Assessing anti-natalism: a philosophical examination of the morality of procreation

Paper by Asheel Singh, published on April 10, 2013 in University of Johannesburg, MA thesis

Consider a couple planning to have children. There are many reasons one could offer these potential parents for reconsidering bringing new people into existence. One could for instance say to them that they currently lack the finances, or maturity, to adequately take care of any children they produce. If it were almost certain that this couple would pass on a terrible genetic disease to their offspring, one could see it as one’s duty to warn them against reproduction. One could even draw attention to the plight of orphans, and suggest to these (and other) potential parents that a more pressing responsibility lies not in planning to give homes to persons not yet in existence, but in attempting to give homes to those already in existence. However, when deciding whether or not to create children, rarely does one consider, over and above the preceding considerations, whether there might be some fundamental wrongness to the very act of procreation. In other words, rarely does one consider the possibility that creating people might, all things considered, never be permissible. At its extreme, “anti-natalism” implies the view that coming into existence is always a harm that outweighs any of its benefits. This position is defended by David Benatar (Benatar 1997, 2006). However, 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. Such a consent-based anti-natal position can be derived from the argument put forth by Seana Shiffrin (1999). To be clear, according to either of these versions of anti-natalism, creating a new person is considered an impermissible harm. When I refer to “anti-natalism” in this dissertation, I will be referring to this negative judgement regarding procreation. Anti-natalism has a rich philosophical heritage, with its roots stretching back to antiquity. For instance, Ecclesiastes (1:1-18) of the Hebrew Bible bemoans the apparent meaninglessness and futility of existence—a state of affairs with which any number of generations of humans must cope. Not until very recently, however, has the anti-natal position been given due consideration by philosophers. Arthur Schopenhauer (1851), for instance, is perhaps best known for advocating a pessimistic philosophy that is, broadly speaking, anti-natal in its implications. The key figure in this field, however, is Benatar, who defends an unequivocally anti-natal position.

University of Johannesburg, MA thesis