The View from Hell

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Why We Should Keep Knitting Booties

with 9 comments

See also, Incentives Will Fail: Why Procreation Is Like Prostitution And Drugs.

Many of us believe that everyone has a moral right not to be born, a strange sort of right that one only holds in its breach, as David Benatar puts it. But what consequences should this moral view have on our actions?

Obviously, someone who believes an action is wrong should avoid taking that action himself. But what is one to do about others who take actions that one believes to be wrong?

David Benatar addresses the political side of this question in Better Never to Have Been. Benatar concludes, and I agree, that although procreation is always a harm, a political prohibition on birth would be a greater moral horror. A political prohibition on birth would mean, with our current technology, forced abortion and forced sterilization. No matter how great the harm of birth – even though it entails death – forced abortion is worse, especially considering the widespread fear and suffering that the policy would cause to currently-living people.

So the political answer is, I think, do nothing, except perhaps to increase funding for voluntary birth control, abortion, and education. But what of the personal realm? Should we still knit booties when our friends have babies? Or should we flip off people with “Baby On Board” stickers in their windows?

Cory Doctorow is one of my heroes. His work, more than anyone’s except perhaps Michael Gondry’s, often leaves me with at least a temporary sense that there are worthwhile, interesting projects for sentient beings other than pursuing nonexistence.

As I have previously mentioned, I find Doctorow’s story I, Rowboat, the story of Robbie the sentient rowboat, extremely affecting. Doctorow displays a deep grasp of the ethical problems involved in creating new sentient beings. (In a subplot, a coral reef is brought to sentience by a chaotic-evil being, described as a “capricious upload god,” wakes up very angry, and apparently spends the rest of eternity chasing the “upload god” in an attempt to destroy it. The main plot centers on Robbie the rowboat’s poignant, lonely experience of sentience.)

Given Doctorow’s apparently nuanced understanding of the problems of coming into existence, some experienced a bit of cognitive dissonance when Cory had a baby. Some reacted with uncharitable crankiness, such as BoingBoing commenter Kyle Armbruster (re-emvowelled by me):

It’s like, just when you thought Cory Doctorow couldn’t possibly be more of a self-aggrandizing, pedantic know-it-all prick, he has a kid.

If there’s any justice in the universe, his daughter will legally change her name to get rid of the 40 extra ones her parents tacked on and become the CFO of Sony BMG.

(Kyle got “put on time out” from BoingBoing for three days for that, and that kind of vitriol probably indicates the usually-well-behaved user needs a bit of a break.)

I believe it is a serious moral harm to have children, but I think it is a great harm to be a total self-righteous cunt toward people who decide to have children. The morally correct action, in my view, is to openly espouse antinatalism, but at the same time to welcome babies into the world and knit them booties. Benatar himself leads the way with this, by dedicating his book to his parents and his brothers. We have all been harmed by being brought into existence, but once we exist, let us enjoy each other’s company.

Just as there should be no forced abortion or forced sterilization in the political realm, even though more babies will thereby be created, there should be no additional suffering heaped onto parents and children because of this wrong. We should continue to develop and spread our ideas with the hope that people will make ethical choices, but, as I have said, we should keep knitting booties.

Even a generation ago, children who had the misfortune to be born “out of wedlock” were treated horribly by the adults in their communities. My own grandmother suffered greatly from this, born into a highly religious community when my great-grandmother was not married. The horrible treatment was related, at least in part, to the moral belief that procreation is only appropriate between married people. But however strongly held, however correct even, this belief may be, it is not a license to treat babies and children badly. The mistreatment of babies and children is a moral horror. Likewise, it’s pointless, mean, and immoral to flip off the people with the “Baby On Board” stickers.

Taking a page from abortion centrists, let our movement’s slogan be this: Make procreation safe, legal, and rare. And keep knitting booties.

———-

On a related note, I want to trace the implications of a thought I briefly entertained in dealing with my own cognitive dissonance upon the birth of Cory Doctorow’s child: when a man fathers a child through natural means, how can we be sure that procreation was the man’s decision? (Again, I do not at all mean to imply that Cory’s daughter was unplanned or unwanted! By all reports, she was most wanted, and is a charming baby destined to be brilliant, creative, and highly capable.)

In most first-world countries, contraception is widely available. Effective contraception may be utilized by either partner, even without the cooperation of the other. However, in practice, men often rely on women for contraception. Also, contraception failures are frequent.

Again, in most first-world countries, abortion is the prerogative of women. A woman who becomes pregnant may choose to give birth, or to abort. But a man’s freedom not to procreate ends with ejaculation. A woman can procreate with or without a man’s consent to the procreation. A man can only procreate with a woman’s continuing consent.

Given the alternatives – forced abortion, forced birth – this is the best system. A forced abortion is worse than a man being obliged to procreate against his will. A forced birth is worse than a man being prevented from procreating against his will.

While abortion as a female prerogative is better than the alternatives, it is not without problems. The general requirement, again in first-world countries, that parents monetarily support their children until they reach majority creates a major (and undeserved) hardship for men who conceived accidentally and do not desire to have a child. And this is not to mention the emotional consequences. Is an act of sexual intercourse enough to morally justify saddling someone with an unwanted child? If not for women, then why for men?

I think people ignore the injustice inherent in our system of allocating procreative responsibility, because its obvious flaws are not amenable to a political solution. It is another limit on human happiness.

One of the implications of the de facto female monopoly on reproductive decisions, in first-world countries, is to render antinatalism primarily a female issue.

However, an example of undeniable, active male participation in reproduction (other than through artificial means) is related by Mary Beth Bonacci, professional chastity lecturer and realtor. Her 2001 article in the Arlington Catholic Herald told the story of a married Catholic couple who considered, but ultimately rejected, divorce:

But there’s more. Back in the fast-track days, Greg had a vasectomy. After their conversion, they felt called to reverse that procedure — a very expensive proposition. But, through yet another miracle, they found a doctor inspired by their story, who was willing to do the reversal — essentially for free. He did so, and on Feb. 9, 2001, Katharine Marie Alexander was welcomed into the world.

God is truly good.

Most men are not as lucky as Greg was in controlling their procreation. It is a moral issue that deserves consideration.

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Written by Sister Y

August 8, 2008 at 9:35 pm

9 Responses

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  1. You address the interesting and important question of antinatalism’s <>practical expression<> here. I have pondered this myself in the case of women who are already pregnant. Do I recommend that they abort their children? My inclination is to say no, bring them to term if they wish, but I’m not convinced of the rationality of my position, if I am indeed a precautionary antinatalist, i.e. someone who says you shouldn’t have children <>just in case<>. But as a practical injunction, and as a way to curb the excesses of misanthropic antinatalism (which I believe is actually the most common sort), I do like your slogan.

    Mitchell

    August 9, 2008 at 12:39 pm

  2. “A political prohibition on birth would mean, with our current technology, forced abortion and forced sterilization.”I don’t mean to pick nits, as I suspect such outcomes might well be the operative outcome of an antinatalist legal order. However, it could become more complicated. For example, if “birth” is the point of demarcation, then forced abortion might be countenanced while forced sterilization might not (assuming a presumption of innocence). On the other hand, if there were a political prohibition on procreation — rather than birth as such — an anti-abortion deontologist/antinatalist could object to abortion (as initiated violence against a presumptive person), while still opposing forced sterilization to preserve the presumption of innocence. If such an approach were taken (and I’m emphatically not arguing that it should be), the political consequences of antinatalism might be more likely to play out in the realm of torts, with “wrongful life” caselaw being radically extrapolated. Parental obligations would become restitutional obligations. Compensation for harm.“No matter how great the harm of birth – even though it entails death – forced abortion is worse, especially considering the widespread fear and suffering that the policy would cause to currently-living people.”This is where I stand sentimentally. I don’t mention antinatalism to friends who are parents or even to those who are contemplating having children. I send congratulatory gifts and carefully phrased letters (“Looks like one of the good ones!”). I attend the little Winston Churchills’ first birthday parties and I give them copies of Naked Lunch (when I see them again as toddlers, I ask what they thought of “Hassan’s Rumpus Room.” They always seem confused, or maybe a little frightened. Uncle Chip is crazy.)I digress. The problem is that once I move beyond sentiment, I don’t know that you have done much here to show how forced abortion — or forced sterilization, or other conceivable consequences of pipe-dreamed antinatalist law — is WORSE than allowing vast numbers of people to be forced into life with all the risk and suffering (including death) that this entails. Assuming that large scale forced abortion/sterilization were practicable, even if not to the point of achieving the optimal population of zero, are you really confident that the resulting increase in fear and suffering among the living would be sufficient to outweigh the future fear and suffering (some of which history tells us will be immense) of those who are trumped at the gates of existence? When I try to apply a more disinterested wide-lens calculus, I’m more inclined to conclude that NOT instituting a legal prohibition would mean greater fear and suffering (in quantity and quality) over the long haul. Notwithstanding the legal qualifiers, does the known fear and suffering of the already living always assume primacy in these matters, even when the likelihood of disproportionately vast future fear and suffering is in the balance? If so, why? If not, is it a mistake to consider the broader consequences? If so, why? Or do you think that I am mistaken about about the disproportionate gravity of future fear and suffering? By the way, maybe it’s your re-emvowellization, but I found Armbruster’s comment amusing. I’ll check out the Doctorow story.

    Chip

    August 9, 2008 at 4:53 pm

  3. Chip has a point – our moral intuitions are sadly lacking when it comes to considering equally the interests of future generations who aren’t here to cry and suffer in front of us (yet).

    Sister Y

    August 9, 2008 at 5:26 pm

  4. Mitchell, I agree that misanthropic antinatalism is much more common – oddly, it also appears to be about 900% more <>socially acceptable<> than philanthropic antinatalism. I have no idea why this should be.

    Sister Y

    August 9, 2008 at 5:27 pm

  5. I’m sure there are some who are motivated out of a sincere (albeit confused) concern for ecology, but more often I find that the misanthropic strain of antinatalism amounts to a kind of cultural posturing, or “belief performance,” as Hopefully Anonymous would say. I think the reason the philanthropic variety is less acceptable is 1.) that it is serious, and 2.) that it cuts to the meat of widely shared values and intuitions concerning harm, suffering, selfishness, happiness, etc. This stirs up cognitive dissonance, while the misanthropic position merely invites parody and amused incredulity. The philanthropic antinatalist is asking hard questions about shared and deeply held assumptions. Questions which are neither easily addressed or nor easily dismissed. When jokes fail, people become irate.

    Chip

    August 9, 2008 at 6:11 pm

  6. <>I don’t know that you have done much here to show how forced abortion — or forced sterilization, or other conceivable consequences of pipe-dreamed antinatalist law — is WORSE than allowing vast numbers of people to be forced into life with all the risk and suffering (including death) that this entails.<>This takes us back to the question of whether <>destruction of the world<> is mandated.Perhaps the best argument in favor of no forced abortions/no nuclear destruction is simply <>uncertainty<> – though we are persuaded that antinatalist arguments are correct, the vast majority of the world seems to disagree, and in such cases caution seems advisable.On the other side, we could put ourselves in the position of slavery abolitionists in the eighteenth century. Slavery everyone is used to – it’s impolite to advocate against it – and the only alternative seems to be bloody revolution, which is more viscerally unappealing than more ordinary slavery.In cases like these, perhaps we should consider the possibility that our intuition is merely <>sentimental<>, as Chip puts it. Perhaps forced abortion, etc., is the “bloody revolution” that would end the familiar but harmful practice of childbirth. This is all assuming an extremely consequentialist bent. If we take a more agent-relative view of things, we could say that <>even though birth is horrible and people have a right not to be born<>, people also have a right not to be forcibly aborted, and it’s still wrong for <>me<> to forcibly abort people. Birth doesn’t seem to be the kind of moral horror that would allow us to override the right of others to be free from violence.

    Sister Y

    August 9, 2008 at 10:56 pm

  7. By “people have the right not to be forcibly aborted” in the previous comment, I mean pregnant women, not fetuses.

    Sister Y

    August 9, 2008 at 10:57 pm

  8. Sorry. I don’t support breeding in any way. They want to breed, they can knit their own fucking booties. I’ll be bankrupting myself anyway to pay for their computers, track coaches, Olympic swimming pools, full time therapists, and other upscale public school luxuries. Then having to bubble-wrap the planet, cut down my trees lest the little darlings bump into one, not use the word fuck at parties, blah blah blah. I personally don’t hang around with natalists. They tend to be very stupid, short sighted, and in denial about their motives.

    Anonymous

    September 3, 2008 at 9:30 am

  9. I don’t think it’s inconsistent to think certain people are ruining the world and making terrible moral choices, to look down on those people, and also to be kind to them as much as possible.But your comment is like a piece of myself talking – believe me.

    Sister Y

    September 3, 2008 at 3:10 pm


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