A Cursory Rejection of Anti-Natalism
By Bryan Caplan
Critics of my kids book occasionally argue that creating new life is, all else equal, morally questionable or objectionable, a position known to philosophers as anti-natalism. The most extreme proponent of anti-natalism is probably David Benatar, author of Better Never to Have Been, which maintains that:
(1) Coming into existence is always a serious harm. (2) It is always
wrong to have children. (3) It is wrong not to abort fetuses at the
earlier stages of gestation. (4) It would be better if, as a result of
there being no new people, humanity became extinct.
As a rule, I do not respond to positions that are neither plausible nor popular. But Karl Smith has inspired me to make an exception. Karl, a vastly more moderate anti-natalist than Benatar, proposed a GMU debate on the topic. In the end, Karl and I decided to debate “How Deserving Are the Poor?” instead. But he got me thinking. What would I have said in a Caplan-Smith “Natalism vs. Anti-natalism” debate?
1. Almost everyone says they’re glad to be alive. Through the magic of hedonic adaptation, even the desperately poor and the severely disabled seem to find great joy in life. When movie villains threaten to “Make you wish you’d never been born,” they aren’t threatening to make you slightly worse
off. They’re threatening massive harm. The threat resonates because
almost everyone realizes that the gift of life is way better than
2. Almost everyone’s behavior confirms that they’re glad to be alive. After all, no mobile adult needs to be miserable for long. Tall buildings and other routes to painless suicide are all around us; in economic jargon, life is a good with virtually “free disposal.” Yet suicide is incredibly rare nonetheless. To quote Epicurus’ ancient argument:
Yet much worse still is the man who says it is good not to be born, but
“once born make haste to pass the gates of Death.” [Theognis, 427]
For if he says this from conviction why does he not pass away out of
life? For it is open to him to do so, if he had firmly made up his mind
to this. But if he speaks in jest, his words are idle among men who
cannot receive them.
3. You might say that it’s wrong to create people unless they (impossibly) consent beforehand. But you could just as easily say that it’s OK to create people unless they (impossibly) refuse consent beforehand.
The reasonable view, however, spurns both stacked decks – and notices that this is an ideal time to to invoke hypothetical consent. It’s OK to create people as long as they would consent beforehand. How can you know? You can’t be sure, but arguments #1 and #2 show that almost everyone would consent if they could. That’s good enough.
Note: If you flatly reject the concept of hypothetical consent, you have to condemn Good Samaritans for saving the lives of unconscious strangers.
I expect that anti-natalists will feel unfairly dismissed by my not-so-subtle arguments. But I insist that my arguments are more than satisfactory. Anti-natalism is so absurd that any valid argument in its favor is merely an indictment of one or more of its premises.