Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Unmasking of Misanthropy: Jordan Peterson and David Benatar on Antinatalism

There’s a YouTube audio recording of a debate between psychologist Jordan Peterson and philosopher David Benatar about Benatar’s antinatalist arguments, a debate which I recommend to anyone interested in antinatalism or pessimism. Instead of discussing all their points and counterpoints, I want to focus on a key moment that happens after Peterson had raised numerous interesting objections which Benatar rebutted.

But before I discuss antinatalism itself, I want to applaud the quality of their discussion. If there are inflammatory topics that are bound to tempt interested parties to forget that they have intellectual faculties, antinatalism is among them since it implies that no one ought ever to have been born, considering that harms always outweigh benefits in life. This means that antinatalism invites anyone with children or with nieces or nephews to consider whether those very children would have been better off not coming into the world. Even those adults who have no personal connections to any child would be forced to reflect on their memories of when they were children, and since we’re emotionally attached to ourselves and especially to when we were relatively innocent in our childhood, antinatalism should be profoundly disturbing to everyone who’s not suicidal. Yet Peterson and Benatar maintain philosophical poise, by engaging in a constructive dialogue. Their discussion isn’t dry and academic, which means that the relevant emotions do rise to the surface, although Benatar is especially keen to keep track of which of his points were or weren’t addressed. But instead of resorting to personal attacks or to partisan talking points, they articulate their differences with integrity.

The reason I bring this up is that the quality of their discussion contrasts strikingly with the political infotainment that’s commonplace in the corporate mass media. First of all, the length of Peterson’s and Benatar’s discussion (around ninety minutes) allows the truth to have at least the potential to emerge in the responsible back-and-forth that took place between them, whereas the miniscule airtime devoted to any topic on television news, for example, in any particular “segment” precludes that happy outcome, especially if the subject matter is complex enough to deserve being debated in the first place. What’s important here is that news junkies can get in the habit of thinking there’s no alternative to how CNN or talk radio, for example, deals so treacherously with important topics, and the discussion between Peterson and Benatar, which you’re free to listen to, disproves that presumption for all time. An alternative is possible—not that such philosophical virtues will ever be demanded by mainstream audiences. And not that their discussion of antinatalism is the only worthy dialogue that’s ever occurred, of course. Philosophical dialogues are standard in remote, academic circles and have been since the dawn of Western philosophy. But it’s crucial that non-academics be exposed at least once to civil, worthwhile discourse so that they can compare it with the prattle that passes for serious engagement with ideas in popular media. Once you see the difference for yourself, you can’t help but be alarmed that the corporate sources of information and analysis are systematically dumbing-down their audiences and that we ought to consider the discussions that occur on television, the radio, and increasingly in (short-form) print journalism as mere entertainments, or as infotainmentswhich are entertainments disguised as real contemplation of issues.

Indeed, even laying philosophy aside, on a purely stylistic level, I was shocked to discover, some years ago when I picked up a newspaper on a train in Liverpool, that the quality of English that’s common in North American mass media is dreadfully poor. The vocabulary and syntactic complexity of the sentences used even to describe the weather in England were obviously more sophisticated than the average level of English you’ll find in sources of North American news. If anything, the childishness of “President” Trump’s diction has exacerbated this deficit, as has the prevalence of SEO algorithms on the internet. For example, the Yoast SEO uses the Flesch reading ease score, which would reduce the level of discourse to that which could easily be digested by teenagers or preteens. The highest scores on the Flesch test are earned by texts which can be read easily by someone between 11 and 15 years old. The lowest scores, which can reduce your text’s visibility to search engines, reflect the need for university-level comprehension. The point of these algorithms, then, is to encourage writers to write at a popular level, by simplifying their ideas and thus by eschewing the sort of rigorous but still passionate examination of issues that Peterson and Benatar engaged in.

Why the Antinatalist should be Misanthropic

I think the most important part of their antinatalism discussion occurs at around the 1:12:30 minute mark, when Peterson lays out the basis of his fundamental objection to antinatalism, which is that antinatalism is “antihuman” and “existentially cowardly.” But the key disagreement that begins to emerge at that precise moment in the conversation is that Peterson gets Benatar to affirm that it would be best if our species ceased to exist—albeit not by some violent cataclysm but by our voluntary decision no longer to produce future generations. (Benatar affirms this also in Chapter Six of Better Never to have Been.) Indeed, at 1:16:26, Benatar says, “I think that it will be good when there are no sentient beings left.” He says he’s not naïve about the influence of antinatalist arguments, which means he doesn’t think it’s realistic to assume he personally will have a hand in the extinction of our species, since most people will ignore or dismiss his pessimistic views. But he affirms that he believes not just that our species will eventually cease to exist, but that that outcome will be good. 

By contrast, Peterson defends the humanist principle that sentient life is virtually miraculous, or more specifically, as Peterson puts it, that there’s a mode of being which redeems all human life: the heroic struggle against suffering, unfairness, enmity and other harms is a potential form of nobility for everyone which counts as a good life, as one for which the harms don’t outweigh the benefits, since such a person has acquired virtues that enable him or her to transcend the harms. Benatar has two responses to this claim. First, he lays out an analogy according to which even if people who have been wrongly imprisoned learn to deal nobly with their situation, this wouldn’t excuse the person who’s responsible for imprisoning them. Likewise, even if people can become accustomed to life, this doesn’t excuse their parents for having brought them into the world. Second, he says there’s a slippery slope to this talk of heroism, since parents might amputate their child’s leg, for example, to teach the child to overcome that obstacle and to acquire the strength of character to endure future hardships.

I’ll comment briefly on these two counterarguments before turning to the key disagreement. The prison analogy recalls Gnostic theology which says that the material world was created by a lesser deity, called the "demiurge," and that the purpose of this world is to trap and distract us so that we forget our true calling, which is to return to our home in a transcendent realm governed by the supreme god. Notice that the prison metaphor works in Gnosticism, because the Gnostic opposes nature to another reality. Likewise, it makes sense to talk of prison only if there’s another world in which people are free. Otherwise, “prison” is being used as a weasel word. If there’s no realm for life other than nature, it seems specious to compare this world to a prison. I’ll return to this point in a moment. As for the slippery slope argument, it’s dubious because there are more than enough natural hardships without parents introducing others by torturing their child. Peterson points out also that what’s needed isn’t just education, to unveil how the next generation might overcome obstacles, but the realization that the very essence of being a person is defined by the potential for tragic heroism.

But let’s return to the question whether our species ought to be extinguished. Notice that there are two possible motives for Benatar’s antihumanism: love of people or hatred of them—which can be associated respectively with morality or, frankly, with evil. On the one hand, Benatar could say that we deserve better than for our life to be filled primarily with suffering and hardships, that our tragic lot in life is sorrowful because we’re innocent or at least undeserving of this “entrapment.” And this is what Benatar does say. He offers what he calls philanthropic and misanthropic arguments for antinatalism, but the latter don’t imply that he hates humanity. Instead, these arguments differ only with respect to whether the harms caused by bringing a person into the world are done to him or her or whether that person will inflict these harms on others. In either case, having a child is supposed to be wrong because someone will be harmed as a result.

On the other hand, someone could say that humanity ought to end because our nature is hateful. In this case, harms done to people would be irrelevant or even encouraged, and the purpose of antinatalism would be to finish the job that nature has started. Nature tortures us with pains and misfortunes, and our tasks would be to recognize that we’re appalling creatures that deserve to die, and to bring about that end by stopping procreation. A misanthrope might justify this with reference to some higher morality, but typically we’d associate this line of argument with the most absolute villainy. Again, if we’re all abhorrent and deserving not just of death but of suffering, this would excuse all manner of what we call crime or sin, including the schemes of any supervillain imagined in literature or film, from the devil to Darth Vader. By contrast, Benatar rejects Peterson’s argument that the antinatalist is in fact committed to this second, misanthropic form of pessimism. Benatar says he’s in favour of antinatalism, but not of mass suicide or murder, as long as killing someone runs contrary to that person’s interests. That is, Benatar respects our interests, because he takes himself to be adopting the first kind of pessimism, according to which we aren’t hateful creatures, we deserve better than to suffer, and we’re thus too good for this world.

The problem is that there’s no such benevolent form of pessimism; the first kind is incoherent. This can be shown in two ways by working backwards from this kind of pessimism to see if it makes sense. First, let’s take the moral contention that our extinction would be good, because we deserve better than to endure a hard life. If we ought to have been born into a better world, this alternative world must be possible, given Kant’s principle that “ought” implies “can.” It’s wrong to blame a situation that can’t be otherwise. True, we have the choice whether to reproduce, and thus there’s the genuine alternative of a world in which we’re extinct, but this isn’t relevant to making sense of Benatar’s reason for preferring that lifeless world. Benatar wants to say we ought to go extinct because we’re fundamentally good and deserve a better life. If however there’s no heavenly alternative that would count as superior to natural life, this altruistic justification of antinatalism is vacuous. Moreover, the scenario in which our species is extinct isn't better than the scenario in which we're living and procreating, because the two are incommensurable. The former is morally neutral, so if the antinatalist prefers that world to this one, she still can't claim her preference is based on a moral comparison. There would be no suffering or other harms were we all dead, but there would also be no one left to enjoy that fact. This is the same problem with Benatar’s prison analogy. Unless Benatar can specify the morally superior alternative world in which we deserve to live, we shouldn’t pretend that he advocates for our extinction based on humanitarian considerations.

Benatar can point to the logical possibility of life in immaterial Heaven, as that spiritual realm is depicted in religions, but if those religious scenarios turn out to be incoherent, which they are, we’re back where we started. For example, the notion of “immaterial or spiritual life” makes no sense, since any substantive notion of life is defined in biological terms; if you take away the brain, you’ll have no way of sustaining the notion of the leftover, ghostly life. Plus, properly speaking, “the heavens” refers only to what we now know as outer space. If Benatar were to hope for a transhuman utopia made possible by technological advances, he would be furthering his opponent’s case against antinatalism, since if we ourselves can produce the world which ought to be, the pessimist would have to explain why we should opt for extinction rather than for contributing to social progress for the benefit of future generations. If that future world is unrealistic and so harms will always outweigh benefits, no matter what progress we make, we don’t yet have an alternative to make sense of the possibility that we ought to have been born in a better world. If there’s no such better world, there’s no sense in saying that the reason why we should be condemned for recreating sentient life is that such life deserves better. And if we don’t deserve better, not because we’re atrocious creatures but because there’s no other place for us to be but a domain in which harms tend to outweigh benefits, this moral formulation of antinatalism collapses.

The second way of showing this should clarify matters. Here we switch to considering the antinatalist’s psychological motives. Benatar wants to say that the reason he thinks our extinction will be good is that he loves people and is thus distressed by all the harms we suffer. Note the similarity between this distinction and the Christian one between loving the sinner and hating the sin. The latter distinction has only superficial legitimacy because of the Christian’s dualist (and thus empty) view of the relation between mind and body. If the self is immaterial or otherwise separate from the person’s natural form, it might make sense to feel differently about what the inner person is and about what her body does. But if we think naturalistically about our identity, we lose the chance for that reasoning since we become nothing more than our bodies and our bodies are intrinsically “sinful,” that is, corrupt, fallible, and liable to go astray. For example, our very self, being material rather than substantially divorced from the earthly plane, would be identified with having, in part, an animal appetite which drives us to steal or to hurt others to obtain food if we find ourselves starving. Likewise, our brain enables us to think in abstract and moral terms, but also often confines us to reflexes and to snap judgments which err on the side of caution and which thus tend to be responsible for harms. Naturalism therefore disposes of the pretense that you can love the sinner but hate the sin, because the sinner turns out to be just a flawed animal which can't help but sin.

For similar reasons, there doesn’t seem any way of cashing out the distinction between approving of people and feeling only sorrow for our tragic condition. Assuming the kind of naturalism which you’ll find in Benatar’s book, The Human Predicament, and which in any case is rationally obligatory, we can’t fully transcend that tragic condition. We are natural creatures confined to nature. (In Chapter Three, for example, Benatar rejects theism as a source of cosmic meaning of life, he argues for atheism, and he points out that an alleged discontinuity between humans and the evolved animal species begs the question in theism’s favour.) If the antinatalist claims to recommend human extinction on account of her admiration for people, which compels her to condemn the world’s treatment of us, we must ask what exactly she admires, there being no immaterial, unnatural, hidden core of anyone. What is it that she thinks is so unfairly treated in this rough-and-tumble world? If we’re ferocious animals that disguise our will to dominate and indeed to be the only species left standing; if we pretend to be civil, for example, by leaving the hunting to others, to avoid having to see how millions of wild animals are killed for our sustenance, we can hardly take our nobility for granted. Yet Benatar wants us to believe that he thinks we ought to go extinct, not because we deserve to die due to our horrific nature, but because we’re superior to this world and thus belong elsewhere—even though he would grant there’s nowhere else for us to be. If nature horrifies the antinatalist, because nature is responsible for our tragic predicament, for torturing all sentient creatures and inflicting us with more harms than benefits, and yet we’re just natural creatures ourselves, the pessimist is at a loss as to how to justify this dualistic basis for antinatalism, this distinction between the goodness of what we are and the badness of what happens to us. (As I point out elsewhere, the YouTube pessimist Inmendham’s worldview is similarly unsustainable, although his "efilist" philosophy is darker and more pessimistic than Benatar's. Still, he talks inconsistently about the "preciousness" of life and thus the obligation to avoid pain in the animal kingdom. If all life and the whole universe stink, our obligation should be to seek out pain, not to avoid it, to torture ourselves for having a poisoned nature.)

That’s why this moment in Peterson’s and Benatar’s discussion is so important, because Benatar’s admission that he thinks it would be best for humans to go extinct forces him to cast that extinction as some kind of blessing even though his pessimistic, naturalistic philosophy renders that uplifting appraisal nonsensical. Of course, he must maintain that our species ought to go extinct, since the extinction would obviously follow from the universal practice of antinatalism, and he defends antinatalism on moral grounds. Benatar is therefore caught between a rock and a hard place, between issuing halfhearted compliments to our innocence which supposedly renders us worthy of better treatment than the kind we suffer on earth, and being committed to the darker form of pessimism, to that which entails not just antinatalism but what we might call aggressive antihumanism. To avoid being lumped in with the supervillains who would torture and kill people indiscriminately in addition to attempting to discontinue our species by recommending the end of procreation, Benatar must maintain that he operates from an altruistic viewpoint, from one which would spare potential generations from actual harm. Unfortunately, Benatar’s pessimistic form of naturalism won’t sustain that more socially acceptable formulation.

Naturalism for Tragic Heroes, not Closeted Supervillains

This isn’t to say that all versions of naturalism entail the dark sort of pessimism or aggressive antihumanism. Contrary, for example, to crude reductionism, nature is evidently so creative that some sentient creatures have evolved the ability to create virtually unnatural worlds. This shift from the living-dead flow of physical regularities, to the injection of meaning and value into artificial domains according to a vision of what ought to be holds out the possibility of progress, which underlies Peterson’s humanistic response to antinatalism. The reason antinatalism is cowardly is that while many of the myths about progress in history obfuscate dark truths, there have clearly been some advances in the sense of social revolutions that either alter the harm-benefit ratio or at least inure a noble order of enlightened individuals to their tragic fate so that they may even welcome injustices to test their mettle. Even if there will be no techno-utopia or heaven on earth, we can choose to give up, with the antinatalist, or to strive to alter our perspective so that we can see the opportunities afforded by life’s unfairness. Because we’re anomalous natural creatures that have some degrees of sentience, intelligence, and self-control, we can work to improve matters or at least to adjust our expectations.

Thus, escaping misanthropy by recognizing that nature isn’t monolithic, that there are natural orders because the universe is a living-dead monstrosity that destroys to create new patterns, simultaneously provides the ground for rejecting antinatalism. If there are multiple natural orders, which can be scientifically explained only by a patchwork of limited models, progress towards a more ideal state is possible, in which case we must choose whether to give up or to carry on the tragic struggle against the unfairness that’s intrinsic to wild places. As Peterson points out, being likely influenced by Nietzsche, this choice is an act of faith, not a rational calculation. Benatar admits that he’s not certain about antinatalist arguments, but he insists that harms will likely always outweigh benefits, because of what he considers the strength of his handful of arguments about how these things work. For example, he says there’s chronic pain but no such thing as chronic pleasure; pain can be long-lasting, but pleasure is transient. This is likely because of what I said above, that we’re animals and so our internal systems err on the side of caution to protect our genes. It’s more important that our warning mechanisms should malfunction or provide us with redundant signals than that our pleasure center should misfire, because a little pleasure goes a long way with us, whereas our curiosity inclines us to ignore warnings against harm. In any case, if these are only evolutionary mechanisms, there’s no reason why they should be metaphysically necessary. Genetic engineering might rewire our brain so that we no longer have to behave as though we hadn’t drastically altered the wilderness to suit our preferences, as though we were commonplace slaves of evolution rather than godlike reshapers of our biosphere.     

The point is that antinatalism makes more sense when supported by antihuman pessimism, by a worldview that doesn’t just deny the likelihood of human-made progress, but that condemns us all as part of monstrous nature. The misanthropic pessimist shouldn’t hide behind a pretense of humanitarianism, as though the goal of ending procreation were conceived out of love rather than contempt for us. But of course this misanthrope would be condemned outright and perhaps even locked up as a threat, so obviously the antihuman basis of antinatalism must be disguised if this insidious idea is to have a chance of being taken seriously by folks who love themselves and who believe in their potential to improve the world.


  1. The reasons for having children are all selfish. The non-existent are not in need of anything. Even if you claim you want children to experience all the good things life has to offer, in spite of the suffering, it's still selfish because they are not in need of experiencing anything. All the need comes from those who exist.

    1. On the contrary, not to have children seems more selfish, since the childless adults don't have to sacrifice their time and money taking care of filthy, shrieking little monsters for two decades.

      This is a criticism of secular Europe or of Japan in which the birth rate has plummeted: the secularists are selfish because they want to live for themselves, taking vacations and going to cocktail parties rather than having to take care of anyone else.

    2. You didn't really address my point. I said the reasons for having children are selfish. I never claimed that there aren't selfish reasons for not having them. Can you refute my claim that all reasons for having children are selfish, since the non-existent are not in need of anything? Can you refute my claim that the needs of the existent are projected onto the unborn, whether that be the need to see them happy, the need to have them participate in being a "tragic hero," the need for future tax payers, etc?

    3. Obviously the nonexistent don't care either way, but I'd distinguish between self-interest and selfishness. You want to say the parents are selfish because they can't be thinking about benefiting their children by procreating, since the children don't exist yet while the parents are making the decision. But that doesn't show the parents are selfish, since their decision could be morally neutral. Selfishness is when you benefit yourself at the expense of others. That was my point about those who don't have children: by not sacrificing themselves for children, they demonstrate more selfishness--as opposed perhaps just to self-interest--than do those who procreate.

      A stronger argument for you would be that parents are selfish because of the overpopulation problem. It may be selfish to have children, because having children does end up harming others. But this gets into difficult questions about whether a growing modern economy is still somehow a zero-sum game.

      It seems to me a misnomer to say that procreation is selfish, because of the element of self-sacrifice in having children. One of my brothers has had three children over the last several years and I can see the toll it's taken on his lifestyle.

      That doesn't mean there's no room to criticize either religious or secular reasons for having children. I've criticized both many times on this blog, at least indirectly, by holding both types of culture in contempt and up to ridicule. But it doesn't seem precise enough to say that procreation is necessarily "selfish."

      Maybe the needs of the existent are projected onto the unborn, especially as the parents' attitudes inevitably rub off on their children. But eventually the children form their own needs as well as an ability to decide whether their life is worthwhile. So even if procreation were to begin selfishly, that would become moot as the child becomes its own person.

      Moreover, in deciding to have children, the parents can be thinking not of the nonexistent, but about the probable feelings of the persons they'd be bringing into the world. So it's like saying that choosing to paint a picture is always selfish, because the painting doesn't yet exist and so the artist must be thinking only of herself. On the contrary, she may be motivated to paint by the rational expectation of the joy her painting would bring to others, given her ability to reflect on realistic probabilities.

    4. "So it's like saying that choosing to paint a picture is always selfish, because the painting doesn't yet exist and so the artist must be thinking only of herself." Yeah, it's just like that.

      Look how this painting turned out.

    5. "One of my brothers has had three children over the last several years and I can see the toll it's taken on his lifestyle."

      So? Does he want a medal? He still wanted to have them with his partner, ultimately it comes down to that. Whether he's struggling with raising them now or not there was a desire and it was fulfilled, no one else but the couple involved at a conscious (unconciously there's so much going on) level. Only their selves were involved.

      They have kids, cui bono? Not the kids! The cycle of desire satiation starts all over for them. Maybe an abstract entity like a society benefits but in reality the only concrete entities that level on an axis of pleasure/pain are individuals.

    6. Anon, that's why I spoke of probabilities, not necessities. Most people's faces don't get eaten up like that. Plus, as medical science advances, such harms can be corrected, so the moral option isn't obviously to give up on humanity.

      Anyway, you're attempting to evade my point about the evident possibility of intending to act for the sake of probable future benefits. This point about selfishness is a nonstarter.

    7. Louis Burke, my brother isn't struggling financially. He's rich. The toll was taken only on his lifestyle, so the sacrifice in question isn't the most heroic imaginable. Still, it's a sacrifice, and lots of people choose not to do so: they spend all their free time pursuing their happiness more directly. They don't lose sleep, they don't have to clean up after the kids, they don't have to spend a fortune raising them, and so on. So "selfishness" is simply a misnomer.

    8. If selfishness is thinking about yourself at the expense of others, how is the impulse "I want to have children" not selfish?

      The secular pursuit of happiness is selfish, but this does not negate the selfishness of having children.

      I would say that the choice to have children is the more selfish one, but they're both selfish.

      It's the more selfish choice for two clear reasons. One, every human project is uncertain, and bringing a child into a situation of relative stability and safety is never assured. Two, I do not believe most human beings sit down and think "I want to give up a significt portion of my time, money, and livelihood, in order that the child I will be helping to create can live a good life." I believe most people feel "I want babies." Without changing the definitions of words, how is that not selfish?

    9. You're assuming selfishness has to do only with intentions, but someone can have children while understanding that the children may benefit other people as they live their own lives. So the overall or probable consequences have to be taken into account too.

      Your first reason doesn't imply what you want it to, since if every human project is uncertain, that would undermine selfishness. If we never know what will happen, how could a selfish parent count on the child to please him or her? If it's just a dice roll, having a child would be neither selfish nor selfless, since it would be an irrational gamble.

      I'm pretty sure the average Western parent has lots and lots of thoughts passing through her head when she decides to have children, some of which are self-interested (not the same as selfish) and some of which may be selfless. Sure, the parent wants the experience of being a parent, which is self-interested. Or she wants to get her parents off her back and fulfill social expectations, which is also self-interested. Neither is selfish unless the parent thinks also that having a child will overall harm other people, so that the parent's pleasure would be at the expense of others. The parent might also be thinking she wants to contribute to society by adding to the next generation. These are very basic reasons to have children.


    1. The argument in that cartoon is specious; specifically, the conclusion doesn't follow from the premises. I agree there's a Romantic, literary myth that intelligent people (really, it's about intelligent men) will be more sensitive and thus depressed. I can agree also that intelligent people may be happier than dullards, but that doesn't mean there's no real connection between intelligence and depression/anxiety.

      The literary myth may have a kernel of truth in it, which is to say it may be a legend rather than a myth. And in free societies, intelligent people may be happy because intelligence makes them more successful, and it's worldly success that makes you happy, not intelligence by itself. In this case, the person would be torn between certain outcomes of intelligence and of success. Plus, intelligent people may have coping mechanisms to avoid dwelling on the implications of knowing a lot about the real world. For one thing, intelligent and thus successful people will be too busy to engage much in philosophical reflection, so we'd have to talk about different kinds of intelligence.

      Anyway, it's a thought-provoking cartoon, but like much comedy, the implicit argument doesn't stand up to much scrutiny.

      The book itself, Flowers for Algernon, is pretty sad.

  3. The hypocricy of sayuing that you care about what happens after death is just stupid. Nobody gives a shit. When we die we die. That is it so the mode of caring about more BestGore torture videos being filled up by some shit after death is just bullshit and I am arguing for antinatalism here. Jordan is a piece of fucking smegma

    1. Well, you don't really engage with my article, but just to address your point, how would you explain parents who sacrifice themselves for their children? They work hard largely because they want their children to live well, and sometimes they even give their life to save their children. There's a genetic factor, of course, but it still shows that lots of people care about what happens after they die, at least if they still indirectly have a stake in the world via their offspring.

      As for those who have no children, they can minimize their ego through philosophical enlightenment and identify with the downtrodden or with the world in general. Like Socrates, they can say they're citizens of the world instead of being parochial and nationalistic. So again, they can care about how the world will be after their death.

      Who says we have to be narrow-minded and egoistic? We have the powers of language and the imagination. We care about abstractions all the time, because we're clever apes.

      I'm not a big fan of Peterson either (see my article on his speculations about religion), but I approve of the tone of his discussion with Benatar. Instead of cutting each other off all the time, as is common in mainstream infotainment, they attempted to have a fair-minded, good-faith, philosophical dialogue even on such a disturbing topic.

  4. "On the contrary, not to have children seems more selfish, since the childless adults don't have to sacrifice their time and money taking care of filthy, shrieking little monsters for two decades." Raising children, and having them is two different things. It would be better to adopt an existing child and raise them.

    1. Better because of the overpopulation problem and to rescue suffering orphans? Yes, that would be reasonable and ethical.

  5. I think this is more complex than it has to be. It doesn't matter to me if you hate or love humanity as long as you want an end to the suffering endured by living beings. I never asked if I wanted to suffer or be born. So that ends the argument right there in my case. Most people however aren't even going to think about their responsibilities in having offspring. That's why the world is a mess duh. So those of use who don't like this suffering won't procreate and you who love this stuff will continue until nature snuffs you. End of story.

    1. Well, you say the article is unnecessarily complex, but then your comment walks right into the problem I'm raising. You say it doesn't matter whether the antinatalist loves or hates everyone as long as she wants to end everyone's suffering. But if the antinatalist hates rather than loves everyone, she'd have a much different agenda, wouldn't she? She'd want to inflict as much suffering as possible, not end it. She'd be a misanthropic supervillain. But in that case she'd be unmasked and couldn't go around pretending she's morally superior.

      And her antinatalism would have dragged her into deep waters indeed, into a very extreme position in which she might as well align herself with Hitler, Stalin, Caligula, and all the other monsters from history. She'd be one with the mass murderers, the torturers, and the worst villains from fiction. She'd want to see the end of our species, not because she loves everyone so much that she can't stand to see anymore suffering, but because deep down she has only contempt for human nature and so she thinks we don't deserve to live.

      Are you sure it's the suffering that concerns the antinatalist, and not the pleasure or the happiness? Which is it that truly bothers the antinatalist? Which is it she thinks we don't deserve? How pessimistic must you be to justify the end of our species? Must the antinatalist be misanthropic or efilist, in which case conventional notions of morality are off the table?

  6. Great to see your exploration of this issue, in this haven of careful deliberation, sheltered from market forces. I think I disagree with you where you say "If there’s no such better world, there’s no sense in saying that the reason why we should be condemned for recreating sentient life is that such life deserves better."

    I don't think you need a positive alternative, if we have a neutral alternative to a negative present state. If the suffering endured by beings is deemed unacceptable, then not suffering is an improvement on that, which is an alternative available to us at present. Having a bank balance of zero beats being in debt; you don't need to have a means of getting in the positive to render getting out of debt worthwhile.

    Perhaps your rebuttal, being aimed at Benatar's specific argument, doesn't preclude my assertion?

    1. I refer to something close to this option in the article where I say, "True, we have the choice whether to reproduce, and thus there’s the genuine alternative of a world in which we’re extinct, but this isn’t relevant to making sense of Benatar’s reason for preferring that lifeless world. Benatar wants to say we ought to go extinct because we’re fundamentally good and deserve a better life."

      You're offering the alternative not of a better life but just of the absence of all harm (and benefits), namely the world in which we're extinct. This world is indeed possible, but the question is whether that "neutral" world is better than this morally mixed one.

      The problem with your debt analogy is that if no one's left to use the bank account, what's the point of paying it? In the analogy, the balance of zero beats being in debt, but only on the assumption that the social order remains after the payment. If the planet blows up right after the payment, paying off the debt will have become absurd in hindsight.

      Likewise, it strains credulity to say that antinatalism is moral because the world in which we're all dead is "better" than the world in which we're living and procreating. I suspect those two worlds are incommensurable.

      It's like comparing the behaviour of an amoral person to that of someone who's capable of moral reasoning. If the latter commits a crime, he's put in prison, but if the former misbehaves he might be placed in a mental institution. If instead the psychopath or the mentally ill person is put in prison with ordinary criminals, we start to feel queasy about that arrangement, because we don't feel comfortable comparing them. They're in altogether different categories so that one isn't exactly better than the other.

      If the world in which we're extinct isn't comparable to the present world, the antinatalist can't claim to be morally superior. Morality belongs to the world in which sentient creatures exist, and becomes absurd and irrelevant in your alternative world, like a bank account in a post-apocalyptic scenario.

    2. Lewis, I've added a summary of my response to your helpful objection, to the article.

  7. Your framing of Benatar's position is pretty weird, and I think inaccurate.

    "Benatar wants to say we ought to go extinct because we’re fundamentally good and deserve a better life."

    He doesn't say this.

    1. I’m not “framing” his position so much as reducing it to absurdity.

      No, he doesn’t use those exact words, which is why I wasn’t quoting him, but said that that’s what he’d want to say (to be consistent with what he does say).

      Maybe you could clarify what he would say instead to explain why it would be good if our species went extinct.

      Would you say Benatar thinks we’re not fundamentally good and don’t deserve better than to be born in a world full of hardships?

    2. His main claim is this: being born is always a harm to the person who is born. A secondary point he makes is this: being born is always (realistically, given the general character of human life) a SERIOUS harm, not just a minor or moderate harm.

      The first claim alone, he acknowledges, isn't enough to conclude that nobody should reproduce, but he considers the first claim in conjunction with the secondary claim to be a justification for never reproducing. Basically, the harm done to someone by birthing them is so severe that it is always wrong to inflict that much harm on someone.

      "Would you say Benatar thinks we’re not fundamentally good and don’t deserve better than to be born in a world full of hardships?"

      Whether or not people are fundamentally good is, I think, irrelevant, because he doesn't justify treating the unborn with compassion on the basis that they are good. The idea seems to be: the unborn deserve to be spared the serious harm of being brought into existence regardless of what kind of person they would turn out to be.

    3. I'm aware that Benatar says antinatalism is about preventing harms. What I'm saying is that his pessimistic arguments for antinatalism, which lead him to say that our species ought to go extinct, are inconsistent with his moral arguments. So his case as a whole is incoherent.

      So Benatar's not implying that because our species should go extinct, we must all be contemptible? Instead, he's talking only about what the _unborn_ deserve? How can something that doesn't exist deserve anything?

      Even if unborn children could be judged good or bad, why should they be judged good? Surely the raw potential of semen and an egg would be impersonal and thus amoral, just as a mere zygote isn't yet anything like a person.

      You're speaking as though there's a limbo somewhere housing trillions of innocent unborn infants who thus deserve better than to be brought into the harsh world. But even if there were such a limbo that could be morally judged (which is a crazy notion), the infants wouldn't exactly be innocent, because they would be ghosts of real infants and real infants are as selfish as can be.

      This was my point in saying in the article, "What is it that she [the antinatalist] thinks is so unfairly treated in this rough-and-tumble world? If we’re ferocious animals that disguise our will to dominate and indeed to be the only species left standing; if we pretend to be civil, for example, by leaving the hunting to others, to avoid having to see how millions of wild animals are killed for our sustenance, we can hardly take our nobility for granted."

      Infants obviously aren't capable of doing much damage, but their frame of mind is entirely egoistic, not saintly or selfless. So why would the unborn deserve to be spared harm, from the antinatalist's deeply pessimistic, naturalistic viewpoint?

    4. "I'm aware that Benatar says antinatalism is about preventing harms. What I'm saying is that his pessimistic arguments for antinatalism, which lead him to say that our species ought to go extinct, are inconsistent with his moral arguments. So his case as a whole is incoherent."

      I'm not clear on what you mean by "pessimistic arguments for antinatalism". Benatar has referred to his conclusion as pessimistic, but his arguments are usually categorised as either "philanthropic" or "misanthropic". I'm also not understanding this distinction you've made between his "pessimistic arguments for antinatalism" and his "moral arguments". What are these two things?

      "So Benatar's not implying that because our species should go extinct, we must all be contemptible?"

      No. I think this is a total non-sequitur. I don't think contempt has anything to do with it.

      "Instead, he's talking only about what the _unborn_ deserve? How can something that doesn't exist deserve anything?"

      Yes; this is a very good point. Obviously, something that doesn't exist doesn't deserve anything; and, indeed, that is by virtue of the fact that it doesn't exist. I made a mistake by phrasing it that way and that isn't what Benatar argues.

      "You're speaking as though there's a limbo somewhere housing trillions of innocent unborn infants who thus deserve better than to be brought into the harsh world."

      I agree that this would be a mistake - because there is no such limbo - but I don't think the arguments depend on this kind of limbo. Though I can see why you think it does because of my incorrect statement earlier about what the unborn deserve.

      "This was my point in saying in the article, "What is it that she [the antinatalist] thinks is so unfairly treated in this rough-and-tumble world? If we’re ferocious animals that disguise our will to dominate and indeed to be the only species left standing; if we pretend to be civil, for example, by leaving the hunting to others, to avoid having to see how millions of wild animals are killed for our sustenance, we can hardly take our nobility for granted."

      Is what you're implying something like this:

      1) People deserve or don't deserve what they get as a function of their moral character.

      2) Antinatalists sometimes claim that people deserve to be spared the harms of existence.

      3) Therefore these antinatalists are making claims about the moral character of people who don't yet exist.

      4) Such claims are incoherent.

      I agree that any claims about the moral character of people who don't exist are incoherent. But I also think that the antinatalist argument can be called compassionate without deference to what unborn people deserve. Or without deference to notions of desert at all.

      The reason Benatar considers his antinatalism to be compassionate is because it is concerned with the mitigation of suffering. Insofar as the mitigation of suffering - in the interest of those who would be suffering - can be called compassionate, antinatalism can be called compassionate. There is no need to invoke concepts of desert at all.

    5. My article talks about his distinction between philanthropic and misanthropic arguments. That's not the relevant distinction. His books are full of pessimistic arguments (naturalistic deflation) which are supposed to establish that harms outweigh the benefits of living. Those are the arguments I'm talking about. He lists some in his conversation with Peterson, since Peterson accuses him of presupposing his pessimism a priori, whereas Benatar insists it's an empirical point. For example, says Benatar, pain can be chronic or long-lasting, whereas pleasure is generally fleeting. That's just one of many examples. In his new book, Benatar knocks down arguments for theistic comforts and for other cosmic meanings of life, and so on.

      Now all of those pessimistic observations can be accepted from a value-neutral standpoint, just as a physicist could claim that there's more hydrogen than helium in an atmosphere. It can be a purely factual matter that what we call pains or misfortunes outweigh pleasures or benefits, without those things being interpreted as good or bad (although "harm" and "benefit" are defined normatively, so we might have to pick other words to make this point). In any case, it's a further step to say that this harm-benefit ratio is _bad_ so that we _ought_ to do something about it, namely stop procreating and go extinct.

      So what I'm saying is that the more naturalistic and reductionistic you get in making the former, pessimistic observations, the less basis you have for taking up _any_ moral point of view, since now you've attempted to show that social progress is impossible because life is nasty, brutish and short. Certainly Inmendham makes this problem more obvious than Benatar, so I leave it as an open question for Benatar and for antinatalists who are less obnoxious or misanthropic than Inmendham (or than "efilists"). The question is why we ought to be spared harm. What's the source of a person's value for Benatar?

      Notice in his discussion with Peterson that he's talking not just about pains but about harms. He says, for example, that ignorance is bad too even though it's not a pain (although then he says knowledge can also be harmful). But let's just take pain as an example. If humans were inherently innocent or valuable in some way, it would be wrong to harm them. But what sort of substantial morality is left for even an ordinary naturalist, let alone a pessimistic, reductionistic one like Benatar? Clearly, we don't like to be harmed, so pain is subjectively bad. We feel pain is bad. But we feel also that we have freewill or that society is progressing or indeed that life is worth living. So what would justify Benatar in crediting some of our feelings and dismissing others as irrational or illusory? He'd say that regardless of how we feel about life, harms outweigh benefits as an objective fact. But if you're taking a purely objective, empirical view of life, the value of human beings likewise goes out the window. That's the point of the naturalistic fallacy.

      Yes, extinguishing our species would end suffering as a matter of fact. The question is whether that end would be be good and thus whether we ought to head in that direction. Antinatalism is a _prescription,_ not just a description of a causal relation, such as that ending procreation would end suffering as a matter of fact.

    6. Hey. Sorry it's been months. It strikes me that in your last reply to me you are concerned primarily with what you could call the 'empirical asymmetry' - that is, that there's more harms than benefits in a life. Also, I'd like to say that I'm sensitive to your remarks about over-naturalisation and the risk one runs of defining away the 'bad'-ness of 'harms' when taking naturalism too far.

      In your case, you seem to think that someone being 'innocent' (in whatever way you mean that) provides some justification for the 'bad'-ness of the harms they experience. And since, in the case of the unborn, there is nobody to be innocent, you seem to suggest that this creates a problem for Benatar insofar as he can't justify the normative element of his scheme by deference to the 'innocence' of the subject. This seems fair enough. But then I'm not sure what this has to do with Antinatalism per se. I can see that, if you are committed to the idea that bad-ness can only be grounded in the innocence of the subject, then you can't say that sparing the unborn by not creating them is a good thing. But if you aren't committed to this model of badness and goodness then you're free to supply whatever else you like to justify the normative element. (Or simply defer to intuition as I think Benatar does).

      It also strikes me that your model would preclude the possibility of being able to do a good thing by birthing someone, as well as precluding the possibility of declaring wrongful birth in ANY circumstance. I think some cases of wrongful birth are so obvious that it's untenable to take a position that denies the possibility outright.

    7. Sure, Jake, an antinatalist doesn't have to rely on Benatar's arguments or formulations. My criticisms were directed specifically against Benatar's case for antinatalism, but more generally against utilitarian, compassionate antinatalism.

      The notions of goodness and badness I was assuming are pretty fundamental, I think. There are roughly two kinds of antinatalists, the benevolent (largely utilitarian) kind and the misanthropic kind. The former want to spare people harm out of good will towards them, which implies that people don't deserve to be harmed by the world (and thus shouldn't be brought into the world in the first place, according to the antinatalist). That line of reasoning obliges that kind of antinatalist to explain why people shouldn't be harmed, that is, how they're innocent and don't deserve to suffer.

      You can see that this objection spells the utter downfall of an antinatalist like Inmendham. He pretends to be benevolent (to want to spare people from harm because we're "precious commodities controlled by crude forces"), but secretly he's misanthropic. His hatred of humanity entails that far from being worthy of being saved from suffering, we're sinister creatures who deserve the suffering nature gives us. Inmendham oscillates between those attitudes in his deeply incoherent worldview.

      So my challenge is to force the so-called benevolent antinatalists (like Benatar or Inmendham) to PROVE that they're benevolent rather than misanthropic, to spell out what's so great about humanity. Once they do that, of course, the incoherence of their worldview is revealed, since our greatness as a species would make for our potential for social progress, which amounts to a worthy alternative to antinatalism.


    1. Interesting take on those issues. A few points come to mind. First, when the author speaks of poor people's coping mechanisms, she seems aware that we all have them, which is partly why they say that time heals all wounds. We all adjust our expectations for happiness to the circumstances we're in, so that poor people can be as happy as rich ones. Our coping mechanisms are limited, so they may run out in certain situations, leaving suicide as the only option. In hell there would presumably be no way to cope, although Camus suggests that Sisyphus would be able to rationalize his labour of rolling the boulder up and down the hill.

      Another factor is the difference between hunter-gatherer and civilized, sedentary lifestyles. Living in a slum may reduce the inhabitants to nomads, which can thrill them, giving them a sense of adventure, of leaving the shackles of civilized, middle-class life for the greater freedom humans had for tens of thousands of years in the Paleolithic Period. I suspect that that feeling of greater freedom and danger, which must have mitigated the suffering of the ancient Cynic Diogenes, who lived in a tub, also enables the poor to endure. This must also be why some mentally disturbed middle-class folks cut themselves, because the pain frees them from the dreariness of the zombie trance of civility.

      The antinatalist's case does seem stronger if we're talking about the question of procreation in slums. But precisely because that's so, the universal case for antinatalism seems weak, because objectively (rather than subjectively, given the coping mechanisms), life is harsher in a slum than in a suburb.

      As for the correlation of high national IQ and suicide, there needn't be a causal relation between them. High national intelligence may be correlated also with the middle-class lifestyle, which leads to greater stress and higher cancer rates because of the carcinogens and other poisons in all the "high-quality" plastic stuff we consume. Stress and illness may be the more direct causes of suicide. (Still, the lifespan should be lower in poor countries.) Potentially, though, low IQ may translate to weaker resistance to the primitive coping mechanisms; this must have been an assumption of Obama's point about the poor Americans who cling to their guns and religion.

      Also, the author (Irina?) reminds me of my article on the miracle of the beautiful woman who studies philosophy. I'd expect pessimists and introverts generally to be less physically attractive than optimists and extroverts.

  9. Do serial killers and rapists need to be punished, or isolated from society? If so, why?

    1. From my perspective? Yes, they should be for pragmatic and for moral reasons. I try to redefine morality in aesthetic terms to make it compatible with the approaching posthuman apocalypse or with the full flowering of rational enlightenment. But I do think personal autonomy is real; mind you, not every biological human is fully personal. Serial killers might be mentally ill, in which case they should be medically treated or locked up more for pragmatic reasons than for moral or punitive ones. Notice that the pragmatic reasons might be amoral and consistent with determinism, in which case those who imprison the criminals couldn't yet deem themselves superior to the prisoners.

      My kind of naturalism doesn't have the same problems as efilism or misanthropic antinatalism do, because I understand that nature is creative, not just self-destructive; hence, cosmicist pantheism (horror of nature replacing love of God). Thus, I acknowledge the existence of emergent properties (such as consciousness and moral/aesthetic values), of special orders of nature calling for higher-level rather than just crudely reductive explanations. I don't reduce all human behaviour to CRAP (as Inmendham does), to egoism or to the animal life cycle. I distinguish between the more bestial mob and the nobler, more personal and self-aware minority.

      I try to explain how a modicum of consciousness and personal autonomy arises naturally via introspection and higher-order thinking. I acknowledge the anomaly of certain cultures, of human creativity which allows for social progress or at least for virtually miraculous, anti-natural novelty. All of this is set out in numerous articles on my blog.

    2. Why do the victims/potential victims deserve to be spared from harm? Isn't harm just part of life? Is harm inflicted by humans different from the harm inflicted by nature? Humans are punished for small transgressions such as disturbing the peace, which suggest they place a high value on even minor suffering. Why do we excuse the extreme suffering nature causes, but punish humans for playing music to loud?

    3. Most people would say suffering inflicted by others is different from that caused by nature, since the former is intelligently chosen, and most people do place a high value on suffering. So what? What's the conclusion you're trying to draw from this Socratic method of questioning?

  10. Rapists do not intelligently choose to rape.

    1. I've set out my response to determinism and to the "illusions" of the manifest image in various articles on this blog. See below, for example.

      The conscious mind may originate from the unconscious brain, but that doesn't mean the two are identical, and that doesn't mean the conscious mind has no veto power. Likewise, a computer program isn't identical with the computer, since the program is multiply realizable. So there's the option of property dualism.

      Still, I'd agree that freewill is rarer than we'd like to think. I think personhood in general is likewise rarer than biological humanity. There are orders of rank, as Nietzsche said.

  11. Fascinating. I'm not resolved about this. I read Benatar's book and found it oddly cold, devoid of compassion. Existence reduced to a sort of exercise in arithmetic. Perhaps this is a case where the meaning of life and love are best expressed by poets, artists and musicians. I am more interested in Ivan's discourse in The Brothers Karamazov: I think it possible that one might think that because there is so much suffering in the world perhaps the more loving thing is to not subject a new life to this suffering. We all have our measure of pain whether existential or physical, we grow frail and die. We know sadness and loneliness, and rightly don't wish such things on those we love, on anyone. Yet I have a daughter whose life I celebrate, and who finds joy and meaning in her own existence. I am at times inclined to a kind of guilt (not regret): how could I have brought her into such a world - but I regret not one second of her life, and my own is more worthwhile for every day knowing her. I cannot resolve this dilemma, and think somehow the tension lies outside the sort of logic Benatar employs. Perhaps it lies in the sphere of the mystic, but that is a problematic position too! Mr Cain I am fascinated by your blog. You challenge so many of my beliefs, and though I am disquieted by many of your conclusions, I enjoy your incisive perspectives. Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Scott Harrison. I wrestle with these issues too, and I think you're right on the money when you contrast the wannabe hyperrationality of semi-autistic antinatalists like Benatar and Inmendham (the YouTube creep) with the more fully human, Nietzschean character that values the complex emotions dramatized so well in the animated movie "Inside Out." Jordan Peterson is influenced more by Nietzsche and is the better for it, whereas Benatar and his ilk are stuck in a robo-Benthamite calculus, as though life were a series of "equations" of pleasure and pain which can be quantified (as Inmendham puts it).

      I don't have children, but one of my brothers has three young ones. I just returned from his house in downtown Toronto, actually, where I helped my brother chainsaw a huge branch that fell from his backyard tree due to a mighty storm that recently ravaged the city. I find that what mentally healthy people experience when in the company of children is indeed a complex emotion: nostalgia involving sorrow, regret, jealousy and awe in the presence of that which will participate in the future after we're gone. We recognize children's innocence and we fear for their safety; we admire their naive fearlessness, but we're anxious because we know the disappointments and horrors in store for them.

      The quasi-autistic antinatalist says we should give up on life, because the costs are too high. Those with at least half a Nietzschean soul put their faith in the glory of tragic heroism, in the honour of those complex emotions which are mixtures of pleasure and pain and which the autistic type may not be capable of experiencing. It could be that these antinatalists are mere midgets, spiritually speaking, that they're wusses who haven't learned to suck it up like honourable adults. Yes, some lives are surely so horrific that those unfortunate individuals would have been better off not having been born in the first place. But given our ability to be inured to unpleasant circumstances, to adjust our expectations for happiness to suit our environment, those hellish lives are exceptions that prove the progressive rule.

      Anyway, I recently wrote a semi-satirical take-down of Inmendham's antinatalism, which you might be interested in if you haven't read it yet. Here's the link:

    2. Thank you for taking the time for such a considered and full response (to a total stranger), and for the additional links. Best, Scott

    3. "From a Darwinistic view, every capacity for emotion evolved as a product of genetic adaptation. Emotions, then, are biochemical-based illusions that evolved to propagate genes. Pleasure, happiness, emotions, and desire: these are the evolutionary tricks that promoted the survival of our ancestors. The “happiness” and “sadness” of present day humans are the genetically adaptations of generations of ancestors.
      This is “happiness”, the great goal of humanity has been striving for: a particular configuration of biochemical reactions."

      "If science is to continue its purposeless advance, then curiosity, wonder, and happiness must be disenchanted and vivisected. Science and philosophy might be motivated by a sense of poetic wonder, but what happens when wonder, curiosity, and the joy of understanding have been reduced and explained in terms of chemical reactions of the brain."

      "If we have a technical understanding of the biochemical basis of the experience of curiosity, wonder, amazement, awe, and mystery themselves, does this diminish our experience of them? Do these experiences fall into the same category as myths, lies, and illusions? "

      Mitchell Heisman

    4. As Yuval Harari points out, the evolutionary view of emotions is that they're algorithms, not illusions. An emotion is like a recipe adapted to achieve a certain outcome. Fear, for example, causes us to flee from a dangerous situation. Love causes us to attempt to mate.

      The answer to the worry that evolutionary psychology entails nihilism or disenchantment with life is that there are exaptations in addition to adaptations. Just because a trait was used to do X by our ancestors in their environment, which differs wildly from the late-modern one, doesn't mean we can't use that trait to do Y. Indeed, adapting to the environment we create for ourselves may require us, yes, to learn how our traits work at the chemical level, but to do so so that we can improve our behaviour according to higher-level goals that aren't bound by evolution's narrow concerns.

      There's also the genetic fallacy to consider. A trait's meaning or use needn't be exhausted by its original, evolutionary context.

    5. I think the problem comes with knowing how the magic trick works. Sure we can still be impressed by it, but it ceases to have the same effect.

      "He who lives to see two or three generations is like a man who sits some time in the conjurer's booth at a fair, and witnesses the performance twice or thrice in succession. The tricks were meant to be seen only once; and when they are no longer a novelty and cease to deceive, their effect is gone."


    6. I agree that cynicism comes with age. South Park did a couple of masterful episodes on this point (season 15, ep. 7 and 8), that the downside of experience is indeed that the novelty of life wears off. This has happened to me with regard to movies and novels. It's harder and harder to find one that can sweep me up in its story. Youth is wasted on the young.