In February, a 27-year-old Indian man named Raphael Samuel announced plans for an unusual lawsuit. He was going to sue his parents for begetting him. “It was not our decision to be born,” he told the BBC. “Human existence is totally pointless.”
Samuel recently told me over Skype from Mumbai that his is a good life, and he is actually close to his parents. His complaint is more fundamental: he believes it is wrong to bring new people into the world without their consent. He wanted to sue his parents for a symbolic amount of money, such as a single rupee, “to instill that fear among parents in general. Because now parents don’t think before having a child,” he told me.
Samuel subscribes to a philosophy called anti-natalism. The basic tenet of anti-natalism is simple but, for most of us, profoundly counterintuitive: that life, even under the best of circumstances, is not a gift or a miracle, but rather a harm and an imposition. According to this logic, the question of whether to have a child is not just a personal choice but an ethical one – and the correct answer is always no.
The article goes on to describe the anti-natalist movement as a whole in its various strains, including an outgrowth of environmentalism called the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT), whose goal is “Phasing out the human race by voluntarily ceasing to breed,” and a YouTube channel, “The Friendly Antinatalist.”
But the key figure in the movement and its intellectual leader is David Benatar, a philosophy professor at the University of Cape Town, South Africa and the author of Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. From the Guardian article:
The objective of anti-natalism, as Benatar sees it, is to reduce human suffering. Since life inevitably involves some amount of suffering, bringing another person into the world introduces the guarantee of some harm. He argued that “the quality of even the best lives is very bad – and considerably worse than most people recognize it to be. Although it is obviously too late to prevent our own existence, it is not too late to prevent the existence of future possible people.”
This book, first published in 2006, is currently the #6 bestseller on Amazon in the category of Medical Ethics, which tells us the direction that field is going. Among other things, Benatar develops an argument in favor of abortion that he calls, quite honestly, “pro-death.” And yet he manages to be against suicide because it causes suffering to the friends and family of the deceased. Since it can cause suffering to end the lives of people who already exist, the best way to end suffering is to not bring anyone into existence. That is, to stop having children.
Anti-natalism strikes me as the logical conclusion of a number of strains of contemporary thought–the pro-abortion mindset and radical environmentalism, of course, but also existentialism. As Mr. Samuel said in his lawsuit against his parents, “Human existence is totally pointless.” Such a sentiment has become a cliché of modernist and postmodernist thought and expression. Existentialists go on to say that because existence is meaningless, each individual must create his or her own meaning through acts of the will, in order to make existence bearable. Anti-natalism gives up on that admittedly strenuous project, acknowledging that those constructions are themselves meaningless, concluding that existence is not bearable. As such, anti-natalism is a symptom of the exhaustion of contemporary thought.
Notice, though, the remnant of existentialist ethics, at least in Mr. George. In the absence of objective moral truths, postmodernists make the human will the only determinant of moral value. Advocates of abortion describe themselves as “pro-choice,” meaning that whatever the woman chooses about having nor not having her baby is right “for her.” Only attempts to restrict her “choice”–that is, to make her have a child without her consent–are morally wrong. Similarly, what makes sexual encounters moral is not the action but the mutual “consent” of both partners. Conversely, if there is a lack of “consent,” the sexual activity is morally wrong.
But here, though the man and the woman might have consented to having sexual relations, the child they conceived did not consent to being brought into existence. Therefore, that conception is morally wrong. Now I suspect that a study of the child’s behavior in the womb–yes, the fetus does exhibit behavior–one could find evidence that he or she does want to be born, for example, the way the unborn child fights the abortion procedures. But “consent” cannot be the only criterion to consider. And, in this case, it is impossible for an entity to consent about coming into existence, because before that point, there would be no entity to consent. In such a case, it isn’t that the lack of consent would be some kind of coercion (since there would be no one to be coerced); rather, the concept of consent cannot apply.
The even bigger problem with anti-natalism is the notion that any suffering takes away all of the value of life. How can non-existence be better than suffering? Someone who does not exist can neither suffer, nor benefit from not suffering. And how can suffering negate the good in life?
I went to the dentist last week. It hurt. But the rest of that day–in which I spent time with my grandchildren, got some good work done, enjoyed my meals, read a fascinating book, reveled in the beautiful fall colors–was very enjoyable and satisfying. The time in which I was squirming in the dentist’s chair did not take away from any of that. Much less would that painful moment spoil my whole life.
Suffering is not always bad. The dentist who hurt me was not harming me; rather, he was helping me. Loving someone is a good thing, but it nearly always entails suffering, as when we worry about those we care about. Empathy–when we share in someone’s suffering–is good, though feeling it is painful. Suffering is certainly not the worst thing there is, as the anti-natalists make it to be. Pride, greed, selfishness, lying, stealing, hatred–in a word, sins–are immoral, but suffering is not immoral. The anti-natalist mindset, which shrinks from any kind of suffering, repudiates the virtues of courage, fortitude, and compassion. Murder would become a virtuous act, as long as it could be carried out painlessly.
Why is suffering the sole criterion for evaluating life? Instead of saying that a single experience of suffering makes life not worth living, why not say that a single experience of joy does make life worth living?
I recognize that some people whose lives are completely taken over by suffering may feel that it would be better if they were never born. Yes, the Bible sometimes talks that way: Solomon in his moment of pleasure-surfeited despair. Job in his torment. Judas in his damnation. But these texts do not deny the goodness of God’s creation or of His gift of life.
What puzzles me the most about the anti-natalists is their alliance with environmentalists. Surely to oppose reproduction is to oppose nature, as Darwinists would agree. Suffering, in the struggle for survival, is endemic in the natural order. And Benatar accepts the implication of his theory. “Taken to its logical conclusion,” says the Guardian article, “it implies that not only humans but all sentient beings should be spared from life. As Benatar writes toward the end of the book, ‘it would be better if humans (and other species) became extinct.”
If the goal is to turn the earth into a barren planet like Mars, why wouldn’t anti-natalists hope for and work towards an environmental catastrophe that would wipe out not only human beings but all life forms?
Why are so many anti-natalists vegans, as the article reports they are? By their logic, killing animals should be considered a good thing, again, as long as they are slaughtered in a way that minimizes suffering.
Of course, we might believe that the anti-natalists are not serious, that philosophers like Benatar are engaged in a theoretical exercise. But I think anti-natalism may be the defining philosophy of our time, as it descends into decay, nihilism, and despair.
FURTHER THOUGHTS: The belief that the fact of suffering means that life is not worth living strikes me also as a secularized version of theodicy, the theological question of how a loving and all-powerful God can allow suffering. To many people today (though, curiously, not so much in the past), the reality of suffering in the world means that God cannot exist. But as Oswald Bayer has pointed out, if you eliminate God, the problem of suffering remains. How can life, how can existence itself, allow suffering? If suffering renders the existence of God immoral, it also makes life–and the existence of anything–immoral. And that is the conclusion of the anti-natalists.
I would argue the other way. Since the existence of suffering does NOT negate the goodness of life, it does not negate the goodness of God either. What we need today is a way to come to grips with suffering–not try to escape it at any cost or be paralyzed by it–but to recognize it as a part, not the whole, of the human condition and the nature of life. Moreover, as something that, as we try to alleviate suffering for ourselves and others, can actually give meaning to that life, through the evocation of compassion, love, strength, and faith in the Incarnate God who bears our griefs as well as our iniquities (Isaiah 53).
Photo: Surface of Mars, NASA/JPL/Cornell [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons