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Antinatalism - Defense Of A Definition

steve godfreyOct 23, 2019, 3:15:27 PM
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"The fact that we cannot gain their consent does not mean that we are free to do without it." -  Harrison & Tanner, Better Not To Have Children, p117


 

Worldwide google searches for antinatalism (AN) were fairly static until the end of 2015, increasing slowly but surely since then. Observing increased interest in the topic and the various contexts within which the term is referenced, there’s clearly confusion about what AN actually is. Take for example, the uptick in early 2019 after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sparked discussion about the legitimacy of having children in the face of climate change. This has resulted in antinatalism being bandied about as somehow connected to climate change, and being framed as leftist political policy. Precisely what it isn’t.

It’s impossible to prevent AN being mongrelized to some degree, but an exclusionary prescriptive definition grounded in its philosophical pedigree can act as a bulwark against this. A prescriptive definition dictates usage should follow the definition rather than the definition following usage. An exclusionary definition excludes as much of what something isn’t as well as including as much of what it is.

 

THE PROPOSED DEFINITION

Antinatalism: The assertion that procreation is unconditionally unethical because it non-consensually exposes people to the inevitability of dukkha, absent purpose sub specie aeternitatis.

Here's how the syllogism might play out:

Premise 1: Dukkha is an inevitable consequence of being brought into existence.

P2: Humans exist absent purpose sub specie aeternitatis (PSSA).

P3: It's unethical to non-consensually expose people to inevitable dukkha, absent a purpose beyond the dukkha itself (PSSA in this case).

P4: It's impossible to get consent before bringing someone into existence.

Conclusion: It's unethical to bring people into existence because it non-consensually exposes them to the inevitability of dukkha, absent purpose sub specie aeternitatis.

For those who don't wish to traverse the full defense, but find the conclusion objectionable, refuting it simply requires undermining only one of the 4 premises. I assert that if you can't undermine any of the premises then you're obliged to accept this as a sound deductive argument whether or not you find the conclusion agreeable. I welcome critiques and rebuttals, so if you have any please leave comments below or contact me on twitter.

 

1: “The assertion”

The definition is a positive assertion attracting the burden of proof.

 

2: “procreation”

2.i) Merriam-webster defines procreation as: “the... process of procreating”. Procreating is defined in turn as “to beget or bring forth (offspring)”. Thus procreation is defined as “the... process of begetting or bringing forth (offspring)”.

2.ii) Clarifying the process:

2.ii.a) I’ve removed the words act or to extinguish any implication that singular acts associated with procreation are prima facie unethical. For example, although the manifest purpose of sexual intercourse is procreation, people don’t typically engage in it for that purpose.

2.ii.b) The begetting or bringing forth process is what’s unethical. What are and aren’t parts of the process are pretty much objective determinations. On the other hand, determining when these outcomes have occurred is mostly subjective, dictated by whatever meta-narratives people have wedded themselves to. Focus on process rather than outcome allows discourse to take place within a framework of clearly definable terms. In short, it isn’t necessary to determine when someone can be said to be brought into existence. It’s only necessary to determine that there's a process which has begetting or bringing forth as its outcome. (For the sake of completeness, the phrase being brought into existence is used synonymously here with begetting or bringing forth.)

Here are 2 examples demonstrating the superiority of framing procreation as a process:

- A fetus unexpectedly expires for an unknown reason 1 hour before birth resulting in a stillborn baby being delivered after a trouble free pregnancy. Whether or not there was any outcome of begetting or bringing forth most likely depends on subjective meta-narratives around the issue of viability. However it can’t be denied that a process of begetting or bringing forth occurred. The question of viability in such a case doesn’t have any bearing on the ethical question of bringing people into existence.

- It’s nonsense to only include IVF successes and exclude IVF failures on the basis there was or wasn’t begetting or bringing forth. The process of trying to achieve successful outcomes is what’s relevant when discussing AN. The success or otherwise of any outcomes is irrelevant.

2.ii.c) In the case of human procreation, apart from extraordinarily rare cases such as cryptic pregnancies, the process of bringing someone into existence is the result of a deliberately intentional process meant to produce that specific outcome. Deliberately intending to bring someone into existence is what opens the door to ethicality because ethics aren’t relevant if the process is accidental or unknown. During pregnancy, prospective parent(s) take deliberate measures intended to minimize the risk of not bringing the fetus to term and maximize the probability of a healthy baby being born. In cases where a couple plans for a family and tries to get pregnant, the series of deliberate events can precede conception by months or even years. However, as can be seen from the following examples, establishing who the intending parties are isn’t always clear cut and there could even be cases where intention might not exist.

(1) Intention could be divvied up between prospective parents and their families as they all pitch in to ensure adequate medical care, and support each other by sharing their excitement about the coming baby.

(2) Those who avail themselves of and provide access to IVF and surrogacy all share intention.

(3) Intention could be imputed to people who choose to live in regions where they know abortion/contraception aren’t available. In places where laws change resulting in contraception/abortion being outlawed, there are arguments to be made that lawmakers share the burden of intention.

(4) Intention could be presumed in cases such as cryptic pregnancies. If someone engages in sexual intercourse without protection, and has the means to check if pregnant or not, an argument can be made that choosing to not confirm if pregnant or not points to intention to want to bring someone into existence.

(5) Cases involving women living under belief systems such as quiverfull aren’t always going to be black and white as it isn’t always going to be clear whether or not any particular woman voluntarily chooses to live in a situation requiring adherence to such beliefs.

(6) People who for some reason or other can't or don't know about the procreation process, eg those who lack the intellectual capacity to understand or people who live in a culture that doesn't understand how reproduction works, wouldn't be thought of as intending parties in the event they bring someone into existence.

(7) In cases where birth results from situations where people are forced to procreate, victims cannot be held to account as intending parties. For example rape slavery, statutory rape victims, non-consensual surrogacy, non-consensually forced to impregnate. However, if (a) a female rape victim who isn't a minor and able to choose termination, but chooses to bring the person into existence, or (b) a male forced to non-consensually impregnate and who isn't a minor who decides to support the pregnancy, s/he becomes an intending party.

2.ii.d) Medical professionals involved in prenatal care are explicitly excluded from the concept of intending parties. This is because prenatal care is triggered by and not causative in the procreation process, and it reduces suffering and harm. Advances in prenatal care, especially in the last 100 or so years, have made pregnancy immensely safer for women and fetuses. Better prenatal care improves infant mortality resulting in fewer and healthier people being born, and more mothers surviving childbirth - all nontrivial reductions in harm. Supporting advances in prenatal care is compatible with AN because it reduces the number of people brought into existence, and those brought into existence with good prenatal care suffer much less than those without. Similar points can be made for postnatal care, however that’s beyond the scope of this discussion because the procreation process ends at birth.

2.ii.e) Focusing on process rather than any specific act and being supportive of high level prenatal care undermines the (utterly deficient and misrepresentative) wikipedia definition: “a philosophical position that assigns a negative value to birth” (cf 2.ii.e.1). There isn’t any conflict between being an antinatalist and being in favor of successful births with positive outcomes for the women and the people who are brought into existence. The term birth is most probably intended as meaning bringing people into existence, but if so why not simply write the definition as a philosophical position that assigns a negative value to bringing people into existence?

Assigning negative value to birth attracts the same kinds of objections as assigning negative value to abortion. This default leads to making abortion illegal or restricting access, neither of which stop abortion from happening. It only makes it more dangerous. Improved access and quality is always better - same for birth which is part and parcel of prenatal care.

2.ii.e.1) (26 Feb 2020) I discovered today the words "and social movement" have been added to the wikipedia definition. This is troubling. "A philosophical position and social movement that assigns a negative value to birth" isn't the same as "a philosophical position that assigns a negative value to birth". This is a nontrivial shift in meaning. It's either sloppy and incompetent drafting or an effort to foment a social movement against birth. I sincerely hope it's a case of Hanlon's razor but if not, repurposing AN as a social movement against birth is dangerous and ill advised. The optics are awful, not to mention the slippery slope potential for abuse by bad actors. AN will become a dumpster fire if this social movement definition catches on.

 

3: “unconditionally”

Including unconditionally is technically redundant because as will be seen, the impossibility of being able to ascertain consent being the cornerstone of the definition necessarily means procreation is unconditionally unethical. However I’ve chosen to include unconditionally to explicitly disentangle AN from the likes of childfree, birthstrike, population control, pro-choice, and the voluntary human extinction movement (VHEMT). When one considers AN’s philosophical pedigree, it’s readily apparent it’s never been considered as anything other than unconditional (Although Benatar does concede there are legitimate arguments for bringing people into existence to minimize harm as humans implement a phased extinction, Benatar, pp182-193). Therefore it doesn’t make sense for such terms to fall under the AN rubric as they conditionally permit or proscribe procreation depending on the presence or absence of constraints.

Being childfree is a personal preference for not wanting to have/raise children. Pro-choice asserts that abortion is a legitimate option for those that want it. Birthstrike is refraining from having children because of concerns about bringing children into a world where climate change and pollution would cause them excessive hardship. Population control advocates not having children typically for politically/ideologically strategic reasons. VHEMT argues that humans should go extinct because of our negative impact on earth’s flora and fauna. However procreation is presumed ethical if you want to raise or give birth to children, if climate change can be averted, if it’s strategically advantageous, or if humans stop ravaging the planet.

These categories more correctly fall under the rubric of conditional pronatalism, which could be defined something like the position that procreation is un/ethical as long as certain conditions are present or absent. Conditional pronatalism is the position held by most people, with the arguments being about where lines should be drawn when it comes to deciding when it’s acceptable to beget or bring forth. Consider the following 3 examples:

 - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez queried the ethics of bringing new people into existence in the face of climate change. People called her an antinatalist when in fact her line of questioning confirmed her as a conditional pronatalist in that she was asking about where to draw the line when it comes to determining whether or not climate conditions are un/acceptable for bringing people into existence.

 - China's 1 child policy is usually referred to as antinatalist. However it was conditional pronatalism in the form of strategic population control, the CCP deciding it needed to control the size of China's population. That it was conditional pronatalism is confirmed by the policy being applied differently depending on region, social status, gender, and by the fact the policy was changed to reflect new conditions in January 2016.

- CRISPR is going to make it possible to alter DNA in-utero. In the future, CRISPR might make it morally reprehensible to bring a handicapped person into existence. Although in such cases, the welfare of the people being brought into existence is centerstage like AN, the debate will proceed on the basis that procreation is a good, meaning it falls under the PN umbrella. 

Clarifying AN as unconditional unmuddies this kind of confusion.

 

 

4: “unethical”

4.i) Some will say ethics is parasynonymous with morals and trying to differentiate them is much ado about splitting hairs. Point taken, but I think it warrants attention:

4.i.a) Ethics are more concerned with universally applicable principles which guide acts/omissions and the consequences of acts/omissions. Morality is more concerned with inner character and individual preference. AN is concerned with whether or not procreation accords with universally applicable principles, not with inner character or individual preference. This is important because consent is the cornerstone of the definition. The parameters of consent aren’t determined by inner character or individual preference (otherwise rape and murder would be permissible), but by reference to external and universally applicable principles, eg individual autonomy, consent being given prior, identifiable parties to whom consent attaches.

4.i.b) Agreeing with AN or not having children doesn’t mean someone’s inner character is morally superior. Conversely, not agreeing with AN or having children doesn’t mean someone’s inner character is morally inferior. Labeling individuals as wholly im/moral because of how they respond to a single question is nonsense, yet it’s a persistently corrosive problem with AN discourse (at least online discourse). Both history and the present demonstrate that those who appoint themselves as arbiters of moral inferiority vis-à-vis their own moral superiority tend to be pugnaciously preoccupied with controlling others while allowing their own vices to run amok. They’re the type who’d put a bullet in your head for opposing their “morality”. Furthermore if one accepts, as I'm inclined to do, Julio Cabrera’s position that existence itself results in moral disqualification, then moral character comparisons are meaningless (Cabrera, p35~).

4.ii) Unethical restricts the definition to human procreation. Until it can be established that a non-human species is capable of understanding the procreation process, and the giving and withholding of consent, it doesn’t make any sense to include non-human procreation within the definition of antinatalism. Furthermore, the AN canon has only ever been concerned with matters relating to human procreation. (However, I acknowledge that an argument might exist for including non-human procreation when humans are the intending parties. But even so I still maintain it's an error to include non-human procreation under the rubric of AN. I will address this matter in a later essay.)


 

5: “exposes people to the inevitability of dukkha”

Understanding dukkha is necessary for understanding non-consensually, so I’ll deal with dukkha first.

Antinatalists typically refer to concepts such as suffering and harm when explaining AN. Dukkha is a Pali word often translated into suffering, but which encompasses a far broader range of meaning making it better suited to the task at hand. The explanation on p324 of the Davids and Stede Pali-English Dictionary is worth quoting in full: “There is no word in English covering the same ground as Dukkha does in Pali. Our modern words are too specialized, too limited, and usually too strong. Sukha and dukkha are ease and dis-ease (but we use disease in another sense); or wealth and ilth from well and ill (but we have now lost ilth); or well-being and ill-ness (but illness means something else in English). We are forced, therefore, in translation to use half synonyms, no one of which is exact. Dukkha is equally mental & physical. Pain is too predominantly physical, sorrow too exclusively mental, but in some connections they have to be used in default of any more exact rendering. Discomfort, suffering, ill, and trouble can occasionally be used in certain connections. Misery, distress, agony, affliction and woe are never right. They are all much too strong & are only mental.” Further, on p325, reference is made to The Nidessa where dukkha is classified in one instance as “all suffering caused by the fact of being born”.

In the context of antinatalism, dukkha isn’t concerned with ranking suffering based on relative intensity or some other metric. It covers everything from the proverbial papercut to whatever’s in Room 101. The point is the principle that non-consensual exposure to dukkha is unethical, not whether or not anyone would or wouldn’t object to having been exposed to any particular kind of nonconsensual dukkha. Objections based on notions such as life getting better, à la Pinker, which while defensible in and of themselves, can be legitimately dismissed as missing the point.

Nevertheless someone might persist with the thought experiment that if a single paper cut was the only harm someone might suffer as a result of being brought into existence, it would be farcical to assert that such exposure crosses any unethicality threshold. I agree with the intuition but we'd still need to establish a "purpose beyond the dukkha itself" to undermine premise 3. If this were possible it would probably still fail because it would probably require arguing that existence is preferable to never existing. This would necessitate being able to compare the two states of non-existence and existence, meaning both those states must be knowable, and non-existence isn't knowable (cf: 6.ii.2 below). Furthermore, a state of existence where a single papercut is the only harm anyone ever suffers would have a completely different kind of metaethics, which jolts us back to our present reality. AN deals with this reality where dukkha is inevitable, no-dukkha is impossible, and the dukkha one is inevitably exposed to includes far more significant harm than a papercut. This, and not some fanciful idyll, is the only thing that matters.

Exposure to dukkha is integral to existence. It’s inevitable and unavoidable. If it was the case that not everyone experiences dukkha by virtue of their existence, the door would be open to the possibility that bringing certain people into existence isn’t unethical. I’m not sure however that the argument could succeed because it would require being able to identify who is going to come into existence before they do, and being able to foresee that they would never be exposed to dukkha.

Please see this essay for an in-depth discussion about the nature of the harm in question when discussing the ethicality of procreation.  

 

6: “non-consensually”

6.i) Two points must first be stressed:

(1) Consent attaches to exposure to inevitable dukkha. It doesn't attach to being brought into existence. The position being argued isn't procreation is unethical because it's impossible to get consent before bringing someone into existence. The position being argued (in a nutshell) is non-consensual exposure to inevitable dukkha is unethical, and as procreation always results in non-consensual inevitable exposure to dukkha, procreation is therefore unethical. (Here's an allegorical explanation.)

(2) There isn't any question about whether or not it's possible to ask for consent before bringing people into existence. Impossibility of consent is granted.

6.ii) Being brought into existence exposes people to dukkha but the mere fact of being exposed to dukkha isn’t sufficient to make a determination that such exposure is unethical (a weakness in Benatar's asymmetry). For example, if you see me cutting someone's leg with a knife, and that's all the information you have, you don't know enough to make a determination if what I'm doing is ethical or not. I'm definitely harming him, but am I attacking him (no consent), or am I removing a bullet (consent + benefit beyond the harm)? The task before us therefore is to demonstrate the relevance of consent vis-à-vis the inevitable exposure to dukkha and how the impossibility of being able to ascertain consent renders the exposure unethical.

6.ii.1) Relevance

Ethical dukkha and unethical dukkha can be differentiated through the lens of consent, eg: surgery vs assault, euthanasia vs murder, borrowing vs theft, study induced headaches vs trauma induced headaches, muscle pain from exercise vs muscle pain from torture. Premise 3 can therefore be undermined by establishing that consent is irrelevant vis-à-vis the exposure to inevitable dukkha. This requires demonstrating (1) there’s no such thing as dukkha, or (2) being brought into existence doesn’t expose people to inevitable dukkha, or (3) consent doesn’t differentiate ethical dukkha from unethical dukkha.

(1) The case could be made that in the grand scheme of things there isn’t any such thing as dukkha, and that it’s nothing more than subjective fiction humans have contrived to label certain kinds of observations and experiences. I agree with this in the same way I think that good and evil are fundamentally nothing more than interpretive labels humans use to make sense of experiencing existence through sentience. But it doesn’t make any difference if dukkha exists in objective reality or only in our minds. The observations and experiences are perceived as real, and that’s all that matters. This doesn’t mean everyone observes and experiences dukkha in the same way. It only means that everyone experiences it in some way.

(2) You’d have an easier go of it arguing that water isn’t wet.

(3) The aforementioned comparisons, surgery thru muscle pain, are each differentiated by the element of consent. Individual sovereignty is also in play in that the more you agree with the principle that people have the right to choose what dukkha they do and don’t experience, the more inclined you’ll probably be to view the assertion that consent differentiates ethical dukkha from unethical dukkha as inviolable. The further away you get from the principle of individual sovereignty, the easier it is to argue that it isn’t unethical to inflict dukkha on someone absent their consent. Consider a conscripted soldier forced to fight and die for his nation without regard for his consent. The only way to shift this away from unethicality is via the narrative that nation states have the right to override individual sovereignty and force citizens into armed conflict. For present purposes, whether or not that’s sufficient to overcome the charge of unethicality is beside the point. The point here is that one’s position vis-à-vis individual sovereignty will affect how much weight they give to the assertion that consent differentiates ethical dukkha from unethical dukkha.

So, if you disagree more than agree with individual sovereignty, you might be more inclined than not to disagree with the assertion that consent differentiates ethical dukkha from unethical dukkha. This being the case, we’re going to part ways at this juncture. However, if you lean more towards individual sovereignty being somewhat sacrosanct, I think you’re compelled to agree that consent differentiates ethical dukkha from unethical dukkha, and are therefore obliged to agree that consent is relevant to the matter at hand.

6.ii.2) Ascertaining Consent

Two requisite elements of consent are that the person to whom consent attaches must be identifiable and consent must be given prior. When it comes to procreation, there aren’t any identifiable people that consent can attach to before being brought into existence making consent impossible to ascertain. What about implied or substituted consent? These forms of consent aren’t exempt from the aforementioned requisite elements, and as we still don’t have any identifiable people to whom consent might attach, it’s impossible to imply or substitute consent before bringing anyone into existence.

This is important because people often reject AN by poopooing it on the basis that without anyone to give or withhold consent it’s nonsense to base a position on its absence. This has somehow been turned on its head into a way of rejecting AN, when in fact it supports AN...

- “Look, don’t be stupid. Consent is impossible because there isn’t anyone to consent. What a ridiculous idea that having children is wrong because they can’t consent to being born. Of course they can’t.”

- “Yes, that’s right. Consent is impossible because consent requires an identifiable person to give consent prior - that’s the argument. We’re in agreement.”

- “No I don't agree with you at all. But so what, it’s irrelevant when it comes to having children.”

- “Ah I see. You think the consent attaches to being brought into existence. No, that isn't the case. Consent attaches to the exposure to inevitable harm as a consequence of procreation. Procreation exposes people to inevitable harm (I doubt anyone would use dukkha in these kinds of conversations), and assuming you accept the principle that it's unethical to non-consensually expose anyone to inevitable harm, consent is the only thing that can make that exposure ethical. We’ve just agreed that consent is impossible, so your only other option is to establish consent as irrelevant (vis-à-vis being exposed to harm, not vis-à-vis being brought into existence). To do this, you need to show there’s no such thing as harm, or being brought into existence doesn’t inevitably expose people to harm, or consent doesn’t differentiate ethical suffering from unethical harm. (Failing these you need to show a purpose beyond the harm itself (cf para 7 below)).” 

Those who persist in saying it’s nonsense to discuss consent in relation to non-existent and unidentifiable entities are shooting themselves in the foot if they also insist that existence is preferable to non-existence, or that life is a gift. Neither of these assertions are conceptually possible if non-existent and unidentifiable entities are off limits, because they purport to compare two knowable things. If one of those things can't be known then no comparisons can be made.

6.iii) Non-Human Species

The issue of consent further restricts the definition to human procreation. Until it can be established that a non-human species is capable of giving and withholding consent in a manner beyond mere instinct, non-human species can't be included under the AN rubric (cf 4.ii above).

 

7: “absent purpose sub specie aeternitatis”

Sub specie aeternitatis means from the point of view of eternity. This sits in contrast with sub specie humanitatis, from the point of view of our own temporal standing. Thus, purpose sub specie aeternitatis (PSSA) refers to purpose originating from beyond ourselves. Absent PSSA can be interpreted as humans not having any purpose originating from beyond ourselves.

The reason for including this in the definition is that PSSA is the one thing that could override the unethicality of non-consensual exposure to dukkha. If humans are a means to an end originating from beyond our own temporal standing rather than a product of blind evolutionary forces, non-consensual exposure to dukkha could become ethical (There are parallels between this and the discussion in 6.i.3 above).

Conversely, non-consensual exposure to inevitable dukkha is made even more egregious if the exposure is entirely unnecessary. Some will respond by saying that people find meaning and purpose for themselves (purpose sub specie humanitatis - PSSH), thus the inevitable exposure to harm by virtue of being brought into existence isn't unethical. The problem with this is that PSSH only has value because we exist. In other words, the fact we exist is the only reason we try to find meaning and purpose for our lives. If our existence is the only reason something is perceived to be of value by us, it follows that that value wouldn't be if we didn't exist. People are compelled to find PSSH only because they've been brought into existence, not because finding meaning and purpose has intrinsic value. If they don't, they'll likely spiral into depression and suicide. In other words finding PSSH is an escape from dukkha and not a venture towards something purposeful. Arguing that PSSH overrides the unethicality of non-consensual exposure to dukkha is the same as arguing that it's acceptable to non-consensually and unnecessarily put someone in the position where they have to escape from dukkha to save themselves from that dukkha. If that's choice (A) and choice (B) is to refrain from doing that, (B) is the ethical option. (Peter Wessel Zapffe frames PSSH in terms of isolation, anchoring, distraction, and sublimation in The Last Messiah.)

Following on, intrinsically valuable purpose must also be known prior to bringing someone into existence and it must be one of the reasons why a person is brought into existence. But at this point in time the best we can deduce is that we do not have PSSA. All signs point to our species being the result of blind evolutionary selection over the course of millennia. Our base purpose is to perpetuate the species until forces immensely superior to us knock us out of the game. Everything else is filler. And herein lies the execrable offence against our sense of agency and self. The torturous paradox of non-consensual being. Death row inmates sentenced to the gallows for the crime of being brought into existence. The clock is always ticking, but we never know what time it is.

Many will argue that we have PSSA because god. An example of this might run something like, "Our earthly suffering helps us mature into holiness so we can grow closer to God". But anyone wanting to insert their god into this discourse is first obliged to demonstrate that there's a supernatural, then define the term god, prove that a god matching that definition does in fact exist, and explain away all other gods encompassed by their proposed definition. Furthermore, those who profess belief in a deity/ies that banish people to everlasting torment have the added burden of squaring away why it’s okay for people to be non-consensually exposed to that horrific risk. There are other possibilities such as being created by aliens, existing within some kind of simulation or even a hologram. But, just like the god question, these are currently nothing more than unknowable hypotheses - although I suspect much more likely.

And no matter which way you slice it, what we currently can know is infinitely more valuable than what we currently can't, even if the former turns out to be wrong, and the latter turns out to be right.

 

 

Here's my discussion of the consent argument with Lewis Howeth on youtube: Part 1, Part 2


 

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