Although they are born looking healthy, children with Progeria begin to
display many characteristics of accelerated aging at around 18-24 months of
age. Progeria signs include growth failure, loss of body fat and hair,
aged-looking skin, stiffness of joints, hip dislocation, generalized
atherosclerosis, cardiovascular disease and stroke. The children have a
remarkably similar appearance, despite differing ethnic background. Children
with Progeria die of atherosclerosis (heart disease) at an average age of
— Progeria Research Foundation
Death is an imposition on the human race and no longer acceptable.
— Alan Harrington, The Immortalist
I’m so sorry to hear about it. I just thought things were magic and that it would never happen.
— Andy Warhol, writing about death, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol
Because I don’t want to die, I guess. I’m not depressed. I’m not sick. Maybe a little hungover, but…
OK, I won’t say I don’t understand. It’s just — I think it’s a profound misapprehension. A non-sequitur, really. Just because it would have been better…
…just because I’m arguing that it’s better never to be born doesn’t mean you should kill yourself — or were you being more specific? Look, I despise the fact that I have to die at all. At least on a good day. It’s a bitter fucking pill, and for me it’s the biggest part of the problem with being born — that it means you have to die. There’s absolutely no inconsistency. And if you insist there is, I’m sorry but you’re missing everything.
Well, I could just as easily ask why you don’t just murder your kids right now. I mean, since you already set things in motion? What’s a few decades, after all?
I don’t know. I guess I’m half serious. We’re obviously not going to agree. Not that it matters. Obviously, it doesn’t matter at all.
Progeria As Metaphor
In the closing chapter of Better Never to Have Been, David Benatar addresses the most commonplace counterpoint to antinatalist reasoning, that it is simply too absurd — or too counter-intuitive — to merit rational consideration, that the idea may be summarily dismissed as a prima facie case of "reason gone mad." He does his best to counter what might be called the arational objection:
…it is noteworthy that a view’s counter-intuitiveness cannot by itself constitute a decisive consideration against it. This is because intuitions are often profoundly unreliable — a product of mere prejudice. Views that are taken to be deeply counter-intuitive in one place and time are often taken to be obviously true in another. The view that slavery is wrong, or the view that there is nothing wrong with ‘miscegenation,’ were once thought to be highly implausible and counter-intuitive. They are now taken, at least in many parts of the world, to be self-evident. It is not enough, therefore, to find a view or its implications counter-intuitive, or even offensive. One has to examine the arguments for the disliked conclusion. Most of those who have rejected the view that it is wrong to create more people have done so without assessing the argument for that conclusion. They have simply assumed that this view must be false.
It’s a necessary gesture, I admit. But there can be no illusions. The plea to reason, in this instance alone, is doomed to fail. I am convinced that human nature is, in some respects (and certainly in this respect), intractable. Even if there is some smolder of hope to be clutched in the malleable perturbations of ethical discourse, or in the implacable logic of the better argument, the extra-rational trajectory of our natural history remains locked on course. Considered as a conflict between genetic and memetic interests, the "don’t have kids" meme is intrinsically programmed for destruction. Success means failure. The game is rigged, snare-tight. A trap. I know. I am sorry.
And yet. No one should ever have children. If you subscribe to any Lockean or Kantian order of moral conduct, having children violates a person’s right against aggression, injury and death. If you prefer a more plastic utilitarian calculus, even the slightest pinprick will trump the hedonic accounting that allows for the eternal painlessness of pre-existent nothingness. Even if life, always and everywhere brings with it sufferings and potential harms that are far from trivial, not least of which being the wholly avoidable harm of death. If you believe in a wrathful god, then procreation entails risks of literally inconceivable magnitude. So you take retreat in arguments from futility. Because there is simply no sustainable excuse. I’m not wrong.
Progeria is probably the best known of several "accelerated aging disorders." Occuring in approximately one in eight million people, it is a fatal genetic condition characterized by the radically early onset of a host of degenerative impairments, most of which are associated with the normal aging process. A clinical survey published in the journal, Age and Aging, summarizes the typical progression:
Affected individuals show several characteristics of accelerated aging, exhibiting severe growth retardation in infancy, associated baldness, loss of subcutaneous tissue, eyebrows and eyelashes. Skeletal abnormalities, including diffuse osteoporosis and resorption of distal phalanges are marked and sometimes predominate. Intelligence is unaffected and most deaths are due to the consequences of severe atherosclerosis, particularly myocardial infarction and heart failure, which occurs in the early teenage years.
I’m sure you’ve seen them. Their grotesquely elfin facial features, their bulbous, hairless, skin-sheathed skulls webbed with fragile constellations of pink-blue veins. These unfortunate boys and girls, so prematurely, so tragically, afflicted. Are shrunken and enfeebled, at what? Nine?
Ten years of age? The lucky ones die in their teens. Cardiac time bombs.
Progeria is rare. Exceptional. Anomalous. Not like you. Not like us. Life
flourishes, you tell yourself. You have — what? — maybe a good seven
decades on those decrepit little tots. That’s something. A normal life span, followed by genetically driven cell death. The cessation of vital signs in biological accord with the natural order of things. A coroner’s imprimatur certifies your demise was forgone. I can’t promise I won’t
remind you again.
Occuring in exactly one in one people, natural aging is a genetically rooted condition characterized by the progressive onset of a host
of degenerative impairments, culminating in death.
Here is a short passage from the recent New Yorker article, "The Way We Age Now":
Even as our bones and teeth soften, the rest of our body hardens. Blood
vessels, joints, the muscle and valves of the heart, and even the lungs
pick up substantial deposits of calcium and turn stiff. Under a
microscope, the vessels and soft tissues display the same form of
calcium that you find in bone. When you reach inside an elderly patient
during surgery, the aorta and other major vessels often feel crunchy
under your fingers. A recent study has found that loss of bone density
may be an even better predictor of death from atherosclerotic disease
than cholesterol levels. As we age, it’s as if the calcium flows out of
our skeletons and into our tissues.
Say there’s a fifty percent chance your child will be afflicted with Progeria? Do you roll the dice? I didn’t think so. A life cut so short, and so fraught with physical pain, to say nothing of frustrated aspirations. Is too tragic to contemplate. To knowingly take such a chance would almost certainly be a crime.
One of the more amusing responses to antinatalist arguments can be found in any number of online missives posted in response to David Benatar’s aforementioned treatise. Here is an excerpt from one such:
And I do wonder–hoping it is neither uncharitable nor scandalous to do
so, and not in fact wishing the author to carry through on the thought
experiment–why, if existence is really so awful, he does not now
proceed to off himself.
And here is another, more typically hostile, sleight of snarkery:
Of course, one is tempted to accuse this guy of inconsistency, since he
finished the book before he slashed his wrists. Or is he still alive?
Finally, we find this ponderously phrased example, of arguably more sophisticated provenance:
If the life is overall worth living, it isn’t wrong to start it. If it’s not worth living then suicide is rational. So there is, I think, still some way to go in countering the claim that if coming into existence is a serious harm so too, in general, is continuing in existence.
(In fairness, I should mention that David Benatar’s response to the above-linked review is online here.)
So the anti-antinatalist meme reduces to a schoolyard taunt: If you think life is so bad, then why don’t you just kill yourself already?
The obvious answer, already adumbrated, becomes clear when you consider the simplest and most compelling argument for the evil of procreation: that it condemns its victims to death. In addition to not being funny, suicide-baiting one-liners simply get it ass backwards. Death is the great problem that informs antinatalist ethics; the suicide ultimatum can only be sustained by overlooking the central problem of harm.
It is no surprise to find that bioethically flavored admonitions against questioning the presumed right to have children are intoned with the same paternalistic authority that typifies oft-expressed platitudes advising that we make nice with our reaper. Death, we are assured by self-imagined sages, is but the bittersweet conclusion of some sappy humanistic adventure. We are thus obliged not to complain or voice objection, not too loudly anyway, about the longer run. And the continuum of which
fair-minded foes of abortion are fond to remind us is thoughtlessly
eschewed if it is visited at all. Our natural plight as mortal beasts
is to be accepted and cherished in obedient humility. Eighty odd years
is a gift. Thirteen is a curse. The quality of life is graded on a
Fuck them, of course. There is nothing about death that is less than abominable. I am forever bewildered by the placating palaver wasted in efforts to quell this natural and rational horror. I wish I had never been born, therefore I don’t want to die. Not ever. There is no contradiction. I do not so much not fear death as, with ineffable clarity, I loathe it. The cessation of all that is, the perfect unknown absence, the chasm that devours every memory, every fleeting intellection, every redeeming fragment of meaning and love and lust and friendship and hunger and hopeless vitality, and reduces it all to the inconceivable cosmic ash of nothing, is my enemy. Fuck you mother, and fuck you father. For allowing me to dream yet die.
Necrophilic Humility and the Case Against Death
Out of pressing concern for liberal social order, Francis Fukuyama spins the pro-death sophistry from on high. Marginally acclaimed for his neo-Hegelian treatise, The End of History and the Last Man — a book which proclaimed that social progress had essentially reached its anomie-inducing synthesis with the emergence of enlightened democratic order — this top-flight public intellectual now pronounces that the most dangerous idea of our age is the very one that promises (or threatens, I suppose) to reanimate and redefine our collective teleology.
The ostensibly dangerous idea in Fukuyama’s sights is something called transhumanism, which for present and general purposes is signaled by the convergence of biotechnological and philosophical currents centered on the indefinite extension and enhancement of life and mental capacity through artificial means.
The irony is deadpan. And the argument, concisely stated in a 2004 Foreign Policy essay, is astonishingly stupid. Like any well-coached debate team upstart, Fukuyama starts off with a slyly tainted presentation of the "other side," writing:
Although the rapid advances in biotechnology often leave us vaguely uncomfortable,
the intellectual or moral threat they represent is not always easy to identify.
The human race, after all, is a pretty sorry mess, with our stubborn diseases,
physical limitations, and short lives. Throw in humanity’s jealousies, violence,
and constant anxieties, and the transhumanist project begins to look downright
reasonable. If it were technologically possible, why wouldn’t we want to transcend
our current species? The seeming reasonableness of the project, particularly
when considered in small increments, is part of its danger. Society is unlikely
to fall suddenly under the spell of the transhumanist worldview. But it is very
possible that we will nibble at biotechnology’s tempting offerings without realizing
that they come at a frightful moral cost.
A dire preface. But where precisely can a nimble-minded ethicist identify the "frightful moral cost" at the core of Fukuyama’s worry-fraught imagining? The answer is exposited in a paragraph-long thicket of specious speculation. "The first victim of transhumanism," Fukuyama warns, "might be equality."
The U.S. Declaration of
Independence says that “all men are created equal,” and the most serious political
fights in the history of the United States have been over who qualifies as fully human. Women and blacks did not make the cut in 1776 when Thomas Jefferson penned
the declaration. Slowly and painfully, advanced societies have realized that
simply being human entitles a person to political and legal equality. In effect,
we have drawn a red line around the human being and said that it is sacrosanct.
Underlying this idea of the equality of rights is the belief that we all possess
a human essence that dwarfs manifest differences in skin color, beauty, and
even intelligence. This essence, and the view that individuals therefore have
inherent value, is at the heart of political liberalism. But modifying that
essence is the core of the transhumanist project. If we start transforming ourselves
into something superior, what rights will these enhanced creatures claim, and
what rights will they possess when compared to those left behind? If some move
ahead, can anyone afford not to follow? These questions are troubling enough
within rich, developed societies. Add in the implications for citizens of the
world’s poorest countries—for whom biotechnology’s marvels likely will be out
of reach—and the threat to the idea of equality becomes even more menacing.
OK. Even if we are to accept the myopic parameters of Fukuyama’s non-sequitur logic, it is simply wrong to suggest that the denial of rights to women and blacks can be traced to some subtle misapprehension of our common human nature. If anything, the tenets of equalitarian liberalism derive from moral abstractions that demand expansive tolerance of human differences, which in itself may represent a triumph over our more primal nature as kin-selected apes. Assuming one could structure a plausible argument that the blessings of civilization "might be" withheld on presumably transhumanist-elitist grounds, the argument would be subject to the same libertarian critique that still applies to any traditionalist-elitist defense of social subordination. And it would fail.
Throughout his essay, Fukuyama frets obtusely over biotechnology and the enterprise of changing human nature, as if these were new things. Yet whether through culturally abetted evolutionary selection or technological innovation, the plain reality is that human beings have been engaged in artificial self-transformation from time immemorial. As Ronald Bailey writes in his skillful takedown of Fukuyamian pessimism:
Our ancestors had no wings; now we fly. Our ancient forebears could not
hear one another over 1,000 miles; now we phone. And our Stone Age
progenitors averaged 25 years of life; now we live 75. Thanks to our
knack for technological innovation, humanity has by far the largest
extended phenotype of all creatures on planet Earth. Nothing could be
more natural to human beings than striving to liberate ourselves from
Transhumanism may be the domain of dreamers, dorks, and dilettantes, but there is nothing dangerous in its constitution. Far from being a threat to to some falsely
imagined pristine ideal of human nature, the project of betterment
through science is the culminative expression what it is to be human. In practice and theory, the war against natural death is only rational response to our mortal — and moral — predicament.
Camus had a realistic handle on the crisis when he wrote:
If a mass death sentence defines the human condition, then rebellion, in one sense is its contemporary. At the same time that he rejects his mortality, the rebel refuses to recognize the power that compels him to live in this condition.
For the most commonplace duo of truly "menacing" ideas, consider first the pro-natalist presumption that allows people to wantonly create conscious life without even considering the violative consequences of their doing; then consider the corollary insistence that obliges us to accept and even embrace death as part of some higher natural order. I object to the procreation, inter alia, because I object to the inevitability of death.
So eat a fart, Francis. Transhumanism is as American as light beer.
At the safe end you have vaccination, antidepressants and a host of
designer drugs which alleviate mental and physical suffering. At the
sci-fi cusp there is the promise of harnessing the potential of
nanotechnology and genetic engineering to radically extend human life,
to reverse the effects of aging, and to enhance cognitive ability. And somewhere in the distant philosophical ether is an idea as
hopeless and quixotic and implacable as antinatalism; an idea that gives tangible prospect to Camus’ desperate call to rebellion. That idea, to
which I now turn in conclusion, is immortalism.
The fundamental idea is deftly presented in an eloquent 1969 polemic by a largely forgotten writer named Alan Harrington. In The Immortalist, Harrington is silent as to the ethics of procreation, but his insistent outline stands as a prescient and preemptive affront to the Houellebeqian pessimism informing Fukuyama’s intellectual reboubt. In address to another long-familiar strand of death-friendly counsel — proffered by Alan Watts — Harrington delineates the hopeless and hypocritical dialectic in appositely stark terms:
Such assurances have the ring of wisdom. They may even be momentarily consoling. Yet somehow the cool view of approaching oblivion seems a bit unreal. Death is nonsense, but it will not be experienced as a "nonsensical problem" by you or me, or by the philosopher himself who probably moans when he has a toothache like anybody else, and who, when his time comes, will in all likelihood struggle just as frantically to keep his head out of the black sack.
To Harrington, who died in 1997, the only project worthy of zealous ardor was the scientifically ennobled battle against our corporeal degeneration and demise. Unfettered by the transcendental temptation or the gravity of practiced social obeisance, the mission is clear: defeat death.
Appropriating the empty vocabulary of divine aspiration, Harrington corners the one true gospel with quixotic urgency:
The immortalist thesis is that the time has come for man to get rid of the intimidating gods in his own head. It is time for him to grow up and out of his cosmic inferiority complex (no more "dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return…"), bring his disguised desire into the open, and go after what he wants, the only state of being he will settle for, which is divinity.
We have circled the moon, harnessed nuclear energy, artificially reproduced DNA, and now have the biochemical means to control birth; why should death itself, the Last Enemy," be considered beyond conquest?
A new act of faith is required of us: the kind of faith that we might have had a few decades ago, and did not, when Dr. Goddard was bravely projecting his rockets into the atmosphere, and a band of futurists was insisting that not just in comic strips but in reality we could lift earth. This new faith we must have is that with the technology at our disposal in the near future death can be conquered. This faith must also weld salvation to t Medical Engineering.
We must drive away the gods of doubt and self-punishment. Our new faith must accept as gospel that salvation belongs to medical engineering and nothing else; that man’s fate depends first on the proper management of his technical proficiency; that we can only engineer our freedom from death, not pray for it; that our messiahs will be wearing white coats, not in asylums, but in chemical and biological laboratories.
Notwithstanding the dated references, Harrington’s case against death stands. And stands unheeded. Whether it is promoted in the interest of spiritual solace or in fealty to some false notion of politically bound humility, death acceptance is bunk worse than religion. Life is all there is. Embracing the nullity, from any angle, is in every sense, a grave failure. Pun intended.
And so. With the foregoing I have attempted to show that in its rational constitution the idea of antinatalism in no way tempts an ethical imperative to suicide. Genocide, maybe — but that’s another argument. The central point is that to the extent that antinatalism poses a serious problem for ethical philosophy, the logical force of the argument against procreation derives from a proper understanding of the horror — and harm — that is death. Antinatalism and Immortalism are united not merely by futiltiy, but by the same unshrinking moral logic.
No one should ever die, which is why. Therefore, goddamnit. No one should ever have children.
OK, I know I said this would be a four-part series, but the further I waded, the more I realized that Benatar’s views on abortion deserve a more careful response. So a fifth and — I promise — final installment must remain in the offing. Please tune back in from time to time.