Category Archives: Antinatalism

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.

We need wrongful birth lawsuits against parents.

Currently, wrongful birth lawsuits are used by parents against doctors for failing to warn them of possible health hazards to their future child. Like most malpractice lawsuits, they go for extremely high amounts of money and are high-profile.

As an antinatalist and anti-childist, I cannot but approve of such lawsuits. Doctors who fail to warn parents of problems with the fetus, which leads to the birth of a compromised child, should be condemned by society. But I also think that they are not taken nearly far enough. The interests of the parents are considered to be the most important here. But what about the interests of the child, now born, living a half-life of suffering or deficiency? Who are we supposed to feel worse about, the parents, who are presumably healthy and not living a life of suffering, or the child, who never asked to be born?

But this is not solely an emotional issue. If you believe that children have the right to the highest possible standard of health, and you must believe this if you are to believe that we have any right to health as an adult, then the responsibility of parents in this case is a legal one. If a child is born with physical or mental defects which ensure that it cannot attain the highest possible standard of health, then its rights are infringed upon. Who is doing the infringing? Ultimately, the parents, who dragged it into this world. Obviously in some cases the doctor is partially responsible. But in all cases, the actions necessary to bring about a new life rests with the parents.

I foresee a few objections. Some of them are trivial, like the perpetual “everyone has bad things happen to them in their lives, get over it” macho boasting (I have discussed other rationalizations here), which does nothing to address the argument I’ve presented and is therefore irrelevant. But what if the parents do not know that the child’s health will be compromised? Can we really hold them responsible for giving birth to it?

Parents are aware, or should reasonably be aware, of the fact that giving birth to a child means taking the risk that this child will be born with compromised health. It is common knowledge that this sort of thing happens. Many parents may live in a bubble of delusion (Not My Child syndrome), but delusion does not divest you of responsibility. You may delude yourself into believing that you can drive at any speed without risk, but the accident that may result will still be your responsibility. If a parent has a child and that child turns out to be disabled in some way, the birth should be considered to be the legal equivalent of inflicting that same disability on an already existing child, which is to say, battery or assault. If the child dies, then the parents should be considered guilty of manslaughter.

This may seem rather harsh, especially compared to the cases involving doctors, which only involve monetary compensation. But the doctors are only guilty of malpractice, in that they failed to inform their patients of an important health issue. The doctor did not cause the child to be born with a disability, they merely didn’t prevent it from happening, which makes them a huge asshole but doesn’t qualify as assault. At best we could say that the malpractice, if present, mitigates the parents’ crime.

Another objection may be that the parents do not inflict the disability on their child themselves, that it’s a by-product of nature. But we do not use such excuses in similar cases. Giving someone AIDS without their consent is considered a crime (often a felony) in most countries of the Western world. And yet children born with HIV get no recourse later in life. There is a profound hypocrisy in a statement like that. The fact that there is some distance between the parents’ decision to have a child which could be compromised and the actual compromising is no more an excuse than the fact that you can poison someone instead of just punching them. Poisoning someone takes longer and is mediated by their biology, while punching someone is not, but both are criminal acts.

I like my life, therefore antinatalism is false!

There seems to be a trend in criticism of antinatalism, in that critics are actually now taking the time to understand what antinatalism is all about, but they still can’t confront the arguments. This makes their criticism a lot stranger: why take the time to understand antinatalism if you’re unable to confront it anyway? It is absolutely useless for them to be able to describe antinatalist arguments completely accurately if they are unable to deal with the arguments or provide a reasoned reaction to them.

Artir, of the blog Nintil, has written an overlong rebuttal to antinatalism called Pollyanna über alles: A critique of antinatalism. Now before I begin, I want to point out that Artir is not quite right in the head. What are we to make of someone who seriously writes: “someone who is never sad like me” and that “what follows is an argument from non-self-deluded, cheerful Pollyannaist optimist”? Why would anyone describe themselves in this way?

Anyway, as I said, the rebuttal is extremely long, but I will not address most of it here. My position is that the basic argument used by Artir is absolutely wrong, and therefore there is no point in addressing the corollaries of Artir’s reasoning. So let me go straight to Artir’s argument.

First, he defines “UAPR” (“universal a priori antinatalism”), but that’s just his term for antinatalism. He also uses two other terms, UAPO (“universal a posteriori antinatalism”) and “individual a posteriori antinatalism,” which have nothing to do with antinatalism. Antinatalism is nothing more than the position that procreation is wrong. How you justify that proposition is irrelevant to the fact that you are an antinatalist, and you cannot say that an antinatalist must justify their antinatalism in certain ways. I think this is an attempt by Artir to single out the Asymmetry as a particularly extreme argument.

Talking about that, the Asymmetry is what Artir singles out. He seems to erroneously believe that refuting the Asymmetry proves that “UAPR” (i.e. what we call antinatalism) is wrong. This, of course, is false: there are plenty of other antinatalist arguments which are not based on the Asymmetry, and Artir fails to address any of those. Again we see this obsession with the Asymmetry that so many critics seem to have, possibly because it’s the argument on which Benatar spends the most time in his book. And yet, despite this obsession, the Asymmetry still has not been logically refuted.

Artir’s argument is the following:

1. My life is nice
2. Not bringing me into existence wouldn’t have allowed me to have such a good life, or a life at all
3. If you can cause me to exist by pressing a button – a small cost to yourself – you ought to do it. Failing to do so will mean that I wouldn’t enjoy my life
4. Hence, there is one life that is worth starting, and for which we have a duty to start it
5. But this contradicts UAPR
6. Hence, UAPR is wrong…

The antinatalist will criticise my premise 1 with arguments for UAPA, saying that my life is not that good. I’ll answer that later. The second premise will be criticise by means of the Asymmetry, so to it I turn. Premise three seems trivially true if one accepts even a minimalistic conception of positive duties.

I have no interest in denying premise 1 or 2. I really have no idea if Artir’s life is nice or not, but I’ll take his word for it. I have no idea why he thinks antinatalists would criticize premise 2, because it is almost trivially true. Not bringing a potential person into existence means that potential person will not become actual and have a lifespan. There is no disagreement possible on this point.

No, the only premise that is clearly false, and which antinatalists such as myself will criticize, is premise 3. Premise 3 is not at all trivially true, and in fact it is rather bizarre that someone would argue this, especially after considering criticisms for premise 2, which is actually trivially true. Logic is not Artir’s strong suit, to say the least.

Apart from the idea that we have an obligation to bring about enjoyable lives, a point which I will argue with the next quote, there are still many things wrong with the argument. For one thing, we do not come to exist at a minuscule cost equivalent to pressing a button. Since this is part of one of the premises, this means that his argument only proves that antinatalism is wrong if procreation comes at a minuscule cost. But it very clearly does not, therefore the argument does not refute antinatalism. Furthermore, as I said before, this argument does not refute other antinatalist arguments such as the misanthropic arguments, the risk argument, the teleological argument, the ecological arguments, the feminist arguments I’ve presented on this blog, and so on. So this argument fails to disprove antinatalism (of the “universal a priori” kind or otherwise).

As for the obligation to bring about enjoyable lives, Artir argues as follows:

I disagree that there anything special regarding a duty not to bring people into existence. Duties are mostly negative (To avoid harming), and a few are positive (beneficence). This stems from the idea that we ought not interfere with the life-plans of other and let them live their lives as they want. However, there is no pre-existing life-plan to interfere with in the case of unborn people. But if a new person is generated such that the person comes to regret its existence, then we would have wronged that person, for we would have put that person through a life that was not asked for, so it would still be wrong.

That said, if we accept that we have a broad duty of beneficence (to do good to others), then one way of discharging that duty is bringing more people into existence. Creating people who will be satisfied with their lives is a good thing.

What antinatalists are saying is that there is no universal duty to provide pleasure, and therefore the pleasures of life do not provide an obligation to bring about new lives. The duty of beneficence is about our duty to prevent others from suffering due to their position in society or their specific situation. This makes absolutely no sense in the context of procreation, because there is no human being there whose suffering we can prevent. The duty of beneficence therefore cannot disprove antinatalism.

I think Artir confused “duty of beneficence” with “duty to do good for others.” It is very clear that no one should believe in the latter idea, and anyone who says otherwise is pure evil: if we have a duty to provide anything that others find morally good, no matter what it is and no matter what moral evaluation we give it, that means we have a duty to do anything from having sex (i.e. being raped) to killing their enemies. I think it should very, very clear that no such duty could possibly be justified. We have a duty as a society to help others who are worse off or in danger, but we do not have a universal duty to do good to others.

That being the case, we have disproven premise 3 of his argument. I cannot have any obligation or duty to help conceive any given person on the basis of expected pleasures, because I have no obligation or duty to give other people pleasure (except if I create such an obligation for myself, and myself only, which clearly does not apply here since this is about Artir telling us that we have that obligation). The only universal duties that can exist are negative, duties which enjoin us to not harm others in some way and/or to prevent harm in some way.

Just to clarify a possible source of confusion, when I say we have no universal positive duties, this is not related to “negative rights” and “positive rights.” We do clearly have “positive rights,” because any conception of human rights is meaningless or empty without them. But human rights as a whole pertain to what we’d call negative duties. We have no human right to be given pleasure or satisfaction.

The idea that “we ought not interfere with the life-plans of other” (sic), but that this does not apply in the case of unborn people, is true. But while it may be true that procreation does not interfere with the future person’s life-plan, this is because there are still no values to protect, and there will not be any values to protect until the child is born. Therefore, the life-plan of the future person, whether it includes pleasure or suffering, is used in these arguments as a purely selfish factor: ultimately, it is the values of the parents which are being furthered by the act of procreation, no one else’s. So while the argument is technically true, it is also very conceited and selfish. At any rate, the consent argument takes care of it.

He also tries to validate his positive duty in another way, and to dispatch the consent argument as well:

Suppose you have a magic fist such that if you punch people in their arm you cause them to have greater intelligence, and be able to enjoy a range of pleasures that they weren’t enjoying before (Say, understanding quantum mechanics, learning History, and doing phlosophy). Furthermore, assume that people who have been punched in the past have all almost unanimously been glad to be punched. Is there anything wrong with you randomly punching people?

I argue that no, and in fact you have a duty -as part of a duty of beneficence – to punch people in the arm to improve their lives.

This case, however, is not totally analogous. You could obtain consent. Although in this particular case, the fact that most people are glad to have undergone the procedure could perhaps defeat consent, in a similar way to how parents impose certain rules to their kids, on grounds that they will come to see them as justified, because in the present they don’t have enough information to understand their choice. (If however, they manifested enough knowledge of the relevant information, then their consent would trump our duty to punch).

For non-beings, they consent via hypothetical consent. Had they been able to say yes, they would have. We can know this by asking people.

So this is what it comes down to: “hypothetical consent.” The belief in hypothetical consent is pure fantasy, it is only an imaginary construct, but it partakes of the same psychology as the imperialists who believe that bombing some brown people into the Stone Age to “liberate” them is justified by “hypothetical consent,” because they would consent if they knew just how great it is to be bombed until you’re “liberated.” In both cases, what we have is a person with high levels of belief in their own superiority: in the case of imperialists, in their mode of government, in the case of natalists, in the greatness of their own lives.

I have examined the view that we can assume consent by asking people if they are happy with their lives, as well as “hypothetical consent,” as expressed by our favourite natalist stooge Bryan Caplan. I am not aware of any survey asking people if they would have consented to be born, nor how anyone could imagine such a state (apart from using Rawls’ Original Position argument). Either way, even if someone said “if I was able to communicate as a fetus, I would have consented to be born,” that evaluation would be based on their current life, not on a hypothetical point of view as a fetus. People want to continue to live because they have accumulated values, desires and attachments, all things which our hypothetical fetus would not have.

Artir posits that you can just omit consent completely if you want to do things to people that most people are glad to have undergone. But this is just cultural relativism, plain and simple. Suppose, for example, that most people in a society are fundamentalist Christians and believe that it is better for them to die than to become atheists and be condemned to Hell. Would it therefore be fine to not ask an atheist for consent before killing them, because that’s what most people would want done to themselves? Or to take a real life example, was it ethical to burn widows to death by sati without their consent, because that was the accepted belief of a large majority of the population? What about female circumcision?

Now clearly, punching people to raise their intelligence is nowhere analogous to killing people or circumcising little girls. And I have no doubt that most people would consent to such a punch-based procedure (including myself!). That’s precisely what consent is for: to obtain permission from others to act upon them, whether you consider the act morally good or bad. The fact that most people would agree with it would not thereby nullify consent, since the act is still an act performed upon other people, and there is no prior justification to impose it on anyone else. If such justification exists, Artir has not told us what it is, his confusion about beneficence aside (which has generally little to do with raising people’s intelligence, and definitely has nothing to do with giving people new pleasures).

In that narrow sense, it is perhaps more similar to male circumcision (a topic on which I have an upcoming entry). Many advocates claim that male circumcision has some health benefits. Whether that is true or not, however, does not evacuate the issue of consent. The fact remains that, health benefit or not, the newborn does not have the ability to consent to such a dangerous procedure (especially when administered by some ignorant clergy).

While childism is not the topic of this entry, Artir brings it up when he uses children as an example. The fact that we accept childism (that children are inferior and need to be controlled by parents) and see this as normal is due to the fact that a large majority of people accept it, not because it is actually valid. I don’t really want to get into the childism issue because it’s rather off-topic and would take a lot more space than I want to use to address a single example (my entries on the subject can be read in this category), but my basic point here is that it follows the same relativist pattern I’ve already highlighted. The parents’ will, or their imaginary belief that the child would consent if they were fully informed, does not trump consent, because children are human beings who have the right, like all other human beings, not to be invaded upon without some higher justification (e.g. pulling a child out of the street, or preventing a child from getting burned).

Since Artir’s argument centers around the premise that we have an obligation or duty to bring about a life if that life would contain pleasures, the failure of his demonstration of “positive duties” also means that his argument as a whole fails. Therefore, as I stated at the beginning, I see no point in delving in his long rebuttal to the quality of life argument, since he does so for the sole purpose of shoring up premise 1, a maneuver which is entirely unnecessary in the first place and which, at any rate, cannot save his argument. As it happens, I do think his rebuttal to the quality of life argument so bizarre and delusional as to not deserve a response; he does explicitly call himself a self-deluded Pollyanna, so perhaps there are no surprises here, but it makes his argument useless cheerleading, about as valid as sports fans arguing which of their favourite team is the best (“Which team is the human race?” “Both.” “Duh.”).

Brian McLean: the asymmetry is false because the asymmetry is false.

Brian McLean, philosophy student, wrote a paper about antinatalism which Ohio State University put online. I think it’s an interesting rebuttal in its formulation, although it’s really nothing new at all. Actually, it’s very disappointing in terms of content. For one thing, he mostly concentrates on the Asymmetry, like most critics, which means that his criticism is overly narrow and does not pertain to most antinatalist arguments. For another, his arguments are pretty bad.

Like most academics critics, he at least understands the Asymmetry well enough to explain it correctly (which is more than I can say for most people). But then he says this:

But suppose we reject Prudential Asymmetry. Suppose the following is true, for any person:

The presence of pain is bad for that person
The presence of pleasure is good for that person

And:

The absence of pain is good for that person even if that person doesn’t exist.
The absence of pleasure is bad for that person even if that person doesn’t exist.

It’s worth noting that this view seems to be a commonplace one. We tend to think that, if we want to figure out whether existence is rationally preferable to non-existence, we need to look at the amount of pain and pleasure that would be contained within that person’s life. If the pains outweigh the pleasures, it’s bad for that person to come into existence; but if the pleasures outweigh the pains, it’s good for that person to come into existence.

This proves that he may understand the Asymmetry well enough to explain it, but not enough to do anything with that information. It is literally impossible for the absence of pleasure to be bad because there is nothing that “loses out.” To posit otherwise is to posit a world outside of our understanding.

Furthermore, he says that this is a “commonplace view,” but cites the belief that we should compare pain and pleasure in a life to evaluate it. This is a logical error. There is no direct logical connection between “the absence of pleasure is bad” and “we need to look at the pain and pleasure contained within a person’s life to evaluate it.” What he means to say, perhaps, is that if we hold to his symmetry, then we must look at the pain and pleasure within a person’s life to evaluate it. But this makes no sense because the Asymmetry is not about evaluating the quality of a life, after the fact, it is about putting a value-judgment on procreation, before the fact. It is also about comparing two states of affairs, not evaluating people. The best his new symmetry can do is conclude that procreation is morally ambiguous, but it tells us absolutely nothing about how to evaluate a person’s life.

Because his analogy does not hold, we have to conclude that his symmetry is completely unproven and is simply another tiresome argument from “well, you’re wrong therefore you’re wrong.”

McLean then elaborates on what he means by “looking at the amount of pain and pleasure”:

For instance, consider the concept of a disabler: the concept of a consideration that prevents another consideration from being a pro tanto moral reason for or against some action…

I propose that, in the procreative context, we understand the moral significance of pleasures that would be within a child’s life as disablers with respects to the moral reasons that would be generated by the pains that would be within the child’s life. For instance, suppose for simplicity that a child’s life simply contains one painful experience with an intensity of -80 hedons and a pleasant experience within an intensity of 90 hedons. Other things equal, with respect to the child’s interests, there are two morally relevant considerations:

(1) The child’s life would contain a pain with an intensity of -80 hedons.
(2) The child’s life would contain a pleasure with an intensity of 90 hedons.

(1), normally, would be a pro tanto moral reason against creating the child. But (2) prevents (1) from being a moral reason against creating the child. (1) is a moral reason against creating the child only in the absence of (2). This framework captures an intuitive idea. Provided that the pleasures that would be within the child’s life outweigh the pains that would be within the child’s life, there is no moral reason (grounded in the child’s interests) against creating the child. But the pleasures don’t themselves generate moral reasons to create a child; they simply counteract the moral force of the pains that would be within the child’s life. The language of disablers allows us to make this intuitive idea more precise.

I would contend that his “intuitive idea” is not intuitive at all. It only seems intuitive because he keeps the discussion at a highly abstract and imaginary level (there are no such thing as hedons, so this is quite open to imaginative interpretation). So let’s take a concrete case. Suppose that a football player is recruited by the NFL, wins many awards, lots of money, and then has a car crash and ends up paraplegic for the rest of his life. Since there’s no such thing as hedons, and any measurement would be nonsensical anyway, let’s posit that the hedon quantity is similar in both cases: +90 at the beginning, and then -80 due to the accident. Is it therefore intuitive to say that the football player had a “good life,” let alone a life worth creating?

The latter question is silly, since no life can be worth creating, as the Asymmetry demonstrates. But let us restrict ourselves to the question: is this a “good life”? I would contend that it is not. Others may disagree. However, it seems to me that the latter position is not intuitive at all, and that there’s plenty of grounds for disagreement. It is not a priori absurd to imagine people seriously arguing for both sides of the question with articulate and rational arguments.

So in my opinion, this attempt at a justification fails completely. However, what of the argument itself? Is (2) sufficient to reject (1) as a moral reason against creating the child? No, because pleasure and pain do not “cancel out.” This seems to be a sore point for a lot of people, so let me explain this further.

To take my example again, the experience of becoming paraplegic does not “cancel out” the experience of being a professional athlete and getting lots of admiration and money. Both of these events exist as series of memories with their own effects. The memories of being a professional football player may cause, for example, pride and a sense of identity. The memories of becoming paraplegic may cause trauma and despair. These effects do not cancel out either: one person can feel both happiness and trauma. I know this is very obvious, but it shows the silliness of the idea of “canceling out.” We do not experience pleasure and pain as sides of a see-saw which dictate a single quantitative evaluation. Both the positive and the negative experiences of our lives show us that there can be many evaluations of one’s life, which are equally valid.

In the end, no one outside yourself knows how good or bad your life has been, and only you can truly make any sort of evaluation of it. This means that any idea of evaluating someone else’s life and translating it into numbers is ultimately as invalid and counter-productive as the utilitarian belief that one can (numerically or not) compare the well-being of different people. The whole premise discussed by McLean is therefore ultimately futile.

Now, I have to repeat myself because McLean commits the same fallacy of equating the Asymmetry (or his symmetry) to the evaluation of a person’s life. Whether a person had a “good life” or not has no bearing whatsoever on whether that life was worth creating. In his book, Benatar does point out the difference between a life worth creating and a life worth continuing, but apparently McLean didn’t pay attention to that part. This is sloppy to say the least, and makes the entire line of reasoning irrelevant to the topic of antinatalism, since it is not contradictory at all to posit that all humans live “good lives” (which of course we know isn’t actually the case) and that no lives are worth starting.

Since McLean also addresses the duty argument, I will finish by pointing out that our duty to not harm people is not canceled out by helping people. To give an example I’ve used before, if a doctor saves a patient’s life, he does not thereby have the right to punch the patient in the face. Generally speaking, we have a duty to not harm, but we do not have a duty to help (or at least such a duty cannot be attributed to all people at all times, since most of us are not doctors, firefighters, etc). But even if we had a duty to help as well, there still would be no “canceling out.”

Being a parent makes you stupid.

A certain blogger, who I will not name, was making some posts about how we cannot “give up” on raising male children so they don’t grow up to become abusers. I raised the point privately to her that by and large parents who try to educate their children against the strong current of mass media (including pornography) and the social consensus generally fail, because the media messages and social consensus are reinforced (and mutually reinforce) in a way that parental messages are not (for more on this, see the last part of Delusions of Gender, by Cordelia Fine). She considered this message to be a personal attack against her decision to raise a male child. While as an antinatalist I obviously object to anyone having children (especially if they are intelligent and well-intentioned, as I believe this woman is), I was not telling her I was objecting to her having children. I was telling her that her belief in raising male children “her way” and against the media and social pressure was misguided.

People taking systemic criticism as personal criticism is nothing new, and not, in itself, particularly stupid. However, there is a particular problem that arises when antinatalists talk about the systemic problems of parenthood. Parenthood comes with a severe case of entitlement: parents believe that they have the right to have children and raise them any way they see fit. They do not just take systemic criticism as a personal attack, but take systemic criticism as an attack against their basic human rights (their right of property over their children). Any sort of antinatalist reasoning is therefore interpreted by parents as an existential threat.

Such an existential threat is not credible, since antinatalists have no political power and (barring overpopulation so great that it entails massive human die-offs, especially white humans) never will. To parents, this doesn’t seem to matter much. They still react rather violently when it happens. I have experienced this many times, and I’m sure other antinatalists who argue online (or perhaps the occasional brave or suicidal soul who dares to talk about this in real life) has their own stories about how arguing against parenting in any way made a parent turn against them.

We already know, from feminism and anti-racism, that entitlement makes people stupid. Since parenthood is an extreme form of entitlement, we should therefore expect that being a parent makes people especially stupid. The only thing that can make people stupider is the sincere belief that one possesses the absolute truth, like fundamentalist Christians. It is perhaps not entirely coincidental that some natalist arguments sound rather similar to Christian apologetics (or, for that matter, that some arguments against Christian apologetics can be transposed to natalism, since procreation is basically a Creation in miniature). The main difference is that Christians start from their (absolutist) conclusion and make arguments to rationalize it, while natalists are defending what they believe to be their human rights (or the rights of parents in general).

I saw a webcomic one day that illustrates the entitlement very well. A guy says to the other that he doesn’t want children because he doesn’t have the money to do so, to which the other replies that “when you have a child, you’ll find a way to get the money.” The first guy points out that this seems rather similar to the way drug addicts think. Once you’re addicted, you’ll do anything to get the money to buy more drugs. Likewise, people whose position as parents depends on their power over children will do anything to justify that power. In our hierarchical societies, power is its own justification: if you have enough power over others (money, political status, or otherwise), everything you do is justified by the existence of that power. And there is no relationship with a bigger power imbalance in our societies than that between a parent and “their” child.

We see the parental stupidity in action when we bring up misanthropic antinatalism. When faced with the risks of procreation, natalists usually just ignore them or argue that they are magically immune to those risks. This is not rational behavior in the face of known risks: it is more akin to how some Lakota people believed that “ghosts shirts” could protect them from bullets (they didn’t), or how right-wing politicians react to global warming (another similarity between extreme entitlement and the belief in absolute truth, maybe).

Having a son means you are raising a potential abuser. Having a daughter means you are raising a potential abuse victim. Some women are also abusers, and some men are also abuse victims, but this does not deny the truth of the previous propositions: it only makes the risk of something going wrong even higher in both cases. Future or current parents do not want to hear this. They want to believe that their children are exempted from those risks, or that they, as parents, somehow confer some immunity to their children (that their own happy lives will rub off on their children, perhaps). This is magical thinking, which is why I am especially miffed when feminists engage in it. We don’t need magical thinking in a movement which is based on evidence and rational analysis.

The only solution to break the cycle of abuse is to refuse to procreate and refuse to use children as guinea pigs for so-called genderless parenting techniques which are doomed to failure. While parents obviously believe that this world is good enough for them to raise children into, but somehow not good enough to expose them to large, commonplace parts of it, that’s not their determination to make. We cannot allow some people to make risk evaluations for other people. What level of risk I am willing to allow in my life is my determination alone, and is not really anyone else’s business (unless I am linked to them in some way). The parents’ opinion is only that, their opinion. It has no bearing on reality.