You could imagine someone holding antinatalist views holding out for some pretty dramatic public policies. Here are some, arranged in a rough ascending hierarchy of stridency:
- Eliminating forms of public expenditure that reduce burdens on people who have children, e.g. subsidies to public education.
- Taxing people who have children more than the childless.
- Forced sterilization.
- Forced abortion.
- Criminal punishment of people who have children.
One could make a case for policies like these, and the worse you think human life is, on the whole, the higher in this hierarchy one might be tempted to go. The argument for going there might be something like this: if human life is on the whole bad and if from this we can reliably infer that the prospects for any given human life are bad, then by creating a child you are harming that child by bringing ver into existence. While using coercion against people is generally repugnant, it is appropriate when it is necessary to prevent people from doing harm to innocent others. Most of us, I suspect, would hesitate to use force (or at least endorse the use of force by public agents like the police) ex ante to prevent someone from committing a rape or a mugging, and ex post to punish such an activity once it occurs.
So the argument goes. But I do not wish to go down that path. My reason for not going there starts with the fact that anti-natalism isn’t a very popular position at the moment; indeed, it’s one that most people regard with a mix of shock, disgust, and incredulity. So to begin with, there’s a good political reason not to start advocating policies like 1-5: they make people already inclined to hate you hate you even more and be even less inclined to listen to you than they would have otherwise. Any attempt to actually put into practices like 1-5 will meet massive resistance.
If you’re a moral realist you might harbor nonetheless that policies like theee might be the right thing to do, if by some means you had the force available to carry them out. That’s because if you’re a moral realist you believe that right or wrong can somehow be determined as matters of objective fact, like the masses of subatomic particles or the phylogenies of different kinds of bat. Once you’ve done that to your satisfaction, people who disagree with you still aren’t just disagreeing with you but with The Truth, and you therefore think you have the makings of a warrant to override their wishes, because in so doing you are bringing them to The Right Thing To Do, even if it means forcing them to.
I am not a moral realist; I am a moral skeptic. I have no contact with any source of higher knowledge about The Right Thing To Do and don’t think anyone else is either. All I have is a generalization that life is on balance suffering, one based on half a lifetime’s experience and a lot of observation about the world, and an attitude of repugnance toward that suffering. I have no categorical imperative — Don’t Have Kids, Morality Says So! — to offer. All I have is a pure hypothetical imperative — if you don’t want to cause unnecessary suffering, then don’t have kids. I don’t have much optimism about the human species, except that I do think, deep down, that most people don’t want to cause unnecessary suffering. What other people also have, rather less fortunately, are a lot of false beliefs and cognitive biases that contribute to, and in large measure form the basis of, pro-natalist attitudes. They think that the future will be better than the past (usually not true). They believe that they are superior to other people in some way, and so they can avoid the general misery of humanity for themselves and their offspring (also, generally not true). They think that life has “meaning” and that this somehow makes up for its misery. (The “meaning” of life is a phrase without meaning, except perhaps insofar as it designates a cheap synthetic substitute for the genuine article of happiness, which seems to be in permanent short supply.) They think that the sufferings in this life will be compensated by joy in a future state (oh, puleez!).
I have only so much time and energy in my life; in that way I am exactly like everyone else. There are only so many hours: I can spend any given one of them on politics (pushing for policies that other people will hate) or one education (trying to combat the false beliefs and biases). Taking up the former course of action means conflict and strife, and these are normally generators of suffering in its own right. Failure will cost terribly, and even success is likely to come at an awful price: just imagine what measures pro-natalist people might take to prevent forced sterilization, to say nothing of forced abortion. Taking up the latter course of action means that if I fail I look ridiculous — unpleasant for me, I guess, but at least no blood will be spilled. If I succeed — if I succeed even a little — I might prevent the coming-into-existence of lives that would otherwise have been filled with suffeirng. That’s a win.
So given a choice between attempting to persuade and attempting to coerce, I’ll take persuade, thank you. I realize that if otherse choose likewise it could mean a longer human future than there might have otherwise been. I can live with that, for I have reason to believe that it means less suffering overall.