Anti-natalists believe there is no moral right to procreate. This controversial position invites strenuous disagreement, since some will respond that procreation is for many among our most primitive and intimate desires. But this ‘pro-natal’ reflex must be buttressed with good arguments if it is to refute anti-natalism. In this article we’ll look at some of these responses to anti-natalism.
David Benatar’s Asymmetry Argument Fails
David Benatar, a contemporary anti-natalist philosopher, argues that there is no moral right to procreate because existence is a net harm. He gives the Asymmetry Argument to defend this view (Benatar, 42-59). This argument says that the absence of pain is good even if no one exists to experience it, but the absence of pleasure is only not bad (rather than bad altogether, the ‘symmetrical’ opposite of good) unless someone exists to experience it (as a deprivation). Therefore, since existence always involves some degree of harm, non-existence is better.
This asymmetry can be challenged. Benatar’s critical claim is that the absence of pleasure is merely not bad, rather than bad altogether, unless someone exists to experience it as a deprivation. To restore the symmetry one must reply that the absence of pleasure is bad even if no one exists to experience it.
But this reply has its challenges. If the absence of pleasure is bad even if no one experiences it, then we have a duty to avoid this outcome, just like we have a duty to avoid causing unnecessary pain. The question is whether this duty amounts to a positive duty to promote pleasure. If it does, this arguably confuses charity and obligation: we would find ourselves obligated to actions that many believe are discretionary, like donating time or money to improve others’ welfare. Indeed, procreation might be one of these very duties: if Benatar’s Asymmetry Argument fails and existence is not a net harm after all, then it would appear we are duty-bound to procreate because this would increase the amount of pleasure in the world. For many, this is a bridge too far.
Benatar is Wrong About the Ground of a Right to Procreate
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Anti-natalism can be challenged from a different angle. The Asymmetry Argument assumes that a parent’s right to procreate can be undercut by the harm visited upon the child, that is, that one’s rights can be defeated by another’s interests. This is not contentious—others’ interests can limit the scope of one’s rights, such as when an interest in not being defamed limits a right to free speech.
But this is a problem if Benatar’s Asymmetry Argument identifies a child’s interests as the primary consideration when evaluating whether procreation is morally permissible. For there are other possible grounds of a right to procreate that do not center a child’s interests, like a conviction that being a biological parent is part of one’s identity, or that this right is derived from a more fundamental right to bodily autonomy, and these are less vulnerable to Asymmetry-style arguments that purport to show procreation is wrong because existence is a net harm. In fact, these alternatives might sidestep the Asymmetry Argument altogether by showing that other, non-child-centric interests are inseparable from the ethics of procreation, making the supposed fact that existence is a net harm less morally relevant.
The Ethics of Procreation Run Into the Non-Identity Problem
Consider Sarah. Add to her reason to believe the child she is carrying will suffer an incurable disease a desire to be a mother that is constitutive of the person she takes herself to be: a deeply intimate desire that is an expression of her bodily autonomy. It now appears trivially true that Sarah should bring her pregnancy to term: if Sarah completes her pregnancy, then the self-regarding interests partly grounding her right to procreate arguably counterbalance the harms her child will suffer (overlooking for a moment the joys he or she will likely experience as well); if she doesn’t complete her pregnancy, then although these important interests are not satisfied, her child will not endure the harms of existence either. In both cases, therefore, it appears that only Sarah can be disadvantaged by not expressing her deep desire to have children.
This is a slightly amended version of the famous non-identity problem. In reproductive ethics, this problem says that even if a child endures a great deal of suffering, creating this child is still morally choice worthy because his existence creates more good than bad (remember Sarah’s deeply held interests in being a mother); and his non-existence creates more bad than good, since if Sarah decides to terminate her pregnancy in favor of conceiving later, this future child will not be identical to the one with whom she’s pregnant. So any act (like procreation) whose negative consequences (like suffering harm) cannot be separated from the act itself challenges ethical appraisal: how can my existence be bad for me if the only alternative is that I do not exist at all?
The non-identity problem stretches our understanding of ethical evaluation, for it seems intuitive to many that Sarah has a moral obligation not to bring into existence a child who will suffer an incurable disease, but terminating her pregnancy means this child will not exist at all. Of course, Benatar’s Asymmetry Argument tries to overcome this by arguing that existence is in fact a net harm. But as we saw, the Asymmetry Argument has challenges of its own.
By Ryan SosnaPhD, MA, BA in PhilosophyRyan is a musician, audio engineer and writer living in Prince Edward Island, Canada. He holds a BA and MA in Philosophy from the University of Toronto, and a PhD in Philosophy from Boston University (Epistemology). When not unlearning what he has learned, he can be found in his music studio writing metal and mixing anything that comes his way.