It is fair to say that much of antinatalist thought is underpinned by a rejectionist philosophy, a nay-saying attitude towards life, a pessimism about the state of human life and the world at large. The line between such pessimism and antinatalism seems logical: if you believe existence is – overall – a bad deal, an unlucky hand, then it makes sense to view procreation as morally bankrupt. Why create more suffering when doing so is both unnecessary and preventable? However, I would like to challenge the commonplace notion that antinatalism has to be pessimistic, nihilistic, and misanthropic; a moral position only fit for the curmudgeonly.
In an essay for Epoché, I pointed out issues with dismissing antinatalism on the assumption that you have to be depressed – and therefore cognitively deluded – in order to adopt such a bleak view of the world. One of the criticisms I made of this argument is a somewhat banal one: not all antinatalists are depressed. But I would go further than this and posit – again, perhaps obviously – that not all antinatalists are pessimists, nihilists, and misanthropes. You can take the immorality of procreation seriously without being a nay-sayer to life – without saying “no” to the world. To be a yes-sayer (to affirm life) while refraining from procreation for philosophical reasons is, I propose, a kind of Nietzschean antinatalism.
Rejectionism and Affirmationism
It is not surprising that antinatalism is so tightly wrapped up with pessimism and rejectionist (anti-existence) thinking. Many of the key antinatalist philosophers are deeply pessimistic about life, including Al-Ma’arri, Arthur Schopenhauer, Peter Wessel Zapffe, Emil Cioran, and David Benatar. Everyday subscribers of the antinatalist philosophy, who connect in online communities, also commonly describe life in predominantly negative terms. It is thus hard to separate antinatalism from doom and gloom. My response to this observation is twofold: firstly, the malcontent connoted with some antinatalists says nothing about whether or not the rejectionism and pessimism underlying these views on procreation are justified or not; and secondly, it is mistaken to conclude that all antinatalists are rejectionists.
Are many antinatalists unhappy? Of course. Feelings of discontent among antinatalists may be more prevalent compared to pronatalists. But it is also true that many antinatalists lead lives of contentment, and their attitudes, moods, demeanour, and behaviour reflect a yes-saying to life, a confidently spoken “yes” to the world. This affirmationism, however, seems diametrically opposed to the philosophers that antinatalists hold dear, such as Schopenhauer, the “arch-pessimist”, as Eugene Thacker calls him.
Schopenhauer, in accordance with Buddhism, observes that life is full of unsatisfactoriness and suffering (the First Noble Truth of Buddhism, known as dukkha), and – as prescribed in Buddhism – he believed relief from suffering follows from the denial of the ‘will’ (the inborn force that makes us constantly strive after things). The consequence of this world-negation is renunciatory behaviour: the denial of worldly pleasures. In spite of this recommendation for living, Schopenhauer by no means followed an ascetic lifestyle. Unlike monks, he enjoyed playing music, eating hearty meals, napping, smoking cigars, and typically sleeping for nine hours. Yet regardless of whether or not Schopenhauer fully committed to his ascetic prescriptions, his rejection of the will was a way of saying “no” to life. He judged life as irredeemably ghastly, an unfortunate interruption to the serenity of non-existence.
The rejectionism of Schopenhauer – like the rejectionism of other pessimists and antinatalists – is opposed to Friedrich Nietzsche’s affirmationism, or affirmation of life. Schopenhauer was the ultimate nay-sayer to life, whereas Nietzsche was the ultimate yes-sayer. Nietzsche referred to Schopenhauer as his “great teacher” (On the Genealogy of Morality, Preface, sect. 5) and he sang his praises in works like his essay Schopenhauer as Educator (1874), but he nonetheless rejected his rejectionism, his disgust with life and turning away from the world, which was fundamental to his thinking. Instead, Nietzsche celebrated the ancient Greeks, who faced up to the terrors of the world, without attempting to negate the will as a way to avoid or minimise suffering. Nietzsche admired the ancient Greek’s creation of tragedies, which affirm life as beautiful, in spite of all the pain and evil that exists in the world. Interestingly, though, Sophocles – one of the three ancient Greek tragedians whose works survived – opined, “To have never been born may be the greatest boon of all.” This antinatalist sentiment seems at odds with Nietzsche’s interpretation of the ancient Greek mindset, at least when it comes to Sophocles.
Nevertheless, Nietzsche recognised in the Greek tragedies a “pessimism of strength”, which he personally adhered to; in these tragedies, Nietzsche argued the Greeks were recognising the painful nature of human existence without comforting illusions (this is the pessimism) while simultaneously affirming life under those conditions (this is the strength). He criticised Schopenhauer’s conclusion that the best response to hardship is a life of resignation, viewing this as a ‘pessimism of weakness’.
In The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Nietzsche speaks of the “metaphysical comfort” provided by tragedy through its lesson “that life is at the bottom of things, despite all the changes of appearances, indestructibly powerful and pleasurable”. Jacques Derrida has described Nietzsche’s perspective as “the joyous affirmation of the play of the world”. We could also call this attitude one of existential joy, the feeling of rejoicing at life in its totality, a celebration of the play of opposites, an affirmation of the drama. The mythologist Joseph Campbell expressed a similar sentiment when he said, “Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of suffering, but we can choose to live in joy.” Alan Watts also echoed such affirmationism when he stated, “Man only suffers because he takes seriously what the gods made for fun,” and when he opined that “the real secret of life…[is] to realize it is play.”
Nietzsche long grappled with the pessimistic ideas of Schopenhauer but found himself unable to accept them. In Beyond Good and Evil (1886), he writes that anyone who thinks about “pessimism through to its depths,” who looks “at the most world-negating of all possible ways of thinking…will have inadvertently opened his eyes to the inverse ideal: to the ideal of the most high-spirited, vital, world-affirming individual, who has learned not just to accept and go along with what was and what is, but who wants it again just as it was and is through all eternity.”
This last part of the quote concerns Nietzsche’s formulation of the eternal return, the idea of one’s life recurring infinitely over an infinite period of time. Nietzsche strove to the ideal of affirming life with the assumption in mind that it will repeat forever. This is the ultimate expression of affirmationism. As Nietzsche notes in The Gay Science (1882):
The question in each and every thing, “do you want this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?
Rejectionism and affirmationism appear to be choices, attitudes one can freely choose. Rejectionists and affirmationists can agree on how much life is filled with suffering and evil. The difference lies in their responses. Rejectionists believe that self-denial is soteriological: it will save us from our suffering. Affirmationists like Nietzsche, on the other hand, do not want to say “no” to suffering but to embrace it. Nietzsche did not attach the negative value to suffering as Schopenhauer did, and he sharply criticised those who desire the abolition of suffering, who want only well-being as their goal. To Nietzsche, suffering is the sculptor of great characters, the bringer of strength, the generator of virtue. One’s worth is determined by the extent to which one endures life’s trials and tribulations. He saw pain as sacred, as the Greeks did since “all becoming and growing” involves pain. The late spiritual teacher Ram Dass propounded a similar sanctified view of pain when he said, “suffering is grace”. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche writes:
The discipline of suffering, of great suffering – do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far? That tension of the soul in unhappiness which cultivates its strength, its shudders face to face with great ruin, its inventiveness and courage in enduring, preserving, interpreting, and exploiting suffering, and whatever has been granted to it of profundity, secret, mask, spirit, cunning, greatness — was it not granted to it through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering?
The good and the bad are hence intimately and inextricably linked. By turning away from life and its attendant suffering, Nietzsche believed that you miss the refining powers of suffering. You miss out on the greatest potentialities of life. This is a cognitive reframing that does not view hardship in isolation as something intrinsically bad and therefore lamentable, something which we are obliged to negate; but rather, suffering can be positively transformed, a process which happens either involuntarily or voluntarily. Nietzsche underscores, “A loss is a loss barely for one hour; somehow it also brings us some gift from heaven—new strength, for example, or at least a new opportunity for strength.” You cannot say “yes” to joy while saying “no” to suffering: both always entail each other. To suffer is to open yourself up to the possibilities of joy, and the greater the suffering is, the more profound the joy can be. This is a challenge to the Schopenhauerian doctrine that life is inherently full of suffering. As Nietzsche writes in The Gay Science:
In the end, lest what is most important remain unsaid: from such abysses, from such severe sickness, also from the sickness of severe suspicion, one returns a newborn, having shed one’s skin, more ticklish and malicious, with a more delicate taste for joy, with a tenderer tongue for all good things, with merrier senses, with a second dangerous innocence in joy, more child-like and yet a hundred times subtler than one has ever been before.
This positive valuation of suffering – as well as the notion of eternal return – ties into Nietzsche’s predilection for amor fati, a Latin phrase meaning “love of fate”, the attitude of seeing the course of one’s life, including all the suffering and loss involved, as good or necessary. Amor fati, for Nietzsche, involves not wanting anything to be different, which connects to his eternal return thought experiment, as in it, he asks to imagine what our attitude would be towards the prospect of our life – and all the experiences contained in it – looping throughout eternity. Can we embrace and love this fate? Nietzsche argues this is a pre-requisite for a life-enhancing mode of being. On the idea of loving one’s fate, Nietzsche states in The Gay Science:
I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who makes things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.
Essentially, Nietzsche is saying that he strives to the ideal of yes-saying, although, when he was writing The Gay Science, he concedes that he is not yet only a Yes-sayer, so clearly committing to affirmationism can be a struggle, which is understandable, given the natural tendency to turn away from suffering, to see it as a blight; as unnecessary, useless, and futile. In spite of the human proclivity to have a rosy picture of life – known as the Pollyanna Principle or positivity bias – it does seem that, for many people, existential depression, existential anxiety, and philosophical pessimism easily follow the observation of life and the world as it is.
Adopting an affirmationist attitude towards the struggles of life often feels much more challenging. However, the demandingness of affirmationism does not make it an inferior attitude, in the same way that the demandingness of an ethical theory does not make it less justified than a less demanding theory. Affirmationists, nevertheless, since they deeply respect struggle, may additionally view the struggling of being an affirmationist at all times as a further reason to take on board such a worldview. This is, then, a kind of meta-affirmationism: an embracing of the struggle of embracing struggle.
Here, we can make an illuminating connection between Nietzsche and Albert Camus. In his philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), Camus paints human existence as absurd. He draws on the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus to get this point across. The myth involves Zeus punishing the king Sisyphus for his trickery, for cheating death twice. As a result of his cunning behaviour, Zeus condemned Sisyphus to a never-ending punishment – he was sent to Tartarus (a hell far below the underworld in Greek mythology), and here he had to roll an immense boulder up a hill, let it roll down once he reached the top, and to then descend the hill and carry out the process again, ad infinitum. Camus postulates that this situation is analogous to life. We wake up and repeat activities, day after day, even though these activities are ultimately meaningless. Like Sisyphus, we keep on pushing and striving – and to what end? To Camus, life was absurd because we desire meaning from the universe but the universe does not provide it. Our deepest wants are met with cosmic silence. “The absurd is born of this confrontation,” Camus says. The Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe similarly claimed that our requirement for “meaning in a meaningless world” makes man a “tragic animal”.
In spite of the existential nightmare portrayed in The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus also said in his essay that “a will to live without rejecting anything of life…is the virtue I honor most in this world.” This illustrates that he was life-affirming in much the way Nietzsche was, although this virtue that Camus praises is not necessarily one that comes easily to us. He writes:
I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Camus did not mourn the fact of existence nor did he see our tragic nature as a reason to advocate for antinatalism, as Zapffe did in his essay The Last Messiah (1933). Instead, Camus promoted a philosophy of Sisyphean revolt: an affirmation of the absurdity of existence, the resolve to continue, and the decision to live a happy life. The absurd also requires constant revolt. Joshua Sharman posits that this conscious revolt makes Camus’ philosophy life-affirming in a Nietzschean sense. After all, Camus says this conscious revolt constitutes “the certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation that ought to accompany it.” Elsewhere, in Nietzschean fashion, he claims that “revolt gives life its value”.
In his paper Suicide, Meaning, and Redemption: A Nietzschean Critique of Camus’ Existentialism, Paul Loeb argues that Camus is not life-affirming from a Nietzschean perspective since he is finding meaning in conscious revolt, which Loeb interprets as finding meaning in a rebellion against life: if Camus characterises life as absurd and wants to rebel against the absurd, then this is him rebelling against life. His position is thus life-denying, according to Loeb. Sharman critiques this interpretation, pointing out that Camus does not call life absurd per se but the confrontation between man’s longing for inherent value and meaning in the universe and the inability to find it. Loeb’s interpretation that Camus supports life-denial, then, is rooted in an incorrect conflation of life with the absurd. Camus is not finding meaning in rebellion against life but against the absurd – and there is no textual evidence showing that Camus equates the two. Furthermore, Sharman wants to emphasise the Nietzschean life-affirming quality of Sisyphean revolt, which he finds when Camus advances the notion of living a life “without consolation” and “without appeal”. He refused to accept the promise of another life and rejected Schopenhauer’s advocacy of self-denial.
Brian Leiter, in Nietzsche on Morality, offers a reading of Nietzsche that bears a strong resemblance to Camusian philosophy: “This is the attitude of existential commitment, through brute force of will, to carry on in the absence of such a meaning or vindication, to give up, in effect, asking “Suffering for what?”” Camusian revolt essentially amounts to this Nietzschean affirmationism, an acceptance of life as it is, without appealing to any ascetic values or practices.
Nietzschean Antinatalism: Affirming Life While Opposing Procreation
Now, I wish to expound on the concept of Nietzschean antinatalism. Nietzsche’s yes-saying may appear, prima facie, contrary to many antinatalists’ claims. For if you say “yes” to suffering and genuinely believe in the value of suffering, then the prospect of exposing new beings to suffering is viewed in a starkly different light, compared to the antinatalist perspective. Many antinatalist arguments depend on the assumption of the negative value of suffering, so when the value of suffering is flipped, how do you then justify antinatalism? Moreover, as Micha Brumlink notes, “We too, if we find ourselves to be content, under the given conditions, with our lives must thereby also implicitly be of the view that it was a good thing that we were conceived and born.”
I would argue that, despite an apparent contradiction between a Nietzschean or Camusian affirmation of life and antinatalism, I see no necessary conflict. It is certainly possible to consider existence tolerable, to have a sunny disposition, to be optimistic, to be life-affirming, and to be life-loving while also believing in the immorality of procreation. You can affirm life while seeing at the same time the ethical issues involved in the act of bringing new sentient beings into the world. The philosopher Karim Akerma underscores this in his blog post ‘Optimistic, Life-Loving Antinatalism?’:
But what reasons of moral logic would render it impossible for us to prefer a course of the world in which we would never have begun to exist while at the same time defending the notion that our life at present is worth living? There appear to be no convincing arguments against the moral-logical possibility of even a happy, committed individual’s defending an antinatalist position – even if he were to do so merely out of empathy with those billions of others who may be less happy or fortunate than him.
Saul Smilansky also defends the compatibility between preferring not to have been born and the belief in one’s life being worthwhile in his paper Preferring Not to Have Been Born. From a Nietzschean perspective, to prefer not having been born – as expressed by Sophocles – seems to contradict the affirmation of life, in a deep and fundamental sense. To this, I would say, you can be glad to have been born while also being an antinatalist. You can prefer that you were brought into the world while still recognising that the act of procreation that birthed you was morally problematic.
Feeling glad about being wronged in some way is not unthinkable. These situations arise all the time and hypothetically, we can imagine feeling extremely glad about an immoral action against us. The philosopher Gerald Harrison gives the example of a hypothetical person having their bank account hacked into and the cybercriminal then using that person’s money to place a bet on his behalf. Winning the bet and making that person considerably better off would not nullify the wrongness of the cybercriminal’s action. Harrison concludes that “there is nothing remotely incoherent or surprising in the idea that someone can be wronged, even wronged quite seriously, yet benefit by the wrong, be happy that the wrong was committed, and not want things to have been otherwise.”
Following this, I would argue that one can be a Nietzschean affirmationist while refraining from procreation for ethical reasons. This is Nietzschean antinatalism. Reconciling a Nietzschean view of suffering and life with antinatalism might be the most fulfilling variation of antinatalism one could endorse. But what antinatalist arguments are consistent with a Nietzschean affirmation of life? I believe the distinction between attitudes that affect you and attitudes that affect others is crucial here. It is one thing to decide for oneself to adopt a particular attitude towards life, but any such decision is in a different moral sphere to deciding for another to bring them into existence and subject them to inevitable suffering and myriad risks. We can think of the Nietzschean attitude towards life as good for the individual, so preferentially good, in that, an individual who thinks and acts with an affirmationist mindset may have a more fulfilling life than if they espoused a rejectionist mindset. But if this attitude is used to justify procreation, then it enters the realm of morality, so the goodness or badness of the attitude takes on a moral character. This is assuming that we limit the domain of morality to behaviour that directly or indirectly affects others. Other perspectives on morality may, of course, challenge this particular argument.
It should be stressed here that Nietzsche is an anti-realist about values. He believes there are no objective moral facts and instead sees morality as an arbitrary interpretation, as a cultural attitude, feeling, or psychological state that is being proclaimed as truth. When he promulgates his affirmation or pessimism of strength, he does so with the understanding that this is an arbitrary value too. It is as arbitrary to claim suffering is good as to claim it is bad. Nietzsche affirms life in the way he does, nevertheless, because he believes this is healthy, whereas he sees rejecting life as sick and degenerate. Although if Nietzsche is a moral subjectivist, if he is someone who rejects the notion that there could exist any objective, universal morality, then it is not clear how he is justified in telling others how to live. Leaving aside this potential issue, Nietzschean antinatalism may simply require a rejection of some of Nietzsche’s meta-ethics. This rejection might take the form of moral realism (moral facts exist independently of minds) or a view that morality is subjective and mind-dependent yet non-arbitrary (e.g. the belief that we have good reasons to promote subjective values like well-being and compassion).
Some form of Nietzschean antinatalism may still be possible, it might just require a modification of Nietzsche’s life-affirmation (perhaps ‘neo-Nietzschean antinatalism’ or ‘post-Nietzchean antinatalism’ would be the proper term to use here). For example, would arbitrarily deciding to be a yes-sayer to one’s own suffering but not all the suffering in the world – or all the suffering one could be responsible for – be less healthy than a universal yes-saying? Nietzsche might say so, but his own notions of ‘healthy’ and ‘strong’, and ‘sick’ and ‘weak’, are questionable. Nietzsche was against attempts to abolish or ease suffering because he viewed suffering as necessary, character-building, and potentially meaningful, so he believed it is better to encourage others to face up to their difficulties and struggle against them, rather than try to alleviate their suffering. But is being able to alleviate one’s own suffering or those of others not also ‘strong’, ‘healthy’, and life-affirming? Furthermore, if a Nietzschean response to suffering ends up relieving it, is this not regrettable in a Nietzschean sense since suffering is valuable? And finally, if Nietzsche saw pain and suffering in such a favourable light (as “desirable for their own sake”), then why did he not practise or promote severe self-harm or extreme acts of violence?
It is doubtful, of course, whether Nietzsche himself would ever take issue with creating suffering through procreation, given his views on the suffering of others. As he writes in The Will to Power (1901):
To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities — I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not — that one endures.
Elsewhere, he remarked, “I do not point to the evil and pain of existence with the finger of reproach, but rather entertain the hope that life may one day become more evil and more full of suffering than it has ever been.”
Another point of contention is Nietzsche’s views on compassion. Nietzsche denounced compassion because he equated it with pity, which he argues is not compassion as such but a way of treating oneself or others with contempt. Pity, which is disguised contempt, according to Nietzsche, reveals an attitude of disgust towards life and suffering. “Pity is life-negating”, as Nietzsche says in The Antichrist (1895). He saw self-pity and pity as a weakness. When we show it towards ourselves, express it to another, or receive it from another, we lose vitality, power, and strength; when we feel pity, we are trying to console ourselves or others, instead of facing suffering bravely and courageously. He called the “religion of pity” a “religion of comfortableness.” Nietzsche also believed that when we show pity to others, this is a way of making ourselves feel superior to them. Pity is a way of viewing another as a “poor thing”, so that you – the pitier – feel above the pitied, positioning yourself as better than them. This achieves false feelings of self-esteem. Pity thus formulated is a form of condescension.
Pity, however, can be subcategorised into ‘benevolent pity’ and ‘contemptuous’ pity, whereby the former is how Schopenhauer conceptualised compassion, as genuinely feeling someone’s suffering (“compassion” means “to suffer together”) and having the wish to alleviate it. It is not clear if what Nietzsche called pity is the same thing Schopenhauer was referring to when he discussed compassion but I do see how these concepts differ when we compare both philosophers’ descriptions of them. In any case, Nietzsche did believe genuine compassion was possible. He supported a noble, strong kind of compassion that recognises when others are in need, leading one to aid them so that they can become greater individuals. It is doubtful, however, whether this support of noble aid would relate to the question of antinatalism in any meaningful way.
Based on the above points, an antinatalist may want to take on board elements or degrees of Nietzschean affirmation in a way that accommodates antinatalism, or beliefs in certain moral principles that should guide our decision-making. To the Nietzschean antinatalist, the difference between decisions affecting oneself and decisions affecting another – a potential person – can still be morally relevant. Even if you sacralise suffering in the way Nietzsche does, this does not, to me, seem to justify the imposition of suffering on others. And procreation is, unavoidably, an act that leads to lifelong suffering, as well as other existential issues that need to be grappled with. As a case in point, many people grow through all kinds of suffering: bullying, heartbreak, loss, grief, mental illness, physical illness, old age, and the fear of death – and meaning can be found in all types of horrible situations – but none of this would justify one individual imposing these conditions on another. If you subject someone to abuse and, later on in life, it turns out this abused person gained some meaning and positive outcomes from the abuse, this would not suddenly justify or excuse the action. Subjecting yourself to suffering, hardship, and risks for the purpose of growth, on the other hand, is morally different.
The Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, who was heavily influenced by Nietzsche, very much endorsed the value of suffering when he said “sickness is a revelation”. He saw his struggles with insomnia as conducive to endurance, strength, and heroism. He “exalted insomnia into sanctifying pain,” as William G. Reiger notes, because sleeplessness provided him with these incredible ecstatic states. Yet despite this Nietzschean way of thinking about suffering, Cioran was still an avowed antinatalist. Cioran can be thought of as a Nietzschean, in a number of ways, with Susan Sontag drawing various correlations between the two philosophers. But Cioran did come to criticise Nietzsche, which is something that Nietzsche actually wanted; the German philosopher did not want people to become enchanted by him. Cioran considered Nietzsche a passion of his youth. The older Cioran, though, repeatedly described Nietzsche as “naïve”, ceasing to admire him and diverging from his thinking. Nonetheless, Cioran said he took a moral stance against procreation “very early, before the age of twenty” (Notebooks, 1957–1972), so there was clearly a time when he was both more Nietzschean in his outlook and an antinatalist. When it came to procreation, Cioran stated:
Crime is to transmit one’s frailties to someone else, to force someone to experience the same things we are experiencing, to force someone to the Way of the Cross that may be worse than our own. I could never agree to give life to someone who inherits misfortunes and evil.
One could certainly interpret this sort of justification as anti-Nietzschean. But this antinatalist position, I argue, does not necessarily preclude one from being a Nietzschean with respect to one’s own suffering, as shown in the case of Cioran.
Nietzsche extolled his theory of life-affirmation for the individual who is alive and conscious, not for a potential person who could one day be brought into the world. Nietzsche never really addressed the issue of procreation itself (while he was childless throughout his life, we cannot surmise that this was due to any ethical motivation – people can be childfree for other personal reasons). In Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883–1885), Nietzsche did, however, question whether some people are fit to be parents: “Thou art young, and desirest child and marriage. But I ask thee: Art thou a man entitled to desire a child? Art thou the victorious one, the self-conqueror, the ruler of thy passions, the master of thy virtues?”
Could this be a statement of procreative ethics from a virtue ethics standpoint? Does it imply a kind of conditional antinatalism? Moreover, Nietzsche’s conditions for the prospective parent seem pretty demanding. How many among us, in his eyes, would truly qualify as fit parents? Returning to his notion of affirming life, we can also speculatively ask: is creating more human lives a way of promoting life-affirmation? Is more life necessarily better? Or is procreation a neutral and irrelevant factor when it comes to Nietzsche’s philosophy? A Nietzschean antinatalist might want to underline the distinction between existing people and potential new lives, applying affirmationism to the former – as Nietzsche did – but doubting whether there are any convincing reasons to apply it to the latter. Can we really say that those who have children, through that act alone, affirm life more than the childless?
Nietzschean or Camusian antinatalism is, simply put, a yes-saying to life and a nay-saying to procreation. A Nietzschean or Camusian antinatalist may strive to the ideal of life-affirmation but still nonetheless see issues with subjecting others to a condition that demands life-affirmation. For example, as a Nietzschean antinatalist, you might recognise risks with procreation that make the gamble not worth it. What if your child, despite the Nietzschean upbringing you provide, goes in the opposite direction and becomes a nay-sayer to life? You might also subscribe to affirmationism yet see the struggle to be a yes-sayer to life as a burden, and one which you do not want to impose on someone else. From a Nietzschean perspective, affirming, making sense of, and finding meaning in the arduous nature of life gives value to suffering and makes life bearable. Conversely, then, failing to interpret suffering in this way would make life intolerable and not worthwhile. Most people (including Nietzsche himself) have struggled to affirm all of life; all the suffering contained in it. The experience is universal. And so one should expect that this experience would likely befall one’s child. As a Nietzschean affirmationist coming from a non-Nietzschean meta-ethical perspective, this might need an adequate ethical justification. It’s worth asking: why impose this risk of intolerable suffering on another when you don’t have to?
Nietzsche also argued in The Gay Science, “As an aesthetic phenomenon existence is still bearable to us,” and in The Birth of Tragedy he opines, “Only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified.” We are able to turn the world and ourselves into works of art, and thus make them tolerable, through self-styling or self-artistry, which means using artistic techniques to craft the self. “We…want to be the poets of our lives,” as Nietzsche puts it. But these artistic techniques rely on self-deception, such as the employment of forgetting and concealing, a focus on what we consider the most beautiful, and leaving out what we deem ugly. Christopher Janaway, in Beyond Selflessness: Reading Nietzsche’s Genealogy, remarks:
In the ideal of self-affirmation (or so we assumed above) things were different: the acceptance of the whole truth of one’s life — what was and is — was to be embraced without flinching, without escape or erasure. But now the self-satisfaction to be attained through artistry consists in actively making one’s character pleasing by falsifying it. We seem to have struck upon a deep-lying vein of ambivalence towards truth in Nietzsche.
One of Janaway’s possible solutions to this seeming tension in Nietzsche’s thought is to suppose that affirmation and aesthetic satisfaction are not, in fact, opposed to each other. “Perhaps one is encompassed in the other,” Janaway states. One can affirm an actively created self-narrative, the story of the self that we tell ourselves, which satisfies us. A second response is that artistic self-styling “presupposes truthfulness about oneself,” while a third response is that Nietzsche is presenting two opposing ideals but this doesn’t diminish his views. It is up for debate whether Nietzsche’s self-artistry can be harmonised with his affirmation (or whether this matters), but in any case, the point here is that making the self and the world into an aesthetic creation and therefore bearable is still something an individual can fail or succeed in doing, and if he or she fails (which many people do), then life becomes unbearable, as maintained by Nietzsche anyway. Once we exist, it’s worth striving to create a meaningful and content life, be it through affirmationism, rejectionism, or some other philosophical attitude. But this does not morally justify imposing the task of coping well with suffering on another person, which is what procreation entails. The prospect of one’s child not coping well with suffering may be all it takes to make one a Nietzschean antinatalist.
I can also see compatibility between Nietzschean or Camusian life-affirmation and the consent argument for antinatalism. This argument basically says that 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 unnecessary harms. And this is morally problematic. One might suppose that the impossibility of consent makes consent an irrelevant factor when considering the ethics of procreation. Nevertheless, according to the philosophers Gerald Harrison and Julian Tanner, at least, the “fact that we cannot gain their consent does not mean that we are free to do without it.” An affirmationist can see the impossibility of consent as morally problematic in a way that has no bearing on their life-affirming and life-loving attitude.
In addition, Nietzschean antinatalists could be persuaded by environmental arguments in favour of antinatalism, which refers to the variety of environmental harms caused by a new human life (having a child is, by far, the most non-eco-friendly lifestyle choice we can make). I see nothing about Nietzschean affirmation that positively evaluates overpopulation, the destruction of precious ecosystems, and the depletion of natural resources. In fact, if procreation adds to problems that are gradually making the planet inhospitable, then it is adding to the threat of human extinction and thus a possible future of life-affirmation. Nietzsche envisioned a future that could be more life-enhancing for humans, in which human development reaches extraordinary heights (he saw desirable the arrival of the Übermensch – the “superman” or “higher” man, the ideal person who possesses virtues such as self-determination, self-mastery, magnanimity, and courage). Nietzsche can also be seen as an environmental thinker in many respects.
It is interesting, then, to consider whether Nietzsche himself would be an environmental antinatalist today, in light of his long-term outlook for the future of humanity, as well as his respect for the natural world. Achieving human extinction through abstention from procreation is welcomed by many antinatalists but not necessarily by all environmental antinatalists, and some Nietzscheans could fall into the latter camp, affirming life but deciding that, at this current moment, procreation conflicts with their forward-looking vision for humanity, as well as their environmental ethics. This environmental antinatalism is a weaker (non-universal) form of antinatalism since it suggests that having children would be acceptable under the right circumstances.
Some ‘misanthropic arguments’ for antinatalism (as David Benatar calls them) might hold some moral weight for Nietzschean affirmationists too. Consider, for instance, the harm that a new person will – or may – cause to non-human animals (through environmental harm, the consumption of animal products, or the funding of other forms of animal exploitation). Non-human animals cannot revalue their suffering in the way humans can. Affirmationism is not an option for them. As Nietzsche himself stated:
The deeper minds of all ages have had pity for animals, because they suffer from life and have not the power to turn the sting of the suffering against themselves, and understand their being metaphysically. The sight of blind suffering is the spring of the deepest emotion.
You can agree with a Nietzschean affirmation of life, and apply it to your own life, without being blasé about the impact of your decisions. Even if affirmationism of this sort is weaker than the kind that Nietzsche had in mind, it is still perfectly consistent with a number of antinatalist arguments. For the antinatalist who does not want to adopt Schopenhauerian rejectionism, resignation, and renunciation, a Nietzschean approach might be more appealing. I realise it is questionable to what extent (if any) antinatalism could ever be ‘Nietzschean’ in character. But if we accept that ‘Nietzschean’ can mean subscribing to some of the philosopher’s ideas but not all of them, or relating to Nietzsche’s ideas in a different way, then the term ‘Nietzschean antinatalism’ may not be an oxymoron after all. Or, as mentioned previously, ‘neo-Nietzschean antinatalism’ or ‘post-Nietzschean antinatalism’ may be a more accurate term.
To clear up any confusion – I am not concluding that Nietzsche himself would subscribe to antinatalism, only that one could develop his ideas and then apply them to the domain of procreative ethics. (Nietzsche appears to criticise antinatalist thought in Thus Spake Zarathustra, in the lecture On the Preachers of Death. Here he opposes the “preachers of death”, those who espouse an anti-life philosophy, who say “”why still give birth? One beareth only the unfortunate!”” Such thinking is expressed in the Bible, in Ecclesiastes 4:3: “And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.” I imagine that Nietzsche would reject this sentiment.)
I hope that this discussion on Nietzschean antinatalism has shown the different directions that antinatalism can take. I recognise that life-denial is perhaps the dominant narrative in antinatalist thought but it is certainly not the only one. Antinatalism is a moral position that is separable from an individual’s disposition and particular attitude towards life, even if there are clear and understandable correlations between the two. To recapitulate Akerma’s point, there is no logical reason why you cannot be an optimistic and life-loving antinatalist. It is, moreover, an interesting question, for the individual antinatalist, whether affirmationism or rejectionism is the right philosophy to embrace. What reasons do we have to endorse one but not the other? If rejectionism helps to strengthen the antinatalist position, is this necessarily a reason to prefer it? If either one can be combined with antinatalism, why not opt for the one that also happens to improve one’s life?
My feeling at the moment is that there are benefits to both the yes-saying and the nay-saying attitudes towards suffering, and so the challenge at hand is to figure out when to take one stance over another – or perhaps we must hold both attitudes at once, which Ram Dass alludes to when he talks about the paradox of suffering. I still somewhat hold the prejudice that to be a yes-sayer to life makes antinatalism unthinkable, yet I am not convinced that it is a form of cognitive dissonance to adopt both attitudes simultaneously. The two positions can be combined, without contradiction.
Nietzschean, life-loving antinatalism may rarely be expressed in antinatalist circles. However, I find the worldview fascinating for precisely this reason. To say “yes” to life without wanting to create more lives is a worldview that defies expectations.