In the last couple of years, whether you have noticed it or not, the anti-natalist (kind of anti-giving-birth-to-new-humans) message has penetrated more layers of pop culture than one would perhaps suspect. The obvious brilliant piece of writing that first comes to mind is a quote form the ‘True Detective’ series, in which bitter Texan detective Rust Cohle opens up about his philosophy:
I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution … the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight – brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.
And, this being my personal prediction, the anti-natalist sentiment is bound to resurface after having fallen on a very fertile ground of humanity locked down, left with little doubt as to whether there is any overarching cause or meaning on its side. Once we crawl out from coronavirus isolation, there will be at least a few more who have learned – who see that the deal is raw, and that we really should opt out.
My first reaction to the news about the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent lockdown was that of frustration. Once the outside world, which I always tried to isolate myself from, has imposed itself so vividly on my everyday life, my gut-reaction was to defend myself. I started writing a kind of diary, and was quickly faced with a consistent voice of resentment I exhibited in my on-and-off journaling. Above all, I sought people to blame. It is typical of us human beings, especially under intense psychological stress (so I have heard) though in this case I did not follow the perhaps usual, resentment route. I did not blame China, the USA, the Freemasons, Illuminati or the government of the country I live in for starting or mishandling the situation.
No, I knew who to blame. Our parents.
It is not even that they left the world drastically unprepared for a pandemic, or – stepping briefly into a different category – destroyed the planet, very likely condemning the future (last) generations to the unimaginable dread of seeing the world actually come to an end. No, I rather felt genuine anger at the preceding generation’s small-mindedness in which they decided to just pop us out and leave us like that. No instruction, no guide, no ‘why’ at all. Just to make their lives more valuable (which they did not), to make themselves happy (which they are not because of us). It seems they turned a complete blind eye to life, pretending as if they did not know that it is often hard and unpleasant, brimming with existential anguish.
After that outburst, I remained angry but could no longer find much point in blaming the last generation. After all, every generation of people who had children are to blame. Without my grandparents, my parents would not have done what they did. I do accept that every one of us is determined and consequently that moral responsibility of any kind may be meaningless. But I am, of course, getting ahead of myself.
I already know I have made two false impressions about myself. Firstly, I am not a pessimist – I am capable of enjoying life, especially my life, a ‘privileged’ as they say. I do not have to worry about starving and can even find the current self-isolated reality not that burdensome. Secondly, I am not a moralist – mostly, I really do not care what is ethical and not. I only hope, once I am done, that as few people as possible will feel heroic enough to sign the papers confirming the coming into existence of a new one without their consent.
A common misconception about anti-natalism is that it is a kind of suicide-club of depressed ‘True Detective’ fans who think life is not enjoyable at all, or that it is a valid attitude only for those in the most despicable circumstances. But that is not what I, nor any other Rust Cohle of the world is saying.
The argument is a kind of Pascal’s Wager of being born: if you are born, you suffer and you get some pleasure. If you are not born, you do not suffer and lose no pleasure because you were never born. Naturally, a careful reader will here at once come up with an objection: if you do not lose pleasure when you are not born, do you not also lose no suffering?
In other words, how can you gain anything by not being born? And that, I think, is the crux of the problem, its core at which everyone, knowingly or not, positions themselves on in their attitude towards procreation. The question to answer is this: do you think it is equally desirable to gain pleasure as it is to avoid pain? Do you think an existence of 99% bliss is worth beginning if there is 1% suffering? I would argue that it is not.
Of course, from a ‘mathematical’, utilitarian (and how used we are to utilitarianism nowadays) standpoint, that clearly is the case – 1 is less than 99, so life with that balance of pain and pleasure is totally worth it. But this already assumes that pleasure and suffering are of the same kind, and can balance each other out. It’s not always the case. Let us say you have a child (I mean, let us hope not) and it falls off a bike, scratching its knee. It is not very severe but the child surely feels some pain – you bandage the wound to prevent any further damage but also, to compensate for the pain, you give your child a piece of candy. You might even think that the sugary pleasure of a lollipop, as it were, ‘balances out’, the pain of a scratched knee. But you would still not say that the whole event of a child’s falling off of a bike was ‘desirable’. We have a higher duty to not make others suffer than to make them feel pleasure – and we already intuitively know it.
The quote another rebel against existence, Ivan Karamazov, who asks about religion and whether our pain on earth is excused by the existence of heaven:
Imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature … and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears – would you agree to be the architect on such conditions?
Ivan’s brother, Alyosha answers: No, I would not agree. A utilitarian would. Dostoevsky and most of us feel intuitively that no pleasure can excuse the existential imposition of suffering. We are still right to ask: why would a god not just not not-create us? All that does not mean, however, that life is not worth continuing to live.
Because that is the second misconception, and the answer to it a relevant piece of what I am saying – there is an important difference between beginning things and continuing things. I have never felt that I really do not want to continue my life. I have, however, felt that I would rather it was not begun at all. See, the difference here is a subtle one between, as I see it, non-existence and death.
Death is not, contrary to what philosophers of the past told us, the same as before we were born (and therefore not to be feared). Death is an experience. Philip Larkin’s ‘Aubade’ comes to mind. It is death as a concept that really bears all the significance. In other words, sure, to fear death is to fear something unreal, perhaps even to ‘be wrong’. But the fear itself is real. Being wrong can be true. And that is what I think death is really about – death is horrifying enough in our lifetime.
So that is precisely the case for not having children – I want, and desperately do, to continue my life. That is not equivalent to being glad I have that desire. But we already know it, again, intuitively – we do not punish people who do not procreate. We punish people for taking a life, not for not giving it.
To return to the current situation, which this piece is, believe or not, trying to address, what I think the coronavirus crisis did, or should have done, is open our eyes to the ever-present, universal suffering which makes life not worth beginning. No longer can anyone, even the well-off (‘privileged’) parents use the excuse that they ‘did not know bad things can happen’ – their children are going to be faced with death, pain and eventual loneliness no matter what and will likely distribute the same kind of pointless suffering to others, signing for their children the same crooked contract that our parents, raising us in the deluded conviction that ‘life is a blessing’, did for the.
How, in the midst of coronavirus, can one even consider having children? Are there no new parents, trying to put their infant to sleep and having a sense of having made an awfully bad decision? I think we all now see that our existence is incidental, an ‘unhappy misstep in evolution’, that the planet we live on (and nature which reigns on it), far from being our ally, is rather eager to dispose of the useless parasite that we are.
I too want the reader to be aware of the magnitude of the phenomenon – if even I, a middle-class kid sitting peacefully at home as a deadly pandemic is claiming the lives of thousands of people across the world, having enough food to eat and time to write blasphemous articles about my parents, can claim that I would rather not have been born because making me watch this ridiculous spectacle of suffering and change is something I never asked for, consider all the people in less fortunate circumstances. Many of them live not in 99% pleasure to 1% pain but closer to the opposite.
Think about how many children are now at risk of dying pointlessly from this awful disease or in fact any other, or drowning in the soon-to-come meltdown of glaciers (consequence of another thoughtless action of our parents). Even if the previous generation is not responsible for it all, even if only God is – I do not think there is a reason you would still want to procreate other than out of a religious delusion or a highly egotistical wish to give your existence something (anything) that you have to care about, no matter the anguish.
I know this all is rather sad and grim. What am I saying? That I would rather have not been born and have not met all the wonderful people I did? Is there not a beauty to life that makes it worthwhile? Our friends, our loved ones? How can I blaspheme against my poor mother and father, by the way? And, finally, would I rather never have read Larkin, Dostoevsky, never watched ‘True Detective’?
Perhaps a way to answer this difficult question, asking myself about the most important things in my life would be: I would rather not have to lose them.