Previously published on Medium
It was all too surprising to me when it exactly it was that I have felt significantly younger than the age that I officially was. I noticed a few months ago, that many of my friends had moved on from their youth and began buying houses, settling down and most of all, started to get married and begin families. For someone who still feels that they understand very little about what to do with their life, I am stumped how they can make such huge decisions so confidently, even while the variables that determine our lives are so badly understood. In my mind, these decisions are immense, almost too big to make a good judgement about.
While buying homes is still a relatively minor decision, having a child is a far greater responsibility to bear, in my opinion. A baby, later a child, and much later an adult, is a human being with feelings, attitudes, dreams and aspirations that the parents will need to engineer throughout the childs education. Making mistakes during this time, might cause trauma, pain, or inevitable suffering and many other things that can negatively impact the said person. This is why I decided not to have kids.
Don’t get me wrong, there is no doubt in my mind that I want my own children. I used to daydream about this possibility since I even before I was twenty years old, and still dream of my own children from time to time. I have even picked out a name for my daughter, if I had had her and fantasied about family life, in which people told me, I would be a great father.
Yet, the more I think about it, the more it strikes me how how humanity, despite the obvious challenges, seems to be going forward with placing people onto the globe. I have come to believe that having my own son or daughter, just simply isn’t the right thing to do. I don’t deny that it gives us renewed purpose in life, very much so even, and I also think it is the most common and reasonable desire to have. But I question if this is the right thing to do, considering, well, life as a whole and all the possible ways it not only can go wrong, but does wrong.
The Invisible Siege
Financial struggles, birth defects and complications, wars, shaky familial relationships are all realities that negatively impact a childs life, not just for the duration of their childhood, but for their entire existence. People who want to become parents then, must recognize this fact, and accept that their child will suffer in ways that have not quite revealed themselves to us yet. We do not know the suffering that a future human being will endure, nor the happiness they will experience, making the birth a gamble. And while there are hardships for the newly minted parents, the hardships for children will be higher than those of its parents, because they will need to live longer, and face the same sorts of choices and decisions that their parents will have made.
Of course, we all agree that not everything in life is rosy. Yet if we claim that overcoming the obstacles is inevitable, or if we say that “it is a part of life”, we are recusing ourselves from the responsibility of such negative occurences, probably to have children without regret. Furthermore, if we excuse such random obstacles, we also betraying ourselves, by downplaying our own suffering that we experienced in our lives. Sickness, weakness, lack of sleep, hunger, thirst, anxiety, confusion, depression, are future realities that will come to be for all of us, always.
Few of us consider these discomforts as being truly bad: We argue, that if these states in human beings/animals can be reverted to something better, such as through therapy, ingestion of food or drink, then life must not be as bad as it is good. Therefore, children can only add to the happiness of the parents. However, this does not seem to entirely be true, as researches seem to find similar happiness ratings among those with, and those without children. We have thus removed the possibility of happiness as an argument for children, which might take us closer to the the truth of the morality of the matter.
We know that any suffering is bad. We also know that we cannot know how intense such negative feelings inside all of us truly are. If a baby or a child cries, we treat it as something normal, while a child’s emotional state, might be the worst it has ever been in. What’s terrible about this example in particular, is that this is the standard that we are beginning our lifeat, not a worst-case scenario, and this doesn’t take into consideration the idea of children (or people) suffering without ever showing it, such as the anxieties, worries and nostalgic longing for the past, that we all keep inside all of us.
Then if we were to start a life, because we know that children cry for many years before they cease, a new life will inevitably come in contact with suffering from the get go. Unless one argues that a childs crying is not any form of suffering, pain is a permanent reality of our lives. Adding the insidious effects randomness, far worse things can emerge: Death of the parents, cancers, horrid fevers, stress on family members, fires or sexual exploitation are the worse things, and these random events happen at unexpected times, which only further promotes the trauma. With the advent of Global Warming, there is no doubt that such tragedies will increase, from the numbers we already have today.
Of course, we can also make a similar list of positive random events that can occur out of randomness, although many us today will not be happy if we only satisfy our hungers, need for health, etc. We require affection, career possibilities, financial stability, and a possibility to be involved with our community. Otherwise, loneliness, feelings of stuckness, pressure and displacement will come to light within our minds.
Consuming sugars and wallowing in religious fanaticism will also not save us, as they require us to continually strive for our next hit of euphoria, which is extremely privy to abuse. What I’m trying to say with this (without going into excruciating detail) is that while the horizon of possible good things may be big, the universe of bad things will always be greater in size, because there are more things in the universe that are not what we imagine for ourselves. Why this might be so, is the topic that a particular South African philosopher has not only written about, but has made it his defining work, for which he is somewhat famous for.
Measuring our Suffering
David Benatar made several good arguments using such an approach of goodness vs badness, to argue that no matter when, or under what circumstances someone is born, the child and subsequent adult will suffer throughout their life. One of the points he makes in his book Better Never to Have Been, comes from arguing that our opinions are skewed toward optimism. Our brain seems to try and show us that there will always be a “net positive” rather than a “net negative” of good versus bad in the world, so that we may be happy, and enjoy life, and procreate. Once we overcome this bias, we see that the world is worse than we like to imagine. From this more objective standpoint, it is hard to argue for a net good, rather than a net bad, he says, and analyzes why this is so. The second part of the book deals with the consequences of such a view, one of which is antinatalism, the position I am arguing for.
Even when ignoring this line of argumentation, I find it difficult to see validity in the idea of procreation being good. I am admittedly biased, because I am a negative utilitarianist (meaning that I would rather reduce the negative aspects of our lives than to increase the positive ones), and I find positive utilitarianism to have its problems. Which view is more valid however, is an open problem. While I don’t present a rigorous proof, I would argue against the view that we should be spreading goodness, despite the costs that sometimes come with the decisions related to it.
When I bring my reasons up to people who want children, they retort with the argument that by not having children would rob their children and themselves, of happiness they would experience, if the children were born. If positive utilitarianism is the way to go however, then we should clearly be donating to charities, volunteering, and doing other things that give those in need a better life. Most people (and this includes me), don’t do these things on a regular basis, meaning that while a solution to increasing happiness is present, we don’t pursue it.
Why, I ask? One reason might be that we don’t actually perceive the happiness that we can give, and we measure our influence only from our own personal point of view. It may not be obvious but I think this process is happening all the time: Those that suffer seem to think less of themselves because they cannot understand the positive influence they have on other people. In turn, those that only see happiness, cannot see the suffering they cause.
Another argument on why we don’t give ourselves to society, is that it simply isn’t in our economic interest to give away money, time, or anything else, as we aren’t getting anything in return, whether it be possessions, gratitude, joy, money, etc.. As long as self-interest extends to our descendants, I think this theory has better grounding than Benatars approach, especially when taking evolutionary theory into consideration.
Thus, we conclude that reductions in self-interested actions is bad. With Global Warming, we, and definitely our children, will have potentially major reductions in self-interested actions. I argue that if we care for our children as we care for ourselves, then we should agree that bringing someone into the world is a bad thing, because it will reduce their interests one way or another. Ofcourse, we reduce our childrens actions to zero if we don’t have them. But if they don’t exist, they cannot have any reductions or increases in anything, and it is up to us to decide, whether having them is a good idea.
And to me at least, it seems that it is not. More disasters, pollution and food & water shortages as well as mass migrations that the world hadn’t seen before will engulf the globe, with our children in the midst of the chaos. Even if you don’t believe in Global Warming, or don’t believe in the severity of it, with concentration camps springing up in several powerful countries, the threat of nuclear war (and fallout) and ecological collapse from pesticides and urbanization fall upon us, it is not unreasonable to imagine that our children will have such reductions placed on their lives, even before they might come into awareness of such events. Considering the following that Greta Thunberg has gained, it seems we have already reached this point.
The possibility of not having kids then, is not necessarily a selfish decision, but in fact, can be a deeply compassionate one. We know that there is an increase of depression and anxiety in teenagers today, for some unknown cause. We could be looking at a mental health epidemic that will continue into the future. Because we are wired to care for our children’s health, as well as to avoid their premature deaths, having children seem in the very least questionable. If we know that our children will lead harder lives, in which the future of humanity and their lives, and their childrens lives is not certain, antinatalism becomes a hard, but also certainly good choice to make.
Of course, positive utilitarianisms might argue back that “what will come, will come”, and we need to make the best of it. I would then reply that the view of good over bad, no matter the cost, is as dangerous to the proliferation of Good as is the idea of slavery, or imperialism: Yeah, people may suffer in the process, but in the end, I benefit from it. Those that argue the converse (avoid the Bad by all means), are similarly misguided, which is why finding the middle path to walk is so difficult: I can’t know your inner suffering by not having children. Therefore, we are left to make our own decisions.
The End of All Things Good and Bad
One thing is clear though: We will all die. Some of will die early, some of us will live long, well past our prime age, and slowly but surely become more fragile, more injured, until our bodies simply can’t go on any further and succumb to the ravages of time. Neither process is pleasant, but one will come to pass. If one has a child, one guarantees this nefarious Chinese finger trap, even if the parents won’t be around to experience the final resolution of this mystery for their children.
Thus, although children can give us ultimate feelings of meaning and happiness in our lives, I don’t think it is black-on-white clear that we can have children and have this be a good event, especially if we don’t dedicate our lives toward charity. As difficult as it is for me to dedicate myself to this invisible cause, I cannot see a way which we can achieve true goodness in my lifetime.
In our current age, having children is still seen as something good. But with evolving morals, just as there was a chance of gender egalitarianism becoming more widespread, so I hope in a future where antinatalism becomes accepted as the status quo. Perhaps acceptance of this view is already under way: A Canadian university student has started an antinatalist movement for teens a few months ago, to protest to inaction taken by the Canadian government on Climate Change. Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez, as the sort of millennial beacon of light in the US government, has also brought this idea up at one point.
Finally, the most significant side-effect of not having children is the awesome end of civilization. Humanity will not be able to sustain the continual environmental exploitation we are committed to, which means that we will be paying the price for our exploits, either through us, or more likely, through our children, or their children, or their children.
This is why the only way to discontinue the pain we might be causing, are causing and will be causing, is to discontinue ourselves. With no one there to witness the destruction that we are wringing, there can be no one to suffer it, from now, unto the end of time. And I think this is a beautiful thought.