In The Double Standard Behind Benatar’s Asymmetry Argument for Anti-Natalism, I have presented David Benatar’s main argument for anti-natalism, the position that procreation is always wrong, and I have explained why it doesn’t work. His main argument tries to establish an asymmetry between pleasure and pain for those who will never exist, such that never-existing is supposed to be a net good, whereas existing is not. His main argument for this is fallacious, making use of a double standard.
But besides his main argument, Benatar puts forth the idea that his asymmetry provides the best explanation for some other asymmetries. In each case, the asymmetry he is trying to explain is either false or can be explained without appealing to his asymmetry. In the following video, I explain in detail why his asymmetry fails to explain the first asymmetry he brings up. Depending on the time needed to deal with the rest, I will cover them in one or more future videos. What follows after the video is something I mainly wrote up before recording it. It is not a transcript of the video, but it covers most of the same points.
Benatar tries to prop up his asymmetry by arguing that it accounts for other asymmetries. Describing the first of these, he writes
the asymmetry between (3) and (4) is the best explanation for the view that while there is a duty to avoid bringing suffering people into existence, there is no duty to bring happy people into being.1
The first part of this asymmetry,
a duty to avoid bringing suffering people into existence, has two possible interpretations:
- A duty to never bring anyone who will ever experience suffering into existence.
- A duty to not bring into existence someone who would suffer inordinately.
Given the fact that everyone will experience some suffering in life, the first of these implies that procreation is always wrong. Unless you’re already an anti-natalist, you’re probably not going to accept this interpretation as true. People routinely suffer in life. Babies may feel hungry because they can’t feed themselves, or discomfort from soiling a diaper. Kids may get picked on, get into conflicts with siblings, or get disciplined by parents. Teenagers and older adults may feel the pangs of unrequited love. And everyone eventually dies, sometimes in painful ways. So, no one escapes pain. But we normally don’t take this as a reason against bringing new people into existence. Since I’m not an anti-natalist, I don’t consider the first interpretation to be true. Besides that, Benatar is trying to prove anti-natalism, and it is circular reasoning to argue for anti-natalism by including a premise that presupposes anti-natalism. So if this is what he means, he fails right away. His asymmetry might indeed provide the best explanation for an asymmetry that presupposes anti-natalism, but this isn’t going to convince anyone who isn’t already an anti-natalist.
The other interpretation does not presuppose anti-natalism, but it can also be accounted for without appealing to his asymmetry between (3) and (4). To account for this, one need only point out that there are conditions under which someone could be born to a life of extreme suffering, such as being born into a famine, where a child will starve to death as an infant. It’s simply a matter of comparing the pain someone would experience in life vs the pleasure he would experience, and if the pain would be much greater, it might be a case where it would be best not to have a child.
I agree with the other part of this asymmetry,
there is no duty to bring happy people into being. But this can be shown without appealing to his asymmetry between (3) and (4). Let me point out that duty is normally commensurate with ability. It is reasonable for me to have a duty not to kill people, because I can avoid killing one person just as easily as I can avoid killing billions of people. But let’s say instead that I had a seemingly minor duty to give one penny to everyone in the world who is worse off them me. If I tried to follow this duty, it wouldn’t be long before I went bankrupt. Having a duty to bring happy people into being would impose on me in a way that having a duty to not bring suffering people into the world does not. I surely have no duty to bring innumerable happy people into the world, since that would impose a greater burden on me than I can handle. Even if we limited the duty to one of bringing at least one happy person into the world, it would still be unreasonable, since having children takes two people, and raising children would compromise my lifestyle and increase my financial burdens.
Benatar himself brought up a similar objection. He says,
It is usually thought that our positive duties cannot include a duty to create lots of pleasure if that would require significant sacrifice on our part.2 He objects to this, saying,
it implies that in the absence of the sacrifice, we would have a duty to bring happy people into existence. Even if this is true, and I don’t think it really is, this is only a hypothetical duty that would exist in a world where there is no cost to bringing new people into existence, and the happiness of new people is guaranteed. In the real world, there is always a cost to bringing new people into existence. For the mother, there is nine months of pregnancy, periods of morning sickness, and sometimes labor pains or death during childbirth. And that’s just to bring a new person into existence. Providing a happy life for the child normally requires a further investment of time, labor, and resources by both parents.
But besides the costs,there are other reasons we do not have the duty to bring happy people into being. One reason is that it takes two people to make children. I can’t have the duty to do something that requires the willing cooperation of another person. After all, any woman I could have children with is free to have children with someone else. I might not get the opportunity to fulfill such a duty even I wanted to. There are also infertile people, as well as people whose attempts to have children are never successful. Given that some people, due to circumstances or biology, cannot have children, there cannot be a general duty on everyone to bring happy people into being.
Benatar might then object that this means that the duty to bring happy people into the world would just be limited to those who are able, and that his asymmetry would still be the only reason to think that no one has such a duty. Benatar himself has referred to
a duty to create lots of pleasure as the basis for such a duty. Such a duty, if it exists, could be fulfilled in other ways. For example, one could adopt children and provide them with a better means to living a happy life. Or a person could devote his time to a career that helps many people. Since being a parent is certainly not the only way people can create lots of pleasure, a general duty to do so would not require people to fulfill it in this way.
And even if having children would be a benefit for every child had, too many people having too many children could end up decreasing the quality of life of those who are born. Overpopulation is a serious problem. It can result in shortages of resources, of living space, or of job opportunities, and because of these, it can lead to crime or war. If people have a duty to increase pleasure, there may come a point of diminishing returns for increasing pleasure by having children. In my own lifetime, the world population has more than doubled. If people continued to have children at the same rate as they have been since I was born, the population would double at least twice every century, and the planet would be overrun by people, who would be crowding out not only each other but other plant and animal life. So, from the perspective of humans living on a planet with limited carrying capacity, it would be a good idea for a lot less people to be having children right now and for parents to be having fewer children. Given this, there cannot be from any altruistic or utilitarian perspective, any general duty on people to be bringing happy people into the world.
That aside, I don’t actually agree with the perspective of strict altruism or utilitarianism. Morality is about reconciling personal interests with the interests of others, not about asking people to sacrifice their personal interests for the greater good. One of the fundamentals of morality is that slavery is wrong. If duties were based on how we can contribute to the greatest good, moral duty would make people morally beholden to the interests of others, no matter what their personal interests might be, and some people would have the moral right to have others slave for them, making slavery a moral requirement. Since slavery is morally wrong, how one can best contribute to the greatest good is not a proper basis of moral duty. Rather, each person has the right to pursue his own interests in his own way, so long as he does not exploit others or stand in their way of doing the same. This limits what we may do to others, but in doing so, it also limits what others may expect of us. This is why we are limited in how we can treat potential people, but we are not required to bring them into existence.3
Even from a utilitarian perspective, I think this approach to morality makes the most sense. While some people do find themselves in positions to help many people, the person who can normally be most entrusted to look after your happiness is yourself. Consequently, it is important to free each person to look after his own happiness. The greatest happiness is possible only when people are allowed the freedom to look after themselves as best they can.
- ibid, p. 32
- ibid, pp. 32-33
- These ideas are expressed by Ayn Rand, Immanuel Kant, and Libertarianism. Rand believes in negative rights. One version of Kant’s categorical imperative says to
Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.Libertarianism says that each person’s liberty extends as far as the next person’s, meaning that no one’s liberty allows him the right to infringe on the liberty of others.
The Explanatory Failure of Benatar's Asymmetry - Part 3
[…] for four other asymmetries. In each case, it actually isn’t the best explanation. In The Explanatory Failure of Benatar’s Asymmetry – Part 1 and in Part 2, I explained why Benatar’s asymmetry is not the best explanation for the first […]