Antinatalism and Death: A Quick Answer

A common question posed to antinatalists is: If you think life not worth living, why not kill yourself?

Sister Y replied to a commenter (on my column at 3quarksdaily), who asked this question. Sister replied by saying:

Two birthdays ago, my friends had a surprise party for me. I was in a very antisocial mood at the time, and it was a very unpleasant experience – but I suffered through it because I didn’t want to hurt my friends’ feelings. I didn’t just walk out and leave the party (though I feel I morally could have done, if it were bad enough for me). But mostly I wish they hadn’t had a party for me in the first place – I would have been better off if they hadn’t.

Thus others’ considerations are taken into account, but show that if they had never had a party for her in the first place, there would be no reason to maintain one’s attendance at all. ‘Ditto my mom giving birth to me,’ Sister says. ‘I wish she hadn’t, but my family and friends would be very sad if I peaced out of the party (though I still have a moral right to commit suicide).’

I think Sister provides an excellent analogy in her answer, though she doesn’t pretend it covers all questions. Furthermore, it at least begins an answer that need not pretend to be all-encompassing.

I’ve heard the party analogy used by Christopher Hitchens, too. As Hitchens indicates, it’s bad enough having to leave the party (called ‘life’) early; it’s worse still leaving and knowing it is continuing without one attending. It seems a good reason to defend the voluntary extinction of the human species: If there is no one continuing the party, if everyone leaves at the same time or closer to one’s own leaving, then dying isn’t as hard since there will be no human person that will miss or yearn for us, or be continuing ‘the party’ at all. I would hate to die knowing that people are continuing enjoying life. I would be more comfortable with death if I knew everyone, the entire human species, was ending itself at about the same time voluntarily.


18 thoughts on “Antinatalism and Death: A Quick Answer

    • Do you mean the end of life is sad? Yes, it usually is.

      Do you mean the end of the human species? Sad for whom? There will be no one to mourn us since we would all be gone.

      Why is it “disgusting” to offer arguments, to convince people not to have children? This is not forcing, but arguing. You must also take into account my argument from adoption, since I see it as inconsistent that we choose to create children to parent instead of parenting children who doexist.

      Remember: Disgust is often a bad way to engage with something morally. Many people considered (and still consider) women’s liberation and the idea of homosexuality to be discussing. Disgust is not good enough to articulate whether it’s right or wrong. If this disgusts you, have a look a couple of posts back with regard to necrophilia and incest.

      You still need to provide an argument in all cases, since I’m unmoved by people constantly saying they’re disgusted. So are homophobes and sexists. Would you be swayed by them just for saying they’re disgusted?

    • I quite enjoyed it, but I’m working on why I think he is wrong and wrong for a very important reason. I will be writing an article shortly in reply. I’m waiting for Prof. Spurrett to send me a PDF and basically a gallley-proof for SAJP. I doubt my article will be accepted, though Professor Benatar told me to try for an upcoming issue.

      Agreed about missing the asymmetry. But the questions relates to the antinatalist as, perhaps, a ‘lifestyle’. This need not be restricted to antinatalists but also people who hate their life. It’s a mistake to assume that antinatalists hate their life or don’t want it. I certainly don’t. I also think there is a difference between no longer wanting to exist (which I think is a mischaracterisation of death) and wanting never to have existed in the first place. The latter is, according to asymmetry, always preferable.

  1. I have almost given up trying to explain the asymmetry to regular folks.

    Most people’s intuition is in line with limited antinatalism – i.e., that it’s sometimes wrong to create new people (like if their lives will suck horribly). Very few people buy the form of pure antinatalism that I advocate. So I tend to tailor my explanations to ordinary intuition when I’m talking to people who aren’t very familiar with analytic philosophy.

  2. I, for one, don’t buy the asymmetry at all (for philosophical reasons).

    Typical of Benatar to influence a group of dedicated students – and convince very few other people.

    Friday night trolling FTW!

    • You’re no troll, sir.

      Firstly, I’ll ignore the ad hominem or inverse appeal to authority (“Oh, this is so typical of x, therefore x’s argument can’t be good.”). Secondly, you assume it was Benatar’sarguments that persuade me more. Thirdly, you’d have to convince me how non-existent entities suffer or benefit by being brought into existence. Finally and more importantly, you’d have to convince me specifically why my argument from (proactive) adoption is wrong or trumped by biological procreation, in terms of parenthood.

  3. Non-existent entities cannot be suffer or be benefited, of course. But the question is whether it’s permissible to have children, not whether it’s required.

    And, when it comes to permissibility, I think the only relevant factor is whether the child, when brought into existence, can reasonably be expected to have a good life.

  4. I didn’t realise permissibility was the issue. After all, x might be permissible but not necessarily good or the right thing to do (i.e. eating meat, not interfere in other people’s lives, abortion, etc.)

    And yet the point still remains: Even if the child is going to have a good life (which still means he will suffer to some degree), is that better than previous non-existence? I have yet to see why we can say anything but no. After all, there was no suffering at all during this non-existence (and no increase in happiness, either).

    Furthermore, considering the implications — e.g.: the genecist fallacy of not wanting to look after existing (unrelated) children just because they are not your biological ones; overpopulation and resources — it seems harmful to others.

  5. The “genecist fallacy”? Loving someone isn’t a matter of rational choices, it’s entirely emotional. We evolved to love and make sacrifices on behalf of close kin, and that’s what drives paternal altruism.

    Is a good life better than non-existence? I’d say yes. But I don’t think there’s an objective way of answering this question. I mean, what kinds of evidence are relevant here?

    • Apologies, thought I added a link. Here is a summary of the fallacy from an earlier post. Sorry for the self-reference:

      (Good) parenthood works like this: I have a space in my life, which requires a child. I want to love, care, nurture and raise a wonderful person who I hope will be better than me, will struggle less but become better than I ever was. Or something sentimental along those lines. We can term this what I referred to above as “real world parenthood”. We can do this only for existing beings. How do we care for non-existent entities?

      However, biological parents then commit the fallacy of genecism: This space in my life can only be filled by a being closely-related to me. It must have my specific DNA.

      A prejudice based on genetics: this is genecism. On what basis do we make such a grand claim? It seems to me entirely selfish, solipsistic, bigoted and arrogant to assume the species requires your DNA or purely genetic aspects of yourself for us to function.

      The point is, the idea of fulfilling the space in one’s life with a child must be done with an existing being. The difference matters how this comes about: do we createa being to fulfil this or do we acknowledge that there are beings who do exist already, desperately in need of adopting and caring and love [and therefore adopt them]?

      We are also “evolved to” eat meat and rape – it doesn’t mean we should.

      Also, it is not only possible but I think morally obligatory to love an adopted child since this child exists, whereas unborn children do not. I didn’t deny what loving someone was about, I’m merely saying there are better directions to aim that love.

      My measure of life has to do with suffering rather than joy: a good life is one that has minimal suffering. I’m not particularly interested in promoting happiness (though one can always say I’m merely playing with the utilitarian focus). Thus, because this is my measure, the less suffering the better: ultimately, no suffering is best. Therefore non-existence is best. As I indicated elsewhere, there is a difference between not wanting to exist now and never having existed. Your 67th child is not losing out on not being created and you won’t lose sleep over not having created him/her.

      But fundamentally my point remains: Why create children to love when there exist children who need that love anyway? As I indicate this doesn’t mean dismissing love as emotional property; it means merely directing it in a way which also greatly improves the world (since existing beings have less suffering by being adopted; whilst non-existent beings continue to not exist thus adding neither more suffering or happiness. The latter, as I say, I’m not interested in anyway).

  6. It’s true what you say about “paternal altruism”, but we can only do this for existing beings and, secondly, it’s the reason adopted parents will sacrifice great amounts for their adopted children. We do this for people we are unrelated to (lovers, friends, etc.), also. I’m proposing what I consider consistency in this regard.

  7. “Thus, because this is my measure, the less suffering the better: ultimately, no suffering is best.”

    Right. But why should we prefer your measure? I can say joy is worth 3.2479 times as much as pain. Which view is right? How do we decide?

    What if I know the relevant parental altruistic motives will only be “activated” for my own children?

    • We can ask why we should take heed of or dismiss repugnance, intuition and all manner of moral-based approaches since each seem to be axiomatic to some; therefore, the foundations below which we cannot argue. My reasons are mostly political, in keeping with positive and negative liberty: thus I would rather reduce things that negatively affect others, than work toward making others happy (since this would be positive liberty which could become paternalistic and dismissive of autonomy). I’m working on a way to show that by focusing on reducing suffering, we would actually not in many cases have solid arguments for preventing people from dying (if they so choose).

      I decide on outcomes and consequences of these decisions. There appears to me and my limited reading to be more in favour of reducing unnecessary suffering and allowing for autonomy then being paternalistic and doing what (you think) will make others happy. It seems like a black-and-white fallacy but there is more chance of being paternalist, while aiming to increase happiness, than there is with trying to remove barriers and allow people to do what they wish (grounded in the Harm Principle).

      The other problem is that there might be the reductio argument that creating happy lives means creating more people: thus we should all be breeding, if we can biologically create happy lives (this is sort of Spurrett’s argument but not to the point of being absurd.).

      That’s how I decide. It’s not perfect and I’ve only recently come into this field; but this is the most solid type of argument I’ve encountered from all the others I’ve read (which I reiterate is probably minimal given the vast literature. But by others arguing with me, I’m more exposed to alternate views).

      Your knowledge of activation is countered by the many adopted parents who will tell you the same thing; that their parental altruistic motives were “activated” by being a parent, too. They are as much parents as you are. The only difference is the genetic link, which to me is largely meaningless in terms of (most) ethical decisions.

      You seem to think that the moral boundary rests in biological relation — to some degree this might be true but it is also uninteresting and certainly not morally important enough to the point of dismissing a child who requires that love and attention (and who exists) that you want to give to a biological child (who does not exist — we’re talking before you’ve decided whether to procreate here). Who loses out in you not procreating and adopting? Certainly not your unborn child. You can’t create a child for the child’s sake since the child does not exist. And you don’t since you can’t lose something you’ve never had or that never existed. Just think of your 67th child.

  8. Michael: But the question is whether it’s permissible to have children…

    I’d say not, because the child may well object horribly to living in this kind of world, especially if the child’s (later adult’s) too strongly opposes too much of human nature the way it is to feel that humans deserve to be born (whether in the sense of “strong repugnance of human nature” or “doesn’t want to expose children to the evils of human nature”).

    To me, conceiving a new person is essentially drafting them into this world for one purpose or another (whether for the parents’ happiness or for any other end the world finds useful. The born person has no say-so in the matter.

    This is akin to forcing someone to sign a business contract whose terms the signer did not agree with. In most circumstances, if proven the signer was forced into signing it, courts will void such contracts. Not the least of the reasons is that it’s morally wrong to force someone into a contract they don’t agree with – even if they would benefit from it.

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