Antinatalism is the view that it is morally wrong to bring new people into existence (although a more universal sense of antinatalism includes all sentient beings, not just humans). The common arguments used to defend antinatalism include the position that existence is an overall harm, negative utilitarian arguments (which posit that minimising suffering takes priority over maximising happiness, which antinatalists believe implies we should refrain from procreation), environmental arguments (procreation entails a high environmental cost), and the Omelas question (which you can read about in a previous article I wrote – this argument emphasises that we should not procreate because this involves perpetuating a world full of very bad lives).
Another common argument that antinatalists put forward in defence of their position is the consent argument. According to this argument, it is impossible for would-be parents to gain prior consent from their prospective child about whether they want to be brought into the world and be subject to inevitable and unavoidable harms, and this makes procreation a morally problematic act. In this essay, I will contrast this argument with the position that existence is an overall harm, which is advanced by David Benatar, the most prominent, contemporary defender of antinatalism.
Following this comparison, and a fuller explication of the consent argument, it will be useful to delve into the major objections to this argument, as well as responses to these objections. The strength of the consent argument depends on how much moral weight one attaches to the absence of prior consent in the case of procreation – and as we shall see, philosophers writing on procreative ethics diverge on this question, each offering examples and analogies from the real world to highlight their position.
The Consent Argument vs. Benatar’s Asymmetries
Before exploring the consent argument, we should first address the view that existence is always a harm outweighing any of life’s benefits, as the consent argument is often presented as an alternative and preferable way to support antinatalism. For many philosophers (those sympathetic to antinatalism and those who aren’t), the former argument has many pitfalls that weaken the case for antinatalism.
In his influential and controversial book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence (2006), Benatar makes the case that existence is always a net harm. He argues this using various ‘asymmetry arguments’, including the ‘axiological asymmetry’ (an asymmetry in our values), which compares the value of the presence/absence of pain/pleasure for beings who exist/don’t exist. The argument is as follows: the presence of pain is bad, the presence of pleasure is good, the absence of pain is good even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone, and the absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom that absence is a deprivation. (Benatar is often criticised for narrowly focusing on pain and pleasure in this asymmetry, which appears hedonistic, but he has clarified that these are simply exemplars of harms and benefits more generally; you could place other markers of goodness and badness into the equation, such as satisfaction/dissatisfaction, knowledge/ignorance, desirable states/undesirable states, etc.).
The axiological asymmetry would imply that the only scenario in which we can have the good without the bad is abstaining from procreation. It may seem odd to think of the absence of pain of a non-existent being as good If the being in question doesn’t exist and won’t ever exist, doesn’t this mean the absence of both pleasure and pain is neutral? After all, either deprivation doesn’t affect anyone. But Benatar disputes this conclusion. He believes the axiological asymmetry which he has spelled out accords with our intuitions. For example, we do not see it as a cause for concern that sentient life – and, in turn, happiness – doesn’t exist on Mars, but if we imagine Mars was full of sentient life, we could also picture all the suffering that would entail, so part of us can feel glad about the absence of that suffering. We likewise hold the moral intuition that there is a duty to prevent suffering (e.g. terminating a pregnancy if there is foreknowledge of a severe fetal abnormality) but we don’t commonly believe there is a duty to create more happy people. Benatar’s axiological asymmetry, however, has been widely criticised, with some taking issue with the idea that the absence of pain is good even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone. If this premise fails, then so does this particular argument for antinatalism.
Benatar additionally offers ‘empirical asymmetries’ (asymmetries based on evidence and experience) to undergird his antinatalist philosophy. These asymmetries include the notion that the harms in life outweigh its benefits, or that there is an intrinsic asymmetry between pain and pleasure, with pain always felt more intensely than pleasure. But these empirical asymmetries are also highly contestable and the subject of intense criticism. For this reason, many antinatalist philosophers have sought to focus on other features of the procreative act that are morally questionable and which, in their view, offer a stronger basis for defending antinatalism. The impossibility of consent is one such feature, which we shall turn to now.
According to Asheel Singh, a senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Johannesburg, “one need not believe that coming into existence is always an overall harm in order to favour an anti-natal perspective; one need only believe that it is morally problematic to inflict serious, preventable harms upon others without their consent”. These serious and preventable harms, which are present even in the very best lives, include the experience of acute or chronic pain, loss, grief, illness, ageing, and death. Then there are, of course, very common risks in life that – again – accompany even the most privileged lives. These might include risks such as suffering from trauma, abuse, addiction, or chronic stress. Finally, there are less uncommon and rare risks that are nonetheless still severe in nature, and these also make procreation a gamble, a gamble that antinatalists are not willing to take. In any situation involving someone who already exists, if we acted in a way that would inflict these harms or risks on them, without gaining their consent, we would see this as morally problematic, even if some benefits may also accrue to the victims in the process; so is it not morally consistent to think of procreation as another such act?
Gerald Harrison, a lecturer in philosophy at Massey University, has similarly argued that it is “plausible there is a prima facie duty not to do anything that will seriously affect another without gaining his prior consent” (a prima facie duty being one that is a self-evident obligation, but one which can be potentially outweighed by other prima facie duties). In the case of procreation, the new individual is profoundly affected since they are being subjected to life’s difficulties, and his or her prior consent about this decision cannot be obtained. Harrison believes this “generates a prima facie duty not to procreate”.
In their article Better Not to Have Children, published in the philosophy journal Think, Harrison and Julia Tanner state “the fact that we cannot gain their consent does not mean that we are free to do without it”. The authors add that:
the fact that prospective parents cannot get the consent of those they plan to bring into existence doesn’t magically mean it’s OK. Quite the opposite – if you can’t get the consent of the person you’re going to significantly affect by your action, then the default position is that you don’t do whatever it is that’s going to affect them.
There are, nevertheless, cases in which we can justifiably affect the lives of others without gaining prior explicit consent. An example would be pushing someone out of the way of an oncoming truck or making children go to school. But in these cases, Harrison asserts there are clearly other prima facie duties conflicting with – and trumping – the duty not to affect others without their consent. The other duties in these cases are saving the life of a person and providing education for children, respectively. Some greater harm is being prevented through these acts.
These scenarios also differ from the case of procreation because they involve people who already exist, people who have interests that matter deeply to them. This makes possible additional duties that can trump concerns about prior consent. In the case of potential lives, on the other hand, Harrison asserts there are no “prima facie duties to create the lives in question”. By not creating a life, we have not breached a moral duty through such inaction since no life exists that could be affected. There are no interests to frustrate.
Objections to the Consent Argument
While the absence of prior consent is inherent to the procreative act, critics of antinatalism stress that this doesn’t mean procreation is inherently immoral. Singh has identified four main components of the view that procreation is all-things-considered permissible:
- It is permissible for a doctor to knowingly harm an unconsenting patient if the doctor has good reasons for assuming the patient’s consent (such as performing a life-saving operation on an unconscious patient. Some ethicists would also argue non-voluntary euthanasia is permissible in certain instances). Pronatalists (those defending procreation) could likewise rely on a notion of hypothetical consent.
- It is permissible to act on someone’s behalf if you can be reasonably sure that the person to be affected by your action will endorse your action. This argument is based on the assumption that a very high percentage of people are glad they were born (which appears to be the case – even among individuals with extreme quadriplegia, 93% are glad to be alive, according, at least, to one study from 1995). If most people endorse their parents’ decision to create them, you might then say it is highly probable that any act of procreation would be subsequently endorsed by those created, even though prior endorsement cannot be obtained.
- You may concede that parents harm their children by bringing them into existence, yet maintain that this harm is permissible if parents offer their children adequate compensation (which could be financial compensation).
- It is permissible for parents to impose the harms of existence upon their children if they have some intended benefit for them and this intention is realised.
Responses to the Objections
While all of the above objections are relevant, the first two appear to be strongest. For instance, the first two ostensibly agree with our intuition that prior consent is not always needed when acting in a way that can seriously affect the life of someone else. There are many glaring issues with the other two objections, however. In the third objection, it does not seem realistic that parents and children would agree to a situation where the harms of the child’s existence are to be compensated financially; and while there can be moral reasoning behind someone’s decision to sue their parents for non-consensually birthing them and exposing them to suffering, it is highly unlikely they will win such cases and receive the compensation they feel they deserve. It is additionally unclear if any form of compensation can adequately or meaningfully compensate the harms of existence that one didn’t consent to.
The fourth objection also falls prey to this problem: how can you show that a later benefit – however significant – justifies the harms of existence the child didn’t consent to? More troublesome is that the line of reasoning of the fourth objection would seem to justify many heinous acts. It implies we can impose harms on existing people if we intend to also benefit them through that harm and they do indeed experience that benefit. For example, we may decide to abuse or traumatise someone because we believe they will grow through this pain, but even if they do, this in no way morally justifies the action. Antinatalists often make this point in response to counterarguments which say that exposing a child to suffering is unproblematic because meaning and growth comes from suffering, and a child can’t experience or appreciate the benefits of life without being able to suffer.
Seana Shiffrin, a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a proponent of the consent argument, has responded to the first objection, which we can call the hypothetical consent objection to antinatalism. She has stated that:
four factors make the appeal to hypothetical consent problematic: (1) the fact that great harm is not at stake if no action is taken; (2) but if action is taken, the harms suffered may be very severe; (3) the imposed condition cannot be escaped without high costs; and (4) the hypothetical consent procedure is not based on features of the individual who will bear the imposed condition.
For clarification, the third factor relates to the fact that one can only voluntarily escape the harms of existence through suicide, an act that often carries significant physical, emotional, and moral costs. The fourth factor refers to how generic hypothetical consent doesn’t take into account an individual’s “attitudes toward risks and the relationship between harms and benefits” (Shiffrin, 1999). Perhaps most individuals would hypothetically consent to the risks of life, but not all would.
It should also be underscored that in the examples often given where no prior consent is involved, there is still some kind of consent at play. It is not strictly true that these people are ‘unconsenting’. In the example of pushing someone out of the way of an oncoming truck, for example, we can say implied consent is involved – the consent is implicitly granted by the circumstances of this situation. Implied consent may similarly feature in the case of saving or protecting a patient who cannot explicitly consent. If the patient is competent but cannot physically give consent, then the consent may be deemed implicit, and if the patient is incompetent (e.g. in cases like dementia) but has someone representing them who is a competent decision-maker (e.g. a family member), any decision made on their behalf would be known as substituted consent. This is based on the reasoning that the incompetent would consent to the particular decision if he or she were competent.
The salient point here is that all of these examples are disanalogous to procreation. When it comes to deciding to have children, all types of consent are impossible – there is no identifiable being that exists, and thus there is no way to say that consent could be meaningfully attached to them. From the antinatalist perspective, the sheer impossibility of consent is a crucial component of why procreation is unethical.
Harrison tackles the second objection: the notion that if we are happy to be alive and grateful towards our parents for creating us, then we cannot have been wronged. He presents cases in which we can be wronged yet still be happy about the wrongdoing. One example is as follows:
If someone hacks into someone else’s bank account and places a bet on a horse on his behalf, but with-out first gaining his consent, then that person has been wronged even if the horse wins and they are considerably better off, as a result.
In this way, there is nothing incoherent or surprising about accepting that you can be wronged (even seriously so) while still benefiting from the wrong and not wanting things to be otherwise.
Concluding Thoughts on the Consent Argument
For many antinatalists, non-consensually imposing life on someone – and the risks and harms this leads to – will always be a serious wrong. You don’t have to commit to a pessimistic view of human existence, as Benatar does, in order to demonstrate the wrongness of procreation. Non-consensually exposing new beings to inevitable and preventable harms can be sufficient to justify antinatalism. This argument doesn’t require messier considerations, such as whether most lives contain more bad than good, which is difficult – and perhaps impossible – to meaningfully measure.
Nonetheless, pronatalists might not see the lack of prior consent in procreation as a serious wrong or as necessarily immoral in the first place, which makes it easier for them to defend the permissibility of procreation. But this assumption does need to be questioned. While the impossibility of prior explicit consent may characterise actions like saving people’s lives or protecting their well-being, we have to remember these scenarios are very different from procreation: in the former cases, we are providing a benefit and helping them continue a life they have an interest in continuing; in the latter case, we are providing many benefits, but we are also somewhat responsible for the myriad and lifelong harms the new being will have to endure. The implications are arguably much larger in the case of procreation.
Moreover, in the former cases we are acting on the prima facie duty to prevent harm, which outweighs concerns of affecting the lives of others without prior consent, whereas when it comes to procreation, we cannot reasonably say we are saving the newly created person from greater harm since a non-existent being cannot suffer harm. If anything, the opposite holds true: we fulfil the prima facie duty to prevent harm by desisting from procreation. And to reiterate Harrison’s point, there also do not appear to be any prima facie duties to procreate, nor are any such duties violated by not having children. There are, therefore, significant differences between acts that benefit existing people who don’t explicitly consent to those acts and the non-consensual act of procreation, and these differences seem to bolster the antinatalist position.