Initial Harm Part Two: The Antinatalist Logic of Libertarian Nonaggression

If liberty should be the highest political end, then what is the grounding
for that goal? … [F]irst and foremost, liberty is a moral principle,
grounded in the nature of man. In particular, it is a principle of justice,
of the abolition of aggressive violence in the affairs of men.  Hence, to
be grounded and pursued adequately,  the libertarian goal must be sought
in  the spirit of an overriding devotion to justice.  But to possess
such devotion on what may well be a long and rocky road, the libertarian must
be possessed of a passion for justice, an emotion derived from  and
channeled by  his natural insight into what natural justice requires.
Justice, not  the weak reed of mere utility, must be the motivating force
if liberty is to be attained.

    —  Murray Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty

Yeah, I know you have kids.  I guess that’s why I thought it was a bad subject.  But I don’t see how it matters, really.  I mean,  it’s not like you’re alone. And the thing is, I really didn’t want to make it personal, but I suppose I can see…


Well, in a sense, I guess that is what I’m saying — that you’re a criminal. But I’m the first to admit my position is sort of impossible. I mean, it’s ridiculous, isn’t it?  I can’t possibly be right.

Apocalypse Ethics

In Better Never to Have Been, David Benatar’s methodical case against procreation is crafted, for the most part, in the language of ethical utility. This may be the best way to do it. I don’t know. There is the advantage of potential objectivity, which can be helpful. But there is a point, I think, at which Benatar seems cornered by the stronger claims that his own reasoning would seem to permit, if not sanction.  A point at which the ultimate logic of hedonic asymmetry is better left diluted.  .

"Pro-mortalism" is a fascinating term, isn’t it?  In Benatar’s usage, it denotes the broadest and most morally problematic application of the negative utilitarian logic buttressing anti-natalist ethics.  In a peculiar phrase, it describes a moral philosophy of genocide. 

Cursorily formalized, the pro-mortalist argument might go a bit like this:

  • If coming into existence is always a serious harm;
  • And if the plight of those who do not yet exist constitutes an incalculably vast degree of harm;
  • And if the prevention of such harm is a rational moral duty;
  • And if continued procreation is otherwise practicably inevitable;   
  • Then the intentional destruction of human life may be justified in the interest of preventing the greater magnitude of harm to not-yet-existent people    

Now I know of no serious thinker — living or dead — who openly embraces a pro-mortalist stance thus or otherwise articulated, even rhetorically.  And it should be emphasized that Benatar’s dalliance with the idea is staged in the manner of a preemptive rejoinder; he raises the specter only to explode it, ostensibly as a matter of philosophical housecleaning.  Yet it is only at this awkward juncture that I catch even a whiff of disingenuousness. In stating his case against breeding, Benatar always takes care to ask  the right questions and consider possible responses, but his perspective becomes suspiciously myopic, er, sub specie humanitas, when he considers the prospect of mass killing for the greater good.

Following after a fascinating discussion of the ethics of human extinction through punctuated attrition (non-generative extinction), Benatar’s attempt to defang the penumbral goblin of pro-mortally predicated extinction (killing-extinction) is worth quoting at length:

It would be helpful to distinguish between the two ways in which a species can become extinct.  The first is for it to be killed off.  The second is for it to die off. […] When a species is killed off, extinction is brought about by killing members of the species until there are no more of them. This killing may be by humans or it may be at the hand of nature (or by humans forcing the hand of nature).  by contrast, when a species dies off, extinction is brought about by a failure to replace those members of a species who’s lives come to an inevitable natural end.

It should be clear that the two means of extinction can overlap.  What often happens is that so many members of a species are killed off, that the remaining ones cannot effectively replace themselves and those who were killed, and thus when they then die out the species becomes extinct.  Alternatively, when a species fails to reproduce adequately, the species is brought to extinction by the killing of the few remaining members of the species.

Notwithstanding this overlap, the distinction between the two kinds of extinction (or, if you prefer, the two features of extinction) is helpful.  There are clear differences between the two.  Most obviously, killing extinction cuts lives short, whereas dying extinction does not.  Although it may be bad for anyone of us to die, it is still worse to die earlier than we need to.  Secondly, there is a moral difference between some cases of killing-extinction and cases of dying-extinction.  Were anti-natalists to become pro-mortalists and embark on a "speciecide" program of killing humans, their actions would be plagued by moral problems that would not be faced by dying extinction.  Humans killing their own species to extinction is troubling for all the reasons that killing is troubling.  It is (usually) bad for those who are killed, and unlike dying (from natural causes), it is a bad that can be avoided (until dying occurs).  Although we can regret somebody’s death from natural causes at the end of a full life span, we cannot say that any wrong has been done, whereas we can say that a moral agent killing somebody, without proper justification [emphasis mine – ed], is wrong.

Setting aside the disorienting strangeness of the discussion itself, Benatar’s distinctions may seem sober enough. But when you take full account of the grim weight of the utilitarian cost-benefit analysis upon which the anti-natalist position initially rests, his treatment of the problem of "speciecide" feels like a non-sequitur.   

Benatar seems to have lost sight of the enormity of the moral problem that he set out to address.  In arguing that killing extinction is inherently "bad," he abandons the view from eternity that had proven so useful in his initial mission and focuses on the microcosmic plight of those whose lives would be cut short.   Rather than deal with the obvious question of magnitude and the corollary question of calculating the harm of killing versus that of forseeably perpetuated suffering under an order of objectively mechanistic utility, he works out a dubious distinction between pre-vital and post-mortem non-existence, arguing, pace Epicurean philosophers,  that the latter is somehow worse and that the pro-mortalist temptation may therefore be summarily declined. With so much unfinished business, it just doesn’t follow.      

 To begin with, there is that all-important clause: without proper justification. In agreement with virtually every extant school of jurisprudential or ethical thought, Benatar explicitly endorses the view that killing may be justified under some (presently unspecified) circumstances. But this begs the question and opens the door. Under what circumstances?  Self defense?  Punishment? State sponsored warfare?  If killing one innocent person would prevent the death of ten others, would the killing be justified?  What if the ratio were upped? Kill one person, prevent a thousand deaths? Benatar never lays it out, but if we are to apply even the most cautious cost-benefit test, and the stakes are demonstrably  grave, the answer that suggests itself should be clear enough. Killing may be justified on utilitarian grounds when the ends achieved by killing can be shown to substantially reduce greater harm and suffering. In the case of pro-mortally sanctioned killing-extinction, the scale of the prevented harm is by any rational measure so vast that the harm of genocide barely registers by comparison. 

Even if we grant that already living persons have an interest in finishing their natural lives and that there really is a qualitative or otherwise validly articulable distinction to be drawn between being no more and never having been, there is no value-neutral way to assert such interests in absolute terms.  If the harm entailed in allowing trillions of future people to come into existence is vastly disproportionate to the harm of allowing billions of potential pro-creators to go on breathing and breeding, then the question of justified genocide cannot be so easily avoided.         

Let’s assume — as I do — that killing constitutes a special case that is indeed "plagued by moral problems that would not be faced by dying-extinction."  While it is never his chief point of emphasis, Benatar is clear that one of the counts against procreation is that by giving birth to new humans, we perforce condemn them to die:

Indeed, the harm of death may partially explain why coming into existence is a harm. Coming into existence is bad because it invariably leads to the harm of ceasing to exist. 

He doesn’t call it murder, but I will. More accurately, it comes down to a question of mens rea. Procreation is murder insofar as a birth (or conception, or conscious emergence, depending on your point of view) results from an intentional act. Allowing that every human life ends in death, and that a given birth that leads to death is ultimately precipitated by human agency and foresight, what difference should 80 odd years make?  If you lead a blind man into traffic and he’s smashed by a semi, you killed him.  Same with your broodlings.  The only difference is that the blind man at least had a chance.  In instances where the question of intent is unclear or in doubt, the offense might more accurately be described as manslaughter or negligent homicide or reckless disregard for human life, or whatever.  But from any vantage, the intractable point is that causing someone to die, even by dint of causing them to live, must be considered a "serious moral problem" in itself.   Q.E.D.

Since Benatar readily admits the impracticability of coerced sterilization and addresses the prospect of anti-natally countenanced dying-extinction merely as a kind of thought experiment, it is difficult to see how the arguably feasible alternative of genocide, intuitively revolting though it may be, can be so easily foreclosed as an ethically justifiable means of reducing the murderous harm and guaranteed suffering that will, by every empirical and rational expectation, multiply generationally as long as people are free to breed anew.  For the price of one holocaust, you prevent every future holocaust. Immanentize the eschaton this once, and the world never ends again.  Moral problem solved.         

I suspect what happened is that Professor Benatar thought himself into an unconscionable spot, then tried to shift the deck just enough to deflect attention from the full weight of his argument. But there is another way to approach the matter, although it requires, at least provisionally, that we abandon the utilitarian vocabulary of preferences and interests and proportion and good and bad. In favor of a more quaintly Kantian clockwork.  In the context of triangulating the moral case for antinatalism, Benatar even considers this prospect:

…a rights or deontological view may say that some harms are so bad that they may not be inflicted even if failing to inflict them causes greater harm to others.  On such a view, for example, it would be wrong to remove somebody’s healthy kidney involuntarily even  though the harm  to a potential recipient of not doing the  transplant would be greater than the harm to the involuntary donor of doing it.  This is because either the donor has a right to not have his kidney involuntarily removed, or others have a duty not to remove it involuntarily.  If there is a right not to be brought into existence — a right that has a bearer only when it is breached — then it might be argued that it would be wrong to create new people even if this reduced the harm to currently existing people.  Those who are worried about attributing, to non-existent beings, a right not to be brought into existence, may think about this matter instead in terms of duties not to bring people into existence.  These would be duties not to inflict the harm that is inflicted by bringing people into existence.  On this deontological view, there is a duty not to bring new people into existence — a duty that may not be violated even if doing so would be less than the harm suffered by existent people in the absence of new people.


If we combine my anti-natalist arguments with a rights view in order to answer questions about when, if ever, we may cause new people to exist in order to reduce harm to existing people, our answers will not only depend on what view we take of the strength of rights.  They will also depend on what view we take about the magnitude of the harm of coming into existence. The greater the harm, the more likely it is to be protected against by a stronger right.

While Benatar’s main point is to shore up his core argument by demonstrating that even "[t]he more stringent rights or deontological view is clearly compatible with anti-natalism," he might have paused to consider the practical value of such an approach in addressing many of the problems faced by utilitarianism — or, more on point, utilitarian anti-natalism.

And I might as well take it as a cue.

Libertarian Antinatalism

When I signed on for freedom, I was earnest and realistic.  I read all the right books before becoming bored. But one thing I could never brook was the appeal to some transcendent moral order.  However it was packaged, talk of "natural rights" always made me wince.  In the brutal scheme of nature, it seemed the rights of men were but phlogistic vagaries.  There was no eternal order upon which to rest one’s appeal.

What I knew was this daydream sketch of what I wanted.  And in the bastion of a more hopeless and nakedly egoistic predicament, I knew — or insisted — that there could be no abiding compromise.  It was always a choice, this refuge. Dire consistency and no governor. Breath free, and let the fucking heavens fall.  That was my politics. And the wistful prop upon which my quixotic sensibilities came to rest would be discerned in that elegant  more axiom, traced to Locke and refined in the scheme of libertarian dialectics. Nonaggression. The one rule I could stump for, even if it was no truer than the rest.   

Walter Block serves it up in a blurb:

The non-aggression axiom is the lynchpin of the philosophy of libertarianism.  It states, simply, that it should be legal for anyone to do anything he wants, provided only that he not initiate (or threaten) violence against the person or property of another.

And metaphysics be damned, it still rings with hopeless urgency. Which is why, in
the spirit of Goldwater’s extremism, I want to pursue the logic all the way
down.  Past the lifeboat situations and hard cases. To its life-negating
Murray Rothbard may have been off to a
good start, but he failed his own litmus test. To show where things go off course, we can focus broadly on the explicitly deontological system that he outlined in his many-flawed but  shamefully neglected treatise, The Ethics of Liberty

The value of the Rothbardian perspective is contextually bound, and twofold.  First, it is the absolutist postulation of individual propertarian rights favored by Rothbard — and like-minded libertarians — that is of present interest.  In the course of defending a workable conception of "human rights as property rights," Rothbard took pains to remind  readers of the fundamental governing principle of self-ownership and, more importantly, of the corollary obligation to refrain from forcibly violating the person or justly acquired property of others.  My contention is that it is impossible to uphold this brand of absolute liberty in a manner that is consistent with procreative liberty. Applied consistently, as Rothbard was irrepressibly wont to do in virtually every other context and thought experiment, libertarian rights lead to anti-natalism. 

More significantly, the absolute and universal moral value of self-ownership demanded under a Rothbardian regime not only justifies a prohibition on baby-making; it provides a workable way out of the problem — never satisfactorily diffused by Professor Benatar — of pro-mortalism.  If a duty not to create new people is to be derived not from cosmic pleasure calculus, but  from the absolute right of individual persons against aggression, then preemptive aggression in the interest of some greater reduction in harm simply cannot follow. After all, that would violate rights.  Just like procreation does.

Like some versions of negative utilitarianism, Rothbard’s approach to natural law has been characterized as hostile and misanthropic.  But at the risk of undermining whatever threadbare credibility I may enjoy, that’s what I like about him.  Readers who are predisposed to agree with Rothbard’s argument that antebellum slavery constituted a gross violation of rights may be thrown to discover that compulsory jury duty is a form of enslavement every bit as vile and indefensible. ACLU liberals, who reflexively regurgitate their principled defense of Nazi parades in the interest of preserving some grander principle of free speech, may likewise be stupefied when confronted with the Rothbard’s uncompromising defense of libel and defamation.  And there’s something about the libertarian defense of bribery — a mere species of enforcible contract, mind you — that gets me all misty.

To the consternation of many libertarians, Rothbard always seemed to relish in extreme cases and boundary testing thought experiements.  Which is why it slightly surprises me that he, along with subsequent expositors of hardcore libertarian ethics, never saw fit to address the special question that might have reduced the axiomatic machinery to a practical nullity.  He came awfully damn close at times, though — notably in his poorly reasoned yet utterly fascinating treatment of children’s rights and abortion rights. With a proforma iteration of the dictum that "the only right one man has to another is to respect the other man’s rights," shocked readers are summarily treated to a singular ethical defense of homicidal child neglect.  It’s an ancillary point for present purposes, but in the interest of fairness, here is what he actually writes:

Applying our theory to parents and children, this means that a parent does not have a right to aggress against his chilldren, but also that   the parent should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights.  The parent therefore may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so.  But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child , i.e., to allow it to die.  The law, therefore, may not properly compel the parent to feed a child or keep it alive.

I know, ethical defenses of starving babies to death are always good fun. But  regardless of whether one is inclined to think Rothbard has misstepped or not, the point of present interest — the point at which the question of traditional procreative rights practically begs to be reconsidered — comes a few paragraphs later, when Rothbard considers and attempts to refute "the doctrine that parents should have a legally enforceable obligation to keep their children alive."

I’m going long again.  This time, pay attention:

The argument for this obligation contains two components: that parents created the child by a freely chosen purposive act; and that the child is temporarily helpless and not a self-owner.  If we consider the first argument from helplessness, then first, we may make the general point that it is a philosophical fallacy to maintain that A’s needs properly impose coercive obligations on B to satisfy these needs.  For one thing, B’s rights are then violated.  Secondly, if a helpless child may be said to impose legal obligations on someone else, why specifically on its parents, and not on other people?  What do the parents have to do with it?  The answer, of course, is that they are the creators of the child, but this brings us to the second argument: the argument from creation.

Considering, then, the creation argument, this immediately rules out the any obligation of a mother to keep a child alive who was the result of an act of rape, since this was not a freely undertaken act.  It also rules out any such obligation by a step-parent, foster parent or guardian, who didn’t participate at all in creating the child.

Furthermore, if creation engenders an obligation to maintain the child, why should it stop when the child becomes an adult?

Setting aside the nagging problem that Rothbard frames the core issue in terms of creation rather than moral agency, then proceeds to invoke the special case of rape as a smokescreen to avoid considering  the volitionally contingent obligations faced by voluntary procreators (which would include rapist-agents, but not impregnated rape victims), the careful reader might still be left to wonder why Rothbard’s rhetorically posited question: "if creation engenders an obligation to maintain the child, why should it stop when the child becomes an adult?" does not call for closer consideration.  The suggestion seems to be that the prospect of inseverable parental obligation is simply too absurd (or too inconvenient) to contemplate.  This is a textbook example of the fallacy of argumentum ad consequentium, i.e., of rejecting an argument because you don’t like where it leads.   Elsewhere, if only for the sake of argument, Rothbard concedes that even fetuses — helplessly subject to "eviction" though they remain — are human beings with concomitant, if practicably unenforceable, rights. So why not ask the next question?  Why not ask by what libertarian right someone — be they a rapist or a newlywed — can impose the violence of life and, more importantly, death, upon an unconsenting, preexistent being? 

Of course, the answer is plain. The principle of non-aggression cannot be reconciled with any such right, any more than it can be reconciled with a "right" to rape or steal.  When you intentionally create someone, you always harm them. In the first order, you harm them by causing their eventual death. You kill them, and killing is aggression.  Furthermore, you harm them by catalyzing every sickness and misfortune and deprivation which they are sure to endure.  When you intentionally create someone, you also and always violate Rothbard’s cherished right of self-ownership (granting for present purposes that such a concept even makes sense). If the parant-child relationship may be conceived, per Rothbard, as being characterized by temporary parental ownership (albeit of a conveniently qualified "’trustee’ or guardianship kind") of the child, then it is essentially slavery. Just like jury duty. Given that it is a bad thing — and a wrong thing — to enslave people, the dictum that follows should be no different.  You simply don’t do it. Don’t make new people. Not ever.  When you impose existence upon those who cannot consent, you violate their rights, and you violate your creed. 

If axiomatic nonaggression abolishes a presumptive right to create new people, and utilitarian math properly demonstrates the inherent harm of coming into existence, a distinguishing feature — and arguable advantage — of the libertarian-rights-based approach is that it also precludes the possibility of  ethically justifiable genocide.  If the intentional creation of new people is wrong because it constitutes aggression, then intentionally cutting lives short is equally aggressive and wrong. Even if doing so can be rationally demonstrated to prevent greater future harm.

But still.  Either way.  No one should ever have children.


Editor’s note: This is Part Two of a four part series on anti-natalism.  Part Three will consider the special implications of anti-natalist reasoning for followers of the Nicene Creed and analyze David Benatar’s "pro-death" position on abortion.  Part Four will explore anti-natalism in relation to transhumanist immortalism.