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.


[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?

Of What Is, and What Is Not, Criticism of Capitalism

There are numerous popular criticisms that get lobbed at the actually existing economic system that we call ‘capitalism’.  Some are wildly off-base, while others have a certain definite bite to them, but I am not interested (for present purposes) in whether or not capitalism is a good economic system (whether considered morally or pragmatically).  What I find interesting is how many critiques of capitalism are, in fact, not critiques of capitalism at all.  Take these two examples:

  1. Capitalism is bad because it does not appropriately allocate the benefits arising from productive activities – that is, profits accrue only to those who already are possessed of an excess of wealth (else they would not be the owners or shareholders of a business), rather than to those who are actually involved in the provision of the profitable product or service.
  2. Capitalism is bad because it encourages competitive consumption and ‘keeping-up-with-the-Joneses’, a game which only the relatively wealthy can play and which, consequently, causes the further social ostracization of the less well-to-do.

The difference can, admittedly, be hard to spot if one hasn’t spent much time or effort thinking about the matter – it is masked by the usage of ‘capitalism’ in both cases.  The first is obviously a critique of capitalism, since it addresses aspects of capitalist economics directly: e.g. the ownership of productive capital and the existence of the profit motive, labour relations, dividends.  The second, however, only appears to be a critique of capitalism – why do I say this?

Note that the actual problem in the second example is the social ostracization arising from the inability of the less well off to effectively engage in a form of status competition.  Granted, competitive consumption may be encouraged (or even necessitated) by a society’s utilization of a capitalist economic system.  And, of course, the critic of capitalism could argue that it is about capitalism, because the poor (who are poor as a result of capitalist economics) cannot compete against the rich (who are rich as a result of capitalist economics) in a contest to buy the biggest, newest, and best.  But the problem here isn’t actually the competing for status by way of material accumulation, it’s the fact of competition in itself – any sort of status competition will result in winners and losers, necessarily.  The poor feel the pain arising from low status, as denoted by their failure to accumulate material goods, just as keenly as do failed or unpopular musicians, actors, or intellectuals when these latter consider their more successful peers.  Capitalism does not create status competition – it merely channels it in a particular way.

So, only the first of this pair of common critiques is actually a critique of capitalism (should someone, after reading the preceding, still believe the second to be such a critique, then I now have learned a lot about that person and his motivations).

Postmodernism Taken Too Far, Not Taken Far Enough

A little while back I was having a conversation with a fellow student with whom I share a goodly number of perspectives.  Our conversation began on the topic of the absence of free will (of the kind that most take it for granted that we have) and the worry about the justice of punishment in light of that fact (if it is a fact)[1], but then it drifted into a general conversation about the ideological state of the West generally.  Interestingly, we both agreed that postmodernism (I doubt that I shall need to explain this idea to my readership) has proven a significant failure.  [2]  Now, we agreed that postmodernism had some useful perspectives on many issues – indeed, postmodern thought has definitely influenced my ways of thinking about things and I would be remiss in not saying so – but its over-application, or its being taken to extremes, has proven disastrous.

Take, for example, the doctrine that maintains that all beliefs are really ideologies of power, that all beliefs serve the political purposes of particular actors.  I think that there is some valuable insight here – particularly that beliefs and ideologies are used for power-politicking, and that the social and political order is always justified (at least in part) on the basis of claims about how the world ‘really’ is.  Also of importance is the insight that there is no uncontroversially objective access to reality, that the things we believe will invariably reflect our desires and needs.  These are some very important things to acknowledge, but when they are over-applied to the world, they result in obviously stupid notions.  For example, that the whole of modern science is just another ideology of power [3], so that any and all purported sex-based neurological distinctions are fabrications intended to promote patriarchal norms (Newton’s Principia ought to be renamed Newton’s Rape Manual).

The same analysis applies to ethics (and particularly to cross-cultural ethics).  Since ethical systems are based in the particularities of different cultures and their power structures, there actually is no way to judge between them, since any judgements we may make about another culture’s practices (e.g. slavery, female circumcision, burkas) will be done on the basis of our own beliefs.  As such, we cannot judge their moral validity without either making a category mistake [4] or doing violence on that culture: nonsense or imperialism.  This, too, should strike us as obviously wrong – though it may be true that I will be imposing my values on another culture should I argue that slavery or the burka are bad, it shouldn’t follow that what I am saying is without meaningful content or that it should not be said.  [5]

I have this suspicion, however, that these stances are the result of a failure to take postmodern ways of thought seriously enough.  If we accept that our beliefs are grounded in the social fabric, that our epistemology is tainted, this makes the giving of reasons even more important.  We can no longer trust that authorities [6] are right, so the justifications of their arguments are crucial.  Though we have to maintain a rigorously skeptical epistemology, we nevertheless can acknowledge that there are better and worse justifications for claims, justifications that are good enough to confirm belief and to act upon.  Similarly for cultural practices – their very groundlessness is what allows for their proliferation and creative variety.  We do not necessarily do wrong by promoting our way of life, since there is no one way of life that makes a fit for all human beings everywhere and throughout history – if we appreciate our way of life, that is enough to justify our partisanship, and if we don’t, that is justification enough to strive for reform.

Or am I missing something?  Maybe what I am suggesting is totally incompatible with postmodernism, rightly considered.  In that case, transcendence is required.  How to do it?


[1] This was the upshot of a class we both took on the topic of free will.

[2] I wonder whether this is evidence of an impending generational shift in ideas.  I sincerely hope so, since I am not a great fan of PM in the way it has influenced politics and much of academe.

[3] Not that this doesn’t mean politics doesn’t enter into scientific research – it certainly does, just not in the way that postmodernists claim.  From what I can tell, politics’ greatest impact on scientific institutions and inquiry is by influencing what the research questions will be.

[4] Since our values are incommensurable, judging a practice as ‘bad’ would be like judging a song for being inadequately red.

[5] Besides which, it is unclear to me how the giving of reasons can be considered ‘imperialism’.  Isn’t imperialism ultimately backed up by the application of force?  Aren’t reason-givings attempts to persuade without relying on force?

[6] Authorities of any sort, that is, not just the typical authorities pointed to by most postmodern theorists.

Desire: Curse or Blessing?

As mentioned in one of my previous posts, both Buddhism and Epicureanism view desire as somehow central to the ‘problem’ (if it is a problem) of human existence.  Most (but certainly not all) Buddhisms see desire as universally problematic, while for Epicureanism it is only the preponderance of our desires that are so.  But these two philosophies are, of course, not the only ones that pay attention to the phenomenon – indeed, any life-philosophy worth its salt deals with desire in its own way, whether that be the Taoist harmonization of desire to gel with ‘the Way’, or the Christian realignment of desire to accord with the eternal and unseen order established by God.  What is of interest, of course, and what is almost so fundamental as to escape notice, is that all of the life-philosophies mentioned above view desire as something that is broken, or bad, or a burden, as something that must be overcome, subdued, abandoned, or redirected.  The analysis tends to be that, with the abandonment of desire (whether this is total or restricted to specific desires depends upon the particular theoretical framework) life will become easier and freer.

There is no small degree of wisdom in this general approach.  After all, humans have innumerable desires for innumerable ends and, since it is not possible for all our desires to be fulfilled, we will very often be dissatisfied by the gap between what we want and what the world is willing to provide.  Desire probably should be treated with much more suspicion than is currently en vogue among the West’s cultural and business elites[1] and, hearteningly, there are indeed some indications of a growing interest in minimalism.  But these approaches (particularly the stronger ones, like various strains of ascetic Buddhism) ignore something vital and valuable about desire, something that modern Western culture recognizes and responds to (even though, arguably, this response is disproportionate and overly indulgent).

What the modern West generally recognizes about desire is that desire is what gives life its flavour and its vividness.  It is from the satisfaction of desire that we derive our greatest pleasure and joy.  It is our desires that motivate us to do valuable and important things, like getting an education, and it is our desires that motivate us to do things that need doing but which we would otherwise avoid, like maintaining sewage treatment infrastructure.  Desire is what gives us something to act upon, something to look forward to, and something to hope for.  The West knows that to eliminate desire entirely would leave us without any grounds for action or judgement, and leave life a bland affair.

It isn’t obvious, then, that desire is necessarily a bad thing or that we should seek to uproot it entirely (should it even be possible to do so).  We need to find a middle-way between absolute renunciation and absolute indulgence.  More on this later.


[1] Though by no means am I possessed of socialistic tendencies, I do tend to agree with most critics of consumer capitalism insofar as they are arguing against the insipid, ugly, and crass nature of the phenomenon.  But that is a discussion for another time.

The Human Predicament: Buddhist and Epicurean Understandings

A man in need of no introduction...

The problem presented by the human condition seems an appropriate place to begin any comparative analysis of Buddhism and Epicureanism, as these two philosophies are directly engaged with it (or variations of it) and explicitly understand this engagement to be their primary concern.  Unsurprisingly, given the differing cultural, religious and philosophical contexts out of which these philosophies of life emerged,  each has its own unique account of just what the human situation is and why it is problematic, but there is more than a little overlap between them.  This alone is interesting, but what is even more fascinating is how each of their conceptualizations both agree and disagree with the modern ‘common-sense’ [1] view of the matter, and what they have to say to the modern West.The Buddhist account is striking in its brevity, apparent simplicity (a simplicity that belies its complex analysis), and in its radical nature.  The Buddhist account of the human predicament may be summed up by the use of a single term: dukkha.  This term has no precise English counterpart and has been variously (and unfortunately) translated as ‘suffering’, ‘anxiety’, ‘pain’ and other such cognate terms.  Each of these terms is strongly emotionally charged in English, so perhaps the best translation to use is ‘dissatisfactory’, since it captures some of the sense that dukkha conveys without causing English speakers to recoil.  Choosing the definition of this term is crucial since the Buddhist claim is simply this: all things are dukkha (i.e. dissatisfactory).

This immediately strikes the modern Westerner as wrong – obviously, there are things in life that are dissatisfactory (e.g. rainy days, grumpy co-workers, traffic jams and taxes), but equally as obviously it seems that there are things in life that very much are satisfactory (e.g. sunny days, friends, our favourite songs, a good meal or sex).  This is to misunderstand the Buddhist claim, however.  It is not that there is nothing whatsoever that is pleasant or enjoyable, but that there is nothing that is perfectly so.  Everything changes, or fails to live up to our expectations, and there are experiences that are themselves pleasurable, but are causally dependent upon unpleasant experiences (e.g. filling an empty stomach).  And we must not forget those things that are essentially unpleasant: pain, fear, hunger, anxiety, sickness, anger, and death, to name a few.  Even worse, humans are trapped in the cycle of birth-death-rebirth.  Most Westerners feel that this would be a good thing, but recall that Buddhism maintains that everything is dissatisfactory – rebirth on this account means endless dissatisfaction!

… and one who sadly does: Epicurus

Epicureans take a somewhat similar position.  Human life is broadly dissatisfactory on this view as well, although (unlike the Buddhist picture) in a far less radical way.  On the Epicurean picture, humans are animals like any other [2] and are saddled with numerous (infinite?) desires.  This plethora of desires leaves us in a bad way – we are constantly let down because we can’t hope to satisfy them all.  On the Epicurean schema, there are different sorts of desire.  Some of these are impossible to satisfy (e.g. the desire not to die), some are practically impossible (e.g. to be the richest man alive), and others are quite readily satisfied.  But where the Epicurean analysis is interesting is in what it says about the source of the desires.  The claim is this: some of our desires are ‘natural’, arising from our given animal natures (a list of such desires would presumably include items like: sex, food, shelter, etc.), but some arise solely as the result of living in human societies (e.g. desires for social status or dominance).  It is these latter sorts of desires that bring us the greatest unhappiness in life.

So what the two visions share is an explanation of the human situation as one of being trapped in the unhappy circumstance of having desires/wants/needs that cannot be met.  It is obvious that, from these analyses, the answer is to somehow overcome this situation.  But more on this later.


[1] I speak of ‘common-sense’ items with some degree of trepidation – it is embarrassingly often the case that what some philosopher takes to be ‘common-sense’ turns out to be nothing of the sort.

[2] Of immense interest is that the Epicureans had a theory of evolution (obviously, it differs in many respects from the Darwinian/neo-Darwinian evolutionary paradigm we take for granted today).