Door Bonnie van Vugt
About a month ago, an Indian man named Raphael Samuel sued his parents for giving birth to him. He insists that “it was not our decision to be born”. So as we didn’t ask to be born, we should be paid for the rest of our lives to live, he argues. (Source: BBC News) On his YouTube account, NihilAnand he posts videos where he is explaining his philosophy.
It might seem like a ridiculous thing to sue your own parents, but there is a serious philosophical argument to be made here. ‘Antinatalism’ is the philosophical theory that parents do not have moral standing to bring an unwitting child into the world.
Better never to have been born?
An antinatalist approach to why being born is bad.
Should people refrain from procreation because living brings pain and suffering? Antinatalists argue that it is better not to have been born at all, and they see it as a moral obligation to not bring new human beings into the world. What are the arguments made by antinatalists to why creating new people is morally bad? For a lot of us it would seem counterintuitive to favour non-existence to existence, however there are some interesting arguments to make. By not being born, a potential but as-yet-unborn person has avoided the suffering of life, all of which was preventable if the parents had not procreated and brought that person into existence. This philosophy draws in particular on the work of David Benatar.
Benatar argues that coming into existence is always a harm. The argument follows that coming into existence generates both good and bad experiences: pain and pleasure. Not coming into existence is neither pain nor pleasure. The absence of pain is good, the absence of pleasure is not bad. Therefore, the ethical choice is weighed in favour of non-procreation (Benatar, 2013). He explains this by the asymmetry between pleasure and pain, which states that (1) the presence of pain is bad; (2) the presence of pleasure is good; (3) the absence of pain is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone; (4) the absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation. This means that the absence of pleasure is not bad for the yet unborn potential human being.
Another antinatalist philosopher, Julio Cabrera, describes procreation as act of manipulation, for he claims that by being born a human being is sent into a painful and dangerous situation of being-towards-death, being-towards-illness and being-towards-aggression. The human being is constantly exposed to disease, injury, damage, other misfortunes and death. According to him it is impossible to be moral to everyone in this situation (Cabrera, 1996). Both philosophers say that procreation is against Kant’s categorical imperative: a person can be created for the sake/pleasure of his or her parents, however it is impossible to create someone for his own good. Therefore we should not create new people, if we follow Kant’s imperative.
An environmental argument that has its roots in antinatalist philosophy is that human beings have a huge impact on the environment and that they are harming other animals. Members of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement argue that human activity is the primary cause of environmental degradation, and that refraining from reproduction is “the humanitarian alternative to human disasters” (The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, 2015). Antinatalism takes a global perspective on suffering, and is not limited only to human reproduction. “Humans are a deeply flawed and a destructive species that is responsible for the suffering and deaths of billions of other humans and non-human animals” (Harrison & Tanner, 2011).
Bringing a child into the world might be an important moral issue, and this is what Raphael Samuel is trying to explain and make public by suing his parents. Although procreation will never stop, it would be good to get aware of the consequences making a new life has. Antinatalists like Benatar argue that coming into existence is always a harm because there is an asymmetry between pleasure and pain. Kant’s categorical imperative is not being followed if we create more human beings, and leads to environmental degradation and suffering of other species. It’s interesting to note that both Raphael parents are lawyers. In a Facebook post shared by Raphael about his mother, she said, “If Raphael could come up with a rational explanation as to how we could have sought his consent to be born, I will accept my fault.” I genuinely wonder if she will accept the above mentioned antinatalist arguments.
Benatar, D. (2013). Better never to have been: The harm of coming into existence. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press.
Cabrera, J. (2014) A critique of affirmative morality (A reflection on death, birth and the value of life), Brasília: Julio Cabrera Editions, (English edition).
Kant’s Moral Philosophy in Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Jul 7, 2016. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-moral/ Bezocht op 2 juni 2018.
Harrison, G. Tanner, J. (2011) Better Not To Have Children, Think 2011, volume 10, issue 27, pp. 113-121.
About the Movement. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://vhemt.org/aboutvhemt.htm#vhemt Bezocht op 2 juni 2018.
We Are Creatures That Should Not Exist: The Philosophy Of Anti-Natalism, The Critique, July 15, 2015.