Initial Harm Part One: David Benatar’s Antinatalism

The best thing is not to be born. But who is as lucky as that? To whom
does it happen? Not to one among millions and millions of people.

                                         — Brother Theodore

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, On the Suffering of the World   

Not creating a person absolutely guarantees that  that potential person will not suffer — because that person will not exist.

                                        — David Benatar, Better Never to Have Been

No, no kids.

Well, to tell you the truth,  we don’t plan to have any.  It’s just not our style, I guess.

Um, I’m really not inclined to argue, but I guess I would object to your characterization.  I mean, I don’t really see how it can be selfish to not have children — at least not in any pejorative sense of the term.  If you’re suggesting that there’s some social obligation…

Wait a minute, that doesn’t even make sense.  How can it be selfish toward children?  The ones who don’t even exist?  I’m sorry, but that’s just absurd.


Look, I didn’t bring it up, and I’m just answering your questions. But I think it’s possible that your objections are rooted in some degree of hostility, or at least I sense something hostile in the way you’re posing them. Honestly, this has come up before, and it’s always, I don’t know, like a kindly interrogation or something. I know that may sound overwrought, but if you want to make an issue of it, I suppose I would have to ask what’s so noble about procreation to begin with? Personally, I think it’s interesting that no one ever asks why people have children, especially since it’s the whole business of creating people that would seem to beg moral justification.

Well, what I mean should be obvious. But I guess a blunt way to put it would be to turn the tables by asking how someone can choose to have kids since they’re pretty much guaranteed to suffer at some point in their lives, and even if they don’t, they’re still going to die.  If you knowingly cause someone to suffer and die, well, in any other context that would be morally problematic, and usually criminal.  No?

Oh, I’m happy to drop the subject.  But there’s nothing "absurd" about what I’m saying — at least not in ethical terms. And for the record, you’re the one who made this a moral issue by accusing me of being selfish.  So, again, I’m asking what can possibly be selfish about opting not to create human beings who are doomed to experience pain and die? It’s fine if you want to dismiss my argument, especially since you seem a bit exasperated that I even have one;  but again, break it down:  by not causing someone to exist, I’m obviously not responsible for any net increase in potential misery, and I’m certainly not causing anyone to die.  But by having children, aren’t you directly responsible on both accounts?  I mean, even if your kids are lucky enough to lead happy and satisfying lives, which you could never possibly guarantee beforehand, they’re still going to die, and that’s something that definitely does not happen to people who never exist.  And it’s not like there would anyone to miss out on the good shit, since people who never exist don’t know what there missing.  Ultimately, I think you’re the one who has some explaining to do.

Well, that’s an interesting point at least. But if speculating about non-existent people is "sophistry," I would insist that the thought experiment is still valid in context. To begin with, how can you talk about benefiting people by creating them unless you consider the alternative?    And yes, I’m well aware of the accusatory implications of what I’m saying. It doesn’t bother me in the fucking least.  Does it bother you? Honestly, it’s not like I haven’t given this some thought.  If anything, you’re the one who seems blindsided.

Fair enough.  Like I said, I wasn’t looking  for a fight.

Always a Harm: David Benatar’s View

The truth is, I had begun to wonder.  If maybe I was alone on this
one.  Or just being reflexively captious, as some of you may already
suspect.  Yes, there were  always arguments that edged on the ultimate
conclusion.  But for all the starkly wrought scope and gravity,  the rehearsed strains of Schopenhauerian pessimism were somehow too deeply
informed by the dismal weight of dire existence. The formalized ethic that
proceeds after the implacable fact of worldly suffering was always left
lurking in the wings, sketchily articulated in the scheme of aphoristic
flair, and  consequently impotent. 

Perhaps the experiments coming precipitously closest were those
legalistic threads speculating over (mostly) theoretical torts arising
from that delectably suggestive term of art, "wrongful life." But even
with the surface logic laid out and begging for the ineluctable
world-ending linchpin pronouncement, the theorists always managed to
hedge their conclusions, perhaps with a face-saving footnote.  With rare but fascinating borderline exceptions, due consideration within this promising genre was more
typically reserved for those "hard cases" in which a cause of action is
contemplated in relatively safe relation to persons afflicted with severe congenital impairment.   Tay-SachsCystic Fibrosis?  You can start there and play the game of being reasonable.  Better, I suppose, not to be cast into the satirical fringe. It can’t mean what it means, only it does.

But just when I was more or less resigned to take my place as an intellectually homeless contrarian, I caught word of this South African professor who seemed to be on the right track.  David Benatar’s ethical
treatise, Better Never to Have Been:  The Harm of Coming into Existence, is a singular shit-stirring moral exposition of the view I had privately come to embrace (albeit with cautious and significant qualification to be articulated in Part Two).  The central position he advances may be described as antinatalism.  In its mildest and most economic form, the structure of his argument may be reduced to a syllogism:

  1. The infliction of harm is generally indecent and to be avoided;
  2. Coming into existence always entails significant harm to the individual who would otherwise not have existed;
  3. There is thus a general moral duty not to have children.    

"The test," to cite Benatar in a manner fairer to his broadly utilitarian method, "is this:"

whether the amount of harm in a life could decently be inflicted on an
already existent being, but neither to advance that being’s overall
interests nor for utilitarian purposes.  The first condition —
excluding that person’s own interests — is obviously crucial given the
argument that coming into existence can never be a benefit to the
person who comes into existence. The second condition may be thought to
be more controversial. However, it should not be…. Creating new
people does bring benefits to people other than the person created, but
these are modest benefits  to other individuals rather than the
maximizing benefits of utilitarianism. 

In the
course of expostulating his core heresy, Benatar goes to
considerable lengths to engage and summarily explode a host of
sometimes esoteric justifications that have been marshaled in various
academic contexts to countenance the purported benefits of existence
over non existence (or, more accurately, "never-existence"). It may
sound like metaphysical flummery on first pass, but once you
re-tuned your synapses, the strength of antinatalist logic becomes
clear.  With almost laconic precision, Benatar’s preemptive
rejoinders hit their mark again and again. The reasoning is honed
within the bounds of prevailing schools of utilitarian and consequentialist ethics, but
no matter which approach is test driven, conscious life fares poorly

To the neo-Benthamite who submits that existing individuals are
benefited by the net pleasures of having been born, Benatar answers
that such pleasure as may be assigned metric value cannot, as a matter
of any rationally conceived hedonic calculus, override the absolute lack
of all suffering guaranteed to those not-so-hypothetical creatures who
are eternally spared the fate of life and death.  "[E]ven the intrinsic
benefits of existing do not constitute a net benefit over never
existing," he writes.  "Once alive, it is good to have them, but they
are purchased at the cost of life’s misfortune — a cost that is quite

Whatever merits may be ascribed to positivist utilitarian
accounting, the operational value of hedonic math is addressed perforce
exclusively to the calculable pleasures and interests of us  moribund hatchlings.
Once the perspective is adjusted to include the not-yet-born, the
implications of utilitarian asymmetry become clear.  Obviously, never existing
means never  feeling pain; but more strongly, it negates the very
possibility of experiencing even one scintilla of displeasure.

Thus challenged, the procreatively sympathetic hedonist may be
inclined to add up the deferred pleasure chips on the other side of the equation, but a rude surprise awaits.
Where there is not yet an existent subject, there is simply no logical
basis from which to assert any experiential loss over pleasures
foregone.  No matter how unprecedentedly charmed we imagine the
potential being’s preemptively thwarted life, the scales never tip
back.  Where the never-existent are concerned, pleasure-loss is either
meaningless or impossible.      

To "objective list" theorists who pretend to a broader or more
removed moral stance, Benatar points out that far from being
"objective" in any transcendent sense, the cost-benefit catalogs relied
on by such thinkers are invariably undermined by their narrowly conceived and
temporally elastic humanistic presuppositions.  For all the profession
of disinterested analysis, such approaches, in addition to failing to
answer the fundamental problem of existentially predicated asymmetry, are in
Benatar’s careful estimation rendered impotent by the fact that they
may be "taken to be objective only in the sense that they do not vary
from person to person," a view that seems rather shallow when
considered against a more appropriately sub specie aeternitatis
perspective that is unbound by myopic constraints of
present-tense normative expectations.   To get a sense of what this implies, just imagine what a happy, healthy
three-hundred-year-old man of the future might have to say about our pathetically short
sub-centenarian life-span.

Benatar’s  groundwork may seem impossibly uncharitable or even simplistic to some, and the burden of cognitve dissonance will be enough to alienate other readers. But there is nothing abstruse or esoteric in the case for antinatalism. Benatar’s conclusions follow with elementary precision from the scrupulous application of prevailing ethical theories.  It’s all cranes and no skyhooks, to appropriate Dennett’s terminology. And the philosophical rigor is well justified. While he is avowedly under no illusions about the
marketability of his central claims, Benatar’s efforts are
informed by the practical recognition that unorthodox
conclusions require careful defense.

But there is work yet to be done.  Having sealed the strong
utilitarian case that never-existence trumps existence any day, Benatar
goes on to demonstrate why most human lives are one hell of a lot
shittier than most people dare imagine.  While it may seem
counter-intuitive to suggest that things are in fact worse than they
seem, the case for objectively grounded pessimism turns out to be
deadly rational. 

For starters, there are well known psychological
that militate against a more realistic assessment of the
quality of one’s own life. The "Pollyanna Principle," for example, accounts for the widespread human tendency to recall more positive experiences than bad ones and to generally overestimate objectively measurable talents and prospects.  Conversely,
and contrary to received wisdom, it has generally been found that
chronically depressed individuals tend to have an abnormally accurate sense of their own abilities and situational options. If you’ve been there, you know what this means.

But of course, it gets much worse.  From the macro lens of history, the
magnitude of suffering traceable to warfare and starvation and disease
and every conceivable form of cruelty is vast.  In a chapter entitled
"How Bad is Coming Into Existence," Benatar confronts the grave enormity of
past and present misfortune and proffers a modest Pascalian challenge
to would-be breeders:

Even if there are some lives
that are spared most of this suffering, and those lives are better than
I have said they are,  those (relatively) high-quality lives are exceedingly uncommon.  A charmed life is so rare that for every one such
life, there are millions of wretched lives.  Some know that their baby
will be among the unfortunate.  Nobody knows, however, that their baby
will be one of the allegedly lucky few.  Great suffering could await
any person that is brought into existence.  Even the most privileged
people could give birth to a child that will suffer unbearably, be
raped, assaulted, or be murdered brutally.  The optimist surely bears
the burden of justifying this procreational Russian  roulette.  Given
that there are no real advantages over never existing for those who are
brought into existence, it is hard to see how the significant risk of
serious harm could be justified. If we count not only the unusually
severe harms that anybody could endure, but also the quite routine ones
of ordinary human life, then we find matters are still worse for cheery
procreators.  It shows that they play Russian roulette with a fully loaded gun  — aimed, of course, not at their own heads, but at those of their future offspring.    

Schopenhauer stands vindicated:  "Each individual
misfortune, to be sure, seems an exceptional occurrence; but misfortune
in general is the rule."

So fake it till you make it because the sun’ll come out tomorrow as long as you roll with the punches and look on the bright side. When life hands you
lemons, make fucking lemonade.

It is no accident that our minds are crowded with optimistic bromides.  In their rose-tinted denial, such palliative platitudes constitute trace evidence of a neuro-chemical conspiracy to shield our conscious
selves from grim verities. Yet the fact that we pretend to make the best of our lot says nothing about the true quality of our fleeting lives. The truth is that even for the lucky ones,
life is characterized by countless petty sufferings and
unfilled desires. And at bottom, every birth is a death sentence.  That could have been avoided.      

Thus.  Ergo.  Inescapably.  No one should ever have children.


Editors Note:  This is the first installment in a three part series. Check back for Part Two, in which the Hog will consider antinatalism from the perspective of deontological ethics and outline the ( possibly unprecedented ) argument that both secular pro-life reasoning and axiomatic libertarianism imply a legal prohibition against having children.  Part Three will explore the paradoxical compatibility of antinatalism with transhumanism and ask whether Benatar’s utilitarian approach can be fairly interpreted as an ethical mandate for genocide.