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The Moral Bankruptcy of Giving Birth

May 16, 2019
- Sudhang Varshney, Surya Raman

“If children were brought into the world by an act of pure reason alone, would the human race continue to exist? Would not a man rather have so much sympathy with the coming generation as to spare it the burden of existence, or at any rate not take it upon himself to impose that burden upon it in cold blood?”

- Arthur Schopenhauer

The author of the critically acclaimed study in philosophy “The World as Will and Representation” speaks here of the anti-natalist stand. This moral/philosophical standpoint posits that it is morally impermissible to procreate and give birth. This editorial aims neither to criticise nor condone this philosophy, but to clear its nebulous representation that plagues popular media.

A tranquil, almost languid warmth, gushes through our innards at the mention of life – a silent agreement to the fact that it has a certain inherent value that is enough to warrant its sacredness. This notion is fortified by how religion – the invisible thread of beliefs that dictates our moral compass – generally places life at an olympian pedestal and consecrates it as a divine creation that mankind is unqualified to take in its own hands. This bleeds into the laws that shape the tramlines of how an ideal citizen should behave within society, a few demonstrative examples being the debate around euthanasia, capital punishment, abortion et cetera. The sanctity of an inalienable right to life, the ramifications of violating that right and the apotheosis of the human spirit have been indoctrinated into us by a multitude of factors that function similarly. Murdering is the ultimate sin, loss of life is a catastrophe. Mothers are revered as life-givers and the act of childbirth is the ultimate purpose that provides completeness to an individual’s stay in the cosmos.

Given how it has become instinctive to buy into this belief, it becomes imperative to take a moment to ask ourselves ‘WHY?’. David Benatar voices:-

“Creating new people, by having babies, is so much a part of human life that it is rarely thought even to require a justification. Indeed, most people do not even think about whether they should or should not make a baby. They just make one. In other words, procreation is usually the consequence of sex rather than the result of a decision to bring people into existence. Those who do indeed decide to have a child might do so for any number of reasons, but among these reasons cannot be the interests of the potential child. One can never have a child for that child’s sake.”

This inquiry motivated cliques of people to look into the true nature and quality of human life as they appraised it. One of these philosophies that has gained traction right now is anti-natalism. A blanket claim associated with the anti-natalist sentiment is the idea that the one guaranteed way to protect your child from suffering is to not give it birth in the first place.

Those espousing this idea generally invoke the ethical theory of negative utilitarianism, which gives greater weight to a reduction in human suffering than an effort to maximise happiness. For an illustration, R. Ninian Smart presents that negative utilitarianism would entail that a ruler who is able to instantly and painlessly destroy the human race would have a duty to do so. This is again contingent on the belief that human life is miserable, one of the characterisation(s) of which is called the ‘terminality of being’. A human being is affected by three types of friction: physical pain (in the form of illnesses and catastrophes to which it is perennially exposed); discouragement (encompassing phenomena such as lack of will, fatigue, meaninglessness and depression); and “moral impediment”( the incapability of humans to be altruistically ethical in all circumstances, a consequence of conflicting self interests in attempts to survive). In the case of assuming the generalisation that life assumes the binary of being miserable or not miserable, a decision theory matrix provides us with 4 case-scenarios for the existence of a chubby little boy called Jeff, who would’ve been thrust into this world if his parents procreated -

  Scenario A (Jeff exists) Scenario B (Jeff never exists)
Life is pain (1) Presence of pain (sucks) (2) Absence of pain (great)
Life is nice (3) Presence of pleasure (nice) (4) Absence of pleasure (Not bad)

1) Jeff navigates through life with the joys of ice-cream, watching cat videos, and a stable family while dealing with depression, injuries, stepping on lego pyramids and anxiety - the weighted average of which assigns his life a red stamp of being miserable. He has desires: spiritual needs which reality is unable to satisfy. He silently suppresses those desires to shield himself from the pain and ends up in a frigid unfeeling numbness. He still exists only because he limits his awareness of what that reality actually entails. Jeff’s existence amounts to a tangled network of defense mechanisms, which can be observed in his everyday behavior patterns . He was too easily forgotten for anyone to care when and how he died. This Jeff arouses our pity and his story is turned into a Netflix Original.

2, 4) Jeff isn’t born and remains a fictional kid with a copter hat that makes us smile for the purpose of this article.

3) Let’s here assume the absolute best of case 3. Jeff is born with a jawline that will cut through stone. He learns all languages across all species before he is in kindergarten and proceeds to amuse himself by creating one of his own. He has never not been euphoric: lady luck is his accomplice and all of the metaphoric oceans between him and his desires part to his whim. He looks like a million bucks even after stuffing his 80kg muscular frame with a tub of nutella that is processed immaculately by his ungodly metabolism. We don’t like this Jeff.

Case 1 is problematic and it seems morally incongruous to force this situation on someone- It is wrong to create someone so that they can try to make their life bearable by struggling against the difficult and oppressive situation we place them in. It seems more reasonable simply not to put them in the situation to which they will have to react, when its results are always uncertain.

Case 3 on the face of it feels like a desirable situation, as someone is leading a fulfilling and joyous life, and by refraining from procreation we preclude someone’s pleasure. Therein lies the catch: the absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation. If there isn’t a 5-year old to snatch an ice-cream sandwich from, nobody goes home crying. Case 4 doesn’t have a Jeff for which the absence of this happiness is a deprivation and hence, the anti-natalist stand doesn’t suffer from the aforementioned quandary.

Case 2 doesn’t have our protagonist Jake, because he is but the thought-child of hypothetical anti-natalist parents. Nobody has to suffer.

Hence, if we look across the first column in a world with Jeff, the first situation is terribly abhorrent while the second isn’t a moral necessity. That is, we have a moral obligation to refrain from creating unhappy people, and we have no moral impetus to generate happy ones.

Here, it’s prudent to pause and note that life in general lies between the two extremes of pain and pleasure. However these arguments can be applied nevertheless.

Another crucial aspect of the ethos of giving birth is the consent of a future Jeff. It isn’t feasible to educate an unborn person about the myriad possibilities his life might end up being like and then to obtain his informed consent to be brought into this world. For this very reason, Julio Cabrera argues that procreation is the violation of autonomy gullible Jeff, who might have opted to not be born had he been fully aware of the human situation and the ordeals associated with existence. So says Ashleel Singh -

“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.”

If one does not desist from having children, one can hardly expect one’s descendants to do so. This would have been fine and dandy had our society allowed people to have on opt-out from the world that they felt was nasty to them, but that choice is killed by the ostracization and social sanctioning an individual harboring these thoughts is bombarded with. We are forced to live and be responsible for the happiness of others when we might barely have our own heads above water.

A gentle reminder from the authors is necessary here that none of this amounts to rampant suicide, genocide and murder for the very reason that the arguments made are on the morality of giving birth, and not the morality of choosing to continue one’s existence.

The natural course of the anti-natalist utopia will be rapid extinction of the human race. In the cosmic scale of things, humans are a hairy enclosure of a soup of organs and gooey innards just like the diabolical rat that your mom calls a ‘shaitan’. Our species’ termination can’t be objectively justified to be a bad thing. All of the importance we attach to life is a belief that we have agreed to hold, and it isn’t possible to either prove or disprove it.

However , from the vantage point of an exoplanet-inhabiting green sentient sludge, humans have wrecked nature and led to the extinction of millions of species. After having been abused by mankind with reckless abandon for a morbidly long time, the Earth could really use a divorce.

But there’s a saving grace, albeit not an absolving one. Society is rife with weird notions of morality. A person spending 50 lakhs on a luxury car ( which he doesn’t need to subsist) instead of channeling funds to saving hundreds of children who die of starvation is perfectly acceptable. That is to say, at the end of it all, it seems that it’s best to trust our inner conscience when taking calls on the morality of an action. If birthing a mini-them is someone’s jam, the anti-natalist is no one to whine.