Culture

Is It Morally Wrong To Have Children? The Bleakest Philosophy In The World Sure Thinks So

Is there a harm to being born?

anti-natalism

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For as long as there have been robots, there have been people worried about robots deciding to kill us all.

This article contains discussion of suicide.

Those concerns have been reflected in movies for at least half a century now. Think those sociopathic post-boxes, the Daleks; the shift-eyed iPhones of Will Smith’s I, Robot; the mechanical seductress nestled like a viper at the heart of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina.

But such worries are no longer playing out only in the world of the imagination. Increasingly, the threat of robotic life is being couched in the language of science and history: the idea that vicious, domineering behaviours and intelligence go hand in hand has been seemingly vindicated by, ya know, all of human civilisation.

Every other day, Elon Musk is in the press, murmering in anxious tones about the threat of the robot apocalypse. And every other day, there’s another video of a Boston Dynamics robot performing a cutesy, shaky dance that seems perpetually ready to turn into a shanking.

This is a specific kind of concern about artificial life. But there is another reason that some are suggesting that self-conscious robots might become problematic; not because AI is bad for us, but because AI is bad for AI.

Life, these thinkers argue, is essentially painful. Forcing another being into consciousness is a kind of harm in and of itself. It’s not that we need to go and beat up the Boston Dynamic robots with clubs in order to preserve our own preferences. It’s so that we might protect those nerdy fucken’ robots from the agony of being alive.

Anti-Natalism: The Bleakest Philosophy in the World

This argument concerning artificial life is an off-shoot of anti-natalism, or the belief that being born is an essential harm. Anti-natalism is sometimes snickered at by its critics, seen as a hopelessly depressing philosophical position that nobody actually believes in the real world, aside from maybe moody teenagers and undergrads.

But, as is usually the case with any speedily-dismissed theory, the anti-natalist position is more sophisticated and convincing than it is sometimes depicted as. Take, for instance, the work of David Benatar, a quietly spoken South African man who doesn’t like his picture taken and has been described as the “most pessimistic philosopher on the planet.”

One of Benatar’s most elegant contributions to the anti-natalist cause is his simple, four-step argument known as the asymmetry of pleasure and pain, an easy to follow series of premises that ends up arguing against the continuation of human life. It goes like this:

  • Premise One: Pain is bad.
  • Premise Two: Pleasure is good.
  • Premise Three: An absence of pain is good.
  • Premise Four: An absence of pleasure is not bad for the person for whom this pleasure is not a deprivation.

That fourth premise is the key one, so let’s explore it a bit more. Say your boss promises you an ice-cream party on your last day of the work year. You rock up, ready to eat a truly sickening amount of Neapolitan, only to discover that it’s going to be just like any normal day of work — your boss has changed her mind without alerting you to her plans. Clearly, you’re going to be bummed out. Pleasure has been denied to you.

But now say you were never promised an ice-cream party ahead of time. You rocked up ready to stare at the work computer for long enough to pay the bills, waiting to be released so you might go home and stare at the play computer, and then that’s what you did. You had no idea there was going to be an ice-cream party. So you have not been deprived. Nor, someone like Benatar argues, have you been harmed.

And now imagine that we’re not talking about an ice-cream party. We’re talking about everything good about being alive: reading a beautiful poem; kissing your beloved on the forehead by in the middle of a forest, listening to the sound of the wind in the trees; the bit in Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ when the chorus hits again, louder this time. The person who is never born does not experience these things. But by the nature of what it means to be unborn, they don’t miss these things. They don’t even understand that these things exist.

That’s the key to Benatar’s argument. When we are born, we experience a mix of good and bad things. When we are not born, we experience neither. Never coming into existence means missing out on the nice things, sure — but Benatar has shown us that missing out on nice things doesn’t matter if we don’t know that we’re missing the nice things. And, crucially, never coming into existence also means missing out on the not nice things.

Moreover, in his book Better Never To Have Been, Benatar makes the argument that life contains a lot of not nice things. Most of life is taken up with boring, unpleasant activities, he writes — needing to use the bathroom; being too hot; being too cold; getting stuck in traffic; having to feign amusement at a bad meme two of your least funny friends have separately tagged you in.

And there are those who think that pain is felt much more deeply than pleasure. Arthur Schopenhauer, the infamously depressing philosopher, puts it simply: “we generally find pleasure to be not nearly so pleasant as we expected, and pain very much more painful,” he writes. His proof? Compare the pleasure of a lion eating a zebra to the pain of the zebra being eaten.

Who Asked To Be Born?

The idea that life is very painful is the part of the anti-natalist argument that people usually fixate on, and most readily reject. A large proportion of us consider our life to be much more pleasurable than painful — some of us like sitting in traffic, or learning that our friends are imperfect creatures with shitty taste in memes.

And we are mostly willing to put up with shit like standing in a packed queue for the toilets at a Tool show, surrounded by dudes in Mohawks who are in various states of explaining to one another that ‘Lateralus’ has a drum part written in the Fibonacci sequence, in order to experience the beauty and wonder of a Tool show.

But the often under-recognised genius of Benatar’s argument is that he doesn’t even have to argue that life is very painful. Because any pain is bad, and the absence of pleasure for the unborn is not, a life has to be lived entirely painlessly in order to be better than a non-life. And nobody lives their life entirely painlessly; you’re inevitably going to stub your metaphorical toe on the metaphorical bedframe eventually.

So what are we meant to actually do? Glibly, some people will ask anti-natalists why they don’t simply kill themselves — if life is so bad, why not stop living? But that’s a misunderstanding of Benatar’s argument. He doesn’t think murdering every human being on the planet is a solution to the problem of life. In fact, that kind of suffering is precisely what makes life bad. The argument is not in favour of dying. It’s in favour of never being born in the first place.

Indeed, most anti-natalists take death, suffering and suicide extremely seriously. In particular, the philosopher Seana Shiffrin considers the emotional and psychological toll of death integral to her argument concerning consent.

Nobody asks to be born, Shiffrin notes; nobody consents to becoming a living thing. Life is imposed on us. And it is an imposition that we cannot comfortably deal with — one way or the other, being alive is something that it is very difficult to stop being. Death is very scary and unpleasant. Even merely considering it causes us suffering. Life traps us.

And so anti-natalists argue not in favour of death, but in favour of non-life. They encourage us to take the decision whether or not to have children very seriously — to consider other options, such as adoption, whever possible, and to avoid continuing a long trend towards needless suffering. It’s like Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle says in the first season of True Detective: the most noble thing to do, most anti-natalists think, is avoid our natural instinct to have kids and walk hand in hand together into extinction.

Will Someone Please Think of The Lions

Anti-natalism is a broad, if sometimes pretty fucken’ bleak church, and many philosophers have extended its core arguments into extremely surprising places. For instance, philosopher Karim Akerma, who was 2017’s Childfree Man of the Year and writes songs about his ideological positions (yes, seriously) believes that if we take anti-natalist arguments seriously, we are also obligated to sterilise non-human animals.

That’s because, for Akerma and other anti-natalists like him, being a non-human animal means putting up with a lot of pain — starving to death, being eaten, breaking limbs, et cetera. Obviously, non-human animals won’t be able to pick up a copy of Better Never to Have Been and become anti-natalist converts themselves. And so, Akerma thinks, the role of dealing with all that pain falls to us.

“By sterilising animals, we can free them from being slaves to their instincts and from bringing more and more captive animals into the cycle of being born, contracting parasites, ageing, falling ill and dying; eating and being eaten,” he writes.

And Now To Slap A Happy Ending On This Extremely Bleak Article

Of course, if you’re not willing to accept the arguments of the anti-natalist concerning human beings, you’re unlikely to accept the arguments when they extend to either non-human animals or breakdancing robots. But anti-natalism is not only useful in those cases in which we think it’s right. It’s a useful means of understanding what is worthwhile to us; to test our views on life, and meaning, and purpose.

I am, on most days, a card-carrying anti-natalist. A long time ago, I fell hook, line and sinker for Benatar’s argument concerning the asymmetry of pleasure and pain, and I see more evidence for his theories as time goes on. After all, it’s hard not to come out of the other end of a year like 2020 and become sympathetic to the idea that, at the bare minimum, suffering is something we should take very, very seriously.

It’s hard not to come out of the other end of a year like 2020 believing suffering is something we should take very, very seriously.

That means that I am an unpleasant person to be seated next to at a dinner party, sure — I learnt pretty rapidly that announcing you think maybe none of us should have been born is a very easy way to clear your immediate surroundings of human beings. To most, anti-natalism is typical philosophical bullshit; a callous adoption of the role of devil’s advocate that seems almost ludicrous in the scale of its ugliness.

But the benefit of anti-natalism isn’t just in convincing people to not have babies. If you argue against an anti-natalist for long enough, you will have also have developed theories about what makes life worth living. You will have reminded yourself of all that you might never have seen had you not been born.

And that seems valuable in and of itself. You don’t have to become an anti-natalist in order to see the value of anti-natalism. You only need to be challenged by one.


Joseph Earp is a philosopher and staff writer at Junkee who is probably nicer and more chipper than this article makes him sound. He tweets @JosephOEarp.

Overthinking It is a regular column about philosophy and pop culture, created by Junkee and The Ethics Centre.

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