Why I’m an Anti-natalist

I am a contrarian, someone who frequently takes a view opposite to that held by the majority. My default position is to view with the utmost suspicion any idea that is popular or fashionable. If the vast majority of the population thinks and believes in a certain way, I default to considering it to be wrong. If the majority believes proposition P to be true, I suspect that P is probably false. My null hypothesis is that the majority is wrong. Very rarely have I had to reject the null hypothesis.

Therefore it should not come as a surprise to you that I am anti-natalist given that most people are natalist. Mind you, there is no causal connection: majority beliefs do not cause me to hold the beliefs I do. It is only that I am more likely not to find myself on the side of the majority. My antinatalist position would not change even if nobody held it or if everybody did. My position is rational, in the sense that I reasoned my way into it.

Reason, however, is a slave to our emotions and our passions.[1] What emotions drive my reason in the antinatalism case? Compassion, empathy and the sorrow I feel for the suffering of sentient beings.[2] The reasoning goes this way. I don’t like suffering. Therefore I realize that others similarly don’t like suffering. That realization arises from empathy. Therefore I believe that it is ethical to not bring sentient beings into existence. That ethical position is driven by compassion, the emotion that sympathizes with others’ distress.

David Benatar is the head of the philosophy department of the University of Capetown, South Africa. He, literally and figuratively, wrote the book on antinatalism, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence.[3]

He claims that the natalist position is based on erroneous assumptions. He says that these two assumptions are false: (1) that being brought into existence (with decent life prospects) is a benefit, and (2) one does no wrong by bringing into existence people whose lives will be good on balance.

Benatar writes that “being brought into existence is not a benefit but always a harm” and defends the claim with grace and sophistication, as you would expect of a professional philosopher.

As a matter of empirical fact, bad things happen to all of us. No life is without hardship. It is easy to think of the millions who live a life of poverty or of those who live much of their lives with some disability. Some of us are lucky enough to be spared these fates, but most of us who do nonetheless suffer ill-health at some stage during our lives. Often the suffering is excruciating, even if it is only in our final days. Some are condemned by nature to years of frailty. We all face death. We infrequently contemplate the harms that await any new-born child: pain, disappointment, anxiety, grief and death. For any given child we cannot predict what form these harms will take or how severe they will be, but we can be sure that at least some of them will occur. (Only the prematurely deceased are spared some but not the last.) None of this befalls the nonexistent. Only existers suffer harm.

People as parents do their utmost to protect their children from pain and suffering. But the only guaranteed way to avoid suffering is to not bring into existence sentient beings who can never escape suffering. By bringing children into being, parents are ensuring that the children will suffer. Becoming parents amounts to inflicting future suffering on sentient beings who did not consent to being the victims. Becoming parents is at best a thoughtless act, and in all cases totally senselessly selfish. Rational beings with a capacity for empathy will not choose to procreate.

That’s why I am an antinatalist.

Just by the way, it appears that the Buddha could have been an antinatalist. The whole idea of nirvana is to attain freedom from the endless cycle of birth and death. And it is claimed that when the Buddha was born, he had declared that this was his last birth. In practice though Gautama wasn’t an antinatalist since he did become a father before he became a buddha.

{David Benatar appeared in a post in Feb this year.}

NOTES:

[1] David Hume in his Treatise on Human Nature wrote

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

[2] Bertrand Russell began the prologue to his autobiography thus:

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.

[3] Click on the image below for the paper by Benatar which formed the foundation for the book.

Author: Atanu Dey

Economist.

11 thoughts on “Why I’m an Anti-natalist”

  1. Here’s Bertrand Russell’s version of socialism.

    In Praise of Idleness
    http://www.zpub.com/notes/idle.html

    It is an essay inspired by his 3 passions and is basically an argument for providing basic income, so the amount of leisure time that people have at their disposal for creative pursuits is maximized.

    A world with basic income was possible with the food/clothing/shelter production technologies of the 1920s. It is just as possible today, even with the 15-20X population increase. Such a world would probably have few with anti-natalist sentiments.

    What really makes life miserable for so many people are 1. the mainstream neo-liberal rent-extraction economics that only benefits the 0.1% owners of land and capital, and 2. the mainstream outdated desert religions that encourage natalism beyond the carrying capacity of arable land and only benefits another 0.1% clergy.

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    1. Ravi:

      Russell was an intelligent person but he did not understand economics. After all, economics is a specialized subject, and any specialized subject requires time and effort. First rate mathematician and philosopher but he was no economist. He argued for world government — a totally asinine idea. Why? Because a world government would be the ultimate horror story of state tyranny. Anyway, here’s a blog post in which I refer to Russell’s essay.

      I am in favor of some kind of basic income. But the government must be barred from implementing basic income. I have proposed an alternative arrangement.

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    2. Ravi:

      In your comment you refer to “neoliberal rent-extraction economics that only benefits the 0.1% owners of land and capital.” There is a lot to unpack in that claim. But let’s get this clear. It is hard to get a proper understanding of economics from a Russian TV channel’s propaganda about the evils of capitalism. If you believe that 0.1% of the people have benefited from capitalism, you are desperately uninformed. Try this for size: around 700,000,000 people were lifted out of poverty in one generation in China alone — that’s entirely thanks to capitalism. That’s 10% of the world’s population. That’s only in China. Not to mention billions of people over the century who have not just climbed out of extreme poverty but live lives of luxury their grandparents could not have even dreamed of.

      Owners of land? That’s patently ridiculous. Anyway, the deeper point is that land does not matter. And neither does capital. Sure, the word capital is in capitalism but it’s not about capital. It’s about freedom and entrepreneurs.

      If you are serious about understanding how the world works — I mean really serious and not just wanting to rush to judgement about how flawed some system is based on incomplete understanding — it is possible to do so. In this age of easy access to books, articles, videos, blogs and websites, it just requires a will to do so. And a willingness to examine your beliefs.

      From you name, it appears that you are an engineer. An engineer’s mindset is exactly the opposite of what’s needed to understand economics. You have to leave that at the door. I know since my training is in engineering and computer science (post grad degrees from good universities, no less), and I appreciate how easy it is to fall into obvious errors. Remember the caution: A little learning is a dangerous thing … Shallow drafts intoxicate the brain … drinking deeply sobers once again. Or something like that. Look it up on the web.

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      1. Atanu:

        There is a huge difference between productive/industrial capitalism and extractive/finance capitalism.

        Capitalism originally meant the system of economic organization that enabled the large scale productive/industrial enterprises to come into existence. But, once economies-of-scale enabled the basic necessities of life to be provided extremely cheaply, industrial capitalism was taken over and transformed into finance capitalism by the rentiers/financiers. Their simple idea is to deliberately reduce output to raise prices to the maximum bearable limits: i.e. everyone who does not own land/capital has to work 70 hrs/week, just so that they can afford the basic necessities of life (food/energy/housing/education/health-care/transport).

        The reason China with its ‘Socialism-with-Chinese-characteristics’ system does not have homeless people, while the California Bay area is flooded with them is because China stuck to industrial-capitialism while the U.S. is run by finance-capitialists who make sure that “too much” housing is not produced that depresses rents to near zero.
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socialism_with_Chinese_characteristics

        Bertrand Russell might not be an economist, but his 20 hr/week plan is far more preferable to the miserable rent extraction system the rentiers/financiers with the propaganda support from their neoliberal lackey economists have set up.

        P.S.:
        Yes, I am an engineer, and I prefix Engr. to my name as a nod to Thorstein Veblen’s ‘The Engineers and the Price System’ in which he describes how industrial capitalism was morphed into finance capitalism during his time. Michael Hudson is the current day version of Thorstein Veblen.
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Engineers_and_the_Price_System

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        1. Ravi,

          I am sorry I will have to bow out of this discussion with you. You use terms which I am entirely unfamiliar with such as “productive/industrial capitalism and extractive/finance capitalism.” Your view of the world is so alien to me. You appear to believe that capitalism has benefited 0.1% of the people. All argument is futile if the basic premises are disjoint and irreconcilable.

          Let me quote Frank Knight from a recent blog post:

          The serious fact is that the bulk of the really important things that economics has to teach are things that people would see for themselves if they were willing to see. And it is hard to believe in the utility of trying to teach what men refuse to learn or even seriously listen to.

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          1. There is no doubt that industrial capitalism has enabled an enormous number of people to be brought into existence in the first place and helps to maintain them in decent comfort.

            0.1% is a good estimate of the number of people who own enough land/capital that they can life off on income from these assets. Finance capitalism is the best description of the economic system that these 0.1% lobby for to maintain a steady high (tax free) income from their owned assets.

            Almost every policy the 0.1% lobby for essentially boils down to this: limit output of food/energy/housing/education/health-care/transport so that income from their owned assets used to produce these outputs remains as high as possible.

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            1. Ravi:

              First of all, I am sincerely interested in understanding your point of view. I hope I am not wasting your time nor mine in asking you to clarify what you mean when you write, “Almost every policy the 0.1% lobby for essentially boils down to this: limit output of food/energy/housing/education/health-care/transport so that income from their owned assets used to produce these outputs remains as high as possible.

              Generalities are fine but what really helps is an actual example of the generalization. If you can provide a concrete example that illustrates your point, it would be great. An example of a policy with a named person/corporation associated with a particular industry, etc. State specifics so that there’s something to discuss, so that we can better understand your point. Lacking that, your claim does not have merit or content. Thanks.

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  2. Me and some people I know closely, have all gone through “why was I born” phase. Sometimes the pain of life is excruciating. In those times ones mind fills with anger against ones parents.
    However, there are times of pure joy as well. It is not all suffering.
    I am not sure what I am with respect to natalism. Pro, anti or agnostic. But I do not subscribe to the unquestioning obedience that many religious scriptures demand of the child. Parents should not be treated as gods just because they are parents. Most of the shloks, singing praises about parent-bhakti makes me very angry.

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    1. However, there are times of pure joy as well. It is not all suffering.

      It is nobody’s claim that life is unrelieved suffering and nothing else. Antinatalism makes the simple claim that it is better to never come into existence because sentient existence implies inescapable suffering. The fact that there’s joy does not alter the fact of suffering. By not existing, there is no one to suffer, and there is no one who would miss the joy.

      Asking “why was I born” is not a very deep question. The simple answer is “Your parents had sex” and that is why you were born. Most people figure this out before they are 10 years old.

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      1. I am afraid I did not make the ‘why was I born’ question very clear. The answer you found out by the age of ten is too simplistic and wrong. That answer is to the question ‘how was I born’. Let me try to rephrase the question thusly:

        Why did your parents have unprotected sex to beget you? They could have all the fun with proper protection in place. That would have saved you from your existential inescapable suffering as well.

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