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The Rise (and Incoherence) of Anti-Natalism

A friend recently drew my attention to the rise of anti-natalism.

Anti-natalism as an idea came to prominence this year (2019) when Raphael Samuel attempted to bring a lawsuit against his parents (for a nominal amount of money), because they had not sought his consent for his conception. Within more academic circles, it has been given support by the Cape Town University professor David Benatar.

Between them, Samuel and Benatar articulated the two central tenets of anti-natalism. The first centres on the lack of consent given by the conceived to their parents; the second on the reduction of human suffering. Since life almost always involves some degree of suffering, the most efficient way to reduce it is to refrain from having children – the justification being that non-living things cannot be harmed.

Anti-natalism however, is obviously incoherent. In order to give consent, there must exist the possibility of not giving consent (this is a straightforward logical point). However, in Samuel’s argument, there is no possibility of consent, because something that does not exist can neither consent nor withhold consent; the possibility, therefore, does not exist in principle – it is not absent by accident (because, say, Samuel did not have sufficient mental capacity to give or withhold it).

Accordingly, the claim that he did not consent to being conceived is nonsensical.

The same point can be made in relation to Benatar’s ‘reduction of suffering’ argument for anti-natalism. Where one talks of reducing suffering it must (purely as a matter of logic) be possible to talk of suffering as well; if nothing can be suffered in principle, we cannot speak in the same breath of reducing suffering either.

It is not possible for something that does not exist to suffer or to give or withhold consent and that is all that really needs to be said about anti-natalism.

Part II

Should one ignore the logical incoherence of the position however, two interesting corollaries emerge from it.

The first is that parents do not give their consent to the kind of person that results from conception – their moral character and so on. Bad apples have not infrequently emerged from loving families and the reverse is also true. Given that there is the possibility of consent or lack of consent of the parents in relation to the behaviour of their offspring, should they not possess a greater right to sue their offspring for behaving in ways to which they did not consent?

The second is in relation to the argument for anti-natalism based on the reduction of suffering. The argument that anti-natalism reduces suffering presupposes that it would be better if one had never been born; indeed, Benatar makes this presupposition explicit and attempts to lend greater credibility to it by appealing to Sophocles (Oedipus at Colonus) and Ecclesiastes (4:2).

Leaving aside the logical difficulty of talking sensibly about the suffering of things that do not exist, the argument makes suicide an attractive moral option (indeed, if it is better not to have been born, it makes it a moral virtue). It does this because the focus is on the reduction of suffering justified by the thought that non-living things cannot be harmed. Thus, by taking oneself out of the class of things that can be harmed, one reduces suffering because there are fewer entities within that class.

Of course, this argument does not make any more sense than Benatar’s ‘reduction of suffering argument’ upon which it relies.

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