Pessimism and Antinatalism in South America: Benatar's Asymmetry, Machado de Assis and Julio Cabrera

Before we start, it is important to define what the term “pessimism” means in this context. When I write about pessimism, I'm not dealing with a psychological predisposition or with negative predictions about certain specific events that will occur in the future, but with something that can be called “cosmic pessimism”. According to Eugene Thacker, professor at the New School for Social Research, cosmic pessimism is: “(...) the difficult thought of the world as absolutely unhuman, and indifferent to the hopes, desires, and struggles of human individuals and groups.” (THACKER, 2011)
The frailty of human life, by Salvator Rosa

About this type of pessimism, North American writer Thomas Ligotti summed up the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, Peter Wessel Zapffe, Carlo Michelstaedter and Philip Mainländer by writing the following: 
Here, then, is the signature motif of the pessimistic imagination that Schopenhauer made discernible: Behind the scenes of life there is something pernicious that makes a nightmare of our world. For Zapffe, the evolutionary mutation of consciousness tugged us into tragedy. For Michelstaedter, individuals can exist only as unrealities that are made as they are made and that cannot make themselves otherwise because their hands are forced by the “god” of philopsychia (self-love) to accept positive illusions about themselves or not accept themselves at all. For Mainländer, a Will-to-die, not Schopenhauer’s Will-to-live, plays the occult master pulling our strings, making us dance in fitful motions like marionettes caught in a turbulent wake left by the passing of a self-murdered god. (LIGOTTI, 2010)
Joshua Foa Dienstag, professor of political science at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), wrote the following about Schopenhauer's and Freud's “metaphysical pessimism”: “Human beings inhabit a universe that they would be justified in calling malevolent if it could be shown to have an author (which, to them, it does not).” (DIENSTAG, 2009)

In the same book, Dienstag deals with what he calls “existential pessimism”, identifying it with Albert Camus, Emil Cioran and Miguel de Unamuno. In the specific case of Unamuno and Cioran, he correctly states that these thinkers treated consciousness as a disease, an error of nature.

Dienstag does not work with the thought of Norwegian philosopher Peter Zapffe, but Zapffe's thought was similar to Cioran's—to him, human consciousness is a kind of mistake nature made along the way, a sort of detrimental evolutionary adaptation. Our deep consciousness gave us an immense power due to instrumental reason, but it also made us search for meaning in something that is fundamentally meaningless. It is worth noting that, of the three “existential pessimists” Dienstag works with, Cioran is the only one whose response to the absurdity of existence is a rejectionist, denialist ethic—which, in the manner of Schopenhauer's ethical prescriptions, aims to flee from the world and, in the manner simmilar to Zapffe's ethics, is contrary to the perpetuation of the species.

And now we can enter the subject of antinatalism proper. Antinatalism, according to Ken Coates:
... is the belief that to create a new life is to subject someone unnecessarily, and without their consent, to life’s many sufferings including death. This belief and its underlying philosophy is known as anti-natalism. There has been a recent resurgence of this philosophy, with David Benatar’s book Better Never To Have Been (2006) as a major catalyst. Anti-natalism can be seen as part of a larger philosophy, described here as Rejectionism, which finds existence – directly or indirectly, i.e. as procreation - deeply problematic and unacceptable. (COATES, 2014)
In fact, Benatar's writtings made him a focal point of this philosophy in the 21st century. We can grossly sum up his argument (“grossly” because there are several nuances and parallel arguments that sustain the main argument that I won't address here) in the following way: there is an asymmetry between positive and negative states in life that is so crucial that it would have been better if we never existed in the first place. Consider person X. In scenario A, X exists. In A, it is good when X experiences positive states, but bad when he experiences negative states. In the same way, it is bad if X in A stops experiencing positive states, and good if X stops experiencing negative states. This is the normal scenario that occurs in the lives of sentient beings that already exist, like us.

Now let's imagine the counterfactual scenario B in which X never existed. In scenario B, X never experiences positive states, since X was never born, and Benatar argues this isn't bad precisely because there is no one there for whom this inability to experience positive states is bad—we can say that there is no one “missing out on the party”. Now, for Benatar, when X isn't born, X also never experiences negative states, and that is a good thing. Therefore, when X doesn't exist, it is good that X doesn't suffer from negative states, since the lack of negative states is good even when there is no one there to experience it (e.g. it is good that there aren't any wars on Mars, even though there aren't any Martians to experience this lack of wars) and it isn't bad that X doesn't exist to experience the good states (e.g. it is hard to seriously argue that we should feel bad because there aren't any Martians who are missing out on the good things in life, like having a sundae on a lovely day).

Benatar argues that the asymmetry happens because what occurs when X doesn't exist is not a mere inversion of what occurs when X exists. If X exists, negative states are bad and positive states are good, but if X doesn't exist, the lack of negative states is good while the lack of positive states is not bad. His argument uses the following intuition: it isn't a bad thing when there isn't anyone to experience a positive state being offered, because the person never existed in the first place and no one is missing out; however, it is good when there isn't anybody to experience something negative, because we can recognize that the lack of bad events that victimize sentient beings is good even when the victims never existed (the Martian wars example).

In South America, there are those who consider this kind of philosophy as something that only the German, Norwegian, French and Anglo-Saxon peoples would consider. According to them, Latin Americans and South Americans would be (or should be) more preoccupied with other things, or they'd simply never agree with this type of philosophy. But that is not the case. Argentinian philosopher Julio Cabrera, a retired professor from the University of Brasilia, has been writing from a philosophical pessimist—an antinatalist—point of view for decades. In fact, he has been writing on the subject of antinatalism since before Benatar's publications. And long before Cabrera, we had Machado de Assis, a Brazilian novelist and short story writer who was heavily influenced by Schopenhauer and ended up leaving some of the greatest pieces of literature in the world—and they are considered great precisely because of his pessimistic views, which also had antinatalist leanings.

Let's look at certain crucial passages from two of Assis's novels (spoiler alert for those who never read him):
I should like to speak here of the end of Quincas Borba, who also fell ill, whined ceaselessly, ran off unhinged of his master, and was found dead on the street one morning three days later. But on seeing the death of the dog told in a separate chapter, it's possible that you will ask me whether it is he or his late namesake who gives the book its title and why one instead of the other—a question pregnant with questions that would take us far along... Come now! Weep for the two recent deaths if you have tears. If you only have laughter, laugh! It's the same thing. The Southern Cross that the beautiful Sofia refused to behold as Rubião had asked her is so high up that is can't discern the laughter or the tears of men. (ASSIS, 1998)
This is the last chapter of Quincas Borba. The story is about a man named Rubião, who was a disciple and heir of Quincas Borba, the founder of a philosophy called Humanitism. Besides inheriting Borba's money and philosophy, Rubião also inherited his dog, which was also called Quincas Borba. Sofia was a married woman with whom Rubião spent years in love. To his despair, he was never able to become her lover. Here we see the influence of Schopenhauer's pessimism, since the Will—an immanent metaphysical essence that permeates reality in Schopenhauer's philosophy—is completely indifferent to human and animal drama and suffering. The universe doesn't care about Rubião's troubles. It doesn't care about his passions or the loyalty of his dog, Quincas Borba. The universe is indifferent to our presence. Our tears and smiles add up to nothing, maybe even less.

However, it is in another one of Assis's novels that we see a clear antinatalist philosophy. In The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, Machado writes:
This last chapter is all about negatives. I didn’t attain the fame of the poultice, I wasn’t a minister, I wasn’t a caliph, I didn’t get to know marriage. The truth is that alongside these lacks the good fortune of not having to earn my bread by the sweat of my brow did befall roe. Furthermore, I didn’t suffer the death of Dona Plácida or the semidementia of Quincas Borba. Putting one and another thing together, any person will probably imagine that there was neither a lack nor a surfeit and, consequently, that I went off squared with life. And he imagines wrong. Because on arriving at this other side of the mystery I found myself with a small balance, which is the final negative in this chapter of negatives—I had no children, I haven’t transmitted the legacy of our misery to any creature. (ASSIS, 1997)
While Machado de Assis was a novelist and wrote fiction sprinkled with Schopenhauerian philosophy, Julio Cabrera is an academic philosopher and his writing aims to argue in favor of certain positions given certain premisses, even when he writes in the form of essays. Although he wrote extesivelly on the subject for the last few decades, it is in his most recent book—called Discomfort and Moral Impediment: The Human Situation, Radical Bioethics and Procreation—that Cabrera gives a more detailed and clear argument in favor of a negative and antinatalist ethical theory. Like I did with Benatar before, I will try to present Cabrera's argument in an extremely condensed manner, since it would be impossible to try and expound the entirety of his arguments here.

According to him, all affirmative ethical theories—regardless of being deontological, utilitarian or virtue ethics—end up articulating certain fundamental ideas, which he sums up in what he calls Fundamental Ethical Articulation (or FEA). He calls these classical ethical theories “positive” because their implied starting point is that the human being has a positive structural value, something Cabrera will question. For Cabrera, the human being has a structural lack of value which he or she fights against for the entirety of his or her life by trying to create positive values—something that we'll discuss shortly after we deal with the terminal structure of being. FEA occurs when we consider the interests of others in our actions (since my copy of Cabrera's book is in Portuguese, the following translations are mine and may differ from the English version):
In short, considering the interests of other means: i) taking them into account, not ignoring them (not taking into account only our own interests); ii) examining them to see if these interests are, in turn, considerate towards others (regarding our interests and the interests of other involved). That would be the minimum ethical requirement, summarized in the FEA. (CABRERA, 2018)
However, there exists a grave problem which makes practicing ethics—formulated as the FEA—nearly impossible. He names this problem the profound discomfort:
a) At birth, human beings are endowed with a kind of decreasing being (or 'decaying' being), a being that starts to end as soon as it emerges, and whose final end can occur at any moment.

b) From the moment they first appear, humans are affected by three kinds of friction: physical pain (in the form of diseases, accidents and catastrophes to which they are always exposed); discouragement (in the form of a 'lack of will' to continue acting, from the simple tedium vitae to severe forms of depression); and, finally, exposure to the aggressive actions of other humans (in the form of discrimination, chatter, gossip, slander, exclusion, persecution, injustice, physical and psychological torture, and even extermination), themselves also subjected to the three types of friction.

c) Humans are equipped with mechanisms that create positive values and act as defenses from a) through b), which humans must constantly keep active against the advances of their decreasing or decaying being and its three kinds of friction, and have the ability to delay, soften, embellish and forget the frictional emergence of birth. (CABRERA, 2018)
Cabrera calls the characteristics a-through-b the terminality of being. This terminality of being is not just linked to our final death, which he calls punctual death (PD), but to the process as a whole, from the emergence of being until its perishing. He names the process of emergence and submission of being to the terminal structure as structural death (SD), something to which we are all submitted to and can't escape. Even if we were capable of inventing a way to live forever as humans, given the characteristics described in the triple friction and the constant creation of positive values (which always end up denying the values of others, even when we don't intend to), we would still be submitted to SD.

According to him, “(...) the terminal structure of being, the original lack of value of human life as profound discomfort, the always reactive character of our positive values in relation to the terminal structure, and the presence of suffering in its triple structural manifestation, pain, discouragement and, especially, moral impediment (...)” (CABRERA, 2018) requires from us a different kind of normative ethic than hedonism, eudaimonism, deontological, utilitarian, etc, since all of these positive ethical theories end up disappointing the FEA at some point. Exemples: when a hedonist seeks to build positive values via pleasurable experiences, more than likely he or she ends up affecting others negatively, regardless of his or her intentions; when a eudaimonist seeks to be virtuous, he or she ends up ignoring or harming others in their terminality, whether wanting it or not; the deontologist might cause harm to other morally impeded beings—the famous Kantian categorical imperative which prohibits lying even in order to save a human life is a great example of how deontologists may end up harming others by pursuing this type of positive ethical theory.

Therefore, positive ethics are not capable of maintaining the FEA. Sooner or latter they will fail. When striving for a “good life”, the eudaimonist ends up stepping on someone's toes. While fulfilling a moral duty, the deontologist ends up causing harm to someone. In his search for maximizing well-being or minimizing discomfort, the utilitarian ends up making choices that will also cause someone to be harmed in some way, whether or not he or she wants it. This moral impediment makes Cabrera think of a negative ethic, an ethic which makes the FEA absolute, above life itself—contrary to Nietzsche, for example, who proposed making life an absolute parameter that is above all other things, even ethics.

In Cabrera's view, we are always morally impeded, be it in an active, passive or dissenting manner. There are those who are Actively Consenting Impeded (ACI), those who are Passively Consenting Impeded (PCI), and those who are Dissenting Impeded (DI). The ACI “are those who, while seeing that their actions benefit themselves and harm others, do not care about this.” The PCI “are those who, with their indifference and omission, contribute directly or indirectly to the establishment or perpetuation of a state of things that provoke harm to other humans.” (CABRERA, 2018) The DI are those who are inserted in the world and end up tragically harming others without intending to or even when they intend to do good—we can give the example of well meaning people who, in the process of helping others, cannot help all of those around them and have to chose a smaller number of unfortunates to help, leaving others in despair.

Throughout the book, Cabrera elaborates a series of negative imperatives that seek a maximum adherence to the FEA. However, there is only one safe way to avoid falling into the terminal structure of being and becoming exposed to the profound discomfort of life: never existing in the first place. And this is only possible in the strict sense when we abstain from creating new sentient beings—which means the avoidance of suffering is never possible for those who already exist, but only to those who potentially could exist but are never created. This is where antinatalism comes in play in Julio Cabrera's philosophy. Starting from a pessimist view of reality—which includes the triple terminality of being, the profound discomfort—he proposes that we act in a way that preserves the FEA as much as possible, and the best way to do this is to abstain from reproduction. Those who are already alive should observe the negative imperatives that seek to minimize harm to other moral impeded creatures—but we should always have in mind that this is an impossible task, and we are still morally impeded even when we minimize our actions as much as possible.

In conclusion, it is worth noting that, in his book, Cabrera deals with the problem caused by the naturalistic fallacy. However, he argues that this problem is not an impediment to the formulation of any ethical theory, be it positive or negative. In fact, not even David Hume and G.E. Moore—who argued for the naturalistic fallacy as a problem facing most ethical theories—agreed with the hypothesis that we can't formulate an ethical theory because we can't deduce an “ought” from an “is”. They went ahead and did it anyway. Cabrera completely agrees that we can never derive an “ought” from an “is”—in fact, Benatar also agrees with this—but that doesn't stop him from formulating his negative ethics. His answer to the naturalistic fallacy is divided in two parts.

First: at no moment does Cabrera intend to logically deduce an “ought” from empirical observations of the world. That is, he doesn't try to deduce an “ought” from a “is”. He does not deduce his negative ethics from observing the terminal structure of being like we would deduce the conclusion in a syllogism. According to him, the derivation does not occur only through the use of logic, but through a “pathic” (from the Greek pathos, suffering, passion, affection) and existential process: all of us experience the profound discomfort that exist as the triple manifestations of structural suffering. From this experience, we can consider the arguments that we should avoid discomfort and suffering from propagating further (e.g. we all know that burnt skin causes suffering and, using this knowledge, we can derive the idea that burning others is not something good—we can derive this not by using pure logic, but through a pathic and existential process of recognition).

Second: Cabrera states that his negative ethics (in fact, all normative ethics, including positive ones) gives a fundamental role to human choice: the point of ethics is not to deduce a cold conclusion that can only be stated in one formulaic manner, but to argue that certain ways of acting are moral and others are not. Therefore, in any normative ethics, be it positive or negative, we have the establishment of what is right and what is wrong, and it is up to the moral agent to decide whether or not he or she will act in a right or wrong way, be it because the agent recognizes what is wrong and doesn't care (the agent recognizes that he or she is immoral), be it it because the agent doesn't recognize ethics as a whole (the agent is amoral).

By Fernando Olszewski

(This post was originally published March 3rd, 2020 @ Exilado Metafísico)

. ASSIS, Machado de. The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Translated by Gregory Rabassa.
. ASSIS, Machado de. Quincas Borba. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Translated by Gregory Rabassa.
. CABRERA, Julio. Mal-estar e moralidade: situação humana, ética e procriação responsável. Brasília: Editora Unb, 2018.
. COATES, Ken. Anti-natalism: rejectionist philosophy from Buddhism to Benatar. Sarasota: Design Publishing, 2014.
. DIENSTAG, Joshua Foe. Pessimism: philosophy, ethic, spirit. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.
. LIGOTTI, Thomas. The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. New York: Hippocampus Press, 2010.
. THACKER, Eugene. In the Dust of This Planet. S.l.: John Hunt Publishing, 2011.