Sunday, April 20, 2008

Better Never to Have Been- David Benatar

FINALLY! I've got the book in my grubby little hands, and I'm of a mind to discuss it here, on this very blog! I think I'll do a chapter by chapter thing; if nothing else, it'll keep me from zipping through it and perhaps missing some salient points, as is my wont.

So, I've read the introduction, and as that really doesn't seem to be much more than a chapter outline, I think I'll skip over it, except to say this:

A week or so ago, Chip Smith of the Hoover Hog and myself were part of an extended blog-chat concerning antinatalism. At some point midway in the discussion, we were rather obliquely accused of somehow working in concert in a 'collusion to convert'... so to speak. Our conversation, we were told, seemed 'tinned' (Britspeak for 'canned'?); and at one point we were censured, much to my amused bemusement, for being 'overly polite' *chuckle*.

Two things I noticed in Benatar's intro; the first being that his approach to the subject seems not so very different from my own (overlooking the vast chasm in scholarship between us, of course). Even our phraseology seemed to almost suspiciously coincide at times; for example, he uses the expression 'cannon fodder' to describe children being bred for the primary purposes of the breeders' vested interests, or for the larger interests of a culture or society (see my essay here , 4th paragraph down).

Of course, and as Chip attempted to explain over at , and I quote, "If our arguments sound similar, it’s because our reasoning proceeds after similar premises. There aren’t many of us antinatalists around, so it should be no surprise that we make similar noises." And as antinatalism is a somewhat narrowly defined issue, i.e. STOP BREEDING!, I think all us antinatalists might be forgiven if we tend to overlap from time to time. 'Nuff said about that.

As for my second point-Now, admittedly it may be too soon to justify my suspicions; however, so far Mr. Benatar's writing style seems just a bit too conveniently...dare I say it?...polite! Is there conspiracy in the works? To find THAT out, you'll just have to tune back in to this ongoing review, dear reader. Time will tell...


Chip said...

Personally, I was shocked to learn that you hadn't read Benatar's book, since the weft and weave of your arguments have seemed so uncannily similar. Great minds, I suppose...

Anyway, I'm looking forward to your chapter commentary, which seems like a great use for this lonely little forum.

stephanie g said...

I'm new here. I rather like this place. I still have some reading to do but so far it seems like the basic argument is:

Conceiving a child is the greatest sin imaginable. Every other sin is contained in that single act. Without the original wrong no other wrong is possible.

I can't really argue against that. In fact, I agree. I've always had this in the back of my mind. It's just refreshing to see this boldly put into the light.

For background, I've been an atheist since I was maybe 13. My political leaning would be a more light hearted IOZ. If you know who that is. That's actually how I ended up finding this place.

Unfortunately, I'm afraid I won't be able to ascribe to antinatalism in my daily life. I know some day I'm going to have a child, maybe two. Hey, at least I'll be below the magic 2.1 replacement rate, right? I just don't think I'll be able to wrest control of my biological urges. Maybe it's that even though my rational mind agrees with the thrust of your arguments I don't really subscribe to them in some deep and meaningful way which I can't articulate. Is it my lizard brain? Just the idea of being pregnant is psychologically fulfilling, not to mention deeply sexually alluring. Or maybe it traces back to my understanding (start rationalization here) that I am personally materially comfortable and I live in an advanced society and thus the chances of my own children suffering in serious ways are less than someone in Africa. Of course, if I would simply refuse to be impregnated the chances would be zero. Everyone suffers. It's just a spectrum.

But reading over your well written blog I must admit I don't understand why you are so off put by those who suggest anti-natalism should practically lead to violence. We all know that every person on the planet is not going to one day agree to stop having sex or become castrated. Therefore, life will continue. The only way to "solve the problem" (uh oh...) is worldwide nuclear bombing. I'm not even sure if that would work. Do we have enough? I'm sure we could kill nearly all of the people, but if "only" a couple hundred thousand people live then it failed anyway. What we need is a nearby super nova. Or a giant asteroid to liquify the Earth's crust.

I mean, imagine if humanity continues on for millions of more generations. The pain and agony is impossible to grasp. Certainly all that future wrong is far greater than the wrong of just killing everyone on the face of the planet right now...right? Why not? We're only talking about killing seven billion people or so. Most of them won't even know what hit them. And the totality of it is less than the millions of generations that have yet to be born. Imagine if humanity begins to colonize the stars. The total population would be obscene. We need to start before we spread.

Anonymous said...

Glad you found the place, and thanks so much for contributing such a thoughtful comment! And if I can get you to at least think twice before you decide to procreate, I suppose that's all I can expect from my attempts here.

As far as your take on the violence issue, I certainly won't deny that your 'final solution' is rationally defensible. However, defensibility and necessity are two different things. Philosophies don't generally emerge out of thin air. Rather, their beginnings are usually rationalizations or extensions of human sensibilities. My kind of antinatalism springs from a deep sense of empathy, and of sympathy for the human (or, for that matter,for all life)condition. Thus, many of the same motivating factors that fuel what I like to think is a philanthropic outlook, also constrain me from suggesting methods of engagement that I find...well, let's just say 'distasteful'. ESPECIALLY when the alternative approach is so easily accessible via means of voluntary birth control.

Will I succeed in convincing most people to feel the way I do? Doubtful. However, neither do I have the resources nor acumen to devise a literal 'end of the world' scenario. And so, suffering and death will go on, maybe past the death of our sun, and beyond. But I'm doing what I can, stephanie, and maybe after you've read more of my blog, you'll understand why I continue on in this impossible quest. Plus, if I convince even one person to forego procreation, then I've helped to stop one death, and a lot of suffering along the way. Makes my life seem a little more worthwhile, is all.

Please feel free to comment again, on any related issue you choose. I only moderate comments to keep out the riff-raff, and you don't seem to be one of those. Take care.

stephanie g said...

Thanks for the response. I certainly applaud your writing of this blog. I definitely understand why you aren't urging our leaders to begin a nuclear firestorm. Although, come to think of it we might be a little selfish if we just focus on humanity. What about animals? Certainly many higher order mammals suffer. And what if the antinatalism movement succeeds and humanity goes extinct? What if raccoons or something evolves sentience? Seems like it might be better to be safe and just take care of everything while we have the opportunity.

I think I'm an example of why this will never work, on a large scale anyway. I'm a woman. I'm an atheist. I have a cynical and pessimistic outlook on life in general. I read your entries and nod my head. Yet something deep inside me screams out NO! Sex feels good, fire hurts, ice cream is yummy, and the idea of not having babies (not even one!) doesn't feel right. At all.

I try to avoid sexist stereotype at all costs but, in your experience, is this more of a woman/man thing? I hate this cliche where men are painted as uncaring brutes and women are angelic, nurturing motherly figures, especially since it's wielded so dangerously by the patriarchy. But biologically I don't see why this might not have a hint of truth to it. I mean, I know guys want to have babies too. They have an instinct to breed and spread their seed, just like women have an instinct to take their seed. But I seems to me if you brought this subject up in a room full of men you may get more agreement whereas in a room full of women you'd get gasps of horror. I know of friends who have said they don't want to have children but that's a little different than saying no one should have children. I could be wrong of course. Do you ever talk about this with anyone besides your close family?

And I applaud your courage to speak to your daughters about this subject. That must have been some did they react? How did you even introduce it? "Pass the gravy. Oh, by the way pumpkin, make sure you never have a baby. I know a place where your hubbie can get snipped..." ;)

Chip said...


I've read a number of online discussions about this topic, and I think this is the first time anyone has brought up the gender angle, which is probably more of an institutional omission, since the cerebral edges of blogland tend to be so nerdily overpopulated with y chromosomes.

Speaking for myself, I have encountered more resistance among male than female friends when I'm drunk enough to broach this subject, which is probably more of an effect of selection bias than sentiment. Regardless, I think you are correct that men generally express less interest in having (and nurturing) children. I'm sure this traces to evolutionary psychology, since for women the evolved stakes in genetic reproduction are largely and biologically bound with K-selected nurturing strategies (not sure if the r/K distinction technically applies in this context, but it describes what I'm getting at). Just compare Ghengis Khan's genetic dynasty with the maximal reproductive lineage of a lifelong FLDS harem member and the difference in reproductive opportunities (and consequent priorities) comes into sharp focus. I think it is only mildly sexist to recite the cliche that women are born mothers while men become fathers when they meet their offspring.

Moreover, I have observed that male opposition to ethical antinatalism is generally phrased in abstract terms (which usually hinge on the survival of civilization or somesuch) while women tend to cite more personal reasons for keeping the game in play. I think this is the result not merely of obviously differing EP-driven life narratives, but also because women tend to be more practical in their thinking (as Steve Sailer has observed by observing gender-bound browsing habits at the newsstand), which, come to think of it, probably is rooted in EP as well (Damn you, Darwin!).

Anyway, I have been told by a trusted (and antinatalist) female friend that my anti-procreation scribblings evince a certain obtuseness toward the emotional priorities of women vis-a-vis childbearing, which is probably true. I'm a guy, after all.

As a point of interest, I will note that one quasi-antinatalist theorist cited by Benatar is a woman: Seana Valentine Shiffrin, who wrote the oft-cited paper, "Wrongful Life, Procreative Responsibility, and the Significance of Harm" (Legal Theory, v. 5, 1999).

I may reply later on the animal thing and the ever intriguing subject of "apocalypse ethics," but it might interest you to know that both subjects are addressed in Better Never to Have Been. Relative to both points, I think you may be interested in reading some of the essays indexed at:



Anonymous said...

Stephanie, I guess it depends on what women you're talking to, since a lot of them seem to be opting out of the whole business (at least, in the West).

Interesting question about my kids. Since before they were in school, we would all gather in the kitchen while I cooked, and we'd talk about all sorts of things...religion, philosophy, the sciences. So I don't think there was ever a time that I 'broke it to them'. Rather, they pretty much always knew how I was feeling about this and that subject, including the emergence of the attitudes I relate in this blog. I'm not always glad about that; our has never been a typical household, and not always for the good, IMO. Still, truth is the thing I come closest to worshipping; or at least, the approach towards what seems to be the truth, which is about all any of us can expect, I suppose.

Hope that answers your question.

Robert said...

You bring up an interesting point about gender. I'm male, and there is nothing I would rather do than to create many children. And I perfectly understand the biological impulses you describe. I don't think it is any different between sexes. Despite wanting to do this, I've decided that I cannot because it is immoral. If anything, i'll adopt.

However, you also admit that this is the greatest sin imaginable. But then you say that it is almost certain that you will do so. Perhaps it would have been outside of your control sometime early in the last century, but now we have many ways around this. If you don't believe that you have the self control, then have you considered some kind of sterilization?

As Jesus said, it's better to gouge out one's own eye than to look lustfully at a woman.

So, what i'm saying is that it is perhaps better to gouge out one's ovaries rather than use them in sin.

Sterilization is an easy way for us to commit to our convictions.

Also please don't take this offensively but I can't imagine how you see some kind of eroticism in pregnancy. Every time I see a pregnant woman, I can only feel disgust at the weakness and ignorance of humanity.

anti-natalist said...

Stephanie, do you really feel that way? Do you really think you would feel sexually stimulated when the baby is giving you stomach pain or urinary problems? When you are seduced by the idea of procreating, aren't you merely thinking of the socially constructed myths and the mediatised images of pregnancy? or romanticised heterosexuality?

I find the idea of being pregnant the most repulsive thing ever; I would also never have sex with a pregnant woman, even if I am paid a shitload of money to do it. That would be the second most repulsive thing ever.

I agree with Robert's closing line and I think 'human nature' is an excuse for short-sighted selfishness. I am surely lucky not to have the same impulses Stephanie claims to have. I don't know if it is a generational difference and a case of genes evolving with moral progress.

But bottom-line is: no one should ever have children! (Do i have to attribute the motto to Chip if I have been saying that since I was 5? =)

Anonymous said...

Certainly many women feel an inclination towards motherhood; how much is inbred vs. societally induced will always be up for debate, I guess. And when I see a pregnant woman, I'm not so much repulsed as saddened, due to my OWN antinatalist bias. I also happen to agree that procreation is an ultimately selfish act, much to the chagrin of those who have always argued the opposite. And in this case, since another life bears the brunt of that selfish act, it's difficult for me to feel sympathy towards one who clearly sees the point, and yet chooses to go on with the decision to bear children.

Difficult...but not impossible. For neither do I believe in free will, and so I recognize the determining psychological factors involved, against which my input is a fairly minor wrench in the meme machine. I'm just working on starting a little crack here, hoping against hope that the pressure of evolved human sensibilities combined with some rather basic rationale might someday break through from the other side. Of course, I also have the satisfaction of knowing that one person convinced, is one or more persons saved from this nightmare of existence. If nothing else, it gives me some small sense of purpose beyond the mundane scratching out a living thing.

Oh, and anti...yes, I'm afraid you DO have to attribute the motto to Chip. Sorry, house rules.

Conceiving a Child is a Sin said...

Hello from India
You might want to read my Child Free essay "Conceiving a Child is a Sin":



Anonymous said...

Hello. I had started a blog in December 2007 ( and written one (very long) post on December 30. Not being one of pleonastic tendencies (if not as a rhetorical device), I decided that that post covered everything that I wished to contribute. I had not read any books/other material on antinatalism when writing this, and only came across the term "antinatalism" within the last month. I do think that from an evolutionary perspective, no hominid species would be expected to last much more than 10 million years anyway - and what meaning can you attribute to ANY length of time in an eternity? We are a group of people who say that giving birth is a clearly negative thing to do, but considered as an isolated thought in an eternity, I have to admit that any human suggestion can only confer a limited amount of "meaning" per se. Any ideas on how to stop time, folks?

anti-natalist said...

I do think anti-natalism tendencies are evolutionary. suffering is totally about boredom and utter stupidity, yours or others'.

However, WTF about driving other animals to extinction (in above blog)? have we not screwed up the planet enough as it is? we have no right apart from one to prevent further damage by making farm animals extinct. our rights should thereafter be limited to our species, the world is not human property as we have so long wished to see it.

what's wrong with suicide? surely it's preferable to reproduction. why isn't it a case of immunizing oneself against future suffering?

correction: the most repulsive thing IMHO is reproduction, 2nd baby/child rape and abuse, 2nd b) what we retardedly call 'progress' and 3rd, a pregnant chick raping me. although the latter might look interesting in a movie, some flick suggesting pregnant women should be outlawed because they get dangerously horny.