Recently, I was lured into a tooth-gnashing comment thread appending a snarkily suicide-baiting post on "’The Don’t Have Children’ Movement." The post was written by one Sister Wolf, a bristly golden-hearted rant-artist whose blog, Godammit, I find entertaining.
Things got personal in hurry, and no one seemed much interested in discussing the possible merits of antinatalist ethics. This is par for the course, I’ve found. The subject brings out the worst in people, for obvious and telling reasons. After all, to argue, on moral grounds, that it is wrong to have children, is to tell parents and would-be parents that, in effect, they have visited harm upon their beloved offspring (or that they are contemplating such harm). I am sensitive to this point. It is, however, unavoidable. And while I am not above clarifying my motives in taking this unconscionably unpopular view, I don’t think my motives should matter in the least. If I am correct that forced life entails serious harm, then it rests upon those who persist in defending procreation to tell me why this harm is justified. If I am wrong in the first instance about forced life being harmful, someone should be able to show me just where and how I’ve gotten it wrong. But for the most part, people don’t even try. Instead of fashioning a cogent response, street level opponents of antinatalism more often implore me to kill myself. When I explain that this is a non-sequitur, the next step is to dismiss my stance as the product of cultivated miserablism, or depressive ideation, or some ostentatious, attention-seeking display of sexually signaled nihilism. Or something else, just as sad or arrogant.
It is true that some people profess to reject the asymmetry at the core of David Benatar’s antinatalist ethics, but of those who do, I have encountered only one — implicitly, RM Hare, in his famous argument against abortion — who is willing to defend the corollary implication that we have a moral obligation to the virtual infinity of potential people who are yet to be summoned into blessed and bedoomed existence. If the asymmetry is wrong for the reasons typically advanced, this obligation should follow as a simple matter of hedonic score-settling. As just compensation for vast quantities of pleasure withheld from those entitled pre-existent souls in the wings.
I don’t think the asymmetry is false, but I’m willing to be convinced that it is. I don’t think procreation is harmless, or that the harm it entails is trivial, or that such harm is typically justified by otherwise accepted modes of moral reasoning. Perhaps you can convince me that I am wrong about all of this. You will, however, need an argument.
There is an orthogonal anti-antinatalist argument that comes up from time to time that I do find interesting. It has a ticklish, Straussian flavor, and it hinges on the imputed despair-inducing consequences of the mere public expression of the case against people-making. In the Godammit thread, Alias Clio provides fair iteration of this delectable refuge, which sees antinatalist cogitation, regardless of its claim to soundness, as philosophical poison. Since the aims of antinatalist reasoning are presumed to be doomed by human nature, the story goes, all those who persist in it really do is make people feel bad. Out of some misguided or sinister claim to (or pretense of) philanthropy, we are merely — and ironically — adding to the overall share of human despair and suffering.
Of course, the same argument is often made against atheism. Without God, we’re told, people are left to flail in nihilistic ennui, or moral vertigo. Studies show that religious people are happier and more civic-minded. The same is probably true of pronatalists. Presented as an empirical question, there are too many chickens and eggs for my inferior brain to contemplate. I may mention that neither my disbelief in God nor my belief that procreation is wrong serves to embitter my experience of life, nor does either default detract from my enjoyment of life’s pleasures. But I can’t speak for others. Nor could I begin to weigh the hedonic scales that pit the foregone suffering of uncreated people against the possible misery of those who are unhappily persuaded against having children. I think the question is probably unanswerable. And in the end, I just don’t like noble lies, regardless of how they’re justified. It’s a matter of taste and sensibility. Shutting up for the greater good simply does not compute. I suppose I could be persuaded that I am wrong on this account as well, but you’ll have your work cut out for you.
Comments are open, if anyone cares. I won’t be checking in for a while.