Against Anti-Natalism

Back in about 2014 I went through a bit of a nihilist stage. This included taking seriously ideas about being ‘pro’ suicide and anti-natalism. Now, I’ve moved well beyond this, but I can see how the ideas crop up. They are obviously heavily grounded in materialism, though you are not necessarily led to them if you are a materialist. Anti-natalism, which shares some ideas with veganism as we’ll see later, is particularly prone to materialist bias, and if based on purely material experiences ends up being completely imbalanced.

The first thing to note is that the apparently absurd idea of anti-natalism has been around for a long time. Take this part from Oeipus at Colonus:

Chorus:

It is obvious to me that those who shun moderation and want a longer life are fools.

The days of an overly long life are filled with pain.

Happiness eludes those who want to hang on to life longer than what the fates have allotted for them and in the end…

…the same attendant awaits him: Hades! Hades waits upon us all!

No ceremony, no wedding songs, no dances and no songs…

Just death! The end of us all is death.

The best would be not to be born at all.

But then, if he is born, the next best thing for him would be to try and return to where he came from…

…in the quickest possible time!

While youth and its careless mind lasts, no thought is given to what pain, what misery will, most certainly, follow.

Murder, mayhem, quarrels, wars will come before the inescapable end…

The hateful old age, frailty, loneliness, desolation and…

…your own misery’s neighbour, is even more misery.

And so, Oedipus like us, is old. Unhappy Oedipus! Bashed about like a reef facing north…

Bashed about on all sides by tempests of all sorts.

Never ending rain and wind crash over his head…

…fierce waves crash over him.

Now from West…

Now from the East…

Some during the midday’s light…

Some from the mountainous North…

…which the deep night darkens.

In modern times though the notion of anti-natalism has gained a sort of academic backing, one that dovetails neatly with so many other academic pursuits, namely colonial guilt and oppression. Now women are pushed towards careers, and anti-natalism takes on the nature of a choice, a right, a lifestyle decision. No longer merely a way to remove suffering from the world, but a way in which to increase your own pleasure.

David Benatar is a Professor of Philosophy at University of Cape Town. Now, leaving aside the fact that I find most South Africans less than savoury, his argument in favour of anti-natalism leaves a lot wanting. He was recently on Sam Harris’s podcast discussing these ideas, and one of his main arguments is that there is a greater gain from removing war and suffering than there is in producing love and joy. Harris makes the obvious point that this ‘benefit’ affects absolutely no one if there is no one to experience it. At this point going down this line of thought, you would — or should — immediately throw out the whole idea of anti-natalism.

This is particularly interesting because in a few podcasts before Harris had Max Tegmark on, who is a bit of an expert on Artificial Intelligence. His take away was that intelligence and consciousness is designed to spread, designed to become more complex, and so the best good we can do is to help it flourish. This is something Jordan Peterson echoes, especially in his Biblical stories series, specifically that ‘Whatever’s going on on this planet has to do with conscious reality, and the transformations of consciousness, for all we know, might be the most important things that happen everywhere.’ The anti-natalist position is completely at odds with these notions. It is a fault of the wrong type of materialism. If materialism takes as a presupposition that there is no inherent meaning to be found in the universe, then you can posit all sorts of other meaning values. That can be whatever David Chapman is trying to create, or it can be the complete reduction of suffering in the world, no matter the cost.

Interestingly, this appears to work as some sort of paperclip maximiser, without the runaway AI. It just requires unlimited empathy. Nothing else matters but the *ahem* humanitarian goal. This is where anti-natalism crosses with veganism. Both advocate not for the outright removal of their victim group, but for the slow disintegration of it, so that slowly suffering is removed. But what is the point of removing the beings that suffer if they are not there to experience this good?

The entire premise rests on suffering. Naturally I find Professor Benatar’s notion of suffering somewhat insufferable, even petty. In Fourth Way work there is focus on suffering, and how we use intentional suffering to further our own work on ourselves. Rather than try to solve or change suffering, modern and secular people — sometimes with a slightly too high IQ — would prefer to run away. They want big system solutions to the pain and suffering in the world, and none more all-encompassing than the idea of anti-natalism. It is quite plainly a cop out and an absurd solution.

But why is it that we are continuously faced with more and more absurd propositions? Why, for example, is the acceptance of abortion no longer absurd? Or any other progressive talking point from the last fifty years? Scott has a recent post where he goes into this idea of holding the line against absurdity, where we have to really question whether loosening or tightening the status quo is quite as strange as we fear it might be. How long until the idea of anti-natalism as a selfless mission falls into the Overton Window and is discussed openly, even lauded? Laws are in place because of custom or revealed truth, not the other way around. We did not create laws to enforce culture, but created laws to implement culture. We have forgotten why we made such laws to begin with. Reaction is the opposite of complacency, of letting go. Even if the world around us is speeding by, we have to be ready to plant our feet firmly in the ground and have reason ready to combat the waves of absurdity.

And these waves grow in strength, enabled by the new wonders of civilisation. Anti-natalism is plainly an absurd idea, but I can see it encroaching on good people. So its arguments must be laid to bare as what they are: ridiculous. They are premised on flimsy materialism and asymmetrical point scoring. We must remain against it.

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