Antinatalism and the Christina Ricci Button

A reader writes:

I’m a fellow antinatalist and have read a great
deal of the material on both your blog and others too. There are,
however, many things that concern me about this nascent movement. I
would like to give expression to those concerns below:

Firstly, there seems to be an assumption among antinatalists that
their arguments are irrefutable and that anybody who questions the
assumptions upon which such arguments are based should just be ignored.
Many antinatalist blogs which I have read incorporate a very high
degree of abstract material, and are liberally strewn with quotations
from philosophers, writers and thinkers, both past and present. Showing
that you have a wide-ranging knowledge of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Kant,
Aristotle and Plato is not of any great help to anyone. I view such
demonstrations of supposed intellectual prowess as shallow and
unconstructive. There is, sadly, very little by way of practical
guidance for the "common man" and very little understanding of
objections which a "normal" 21st century heterosexual individual may raise to the issue of remaining childless.
 
Playing devil’s advocate, for example, imagine I say the following
(and incidentally, almost none of what follows is self-description):
I’m a 35 year old heterosexual man, of average intelligence, an
atheist, living in a developed country. I’ve got a lovely wife, and we
find each other attractive on all levels, physically, intellectually,
etc. I have a great job, at which I meet loads of great people. I have
many hobbies which I enjoy, a vibrant social life, and 2 kids. They are
both at school, and great fun to be with. They, too, are healthy, happy
and, in general, enjoying life. We’re going to have a few more
children. I don’t see why we shouldn’t, just because there’s a risk
that they may suffer. Yeah, OK, there’s a small (less than 10% chance)
that they may suffer badly, but a far greater chance that most of their
lives will be spent in happiness. We will do our best to ensure that
they come to no (non-trivial) harm. On the off-chance that something
serious does happen to them, well, as you say, death will stop them
suffering in the end. Dealing with certain misfortunes is not
"suffering" anyway, and neither is being disabled (necessarily).
Certain experiences will only serve to mould my children’s character
and to make them self-reliant, decent citizens. I understand that if we
all stopped reproducing, all suffering would end with the present
generation (at least until an evolutionary accident throws up something
like us again), but that’s just boring, life’s too much fun to be
missed! And yes, I am gambling with someone else’s life – I cannot deny
that – but the dice are loaded in my favour, and theirs too. With
regard to death, yeah, I accept that I’ve got to die, as does every
other human being on the planet, but I don’t bother to think about it –
just enjoy life now, when death happens, it happens. There’s no need to
take it so seriously!
 
Convince this hypothetical human being not to have any more
children, in simple language that he will understand. Implying that he
is either:
 
a) stupid, and/or
b) selfish and/or
c) immoral
 
is clearly not going to do the job, and neither is trying to browbeat him through complex abstraction.
 
Next, there seems to be an assumption on many blogs that it is a
pre-requisite to join the atheist fold and give up religion in order to
espouse the cause of antinatalism. I see this as a non-sequitur – why
does belief in God preclude one from being an antinatalist?

 
I don’t see antinatalism as fulfulling any purpose whatsoever if
it seeks to be an exclusive members only club at the "cerebral edges of
blogland" (quote from antinatism.net),
populated by pseudo-intellectuals who use it as a marketing tool and to
preach to the "very much already converted". Antinatalists should make
available succinctly presented information to the general public
showing clearly the advantages of their approach and using reason and
logic to drive home the central tenets of the doctrine. Simply stating
a million times: "Stop having kids because that’s the only way humanity
can avoid suffering – are you too stupid to see that" is not going to
convert even 1 person that’s not already converted (independently).
Below is my response, edited from correspondence.

To begin, I’m not much for movements. Nor have I ever sought to fulfill a purpose, at least not in the sense that might matter. This is not some left-handed stab at humility. Truth is, I’m lazy, selfish, and prone to drift. 

For me, the proposition that no one should have children follows
from taking seriously any number of ethical precepts that are
uncontroversial in other contexts. Regardless of whether people are schooled in the rudiments of
philosophy (and I’m a dilettante at best), I find that most people — including, I suppose, the "common man" — subscribe to
some version of the harm principle, whether it takes the form of "rights" or the Golden Rule or basic decency. Most people believe consent is valuable, unless there is a good reason to trump it. And most people will try like hell to avoid death and
misfortune (for themselves and for those they love) when choices are
available. These are the sentiments to which I mean to appeal, even when my tone is perhaps a mite strident. Or pretentious, as I am told. I mean
to say, simply, that where procreation is at issue, a choice is
available, and that caution alone begs that the easily caricatured "other side" be given due consideration, or at least a hearing. For reasons that people already understand. 

While I
personally find David Benatar’s expression of the pleasure/pain asymmetry to be compelling on a number of
levels, I recognize that his formulation proceeds after certain premises and
intuitions that not everyone will share. It would be foolish to believe
I could change hearts and minds. Yet experience suggests that there are at least a few people  (perhaps those already harboring
inchoate doubts and misgivings about this long gathered parade of life) who receive the argument like a flash. For such people, I believe that simply seeing the position
articulated can matter. It mattered for me. Without treading into sanctimony, I believe it
can save lives.

there seems to be an assumption among antinatalists that
their arguments are irrefutable and that anybody who questions the
assumptions upon which such arguments are based should just be ignored.

I
don’t think my arguments — i.e., the arguments I embrace — are by any means irrefutable. In fact, I think the position I’ve triangulated is rather easily refuted from the trench of a certain brand of amoral
egoism — the "tough shit" rejoinder, as it were. That one cuts straight
to the core of every moral assumption or premise to which I appeal, and leaves me with nothing to say. Of course, very few people adopt such a position.

The trouble,
I find, is that people seldom bother to question the underlying
assumptions of the various forms of philanthropic antinatalism with
which I have come to be marginally associated. On those occasions when they do,  interlocutors tend to recoil from the logical implications. I’ve seen it play out too many times.

Take the most conspicuous pillar —
that of the pain/pleasure asymmetry formulated by David Benatar. And just to keep things clean, let’s
assume that by "pain" we are talking only about unrewarded and nontrivial pain or
suffering (of which I contend there is plenty in every life). As you are aware, the core assumption of the second
half of the asymmetry distills to the view that where there is no
person, the absence of pleasure is neutral whereas the absence of
(unrewarded) pain is still good. Some critics question this
assumption, either by a.) arguing that the calculus is rendered
meaningless by the problem of non-identity, i.e., that non-existent beings are morally irrelevant, or b.) by arguing that the
asymmetry is mistaken; to wit, that the absence of pleasure is bad even
when no one is deprived by this absence.

The first objection is, I believe, obtuse
to the role of human agency in the act of procreation. Once you gut out the nuances, this becomes clearer. Take the case of parents who have a
child knowing that there is a 100% chance that their child will be born with
a debilitating illness, or the case of a pregnant woman who ingests thalidomide for kicks. When the stakes are sufficiently stark, the intuitive appeal of  non-identity whithers. It makes little
sense to argue that the non-identity of the uncreated person negates
parental agency in those cases where having a child will certainly result in otherwise avoidable
and profound suffering. And if non-identity fails in such instances, well, the problem of
risk in less delineative contexts remains to be confronted. We move past non-identity, to a continuum. Or a gambit. And the asymmetry yawns back.

For those who argue
that the asymmetry is mistaken, i.e., that the pre-existent are
actually deprived of good by not being brought into existence, there
are serious implications that almost no one seems willing to indulge,
much less embrace. For example, if non-existent beings are subject to
deprivation, then moral agents would seem to have a duty to at least try to fulfill
their presumptive claims to such unrealized pleasure — most obviously by having as many
children as possible. While this conclusion follows neatly from a
denial of the asymmetry, thus articulated, I have encountered very few critics who seem
willing to play it as it lays. In short, I have no problem with people questioning
antinatalist assumptions or premises (and this would go for other assumptions/premises
regarding harm and consent); I just don’t think that’s where the buck
stops. As long as you’re resigned to play the moral game, you’re left to wrestle with problems. You have some heavy lifting to do.
Perhaps there are couunter-arguments which would yet convince me, but I have
yet to hear them voiced. And in the absence of a compelling refutation,
my view is that prudence — and the presumption of harm — should dictate.

Many antinatalist blogs which I have read incorporate a
very high degree of abstract material, and are liberally strewn with
quotations from philosophers, writers and thinkers, both past and
present. Showing that you have a wide-ranging knowledge of Nietzsche,
Heidegger, Kant, Aristotle and Plato is not of any great help to
anyone. I view such demonstrations of supposed intellectual prowess as
shallow and unconstructive. There is, sadly, very little by way of
practical guidance for the "common man" and very little understanding
of objections which a "normal" 21st century heterosexual individual may raise to the issue of remaining childless.

I
don’t know which antinatalist forums you are referring to, but I would
recommend taking a stroll through Jim Crawford’s "Antinatalism:  The
Ultimate Taboo
" or  the "Don’t Have Kids" site. Jim cuts things to the meat and
seems positively impatient with the strictures of high end cerebration.
Even Sister Y’s The View from Hell, while it is  informed by a variety
of normative ideas and thought experiments, is written in a clear and engaging style
that  would scarcely seem to alienate a reasonably intelligent reader.

Furthermore, I don’t see many currents of antinatalist
reasoning banking off  the philosophers you mention. The forebears, such
as they are, are more neatly grounded in analytical moral philosophy, legal
ethics, contract theory, and of course, in various schools of utilitarian thought. And while I’m not sure what you would make of
Schopenhauer, he has always struck me as a refreshingly worldly and
readable old snot. I imagine that even a "normal" 21st century
heterosexual guy might find something of value in his the great pessimist’s aphoristic brio.

Finally, although it is  aimed at a philosophically literate audience, I would add that Benatar’s book, Better Never to Have Been, is crisp and cogent and consistently resistant to the imputed obscurantism of Continental philosophy. Perhaps such efforts are doomed to be ignored by the unwashed multitudes, but then most people don’t read anything. I can’t change this.

Playing devil’s advocate, for example, imagine I say the
following (and incidentally, almost none of what follows is
self-description): I’m a 35 year old heterosexual man, of average
intelligence, an atheist, living in a developed country. I’ve got a
lovely wife, and we find each other attractive on all levels,
physically, intellectually, etc. I have a great job, at which I meet
loads of great people. I have many hobbies which I enjoy, a vibrant
social life, and 2 kids. They are both at school, and great fun to be
with. They, too, are healthy, happy and, in general, enjoying life.
We’re going to have a few more children. I don’t see why we shouldn’t,
just because there’s a risk that they may suffer. Yeah, OK, there’s a
small (less than 10% chance) that they may suffer badly, but a far
greater chance that most of their lives will be spent in happiness. We
will do our best to ensure that they come to no (non-trivial) harm. On
the off-chance that something serious does happen to them, well, as you
say, death will stop them suffering in the end. Dealing with certain
misfortunes is not "suffering" anyway, and neither is being disabled
(necessarily). Certain experiences will only serve to mould my
children’s character and to make them self-reliant, decent citizens. I
understand that if we all stopped reproducing, all suffering would end
with the present generation (at least until an evolutionary accident
throws up something like us again), but that’s just boring, life’s too
much fun to be missed! And yes, I am gambling with someone else’s life
– I cannot deny that – but the dice are loaded in my favour, and theirs
too. With regard to death, yeah, I accept that I’ve got to die, as does
every other human being on the planet, but I don’t bother to think
about it – just enjoy life now, when death happens, it happens. There’s
no need to take it so seriously!

I’m not sure I ever said "death will stop them suffering in the end." Or anything of the kind. In most circumstances, I consider death to be a grave harm — both
for the victim whose life options are cut short, and for his or her
friends and loved ones, who may suffer greatly from grief. But, taking your
narrative at face value, I can’t shake the suspicion that your
hypothetical actor suffers from severe Pollyannaism. In world-historic
or terms — or to up the ante, in sub specie aeternitas terms — the risks
that your actor contemplates, for others, are demonstrably more serious than his
optimism allows.

Step in your time machine and set the controls for a random point in history. I promise you
will find the average person living under dire conditions. Starving. Or subject to severe climate-borne deprivation. Disease and hardship and warfare and oppression will be common. And even today the risk that an individual
life will be fraught with misfortune is far from trivial. Forget for the moment that your would-be procreator has it well. Life changes in an instant, as Joan Didion reminds us. The
future is always uncertain, and the cavalier rationalizations offered
by your Average-Joe falsely deny or minimize this uncertainty. This man’s
child may be conscripted into an unjust war. His child may be raped.
His child may suffer from excruciating jealousy, or depression, or loneliness. Or — perish the thought — his child may grow up to be an antinatalist and rue his very existence. That such prospects remotely occur to your hypothetical actor says more about his lack of imagination than it says about the actual stakes of the game he would play with a life not his own.

And as
to the business of "gambling with someone else’s life," I would be
interested to know if your guy would retain his air of rose-tinted nonchalance if the
life at issue had already begun. To avoid undue abstraction, let’s say the risk centers not on the life of his potential offspring, but on the life of Christina Ricci.
Here’s a button. Push it, and you activate an added 10% chance that Ms.
Ricci will be afflicted with cancer, or that she will be tortured, or severely burned.
Don’t push the button, and Christina’s life will go on as it would have, with no
additional risk of any of these misfortunes. Assuming your guy doesn’t have the opportunity to inform Ms. Ricci of the existence of this button and to solicit her views on the option before him alone, do you think he might hazard a guess as to what she might say? How about: NO!

Of course there’s always the chance that she would dig the prospect, for whatever idiosyncratic reason we might imagine. Perhaps she is a  masochist. But when you couple the absence of  consent with the otherwise avoidable possibility of serious harm, caution and decency are sufficient to advise against the gamble.  "Sure, you’re taking a risk." Trouble is, you haven’t begun to justify it.

Convince this hypothetical human being not to have
any more children, in simple language that he will understand. Implying
that he is either:
 
a) stupid, and/or
b) selfish and/or
c) immoral
 
is clearly not going to do the job, and neither is trying to browbeat him through complex abstraction.
I
don’t mean to browbeat anyone. If someone is determined to have children and
that person is predisposed to dismiss or ignore antinatalist arguments,
there is absolutely nothing I can say or do to change their mind. But again, there are
plenty of people who begin with doubts. And for those people — the ones on
the fence, so to speak — simply hearing the "other side" articulated
can be enough.

It would be absurd to suggest that procreators are typically stupid. People are evolved
to propagate their genes, and to invent clever rationalizations when things go wrong.
I do think that, barring an ethical catastrophe involving twins and
blood types or something, having children is inherently selfish. If there’s
is a  commonplace justification for procreation that isn’t selfish, I have yet to encounter it. If pointing this out ruffles people, I can’t say that I care.

As to morality, it depends on your default premises. I’ve already said
that the amoralist is exempt from such appeals, but if you don’t want to up the
negative odds for Christina Ricci, then I believe you have some
explaining to do.And while I hope I am not guilty of — and don’t think I am capable of —
much in the way of "complex abstraction," appeals to moral agency and
basic foundational ethical premises (regarding, say, the nature of selfishness) are
simply unavoidable. Indeed, to the extent that people are rationally governed
by moral concerns, they invite as much. People can turn a blind eye to any argument, but burying one’s head doesn’t change a thing.

Finally, to play by your rules as I understand them, I suppose I —
or some other "movement"-oriented  antinatalist — might appeal to your potential
procreator’s sense of rational self-interest. Having kids — or, in this case, more
kids — is costly. Studies show that having children doesn’t typically increase
happiness for parents (in fact, it tends to decrease happiness), and
the prosaic obligations that attach to children serve as
impediments to other pleasurable endeavors and goals, such as reading or
recreation or sex tourism. The fact that there are articulable moral reasons to
consider refraining from additional childbearing could be viewed as
ancillary to such self-interested appeals.

But again, if your guy is determined there is nothing I can say to
convince him. If I could, I would offer him money to be sterilized.
As Sister Y has observed, "humans have a notoriously high discount rate."

Next, there seems to be an assumption on many blogs that
it is a pre-requisite to join the atheist fold and give up religion in
order to espouse the cause of antinatalism. I see this as a
non-sequitur – why does belief in God preclude one from being an
antinatalist?

I
can’t speak for others, but if I have ever said anything to suggest
that atheism is a prerequisite for antinatalism, you’ll have to point
it out to me. I’ll gladly retract it, because this is not my view. To the
contrary, my essay on antinatalism and the problem of "belief in
belief" sought to take very seriously the stakes contemplated by Andrea
Yates when she drowned her children to rescue them from the possibility
of eternal damnation. Given the assumptions of her theology, I believe
her actions were defensible, if not imperative. And I believe the stakes are generally far more stark for believers — of whatever faith or denomination — whose
belief includes the possibility of hellfire, i.e., eternal suffering. I can’t begin wrap my mind around such a concept. If you believe it, you have a special burden.

While I admit to being an incorrigible atheist, one of the most
articulate procreation skeptics I have yet encountered happens to be a Christian.  I agree with you that it’s a non-sequitur.  I would add,
echoing David Benatar’s argument in the March 2008 issue of Think
magazine (which is very similar to Jim Crawford’s argument here), that secularists are often just as blinded by optimistic
bias (delusion A) as theists are by supernatural solace (delusion B). It’s worth remembering that the Shakers
ran a more successful antinatalist project than any freethinking group
I could name.

Incidentally, if you want to see what a sincere antinatalist Christian sounds like, check out Dan’s two cents in the Mere Comments blog. I have absolutely no problem with theistic antinatalism.

You conclude:

I don’t see antinatalism as fulfulling any purpose
whatsoever if it seeks to be an exclusive members only club at the
"cerebral edges of blogland" (quote from antinatism.net),
populated by pseudo-intellectuals who use it as a marketing tool and to
preach to the "very much already converted". Antinatalists should make
available succinctly presented information to the general public
showing clearly the advantages of their approach and using reason and
logic to drive home the central tenets of the doctrine. Simply stating
a million times: "Stop having kids because that’s the only way humanity
can avoid suffering – are you too stupid to see that" is not going to
convert even 1 person that’s not already converted (independently).

Honestly,
I’m not that fucking ambitious. I’m not really seeking converts, either.
Antinatalism is an idea that fascinates me, partly because I believe it
makes sense and partly because it proceeds from ethical premises that
most people find compelling in other contexts. I also think that life is far shittier than most people dare admit. Happiness is a stochastic phenomenon, complicated all the more by innate and adaptive dishonesty. Humans are natural self-deceivers.  I don’t trust them. 

I try to present my
arguments, derivative as they are, in a way that is consistent with my
style and sensibility. Most people will dismiss what I am saying, I am aware. This is fine with
me. But a few people may find themselves thinking further, which is the best I should hope for. I happen to think that the antinatalist edges of the web
— at least those of a philanthropic bent — are more nuanced than you
imply, but there’s always room for more argument. If you have a more PR-savvy approach, I would encourage
you to take the reigns. I’ll be the first to notice.

I believe that’s all I’m going to say about this subject for a while. The L.A. Rollins book is finally at the printer, and I have other projects on the burner.

Memento mori.

13 thoughts on “Antinatalism and the Christina Ricci Button

  1. Chip:
    I’m not so sure what your reader is really looking for. Speaking for myself, I simply try to approach the subject from as many angles as my wee brain can configure. And I certainly appreciate ANY fresh approaches I find on the net, be they high, middle, or lowbrow. I can’t say I really buy this intelligentsia/common man dichotomy that’s being painted here; everybody seems to be speaking in the language they’re used to, and different readers will certainly be persuaded (or, more likely, un-persuaded) by whatever particular voices they happen to resonate with. As for this:
    “Convince this hypothetical human being not to have any more children, in simple language that he will understand. Implying that he is either:
    a) stupid, and/or
    b) selfish and/or
    c) immoral
    is clearly not going to do the job, and neither is trying to browbeat him through complex abstraction.”
    Well, I have two children whom I love very much, but nowadays I firmly believe I was stupid, selfish, and immoral for taking part in their creation. I was one of those people who had doubts, but didn’t act on them for any number of reasons, some of which any interested reader can ferret out in my own blog posts. I wish to god I’d had some intellectual support in those days…I might at least have approached the subject with a little more good sense.
    Also, the reader seems at odds both with passionate stridency, AND the intellectual rigor of the few philosophers who at least took the time to think through these matters, and offer their musings to the general public through their various writings. And while any of us might chip a nail against the hard nuts of Kantian, Hegelian, or Schopenhauerian (or, what have you) discourse, I certainly can’t see anything wrong with quoting the occasional, appropriate passage. I mean, some of it’s even RELEVANT, and shit!
    “Antinatalists should make available succinctly presented information to the general public showing clearly the advantages of their approach and using reason and logic to drive home the central tenets of the doctrine. Simply stating a million times: “Stop having kids because that’s the only way humanity can avoid suffering – are you too stupid to see that” is not going to convert even 1 person that’s not already converted (independently).”
    Funny, because ‘succinctly presented information…using reason and logic to drive home the central tenets of the doctrine’ (along with germane discourse, naturally), is exactly what the prevalent antinatalist ‘agenda’ (for lack of a better word) seems to be about; at least, from what I’ve been reading. Perhaps it’s a bit repetitious- understandable, since the core of the message is pretty damned simple. But honestly, I just don’t see that the reader’s impeachment holds any water. However, if all this boils down to an appeal to ‘try harder!’–um…okay.
    Yours truly,
    jim (aka pseudo-intellectual short order cook…you want fries with that?)

  2. “We’re going to have a few more children. I don’t see why we shouldn’t, just because there’s a risk that they may suffer. Yeah, OK, there’s a small (less than 10% chance) that they may suffer badly, but a far greater chance that most of their lives will be spent in happiness. We will do our best to ensure that they come to no (non-trivial) harm.”
    I don’t take as extreme a position as Chip or Jim, in the sense that I don’t think this is necessarily a bad choice for the man’s potential children (ignoring the possibility of eternal torture in hell, which I think is quite important). I would simply point out that, for most people in wealthy nations, having children is simply not a cost-effective way of bringing about maximum happiness. (As Chip said, “Having kids — or, in this case, more kids — is costly.”) There are a number of interventions in the Third world that can save lives for ~$1,000 each. With the money it takes to pay for one child’s needs in the US, you could probably fund a good portion of a school in Africa.

  3. Jim,
    I should point out that the reader wrote back to emphasize that he wasn’t singling out THH, but was referring to more general tendencies of the antinatalist movement. I’m still not sure what he’s talking about. I have some familiarity with the folks who are shouting from the rooftops about this issue, and I don’t observe many instances of obscurantism or self-congratulation.
    The reader also claimed that the asymmetry is defeated by the possibility of Utopia, a position I find dubious for reasons I hope to articulate at some point.

  4. You’re a wordy chap, Chip. So many syllables! Here’s my take on the deal, as clear as I can make it:
    1. Existence has its ups and downs.
    2. Nonexistence doesn’t have any ups and downs.
    3. If you don’t exist, you don’t have to cope with the downs.
    4. If you don’t exist, you don’t miss the ups (missing the ups is a down, anyway).
    5. Nonexistence is bliss.
    And I don’t think life has any inherent ups. Only inherent downs. You’re constantly pulled down by hunger, thirst, boredom, gravity… Food relieves hunger, water relieves thirst, goals (or whatever) relieve boredom, and antigravity relieves gravity, and these things are therefore Good. But not of themselves.
    This doesn’t mean I’m a depressed basement-dwelling loser, it’s just how I think about it rationally. Self-deception works good enough to cope, but it’s only good because a bad makes it necessary.

  5. Chip. If life hadn’t been so shit, I might have had the fortune of being you or at least having your intellectual acuity.
    “Convince this hypothetical human being not to have any more children, in simple language that he will understand. Implying that he is either:
    a) stupid, and/or
    b) selfish and/or
    c) immoral
    is clearly not going to do the job, and neither is trying to browbeat him through complex abstraction.”
    Laying out the antinatalist argument for this person will I believe of necessity imply that he is (b) and (c) – isn’t that the very core of the antinatalist view? True, presenting this to him will probably not do the job because in most cases he will also in fact be (a). That most human beings (including myself, particularly in posting this comment) most of the time act in ways suggesting they are (a) is a sufficient condition for (b) and (c). Indeed, it must all end. Fuck.

  6. Being the said “reader” who wrote to Chip, I think some of you have misunderstood the position I set out when first writing to Chip, and the metaphors used. I think my second email to Chip, his response to that, and the missing blog excerpt, should serve to coalesce the various strands into a coherent whole.
    My second email to Chip:
    Hi Chip,
    Many thanks for replying. This email will be brief, as your arguments require careful consideration and not a knee-jerk response, but a quick summary of what I feel. Firstly, I’d like to say that the “you” I used in my email was a generic “you” and was intended to cover criticism of the entire antinatalist movement as I see it – not specifically targeted to any particular individual’s Weltanschauung. Some interesting points raised in your email; I have come to the conclusion that we subscribe to slightly different flavours of philanthropic antinatalism. You see, your arguments (and the asymmetry of Benatar) fall down on one crucial point – the possible existence of a utopia (yes, I’ve phrased that very carefully!). Your main error, I contend, is that you (implicitly) admit to the possibility that should a series of unimaginable (and highly improbable) events occur, throwing all of current human thought on its head, as it were, and leading perhaps to a world of deathlessness, infinite self-generating resources and neurologically governed responses to external phenomena very far removed from our own, there would then be an immediate reductio ad absurdum with the initial assumptions made – the analogy in physics would be that you use a frame of reference to determine one set of (axiomatically obtained) results, which do not hold for an observer in a different frame of reference. That is not very elegantly put, but I’m sure you see what I’m getting at.
    The advantage of neutrality is that it doesn’t have an “opposite”. 0 is 0, or 1-1, or 2-2, etc. To put it simply and in concrete terms, I believe that there can (provably) never be a state in which any living being is permanently “happy”. Such a state would be a living “death” in itself; it is not, you will note, that the concept “death in itself” is a serious harm, but that “life in itself” is a serious harm. A subtle, but necessary distinction, which holds everything together. You will also see that this covers any possible future scenario for evolution, including highly farfetched science fictional theses of brains in jelly.
    Back to the here and now, you say that you’re trying to save lives, and that this is not being grandiose. I say to that,…, ABSOLUTELY!! I would honestly regard my life has having achieved something if I (via enlightened altruism and through non-violent means) convince ANYONE to not have kids. In addition, what’s wrong with being a “movement sort of person”? Spread the good word, I say, all those unborn chappies will thank us for it 🙂 You say you’re not ambitious? Well, you should be!! Design antinatalism leaflets and post it to all the addresses in your area. Address all of them (a la Stendhal) “To the happy few” – folks like exclusivity. Talk to everyone you know about it, the postman, the hairdresser, the supermarket sales-people, whoever. What’s worse: being thought of as Billy Graham on steroids, or having yet another (avoidable) nightmarish existence foisted on some poor fellow? Hell, if that’s what it takes, bribe Oprah to get your antinatalism book on the book club roster! Show some proselytizing zeal, Chip!
    Chip’s response:
    In his updated edition of Lucifer’s Lexicon (which is part of an anthology I’m publishing), L.A. Rollins defines Utopia as “the best of all impossible worlds.” It may work as a hypothetical trump, but it feels too much like a magic number. As with the concept of heaven, I’m left with questions. Do some foods still taste better than others (assuming we still eat)? Do your pets still die? Do animals exist at all? And if they do, do they suffer? Do the humans (or post humans) care about the suffering of lower life forms? Is it possible to help the suffering lower life forms, or to prevent newly sentient life from emerging — without caring? Will it be possible to create lab universes, and if so, will Utopian demigods be able to ensure that those worlds will not contain suffering? Does anything even change? Do people anticipate anything? Is the subjective experience of better and worse abolished? Is it possible for a citizen of earthly paradise to regret their life — or to regret anything? And if so… Well, you know.
    I do understand. The way it’s rigged, I suppose the answer would be that such problems are naught, by circular reference to the operative term. If I don’t understand it, it’s because I’m limited by myopia. I just can’t bring myself to buy it as a serious explosion of the asymmetry. Physical asymmetry and disequilibrium argue strongly against the conceptual possibility of guaranteed sustainable perfection. The presence of qualitative metrics seems to follow from the mere existence of external forces.
    Chalk it up to a lack of imagination, maybe.
    You seem to anticipate something like this in your second paragraph, but I’m feeling a bit dense this evening. Need to mull it over. Promise to.
    I can’t really change my disposition. But I do care. And I think the antinatalist book we’re putting together may be of interest — that it may edge closer to the sort of PR breakthrough that you have in mind. The governing idea is to corner the case against people-making in a number of different ways, but with a consistent emphasis on practical choices. I want it to be the sort of book that people discover. I want it to be clear and engaging and emphatic and empathic, and human. I want it to matter. Foolish me. We’ll see.
    ***End of email correspondence***
    My blog excerpt (edited out of Chip’s post as he said that he had nothing to argue with there – but I believe serves as an example of what constitutes “non-strident, cogent presentation of a view, supported by reason and logic without imposition of externalities or ad hominem references”:
    Religion and God. The Bible. According to the Old Testament, Genesis, God tells Man to procreate, fill the Earth and dominate all other forms of life. Yes, and who wrote the Old Testament? Men, or a combination thereof, sometime between the 15th and 2nd centuries BC. God did not write any part of the Bible, either the Old or New Testaments. God exists (for believers) but He did not create the world we live in today and all the creatures living on it in 6 days, in strict sequential order as described in Genesis. Life evolved slowly from the minutest unicellular organisms to the complex creatures that inhabit the Earth today, including Homo sapiens. There was a lot more diversity in life-forms than is described in the story of Creation given by the authors of the Bible (trillions of unicellular organisms, amoebae, bacteria, viruses, etc.). There have also been many sudden extinctions in the past, at fairly well-defined boundaries (e.g. the Permian-Triassic extinction event, the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event, etc.). So, the authors of the Bible were circumscribed by being human and therefore only able to express God’s actions in human language and in terms of contemporary human experience, and not having the information at their disposal that we currently have and take for granted. Thus, anything that is written in the Bible, which is a historical document, has to be read strictly in the context of human understanding during that period of history. So, when in Genesis it is advised that humans should be fertile and conquer the Earth, this represents the de facto perception of reality of those who authored the book. They certainly weren’t around when God (putatively) did the things they ascribed to Him – and (by definition) God existed independently of the dimension of time, whereas human beings certainly do not.
    “For God so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” John 3:16. You can believe in, and love, God, which is the main premise for all religions, and still aspire to end physical/mental/other suffering on Earth. God relates to the spiritual dimension – not the material one, His existence (as mentioned before) is not dependent in any way on your actions on Earth, he exists independently of all living creatures, independently of any emotions/actions that you ascribe to Him, independently of the 4 dimensions. You are not harming God in any way whatsoever by not procreating. You are simply (in a truly unselfish manner) ensuring that the coordinates of temporal and worldly experience, equating to a Sisyphean form of indefinite suffering, are erased for the maximum number in as short a time as possible.

  7. Reader,
    Thanks for diving in. For the record, the main reason I didn’t include your blog excerpt in my post (my tacit lack of disagreement being ancillary) was that I thought it best to preserve your anonymity, and I didn’t want to throw out any Google bait. Having said that, I still can’t find your site and would be happy to add a link to the Hogroll if you care to point me to it.

  8. Hi there. The “possible existence of a utopia” doesn’t affect the asymmetry at all. If we define a utopia to be a situation in which lives are led with no pain, and only pleasure, reproduction under the asymmetry becomes at most morally neutral (you don’t do someone a favor by bringing him into existence, even a perfect existence – the existence merely doesn’t harm him if it’s perfectly free of all possible pain). Under current and realistically foreseeable conditions, reproduction is, of course, morally wrong.
    I don’t see how some chance of future utopia should affect our calculations at all. All the morally wrong reproduction between now and then are outweighed by exactly nothing – the most we can hope for – ever – is morally neutral reproduction.

  9. To Sister Y:
    Hi,
    Part of my original sentence was:
    “…possibility that should a series of unimaginable (and highly improbable) events occur, throwing all of current human thought on its head, as it were, and leading perhaps to a world of deathlessness, infinite self-generating resources and neurologically governed responses to external phenomena very far removed from our own…”
    Now, your definition of a utopia itself relies upon perceptions of certain external phenomena being defined in terms of contemporary human experience. “Under current and realistically foreseeable conditions”, I absolutely agree with you. Trouble is, I can’t agree with ANY prescriptive definition of Utopia (hence my choosing this particular word), UNLESS someone finds a way to stop time and/or travel backwards in time,which may well happen,of course:) So, it clearly isn’t the case that under all possible scenarios of evolution (which it is impossible to visualise), it is only morally neutral to give rise to new beings (as all it takes is an (admittedly ridiculous and absurd) artificial construction to bring about the change from neutral to positive).

  10. I still don’t see how utopia, or the possibility for those brought into existence leading the most pain-free, spectacularly interesting, deathless lives imaginable (or even better), would render reproduction anything but neutral, given the asymmetry. This is true even given wild, heretofore unimagined technological advancements. According to Benatar, a being is not benefited by being brought into an awesome, perfectly pain-free existence; it’s just that such a being isn’t thereby harmed, either. Neutral.
    Perhaps I am missing something?

  11. I’m with Sister Y on this one; if there is a bridge from neutrality to benefit, you haven’t explained it. The only way I know of to cross that divide is to affirm positive interests for pre-existent people, which requires supernatural (or at least very strange and dubious) assumptions.
    I also think the idea of utopia as envisioned for purposes of this discussion may be rendered untenable by the simple fact that pain and suffering exist in the present. I’m not one for “Back to the Future” logic games, but doesn’t the current reality of negative value imply that future time travelers were unsuccessful? Beyond being incalculably remote, the notion of some post-super-singularity state of painless pluperfection seems to suffer from the same conceptual problems that bedevil religious conceptions of omnibenevolence. It demands a kind of absolute and infinite equilibrium that seems — and probably is — contrary to physical nature. The questions that follow seem to invite familiar theodicical problems, only without a creator-god there to simplify — or complicate — things.

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