Small Thoughts on Anti-Natalism and Potential Persons

Well, I haven’t been a very good blogger in the recent past.  It would seem that recently, when not at work, I have been in a reading and not a writing phase.  I have been working at a longer essay but I have to admit that my enthusiasm for it is low, so that will be done whenever it is done.  Meanwhile, I imagine that I will be keeping to shorter bits (and I suppose that I could get some book reviews in, since I’ve read a few in recent weeks).

Anyway, I was at our local megabookstore yesterday (though I prefer to spend my money at smaller booksellers, I had some gift cards to spend, so no option).  There, I happened to discover a book titled Why Have Children?: The Ethical Debate by one Christine Overall (MIT Press 2012).  I didn’t buy it, though it seems interesting enough to eventually make its way into my tower of books that I have yet to read (besides, I’m on a bit of a fiction kick and Heinlein is calling to me…).  It caught my eye, both because I find the natalist/anti-natalist debate to be a rather interesting one and, further, personally relevant [1].  The author takes the question from a feminist perspective and, somewhat surprisingly for feminists who cover the question of the ethics of procreation, finds in favour of it.  I look forward to reading it.

There was a time when one of my primary ethical interests just was the question of anti-natalism.  Now, it seems that there are two general approaches that have brought most anti-natalists to their position [2].  The first focuses on the ethical impact of child-bearing upon those already living, whether those impacts are related to environment, parents’ hedonistic calculus, etc.  There’s much to be discussed in this vein, but it is the second that I am (and usually have been) more interested in, which concerns itself with the ethical impact of procreation upon the yet-to-be born.

The arguments are various, but usually go something like the following:

  1. Even on the sunniest (credible) review of life’s ups and downs, it’s clearly a mixed bag – though there is much that is good and enjoyable in life, there is also much that is bad and harmful [3].  No one who is born, after all, can escape sickness, ageing, or death (as to whatever compensations come with these, it is telling that we think of them as compensations).
  2. It is uncontroversially granted that causing unnecessary harm is bad and best avoided.
  3. The harms listed in (1) obviously cannot be suffered by someone who hasn’t been born.
  4. Whether or not someone is born is obviously a consequence of his parents’ decisions on the matter (due to modern contraceptives, etc.).
  5. Given (3) and (4), the harms that come from being born are obviously evitable.
  6. Therefore, by (2) and (5), it must be concluded that potential parents should not become actual parents.

Now, there are a couple of ways of countering this argument, should one be so inclined, but I personally think it fails because it seems implicitly to suppose the existence of potential persons.  Harms must be done to someone in order to be harms at all, but how could harms be done to someone who doesn’t exist?  Surely (most) anti-natalists do not believe that there are ethereal little people hovering around women which are then unwillingly trapped in wombs by the procreative act.  If such was the case then, yes, it would be a harm – I highly doubt that it is, though.  More seriously, I cannot see how to make a precondition of one’s own existence into a harm against oneself.  It strikes me as about as plausible an argument as saying that because we must breathe in order to survive, and some of us will at some point have difficulty with that, we therefore would be better off not having to breathe at all.  There’s nothing obviously fallacious about such an argument, but it still strikes me as wrong.

Endnotes:

[1]  My wife and I have just passed our first anniversary and as it would seem we haven’t come to loathe each other any more than we already did (joke!), so starting to think about whether and how we might fit kids into the plan seems pertinent.  And since I’m a philosophy nerd, this also means thinking about children and the having-of-them philosophically.

[2]  When that position in fact does have some justifications grounding it, rather than simply being an expression of personal distaste for children or the raising of them (not that there is anything wrong with such an attitude – surely not everyone is of a sort to have children – and not that there is anything necessarily wrong witha posteriori justifications for one’s preferences).

[3]  And this of the best lives available to anyone.  There surely are, have been, and shall be lives in which that which is bad and best avoided overwhelm that which could potentially have been enjoyed (the famine children of late-night television donation drives come to mind).  A related and interesting question: are there lives that are not worth living?

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