Fighting for animal liberation and an end to speciesism
There’s a lot of talk in the vegan community about whether having children is a good idea or not. Obviously the default human position is that giving birth is encouraged, or at least accepted. Most of us exist as a result of the decision to create life, and government policies that attempt to restrict procreation are met with harsh criticism. Conversely, almost every nation offers paid paternity leave, and only a minority of nations allow abortions when health is not a factor.
In philosophy, the pro-birth position is called natalism (or sometimes pronatalism), and the moral objection to procreation is called, unsurprisingly, antinatalism. Contemporary antinatalists, like many contemporary vegans, tend to focus on the problem of suffering: put simply, every child will necessarily suffer if they exist, but they can’t suffer if they don’t exist, so procreation results in suffering. Some vegan antinatalists see the act of refusing to partake in animal industry as an expression of antinatalism – without adequate financial incentive, farmers won’t breed more animals for industrial abuse.
While many humans’ lives are not as bad as those of factory-farmed animals, everybody will suffer considerable evil. The only way to prevent that is not to bring them into existence.
Antinatalism has a long and storied history. Socrates is credited with the remark ‘to live is to be sick for a long time’; the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer advanced the idea in the nineteenth century, and the philosopher/comedian Peter Wessel Zapffe continued in the following century. More recently the character Rustin Cohle in the television show True Detective expresses clear antinatalist (if misanthropic) tendencies, the comedian Doug Stanhope has proposed paying people not to have children, and the maniacal YouTube personality Freelee the Banana Girl has made her antinatalist views known.
The most comprehensive argument for antinatalism to date was given by the philosopher David Benatar in his 2006 book Better Never to Have Been. His book made me reconsider many of my prior beliefs about the moral issues surrounding procreation, and I highly recommend it. It’s not a coincidence that Benatar is a vegan, and I was delighted to get the chance to ask him some of the burning questions that I and the community have wondered about.
DB: My view is not merely that the odds favour a negative outcome, but that a negative outcome isguaranteed. The analogy I use is a procreational Russian Roulette in which all the chambers of the gun contain a live bullet. The basis for this claim is an important asymmetry between benefits and harms. The absence of harms is good even if there is nobody to enjoy that absence. However, the absence of a benefit is only bad if there is somebody who is deprived of that benefit. The upshot of this is that coming into existence has no advantages over never coming into existence, whereas never coming into existence has advantages over coming into existence. Thus so long as a life contains some harm, coming into existence is a net harm.
DB: The assumption that most people brought into existence will retrospectively consent to their creation is likely true. However, it does not justify our bringing children into existence. This is partly because we have reason to think that the preference of most people to have come into existence is an “adaptive preference” — a preference that people develop in order to cope with an unfortunate situation. When the infliction of harm causes the person harmed to come to consent to it, we should be very wary. If, for example, lobotomizing somebody caused that person to endorse the lobotomization, we would not – and should not – think that the retrospective consent justifies the practice.
DB: I do think that the bad outweighs the good in even the happiest lives. The reason why this seems so strange is that (most) humans have psychological traits that lead to their underweighting the bad and thus thinking that in their lives as a whole there is more good than bad. The most prominent of these traits is an optimism bias, but there are others too.
DB: First, it’s not true that all potential people are going to have a positive outlook. There are many who find life a struggle. Second, while the misjudgement may make lives less bad than they would otherwise be, it does not follow that the quality of life is as good as it is misjudged to be. It is still possible for life to be worse than one thinks it is. The concern about adaptive preferences applies here too.
DB: Noting the optimism bias and other psychological traits that lead to overestimation of the quality of life is only the first step in the argument. We can then point to a host of facts about the good and bad things in life. Here we should recognize some important empirical asymmetries that support a pessimistic conclusion. For example, the most intense pleasures are short-lived but pain is much more enduring. The worst pains are also worse than the best pleasures are good. Injury is swift but recovery is slow. These are but a few examples. All these claims can be assessed against the facts. They are not unfalsifiable.
DB: I am not depressed. I do have a pessimistic view, but that, I argue, is what the evidence warrants. Thus I invite opponents of antinatalism to consider the evidence fairly. I have only gestured at it here, but your readers can find a fuller treatment not only in Better Never to Have Been but also in Debating Procreation(where I debate the issues with David Wasserman).
DB: No, being an antinatalist does not entail being pro-mortalist, at least not always. An antinatalist can think that it is bad both to begin existing and to cease existing. Indeed one reason why it might be bad to begin existing is that we shall die. This is not to say that death is always bad all things considered. At some point the quality of life may become so bad that death is the lesser evil. It does not follow that one should kill oneself well before that point. However, the prospect that life will get so bad that death is the least bad option is excellent reason for thinking that coming into existence is bad. If we never exist we face neither the suffering of life nor the annihilation brought on by death.
DB: You’re quite right about the inconsistency. One commonly hears the following sort of argument from meat-eaters: “If we did not eat the sorts of animals that are bred for food, those animals would not have had an opportunity to live. Thus we have done them a favour by breeding them for human consumption.”
This is an appalling argument. Imagine somebody proposing to give many more humans the “benefit” of life by breeding them and then killing them after a short life of suffering. The fundamental flaw in the argument is that nobody has an interest in coming into existence.
While many humans’ lives are not as bad as those of factory-farmed animals, everybody will suffer considerable evil. The only way to prevent that is not to bring them into existence. Since that course of action has zero cost for those not brought into existence, we should desist from creating suffering humans, just as we should desist from creating suffering non-human animals.
DB: I agree that the vast majority of (non-human) animal suffering is that of wild animals - caused by other wild animals or by naturally induced starvation, disease and injury. This is cause for deep gloom – another way in which pessimism is supported by the evidence. I also agree that human rapaciousness has encroached on animal habitats and reduced animal populations – in the case of many species to the point of extinction. However, we cannot infer pronatalism from this. Indeed, Brian Tomasik himself recognizes this, and calls only for the inclusion of wild animals’ suffering in our moral calculations and for further research.
The problem is that attempting to do good by harmful means is controversial at the best of times. It is still more problematic when the causal networks are so complex that we may well end up having inflicted much more harm than we will have prevented. This error is so common in human history that we ignore it only at our moral peril. The very human activities that reduce animal populations, thereby preventing suffering, also have many (non-lethal) harmful effects on present and future beings. Those who would confidently argue that the benefits outweigh the costs should be reminded that even mass extinction does not reduce suffering if other (sentient) species emerge or proliferate in the vacated niche. It is estimated that 99.9% of all species that ever existed have become extinct. Suffering has not ended. Instead it has instantiated in new species. This is not to say that the extinction of all sentient life will never occur. I am only saying that we should not assume that this will result from rampant human pronatalism.
DB: If I am correct that bringing somebody into existence inflicts a terrible harm on that person, we should be worried about prospective parents who are willing to inflict that harm on their potential children in the hope that those children will help spare others suffering. Part of the worry is about those parents instrumentalising their children. How compassionate is it to do that? And what example are they setting? Another worry, however, is whether any child raised even by compassionate people would indeed make the world a better place. In The Misanthropic Argument for Anti-natalism, I point to just how much harm humans cause. Vegans, all other things being equal, do less damage than their omnivorous conspecifics. However, even vegans do some damage. Moreover, all other things are rarely equal.
Those who still want to raise compassionate children might consider adopting, thereby saving two birds from one stone. Those who adopt care for a child who would otherwise have had no parents, and they rear it as well as possible. They prevent suffering (of the otherwise parentless child) and they prevent suffering (that that child would cause if it were raised less well).
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