Aeon, 19 October, 2017
You don’t have to dislike children to see the harms done by having them. There is a moral case against procreation.
David Benatar is professor of philosophy and head of the department of philosophy at the University of Cape Town, where he is also the director of the Bioethics Centre. His latest book is The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions (2017).
In 2006, I published a book called Better Never to Have Been. I argued that coming into existence is always a serious harm. People should never, under any circumstance, procreate – a position called ‘anti-natalism’. In response, readers wrote letters of appreciation, support and, of course, there was outrage. But I also got this message, which is the most wrenching feedback I have received:
I have suffered horribly since I was a teen because of severe bullying in school that left me profoundly traumatised to the point I had to abandon school. Unhappily, I also have terrible looks and I’ve been judged, mocked, insulted because of being ‘too ugly’ even by random strangers in the street what usually happens almost daily. I’ve been called the ugliest person they ever seen. That’s extremely hard to deal with. Then, to finish it, I’ve been diagnosed with a serious congenital heart disease when I was just 18, and today in my early 20s, I suffer from severe heart failure and malignant arrhythmia that threaten to kill me. My heart has almost stopped many times and I deal with the fear of sudden death each day of my existence. I am petrified by fear of death and the agony and torment of imminent death is indescribable. I don’t have much time left and the unavoidable will happen soon. My life has been pure hell and I don’t even know what to think anymore. Certainly, sentencing someone to such a world is the worst of all crimes, and a serious moral violation. If it wasn’t by my parents’ selfish desire, I wouldn’t be here today suffering what I suffer for no reason at all, I could have been spared in the absolute peace of non-existence but I am here living this daily torture.
One does not have to be an anti-natalist to be moved by these words (which are quoted with permission). Some might be inclined to say my correspondent’s situation is an exceptional one, which should not incline us towards anti-natalism. However, severe suffering is not a rare phenomenon, and thus anti-natalism is a view that, at the very least, should be taken seriously and considered with an open mind.
The idea of anti-natalism is not new. In Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, the chorus declares that ‘not to be born is, beyond all estimation, best’. A similar idea is expressed in Ecclesiastes. In the East, both Hinduism and Buddhism have a negative view of existence (even if they do not often go so far as to oppose procreation). Various thinkers since then have also recognised how pervasive suffering is, which moved them to explicitly oppose procreation: Arthur Schopenhauer might be the most famous, but others include Peter Wessel Zapffe, Emil Cioran and Hermann Vetter.
Anti-natalism will only ever be a minority view because it runs counter to a deep biological drive to have children. However, it is precisely because it is up against such odds that thoughtful people should pause and reflect rather than hastily dismiss it as mad or wicked. It is neither. Of course, distortions of anti-natalism, and especially attempts to impose it forcefully, might well be dangerous – but the same is true of many other views. Appropriately interpreted, it is not anti-natalism but its opposite that is the dangerous idea. Given how much misfortune there is – all of it attendant on being brought into existence – it would be better if there were not an unbearable lightness of bringing into being… [+]