Issues in the ethics of procreation: What is Antinatalism?

Recent news of an Indian businessman, Raphael Samuel, suing his parents for giving birth to him has brought attention to a somewhat obscure philosophical position known as antinatalism. But what is antinatalism and what exactly does it mean?

What is antinatalism?

At its core, antinatalism is a philosophy that assigns negative value to human (and sometimes animal) existence. This “pessimistic” perspective puts antinatalism at home with a number of other philosophical traditions across cultures. In contemporary Western philosophy, existentialists and nihilists highlight what they believe to be the insignificance and absurdity of the human experience. Older philosophies like Buddhism and Stoicism, while not necessarily pessimistic, seem to be keenly attuned to the psychological fact that we are disposed to experience pain more intensely than pleasure. What makes antinatalism distinct from some of these other philosophies is that at its most stringent, it advocates for voluntary extinction, though not all antinatalist positions are as extreme. Conversely, these other philosophies are more centered on helping individuals cope or overcome life’s pains, while some antinatalist positions frame these pains as downsides to argue against procreation.

The ethics of not having kids

As I’ve tried to allude to, it’s misleading to assume that antinatalism is a single philosophy. Much like atheism, antinatalism is a position defined by the absence of support for another more substantive position – in this case, the value of procreation. One can be an antinatalist for a number of different reasons, some of which might be in conflict with one another. For example, some argue for antinatalism on the grounds that child rearing is expensive, and a potential parent’s resources could more productively be put towards benefiting people and children who already exist. Others might be antinatalists for environmental reasons, as a world with fewer people puts fewer demands on the environment and on other kinds of life which presumably has its own value.

While there are many reasons for someone to be an antinatalist, one of the most important distinctions between competing reasons is that some are personal or local in scope, while others are global or universal. What this means is that some antinatalists make arguments that either solely apply to themselves or to individuals in situations like theirs. Sentiments like these may be legally codified in cases like “wrongful birth” or “wrongful life” where the creation of a severely debilitated child whose illness was foreseeable through genetic screening is seen as a serious wrong. In other instances, antinatalists might be making arguments that more broadly apply to everyone, providing a set of reasons why no one should ever be born. Among these broader arguments, a further but less formal distinction can be made – arguments made for the sake of those already born, and arguments for the sake of the unborn. It’s perhaps arguments of the latter kind that are the strangest to non-philosophers and have gotten increased attention over the past few years.

To birth or not to birth

Because antinatalism is generally fixated on minimizing harms, it’s debatably not a position whose intuitions are easily captured by common normative ethical theories like the ones we’ve previously covered on this blog. Some types of antinatalism are more easily understood from the vantage point of “negative” ethical systems like negative utilitarianism. These normative frameworks are negative in the sense that they’re not defined by an affirmative obligation to provide some substantive good, they’re rather defined by a directive of minimizing pain or harm whenever possible.

Above, we briefly covered some common types of global antinatalist positions whose arguments rested on the harms that introducing new persons into a population can have on those already alive as well as the harms they can have on the environment. There are, however, global arguments for antinatalism made for the sake of preventing the suffering of unborn persons who will be harmed by birth. How can birth harm someone? The case of wrongful life provides one such example, though it’s very important to note that it’s very much so a local case relevant to only a small handful of births, given that most people aren’t born with such illnesses. Global antinatalism focused on the suffering of unborn persons generally assumes that being born in itself is a great harm to everyone. It is a position that obviously is extremely contentious, to say the least and even offensive, but it has a long history in both philosophy and religion. Many of the philosophies mentioned in this post give detailed accounts about the negatives of human existence, though contemporary antinatalists are quick to point out that life’s harms are numerous and intuitive to understand, even without this background knowledge. Below are a few of these arguments.

Life as a series of lotteries

Some antinatalists point our attention to the extent to which our lives are governed by small, incidental occurrences, many of which are out of our control but have significant consequences for our quality of life. Every person is the result of a chance encounter between specific gametes. Within these gametes is the potential for all types of heritable traits, some good and some bad. If a zygote successfully matures, it’ll be subjected to innumerable developmental influences from its mother’s biology as well as her environment. Beyond the genetic and development lotteries, additional lotteries await us, lotteries of circumstance regarding disease, accidents, and acts of unjustified aggression from other humans, as well as environmental lotteries that, in tandem with our genetics, will shape who we are. Losing any of these lotteries could result in anything from minor discomfort to severe life-altering consequences. Accidents, for example, in addition to physical damage, may have psychological or even neurological impacts, permanently changing our sense of self as well as our faculties and abilities. In the most critical circumstances, accidents can result in an excruciatingly painful death.

Entropy and the deprivation of death

Even for those of us who win all or even many of life’s lotteries, there’s one lottery we won’t win. We know that all people die, species die, civilizations die, but physics tells us that universes die too and that the very same process that kills universes acts on us. For some kinds of global antinatalists, like Argentine philosopher Julio Cabrera and philosopher Marc Larock, life is permeated by this sense of gradual deterioration, and an understanding of this should play a more central role in our ethical systems as well as in our decision to create life.

Painful asymmetries

Some antinatalists have appealed to growing literature in psychology suggesting that the human mind is more intensely impacted by negative stimuli than by positive stimuli across a range of psychological phenomena, making suffering a much more common feature of the human experience. A similar insight is present in Jain, Buddhism, and contemporary negative ethics. In one way or another, these types of ethical systems have been used to argue that, even if we could satisfy the preferences of potential new humans, we have no obligation to create these people, as the simple satisfying of new preferences is much like paying off debts, in that it brings us to a neutral state rather than making us better off.

The axiological asymmetry of existence (Benatar’s Asymmetry)

South African philosopher David Benatar, who has become somewhat of a poster child for antinatalism in recent years, has pointed to another type of asymmetry between pleasure and pain which stems from the following prepositions:

  1. If a person exists then their pain is a bad thing.
    2. If a person exists then their pleasure is a good thing.
    3. The absence of pain is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone (non-existence or absence of pain of itself is a good thing because it means no one is suffering).
    4. The absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation (non-existence or absence of pleasure is of itself not a bad thing because there is no one who has been deprived of this pleasure).

The intuition of this argument is represented by the table below:

The crux of Benatar’s argument is that from the counterfactual perspective of non-existing persons the absence of pleasure is not a bad thing. None of us are likely to walk into an empty nursery, imagine all of the smiling babies that could have been in the room if more people had children, and cry for their loss. Conversely, we tend to see the absence of suffering as a good thing. We would likely feel sad for a child sold into slavery or for a child who will die in infancy from a painful genetic illness, and we could conceivably believe that these children would have been better off not being born.

Reflecting on antinatalism

It’s no surprise that there are a myriad of responses to antinatalist intuitions and positions; however, some of these responses have major misconceptions about what antinatalism is claiming. The main misconception that people, especially non-philosophers, have of antinatalism is that it advocates for suicide, but this isn’t true. Many antinatalists, even those who are global antinatalists, don’t say that life isn’t worth living, but rather that it’s not worth beginning. Even Benatar, who is probably currently the strongest proponent for global antinatalism, says that most people will find reasons to live regardless of whether or not they would have consented to life if given the choice. Furthermore, given that suicide is a painful process — even for someone willing to commit to it — and given that suicide fails to address the causes of one’s suffering, many philosophers from pessimistic philosophical traditions don’t necessarily see it as a solution to what they claim to be the problems of the human condition.

That said, there are many valid responses to antinatalism. I think some of the most salient responses are ones from epistemic doubt. Some philosophers have pointed out that, aside from extreme cases, it’s very difficult to evaluate the goodness or badness of a lived life. People born in abject poverty might better their lot and those of others, and conversely, people born into wealth can have absolutely miserable lives. We simply can’t know beforehand (or sometimes even afterward) which lives are and are not worth living. Though this doesn’t exactly give us an obligation to procreate, it does seem to lessen the stringency of the antinatalist’s prohibition on procreation for reasons of pain and suffering.

Although antinatalism can seem alien to our intuitions, antinatalist arguments call attention to the seriousness all people should give the decision to have children, especially if they want to lead ethical lives. It could be the case that in our own life we may be better off adopting or helping children in some other capacity. The question of whether or not one should have children is likely to become increasingly common in the coming decades as economic and social influences make it less desirable to be a parent. Though antinatalism itself is an obscure idea, it’s one that societies are starting to grapple with in some fashion, and one that might not be as distant from our own lives as we think.