Wednesday, August 13, 2008

David Benatar's 'Better Never to Have Been'...Chapter 5

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?

Jeremiah 20:14-18

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.


Mitchell said...

I find myself increasingly interested in the practical question. How to live, if you think new life should not be created? The spectrum of possibilities runs from the quietist extreme - which might be reached by someone who thinks that all action, even action to promote antinatalism, does more harm than good, and so the only thing to do is to cling gnostically to one's conviction, talk of it among the other enlightened, perhaps leave Internet signposts for those who are independently arriving at the same conclusion; but do nothing even to promote the idea, out of a utilitarian belief that the spontaneous dissolution of humanity's instinctively pronatal (or just "provital") culture is the most graceful way to wind things up - the spectrum runs from that extreme, to the activist extreme, which at its most empowered believes not only that "destruction of the world is mandated", but acts to bring it about.

I think it is desirable that antinatalists understand this spectrum in detail, and figure out where on it they should lie.

If we turn away from quietism, and from fantasies of an instant, painless, and totally effective destruction of the world, and start to think about ways in which antinatalism might enter into history rather than being a recurring epiphenomenon (for there have been many antinatalist thinkers and even movements in history, though often antinatalism was incidental rather than central), we enter into the realm of culture, politics, mass society, and it becomes clear that some very ugly possibilities exist. For example, it is at least logically possible that activist antinatalism could be taken over by a psychology of violent and hate-filled nihilism.

Although modern secular culture has some strong antinatal tendencies, it is a little hard to imagine antinatalism becoming the dominant culture at this point. Nonetheless, let us at least think about how this might occur. Two possibilities suggest themselves.

The first is science-fictional, but consistent with the zeitgeist for all that: the famous omnipotent artificial intelligence of Singularity lore. The goal system of an AI, at least for certain architectures, is utterly contingent; therefore, it could include antinatalism. In this scenario, then, the victory of antinatalism occurs because technological progress has produced a concentration of power which is effectively omnipotent with respect to this little corner of the universe, and the goals directing that power just happen to include the antinatalist goal. Variations of this scenario, in which the great power (which might be identified with the "singleton" in the writings of Nick Bostrom, and the "leading force" in those of Eric Drexler, though Drexler's leading force is a more diffuse, distributed entity than Bostrom's singleton) is a group of people or AIs rather than a single AI, are also possible.

The other scenario is more down to Earth and more like the present: it is that the dominant cultural philosophy becomes antinatalist, or includes antinatalism among its tenets. It seems most natural that this would occur by way of utilitarianism. So in other words one is to imagine that the majority of the world's opinion leaders, its think tanks and gurus, have become antinatalist utilitarians. Antinatalism would be pursued as part of some broader agenda which might include anything from veganism to David Pearce's hedonic engineering, and even some ideas about social organization, if only the utilitarians can agree on what works there.

While this is still somewhat science-fictional, it does bear a little resemblance to the present, in that the present-day world does have hegemonic ideologies - liberal democracy, the global market, various religions suggest themselves - and there are both intellectuals who elaborate and justify those ideologies, and people of power who act according to them. It may be questioned to what extent truly world-shaping actions emanate from ideas about how the world should be, as opposed to more elemental impulses on the part of those who have the power to act on that scale. No doubt the answer is that the degree to which the advice of the philosophical vizier influences the actions of the ruler is a thing which fluctuates with time. Another consideration is that the world contains multiple intellectual power-centers - there is secular neoliberalism, and there is radical Islam, and now there is capitalist autocracy too, just to list a few - and there is always this sense that choosing antinatalism simply means ceding the field to those who are still pronatal. Our hypothetical antinatalist utilitarians, rather than becoming the benevolent commissars of the final world order, might simply be shouldered aside by the lusty optimism of more vigorous cultures. Still, I put out these two broad possibilities for discussion.

compoverde said...

Hello Mitchell,

Wow, I like the thought you put in here. I have often thought about some of the ideas you present here. For example, where am I on the spectrum of antinatalism. I would say that I am a somewhat activist person as I try to explain my theory to anyone who will listen moving to being more activist. By this I mean that I am starting to think of ways to bring this to the cultural mainstream and to a poltiical level. I am working with another antinatalist to get an anti-procreation politicla manifesto written. As far as the technology is concerned, that is far down the line. Consequentially thinking, it wouldn't matter if robots were leftover or not because humans would be no longer suffering as sentient beings. However, the robots would now have to deal with the sufferings of existence (if they do have similar cognicant structures as humans).

For the second scenario, I am guessing that one is where it works out and the world leaders agree that this is a good policy. Political antinatalism gets very tricky. As far as a liberal democracy is concerned as we have developed the concept in the west, you cannot force this upon people. It has to be implemented on a cultural scale, world leaders getting out of the way, more or less rather than directly promoting it.

Also, I realize your fears that antinatalism would turn into nihilism. That is why it is important to explain very fully what antinatalism means. People can take anything out of context and twist it for destructive purposes. This is is a philosophy that doesnt advocate violence, only the passive act of not creating a new being, that is, a new vessel of suffering.

Sister Y said...

This reminds me of Jared Diamond's thinking on agriculture - in his words, the biggest mistake humanity ever made. Agricultural societies were clearly worse off in all measures of welfare than hunter-gatherer societies, until recently. They have lower adult height, higher infant mortality, more disease, more inequality, all that. But they reproduce like bunnies compared to hunter-gatherers (the land has higher carrying capacity with agriculture) and so agriculture won, despite being a worse solution in terms of human welfare.

Ditto antinatalism/pronatalism.

Anonymous said...


Firstly- Though I understand your meaning in the phrase 'enter into history', I'd still like to point out that the promulgation of an idea is as real as a manifestly 'physical' act. The exposition of antinatalism's single dogmatic tenet, 'don't procreate', might indeed engender results across the human behavioral spectrum. However, the essence of the message is as benign as what can reasonably be hoped for, I think. But I'll acknowledge all the negative connotations you're hinting at, and more. That was really the point I was trying to get at-that our very existence makes us participants, willing or no, in the cycle of suffering and death, which is life. This vicious circle can never be broken, only dissolved through extinction. Oh, and my final words are admittedly a fantasy, but were only meant to further clarify where I stand vis-a-vis actual versus abstract 'harm'.

As for your scenarios, I, too, find the second more realistic; though, of course, not very probable. Perhaps there are other approaches, as well. However, if we're ever going to see any realistic hope for success, our intuitions of what life is really about are going to have to alter dramatically. That will require thought and communication, yes?

Regarding the Singularity thing...ugh! All I can say is, its proponents have a lot more faith in their grasp of the variables than I do. 'Civilization' may proceed, or come crashing down around our ears. The thing that concerns me the most these days is cloning...a hypothetical antinatalist window of opportunity (universal sterility through viral or chemical infestation,i.e. The Children of Men scenario)may be closing. Then I'm back to praying for Benatar's rogue comet, I guess.

Until then, I seem to be stuck with the simple message 'don't have children!' Simple, or merely simplistic, nevertheless it guarantees the end of suffering (at least, on our planet. As for the other inhabited worlds throughout all the multi-verse...they're on their own. I can only be stretched so far).

Chip said...

Mitchell's commentary fleshes out some important concerns. While I am strained to imagine how antinatalism could "enter into history," even under the scenarios provided, I have to admit that it is possible. And worth thinking about.

Google the term "negative utilitarianism," and first page of results will link to an odd, obliquely polemical essay by someone named "Dan." It's called "Negative Utlilitarianism: A Manifesto." While not explicitly antinatalist, it IS explicitly nihilistic -- and not in the careless sense so often associated with the other "N word."

Specifically, Dan relies on various stochastic points about the atomization of competing values to argue that "everything is nothing." Yet he contends that negative utilitarian goals survive as a singular "logical exception," for reasons I will leave others to consider.

Since negative utilitarianism may be logically construed to subsume antinatalism, if not "promortalism," I would be interested in hearing Mitchell's -- and others' -- take on Dan's manifesto. I agree that the brand of antinatalism promoted by David Benatar and discussed in this forum is essentially philanthropic, but if the prospect of "a psychology of violent and hate-filled nihilism" is prospectively in the offing, Dan's manifesto, or something like it, may provide a philosophical justification, or rationalization.

Anyway, here's the link:

Anonymous said...

My original intended reply has grown beyond the sphere of a comment, so I'll be posting on the main page whenever I get around to finishing it. For now I'd just like to say-

1)Destroying the world would be a horror.

2)I believe that the continuation of life can easily be shown to be a greater horror, in terms of both numbers of lives, as well as in accumulated 'suffering points' (perhaps there's an RPG in the works, pain hits determined by 13 sided dice).

If these two points are true, does the destruction of the world logically follow? I'm not leaning towards any conclusion here, but I'd surely appreciate everyone's input to help me think this through. Thanks in advance!

Mitchell said...

Chip, I would first of all say that I certainly don't see Dan Geinster's manifesto as potentially being the Mein Kampf of misanthropic antinatalism. For one thing, hate itself is close to being a form of pain (more on that in a moment), which is the very thing he seeks to minimize. More fundamentally, it's just way too philosophical and calculative - we are to add the pain vectors within each possible future and steer towards the one with the smallest total resultant vector - it starts with an arcane ontological preamble about how everything is made of sensations - it's all just too abstract. It is the sort of philosophy which might lead to the destruction of the world were it empowered to do so, but there's no reason to think that would be carried out in a frame of mind which actually lusted for destruction.

Although there are people who call themselves antinatalists and who genuinely hate humanity, on reflection I don't know how much of a distinctive risk they pose. Most of them seem to be quietly passive-aggressive, fulminating harmlessly in cyberspace but then being more moderate in real life, and the rare personality with both the will and the ability to act out in a significant way is not going to be a uniquely antinatalist phenomenon. If antinatalism ever becomes a genuinely mass phenomenon, without a doubt there will be extremists, unstable personalities, fiascos, little horrors, all the things that accompany any real ism, and these events would preoccupy the hypothetical larger antinatalist movement of the future to perhaps an excessive degree - but none of that is a problem unique to antinatalism. So, it's a problem but perhaps it's not the most important problem to discuss. Though just to round things out, I'd say I see a pathologically violent antinatalism coming not from philosophy but from passionate emotional expressions of an antinatalist sensibility. Imagine a poet of antinatalism, say, who does not write philosophical tracts, but rather powerful evocations of all the unbearable aspects of life, but always framed in a way which suggests, not just that life itself must be ended, but that the most fulfilling possibility lies in the glorious rage of ending it spectacularly - etc. At this point totally hypothetical so I'll say no more about it.

With respect to Dan Geinster's actual arguments and propositions, the structure I discern is as follows:

First, there is an ontology which reduces us and our values to "sense impressions" existing in a quasi-Kantian framework of ontological categories. Then there is an argument that everything is contingent and that this undermines all values, but the reality of pain and the intrinsic imperative of eliminating or at least minimizing it remains. Finally, there is a simple phenomenology of pain and a framework for conceptually aggregating the pain of multiple agents, so as to be able to decide which of two possibilities is the least bad.

I find the initial ontology somewhat dubious (though the whole human race is at sea regarding the relationship of consciousness and subjectivity to the material world). The passage to nihilism and from there to negative utilitarianism also does not strike me as wholly logical. Finally, the phenomenology of pain provided is only provisional, though plausible as far as it goes, and the additive approach to utilitarianism has a similarly plausible but preliminary character.

That's my instant philosophical diagnosis.

Turning to Jim's far simpler deduction, I have to think further about it, but I'd just say that the deduction can be questioned on the following grounds: We are implicitly entertaining a scenario in which the destruction of the world is an option (for someone or something). But doesn't that imply a great deal of power, which in turn suggests that there will be other options besides "leaving the world untouched", which is what I take option 2 to be about? One may instead imagine a scenario in which everyone is informed, as swiftly and kindly as possible, about the antinatalist philosophy in such a way that it becomes universal, and then whatever powers our hypothetical moral agent possesses are then employed to make everyone's remaining lives as good as possible.

Postscript: I promised to say something about the nature of hate and pain. There is clearly some relationship between pain and the will. The question is whether the painfulness is actually constituted by the not wanting, or whether the not wanting is a consequence of the painfulness, which itself derives from something else. The constitutive role of the will in the pain/pleasure qualities of things is most apparent (though also most complex) in the psychological sphere, whereas intense physical pain might seem to be the situation where the case is strongest for the not-wanting being epiphenomenal and the painfulness being intrinsic or at least originating in something other than desire. However, there is evidence that even the reaction to ordinarily very painful stimuli is variable and can be changed by psychological factors (and not just by physiological ones, such as the hereidtary absence of a certain sort of nerve), so even here there may be a psychological element at work, perhaps going all the way back to the initial discovery in infancy of the body as something whose actions can be willed and whose sensations can be chosen, up to a point. The idea, then, is that pain is frustration of the will, or is at least proportional to it, and pleasure is similarly satisfaction of the will. It's this aspect of the analysis of pain which I perceive to be missing in Geinster (and in many other places).

As for hate, I said it is close to being a form of pain. I equivocated because there are situations in which hate is something other than simple frustration; anger, for example, has a sort of dynamism which, in terms of will-analysis, suggests a sense of overcoming a bad thing (even if one is merely stating the problem to oneself, as when a grievance is aired), and so there should be an element of satisfaction of the will amidst the general atmosphere of frustration.

Chip said...


Perhaps you are correct that the NU article is too abstruse to merit concern. I agree that the "The passage to nihilism and from there to negative utilitarianism" isn't clear.

Am I mistaken to infer that Dan's sensory ontology would preemptively deny the will-analysis that you outline, essentially by reducing subjective frustration to manipulable physics? You write that "the whole human race is at sea regarding the relationship of consciousness and subjectivity to the material world," but it is possible - and in my opinion, defensible - to deny any such contingent relationship by assuming that concsiousness and subjectivity are ultimately just very slippery components OF the material world. Psychology becomes neurology and anti-frustrationism becomes primarily a matter of pharmacological intervention, or brain surgery.

Still mulling over the constitution of hate. A tricky issue.

Chip said...

By the way, it occurs to me that something like Dan Geinster's foundational ontology may find a kind of artistic expression in the Todd Solondz film, Palindromes.