David Benatar Anti Natalist Review

Kids: a moral dilemma

I am aware of the nihilistic tendencies of some of my readers and I think they would enjoy reading this essay entitled Kids? Just say no. A professor of philosophy, David Benatar argues the merits of anti-natalism.

My first objection is that this is fundamentally against nature – and there is no winning against her. Evolution. Selfish genes. It’s obvious and I don’t need to explain it. To be fair, the professor recognises this and establishes his argument as applying to a minority of people.

My second objection is that there is always a way out. I don’t necessarily mean the “happy kind”. One of this professor’s readers wrote to him about his very unhappy life and concluded that he was sentenced to suffering by his parents. I think the author of the letter miscalculated what is within his control and what isn’t. He is no longer the helpless child in his mother’s arms. He has choices. While on a human level, my heart goes out to him, on an intellectual level I feel that blaming your parents on your death bed is denying your own sovereignty.

A man I know well, one of the kindest people I ever met, once expressed his views on sperm donation. He was strongly against it and one of his points was “is this world really that wonderful”, which shocked me at the time. Clearly, this point of view is much more common than I originally thought. I am just hearing Freddie Mercury’s whaling: “Mama, ooh, I don’t want to die I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all”.

My third objection is against the author’s assertion that “life is simply much worse than most people think”. This is just a random, unfalsifiable, unsupported thought. Very relatable of course, as we all have our darker moments, but ultimately how is this a reason? The professor argues that optimism bias is a reason, but there are so many counter reasons! Most cognitive distortions drive our estimations of life down, not up. And if his assertion is true, isn’t the answer to be more in touch with reality, especially in terms of what we tell our kids about the world, than to annihilate your genes from the planet?

The author then goes on to say that “life is a state of continual striving”. I vaguely agree, but our interpretations are entirely different. The author seems to believe that anything other than pure bliss is unpleasant. For sure, if you define it this way. His whole essay seems to be based on disillusionment, from a pretty self-centred point of view.

My last objection is as follows. The author argues that we, humans, cause a lot of damage, “every human (who is not a vegetarian or vegan) is, on average, responsible for the death of 27 animals per year.” Is that his definition of damage? Isn’t it a little arrogant to talk this way about humans when it wouldn’t occur for us to say this about, say, lions?

Of course, we all pick our battles and I don’t at all judge people who don’t want kids. The benefit of the professor’s work would have been obvious 200 years ago as it would have clicked some people out of the mindless default mode that one must have kids, no other options, and highlight the wider responsibilities of parenthood. In today’s world, it’s just another ode to nihilism.

On a personal level, I see so many of my friends who have kids and do you know how I feel? I feel that these people jumped off a cliff and survived. The responsibility of it has been painted as being so humongous to educated people that reading Prof Benatar’s essay is just unhelpful to someone like me. I already know.

P. S. I have also been pointed to this blog. It would still your blood.

Published by

Dr Martina Feyzrakhmanova

I am a hospital doctor and founder of an education platform. Avid reader and writer of introspective blogs.

56 thoughts on “Kids: a moral dilemma”

  1. We should encourage such people. They are committing genetic suicide (terminating their own genetic line) and because they think this is a good idea, they are less than the fittest who should survive.

    No?

    Plus, if they are truly bad people, there is an adage that says “if your enemy is committing suicide, don’t interrupt.”

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I object to your objections! Especially the third one. I spend much time observing the workings of the world and there does seem to be a tendency for lives to be a bit rubbish.
    Nearly half of the world’s population live on less than US$2.50 per day. Of those 3 billion, 1.3 billion live in extreme poverty. Every single day 22 thousand children die due to poverty. Then we add in war and violence. African Warlords, Latin American Crime Lords. How many rapes are happening as I type this? How many will end in the spread of disease? Perhaps eventually a painful death? Speaking of which, how many people are enduring excruciating illnesses right now? Many with no possibility of treatment in sight. All for … ? Seeing the sunset? While breathing in microparticles of pollution which are slowly killing us anyway?
    Happy Monday!!! 😀

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Are not humans negatively biased? Is not all life? Do you remember that afternoon more for how wonderful the sunset was or more for the fact that you nearly fell of the cliff, sliding down to the edge and only stopped because your belt caught on a rusted railing peg?
    We remember the bad shit more than the good. Remembering the bad helps us survive in future. Eventually our entire lives fill up with memories of all the awful, rotten, traumatic things that happen to us. Indeed, by the time we’re old, we should be so soured of life’s painful ordeals that I can’t help but think most of us would warn off the youth from having children.
    Enter Epicurus:
    ~Pursue friendship, few desires, pleasure in the simple things in life. ~ Perhaps as a part of the battle against the misery that is life’s accumulated memories.

    Liked by 4 people

      1. Well, rat-brain as we are, wouldn’t we remember where all the cats, traps, poison are more than how tasty that stale ciabatta roll was? When I think if my youth I think of the trauma that was inflicted (both ways). Do I recall all those fantastic xmas presents? Or the time I set the tree on fire?

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    1. I hear Epicurus died rolling down a mountain. First he tripped and broke his foot, then rolled down another thirty metres and hit a rock breaking his right femur. As he couldn’t walk, that made him the perfect prey for a lion. Yes, there were lions in Greece. The lion didn’t finish him off, but eagles did – days later. He had dementia at the time which made every bit of pain feel fresh and new, again and again. And that’s the story of Epicurus 😀

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Misery is easier to attain than happiness-only ne of the philosophical ramifications of the 2nd law of thermodynamics. Pursue friendhsip my ass…..the human condition isinconvenient,

      Liked by 1 person

  4. All very interesting. I personally feel Benatar is potentially a little ‘too’ emotionally involved with his essay – you really wouldn’t want to read it when feeling a little down now, would you?

    He is of course talking “round-shouldered and unbacked” (to quote my late ex-father in law – a man who believed he had all the answers by spending his entire life either working or getting pissed – a common solution, yes?).

    So come on, we all know life is full of suffering and pain, however, that, is actually the whole point. Without all the pain and suffering there’d be no driving for us to evolve into the AI’s that will eventually rule the galaxy! Ha ha!

    When it comes to procreation, and the anti-natalism view point, we must face it most babies are made by mistake; we humans just like sex so much; it is one of the things that offsets some of the horrors in the world; now there’s a paradox!

    I think Mondays should be Science Fiction day – spread a little happiness, oh, and let’s not forget the brilliance of us humans, we did invent all the games, the best being the game of LOVE (a useful tool to offset all the shit in life). An interesting half hour Thank You א

    Liked by 2 people

      1. IBM… I think not. The AI’s mentioned are far, far superior, to that old stick my friend. Love really has nothing to do with intelligence. It’s really only necessary to understand some very simple principles in order to love fully, empowering others as we go. The main problem lies in the simplicity of all love related things, as simple, is something that escapes most peoples awareness.

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    1. There is that. What stills my blood is that this guy completed suicide 4 years after writing this. The site is now run by his parents. There are a few comments from other parents whose children did the same. One woman talks about her son who carefully planned everything out so as to not cause harm or additional sorrow to his family, like it was a carefully planned decision.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Dr., everyone: read “Merchants of Despair” by Robert Zubrin. It will blow your mind how brainwashed “we” have all become. His title is a bit gloomy, but his point is that all this negativity has been propagated by a cult of “anti-humanism” and they are all wrong: there is, in fact, room on this planet for many many more people. He has the data to back it up too. Just saying.
    And my final comment, Dr., is on your opening sentence: “I am aware of the nihilistic tendencies of some of my readers…” That makes me laugh! If you propose that neither science nor religion hold than answers, (and I’m not saying they do…) but, then, Yeah! You’re going to attract some fairly Nihilistic readers! Like, duh! Whatcha expect to attract? There’s no one else left! Thanks for sharing tho!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You know, I’ve always been sceptical of people the claims about there not being enough room on the planet. They tend to have a pension plan and children. I will try to get my hands on a copy.

      Well, I think that science and philosophy give us some additional information, but not answers. My own view is that we have to embrace ambiguity and adapt to our environment. I don’t think this denies meaning in life at all (which is how I use the word nihilism).

      I had unfortunately fallen out of touch with Paul and Akira over the last months, but gosh, things have changed with them!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. LOL! Did you check in to my latest blog post? I’m having fun, 200+ followers and the story continues. By all means, read that Robert Zubrin book. A total eye opener! Would love to hear your thoughts!

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      2. The way I attempt to broaden my mind is to “randomly” grab books from the Library. This was one of those books (Zubrin’s) Of course, is randomness actually possible? That’s a bigger question.

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  6. It is kind of selfish to have a child. It costs, about a million dollars until they are adults. I was in love once. I thought. I went to war. We married. She was pregnant. Life’s value, I suppose the enemy meant less. Less than my child. It’s easy and also hard to say. We are all hypocrites until we have to pull triggers. Then, the tough choices we live with, just haunt us.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Kids. Creation and destruction. Perfect artforms but so much pain. Some of the comments were pretty arrogant. I’m a parent that made some tough choices. If you don’t like kids. GREAT. Don’t have any. I don’t want to hear about how great it is. How much you have without them. Just. Good for you.

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  7. This is an interesting issue. I have friends who have decided not to have children because they think there are already too many people in the world. Others simply recognise that they are not suited to parents, or just don’t want to be.

    Since time immemorial people have sought to break the connection between sexual relations and procreation. One can have sexual relations between men and women without sexual intercourse, but that form of sex just seems too darn popular. Abstinence is one option, of course, but in many societies this is just considered unnatural. Also, in societies where marriage is purportedly the only place for sex we know that this is simply not the case in practice. So people are going to have potentially procreative sex regardless of what anybody says.

    So how do we break the connection? Ancient Greece and Rome, effected a kind of control on procreation through the exposure of unwanted children; that’s probably not too popular an idea today, as most societies consider this to be a form of murder. Abortion has been a preferred option for many, but up until the advent of effective abortifacients and surgical abortion, it has been fraught with danger for the woman, and so considered a drastic resort. Likewise, sterilization is possible – relatively easily for men, and only with major surgery with women – but it’s really not that popular, with only 224 million people world-wide thought now to have availed themselves of it (and many only after having had children). Since 1920 the Soviet Union/Russia has had free, safe, and wide access (except for 1935-1955), and this may be one contribution to the population decline there (does that sound right to you, Dr. Martina?). The birth-control pill came into common use in the 1960s, and in most of the Western world this was the first commonly accepted and widely used means of the prevention of conception; the decriminalization/legalization of abortion in most of the West since the late 1960s remains an option, but only if the pill other forms of birth control fail.

    Benatar does not deal with this connection between sex and procreation. Most people are well aware that parenthood is a major commitment (or that it is supposed to be, even if they are constitutionally incapable of being good parents). That said, most people go ahead and have potentially procreative sex anyway. Logical arguments for being an anti-natalist seems remarkably unpersuasive for these folks, even if many would agree that a) life is simply worse than most people think, b) life inevitably leads to that horrible thing, death, and c) human beings are destroying the earth.

    Nobody asks to be born. We just are. The philosophically interesting question is not whether non-birth is preferable to birth (that’s a question of population control, nothing more and nothing less) but why so many people consider life to be worth living, especially given the evidence marshaled by people like Benatar that it is not. For some it might be reducible to a biological imperative, one we share with animals (and perhaps plants, for all I know), but I suspect there is more to it than that. As conscious creatures we are capable of calling that biological imperative into question, as Benatar has. We can see the problems that life has, and the consequences of over-population, but we respond not with anti-natalism but with (among other things) i) better sanitation and health care, ii) the creation of wealth and the management of its fair distribution, and iii) the science of birth control. I suspect more people would be interested in these disciplined approaches than anti-natalism as such.

    Then again, for many people life is a gift from God, something that is both wondrous, challenging, and mysterious. Children are likewise often experienced as a gift, however acquired, and however short their lives. Benatar does not reckon with this, and if he simply adopts an agnostic or atheistic perspective then he will never get anywhere with anti-natalism.

    But I come back to my main question – why is life worth living? And if I value it positively, why might I not wish to bring another life or two into the world? I have brought two in the world with my spouse, and I have no regrets about it, despite the costs and the investments. They continue to challenge me and bring me joy. They help me become a better person (especially now that they are adults). And if that is the case for me, why would I not wish it for others who also want children?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You give an interesting overview, but as Nietzche said, the wise men of all ages all eventually came down on the anti-life side. How you even construe your own ebullience over your family life as of any intellectual interest to strangers shows how child-bearing unhinges people. Are you gonna tell your kids ‘life is unfair’ https://antinatalism.wordpress.com/2012/02/04/what-parents-reveal-with-the-phrase-well-life-isnt-fair/

      are you gonna tell your kids their only way out of your sangfroid equanimity is suicide. You’re just another fat-jowled westerner, philistine approach to abstract reasoning. Bottom line, you did nothing virtuous by having kids.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Google his analytical main work Better Never to Have Been. There is a free pdf out there. Chapter 3 describes three self deceits about the quality of human life. These facilitate the survival of our species. Optimist bias, adaptation principle, and comparative judgment (we usually estimate the quality of our own live in relation to others so this judgment only reflects comparative life quality rather than actual life quality). The article bad is stronger does not conflict with these psychological findings. Another aspect of the optimist bias is the blind assumption we you are somehow better of being born. Please read the abstract of his earlier article “Defective counterfactual reasoning about ones own existence”. A survey reveals that people make no real comparison when asked. Thus the ranking of one scenario (coming into existence) over the other becomes an unreliable indicator of whether it is really better to have been born. In fact, his main work argues that you cannot possibly be worse off on account of absent goods in the counterfactual alternative, so there is no advantage in coming into existence. Whereas the harms in existence are real. It is absurd to count yourself among the lucky ones (we can think a little about Dawkins herr). Therefore it is always better never to have been. This grim conclusion is not contingent on there being more bad stuff than good. I recommend his analytical work Better Never to Have Been. Thanks for reading.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. “My first objection is that this is fundamentally against nature – and there is no winning against her. Evolution. Selfish genes. It’s obvious and I don’t need to explain it. To be fair, the professor recognises this and establishes his argument as applying to a minority of people.”

    -Upon diverging from the moral component of the essay, I find it interesting that you believe it can be refuted with the simple claim- albeit justified in it’s rational anticedent- that on the practical level it’s impossible. Most things we are meant to do for others are against our nature- but perhaps that’s to an extravagant of a claim to make… Why think that if it’s pratical application is improbable that the moral law is null and void?

    “My second objection is that there is always a way out. I don’t necessarily mean the “happy kind”. One of this professor’s readers wrote to him about his very unhappy life and concluded that he was sentenced to suffering by his parents. I think the author of the letter miscalculated what is within his control and what isn’t. He is no longer the helpless child in his mother’s arms. He has choices. While on a human level, my heart goes out to him, on an intellectual level I feel that blaming your parents on your death bed is denying your own sovereignty.”

    -Yes and no; yes in that there is a way out that if the man but reach forth into the light he would be greeted into paradise. Take that as a literal truth or deep metaphor, it’s consequence is true. But no, in that our nature’s tendency is to focus on the evil, the death, the pain, and few reach out because pain is all they know. They Forget the good, the pleasant, and see nothing but the mounting war against a restless heart.

    “My third objection is against the author’s assertion that “life is simply much worse than most people think”. This is just a random, unfalsifiable, unsupported thought. Very relatable of course, as we all have our darker moments, but ultimately how is this a reason? The professor argues that optimism bias is a reason, but there are so many counter reasons! Most cognitive distortions drive our estimations of life down, not up. And if his assertion is true, isn’t the answer to be more in touch with reality, especially in terms of what we tell our kids about the world, than to annihilate your genes from the planet?”

    I agree with you on this point. Nilihism isn’t Reality, hence the cognitive dissonance.

    “My last objection is as follows. The author argues that we, humans, cause a lot of damage,“every human (who is not a vegetarian or vegan) is, on average, responsible for the death of 27 animals per year.” Is that his definition of damage? Isn’t it a little arrogant to talk this way about humans when it wouldn’t occur for us to say this about, say, lions?”

    -That seems in my mind a very weak argument. Yes, lions kill more animals a year then we, but we also ruin the environment that they live off of. I don’t know of any creature that ruins the ecosystems more then we. We’re practically speaking an invading species in our own home.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 1. That’s a really good point. A lot of the moral stuff we do goes against our animal instincts. However, this one is so basic, necessary and primordial, that I feel that there is no point in fighting it any more than we already are.

      2. This is also very interesting. I think my personality renders the world in a more positive light than a lot of people! I was talking about Dublin with a friend of mine today. Dublin is an interesting city: it is pretty strongly segregated into rich and poor areas. My friend asked: how is it that bad areas remain bad? My instinctive answer was, they must not believe in the American dream. I don’t know who is more deluded, them or me.

      3. I am not sure of the ethics of how we interact with our environment. It’s not really the birth of more people. It is the corporate interest of selling us things we don’t need that ruins the environment

      3.

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      1. 1. It’s nice to know that I’m not as crazy as I anticipated. It would be difficult not to reproduce, but if that is the voice of conscience it ought to be followed.
        2. I’m honestly not sure how much I actually believe in it even if I’m an American. It’s nice to know though that there are intellectuals out there with a streak of optimism.
        3. ‎that’s very true, I didn’t think about that.

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  10. “My second objection is that there is always a way out. I don’t necessarily mean the “happy kind”. One of this professor’s readers wrote to him about his very unhappy life and concluded that he was sentenced to suffering by his parents. I think the author of the letter miscalculated what is within his control and what isn’t. He is no longer the helpless child in his mother’s arms. He has choices. While on a human level, my heart goes out to him, on an intellectual level I feel that blaming your parents on your death bed is denying your own sovereignty.”

    Suicide is just well below some peoples dignity. Somewhat comparable to choosing being gang raped. The most disgusting thing.

    At least parents ought to kill their children for the mistake they made.

    I am also concerned with society at large. I recommend the book Every Craddle is a Grave by Sarah Perry as it deals with the ethics of suicide and the “free disposal argument” you are hinting at. I am very much in favour of removing most (if not all) costs and barriers to suicide in society. The author engages in an interesting thought experiment and descripes how the land of free disposal would look like. A society much different than ours.

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  11. Clearly, you don’t see this issue as much of a dilemma!

    Let’s see if I can do anything to change that:

    1. Your first objection that it’s only for a minority of people does not render it morally untrue. There are things which only a few will recognize as good, right? Morality is not based on how many people agree with you; it’s based on reasons. (It’s also not based on what’s natural.)

    2. You say somewhere that we should be more in touch with reality. I agree, I think we should, but not just the nice things. I think we should keep in mind the countless instances of rape, torture, enslavement, depression, kidnap, and other evils which befall people daily. Not to mention the zillions of nonhuman animals who we routinely torture for palate pleasure (and yes, this is morally indefensible). I assume you are absolutely opposed to some of these things I mentioned. Yet, by bringing someone into existence (and neglecting all those children who need homes), you effectively create the conditions under which a being might now face those evils. There is absolutely no need at all to take that risk. And as I have already indicated, we should rather adopt someone who is already in need of a caretaker, not reproduce.

    3. Just to clarify, the reason we don’t blame the lion is due to a relevant difference between a human and a lion, namely that the lion presumably does not engage in moral reasoning. Would we hold an infant responsible for something? We wouldn’t. Moreover, the lion needs to eat other animals to survive (a terrible fact of nature), whereas humans can be perfectly healthy without it, on a plant-based diet.

    Lastly, the position is not as you described, nihilistic. Nihilism, as I understand it anyway, is the rejection of any kind of value. In other words, nothing matters. Antinatalism is the view that preventing suffering does matter. Indeed it’s really just an extension of the principle of nonharm. In any case, it’s not nihilistic.

    Thanks!

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    1. 1. Of course not, everyone has to do what’s right for them. And while I mostly agree with you, I think morality does not exist in complete isolation from what other people think

      2. The way you describe anti-natalism appears a little utilitarian. Do your views change depend on the country in question?

      3. “Presumably”. Plus, there is evidence to suggest that plants suffer. The whole concept of sentience is a little too “convenient”. Things are either alive or not – and none of them benefit from being eaten.

      4. In preventing suffering this way, you are also getting rid of the upside.

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  12. Thanks for writing back.

    I’m sorry, I don’t really understand your question regarding utilitarianism.

    If plants do suffer, that implies that they are sentient. Of course, the scientific consensus seems to be that plants are not sentient, and therefore, by definition, cannot suffer. Moreover, from an evolutionary point of view, there seems to be no reason to think plants would have developed this capacity. I honestly don’t see how a non-sentient entity could be harmed or benefited, and even if they could, certainly not in the same way sentient beings can be.

    The antinatalist position is that it would be better if no one ever came into existence. This strikes most people as a very radical view. But think about it this way. The number of potential beings who were never conceived and born is infinitely greater than the number of beings who were conceived and born. Yet, nobody laments this fact. In other words, nobody seems to think that the vastly greater number of potential beings who were never born, and therefore missed out on all the good things in life, is a bad thing at all. So again, since nonexistence is not bad, but existence might be unacceptably bad, it seems prudent not to take the risk.

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