So I saw an article by a godless philosopher arguing against anyone having kids. Oh good, I thought. Some Gaia-supplicant will make the case that mankind has had his turn, and ought to hand the baton to our new dolphin overlords, tucking it neatly into their fins.
But no. Not at all. In fact, the essay by Australian bioethicist and philosopher David Benatar is powerful and serious. I expected a piece of apocalyptic, misanthropic folderol. But his is a cry from the heart. We should take its arguments seriously and commend them to others, as a selfie shared from the bottom of modernity’s slippery slope.
I’ve written before that the West really does have an official religion. It forms the basis for legislation, the common ground for policy, and the starting point for every conversation about ethics. It’s more fully established than Christianity was under Constantine, and all the more powerful for staying (like the Wizard of Oz) prudently behind a curtain. Benatar’s essay pulls back the curtain, looks the Wizard in the eye, and despairs at what he sees.
The best phrase to describe our new creed is Utilitarian Hedonism. I wrote a whole chapter about it in a primer for college students, Disorientation: How to Go to College Without Losing Your Mind. But this worldview goes back to Epicurus. I summed it up briefly here:
Put simply, it says that life has no purpose and suffering has no meaning. Each living creature, human or animal, is a bundle of nerve receptors, capable of feeling pleasure or pain. That is all. We may not agree on anything else, but we all know that suffering is bad. And pleasure is good.
So our laws and institutions should be centered on reducing the net amount of suffering and increasing the pleasure quotient. We will “nudge” people when we can, and force them when we must, to make decisions that maximize the number of happy moments that they experience, and diminish the number of sad ones. If a handicapped person’s life would have many sad moments — and even worse, impose a great number of sad moments on their caregivers and the taxpayer — then it is right to put him to death.
This is indeed the logic behind calls for “assisted suicide,” and even behind many arguments for abortion. Pro-choicers point to all the woes of impoverished children who were “wanted.” They extrapolate from that the conclusion that the children whom the law saved from abortion would be even more unhappy. We’d be making some women miserable, and hacking back our sexual freedoms, all for the sake of increasing the number of suffering children on earth. Well, when you put it like that.…
Are We Redeemed Images of God or Rescue Pets?
It all makes perfect sense. If you grant the premise. And it’s a good standard … for pets. If Franz Josef can’t walk, barely wants to eat, and seems to get no enjoyment out of life, it’s probably time to let him go. I had to make that agonizing choice twice in the past few years, with beloved cancer-ridden beagles (one named “Franz Josef”). As a vet told me, better to let go “a week too soon than one day too late.” Why? Because animal suffering seems meaningless. There’s no benefit which they or anyone else can validly gain from it.
In fact, we go further with animals. We see how many homeless and unwanted pets die every year in shelters, and so we mostly get our little guys “fixed.” We give up the joy of seeing them produce and raise puppies or kittens, because we want to diminish the net amount of animal suffering in the world.
Better to Have Never Been Born At All
And now Professor Benatar is applying that logic — the universal if unspoken maxim that governs secular ethics throughout the West — to human children, too. He writes:
[E]ven if life isn’t pure suffering, coming into existence can still be sufficiently harmful to render procreation wrong. Life is simply much worse than most people think, and there are powerful drives to affirm life even when life is terrible. People might be living lives that were actually not worth starting without recognising that this is the case.
Considering matters carefully, it’s obvious that there must be more bad than good. This is because there are empirical asymmetries between the good and bad things. The worst pains, for instance, are worse than the best pleasures are good. If you doubt this, ask yourself – honestly – whether you would accept a minute of the worst tortures in exchange for a minute or two of the greatest delights. And pains tend to last longer than pleasures. Compare the fleeting nature of gustatory and sexual pleasures with the enduring character of much pain. There are chronic pains, of the lower back or joints for example, but there is no such thing as chronic pleasure. (An enduring sense of satisfaction is possible, but so is an enduring sense of dissatisfaction, and thus this comparison does not favour the preponderance of the good.)
Injury occurs quickly but recovery is slow. An embolus or projectile can fell you in an instant – and if you’re not killed, healing will be slow. Learning takes a lifetime but can be obliterated in an instant. Destruction is easier than construction.
When it comes to the satisfaction of desires, things are also stacked against us. Many desires are never satisfied. And even when they are satisfied, it is often after a long period of dissatisfaction. Nor does satisfaction last, for the satisfaction of a desire leads to a new desire – which itself needs to be satisfied some time in the future. When one can fulfil one’s more basic desires, such as hunger, on a regular basis, higher-level desires arise. There is a treadmill and an escalator of desire.
In other words, life is a state of continual striving. We have to expend effort to ward off unpleasantness – for example, to prevent pain, assuage thirst, and minimise frustration. In the absence of our strivings, the unpleasantness comes all too easily, for that is the default.
Just as those wanting a companion animal should adopt an unwanted dog or cat rather than breed new animals, so those who want to rear a child should adopt rather than procreate. Of course, there are not enough unwanted children to satisfy all those who would like to parent, and there would be even fewer if more of those producing the unwanted children were to take anti-natalism to heart. However, so long as there are unwanted children, their existence is a further reason against others breeding….
The question is not whether humans will become extinct, but rather when they will. If the anti-natalist arguments are correct, it would be better, all things being equal, if this happened sooner rather than later for, the sooner it happens, the more suffering and misfortune will be avoided.
Spread the Word
Professor Benatar has done us all a service. If you don’t believe in a God who will finally wipe away all tears, then life is not worth living. Not by the pleasure/pain calculus that governs Western culture. No surprise, then, that we’re not bothering to breed. Unless you believe that suffering can be redemptive, can “complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (1 Col.: 24), you will find it overpowering. Once you start to quantify it, that can drive you to despair.
Benatar’s analysis points up the starkness of the choice that faces Western man. Stripped of every illusion that nation, or party, or some utopian future can give our sufferings meaning, our options really are “the barrel of a gun or the foot of the Cross.”
Go read the essay. Digest it. Let it burn out what quotient of Utilitarian Hedonism you have soaked up from the culture. And if you know any chipper, well-meaning and hopeful agnostics, be sure to share it with them. It is better to blow out one candle than to curse the light.
This column originally appeared at The Stream.