We don’t normally think of bringing new people into existence (i.e. through having children) as a bad thing. Some thinkers — the most prominent of whom is probably the South African philosopher David Benatar, who lays out a comprehensive antinatalist case in his boo Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence — disagree. These antinatalists think that it is wrong or almost always wrong to have children. Can the Break-Even Heuristic help us think about whether we should be antinatalists?
Let us start with a boundary case, that of Brief Inconsolable. Brief Inconsolable is a wretched baby girl who, if she is conceived and born, will live only twenty-four hours in horrible pain. She cannot be comforted, even by parental love, nor can she be paillied. All she will ever do is cry in misery and then die.
It seems rock-solid obvious to me that anyone who wanted to conceive and give birth to Brief Inconsolable, for just about anything within the range of ordinary reasons that sane people might give for having children (we shall set aside science-fictional cases in which Brief Inconsolable’s birth is somehow necessary as a means to avert some horrible catastrophe) is acting wrongly. Very wrongly. I’m sorry, but I just can’t see anyone who would knowlingly bring Brief Inconsolable into existence as anything other than a monster.
I should perhaps offer a point of clarification: I am not (here) offering an argument that Brief Inconsolable ought to be aborted or euthenized, only that she should not be conceived. If you want a supporting story around Brief Inconsolable to make this clear, imagine this: suppose that every decade Earth is visited for a month by the Black Comet. The Black Comet gives off radiation which cases any child conceived during its visit to be born as a Brief Inconsolable, but otherwise has no ill effects on people already existing. John and Mary are a fertile couple contemplating having a child, and the Black Comet is visiting. They have every reason to believe that their attempts at conception are just as likely to be successful next month after the depature of the Black Comet as they are now. Should we condemn them if they do not postpone their attempts at conception until next month? Yes.
If you share my intuition that it is wrong to bring a Brief Inconsolable into existence — and I don’t think that many people, then we have a limiting case that shows that it is at least somethings wrong to bring a new person into existence. The question then becomes whether there are other expected lives, less dominated by suffering than than that of Brief Inconsolable, which it would be likewise wrong to bring into existence. This question wew shall consider in posts in the near future.