The View from Hell

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30% of Children Wish They’d Never Been Born

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Chip Smith points to a study, published in the American Journal of Sociology in 1932, with the surprising result that 30% of a broad sample of children studied expressed a wish never to have been born. (I know someone pointed me to this before, but I forget who it was.)

Life’s cheerleaders will no doubt argue that such wishes, while common, are most likely fleeting and not of a serious nature. However, I think this study must suggest to even the cheeriest of us that most people’s feelings toward life are ambivalent from the very beginning of mature consciousness. A feeling of certainty that anyone brought into being will be grateful to his creators is not justified. The essential value of one’s own life is not a feeling universally shared.

Many, many people are not glad to be alive. They are among the most seriously wronged by being brought into existence. But (and the author of the above study is a case in point) their position is pathologized and not taken seriously; even though cheeriness is not the universal position, it is assumed to be the correct position. Any deviation from gratitude for life does not, from the dominant point of view, need to be sincerely considered.

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Written by Sister Y

September 30, 2010 at 5:16 pm

15 Responses

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  1. Off topic: Have you heard about this fascinating suicide story? Harvard student Mitchell Heisman wrote a 1900+-page philosophical opus on politics, history, and death, as his suicide note, and then killed himself. Here is Heisman's suicide note website itself.

    The Plague Doctor

    September 30, 2010 at 8:20 pm

  2. My brief initial assessment of Heisman's opus. I was struck by how many of its topics – sociobiology, suicide, the Singularity – have a blogospheric topicality about them. By this I mean that they are being discussed in more depth and with more engagement on blogs than they are in intellectual institutions like academia.

    Regarding the study, at first (before I looked it up) I was surprised that something like that dated from 1932. I'm used to thinking of teenage nihilism as a phenomenon of the electronic era (by this I mean TV as well as Internet) – with the evils of the world, and now also the existentially subversive ideas, flooding in along with the spam and porn, impossible to block, and creating a psychological backdrop that previous generations didn't have. But then I looked at the study and saw it was about children wanting to die, and I was reminded that before you have despair in the form of philosophical generalization, you can have despair in the form of concrete social relations that are humiliating or agonizing, and that story is as old as humanity itself.

    Mitchell

    October 1, 2010 at 8:23 am

  3. Peter Singer's Last Generation?: A Response has some interesting stats of its own, based on blog responses to his

    filrabat

    October 3, 2010 at 1:04 pm

  4. Has this finding been replicated during more prosperous times? Suicide rates tend to increase as the economy tanks.

    Elizabeth

    October 6, 2010 at 4:11 pm

  5. By the way, I realize that your argument would be the same if just 1 person wished they'd never been born. I'm just curious about the statistic.

    Elizabeth

    October 6, 2010 at 4:18 pm

  6. I'm curious, too – would love to see replication of this if only out of scientific curiosity.

    Sister Y

    October 6, 2010 at 4:27 pm

  7. I believe this article was originally mentioned by Anonymous over at Jim's blog.

    Mitchell –

    I found it odd that the author continued to conflate the wish never to have been born with the wish for death, even though her hypothesis that wishing never to have been born indicated suicidal tendencies was unsupported. She wrote:

    For the present it must be accepted at its face value, as a wish on the part of the child that he had not been called upon to accept the responsibilities of living.

    This could actually provide empirical support for David Benatar's distinction between lives worth starting and lives worth continuing. I also wonder if pro-natalists would be as eager to give their usual recommendation (i.e., the whole “you should kill yourself” thing) to such children.

    Elizabeth –

    The influence of the economy is plausible. However, African-American children (including Alabama residents!) were less likely to wish not to have been born than whites. One would expect the opposite, given the lower social and economic status of blacks, especially in the 30's.

    The fact that Mexican children led the pack is tragically ironic, given the value Latino cultures usually place on breeding.

    CM

    October 7, 2010 at 2:38 pm

  8. The confusion between wishing to not have been born and wishing to die is extremely common.

    When I was little (somewhere between seven and ten) and first learned what abortion was, I asked my mother why she had not aborted me, since this seemed to me clearly the humane thing to do. My mother, normally a fairly rational woman and never violent, pointed a kitchen knife at me and asked me if I wanted to die. I was too disturbed to reply, of course, but it seemed to me even then that this was not a logical consequence of my question at all.

    Most people are not capable of many levels of abstract thought.

    Sister Y

    October 7, 2010 at 3:11 pm

  9. One of my favorite points of Benatar's book is the compatibility between coming into existence and death both being harms.

    Rob

    October 7, 2010 at 6:43 pm

  10. CM, you need to take both cross-sectional and longitudinal data into account. I suspect that African-Americans had less status to begin with before the Great Depression, so the sudden economic crash would have been more shocking to formerly secure whites. Roy Baumeister noted that 'positive' external things like wealth and status can increase suicide risk by creating higher expectations.

    Elizabeth

    October 7, 2010 at 6:48 pm

  11. Curator, I am aware of the difference between not wanting to have been born and wishing to die. I mention suicidality because it's widely studied and a passable proxy for the former.

    Elizabeth

    October 7, 2010 at 6:55 pm

  12. Elizabeth – I know you know the distinction – I was responding to CM's comment in response to Mitchell. Totally agree that suicidality is a valuable proxy for either of the two ideas.

    Suicide rates vary massively by race – and African Americans have historically had the lowest rates, although it's increased greatly over the past few decades, especially in young black men.

    Sister Y

    October 7, 2010 at 7:25 pm

  13. My mother, normally a fairly rational woman and never violent, pointed a kitchen knife at me and asked me if I wanted to die.

    Mothers and kitchen knives… Not a good combination but, sadly, all too common.

    CM

    October 8, 2010 at 4:22 pm

  14. Sadly true. I heard recently that humans have the highest rate of infanticide among the great apes – which makes sense from the perspective of evolutionary biology and is no way surprising, but is still sad.

    Sister Y

    October 9, 2010 at 12:33 am

  15. Rob

    October 12, 2010 at 4:29 pm


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