Anti-natalism is the belief that humans should not breed. It is believed that humans should not breed because human lives contain suffering, which is bad, and bringing a life into existence will be to subject it to suffering—ergo, breeding is bad. The folks over at The Right Stuff have written a diatribe against this belief and in doing so have made some errors and false statements. These errors need correcting.
In the post, Alexander McNabb takes aim at the supposed folly of anti-natalists and the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT), an environmental movement that hopes to preserve the good health of the planet and reduce suffering levels among our non-human global compatriots by advocating for the gradual reduction and eventual extinction of the human population through voluntary non-reproduction. Of anti-natalists and VHEMT, McNabb writes:
“Essentially these childlike intellectually bankrupt nihilists just assume that with no humans, the earth goes back to being a verdant Eden-like paradise.”
First, McNabb’s criticism of VHEMTs view that suffering will end with human extinction is valid but it leads to further criticism. It’s true that human extinction without the concomitant extinction of all life on the planet allows for the possibility of the re-emergence of consciousness at a later date and thus for the perpetuation of suffering. But McNabb makes a mistake in suggesting that Earth, in absence of humans, will be a paradise. This is because many non-human animals that currently exist are sentient and are able to experience both psychological and physical pain. So the absence of humans will not make planet earth a paradise–in fact, it would probably make it a worse Hell for all those trillions of wild animals we forsake.
Second, implicit in the quote above is the thought that anti-natalists do not desire to go further than human life and eradicate all life. This is a strange assumption to make and one which is unfounded. If we assume, as we did above, that animals, like humans, are sentient, then the compassionate imperative to eradicate suffering must extend to all sentient non-humans. Further, McNabb noted that human extermination is inadequate as it allows for the future emergence of intelligence. The absolute negative-utilitarian anti-natalist (these two value systems are commonly conjoined) accepts this consequence and desires to destroy all life to evade the potential for future sentience emergence and for future suffering. Is this too ambitious? Perhaps. Nevertheless, some people known to the author currently pursue means to realise the project; and in any case, it is at least equal in ambition to McNabb’s desired alternative for humans to “develop into a post scarcity utopian society capable of shepherding the next species in line towards a future free of death and pain.”
(Note: the author does in fact believe that the above future potential is technologically feasible.)
Third, McNabb says that ending suffering is “noble.” In response, I quote McNabb: “We’re not going to go into how this system trips all over the Naturalistic Fallacy . . . or go full abstract into how positing that suffering is evil [and that its nullification is good] requires you to believe in a metaphysical ethics system in the first place.”
Fourth, McNabb makes the mistake of conflating anti-natalists with the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT). While all members of VHEMT are anti-natalists, it is not true that all anti-natalists are members of or agree with VHEMT. The author is proof of this. So the criticism quoted above applies only to VHEMT.
But McNabb, in conflating the two, creates a straw man argument where taking down VHEMT seems to constitute a take-down of anti-natalism. He believes he has done so and states as much in this peroration:
“It would be an ethical travesty to give up and self select for voluntary extermination when your species is so much closer to evolving beyond mortality and the constraints of biology than any other life-form.”
I agree. However, anti-natalism does not imply the desire for total human extinction. Rather, it can mean simply that under certain conditions it would be better not to bring a person into existence in order to save them from a life which is expected to be composed of more harm than health. Though I agree that VHEMT is foolish, I disagree with the false characterisation of anti-natalism centred on a conflation of it with VHEMT. Thus I will now defend anti-natalism and explain why a positive assessment of anti-natalist sentiment is, first, a necessary prerequisite of any pragmatic theory which outlines a way to attempt to end suffering in humans and increase their happiness, and, second, why a negative assessment is contradictory to McNabb’s apparent desire to improve the human condition.
Why We Need Anti-Natalism If We Want the World to be a Better Place
Anti-natalism places a negative value on birth. The strength of this value varies according to the intent or logical priors of the author defending it, and it is not rare to find those who disbelieve in the providence of life not because life is a priori a horror to experience, but because humankind in its current state is mired in so hellish a situation that it would be better not to experience it at all. The corollary of this is that life may be worth living if the future allows for freedom from pain and suffering to a degree that satisfactorily offsets the accumulated unpleasantness of pain, which is so overbearing to anti-natalists and enforces their beliefs.
Anti-natalism in the author’s qualified sense states merely that in order for life to be begotten certain criteria must be fulfilled. It is unfortunate that the majority of the life situations in which present humans exist do not wholly satisfy these criteria. If the reader does not believe that any such criterions exist, the absence of which could make life not worth living, they would benefit to ask themselves the following question:
“Do you believe that the number one priority in your life is to have more babies than your neighbour?”
I am confident that the reader will answer, loudly, No! Procreation in itself is not the highest good in life. Without broaching philosophical discussion of the nature of the good, I will state, simply, that what is good is pleasurable to us (or will ultimately lead to pleasure) and what is bad is unpleasant. This is relatively uncontroversial and can be adapted into most if not all ethical systems. If one agrees that life is not in itself valuable, then it is a short step to say that under certain conditions the value humans place on it may be overridden by other, more pressing concerns, such as the desire to not live a life that is predominantly one of suffering.
If the reader answered No! to the question above then we agree (or are on our way to agreeing) that life is not valuable a priori, that we value life for what it gives us or makes us feel, and that, if these things are partially or wholly absent, life may sometimes be not worth living. This is an agreement with the author’s qualified version of anti-natalism. If McNabb answered Yes!, then this critique of his post will only be relevant up to this point; if No!, then, does McNabb have a problem with? He seems to believe that rejecting paternal or maternal responsibilities will lead to a VHEMT scenario where human extinction does not extinguish suffering. In reality, however, qualified anti-natalists, recognising that life is not in itself a good thing, desire to give existence only to those lives that will be worth living. (It is of course conceivable that some humans should breed in order to evade the deleterious possibility of human absence actually exacerbating suffering.)
McNabb seems to have entered into his own internecine war by holding two conflicting views: the idea that life should be perfected and that humans should live in bliss, in tandem with a queer vitalist belief that all lives are worth living for the sake of the realization of some future goal. The latter view condemns many billions of people to lives of indignity that will have no practical effect at all on the goal’s actualization. The way to lead humanity to perfection is to consciously self-select for those qualities of the human organism that are associated with perfection: in particular (but not only) to select beneficent genes that make us happier, healthier, longer lived, and so on. Anti-natalism is conscious self-selection: it allows for the atrophy of certain detrimental genes, which is expected to accelerate the perfection process. Reckless procreation dilutes the gene pool, and a vitalistic belief in the a priori value of life that embraces the summum bonum spirit of competitive breeding stands in direct opposition to the idea that life should be made better: it advocates life as such with little care for the goodness and badness of lived experience.
Why a Dislike for Anti-Natalism is a Dislike for Mankind’s Betterment
If we do not desire to consciously direct our genetic development (through any means, not only through conscious, scientific manipulation of the human genome) and preside over selection of those genes which might be of most benefit to humanity should we:
- Reversal: consciously select for those genes which will be of least benefit to humanity? If not, why? If it is because it is good to choose good genes, then accept that anti-natalism, and the atrophy of bad genes and the hypertrophy of good genes, is good.
- Counterfactual: if we should consciously select for neither better nor worse genes, should we allow the better genes to be chosen by the slow, unconscious, uncaring process of evolutionary selection, which will happen over a course of many decades and centuries, and permit thousands of feeling beings to live worse lives than they would if we became consciously adaptive and helped them as soon as possible?
McNabb needs to explain why the benevolent eugenicist capacity of anti-natalist sentiment is antithetical to the betterment of mankind. Sparing people suffering is virtuous. And advocating for a self-conscious and wise propagation of only those genes which will most benefit humanity is at least contestably virtuous. One way to do this is to not have children oneself if one is sure that one either cannot make their lives happy on-balance or cannot raise the children to be a benefactor to mankind. Indeed, not having children oneself does not preclude the possibility that someone else may or should raise children whose lives are expected to be on-balance good, or whose legacy may be so great as to outweigh the suffering of their own lives (I look to the example of the upbringing of John Stuart Mill and the subsequent extraordinary impact of his political and ethical ideas). If McNabb rejects the progressive, calculating, benevolent ethic behind anti-natalism, he either wishes mankind to develop slower than it could or to not develop at all.