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Ask Sister Y: Distinguishing Pure Antinatalism from "Bad World" Antinatalism

with 8 comments

A reader asks:

Hello Sister Y,

Would you change your antinatalist views if –

a. life extension technology took off and
b. a legal system existed somewhere where a more ‘rational’ frame of mind was adhered to?

To answer this question, it may be helpful to attempt a sort of taxonomy of philanthropic antinatalisms (philosophies that maintain that reproduction is wrong because it harms those brought into existence). One kind of antinatalism occurs when we look at the world around us and conclude, based on some kind of standard, that our particular world is so bad that it is no place for children (or new beings). Another, more subtle form of antinatalism is the judgment that no matter how nice conditions in our or any world may be, it’s still wrong to bring sentient creatures into existence. We might call the former view “context-dependent antinatalism” or “bad world antinatalism” or something like that. The latter we might call “pure antinatalism” or “context-independent antinatalism” or even “Benatarian antinatalism,” since this is the view advocated by David Benatar in his book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence.

The first view – context-dependent antinatalism – has multiple versions as well. The most common form of antinatalism is the belief that it is generally okay to reproduce (i.e., that most lives are worth beginning), but that it is immoral for some people* to reproduce (e.g., starving people, people with AIDS, drug addicts). A stronger form of context-dependent antinatalism holds that, given the universal features of our world (the inevitability of death and bodily pain, the high likelihood of some degree of misery, the condition of absurdity), it is never morally right for someone in our world to reproduce. But both of these require us to look at the world around us and judge it according to some standard for what makes a good existence. Pure antinatalism – Benatarian antinatalism – requires no such mysterious standard, and no examination of the world at all, except to note that all beings suffer at least a little bit. Benatar’s illustrative example is that of a child brought into existence in a miraculous world where he would be purely happy and never suffer any pain or misery – except a single pinprick. Pure antinatalism would judge it immoral to bring him into existence; context-dependent antinatalism would judge it morally good.

So we might divide the world into four basic positions:

  1. Pronatalism. “All reproduction is morally innocent (or morally required).”
  2. Situational context-dependent antinatalism. “Everybody should have babies except starving people in the third world, drug addicts, and AIDS patients.”
  3. Universal context-dependent antinatalism. “Our world is so bad that no one living in it should reproduce; but if things got much better, it might be okay.”
  4. Pure antinatalism. “No beings should ever be brought into existence if they will suffer at all – which they will.”

In my experience, the first two views are the most common. Most folks either cannot conceive of existence ever being a harm, or can conceive of it as a harm only for the very worst lives among us.

What is rarely acknowledged is that both forms of context-dependent antinatalism – 2 and 3 in the list above – require some kind of standard by which we can measure whether a human life is worth getting. The most common standard offered is, I think, that explicitly articulated by Robin Hanson: we can judge which lives should come into existence based on which lives are happy having their existence now.

I have previously discussed the problems with this view (the idea that we can judge whether a life is worth getting by whether a similarly-situated alive individual is happy to have been born). We are attracted to the idea that one may choose for oneself; recreating happy beings seems like a nice proxy for individual choice. But the similarities are illusory.

We assume that when one evaluates oneself as happy, or glad-to-have-been-born, one is observing the evidence and making a rational judgment (even if that evidence is introspective). But there is plenty of evidence that such judgments are irrationally skewed in the direction of justifying one’s own existence. We are programmed (by evolution) to feel happy-to-be-here, and to fear oblivion, whether it be the oblivion of death or the oblivion of never existing. The optimistic bias causes us to cheerily predict good things in the future, even where that is irrational. The just-world fallacy causes us to irrationally perceive existing institutions as just and good, and to perceive victims as deserving their troubles. The findings in the field of terror management theory have shown us that pondering or own mortality (mortality salience) causes us to bolster our irrational prejudices even more strongly – a practice called worldview defense. When Marty McFly begins disappearing, he is not merely sad to lose his relatively happy existence; he is horrified. There is no discussion of whether he might actually be better off not coming into existence; this rational process is elided in favor of raw horror. And that is what our brains naturally do. That is what evolution has made them to do: anything it takes to survive and reproduce, regardless of ethical truth. A being who judges himself lucky to exist is more likely to (a) cling to life and (b) reproduce than one who feels existence to be a burden.

Our subjective analysis of whether our own lives were worth beginning may be fundamentally tainted by evolutionarily-determined blocks on our capacity to reason. But this does not necessarily mean that there can be no possible standard by which existence can be measured, or no possible values which could justify the suffering of innocents who do not subscribe to those values. However, it is far from easy to articulate such a standard. Benatar frames the problem by distinguishing between an actually objective perspective (the perspective sub specie aeternitatis) and the embodied, human perspective (the perspective sub specie humanitatis). Those who hold views 2 and 3 (above) must, whether they like it or not, articulate the standard by which a “life worth getting” may be judged.

Rather than engage in this project, however, those who take the position of context-dependent antinatalism (which we might also call context-dependent pronatalism, for that is what it is if the context is nice enough) furiously object to the entire project of determining whether our world is a good one, or who might be an innocent parent. The most common objections to the project, often brought with high emotion, are obviousness, pointlessness, and dangerousness.

1. Obviousness

Bryan Caplan says:

When I hail these benefits for parents, critics often accuse me of moral blindness. How can I neglect the welfare of the children created by artificial means? But I’m not “neglecting” children’s welfare. I just find it painfully obvious that being alive is good for them. [Bolded emphasis mine; italics in original.]

Hopefully I have illustrated that it is not so obvious as we might think; and obviousness that cannot be articulated is not worth much.

2. Pointlessness

A commenter on Modeled Behavior says: “I’m astounded at the amount of mental effort you’ve put into this ultimately meaningless, frivolous, pointless, fatuous exercise.” This objection is relatively common. But is it really pointless to analyze such an important ethical choice as the choice to bring a child into existence? Isn’t it important to determine if our world is a good one?

3. Danger

Still others, such as Sami Pihlström, think that this project is, in fact, a dangerous one; that philosophy should not “go there.” The danger, indeed, might be the cessation of human existence, if the answer to the question of whether the world is a good or bad one is “bad” and all of us humans come to believe that. In a sense, Pihlström and others who take the “dangerousness” point of view want to say that human existence is a good thing, but want to forbid examining whether that is true or not.

My point is that the project of examining whether the world is a good one is key to context-dependent antinatalism (and context-dependent pronatalism), but most holders of this belief would like, for mostly emotional-seeming reasons, to not engage the question.

My Answer

I am a proponent of pure antinatalism. I also happen to think that ours is a very bad world in ways that do not appear fixable. As to the original question at the top of the page, the answer in both cases is no. I do not think there is a world in which is it right to reproduce. Ours happens to be a horrible one – and this would still be true even if it really were “the best of all possible worlds.” Given the pain and misery of our world, extending life is merely cruel; it makes the trap of existence that much more of a burden. And I seriously doubt the ability of any government, no matter how “rational,” to eradicate the problems inherent in human existence. However, even in a very happy world, I still think it would be immoral to reproduce.

* The exact set of immoral reproducers varies depending on the holder of this belief, but suffice to say that it is generally does not include the speaker himself in any case. Proponents of this view are often quick to offer suicide as a remedy for those unfortunates who are not happy with their existence.

Not only does mortality salience cause us to bolster our existing prejudices, such as our belief that the world is just, but it causes us to desire to achieve some kind of immortality – which may take the form of clinging to immortal-seeming institutions (e.g., patriotism) or may take the form of desperately reproducing.

And if brought into existence, wouldn’t his “replacement” (a child born to Marty’s mom, not by Marty’s dad) be equally horrified to ponder his non-existence? Is Marty’s hypothetical horror somehow more real and serious than the hypothetical horror experienced by the replacement? Everybody’s afraid to “disappear” and never-have-come-into-existence; that does not make it right for us all to have come into existence.


Written by Sister Y

October 25, 2010 at 3:18 pm

8 Responses

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  1. 1. Pronatalism. “All reproduction is morally innocent (or morally required).”

    These are really quite different things. What is the original meaning of pronatalism? “Non-reproduction is bad” or “reproduction is not bad”? This is something I was confused about. Perhaps there should be a seperate word (“antiantinatalism”) for the latter, but that is also confusing.

    2. Situational context-dependent antinatalism. “Everybody should have babies except starving people in the third world, drug addicts, and AIDS patients.”

    A.k.a. eugenics / anti-dysgenics.

    There is also “5. Randomness-derived pure antinatalism. No being should ever be brought into existence because one might suffer, even if not all of them do.”

    A.k.a. the Russian Roulette argument.

    The Plague Doctor

    October 26, 2010 at 7:15 pm

  2. Good points. Pronatalism can definitely be divided by whether reproduction is “always innocent” or “sometimes innocent,” and then further by whether reproduction is “always required” (rare outside religious circles), “sometimes required,” or “never required.” “Usually innocent and never required” is probably the most common position (especially as moral relativism/subjectivism seems to be the most common “ethical position” taken by ordinary non-religious Americans and even some religious ones – despite its utter incoherence, it's the politest moral philosophy).

    There's also definitely a great deal of confusion around the notion of probability of harm in this area, and the idea of trading off harm to one person for a benefit to another (which is another way to look at probability in this scenario). This is something I'm very interested in.

    Sister Y

    October 26, 2010 at 7:58 pm

  3. Hey Curator, do you have university access to the journal Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience? It has a lot of relevant stuff on the neuroscience of social psychology in general, biases, cultural differences, recipocity, moral judgments, and they even had an interesting article “Death on the brain: effects of mortality salience on the neural correlates of ingroup and outgroup categorization”.

    Here's an interesting sample fulltext from the journal on psychopathy.


    October 26, 2010 at 9:00 pm

  4. I think this is an important distinction because almost all people believe in some sort of context-dependent antinatalism but do not think of it that way. It is easy for those with self-serving biases to rationalize the positives of existence to the maximum extent possible in the absence of pure antinatalism.


    October 26, 2010 at 9:26 pm

  5. Where would population control fit in? I am referring to the notion that everyone may reproduce, but no more than 1 child (China's 1-child policy). This is certainly a “negative value judgement toward birth”, but not a pure one, so could it be called “antinatalism”?

    (And one could also make a distinction between ceasing a 1-child policy once the population has been sufficiently reduced, and a situation where one would proceed until extinction.)

    The Plague Doctor

    October 27, 2010 at 2:32 am

  6. Elizabeth – I haven't read the new stuff with MRI scans, but that's awesome. The laboratory work on the question goes back to the 1980s and it's been replicated all over the world – cool but unsurprising that there are neural correlates to the observed behaviors.

    Plague Doctor – good point. Family size reduction has been much more effective as a policy than the total elimination of childbearing (I have written about why I think any incentives designed to eliminate childbearing – positive or negative – will fail). It's not perfect, but it's somewhere to start. I'd classify that as a species of context-dependent antinatalism – but I'd also note that China's policy was adopted not entirely out of concern for the welfare of the babies, so it might not be an entirely philanthropic antinatalism.

    Sister Y

    October 27, 2010 at 4:50 pm

  7. Despite (or perhaps rather because of) my anti-natalist intuitions, promoting anti-natalism seems to me rather foolhardy, more likely to increase the total amount of suffering by easing the world into the custody of the conservative religious, since those most receptive to the message are neither conservative nor religious.


    October 28, 2010 at 1:55 am

  8. Excellent. You should do more “Ask Sister Y” posts. You should have at least one every month. Select the best question, etc. I am always impressed by the level of civility of your commentators (unless you are smart and delete those who take up needless, space by yelling or speaking from the knee).


    December 26, 2010 at 10:12 am

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