“There’s such a thing as chronic pain, but there’s no such thing as chronic pleasure,” David Benatar, a South African philosopher, said in an interview with The New Yorker’s Joshua Rothman. “For an existing person, the presence of bad things is bad and the presence of good things is good. But compare that with a scenario in which that person never existed — then, the absence of the bad would be good, but the absence of the good wouldn’t be bad, because there’d be nobody to be deprived of those good things.”
Benatar is well-known for his advocacy of anti-natalism, which he first articulated in his book, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, which was published in 2006. The concept, which opposes procreation for moral reasons, has gained traction and found a large community of followers in recent years. Just what are the views of this philosophy, and why have the ideas become so popular as of late? Here’s what you should know about anti-natalism.
What is anti-natalism?
Antinatalists believe that bringing more children onto the planet is morally wrong. There are several reasons why believers of the philosophy support the idea, such as the fact that children can’t consent to be born — and thus are brought into a supposedly cruel world without their consent — along with the negative impact an expanding population has on the environment and planet as a whole.
"In my mind, an antinatalist is someone who opposes procreation or finds procreation morally problematic in many instances for any number of reasons, not limited to ending human suffering," Tina Rulli, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of California, Davis, said in an interview with Refinery29.
Categories of anti-natalism
In his New Yorker article, Rothman differentiates between misanthropic antinatalists, such as members of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, and “compassionate” antinatalists like Benatar. The former category places the onus on everyone, believing humans to be the problem (the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement even goes as far as wanting humans to stop existing entirely), while those like Benatar, in contrast, hope to stop perpetuating suffering in general.
Followers of the philosophy come to it for different reasons. As we’ve discussed, many are concerned about the impact of bringing new humans onto the plane has on the environment and its limited resources, while some believe the lack of consent people have in terms of being born at all is concerning. Those like Benatar also want to put an end to human suffering, suggesting this is the only way to do it. Many don’t oppose the idea of raising children in general but believe that, morally speaking, people should adopt or foster children rather than bearing them.
Other common motivations for adhering to the philosophy include:
• Concerns about passing on mental health issues to children
• Contributing to overpopulation
• The impact on animals
One thing is clear: antinatalism is about much more than just not wanting or having kids. “Being child-free is a choice that could be made for financial, physical, emotional, or any other number of reasons, whereas anti-natalism has a worldly perspective,” Joanna V. (last name withheld) told Marie Claire. “Anti-natalists feel it’s not fair to the children who are born and left with the mess we leave behind.”
Given the strong connection between anti-natalism and concern for the environment, it should come as no surprise that many anti-natalists are also vegans. Many individuals who adhere to both lifestyles oppose cruelty against the planet’s inhabitants, no matter what type of being, and generally fear that we’re harming our planet and overusing its resources.
Is anti-natalism new?
Benatar is credited with coining the term, but the idea of antinatalism itself has been around for centuries. Ancient Greek philosophers like Sophocles shared similar views, and many other philosophers throughout history have espoused ideas along the same lines.
In practice, concepts like eugenics, aimed at “purifying” the population, often by sterilizing women deemed unsuitable mothers against their consent, and China’s one-child limit overlap with some antinatalist ideologies to an extent — the idea that parents might pass along genetic defects and overpopulation concerns — although it’s not fair to say that all anti-natalists necessarily agree with these concepts.
Anti-natalism in pop culture and the media.
“We don’t want to reproduce because we know that the earth can’t handle it," Miley Cyrus told Molly Lambert in a recent interview with Elle magazine, speaking on behalf of her fellow Millennials.
In addition to celebrities like Cyrus bringing anti-natalism into the forefront of our consciousness, the idea has made waves all over social media — and the world. The subreddit r/antinatalism, created in 2010, has 46,100 members (as of December 2019). Its description reads “A community for antinatalism, the philosophical position that assigns a negative value to birth.” Meanwhile, there are numerous Facebook groups dedicated to antinatalism as well.
YouTube has become a popular means of sharing anti-natalist views, too. After watching a video on the concept in 2010, Amanda Sukenick found herself agreeing with the sentiments. "I spent a long time thinking about the idea of antinatalism being sort of this very elegant, simple, brilliant method of alleviating suffering. It seemed like such a magnificent and un-chewed-upon piece of intellectual gristle," she told Refinery29. Now a vegan, she has also created her own YouTube channel about antinatalism. There are several other YouTube Channels dedicated to the philosophy, too, such as The Friendly Antinatalist. There’s even an Antinatalist Music channel, which includes 27 videos featuring songs like “If I Had a Choice” and “Existence Is Punishment.”
Raphael Samuel shared his views about anti-natalism on YouTube, but he took it a step further: earlier this year, he claimed that he was planning to sue his parents for having him without his consent. While no headway has been made on the lawsuit, the video has had 215,255 views since it was uploaded on February 5, 2019, and his ideas and lawsuit have been commended by fellow anti-natalists.
Since Benatar’s famous work that seemingly gave rise to the movement, there have been several other books espousing anti-natalist views. Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror, published in 2010, even won the Bram Stoker Award Nominee for Superior Achievement in Nonfiction. Benatar himself glowingly blurbed the book, writing, “Mr. Ligotti's calm, but often bloodcurdling turns of phrase, evoke the dreadfulness of the human condition. Those who cannot bear the truth will pretend this is another work of fiction, but in doing so they perpetuate the conspiracy of the book's title.”
In 2017, Benatar published a followup to his first book. The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life's Biggest Questions expands upon and clarifies his views on antinatalism. Rothman notes that Nic Pizzolatto, who wrote the screenplay for True Detective, based Rust Cohle’s “nihilistic anti-natalist” views on Benatar’s original work, although Benatar saw his ideas as “more thoughtful and humane” than those of Matthew McConaughey’s character.
While anti-natalism and its proponents receive plenty of criticism and controversy, there is much research supporting the idea that procreation does adversely impact the planet and environment. In a 2017 study published in Environmental Research Letters, Seth Wynes and Kimberly A. Nicholas found that the best way to reverse the effects of climate change would be for people to procreate less.
Still, even with its growth in popularity, it’s unlikely that antinatalism will make its way into the mainstream view anytime soon. “Unpleasantness and suffering are too deeply written into the structure of sentient life to be eliminated,” Benatar said. "We’re asked to accept what is unacceptable. It’s unacceptable that people, and other beings, have to go through what they go through, and there’s almost nothing that they can do about it.”