by Brian Tomasik
First written: 24 Mar. 2016; last update: 22 Mar. 2017
The ethical-antinatalism movement admirably questions the morality of creating new beings without their consent, some of whom will endure torture-level suffering. However, antinatalism that focuses on encouraging other humans not to have children misses some crucial considerations, such as the benefits of a larger human population for wild animals and the importance of working to research and prevent far-future suffering on the part of digital minds. On the whole, I support the antinatalist movement because of the suffering-focused ethical stance that it promotes, but I think it could, in general, be made more effective.
Flavors of antinatalism
Antinatalism in general is opposition to having children, whether for pragmatic or philosophical reasons. Many antinatalists, including those in VHEMT, highlight environmental arguments, and it's common for environmentalists to at least aim to have fewer children out of concern for the planet. Other people are childfree for personal reasons but are not antinatalists if they don't consider having children to be wrong.
This piece is written for those whom I'll call "ethical antinatalists" -- people who believe that having children is wrong regardless of contingent circumstances like overpopulation or the social conditions of a child's birth. David Benatar is a prominent exponent of ethical antinatalism.
Even within ethical antinatalism, there are a few different camps.
- Some believe that antinatalism is a personal choice and that we should only focus on our own reproductive decisions, without proselytizing to others.
- Some feel we should spread the arguments against having children but should oppose any coercive policies regarding reproduction.
- A few antinatalists hold other views.
My points in this piece will mainly be of interest to the more consequentialist-oriented antinatalists rather than deontological antinatalists or those who believe the issue is merely personal.
Will voluntary antinatalism work?
If we restrict our focus to human lives in the near term, then encouraging people to have fewer children seems like a reasonable approach. Even though most people won't be convinced by the arguments, a few will be, and at least some children will be spared from being born involuntarily into lives that may contain horrific experiences.
However, antinatalist efforts like those of VHEMT will not work on a population level. Antinatalism is far too fringe for most people to accept it. Biological drives to reproduce are too powerful for ethical arguments to win out. And even if 99% of the human population were somehow convinced of antinatalism, the other 1% would continue reproducing and would spread its genes and worldview to the next generation.
Should antinatalists oppose human reproduction?
Antinatalists are right, in my view, that it harms an individual to be born into a life that may contain extreme suffering. However, antinatalists should also consider the effects that an extra member of the human population would have on other sentient beings.
At first glance, we might think that considering non-humans enhances the case for antinatalism. A typical American eats at least ~25 land animals per year and many times that number of aquatic animals. Of course, you could raise your child to be veg*an, but there's no guarantee s/he would continue that diet throughout life. And even a veg*an kills several mammals per year via crop cultivation, roadkill, and so on. For this reason, a significant minority of veg*ans opposes human reproduction. Humans may be seen as the root of animal suffering.
Unfortunately, this analysis focuses on human-caused harm to the exclusion of harm that animals suffer in the wild. Most of the world's animal suffering occurs in nature, due to predation, hunger, disease, and so on.
Of course, one might think that while wild-animal suffering is an immense problem, humans are only making it worse, by hunting wild animals, destroying their habitats, and polluting their air and water. However, a more complete analysis suggests the opposite. Humans have plausibly reduced global wild-animal populations, maybe by ~10% or more. An immense number of animals is thereby spared from being born into lives that would have contained extreme suffering. I estimate that the typical human prevents on the order of ~1.4 * 107 insect-years of suffering per year, and for humans in rich countries, the figure is probably higher. One insect-year of suffering includes something like ~10 painful deaths by adult-equivalent insects. And a typical American lives ~79 years. Thus, one birth in the USA may prevent at least
1.4 * 107 * 10 * 79 = 1.1 * 1010 insect lives and deaths (i.e., 11 billion insects spared from being born).
Even if we give a single insect several orders of magnitude less moral weight than a single human, this consideration remains extremely important.
Of course, there's enormous uncertainty in these estimates, and there are undoubtedly further considerations to include in the analysis. But given the factors evaluated so far, it seems likely to me that encouraging people to have fewer children actually causes a massive increase in suffering and involuntary births.
This article discusses the views of VHEMT founder Les Knight:
Abortion providers going out of business would be the first happy result, in Knight's opinion. Soon, "there would be no more children under five dying horribly. In 21 years, there would be, by definition, no juvenile delinquency." There would finally be enough to eat, even while nature was staging a recovery from our depredations; with nothing to fight over, war would end. "The last humans could enjoy their final sunsets peacefully, knowing they have returned the planet as close as possible to the Garden of Eden."
While voluntary human extinction would eliminate human suffering, it would not end violence and starvation; in fact, it would probably increase the total amount of violence and starvation endured by wild animals. This post makes a similar point: "animals will always suffer in some way, human involvement in it or not. This is what renders the VHEMT basis for antinatalism incomplete at best and outright erroneous at worst."
Given that humanity probably reduces wild-animal suffering on balance, one might conclude that, contra VHEMT, ensuring the continued existence of the human race should be a foremost goal of antinatalists. The idea that humanity's survival is crucial for the wellbeing of wild animals is sometimes tendered by those who place high value on human happiness and achievement:
Even now there are many more wild animals than captive, and for billions of yearsa, that number of animals have been eating each other alive. Imagine that. Imagine if you — as a living, breathing, pain-feeling entity — would likely be eaten to death at some point in your not-so-distant future. By default, for most animals this pattern will continue for another few billion yearsb, and then they’ll be incinerated.
Yet there is a glimmer of hope. A young species, homo sapiens, currently expends a tiny fraction of its resources — in the form of park rangers and veterinarians — to care for and euthanize wild animals. And a mature, cooperative, star-faring human civilization would need only a tiny fraction of its resources to deploy an army of invisible quad-copters to administer the same palliative care to nearly every animal on Earth at the time of its death. For billions of years. Without even re-engineering the food chain.
Unfortunately, humanity's track record of plausibly decreasing net suffering so far is unlikely to continue into the far future. Humans decrease wild-animal populations on Earth by appropriating habitats in a world where life is currently abundant. However, if Earth-originating intelligence colonizes space, it will increase populations of animals or other sentient beings throughout a galaxy where life is currently rare. Humans might spread wild-animal suffering into space via terraforming, directed panspermia, and/or sentient simulations. In general, space colonization by any advanced intelligence seems likely to multiply the number of complex, agent-like minds that are created and which may potentially suffer. The suffering of wild animals on one planet (Earth) for the next ~800 million years is tragic, but the suffering of sentient minds on ~billions of planets for ~trillions of years to come would be astronomically worse.
So in some sense, antinatalists' skepticism about humanity seems correct. The net impact of humanity on a cosmic timescale is likely to be very negative.
It's not obvious whether these considerations vindicate the antinatalist recommendation of having fewer children. It's very unclear how a bigger human population would affect humanity's long-term trajectory and society's degree of humaneness when it colonizes space. Insofar as the children of would-be antinatalists would probably be more concerned about suffering than average (due to both genes and upbringing), it's plausible that if antinatalists had children, they would reduce net suffering and net births in the long run, given that the expected number of beings whose births can be averted in the far future significantly outweighs the number of beings who will be born in the coming few centuries. On the other hand, increasing the size of the human population, especially in richer countries, accelerates development of artificial general intelligence and so may bring forward in time the astronomical multiplication of suffering that space colonization will cause. There are many other complicated factors to consider in a full analysis. I'm not arguing in favor of having children; rather, I'm merely pointing out that the net long-run impact of having children is extremely difficult to calculate.
That said, antinatalists who are very active in the suffering-reduction movement may want to eschew child-rearing because of the significant time and money that it requires. This consideration probably outweighs the net expected value of other long-run side effects that one's children might have on the world.
The importance of being nice
Through the eyes of many antinatalists, the world is a very dark place. While many moments of people's lives are filled with laughter and accomplishment, some moments are filled with depression, anxiety, or extreme and unrelenting agony. And the lives of most non-human animals are far worse. It's easy to become upset and hopeless: Why don't other people care about extreme suffering? How can they not see how important it is compared with other, more trivial things in life?
I have these feelings as well. But it may be unwise to, as a result of exasperation, present a message that's too angry or too jaded. Those who are not already sympathetic to antinatalism will be more persuaded by level-headed philosophical arguments than by irritated tirades that can be more easily dismissed.
It's also important for antinatalists to recognize the importance of cooperation and realism. Pushing for the elimination of the human race in a world full of people who love life and want to protect their children is not going to work. While I think it's valuable to challenge pro-life sentiments and question the assumption that a notional God was right to create our world, when it comes to practical lobbying, we should push for goals that are more achievable -- such as researching humane slaughter of fish, opposing habitat conservation, and spreading concern for preventing extreme suffering. These kinds of actions can win tangible benefits for animals in the near term and can put humanity on a slightly less bad course for the long term. Greater concern for suffering is also likely to expand support for antinatalism, since suffering-aware people tend to be more cautious about forcing new beings into lives that may contain unbearable horrors.
The antinatalism movement
Even though discouraging human reproduction might cause net harm to non-human beings in terms of its direct effects, I welcome the antinatalism movement all things considered, because this group of people recognizes the seriousness of extreme suffering and presents an important intellectual challenge to the common assumption that life is a blessing even if it contains excruciating horrors.
However, I think those antinatalists who lean toward consequentialism would do well to broaden their horizons beyond opposing human reproduction and to more carefully evaluate the full suite of impacts that different policy proposals will have, both on humans and especially on more numerous non-humans. Of course, my own analyses are also limited and fallible. I hope that more antinatalists will join with negative utilitarians and other suffering-focused altruists to move research and advocacy on antinatalism to the next level.
Discussions with Adriano Mannino, as well as various online antinatalists, helped inspire this piece.
Appendix: Antinatalism objections
Objection: Most people are glad to exist, even when they've experienced intense pain during their lives. Preventing all births because of a tiny minority of people who wish not to have been born doesn't make sense, especially when people can commit suicide.
Reply: One's judgment here depends on various moral intuitions.
Many of us believe it's wrong to force some people to endure involuntary suffering in order to make other people happy, but this is what the roulette of birth does. For example, some babies will die painfully a few days after birth, and other people will have unbearable lifelong depression. These people are forced into lives of suffering so that other, happier people can also be born.
Our world is far worse than the fictional society of Omelas. Rather than forcing one child to suffer for the flourishing of everyone else, birth in the real world forces vast numbers of people to suffer in order to allow for the mediocre-to-good lives of the rest of the human population.
Major depressive disorder "Affects more than 15 million American adults, or about 6.7 percent of the U.S. population age 18 and older in a given year." A non-trivial fraction of these people probably wish they hadn't been born. Adding on the many other mental and physical illnesses that cause immense suffering and despair, it's not clear that we're talking about only a tiny minority of the population that would prefer non-existence.
Suicide is a frightful and often painful exit strategy. In my view, forcing some people into lives where the best option is suicide is too great a price to pay so that others can have good lives.