Is it morally wrong to have children? A Stoic response to the anti-natalism argument
You might have heard of anti-natalism, the notion that it is immoral to bring children into the world. You might have also dismissed it out of hand as yet another example of useless philosophical navel-gazing. But the anti-natalists have a sophisticated argument on their side, and simply labeling a position absurd is no counter-argument. Let’s take a look, and then construct an anti-anti-natalist response on the basis of Stoic principles.
An article by Joseph Earp, a strong advocate of anti-natalism, makes the case. Earp summarizes the argument put forth by one of the leading philosophers in the anti-natalism camp, the South African David Benatar. It goes like this (my version is a bit more elaborate than Earp’s because I bring to light some of his unstated premises and conclusions):
Premise 1: Pain is bad.
Premise 2: Pleasure is good.
Premise 3: An absence of pain is good.
Premise 4: An absence of pleasure is not bad for the person for whom this pleasure is not a deprivation.
Conclusion 1 (from Premises 2 and 4): To miss the pleasures of a life non-lived is not a deprivation.
Conclusion 2 (from premises 1 and 3): To be forced to live with pain is bad.
Premise 5: To force bad on someone is immoral.
Conclusion 3 (from conclusion 2 and premise 5): To have children is immoral.
At this stage, you are probably not convinced, though the argument is logically valid, that is, the conclusions do follow from the premises. Whether one can impugn one or more of the premises, of course, remains to be seen, and I’ll get to that in a moment. Before that, however, let’s consider an analogy invoked by Earp to make his position better understood. The anti-natalist argument depends, in part, on an asymmetry between pain and pleasure. As he puts it:
“Say your boss promises you an ice-cream party on your last day of the work year. You rock up, ready to eat a truly sickening amount of Neapolitan, only to discover that it’s going to be just like any normal day of work — your boss has changed her mind without alerting you to her plans. Clearly, you’re going to be bummed out. Pleasure has been denied to you. But now say you were never promised an ice-cream party ahead of time. You rocked up ready to stare at the work computer for long enough to pay the bills, waiting to be released so you might go home and stare at the play computer, and then that’s what you did. You had no idea there was going to be an ice-cream party. So you have not been deprived. Nor, someone like Benatar argues, have you been harmed.”
The idea is that the “ice-cream party” is your life. If you were promised, before being born, all sorts of pleasures and delights, then you could rightly complain if your parents then decided not to have you. But you didn’t exist at all, and were promised nothing. You will not know what you might have missed by being alive, because there is no “you” to speak of. By contrast — and here comes the asymmetry — once born you will definitely experience pain in your life, a life you did not choose in the first place. So, if your potential parents decide not to have you, you lost nothing; but if they do bring you into the world, they automatically condemn you to pain. And that’s the immoral part. Ergo, your parents should not have had you.
To add to the argument, Benatar maintains that life contains a lot of bad things, and comparatively few good ones. Earp mentions “boring, unpleasant activities [like] needing to use the bathroom; being too hot; being too cold; getting stuck in traffic; having to feign amusement at a bad meme two of your least funny friends have separately tagged you in.”
But, you object, the good stuff in life surely outweighs the bad, at least for some people! First off, that’s irrelevant to the above formal argument, because of the ice-cream analogy. Second, Schopenhauer would disagree, postulating that pain is experienced much more deeply than pleasure. As he says: “We generally find pleasure to be not nearly so pleasant as we expected, and pain very much more painful.” Compare, adds Earp for good measure, the relatively mild pleasure presumably experienced by a lion eating a gazelle with the utter terror and pain experienced by the gazelle…
There are a number of more or less large holes in the anti-natalist argument as presented above. But one response that is not appropriate is the one that most likely comes to mind first: well, if you’re so unhappy about life, why don’t you leave? As Earp — correctly — points out, anti-natalism is an argument against giving birth, not in favor of suicide. That’s because once you are born, the pain-pleasure asymmetry is broken. Now you know there is a party, and being deprived of it by way of suicide would be a type of harm, and therefore immoral.
But let me come to the Stoic response to anti-natalism, which is really rather simple. As I mentioned above, Benatar’s argument is valid, but that doesn’t mean it is also sound, that is, one or more of its premises may be rejected. Earp, in his article, claims that Premise 4 is the crucial one: an absence of pleasure is not bad for the person for whom this pleasure is not a deprivation. I agree, for the simple reason that if one is not born there is no person that can be deprived of anything.
But it doesn’t occur to Earp, or Benatar, that one may deny the first three premises. Is pain really morally bad? Is pleasure really morally good? Is it really the case that absence of pain is morally good? The Epicureans certainly would agree, though they didn’t derive the anti-natalist conclusion from the notion that absence of pain — which they relabeled the highest pleasure — is the chief good for a human being. For a Stoic, however, pain and pleasure are, respectively, dispreferred and preferred “indifferents,” meaning that one may reasonably seek to avoid pain and to experience pleasure, yet those two categories have no moral valence.
Why not? Because the only moral good is virtue and the only moral bad is vice. This, in turn, is derived from the fact that virtue is what allows us to properly make use of everything else, including any activity that may bring pleasure or pain. For the Stoics “virtue” is human excellence, which means that it is synonymous with both wisdom and (right) reason, as Seneca says:
“Virtue is nothing else than right reason.” (LXVI. On Various Aspects of Virtue, 32)
Which is why Epictetus argues:
“What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions — reason.” (Discourses I, 1.5)
For Stoics life itself is morally indifferent, and may be preferred — if we can use it to do something good for humanity — or dispreferred, in the case of a tyrant, for instance. Again, Seneca:
“For mere living is not a good, but living well. Accordingly, the wise man will live as long as he ought, not as long as he can.” (LXX. On the Proper Time to Slip the Cable, 4)
Which means, incidentally, that anti-natalism is not a viable option for Stoics, but suicide is. Of course, one can reasonably reject Stoicism as a philosophy of life. But if one embraces it, the anti-natalist argument collapses because three of its crucial premises are unsound. Stoicism derives its ethics in a naturalistic way, not on the basis of (alleged) universal “oughts” (as the anti-natalist seems to do). We try to live “in accordance with nature,” meaning the nature of a human being. By that we mean that we ought to use reason — a distinctive human faculty — to improve social living, because Homo sapiens is a naturally prosocial animal. If we ceased, as a species, to produce offspring, there wouldn’t be any way for us to exercise virtue. And a virtuous life is the only meaningful life for a human being.