Chapter 5- Abortion: The Pro-Death View
To an Aborted Fetus
Well, I can’t say you really missed all that much,
and you were spared an ungodly amount of grief.
All in all, I’d have to say you came out on top-
at least, that is my belief.
And if, perchance, you survived your mortal state,
and are sitting on a cloud in heaven, sipping on something cold with ice,
then thank your mother that you missed your turn at this dreadful way station-
‘cause they say it’s a real bitch, having to be born twice.
Chapter 5 begins with a couple of biblical lamentations out of Jeremiah and the book of Job; probably not the sort you hear preached much in the cotton candy liturgy of the modern mega-churches. Here’s the Jeremiah verse:
Cursed be the day on which I was born: let not the day on which my mother bore me be blessed. Cursed be the man...because he slew me not from the womb; so that my mother might have been my grave and her womb always great. Why did I come out of the womb to see labour and sorrow?
Whatever justification some apologist might give for this verse, it’s quite obvious that somebody believes there are worse things than death.
This chapter deals with the practical question: When is the premature ending of existence justified, if at all? Or to turn that question around, when does existence actually start-both in the biological sense, and in the morally relevant sense? The biological question is a sticky one, trying to determine just when an ovum becomes independent in...what, essence?...from the host. In my own mind, this question will probably never be settled, because almost everybody is starting from an unjustified position. For many theists, as well as anyone else who believes in a ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ independent of its biological housing, the answer is clear, if not scientific. Actually, I SHOULD say it’s clear for those who believe the soul arrives at the moment of conception; my understanding is that some believe it might arrive later along the gestation period, though I’d imagine most would be reticent to pinpoint the exact time. Interestingly, their predicament is somewhat mirrored in the materialist who, notwithstanding his non-belief in spirit, nevertheless is adamant about finding SOME line of demarcation between non-personhood/personhood-even if that line is moved up to the literal departure from the womb...or beyond (think about it).
On the morality side, Benatar offers a small index of ‘interests’ gleaned from a history of philosophers talking about this stuff, and investigates which are truly relevant, or worth considering. He winds up centering in on the question of when a fetus attains ‘consciousness’, for it is there that he chooses to plant his flag of moral relevancy. From then on, the issues become quite complex; he cites others’ contrary arguments for moral status, as well as the right to abort, or lack thereof. I won’t tell you where Benatar comes down on the issue (BUY THE BOOK). Suffice it to say that I always find such conversations perplexing, somewhat convoluted, and ultimately wide of the mark. ALTHOUGH, in Benatar’s favor, I find his recognition of varying degrees of moral standing a good launching pad for what I have to say, as I now depart from the text, and try to offer a few coherent thoughts on the matter.
You know, I’ve been avoiding chapter 5’s review precisely because I knew it would eventually lead here- not because of WHAT I had to say, but because I didn’t know exactly how to say it. I’m not a very practical person as a rule, and to be frank, the question of fleshing out the pragmatic ramifications of antinatalism (besides the simple delivery of the message) falls generally beyond my interest (I suppose it’s the same reason I don’t vote). Reading this excellent post...
and the continuing conversation in the comment section really helped (thanks to Sister Y and the other participants). Along with this link from TGGP...
I think I finally broke through to SOME clarity, although the reader will be the final arbiter of that. So, here goes...
First of all, I need to stress that my position is one of philanthropic antinatalism, and that my definition of harm vis-a-vis this position is one of experiential suffering, solely. I do not rely on the abstract, deontological status of certain moral propositions- how CAN I, when it is my firm belief that such premises ALWAYS ultimately emerge from consequentialist principles; albeit, ofttimes by backdoor reasoning? (Rather than go further into this, you can read my opinion concerning deontology here...
This probably puts me at odds, to a degree, with some of my fellow antinatalists. For instance, by my definition death is not a harm; at least not for the one who dies, since his/her suffering/deprivation is at an end. Of course, all the suffering leading up to that death is a harm, and the harm continues to reverberate into the living world in all the particulars one might realistically imagine, as well as some which might pass unnoticed for their subtlety. Anyhow, I think I’ve made my point, and now I’d like to move on to a second...
For my purposes, I’d like to draw an analogy from what we THINK we mean by the phrase ‘doing good’, set against what it generally means in practical application. Again, we tend to approach this subject as we would a list; in this case, a ‘deontological’ list. ‘Here is a catalog of good things to accomplish, or fulfill, and the farther down the list I go, the better person I am’. Of course, when we really get down to the nitty gritty of doing ‘good in the world’, especially the recognizable and highly regarded KIND of good, we find that we are actually mitigating the ‘bad’. Think about it...all those TV commercials asking for your time and money...what are they showing you? All the atrocities of life, of course. A do-gooder is, practically by definition, somebody who goes around alleviating bad; and then, only to a degree, as there’s always more than enough bad to deal with. And that is because, as Benatar has clearly pointed out, life is fundamentally ‘bad’; or, to draw from the antinatalist’s lexicon, it is HARMFUL. It is DEPRIVED.
Furthermore, there is the predictive problem regarding our actions, tied into the so-called 'Butterfly Effect'. Existence is a complex composed of almost infinite interactions. Each and every action we take impacts the surrounding environment in countless ways, and what might seem 'right' now can easily morph into something terribly wrong down the road. I'm reminded of the old 'Star Trek' episode, whereby committing the singular act of pushing Joan Collins out of the way of a speeding car, Captain Kirk opens the door to Nazi supremacy on Old Earth, thus drastically altering the future (yes, yes-I'm a Star Trek nerd. Go ahead, get it all out of your systems). There's also the old Chinese proverb to consider:
"A Chinese farmer has a stallion. One day the stallion runs away. The village people come to him and say, "Ah, such bad luck!"The farmer shrugs, "Good luck, bad luck, who knows?"A few days later the stallion returns with three mares. The village people come to him and say, "Ah, such good luck!"The farmer shrugs, "Good luck, bad luck, who knows?"The next week the farmer's son breaks his leg taming the wild mares. The village people come to him and say, "Ah, such bad luck!"The farmer shrugs, "Good luck, bad luck, who knows?"A month later the Chinese army comes and demands all the young men soldier age. The farmer's son does not have to go because of his leg. The village people come to him and say, "Ah, such good luck!" The farmer shrugs, "Good luck, bad luck, who knows?"And so it goes..."
Thus, our good intentions can have the direst consequences.
This is why, when it comes to the practical questions concerning the antinatalist position, whether we’re talking about abortion, forced sterilization, letting disease take its course, extermination, and so on, we find ourselves at a loss for cogent, clear-cut answers. After all, philanthropic antinatalism is derived directly from the empathetic apprehension that life is a harm, and we want to rise above that to do the right thing. But no matter how we try to accomplish that ‘right thing’ we find ourselves, or the extension of our sympathetic principles, harmful in application to one degree or another. Or to put it another way, we want to feel good about ourselves, while denying the intrinsic harm in any position we take!
The general way we get around this otherwise stultifying psychological catch-22, is to narrow our focus to immediates, and placate any perceived negative consequences with ill-conceived postulates like "oh, it’ll all work out", or "the future will take care of itself". By concentrating on ‘doing good’ in the present, we can preserve the delusion that we are generally good, that life is generally good, and that "everything will work out in the end", although most of us know from experience that that ain’t so! We can support impoverished nations, pretending that our assistance doesn’t actually magnify all of the problems, intensifying the suffering that we’re ostensibly trying to lessen. We can unquestionably support the ‘right to choose’ no matter what the circumstances, putting into place quickly overburdened, tax funded institutions to pick up the slack. We can go to ridiculous lengths in support of any number of causes justified by immediate concerns, with no eye to the obvious, undesirous ramifications. And why? Because that makes us basically good people in a basically good world, and everything will eventually turn out right.
What am I proposing, then? That we suppress our humanitarian concerns in preparation for a harsh future? That we hack mercilessly away now, so we won’t have to do it later? But that would be to deny the very impulse that fuels philanthropic antinatalism. I am proposing nothing so spartan-ly utilitarian as that. Instead, I am simply asking for an honest reappraisal of ourselves, of our place in the world, and of life itself. An acknowledgement that our very existence makes us agents of harm; that our very existential commerce is based on the give-and-take of shared suffering, and that it will always be so until and unless we decide to end it- To undo it through the simple non-act of non-procreation. Of course, this non-act will itself engender its own brand of suffering; the loss of illusion itself can be painful, perhaps impossible to deal with for some people. But if we are impelled by the unimpeded vision of what being a lifeform on this planet entails, whilst simultaneously moved to sympathy for all life’s plight, including our own, we can power down this infernal engine by degree, work together to minimize harm as much as we are able, and finally end this madness of existential horror with dignity, and compassion. I’ll admit-my goal probably isn’t very realistic at all, people being what they are. I’ll also admit once again that, if I had a magic button that would do away with existence in the blink of an eye, I’d push it without hesitation, and in good conscience, knowing that I was doing no harm at all.