Category Archives: Antinatalism

Another failed attempt at disproving the Asymmetry…

I’ve discussed attempts at disproving the Asymmetry before. They suffer from a complete inability to just look at the argument and argue with it on its own terms. Instead, they have to introduce all sorts of considerations that are not relevant to the argument itself: commonly, they want to talk about some sort of balance between pleasure and suffering (as if that was even possible), such as in this attempt.

Fergus Duniho, of Wisdom is Best, thinks he’s cracked the Asymmetry. His explanation of the argument is very good: he gives the graph, explains it, and even grasps the distinction between a life worth starting and life worth continuing, which is pretty unusual (most critics don’t even get that far). So I have to praise him for his excellent attempt at confronting the Asymmetry.

Unfortunately, the confronting doesn’t continue in the same vein:

So what he is really expressing by (3) is a counterfactual. When he calls the absence of pain good for the never-existent, what he really means is that pain would be bad for the never-existing person if that person existed. Well, this is what (1) already tells us. This counterfactual interpretation adds nothing to what (1) already says. It just frames it in a way that comes across as misleading. Using the same standard, I may call the absence of pleasure bad in the counterfactual sense that pleasure would be good for the never-existent person if he or she did exist. This makes (4) mean the same thing as (2), adding nothing to what (2) already tells us.

Remember what (1) to (4) means in the context of the Asymmetry (at least, in the way I clarified it):

(1) If a person exists, then eir pain is a bad thing.
(2) If a person exists, then eir pleasure is a good thing.
(3) What does not exist cannot suffer (therefore this non-existing pain is a good thing).
(4) What does not exist cannot be deprived of any pleasure (therefore this non-existing pleasure is not a bad thing).

(1) and (3) are clearly not the same thing. Likewise, (2) and (4) are not the same thing. One set pertains to a state of the universe where a person exists, and one set pertains to a state of the universe where that person does not exist. The moral judgment that a person’s pain is a bad thing, and the moral judgment that a state of the universe where that person does not exist does not contain that pain and therefore is a good thing, are obviously two different judgments.

This may seem like a petty dispute, but it is central to the argument. Duniho is wrong in saying that (3) really means that “that pain would be bad for the never-existing person if that person existed.” For one thing, there is no such thing as a “never-existing person.” We are talking about states of the universe, not an “existing person” and a “non-existing person.” But more importantly, (3) is concerned by the fact that what does not exist cannot suffer. This fact cannot be arrived at solely from (1), and requires one to take into account the (lack of) features of non-existence.

If, as some critics bizarrely seem to believe (but not Duniho, as far as I know), there actually are non-existent persons floating around in the aether suffering from not existing (as in the top image on this entry, that I made as a parody of such beliefs), then (3) would be incorrect, and the Asymmetry would not work. But this belief, if true, would change absolutely nothing about (1). Therefore (1) is not an equivalent of (3). Of course we know that there are no non-existing persons floating in the aether, and the Asymmetry is correct, but the point, I hope, is clear.

His analysis of Benatar’s argument continues:

In arguing against a “Bad” evaluation of (4), he writes,

“if the absence of pleasure in Scenario B is bad rather than not bad then we should have to regret, for X’s sake, that X did not come into existence. But it is not regrettable.”

I would disagree. We may not be able to know who any never-existent people would have been, but there are surely some never-existent people who, had they been born, would have lived remarkably happy lives. We may regret, for their sakes, that they never knew the joy of living.

Duniho here seems to completely miss the point of (4), which is that non-existence is not deprived of pleasure (because non-existence, by definition, cannot experience anything), and that “never-existent people” (i.e. people who, if they existed, would have lived happy lives) are not deprived of anything. Or to rephrase this more strictly: in a state of the universe where a person does not exist, there is no one that is deprived of the pleasure that person would have experienced. This is true regardless of the intensity of the happiness or joys we imagine these “never-existent people” having: actually, the intensity has strictly nothing to do with it.

The last sentence is simply incoherent. Who are we regretting the non-existence of? You may imagine some random person living a great life, but that person is only in your imagination. You don’t know what kind of life any hypothetical person might have lived in an alternate universe. To argue that what you’re regretting is anything more than a figment of your imagination would be erroneous.

I also think that Duniho’s response is circular because he is not an antinatalist and therefore believes that lives are inherently worth starting. An antinatalist would point out that even what we think are “remarkably happy lives” contain more suffering than we life to imagine. Our own lives contain more suffering than we like to think about. But this is a side issue anyway.

By this same standard, we might feel relief that the never-existent are not suffering, but it makes no sense to take any serious comfort in this. Since the never-existent will never exist, they are not of much concern to us, one way or the other. The same standard works both ways, and Benatar hasn’t given a convincing reason why it shouldn’t.

Of course it doesn’t make sense to take comfort in it, but it also makes no sense to regret that “never-existent people” did not get to experience “the joy of living.” To go back to the Benatar quote that started this bizarre argument, he was talking about the hypothetical in which a “never-existent person” was deprived of some pleasure, that if this was the case then we should regret, for that “deprived, never-existent person” sake, that they did not exist. But there can be no such thing as a “deprived, never-existent person” (because there are no suffering space fetuses, or anything like that). Therefore there’s no reason to regret anything. Somehow Duniho interpreted this as some kind of “standard.”

I also don’t understand why he thinks “the standard works both ways,” since he himself thinks it doesn’t work both ways: he thinks we should regret (4) (the absence of pleasure) but not take comfort in (3) (the absence of suffering). Therefore he’s maintaining the asymmetry that he himself says doesn’t exist!

We get from bad to worse:

What he means by (4) is simply what it says, that the absence of pleasure fails to be a bad thing for those who do not exist. He says, the absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation. Likewise, I may say that the absence of pain is not good unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a benefit. This is the same standard he uses to argue for (4).

Duniho again insists on a “standard” that doesn’t seem to exist. The only “standards” required to evaluate (3) and (4) are to understand what non-existence means, and to posit that pleasure (which is good) is better than suffering (which is bad). That which does not exist cannot be deprived of pleasure, and cannot suffer. By this standard, the absence of pain is good. I don’t know what other “standard” Duniho seems to be referring to, unless he’s referring to the standard of trying to evade a simple and direct point, which he’s doing here. There does not need to be a person for whom the absence of pain is a benefit because the absence of pain is the benefit.

Keep in mind my formulation of (3) and (4):

(3) What does not exist cannot suffer (therefore this non-existing pain is a good thing).
(4) What does not exist cannot be deprived of any pleasure (therefore this non-existing pleasure is not a bad thing).

Points (3) and (4) apply equally well to a universe with no humans in it, or with a trillion humans in it. If there are no humans anywhere, then there is no human suffering or pleasure, the former fact being a good thing and the latter fact not being a bad thing. If there are a trillion humans, then the absence of the suffering of a hypothetical trillion+1 human is a good thing and the absence of the pleasure of the hypothetical trillion+1 human is not a bad thing. There is no “somebody for whom this absence is a benefit,” as we are talking about states of the universe, not about individual moral judgments within those states. A person within our world may very well be hurt by the non-existence of more people (e.g. infirm or sick people in a world where there’s not enough people to help them out), but this does not affect the Asymmetry in any way.

Duniho then commits the exact same error, but in a much more egregious form, when restating the argument in terms of pain and pleasure having no value for the “never-existent”:

The absence of pain and the absence of pleasure each have zero value for the never-existent, making them perfectly symmetrical with each other. Among the never-existent, there is no one at all who benefits from an absence of pain or who is harmed by an absence of pleasure. As I have argued in other posts, life is the source of value.

The Asymmetry is not about what the “never-existent” may or may not value. It is about evaluating two states, one where a given person exists and one where the person does not exist, and passing moral judgment on both of these states. We are the ones doing the evaluating, not some hypothetical person living in those states, and not a “never-existent person.”

I don’t know why Duniho seems to think that we should debunk moral judgments on the grounds that a person in that situation might disagree. I’m sure many people who we might call immoral would disagree with that judgment. And some people who are in what we would call a “bad situation” might disagree with that judgment. So what? Unless these people can bring us evidence that sheds new light on the problem and makes us revise our judgment, their feelings alone are not particularly relevant. Of course, “never-existent people” are not likely to do so since they, you know, don’t actually exist, so the point is made even more absurd.

As for the statement “life is the source of value,” this can be either trivial and true or substantive and false. It can be trivial and false if it means “in order to value, one must be alive.” It can be substantive and false if it makes more of a statement about life being a fundamental value or some Objectivist-like nonsense similar to this. As it turns out, he means the latter:

When I recognize that valuing my life makes it truly worthwhile, I must recognize, to be consistent, that the same conditions making my life worthwhile make the lives of others truly worthwhile. This opens us up to the possibility of genuine morality, which begins with the recognition that each of our lives is of real, intrinsic value.

I think this is relevant insofar as it shows that Duniho has a vested interest in rejecting antinatalism, beyond the truth or falsity of the arguments.

A clearer refutation of choice-talk.

I feel like I haven’t presented as clear of a refutation of choice-talk as I should have in the past (I did write this entry, but it was more specific to refuting the pro-choice position). This seems rather important to me, since choice-talk is so pervasive and widely accepted, and I spend so much time debunking its theoretical consequences. Much nonsense in politics and philosophy is derived from some form of choice-talk and its bastard grandparents, agency-talk, free will-talk and blame-talk.

What is a “choice”? The standard definition in choice-talk is that a choice happens when an individual picks one out of many options at a given time. This is usually followed with the assertion that, if the situation was repeated exactly, the individual could pick a different option.

The latter assertion is very easy to refute: if the situation was repeated exactly, then there could be no difference in the outcome, as everything moves in accordance with natural law. In short, there’s no free will, which would be a sort of other-dimensional spark (called a “soul”) or a random vibration (depending on who you ask) that makes the brain change itself. If that spark or vibration did change the brain, then we wouldn’t be in the same exact situation anyway. If the spark or vibration could change the brain in a different way, then we’re not in the same exact situation either, because the effect of the spark or vibration is different.

Anyway, the whole argument is moot, for a simple reason. If there is an other-dimensional spark or a random vibration changing the brain, it could not be said to be a result of my decision, and therefore it wouldn’t be me “choosing,” it would be the spark or the vibration. So that’s just not a “choice” in the way we routinely use the word. When people say they “choose” something, they don’t mean a spark or vibration made them pick an option, they mean they picked the option. So the whole thing about souls or randomity is just a dirty semantics trick.

So what about the picking amongst options business? It may seem very clear, but it’s not clear at all. For one thing, how can we figure out what is or is not an option? Take the standard example, which is some individual who wants to eat a fruit and has to decide between an apple and an orange. Is this “choice” really between only two options, “eating an apple” and “eating an orange”? What about doing nothing? What about eating the apple in a certain way, or another way? What about standing on your head?

I am not merely suggesting that we should be careful in how we talk about options, but that the whole notion is entirely arbitrary. If our standard is that an option is a possibility of action, then there is only one option, the action that actually will be undertaken!

People have a lot of confusion over the term “possible.” They think anything they can imagine is “possible.” But I can imagine quite a lot of impossible things (for instance, I can imagine that Napoleon was a gardener or a bricklayer, but it’s not actually possible). Possibility is an indication of the limits on our knowledge, but there must be some evidence that the thing is actually possible and not impossible. If the individual ends up eating the apple, then “eating the orange” was never a possible option. The fact that the individual may have considered it, or could have considered it, does not prove that it is possible.

All human action is the result of the deterministic interaction between an individual’s mind, body and environment. This is a very general statement, but it debunks the idea that there’s any such thing as a “choice.” There are no more “human choices” than there are “tree choices” or “rock choices.”

This has profound political and philosophical implications. For instance, I have talked about how the pro-choice position is fatally flawed because of this. I have also debunked all sorts of voluntaryist and liberal feminist positions, which are heavily based on choice-talk and agency-talk.

Choice-talk adds absolutely nothing to any discussion. I want to demonstrate that with some real-life examples.

Take our previous example of “I chose to eat an apple instead of an orange.” I can remove the choice-talk and say: “I ate an apple, and there was also an orange available.” The latter is saying exactly the same thing as the former, but without the concept of “choice.” The words “chose” and “instead” add no conceptual content (at least, no conceptual content that is actually true) to the sentence.

Now take this typical liberal feminist opinion: “It is argued that most sex workers choose to work in the sex industry and the rights and ability of these individuals to exercise this agency should be supported.”

The terms “sex workers” and “sex industry” are invalid and are just loaded terms used to prop up the author’s beliefs. Apart from that, nothing in this sentence is meaningful. No one “chooses” a job (let alone in the “sex industry”); we take jobs because we must do so in order to function in a capitalist system, and the kind of job we take depends on the economic situation, our education, our talents, who we know, and our opportunities, amongst other things. It’s especially ironic to use the term “agency” in relation to any form of work because workplaces in a capitalist system (unless you’re self-employed) are hierarchical in nature and involve very little freedom.

Note that I am not talking specifically about “sex work.” My point here really has nothing to do with your position on that issue. But the choice-talk and agency-talk is used here to validate the liberal feminist position, and therefore it becomes part of the “sex work” issue. It appears to them as if they are making a powerful argument for their position, but they are really saying absolutely nothing.

We can change the previous sentence to exclude choice-talk and agency-talk while actually saying something meaningful: “The rights and ability of people who work in the ‘sex industry’ should be supported.” This is a meaningful sentence, but it leads us in a rather different direction than that desired by the liberal feminists.

Here is a question related to atheism: “On what basis do people choose to be atheists?”

Of course, that’s not how reality works. Anyone who knows what it’s like to deconvert from any religion knows that there’s very little “choice” involved, even if you believe in the concept to start with. People are generally compelled to become atheists because some doubt or research made them lose their faith.

A better way to phrase the question would be: “Why do people become atheists?”

This asks the same thing, while omitting the concept of “choice,” which is a bad way of approaching the subject.

Here is one prized by conservatives: “Poor people choose to be poor.”

Again, choice-talk is used to appear to validate a position, in this case, political conservatism and hatred of the poor. It’s much easier to hate someone if you believe that their hardships are the result of their own “choice” and not from social conditions. Same for “sex workers”: it’s easier to reject helping prostituted women if you call them “sex workers” and call their “job” a “choice” instead of a consequence.

There is no content independent of the choice-talk in this sentence (apart from the existence of poor people), so there’s no way to rephrase it. Poor people are poor for a wide variety of reasons, but fundamental to all these reasons is the capitalist system which demands that our worth (set in monetary value) be evaluated by the kind of job we have. In a society with a guaranteed minimum wage (as was tested in Canada and proposed in Switzerland), poverty can be eliminated, at least for all citizens. This is an issue of political will, not of “choice.”

I haven’t talked about blame, so here is a sentence about blame: “The president blames society and guns for crime, and I blame criminals.”

The concept of “blame” can only exist where “choice” exists: we cannot blame inanimate objects for anything. We can say “guns cause crime,” but we cannot say “guns are to blame for crime,” at least not literally. But what does it mean to blame society or criminals for crime? We have to make a clear distinction between “criminal action” and “unethical action.” Any given criminal action is only criminal because 1. it has been defined by some legal system as criminal and 2. the legal definition has been enforced.

If anything, we should say “I blame politicians and judges for crime.” But even that is not accurate; no one can be “blamed” for anything because it implies that the individual is the cause of the blameworthy action. There is no point in “blaming” someone who is only incidental to the action. But this is true of all of us.

But this idea of blaming society brings up another point: my position that there is no such thing as “choice” or “blame” because actions are by and large the result of social conditions may be confused with the position that we should “blame society.” If by “society” one means a collection of loose individuals, as right-wingers define it, then no, one cannot “blame” any number of people. If by “society” one means a complex structure made of institutions and their attendant beliefs, then it would be silly to “blame” such a thing because it is inanimate.

It seems to me that, despite the straw men coming from right-wing fanatics, no one really “blames society.” But it’s clear that, if blame is impossible, then “blaming society” must therefore also be impossible. We cannot “blame society” any more than we can blame anyone or anything else.

Justice has nothing to do with “blame.” Punishment does, but not justice. The issue is not one of blame but of cause and effect. Institutions impose incentive systems on individuals. Individuals react to those incentive systems based on their personal circumstances, education, and biases, amongst other factors. The issue of subjectivity really has nothing to do with it.

The Problem of the Fragility of Value.

I’ve written before about using atheological arguments for the benefit of antinatalism: in that entry, it was the Problem of Evil transposed to procreation. In this entry, I want to talk about something that Jeffery Jay Lowder calls “the fragility of value.” Lowder opines that, in general, it’s much harder to build something of value than to destroy it. This is a simple proposition, but there’s a lot to unpack here.

First of all, it implies that we want to build value. Why do we build value? Well, to a certain extent, because we have needs that must be fulfilled. All societies, from the least to most technological, rely on the building of tools and complicated social networks in order to accumulate the food, shelter, and leisure they need in order to operate efficiently and happily. As individuals, we all depend on it, because of the networked nature of the process: no matter how well we do individually, we’re all in a relatively good place if a society is flourishing, and we all fall if a society disintegrates.

This is not the whole story: if it was, then Western societies would not have expanded so much that they threaten human life on Earth. Societies do not stop growing when their people’s needs are met; if so, there would probably be no such thing as agricultural societies, because hunting-gathering societies have been shown to be more than able to fulfill the basic needs of individuals, including a surfeit of leisure time. As far as we can tell, the passage to agriculture was a severe blow to individual health, lifespan, and social well-being, and any society strictly dedicated to individual needs would have no reason to make that change.

In general, societies tend to expand to the limit of what their energy sources (e.g. food supply, animal power, fuel) allow. The creation of value is inextricably linked to technological level and availability of resources.

Second, it implies that value can, and is, destroyed. This is not necessarily an evil event, any more than the creation of value is necessary a good event. Sometimes value must be destroyed in order to bring about a better outcome. Sometimes value is destroyed out of hatred or spite. Most of the time, it’s a wasteful artefact of whatever economic system we operate under.

Third, it concludes that it’s harder to build value than destroy it. To be fair, this is a broad generalization, but it holds true in our daily lives. You need a lot of know-how and work to make a garden, or a javelin thrower, but only some strength is needed to trash them. You need a lot of time to create and maintain a relationship, but very little to destroy it.

This has obvious connections to antinatalist pessimism: we bring people into this world, and those people need to fulfill their values in order to survive and flourish, but it is so easy for the value we build to be destroyed. As far as we can tell this is part of how the universe is made. To this I would append the anti-frustrationist argument, which demonstrates that even a fulfilled desire is no better than the absence of desires. So even if we are successful in fulfilling our desires, we are really accomplishing nothing except running on a never-ending frustrationist treadmill.

The teleological conclusion, I think, would be: what’s the point of condemning anyone to such a badly designed universe?

The real motivations for having children.

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.

Debunking David Wasserman in Debating Procreation.

The book Debating Procreation is not really a debate but a book divided in two halves, one where David Benatar (the antinatalist) makes the case against procreation, and the other where David Wasserman (the natalist) answers this case and antinatalism in general.

Benatar’s case covers the first six chapters. What concerns me here is chapter 7, the first chapter of Wasserman’s reply. I thought it should be publicly debunked, because it is a sickening defense of procreation full of outrageous and offensive statements, which I will quote in their entirety.

His initial claim is pretty arrogant (p149):

I will conclude that none of the anti-natalist arguments establish even a presumptive wrong in procreation.

What he means by “anti-natalist arguments” is only four of them: the Asymmetry, the “quality of life” argument (i.e. part of misanthropic antinatalism), the consent argument, and the risk argument. But I don’t think I’m giving anything away if I say that even this narrow claim falls flat on its face. He fails to address most of the arguments in a substantial manner (he does have a point here and there, but nothing that outweighs his laughable blunders).

His reply to the Asymmetry completely misses the point. He argues that only a person who has a terrible life has any grounds to complain that their life was not worth living. In this he completely misses the distinction between a life worth living and life worth starting, which is fundamental to the Asymmetry. If the Asymmetry is correct, then it is probably the case that most lives are worth living, but it is absolutely the case that no life is worth starting.

We see how completely he misses the point on p153, where he compares two lives, that of a Lucky Child (LC) and that of an Unlucky Child (UC):

Benatar displays an insufficiently robust appreciation of the vast difference in their quality of life, and, more generally, of the vast differences in how well the lives of different people go. Even if we have a strong tendency to ignore, forget, or discount the pain and suffering in our lives, these differences remain profound.

What Wasserman fails to understand is that quality of life has no relevance whatsoever on the Asymmetry: the Asymmetry compares existence to non-existence, in the sense that non-existence entails a lack of properties (i.e. pleasure and suffering, needs, emotions) and existence does not. The quantity of those properties does not change the argument.

It seems he’s confused the Asymmetry with the quality of life argument, or he thinks the Asymmetry is a sort of quality of life argument (i.e. a misanthropic argument), but it is not. Both the Lucky Child and the Unlucky Child lost out when they were brought into existence. This is a logical fact which can only be refuted by addressing the Asymmetry, not considerations outside of it.

But it gets even worse. On the same page, Wasserman appears to be blaming the victim:

Benatar does recognize that UC suffers two kinds of disadvantage, LC only one. First, the pains within UC’s life vastly outweigh the pleasures; second, his very existence gives him good and bad instead of the good and not-bad of nonexistence. LC, in contrast, suffers only the latter disadvantage. Although I have suggested that LC’s complaint on that basis is frivolous, I have assumed that it is coherent; one can always complain that one has not received what is in one’s best interests. But it seems a perverse complaint for LC to make, one that would be belied by his attitude toward the life he leads. He presumably loves that life and craves more happy years. It is an understatement to say that from his ex post perspective he has no regrets about having been created.

There are many things wrong here. First, he again fails to grasp the fundamental distinction between a life worth living and a life worth starting: LC may very well love the life it leads and want more happy years, but that does not prove in any way that its life was worth starting. Wasserman is a piss-poor philosopher if he thinks he can conclusively refute an argument by failing to understand its basic premises.

Second, he’s accusing his imaginary Lucky Child of being some sort of hypocrite in complaining about its existence. So let me make concrete his silly example. I was a Lucky Child. I was born in what I think anyone would call relatively excellent circumstances. I certainly do want my life to continue happily. But I also understand that it would have been better for me to not exist.

This is not a “perverse complaint”; for one thing, it’s not a complaint, just a statement of fact. The fact that I think my life is worth continuing is, again, irrelevant to the fact of the Asymmetry. Wasserman’s accusation that I am making a “perverse complaint” because my life is relatively good makes no more sense than accusing astrophysicists of making a “perverse complaint” when they posit the end of the universe because their own lives are relatively good. My recognition that it is better not to exist has no more to do with my own quality of life than the fate of the universe does.

Third, as I pointed out, this is an attempt at blaming the victim. All human beings, including LC, receive harm in the course of their lives, and they are all justified in complaining about it, no matter how light or severe the harm is. For Wasserman to whine about this is the only perverse thing here.

Moving on to his analysis of the quality of life argument, which is basically the argument that most lives are not good enough to justify procreation, Wasserman goes into truly pathetic territory. He begins by making a Not My Child argument on p155:

Many of Benatar’s critics have claimed that a lot of prospective parents, especially in more developed nations, have good reason to believe that their children are very likely to lead good lives, conventionally assessed. They know, of course, that their lives may go very badly, as badly as those of the worst off in a developing country, but they may reasonably believe the odds of such a dreadful life as very slight.

You know a philosopher is shit when his argument begins with an assessment of people’s opinions. The quality of life argument has absolutely nothing to do with what parents believe, or what anyone believes. It is not a poll. The quality of life argument has to do with the concrete facts of human existence on this planet.

Before going into the meat of his argument here, I wanted to point out a particularly perverse (to borrow his term again) argument on p159, where he uses a debating tactic that is exactly similar to one of the Christian theodicies:

Benatar gives the verdict of a desire-satisfaction account intuitive appeal with his hedonic inflection: the frustration of desires is a highly aversive (sic) experience, while their satisfaction gives only transient pleasure… But the tenacious pursuit of a goal that one that (sic) expects to be unattainable need not produce frustration… rather, it may lead to the satisfaction of a “higher-order” desires (sic) to be resourceful and persevering in trying to satisfy first-order desires, and to pride in whatever partial successes one has achieved.

This paragraph is so badly written and so muddled that it’s hard to understand, but basically he’s using a “higher-order desires” argument to justify frustrated desires in the exact same way as Christian theologians try to explain the existence of evil by appealing to “higher-order goods.” The argument fails for the exact same reason: it’s a red herring. There is no need for those “higher-order desires” to exist in the first place, any more than there’s any need for the frustrations to exist. It’s all pointless verbiage.

On p162, his argument proper starts:

[M]any in the throes of a painful final illness still regard their lives as well worth living, even if they do not die surrounded by loved ones or narcotized into bearable pain without loss of awareness. Benatar may think they are mistaken and self-deceived. But it is not clear on what basis he can invoke their authority about their experiences while dismissing the weight they give them in the overall evaluation of their lives.

Yes, as you probably imagined from the quote on p155, his argument hinges on personal perception of one’s life, or other people’s perception of one’s life, both things which have absolutely no relevance whatsoever to the quality of life argument. Again Wasserman thinks he’s answering an argument while completely ignoring what the argument is about. As we know now, this is about par for the course for natalists: they must desperately ignore what the arguments are about, because they are so simple, direct and logical, and therefore they must go on endlessly about ridiculous irrelevancies.

But to be clear, the antinatalist does not, at all, have to say that such people are mistaken and self-deceived. There is no issue in antinatalists recognizing that a person’s life was worth living once it was started. We are against procreation, not against people wanting to continue living. The only person who is self-deceived here is Wasserman, because he thinks he’s addressing antinatalism but clearly is not. And it’s so nice of him to use suffering people as an argument, too.

He continues this endearing (by which I mean “sickening”) trend on p164:

[I]ndividuals have very different experiences of the physical conditions Benatar describes, and, if those conditions are not terminal, live with them in very different ways. Thus Benatar treats paralysis as a terrible fate, and for some people it undoubtedly is. But for others it is definitely not. They find ways to live rich lives with and despite their limitations, and not only because they may have a robust euphoria.

This is coming dangerously close to agency talk, which, as I’ve explained at length on this blog, is merely another form of blaming the victim. By portraying victims of paralysis as “finding ways to live rich lives” (i.e. pretend that they’ve become “active” instead of “passive”, thus erasing their status of victim), he seeks to distract us from the fact that paralysis is a grave harm and throw us into a theetie-wheetie “if they think it’s okay, then who are we to complain?” line of reasoning.

I won’t pretend to talk for the people Wasserman is trying to use as an argument. They may or may not sympathize with his view of things. But from a logical standpoint, this is nonsense. The way in which people view their experience of suffering has no bearing on the importance, or lack thereof, of that suffering. People shrugging off a genocide or mass extermination (as we are doing right now with the extermination of other species on this planet, just to give one example) does not make it irrelevant. To say otherwise is to plunge into delusion.

I made an analogy with a theological argument previously. On p165, Wasserman seems to be one-upping himself in using a secular equivalent of the “you send yourself to Hell” argument:

Benatar’s risk argument gains spurious strength, I suspect, from the Russian roulette simile he employs, which has prospective parents pointing a gun at the head of their future child; a gun with a high proportion of chambers loaded. This simile is misleading. As the literature on the ethics of risk imposition and distribution points out, it matters a great deal if the threatened harm will be imposed intentionally. Shooting someone with a loaded gun is intentionally harming him, even if the discharge of the bullet had been far from certain. As David DeGrazia points out in discussing Shiffrin’s harm argument, parents do not impose harm on their children so much as expose them to it, while making a concerted effort to avoid or mitigate it. And that is a far different matter for a non-consequentialist than imposing harm.

That second-to-last sentence is quite bizarre. Parents do not “impose” harm on their child, they “expose” their children to harm, while trying to “mitigate it.” What exactly is being mitigated? Not the harm, since, in this scenario, parents are merely “exposing” children to it, as if harm is something that exists wholly outside the family structure. And if they’re trying to avoid exposing their children to it, then why expose them to it in the first place? Why bring them into a world which they know contains innumerable harms?

The Russian roulette example, which is commonly used by antinatalists, provide us with a way of further interrogating this reframing. Can we not rephrase placing a person under a Russian roulette scenario as “exposing them to” the harm of the risk of getting shot? Then what good is the rephrasing? Whether we say we’re “imposing the” harm of the risk of getting shot, or “exposing them to” it, we’re talking about the exact same thing. So this leads us nowhere.

This whole quote is obviously extremely clumsy, but Wasserman seems to be trying to imply that the parents are not imposing harm “intentionally.” But this is slicing it thin. Sure, parents are not imposing any specific harm intentionally, but they are imposing harm intentionally: they are very well aware (or should reasonably be aware) that by creating a new person they are also “imposing” or “exposing” it to harm, and they are doing so intentionally (because they believe the benefits outweigh the harms, or whatever other nonsense justification they have).

If they are not doing so intentionally because they are creating new people without even thinking about it, well, how is that any better? What does “the literature on the ethics of risk imposition and distribution” have to say about willful ignorance leading to harm? Does it “matter a great deal” if I shoot you out of willful ignorance of what guns do, instead of shooting you intentionally? Or are you still dead either way? I’d really like to know…

I am not a consequentialist. My main guiding ethical principle is that one should strive not to harm others. Adopting this principle is the result of my radical commitments, including my commitment to antinatalism. And to me, intentionality is really not that important. If it can be reasonably expected that our actions will cause harm (as in the case of procreation), then we should not perform those actions. It’s really that simple.

Before going into the next argument, I wanted to point out this nice little bit of Polyannaism on p167:

I believe that many prospective parents can reasonably conclude that their own children are unlikely to commit, or be significantly complicit in, the kind of harms that would (or should) make them ashamed of having borne them.

This is, again, absolute twaddle. The only way “many prospective parents” could “reasonably conclude” this would be if they had so little sense of shame that they were actually sociopaths, or robots. Not only have we all done things we’re ashamed of, but our existence as social agents necessarily implies, as I’ve discussed in my entry on misanthropic antinatalism, a number of grave harms (such as our contribution to animal suffering and to the suffering of slaves). The only thing we can “reasonably conclude” is that our existence leads to harms that should make us ashamed.

Moving on to Wasserman’s reply to the consent argument, what does he have to say to this very simple, direct and powerful argument? He spends the entire section trying to weasel out of the requirement of consent, and he does so with brazen use of childism. On p171, we get this:

[I]t is not clear that parents would violate any right by bringing a child into existence, although existence brings unavoidable harms. Unlike in postnatal interventions, there is neither a physical incursion on an individual with a right against such incursion, nor a disruption of plans and attachments already formed. Moreover… the benefits of life can be enormous.

I don’t understand why he thinks this is a counter-argument to the consent argument, since he’s talking about rights, not consent. The underlying premise seems to be that we only need to obtain consent if the action we wish to perform would otherwise violate a person’s rights, but that seems unnecessarily narrow. Besides, Wasserman does not try to justify this premise, and does not even seem to recognize that his argument crucially depends on it. Without a justification for it, the argument fails.

In my view, consent is the absolute bare minimum criterion that an action done to another must pass in order to be ethical (although in most circumstances we should additionally recognize a number of other criteria). Consent is an issue more generally of freedom and self-determinism, not just of rights. So I reject Wasserman’s argument on that basis.

I also reject his argument as circular. His argument reduces itself to: parents do not violate the rights of future persons by bringing them into existence because future persons have no rights. But the issue of future persons having rights or not is precisely the issue under debate. All natalist arguments I’ve heard are rendered null and void if future people have rights.

And I do believe that future persons have rights. I realize this is a substantial topic and will not go any further here, but I’ve already debunked the most common objection to this view, the Non-Identity Problem.

Before moving on, I do want to point out the irony of that last sentence: “the benefits of life can be enormous.” To whom? Not to the future person, as it does not yet exist, and non-existence cannot benefit from anything. Can life benefit someone already alive? Sure, but that’s a red herring. Since his argument was clearly about future persons, this addition is disingenuous at best.

He continues:

[P]arents do not generally cause or impose the more serious harms their children suffer, but merely expose them to those harms. DeGrazia, who makes this distinction, argues that parents “faultlessly expose children to harm all the time, often as part of creating opportunities for greater benefits.” He gives the example of sending children to school, to which they often vocally dissent, and which exposes them to a variety of significant harms for the sake of rich opportunities.

Again with the benefits. This time, at least, we’re clearly talking about existing persons, but the question still remains: benefits according to who? Not according to the child, but according to the parents, presumably. To which one should reply, why does it matter at all what the parents think? Whether the parents think they are “exposing” children to harm for a good reason or not, they are still imposing harm, that is to say, without consent (that last word, while supposedly the thing under discussion, does not appear anywhere in this argument).

And how does this childist argument prove that parents “merely expose” children to harm, a semantic trick we’ve already seen? In the particular example presented, parents are not “merely exposing” children to school, they are “imposing” school on them, with all the harms that this implies. So the example completely fails in making the point.

The term “exposing,” I think, is meant to reframe the relation between harms and children as one where the parent is completely passive, where the parent has no personal responsibility. It brings to mind parents showing their children a television show or a book, “exposing” them to other ideas or other cultures. It sounds vaguely positive, even educational.

In trying to push this reframing, and smuggling in all these connotations under the reader’s attention, I think Wasserman is being deliberately deceitful.

Now to the last argument, the risk argument (basically, the Russian Roulette argument). On p173, we see that Wasserman still does not understand the difference between a life worth starting and life worth living:

It is hard to deny the possibility that anyone’s child could have a life that she reasonably regarded as not worth living.

This is a damning statement on his part, because he’s conceding a major part of the risk argument right there. But most importantly, that’s not the point. The standard for a life worth starting is reasonably much, much higher than the standard for a life worth living. By using the latter, Wasserman is making a straw man and fallaciously tipping the scales in his favor.

The meat of his argument suffers from a similar childism than the previous one. On p174:

As DeGrazia notes in response to Shiffrin, we do not look askance at many significant gambles parents take with their children’s lives, as long as a reasonable parent could conclude that the payoffs were worth the risks.

Again, why the hell should we care what a “reasonable parent” believes? No person is ethically justified in forcing risks on another person without their consent. Of course we should “look askance” at a parent taking a “significant gamble” with their child’s life! The fact that Wasserman thinks there’s nothing wrong with this proposition shows that he has considerable child-hatred. There’s not much to say about such bigotry except to point out that it is bigotry.

Wasserman’s basic argument against the risk argument is to accuse its proponents of suffering from “implausible risk aversion.” He does not really come out and explain what he considers to be a reasonable risk, although he seems to be taking the line that a risk of harm is acceptable as long as it brings with it the potential of a greater benefit. He uses the example of driving on a road versus driving drunk: driving drunk presents an unacceptable level of risk to others compared to the benefits, while driving in general, according to him, presents an acceptable level of risk compared to the benefits of transportation.

It really doesn’t matter since, after all, he is only obligated to disprove the argument, not propose his own. But his accusation that we are risk averse seems misguided to me, insofar as he again refuses to take into account the issue of consent. I am willing to concede a considerable level of risk as long as consent already exists.

Again, consent does not enter into his discussion at all, which is pretty bizarre since he is ostensibly analyzing an argument which hinges around consent. Why Wasserman insists on not talking about consent, I don’t really have any idea, especially since he could have used some of the arguments I discussed above to address consent as well (badly, since the arguments are bad, but at least he would have made an effort).

I think this is not just an indication of Wasserman’s incapacity of dealing with the arguments as they stand, but also an indictment of the natalist mindset in general. As far as I can tell, the only way to make natalist argument is by not giving a shit about women and not giving a shit about children’s rights and well-being, let alone their consent.

Some may say I am being too hard on him. I do not think so. This is a serious debate between two scholars in philosophy and ethics, and one may reasonably expect that the very best, most sophisticated arguments will be presented. Seen in this context, Wasserman’s response is a laughable failure.

Just for laughs, let me quote one particularly egregious example from the next chapter. On p190, he discusses how a parent could have a child for the good of the child, a proposition which is illogical on its face. But here’s his attempt at explaining it:

Here is an example to give some flesh, and plausibility, to the idea that prospective parents can create children for reasons that concern the good of the children, or at least their shared good. Consider a couple who very much want children and decide to adopt. They are normally fertile, but are moved by the need to find homes for the many orphaned children in their country now housed in institutions. This, however, is not their primary reason for adopting; it merely tips the balance. Their reasons include wanting the fulfillment of raising a child from a young age, seeking the uniquely intimate relationship that a child develops with its parents, and giving the child a good home- among the reasons given in surveys of prospective parents. They regard these as reasons that could be served equally well by adoption or conception. Just as they are going to start visiting orphanages, their government prohibits adoption… The couple is very disappointed but quickly decides to go with “Plan B”- they conceive a child for the same reasons.

The point of this example is not just to illustrate that adoption and procreation may be done for similar reasons. As important for my purposes, it suggests the limited role that the actual vs. contingent existence of the child may play in the sorts of reasons prospective parents have.

I hope you see why this is completely confused, but let me clarify for those who don’t. Wasserman is trying to demonstrate that breeders can have non-selfish reasons for having a child by starting from the point of view of adoption, and then stating that most of the reasons for adoption also apply to procreation. But the one non-selfish reason, finding a home for an orphaned child, does not, by definition, apply to procreation. So the analogy makes no sense as evidence for the claim.

This is the kind of nonsense you end up with when you try to prove something impossible. You’d think a philosopher could figure that out!

Looking at misanthropic antinatalism.

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.

The antinatalist fine tuning argument.

The fine tuning argument, which should be familiar to anyone involved in apologetics from either side, aims to prove the existence of God by pointing out various features of the universe which are conducive to the existence of life as we know it. So for example they will point to the cosmological constants, assume a range that constant can take, and point out that only a small part of that range permits life to exist. Or they will point to various features of physics, such as the four fundamental forces, and that large changes in those forces would not permit life to exist.

Given these facts, believers argue that it is more probable that God is the source of these coincidences than they coming about by random chance.

There have been a great number of debunkings of this argument. One fatal objection is that we really have no idea what the possible range of the cosmological constants are, and so we cannot truthfully say if the universe is fine-tuned or not. Another fatal objection is that fine-tuning actually makes naturalism more probable, not theism: if naturalism is true, we should expect the universe to be fine-tuned, but if God created the universe, there’s no reason why the laws of nature should be so hostile to life.

However, my point here is not to talk about the argument proper, but rather to question the very framework on which the argument is based: that God wanted to create life and that this was in line with his nature as standard of morality.

From the antinatalist perspective, the creation of life would perhaps be the most evil act to ever be perpetrated. In short, life entails suffering, and suffering is always undesirable. The antinatalist solution is to cease procreating and therefore cease bringing about new life which will suffer and die.

If we assume that God exists and created the universe, he was faced with one fundamental decision: to create beings that suffer, or to not do so (note that this option does not necessarily mean to not create any beings). Christians argue that it was good for God to choose the former (because otherwise we wouldn’t be here), and antinatalists argue that it would have been good for God to choose the latter (because we wouldn’t be here).

If God was good, then he wouldn’t have created beings that suffer. The fact that suffering exists is the proof that either God is not good or God does not exist.

Applying the antinatalist perspective to fine-tuning follows from there: if the universe is finely tuned to support the existence and proliferation of life, then the universe either arose naturally or was the outcome of a deliberate, profoundly evil, act. It would be better if the universe was not finely tuned for life.

And if the Christians are right that it is extremely unlikely for a “random” universe to accommodate life, then the act becomes that much more deliberate, and therefore culpable. This leads us to the inescapable conclusion that the more effective the fine-tuning argument is, the more evil God is.

From an evolutionary standpoint, the issue of suffering is explainable. Physical pain, for example, is a signal to the body that it is being harmed. Emotional pain is more varied but it is also generally associated with damage to one’s psychological well-being.

Since this is a moral argument, albeit one based on moral principles that few people would argue with (e.g. suffering is a bad thing), objections can be made in the lines of those made against other moral arguments. I’ve seen quite a few play out on atheist shows, and I want to examine the two I’ve most commonly observed.

The first common response is that atheists have no standards of morality, and that therefore they cannot declare that something is good or bad. A statement such as “suffering is a bad thing” presupposes the validity of the Christian worldview.

My answer is that the first premise is incorrect. We are all equipped with standards of morality (moral intuitions), whether we’re religious or not. We are all capable of making statements about morality like “suffering is a bad thing.” Unfortunately our intuitions are often marginalized or erased by biases, including religious bias. Christianity hinders the formation of moral standards. How can it be the source of morality if it hinders it?

The clever Christian could then reply that the moral intuitions were put “in our heart” by God. Yes, of course, once you accept the primacy of the imagination you can posit any ad hoc rationalization for any inconvenient fact of reality. But the fact remains that they are accessible to all, Christian or not, and that using them or explaining them does not require one to presuppose any Christian concept.

Another fatal response to this rationalization is the following: if the God of the Bible really did implant morality in humans, then Christianity must be contradictory, since our moral intuitions often contradict the Bible’s idea of morality, which supposedly comes from God himself. If both are true, then Christianity entails that slavery is invalid and that slavery is valid, that genocide is invalid and that genocide is valid, that rape is invalid and that rape is valid. But both cannot be true.

The second common response is that God’s morality cannot be evaluated or compared to ours because God does not exist on the same plane as we do and his morality is of an entirely different order.

Now let’s be honest here, this is an ad hoc rationalization, pure and simple. But even if we follow along, it still makes no sense. If God’s morality has no relation whatsoever with human morality, then why follow it? We are humans and need a human morality to operate on this planet, just like monkeys operate on monkey morality, dolphins operate on dolphin morality, and so on. It would be just as imbecilic to demand that a dolphin follow human morality than to demand that a human follow divine morality.

In short, if God is such a different kind of thing that humans cannot evaluate its morality, then there’s no clear reason why we should even consider following divine morality in the first place, let alone take God’s side on any moral issue. Indeed, if we cannot evaluate God’s morality, then it cannot be good or evil from a human perspective. But we can still evaluate God’s actions from a human perspective, and call those actions good or evil from a human perspective. That doesn’t require us to evaluate God’s morality at all.

An Antinatalist FAQ.

1. What is antinatalism?

The core of the antinatalist ideology is the ethical position that human procreation is wrong.

More broadly, antinatalism can be described as the ethical position that the procreation and continuation of sentient life (i.e. lifeforms that feel pain) is wrong, insofar as humans have a considerable impact on the procreation and continuation of sentient life on this planet.

2. What are the lines of reasoning for antinatalism?

There is no generally agreed upon classification, but on this blog I use the classification made by filrabat. I have decided to use it because it seems to fit the natural division of arguments as used by Benatar and others, which makes it very useful.

The classification divides antinatalist arguments in four general categories:

* Philanthropic antinatalism encompasses deductive arguments centered around the undesirability of exposing new lives to harm. Arguments in this line include Benatar’s Asymmetry and other harm/benefit asymmetries, the consent argument, and anti-frustrationism.

* Teleological antinatalism, as the name indicates, encompasses arguments about the lack of purpose or justification for procreation. A good example of this approach is Gary Mosher’s famous aphorism “there is no need for need to exist.”

* Ecological antinatalism encompasses arguments about the harm that humans inflict on other forms of life on this planet. VHEMT is the main proponent of this position.

* Misanthropic antinatalism encompasses arguments which aim to show that the world or human societies are not good enough to bring new lives into them. This includes the risk argument, amongst others.

3. What is the difference between antinatalism and childfreedom?

Childfreedom refers to people who have consciously decided not to have children. It is not an ethical position but a personal decision. A childfree person may or may not agree with the proposition that procreation is wrong.

Likewise, an antinatalist person may or may not be childfree. Some people have had children before realizing the dubious ethical nature of breeding.

4. What about this “efilism” I’ve heard some antinatalists talk about?

Efilism is a word used by Gary Mosher to designate his personal worldview, which he says he arrived at independently from antinatalism. He uses that word to emphasize his belief in the undesirability of all new sentient life, not just new human lives.

5. Who is Gary Mosher?

Gary Mosher is a person who maintains a number of Youtube accounts, including most notably inmendham, dedicated to antinatalist issues. He has been a tireless promoter of antinatalism for many years, especially to atheist groups. He lives in Mendham, New Jersey.

6. What is VHEMT?

VHEMT is an organization based around promoting ecological antinatalism. The URL is and it’s promoted by one Les U. Knight.

7. Are you all just depressed people?

No. While depressed people may be naturally attracted to antinatalism because of its realistic view of human existence, one does not have to be depressed to be an antinatalist. Many antinatalists become proponents of the position because they were convinced by the arguments (as in my case) or based on personal experiences.

8. Why don’t you kill yourself?

This is definitely a commonly asked question by opponents of antinatalism, and shows how kind they are. Wishing death on people who disagree with you is not a good sign of mental health.

But beyond that, the question reflects a fundamental lack of understanding of what antinatalism is about. Antinatalists are not against the continuation of life, they are against the creation of new life. Killing yourself ends your own suffering, but it also creates more harm to the people you leave behind.

For more, see this entry I wrote answering this question.

9. What about all the good things about life?

Antinatalists acknowledge that most human lives contains benefits as well as harms, and that both are an important part of our lives. However, we can’t simply “cancel out” benefits and harms, and the existence of benefits does not nullify the existence of the harms that antinatalist arguments are based around. While we should seek those benefits while we are alive, they do not form a justification for bringing new people into this world.

Again, I’ve written an entry related to this topic.

10. Isn’t the natural result of your ideology the extinction of the human race? That’s an insane position, you can’t honestly believe that?

First, it is not true that the “natural result” of antinatalism would be human extinction, for the simple reason that many people will not accept antinatalism no matter what. Breeder entitlement is extremely powerful.

Second, there is no justification that can be given for the continuation of humanity, showing that it is an arational position at best (see this entry for further explanation). The belief that we shouldn’t be doing things of this magnitude if we have no justification for them is not “insane,” but rather a pretty natural response.

11. I want to write about antinatalism, even though I am against it. Any recommendations?

Don’t do what everyone else does, which is to go off on what they think antinatalism is about without even bothering to read the arguments or what any antinatalist believes. At least have the confront to actually read what it’s about. Then criticize it.

If you’re willing to jump in and ask us some hard questions, then you should be willing to answer some as well. I would recommend these 12 questions as a starting point for further discussion.

12. What are the main books expounding the antinatalist ideology?

The two earliest texts discussing antinatalism as an ideology of its own are L’art de guillotiner les procreateurs : manifeste anti-nataliste (2006), by Theophile de Giraud, and Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence (2008), by David Benatar.

Other books of interest include The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror (2011), by Thomas Ligotti, Confessions of an Antinatalist (2010), by Jim Crawford, and Every Cradle Is a Grave: Rethinking the Ethics of Birth and Suicide (2014), by Sarah Perry.


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