I’ve already made the comment that natalist arguments have really nothing to do with how people justify having children to themselves or to others. A good analogy here is theology: most Christian believers don’t know about, or understand, most of what sophisticated theologians talk about. Their highly abstracted arguments have little to do with why people believe or how they convert each other.
So what are breeders’ real motivations or justifications? I don’t think we can discuss such a topic without talking about the Not My Child argument.
The name I gave this argument (which is really the syndrome of a mental disease, breederitis) is an imitation of the “Not My Nigel” argument (an argument wherein a woman tries to exonerate her boyfriend from blame). The “Not My Child” syndrome is basically any reasoning by which a breeder assumes that their child will not live a typical life, but rather live a life full of benefits and with little suffering.
How is this prediction supposed to be backed? Because they’re such great parents that they can somehow ward off all risk to their child, or because their genes are so great that they’ll ensure that the child will have a “good life,” or just out of sheer hope. But this is nothing more than vulgar superstition. No parent can prevent all risk of harm to their children, by a long shot, and no one’s genes can ensure a “good life.”
The “Not My Child” syndrome seems to be the means by which breeders ignore misanthropic considerations (i.e. evidence that the world is not good enough to bring new human lives into it). It’s not a good response, because delusion is never a good response to facts. But if breeders were realistic about their future child’s prospects, they would not have children in the first place. You can only be a breeder if you first ignore those facts, consciously or unconsciously.
I don’t want people to misunderstand me on this point. I am not saying that all future people will lead horrible lives filled with suffering. A few will, but most will live more or less ordinary lives, with some share of suffering. What I am saying, however, is that there’s no way for anyone to know in advance the category in which their future child will fall, and therefore that any optimism in that regard is irrational.
A breeder may reply, “well at least this place is not as bad as [insert name of worse place].” This sort of argument is pointless because people in every place have a “not as bad.” Most people who live in a place are content with it, and those who aren’t content about where they live usually emigrate, unless they are unable to do so.
Being content about your situation, no matter what it is, is a defense mechanism, but we must not confuse defense mechanisms with facts. I think hedonic adaptation perfectly explains why “Not My Child” syndrome is so widespread; it also neatly disproves it.
“Not My Child” also explains why natalists constantly try to reduce antinatalist arguments to a balance between the benefits and harms of existence. It would make sense that if you believed (seriously or not) that one could somehow “know” that a child’s future would be good, then you would want to turn the conversation to what you “know” favors your position. One assumes that when a natalist says the balance of benefits and harms is good on the whole for all of us, this is what they’re imagining.
But even if you think it’s reasonable for one breeder to imagine that for their future child, how can it possibly be reasonable for a natalist to imagine that this applies to all future children? If the former is delusional, then the latter is… what?
We already know there are many, many people out there, a significant percentage of humanity, whose lives had far more harms than benefits by any measure. And some of those people live in the Western world, born to families who suffered from Not My Child syndrome. So even if we accept the natalist premise that harms and benefits should be compared with each other, the reasoning doesn’t make any sense.
There’s only one step from there to blaming the victim. If your life is expected to be great, then it must be your fault if your life turned out badly. Surely it can’t be the parents’ fault, or society’s fault, or anything like that. And if you want to kill yourself, well, that just proves what a coward you are, and you’re destined to Hell. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, literally!
There is another major problem with the way breeders think about the happiness of their children, and that’s the fact that they do not know how happy or unhappy their children are. I’ve hidden a great deal of psychological suffering from my parents, and I know I’m not the only one (I’ve read stories of much, much worse things happening to children that they kept private). Children’s lives are very private and most painful events remain in their private world.
It is probable that most children are far more miserable than their parents would even guess. If that’s the case, then breeders will tend to overestimate the benefits of new lives, which means their “Not My Child” syndrome will get even stronger with time. They will pride themselves in having been such great parents, when in fact they deeply damaged their children.
This leads me to the other motivation, narcissism. I think antinatalists don’t talk nearly enough about this. Narcissism is a prime motivator both for having children and for parental childism.
Most of the reasons people come up with for having children have a strong narcissism behind them. Look for instance at the list made by VHEMT. These reasons are profoundly selfish, because they involve subjecting another human being to one’s personal needs and values. Many are also narcissistic, in that they assume there’s something so great about yourself that you have to make a person who’s like yourself or who lives in the same circumstances as you.
The common thread is that it’s all about the breeder, their superior feelings, their superior blood, their superior needs. The selfishness and narcissism kinda blends together. But after the child is born, the narcissism shines through pure and unalloyed.
You will excel academically because I didn’t bother to. You will not get sidetracked by boys the way I did when I was too young to know better. You will not be too shy to look grownups in the eye like I was. You will stick with the violin to make up the regret I feel about quitting the piano.
I’ve already documented an example of extreme narcissism from our favourite natalist Bryan Caplan. Most breeders are not this far gone, but they all have this sense of having an intimate connection to their child, as if their child is an extension of themselves. They all seem to be heavily invested in the fantasy that their child grows up solely as a product of their involvement, and that therefore the success of their child means they were successful parents.
Natalism in general is pretty narcissistic, or at least narrow-minded. When they argue that life is good, they mean that life is good for them. They seem to view people who are not happy with suspicion, as if there’s gotta be something wrong with them.