Introduction to Antinatalism

Out Of Compassion For The Unborn

Antinatalism is an ethical position that concludes that procreation is always morally wrong.

Antinatalists refrain from procreating to spare their descendants from all the suffering that is an inherent part of existence. Many are furthermore concerned with preventing the damage inflicted by humans on wildlife, nature and other beings. In either case the goal is to reduce suffering.

Antinatalism does not condone any harm to already existing beings: While new life is never worth starting this does not deny the conclusion that already existing lives can be worth continuing. Antinatalists can lead happy lives but refuse to procreate due to the suffering their children could experience themselves or cause others.

The Only Certain Way To Protect Your Child Is To Not Create It

Antinatalism is not about hating children. Many antinatalists may have wanted to become parents but realized that there is no way to justify the risks involved. Even a child of the most well-intentioned and affluent parents can end up leading a horrible life or become a murderer.

You are not helping your child by creating it: No one has an interest in being born. No one is sad if they were not. Procreation is done entirely for the selfish reasons of the parents in their quest to give their life meaning, spread their DNA or have someone to take care of them in old age.

Because of that antinatalism is in favor of adoption, the only ethical way to become a parent. By adopting you can help improve the situation of an already existing being instead of creating a new being with the capability to suffer.

Confronting Our Biases About Life

Many people are outraged when they first learn about antinatalism. The conviction that life is a gift and every birth a blessing gets deeply ingrained into us by our parents, the media and society at large. Having children is seen as a right of the parents, with little concern for the resulting person.

Antinatalism questions all of that: Is life really a gift? Is being born really in the interest of the child? The following arguments for antinatalism give answers to those questions most people do not want to hear, but we owe it to our children to consider them carefully.

Arguments Against Procreation

  • Procreation has a chance to create unhappy people that would be harmed by being born (because they would then exist and suffer).
  • Procreation has a chance to create happy people that would not be harmed by not being born (because they would not ever exist).
  • One should not create new people if there is a chance they could suffer horribly from that decision.

Procreation is a gamble with the welfare of the future child. Like with any gamble there is a chance for either positive outcomes in the form of creating happy people or negative outcomes in the form of creating unhappy people to occur.

Unhappy people here refers to anyone who concludes for themselves that they would have preferred to not have been born. It can also refer to anyone who suffers greatly from life, e.g. due to horrible diseases or one of the many other short straws one can draw in the lottery of life.

Couples who plan to have children are usually aware of the risks involved with procreation (since such negative outcomes can be easily observed) but go ahead with rolling the dice because they conclude the odds of creating a happy child to be much higher than the alternative.

Antinatalists argue that positive outcomes in the form of happy lives, even if they are much more likely, do not justify taking the risk of those negative outcomes to occur because...

  1. there is a moral duty to not cause suffering while there is no moral duty to cause pleasure.
  2. the pleasure of happy people does not justify the suffering of unhappy people.
  3. potential happy people are not harmed or deprived of anything by not being born.

Thus refraining from procreation is the only moral choice because it does not come with any risk to cause suffering to an unwitting third party.

  • Every person is subject to many harms during their life such as death, loss and sickness. Preventing those harms would be good.
  • All positives in life such as happiness, good food and love are based on fulfilling needs, which get created by birth. Not creating those needs would not be bad.
  • One should not create new people that will experience guaranteed harm just for a chance to obtain pleasure from fulfilling needs.

This argument posits that even the happy people from argument I would in all cases be strictly better off by never having been born. It does that by exploring an asymetry between suffering, which is intrinsically bad, and pleasure, which is only good if it serves to fulfill an existing need.

Suffering is intrinsically bad because we can observe all sentient beings trying to avoid it. People go to great length to prevent harms, even if it means missing out on pleasure. In instances where people accept harms voluntarily it is generally to prevent even greater harms, such as unpleasant doctor visits or exercising to keep fit. In all cases people would be strictly better off if they could avoid harm: Were there a way to be fit without exercise or to not get sick people would take it.

On the other hand we can never observe people longing for pleasure they have no need or desire for. A heterosexual person is not sad about his lack of need for homosexual affection for example (and the other way around). That is because the goodness of pleasure is not intrinsic but only instrumental to fulfilling a need in a deprived state. That means not having a need is at least as good as having that same need fulfilled.

Before birth there is no suffering and no unfulfilled needs exist. Being born introduces an unknown amount of guaranteed suffering into one's life as well as an ever-growing number of needs that can never all be fulfilled, making it a "bad deal" for every sentient being to come into existence. In other words procreation is never to the benefit of the future child.

Why would so many say they are glad they were born then? Because they are not actually comparing their life to nonexistence (which is a hard thing to grasp) but to a worse state of existence instead. People can certainly be happy to be in good health or have a loving partner, but only in comparison to a state where they would be deprived of their need for such and not compared to not having a need for health or love in the first place.

  • Every person has no choice but to harm other existing beings during their lifetime (consume animal products, squash insects, possibly hurt other humans).
  • Those existing beings have an interest in not being harmed.
  • One should not create new people in a reality where they will have to harm others.

The basis for this argument is the fundamental cruelty of nature: Sentient creatures devour each other alive for food or compete over sparse resources in many other ways. Procreating will force your child to take part in this vicious process both as a victim and as a perpetrator.

Although our technological progress has allowed us to live detached from much of the suffering we inflict on other species there is no denying it still happens. Most people will consume animals or animal products regularly during their lifetime. But even someone raised strictly vegan will have no choice but to hurt others: From killing insects by merely walking around or driving, to all the animals hurt in industrial processes of products we depend on or those displaced by the expansion of our civilization.

Hence this argument is the logical conclusion of the vegan argument: If you oppose consuming animal products to prevent animals from being harmed you should also oppose (or at least refrain from) creating new humans which will have no choice but to harm animals during their lifetime.

Frequently Asked Questions

Antinatalism is not an organized position and as such has no common goals. For most antinatalists it is first of all a personal philosophy they practice themselves.

That said in a hypothetical scenario where all humans would be convinced by antinatalism it could indeed lead to the extinction of the human species (unless existing humans find a way to become immortal, which antinatalism would not be opposed to). In other words extinction is not a goal but can be a consequence of antinatalism. The good news is that in such a scenario no one would be sad about humanity going extinct, since future generations can't suffer from not coming into existence. They won't even notice.

Why should they? It is not their fault they are alive after all. If they are lucky enough to enjoy their life (as a happy person from argument I) they can continue on like everyone else but refuse to create new people, since it is impossible to guarantee they will also enjoy life.

And even for antinatalists that suffer greatly from life (as unhappy people from argument I) committing suicide would not be "simple" at all: Their survivial instinct will do everything it can to stop them. Society will do everything to stop them by outlawing assistance and preventing access to easy methods. Even if those hurdles are overcome a failed attempt carries the huge risk to leave them even worse off than before, e.g. paralyzed or locked up.

This question is often raised in bad faith by people who fail to understand that creating a new life is different than ending an existing one or who, while being quick to flippantly tell antinatalists to kill themselves, are actually not in favor of an individuals right to end their life at all.

No, because killing already existing beings causes suffering antinatalists are strictly against it. In fact antinatalists want no one to have to die at all and realize that the only way to save someone from certain death is to not create them in the first place.

Since animals are sentient and can experience suffering all of the arguments above apply to them in exactly the same way as they apply to humans. However animals are obviously even less likely than humans to understand antinatalist arguments and thus will never voluntarily refrain from procreating. There is no consensus among antinatalists on whether that means we should interve to prevent animals from breeding, for example through forced sterilization.

Links & Resources

  • The Wikipedia article on antinatalism can give a good overview, with a focus on presenting different philosophers and their positions.
  • The Ultimate Antinatalism Argument Guide is a regularly updated 50 page document containing in-depth details about all arguments for antinatalism as well as refutations of common counterarguments.
  • Ask an Antinatalist on Reddit is a forum you can use to ask question about the philosophy or to debate antinatalist arguments. Please make sure to read the rules before posting.