or hardly thinking?
|Major trains of thought
|The good, the bad,
and the brain fart
|Come to think of it
Anti-natalism, alternatively antinatalism, is the ethical position that creating life (in the case of humans, giving birth), is immoral and should be abstained from.
Anti-natalists take the position for many reasons and it has become a more mainstream philosophical discussion as of late. Famous anti-natalists include Arthur Schopenhauer, David Benatar, Emil Cioran, Thomas Ligotti, and Sarah Perry.
Anti-natalism stands directly in conflict with Judaism and Christianity, owing to how both religions attempt to promote natalism, using God as a vehicle to do so (Genesis 1:22, Genesis 1:28, Genesis 8:17, Genesis 9:1, Genesis 9:7, amongst others). Unsurprisingly, it also stands directly in contrast to many "values" promoted by the religious right, notably family values and "pro-life", owing to how those heavily promote natalism.
Reasoning for anti-natalism
One of the most common arguments for anti-natalism is a simple one: life just isn't worth it. Most of the time being argued from a utilitarian standpoint, this position is a traditional bit of philosophical pessimism, most famously implemented by Arthur Schopenhauer. Anti-natalists utilizing this position will usually claim that the overall suffering of the world greatly outweighs the overall pleasure/utility.
Naturally, this is an incredibly counter-intuitive thought for most people and some just reject it outright. Most people believe that life is enjoyable and believe that there is no reason why future potential people wouldn't also like living. To some anti-natalists, this is the consequence of massive biological and cultural optimism bias. This optimism bias pertains that people tend to suppress/downplay the negative experiences in their life and focus on the positive ones. However, many critics argue that the optimism bias argument is tautological as liking something and being biased towards is the same thing as being biased towards something just means having or showing disproportionate favor toward something which is the definition of liking something. Critics further argue that claiming individuals tend downplay their negative experiences is nonsensical as the importance that something (like a negative life experience) has to someone is just how much they value said thing so people can't downplay bad experiences as their bad experiences are by definition only as important to them as people deem them to be. Many critics also therefore argue that the bias argument doesn't work and is really just a sneaky way for anti natalists to gaslight people into accepting their value judgements about the value of good and bad experiences.
When it comes to the position of general pessimism, it's very tricky to argue with since it is fairly subjective. Finding objective standards for what constitutes pleasure or pain, how to weigh each, and which is more important is very difficult, perhaps impossible, so finding empirical grounds to argue is out of the question. Though anti-natalists understand the problem of argumentation just as well and usually rely on appeals to intuition, such as "Do you really think that the goodness of the world outweighs the tremendous suffering caused by the numerous plagues and famines?". However, many critics argue that the appeals to intuition that anti natalists employ are fallacious because they rely on faulty premises. For example, critics argue that the previous question is a loaded question as attempting to directly answer it requires one to presume that the "goodness of the world" or positive utility can only exist if famines and plagues cause mass suffering around the globe as the term "outweigh" in the question implies that the price of having positive utility in the world is existence of suffering caused by famines and plagues. Critics argue that the framing of the question is problematic as it presents a false choice since famines can be prevented and plagues can be mitigated without having to get rid of all positive utility via the extinction of the human race as the existence of positive utility doesn't inherently depend on the existence of suffering. In other words, the creation of happy humans doesn't inherently cause other humans to suffer at the hands of plagues and famines as those issues can be solved or prevented without having to cause the extinction of the human race.
Negative utilitarianism is a modified version of utilitarianism that disregards the immediate benefits of pleasure (positive utility) and makes its priority the reduction of suffering (negative utility).
Negative utilitarianism is divided into many groups, some disregarding the benefit of pleasure as a whole. Though outside of anti-natalistic and pessimistic aims, there is some benefit to negative utilitarianism. First and foremost, it helps solve a lot of problems thrown at basic utilitarianism. One problem, for instance, is the scenario where a group of people torture (or rape), someone for their own pleasure, and since it's a group, the pleasure gained might outweigh the pain experienced, and hence, is moral. A negative utilitarian would argue that fundamentally their pleasure is meaningless since it is not necessary nor something that someone is owed. On the contrary, they would argue that the victim doesn't necessarily deserve the pain they receive and that reducing that suffering should come first.
Anti-natalists use negative utilitarianism as a justification for their philosophy since if we have an imperative to reduce/prevent suffering first and foremost, we should stop procreating.
Benatar's asymmetry (oh boy)
A signature argument for anti-natalism is Benatar's "asymmetry" argument. This argument is most famously used in Benatar's book "Better Never To Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence", which is possibly the most popular anti-natalist text of all time.
|X doesn't exist
|Presence of harm (bad)
|Absence of harm (good)
|Presence of pleasure (good)
|Absence of pleasure (not bad)
The argument tries to prove that when weighing the benefits of existence versus non-existence, there is an asymmetry that favors the side of non-existence. The logic follows as such:
- (Presence of harm) Benatar's argument presupposes a sort of utilitarian viewpoint, and as such, the presence of harm is seen as an inherently bad thing. Benatar believes that, yes, some harm is "instrumental harm" and is used to prevent further suffering (when you accidentally burn yourself in the process of learning how to start a fire), though using the rest of the asymmetry, he believes this harm is still unjustified and shouldn't exist.
- (Absence of harm) Corresponding to the first point is the inverse, the absence of harm is good. This one is fairly obvious, though still should be plotted out.
- (Presence of pleasure) Continuing with traditional utilitarianism, Benatar asserts that the presence of pleasure is an inherently good thing. This is a point in which some negative utilitarians would disagree with him, though his argument does result in a hypothesis similar to negative utilitarianism.
- (Absence of pleasure) Here's where Benatar pulls the chair from underneath you and creates the asymmetry. Benatar asserts (against our natural inclinations), that the absence of pleasure isn't a bad thing necessarily. As long as no being is deprived of said happiness, then it is, as he puts it, "not bad".
Using this reasoning, Benatar comes to the conclusion that non-existence is preferable to existence. He runs with the asymmetry into many directions. He applies general pessimism and assumes that the suffering caused by existence outweighs the pleasures, so within the asymmetry, non-existence is absolutely preferable. He applies a bit of negative utilitarian thinking and asks us "is the prolonged existence of suffering made up for by the pleasure experienced?".
Many environmental reasons have been invoked for antinatalism. These include overpopulation, climate change, and others. These reasons are conveyed primarily by the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, which seeks voluntary human extinction because human existence is immoral from an environmental perspective.
One notable group of anti-natalists is the subreddit r/antinatalism. The subreddit is generally composed of unfunny memes, making fun of people with kids, and sometimes genuine discussion of anti-natalist theory (sometimes). Most casual anti-natalists are merely depressed teenagers who have developed a disgust for reality, and in turn, their parents. Though of course, that's not everybody and it's just a generalization that tends to be true. The main issue of the subreddit is the fact that they're way too spiteful to ever get anybody on their side, so for now, anti-natalism is seen as a non-serious philosophy and its supporters are merely seen as people who are angry at the world.
If you want purely theoretical conversation/a much more mature and serious environment, r/TrueAntinatalists is a much better option.
Opposition to anti-natalism
To be expected, there has been a lot of pushback against anti-natalism as an ethics. Most notably, Jordan Peterson actually debated David Benatar and it was one of the greatest examples of Peterson's charlatanism. Even if you're opposed to anti-natalism, it is incredibly clear to see that Peterson was completely unprepared for the debate.
- K. Lochmanová (ed.), History of Antinatalism: How Philosophy Has Challenged the Question of Procreation, Independently published, 2020.
- Studies in Pessimism, Arthur Schopenhauer. 2004, Gutenberg. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/10732/10732-h/10732-h.htm
- WHY IT IS BETTER NEVER TO HAVE COME INTO EXISTENCE, David Benatar, July 1997. American Philosophical Quarterly. https://wmpeople.wm.edu/asset/index/cvance/benatar
- The Trouble With Being Born, Emil Cioran, 1973. File:The Trouble With Being Born, E. M. Cioran.pdf
- The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Thomas Ligotti, 2010. https://s3.amazonaws.com/arena-attachments/1590452/29b1e623953914bf0b0ae8b363b4b746.pdf?1515783635
- A webpage by Magnus Vinding, who wrote a whole book on the concept of negative utilitarianism https://magnusvinding.com/2018/09/03/suffering-focused-ethics/
- WHY IT IS BETTER NEVER TO HAVE COME INTO EXISTENCE, David Benatar, July 1997. American Philosophical Quarterly. https://wmpeople.wm.edu/asset/index/cvance/benatar §2