Why We Should Stop Reproducing: An Interview With David Benatar On Anti-Natalism

Why We Should Stop Reproducing

An Interview With David Benatar

By Guillaume A.W. Attia (Editor-In-Chief)

September 21, 2015         Picture: Thomas/Flickr.

“If children were brought into the world by an act of pure reason alone, would the human race continue to exist?” Arthur Schopenhauer, ‘On the suffering of the World’

I. Introduction

The recent debates over the excesses of political correctness on university campuses have compelled some people to propose a revisiting of “dangerous ideas” in public classrooms. If such an educational program were put in place, there is no doubt that departments of philosophy would be at the forefront of this initiative. After all, it is often philosophers, both in the past and present, that have challenged the status quo by introducing revolutionary ideas so disturbing to some segments of society that they have provoked strong (and often violent) calls for censorship. A recent case in point is the spectacle of public outrage that has surrounded Professor Peter Singer’s continued tenure at Princeton University. Disability rights activists have protested, both on university grounds and online, against comments he made indicating the possible permissibility of ending the lives of disabled infants via health care restrictions, as well as other notorious remarks about the acceptability of abortion and infanticide.

As unsavoury as Peter Singer’s ideas may be to certain individuals, he is not the only philosopher (or bioethicist, for that matter) to hold views that some would consider meritorious of job loss and censorship. David Benatar, a philosophy professor at The University of Cape Town, is another academic who would probably fit the bill. Professor Benatar believes that it is morally preferable for every human being on earth to stop reproducing, and thereby precipitate the extinction of the human race as soon as possible. From this basic premise follows his opposition to the use of reproductive technologies to assist in human birth, and his recommendation that in cases where protected sexual activity has accidentally resulted in pregnancy, all fetuses are best aborted before sentience. The notion that it is morally wrong to procreate is known in academic circles as “anti-natalism”; and although it does not currently enjoy a high currency in Western culture-at-large, some would say thankfully, it has started to make inroads in the mainstream entertainment industry.

You find Rust Cohle for example, one of the protagonists of HBO’s True Detective (played by Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey), reluctantly confessing to his partner that he believes “human consciousness is a tragic misstep in human evolution” and that “the honourable thing for our species to do is deny our programming: stop reproducing. Walk hand in hand into extinction. One last midnight, brothers and sisters, opting out of a raw deal” [Rust Cohle, True Detective Season 1, Episode 1: The Long Bright Dark]. In his critique of the show’s portrayal of the philosophy of anti-natalism, Professor Benatar attempts to dissociate his viewpoint from the destructive habits of the beloved fictional detective. In doing so, he provides some helpful points of clarification for the perplexed fan. Yet many avid True Detective followers, and thinkers in general, may still be itching to know: what are the practical implications of adopting this philosophy, and why should anyone believe that it is true? The following interview is an attempt to answer these questions in the most basic fashion. Most of the questions in this interview are primarily inspired by a close reading of his book “Better Never To Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence” (Oxford University Press, 2008). Readers are encouraged to purchase this book and his latest critical exchange with Professor David Wasserman in “Debating Procreation: Is It Wrong To Reproduce?” (Oxford University Press, 2015) as the more serviceable approach to fully understanding what is at stake in the current philosophical discussion of anti-natalism.

II. Questions

[1] Professor Benatar, thank you for participating in this interview. It is a great privilege to be able to discuss a philosophical topic as fascinating as anti-natalism with its leading expositor & defender. In your contribution to The Critique’s exclusive on the philosophy of True Detective, you mention that you were first informed of the anti-natalist themes in HBO’s True Detective, when your University of Cape Town students asked you if you had seen the show. Were you surprised to hear that the theory to which you had dedicated much of your scholarship, was now being explicitly presented in its basic form to large audiences through a mainstream television show? 

Benatar: I certainly was surprised. I hadn’t heard of True Detective. When the first students inquired, I had no idea that it was such a popular show. As the inquiries quickly mounted, I realized that it was a series with a large audience. Ideas such as anti-natalism aren’t generally well-received – people like more up-beat messages – and so it was good to learn that such ideas had been exposed to so many people via a popular medium.

[2] Having now watched the entire first season, and critiqued the show’s presentation of the philosophy, do you think True Detective has generally served as a good medium to introduce people to anti-natalism?

Benatar: It has served the valuable role of alerting many people to anti-natalism. Of course, there are limits on the extent to which a television series can introduce people to a philosophical idea, but one can hope that at least some viewers will want to learn more, perhaps starting with discussions such as the one you’ve initiated on The Critique.

[3] Do you often get to discuss the topic of procreation in general, and your views on anti-natalism in particular, with people outside of an academic context? 

Benatar: It is a topic on which people often want to engage me – more commonly in the academic context, but sometimes also beyond it. It’s nice to know that people are interested, but I have written on many other topics too, and thus while procreation is, in an important way, the root of all evil – there would be no evil without it – I wouldn’t mind discussing some other topics more than I do.

[4] How do people generally react when you tell them you believe there is a moral imperative not to reproduce? Do you find people making assumptions about your personality & moral character or do they tend to focus on the reasons for your beliefs? 

Benatar: Except in my writing, I don’t usually go out of my way to tell people that they shouldn’t procreate. For example, I don’t give copies of Better Never to Have Been (or boxes of contraceptives) as wedding presents. But when people do learn – or at least hear – of my views, the reactions are mixed. Unfortunately, there are many who leap to conclusions about me, often on the basis of ill-informed views about what I do and don’t think. There are others who have given serious consideration to my arguments. I have also been pleasantly surprised at how many people have written to me to convey their appreciation that I have defended views they have long believed they were alone in holding.

[5] I have introduced anti-natalism as the idea that, all things considered, it would be morally preferable for human beings not to procreate, but that is a rather vague description of a sophisticated doctrine. How would you define anti-natalism in the most precise terms?

Benatar: You won’t be surprised to hear that it can be defined in various ways. Broadly, it is opposition to bringing (sentient) beings into existence. It does imply that procreation is wrong, but it has other implications too, including an opposition to breeding animals (in order to kill them or even as “pets”). There are various possible grounds for anti-natalism. These include all the bad things that will befall the being brought into existence, but often also the bad that that being will inflict on others. Although there can be degrees of opposition to creating new sentient beings, the term is usually reserved for those who think that it is always, or at least almost always, wrong to bring new sentient beings into existence.

[6] You state that anti-natalism implies an opposition to the human breeding of animals either for nutritional or domestic use. What is the relationship between (i) anti-natalism, (ii) vegetarianism & (iii) animal rights in general? 

Benatar: There is much to say here, but one answer is that it depends on the basis for one’s anti-natalism and on what view one takes about the moral status of animals. Thus, if one’s anti-natalism stems in part from concerns about preventing terrible things from befalling people and if one recognizes that animals have moral status and that terrible fates can befall them too, then one is going to have to take vegetarianism – indeed veganism – and animal rights very seriously. I should add that one does not have to be an anti-natalist to be a vegetarian.

[7] In Better Never To Have Been (BNTHB from henceforth), you observe that most humans are predisposed to reproduce, and that it is on account of this “pro-natal bias” as you call it, that the idea of anti-natalism is so unpalatable to many. Could you say a bit more about 1. the biological basis for this drive, and 2. the psychology of pro-natalism (what it is and how it manifest itself in the thinking and behaviors of human beings)?

Benatar: The biological basis is evolutionarily ancient. Sentient organisms find sex – the natural precondition for procreation – to be rewarding. Parenting is also (psychologically) rewarding for many species and those that recognize the connection between sex and procreation have an added reason for procreating. Pro-natalism manifests in many ways. These include the expectation that people will have children, pressure on them to do so, a pathologizing of those who do not procreate, and often state incentives to have children. (This is not to say that in conditions of extreme overpopulation societies won’t be less pro-natalist.)

[8] There still exist subtle and not so subtle Western cultural stereotypes about adult members of society, particularly women, who do not want to have children. For example, you mention in your work that there is the assumption that “one should (get married or simply cohabit in order to) produce children, and that, infertility aside, one is either backward or selfish if one does not”. Could you respond to the claim that those who choose not to have children are immature and/or selfish?

Benatar: When we consider how much bad will befall any child that is brought into existence, it seems selfish to procreate rather than not to do so. One has the opportunity to spare a possible being the terrible risks and harms that confront those who exist. If one nonetheless proceeds to procreate one is putting one’s own interests first. It takes more maturity to consider the bigger picture and desist from procreating.

[9] In some communities, particularly religious ones such as the Orthodox Jews, Christians, Muslims and Mormons, there are tremendous social pressures to procreate- but only within the strict confines of a monogamous marital union sanctioned by the formal religious institutions and the state. For these sub-cultures, procreation is not merely a matter of tradition, but is considered by many, to be scripturally mandated. One finds for example, the God of the Old Testament commanding humanity to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Given the dominance of religion in the world, how would you contend with those who reject anti-natalism on theological grounds? 

Benatar: Interestingly, there are religious texts and ideas that support anti-natalism, some of which I discuss in Better Never to Have Been. (Catholics, for example, think that priests and nuns should not procreate.) However, religious texts are often interpreted and filtered via moral sensibilities. Many religious people no longer appeal to the Bible in support of slavery or the execution of blasphemers, despite religious texts being quite explicit about the permissibility of the former and the mandatory nature of the latter. One can only hope that religious people will also exercise their moral thinking when it comes to other precepts such as procreation.

[10] Princeton philosopher, Robert P. George, defends what he calls the conjugal view of marriage whereby marriage is, by its very nature and language, oriented towards the heterosexual conception of children by coitus. On this view then, “marriage is a sexual union of the type that is especially apt for, and would naturally be fulfilled by, having and rearing children together, but whose value, precisely as such a relationship, is intrinsic (as an irreducible aspect of integral human fulfillment) and not merely instrumental (as it would be if marriage were properly understood as only a means to procreation and the rearing of children)”. It should be clear by now, what anti-natalism would entail for this “natural” desire to fulfil the expectation of “having & rearing children together” within a marital bond. But what does anti-natalism mean for the human desire for sexual gratification and marital union by law? Should people who think humanity should stop procreating, also stop seeking sexual pleasure and getting married? 

Benatar: No, anti-natalism does not require sexual abstinence or remaining unmarried. The anti-natalist is opposed to reproduction, not to (unreproductive) sex or to a legally recognized life’s partnership. In other words, the anti-natalist would reject the “conjugal view of marriage”. Just because marriage has typically been conjugal in the past, does not mean that it ought to be so.

[11] Ryan T. Anderson, another defender of the traditional family model, often claims that the reason why the government is in the marriage business in the first place is because the state has an interest in the breeding and raising of children. You are inclined to agree that governments- even democratic nations- have a strong pro-natal bias. You mention the case of Japan where “concerns that the birth rate of 1.33  children would reduce the population of 127 million people to 101 million in 2050 and 64 million by 2100” have compelled the government to roll out various policies such as the “Plus One Plan”, “Anti-Low Birthrate Measures Promotion”, and many other forms of financial incentives and propaganda, in order to encourage its populace to reproduce at a much higher rate. How serious a challenge is government sponsored pro-natalism to your position? 

Benatar: State pro-natalism no more poses a challenge to the anti-natalist view than a dictator poses a challenge to the view that dictatorship is wrong. State pro-natalism may run counter to my view and impede my desired outcome, but that does not mean that it gives us reason for thinking that anti-natalism is incorrect. I do acknowledge (in Better Never to Have Been) that there can be problems for societies with shrinking populations. However, migration can solve these in the short term. In the long run I acknowledge that the final people will suffer on account of there being no new people. However, humanity will die out at some point and thus earlier extinction does not impose a harm that will not eventually occur in any event.

[12] Another issue that tends to excite many religious (and non-religious!) folks is the issue of abortion and the perceived belittlement of the disabled. You mention in BNTHB that sex can be enjoyed with adequate contraception but that in those instances where contraceptive measures fail, an abortion should be performed. You describe your viewpoint on abortion as not merely “pro-choice”, but “pro-death”. Could you explain what that means and what it implies for current philosophical & public debates about abortion?

Benatar: The “pro-death” view of abortion does not follow immediately from anti-natalism. One has to combine anti-natalism with the view that a (pre-sentient) foetus does not yet exist in the morally relevant sense, in order to generate the conclusion that it would be better to abort such a foetus. However, this pro-death view is a view about the morality of abortion and not about the morality of abortion’s legality. In other words, an anti-natalist can think that one ought (morally) to abort pre-sentient foetuses but be pro-choice when it comes to the law – namely think that people should have the choice whether or not to do the right thing.

[13] Interestingly, the idea that it would have been better for some people never to have come into the world is not as strange an intuition as some might think. You mention in BNTHB the case of persons suffering from “Tay-Sachs” or “Lesch-Nyhan” as clear examples of lives many would consider not worth starting. How about people whose impairments are serious but not the most severe (the blind, the deaf, or the paraplegic)? Is it wrong to knowingly or negligently bring such people into existence? 

Benatar: I think it is because I think that it is wrong to bring anybody into existence. One reason for this is that even unafflicted babies are sure to suffer quite considerable harms during the course of their lives.

[14] The basic question of population ethics is “how many human beings, disabled or not, should there be on earth?”. Some people believe that the earth is, or will be in the very near future, overpopulated, and therefore we should be working together to maintain the human population at a sustainable level. Please enlighten us on the anti-natal take on the problem of overpopulation? 

Benatar: You are correct that there are those who think that there should be fewer people and are thus opposed only to some procreation. That is a kind of anti-natalism, but the term is usually reserved for those who are opposed to all (or perhaps almost all) procreation. For those of us who hold this view, even one sentient being would be “overpopulation” – not in the sense that the planet cannot support such a population but rather in the sense that one sentient being is one locus of suffering too many.

[15] You explain that one of the fundamental issues with human procreation is that children are never brought into existence for their own sake: “Children are brought into existence not in acts of great altruism, designed to bring the benefit of life to some pitiful non-being suspended in the metaphysical void and thereby denied the joys of life”. Instead, they are always conceived to serve either the parents’ purposes, and/or the religious community or state’s prerogatives. Could you say a bit more about this notion of the non-altruistic nature of birth, and why you think this is a significant point to raise when discussing anti-natalism?

Benatar: When one creates a child one does not do so for its sake. Yet in creating it one imposes on it a vulnerability to the most appalling evils, at least some of which will become realized in the life of that child. Inflicting those risks and harms on a being without its consent for the sake of somebody else is morally very troubling.

[16] So okay, let’s assume again for the purposes of this discussion that anti-natalism is true and coming into this world is always a harm, whether a person desires to have children to serve their own purposes or the purposes of another entity; does that mean that we should all not only be morally but legally obliged, not to procreate? 

Benatar: No, as I argue in Better Never to Have Been, there can sometimes be good reasons for allowing legal liberties even when people might use those liberties in immoral ways. I think that there are good reasons for legally allowing reproductive freedom even if one agrees that procreation is morally wrong.

[17] If it is always morally wrong to bring a child into this world, disabled or not, does that mean that those who contest their existence can sue their parents for choosing to wrongfully bring them into this world by procreation?

Benatar: Consistent with my previous answer, whether we allow wrongful life suits is different from whether procreation is always wrong. Whichever view one takes, I think that parents assume a massive responsibility when they bring a child into existence and that their duties to their offspring extend way beyond its childhood.

[18] Let’s talk about suicide. You mention in your work that “Many people believe that it is an implication of the view that coming into existence is always a harm that it would be preferable to die than continue living. Some people go so far as to say that the view that coming into existence is a harm implies the desirability not simply of death but of suicide?” In other words, if the state of the world is such that it is better never to have been, doesn’t that mean that it is equally better not to be anymore? Is this the case? 

Benatar: No. There is a difference between coming into existence and ceasing to exist. Those who do not exist have no interest in coming into existence and there is thus nothing lost by never existing. However, those who already exist have an interest in continuing to exist. That interest may be overridden when life becomes unbearable. However, until life does become unbearable, suicide may not be appropriate even though the prospect of choosing later between unbearable continued existence or death can make it better never to have come into existence.

[19] At the end of Chapter III of BNTHB you present evidence of “the amount of unequivocal suffering the world contains” in order to demonstrate that the skeptic “is on very weak ground” for believing that life is not as bad as she thinks it is. It reads rather interestingly like the sort of account of the world’s misery that one would encounter in a problem-of-evil-type argument against the existence of God. Yet, as you rightly anticipate in your work, some are likely to be suspicious of this approach, as it does not present the other side of the equation: the tremendous amount of progress achieved by humanity in its attempt to eradicate various forms of suffering in the world, and the resulting (and rapidly increasing) high level of good amenable to many around the globe. How would you first respond to the charge of one-sidedness and second to someone who argues that the evidence for good in the world presents a more positive, nuanced and balanced picture of a world worth giving another person the opportunity (through birth) to experience? 

Benatar: There are a few responses. First, there is the axiological asymmetry between the good and bad. I argue that the absence of bad is good but that the absence of good is not bad unless there is somebody who is deprived of that good which is not the case when somebody does not exist. Thus the absent good that would be experienced by people who could have been, but who were not brought into existence, is nothing to mourn, but the avoidance of the bad things that would have characterized those people’s lives is good. Second, there are a number of empirical asymmetries between the good and bad things in life, which show that there is more bad than good. For example, there is such a thing as chronic pain but no such thing as chronic pleasure; and the worst pains are worse than the best pleasures are good. Thus, although there are good things in some lives, the presence of those things are outweighed by the bad when we are deciding whether to create new lives.

[20] You anticipate that people will immediately object to your negative assessment of the overall quality of human life by asking “How (…) can life be bad if most of those who live it deny that it is? How can it be a harm to come into existence if most of those who have come into existence are pleased with it?” How indeed?

Benatar: I spend quite some time in the book showing that subjective assessments of well-being are unreliable. There is ample psychological evidence for this and we simply cannot ignore it.

[21] What if I were to tell you that the solution to suffering in the world is not to stop reproducing but rather to roll our sleeves and invest in effective altruism to improve the condition of the human race, what would you say?

Benatar: There is no reason why one cannot do both. However, the only way to guarantee that evil will not befall people is by desisting from creating those people. Once people do exist, one is ameliorating a condition. Amelioration is good, but prevention is better.

There is obviously so much more that can be said about anti-natalism but this interview must come to an end, hopefully with a basic understanding of this philosophy that might compel our readers to purchase your two books on the subject. I want to personally thank you for your time and your willingness to share your life and philosophy with the public. I for one, am glad you were born, though I recognize you will in retrospect most likely always consider it a harm. 

Thank you for your interest and for your kind words.

For any questions, concerns, or comments, please send a letter to the editor, Guillaume A.W. Attia, at: thecritiquephilosophy@gmail.com

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  • Tejas Gokhale

    Very nice!

  • I’m still not entirely sure how much I agree with anti-natalism but I find it fascinating because it calls into question certain traditional dogmas. I do think that most procreation is done for selfish reasons.

  • Simon Elliot

    Hello David, I have been wanting to contact you for some time. I was talking to somebody about anti-natalism recently and they made an interesting observation. They said that anti-natalism is based on an “inverted morality” and is therefore untenable. I asked them what they meant, and they explained that the reason pain and suffering are undesirable is because we are evolutionarily programmed to survive at all costs, both as individuals and as a species. Arguing for anti-natalism as a solution to our misery is therefore inherently contradictory. How would you respond to this dilemma?

    I also want to make a clarification regarding states of affairs. Saying that you’re talking about a “state of affairs” rather than an actual person, as you do in your book, amounts to a semantic diversion. Now, I would just like to state, for the record, that I believe anti-natalism is correct in its raw appraisal of the human condition, and that the quality of life in this non-anthropocentric universe is very bad, especially when compared to an imaginary hypothetical universe that was designed by us, for us. However, unfortunately there seems to be an asymmetry within your asymmetry, so to speak. You say that failing to create new people is not bad because non-existent people will never be deprived of the paltry amount of good in the world, but if we accept that, then it also means that non-existent people are not spared the overwhelming negativity of life. We have not saved anyone, as there is nobody to be a beneficiary of our ethical choice not to procreate. For instance, if I decide not to stab a stranger, then that person has (unknowingly) benefitted from my choice to refrain from action. I can point them out specifically as the person who has benefitted from my ethical decision, because they already exist. But if I choose not to procreate, who has benefitted from my inaction? Nobody has.

    Now, I am familiar with the analogy “what about preventing the birth of a fetus that we know will be deformed or damaged? isn’t that good?” My answer to this analogy is that, although the majority consensus would be that to abort is the moral thing to do, we are actually in error. It might be the moral thing for US to do, but it has not been good for anyone other than ourselves. The potential person (the fetus) has not benefitted. The only people that benefit from this suffering being avoided are ourselves, as we do not have to witness it and feel guilty for allowing it to exist. As such, the motivations for aborting cannot be considered philanthropic, but are rather self-centred. Again, the reason I say it cannot be called philanthropic on our part is because nobody benefits. We benefit at the thought of not bringing suffering into existence, but that’s as far as it goes.

    Alas, the problem as I see it is that, while non-existent pleasure for non-existent people is “not bad”, following the same logic, non-existent suffering for non-existent people is “not good.” I think this is the major flaw in your otherwise perfect thesis. Also, you say that life is always an imposition, but an imposition on who? The person doesn’t exist yet, so who are you imposing life on? It implies that a person and their life are two separate things, which we know they are not. I’d also like to point out that, while nobody laments all the non-existent people who could be experiencing pleasure, it is also the case that nobody praises all the non-existent people who are not experiencing suffering. It cuts both ways.

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