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The Austrian Basement and Beyond: Consequences of Rejecting the Antinatalist Asymmetry

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David Benatar’s philanthropic antinatalism, explored in his book Better Never To Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence, rests on an asymmetry between pain and pleasure: that, while absent pain is always good, absent pleasure is merely neutral, not bad, given that there is no one who was deprived of this pleasure. A related asymmetry is that, while there is a moral duty to avoid having a child who will be miserable (lead a life not worth continuing), there is no moral duty to create a child who would lead a life very much worth continuing.

Benatar explains the pain/pleasure asymmetry in depth in Chapter 2 of the book, and those who feel they have a slam-dunk logical objection to the asymmetry might be advised to read the detailed treatment of the asymmetry in the chapter before assuming Professor Benatar just missed the objection. Ultimately, though, there remain real, non-trivial objections to the asymmetry, because the asymmetry is built using the common ethical philosophy tool of explaining and analyzing commonly held intuition. Since the asymmetry is ultimately based on intuition, it may be disputed by those who, in good faith, do not share the intuitions upon which it is built.

Many, however, deny the asymmetry without fully grasping the consequences of the asymmetry. I wish to map out some ethical problems that those who deny the asymmetry must explain in a manner consistent with rejecting the asymmetry.

1. The Austrian Basement

E. F. has been kidnapped by her father and imprisoned in an Austrian cellar since her early adolescence. Her father repeatedly rapes her over the course of several years. E. F. gives birth to several children sired by her father. She reasonably believes that all these children have severe health problems, and that at least the female children will likely be abused by her father as they grow up.

In Year 10 of her imprisonment, with four children born and removed from her by her father, she discovers a box (unknown to her father) hidden under a floorboard in her cell, containing everything she needs in order to practice undetectable birth control.

a. Does she have a duty to practice birth control and avoid having more babies? Does she have a duty not to practice birth control, because she would be depriving her unborn babies of life (which, while it would have certain problems, would nevertheless presumably be worth living)? (Assume she would like the company of more babies, but fears the pain of more unassisted childbirth, and the “interests of the unborn children” is the concern that will break the tie, given her personal ambivalence.)

b. Why?

c. (Only for those who think that antinatalism requires suicide.) If you answered that the daughter has a duty to practice birth control, is that the same as saying that the real-life E. F.’s seven children have worthless lives and should be put to death?

Of course, I’m making up the part about the birth control choice, but here’s an excerpt from the real life story:

The dungeon in which they lived was so small that the older ones had to watch as his father delivered his daughter’s subsequent children. Presumably they also had to watch as he had intercourse with his daughter to beget them – she claims that he repeatedly raped her – and regularly beat her. The dungeon contained one padded room, its walls and floor covered in rubber, the purpose of which is still unclear.

2. Slum World

The Supreme World Leaders meet in Tokyo in 2100 and decide that the world has a choice. Either the 2100 world population of 3 billion can be maintained in relative splendor, with fresh kumquats and sensory implants for everyone, or the world population can be increased to 100 billion, with everyone living in conditions similar to the conditions of a 20th century slum, apparently endured by upwards of 900 million people circa the year 2000.

a. Which condition should the Supreme World Leaders choose?

b. Why?

c. If you answered that Low Population Splendor World is preferable to Slum World, what about the interests of the unborn people who would have come into existence had Slum World been selected? Aren’t they being harmed by not being brought into existence? What right to the inhabitants of Low Population Splendor World have to deny the extra 97 billion people a right to exist, just for the sake of the happiness of 3 billion?


Written by Sister Y

July 29, 2008 at 9:01 pm

14 Responses

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  1. What is “Theory X”? The one that succeeds in refuting the asymmetry?


    July 30, 2008 at 1:49 pm

  2. Theory X is Parfit’s thing from <>Reasons & Persons<> – it’s a hypothetical theory that meets several challenges (avoids the Repugnant Conclusion, etc.). Parfit says he hasn’t found it. Benatar spends a bunch of time, I think in Chapter 2, arguing why antinatalism meets all the criteria for Theory X.

    Sister Y

    July 30, 2008 at 3:11 pm

  3. Look up Theory X in the index of <>Better Never to Have Been<>.

    Sister Y

    July 30, 2008 at 3:12 pm

  4. Thanks. That jogs it. Oddly, I now remember the very moment I encountered the term in BNtHB. I was on an airplane bound for Boston, approximately one year and two months ago. I recall Benatar’s discussion vaguely, but will revisit it.I haven’t read “Reasons and Persons,” but it’s on the list.


    July 30, 2008 at 4:09 pm

  5. Thanks for these illustrative scenarios, Curator. They help bring ito focus the fact that the ‘argument from intuition’ isn’t the unsupported axiom some would make it out to be. The real question is whether or not one’s opposition to antinatalism is consistent within the whole scope of his own human sensibilities, while the antinatalist depends on the universality of those same sensibilities (or, relative universality, anyhow…a contradiction in terms?).On a side note, every time I use or hear that word ‘intuition’, I get a little twinge of unease. It hints at secret knowledge, and even smacks of the metaphysical. Whenever we defer to an assertion like “you know it’s right”, are we opening the door to claims of ‘universal Truth’ from all sides, un-grounded from our subjective, personal desires? I know this isn’t Benatar’s intent, nor of those who generally argue for a non-authoritive moral base; still, I wonder if the traditional understanding of the term doesn’t cloud the argument for some. Not a huge deal, I suppose; just something I think about from time to time.


    July 30, 2008 at 5:58 pm

  6. <>I haven’t read “Reasons and Persons,” but it’s on the list.<>I’ve barely scratched it. Parfit makes various assumptions without telling you he’s making those assumptions, and I find it very difficult to figure out what he’s up to. But his treatment of the ideal population size problem is pretty straightforward and awesome.

    Sister Y

    July 30, 2008 at 8:44 pm

  7. Intuition is a big, big problem – many, many modern analytic philosophers seem to share your “twinge,” and rightly so. Some go the dumb route, and assume we all share the same intuition and that there’s no conflict of intuition problem. The non-dumb philosophers have various responses to the fact that the only real data we have, in ethics, is intuition. The most persuasive, for me – really the only approach that seems valid or even possible – is to take intuition seriously at the outset, and then, if we find a conflict of intuition, to analyze with other tools (test for coherence, propose theories and test their implications against intuition, etc.) and possibly come to the conclusion that one person’s intuition is <>wrong<>. Intuition is neither worthless nor all-powerful.Ah, and once you get that far, there’s the fun of trying to figure out whether to trust one’s faculty for rational analysis . . .

    Sister Y

    July 30, 2008 at 8:52 pm

  8. My position is that arguments start from foundational agreements. If I didn’t believe that I was pleading to a common (though not necessarily universal in the ultimate sense)set of sensibilities, I’d stop blogging immediately…what would be the point, other than futile spleen venting? However, I firmly believe that many, if not most, folks share my sentiments. Unfortunately, most life philosophies are built up of (often) conflicting coping strategies, the result of which is an arena of cognitive dissonance, where logical courses and consequences of certain actions are sacrificed for a sort of perfunctory stability; at both personal and societal levels. Side note: I wanted to thank you again, Curator, for your attempts at commonsense analogy. These are very powerful persuasive tools; ironically, they ofttimes cut right to the heart of the logic in a way where straightforward exposition fails.


    July 31, 2008 at 3:10 am

  9. Thanks! Yeah, I was getting a bit discouraged by the low level of understanding, good faith, and analytic rigor exhibited by people attempting to level objections to antinatalism (did you see that < HREF="" REL="nofollow">awful comment thread at EconLog<>? I don’t know how Chip deals with that crap.)I have been trying to back down from addressing the real, serious objections to antinatalism and lay some remedial groundwork addressing the dumb objections for people who aren’t ever going to bother to read Benatar. I’m not great at communicating in the informal style, unfortunately.

    Sister Y

    July 31, 2008 at 3:23 am

  10. Yeah, I think that econolog stuff might’ve been how I found Chip in the first place. There’s room for discourse at all levels, IMO; Schopenhauer, Benatar and others are the necessary, academic touchstones. But everybody has a voice that resonates in some ears, where others do not. I celebrate all bearers of the message. Compoverde, for instance, is giving me a real kick right now. To wax poetically for a moment, and probably contrary to the opposition’s opinion, antinatalism is a message of the heart. It is based upon an extension of human sensibility, into logical realms where most would simply not care to venture, even in their imaginations. It’s offensive PRECISELY because it pokes at an unacknowledged sore spot in peoples’ awareness, and in their places of sympathy. I believe in the truth that embodies the antinatalist message, and although I get pissed off at times, I’m also fully aware that the lack of cogent rebuttals is just another indication that I’m right. That WE’RE right!


    July 31, 2008 at 3:45 am

  11. I’m here from the post on Crooked Timber. <>Does she have a duty to practice birth control and avoid having more babies? Does she have a duty not to practice birth control, because she would be depriving her unborn babies of life (which, while it would have certain problems, would nevertheless presumably be worth living)? <>Neither option stands out as a duty to me. It’s her decision. I can think of several moral theories that would offer different conclusions (eg, be fruitful and multiply would say that she has a duty not to practice birth control, avoid suffering at all costs would say that she has a duty to practice birth control). Me, personally? It would depend on what I thought about what my current kids thought about their lives. I don’t think this has a right answer. <>The Supreme World Leaders meet in Tokyo in 2100 and decide that the world has a choice. … What right to the inhabitants of Low Population Splendor World have to deny the extra 97 billion people a right to exist, just for the sake of the happiness of 3 billion?<>The more I think about the concept of rights, the more I wonder Who hands out these rights? Who decides what is a right and what isn’t? What right do you have to sit here proposing moral arguments about what right the inhabitants of the low population splendour world have? What right do I have to sit here asking you what right you have to …. ?I can understand with the concept of rights as a way of deciding what sentinent beings can and can’t do to each other – rights as a special sort of law that constraints the law-makers. I don’t understand rights as something passed out, independently of what any sentinent being may think about it.I’ve never seen a coherent theory about the rights and the non-rights of the unborn.As for which condition the Supreme World Leaders chose, I’m a democrat. They should hold a vote. As for how I’d vote, I’d have a lot more questions about the two worlds – eg what is the political situation of the two worlds? What are the possibilities going forward in the future? 100 billion people versus 3 billion people – even if the world is living in a 20th century slum that’s one hell of a lot of minds and hands ready to set about changing things. And in the short-term it’s a hell of a lot of artists.How would you answer these questions?

    Tracy W

    September 9, 2008 at 7:58 am

  12. I just realized this was unanswered.The comment above – to the effect that it’s <>morally fine<> to knowingly create a child when you <>know<> that the child will be imprisoned in a basement and raped by its grandfather for its foreseeable future – illustrates the kind of morally hideous thinking it’s necessary to do in order to reject the antinatalist asymmetry. For if you admit – as I think is patently true – that to create a child under such circumstances is <>horrible<>, then you have admitted half of the asymmetry, and the only option open to still reject it is to hold that there is nevertheless a <>duty to procreate<> in some instances, which of course is a rare moral intuition to have.If the act of procreation is ever impermissible – if it’s wrong, for instance, to create people just to torture them – then, unless there is a symmetric duty to create happy people, right there is a chunk of the asymmetry underlying antinatalism.

    Sister Y

    January 25, 2009 at 10:51 pm

  13. Curator:Glad I caught this last comment of yours. I have no problems grasping the asymmetry at an emotional level, but I find it somewhat slippery when trying to cogently express it.


    January 28, 2009 at 10:45 pm

  14. Two years late to the game, but. . .

    Is it possible that the asymmetry is one of duty rather than one of impersonal consequence? That is, even if one has a duty to not create a bad life and it is supererogatory to create a good life, it is also true that X units of good are added to the world by creating a good life and X units of good are subtracted from the world by creating an equally bad life. Thus, while duty may prevent us from accepting a 1-good, 1-bad package deal, an external observer should be neither pleased nor displeased to see someone else accept or reject the package deal.

    This doesn't seem to me to conflict with trolley-type problems where failing to throw the switch causes the trolley to hit five people instead of just one. In the trolley case, all of the people involved already exist. The trolley problem is more about action vs. inaction rather than benefits and harms to prospective or existing persons. A duty to avoid creating bad lives doesn't just mean it's wrong to deliberately conceive someone who will have a bad life; it's also wrong to fail to contraceive that prospective someone.


    January 5, 2011 at 9:13 am

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