Richard Stallman’s Antinatalism
If you check the promoted page of this blog, you’ll see I have promoted Richard Stallman’s article “Why it is important not to have children”. I have the promoted page so that I have somewhere to promote others’ ideas and so that I don’t have to write a new post for each idea. But I still want to highlight a few of the points in that article that I find most compelling.
The strongest reason Stallman gives for not having children is to avoid the global heating disaster (climate change) fueled by overconsumption and overpopulation. He notes that first worlders who consume lots of resources especially should not have children. Even if there were no other reason not to have children, I consider averting climate change a strong enough reason on its own. Having one less child does more for the environment than all the other personal choices you can make combined. It’s a no-brainer.
Besides not contributing to climate change, there’s also the legitimate concern about what kind of world children born today will live in. Given the current trajectory of climate change and the failure of nations to address the problem, children born today will be destined to live in a world where large regions are uninhabitable and there’s constant conflict and war over resources unless drastic action is taken to prevent disaster. Is it moral to put another being into a world like that?
He has a few other reasons on his article in favor of not having children or having only a small family. I agree with him that natalist pressure is a very Bad Thing. Having children shouldn’t be something to be proud of or celebrated. It should be discouraged at least until the climate and ecological crises are averted.
David Benatar’s Antinatalism
Stallman says in his article that he doesn’t wish for humanity to go extinct. He just wants the population to reach a sustainable level. But there are some who take it much further. They do want humanity to go extinct. According to them, it would be the best thing that could possibly happen. What distinguishes the antinatalism coming from Stallman from the antinatalism coming from people like David Benatar who want voluntary human extinction is Benatar argues that procreating is always morally wrong or at best morally neutral.
There is often confusion that antinatalists like Benatar are just nihilists. That’s not the case at all. They’re often very compassionate people who have a deep concern for the suffering of all life. Many of them are even vegans. And that compassion for the suffering of others is why they believe humanity, and in some cases all animals, should go extinct.
Some people who I think are unable to cope with the conclusion of Benatar’s arguments try to psychologize him. They try to say that his own personal experience of life has caused him to hold such views. To psychologize him in this way instead of assessing his arguments based on their merits doesn’t do justice to his arguments. I’m not saying the people who psychologize him are wrong about him. I’m saying even if they’re right, it’s irrelevant to the validity of his arguments.
I’ve had similar experiences as Benatar where people psychologized my atheism. They assumed that I was an atheist because I was depressed. I wrote about this in my post Dealing With Close-Minded People. It turns out this happens to atheists a lot. I know firsthand how frustrating it can be to be psychologized, so I’m going stick strictly to the arguments. I’m not going to speculate on the psychology of Benatar.
Asymmetry of Harms/Benefits
According to Benatar, one way to arrive at antinatalism is through his asymmetry argument (copied from Wikipedia, license: CC-BY-SA 3.0):
- The presence of pain is bad
- The presence of pleasure is good
- The absence of pain is good even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone
- The absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation
Regarding procreation, the argument follows that coming into existence generates both good and bad experiences, pain and pleasure, whereas not coming into existence entails neither pain nor pleasure. The absence of pain is good, the absence of pleasure is not bad. Therefore, the ethical choice is weighed in favor of non-procreation.
Since I consider objective morality to be incoherent, I’m going to convert Benatar’s asymmetry into the language of hypothetical imperatives to make it more coherent. If you want more explanation on this, I recommend reading my post on metaethics. I’m also going to make a few other modifications that he wouldn’t object to which will make his argument easier to understand:
- I value pain negatively
- I value pleasure positively
- I value the absence of pain positively
- I value the absence of pleasure neutrally unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation
If we use only premises 1 and 2, we can adopt a linear sliding scale:
(Bad) (Neutral) (Good)
There is everything from the most excruciating pain to the most blissful pleasure. The absence of pain and the absence of pleasure need not be illustrated on this scale because they possess no value. Since pain is valued negatively and pleasure positively, presumably, they cancel each other out. Therefore it’s possible to do pain/pleasure calculus like this:
1. I broke my leg (-500)
2. I ate a tasty ice cream (+1)
The enjoyment from eating an ice cream is overwhelmed by breaking your leg. If you were to do both in the same day, you’d probably consider it a bad day. This lines up with our common sense.
Where Benatar deviates from this model is in premises 3 and 4. He places values on the absence of pain and pleasure. If we interpret premises 3 and 4 in an absolute sense, that means for instance that the absence of pain cancels out pain, since pain is bad and its absence good. His calculus would look like this:
1. I broke my leg (-500)
2. I didn't break my other leg (+500)
Clearly this makes no sense. If you break your leg, in that moment, the pain of your broken leg isn’t canceled out by the fact that your other leg remains intact. That’s absurd. But that’s exactly what Benatar’s argument seems to imply.
To further illustrate the point that Benatar’s value system makes absolutely no sense when his premises are interpreted in an absolute sense, I’m going to create 3 more diagrams representing his argument:
1a. individual doesn't yet exist
<--absence of pleasure------------------------------pleasure-->
1b. individual already exists
(Bad) (Neutral???) (Good)
<--absence of pleasure------some pleasure------more pleasure-->
2. individual exists or doesn't yet exist
(Bad) (Neutral???) (Good)
<--more pain--------------pain---------------absence of pain-->
Diagram 1a makes intuitive sense. The absence of pleasure is neutral. As you move toward more pleasure, that’s more good.
Now let’s look at diagram 1b. Surely anyone could agree that there is a spectrum of pleasure from no pleasure to perfect bliss. That justifies the diagram. But if absence of pleasure is bad and pleasure is good, then that would mean some pleasure is neutral. This contradicts Benatar’s second premise that pleasure is good.
The same for diagram 2. Surely anyone could agree that there is a spectrum of pain from no pain at all to unbearable pain. But if pain is bad and absence of pain is good, then that would mean some pain is neutral. This contradicts Benatar’s first premise that pain is bad.
What’s really going on in this argument has become quite clear to me. If I didn’t misread Benatar, then his argument conflates relative and absolute scales of value. Colloquially, we say things like “not feeling pain is good”. But we don’t mean that it’s good in the sense that eating ice cream is good. We just mean no pain is good relative to being in pain. Benatar’s argument benefits from this confusion by conflating the absolute and relative sense of good and bad. Here’s how he does it:
When it comes to Benatar’s first 2 premises, they’re written in absolute terms. Pain is absolutely bad. Pleasure is absolutely good. But his last 2 premises are written in relative terms. The absence of pain is good (premise 3) relative to its presence. Lack of pleasure is neutral relative to its presence given there’s no one to feel it (premise 4). Do you see what’s going on with the argument now?
Benatar ought to state all his premises more clearly, otherwise it’s like comparing apples to oranges. Benatar shouldn’t say pain is bad and lack of pain is good in the same sentence. That causes confusion. He should instead clarify by saying “Pain is bad. Lack of pain is better”. I think this confusion could entirely explain why people agree with Benatar’s intuition. They’re committing an equivocation fallacy between the first 2 premises that are interpreted absolutely and the second 2 that are interpreted relatively.
This might be further confused by the fact that the mind adapts to its present circumstance. For instance, if you suffer from chronic physical pain, your “baseline” neutral on the scale of well-being probably adjusts to that pain. So even though you’re in physical pain, you’re not actually suffering. It’s just a raw sensation or your brain learns to tune it out. When the physical pain goes away, you may temporarily feel an increase in well-being. Here are 2 diagrams to illustrate my point:
Let the ● symbol represent the current location on the scale of an individual with chronic pain.
3. chronic pain present
<--no physical pain-----------------●--extreme physical pain-->
4. chronic pain absent
<--no physical pain--●-----------------extreme physical pain-->
Since interpreting Benatar’s premises in an absolute value sense leads to contradiction, let’s clarify his premises to give him the benefit of the doubt:
- I value pain negatively
- I value pleasure positively
- I value the absence of pain more than its presence
- I value the absence of pleasure equally to its presence unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation
Even with clarified premises, Benatar’s fourth premise places unnecessary importance on the act of procreation. I value well-being, in the end. If I create a happy person, that’s equally morally good as making an already existing person happy. What’s the difference between creating a happy conscious mind versus making an existing conscious mind happy? To me and I suspect to many others, there is no difference. To Benatar, that difference is everything.
Let’s do a thought experiment for intuition sake. Imagine you are god. You decide to give the people of Earth a heavenly existence. The people of Earth are extraordinarily happy all the time. There is no suffering, not even a single mediocre moment for anyone. Everyone’s debts are forgiven. Love and kindness and compassion permeate every human being. Every day is better than the last. Imagine the best moment of your life amplified a trillion times occurring in every human being every single microsecond.
For your next project, you create Earth 2.0, a duplicate Earth. You populate it with duplicate human beings with the exact same properties as you bestowed upon the original Earth’s humans. It’s full of happy people and completely free of suffering.
Now according to Benatar, making the people of Earth happy was a very good thing because they already existed. But creating a second, duplicate Earth full of happy beings would’ve been just as good as never having done so. What a bizarre value system. I suspect if people actually understand the implications of Benatar’s asymmetry, very few would agree with it.
Benatar goes on to offer 4 other asymmetries to explain his intuitions. I won’t cover all of them in detail. I just want to point out how they fall apart when analyzed closely. Basically he’s using the technique of trying to smuggle in intuitions we have about the real world and using them in a context where they don’t apply.
For example, Benatar thinks since you don’t see anything wrong with not creating more happy beings, you agree with him that there’s nothing wrong with the absence of pleasure when there’s no one to miss out. But not so fast! Why do we have the intuition that not having children is ethically neutral?
Well people generally try to have as many children as they want to have. Any more than that, they assume, would make them less happy. There’s no assurance that the child will grow up to have a happy life on balance, especially if it’s unwanted. So the problem with Benatar’s argument is when he uses the word “happy” in talking about bringing more beings into the world, he’s smuggling in all the extra baggage of wanting the child, the child not making you unhappy, the child itself being happy, etc.
Of course you don’t feel guilty for not having more children than you want. It’s not because you agree with David. It’s because there’s a good chance that an unwanted child would reduce overall happiness anyway, not increase it.
Another example he gives is that we don’t feel sad that happy deserted islanders don’t exist. Therefore we must agree with his case. Again, he’s smuggling in implicit assumptions we have about the world. Why isn’t the nonexistence of happy deserted islanders sad?
Again the word “happy” is doing all the work here. Perhaps we don’t feel sadness for the nonexistence of people because there’s no guarantee that their lives would be happy. For many people, perhaps even most, life is a struggle. People sympathetic to Buddhism such as myself would even contend that the character of conscious experience is unsatisfying most of the time.
Also, evolutionarily speaking, we value our close relatives over strangers. It makes sense that the theoretical happiness of potential people we don’t even know and will never get a chance to meet isn’t a big concern. Our intuitions would probably run the opposite way if it were a relative though. It’s the same feeling as when our favorite character in a book or movie dies. Our uncaring attitude towards the islanders depends on our not having a personal connection with their lives. All this implicit information is smuggled into David’s argument, without being explicitly stated. But once it is, his argument begins to crumble.
The rest of David’s points are different ways of either restating his original asymmetry argument or smuggling in our normal intuitions, so I won’t cover them. I believe his arguments merely confuse people into thinking they agree by equivocation and subtly smuggling in extra assumptions that are applied in the wrong context.
Suffering Experienced by Descendants
But Benatar has more than just the asymmetry argument. And the rest of his arguments seem much more coherent at least. He claims that we are responsible for the suffering of our descendants for having brought them into the world.
If your quality of life is extremely low and you cannot support a child and you voluntarily bring a child into the world, I agree. If responsibility means anything, you’re partially responsible for their suffering. By the same token, if you have strong reasons to believe your child will be extremely happy and you give birth to an extremely happy child, all else being equal, you can take partial credit for their happiness.
Certainly the potential suffering of descendants is cause for some people not to have children. But if you want to make the case that nobody should have children because of the suffering of descendants, we have to talk about depressive realism.
Depressive realism is the idea that depressed people are the ones who see the world most clearly. It’s the optimists who are kidding themselves. This is in contrast to conventional wisdom which says depressed people have a negative cognitive bias.
Antinatalists claim that most people do not evaluate reality correctly. They claim people use repressive psychological mechanisms to avoid admitting how bad life actually is. Evolutionarily, this would make sense since individuals unable to repress the depression would be less likely to procreate.
Some antinatalists further argue that the lives of all animals are very bad, not only the lives of humans. This philosophy is known as “universal antinatalism”. According to universal antinatalism, since humans are the only species capable of understanding the predicament, we ought to sterilize other animal species to save them from their default state in the wild which is a life of struggle.
I don’t know whether or not depressive realism is true. I’m also not sure whether animals suffer more than they flourish. I will give the antinatalists credit on these points. The suffering of descendants does seem to be the strongest argument in favor of no one having children and animal sterilization out of all the antinatalist arguments.
However there is the possibility that future technology might deliver us eternal bliss so good it would retroactively justify all humanity’s past suffering and the suffering of all other beings. This is a point Matt Dillahunty made when he addressed antinatalism. However it’s not a valid point since it seems equally plausible that future technology could create suffering, perhaps even unfathomable torment beyond anything we’ve ever experienced. As a side note, Matt’s criticism of antinatalism seems to miss the point.
Anyway, there are a lot of unknowns about the future. We don’t know how good eternal bliss would be. We don’t know how bad eternal hell would be. We don’t know the probabilities of either becoming a reality. We can’t reason based on possible future deliverance. It’s too uncertain. All we can reason on is what’s happening right now and what has happened in the past.
Benatar has cited historical evidence trying to show that the rare moments of bliss we experience do not offset all our suffering and the additional suffering we cause other animals. This seems to be a plausible hypothesis. But we also shouldn’t forget that humans have made a lot of progress in quality of life over the years as well.
David Benatar also argues that:
“…in a situation where a huge number of people live in poverty, we should cease procreation and divert these resources, that would have been used to raise our own children, to the poor.” - Wikipedia, licensed CC-BY-SA 3.0
To create a new being and increase overconsumption and overpopulation without confidence that the new being would enjoy life all at the cost of being able to definitively improve the life of an already existing person seems selfish. So I agree. It’s better to spend your resources on something that definitely reduces suffering and increases well-being without creating extra problems. So that wraps up Benatar’s arguments.
Tying Up Loose Ends
I still didn’t address the popular arguments other antinatalists make. I’ll quickly say something about those.
There is the Kantian Imperative. I’m not going to address Kantian antinatalism because I don’t respect it enough to spend time arguing against it. See my criticism of Kant in metaethics.
Impossibility of Consent
There’s also the Impossibility of Consent argument. The argument for not procreating based on impossibility of consent merely smuggles in the usual reasons we care about consent and takes them completely out of context, the same as Benatar’s 4 other asymmetries do.
For instance, we care about sexual consent because without it, there’s no bodily autonomy. We care about medical consent for treatment for the same reasons. The common denominator for consent is it gives individuals control over their lives. Control over your own life generally leads to less suffering.
In the context of procreation, it’s unclear how consent could apply. How does the concept of control over one’s own life apply if one doesn’t even exist yet? This argument seems to treat consent as an end in and of itself. Consent is not an end in and of itself. Well-being is what really matters to most of us and interjecting consent into this weird context of a nonexistent person doesn’t help us think more clearly about how procreation influences well-being.
I’m not saying it’s necessarily invalid to consider consent when talking about procreation. But why think in such convoluted terms when you don’t have to? Why not just consider the effects of procreation on well-being directly? There’s no need to muddy the waters with consent.
Finally, there’s the argument that not having children opens up the possibility of adopting or fostering already existing children, and there are many children who need the care. Therefore it’s a good alternative to procreation. I have no objections to this argument. It seems very reasonable for similar reasons that the famine relief argument is convincing.
In conclusion, I agree with Stallman’s arguments against having children. I don’t think procreating is a good idea for most first-worlders right now. We need the global population to go down for the sake of sustainability.
Suffering of Descendants
As for Benatar, his asymmetry argument is absurd. But he does have a point about the suffering of descendants. I’m agnostic towards depressive realism. I’m not trying to promote depression. I’m just not going to say it’s true or false based merely on my own personal experience because there are 8 billion other people on the planet all with different experiences of the world. If your intuition is that depressive realism is totally implausible and life is mostly good and most people do evaluate the reality of their own well-being correctly, then that’s fine. I’m just not that certain.
If depressive realism is true though, we shouldn’t continue the species hoping future technology will make all the suffering worthwhile. It seems equally likely that future technology will create more suffering. The arguments in favor of not having children in order to have more time and money to help the poor and adopt or foster children seem compelling.
If the lives of other animal species consist of mostly suffering as well, we ought to sterilize them to rescue them from existence before we voluntarily extinct our own species. If depressive realism is false for animals and we humans were altruistic enough to go extinct for the sake of other animal species, we would also be altruistic enough to treat them better in the first place and live in harmony with nature as other species do. The pessimistic antinatalist positions about human nature wouldn’t necessarily apply any more.
I conclude therefore that there’s no point in considering voluntary human extinction in order to protect other animal life.
Other Antinatalist Positions
The arguments for antinatalism coming from the Kantian imperative and impossibility of consent are not respectable enough for me to spend too much time on in this post. Addressing the asymmetry argument seemed worthwhile though because a lot of people buy into it.
From a pragmatic point of view, humans would never be willing to go extinct voluntarily. Given the uniqueness of our species and our technological advancement, we should not take such a matter lightly. As far as we know, there’s no other life like us in the rest of the universe. To extinguish ourselves based on an estimation of well-being which we might be getting wrong could be a grave mistake.
While I consider antinatalism supported by suffering of descendants at least plausible, it seems like more people would be open to hearing Stallman’s antinatalism than Benatar and his colleagues’ versions. Therefore as a matter of strategy, if you want to promote antinatalism, it’s probably best to promote environmental antinatalism and give reasons having children is personally undesirable rather than telling people not to procreate because “life is mostly suffering”.
I believe I’m more open-minded to antinatalist reasoning than many other philosophers who seem to search for reasons to quickly dismiss people like Benatar. I understand that ideas don’t live in a vacuum. They live in real human minds and the idea that life is mostly suffering could be a very hard pill to swallow, or even consider.
Writing this post wasn’t easy. Considering the voluntary extinction of my own species does not give me joy but I think it’s important that these ideas are out there and that antinatalism gets an evenhanded assessment.
If you made it this far, I appreciate you taking the time to read my blog. Thank you. As always, if you have any questions, comments, or concerns, you can find my email on my about page.