We have to talk about antinatalism

Then I returned and considered all the oppression that is done under the sun: and look! The tears of the oppressed, but they have no comforter — on the side of their oppressors there is power, but they have no comforter. Therefore I praised the dead who were already dead, more than the living who are still alive. Yet, better than both is he who has never existed, who has not seen the evil work that is done under the sun.

Pintura de Erik Thor Sandberg

Antinatalism is the philosophical position that attributes a negative value to birth. But this minimalist definition is problematic, since by it anyone who believes that being born is a harm can be considered an antinatalist — including people who wish to procreate despite considering existence bad, which can be argued is inconsistent of them.

In general, antinatalists tend not to reproduce, ever, and those that do have children normally adopted the position after having them. Being born, in the context of antinatalism, is synonymous with coming into existence. Therefore, antinatalists consider coming into existence as a negative event. For the antinatalist, procreation is a harm that should be avoided, a mistake. In this article, I will try to expound in the simplest possible way some of the main basis of the position.

Throughout history, a few poets and writers — Abu ' Ala Al-Ma'arri (973-1057), Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), Machado de Assis (1839-1908), Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), Fernando Vallejo (1942), Thomas Ligotti (1953) —, philosophers — Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), Peter Wessel Zapffe (1899-1990), Emil Cioran (1911-1995) — and religious movements — Buddhism (5th century b.C.), Marcionism (2nd century A.D.), Gnosticism (2nd century), Catharism (11th century) — espoused the idea that existence, at least in this decadent material universe of ours, is not a blessing. They argued that it is the opposite, and that it would have been better if none of us had ever existed. I cited a few famous names, but there were others.

In the case of some of the names and religions I mentioned, there is also the belief that, like us, other animals were harmed by coming into existence. Schopenhauer — the patron saint of contemporary philosophical pessimism — certainly thought so. That is why he wrote:
If one imagines the sum of distress, pain and suffering of every kind, as far as approximately possible, which the sun shines upon in its course, then one will have to grant that it would be much better if the sun had not been able to produce the phenomenon of life any better on earth than on the moon, but instead the surface of the former still found itself in a crystalline state, as on the moon. (SCHOPENHAUER, 2015)
More than 400 years before Christ, Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, taught the first noble truth: the existence of suffering. Quoting a translation from one of his famous sermons:
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering. (ANSON, 201-)
From then on, the Buddha revealed three more noble truths and a path to liberation (BIKKHU, 1999). This is not an article about Buddhism and religion, but in spite of this, it is valid to stress the clear vision of the Buddha: this universe, where we sentient beings (beings capable of feeling pleasure and pain) live in, is an undesirable place called Samsara. Here we remain in an eternal cycle of death and rebirth, always suffering (BIKKHU, 1998). For this reason, we should try to escape by reaching Nibbana, which is the cessation of the desires that chain us to this universe.

Other religions and sects such as Marcionism, several forms of Gnosticism, and Catharism, preached that we were imprisoned in the material universe by a malevolent or ignorant god, referred to as the Demiurge, and that in order to save ourselves we should embrace the higher god, the divine source that has always existed — which is different than the Demiurge, who was birthed because of some disturbance in the celestial realms (the stories vary depending on the sect or subgroup). In many cases non-reproduction was preached, since having a child was equivalent to imprisoning another soul in this decadent world (BARNSTONE; MEYER, 2011; RUNCIMAN, 2003) 

Despite being an atheist and averse to religions, Schopenhauer admired Buddhism for obvious reasons: his vision of the world fitted well with some pessimistic notions espoused by the ancient religion, but without the supernatural appeal. For him and other pessimistic philosophers, there is a structural problem with life. It is not a matter of sufferings that can be overcome with the passage of time, through human progress. No. For these thinkers and writers, life itself is problematic, since the first organisms that inhabited the Earth.
The existence of any organism is nothing more than the consumption of nutrients — and many of these nutrients come from the consumption of other life forms — and reproduction. Survival is only necessary up to the point of reproduction, or until there is a guarantee that the descendants will be able to survive by their own means, such as it is in the case of some animals — for example, we take care of our children until they are able to "walk with their own feet", as some people say.  

This is the background of all life, from starfishes, sharks, gazelles, polar bears, up to human beings: we are stuck in this program of having to satisfy needs in order to remain alive, and the only objective goal is the perpetuation of our genetic material. The moving force of life are its negative aspects: hunger — the main moving force, the one all living beings have in common in some form —, boredom, discomfort and needs.  

If the only beings that existed were incapable of feeling pain, like plants, fungi and (maybe) some kinds of animals, maybe this game without winners — after all, all life will end someday, whether we like or not—would not be so bad. It would remain inefficient, but maybe it wouldn't carry the same weight. But this is not the reality. Within the background of life, which is negative by itself, there are scores of sentient beings, capable of feeling pleasure but also pain, suffering and sadness. In the case of humans, we feel all of that and more.

Someone may answer the following: "It doesn't matter! All we need to do is live a life were the sum of all good things, of pleasures, is bigger than the sum of bad things."

First of all, the background of our existence is negative in itself. Try not to eat. After that, try not doing anything. Existing is not enough, we have the necessity to feed, and after that, we have to fulfill countless needs and desires. When food is secure, in the case of certain animals and in the case of human beings, there is still boredom and discomfort. And, in the exclusive case of humans, there is another problem: the complete lack of a higher meaning to our lives. 

The thesis put forward by philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe is that human beings are animals that became too intelligent for their own good. Because of this, we ended up searching for a meaning where it does not exist: our very existences. By that definition, we are tragic beings. According to him, we have four mechanisms to deal with the lack of meaning of existence: isolation (distancing our minds from the contemplation of our tragic nature), anchorage (fixing our thoughts in something: family, political ideology, religion), distraction (living for entertainment) and sublimation (for example: using art as an outlet to create something positive in this cruel and meaningless universe).

In the 1990 documentary "To be a human being", Zapffe stated:
In accordance with my conception of life, I have chosen not to bring children into the world. A coin is examined, and only after careful deliberation, given to a beggar, whereas a child is flung out into the cosmic brutality without hesitation.
According to Zapffe's philosophy, we have a need to invent a higher purpose so we can avoid confronting our tragic nature. This higher purpose can be religious, ideological, particular or anything else. Just existing: eating and satiating basic needs is not enough.

Second of all, one of the criticisms of antinatalism — and of philosophical pessimism in general — is that we cannot objectively measure all pleasure and pain in the world, so we cannot know which one is bigger. When people make this criticism, it is implied that it is possible to have more pleasure than pain in the world we live in.

In fact, for some individuals, it is possible to have a life with more pleasure than pain. Children of billionaire parents have at least the possibility of living more pleasurable lives than painful lives. But this is not the reality for most, by far. And even if it were, there would still remain the problem of the background of all life: it is negative by definition, before any possibility of calculation.

We exist in order to satiate eternal needs and wants. The pleasures we have are only the denial of some prior deprivation. We deny hunger by feeding. We deny boredom by entertaining ourselves. We deny suffering with illusions. But satiety lasts for a short period time. In the end we are never fully satisfied and there is no higher meaning to it all. These things are independent from our social status or material well-being, and no future magic technology will be able to alter the background of all life. Even if one day we were able to cure all physical pain, we'd still be chasing after a non-existing meaning.

Within the ethical debate about whether or not it is wrong to bring new people into existence, South African philosopher David Benatar developed an argument commonly referred to as Benatar's asymmetry. It is postulated as follows:
The argument that coming into existence is always a harm can be summarized as follows: Both good and bad things happen only to those who exist. However, there is a crucial asymmetry between the good and the bad things. The absence of bad things, such as pain, is good even if there is nobody to enjoy that good, whereas the absence of good things, such as pleasure, is bad only if there is somebody who is deprived of these good things. The implication of this is that the avoidance of the bad by never existing is a real advantage over existence, whereas the loss of certain goods by not existing is not a real disadvantage over never existing. (BENATAR, 2006)
There are a few problems with this argument that were noted by other antinatalist philosophers, such as Julio Cabrera, who worked at the University of Brasilia, Brazil.

Cabrera (2011) affirms that the formal argument doesn't sustain itself, since the asymmetry can be called into question. After all, if X never comes to existence, we can ask: the lack of pain is good for who? and the lack of pleasure is good for who? There is also nothing that stops one from stating that the absence of pleasure could be considered bad.

Nevertheless, Cabrera also says that if we use what he calls material arguments, the asymmetry is useful. His criticism is that the asymmetry by itself does not demonstrate that coming to existence causes harm (and that not coming to existence is a benefit), but when we sustain the asymmetry with material evidence, the asymmetry becomes less open to opposing arguments.

The material arguments are: human life is very bad because we are always perturbed with negative things, we are always subjected to insatiable desires, and we're always cowed by the lack of meaning in life—in other words, the material arguments are very close to what I called "the background of all life". The formal argument (the asymmetry) is fully acceptable when we notice these things. After we observe that even the least painful lives have these predicaments we can accept that it is better never to have been — and that means never feeling pain nor pleasure.

The price of non-existence would be too high if what we called "pain" were only a needle prick or an elbow bruise. When we observe the background of all life, the material arguments, not existing stops being a high price and becomes the most favorable option. Similarly, we can say this: if we need to exist in these negative conditions in order to feel the pleasures of life, the price is too high — it would have been better never to have been born.

It is important to stress that the argument deals with beginning a new life and not ending one that already exists. Antinatalism is not a philosophy that deals with suicide, at least not directly. Benatar argues that some lives are so bad that they could benefit from death (e.g. terminal patients experiencing extreme and constant pain), but that most lives should be continued until their inevitable end. 

Yet, someone could question the validity of the material evidence — what I call the background of all life — and say that antinatalists suffer from an unwarranted pessimism bias. Those who think that way tend to believe that most humans are realists, and only a small fraction of the population is pessimistic, while another small fraction is optimistic. But that is not true. 

We can't ask most people in the world what they think of life and expect a correct result. The observation of the negative background of life teaches us that we are always trying to satiate some need, from the most basic (food) to the most superfluous (touring another country). Far from being something that depresses most people, this mechanism is addicting. We want to chase after something, because this is the default state of life. Even antinatalists and pessimists experience this addiction — they are also living beings.

Therefore, asking people "is life a blessing?" is equivalent to asking a drunk person at a nightclub if he or she likes the effect of alcohol. In most cases the answer will be "yes". Most people suffer from an optimism bias. Yes, most of us are not realists, but optimists, and we have no idea of this. There are studies that show that up to 80% of the population have a rosy view of things. People think that everything tends to work for the best, that their careers will be good, that they won't suffer from cancers and that they're better drivers than most — which is mathematically impossible. We can add to that the hypothesis of depressive realism: depressive individuals tend to make more realistic inferences about the world than individuals who don't suffer from depression.

When Friedrich Nietzsche begun his studies, he was a disciple of Schopenhauer. Eventually, however, he came to oppose Schopenhauer's "pessimism of weakness", considering his philosophical pessimism — a pessimism that requires the denial of the Will to live, compatible with antinatalism — as a luxury of modern society, comfortable and decadent. I've listened this from a few people: "the only reason you think like this is because you have a pretty comfortable life."

When we observe the thinkers and questioners of ancient times, especially ancient Greece, we realize they only had time to think and do philosophy because there was a population of slaves working to provide their comforts. Nevertheless, Epictetus — a famous stoic philosopher of the imperial tradition — was a slave that was tortured by his master. Stoicism is a philosophy that touches philosophical pessimism in certain points, although not completely — also, it doesn't embrace anything close to antinatalism. Another example from History is Abu ' Ala Al-Ma'arri, a Syrian poet from the 10th century that was blind and lived as an ascetic: he left behind extremely pessimistic writings.
Even if pessimism and antinatalism were things that only someone with a comfortable life could think about, it is evident that both of these philosophical positions were thought of in the ancient world — they were not invented by modern decadent societies, full of comforts. The biblical citation at the beginning of this article, the first noble truth of Buddhism and the Wisdom of Silenus are all examples hailing from ancient times. In the myth, Silenus would have said:
The very best thing is utterly beyond your reach not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. (NIETZSCHE, 2007)
When we take into account what has been said so far, we conclude that creating new sentient beings is wrong. This will be the conclusion regardless of one being an ethical realist — a type of moral realism that tells us that we can derive right and wrong from the observations we make of the natural world — or adopting some sort of moral fictionalism — a type of moral anti-realism in which our notions of right and wrong are considered useful fictions. When we consider the premises presented as valid, the only way one can find procreation to be acceptable is by adopting some sort of meta-ethical nihilism or error-theory, where right and wrong are viewed as useless human conventions that can be completely ignored.  

When one accepts that the background of all life is negative — eternal and insatiable needs, the chasing after a non-existent meaning —, that the problem of our existence is structural and not only a question of sufferings that can be avoided — like breaking an arm or catching a cold —, one realizes that when we create a new life we are subjecting someone who never asked to be born to all of these harms. It is an imposition, even though the being didn't exist when the decision was made to create it. According to different antinatalist ethics, having a child is not an act of love or devotion, like many repeat without thinking, but of selfishness — not necessarily an active and conscious selfishness, but an unconscious selfishness driven by our biology.   

Not only that, it is also a Russian roulette:
If you are having difficulty making the connection between real world outcomes and your desire to have children, try looking at the world in a new way. When there are job losses at work, imagine that happening to the child you are so set on having. The ugly divorce is someone’s child, both of them. The newscaster announcing a rape, that’s someone’s baby, both the perpetrator and the victim. The car accident you just drove past, the toilet cleaner on minimum wage, the man in the hospital ward dying of cancer, the casket being lowered into the ground. If I were to provide an exhaustive list it would fill the whole book, but I would rather you made your own - play this game for a week and it will break your rose tinted spectacles - it’s not happy but it is honest. (SMITH, 2013)
There are countless criticisms that can be made against antinatalism. I'll briefly touch on two of them.

One criticism directed towards antinatalism is that it is just a form of nihilism. Another says that we have an obligation to continue the human species. Regarding the first criticism, antinatalists can be considered nihilists in some sense — the existential — since they (mostly) don't believe in a higher meaning of life: there is no end goal and nothing we can invent will ever really satisfy us. There is only a low meaning of life: feeding, reproducing and dying, things that repeat themselves over and over, without any regard for the suffering that sentience go through. Morally speaking though, antinatalists are not nihilists.

Regarding the second criticism: we have no obligation to continue the species indefinitely. The universe was "fine" before we existed and it will remain on the same course after we go extinct. If there is an ethical obligation, given that life is suffering — something most people can't see due to the overwhelming optimism bias —, it requires us to do the exact opposite: we should stop reproducing.

by Fernando Olszewski

(This post was first published February 17th, 2017 @ Exilado Metafísico)

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. ANSON, Binh. Samyutta Nikaya. Translated from the Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Available at: https://www.budsas.org/ebud/ebsut001.htm.
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. BENATAR, David. Better Never to Have Been: the harm of coming into existence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
. CABRERA, Julio. Quality of human life and non-existence. Revista Redbioética, S.l., v. 1, n. 3, p. 25-35, jan. 2011. Available at: https://repositorio.unb.br/bitstream/10482/15458/3/ARTIGO_QualityHumanLife.pdf.
. NIETZSCHE, Friedrich. Birth of Tragedy & Other Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
. SMITH, Martin. No Baby, No Cry: Christian Antinatalism. S.l.: Createspace Independent Publish Platform, 2013.