I have written about the Duty Argument, and its attendant premises, in my book on antinatalism and childism. However, since the subject remains unexamined here, I thought I might as well write an entry on it as well. I find that it is an extremely undervalued argument in antinatalist circles (at least, the ones I am in), and so I think it’s worth looking at.
The Duty Argument can take many forms. In his book, Benatar alludes to the particular form I use as being an alternative asymmetry for people who deny that we have positive duties (p32). Since I deny the existence of positive duties (i.e. the idea that we can have a duty to provide pleasure or some other net benefit), this suits me fine. Benatar’s argument is somewhat more narrow, in that it concentrates on the belief that we have no obligation to bring happy people into existence:
[W]hile there is a duty to avoid bringing suffering people into existence, there is no duty to bring happy people into being. In other words, the reason why we think that there is a duty not to bring suffering people into existence is that the presence of the suffering would be bad (for the sufferers) and the absence of suffering is good (even though there is nobody to enjoy the absence of suffering). In contrast to this, we think that there is no duty to bring happy people into existence because while their pleasure would be good for them, its absence would not be bad for them (given that there would be nobody who would be deprived of it).
It might be objected that there is an alternative explanation for the view about our procreative duties- one that does not appeal to my claim about the asymmetry… It might be suggested that the reason why we have a duty to avoid bringing suffering people into being, but not a duty to bring happy people into existence, is that we have negative duties to avoid harm but no corresponding positive duties to bring about happiness.
Benatar also examines the case of people who do think positive duties exist but do not believe in a duty to procreate. In this case, he says, we may think that we have a duty to provide some pleasure to others, but not at a significant sacrifice to ourselves. But procreation does involve significant sacrifices, whether physical, mental, social, financial, and so on. Therefore we cannot possibly have a duty to procreate merely as a result of a belief in positive duties.
Let me therefore present my own argument (as defended in my book):
(1) We have a duty to not inflict suffering on others.
(2) We do not have any duty to provide pleasure to others.
(3) Lives include both pleasure and suffering.
(4) Starting a new life implies providing pleasure and inflicting suffering to a new human life.
(5) Therefore we have a duty not to start new lives.
I don’t see how (3) or (4) could be an issue (except in some minor ways which would mostly hinge around formulation, some of which I’ve examined in this entry), and (5) is the logical conclusion, therefore the argument clearly hinges around (1) and (2). As such, there are two obvious ways in which the argument could be refuted: either by showing that (1b) we have a specific duty to inflict suffering in the case of procreation or that (2b) we have a specific duty to provide pleasure in the case of procreation (there is also the moral nihilist position that there is no such thing as duties, which I will not address in this entry: for my general arguments against moral nihilism, see this entry).
I am open to the possibility that (1b) or (2b) could be demonstrated. However, in the absence of evidence for either, we must maintain (1) and (2) (or if we include Benatar’s discussion above, some narrower version of (2) that would be something like: “we do not have a duty to provide pleasure to others at significant sacrifice to ourselves”) as the default positions.
Note that the Duty Argument is not vulnerable to the dismissive rebuttal of the natalists that “but we experience pleasures too, so our lives are not that bad,” because here there is no comparison between the two at all (I have analyzed the desire for the creation and experience of pleasure in this entry). Rather, what we are comparing is two generally accepted facts of ethics: the fact that we have a general obligation not to inflict suffering (i.e. that we must refrain from killing people, assaulting them, defrauding them, etc) but no general obligation to give them pleasure (i.e. that we must entertain people, cook them gourmet food, or have sex with them). This shuts down the most common way in which people try to deny the asymmetries between suffering and pleasure.
The natalists, if they care about responding at all, face an unenviable position, since they have to either justify inflicting suffering or forcing people to provide pleasure to others (which could be argued is its own form of suffering, although I don’t see the point of doing so here). Their position is somewhat analogous in its precariousness to that of the Christians who try to justify the existence of evil.
I think there are some parallels here. For instance, Christian apologists argue that evil may be needed for the existence of higher-order goods. Likewise, a natalist may argue that we may sometimes have a duty to inflict suffering in order to prevent the existence of greater suffering, as in some medical cases. But this cannot possibly apply to procreation, as giving birth to a child does not prevent some greater suffering. All it does is create suffering.
I invite any natalist to present their argument. But until such an argument is made, I believe the Duty Argument stands.