Benatar Part Three: His Anti-Natalist Position

In part one, I looked at his argument on why coming into existence is a harm. In part two, I looked at why always coming into existence is always a harm and how harmful coming into existence really is. In this post, I will look at his next chapter and concentrate on his anti-natalist views. If you accept his arguments in the previous chapters, then you must conclude that having children isn’t that great. However, Benatar argues that even if you don’t accept the conclusions, you must admit that most lives are still pretty bad, which should lead one to a conclusion about having children or not.

In short, we do not have a duty to procreate. Moreover, we may even have a duty not to procreate. Benatar doesn’t specifically say this, but it seems that he’s heading towards this direction. This is what the argument looks like:

  1. Coming into existence is a harm. (This is argued in part one.)
  2. Procreation is a route to come into existence.
  3. If procreation is a route to come into existence, and coming into existence is a harm, then we do not have a duty to procreate.
  4. Therefore, we do not have a duty to procreate.

Given the asymmetry argument, existence is always going to be negative.  Thus, procreation is also going to be negative because it’s bringing someone into existence.

Premise one was argued from previously. Premise one seems to simply follow from one. Obviously, we have a deep human drive to procreate. To be clear, Benatar wants to show a distinction on the interests of having sex, and he shows that there are three possible interests in doing so:

Procreative Interests: “interests in bringing new people, one’s genetic offspring, into existence” (p. 96).

Parenting Interests: “interests in rearing a child as well as interests in the relationship established with the (adult) children one has raised” (p. 97).

Coital Interests: “interests in a kind of sexual union–coitus” (p. 96). Of course, a lot coital interests brings about procreation. What this means is that many people came into existence not because of parental or procreative interests, but because of the coital interests. In any event, the reason why children come into existence isn’t for the sake of the child. Thus, having a child is to serve the parents (or others’ interests). However, this doesn’t automatically show why procreation is wrong. Serving one’s interests isn’t a sufficient condition for wrongness.

Objection 1: This may all be valid, but the harm isn’t that great. In other words, we may accept part one of the argument, but not part two. The harm doesn’t outweigh the benefits.

Objection 2: A parent may feel that his/her life is relatively comfortable and is happy that s/he came into existence. Thus, the children of that parent may feel this way as well.

Benatar’s Reply to Objection 2: This is assuming too much. If the offspring does regret his/her existence, this is very tragic. The parents cannot foresee this. Thus, given the asymmetry, it would be better not to procreate.

If we cannot attain a desired good, then we don’t want to desire that thing anymore. Benatar suggests that the reverse is also true: if people are in unfortunate circumstances, people will adapt based on their predicament. Thus, we could all be under a great self-deception about how wonderful things really are. Benatar gives some examples to this: if we had a good argument against slavery, we wouldn’t take the word of slaves that they have a good life even if they had psychological contentment. Thus, widespread contentment isn’t justification on whether one’s life is good. Otherwise, this harks back to PP mentioned in part two.

As mentioned before, one has a natural inclination to procreate. However, Benatar points out that it seems that it’s a given that if one could foresee that a person’s life would be harmed, one has a duty not to create that person. Thus, if one could see that one has a duty not to procreate under those circumstances, then it’s not a huge burden to not procreate at all. This seems to be in line with “ought” implies “can.”

Objection 3: There seems to be a huge gap between procreating where the offspring will suffer vs. not procreating at all.

Benatar’s Reply to Objection 3: If we accept premise one, then a duty not to procreate isn’t too demanding.

But I’m not so sure about this. It seems like a non-sequitor. It may be that not procreating is not demanding, but that still doesn’t answer whether there is a huge gap between not procreating because the offspring will suffer as opposed to not procreating at all.

Legal Ramifications

If one does has a duty not to procreate, does this enter to the legal realm? In other words, even if it’s not preferable to procreate, does one still have a right to procreate? After all, if I have a duty not to do x, it seems that I don’t have a right to do x. (E.g., if I have a duty not to harm you, then I don’t have a right to harm you.) Benatar looks at this from a purely negative rights position. In the end, he argues that, “Having children may be morally wrong, but it may still be the case that there ought to be a legal right to do this wrong” (p. 103). This wrongness may come from standard libertarian viewpoints. For example, prostitution may be morally wrong, but one still has a legal right to visit a prostitute. Under this view, one has a legal right to do a moral wrong. Of course, this, itself, isn’t enough to show that one has a legal right.

Possible Scenario 1: Make procreation illegal. If procreation were made illegal, this would drive pregnancy underground which would cause more problems. If pregnant people were caught, then the state would have to force abortions. This is just too immense and there are hardly any benefits resulting from this.

Possible Scenario 2: Sneak in a contraceptive substance widely administered to the population without them knowing. Benatar, however, appeals to Mill’s Harm Principle by using the abortion case. There are those who consider themselves as pro-choice, meaning that they see abortion as a moral wrong. Yet, these same people may see abortion as a legal right. Now with Benatar’s argument, there is surely going to be disagreement. This disagreement isn’t enough to restrict the Harm Principle. What is enough? It has to be reasonable disagreement. Ok, so what is that? Benatar doesn’t give a straight answer, but says that “until my position has been adequately tested against the very best objections one cannot assess whether my claim is one about which reasonable people can disagree or one with which it is unreasonable to disagree (or, for that matter, to agree!)” (p. 108). So what does this mean? Let’s go back to the abortion analogy: there are some people who believe that abortion is morally wrong because it’s killing a person. Now if these people are right, then this may be justification to make abortion illegal. However, there are some people who argue that the fact that there is reasonable disagreement on whether abortion qua moral wrongness does not entail abortion abortion qua illegal action. By analogy, if there is a reasonable disagreement about whether procreation is always a great harm, then we cannot make laws prohibiting procreation.

But in the end, Benatar argues that one could have reasonable disagreement about premise one, and thus, procreation is a legal right, even though it’s a moral wrong. Plus, it seems unlikely that governments would implement this anyway. So even though making procreation legal is regrettable, making procreation illegal may be more regrettable.

Now this, to me, seems to be a big weakness on Benatar’s part. Why should he follow the whims on whether there is a reasonable disagreement or not? Unless Benatar is a conciliationist, I don’t see why he must follow a reasonable disagreement. If the argument holds, and he himself agrees with the argument (which he does), this it seems that this entails that he would want to make laws forbidding procreation. If he’s holding back because of some liberal principle, then I would say he’s being too dogmatic by holding onto some ideology. If he’s holding back because of prudence, then he may have a foothold, but I wouldn’t call it reasonable disagreement.

Still, there is some uneasiness if we follow my objection. I wouldn’t want to intrude into the private lives of people procreating. Is there a middle road? There is one possibility, but it’s only one option among many, I’m sure. Hugh LaFollette has proposed of licensing parents. That doesn’t solve the problem of harming those coming into existence, but it may be a start. I’m sure there are other opportunities, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head now.

Benatar’s Reply to Objection 1: So how serious is this harm? Well, if we followed the arguments from part two, the harm is quite detrimental. If we’re following the Harm Principle, the government is needed to stop the harm from happening. Benatar also quotes Mill suggesting that the government does have an obligation to make laws against those who reproduce children where the children will be better off. But for Benatar, if we follow the implications of part one, everyone is made worse off by being born. Overall, I still feel that Benatar could make a better argument or somehow make his argument stronger as to why there shouldn’t be any laws made against procreation.

Disabled Lives

Most people think it wrong to bring existing people to the world who have serious disabilities. But Benatar relooks at how “disability” has been defined and he defines it through the “social construction” viewpoint. This viewpoint says that disabilities are inabilities based on societal norms.

For example, we all have the inability to fly. But this isn’t a disability because we can all access buildings. All wingless people have access, even though not having wings is an inability. However, if buildings don’t have wheelchair ramps for paraplegics, then that inability of not walking becomes a disability. If most people had wings and the only way to have access was on the top of buildings, then the wingless becomes a disability because they can’t access buildings. “Thus the reason why those with impairments are disabled, where they are indeed disabled, is not because they have some inability, but rather because society is constructed in a way that excludes people with that inability” (p. 116).

So the reason why the blind and the deaf have worse lives isn’t because they can’t see or hear respectively; rather, it’s because society doesn’t accommodate their particular inabilities. It’s the discriminatory social environment what makes their lives worse. This is a very controversial view and I’m not sure I buy it, but we’ll continue.

Now if the social construction of disabilities is correct (as Benatar seems to hold), then this has many ramifications for those without disabilities. In short, Benatar’s argument goes as follows:

  1. The social construction viewpoint of disabilities is defined as thus: Person P has a disability if and only if society and social constructs have institutionally (and perhaps purposefully) excluded P in the social norms of society.
  2. If the social construction view is correct, the mere in abilities are not seen as inabilities at all; but rather the norm.
  3. Everyone has inabilities.
  4. An inability is still a harm.
  5. If everyone has inabilities, and some people have disabilities, then those with disabilities are seen as worse off and those with inabilities are seen as the norm.
  6. If those with inabilities are seen as the norm, then this undermines what an inabilities is and inabilities go unnoticed.
  7. If we don’t notice our inabilities, and inabilities are harms, then we are blind to the harms of our own lives.

What this means is that disability rights have the correct view, but they don’t go far enough. They want to be treated as equal to the norm. But as Benatar argues, the norm is simply those who have inabilities. But this is an odd standard because of 3. So instead of looking at all disabilities, we should look at all inabilities to assess the quality of lives. We should consider not flying as a bad thing. It’s an inability that we have. We are susceptible to hunger, thirst, heat, cold, and so on. All of these inabilities that we have makes our lives very bad–worse than we realize or recognize.

Objection 4: Aren’t you setting the bar too high?

Benatar’s Reply to Objection 4: Aren’t you setting the bar too low? You were born and raised in a situation which you consider “the norm,” but you didn’t realize that your inabilities actually made your life worse. Imagine if you didn’t have any inabilities, you’re life would be much better off. “Many [people] without impairments tend to think that lives with impairments are not worth starting (and my even not be worth continuing) whereas many of those with impairments tend to think that lives with these impairments are worth starting (and certainly worth continuing). There certainly does seem to be something self-serving about the dominant view. It conveniently sets the quality threshold for lives worth starting above that of the impaired but below normal human lives” (p. 120).

More than this, children who were born into bad lives and unhappy about being brought into existence should be able to sue. Why not? If procreation is a right (and that right encroaches on another life), then the other life should be able to sue if the offspring was unhappy about being brought into existence. Of course, this is hard to do because this right rest on reasonable disagreement, whatever that means. At the same time, current judges and juries are already biased on their wrongful prejudices and standards.

Sexual and Reproductive Ethics

In terms of reproductive and sexual ethics, there are many positions.

One position is what he calls Sexual View of Reproductive Ethics. This position states that reproduction is unethical unless it is expressed as mutual love within the confines marriage. Taken strictly, Benatar points out this ethics entails that “[t]he couple’s mutual love, expressed sexually, must be the proximate cause of the child’s conception” (p. 124), which Benatar thinks cannot be defended adequately. He asks, “What is so important about a sexual expression of love that is a necessary condition for the ethically acceptable production of a child?” (p. 124) Many people who hold on to this position also hold on to what he calls the Reproductive View os Sexual Ethics: sex can only be acceptable morally if it is directed towards reproduction. (Note: Benatar realizes that this is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition. After all, rape and adultery can still produce children, but this sexual act is still considered unethical.)

Benatar flips both of these views on its head: the only acceptable and ethical sexual act is where it does not lead to reproduction. Benatar calls this the “Anti-Reproductive View of Sexual Ethics.” Any sort of sexual activity which purposefully leads to reproduction is unethical. This also includes any person or institution that helps with the reproductive processes. I know, it’s shocking.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
This entry was posted in Anti-Natalism, Books, Children, Ethics, Values. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Benatar Part Three: His Anti-Natalist Position

  1. Daniel says:

    Hey Shaun,

    Benatar admits that procreation often occurs via coital interests. I would accept this as true. Since he is an anti-natalist and believes we have a duty not to procreate, does this mean that we should avoid having sex even out of the desire for sexual union?



    • shaunmiller says:

      Hi Dan, this goes into the next chapter. But at the end of the paragraph on this post, sex is only permissible when it does not lead to procreation. That’s the only ethical way to engage in sex. So one may have sex as long as it doesn’t purposely lead to procreation.

  2. Pingback: Benatar Part Four: The “Pro-Death” View « Shaun Miller’s Weblog

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