Many antinatalists embrace veganism, as they find these lifestyle decisions to be ethically consonant with each other. Yet most ethical vegans are not against having children. Whether one position entails the other depends on the particular ethic at play: If the goal is to prevent and minimise suffering, then does this not entail antinatalism? This negative utilitarianism is what many vegan activists like Ed Winters (Earthling Ed) say undergird their veganism, yet when Alex O’Connor (Cosmic Skeptic) brought this up to Winters in a recent podcast episode, the latter said he does not support antinatalism. Winters remarks [34:02]:
So I think reducing suffering is probably the principle I live more in alignment with. But the question is always “how far do you take that?” Because if we wanted to reduce the suffering the most, then non-existence would be the furthest reduction of suffering possible. But I don’t advocate for the elimination of life because the elimination of life would be the elimination of suffering, but that seems to be the logical conclusion to this pursuit of reducing suffering as much as possible.
To which O’Connor responds:
A lot of people, for that reason, think that veganism of a kind, certainly consequentialist veganism, would entail, for instance, antinatalism, that it’s immoral to have children, because of the suffering you’re inflicting upon these beings. And the way to minimise suffering in the most, let’s say, reliable way would be to stop having children. I’m sure people would be interested in your views on that, but that’s not, as you say, something you advocate for; I think it would be almost unfair to press you on that right now.
I would be interested to hear Winters’ reasoning when, or if, he were pressed on this issue in the future, based on his ethical grounding for veganism. Is there an inconsistency in wanting to prevent and reduce animal suffering by not breeding them into existence but not humans? What could be the relevant discrepancy that commits one to veganism but not antinatalism? Vegans are antinatalists with respect to livestock, but they don’t extend it to humans. I want to explore some possible reasons why this might be the case and try to ascertain if these reasons are robust.
Firstly, a vegan natalist may stress that human suffering is nothing like non-human animal suffering of the kind we see in livestock farming. Most humans are not enslaved, tortured, mutilated, and forced into situations where natural behaviours cannot be exhibited. Perhaps, then, ethical vegans would oppose the procreation of those sorts of human lives. However, this argument seems weakened by the fact that vegans denounce breeding livestock for food even when they have the best lives. Human lives may contain many more harms, and more severe harms, than certain animals bred in this way.
Of course, if one’s guiding ethic is not negative utilitarianism but, say, not treating non-human animals as property, then suffering may not be the most or only relevant factor. As the animal rights philosopher Gary Francione argues, “Veganism is not just a way of reducing suffering; it is a commitment to justice and an explicit refusal to participate in animal slavery.”
Another reason for opposing breeding happy livestock is that these animals are still killed at some point. This matters morally because they have an interest in living, as well as other existing interests, and by slaughtering them, we frustrate their interests and cut their valued life short; plus, we kill them unnecessarily (we don’t need animal products for survival or health). An ethical vegan might want to argue that this situation is disanalogous to bringing people into existence, as we don’t create people for the specific purpose of being killed and used for products we don’t need or for products that provide taste pleasure. As Francione writes, “We are vegans not simply because being vegan will reduce suffering. We are vegan because every sentient being values her or his life even if no one else does. We are vegan because justice minimally requires that we not take life for trivial purposes.”
So is the important difference between veganism and antinatalism the fact that we abuse and kill animals unnecessarily, whereas human suffering and death are considered necessary (for the sake of enjoying existence and ensuring the continuation of the species)? Antinatalists would dispute whether human existence (and joys) are necessary without some objective meaning and purpose (there can be subjective meaning and purpose, but this only actualises when beings exist, in contrast to the objective kind, in which case the absence of human life might go against it).
A vegan natalist could also point out that the fact livestock animals are victimised and suffer due to humans, while humans are perceived to suffer not as victims but in the natural course of living. And this is what makes the moral difference. But for the negative utilitarian who prioritises the elimination and mitigation of suffering, is this difference actually morally relevant? If suffering is all that matters, the distinction just outlined seems inconsistent.
Nonetheless, if rights and the violation of rights (such as not being victimised) are morally relevant, then this may underpin the difference. It is still questionable how morally weighty this consideration is for vegan activists, especially if their main concern is subjective suffering. Moreover, many humans are victimised, harmed, or exploited by others (one could argue that most of us are exploited through capitalism), although all of these harms might not be deemed as guaranteed or as severe as the harms faced by factory-farmed animals. Even so-called ‘humane’ farming involves the infliction of some serious harm. For instance, practices like castration, docking the tails and clipping the teeth of pigs, and debeaking chickens – all without anaesthesia – can all take place on free-range farms.
But in any case, if one truly wanted to prevent animal suffering as much as possible, being an antinatalist could achieve this. After all, most people eat animal products, so the chances that all of your distant descendants will be vegan is exceptionally low. It is highly probable then that, in the long run, procreation will indirectly cause the consumption of more animal products than a single meat-eater who doesn’t have children. It may be denied that one is morally responsible for this effect, just as parents cannot be held responsible for other harmful actions of their grown adult children. And perhaps there is hope that vegan parents will likely raise children who will remain vegans as adults, who themselves will raise their own children similarly, and so on. One might also hope that veganism – or at least lab-grown meat – will be the norm in the future. Still, for anyone acutely concerned about the terrible lives that non-human animals face, the possibility of creating many non-vegan descendants may be a motivation for not procreating.
Another reason why most ethical vegans don’t endorse antinatalism could be due to the optimism bias. One could have a rosy view of one’s own life (and thus human life generally) – overestimating our likelihood of experiencing positive events and underestimating our likelihood of experiencing negative events – while having a less optimistic view of a non-human animal’s life. There might also be anthropocentrism involved in the vegan natalist worldview, which says that the human species must continue, but the joys lost from not procreating livestock aren’t to be mourned. The difference of course is that humans experience richer, deeper, and more varied goods in life. But does this justify the imposition of lifelong harms, ageing, and then death? Antinatalists don’t think so.
On the other hand, we could say that there is a crucial qualitative difference between non-human animal suffering and human suffering. When it comes to the former, the animal’s pain and suffering are wholly negative; there is nothing the creature gains from these experiences. Whereas for us, suffering is what often provides our lives with meaning, growth, and even greater states of joy. We can transform our suffering, while – ostensibly – non-human animals cannot. This might be why some ethical vegans don’t see creating new human lives as a moral issue.
Vegans, like most of us, can also feel the sentimental attachment to the continuation of our species; to imagine us going extinct through desisting from procreation can seem abhorrent and psychopathic, an unfathomable loss (of culture and achievement) that should be avoided at all costs. But does this understandable sentimental reaction, of sadness at the thought of it, reflect a legitimate moral judgement?
Why is universal antinatalism and, by extension, human extinction immoral, or even bad if there is no one to suffer the deprivation? (We might feel deeply uncomfortable with the thought of it because we are in the position of existing and can imagine the loss: people like us who won’t enjoy all that life has to offer.) It is questionable whether the loss of humans specifically but not livestock is of a kind or degree so distinct that it is clearly immoral. Again, antinatalists don’t think it is: the perfect prevention of suffering and proposed asymmetry (there being an obligation to prevent suffering but no obligation to create people or even happy people) means universal non-procreation is morally preferable. Most people would likely consider this an extreme solution to the problem of suffering.
If someone were to say that taking the prevention of suffering to its logical conclusion justifies suicide, this is mistaken: suicide deprives an existing being of future goods that one desires, causes suffering to others (perhaps many people), and removes the possibility that one can reduce suffering in the world. Painless and immediate mass extinction may also not be justified as we need to ask, who is making the decision? How is success and not greater suffering guaranteed? It is possible that living in the kind of world in which others can decide to eliminate or reduce suffering wherever possible – a purely negative utilitarian motivated world – might at least cause some suffering itself, as it could make people fearful about policies of eugenics or extermination occurring. In addition, rights violations – such as not gaining consent and acting against people’s natural desire for life – may supersede negative utilitarian considerations. Lastly, we will likely never be faced with this kind of ‘benevolent world destroyer’ scenario; the thought experiment merely aims to show the logical extension of the proposed ethic.
The world-destroyer scenario, in any case, is not like the situation of not bringing new people into existence. The former involves people who already exist (who we have moral obligations towards), whereas the latter involves people who don’t exist (who, arguably, we have no duties towards: there is no duty to bring them into existence. Referring back to the asymmetry argument, we don’t intuitively believe we are obligated to create people, as this would mean not having kids – as well as not having as many as possible without causing harm to others – would be immoral.
For eco-conscious vegans, antinatalism might also naturally follow. Oxford University researcher Joseph Poore, the lead author of a report on the links between agriculture and climate, has stated that “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use. It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car.” This is because reducing the number of flights you take or giving up flying, for example, only cuts greenhouse gas emissions (mainly CO2), whereas veganism also tackles methane emissions, as well as many other aspects of environmental damage.
However, it might not necessarily be true that going vegan would have the greatest impact. Research tells us that having one fewer child is the most carbon-reducing decision you could make by a long shot (it would cut your carbon footprint by 58.6 tonnes, compared to 0.8 tonnes –annually – achieved through a vegan diet). And while it is true that ecological damage involves more than just carbon emissions, these emissions are still the main driver of climate change. (CO2 absorbs less heat per molecule than methane, but it is more abundant and stays in the atmosphere much longer.)
An environmentally motivated vegan who wants children, then, is faced with the question of whether having a genetically related child over an adopted one has relative benefits that justify the ecological costs. These relative benefits may include wanting to experience pregnancy and the special kind of love one has towards their genetic child, which is based on shared qualities, looks, temperaments, traits, talents, and so on. It may be argued this very particular sort of relationship is lost if a child has non-genetically related parents. Furthermore, adopting itself can be a uniquely difficult process, for both the adoptees and the adopted child (e.g. separation from the birth family, attachment difficulties, dealing with unresolved trauma, conflicts between how the child was brought up and how the adopting parents now want to raise them, and disrupted adoptions).
Nonetheless, it is clear that adopting children can provide a healthy, meaningful, and fulfilling family life to both the adoptees and the adopted, and it is disputable just how weighty the supposed benefits of genetic children are when compared to the ecological costs. If someone truly wanted to be an effective environmentalist, having one fewer child (or no children if one planned to have just one child) would be a highly impactful decision, although whether this is a great personal sacrifice or not, more so than giving up animal products, will vary from person to person.
Ethical vegans who don’t embrace antinatalism should think about the philosophical reasons underpinning their selective antinatalism and see if these entail broader antinatalism. One could, for example, define veganism as being opposed to the exploitation and commodification of non-human animals: turning them into objects or services to be used, sold, and bought. With this definition in mind, one would not necessarily be committed to antinatalism, given that the people we create won’t be turned into commodities. Other normative ethical theories may commit one to veganism but not antinatalism as well.
But for the negative utilitarian, as we have seen, both veganism and antinatalism could be seen as the logical outcomes of such a worldview. And this seems to be the common ethic promoted by many vegan activists and campaigners. So if such a person wanted to reject antinatalism at the same time, then other arguments and ethical theories (some of which I have tried to briefly outline) would be needed to either reformulate or reject the negative utilitarian perspective.