm seems rather silly, especially since harm is always harm to a specific human being, and we cannot make comparisons between different individuals’ levels of harm. So we can’t really compare two possible worlds and say one is “more harmful” than the other, or declare it “too harmful” by comparing it to some baseline.
So what does anyone really mean when they say something is “too harmful” or not “too harmful”? Do we mean anything meaningful by it?
I think we do, if we add “for procreation,” because that gives us a point of reference. I think we can all imagine a hypothetical “good” world, which is not too harmful for procreation (such a world would still fail to answer all the other kinds of antinatalist arguments, but it would at least answer the misanthropic ones).
But I think it’s clear that our world is not such a world. There seems to be a vast surplus of suffering in our world: a world where such vast and fear-reaching forms of suffering as predation, plagues, war and genocide exist doesn’t seem to be a good enough one. The average child born into this world can be reasonably expected to suffer great harms, and all children, even the luckiest ones, can be reasonably expected to suffer a great deal of non-trivial harms.