By Kevin Martin
My step-grandfather fundamentally believed that neither I nor my siblings ought to have come into existence. He never treated me badly: he was merely an “environmental anti-natalist.” Anti-natalism is the philosophical and political position that procreation is bad, and anti-natalists contend that human beings should cease having children altogether. Normally, this argument is rooted in philosophy, scientific measurements of pain, environmentalism, or all of the above. And it’s because of my step-grandfather that this topic is especially close to my heart. Thus I have long known of this ideology, but it was not until recent weeks that I discovered that this movement has garnered increasing support in recent years. It is still a fairly fringe line of thinking, but I think it is important to take it seriously to effectively counter this dangerous ideology.
David Benatar, an influential anti-natalist philosopher, believes that the act of having children is not only irresponsible but intrinsically cruel. He argues that we can scientifically measure pain and suffering; and once we do so, we see that it accounts for most of our lives. By quantifying the amount of pain and suffering people endure, we can therefore determine that most of life is not pleasure but either pain or the lack of anything at all. Benatar explains this idea by asking people to think about how often they are tired, depressed, in pain, cold, hot, or just generally uncomfortable. He contends that, even in the West, with our high standard of living, we mostly experience suffering. He concludes that humanity should focus on reducing this pain. He is a “negative utilitarian”—i.e., he thinks that minimizing suffering is a more immediate moral imperative than maximizing happiness. By this logic, we cannot guarantee that children will not suffer during their lifetime, so not having the child in the first place is the only moral course of action.
Other camps choose an environmentalist lens (like my step-grandfather). Yes, they say, it is well and good for people, in service to environmentalism, to change the way they eat, how they transport themselves, and how they interact with the economy. However, if the general population still decides to have children after all of this, then they have not only nullified their actions but ultimately harmed the environment. Studies, such as one from Environmental Research Letters, demonstrate that the best way to reduce a person’s carbon footprint is to never have children. They found that not having a child would result in the parent saving 58 metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions for every year the would-be parent was alive. In other words, anti-natalists use the carbon footprint of a child to argue that people should not become parents. This type of environmentalism does not pretend to be in favor of reducing the population so as to leave behind a better world for those in the future. Rather, environmental anti-natalists understand humanity and the environment to be entirely at odds. The two cannot continue to coexist. And because the environment, in all its glory and innocence, has a greater worth, humanity must cease to exist.
The underlying argument in anti-natalism, of whichever type, is that human life has no intrinsic value. You can either measure life through pleasure and pain or you can measure it through a person’s carbon footprint. Either way, the conclusion is the same: humanity should go extinct, and we have a duty to help.
Yes, few people really believe that. But anti-natalism encapsulates the ideology of meaninglessness that prevails in today's world: God is dead and we are alive and sentient purely due to the universe's randomness. The pleasures of life are a mere comforting distraction from suffering; neither of the two can mean anything to those who experience them.
Many who disagree with this ideology attempt to counter it with its own logic. In response to the movement, they contend that the ever-progressing march of technology will ultimately result in a world free from environmental degradation and a humanity free from suffering.
I mostly agree that technology is a major building block in promoting the environment and reducing suffering; one need only look at the past’s doomsayers and their predictions, such as those of Thomas Malthus and Paul Ehrlich, to witness the awesome tenacity that humanity has for escaping perceived peril.
However, to use this as a central argument against anti-natalism would be to admit that human life should not continue if the world remains the same tomorrow as it is today. It is to give credence to the lie that anti-natalism puts forth.
Thus, I think it is necessary to put the burden of proof on the anti-natalists. In response to the philosophical anti-natalists, we must ask why it is wrong to bring humans into a world with suffering? Presumably, the answer will be because they, those being born to this world, do not have a choice in the matter of their existence. They lack agency in the decision-making process. But this is an inadequate response because choosing not to bring them into existence is similarly robbing them of their agency. To me, it seems entirely evident that humans, even with all the suffering they endure, would rather have been born than the alternative, never having existed. Otherwise, humanity would have ceased to endure long ago. If the ideal is to give agency to these humans, the only way to do that is by bringing them into existence. Only then can they decide whether life is worth living.
In response to the environmental anti-natalists, we must ask this: suppose having children does harm the environment, why does this matter? For if humans have no intrinsic value, then neither does the environment. Why should humans put the good of the environment over that of their potential children or themselves? The environment does not experience either pain or pleasure, because it is not sentient, very much unlike humans.
Finally, it is my understanding that human life has intrinsic value, a value that cannot truly be measured by the balance of pain and suffering, a carbon footprint, or a worth in dollars. It is my belief that we are made in the image and likeness of God. Our very being, therefore, is good, because God is good. The suffering of losing a loved one is the price we pay for loving them. To wish the suffering away would be to wish the love away. Perhaps it can be unjust to allow pain to befall our children by bringing them into this world. However, it would be similarly unjust to refuse to bring them into this world, because we would be depriving them of the love they would experience. Thus, I choose to reject this “solution” the anti-natalist offer. I choose to embrace love, with all the knowledge of the pain it will cost me. There are a multitude of arguments against the ideology of anti-natalism, but it is the belief in the intrinsic value of human life that is, in my opinion, the most potent.