The Hypothetical Consent Objection to Anti-Natalism

Paper by Asheel Singh, published on November 9, 2019 in Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

A very common but untested assumption is that potential children would consent to be exposed to the harms of existence in order to experience its benefits. And so, would-be parents might appeal to the following view: Procreation is all-things-considered permissible, as it is morally acceptable for one to knowingly harm an unconsenting patient if one has good reasons for assuming her hypothetical consent—and procreators can indeed reasonably rely on some notion of hypothetical consent. I argue that this view is in error. My argument appeals to a consent-based version of anti-natalism advanced by Seana Valentine Shiffrin. Anti-natalism is the view that it is always wrong to bring people into existence. While, like Shiffrin, I stop short of advocating a thoroughgoing anti-natalism, I nevertheless argue that procreators cannot appeal to hypothetical consent to justify exposing children to the harms of existence. I end by suggesting a more promising route by which this justification might be achieved.

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.

Furthering the Case for Anti-natalism: Seana Shiffrin and the Limits of Permissible Harm

Paper by Asheel Singh, published on January 1, 2012 in South African Journal of Philosophy

Anti-natalism is the view that it is (almost) always wrong to bring people (and perhaps all sentient beings) into existence. This view is most famously defended by David Benatar (1997, 2006). There are, however, other routes to an anti-natal conclusion. In this respect, Seana Shiffrin’s paper, “Wrongful Life, Procreative Responsibility, and the Significance of Harm” (1999), has been rather neglected in the natal debate. Though she appears unwilling to conclude that procreation is always wrong, I believe that she in fact puts forth a case for anti-natalism no less compelling than Benatar’s. My overall aim here is to demonstrate the force of her argument by defending a Shiffrin-esque route to anti-natalism from a powerful objection. This objection appeals to the common belief that because most people endorse their creation, procreation often is all-things-considered permissible. I will show how this objection fails, and why Shiffrin’s rationale for anti-natalism, as I will be representing it, ought to be taken seriously.