Category Archives: Antinatalism

And bxz’s objections to the Asymmetry.

Commenter And bxz has pointed out a number of objections to the Asymmetry. Since there are a number of them and they are more developed than most objections to the Asymmetry, I thought I would write an entry discussing them instead of debating in comments (which I am trying not to do these days).

Claim:
1)The presence of pain is bad

Objections:

A) Pain is not inherently bad. Pain is but a state of mind, and because we can modulate our subjective experiences through practices of meditation, we can achieve a “happy” state of mind while in abject agony. One of the extreme examples of such practice manifests as self-immolation practiced by Buddhist monks (imagine burning alive without screaming and running around but meditating in jubilee). Ignoring the religious backdrop, this still shows that we are capable of changing our subjective experience of pain at will. Studies back this up.

Whether studies back this position up or not is not relevant, because this is not a scientific issue. I fully accept that the points stated may very well be true. I doubt that they are true, but it doesn’t really matter, because they do not prove that the presence of pain “not inherently bad.” What they prove is that the presence of pain combined with a certain practice can end up being not bad.

Let’s make an analogy. A guy gets stabbed. He’s taken to the hospital, they operate on him, save his life, and while doing so discover that he also has cancer. So they are able to remove the cancer early. The entire situation is, on the whole, a more desirable outcome than the guy eventually dying of cancer. Does that prove that stabbing people is good? No, it doesn’t. All it proves is that stabbing someone who has an undiscovered cancer might be a good thing, but the stabbing itself was still bad.

This is similar to the fallacy used by Absurd Being: to equate “the presence of pain is bad” with “the presence of pain, and badness, are synonymous.” These two statements are wholly different. The fact that a situation involves pain does not thereby prove that it is necessarily bad, if other elements or principles are also part of the situation (like the perennial example, a visit to the dentist). The Asymmetry does not imply that the presence of pain is synonymous with badness.

B) You say: “If your two options going into a long and painful operation is to bite a literal bullet or get anesthetized, which would you choose? Unless you are an inveterate masochist, the pain of the operation is not what you seek.” This justifies masochists as an exception to Benatar’s argument because suffering is a boon for them, hence better than not existing. I think this means that the logically consistent position isn’t antinatalism, but anti-non-masochism.

The point was not to make masochism part of the logic of the argument, but if you’re going to do this, then you ought to do it right and know what you’re talking about. First of all, being a masochist is not something we choose, it’s not like we can decide to be masochists tomorrow and seek out pain. Secondly, masochists do not respond positively to all pain. Sexual masochism, for example, is an expression of giving away control of one’s body to another person. A person can be a sexual masochist and still feel bad about stubbing their toe. Thirdly, there is a threshold of pain, in any kind of pain, beyond which even masochists cannot deal with.

So to say that the Asymmetry leads to “anti-non-masochism” (which I presume means: being against people who are not masochists or who don’t want to be masochists) is to ignore the reality of masochism and how masochists relate to pain. Yes, a masochist might experience pleasure at experiencing a long and painful operation. This does not therefore prove that pain is not bad. All it proves is that some people, in certain contexts, can ignore the badness of the pain.

Again, this is an argument pretty similar to the previous one: the fact that some people are masochists in certain contexts does not prove that the pain itself is not bad, it proves that, for some people, bodily or psychological reactions can compensate for that badness. But if you’re going to go down that route, why not argue that the Asymmetry proves that we should all have congenital insensitivity to pain? But, again, we don’t.

C) There are many other ways to get around pain.
1) Drugs (painkillers, MJ, LSD, etc.)
2) Cut off our part of the brain that is responsible for pain and suffering.
3) Genetic modification of human life to create negative emotion-free and pain-free organisms.
4) The future wonder drug that puts benefits of meditation on a pill
(Many of these are out there, but I’m just spitballing alternatives to preferring non-existence)

We already use painkillers, but they don’t change the fact that suffering is bad. As for cutting off the sensation of pain, congenital insensitivity to pain has shown us why that’s a terrible idea: pain is a signal our body needs in order to react to damage, and people who don’t feel pain also tend to die young precisely because of that.

Is it possible to imagine a world where we can safely eliminate suffering? Sure. And that would probably trivialize the Asymmetry as an argument. But we do not live in such a world. The fact that we can imagine living in such a world in the future does not mean it’s possible, let alone that it proves we should keep procreating in the meantime. The suffering of people born right now is more real than an imaginary world.

Claim:
3)The absence of pain is good even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone,

Objections
A) Not if pain itself can be good or mitigated altogether, see objections to claim 1
B) This at least seemingly contradicts premise #4. You say: “The absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom that absence is a deprivation.” A corollary of #4 is that non-existing beings do not suffer the absence of pleasure. #4 is logically true because people that do not exist cannot mourn not having ice cream (a non-existing ‘fetus’ person says, “it is bad that I do not get to enjoy ice cream”). In other words, (Statement 1) No one is actually suffering, so it isn’t immoral. Yet in premise #3 you say: “The absence of pain is good even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone.” In other words, you are saying that despite the fact that (Statement 2) No one is actually soothed, but it’s good. How can both of those statements be true at the same time? You dismiss the morality of discussing non-existing human’s suffering based on their non-existence; yet ascribe morality to the pleasure of non-existence. It’s like you imagine non-existing beings enjoying the fact that they aren’t suffering (saying, “it is good that we do not suffer since we do not exist”) and then scoff at people who imagine non-existent fetuses being condemned to the “equivalent of deliberately starving children.”

This is a mess. I have never argued for any attributes of non-existence, because non-existence has no properties. The statement:
(3) The absence of pain is good even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone.
clearly and directly excludes the position that it is about the absence of pain being enjoyed. That’s what the “even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone” part means. So no, it’s not like I “imagine non-existing beings enjoying the fact that they aren’t suffering.” There is no such thing as non-existing beings, and no such chimera is necessary to understand (3). All that (3) means is this: in the case that a hypothetical person X does not exist, the fact that there is some pain absent from that scenario is a good thing, and it is a good thing apart from any subjective experience. Likewise, the absence of pleasure is not a bad thing, apart from any subjective experience.

The last point in the comment was the old “why don’t you kill yourself,” which I’ve already discussed, so I see no point in going through that again. The general point here is that antinatalists are against procreation, the creation of new lives, not the end of existing lives. People who are living also have desires and values which would be frustrated by their death, and we all, as individuals, evaluate whether our future suffering is worth tolerating in order to fulfill those desires and values. Most people arrive at the conclusion that it is worth tolerating, and therefore they don’t kill themselves. Whether each person is correct about that evaluation is their own business.

Absurd Being tries to disprove the Asymmetry.

A blog called Absurd Being, by Nathan Hohipuha, attempted to disprove the Asymmetry, in an entry called Axiological Asymmetry and Anti-Natalism. Unfortunately, this attempt falls strictly into the “the Asymmetry pertains to non-existing people, which is impossible, therefore the Asymmetry is false” sort of argument, but at least it’s slightly novel.

Hohipuha begins by quoting my quote of Benatar’s formulation of the Asymmetry, so at least he knows what the argument actually is, which is nice. Unfortunately, the niceties stop here. He begins by distinguishing between a personal preference (“It’s (a) good (thing) that I arrived in time to catch the bus”) and a moral statement (“It’s good to tell the truth”). Then he states that statements (1) and (2) in the Asymmetry must be about personal preferences, because:

If you object that morality is nothing more than pain/pleasure, then you are committed to notions as absurd as that a dentist putting me through pain is acting immorally, or that the pleasure children take in teasing a classmate is moral.

But this is a bad counter-argument. The following statements are not at all equivalent:
(A) The presence of pain is bad, and the presence of pleasure is good. (statements (1) and (2) of the Asymmetry)
(B) Morality is nothing more than pain/pleasure.

Hohipuha is arguing that statement (A), in order to be a discussion of morality, must entail (B). But this is obviously and clearly false. Morality is about pain and pleasure, and also about other things. Saying that “the presence of pain is bad” does not logically entail that nothing else is bad. To use his example, the presence of pain is bad, but so is, for example, taking pleasure in teasing a classmate. But the fact that the perpetrator is experiencing pleasure is not, in itself, the bad thing. What is bad in this situation is that the perpetrator is not respecting the feelings of his classmate. This is a consideration that has nothing to do with pain or pleasure directly. But, absent of those other moral considerations, the pleasure is still good and the pain is still bad.

The purpose of the Asymmetry is not to give a complete accounting of morality, but to use certain intuitive features of it in order to make an argument against procreation. I don’t know why Hohipuha thinks the Asymmetry needs to give a complete accounting of morality, unless he thinks that arguing anything is good or bad necessitates a complete and total understanding of morality, but this is something he needs to prove.

Then he moves on to (4), the proposition that pleasure that does not exist is not bad:

This proposition asserts that the absence of pleasure could only be bad if there were somebody to be deprived of that pleasure. Since we are talking about a non-existent being, there is no one ‘losing out’ and we can’t say the absence of pleasure is bad. The important question is whether we are talking about badness or just about it being bad for a particular being.

Clearly, Benatar is using the word “bad” in the latter sense. If the absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom that absence is a deprivation, then it would be bad if there was someone to be deprived, and this means we are talking about it being bad for someone; i.e. we are not talking about (moral) badness.

We are not talking about a “non-existent being,” whatever that means. As I have repeated many times on this blog, Benatar himself points out in his presentation of the argument that he is talking about states of affair, not of states of individuals. So this is just plain wrong.

The second half of the Asymmetry is about a state of affairs where a person X does not exist, as opposed to the first half, which is about a state of affairs where a person X does exist, and experiences pain and pleasure. The fact that the pleasure they would have experienced is not present is not a bad thing, morally. It has nothing to do with there being a person who is deprived or not. There are already people who are deprived of pleasure right now, in the real world, and that’s a bad thing, morally, not just as a matter of preference. For Hohipuha to state that this is merely an issue of preference is astounding: does he seriously believe that depriving human beings of pleasure is an act of no moral status whatsoever, and just an issue of preference? I sincerely hope he does not have children.

And now, his final argument:

What about (3)? The absence of pain is good even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone. Now, here “good” is clearly no longer merely good for someone (a preference). Benatar explicitly says as much. “Good” here means goodness; in other words, a moral pronouncement. Since I have already claimed that pain and pleasure aren’t moral in themselves, it follows that the absence of pain and pleasure also can’t be moral. (3) is false.

Again, Hohipuha commits the exact same mistake as above: equating his rebuttal of the position that morality is SOLELY about pain and pleasure, with a rebuttal of the position that pain and pleasure have to do with morality AT ALL. Hohipuha has most definitely not proven the latter proposition, and I don’t think he can, because it’s a ridiculous claim. Either way, he hasn’t proven it, and since his argument here relies on it, the argument therefore fails.

In his part called “Analysis,” Hohipuha says that he finds Benatar’s failure ironic because the real asymmetry is one between good actions and bad actions:

I don’t want to examine morality in detail or attempt a robust definition of it here, so let me just say morality primarily encourages us to think unselfishly and consider other people’s interests in addition to our own to avoid harming them or causing undue suffering. On the other hand, morality isn’t about ensuring the happiness of other people or maximising happiness in general (sorry, utilitarians).

He thinks that’s ironic. I, on the other hand, think it’s ironic because the asymmetry he discusses here is one of the very asymmetries discussed by Benatar as an argument for antinatalism! I have discussed this argument, the Duty Argument, in this entry. I’m not sure if Hohipuha supports antinatalism or not, but if he doesn’t, then he has to explain why he supports a different argument which leads us to antinatalism just the same.

Steven Horwitz says: make babies, make more babies.

The Foundation for Economic Education is a right-wing think tank. It may therefore not be entirely surprising to see that it has published a natalist article by Steven Horwitz. This article starts by praising Bryan Caplan (the useful idiot of the natalists, whose arguments I have debunked many times before), and ranting against bioethicist Travis Rieder for saying that children are negative externalities. His article is meant as a reply to Rieder and, by extension, as a debunking of antinatalism, so let’s look at his arguments.

He, like so many environmentalists, sees human beings only as consumers of resources. So one core statistic he trots out is that the amount of CO2 saved by not having a child is roughly 20 times what we can save through traditional things like driving hybrids and recycling. Therefore, he and the other people discussed in the story conclude, if we really want to “save the planet,” we should have fewer, if any, children.

But this is single-entry economic and moral bookkeeping. This view ignores the idea that humans are also producers. As Julian Simon reminded us so often, more people not only means more hands to work and more minds to create, it means more different people with different ideas. Increases in population not only deepen the division of labor and productivity by their sheer numbers, they also take advantage of the fact that each of us is unique which leads to new ideas and innovation.

Even on the face of it, this is not an adequate response. Rieder’s point is an urgent one, given the fact that we are plunging headlong towards environmental disaster. It is vitally important that procreation slows down. Only some of us are intelligent enough and fortunate enough to be producers and innovators, while all of us pollute and consume. So on that basis alone, Horwitz is missing the mark.

But there’s also the problem that these two things do not cancel out. Having more people so they can produce more is even worse for the environment, because production inevitably implies pollution. Innovation usually means the means to produce more, or to produce new things, which again produces more pollution. If anything, Horwitz’s argument strengthens the “new lives are a negative externality” position!

But what is ultimately missing is any sort of reference to the interests of the child. Horwitz wants to convince us that having children is good because children will grow up to be producers and innovators. What he does not tell us in the entire article is why any child should be convinced by this rhetoric. Why should anyone’s life purpose be set by Horwitz’s economic calculations? And if a child does not grow up to be a producer and innovator, does that mean they have not fulfilled their purpose? In short, why should any new life care what Horwitz, or his natalist colleagues, think about the purpose of their life?

Such growth is what has made it possible for the Earth to sustain 7 billion lives of increasing length, comfort, and quality. Reducing the population might mean we use up more resources by losing the efficiencies that come from a larger population’s greater ability to innovate and productively specialize.

This last statement is absurd. It is not as if we currently have one person doing every job, knowing one special area of knowledge, and that having fewer people would deprive us of a specialty. No, many people do the same job, and losing some of them would not affect our “ability to productively specialize.” Having seven billion people, one billion people, or even 500 million people, is surely not necessary to “productively specialize,” as long as you’re willing to educate everyone and provide for everyone’s needs. That is the part that terrorizes capitalists, because they are absolutely unwilling to do this, and so they push for natalism instead of providing for the people who are already here. And THAT, in short, is why idiots like Caplan and Horwitz push for natalism.

The benefits of having more kids are not primarily to the parents involved, though as Caplan points out there are many. More people means we are better able to beat back omnipresent scarcity and carve out a more inhabitable planet for more people who live longer, better lives.

This refers to Bryan Caplan’s natalist book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think. I think the title tells you everything you need to know about it. We hear so much about the advantages of breeding because it’s a propaganda front: adults need to be bombarded by the “benefits of having kids” because the negatives are so obvious and easy to understand, and if it was up to an unbiased and totally free choice most people would never breed.

That aside, the “reasoning” that more people means we can “beat back” scarcity is the exact opposite of what logic would dictate. The more humans that exist on this planet, especially humans who live in Western countries, the more resources they need to continue to exist. The resources of this planet are finite. Therefore, logically, the more people there are, the more likely it is for those resources to be scarce. The longer people live, and the “better” they live (meaning: the more technology they use, and therefore the pollution they generate, either by themselves or through energy generation), the more scarce resources are. The natalist reasoning is completely irrational, but that’s because they are justifying an irrational ideology.

The other crucial point Rieder and people like him miss is that the Earth’s population is already in the process of stabilizing. One of the most agreed upon empirical facts of history is the so-called “demographic transition.” As societies become wealthier and more industrialized, the incentives facing parents change and family size falls. Once mom and dad, or perhaps only one of them, can earn enough income to support a family, and there’s no farm or cottage industry that requires the whole family pitching in, the need for many children is much less and parents seek to control their fertility.

This “demographic transition” is not backed by the evidence. Yes, we are planned to enter such a transition, but we are nowhere near that point yet: we have a few billion people left before population growth stabilizes, under most realistic scenarios. So this is clearly an ignorant statement on Horwitz’s part.

Furthermore, the fact that higher wealth and industrialization leads to lower birth rates is a powerful objection to a major natalist argument, the argument that procreation is natural and a basic drive of human beings. If that was the case, then being more wealthy and having more time-saving machines would lead to people have more children, not less. In his eagerness to “prove” that there’s no overpopulation problem, Horwitz is tripping over natalist premises without even acknowledging it.

Thankfully Rieder does not want to use Chinese-style coercion to limit family size, but he’s not afraid to tax larger families more heavily. Even that isn’t necessary given the reality of the demographic transition: in a free society, human beings naturally limit their fertility as they get wealthier. Again, the best way to save the planet is not to have fewer kids, but to have as many as you can afford and let their productivity enable us to use resources with more efficiency and create more progress.

There is no coherent argument here, and the set of statements here are a non-sequitur. Taxing larger families has nothing to do with wealthy families but with how many children they have. The “demographic transition” nonsense is repeated again, with no evidence. And none of this has anything to do with “saving the planet.” This is a real mess. I’ve already addressed the bizarre argument that more children will lead to less scarcity, so I will not repeat it here.

The radical wing of environmentalism is, as Ayn Rand said decades ago, “anti-life” and “anti-human” in its belief that humans are the scourge of the planet and not the source of its progress. After all, if the important thing is saving the planet by reducing our carbon footprint, why stop by persuading people to not have kids?

Why not persuade currently living people, especially young ones, to reduce their lifetime carbon footprint by killing themselves? The logic is no different.

Ho-hum. This is the standard argument addressed to antinatalists: “if you’re against life, then why don’t you kill yourself?” It is not made any less offensive by making the suicide hypothetical. Telling people to kill themselves is heartless.

But to answer the point: suicide is a different kind of thing than not having kids. Not having kids means not bringing in new lives into this world, which, as long as they remain potential, have no desires, values, and cannot suffer. Suicide is about ending already existing lives, people who have desires, values, and can suffer. Whatever your opinion is about suicide, they are still wholly different things. Not having kids does not entail suffering (the frustration of the desire to have children does, but not the absence itself), while suicide does.

But equally importantly, it is true that suicide reduces one’s lifetime carbon footprint. So why not persuade people to kill themselves? Well, for one, not having kids, while a very hated position, is probably an easier sell than inducing people to kill themselves. Enjoining people to not have children will get you vilified, but encouraging suicide would probably land you in jail. Apparently Horwitz doesn’t think that’s important.

That they don’t make that argument suggests that “saving the planet” really isn’t the overriding issue here. Like so much else in the Green movement, this seems to be about protecting their own comfortable lives against what they think will happen when everyone else is able to live lives like they have. They got their progress and health and children, but everyone else needs to sacrifice for the sake of the planet. That Rieder does have a child is some evidence of this point.

For the first time, I agree with Horwitz… but note that he’s addressing Greenies here, not antinatalism. I agree that liberal environmentalism is mostly about preserving the Western way of life while sacrificing the third world for the sake of preserving capitalism. I also agree that so-called environmentalists having children are little more than human vermin, and I have zero respect for such people.

Not only is Rieder’s argument deeply immoral and reactionary in how wrong it is, it turns out to be far less altruistic than it first seems. Nothing could capture the total failure of radical environmentalist anti-natalism better than calling it “selfish reasons everyone else should have fewer kids.”

But the previous argument was about environmentalists who have kids, not antinatalist environmentalists. So it seems here that the conclusion is misplaced. It is breeding that is fundamentally selfish, not antinatalism. There is nothing selfish about having fewer or no kids, as no one is being hurt by new lives not being brought into existence (except in limit cases, which are not relevant in today’s world). So it seems silly to call anything “selfish reasons everyone else should have fewer kids.” What are those reasons? I suppose Horwitz would answer that not having children is selfish because you’re lowering the standard of living for everyone, but that comes from his delusional worldview, not anything resembling reality.

“Made” for procreation?

There is a common bromide, uttered by people in many different ideological positions, that says that we were “made” for procreation, and that therefore not having children goes against human nature.

Well, first of all, I don’t believe we were designed, so we were not “made” for anything. Even if we classify this as an unfortunate use of words (which, in some cases, it is, as I don’t think the secular proponents of this bromide actually mean it), it is also mysterious as to how 20% of the population somehow managed to defeat their own human nature by not having children. If 20% of the population can just not do something, then it is most likely not part of human nature. It may be widespread, but it is not “natural” in that sense. And if that’s the case, then the power of the argument is gone.

Clearly our human bodies make procreation possible, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. But there is a huge step from there to “we’re ‘made’ for procreation.” The latter implies not only a careful design, but also a clear orientation in the design, in that any other purpose in the design would disprove the claim. So the question becomes, do our sexual organs appear to have been designed solely for the intent of procreation? The answer to that question is a resounding no. Everything about how we get sexual pleasure (prostate orgasms, the efficacy of masturbation, the clitoris as center of female sexual pleasure, the fact that most women don’t orgasm from PIV) clearly points in one direction: we were made for sex, but not for procreation.

For most of Western history, sex and procreation were inextricably linked, since heterosexuality was the only accepted norm for marriages (which exist for the purpose of procreation, specifically to transform a woman and her future children into male property), and the technology to prevent pregnancies was not as developed as it is today. So if anyone had said that “we were made for procreation,” at any other time in history, they would have been at least credible. But saying this nowadays is just not credible. A human being can spend their entire life having sex without ever having children.

In fact, the more we have access to medical technology, the fewer children we have. Clearly another part of the human organism was not “made” for procreation, that part being the brain. Despite the fact that we could have many more children and have them live healthy lives (like Quiverfull families), we do the exact opposite. Whatever the reason for this, it clearly indicates that the more reproductive control we have, the fewer children we have.

Given how improbable this belief is, why do so many people believe it so firmly? The belief that we’re “made” for procreation goes hand in hand with natalist propaganda. It is always easier to get people to accept a belief system if you convince them that the belief system is the consequence of natural facts about humans. People accept gender and race more readily if they honestly believe that gender and race are consequences of human biology. After all, who can fight against biology?

One argument they give us is that procreation has been going on forever. That is certainly true, but procreation has not been going on forever because we’re “made” for it. Procreation has been going on forever because, as I already pointed out, sex and procreation were inextricably linked. This is no longer the case. We know now why children are born. We do not live in the ignorance of our ancestors.

Another reason, I think, why the belief persists is because of heteronormativity and the belief in marriage. We are all raised to believe that heterosexual relationships and marriage are a natural part of life, and that the purpose of marriage is for a man and a woman to make and raise children. This may be the case, but either way, it is not a natural or necessary part of life. Many people are not heterosexuals and many people are unmarried. This does not mean that people who are heterosexuals and married must have children. As an antinatalist, I don’t believe anyone should have children. But whatever your belief is on the natalist issue, having children is not an innate part of human nature.

The Duty Argument.

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.

Establishing the existence of “natalist culture.”

We use terms like “rape culture” and “pedophile culture” to point at the fact that our Western societies, while making rape and sex with children illegal, also cultivate negative attitudes about women and children which enable rape and pedophilia, and makes it harder to identify and fight against rape and pedophilia. As I’ve defined in my previous entry, “culture” in this context means a set of attitudes and rules which are mutually reinforcing and are accepted or thrive within a society and which normalize some undesirable feature of society.

In this entry, I want to talk about another instance: natalist culture. This concept hasn’t been examined very much so far, and the specific term hasn’t really been used. So why not start using it?

As in other cases like this, we must start by pointing to specific attitudes or rules in our societies that are part of this culture.

* Children, especially girls, are socialized to want a family and children. We grow up believing that having a family and children is what people normally do as part of their life progression.
* Parents are basically seen as having the right to do anything they want with their children, including exploiting them for money or fame.
* Childfree people, especially women, are harassed for not having children and being able to do so.
* Most governments give tax breaks, vacations, and other privileges for families with children.
* It is generally believed that marriage (i.e. committing yourself to another person) exists to bring children into this world. People who marry deserve married people privileges because they will have children someday.
* People who have children sometimes report that they feel that the worst parts of having children were never told to them. For instance, some women simply do not have a maternal instinct despite being told that they would. Health risks are also vastly unreported.

The end result is that, despite the incredibly heavy investment needed from parents and the dubious rewards, 80% of people will have children during their lifetime, and most who do not are sterile or alone. Lifetime childfree people are a small minority (not sure what percentage, but far less than 20%, anyway).

We also know that childfreedom heavily depends on education: more educated women have fewer, or no, children. This is not because educated women are “feminazis” or have been brainwashed to hate children (as it has been said), but because their time is worth more. We also know that domestic violence contributes to unwanted births: abusers want women to have children in order to bind those women to them financially. Whether abortion is legal and widely available or not must have a great deal of influence as well.

The term natalist culture does not introduce new data into the equation, but the use of a specific label makes certain causal connections clearer (as most new labels do). Natalist culture explains why people breed unquestioningly and why breeding is considered to be part of the default “life blueprint,” and why people who do not breed are considered to be abnormal at best. Natalist culture is a good way to understand childism and the special status of parents in our cultures. Natalist culture is a partial explanation of restrictions on the rights of women, as women are the reproductive class and therefore are of special concern to natalist institutions.

People often question the use of “culture” in this sense, and say that they do not actually name a singular social entity, but rather a biased interpretation of a number of social phenomena. Can someone give an alternative explanation to every social phenomena I listed above? Sure. But the cumulative evidence of all these phenomena put together strongly indicates the existence of a set of mutually reinforcing attitudes and rules, a “culture.” Even if every point I listed has some non-natalist explanation, the fact remains that they all exist and form a set of attitudes and rules which have the effects I’ve mentioned.

The point in identifying a “culture” is not to say “this is a sinister conspiracy of factors which consciously lead to a planned result.” What we are saying is that these factors do exist and they do lead to a converging result, and no conspiracy or planning is required for this to be true. There is no shadowy cabal that aims to enforce gender roles through rape, or to create pedophiles, and there is no shadowy cabal that aims to promote breeding at all costs. What there is, is a convergence of social factors that leads to these results.

There are very few people who publicly support breeding at all costs or the overpopulation caused by natalism. Does that mean there is no such thing as natalist culture? But that would, again, assume the existence of some conspiracy of people who aim to promote overpopulation, which is not the case at all. If that was the case, we’d talk about “the natalist conspiracy” and not “natalist culture” (and even if such a conspiracy exists, it would be separate from natalist culture). I think the correct stance here is that, while natalism is not widely accepted as a belief system, underlying natalist attitudes are still widely accepted.

Natalist culture influences how people think and act. A lot of people have children because breeding has been glorified and because the negative aspects of breeding are not discussed. It is not that people consciously breed (for the most part, they don’t), but that people naturally see breeding as part of the background assumptions we all make about life. It also leads to other conclusions: if breeding is so good that it’s basically unquestionable, then there must be something special about human life. And you do find that natalists hold to some form of human exceptionalism, whether religious (human life is ordained by God, human life is precious) or secular (human life is inherently superior, humans have the right or duty to exploit the planet).

The expression “natalist culture,” therefore, designates the nexus of intertwining attitudes and rules which emerges from the support of natalism present in a wide variety of institutions (governments, religions, genderism, capitalism, and so on) and implements the desired end results into the general population (children and adults alike). Each institution brings something different to that nexus: very generally speaking, governments influence by rules, religions by dogma, genderism by drives, capitalism by incentives. So for instance genderism makes men and women want to prove themselves by having children, men to prove their manhood and that they are not gay, women to prove their maturity and compassion.

There are some people who object that natalist culture is beyond examination because all societies must be natalist, and any society that is not natalist would go extinct. First of all, natalism is an ethical position (the position that breeding is good), and someone can have children without necessarily being a natalist (just as one can be childfree without being an antinatalist). Natalism is not a requirement for a society to reproduce its labor force. It certainly helps a great deal, but it’s not a requirement.

That being said, even if all societies have had natalist culture, it’s still a topic we must examine in order to understand procreation at a social level. Certainly, as an antinatalist, I am against anything that has to do with natalism. As such, I am against natalist culture and see myself as being apart from it, criticizing it, but I am still a part of a Western society and my positions are a result of my reaction to the socialization I’ve gone through. I am not holding on to any pretense that I, or any other antinatalist, am sitting in a sociological void coming up with criticism of culture ex nihilo. We have to remain conscious that, while we are criticizing aspects of the culture as radicals and antinatalists, we are doing so firmly from the point of view of that culture. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It is what it is.

Does determinism imply fatalism?

I have already addressed the more extreme and bizarre versions of associating determinism with fatalism, the versions where determinism is some kind of external force that you can trick or fight against. But there are more subtle versions of this confusion as well, which are not as clearly wrong or bizarre, and therefore are worth addressing.

I want to address two specific sort of arguments here. The first is that determinism is incompatible with knowledge, and is similar to an argument used by Christian apologists about the incompatibility of evolution with knowledge. The apologist argument is that we should not expect evolution to have brought about a brain which generates truths, and that the human brain would be fundamentally unreliable if evolution was true. There are many things we can reply to this, but the main objection is that the brain is not a proposition-generating machine but rather a versatile tool which, like other parts of our body, can be used for many different purposes. One of these purposes happens to be finding rationally justified propositions.

The anti-determinist argument is somewhat similar to this, but basically replaces evolution with determinism. If determinism is true, then our thoughts are the result of predetermined processes in the brain, therefore we cannot assume that our beliefs are correctly justified. This is usually accompanied by a fallacious argument from incredulity: how can we assume that any proposition that is the result of random natural processes will be properly justified?

The main fallacy with this argument is the assumption that natural processes are random or unguided. Everything humans do is determined and regulated by natural law, and yet we don’t say that buildings or computer chips are random, came into existence unguided, or necessarily unreliable. If it would be laughable to assume this in the case of buildings or computer chips, then why should we assume it in the case of human reasoning? When I construct an argument and justify it rationally, am I not acting in a determined manner and in accordance with natural law? The main difference is that a building is an entirely physical product while an argument is a conceptual product, but both require the careful use of our minds in constructing justified beliefs (about construction or about concepts).

Saying that a thought was determined instead of volitional does not change the nature of the thought, or its justification or absence thereof. The only way we can tell whether a proposition is justified remains to look at arguments or lines of reasoning in favor of, or against, it. What I believe about, say, the sky being blue still hangs upon observations of the sky and the facts about light passing through air, regardless of how my brain arrived at the proposition. For that matter, a Markov chain algorithm could theoretically compose an entire argument (with premises, logic, and conclusion) on some subject: the argument would still be true or false on its merits, regardless of the fact that it was the result of an unthinking algorithm (note that I am not arguing that we are anything like a Markov chain algorithm!).

This argument also begs the question of how a volitional brain could use evidence to formulate reasoning. After all, we are told that volition is not affected by physical processes, since anything caused by a physical process is determined. Perceiving evidence is a physical process. So how can a volitional brain process evidence?

The second argument I wanted to discuss is one which attacks the ethical consequences of determinism. In its simplest version, the argument is simply that determinism cannot explain why people change their minds, or how people can consider arguments and “choose” one side over the other. Sometimes this takes the ironic form that determinists are self-contradictory because they are trying to change people’s minds about agency, when that is impossible according to determinism.

This argument always puzzles me because there is no logical connection between determinism and being unable to be convinced by an argument. All that determinism says is that the processes in our brain are the result of natural processes. It does not indicate anything about the kind of thoughts we can or cannot have. Of course we can change our minds, as is demonstrated every day. Indeed, most or all determinists arrived at their position because some argument or discussion changed their minds on the subject. It would be very silly for a determinist to deny that we can change our minds, but we don’t need to, since there is no logical argument going from “determinism is true” to “we cannot change our minds.”

Sometimes the argument is actually backed by a kind of fatalism: people cannot help being what they are. But this is not a position about whether natural law applies to the brain, this is a psychological position. Whether human beings have some “true nature” which is always reflected in their thoughts or actions or not, this has nothing to do with determinism. You can believe in “fixed personalities” (to give a name to this belief) and be a determinist or an anti-determinist, and you can believe that there are no “fixed personalities” and be a determinist or an anti-determinist.

I think the idea that there are “fixed personalities” is silly because people do change their minds. Nothing about this fact has anything to do with determinism, except the obvious conclusion that such changes take place within the realm of natural law, i.e. are a psychological result of some prior psychological cause. Some people are more set in their ways and less likely to change, while others are more tolerant of new attitudes or ideas. This is a very interesting subject, but, again, it has nothing to do with determinism.

Antinatalism and the suffering of other species.

Some people think antinatalism only applies to human procreation. It is true that, by and large, antinatalists discuss human procreation because, after all, we are human and our concerns are mainly human concerns. Humans generally talk about other humans. Still, antinatalism does not only pertain to human procreation. It is about all sentient life. The ethical proposition of antinatalism is that sentient procreation is wrong, because sentient beings experience suffering and the creation of that suffering is unnecessary and wrong.

Granted, other species will not be moved by logical arguments or emotional appeals. It is not primarily about those animals themselves that we talk about, but about the humans who force procreation on animals for human purposes, most importantly livestock. As in the case of children, it is important to put the blame in the right place: children are not responsible for being born and are not at fault for annoying you, it is the parents who brought them into this world who should be blamed. Blaming cows or chickens for their own reproduction would be silly. Humans are responsible for a great deal of that reproduction, and we should put the blame on them, at least for that amount. The rest can be chalked up to that most “special” of special kids, evolution, smashing its toys together for millions of years until something works.

All the antinatalist arguments also apply to the forced reproduction of animals from other species. If there is no reason for humans to exist, there is even less reason for them to exist, since their purpose in life would be contingent on ours. If we have a duty to not create suffering, then we have a duty not to create their suffering as well. If the context of our lives is too bad to bring more lives into it, then how much worse is it for animals who are condemned to imprisonment until execution?

This has led many antinatalists to the position that vegetarianism is the only ethical position. By eating other animals, we contribute to their suffering. I agree that factory farming is evil and greatly contributes to suffering. However, it is not at all clear that vegetarianism is the only ethical solution. Millions of mammals die under the threshers every year. There is no diet under our current food supply system which does not create suffering in massive quantities (depending on what range of species you believe experience suffering). While this is a minor factor, vegetarianism also entails some human suffering, in that some people simply cannot stay on a vegetarian or vegan diet and stay healthy, a phenomenon called “failure to thrive.”

Would a vegetarian diet, widely adopted, be superior to the omnivore diet? Yes, but mostly due to the end of factory farming. I am not trying to argue that all diets are equally wrong, but merely that vegetarianism does not have the high moral ground that is generally assumed. Some antinatalists seem to believe that vegetarianism or veganism entail zero suffering. This is a laughable, conceited premise.

The infliction of suffering on sentient animals is a collective problem, and collective problems cannot be resolved by individualistic solutions. Recycling cannot save the environment, and being nice to your children does not eradicate childism. It may, in some cases, make you a good person, but it does not help address any collective problems. As radicals, we must attack the root of the problem, not trim some leaves. Our treatment of animals is based on the premise that other species are inferior to humans, and that they, like everything else in nature, are resources to be exploited. Antinatalism must most importantly lead to the awareness that the way we treat animals is not just wrong, but part of a system of prejudice, a global hierarchy constructed by religion and capitalism, where animals and the environment sit at the very bottom. It is that prejudice, and its expression in manufactured suffering on a worldwide scale, that we must address. People’s diets are of little relevance.

The antinatalist position is simple: the forced procreation of other species, including livestock and pets, is evil. Any industry or institution which relies on the forced procreation of other species should be dismantled. Note that, while this would dramatically reduce meat production, this principle does not imply that all eating of other animal species must stop. For one thing, it would not stop hunting. While I do not support hunting in general, except for subsistence, antinatalism in itself does not provide an ethical objection to it.

It remains to be hoped that the technology of artificial meat will put a final period over the whole issue, as long as it becomes widespread and easily affordable. At that point vegetarianism will hopefully become definitely established as the modern diet.