Before COVID-19, one of my recent research projects focused on refutations of anti-natalist arguments; specifically, that of David Benatar. Anti-natalists hold that having children is unethical, and Benatar bases this claim on the concept of harm. In short, his argument is that all people inevitably suffer harm in life, and hence, it is almost always unethical to choose to have children. Simply put, creating a person is always bad for that person. Moreover, he continues, even those of us who claim that we are glad to be alive despite life’s hardships and thus that we don’t feel harmed by being created, are wrong. We’re simply mistaken —as should be apparent to us if we were to judge the quality of our lives from the viewpoint of the universe (i.e., if our judgement were not hampered by human limitations—self-delusion, cognitive biases, and the like). My research looked into reasons why Benatar is wrong. (Full disclosure: Having just given birth to my second child, I have some skin in the game.)
Pre-COVID-19, I found many of the various refutations of his argument in the philosophical literature more than reason enough to reject his view. There are quite a few:
- He makes use of a problematic conception of “harm”; if we reject this account of what constitutes harm, we can reject his harm-based argument.
- His argument rests on his infamous asymmetry principle, where he unconvincingly (some say, incoherently) argues that we can compare the presence of harm that accompanies existence (bad) with the absence of harm in non-existence (good), but we cannot similarly compare the pleasures that accompany existence (good) with the absence of pleasure in non-existence (not bad). (I know! But this is philosophy, after all.)
- He does not provide a strong bridging principle that allows him to coherently move from the premise that being brought into existence always entails at least some harm to the conclusion that it is wrong to bring someone into existence (i.e., he does not adequately argue for the premise that imposing harms on others, however minor, is always wrong).
- Assessing the value of our lives from the point of view of the universe is meaningless, as we always and necessarily ascribe and experience value in terms of human limitations. And so on.
Most of these refutations rest on complex, thoughtful arguments, and I believe that many of them have merit. There are some good reasons to reject anti-natalism, in its Benatarian guise, at least.
And yet, post- COVID-19, I find myself less able to dismiss the sentiment underlying anti-natalism. Having had to give birth during a stringent lockdown in the somewhat dystopian setting of a hospital following strict COVID-19 prevention protocols; worrying about my children, especially my vulnerable newborn, being infected; and watching my elder child struggle with the new realities of mask-wearing, being isolated from his extended family, friends, and teachers, and not being able to enjoy simple pleasures like playing in the park or going to the beach, have led to (or, perhaps more accurately, amplified) a nagging doubt. Aren’t the good things in life simply too tenuous to rely on? How does one justify having children, knowing they will inevitably be subject to various harms? Somewhat surprisingly, I have found myself taking some comfort in philosophical terrain that I seldom traverse—that of existstentialism. It seems to me that the decision to have children is in many respects a Kierkegaardian leap of faith. It is based on the almost absurd belief (hope) that life’s goods will outweigh its bads. A hope that can perhaps only truly be justified if accompanied by the commitment to do everything in one’s power to ensure that this will indeed be the case in one’s children’s lives, even while recognising how much is out of our hands. Such a take does not refute anti-natalist arguments, but it does serve to lessen their sting.