Suppose there is a couple - the Joneses, who just gave birth to a baby boy named Sammy. As they stand together in the hospital gazing down at their newborn, they share an awareness that the life ahead of Sammy will be filled with an indeterminable amount of both pleasure and suffering, happiness and heartbreak, miracle and tragedy. Then in an instant, the harsh reality of their baby’s future hits them, and for a fleeting second they look into each other’s eyes and think “if we hadn’t given birth to him in the first place, he wouldn’t suffer anything.” Right there, they both make the decision to give Sammy the best life they can, and to prevent him from experiencing as much suffering as is humanly possible.
The Joneses are great parents for thinking this, but in the words of David Benatar, “It is curious that while good people go to great lengths to spare their children from suffering, few of them seem to notice that the one (and only) guaranteed way to prevent all the suffering of their children is not to bring those children into existence in the first place.” This is the philosophy of anti-natalism. It’s the thought that human procreation is unethical. The belief that any action with suffering as its byproduct should not be encouraged, no matter how much pleasure will follow as well.
Although the roots of anti-natalism can be traced all the way back to ancient Greece, the philosophy has experienced a particular spike in popularity over the last decade or so. This recent resurgence can be accredited, by and large, to the South African philosopher, David Benatar who authored what may be the most widely known literature on the subject. In his book, Better Never to Have Been, Benatar argues that his anti-natalist views come from a place of compassion, stating that the only way to truly prevent the suffering that comes with existence is to not exist in the first place. And he isn’t the first person to have this thought. The Greek tragedian Sophocles once said, “Never to have been born is best.” Heinrich Heine, the 19th century German poet wrote, “Sleep is good, death is better, but of course, the best thing would be to have never been born at all.” And the Preacher in Ecclesiastes said, “So I have praised the dead that are already dead more than the living that are yet alive, but better than both of them is he who has not yet been, who has not seen the evil work that is done under the sun.”
So, as you can see, the school of thought that non-existence is inherently better than existence is not a new one. In recent years, though, these ideas have given rise to the anti-natalist belief that seeks to end human procreation. There are two different schools of thought under the anti-natalistic argument. The first is the one David Benatar makes when he says we should spare the unborn from the suffering that is life. This argument centers around the harm in which existence poses on the baby being born.
On the other end of the spectrum are the misanthropic arguments for anti-natalism that center more around the harm that babies being born will go on to inflict upon each other, other animals and the environment as a whole. To put this into context, consider this. The average carbon footprint for a single person in the United States has been estimated to be around 16-20 tons per year. Meaning that just fulfilling daily necessities such as driving, showering, eating and using electricity has unimaginably damaging consequences toward the environment we live in. So to anti-natalists, the most ethical way to solve this problem is to prevent it from happening in the first place.
Both anti-natalist arguments, whether philanthropic or misanthropic, are centered around one core problem, suffering, and one proposed solution, to stop giving birth. And you might say, what about all the good things in life? Why would you not want a child to experience all of that? Well, anti-natalists believe that in human life there is an inherent imbalance, or asymmetry, between pleasure and suffering.
Let’s take Sammy for instance. Because Sammy has been born, he would experience pain, which is bad, and pleasure, which is good. However, if Sammy was never born, then he would never experience pain, which is good, and he also wouldn’t experience pleasure, which is not bad. The argument therefore is that the presence of pain will always be objectively more harmful than the absence of pleasure. And so it makes sense to preserve the absence of pleasure, rather than introduce the presence of pain. Everyone suffers from being human, but no one suffers from not existing in the first place.
A second argument that the followers of anti-natalists bring forward is the hypothetical consent argument, which states that no one can consent to being born. Consent can be simply defined as the act of “giving permission for something to happen.” And according to the anti-natalist hypothetical consent argument, the unborn cannot “give permission” to being brought into the world and so as a result, the act of procreation should be seen as non-consensual and therefore, unethical.
If we’re focusing solely on the information we have about pre-birth that is scientifically provable, then the hypothetical consent argument is pretty difficult to argue against. But of course, as we all know, the full extent of our pre-birth experience isn’t yet known by scientists or even by anyone, for that matter. This uncertainty opens up the door for a wide array of pseudoscientists who seek to explore the nature of our pre-birth experience using methods which, although cannot be definitively proven by science, still add some thought-provoking counter claims that are worth considering.
One of those pseudoscientists is Helen Wambach, who hypnotized 750 subjects in the 1970s and asked them the question: “Did you choose to be born?” The responses she aggregated were quite staggering. Eighty-one percent of Wambach’s subjects reported that they did choose to be born, while nineteen percent reported that they were “either unaware of the choice or they got no clear answer to the question.” Of course, again, research and findings gathered from hypnosis cannot be scientifically proven. But, in the face of the seemingly unknowable, studies like this pose at least some perspective that should not be disregarded entirely. However, focusing back on the data that we do have definitive answers to, consider the story of Gold Manna, written by Seana Shiffrin, which is used by anti-natalists as an example for the hypothetical consent argument.
Gold Manna is a wealthy man who lives on an island and decides one day for reasons unknown that he wants to donate some of his wealth to his neighbors on an adjacent island. These neighbors are comfortably off but would still objectively benefit from his donation. Unfortunately, though, due to historical tension between the governments of these neighboring islands, Gold Manna and his agents are not able to physically go to the adjacent island, nor are they permitted by law to even communicate with the people living there. But, still determined to donate, he handcrafts several heavy cubes of gold, each worth $5 million dollars. Then, he flies his plane over the neighboring island and drops the cubes down to the civilians underneath. He tries to avoid hitting people with the cubes, knowing that it could cause injury, but eventually, after gifting several people with the wealth, he hits one person, who the story aptly names Unlucky. The impact of the cube breaks Unlucky’s arm, yet at the same time grants them $5 million dollars.
Shiffrin acknowledges that, on the one hand, with all elements of the story considered, Unlucky was an overall beneficiary of Gold Manna’s actions, as the $5 million dollars that they received is enough to cover the cost of the broken arm and then some. Yet on the other hand, Shiffrin argues that an objective wrong was still committed by Gold Manna since the harm he inflicted onto Unlucky was non-consensual, despite how much the payout may have outweighed the harm. Unlucky was living a decent life before Gold Manna came into the picture. His life wasn’t pleasurable, but he didn’t suffer any pain either. After the cube dropped on his arm, he experienced both pain and pleasure. In light of this, we have to ask the question, which then is better? To have experienced pain and pleasure, or not any at all?
I think to answer that, we first have to define what pain, or in this case, suffering.
“Life is suffering.” - Buddha
For millennia, philosophers have traveled to great depths to dissect what this experience really means and why it corresponds so closely with human life. One of those philosophers was Fyodor Dostoevsky, the infamous Russian novelist whose work contemplates the spiritual dimensions of human psychology in extraordinary depth and who invented the genre of existentialist literature. Dostoevsky’s final book, The Brothers Karamazov, tells the story of three brothers, Dmitri, Ivan and Alyosha, whose opposing spiritual and world views are forced into question when they’re tasked with solving their father’s murder. The novel’s most theatrical ideological clash occurs between Ivan, the middle son who has broken away from his religious family in pursuit of a more Western and rationalist education, and Alyosha, his spirited younger brother who has chosen to remain attached to his family’s faith. Ivan claims that due to the existence of suffering, and more specifically the suffering of innocent children, to believe in the omniscience of God and in the goodness of people is illogical, impossible and impermissible.
He laments, “Listen: if everyone must suffer in order to buy eternal harmony… pray tell me what have children got to do with it? It’s quite incomprehensible why they should have to suffer.” Through the character of Ivan, Dostoevsky paints a clear picture of a man whose compassionate intellectualism supersedes his faith in humanity so far to the point where he rejects the idea of human life altogether. Sound familiar?
Several parallels can be drawn between Dostoevsky’s Ivan and Benatar’s antinatalism. As both believe that if suffering is so synonymous with human life, then non-existence is the better alternative. This argument Ivan poses is more broadly referred to as the problem of evil, and it is one of the most ancient and compelling defenses against the belief in God that exists in philosophical literature to date. The argument’s possible origins have been traced back to Epicurus, an ancient Greek sage, who famously asked, "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then from whence comes evil?"
That last question, “whence comes evil?” or, in other words, “where does evil come from?”, Is yet another heavily debated subject which is, of course, ultimately unanswerable. However, anti-natalists would likely argue that whatever “origin” or “meaning” suffering may carry matters little as it is irrelevant in the face of suffering’s devastation. And, in a sense, I completely agree, as searching for meaning to assign to suffering can so easily become a slippery slope which leads people to excuse, disregard or gloss over the objective reality of both their own suffering and the suffering of others. Yet at the same time, the practice of assigning meaning to suffering can also be a powerful coping mechanism which can transform the internal world of a person who is tasked to live with its heavy burdens.
The answer, like most things, possibly lies somewhere in the middle of these two extremes and differs from person to person. In a way, both anti-natalist philosophies and the ideas of Dostoevsky’s Ivan challenge us to come to terms with the reality of human suffering. Every day we’re faced with things in our existence that are so factually unanswerable to the point that they can only be addressed through the lens of hypotheticals or faith. However, suffering, unlike these illusive unanswerable existential questions, is very much real, tangible, devastating, overwhelming and ever-present.
You turn on the TV and hear one bad news story after the other. You go online and you’re reading stories of corruption, human rights violations and wars all around the globe. With humanity’s suffering even more prominent now that we have access to world news at our fingertips, it’s no wonder that arguments for anti-natalism are becoming more compelling and seeing a rise culturally.
In the end, we’re faced with one question. In the face of all that we know to be concretely true about the reality of suffering, should you choose to believe that human life is not worth creating? Or that you would have been better off had you not been born? Or do you choose to still have faith in that intangible sliver of hope that there is some larger reason for your coming to this Earth in the first place, despite the suffering that your existence entails?
No matter which side of the fence you stand on, I think it’s important to acknowledge questions of this nature, questions of faith. That’s because our attitudes toward and surrounding all that is unanswerable about our existence ultimately forms the philosophical bedrock of how we view the world and how we will go on to act in our lives.
Although Alyosha, Ivan’s faithful younger brother, doesn’t pose a very compelling counterargument to Ivan’s laments during their famous fight that I discussed earlier, the subsequent actions he takes throughout the rest of the novel go on to demonstrate Dostoyevsky’s final illustration of how one should conduct themselves even in the face of suffering and in relation to the problem of evil. Alyosha’s direction has him working on the ground, directly with the impoverished school children of his community, doing the tedious work of actually making their day-to-day lives more enjoyable and infusing their lives with a sense of meaning. Alyosha becomes an active participant, helping out in every instance of suffering he encounters. This is made particularly clear through his mentorship of a young impoverished boy whose suicide Alyosha prevents with his compassion. Meanwhile, Ivan spends the second half of the story dissolving into a state of delirium after realizing that his intellectual arguments against human life lead to the murder of his own father as they gave another man the confidence to abandon his faith and carry out an act of evil in the world. Dostoevsky’s final message was that ultimately the actions we take in the face of suffering matter more than the intellectual beliefs we hold and preach to others about the nature of suffering.
To me, whether or not one chooses to believe that human procreation is ethical matters less than the quality of the subsequent actions which that belief system guides them to take in the world. Like the Joneses, would you choose to be aware of the harsh reality of human suffering and prepare yourself to do everything in your power to protect the ones you love from it? Or will you simply throw your hands in the air and say, “I didn’t choose to be here anyways so I don’t care what happens.”
In the end, one should only feel confident holding beliefs against procreation after they can assess whether or not these beliefs can serve them with an effective means of coping with, and helping others to cope with, the suffering directly within and around them. Because, again, whether we realize it or not, our beliefs about the nature of existence hold great power over who we are and how we will ultimately act in the world. And how we act in the world, as Dostoevsky's final novel boldly states, is the only meaningful resource we have to combat the reality of the suffering that comes with our existence.