Booknote: A new essay on misanthropic antinatalism

Readers with an interest in antinatalism should take note of a new essay by David Benatar, “The Misanthropic Argument for Anti-natalism”1 is this edited volume:

Benatar is noted as the author of Better Never to Have Been (“BNTHB”), a book-length argument for a position that has been characterized by philanthropic antinatalism, that is, the view that coming into existence inflicts grave harms on whoever comes into existence. If you care about people — the assumption that you do care about people is the philanthropic part — then you’ll refrain from inflicting harm on new people by bringing them into existence.

The misanthropic argument for antinatalism focuses by way of contrast on the suffering that human beings inevitably inflict upon sentient beings. This argument doesn’t rely on fear or hatred of human beings as such (so perhaps “misanthropic” is a slight misnomer), but rather on a clear-eyed acknowledgement of unpleasant facts about people as they really are.

Like many of the better attempts at moral entrepreneurship this essay is short on technical development and long on empirical detail (a point of some contrast with BNTHB). The philosophical part of the argument is simply this (Locs. 902-6):

  1. We have a (presumptive) duty to desist from bringing into existence new members of species that cause (and will likely continue to cause) vast amounts of pain, suffering, and death.
  2. Humans cause vast amounts of pain, suffering, and death.
  3. Therefore, we have a (presumptive) duty to desist from bringing new humans into existence.

To sharpen an example an example which Benatar himself offers (Loc. 1231), if it’s wrong to create and release a new kind of plague virus into the world, then it’s wrong in the same way and for the same reason to create and release new human beings into the world.

The meat of the essay is a catalog of the hideous crimes human beings have perpetrated and continue to perpetrate. That we are profoundly hideous to one another is no secret to any well-informed person. Bentar emphasizes especially how vile we can be as collectivities, acting as mobs or under the authority of rulers.2 (This last is a point which cannot be overemphasized, which is why I think that one cannot claim to be a well-informed person without having read books like Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, which chronicles atrocities so vast as to defy the imagination, and yet which took place well within the lives of people now living as I write these words.) Benatar does not limit himself to a discussion of suffering humans cause to other humans, however. He understands the importance of animal suffering as well (something properly emphasized, albeit to a different intellectual end, by John Zande). Benatar outlines for the reader the profound suffering inflicted annually on billions of non-human animals by humans as they are created or used for food, have their habitats destroyed, etc.

Is it all bleak? Well, perhaps only mostly. There are people who do things that relieve suffering and improve sentient existence, although as Benatar notes these appear to be only a few exceptional people — artists, scientists, and engineers, I guess — who work at the outer limits of the capacities. Most of us simply live lives of consumption and diversion with pursuits and entertainments of depressing triviality.3 The odds would not seem to favor any give new person put into the world’s being a significant benefit rather than a burden. Or perhaps things are getting better and the future will be great — a paradise of peace, cooperation, and veganism. Perhaps, though it is more realistic to look forward to a twenty-first century of man-made ecological catastrophe and war.4 I know which way I think a rational person should bet, anyway.

1For the purists out there, here is the citation: David Benatar, “The Misanthropic Argument for Anti-natalism,” in Sarah Hannan, Samantha Brennan, and Richard Vernon, eds., Permissible Progeny? The Morality of Procreation and Parenting. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015)., 34-64. And a personal grump I should note that Oxford University Press is selling the hardcover of this edited volume for USD 99.00 (and the softcover for USD 35.00). Great Cthulhu, OUP! Your presumptive mission as a university press is to spread knowledge. At those prices, you won’t be spreading it very far. Not that it saved me a whole lot of money, but I acquired the Kindle e-book edition of this book, which lacks page numbers. Any references in this post will therefore be to Kindle reading locations. Back to post.

2Cf. Nietzsche: “Der Irrsinn ist bei Einzelnen etwas Seltenes, – aber bei Gruppen, Parteien, Völkern, Zeiten die Regel.” Jenseits von Gut und Böse, #156 (Madness is something rare in individuals but it is the rule in groups, parties, peoples, and ages.) Back to post.

3Do not think, dear reader, that I exempt myself from this charge of being depressingly trivial. Back to post.

4In his latest book Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, Timothy Snyder devotes a sobering final chapter to speculation as to how disruptions created by anthropogenic climate change might lead to a new era of genocidal killing in the 21st century. Although Professor Snyder never mentions it, the bleak prospects of the next several decades seem like a pretty good argument for early 21st-century antinatalism. Back to post.

4 thoughts on “Booknote: A new essay on misanthropic antinatalism

  1. From an utilitarian perspective you can never know if a new person will bring a net utility or desutility to the world. This new argument from Benatar is a non starter.

    • Statistically any new person is more likely to do more harm than good to other beings and to undergo more suffering than they receive pleasure in their lifetime, from a utilitarian viewpoint, surely it is better if any potential new person be non-started.

  2. Doctor Iago,
    As always your post is very enlightening. I have little knowledge of philosophical and historical issues. Ignoramus I am. However, I understand enough to say that it is horrible to bring children to suffer in this planet/slaughterhouse/dungeon/madhouse called Earth.
    I read Señor Snyder´s book in Spanish Bloodlands; my goodness what a chronicle of atrocities! Even so in face of these tragedies men and women still bring children so this means that we are machines to survive no matter the harsh reality human beings safe. Please keep up your blog. Raúl.

    P.D. If you haven´t read it, please let me recommend another “blood” book titled Stalin and his Hangmen by Donald Rayfield. A complement to Bloodlands.

  3. “so this means that we are machines to survive no matter the harsh reality human beings face” !! Really? That’s the best conclusion you could think of?

    How about we’re non-thinking lemmings that just BLINDLY copy what other lemmings around us do? Procreation -and marriage- is probably the best example on this. Having children is something that’s drilled into our heads at a very early age. Day in day out every body and everything around us keep telling us the same thing – “tomorrow when you grow up and have your own family, children…”. We ingrain this into the heads of little girls with all the stupid baby dolls that we keep giving them. With boys, we tell them to be tough and to go out and get jobs so they can be responsible and be able to support their children… And if you still haven’t noticed, we humans are NON-THINKING beings. We let culture, traditions, social norms, groupthink… dictate our lives. We are handed this stupid “life script” that we’re told we’re supposed to follow or risk being different or pariahs… And just like a sheep likes to be part of the herd, we humans like to be part of the herd (of sheeple) too. That’s why we just conform to whatever BS our society or culture expects us to conform to (including procreation).
    It’s NOT about “survival”. Proof – more and more women/couples are having less babies and are having them much later in life especially in the West. How and why? If it were about “instinct” or survival that wouldn’t be happening.

    “Preserving our genes/lineage…” is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard. What would someone get once he’s dead even if he had 100 children? NOTHING. How would that benefit the dead father or mother in any way? Once someone’s dead, would it even matter if all of humanity is wiped off? How does it benefit me once I’m dead and my bones are dry that someone has my genes?

    So no, raul. That does NOT mean we’re “machines to survive…”. Maybe just machines though. NON-thinking machines and robots that do things that we’ve been programmed (by our upbringing, culture, traditions, beliefs…) to do. No more and no less. It has nothing to do with survival. How do you explain all the people who decide not to procreate who give as a reason for their decision the misery and horrors of this world? Simple. They paused and THOUGHT about the deed, NOT just blindly followed others. A decision EVERY rational caring non-selfish person would make.

    “If the act of procreation were neither the outcome of a desire nor accompanied by feelings of pleasure, but a matter to be decided on the basis of purely rational considerations, is it likely the human race would still exist? Would each of us not rather have felt so much pity for the coming generation as to prefer to spare it the burden of existence, or at least not wish to take it upon himself to impose that burden upon it in cold blood?” ~ Arthur Schopenhauer

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