Other People’s Feelings

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.

Memento mori.


11 thoughts on “Other People’s Feelings

  1. Chip (as sent to you earlier via email):
    I was thinking about this series of exchanges today at work, and I’ve come to the conclusion that we’ve entered a discursive phase where everything is trivialized, and even the thinnest attempt at humor trumps content. I’m proclaiming it to be the Age of Steve Colbert! Oh, he’s had his predecessors, to be sure…Bill Maher and Jon Stewart come to mind. But for me, Colbert epitomizes the attitude that absolutely nothing can be addressed straightforwardly; that the sneer of hipster, pseudointellectual cynicism, marked by obligatory mockery of anyone who would dare approach a subject with (gasp!) sincerity, automatically deserves his comeuppance-by-ridicule.
    Add this to the demon-letting that internet anonymity and distance provides, and you wind up with these sorts of ‘conversations’ (and I use the term loosely). Ah well…pearls before swine comes to mind. And I’m having less and less problems with feeling elitist these days. I’ve found mostly idiots in cyber-space, but the fact that I’ve met the likes of yourself and a few others here leave me feeling adequately compensated. You’re a straight shooter, Chip, and almost painfully sincere, but…you know what? THAT’S the kind of pain I can take.
    I know you didn’t come looking for this kind of shit, but godammit! Sometimes this shit needs to be said. I am SO FUCKING OVER the tired sarcasm of nitwits who choose not to think their way out of a paper sack! I am SICK of the trite sort of glibness that passes for argument these days. I think the way you were treated in there was reprehensible…though we both knew from the start that it would go that way. But you’re right! Your message still rang clear…another meme spore on the wind, though it was a foul wind. And that’s all we can hope for, I think. But it’s something.
    (and something else):
    Why even bring the subject up, if only to treat it with adolescent ridicule? There are lots of subjects waiting in the wings, to be superficially glossed over by those who live and die for the cheap quip. Pick one (or several).

  2. That’s probably the most relevant youtube link you’ve posted yet. Great on its own as well.
    I’ve found that once I’ve thought my way into an unpleasant belief, even if I wished I could undo the process and go back to my previous ideas, I’m not able to do so. Self-deception doesn’t work so well done consciously. So while an individual might hypothetically be obligated to believe a proposition in a certain situation (I’m ignoring what is necessary or sufficient for obligation) they might likewise be obligated not to proselytize that same proposition.

  3. Yes, most people are dismissive of disturbing ideas, and it’s much easier to respond with some form of dismissal than with an argument (I’ve been the object of the flavor of dismissal applied to Jim in that comment thread – so irritating). Arguments are difficult and don’t come naturally to humans. But – there is something to be said for people even coming into contact with the idea. Most people who comment might respond snarkily, but plenty of people (even some who comment snarkily) have the idea implanted in their brains.
    As to whether that is wrong, well, it was something I considered early on in regard to my project – it’s the particular concern of a project concerned with an unpleasant truth that will almost certainly never achieve even modest political success. Why propogate the truth if it’s just going to make people feel bad and not actually do anything? Actually, brother Jim is in an interesting position with this claim, since he thinks (hopefully I’m not mischaracterizing) that suffering is the only (negative) value, with truth being far secondary. I think truth has its own claim to value.
    Related to this – I’ve written on why antinatalism is not nihilism. It’s not. Placing value on anything – preventing suffering, say – is the opposite of nihilism, and philanthropic antinatalism certainly places value on preventing suffering.
    Only tangentially related – why is nihilism seen as a sexual signal (for men at least)? It doesn’t seem like a particularly evolutionarily adaptive trait to select for. I don’t deny its power – millions of examples from popular culture to point to – I just don’t understand its etiology.
    But perhaps it’s like sexual selection for big tail feathers.

  4. Speaking to individuals about such weighty subjects is futile in my experience.
    I have come fairly close to being stoned to death, repeatedly, for discussing anti-natalism within my own family.
    There is still a semi-serious movement within the family which seeks to have me committed to an assylum on the basis of my views.
    Arguing with the man on the street can only serve to embitter one.
    The only way I shall talk about anti-natalism in the future is either through parable or on a high-podium, behind bullet-proof class, broadcasting over many screens.

  5. For the record and for what it’s worth, I’m an anti-abortion Catholic; yet I can easily see the difference between the proposition of killing living people (born or unborn) and that of not conceiving potential people. And I can just as easily grasp the distinction between advocating that people not have kids and advocating that people “off” themselves.

  6. TGGP:
    Sounds like you’ve been hitting the Strauss again, my friend. I would agree that it’s virtually impossible to unthink an unpleasant conclusion once you’re in its grip, and absent some divine edict I’m not sure whether any positive or negative obligations should follow. The rudiments of decorum generally advise against proselytizing, as does simple respect. While I admit to having a Larry-David-like inability to drop a subject once it has infested my mindmeat, I don’t think my MO is to shout from the rooftops. I have too much uncertainty, for one thing. And I’m genuinely curious about other points of view. But with antinatalism, there’s so much reflexive misapprehension that even disinterested clarification is frequently met with hostility, or sarcasm edging on hostility. Just asking questions, even when they’re implicitly invited by an initial volley, can be read as a confrontational gesture. Like I told Jim, it’s water off my back, but I’m at once fascinated and irritated. And if an idea should be contained or suppressed because it has the potential to deplete spirits, then I might as well close up shop.
    For anyone whose interested, TGGP has a tangentially related thread running at his corner on the question of what constitutes a politically incorrect idea:
    Thanks, as always for the kind words, so pithily put. I try to take everything in good humor, but these eruptions of avatar-enabled obnoxiousness posturing as cutting wit…are seldom even funny. It’s one thing when a riposte leads to a serious — or sincere — point, quite another when it amounts to lazy intellectual subterfuge. And I have nothing against lazy intellectuals.
    Sister Y:
    At some level, I’m motivated by an almost quixotic opposition to noble lies, and I’ve always imagined that this tendency is rooted in a kind of loosely existential sense of life and impermanence (a sense which I now claim with increasing ambivalence). Jim Goad has a line. Something like “Life is too fleeting and unrewarding to have to endure with the onus of indignity.” I like that one. And although I would be at pains to justify my sentiment in other than circular terms, to me a naked insistence upon the inherent value of truth is ultimately about dignity.
    As to why nihilism is seen as a sexual signal, that’s one to study on, isn’t it. I suspect it’s a loose proxy for other qualities.
    Appreciate your remarks here. Funny that the distinction so readily grasped by a self-described “reationary Catholic” should prove bothersome to many outspoken atheists. But I guess that’s part of the fun.
    For those of you who don’t already know, Nine-Banded Books will be publishing Andy’s seismically provocative book, “Considering Suicide” in 2009. Check out his work at “The Last Ditch,” which is on the Hogroll. Details will follow.

  7. Savrola writes:
    “The only way I shall talk about anti-natalism in the future is either through parable or on a high-podium, behind bullet-proof glass, broadcasting over many screens.”
    Until Savrola seizes his rightful reign, I might as well let slip that some of those parables may find their way into yet another 9BB tome, tentatively titled “Down Where the Devil Don’t Go.” Still working out the details on that one.

  8. Well, I’m sorry that everyone feels you were treated badly, Chip. I personally took you seriously enough to keep at it with you. The clash of minds felt frustrating but still very stimulating….and therefore worth the effort.
    I think this describes my feeling about existence as well! Frustrating but stimulating, and worth the effort.
    I will always look forward to hearing what’s on your mind. Sister Y, too.

  9. Sister Wolf,
    I appreciate that, and I hope I don’t come off as though I feel I’ve been slighted. I don’t. Such rounds have played out in other forums, typically with roughly the same trajectory. And I could be anyone. It’s the idea that gets people hot under the collar.
    On those rare occasions when I’ve found myself recoiling from the first taste of an unfamiliar argument, I like to step back and think about it. That’s what I’m doing with Clio’s position, which somewhat echoes Lady Wilberforce’s fabled reaction to Darwin’s pet theory: β€œLet us hope that it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known!”
    I think the answer, first suggested by a commenter at Jim’s site, may be to write an antinatalist children’s book.

  10. When facts no longer suffice, weak positions are generally defended with some version of the “but, if we acknowledge THAT position, such-and-such horror will occur!” argument. It’s the same contention made concerning religion. Interestingly enough, it’s also made by otherwise hard determinist sorts who’d rather continue believing in ‘free will’, because the alternative, though consistent with every other way they see the world, somehow robs humanity of ‘dignity’. Even if, in the end, it really doesn’t change much.
    I find Clio’s position…hmmm…scarily amusing, in that she actually seems to be calling for authoritive stifling of speech (or, am I misinterpreting?); since, after all, encouraging people to forego procreation is ‘worse than Satanism!’. When Clio accuses antinatalists of “encouraging those who hold it to take no action, fight no battle, to improve life for themselves or others in any way.” he/she is being about as misrepresentative as a person can get (though I understand this is less a thoughtful statement than an emotion driven, knee-jerk reaction). I say, take your actions! Fight your battles! Improve your life as it suits you! Just don’t drag somebody else into your game, as the vehicle of your vicarious immortality fantasy. When you conceive a child, you open the door to risk (not your own, though only for your own reasons), and by the very act of conception, you consign your offspring to death. Always. It really can’t get any simpler than that.

  11. Like many others, I have discovered that discussing antinatalism with the masses is futile. Like you Chip, I welcome any sound argument that can convince me that procreation is indeed morally right, or at least not wrong (I am sure having children is a wonderful experience). So far, all I have been met with are advice on how to kill myself most effectively, or at occasional moments of drama, how to wipe out the human race while I’m at it and yada yada. Although I sometimes feel grateful for having been provided with so many possible way outs, the question still remains unadressed. How come people convinced of the right to procreate are so unwilling to think of and speak of the alternative? If I had kids, would I necessarily be offended by the suggestion of having had them having been a cause of serious harm and worth of moral blame? Would it come as a surprise to me that life is pain and that perhaps having not had my children would have avoided this pain? How naive are these people? Personally I feel that everyone deep inside feels the truth of the asymmetry, knows that procreating is a wrong but in a simple display of denial refuse to touch the issue. Antinatalism will never spread and never gain support among breeding cretins. Even in those rare cases in which the soundness of the arguments is recognised, the egostic urge to procreate will remain and be acted upon. That sick strain of vanity, wanting to ‘spread ones genes’, ‘nurture ones own’, will never die (meanwhile, many starving kids in Ethiopia with certainty will die, having never even been considered for adoption). I am disgusted by it all, yet can do nothing but observe this utterly pointless and neverending farse. Who can ask people to stop having children? It’s like asking people to stop driving cars for the sake of the environment; it’s just not going to happen. Meanwhile I find comfort in the, at least in my latest experience, growing number of blogs out there with an antinatalist objective? Or have I simply not stumbled upon them before?

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