Like many controversial views, ‘anti-natalism’—the choice not to have children for moral reasons—is covered in the phlegm of misconception. And those filled with the most viscous fluid are those who believe that breeding is a good thing; or at least important toward leading a fulfilled life. This view is not just wrong, it is arrogant. It also leads many people to believe that those of us who are not going to have children wish their own little offspring dipped in acid, head-first, to watch their tiny feet squirm. Many also argue that the world, society, humanity or life is simply not fit enough to create more people to suffer from these properties of existence. A poor argument from critics is to urge such people to give up their own existence, since they deem existence so bad. This is yet another misconception, as this confuses those who do not exist with those who do.
There is no unified ‘church’ or philosophy with regard to the position that having children is obscene, morally repugnant, poorly motivated, or lacking in good reasons. All manner of people choose not to have children for a variety of reasons: they are under resourced (even though statistics state these are the very people who breed the most, which is the source of continual poverty), consider themselves poor parents, or, like myself, can find no good reason to breed. However, what unites all of us is that it is a choice not to have children, or “create life”. So someone like myself might have nothing in common with someone who considers herself a poor mother and, therefore, will not have children. But what unites us is the conscious choice to go against our biological urges to propagate the species: a uniquely human attribute. It is not because we are physically unable. This is important to stress: those who are unable to breed because of physical disabilities are not necessarily against breeding.
There are also different degrees. The bottom rung—which again unites all of us in this choice—is a personal choice. (Of course, this can have deleterious effects on marriages and partnerships, since some might find themselves single if they told their partner. This only means that they should find better partners who don’t couch the relationship on non-existent people. This is similar to losing one’s partner because of a god. Or not being able to date someone because they don’t date Geminis.) From those I have engaged with, most remain on this rung.
The next rung is to consider the arguments for breeding poor, bizarre, or non-existent. I find it all three but mostly the latter. This differentiates itself from the first rung by lifting the person higher toward seeing their position stretch further. So, one considers one’s choice personal but also engages with those we might consider “pro-natalist”. (An almost guaranteed pro-natalist will be one’s parents. Try telling them they are not getting grandchildren and listen to their reasons for wanting them in the first place).
Finally, there is the radical position adopted prominently by David Benatar, professor of philosophy at my alma mater, the University of Cape Town. This deems it not only poor but indefensible and morally reprehensible to create life. This is a position that says it is better if everyone adopted the position of not wanting to breed. It is better if the human species came to an end, sooner. Indeed it is Better Never to Have Been, as his book is entitled. This strikes the misanthropic chord but only to severing argument. Instead of dealing with the arguments Benatar bolsters, people lump them into a knot of incredulity, unable to believe anyone could live accordingly. Instead of dealing with each strand of argument separately, people hold on to this knot and deal with it as an incredulous piece of garbage, or the product of a dark misanthrope. The correct course is of course the least adopted one: that is, dealing with the arguments themselves. So far, no one has provided a decent reply to Benatar’s propositions or even Schopenhauer’s (from where Benatar derives some arguments).
Severing the ideas from their authors is the first way to engage with them; it is a skill one must learn in order to maintain one’s epistemic duty. Of course due to their outlandish nature, most would simply dismiss even the first rung of such an argument or position. People would in a sense be kicking down the whole ladder, instead of climbing it to understand the position it upholds.
I place myself, unsurprisingly, in between the third and second rung. Benatar himself does not advocate his views like a despot. Even within his book he states that his liberal self could never want such views to be law. That is, we would never want this choice to be enforced; indeed, it would defeat the very word itself. It is a choice which means people must come to it of their own choosing not by coercion.
Let us deal with the third position because that, in turn, deals with the bottom two.
Do I really think having children is immoral? To a large degree, yes. This does not make you a bad person, however. Creating life is a major decision, a large event—it is rightly viewed as the biggest decision of couple’s lives. I just think that couples make the wrong choice. What are their reasons for having children? I have heard them all: to unite us, to show how much we love each other, to raise a child so we can love it and care for it and protect it from harm, because having children is the greatest joy in the world, it is fulfilling, etc. One answer I do not include because one can immediately see its fallacy is this: we did it for the child.
Let us start with this black-sheep of an answer. Firstly, remember that the child does not yet exist. Or rather, does not exist. We can have no notion of non-existence since, as Epicurus pointed out, we exist. But even non-believers have a very warped view of children and life. There seems to be a consensus that there are “souls” of children awaiting on some magical island for the gateway called conception. As if the “soul” is a fully formed person just awaiting an outlet. Of course this is nonsense. The question of “Who am I?” is one of the hardest in all of philosophy and psychology. We have trouble enough pinning ourselves down, reflecting often that we are nothing but the Humean bundle of perceptions. We are moving sand dunes, since even our physical make-up changes completely. How then, struggling for identity subjectively on a day-to-day basis, can parents say they want a child for the child’s sake? The child does not yet exist. And even then, it is only in retrospect that one can speak about having the child. This is the most bizarre and also a strangely frequent answer. Even today, parents would not be able to say everything about their child; so how can they know who this person is that they wanted, who did not even exist?
Other arguments from pro-natalists are equally bad and unable to bridge the divide between children who exist and those who do not. People still speak of children as if they exist: “I really want one of my own, etc.” failing to realise that one must create a child and then, possibly, love him.
The rest of the arguments fall into the space of bonding the couple, using the umbilical ties of the child as bridge between themselves. But this too makes no sense. Why is it defensible to say we needed to create life to maintain our relationship? Then so much the worse for that relationship. A more optimistic reply and one related to my most important argument, is that of adoption. Adopting a child can also bond a couple, unite them in an effort to do the best they can for one who deserves love.
Most people, I have always believed, are genuinely kind, helpful and yearning for love and answers in a universe vastly indifferent to their existence, their tribulations and their insecurities. Many believe they can assuage this indifference by bringing meaning to another being. We fulfil this by loving, being good friends, teachers and, of course, parents. Careers and lives orbit around the notion of securing ourselves by securing others. Society, that which Emile Durkheim said we can not escape, is premised on roles and responsibilities. Many think that they are doing some good by creating life and looking after it. I think it is very important to look after life, especially children who are intellectually and physically dependent on elders. Yet, what I can not understand is the reason to create life to look after. Why create life to look after when millions of lives exist that already need it? I am speaking about children who need adopting and the love of settled couples or individuals.
I find it abhorrent that people use money and time and expenditure from governments to breed, for this very reason. Why must we waste time on fertility treatments when we could be doing more to promote adoption, making it easier and more inviting to people? Why do potential adoptive parents have to be subjected to inquiry and scrutiny, to their background and income (and so on), whilst others feel they can breed whenever possible?
People need to rethink their positions on breeding: why do it? Should we do it? Will we make good parents? I have found no answer for the first, so we can skip that one. The second is a difficult question but one that can only be answered by the couple themselves. In many instances, I think more people can be successful parents by communication and so on. But being a successful parent does not necessarily make it something worth wanting. Many parents are abandoned by children in their old age; gradually children phase out parents in their life. To not be alone when old is something many use as a reason to have children (though also an unsatisfactory and rudely egotistical reason: creating life so that one is not lonely?). There are better ways to make one’s life successful: more friends, better relationships, and so on can, all lead to a fulfilled life. There does not have to be children to render the heart whole.
We are genuinely shocked by the Frankenstein scientists who create life, in fiction and films. Protesters easily whip out placards to march on laboratories that they claim are playing god or becoming Frankenstinian. Many are shocked at the notion of scientists being able to create life, no matter the size. Yet why does our frown change to a smile of joy when our friends or wives deliver a baby? Where are the placards for the man who has seven children? Here people are creating life but we find nothing abhorrent about it.
Two replies follow suit: one is that breeding is natural and therefore a good thing. The second is that we are creating humans, not mutant plants or creatures.
(1)Its natural: Earthquakes, cancers, viruses, volcanoes are all natural and have killed and caused an untold number of people to suffer and die. These are natural. This does not mean that everything natural is good. Secondly, we have been “interfering” with nature enough to create cows and certain birds; yet no one finds these to be horrid “unnatural” beings. Just because we will be able to mutate at microscopic level does not change the fact that we are manipulating the environment and animals. Suddenly because we can see our change, because we have lifted the veil of existence to gaze at its very character, it becomes a crime so monstrous. It is not; it would be a double-standard to say that mutating at the microscopic level is (more?) abhorrent than doing so via picking the meekest auroch or most placid wolf-cub, until their descendants became dependent on us.
(2)Creating humans not mutants: So what if we are creating humans and not half-rabbit half-baby when we breed? We are still creating life. Saying that because it is human it is, therefore, something worthy of creating is simply speciecist or anthropocentric. Just because it’s human, why does that make it something worth creating?
This is not meant to equate the creation of Frankenstein monsters, mutated John Wyndham-type plants, or tentacle-waving women with the creation of a normal, happy child. My point only is to ask as to the purpose of creating life in the first place, no matter what its body-parts. I am not at all stating we should bring out placards if our female friends breed, but we should question whether they should breed in the first place instead of adopting. And perhaps we could bring out placards for the man who decides to have seven children. If he can afford to look after that many, then he would be a massive resource for adoption agencies.
One of the reasons this question is so poorly answered or engaged with has to do with our humanity. What is humanity? It is the extraction of care, empathy and security that we want for ourselves stretched to cover all those who we consider human; it is the desire, the need, to see life fulfilled and love extended with the knowledge that this only comes about by diminished returns and its own propitious engagements; humanity is doggedly followed by the awareness of mortality, that our lives, our hopes, our fears, our dreams will die with us one day. Our biology is the cage and our awareness is the torture. We do not want to die, we do not want to see our humanity destroyed by having no one for whom it matters. Even then, we wish our form of humanity, our way of seeing the world, continue. Our vision deserves immortality and we create eyes to see this: we create children (notice that religious or cult leaders often call their followers children, too?). By creating children we also extend the barrier of humanity – more people, more carriers and successors to the products of humanity.
We are terrified not only by our individual extinction but our species’. There will be, according to recent estimates, no organic life on this planet within a hundred millenia. Even if there was to be life, it is highly unlikely it would be human. Not to mention that our sun will die; the Andromeda galaxy is on a collision course with us; our universe will end. All this points to a full stop we pretend is an ellipses. But it is not. It is the end.
The sooner we can face up to our annihilation the sooner we can continue with living. And not just living, but living well. Children might be the answer to the fulfilled life for many. And this is true: but this says nothing about the creation of children, the creation of life. Our duty to our species rests with those who exist, but instead we spend money, lose partners and deplete our resources for beings who do not yet exist. We need a radical position change to see that there are ways we can foster our humanity for those who deserve it: those who exist. We need to begin promoting adoption as a viable alternative that is heightened by moral responsibility, highlighting that the problem rests with those that would create children to look after instead of helping those children who already need it.
Do I want the human species to die? That is similar to asking do I want to rocks to be hard. Mortality, like hardness, is a property. By defining humans, we speak about mortality. Yet, the question could be changed: do I wish for the end of our species? No. I do not. But that is different from it dying out as would occur at some point anyway. If everybody stopped breeding, what would the impact on technology, society, and science be? Would scientists continue working on properties of the universe, knowing that no one will be using their findings when they die? Would the last police officers care about their jobs? Would criminals even be criminals in the city at the end of time?
I do not know but I doubt that things would be jovial. However, I do not want to focus on the consequences of a choice I know the majority will not choose. My focus, deontologically, is on human breeding – that is, breeding in itself. I see no reason why I should have children, I have no good arguments for having children, and I am genuinely shocked at the irresponsible and poor logic used when parents decide to create life. What place does reason have in something “so magical as children”? This is not an argument but an assertion that there is something special about creating children. Reason is necessary if we wish to know whether we are living good lives, whether we are moral beings and has a lot to say about the future of life. Think critically about children before having them. Be aware of those children who already exist that require love, attention and parental adoration. Be aware that life is not necessarily better because one has created another (all one has done is multiplied the problem of a fulfilled life by two).
People are shocked by this position. I think their shock is, as always with surprise, a mixture of fear and loathing. Their fear comes about by the awareness of mortality, since this means blood-lines will end, surnames fade and someone has decided not aid in adding to the species’ numbers. This rebounds off the critic or pro-natalist, as he is made aware of his own mortality. Children diminish this fear, since people believe they somehow live on through them (this is poor rhetoric nonsense). Secondly, the loathing is that someone is choosing to go against the grain, someone is saying the pro-natalist is nonsensical in this instance of his life. I have had many acquaintances inform me that everytime they look at their child, they are forced to question their motives and slowly begin hate me for that. I also know many who, when faced with these arguments, regret their choice in breeding. This only highlights the need to push these ideas and arguments further afield, so that one does not come to hate one’s children. These choices must be made by every able-bodied human before its too late to change one’s position, i.e.: after creating life.
I do not want to force this view on anyone, as I have defined it as a choice. But it is a reasonable choice, one I believe people can be argued into. We have a duty to our humanity and to our species: there are children who need adopting, need the love and support and care that is going to be given to millions of children who do not yet exist. The children who exist lose out but those who do not yet exist, by virtue of not existing, do not. This is a major point: those who do not exist can not lose out on existence or the benefits of love and adoration, since they do not exist. We must stop thinking of them as beings who do.
Once we begin being self-critical of our motives, once we realise the difference between existence and non-existence, that life is not diminished by a moral choice but heightened by it, our world can slowly adjust itself to realising that we can do better. A simple choice can have a resounding impact on society. (Perhaps, firstly, this idea and choice needs to be sold to the most important part of our species: women.) When we shift our gaze toward children who already exist, to life that already needs love, instead of creating life just to receive these gifts, we can become a better species, more in tune with our humanity.