So, I came across the idea of “Antinatalism” from this post by Richard Carrier.  As you can tell from the title, he’s opposed to it, not just because he thinks that it relies on incorrect premises, but also because it is itself completely incoherent and cannot fail to be incoherent.  I don’t agree with antintalism either, as it turns out, but think that it isn’t necessarily incoherent and while some arguments seem to be based on false premises the underlying issue with it is an incorrect idea of suffering and our moral commitments wrt suffering.  So relying mostly on Carrier’s post — which might be dangerous, since he has a tendency, especially in philosophy, to interpret the things he criticizes incorrectly — I’m going to examine antinatalism and show where it works in ways that Carrier doesn’t seem to see and so is a more interesting philosophical challenge than it might seem if you only read his post, but also show how it, ultimately, doesn’t seem to work.

The big reason Carrier thinks that antinatalism is incoherent is because he thinks that it entails killing off everyone, because its main argument is that the people who are living experience enough suffering that it would have been better if they had never been born than to live in such a condition.  Carrier notes that this suggests that they would be better off dead than alive and so killing everyone off — or everyone committing suicide — would be the only rational choice, despite the protests of antinatalists that this is not true:

Antinatalism holds that being alive causes suffering, such that not being alive is better. This entails killing everyone, and yourself. To try and avoid this consequence, as antinatalists do, with an equivocation fallacy, like “suicide and murdering billions causes suffering; therefore we ought not commit suicide or exterminate people,” only proves the point. They are contradicting themselves. If becoming dead is suffering, then how can being dead be better than being alive? The only reason one can ever coherently be against mass suicide is to admit that staying alive is better than being dead. But that renounces the entire premise that antinatalism is built on. What we are left with is incoherent nonsense.

As it turns out, because Carrier relies heavily on an overall utility argument — being alive is worse than being dead — this isn’t what they actually hold, but we can already see a lot of holes in his argument.  As noted in a comment — that I don’t feel Carrier really managed to address — it is proper to interpret antinatalists as insisting that one cannot cause or be responsible for suffering, and there is no way to kill people without causing at least some suffering.  Thus, while they may think that everyone should commit suicide, their own reasons for wanting that — those people suffer — mean that they themselves cannot cause or be responsible for the suffering that would be required to kill everyone off.  The same thing would actually apply to mass suicide, since that would be those people causing suffering to themselves which wouldn’t be allowed.  The original commenter Fred B-C says that a better question would be if one could simply “snap” everyone out of existence like Thanos did would the antinatalist support it.  However, as seen in the movie, his “snap” was not devoid of suffering, as the people who were snapped out of existence didn’t just suddenly cease to exist, but instead faded away and so were aware of — and horrified by — the fact that they were fading out of existence, and thus experienced great mental anguish.

But if it really was devoid of all suffering, would it be something that the antinatalist need support?  Fred himself notes that deontologically there is a duty not to harm, but if being alive is worse than being dead and one can kill everyone without adding more suffering to them, then under utilitarianism that should be allowable (although again they dodge the utility argument, as I’ll talk about later) and so it would only be deontological views that could oppose it … which they can, especially if one follows Kant.  One of Kant’s maxims is that one must always treat everyone — including yourself — always as an end in themselves and not merely as a means.  If someone doesn’t agree — for whatever reason, including that they just haven’t heard the argument yet — that they should die then doing it for them would violate that, as you would be using them as a means to an end, the end of people — them, in particular — not suffering as much, and you are not allowed to use them as merely a means to anything, including what you see as their own benefit or what is considered right morally.  As long as them choosing to remain alive is not in and of itself morally wrong, you can’t force them to not remain alive without violating their consent and so their status as ends in themselves.  Carrier does try to respond to that in that comment thread linked above:

It also can’t work on a consent model, because admitting someone isn’t giving you consent entails admitting they prefer being alive to being dead, which entails a refutation of their own premise. Whereas arguing that people aren’t competent to have a correct assessment entails concluding they aren’t competent to make decisions for themselves, an exception to consent mores widely accepted (we compel the incompetent to treatments all the time, and even deem it morally necessary).

But we could never declare someone incompetent simply for not agreeing with us.  They are allowed to be wrong, even about important things, without being incompetent to manage their own affairs.  That is, in fact, the only reason consent ever matters, and why we cannot simply decide things for everyone else based on our purportedly superior rationality.  Even if they prefer being alive to being dead, that doesn’t mean they are right about that and the antinatalist wrong, but is sufficient to stop us from simply killing them off without their consent.  We cannot simply make choices for others, especially when we ourselves aren’t impacted one way or another.

Okay, but then would it mandate mass suicide?  By Kant, again this wouldn’t work, because we must also treat ourselves as ends in ourselves, and despite Carrier’s previous comments on Kant Kant himself does not allow someone to take an action merely to give themselves pleasure or remove suffering from themselves.  This was his major objection to masturbation, after all, that it was us using ourselves as merely a means to the end of pleasure and not as ends in ourselves.  Even if one objects to that — likely on the grounds that surgery to correct a knee or hip problem that is causing pain might be immoral under that strict an interpretation — it turns out that it’s trivially easy under pretty much any moral system to justify a rule that you don’t kill other people or even yourself even if that would be in your own self-interest.  Once you have that, killing anyone in the cause of antinatalism is right out, and suicide is out as well without the idea of when suicide is morally justified (and for many deontological and virtue theories, it’s only allowed as a way to avoid doing immoral things, not just to make your life better or avoid some suffering).  So it turns out that declaring it incoherent on these grounds is no where near as secure a move as Carrier thinks it is.

It also turns out that Carrier’s expression of the antinatalist argument is also incorrect in a subtle but important way.  Their actual argument is not that we would be better off dead than alive, but that we would be better off if we had never existed than alive.  This allows them to draw a clear demarcation between agents that have never existed and ones that have existed and exist right now, which allows them to argue that we have no moral obligations towards agents or beings that have never existed, but do have moral obligations towards agents or beings that now exist.  Thus, it is trivially easy for them to argue that once these beings exist I cannot kill them for any reason, even their own benefit, but that that doesn’t apply to the beings that have never existed.  The beings that have never existed don’t need to be killed, and the beings that do exist cannot ever be morally killed (or, at least, not for such reasons).  For the individual themselves, again it isn’t difficult to come up with a rule against committing suicide, and argue that it only applies to people who exist.  If a person has never existed, there is no need for them to commit suicide, and if they do exist, they are again not allowed to commit suicide (at least for these reasons) morally.  Thus, it turns out that Carrier is equivocating here, lumping both “has never existed” and “has existed, but was killed” under “dead” and then insisting that one cannot treat the two cases differently.  But as noted, from the perspective of morality it is clear that the cases are different (and many abortion arguments could not get off the ground if there wasn’t a distinction here).

And again, as it turns out, antinatalists have another argument that follows on from this that allows them to make that distinction.  You can find it in Carrier’s sources, and it’s known as the “Asymmetry Argument”.  What it argues is that there’s an asymmetry in the moral obligations in these cases that supports antinatalism.  We have no moral obligation towards persons that have never existed, and so cannot have a moral obligation to bring them into the world, even if they would have a life that has more pleasures than sufferings.  Thus, I can never be said to be not fulfilling my moral obligations to that person who will never exist if I choose to not bring them into existence.  However, if I do choose to bring them into existence, then I have moral obligations towards them.  And the other part of the “Asymmetry Argument” points out that while I have no moral obligation to give people pleasures, I do have a moral obligation to avoid causing or being responsible for them suffering.  And for every child that I cause to come into existence by procreating, I cause them at least some suffering.  So I am morally responsible for their suffering once born and have no moral obligation to bring them into existence.  Why, then, doesn’t the moral obligation to not be responsible for suffering mean that I shouldn’t bring them into existence at all?  And if that does work, then that justifies antinatalism and dodges any utility arguments, like Carrier’s argument about the odds:

The argument of “possible outcomes opposite intention” applies to literally every act and choice every human will ever make (up to and including literally just breathing); consequently, it refutes itself. Game Theory, again. If you have two options, one leads to no positive sum outcomes, and the other leads very probably to positive sum outcomes and only improbably to negative sum outcomes, the only rational move is the second. All life consists of risk. If you are scared of all risk no matter how small or mitigable, then yeah, maybe you’d be better off dead. But the rest of us aren’t that stupid. The correct solution (as in the rational solution) to risk is not “the avoidance of all conceivable risk”; it’s taking steps to reduce or mitigate that risk. “I might die if I go outside, therefore I should never go outside” is the voice of an idiot (or literally the insane); “I might die if I go outside, therefore I should cooperate with society in making that as safe as we can” is the voice of the rational and sane.

But the question would be raised by the antinatalist:  why is it moral for you to gamble with someone else’s life and suffering, so that it is possible that they will end up in one of those cases where life is not worth living and have a negative sum outcome that they cannot escape?  Even if the odds are good, would it really be moral for Carrier to, say, start a machine that has even a 10% chance of causing everyone to spent eternity in complete agony on the grounds that 90% of the time most people will instead get their favourite dessert?  Carrier can argue that the odds of having a good life are better, but the antinatalist doesn’t argue over those odds.  Instead they note that no one has a moral obligation to bring someone into the world and if the odds are such that that person might have a life not worth living and might have to commit suicide to escape it what moral obligation can Carrier point to to justify taking that chance with someone else’s life?  He can’t use any obligations to keeping society going because that would be driven entirely by self-interest and so cannot be used to justify taking a chance with someone else’s happiness or suffering, so how can he justify taking the risk with someone else’s life?

This is a good time to bring in the thought experiment from Christopher Belshaw (I’m going to ignore the argument from animals since it seems clear that animals can have a life worth living):

Imagine we look at creatures on a distant planet. They live for ten years in agony, and thereafter sixty years in bliss. And there are no important psychological connections over this period. We probably think it better if these creatures never come to be, though of course after ten years there’s no reason at all to kill them, or wish them dead. This is, I’ve argued, more or less the picture with human lives.

Carrier, it seems to me, interprets this argument incorrectly, but in line with his mistake above, as his main objection is this:

Dude. No moral human being would think this way. What the fuck is wrong with Belshaw? Is he a sociopath? If we found a society of Martians who lived ten years in agony and sixty years in bliss, our thought would not be, “Get rid of them! Forced sterilizations!” We’d be moral monsters—and idiots. We’re neither. So that is not at all how 98% of human beings would react to this discovery, or how 100% of sane and rational human beings would. Not a single one would say “it would be better they never existed.” We’d say, “that’s a rough start they have to put up with, but it’s clearly worth it in the end.” And we’d say that because those Martians who actually live through it would say that. And that’s how empathy works.

He jumps to the idea of empathy and talks about Belshaw being a sociopath, seemingly influenced by the idea that everyone in that species would have to commit suicide or be killed, even though it’s obvious that antinatalists would at least argue that those past those ten years could stay alive, which is what he uses to try to argue that while babies are in the same situation as this species it wouldn’t justify killing off adults.  I think the flaw — as Carrier does not — is that it’s wrong to think that babies only have suffering and don’t have more pleasures than sufferings and so the thought experiment doesn’t really apply.  It seems to me, though, that Carrier’s moral outrage means that he misses the more interesting philosophical issue here by never really asking why people would say that it was worth it and how the thought experiment can be tweaked to make it more in line with the antinatalist argument and a more interesting discussion.

I believe that most people who would answer that those ten years of agony are worth it to get those sixty years of bliss are seeing it in a specific way.  I believe that they see those ten years as the cost they have to pay in order to get those sixty years of bliss, and most people would see the utility calculation working out in their favour.  So they are willing to pay that cost to get that outcome.  And this is actually a stronger objection to the antinatalists here than “Don’t you have any empathy?!?” because antinatalists cannot argue that taking a hit to acquire something to make one’s life better is necessarily morally wrong.  After all, that’s the entire notion of any kind of commerce or trade, so we indeed need to be able to morally pay in order to get things that we want.  The antinatalist can argue that we morally ought not take suffering on ourselves in exchange for less suffering later, but this would mean that we cannot morally take university courses and degrees because studying and taking exams definitely causes suffering but can improve our lives (or, as I found when I was taking courses, can be a wonderful source of entertainment).  We couldn’t diet to lose weight to improve our looks or health since being hungry is definitely suffering.  We couldn’t train for a marathon to get that sense of accomplishment after achieving it.  Heck, we couldn’t even work to get money since work usually causes some sort of suffering and using the money to get food and shelter couldn’t justify that.  Yes, antinatalists could bite the bullet and accept that but it does start to get so ridiculous as it would end up with everyone starving to death anyway with such a strict moral code.

As it turns out, the antinatalist doesn’t have to do that, and we can see that if we tweak the experiment slightly.  Instead of imaging there existing a species like this created by natural selection, imagine that what we have is a scientist creating a new species in his lab.  He is ecstatic that he can create this new species that will have sixty years of bliss, but only after suffering ten years of complete agony.  I think that a lot of people would feel that given that perhaps the scientists ought not create that species, at least not until he can reduce the agony, either in degree or in duration.  Even if he insists that there is no other way to get a species with sixty years of bliss we might still think it better that he not create the species.  Once the species exists we can see that the agony is outweighed by the bliss, and yet when thinking about creating the species we likely would balk at creating a species that has ten years of agony, no matter how much “bliss” they get in return.  From this, the antinatalist can argue that this is exactly what we do when we have children:  we create beings that will suffer, and we cannot morally say that the fact that they might and even are likely to have more happiness or pleasure in their lives can make up for us doing that.  We are responsible for their suffering and have no obligation to create them, just as the scientist has no obligation to create that species.  So just as the scientist shouldn’t create that species, we ourselves should not create children.

The real weakness in the antinatalist argument is around our moral obligations towards suffering, but viewing suffering itself as something that is necessarily a bad thing in a moral sense.  While this follows more from my Stoic leanings than from other moral systems, as we’ve seen above suffering isn’t always a bad thing.  Pointless suffering is, obviously, but while we think it morally wrong to cause needless suffering to someone else it’s not because suffering is in and of itself morally wrong (even if it’s always unpleasant).  Under pretty much any moral code, we are allowed to cause suffering to others if morality dictates that.  So we can deprive someone of something if they have acquired it unjustly, and injure and even kill someone if that is required to stop them from killing and injuring other people.  Thus, our moral obligation to not cause suffering to others follows from our morality and is not in and of itself morally wrong.  Thus, being morally responsible for bringing someone into existence who suffers is not, in and of itself, morally wrong.  Thus, we do not have a moral obligation to not create any person just because they might suffer.  We can, then, take the considerations of how likely it is that they will suffer unnecessarily primarily because of our personal decision to bring them into existence — like with agonizing genetic conditions that they could not be cured off — and decide on that basis whether or not to reproduce, but we are not responsible for the suffering that nature and life itself causes them nor for the suffering that other people might cause for them, intentionally or not.  Given this, and the fact that most people will have lives with more pleasures than suffering, the utility argument is back on the table and, in my opinion, antinatalism falls.

Antinatalism, contra Carrier, is actually an argument that is — or can be, since there is no argument in existence that is always stated in a logically coherent way — coherent but that depends entirely on the idea that it is always morally wrong to be responsible for someone else suffering.  That idea is clearly incorrect, and so it falls on the basis of it being contrafactual — and, importantly, on the basis that it contravenes moral facts as opposed to empirical ones — as opposed to be incoherent.  Once we better understand what it says, we can see that it is more interesting than it might have seemed at first, and also see where it fails to justify our strong intuitions that it is, indeed, incorrect.

One Response to “Antinatalism”

  1. verbosestoic Says:

    For anyone wondering, yes, this post showed up on Sunday. I accidentally messed up the scheduling and didn’t notice until someone “liked” it. Since I don’t have time to write TWO long philosophy posts in one week, I fixed it so that I’d have a post for today.

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