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Is Antinatalism Illiberal?

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Aschwin de Wolf‘s “Non-existence is hard to do: A review of contemporary antinatalist writings,” published in Cryonics magazine for the second quarter of 2010, examines antinatalism from the perspective of a life extension enthusiast.

One of de Wolf’s more original claims, I think, is that antinatalism is illiberal. He says:

Like Crawford, Benatar cannot completely escape the charge of illiberalism. Classical liberalism takes very seriously the difficulties in reaching satisfactory conclusions about the quality of other people’s lives. In practice this means that we exercise restraint in making strong cognitive and moral claims about the feelings and preferences of other people. This is a mindset that does not seem to come easily to antinatalists. [Emphasis mine.]

We often hear the claim that antinatalism cannot be correct because life cannot be a harm – look at all the happy people! (de Wolf even posits this as somehow “empirical” evidence for the correctness of reproduction. I wonder what he makes of things like this when he says that “The claim that coming into existence is always a harm is not consistent with the reports of all those who have come into existence.”)

Antinatalists, then, are chastised for being such closed-minded party poopers, and pointed to evidence of subjective happiness of existing people.

In reality, liberalism, in de Wolf’s conception, is at the very core of antinatalist ethics. We just conceive of babies as human beings, too.

It is difficult for me to imagine a greater instance of “making strong cognitive and moral claims about the feelings and preferences of other people” than intentionally creating a person. To do so, one must assume that this stranger, whose beliefs and values cannot possibly be known, will be happy with his life. And that is a load of shit. “Most people don’t like it” is not a liberal argument for a prohibition on drug use, prostitution, suicide, etc. Nor is “most people like being alive” a liberal argument for reproduction.

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Written by Sister Y

December 16, 2010 at 7:54 pm

14 Responses

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  1. I think it depends how strong an antinatalist position you want to take, and how much coercion you want to put behind it. How does the right not to be born match up against other rights? “Procreation should be forbidden and/or restricted” (e.g. One Child Per Family) is illiberal, but I guess some strong antinatalists might regard it as justified anyway. I think everyone agrees that trying to peacefully persuade others not to have children is fine. Trying to persuade others to have an abortion… a lot of rights clashing there, I suspect no consensus.

    In terms of liberalism, I think the strongest point for antinatalism is suicide rights. But then, I think suicide rights is the strongest part of the antinatalist manifesto generally.

    Salem

    December 17, 2010 at 12:48 am

  2. I think it's worth pointing out that antinatalism is primarily a statement about individual ethics. For any individual, it's wrong to have children. The political question – what do we do if people don't care for this requirement – is secondary.

    “Procreation should be forbidden and/or restricted” (e.g. One Child Per Family) is illiberal

    Prohibition of murder and violent assault isn't illiberal either. Saying why a prohibition of procreation would be, is a theoretically non-trivial task.

    I think everyone agrees that trying to peacefully persuade others not to have children is fine. Trying to persuade others to have an abortion… a lot of rights clashing there, I suspect no consensus.

    How is that not inconsistent? Why is there no right not to be persuaded to have children, but a right not to be persuaded to have an abortion?

    In terms of liberalism, I think the strongest point for antinatalism is suicide rights.

    Please explain… I don't really get the connection.

    Constant

    December 17, 2010 at 10:45 am

  3. Constant –

    Once we speak of “liberalism” and “illiberalism” we are speaking of coercion. It may be theoretically non-trivial to say why a prohibition on procreaction is illiberal, but that is only because the argument will descend into semantics. It is obvious that prohibitions on procreation are not freedom-maximizing. However, the fact that something is illiberal doesn't make it wrong.

    As for your question about abortion, it's not the parent's right not to be persuaded, it's the (possible) right of the unborn not to be killed. The moral issue in antinatalism is not giving birth, it is bringing a life into existence. Therefore antinatalists have the same disagreements on abortion as pronatalists.

    Finally, the argument that someone should be prevented from committing suicide “for his own good” is profoundly illiberal, even totalitarian. Because antinatalists do not assume that human life has positive value, they are much more liberal on suicide than the mainstream.

    Salem

    December 18, 2010 at 4:29 am

  4. Salem-

    It is obvious that prohibitions on procreation are not freedom-maximizing.

    Since freedom is defined as the ability to act without coercion, you are probably right. It's interesting how language reflects the existence bias. The typical breeder argument is that this purported “freedom” (“we need to give our children a chance to make their own decisions about life”) is somehow better than the lack of coercion inherent in never coming into existence. The only difference between the two is that freedom requires existence. So it's better to exist because then you exist! Circular argument, anyone?

    CM

    December 18, 2010 at 6:05 am

  5. Classical liberal and libertarian concepts of freedom – from Locke to Nozick – are framed out of concern for individual autonomy. Whether this concern is explicated in terms of negative rights (or side constraints or non-aggression) or in terms of political or economic efficiency, a proscription against the initiation of force is usually central, even if it is subject to conditional qualification. Philanthropic antinatalism as exposited by Crawford and Benatar keeps with liberal tradition, inasmuch as it is meant to enjoin the initiation of force that is visited upon people through procreation. As others have noted, the confusion arises from existential bias; where not-yet-existent entities are at issue, the reflexive assumption holds that autonomy and force are not operative concepts, and that the problem of harm is therefore misapplied. This assumption, which is easily answered by reference to by-now familiar antinatalist rejoinders concerning non-identity (where we encounter thalidomide-ingesting expectant mothers and a host of non-existential asymmetries), allows critics to charge antinatalists with illiberal conceit, usually by observing that most people do not regret being born. Since de Wolf does not really grapple with the non-identity problem (and furthermore concedes that Benatar's asymmetry is true, if “tautological”), his charge of illiberalism is, in context, superficial.

    Still, I think there is a strong possibility that explicitly illiberal arguments will sprout from current iterations of antinatalist – even philanthropic-antinatalist – ethics. In Benatar's case, what I consider to be the comparative weakness of his preemptive rejection of “promortalism” – sustained by his view, curiously contrasted with that of Stoic philosophers, that death is a harm when it undercuts an individual's interest in continuing to live – is suggestive of what will come. To understand why I characterize Benatar's individualist argument here as comparatively weak, zoom back to consider the stakes against which an individual's interest in continued life – or in other contexts, an individual's LEGAL right to reproduce, which Benatar would also uphold – must be weighed! If the asymmetric calculus is taken seriously, the implications are profound. It means that incomprehensibly VAST amounts of suffering trace directly to the sex-driven acts – which in turn are shaped by millions of years of evolution – of billions of agents. While such scales might not pose a special problem for deontologically centered antinatalists (for whom preemptive or preventive force is never an option), it seems inevitable that those who process the data as utilitarian math will be increasingly inclined to promote genuinely illiberal policies – from forced contraception to promortalism – if only to forestall or offset the deluge. Since Benatar's argument is neither explicitly utilitarian or explicitly rights-based, it is actually quite remarkable that he does not commit to more illiberal prescriptions. Whether this is a matter of calculated restraint is not entirely clear to me. But I think it's a safe bet that if antinatalism has a future in the currency of intellectual discourse, illiberal antinatalism will be part of that future.

    Chip

    December 18, 2010 at 5:39 pm

  6. Classical liberal and libertarian concepts of freedom – from Locke to Nozick – are framed out of concern for individual autonomy. Whether this concern is explicated in terms of negative rights (or side constraints or non-aggression) or in terms of political or economic efficiency, a proscription against the initiation of force is usually central, even if it is subject to conditional qualification. Philanthropic antinatalism as exposited by Crawford and Benatar keeps with liberal tradition, inasmuch as it is meant to enjoin the initiation of force that is visited upon people through procreation. As others have noted, the confusion arises from existential bias; where not-yet-existent entities are at issue, the reflexive assumption holds that autonomy and force are not operative concepts, and that the problem of harm is therefore misapplied. This assumption, which is easily answered by reference to by-now familiar antinatalist rejoinders concerning non-identity (where we encounter thalidomide-ingesting expectant mothers and a host of non-existential asymmetries), allows critics to charge antinatalists with illiberal conceit, usually by observing that most people do not regret being born. Since de Wolf does not really grapple with the non-identity problem (and furthermore concedes that Benatar's asymmetry is true, if “tautological”), his charge of illiberalism is, in context, superficial.

    Still, I think there is a strong possibility that explicitly illiberal arguments will sprout from current iterations of antinatalist – even philanthropic-antinatalist – ethics. In Benatar's case, what I consider to be the comparative weakness of his preemptive rejection of “promortalism” – sustained by his view, curiously contrasted with that of Stoic philosophers, that death is a harm when it undercuts an individual's interest in continuing to live – is suggestive of what will come. To understand why I characterize Benatar's individualist argument here as comparatively weak, zoom back to consider the stakes against which an individual's interest in continued life – or in other contexts, an individual's LEGAL right to reproduce, which Benatar would also uphold – must be weighed! If the asymmetric calculus is taken seriously, the implications are profound. It means that incomprehensibly VAST amounts of suffering trace directly to the sex-driven acts – which in turn are shaped by millions of years of evolution – of billions of agents. While such scales might not pose a special problem for deontologically centered antinatalists (for whom preemptive or preventive force is never an option), it seems inevitable that those who process the data as utilitarian math will be increasingly inclined to promote genuinely illiberal policies – from forced contraception to promortalism – if only to forestall or offset the deluge. Since Benatar's argument is neither explicitly utilitarian or explicitly rights-based, it is actually quite remarkable that he does not commit to more illiberal prescriptions. Whether this is a matter of calculated restraint is not entirely clear to me. But I think it's a safe bet that if antinatalism has a future in the currency of intellectual discourse, illiberal antinatalism will be part of that future.

    Chip

    December 18, 2010 at 5:40 pm

  7. > It is obvious that prohibitions on procreation are not freedom-maximizing.

    Yes, for the parent. But what about the child?
    Is it even clear what “freedom-maximizing” means?
    Maximum of options, or minimum of constraints?

    The problem with freedom (good) and coercion (bad) seems similar to the asymetric situation of happyness and suffering. Existing provides us with freedoms we would not otherwise enjoy. But at the same time we suffer from lots of restrictions, which is bad. Not existing also means never being oppressed by other people or society, not to mention the physical/natural constraints to the freedom we might wish to have (i.e. that is thinkable, although maybe not practically possible).

    So maybe the judgement would be similar? Perhaps it is just a special case of the happines-problem? Unfullfilled desires for freedom are bad, not having any freedom (i.e. options) when one does not exist is merely neutral?

    All the best,
    rob

    rob

    December 18, 2010 at 9:32 pm

  8. Is the moral position against people being born, period — or is it specifically against the birth of people who later regret being born? If it's the latter, the problem is simply lack of ability to predict someone's future attitudes. Which is an empirical issue.

    Icebrand

    December 19, 2010 at 6:18 pm

  9. Luke –

    I can't speak for everyone's moral position, but the fact is that everyone is harmed by being brought into existence, including those who don't regret it. So deontologically inclined antinatalists (or those concerned about the issue of consent) would oppose all births, and consequentialists would oppose the creation of everyone except those people who create greater benefits (or prevent greater harm) for others than the harm they suffer themselves (and it's hard to unequivocally identify such people, if there are any at all).

    There apparently exists some disagreement on the antinatalist front about how the wishes of those who are glad to have been born are to be treated
    in various fantastical scenarios, like being destroyed by a teleporter (see the discussion in the comments here) with the opportunity to be recreated (which is similar to what the cryonics crowd is hoping for, I think).

    CM

    December 21, 2010 at 7:33 am

  10. For those philosophically opposed to coercion, not having a child is the ONLY route to take. After birth, our lives are a series of gross coercions and subtler manipulations all the way to the graveyard at the bottom of the hill. From that first spank on the butt, we are held hostage by the edicts and whims of our parents, peer pressure, unasked for societal duties, as well as the endless needs of our own flesh. Round that out with the myriad of other environmental factors which rise up to impair our 'freedoms', mix in a dash of scientific determinism, and what are we left with? Puppets jerked around on this little stage we call life, until at last our strings are cut.

    metamorphhh

    December 21, 2010 at 5:18 pm

  11. Slightly off topic, but did you know Thomas Joiner has a new book out called “Myths about Suicide”? He still comes out against suicide, but many of the debunked myths are worth reading.

    Elizabeth

    December 22, 2010 at 2:01 am

  12. Some heartbreaking call-ins during this interview with Joiner back in April.

    Rob

    December 22, 2010 at 3:27 am

  13. A more substantial interview with Joiner from March 2009.

    Rob

    December 22, 2010 at 5:06 pm

  14. The problem I have with the anti-suicide crowd is the assumption that things can always be fixed- circumstances, chemical balance, what have you. The big questions are NEVER addressed. Let's suppose I'm an 80 yr. old man with cancer. Doesn't suicide (or euthanasia, if this were an enlightened society) seem by far the most logical course? And yet, this man's death would be fought against with the same vehemence by some of these folks as a 17 yr. old girl wishing to kill herself over a breakup.

    I found it interesting that the secret ingredient to suicide Mr. Joiner has come up with is 'fearlessness'. What, then, is the remedy, if not the instilling of the fear of death? Great! Yet another contradiction against the inevitable to fuck with our heads, as if gods with eternal grudges weren't bad enough.

    How about 'Mr. X doesn't like it here. Let's help him on his way in the most humane way possible.'? We're all dying. What's so horrible in letting people choose the time and place? Other than our own self interest, of course.

    metamorphhh

    December 22, 2010 at 7:15 pm


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