Antinatalism – An argument against giving birth


    Some philosophical ideas appear so logically extreme or contrary-to-experience at the first glance that they seem downright ridiculous, even comical, appropriating nothing but immediate dismissal. A disconnect from the world that we as a civilization or species have always known and as individuals have seen everyday, makes such ideas feel nothing more than figments of ludicrous sophistry, unworthy of any serious consideration. Antinatalism is one such idea.

    However, ethics, as any other application of philosophy, relies on abstraction. The validity of ethical principles, as any other principle, is not contingent upon the number of people who believe in it.

    Consent is the crux of most modern ethical systems. Most of us would agree that genuine approval from the bearers of the significant consequences of any independent action of ours is a mandatory criterion for evaluating the ethicality of such action. Consent is becoming the cornerstone of a number of laws and legal principles, particularly useful in establishing accountability.

    It should be universally obvious to every human adult that a human baby is in no position to provide consent. A foetus, a neonate, or even a two-year old infant lacks the capability to make even a coarse prediction about worldly phenomena and thus possesses no meaningful capacity to visualise even an outline of their lives to come. This argument is not only physiologically valid but valid at a very elementary logical level. If something does not exist, it cannot provide any consent whatsoever.

    Thus, a life which has not begun – an entity that does not yet exist, i.e. is not a real physical entity in the first place, cannot communicate (even if it were capable of doing so) anything, let alone its consent about any issue, let alone about coming into existence.

    Put simply, a baby which hasn’t been born has no ability to communicate its desire to be born or lack thereof. Further, an organism which has not yet started its life, obviously does not possess any thought, so not only is the consent non-conveyable, it is non-existent.

    There is no way of predicting whether, to a particular individual, their total life from their birth to their death, provides a net happiness. Even if happiness and suffering could be unambiguously quantified, be additive, and operated upon algebraically, i.e. such a hedonistic or eudaimonic calculus were possible, it could be argued in some schools of thought that for a person, a single unit of anguish could outweigh multiple units of joy. The latter argument would prioritise negativity minimisation over net positivity maximisation.

    With our limited foresight, we can never predict that if a baby were brought to life in a given set of circumstances, the total emotional fulfilment from their entire duration of existence (lifetime) would be desirable for them.

    At the risk of digressing from the ongoing theoretical discourse, an illustrative practical example could be cited – being born with one or more of severe congenital disorders and/or birth defects, hereditary or otherwise. A few examples would be Phocomelia, Cerebral Palsy, or Conjoined Twins. Many such conditions are bound to adversely affect one’s quality of life and in some cases make every moment of existence full of pain, suffering, anguish, dejection, and helplessness. Many of them are untreatable, either due to the lack of a cure or due to lack of relevant means, resources, and access. Many such individuals (among others) could wish to not have been born in the first place or even if they do not explicitly wish so, it could be that they (or for that matter, all humans) aren’t able to mentally comprehend and thus hedonistically evaluate the feeling of non-existence. While individual lives would be full of widely varying degrees of suffering from various acute and chronic sources, it can also be argued that death or its prospect, or both cause anguish of a certain degree as well. It is possible that living is worse than not living (non-existence) but dying is still worse than living. Moreover, suffering is not comparable and prolonged, severe agony and distress can occur in many not-so-apparent ways.

    The bottom line here is uncertainty – the nonzero probability of becoming the sole, ultimate cause of suffering for an individual. If a person, no matter how well-resourced or capable, decides to create new life out of nothingness, conceive and manifest a living organism out of the void of complete oblivion, they can be held solely accountable for any suffering caused to their creations, because the power of not begetting the particular individual solely rests with them. They alone could have prevented their progeny from coming into existence in a world of probable suffering. Having knowledge that their offspring incurred a non-zero, no matter how small, risk of having an existence period of net negative experience, makes them ethically responsible for willfully conceiving the product of their procreation. In effect, parents choose to have babies withstanding the fact that the latter could suffer, thus deliberately incurring, nay inflicting, the nonzero risk of a suffering-filled life. Although, it does not alter the ethicality of the act, even if the significance of such probability is a criterion for ethical decision-making, given the state of our world, it is obvious how prevalent and pervasive suffering actually is. To quote the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the national health agency of the US, “Birth defects are common, costly, and critical conditions that affect 1 in every 33 babies born in the United States each year”. “Every 4 ½ minutes, a baby is born with a birth defect in the United States. That means nearly 120,000 babies are affected by birth defects each year.”, it reports. It is important to bear in mind that diseases, disorders, and medical conditions are just one of the group of factors that cause suffering and anguish.

    Out of the hundreds of prominent examples that could be quoted, here are a few – According to UNICEF, every 3 seconds, a child dies due to hunger; Over 30% of people in the world face at least moderate food insecurity while 11% faced severed food insecurity, according to WHO; Some 180000 people die of burns every year, as per WHO’s data. As per CDC, 1 in 5 children in the US have had a seriously debilitating mental illness.

    As sane, sapient, cognizant individuals having lived for several years in the world, we are aware of at least some of these severe consequences to giving birth and their significant possibilities. Yet, equipped with this knowledge of risk, we willfully choose to have children. A common defense is that the intention behind the same is to benefit the child but the same can be shot down by simply pointing out that one cannot perform an action to benefit someone who does not exist. At the moment that parents decide to procreate, the individual whose benefit they claim to be the motivation behind this action and its ultimate end, i.e. their to-be offspring, is non-existent. An entity that does not exist cannot benefit from an action directed towards the same. Hence birth cannot be said to be an action that benefits the previously-absent product of birth.

    Further, being intellectually and emotionally complex species capable of deep self-reflection and extensive philosophical investigation, human beings are uniquely capable of realising their mortality, envisioning their death, and experiencing a long-term thoughtful dread of the same beyond an instinctive fear aimed at simple preservation. Human beings are one of the very few, if not the only species able to reflect on their own existence and thus suffer the emotional and mental toll of cognitively registering the finitude of their existence, the inherent purposelessness of life, and the dread of the march of time, ageing, and approaching death. Our empathy and affection to others further adds to this suffering when the latter suffer. We are conscious of our limitations, having taken cognisance of our insignificance in the universe, and yet cannot help but expect fairness and meaningfulness from reality for ourselves and others. Since such fairness and meaningfulness does not exist, our craving for it remains unfulfilled and remains a chronic source of anguish to us till our deaths. Thus, with the combination of our complex emotional and intellectual faculties, the former creating needs and desires and the latter giving rise to the realisation of their insatiability, we are uniquely predisposed among all species, to continue to suffer from existential anguish throughout our lives. Our intellectual calibre generates burdens that quickly overload our extensive but highly-sensitive emotional apparatus. We ponder the prospect of our death and struggle with the meaninglessness of life, unlike most other creatures who are driven largely by hardwired instinct and coarser (less-sophisticated) impulsive mechanisms.

    This line of argument is often met with the kneejerk strawman counterargument that the fraction of people who lead overall miserable lives is very small and hence the chances that a baby would undergo a terrible life are slim and outweighed by the overwhelming disproportionate prospect of enjoying the bounties of the world and leading a fulfilling, joyous life. In case, the flaws of such an argument aren’t clear already, consider the following thought experiment. Imagine, if you were offered to play an unbiased lottery game where you could make exactly one draw of a token from a box containing a hundred tokens (numbered 1 to 100). You are informed (and confidently believe in) the rules of the game – Ninety-nine of these tokens will cause both you and a close friend of yours to get your respective most coveted (within reasonable bounds of possibility) wishes fulfilled, say winning a billion dollars or getting to be the President of the United States, while exactly one token whose identity is unknown to you would cause an inevitable painful, slow, gruesome death to the said friend within an hour but leaving you absolutely unharmed. The chances of your playing the game leading to a violent and agonising death of your friend are thus one in a hundred while those of a major gain for both of you are ninety-nine in a hundred. You can choose to not play the game. Having full knowledge of the possible outcomes and the respective probabilities, would you still be willing to play this game? Would you take your chances? What if the probability of drawing an adverse token were 1 in 10 or 1 in 1000? Ethically, the situation you are in when deciding whether to play this game or not, is categorically congruent to parents deciding whether to have a child of their own.

    Even if there is one person in the world who would suffer extreme anguish from a collectively beneficial action you do, would you still proceed with the action with this knowledge? This is not akin to dilemmas like the trolley problem where you have to choose between two negatives, which respectively affect two different sets of victims. This is a comparison between getting a positive for one set of people and avoiding a negative for another. Consider another thought experiment – A person is found to be the only human being in the world who has a certain, extraordinary type of cells in his body that are, in some way, key to curing cancer. But after extensive research, scientists have solidly ruled out the possibility of replicating her ability and the possibility of her surviving any attempt to extract the relevant tissue or fluid from her body. They have also found that the probability of another such individual being born in the next thousand years is practically nil. Harvesting the said person’s unique tissue or fluid is bound to cause excruciating pain to her and ultimately lead to a slow, painful death. The harvest needs to be done while she is young. But the extraction process is sure to lead to a cure for millions, including hundreds of thousands of cancer-stricken children. If the individual naturally possessing this unique ability is unwilling to sacrifice herself for the sake of the millions of potential beneficiaries, is it right for us as a civilization to force the cure out of the individual in favour of the greater good? The harm caused to the particular individual would be directly on us while the non-intervened course of death of the cancer victims would not.

    If one believes that in case a person is not in a position to give consent for being subjected to an action, it is unethical for the doer of the action to proceed with the same with the said person, the very action of giving birth is unmistakably an unethical act. From an ethical point of view, the act of giving birth is equivalent in abstract to the act of performing any major, potentially hurtful action with an unconscious person.

    A common response to any proposition of antinatalism is along the lines of, ‘But that way humanity would end?!’, or something to the effect of ‘But how will the world continue?’. The prevalence of such counter-argumentation is understandable as a product of overwhelming traditional and contemporary conditioning. It is important to mind that just because a practice or phenomenon is natural, traditional, or popular, it does not automatically become ethically valid. Evolution has come to effectively incentivise the continuation of species by offering the reward of pleasure to an individual partaking in sexual intercourse. However, by inventing contraceptives and birth-control devices using our advanced cognitive abilities and intellect, we have circumvented the system, claiming the incentivising rewards without fulfilling the stipulated responsibility and bearing the liabilities of the same. There is no ethical obligation upon us to continue our species. Biological hardwiring, which we have anyhow largely superseded and overridden with our will, is no firm basis for ethical obligation. A number of practices that we consider ethical, even near-universally illegal, are prevalent in nature. Murder, assault, infanticide, and even cannibalism have been frequently observed in chimpanzees, our closest genetic relatives. Just because these phenomena are natural among animals, does not mean they are ethical for us to conduct. Continuation of the human species is thus not necessarily a righteous act. In fact, by not having any offspring of our own, thus breaking the cycle, we are preventing lifetimes of agonies of trillions of unrealised, potential humans. Even as individuals, when we give birth, most of us become the ultimate cause of the suffering of not only our immediate progeny but also of the agonies of hundreds to thousands of our descendants over an indefinite number of generations. This ethical liability is by virtue of us being an essential causative agent in their being and hence in their suffering. In other words, we could have prevented the suffering of all our descendants by simply not partaking in the act of reproduction. By not committing the action of procreation, we could have prevented each of the accidents, painful deaths, tormentous bouts, and whatnot, that our various descendants would come to experience.

    Some might argue that ending our species within our generation would increase the suffering of members of the current generation as they enter old age and need support. This argument assumes that it is justified to create a certain number of suffering-filled lives in order to mitigate our own suffering. If one does not believe in the same, then it is inconsistent for them to argue in favour of having babies to support their parents and/or others of their parents’ generation, since it is statistically known that at least some babies would go on to have significantly painful and harrowing lives.

    If one argues that it is more important to give some people the joys of life at the cost of causing immense suffering to some others and also arbitrarily assumes that the cumulative positive experiences of life outweigh the dread and experience of death in the hedonistic calculus, such a critic of antinatalism would find it impossible to explain why don’t we use all our time in creating new life, if life is indeed that desirable. There are an innumerable number of individuals who aren’t born. No matter how many humans take birth, there would always be an innumerable and veritably infinite number of unique individuals who could have been created, mustered out of nothingness and given life. We never lament the non-existence of these non-existent beings. But we do lament the painful existence of existent beings undergoing severe agony. Missing out on an imagined positive experience that does not exist causes us no inconvenience while undergoing a significantly negative experience does afflict our hearts and minds. If one believes that we are not obligated to provide happiness but that we are obligated to refrain from creating unhappiness, or even only holds the latter obligation to take precedence over the former, they would abstain from procreation. Put simply, if there is an unavoidable conflict between the two, providing happiness should not come at the cost of avoiding unhappiness. If it is to be believed that the negative right of protection from significant unhappiness supersedes the positive right of securing any degree of happiness, antinatalism is the obvious decision. Any prospect of happiness, no matter how probable, sizable, or extensive, is dispensable if it incurs the risk of directly causing significant otherwise unavoidable net unhappiness.

    Antinatalism, at least at its core, is not a new idea – many faiths in history, including many prominent early branches and sects of Christianity (such as Marcionites, Encratites, and Manichaeans) have pondered over, and even advocated this notion, with various motivations and justifications. Some others have grappled with the idea before dismissing or circumnavigating it, often on arbitrary grounds. From Gnostics to Daoists, people of different faiths had their metaphysical reasons to believe in the worthlessness and unavoidable painfulness of life on Earth. Some saw stopping procreation as a means to stop the impious advance of death, an absolute check to its unrelenting insolent march. Not giving a birth was depriving the hellfire of its fodder and ultimately starving it. Others viewed it as a prudent rejection of the impious mortal world. Yet others saw it as a way to hasten the restoration of a believed higher, original, supernatural order or state, amorphous or well-defined.

    “And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive.
    But better than both is he who has not yet been, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.”

    (Ecclesiastes 4:2-3)

    The quote above doesn’t necessarily imply that Christianity supported antinatalism, but is one of many possible illustrations of how most faiths conspicuously acknowledged in the suffering-filled nature of life.

    It is important to note that various antinatalists may be motivated by a variety of ideas and intentions. Not all antinatalists share the same pool of reasons behind their opposition to creating new life. They might chalk out differing ethical implications and justifiable reactions to the act of birth. For instance, certain antinatalists might see one or more such reasons to seek legal remedies against their parents, while others might disagree with the same. Some antinatalists might be motivated purely by environmental concerns – particularly a relatively pessimistic view of the future trajectory of anthropogenic climate change, pollution, and habitat destruction. Their reasons behind not procreating would concern both the causes and effects of aggravating environmental destruction – a rise in population would increase the total demand and consumption, hence exacerbating the resource crises and environmental footprints while the same would serve as good enough reason to not bring another life into a world that is becoming increasingly inhospitable and likely headed towards ecological collapse. It would make sense to refrain from producing new lives on an overloaded planet which is finding it difficult to sustain even the entirety of its existing human population. Attacking the validity of one of the various grounds on which antinatalists base their decision to oppose birth doesn’t serve to invalidate antinatalism as an ethical argument. It is a common straw-man counter to take specific personal stipulations, actions, and caveats or particular fringe beliefs of certain self-proclaimed antinatalists, and cite them in a bid to annul the ethical or practical sensibility of antinatalism. Not all antinatalists believe, for instance, that all lives have a net negative overall hedonistic sum, or that the Earth faces imminent doom, or that one’s parents are liable to compensate them for having begotten them. While antinatalists might differ in the beliefs that cause them to be against procreation, all antinatalists by definition, oppose birth.

    Ethically speaking, if one believes in consent and minimising suffering, one has a responsibility towards animals as well. As sentient beings capable of experiencing pain and affliction, (at least) animals who have a well-developed nervous system stand the risk of living overall miserable lives. As ethical and responsible individuals, at least if being ethical is understood by you as minimising suffering and respecting consent, it falls upon us, being one of the most intellectually-refined, sapient, technologically-advanced, and influential species on the planet, to prevent further misery within our sphere of control and influence. As a very specific commonplace example, sterilisation of dogs can be justified from the suffering of puppies – a study in India found that only 19% of stray dog pups make it to the age of reproductive maturity. Life is hardly better in the wild. Only 1 in 8 lion cubs survive to adulthood. At least 186 elephants died brutal deaths in documented collisions with trains in the last decade according to data from the Indian Government’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. Sterilising all existing sentient species, at least ones whose mental and physical pain-sensitivity we are sure of, is thus the most benign way to prevent the torment of the quintillions of living beings otherwise set to take birth, suffer, breed, and perish on the planet. The sterilisation method should be made as painless, benign, and non-invasive as possible. In its broadest sense, antinatalism opposes creation of new sentient, sensitive life, not just giving birth. Hence, the futuristic possibility of creating sentient, self-aware, and pain-receptive lifeforms, say, lab-grown complex organisms or perceptive, sapient and perceptive Artificial Intelligence Systems, or similar artificial, stimulus-sensitive electronic cybernetic beings also falls within its general scope. Passively, the least one can do is to refrain from directly creating new living beings that are capable of feeling sensations while in a more dutiful sense one should also strive to prevent the creation of any such life, such as intervening in animal breeding with non-intrusive sterilisation.

    “ ‘Hateful day when I received life!’, I exclaimed in agony.”
    ~Mary Shelley (Frankenstein)

    Even if you could claim ignorance of not having thought to the depth of the arguments made above, now that you have read them, the onus is on you. You cannot beg ignorance anymore. You have a chance to break the cycle of suffering. Even if you consider your life to have been a net positive, is it worth taking even a minuscule risk of your beloved offspring getting the opposite of it, often by circumstances and phenomena beyond your control?

    There are many practical, current state-specific considerations that can be used to argue in favour of antinatalism. Take for instance, the ecological crisis – the Earth is becoming an increasingly difficult place to live in, having undergone practically permanent (compared to our lifespans) adverse anthropogenic alterations. We are continuing to turn the planet into a veritable fuming oven. The crisis has been masked by unsustainably tremendous growth and development restricted to the disproportionately focussed-upon portions of our civilisation. However as our resources continue to run out and our footprints grow at an increasing rate as a result of burgeoning population and per capita demand, we are bound to cross multiple key limits and critical thresholds in the foreseeable future – many of them within our own lifespans. Further, childbirth and parenting have always been gender-skewed. Human childbirth is exceptionally difficult and painful given how quickly we have evolved into bipedal, large-brained animals. Bodies of human females have not yet been able to fully catch up to changes in head size, shoulder girth, general posture, and limb orientation, making human childbirth particularly precarious for both the mother and the baby. The liability of gestating, delivering, and nursing the baby fall wholly on the female parents. The pain, anxiety, and efforts in taking precautions to ensure safety, are all physically and mentally discomforting to women, often dealing permanent damage to their bodies that considerably hampers the quality of the remainder of their lives. Romanticisation and cultural conditioning hinder or suppress this realisation. These ground considerations that pertain to the current state of our civilisation accentuate the need for antinatalism but abstract ethical arguments for antinatalism alone should provide sufficient ground to any individual who does not wish to arbitrarily assume non-existent consent or deliberately inflict suffering, to strictly refrain from the act of childbirth. Human effort that goes into conceiving, delivering, and rearing children could instead be put into adoption and improving the quality of life of those who have already been carved out of oblivion, i.e. existent children who have irreversibly brought out from the tranquillity of non-existence.

    Antinatalism is not counterintuitive, it just happens to seem so because it is counter-experiential. Nonetheless, as rational, thoughtful, self-aware, sapient, and empathetic creatures, we are ethically liable to take ready cognisance of the possibility of significant suffering occurring as a result of our harmlessly entirely avoidable action. If we choose to strive towards minimising the risk of suffering, be it motivated by empathy or ethics, antinatalism is key to putting a benign end to the chain of inheritance of suffering. At its core, antinatalism is an idea that seeks to uproot the very cause of suffering and death – birth, the ticket to an inescapable journey through and to misery and ruin. Antinatalism is the radical idea of leaving no ethical footprint and leaving the Earth, a quiet, peaceful place free of distress and death.