Antinatalism and the Consent Argument

antinatalism and the consent argument

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 disability) 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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, 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.


  1. UTC
    November 3, 2020 / 11:57 am

    “Non-consensually exposing new beings to 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.”

    As an antinatalist I reject the (lack) consent argument as a stand alone argument. The argument does not by itself give prospective parents any good reason to believe they will harm their offspring. Virtually no one regrets being born not even suiciders and people in starving countries. These are empirically verifiable facts.

    It is as if you have to suffer from irrational fear (or feel bitter about your own life) to feel the weight of the consent argument. Or perhaps have an affinity doing highly abstract ethics not much unlike anarcho capitalism which doesen’t require messy considerations either, it’s applied autism.

    I’ve seen how “unneccessary” shaming parents/prospective parents on vegan forum via the consent argument has lead to the rejection of said antinalists from the vegan community. This is also how morality works. In contrast, Benatar presents evidence so people can make their own informed decisions. And while we are at it, Benatar’s empirical qualitiy of life argument does not require more bad than good to work, “not good enough” is sufficient and it makes people think. People can disagree and still be friends.

    Even speaking as an antinatalist in this particular time in history I do not feel I can reasonably claim that my parents wronged me, even though my parents made me worse off, above anything else I feel a duty to raise awareness about antinatalism above any percieved right to not be born. I understand things in a context. Someone has to do it. My number came up.

    • Sam Woolfe
      November 3, 2020 / 5:18 pm

      Thank you, I appreciate the comments. I’d be interested to hear what you think are the most persuasive arguments for antinatalism if you feel the consent argument is weak or insufficient.

      Also, when you say “not good enough” is sufficient to support Benatar’s empirical quality of life argument, do you mean that’s what Benatar himself argues or that’s the kind of argument you feel is stronger than saying the bad outweighs the good in life? Based on what I’ve read, I was under the impression Benatar thinks that most lives contain more bad than good. For example, in one article he has written: “Considering matters carefully, it’s obvious that there must be more bad than good,” which he then goes on to justify ( I’m not saying I necessarily agree with him by the way, just pointing out that he uses this pessimistic view of life to support his position.

      What does a “not good enough” life look like? Does antinatalism only require that a life contain a certain amount/intensity of harm?

  2. James
    November 26, 2020 / 1:14 am

    As someone who considers procreation morally neutral, I’ll offer my opinion. Firstly, Benatar’s asymmetry as you’ve described is not convincing to me at all and even inconsistent. Absence of pain without anyone to notice it is as neutral as absence of pleasure without anyone to notice it. With the lack of Martians analogy, you say it’s good because you’re here to say it’s good. I can say it’s bad that there is no Martian art, history, literature, or science because I am here to say it’s bad. You are here to say future babies would be bad. I am here and could say future babies would be good.

    If none of us were here, none of us could say anything about the goodness or badness of lack pain or pleasure. Play by the rules you set or admit that you want to say a lack of pain can be good for no one which would allow the possibility of a lack of pleasure also being bad for no one.

    As you’ve stated the empirical asymmetries are very much in doubt, and what I’ve heard hasn’t convinced me either. So I’ll set them aside for now.

    The consent argument also isn’t enough to sway me to antinatalism. For one, I do not think consent is necessary when dealing with a hypothetical or real infant. Surgery to save an infant’s life, vaccination, driving them around in a car. The first one especially carries high risk comparable to the horse betting analogy. I also don’t see how the continued life of that infant can be consented to if starting that life isn’t. The continued life of that infant contains harms as well, and while it can’t consent to painless euthanasia either, it seems that in the lack of consent for both options the one that reduces harm is preferable. While the reactions of the parents may stop you, what stops you if you’re alone with a baby whose family is dead and you have the option to painlessly euthanize it? The car ride also would be condemned as immoral by the consent argument. It’s an unnecessary exposure to car crash except that probability is low enough for satisfaction.

    Substituted consent such as for a dementia patient could also seem like it could apply to a hypothetical infant. I don’t think the hypothetical infant needs to be asked for consent, a living infant infant can’t be asked for its consent to life either.

    However, it’s valid to extend the psychology of billions of people on a hypothetical or actual infant to know with very high probability that it will want to live. If encountering a random dying unconscious adult in the street and saving them without consent (even though there is a chance they may be suicidal or suffering from a painful terminal disease) is justifiable because most people want to keep living, then giving birth to a baby is justifiable because most people want to live rather than not be born. If you can make a consent for the first based on the reasonable expectations of billions of other people, I see nothing stopping me from making the second. I don’t have access to the specific wishes of the random adult either, I don’t think prior existence is necessary, just reasonable expectation of their wishes.

    In fact, saving that random adult exposes them to further harms in their life regardless of their wishes. If you want to say consent requires properties of a specific person. The consent and avoidance of harm arguments seem like they would require euthanasia in all instances where specific properties can’t be acquired, especially in random healthy infants or adults. Like the heart surgery from earlier, it seems that painless euthanasia rather than risk of further harm is required.

    I find the 2nd objection to the consent argument you described to be the most convincing, and none of the arguments in your article have discredited it to my satisfaction. We can predict newborns’ wishes for life just as much as a random unconscious adult in the street.

    Many antinatalist analogies also seem disanalogous to me, since they depend on an already existing person and then point out that acting in a certain way would lead to a negative in that existing person’s life. In those cases, they were positive before and less positive now. Like the horse betting analogy, while not less positive after, had a chance to be only because it was positive before.

    However, nonexistence is a null condition and Benatar’s asymmetry doesn’t convince me otherwise. We are here to say a lack of a baby is good or bad. Otherwise, taking a null and bringing it a positive does seem morally permissible.

    It wouldn’t be in an adult if we didn’t have very good ideas of their wishes. But in an infant? Everything we do to an infant is without its consent, and I mean actual consent as something done to it without its knowledge or permission.

    Now focusing on infants might seem like I’m ignoring the harms that result to the adults they become, but I don’t consider the harms they experience as an adult to be the result of their birth. The birth was a necessary precondition, but not the cause. Disease and injury afterwards are often not the result of the birth, whose fault it is depends on the specific situation. Sometimes it’s the fault of the adult themselves.

    Lastly, I find the lack prima facie duties to be an unconvincing fact. An apparent lack of prima facie duty doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Why can I not choose a prima facie duty such as preserving art, music, literature, science, along with human joy and use that as a justification for supporting procreation? I do not see the harm in this prima facie duty when the vast majority of people prefer to live rather than never have been born. I do not want to force people to conduct those activities either, I want there to be people who choose to perform them on their own.

    • Sam Woolfe
      November 28, 2020 / 11:07 pm

      Thanks for the lengthy response, James. Lots of interesting food for thought here. I’ll try to address these points one by one:

      1) In your first point, you say you consider procreation morally neutral, but end by saying: “I am here and could say future babies would be good.” When you say you could argue future babies are ‘good’, in what sense do you mean good; good for who? Good in a moral sense?

      With respect to the Martian analogy, when you say the lack of art, history, science etc. on Mars is “bad”, bad in what sense? It can’t be bad for the Martians since they don’t exist to feel deprived of these benefits. You might want to argue that this could potentially be bad for us (or civilisations on other planets) indirectly if this Martian civilisation would have benefited us in some way (e.g. became sophisticated and moral enough to save us from planetary collapse). But this seems quite unlikely and optimistic.

      You might say the non-existence of potential beings can’t be good because there exist no beings to enjoy that lack of suffering but I believe Benatar is comparing our value judgements about different states of affairs here (a child brought into the world vs. a child not brought into the world). He is not arguing that non-existent beings can enjoy goods (be that well-being or a lack of suffering). I’m still not entirely convinced of Benatar’s argument here, though, as he does seem to be confusing what is good in a preferential sense with what is good in a moral sense. So not having a child could be preferentially good without being morally wrong; the flipside of this being that having a child could be preferentially bad without being morally wrong. This criticism has been raised here: It’s definitely an issue I’d like to explore on its own.

      In any case, I do believe in the moral intuition which says that preventing suffering is good, whereas the concomitant good that is lost from that decision is not bad. This is what an ethical vegan would argue when it comes to animal suffering. The animals saved from refraining to purchase animal products is good because it prevents suffering that would otherwise occur (from behaviour that is the norm: eating animal products), but it’s not bad that fewer animals are brought into the world since there are no beings who can be harmed from that deprivation. If you argue that both deprivations (suffering and well-being) are morally neutral, then you would have to argue the position of ethical veganism (or a similar argument involving potential beings) is morally neutral too, which doesn’t add up to me.

      2) You ask what would stop someone arguing that painless euthanasia of an orphan is good if they take the consent argument to be true. I’ve heard this argument before with respect to antinatalism and I believe it makes the mistake of confusing lives worth starting and lives worth continuing. Non-existent beings and existent beings are conceptually and manifestly very different, with the morality surrounding both diverging. For example, for a person who could potentially exist, there are no preferences which are frustrated when a decision is made not to take action to bring that person into the world. But, in the case of the imagined orphan, this is a being that exists, that has a preference in staying alive at a most basic level, with higher-level interests that depend on a lived future: goals, aspirations, and plans.

      But besides being disanalogous, I also believe it is unfair to compare the decision to non-consensually create a child with non-consensual euthanasia of an existing orphan, as the implications of the latter are much more severe. It seems clear the latter scenario is less preferable than deciding not to have a child, at least based on the interpretation of the consent argument you are conveying. You could argue for your position if you take a pro-mortalist stance (with death being good) or an Epicurean view of death (death is not bad since there is no being who can suffer the deprivation of life it entails), but those positions would have to be defended first.

      3) You say it’s valid to extend the psychology of billions of existing people (a high percentage of whom are glad to be alive, which I accept) to the decision to procreate. While it may seem reasonable to think that people’s gladness to be alive means children de facto consent to their birth, you would have to defend first why it’s valid to extend this psychological tendency people have. Also, does the minority’s belief of not being glad to be alive count for nothing? Even if an antinatalist defending the consent argument conceded that only the lives of a small number are intolerable, he or she may still say the risk of procreation is not worth it, for that reason. But perhaps that risk doesn’t outweigh the potential benefits that have been lost to the parents. Although, considering adopting a child is still an option for would-be parents, I’m not sure how strong that line of argument is (you may be interested in this paper from Tina Rulli on the ethics of adoption vs. having a genetically-related child: Again, I don’t think it makes sense to think of benefits being lost with respect to an individual not brought into the world.

      This argument of extending the psychology of billions is also based on the assumption that this psychology is an accurate perception of one’s quality of life. This would have to be shown first before going on to argue that procreation is de facto consent (since you are basing this on the psychological states and beliefs of the majority). At least from a Schopenhauerian point of view, everyone’s psychology is affected by the will-to-life, which causes us to passionately and irrationally cling onto the preservation and perpetuation of life, even though – as Schopenhauer argued – this is precisely why we suffer, and why suffering outweighs the good in life. By the way, I’m not saying I necessarily accept Schopenhauer’s analysis, but I use it to highlight how it’s not necessarily true that self-reports of life satisfaction mean that procreation is justified (via the consent argument or otherwise). It’s possible – and a large body of evidence supports this – that people’s biases lead to an overestimation of how good their lives are. This seems well-grounded in evolutionary theory. A positive bias benefits our survival and chances of procreating.

      4) You say everything we do to an infant is without its consent, but just to clarify, I point out why this isn’t necessarily true in the article: any action we do that positively impacts an infant, we may not gain their explicit consent, but we do gain other forms of consent (e.g. implicit or substituted). But in the case of procreation, all forms of consent are impossible, making it a more unique act. I also believe it’s unfair to compare acceptable non-consensual actions affecting infants with the non-consensual action of procreation: the former may be against the child’s immediate wishes but harm is likely avoided through such actions (e.g. taking the child to the dentist, getting them vaccinated, sending them to school) whereas great harm is risked through procreation. Why take these risks?

      5) You say birth is a precondition but not a cause of suffering in life. That seems like a way of dodging the issue of suffering resulting from the decision to procreate. The decision to procreate is, I would argue, a necessary event leading to the outcome of people suffering. Why is that not a cause in the chain of events? Individuals suffer because they are biologically capable of suffering and with a certain stimulus, they will suffer. But a deeper cause of that suffering is that the being was brought into the world. With that in mind, it becomes a separate question of whether that deeper cause is morally justified.

      6) You can definitely choose a prima facie duty of preserving art, history, science etc. But you would then need to show why that prima facie duty outweighs the prima facie duty of preventing suffering.

      • James
        December 1, 2020 / 3:53 am

        Okay, I think I should clear some things up before we continue a discussion.

        1) This would need to get into what the difference is between moral goods/bads and preferential goods/bads are. I’m not sure how my view on morals would be classified. Moral relativist, absurdist, something along those lines but I’m deep enough into philosophy to say. The important point is that I don’t believe in objective morals. I see no real difference between moral goods or preferential goods, so they’re ultimately the same for me.
        One example to demonstrate what I mean is a religious person who may consider it their moral duty to convert others and save their souls, and immoral to leave unbelievers at risk of an eternal hell. Meanwhile another person of the same religion might just consider conversion unnecessary. It seems to me that all morals, when boiled down to their origins, derive from preferences in a similar way. I wasn’t sure what moral system you or Benatar were operating on, so that probably led to confusion.
        Regarding your point on ethical veganism. It can be good for existing animals or the existing environment, but clearly those beings exist that it can be good for, and you also exist to preferentially/morally (again, no difference to me) claim goodness/badness. My point was that if Benatar wants to claim one nonexistence is morally neutral, both have to be. If he wants to claim one is good, then I can say the other is bad.
        2) I don’t see the difference between a life worth continuing and a life worth starting. A person who suffers and then recovers to live a worthwhile life shows that it was worth starting because that suffering could and had been overcome.
        The preferences of the nonexistent person are not frustrated, but the decision to bring a person into existence or not is not based on their preferences. It’s based on the antinatalist who wants to avoid more suffering or the pronatalist who wants to create another life.
        You see, I don’t understand how nonconsensual euthanasia of an infant can be more severe from the viewpoint of the consent argument. It is still true that preserving that infant’s life brings it harm, and it seems very clear that painless euthanasia doesn’t harm it. I personally would be horrified by it, but I don’t really have any arguments against the Epicurean view of death. It just doesn’t seem defensible to say painless euthanasia harms it. If the goal is to reduce harm without consent, then euthanasia seems unavoidable.
        3) I don’t consider the lone fact that most people are happy to be alive to be a good argument for procreation. Many more requirements such as financial stability are required for me. I just consider it a sufficient objection to the consent argument used for antinatalism.
        Regarding the minority who’d prefer to have never been born. I consider that a separate argument because their birth was not the cause of that mindset, except perhaps in cases of genetic defects which I believe should be screened for before birth and aborted if necessary. Their environment and upbringing were the causes of the mindset. It’s an argument to treat people better, not an argument against never giving birth.
        I also think I confused you when I used the fact that most people prefer to live rather than never be born. I don’t use it as a metric of quality of life.
        Schopenhauer may be right in saying that everyone is “irrationally” affected by the will to live, but I don’t see why avoiding suffering is a rational desire either. I’ve seen antinatalists dismiss the will to live or reproduce as biological impulses but also conveniently ignore the fact that avoiding pain and empathy are also biological impulses. This ties into what I said earlier about my stance that moral values are really just subjective preferences. I don’t see either as objective rational moral stances. If they are, it hasn’t been proven to me.
        It seems strange to me to think there’s some objective measure of how good a life is in the first place for people to under or overestimate. And as you recall, I posted on your other article a paper indicating psychological evidence that people also have a negativity bias.
        4) I know that you’ve outlined other types of consent, but I don’t really agree that they count as consent. At the very least, it seems to me that with these other types of you use consent in a way that’s very different from the usual definition. In fact a few even seem to be an assumption of another person’s desires the same way I assume that a random baby will prefer to live than not be born.
        The case of the random adult dying in the street indicates to me that preexistence is not really important when deciding what to do to someone who can’t give consent in that moment. With the Epicurean view of death, maybe the moral thing would be to let him die rather than save him and expose the man to future suffering. And what if that man happened to be in the minority of people who want to die? In that case, his savior both exposed him to future harm and went against his preexisting wishes.
        Anyway, I suppose I’d then fall into the camp of people who say lack of consent isn’t necessarily immoral for procreation.
        5) Yes, birth is necessary for suffering to happen. I don’t disagree with that. After all, a person has to be born in order for it to be possible for that person to suffer.
        However, that is different from saying birth is the cause of that person’s suffering. Allow me to explain.
        Let’s say a woman decides to go to a party. An adult woman who understands that rapists exist. At that party, she meets a man who rapes her.
        One of the many necessary preconditions for her being raped was that she attend that party, but it would be ludicrous to blame her for her rape because she chose to go to the party. The party host holding that party was also a necessary condition, but the blame doesn’t go to them either. It goes to the rapist.
        Now, no one can escape suffering, but in most cases of suffering, birth was not the cause of that case. In most specific cases, it’s not a logical chain from birth to that case of suffering. I was born, but if I break my leg that doesn’t mean it’s the result of my birth. The broken leg could have been avoided after birth.
        This is partially why antinatalist arguments based on reducing murder, rape, suffering from most diseases are irrelevant to me. There are other ways to reduce them, and the presence of them alone doesn’t mean a person who experienced them should never have been born.
        6) I don’t really have a defense of one prima facie duty over the other. It’s what I believe, but there’s no objective measure of the value of art, science, history, or suffering that I can use to convince you. Just as suffering alone can’t convince me those things shouldn’t be preserved. I’d like to minimize suffering while preserving them, but in a world where most people prefer to live rather than unbirth or suicide, I believe it’s justifiable to preserve them.
        I think antinatalism goes too far. Suffering alone shouldn’t be a reason to say a life should or shouldn’t be started. In fact, antinatalism to me is in the same vein as the R.N Smart’s benevolent world-destroyer. Not nearly as horrific of course, but then again horror is subjective. I’ve seen antinatalists who’ve stated that they would act as the world-destroyer if they could.

        Now, besides your points, I’ve been doing some reading on the nonidentity problem and thinking about it. I honestly don’t think it makes sense to say creating a person harms them. Before they’re created, they don’t exist, but when they’re created (fertilized egg, 24th week of fetal development, or birth) the probabilities of various harms were part of their existence from the moment they existed. The horse betting analogy introduced a new probability of harm to the person with the bank account, meanwhile before creation there was no person for the new probability to be introduced to. When the person was created, their probabilities were always with them.
        Singh’s statement that people are still inflicted by pains after birth is valid of course, and my ideas on this aren’t fully set. However, I think it’s important to state that procreation is not the same as exposing an already existing person to new harms.

        • Sam Woolfe
          December 1, 2020 / 11:11 am

          Thanks for the response, James.

          1) This is a good point, as when I think about it, I struggle to differentiate between moral and preferential goods – I think this is one reason why I find Benatar’s axiological asymmetry a bit confusing and unconvincing. Benatar also claims his arguments are theory-neutral but I’m unconvinced of this as well, as to me, his arguments seem negative utilitarian. I think he has responded to this point before, saying his position is still consistent with any major moral theory. In terms of the moral theory I personally subscribe to, well, that’s something I’m still thinking about. I suppose some mixed utilitarian/deontological/virtue ethics theory can be a good guide. I’d probably also subscribe to Schopenhauer’s compassion ethics, which I think would be consistent with that.

          Just to clear up your point of nonexistence being bad because Benatar claims it is good. Do you mean this is a position a person can logically accept based on Benatar’s reasoning? Or is the badness of nonexistence a position you yourself hold and so see it as a reason to reject Benatar’s reasoning?

          2) I can see what you mean here, as I have also tried to see what the important differences (if any) are between lives worth starting and those worth continuing. But it still seems like there are some moral differences between the two since a life not started that could be started has no preferences, whereas a life started has preferences. I’m not saying I agree with the Epicurean view myself as I do see death as a harm, as the decision to painlessly take someone’s life frustrates preferences to stay alive, experience life, and fulfil existing interests and future plans. Do these preferences not hold any moral weight? I also believe the moral difference between potential people and existing people fits in with moral justifications for abortion (when the fetus is pre-sentient) and is also why it’s hard to justify non-consensual painless euthuanasia of people. While the latter may be painless in the immediate sense, I’m not yet convinced that this involves no harm. But I think I should look more into the Epicurean argument, just to get a better sense of it and the counterarguments against it.

          In distinguishing between lives worth starting and lives worth continuing, I remember Benatar using the analogy of going to see a movie that isn’t great. If you’ve paid the ticket and you’re already there, you would probably still sit through the whole movie, enjoying some of it while disliking some parts, but the movie’s not so bad that you decide to get up and leave. But if you knew the movie would’ve been like this beforehand, you’d have decided not to bother seeing it in the first place. I don’t know how analogous this is to life, personally, as it’s a pretty drab and dull picture of life he’s painting and misses out so much. But just thought I’d throw his perspective into the mix.

          3) That’s a good point to raise about whether morality is objective/rational. I don’t see it as objective, as I believe morality means nothing without the existence of moral agents or beings with interests. I suppose it can be rational in the sense of creating a moral system that is consistent with our shared subjective preferences (avoiding suffering and desiring well-being). Some antinatalists (the negative utilitarians) might argue the preference to avoid suffering is much stronger than the preference to have more pleasure (which makes not having children preferable to having them) but without an objective morality, I can see how that position becomes trickier to defend.

          While I don’t necessarily believe in objective morality, I don’t think this precludes a universal morality necessarily. For example, Schopenhauer argues compassion is the basis of morality and that compassion must be universal. I still can’t think of any situation in which compassion (even towards enemies) would be unjustified. I bring this up just because I know many antinatalists believe their decision not to procreate is based on compassion, so I wonder whether seeing the issue in terms of compassion ethics could be helpful – or maybe it just results in similar problems; can you have compassion towards imagined, non-existent beings? I suppose imagining a life of suffering and the desire to prevent it is what motivates a lot of antinatalists, although imagining the joy of life is less impactful (maybe because of a negative utilitarian position or just a subjective mindset which doesn’t actually see that much joy or meaning in life).

          In terms of the negativity bias, it’s definitely universal and persistent – it’s what makes the news industry so successful. The negativity bias also makes evolutionary sense. However, Benatar has claimed that the preponderance of the evidence shows the positivity bias is the more common bias, but I would have to revisit the literature on this.

          4) The lack of consent aspect of procreation is definitely quite interesting and I’m still considering to what extent (if any) it makes procreation immoral.

          5) I see your point here and perhaps I was mistaken to equate necessary preconditions with causes, but this may be an issue of semantics that doesn’t necessarily change the morality of procreation. Whether or not birth is a necessary precondition or cause of suffering, it is still ultimately a decision we make, one that leads to – even if it doesn’t technically cause – suffering. I don’t think saying the parents’ decision being a precondition and not a cause abdicates them of responsibility, otherwise, the decision not to abort a fetus with a severe, excruciating disability would be morally neutral.

          Also, the analogy you use here doesn’t seem to fit. As you say ‘no one can escape suffering’ and I think that’s the salient point. Suffering is inevitable and unavoidable, it’s everywhere (even in the best lives), and there’s a high risk of intense suffering (especially in later years). I don’t see this as analogous with the risk of being a victim of sexual assault. In this analogy, we of course blame the perpetrator of the crime not the victim, and I wouldn’t want to argue parents are analogous to the perpetrator here since their intentions are clearly different and the outcome (procreation) is much more complex; however, I don’t see an issue with parents having moral responsibility in their decision, even if their actions are preconditions for suffering rather than direct causes (i.e. they’re not the ones designing biology to be set up for suffering, nor are they necessarily causing suffering to the child when they exist).

          6) I understand if there’s no objective way to defend the preference of one prima facie duty over another, but there may still nonetheless be some reasoning behind it. Or could it be based on a moral intuition that human areas of art, science, history etc. make life more fulfilling than just the avoidance of suffering?

          Thanks for raising the non-identity problem as well, I’m going to have a look into this myself and its relation to antinatalism.

          • James Kim
            December 1, 2020 / 3:45 pm

            1) Well, I think this is part of my confusion with what Benatar means when he says absence of pain is good. Did he mean complete absence of pain, with no people to judge it? Or did he mean the nonexistence of a specific person with a society still present to judge whether that nonexistence is good/bad?
            Depending on the moral theory we use, we might decide the first can’t be good or bad because there are no moral agents to judge it. Meanwhile, in the second there clearly are.
            However, if Benatar wants to claim either sort of pain absence is good, that should allow anyone else to say that pleasure absence is bad. I personally do believe nonexistence of the first type, no people at all, would be preferentially (morally?) bad.
            2) In regards to euthanizing an infant, they may have a preference to stay alive but they don’t have any existing interests or future plans. That’s why I specify an infant rather than an adult or even a child. I still believe painless euthanasia of a healthy person is wrong without asking them. I share your reasons, that they have wishes and desires which would be wrong to destroy, but whether painless euthanasia harms them seems to be very difficult to argue since there is no one to experience that harm.
            I’ve seen Benatar’s movie analogy in one of his articles. It doesn’t convince me because a person isn’t a completely passive agent experiencing life like a movie. They are also a director and actor. I’m not saying life is fully in their control, but they do have some agency. Not to mention with life the only choices are watch the movie or stop existing (barring religious ideas), there are no consequences meanwhile to just leaving a movie theater. A mildly entertaining movie should be better than nothingness.
            3) One problem I have with the antinatalist presentation of the argument is that it’s stated as a reduction of pain vs. addition of pleasure. While there are some philosophical grounds to argue that lives are only pain/pleasure, the experience machine thought experiment should at least make us pause. I do believe that a great many aspects of life can be boiled down to pain/pleasure, even seemingly non-hedonistic motives such as honor or duty can be explained as resulting from the pain of dishonor or the pleasure of duty. However, I’m not sure it can apply to everything in life.
            I lean towards saying there is more to creating a life than pain/pleasure considerations. The person made will have their own experiences, their own opinions, their own thoughts. I think that should count for more than just pleasure.
            It seems that Schopenhauer is wrong in compassion being universal. I think there has been research to show that certain criminals actually have different brain structures and psychiatric evaluations of indicate that some actually lack compassion to a high degree.
            I don’t think it makes sense to say antinatalism is based on compassion for the unborn. An antinatalist may feel upset at the thought of another person being born, but that person doesn’t exist and may never exist. It makes no more sense than feeling compassion for a fictional character or for the people in the timeline where the Nazis won WWII. The thought can make one sad, but I don’t think it counts as compassionate.
            This is partially why some of Benatar’s statistics don’t really seem to be an appeal to compassion. Yes, atrocities happened, but many of his numbers are extrapolations. Does it really make sense to say you feel compassionate for, say, 2 million murders over the last thousand years if there were really 1.8 million?
            Nobody alive knew those people personally, and they no longer exist, they’re just numbers that make people upset. Often it seems to me that the antinatalist desires to lower those numbers or reduce pain without regard for people. Especially when the argument is simplified to pain/pleasure rather than pain/lives.
            And I especially can’t accept compassion as a motive for antinatalist arguments which extend to sterilizing animals to prevent future animal suffering. Those future animals don’t exist and with sterilization they’ll never exist, the destruction of natural life was done selfishly. And I believe it would be wrong.
            (Minor note: Since I believe in psychological egoism, both antinatalism and pronatalism seem at base selfish. Although that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad.)
            4) Another aspect of this is sort of using a hierarchical rights scale with maturing people. After all, children don’t get the right to vote. Making a child get a vaccine or strapping a baby in a car without asking would be forced drugging or kidnapping when done to an adult. This is partially why I don’t consider consent necessary for procreation.
            5) I think identifying birth as a necessary precondition rather than a cause is heavily involved in the morality of procreation. It serves as a metric of just how moral or immoral procreation is.
            You see, the reason why I chose the rape victim was to illustrate how extreme suffering can often be avoided after birth, so birth can’t be the cause of those cases of extreme suffering. Since everyone experiences at least some suffering, it would be fair to say birth causes that level of suffering and to assign the blame to the parents. Aging in later years, I suppose so. Death as well, but death doesn’t have to be a bad thing, and certainly death, aging and even diseases such as cancer don’t seem to be enough to say a person shouldn’t have been born. I think a person should be offered euthanasia if the pain gets bad enough, but I believe their lives still could have positive value even with those ailments.
            However, barring genetic defects and events where the parents were personally involved, which cases of suffering are due to them? That time someone broke their leg? The slip and fall that someone had? Stubbing a toe? When you try to count them up, pointing at these individual cases and assigning the moral responsibility to birth seems a bit ridiculous.
            Suffering alone doesn’t convince me that procreation is wrong, I can still see creating a life as a net positive. Even for lives cut short by murder and disease, I can’t say that their lives shouldn’t have been started. Those things don’t necessarily negate the good their lives had.
            6) I suppose I can say that art, science, literature, etc. are great endeavors that don’t require excessive suffering and that we should work to both reduce suffering and engage in those endeavors.
            However, this argument doesn’t really work with people who don’t care about them or value reducing suffering much more. Ultimately it still boils down to subjective value systems.

            • Sam Woolfe
              December 1, 2020 / 5:29 pm

              1) I’m not sure about that, but I would imagine he believes in the latter since I know he doesn’t believe in objective meaning, which I think would entail things only being good and bad if there are people (or other adequately sentient beings) able to judge them as so.

              2) I can see why you chose this analogy, then, but the preference to stay alive is still present in this case and not in the case of a non-existent being. I also don’t think it would be fair to say the infant had no other existing interests since he or she would have other basic interests like comfort, love, and care, and the fact that they are orphaned doesn’t mean people have no duties towards fulfilling these interests. I’m with you on the pitfalls of Benatar’s movie analogy.

              3) I addressed this in response to your comment of my other article, by underlining that antinatalist arguments do not depend on a reduction of life to pain vs. pleasure; these are just exemplars of harms and benefits more generally. Benatar emphasises this point as he is often (unfairly) accused of being hedonistic in his arguments. While it may, of course, be simplistic to view quality of life in any dualistic way (satisfaction vs. dissatisfaction, harms vs. benefits, risks vs. rewards), this doesn’t make this analysis worthless. I think it is worth asking if Buddhism’s assessment of life as dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) is true and if so, what actions should follow from that.

              On the notion of Schopenhauer being wrong about compassion, I think the example of these criminals may be confusing nature and value. Schopenhauer isn’t saying the quality of compassion is universal but is defending it as a value and its universal application (which is why we extended it to non-human animals). Even if nothing can be done about the lack of compassion in the criminal, this wouldn’t necessarily contradict Schopenhauer’s position. He’s arguing that morality can only be based on compassion, so in the case of people without compassion, he might conclude they cannot act morally (this is up for debate, of course). Also, with those certain individuals that “lack compassion to a high degree” – do they not still have some very limited capacity for compassion? Are there any individuals who are completely devoid of compassion?

              I think you can definitely empathy for fictional characters, I think we all experience that from time to time. There is some neuroscience behind that: Whether compassion is possible, I’m not sure, as this has the component of desiring to help, which distinguishes it from empathy. But thinking about certain films, I’ve definitely felt a character’s distress and a desire to help. Would this not count as compassion? The way I would see the compassionate stance of antinatalism is that it involves compassion for existing people and tries to extend an empathetic attitude towards the unborn.

              That’s an interesting point about numbers being a statistic, rather than a collection of suffering that an individual is able to feel at once. But that’s probably a limitation of human psychology as opposed to a limitation of antinatalism. I do genuinely believe that Benatar and many antinatalists are motivated by compassion when they make their case. While compassion may be limited (i.e. it can’t truly extend to millions – although Buddhists would disagree), I respect the desire to try to extend it as much as possible. And I do believe that people can develop compassion in a way that extends far beyond their inner circle. I think those passionately working to alleviate global suffering are motivated by this extended compassion, and that highly sensitive individuals may be more prone to thinking in terms of – and affected by – this more global view of suffering.

              4) So it seems like you consider implied consent (parents providing consent on behalf of their children, i.e. to a vaccination) as justified as parents having children without any consent being involved, or that procreation may as well involve implied consent, based on the strong likelihood of that child both being glad to be alive and a certain quality of life being afforded to him or her. But again, this is an issue I’ll need to think over some more.

              5) On the issue of birth as a necessary precondition vs. a cause of suffering, I found an interesting quote from Hari Singh Gour, who offered this interpretation of Buddhism in his work “The Spirit of Buddhism”:

              “Oblivious of the suffering to which life is subject, man begets children, and is thus the cause of old age and death. If he would only realize what suffering he would add to by his act, he would desist from the procreation of children; and so stop the operation of old age and death.”

              So it’s interesting that you say birth can be a cause of ageing and death, as at least this interpretation of Buddhism does. I suppose it’s important to distinguish between morally relevant causes and amoral preconditions. Birth may be a cause of some suffering, ageing, and death (this is consistent with Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, which say the reason we suffer is that we’re stuck in cycles of birth), whereas a precondition of being murdered may be birth, but you’re right in saying that is amoral with respect to your parents’ decision to have you. Parents cannot be held accountable for that.

              6) I agree with you here. I think how you apply this maxim of reducing suffering while increasing these higher-level goods is where you and many antinatalists would differ. Antinatalists would go the route of not creating any more people – or breeding any more animals – in order to prevent/reduce suffering while personally pursuing art, science, and literature or promoting them in their own life but being fine with the idea of these goods not existing, so long as no people existed to suffer their deprivation.

  3. James
    December 1, 2020 / 8:44 pm

    I don’t see the option to reply to your latest comment, so I’ll leave it here. This will also probably be my last comment.

    3) You see, some of those other dualities at base still seem to be pain/pleasure dualities by another name. Satisfaction and dissatisfaction require pleasure and pain to be satisfying or dissatisfying, and the same would go for something to be a risk or reward. Earlier I would have included the need for pain/pleasure for something to be defined as a harm/benefit.

    After thinking about it more though, I do think other types of harms and benefits can be argued for, and I’d say I personally believe that creating a life and the opportunity for a new person to experience, learn, and love the world and other people is a great benefit beyond just pleasure. Of course in many situations a child doesn’t have those opportunities, which is why procreation is not always a good decision. In other situations though, I believe procreation is fine. Even good.

    This is based on just a quick search of dukkha, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that life is dukkha or contains a majority of dukkha. There may be more time spent in boredom and dissatisfaction, but I don’t think the fact that they last longer is enough to say the good things in life are valued less. There is dukkha in life, but there are also many things that make life not only worthwhile but good. It seems Hindusim and Buddhism say dukkha can be overcome, and I believe that it can be as well although not necessarily by the methods described by those religions. Besides activities such as creating and admiring art, science, literature, etc. there is much good in friendships and family.

    It’s uncertain whether anyone lacks compassion completely. I’ve read stories from people who interviewed criminals who seemed to lack it completely, but that’s still very uncertain.

    Regarding compassion for nonexistent beings, I’d still say it doesn’t really make sense to say there’s compassion for the unborn. Antinatalism can be based on compassion for existing people or animals, but the extension doesn’t work for nonexistent beings. Feelings of sadness and despair may accompany thoughts of future beings, but I wouldn’t classify that as compassion.

    I didn’t mean to say a personal connection is necessary, but I do think the existence of the subject in distress and a certain amount of knowledge of the subject is required for an emotion to quality as compassion. My point with the numbers is that they may be inaccurate. If you hear from a faulty report that there are 200 people starving in a region when in reality it’s 100 people, are your feelings really compassion for 200 people? Sadness definitely, but the dictionary definition of compassion: “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others” doesn’t seem to work when those others don’t exist. It’s just pity and concern for fictional characters. Empathy maybe, but not compassion to me.

    5) Well I’d say birth is the cause of an individual’s eventual death since death can’t be avoided, but not always the cause of old age since it can be avoided after birth by the extreme choice of suicide. However, I still believe that a person’s life can be good even with some suffering, eventual aging, and death awaiting them. There are friends, family, and wonderful ideals in life too for them to experience.

    Anyway, thanks for the conversation. At the very least, antinatalism has made me think about procreation a lot more carefully.

    • Sam Woolfe
      December 2, 2020 / 8:21 am

      Appreciate the conversation, James, thank you. Thinking about procreation more carefully is always a plus, given how big of a decision it really is.

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