Non-existence is hard to do
A review of contemporary antinatalist writings
“Coming into existence is bad in part because it invariably leads to the harm of ceasing to exist.” David Benatar
“If they could get a corpse to sit up on an operating table, they would jubilantly exclaim, “It’s alive!” And so would we. Who cares that human beings evolved from slimy materials? We can live with that, or most of us can.” Thomas Ligotti
The persistence of pessimism
When I sent out an email message soliciting contributions on the topic of philosophical pessimism and antinatalism one person declined with the reasonable response that such positions are only taken seriously by a handful of far-out philosophers. Humans have evolved to procreate and seek happiness. What is the point?
The reason why I have not been inclined to so easily dismiss the recent renaissance of philosophical pessimism is because negative and tragic views about life are woven throughout human history and culture. Most dominant religions have little positive to say about the state of humanity (after the fall) and the prospects for a life devoid of suffering on earth. Despite its relative sophistication, even Buddhism presents a picture of the universe as a source of suffering. Much can be said about pessimism but not that its influence is outside the mainstream.
Even the antinatalist position that it is better never to have been and that we have a moral obligation not to procreate is not completely obscure. Who has not had the experience of talking to the grumpy old lady who wonders why anyone would want to bring children into this world? We routinely dismiss such positions as being out of touch with reality but modern culture persists in linking intellectualism to pessimism. This perhaps should not be surprising because, as a general rule, excessive thinking comes at the expense of sensual experience. One reason why many intellectuals are biased towards pessimism is because it provides them the opportunity to rescue us with their ideas. Antinatalism offers the triumph of Reason against existence itself; the ultimate triumph of the Intellectual.
Philosophical aversion to pessimism can be found among the finest thinkers in the history of philosophy. There is David Hume, the great empiricist thinker, and an amiable and optimistic person. Then there is Friedrich Nietzsche, who, despite a life of disease and isolation, recognized that pessimism is not an objective feature of the universe but the expression of a weak and oversensitive mind. The twentieth century witnessed a strong renaissance of the empiricism of David Hume in the form of logical positivism. These philosophers rightly abstained from putting forward a “philosophy of life,” but optimism about science and humanity’s potential is clear in their foundational writings. It is also interesting to note that the most recent forceful responses to pessimism have not come from professional philosophers but from libertarian economists who do not display the slightest intellectual embarrassment in claiming that life is getting better all the time.
In my opinion, the most obvious question that can be raised about philosophical pessimism is whether its supporting claims are factual descriptions of reality or just expressions of temperament. Another interesting question is whether philosophical pessimism necessarily obliges us to the antinatalist position. In seeking answers to these questions we turn to the literature of contemporary antinatalism.
Jim Crawford’s Confessions of an Antinatalist is a highly readable autobiographical exposition of antinatalism. Thomas Ligotti’s book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race is more ambitious in scope and contains a wealth of historical information on pessimism, discussions of modern science, and, not surprisingly, a review of the theme of pessimism in horror literature. David Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence is the most rigorous exposition of antinatalism to date. This book covers a lot of ground and I will confine myself to some of its main topics only.
The harm of coming into existence
In its purest form antinatalism may not be attainable but the framework that informs this position rests on a couple of sound premises: (1) we do not impose a harm (or withhold a benefit) by not bringing someone into this world; (2) we do impose a harm by bringing someone into the world when this person’s life will be bad. Jim Crawford believes that these premises are evident and I see little reason to dispute him. The real debate about antinatalism is how to determine that a person’s life is (or will be) bad, and how much consideration the interests of parents should be given.
One of the most problematic aspects about the work of Crawford and other antinatalists is that they have little patience for the argument that life is better than they think it is. In some passages it is hard to distinguish the antinatalist from the Marxist. If people think that life is much better than Crawford makes it out to be, the standard rejoinder is that these people suffer from a form of false consciousness (pessimists frequently use words like “truly” and “really”). In some passages this attitude borders on intolerance. A prime example can be found in Crawford’s discussion of childhood. For many people growing up was a period of great happiness and discovery. Crawford’s agitated dismissal of such accounts introduces an element of illiberalism in what is otherwise a humanistic endeavor. It is in these passages that antinatalism turns into bitter ideology.
The way the term “bias” is employed is deeply problematic. It is used as if there is an objective perspective that can reached were it not for those pesky evolutionary biases coming between the person and the universe. At times the author appears to be saying that if evolution did not select in favor of those wanting to survive we would not want to survive. This is not particularly helpful. Some of these “biases” do not cover up anything but just make us happier.
Let us assume here the metaphysical premise that there is an objective, material reality that can be known through the use of reason and empirical observation. This does not mean that there is one “correct” fit between an organism and the world. A person who is manically depressed perceives the world in a different matter than a person who is not. How we are “wired” and respond to our environment is not a matter of “correct” or “incorrect.” Thinking otherwise would be hard to reconcile with an evolutionary outlook in which life is just the outcome of random interactions of organic molecules.
One argument that remains available to the pessimist would be that the probability of creating a miserable life is too high to warrant procreation. But it is at this point that the “transhumanist” can enter the debate and claim that our expected quality of life is no longer just the outcome of a “random” evolutionary process but can be brought under rational control. We should endeavor to make happy children.
In my opinion, the short response to empirical pessimism can take the following form. Pleasure and pain are both part of existence. For some sentient beings pleasure outweighs pain, for other sentient beings pain outweighs pleasure. A moral agent cannot add up, subtract, or divide these elements for life as a whole to produce an objective quality-of-existence function. The antinatalist runs into the same problems as all the utilitarians and welfare economists who have tried to define a social utility function as a guide for public policy. As Thomas Ligotti notes in his book, “…the reason for the eternal stalemate between optimists and pessimists, is that no possible formula can be established to measure proportions and types of hurt and happiness in the world. If such a formula could be established, then either pessimists or optimists would have to give in to their adversaries.” I think that the best response available to the antinatalist would be to follow David Benatar’s example and present a strictly formal argument, or simply argue that in case of doubt, we should abstain from procreation.
After spending the bulk of his book persuading the reader that life is suffering, Crawford discusses what he calls “Escape Strategies.” In his treatment of Buddhism as an escape strategy he could simply have made the obvious internal critique that desire may be sufficient, but not necessary for suffering. Crawford’s treatment of Christianity is scathing, which may indicate regret because the author himself was a Christian for awhile. Why have children if there is the prospect of eternal damnation? Good question, but I think that a Christian can respond by saying that following Scripture is more important than applying human morality to God’s creation.
The last escape strategy that Crawford reviews is hope, which turns into a discussion of futurism and transhumanism. The argument that many of those pursuing life extension will not be around to benefit from it is too simplistic. Unless the brain is completely destroyed at death, the neuro-anatomical basis of identity can be preserved at cryogenic temperatures for a very long time. No delusional expectations about the future are required. People in cryostasis have time. But then the author delivers a critique that I think deserves serious treatment by transhumanists (discussions about “friendly AI” do not exhaust this topic by any means). In a nutshell, we should not expect that technological progress will necessarily produce moral progress. And even if it will, accidents happen. Technologies that can be designed to produce great joy can be used to create great suffering as well. If humanity can manufacture hell without God, the case for pessimism and antinatalism may be strengthened.
Interestingly enough, the anticipation of such dark future technologies may present a (subconscious) obstacle for many people considering cryonics. Hundreds of millions of people believe in the craziest things like astrology and psychoanalysis, but only a handful of people (around 1500) have made cryonics arrangements. This lack of interest can hardly be attributed to ignorance, and perhaps the most persuasive answer may be hidden in Crawford’s book. Cryonics basically forces people to deal with the question whether they would like to be “born again” in a far and unknown future. As a general rule, the answer seems to be “no.” Antinatalists may find additional ammunition for their position in studying the reasons for the low sign-up rate for cryonics.
Antinatalists should expect a lot of obvious questions such as “are most people not glad to be alive?” or “why not kill yourself?” I fear that Crawford’s answer to the question “why not kill yourself?” risks undermining the orthodox antinatalist project. If empathic sensibility can make an enlightened antinatalist who wants to stick around it is arguable that antinatalists should make an effort to remain alive in an effort to reduce the amount of (future) suffering in the universe. Antinatalists then become life extensionists. To use conventional Buddhist terminology, perhaps at some point there will be a Theravada version of antinatalism (focused primarily on non-procreation) and a Mahayana version of antinatalism (concerned with the elimination of the suffering of all sentient beings).
David Benatar runs into a similar problem when he ponders the question whether bringing new people into the world could be justified to reduce the suffering of the last remaining people. It seems to me that how an antinatalist deals with such practical moral issues depends on how the ethics of antinatalism is conceived. Do we have a “right” not to come into existence or is the objective of antinatalism to juggle with small and great suffering towards the ultimate end of its complete abolition?
If antinatalism is conceived as a strictly individualistic endeavor, concerns about the suffering of all humans can be easily dismissed. But in that case antinatalism would just collapse into individualist pessimism. Who cares about suffering, as long as it is not me! This is not the kind of sentiment that is generally found in antinatalist writings. I do not think that the question whether there might be moral reasons to remain alive, and, yes, bring into being forms of life that are benevolent but ruthless towards suffering, can be easily dismissed.
At one point Crawford observes that secular and smart people are having fewer children. This does not look good for the inevitable triumph of antinatalism. Under such scenarios antinatalism produces dysgenics, and if one believes that stupidity and evil go hand in hand, increased suffering for more people.
To me it is not unlikely that, in practice, antinatalism leads to more suffering because it will only be adopted by sympathetic human beings such as Crawford. The antinatalist cannot argue that the amount of suffering in the universe cannot be increased nor decreased. The whole point of antinatalism after all is that suffering can and should be decreased. But how to go about this may be more complicated than it appears. A sober assessment of the practical implications of antinatalism may require revision of the antinatalist position itself.
Confessions of an Antinatalist is a fine and humane book, but in the end it is also a book of the converted written for the non-converted. Thomas Sowell has noted that in economics there are no solutions but only trade-offs. I would not be surprised if antinatalists will come to a similar conclusion at some point.
Suffering without meaning
Thomas Ligotti is a contemporary horror writer whose fiction work is marked by cosmic nihilism, alienation and the fragile nature of reality. As a great admirer of the work of Ligotti I have been reluctant to comment on his non-fiction. Fortunately, unlike many other artists, Ligotti has little interest in “critical theory” or “progressive” politics. His book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror is not concerned with such trivial topics but with the bleak fate of humanity in a deterministic and indifferent universe.
The book starts off with an introduction by obscurantist philosopher Ray Brassier, whose work would certainly qualify for the description that Ligotti gives to Schopenhauer’s oeuvre (“too overwrought in the proving to be anything more than another intellectual labyrinth for specialists in perplexity”).
Reading Ligotti’s account of why humans reject truly bleak views about life it would be interesting to see how antinatalists respond to the existence of orthodox Calvinism. Accepting a universe without free will that is ruled by an omnipotent God who has decreed that the majority of people will suffer in hell for His self-glorification seems a lot more terrifying to me. Nonetheless, millions of people have accepted this theological perspective. The existence of Reformed theology lays to rest the view that humans have an intrinsic desire to avoid doctrines that are too terrible too contemplate.
When Ligotti discusses the work of antinatalist Peter Wessel Zapfe once more we find the view that there is an objective predicament of mankind that is hidden by false consciousness. It is remarkable to see the similarities between those who argue that we do not want look our “oppression” straight in the face and those who argue that we avoid coming to terms with the horror of existence. What is often lacking here is the recognition that there is also a wealth of literature about human suffering that supports the idea that we would be happier if we did look nature straight in the face. No nonsense about “moral responsibility,” “sin,” “duty,” “the greater good” etc. Marquis de Sade, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Max Stirner are representatives of this school of thought.
What is intriguing about Ligotti’s book is that it reads like a rather delicate balancing act. On one hand, we have the detached observer (my favorite) who is bemused at the show business of both the optimists and pessimists. On the other hand, it is unmistakable that Ligotti feels affinity with the philosophers of cosmic horror and pessimism. His fiction does not leave much room for any other conclusion. But The Conspiracy Against the Human Race contains more than a few (unintended) suggestions how someone who declines to take sides would present his argument.
Hard determinism and the illusion of the self
I have a hard time relating to the Ligotti’s discussion about determinism and pessimism. Hard determinism (or hard imcompatibilism) is just a part of the “scientific worldview” and it is not obvious to me why it should be a source of despair. Ligotti then discusses the existence of the “self.” I am inclined to think there is an important difference between free will and the self. Modern science can make sense of the world and human action without assuming free will. I am not convinced that this is possible if the concept of the self is rejected. Unlike free will, the recognition of a “self” comes at a later stage in evolution. It has been argued that primitive people could not clearly distinguish the self from its surroundings and thus were not able to discover the laws of physics and manipulate it to their benefit. The philosopher Hans Reichenbach developed a pragmatic case for the existence of the external world and the self in his seminal work Experience And Prediction: An Analysis of the Foundations And the Structure of Knowledge. Ultimately, the Kantian question whether something “really” exists (or what something “really” looks like) does not seem particularly helpful in the study of reality, as the early logical positivists of Vienna understood well.
Why would anything that neuroscientists discover about the self and how it is constructed be a source of dread? If you believe that life is just the result of random meetings of organic molecules, it stands to reason that the physical basis of consciousness and the self reflects such a process. Why would accepting such ideas make one a “heroic pessimist?” Why the pessimism at all? Ligotti even agrees. “One would think that neuroscientists and geneticists would have as much reason to head for the cliffs because little by little they have been finding that much of our thought and behavior is attributable to neural wiring and heredity rather than to personal control over the individuals we are, or think we are. But they do not feel suicide to be mandatory just because their laboratory experiments are informing them that human nature may be nothing but puppet nature. Not the slightest tingle of uncanniness or horror runs up and down their spines, only the thrill of discovery. Most of them reproduce and do not believe there is anything questionable in doing so.”
Ligotti also discussed transhumanism, but not in much depth. As a transhumanism skeptic myself, I found little to object to but it seems that Ligotti’s real target is what is called Singularitarianism. This part in the book seems something of a missed opportunity because there is substantial overlap between Ligotti’s fiction and themes that are discussed by transhumanist writers: living in a computer simulation, parallel universes, alternate realities etc.
When Ligotti reviews near-death experiences and ego-death, the common-sense neurological explanations that were invoked in discussions of free will and the self are largely absent (a notable exception is his discussion of the possibility that a brain tumor can cause such an “enlightened” state). For critical-care physicians it is a given that many people suffer (regional) cerebral ischemia during the dying process. As such, it is surprising (but encouraging) that not more people claim enlightenment after they recover. These periods of transient oxygen deprivation can produce long term damage and a “re-wiring” of the brain, which can explain the new perspectives these people adopt. From a physicalist perspective, death of the ego is (partial) death of the brain, something one may or may not want to celebrate.
In Ligotti’s book the reason for pessimism is multi-factorial. It includes the lack of meaning in an indifferent universe, the reality of hard determinism, and the illusion of the self. The works of Benatar and Crawford are more restricted in scope and mostly focus on more mundane suffering. Ligotti’s philosophical horror is much richer, but I wonder how much of it will resonate with people who embrace a scientific view of the universe. The Conspiracy against the Human Race may not have been designed as an argument against “unweaving the rainbow” (to use Richard Dawkin’s useful phrase) but it sometimes reads like one.
There is a lot in Ligotti’s fine book that I have not discussed such as the extensive treatment of pessimism in horror fiction, loads of interesting philosophical and scientific references, plus illuminating discussions of obscure authors such as Peter Wessel Zappfe and Philipp Mainlander. As such, it can also be considered as an indispensable reference for philosophical pessimism and cosmic horror.
Empiricism and non-existence
David Benatar is a rigorous philosopher. His work can be situated in the analytic tradition and he makes an honest attempt to anticipate objections to his own views. When he argues for positions using mainly logical arguments he is quite persuasive. A being that does not exist can neither be harmed nor benefited. I cannot see how this argument (or tautology?) can be successfully refuted. But when Benatar attempts to argue that the quality of life of most people is much worse than they think it is, multiple challenges arise. I do not think this is the result of Benatar’s poor reasoning but because the fields that he relies on – evolution, social psychology, happiness research and the study of cognitive biases – are notorious for allowing competing views. It seems to me that ultimately Benatar cannot escape the charge that he pays excessive attention to theories that claim that we think we are happier than we really are. Perhaps I have spent too much time in the wrong subculture but it seems to me that the phenomenon of people claiming to be less happy than they really are should not be ignored either.
Like Crawford, Benatar cannot completely escape the charge of illiberalism. Classical liberalism takes very seriously the challenges in reaching satisfactory conclusions about the quality of other people’s lives. In practice this means that we exercise restraint in making strong cognitive and moral claims about the feelings and preferences of other people. This is a mindset that does not seem to come easily to antinatalists. Benatar is on more agreeable ground when he simply derives his antinatalism from uncertainty; “some know that their baby will be among the unfortunate. Nobody knows, however, that their baby will be one of the allegedly lucky few.”
Benatar believes that even if his empirical argument about the poor quality of our lives fails, his formal argument from asymmetry is still left standing. He thinks that even if there is one single painful pinprick in an otherwise good life, we still harm that person by bringing him into existence. I think that Benatar is “proving” too much here. We can agree that anyone who conceives a child cannot escape the prospect that this person will experience some harm. But from this it does not follow that the person is harmed in a meaningful moral sense without considering the expected overall quality of that life. Perhaps Benatar would respond that I have not understood his argument, and I will admit that I have a difficult time understanding why the possibility that a person’s pleasures are expected to outweigh the pains do not alter his argument. I think that both bringing into existence a life that is invariably good and a life that is generally good can be morally defended on the grounds that there will not be any post-natal moral objections from the person involved. Of course, we are not morally obliged to do so, because we will not deprive the unborn of such a good life if we don’t have children. But since most parents have a positive interest in having children, in practice this tips the scales in favor of some (but not all!) procreation. One problem I can see with my argument is that it might permit the creation of a life form that would experience great suffering but with an unalterable survival instinct and no cognitive possibility of moral blame or regret. Some antinatalists might even claim that this is a rather accurate description of the human race as it exists today.
As an empiricist, I generally give the benefit of doubt to empirical observations when they appear to conflict with logical reasoning. I think that this preference itself can be justified on historic and pragmatic grounds. The claim that coming into existence is always a harm is not consistent with the reports of all those who have come into existence. That seems to be a non-trivial epistemological roadblock for antinatalism.
When Benatar discusses the moral duty not to have children he runs into the obvious problem of how the interests of the parents should be weighed against the interests of the child. One does not need to be an ethical egoist to believe that the interests of the parents count for something. In this case the question returns to how bad the life of most people is and, as discussed, this is a rather vulnerable part of antinatalism. Benatar attempts to answer the obvious objection that most people who have been born do not regret this or blame their parents. But when I read his thoughts on “indoctrination” I only see further evidence of the anti-liberalism in his writings.
In fairness to Benatar (who seems to identify himself as a liberal of some sorts), he does defend the legal right to procreation because he admits that there can be reasonable disagreement about his views. I think this point is particularly important for antinatalism since reasonable objections often come from the very people whose lives Benatar characterizes as very bad. That is not to deny that society can choose to be less supportive of people who engage in reckless procreation. Such behavior can be substantially decreased by withholding benefits that encourage or reward such behavior. Benatar correctly argues that if one subscribes to a consistent interpretation of the Kantian argument that future people should not be treated as means, then all reproduction is morally dubious. But whether that highlights the virtues or defects of Kant’s ethics I leave to the reader to ponder.
Benatar highlights the importance of making a distinction between the decision to bring someone into existence and the decision to continue life. Even if we commit to the idea that it is better never to have been we can still have reasons for wanting to continue life. As a matter of fact, Benatar entertains the argument that the prospect of death itself is one of the reasons why existence is bad. Those who follow Epicurus believe that death cannot be experienced and thus cannot be a bad thing for the person. This is an extremely difficult argument to refute, but Benatar’s discussion of this topic is quite illuminating because he points out that those who hold this position may also have to commit to the view that death can never be good for a person. One only needs to imagine a person whose life is one of continuous suffering to see that this is not a plausible argument.
As an academic Benatar is less hostile to religion than Crawford and Ligotti but I do not think he can successfully escape the objection that antinatalism requires an atheist perspective. One does not have to be a scripturalist to note that Benatar is only concerned with the fate of humans and not with the interests of God. Perhaps Benatar cannot see any positive value in human suffering because his information about Creation is incomplete. Theodicies that reconcile the existence of God and the existence of Evil are not difficult to generate. As Plotinus has observed, “We are like people ignorant of painting who complain that the colours are not beautiful everywhere in the picture: but the Artist has laid on the appropriate tint to every spot.”
Antinatalists and life extensionists
One would think that cryonicists and life extensionists should be repulsed by antinatalism. I think such a view would be mistaken. All the antinatalist authors discussed here are motivated by empathy for the suffering of all sentient life. We should also welcome the analytical and physicalist perspectives that underpin their writings. Too much (Continental) philosophy is simply an insult to the intellect and a waste of time. If a case should be made for pessimism it needs be stated in a form that is amenable to reasoned debate and empirical investigation.
Of more specific interest to life extensionists is the plausible prospect that our abilities to decrease suffering will (necessarily?) be matched by our abilities to increase suffering too. This is a possibility that should be studied in great detail by advocates of molecular nanotechnology, strong AI, and Substrate Independent Minds.
It is no secret that cryonicists are underperforming in terms of reproduction. But as Howard V. Hendrix discusses in the article “Dual Immortality, No Kids: The Dink Link between Birthlessness and Deathlessness in Science Fiction,” this may not be a coincidence. If biological immortality becomes a credible option, having children as a substitute for personal survival will lose much of its appeal.
Most rewarding for cryonicists is the unique perspective that antinatalists can bring to the debate concerning why so few people have made cryonics arrangements. The hostility of many people towards cryonics cannot be explained if people categorically believe that meaningful resuscitation (revival) is impossible. It is the prospect that cryonics may actually work that induces severe anxiety. If the antinatalists are correct in their assessment that coming into existence is always a harm, the unpopularity of cryonics might be indirect evidence for their position.
I want to close this review with one word of advice to those who engage in debates with antinatalists. Most antinatalists waste little time reminding their readers how controversial their ideas are. They think that they have uncovered the greatest taboo of all time. As an empirical matter, this is doubtful. Antinatalist ideas can be freely discussed in modern Western countries, something that cannot be said about a number of other controversial ideas. Antinatalists are also quick to point out that their pessimism should not be dismissed as an expression of weakness and depression. But then the antinatalists commit a similar error by too easily viewing optimism as a defense mechanism or a form of bias. But is it completely unreasonable to look for the neurophysiologic and genetic basis of pessimism and optimism? The uncompromising naturalism in the work of the antinatalists supports such an inquiry.
Jim Crawford: Confessions of an Antinatalist (Nine Banded Books 2010)
Thomas Ligotti: The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror (Hippocampus Press 2010)
David Benatar: Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence (Oxford University Press 2006)
Thanks to Dr. Michael Perry for discussing some of the topics in this review and proofreading an earlier version of this document.