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.

Sunday antinatalist poetry

Giacomo Leopardi was magnificent in his bleakness, and my bilingual edition of his Canti practically falls open to this passage from “Canto notturno di un pastore errante dell’Asia.”  (“Night song of a wandering Asian shepherd.”)  The shepherd, who addresses the moon, remarks.

  Nasce l’uomo a fatica,
Ed è rischio di morte il nasciamento.
Prova pena e tormento
Per prima cosa; e in sul principio stesso
La madre e il genitore
Il prende a consolar dell’esser nato.
Poi che crescende viene,
L’uno e l’altro il sostiene, a via pur sempre
Con atti e con parole
Studiasi fargli core,
E consolarlo dell’umano stato:
Altro ufficio più grato
Non si fa da parenti alla lor prole.
Ma perchè dare al sole,
Perchè reggere in vita
Che poi di quella consolar convegna?
Si la vita è sventura
Perchè da noi si dura?
Intatta luna, tale
È lo stato mortale.
Ma tu mortal non sei,
E forse del mio dir poco di cale.

The translator, Jonathan Galassi, renders this as

  Man is born by labor,
And birth itself means risking death.
The first thing that he feels
is pain and torment, and from the start
mother and father
seek to comfort him for being born.
As he grows
they nurture him
and constantly by word and deed
seek to instill courage,
consoling him for being human.
Parents can do no more loving
thing for their children.
But why bring to light,
why educate
someone we’ll console for living later?
If life is misery
why do we endure it?
This, unblemished moon.
is mortal nature.
But you’re not mortal,
and what I say may matter little to you.

I have some Italian, but not as much as I would like, so it is with (perverse, perhaps) pleasure that I note that, almost two centuries after Leopardi wrote them, a complete English-language edition of his Zibaldone (that is, his aphoristic philosophical writings) is going to be coming out soon.  Something to live for!

Soft antinatalism I — Brief Inconsolable

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.