Picture a barren winter landscape with not a person in sight. You might find it hard not to mitigate the desolation by imagining, perhaps on the outskirts of that expanse of snow and bare trees, a cabin with smoke emanating from its chimney, thus indicating that this hypothetical absence of humanity is only partial, that all is not lost for us. We recoil from the thought of a universe with absolutely no human beings in it; more precisely, what bothers us is the thought that there might be a time after humankind. This is to say that we can tolerate reflecting on the time before human history and even on the age of Earth before the rise of mammals, since we know in the back of our minds that those ancient periods laid out the conditions for our emergence; moreover, we can even ponder the lifeless void, the billions upon billions of star systems that currently have no inhabited planets, because we know that simultaneously there’s this one planet that we call home. But try imagining our universe as it would have been had humans never evolved or else picture our planet after the apocalyptic end of our species. No cabin on the outskirts and no potential for our reemergence; no hope for our eventual triumph, but just the final end, the last breath and the last heartbeat before the universe soldiers on without us and the tree still falls with no one to hear it.
There’s a group of people who, for moral reasons, would actually prefer a world with no people in it. They even have a strategy for bringing that world about: we should cease procreating so that we intentionally die out as a species. These grim folks are called antinatalists, “antinatalism” meaning the opposition to human birth. There are roughly two kinds of antinatalism (AN), what I’ll call the misanthropic and the compassionate kinds. Both kinds prescribe the termination of human life by stopping the procreative replenishment of our species. But while the misanthropic antinatalist is motivated by contempt for human nature, the compassionate sort is opposed to suffering and thus takes the suicide of our species to be only a dire means towards the elimination of that mental state. (Compassionate antinatalists are often called “philanthropic,” but this is a confusing name, since although the Greek roots of that word mean love of people, the English word implies a concern for human advancement, whereas an antinatalist’s compassion is perfectly tragic.) Moreover, both kinds of AN have a moral defense: the misanthrope wants to extinguish humans because of our wickedness or our morally significant deficiencies, while the lover of people wants to eliminate, once and for all, the evil of human suffering.
An Arch-Villain’s Doomsday Scheme
You’re likely already familiar with the outlook of misanthropic AN, from comic books and pulp science fiction: the cartoon super-villain is a classic misanthrope, or hater of humans, often building a doomsday weapon to destroy humankind, leaving himself as the planet’s sole possessor. But the cartoon villain typically allows his plan to be foiled, whether by hiring buffoons for henchmen or by giving away the details of his plan to the hero in a gratuitous monologue, to fulfill the subtextual logic of sadomasochism: the dominator needs victims to satisfy his sadistic impulses, so to finally kill off all weaklings and rivals, by way of a sadistic frenzy, is to err on sadistic grounds. Sadism is a form of parasitism. But the misanthropic antinatalist isn’t sadistic; instead, she’s opposed to human nature and thus to all people including herself. Thus, the misanthrope would participate in her scheme by not sexually reproducing, as opposed to hiding her children in the last generation so that they could inherit the world. Mind you, the sadist too, after cleansing the planet of everyone else, would likely commit suicide for having foolishly failed to maintain the parasitic ideal of sadism. Indeed, the misanthrope and the cartoon villain have much else in common, especially if the super-villain justifies his actions by regarding himself as superhuman: both have contempt for humans in general, both have a plan for our extinction, and although the misanthropic antinatalist’s plan isn’t particularly invasive, the misanthrope needn’t be merely an antinatalist. That is, if you think all human beings are depraved and worthy of death, you needn’t tiptoe around the issue by, say, writing pamphlets to convince people to hate themselves, to doubt the chance of human progress, and thus to refrain from procreating; instead, you might take the bull by the horns and devise a coercive doomsday scenario. After all, if people are evil or so myopic that we lack the right to propagate our species, our freedom and rationality needn’t be respected.
Is there any rational justification, though, of misanthropic AN? Calling everyone “evil” or “weak” seems just to empty these words of meaning, rendering them weasel words, since there’s sufficient variety of human behaviour to warrant distinctions between evil and good, weak and strong people; of course Ghandi wasn’t as bad as Hitler, for example. Perhaps humans are all evil compared to a race of angels, and weak compared to a species of super-powerful aliens, but even so we would all fall short to different degrees. Now, weakness isn’t necessarily a moral failing, and so pity for us might be more appropriate than contempt. Here, then, misanthropy has something in common with the Christian notion of original sin. The Christian says we have morally relevant innate weaknesses, such as our finitude and our animal instincts, since these inevitably cause suffering. When we blame suffering on physical or biological processes, though, we tend to childishly personify the latter. If we’re not responsible for the type of bodies that are bioengineered for us, there’s no sense in condemning that body type as the cause of all the evil of which we’re capable. We can understand cause and effect without moralizing them. Moreover, once you reduce the badness of some event to some cause of the event other than the choice of the person who’s morally responsible, you once again empty the word “bad” of meaning, since there’s no principle for halting the reduction. For example, the Christian is forced to condemn God for creating our body type or for putting the serpent in Eden along with Adam and Eve; in this case, Christianity leads to self-contradiction, since now the morally perfect person must be “responsible” for original “sin”--except that this contradiction lies only on the surface, since the words used in the formulation are emptied of content.
In any event, what of the misanthropic antinatalist’s reasoning? There doesn’t seem any sense in preferring a world without people, since such a world would be morally neutral; only people, our actions, and the results of those actions are subject to a conventional normative evaluation. If you’re struck by nature’s general undeadness, and so you think in pantheistic terms, you can anthropomorphize the natural development of forms, but still it’s hard to see how a humanless world would be better than the alternative; pantheism should replace conventional moral categories with such standards as awe and horror. The mindless creativity of pantheistic nature is terrible, with or without people, and if humans aren’t sufficiently noble, nature is nevertheless bound to evolve worse people elsewhere. Exterminating some of nature’s handiwork would hardly tip the moral balance against the monstrous creativity of the cosmos; even were humans the only sentient, language-using creatures ever to evolve, ending our life cycle wouldn’t punish natural forces, just as beating up a zombie would perform no retaliatory function.
Instead, the misanthrope’s point would seem to be just that we should eliminate what’s wrong as much as possible, just as you might wash away a stain from a shirt. But this analogy raises a problem, which is that we clean a stained shirt for the purpose of looking presentable in public, whereas the termination of our species could serve no purpose at all, since no one would survive to take advantage of the cleansing. Perhaps the misanthropist reasons that natural forces would remain, and our extermination would make space for the emergence of a superior species. But this would be preposterous overkill, since neither space nor time is limited in the universe. There are trillions of star systems and of years in which natural forces can conduct their experiments, and there’s no reason to think Earth or this relatively puny age in which we live is cosmically special. Nature will dispose of us at her leisure or we’ll do so unintentionally, at any rate, so there doesn’t seem any need to rush matters or to make a concerted effort and ban human birth. The misanthropic antinatalist seems to think that every moment in which humans draw breath is one in which our abominable activities are suffered to continue, but there’s no one keeping score or suffering our vices besides us, and with our demise would be lost as well the only known source of thanksgiving for the last of our follies.
The misanthropist here would fail to live up to the grandeur of her apparent role model, the cartoonish super-villain, since she’d think like a bean-counting bureaucrat, pretending she’s tallied up nature’s resources and the degree of our worthlessness, and so can prescribe our extinction only to make natural creativity more efficient. Note that in Star Wars, for example, the technocrats are only the henchmen, not the evil geniuses themselves (Darth Vader and the Emperor). Hatred of humanity would seem to require a more sinister and demented vision than just that of a balanced equation. Although the Architect in the Matrix trilogy is indeed such a bloodless bureaucrat, the arch villain shown at the end of the third movie, who represents the will of the AI machines, loses its temper, shouting that the machines need nothing, thus demonstrating the requisite insanity for an evil genius. The villain Davros in Doctor Who has a truly hideous agenda of annihilating not just all life but every particle in existence, thus abolishing all of Creation. In one of Brian Lumley’s Necroscope novels, the villains plot to destroy the world as a means of forcing God to reveal himself. These schemes have at least an instrumental logic, since they use destruction in the service of a twisted ideal. The misanthropic antinatalist would need some such ideal for the extinction of our species to be somehow worthwhile. Assuming one of our contemptible features is our theism, the misanthrope can’t appeal to God as the benefactor of our demise, and natural forces wouldn’t thank the antinatalist nor would they need her help in their grand cycle of creation and destruction. As far as I can tell, then, misanthropic antinatalism isn’t so much a rational viewpoint as it is an emotional venting of a melancholy character or mood.
Killing with Kindness
The second kind of AN might be more compelling since it’s based on the standard moral disapproval of unnecessary pain. The idea is that this suffering is wrong, and people suffer so much that out of compassion for the sufferers the unborn would become, we should decline to have children even though this would mean the end of humanity and possibly even of all highly intelligent life in the universe. All that matters in the hedonic calculus is the maximization of happiness and the minimization of harm, and so if human suffering is unavoidable and overwhelming, the argument runs, we should take radical measures to prevent the misery we’d otherwise inflict on our descendants.
There’s an obvious objection to this argument, which is that, as long as we’re morally concerned with happiness and harm, we might as well check whether harm really is so overwhelming that all human life is effectively hell on Earth and ought to come to an end. It turns out, of course, that unnecessary pain overwhelms joy and other positive or neutral mental states only for a small minority of people. Even poor people living in huts and eating grubs tend not to be miserable, and indeed studies show that they can be happier than the wealthy whose lives are more stressful. Almost everyone experiences a mix of pleasure, pain, and neutral sensations; extreme pleasures and pains are relatively rare, and so if anything, agony, despondence, and other excruciating pains are experienced less than tolerable and preferable mental states. In fact, compassionate AN presupposes that this is so, since compassion is shown only to creatures who can appreciate the favour, which means creatures who have the intelligence to recognize and benefit from the gesture and thus also to extricate themselves from dangerous situations, thus sparing themselves many unnecessary pains. Indeed, there must be much in our life that makes it worth living; otherwise, we wouldn’t deserve the antinatalist’s compassion. This provides us with the likeliest reason why most people don’t kill themselves. Only those who really do experience more pain than anything else are motivated to struggle with their instinctive will to live and to see the continuation of our species. The rest of us are content to be preoccupied by our daily routines in which we pass the time feeling nothing like joy or anguish. Thus, the compassionate antinatalist’s premise seems false: human life is not generally so bad that we’re morally obligated to spare our descendants the torture of living.
In his book, Better Never to Have Been, the philosopher David Benatar makes the most rigorous case available for compassionate AN. Benatar argues that merely coming into existence is always a great harm and that procreating is therefore immoral. To support this radical point of view, he anticipates the above response and argues in Chapter Two that pleasure and pain are asymmetric: while there would be neither unnecessary pain nor pleasure in the world we’d leave behind were we to take the antinatalist’s advice, stop having children, and thus extinguish our species, the absence of the pain would be good while the absence of pleasure would not be so bad. In other words, he argues, eliminating harm is more important than promoting pleasure. Were this so, compassionate antinatalism might indeed nullify the above objection, since then even were the experience of harm rare, the pains we do tend to feel might suffice to make the act of procreation immoral.
But as DeGrazia argues in his scholarly reply to Benatar’s book, Benatar’s arguments in favour of his asymmetry premise are not compelling. For example, Benatar says that the absence of harm when there’s no person around in the first place would be counterfactually preferred, meaning preferred by anyone who would have been put in the position that would have caused the harm. But the exact same reasoning applies to pleasure: given the standard moral ideal which the compassionate antinatalist assumes, anyone would prefer to promote pleasure just as much as she’d prefer to eliminate harm. So there’s no significant asymmetry here. In the possible world with no people in it, the absence of pleasure would be as bad as the absence of harm would be good; in other words, our positive mental states are as morally important as our negative ones. And without the asymmetry, Benatar’s argument is refuted by the commonsense objection given above, about the fact that pain tends not to be the principal part of human experience and so a general ban on human birth would be grotesquely disproportionate to the threat’s scope.
Happiness is Unbecoming
I’d add that the standard moral preference for happiness should be replaced by the existential standard that puts a premium on such harms as angst, dread, and horror, since these are prerequisites of personal authenticity (see Happiness is Unbecoming). So even were we to concede that human life is first and foremost harm, it doesn’t follow that having children is immoral. On the contrary, just as we have an existential obligation to remind people of the harsh facts of natural life, so that they can deal authentically with those facts instead of ignoring them, we might be obligated to have children even knowing that this increases the total level of suffering, since the suffering has a positive existential role. From an aesthetic perspective, our suffering is tragically heroic and thus redeemed. Anxiety and alienation are made inevitable by the curses of reason and of consciousness, and we don’t deserve a heaven free from harm, because we’re pitiful and often despicable creatures. Thus, from an existentialist’s moral perspective, suffering stoically and enhancing our tragedy by helping to repopulate our kind are better than fleeing from that responsibility and depriving the universe of our magnificent ordeal. In fact, the recommendation that we commit to the extinction of our species is the very stuff of existential inauthenticity. Just as the flight to cognitive delusions makes for an inauthentic individual, so too a species that kills itself off by renouncing its ability to reproduce is collectively inauthentic. “Inauthentic” here means a failure to live up to the existentialist’s moral standard, by grappling with the philosophical problem of our existence. The reasons for our horror are inexhaustible and so we need to grapple continually with life’s meaninglessness, which requires more and more generations.
My point is that the existentialist effectively grants the compassionate antinatalist’s premise, about the magnitude of our suffering, but denies her conclusion, since the existentialist rejects the moral principle that happiness ought to be our highest goal. Thus, the compassionate antinatalist’s argument is logically invalid. Given precisely the inevitability of severe harms in human life, such as the fears of death and of our aloneness, we ought not to pretend that happiness is our highest purpose. On the contrary, happiness is the aim only of existentially inauthentic people. And so let the newborns descend into our torture chamber! We will have all the more opportunities to live up to the aesthetic ideal and bravely turn our lives into dramatic works of art. Harm, in the sense of unnecessary, unjust pain, is mitigated if it’s redeemed by artistic use. We shouldn’t give up the chance to endure hardship, but should adopt the existential standard of authenticity and so psychologically overcome the harms. Note that just because harm has a positive existential role doesn’t turn the harm into a benefit or the suffering into pleasure. Suffering from our awareness of our existential predicament gives us the opportunity to be authentic, but this isn’t exactly an advantage; an authentic person’s life remains a tragedy even if we can tolerate to look upon it because of the grace with which the person faces her plight head-on.
A Slippery Slope to the Evil Genius
There’s another problem with compassionate AN. The argument is supposed to be that we have a duty not to inflict harm on anyone, including our children, and since harm is of paramount importance, we shouldn’t procreate even if this entails something as monumental as the end of humanity. The compassionate antinatalist’s reasoning here is utopian in the sense that she’s willing to accept a necessary evil (the extinction of our species) for the sake of a greater good (the absence of harm). This reasoning can be parodied: if the antinatalist is so compassionate and can’t bear to see anyone suffer, why prevent only the unborn from suffering by not allowing them to come into existence in the first place, when she can stop those who are already living from suffering by, say, killing them in their sleep? Why not suffocate infants to spare them future misery, when the antinatalist believes that babies would have been better off had they never been born? Granted, killing isn’t the same as not procreating, but the antinatalist seems to stand on a slippery slope here, since her willingness to allow our species to die out betrays the representation, at least, of such extreme compassion for sufferers and hatred for suffering, that killing as a necessary evil would be adding a mere drop to the sea of necessary evil in which the antinatalist already swims. The antinatalist tolerates the effect of our collective death as a species, so why not tolerate our individual deaths? And if we won’t take matters into our own hands and commit suicide, why should the antinatalist care were someone else to do the dirty work? In her ideal scenario, in which human beings are no more, there would be no judges, juries, or prisons, and nothing for social laws to regulate. The compassionate antinatalist certainly won’t want to cause anyone harm, but killing can be done painlessly and even if killing causes a moment of pain, that moment would be a necessary evil to prevent the much greater pain in the person’s future. Killing one person would harm the dead person’s friends and relatives, but this widening harm could be cut short by killing those friends and relatives in turn.
In short, compassionate AN seems in danger of reducing to a functional, if not to a psychological, equivalent of misanthropic AN. Whereas the compassionate antinatalist would prefer not to kill, whereas the misanthrope should leap at the chance of launching a doomsday weapon, compassion can be so extreme that it drives the antinatalist to adopt the misanthrope’s method as a necessary evil. All that stops the compassionate antinatalist, I think, are the practical concerns: she knows there aren’t enough antinatalists to make our current generation the last one, and so she’ll be concerned about harming herself and her friends and relatives, by getting caught and sent to prison as a murderer. This explains why compassionate antinatalists tend not to be murderers, and yet my point is about the highly instrumental logic of compassionate AN. This version of AN seems unstable, in that it tolerates the worst means imaginable, namely the end of our species, to achieve an alleged greater good. Again, then, the arguments in favour of compassionate AN notwithstanding, what distinguishes the two varieties of AN seem to be matters of character or mood. The misanthrope hates people while the compassionate person loves people and hates the harm that comes to them. But the latter kind of antinatalist should act as though she stands with the misanthrope in hating people, because she’s willing to talk seriously about our planned extinction, which is, after all, also the cartoon super-villain’s goal.
The Horror of Parenting
However, I don’t think AN should be dismissed in its entirety. At least, there’s a limited form of AN that follows from the existential and cosmicist ideas in which I’ve been trafficking in this blog. My argument for this limited form is just that existentialists, cosmicists, mystics, ascetics, philosophers, omega men and women, mentally disturbed introverts, and other enlightened folks and outsiders would likely make for poor parents and thus shouldn’t procreate, for their sake and for that of their potential children (unless they give their children up for adoption).
Instead of supporting this argument with more abstract, blanket assertions, allow me to testify from personal experience. I have a nephew who’s one and half, with whom I visit on a weekly basis so that I’ve had a snapshot view of his development. He’s an adorable, bright little guy with an infectious laugh. He loves cheesy macaroni, which he eats by holding all of his fingers in his mouth at once, and setting his bare feet on the table when he’s eating to get a rise out of his mother. He has many toys and if you blow soap bubbles for him he’ll cry before letting you stop, and he’ll need you to succeed, because he hasn’t the knack for blowing slowly and steadily through the small plastic hoop; instead, he invariably blows slightly at the wrong angle, still smiling afterward and crying out “bubbie!” which is his word for “bubbles,” even when his efforts produce no bubbles. If you time it right, though, you can blow bubbles at the same time and he won’t know the difference; he just wants to see the bubbles and doesn’t have any interest yet in taking credit for the skill required to make them happen. My nephew has a Wheaten Terrier who looks like Falkor from the movie, The Neverending Story, and who likes to snatch food from my nephew’s hand, which makes him cry. In short, my nephew has a normal, Western middleclass upbringing, and whenever I see him he brings a smile to my face. But I can’t help but also feel sickened by the juxtaposition of such flagrant innocence and the undeadness of the world that throws up such children, rudely betrays the memory of their innocence by toying with them as they grow up, and eventually receives their corpses to nourish other creatures--perhaps centuries from now--in their similarly foolish endeavours.
I recall when my nephew was enjoying a bubble bath before going to bed. He had tired himself out playing with his large Lego blocks, pushing around his toy truck, and banging away at his xylophone. He mostly babbled, as he still does, but he knew some words and when he sat in the tub, playing with his plastic water toys with a guileless grin on his face, he exclaimed that he was happy; that is, in between his babbling, he actually said “I’m happy!” My heart sank even as I kept up a fake smile. Imagine the naivety required, first of all, to be overjoyed as a result of having a bubble bath, but also to reassure the smiling onlookers who encouraged him, with such an unambiguous indication of how great he was feeling. He was wonderfully happy and why wouldn’t he have been? But he gave me flashbacks of when I was much younger and happier in my ignorance. I recalled that I also loved blowing soap bubbles in the backyard, watching them float away in the breeze. And now I’m compelled to write about the horror of human life. My nephew was delirious sitting in his bathtub, but how foolish such glee seems from a philosophical perspective! What disappointments and miseries will my nephew suffer as an adult so that if he retains a memory of that brief moment of bliss, he’ll be forced to yearn nostalgically for a return to innocence?
How perfectly absurd is human childhood! A child’s life is a microcosm of an adult’s, except that instead of being manipulated by the child’s parents and by their carefully-controlled environment, an adult is duped by natural forces and by mass culture. A child is comically selfish and helpless just as an adult is in the wider world. A child is pitifully naïve, just as most people are about where they stand in nature. Children are distracted by toys just as are adults. Recently my nephew needed an early diaper change and afterward his father brought him down to the main floor. My nephew was wailing all the way, tears flowing down his chubby cheeks. The biblical Job couldn’t have cried any harder over the shambles of his life. What had happened was just that my nephew’s routine had been broken and he thought he was being taken away from his toys and forced to go to sleep, to face the darkness of his room alone, without his parents to watch over him. His father put a pacifier in his mouth and he immediately quieted. He waddled over to his toys where I was sitting, the tear tracks staining his cheeks, his eyes red, and the pacifier still in his mouth, and he picked toys out of his toy drawers and handed them to me one by one, as though he hadn’t yet gotten over the trauma of having his diaper changed and of facing an early bedtime, and needed more time to collect his thoughts but could use my help warming up his toys for him.
What’s my point? Just that I don’t have the strength to raise a child, to stomach being nauseated by pity every moment I’d be forced to confront such transparent horror in my child’s ridiculous naivety and then in his loss of innocence, in his being barred from Eden to wander and toil as a godforsaken adult. And while I’m pretty philosophical I’m hardly enlightened, so it seems the more philosophical you are, the less you should be a parent. Years ago I played a computer game called Black and White, which allows the player to run a simulated city through an avatar animal which you train as might a parent train her child. The avatar might defecate in a bush, and you’d have to choose whether to spoil the creature or beat it; the creature develops differently depending on the choices you make in its formative period, growing into either a virtuous hero or a monstrous villain. I remember thinking that that game must simulate some aspects of being a parent, and that real parenthood must take all the greater toll on the parents’ stamina. I’m not talking about the physical endurance needed to stay up at all hours to accommodate a crying baby or to work hard to earn enough to pay for the child’s food and toys. No, I’m referring to the mental walls that must collapse when you’re forced to recognize the existential analogy between child and adult, and thus to be disheartened by your child’s every foolish act, realizing that adult games, be they political, religious, or sexual, are no less silly and futile. In fact, my nephew’s parents do seem continually exhausted, although they’re not particularly philosophical. So how much more emotionally unbearable must be childrearing for the sensitive introvert, the melancholy atheist, or the detached mystic?
My argument for AN, then, is that the more enlightened people, who lack the upbeat attitude sustained by delusions, should not have children--for their good and for that of their potential offspring. They’ve made their bed by waking up to reality and they should lie in it by forgoing the perverse privilege of conjuring fresh versions of themselves to be tortured as adults in their parents’ stead. The enlightened are fit to renounce natural processes, not to partake in them as though they were existentially clueless animals. But this is only a limited justification of AN. For one thing, as I say elsewhere, the existential cosmicist is rewarded when less philosophical people procreate and keep society going, since the antics of the deluded masses provide the material for grim comedy which cheers up the more philosophical minority. Thus, we need that steady stream of babies.