In The Double Standard Behind Benatar’s Asymmetry Argument for Anti-Natalism, I explained why David Benatar’s asymmetry argument for anti-natalism doesn’t work. Briefly, this argument tries to establish an asymmetry between pleasure and pain for the never-existent, such that the absence of pain is good, and the absence of pleasure is merely not bad, making never-existing a net positive, such that it is better to never exist than to come into existence. Besides his main argument for this, he has claimed that the asymmetry is the best explanation for four other asymmetries. In The Explanatory Failure of Benatar’s Asymmetry – Part 1, I explained why his asymmetry is not the best explanation for the first of these four additional asymmetries. In this post and the following video, I explain why it is not the best explanation for the second of them.
Let’s begin by looking at the asymmetry he is trying to explain with his asymmetry between (3) and (4).
Whereas it is strange (if not incoherent) to give a reason for having a child that the child will thereby be benefited, it is not strange to cite a potential child’s interests as a basis for avoiding bringing a child into existence.1
Each part of this may have one of two interpretations. Each may be intepreted in an overriding sense or in a non-overriding sense. Let’s begin by looking at the non-overriding interpretations of each.
Whereas it is strange that one of the reasons why anyone would have a child is that the child would be benefited, it is not strange that the child’s best interests would ever count as a reason against bringing a child into existence.
This interpretation merely identifies the potential benefit or harm to a child as one reason among others for or against bringing it into existence. Anti-natalists serve as an example of people who consider the best interests of a child as a reason against bringing it into existence. As long as anti-natalists aren’t strange, this would provide enough reason to consider the second part true. Other reasons people may choose to not have a child for its own sake may include that it would be born to a harrowing life of war, crime, or famine, or that it may be born with a genetic disease, or that it would be born severely handicapped. One common reason for not bringing certain people into existence is that their parents would be closely related enough that they may get two copies of a recessive gene for a genetic disease.
However, it could be said against all but the anti-natalist case that the reason against having these children is that bringing them into existence would be a lesser good than bringing someone else into existence. While people don’t commonly have children by incest, people do commonly have children with people they’re not related to. It may be that they avoid children through incest merely because better options are available. But if circumstances changed so that the only children people could have were through incest, many more children would be born through incest. Likewise, people sometimes abort a child who would be diseased or disabled or born to poverty and try again later to have another child. In choosing the better of two options, people are weighing more than just the best interests of a single potential child.
But since this interpretation is not overriding, we may allow that in these cases, people are still allowing the best interests of children to count as reasons against having them. It’s just that the decision is potentially being based on which life would be better to bring into existence rather than on the conviction that some lives are simply not worth bringing into existence.
But what about people who choose to not have children at all? Many of them may think that enough people are already having children. This is a completely valid opinion, given the current population and reproduction rates. Unless the rates slow down, massive overpopulation will become a big problem in a short time. But if circumstances changed, such that it was up to them to repopulate the world, they may change their minds about having children. So even this may normally be a case of someone choosing the better of two alternatives, the better alternative here being that other people have children.
Let’s now turn to the first part. In the non-overriding sense, this is false. Potential parents do consider the benefits they can bring to potential children as reasons for having them. For example, in choosing to have children with unrelated people instead of with siblings, people are motivated in part by the prospect of giving their children a good set of genes. Or in the case where a teenage girl aborts a pregnancy and chooses to have a child later in life, she is being motivated by her now improved ability to take care of children. Besides cases like these, potential parents are often motivated by a generative impulse to take care of the younger generation, leading them to have children they will take care of themselves. Erik Erikson has described eight stages of psychosocial development. The seventh of these is generativity vs. stagnation. This is a stage in middle adulthood when people start to focus on how they can contribute to the world, and they normally feel a desire to care for others. One way of fulfilling this desire is to have children and care for them.2 Many people long to have someone to care for, whether it is children, pets, or other people in need. While people may have other reasons for having children, wanting to care for children and feeling assured that they are up to the task often do count as reasons why people have children. Since the first part is not true in the non-overriding sense, the non-overriding interpretation of this asymmetry is false, and being false, it requires no explanation. Let’s now turn to the overriding interpretation of each part.
Whereas it is strange that anyone, despite not otherwise wanting a child, would have one for the sole reason that it would be benefitted, it is not strange that a potential child’s interests would lead potential parents to not have a child despite otherwise wanting a child.
The first part does seem strange. People normally factor their own self-interest into the decision to have children. Potential parents commonly look forward to the pleasures of being a parent, and some have other self-interested reasons as well, such as trapping a romantic partner, having someone to look after them in old age, or having someone to vicariously fulfill their aspirations. And some are just so in love with their partners that the idea of creating a new person with their beloved becomes the ultimate consummation of their love. It is strange, because in this case, the potential parent has no personal stake in the child’s existence and has the child only for the child’s sake. One possible scenario is that a woman who has never wanted a child gets raped by someone she hates, then decides to go through with the pregnancy for the child’s sake. Raped women sometimes do go through with pregnancies. I once had a student who had a son by her rapist. But in this scenario, pregnancy has already been forced on her, and she may feel that ending the pregnancy would be murder, because she believes a new life has already come into being. A better scenario for illustrating this would be one in which someone decides to conceive a child solely for the sake of the child, and not for any personal interest. It is harder to conceive what kind of circumstances this would happen in, because it usually doesn’t happen, and that underscores why this would be strange.
The second part has already come up while discussing its non-overriding counterpart. In many of the circumstances in which people choose to not have children, it may come down to a choice over which children it would be best to let come into existence, which is about giving up a lesser good for the sake of a greater good, not about judging that someone’s existence simply wouldn’t be good. So the usual circumstances in which people pass on having children or decide to terminate a pregnancy might not provide good examples of the best interests of a potential child providing an overriding reason against having that child. Given that overpopulation is a serious problem, it can be very hard to tell whether someone who doesn’t have children is doing so for the sake of their potential children or simply because there are already enough people in the world, and they don’t expect that their children would live the best lives.
Aside from anti-natalists, the best examples of this would be people with good reason to expect that their children would live bad lives. This can be best known for children who have already been conceived, of whom it is known that they will suffer from a painful disease or be severely handicapped. But it may be argued that these children have already been brought into existence. Benatar does distinguish between conception and coming into existence as a person. This might give a period of time for telling whether the child will have a painful disease or a severe handicap. Another possible scenario is when someone knows enough about the circumstances a child would be born into to decide that it’s not worth it for the child’s sake. Conceiving a child during a famine would be a bad idea, though going through with the pregnancy during a famine wouldn’t be very feasible. It is really hard to tell that a particular life would be categorically bad, which makes it hard to find a good real-life example.
So perhaps the best case for it can be made with a hypothetical example. Let’s suppose there is a genetic disease that makes someone feel constant agony, which is passed along on recessive genes, and two people each have one gene for this without suffering from the disease. This gives them a compelling reason to not have children with each other, or, if they do anyway, to do genetic testing on the fetus and to abort it if it will have the disease. In a scenario like this, it would not be strange to make the best interests of potential children an overriding reason for not having them. So I’ll accept that this version of the asymmetry is true. Even so, though, Benatar’s asymmetry between (3) and (4) is not the best explanation for it.
To understand why, let’s examine how Benatar’s asymmetry between (3) and (4) is supposed to explain this. His asymmetry is supposed to imply that coming into existence is always a harm. With this in mind, it would be strange to try to benefit someone by harming him. If I tried to benefit you by torturing you, you might think I was bonkers. Also, if coming into existence is always a harm, it would always be a good thing to not bring people into existence, and this would explain why it is not strange to consider the best interests of a potential person as an overriding reason for not bringing her into existence. This would be analogous to not torturing you because I recognize that being tortured is not in your best interests.
One problem with Benatar’s explanation is that this asymmetry shares an important feature with others, and Benatar’s explanation works only for this one, not for related asymmetries with the same feature. The main feature of this asymmetry is that it finds the commission of an action strange when done for purely altruistic reasons, but it does not find an omission of the same action strange when also done for purely altruistic reasons. Here’s an example of another asymmetry with this feature:
Whereas it is strange that anyone, despite not otherwise wanting to have sex with someone, would do so for the sole reason that the other person would be benefited, it is not strange that a potential partner’s interests would lead someone to not have sex with her despite otherwise wanting to.
Even if coming into existence is always a harm, that won’t explain this asymmetry. It is not about coming into existence; it is about having sex. The most analogous explanation we could give for this asymmetry is that having sex is always harmful. If this is true, then it would be strange to do something harmful solely for altruistic purposes, and it would not be strange to avoid doing the same harmful thing for altruistic purposes. This may work for something like torturing people, which actually is always harmful, but it doesn’t work for sex, which is not always harmful. When consenting adults who love one another and are not cheating on other people have safe sex, it is fair to say that what they are doing together is not harmful. Also, there is a nearly universal consensus that sex is a fun and enjoyable activity under the right circumstances. So the explanation that sex is always harmful does not work.
The real explanation for this is that people normally feel a stronger duty to avoid harm than to create good. This is because human morality is more deeply rooted in the idea of negative duty than in the idea of positive duty. Negative duty forbids certain courses of action. The Ten Commandments express negative duties in the form of
Thou shalt not. Negative duties have the advantage that they rarely conflict with each other. The duty to not murder people, for example, can easily coexist with the duty to not steal. But positive duties are more likely to come into conflict. For example, a duty to take care of strangers might conflict with a duty to take care of one’s family, or a patriotic duty to serve one’s country in the military might conflict with the negative duty to not murder people. These conflicts make it harder to determine what our positive duties might be, if any. Also, our laws normally treat the infraction of negative duty more seriously than the dereliction of positive duty. For example, murderers and robbers go to prison, but there is usually no penalty for people who don’t do anything to help the poor. The general approach to morality of most people is that some things are forbidden, and some are supererogatory3. From that perspective, we have compelling reasons to avoid doing what is forbidden, but we do not have nearly as compelling reasons for doing what is supererogatory. Looking at the overriding sense again, it is strange that someone would do something supererogatory at great personal sacrifice without anything to gain by it, whereas it is not strange that people would avoid doing what is morally forbidden. The asymmetry between negative and positive duty is enough to explain this asymmetry, and Benatar’s asymmetry between (3) and (4) is not needed at all to explain it. Unlike the explanation Benatar offers, this one works for both the asymmetry he is trying to explain and for the asymmetry concerning having sex.
Another problem with Benatar’s explanation is that you cannot explain human behavior by appealing to a moral principle. Even if his asymmetry between (3) and (4) were true, it would not explain the behavior of people unless it were commonly believed. Although I haven’t taken a survey, the rapid rate at which the human race continues to reproduce is testament enough that most people do not agree that coming into existence is always a harm. The explanation I have given for this asymmetry has the advantage that it appeals to what people actually believe. I have not argued here that morality is principally or only about negative duty. I have argued that negative duty is the primary way in which people think of their moral duties, and this has an effect on human psychology of making people more inclined to avoid what is morally forbidden than to produce as much supererogatory goodness as they can.
At this point, Benatar might shift the goal posts, and say that his asymmetry offers the best justification for preferring the non-strange behavior over the strange behavior. I would disagree with this, because I agree with the position that negative duty should normally trump positive duty. No matter how much good I create in life, there will be more I could have created but didn’t. So I have to cut people slack on creating good and recognize that people are not morally required to create as much good as possible. But negative duty is an area where not as much slack should be cut. Society depends upon people not murdering and robbing each other much more than it depends upon people helping each other as much as they can. So, while I favor people doing acts of supererogatory good, I recognize that a failure to do this is not as critical as a failure to fulfill negative duties, and everyone is going to fail at it to some extent.
Benatar’s explanation now has two strikes. The non-overriding interpretation is false, and the overriding interpretation can be explained without appealing to his asymmetry between (3) and (4). The last chance he has is with a mixed interpretation. We already know that one of these is false for the same reason that the non-overriding interpretation is false. The one we may still consider combines the true part of the non-overriding interpretation with the other part of the overriding interpretation.
Whereas it is strange that anyone, despite not otherwise wanting a child, would have one for the sole reason that it would be benefitted, it is not strange that the child’s best interests would ever count as a reason against bringing a child into existence.
This can be explained for reasons I have already gone over in trying to determine whether each part is true. It is strange for benefit to the child to be the sole reason for having one, because self-interest normally also plays some role in deciding whether to have a child, and also because it is less critical for people to do what is supererogatory than to avoid doing what is forbidden. And it is not strange for the best interests of a potential child to be a factor in determining whether to have it, since it may be worthwhile to compare the quality of life a potential child may have with the quality of life other potential children may have in order to have children who will have the best quality of life possible. For reasons I have already gone over in detail while discussing the other two interpretations, this mixed interpretation fairs no better. So Benatar has three strikes, and he is out. Whatever interpretation we go with, Benatar’s asymmetry between (3) and (4) is not needed to explain anything. For the interpretations that are false, what is false doesn’t need any explanation. For the interpretations that are true, there is a better explanation than the one Benatar offers. In one or two subsequent posts, depending upon the time needed to deal with each, I will address the remaining asymmetries he claims his asymmetry between (3) and (4) is the best explanation for.
- Better Never to Have Been, p. 34
- Generativity Versus Stagnation
- Supererogatory describes what is good but not morally required.