JOYS AND SORROWS
Anti-natalists actually deny that child-making has a basically positive valence. They think that we always do something bad, not good or even neutral, by having children. Yes, there are anti-natalists, people who are opposed in principle to all child-making, and their arguments merit some attention. To grasp their case against reproduction, anti-natalists ask us to focus on the headaches and heartaches in people’s lives. These, for one reason or another, are seen by anti-natalists as conclusive reasons not to reproduce.
Of course, there are plenty of headaches and heartaches, and some of the troubles start very early. Perhaps it’s uncomfortable wearing your first pair of diapers, or even squeezing through your mother’s birth canal. From the first day onward, a life will be marred by miseries and failures and mistakes to one degree or another. One way to go on is to say that the bad fraction of any life, however large or small, is problematic because you can’t get a child’s permission before creating it. A more subtle anti-natalist argument is made by South African philosopher David Benatar in his much-discussed book, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence.
Suppose you’re thinking about creating a child. Some specific child will be born, ifyou go ahead: “Charlie,” let’s call him. Ifyou do not have Charlie, one day you might think of him, your would-have- been child, and though it would be odd, it would make sense if you said, “It’s good Charlie isn’t suffering his headaches and failures” (or whatever bad things would have been in the bad fraction of his life). You might go on to think it’s good that Charlie isn’t having the terrible bout of gastroenteritis you (somehow) correctly guess he would have had at age six. Later you might think it’s good that he isn’t having the migraine he would have had at sixteen. Still later, you might think it’s good that he isn’t going through the emotional trauma of breaking up with his girlfriend, as he would have at twenty-six. Somehow you can picture the life history that would have been, and you are grateful for the missing bad times.
Now for the crux of the matter. Benatar argues that nothing counterbalances the good of those missing bad times. That’s because the opposite can’t be said: Charlie’s missing pleasures aren’t bad. It’s not a bad thing that Charlie never got to eat a bowl of ice cream. It’s not a bad thing that he never won a chess match. But why? Why is it good when nonexistent Charlie’s pains are absent, but not bad when his pleasures are absent? Benatar says the asymmetry is due to the fact that absent pleasures are only bad when they are experienced as deprivations; and nonexistent Charlie won’t be around to feel deprived. Absent pains, on the other hand, are good even if nonexistent Charlie isn’t around to be glad of their absence.
If we take this subtle asymmetry seriously, then we have one score as the basis for judging the no-Charlie scenario: the positive
score that we awarded based on the good of his missing misery. There’s no negative score to be awarded, based on his missing pleasures and successes. It’s all good if he doesn’t exist; it’s not at all bad. And there is nothing special about Charlie. You can run this argument on any would-be child, so long as he or she will endure so much as a second of misery in life. The point is not about how much misery and failure there is in people’s lives, compared to the joy and success. The point is that the misery, however little, means a person shouldn’t be created, and all the joys do not reverse that conclusion.
Affirming the asymmetry has enormous ramifications, but Benatar expects us to find it intuitively plausible. He also encourages us to accept it by trying to show that if we didn’t, we would be forced to swallow some very unsavory implications of affirming the symmetry of absent pains being good and absent pleasures being bad. Given this symmetry, Benatar thinks people would have a duty to avoid creating miserable people and a duty to create happy people, in order to prevent all those bad pleasure-absences. Childless people would have to feel guilty for not procreating, and people with just a few children would have to feel bad about not having more. Another unsavory outcome of not accepting his asymmetry would be this: when we contemplate unpopulated planets in remote reaches of the universe, we would have to think it’s not only good that nobody’s in agony there, but bad that nobody is enjoying themselves there. That strikes him as absurd, so Benatar thinks we can’t just comfortably disregard his asymmetry. And when we affirm it, we’re lead to his anti-natalist conclusion.
So, is it time to wrap up this whole crazy business of human existence? Yes, says Benatar. His argument, if taken seriously by all of humanity, and acted upon, would lead to a lot of vasectomies and tubal ligations, and eventually to human extinction. And Benatar affirms that upshot. It would be good, he thinks, not tragic, if earth were devoid of human life. To the extent that animal life, too, involves both good and bad, it would be best if all non-human animals went extinct as well. Should we all just kill ourselves now? No, he says, his argument shows that lives are not worth beginning, not that they are not worth continuing.
These might seem like outlandishly radical views that only an ivory tower philosopher could dream up, but anti-natalism is an outlook not unheard of in the world apart from hyperanalytical academic philosophy. It’s even prefigured in the ancient Bhagavad Gita. Says the lucky, never-born person, "I was never born and I will never die; I do not hurt and cannot be hurt; I am invincible, immortal, indestructible" Benatar’s anti-natalist position has a bit of the same flavor. He also homes in on the absence of suffering as a plus for the never-born, and discounts the concomitant absence of pleasure.
Most people think it’s worth going through their Monday headaches to get to their Tuesday joys. They think it’s worth the pain of climbing up the mountain to get to the joy of standing on the top. Pains, though bad, are thought to be redeemed by pleasures. This is fine with Benatar, if we are thinking about our life choices as people who already do exist. In that case it certainly makes sense to manage our lives so that we put up with misery when it’s worth it for later gains. Otherwise we’ll later lament being deprived of enjoyments. But we have to refrain from this sort of thinking when we’re considering whether to create a whole new person. There will never be any deprivation if we don’t bring Charlie into the world, and there will be the advantage of his absent miseries.
Convinced? One reassuring thing, if you decide to have a child, is that it’s almost guaranteed that your child won’t be. If he exists, Charlie will often make "It’s worth it” judgments—"It’s worth it to break my arm falling out of a tree to enjoy a life full of exploring nature.” And Benatar approves. Chances are Charlie will not appreciate the subtle distinction between this judgment being made during his life and you making it prospectively, before he exists. This life-affirming confusion will ensure that Charlie doesn’t find fault with you if you go ahead and procreate. But we ought to say more than that. Perhaps he won’t find fault with you and he actually won’t be confused either—he’ll be right to think you made a permissible choice.
Suppose we reject Benatar’s asymmetry, which certainly isn’t overpoweringly plausible. The two unsavory implications—about empty places and procreative duties—aren’t as decisive as they may initially seem. Confronted with the right scenarios, we often actually do make symmetrical judgments about absent pleasures and absent pains. Imagine a deserted playground that was once teeming with life. Children ran around shouting and laughing with delight; they also occasionally fell and scraped their knees. Now nobody remains; the miseries are gone along with the joys. One could easily think it actually is bad that the fun is all gone—even though no child feels the deprivation. People who write books and make movies about the eventual end of life on earth, or imagine doomsday scenarios, generally think there is something very bad about a deserted world. What’s behind this must be the intuition that an absent pleasure is bad, like an absent pain is good—even if there’s no one deprived in the first case, like there’s nobody glad in the second.
As for everyone winding up with a duty to create happy people, as well as a duty to avoid creating miserable people, unless we affirm Benatar’s asymmetry, that’s not inevitable. If absent pleasure is bad, there’s something good about bringing more happy people into the world, but there’s something good about a lot of life activities. We don’t have the strongest imperative to do all of these good things, from making new people to planting trees to volunteering at the animal shelter. There can be something good about creating people without the imperative rising to the level of giving us a duty. And there could be a different sort of imperative at the two ends of the spectrum. The activity of creating happy people is very different from the non-activity of not creating miserable people: the two have different direct costs and also different opportunity costs. For many reasons, it’s open to us to think the imperative to create more happy people is quite muted.
Though Benatar’s argument is marvelously thought provoking, I think we can sustain the idea that creating a child can be a good thing to do, overall. We do something good by creating Charlie, assuming he will have enough good experiences in life, and other sorts of successes, and his life will not be relentlessly miserable. A world without him is better with respect to his missing sorrows, but also worse with respect to his missing joys.