Why Do Anti-Natalists Oppose Birth?

Anti-natalism says that procreation is morally wrong, something we ought not to do. In this article we’ll examine an argument for this controversial claim.

Oct 23, 2023By Ryan Alexander, PhD Philosophy

 

Anti-natalists believe we have a duty not to procreate and so do not have procreative rights. What is their reason for believing that the right to procreate—to have biological children—is not sacrosanct like most think? In this article we’ll lay out a popular argument for this view, known as the Asymmetry Argument, beginning with some detail about the conception of rights that this argument targets.  

 

Anti-Natalists Believe Harms Can Outweigh Rights

See-Saw, Daderot, 2016
See-Saw, Daderot, 2016

 

Sarah, who is in the early stages of pregnancy, learns her fetus has a disease that will cause it severe disfigurement and suffering. Some would say Sarah is morally obligated to bring her pregnancy to term regardless, because abortion is always wrong. Others will disagree: Sarah should, or at least may, terminate her pregnancy. 

 

Now assume, plausibly, that Sarah has a right to procreate—to have her own biological children. For those who believe abortion is always wrong, Sarah’s difficult news presents no conflict between her child’s welfare and her right to procreate: she can (and, indeed, now must) exercise this right and bring the child to term. But for those who believe abortion is morally permissible, a challenge arises: they must explain how Sarah’s right to procreate is outweighed by her child’s expected suffering. 

 

This challenge illustrates that rights and obligations can conflict. In response, like many, anti-natalists are willing to abridge someone’s right if a consequence of exercising it is sufficiently bad. But they go further than most in their willingness to abridge the right to procreate. For anti-natalists believe that existence itself is a harm that outweighs the right to procreate, and therefore that there is an essential conflict between the obligation to minimize a child’s suffering and a parent’s right to procreate. Simply put, it is always better not to procreate; the right to procreate is false.

 

Anti-Natalists Believe Existence Is a Net Harm

scream munch
The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1895. Source: National Gallery of Norway.

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The conclusion that existence is a harm rests on a controversial claim: that non-existence is always better than existence. The Asymmetry Argument, formulated by the anti-natalist philosopher David Benatar, attempts to defend this claim. 

 

Things are symmetrical when they match up in a certain way; they’re asymmetrical when they don’t. Consider pleasure and pain (harm). For any existing person, we can agree that the presence of pleasure is good and the presence of pain is bad. But Benatar argues that we cannot give a symmetrical evaluation for someone who does not exist (Benatar, 42-59). For although the absence of pain is good (the opposite of bad) even if no one exists to experience it, the absence of pleasure is simply not bad (rather than bad, the opposite of good) unless someone exists to experience this deprivation. In other words, unlike the value of pain, the value of pleasure is asymmetrical for existing and non-existing persons: its presence is good, but its absence is merely not bad (rather than bad altogether), unless someone exists to experience it as a deprivation. 

 

In a moment we’ll discuss Benatar’s reasons for this asymmetry. First consider the argument’s upshot. If the absence of pleasure is merely not bad unless someone exists to experience it (as a deprivation), then because existence always involves some degree of harm, non-existence is on balance preferable: it is good because it involves no pain, but not bad because it involves no pleasure. Putting things the other way, existence is a net harm. 

 

The Asymmetry Argument Explains Widely Shared Intuitions

Double Symmetry, Carlos ZGZ, 2019
Double Symmetry, Carlos ZGZ, 2019

 

If the Asymmetry Argument is right, then Sarah’s conflict between her right to procreate and her obligation to her child’s wellbeing runs deep. For this argument says that regardless of a child’s prospective health, coming into existence is always a net harm. So Sarah should never procreate. This controversial conclusion demands closer inspection. Benatar’s key claim is that there is an asymmetry between the presence (good) and absence (not bad) of pleasure. Why does he believe it? 

 

Benatar says this best explains four other asymmetries that are uncontroversial (Benatar, 32-36). We’ll discuss just one. Sarah’s conflict between her supposed right to procreate and her obligation to minimize her child’s suffering stems from a widely shared assumption: that we have a duty not to bring into existence people who will disproportionately suffer. This confirms Benatar’s contention that the absence of pain is good even if no one exists to experience it. But most would also agree we have no corresponding duty to bring into existence people would experience surplus pleasure. If we did, then this duty would require people to procreate when they reasonably believe their offspring would be happy, and this is not a widely shared view. 

 

Babies in the nursery, Russell Lee, 1986
Babies in the nursery, Russell Lee, 1986

 

This is evidence that Benatar’s asymmetry is true: people widely agree that we have a duty not to bring into existence people who will disproportionately suffer, which entails that avoiding pain is good even if no one exists, but they do not agree we have a corresponding duty to bring into existence people who will predictably experience surplus pleasure, which entails that avoiding pleasure is not bad so long as some existing person is not deprived of it. Simply put, most people agree we have more reason to reduce suffering than to increase pleasure. 

 

One reason anti-natalists oppose birth and deny anyone has a right to procreate, therefore, is because the Asymmetry Argument shows that existence is always, on balance, a harm. 

 

Works Cited: Benatar, D. (2013). Better never to have been: the harm of coming into existence. Clarendon Press.

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By Ryan AlexanderPhD PhilosophyRyan holds a PhD in philosophy