A man is suing his parents for giving birth to him without his consent. That might sound ridiculous, but he has a point. The plaintiff behind the lawsuit, 27-year-old Raphael Samuel, believes in “anti-natalism,” namely the philosophical theory that parents do not have moral standing to bring an unwitting child into the world. And there are some seriously legitimate philosophers who advocate for this argument.
The best-known anti-natalist is David Benatar, head of the philosophy department at the University of Cape Town and author of the 2006 book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. (Though Benatar is heralded as a philosopher, he’s controversial at the University of Cape Town for comments he’s made about race, and was dismissive of African philosophy in a recent interview with Quartz.) A 2012 New Yorker article on the theory highlights a central premise of Benatar’s work: If a couple have multiple hereditary genetic diseases and live in horrendous conditions, we might well agree they have a moral obligation not to procreate and so avoid bringing into the world a child who will suffer terribly. Conversely, if a couple is wealthy and disease-free, we would not consider them morally obliged to create a child.
Benatar takes this logic and applies it to all suffering and happiness that children experience as a result of being born. And so failing to create children that experience happiness is no moral flaw, but giving birth to children who suffer is indeed wrong. The New Yorker article quotes a key passage from Benatar’s book: “One of the implications of my argument is that a life filled with good and containing only the most minute quantity of bad—a life of utter bliss adulterated only by the pain of a single pin-prick—is worse than no life at all.”
A separate New Yorker profile of Benatar from 2017 highlights the many ways in which the philosopher believes life is bad: We’re often either too hot or too cold, need the bathroom, have to wait in line, and generally suffer discomforts and indignations. We underestimate just how terrible life is, believes Benatar, and, in fact, life is not a worthwhile gift for any potential child. According to the article, Benatar argues that death is not an easy solution to this problem: “Is life worth continuing? (Yes, because death is bad.) Is life worth starting? (No.)” Just because life is bad does not imply that death is good; better to never have to choose between them. “Of course, life is not bad in every way,” writes Benatar, as quoted in the New Yorker piece. “Neither is death bad in every way. However, both life and death are, in crucial respects, awful. Together, they constitute an existential vise—the wretched grip that enforces our predicament.”
An obvious consequence of anti-natalism taken to the extreme is that the human race will die out, but philosophers such as Benatar see no problem with this. After all, humans are pretty horrible creatures, and inflict endless amounts of suffering on themselves and others.
Anti-natalism considers the moral impact of our actions on people who don’t exist yet, and may never exist; as such, it’s related to the nonidentity problem, one of the most fundamental issues in modern philosophy, which asks what our obligations are towards potential people. The nonidentity problem questions the morality of causing someone to exist, but doing so under flawed circumstances so that they will suffer more than if another child were born instead.
For example, we might consider that a 14-year-old girl should choose not to be pregnant, as a child she gives birth to at such a young age will likely have a bad start in life; but if she does wait several years, the child she eventually has when she’s older will be from a different egg and so a different child than she would have had at aged 14. It’s not clear, then, that her decision not to have a child is good for the yet-to-exist child she could have procreated, and who, rather than being born to a teenager, will simply never be born at all.
The nonidentity problem is not an easy quandary to solve, for the same reason that anti-natalism cannot be simply dismissed: If we believe that life has value and is worth giving to a yet-to-exist child, it’s not clear when we should cease to bestow life on potential people. And that in turn leads to the “the repugnant conclusion,” which suggests we have a moral obligation to produce as many people as possible. It is called repugnant because it seems to imply that we have an obligation to perpetually create, leading to an ever-greater population, which goes against many people’s intuitions. But, if we believe life has value, and we want to maximize that value, there’s no clear philosophical principle that shows when we should stop.
“For any possible population of at least 10 billion people, all with a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger imaginable population whose existence, if other things are equal, would be better even though its members have lives that are barely worth living,” writes philosopher Derek Parfit in his description of the repugnant conclusion, as quoted in the Stanford Encyclopedia. In other words, if we want to reject anti-natalist arguments and argue that there is value to bringing life into the world, it’s not clear where that moral duty stops, and when—if ever—we should cease engaging in our moral obligation to procreate.
These philosophical arguments may be logical, but they result in extreme conclusions, and seem unlikely to be applied by many potential parents evaluating their life decisions. But, for all those angry teenagers who shout “I never asked to be born!,” their reasoning is surprisingly well supported by philosophers.