Anti-Natalism For Thee, But Not For Me

According to Wikipedia, anti-natalism is “a philosophical position that assigns a negative value to birth.”  In general, it includes the claim that having children is immoral.  Commenter Simon Elliot asked that I take up the topic again, adding,

I remember you said that you didn’t take it seriously because you thought it demonstrated a “morality inversion” of sorts, but I’ve since spoken to a fellow anti-natalist who has heard that argument many times and has found a way around it.

I’ll gladly take up the topic again.  As for the anti-natalist who’s “found a way around it,” all I can say is, more power to him.  I don’t peddle objective “oughts” on this blog, because no one has ever succeeded in capturing one and showing it to me.  As far as I’m concerned, there are only subjective oughts, and I know of no mechanism whereby the ones that happen to reside inside my skull can manage to escape and acquire normative power over other human beings.  My personal ought regarding natalism applies only to myself.

According to that ought, I should have as many children as possible.  Since I also believe that I and my descendants would be much better off if the population of the planet were greatly reduced, I certainly don’t want everyone else to share this particular ought.  Ideally, I would prefer that only a small percentage of the current population share my opinion on the subject.  The subset in question would consist of those individuals whose survival would contribute most to the survival of my own kin in particular, and to the indefinite survival of life as we know it in general.

Simon is right when he says that I consider anti-natalism an example of a “morality inversion.”  By that I mean that anti-natalists typically rely on moralistic arguments to render themselves biological dead ends, whereas morality exists because the genes that are its root cause were selected by virtue of the fact that they resulted in just the opposite.  Why am I a natalist?  You might say it’s a matter of aesthetic taste.  I perceive morality inversions as symptoms that a biological entity is sick and dysfunctional.  I don’t like to think of myself as sick and dysfunctional.  Therefore I tend to avoid morality inversions.

My position on the matter also has to do with my perception of my consciousness.  My consciousness is the “me” that I perceive, but it will survive but a short time.  On the other hand, there is something about me that has survived 3 billion years, give or take, carried by an unbroken chain of physical entities, culminating in myself.  That part of me, my genes, is potentially immortal.  I consider them, and not my consciousness, the real “me.”  My consciousness is really just an ancillary feature of my current phenotype that exists because it happened to increase the odds that the real “me” would survive.  I find the thought that my consciousness might “malfunction” and break the chain disturbing.  I would prefer that the chain remain unbroken.  Therefore, I am a natalist.  However, I have no interest whatsoever in “converting” anti-natalists.  Other than the exceptions noted above, the more of them the better as far as I’m concerned.

Good and evil have no objective existence.  It is therefore impossible that I could have a “duty” to be either a natalist or an anti-natalist, independent of what is thought to be my duty in my own or anyone else’s subjective mind.  It does not occur to me that my personal opinion on the matter has some kind of a normative power on anyone else, nor am I willing to allow anyone else’s opinion to have any normative power over me.

I realize perfectly well that anti-natalists like David Benatar seek to justify their opinions on what they perceive as objective moral standards.  However, that perception is an illusion.  In view of what moral emotions really are, and the reasons that they exist to begin with, I consider attempts to apply morality to decide this issue not only irrational, but potentially dangerous, at least in terms of the goals in life that are important to me.  They are irrational and potentially dangerous for more or less the same reasons that it is irrational and potentially dangerous to blindly consult moral emotions in any situation significantly more complex than the routine interactions of individuals.  Western societies are currently in the process of demonstrating the fact by engaging in suicidal behavior that is routinely fobbed off as an expression of moral righteousness.  No doubt the verdict of history on the effects of this “righteousness” will be quite educational for whoever happens to occupy the planet a century from now.  Unfortunately, the anti-natalists won’t be around to witness what the resulting “human flourishing” will look like in the real world.

In a word, then, my position on the matter is, “anti-natalism for thee, but not for me.”  No doubt it is a position that is immoral according to the subjective standards prevailing in the academy and among the like-minded denizens of the ideological Left.  However, I am confident I can bear the shame until the individuals in question manage to successfully remove themselves from the gene pool.

Extreme Altruism – The Case of the Pathological Do-Gooder

The Guardian just published an article by Larissa MacFarquhar entitled, “Extreme altruism: should you care for strangers at the expense of your family?”  The byline reads as follows:

The world is full of needless suffering. How should each of us respond? Should we live as moral a life as possible, even giving away most of our earnings? A new movement argues that we are not doing enough to help those in need.

It’s a tribute to the power of the emotions responsible for what we call morality that, more than a century after Westermarck published The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, questions like the one in the title are still considered rational, and that a “moral life” is equated with “giving away most of our earnings.”  Westermarck put it this way:

As clearness and distinctness of the conception of an object easily produces the belief in its truth, so the intensity of a moral emotion makes him who feels it disposed to objectivise the moral estimate to which it gives rise, in other words, to assign to it universal validity.  The enthusiast is more likely than anybody else to regard his judgments as true, and so is the moral enthusiast with reference to his moral judgments.  The intensity of his emotions makes him the victim of an illusion.

and

The presumed objectivity of moral judgments thus being a chimera, there can be no moral truth in the sense in which this term is generally understood.  The ultimate reason for this is, that the moral concepts are based upon emotions, and that the contents of an emotion fall entirely outside the category of truth.

The article tells the tale of one Julia Wise, whom MacFarquhar refers to as a “do-gooder.”  She doesn’t use the term in the usual pejorative sense, but defines a “do-gooder” as,

…a human character who arouses conflicting emotions. By “do-gooder” here I do not mean a part-time, normal do-gooder – someone who has a worthy job, or volunteers at a charity, and returns to an ordinary family life in the evenings. I mean a person who sets out to live as ethical a life as possible. I mean a person who is drawn to moral goodness for its own sake. I mean someone who commits himself wholly, beyond what seems reasonable. I mean the kind of do-gooder who makes people uneasy.

Julia is just such a person.  MacFarquhar describes her as follows:

Julia believed that because each person was equally valuable, she was not entitled to care more for herself than for anyone else; she believed that she was therefore obliged to spend much of her life working for the benefit of others. That was the core of it; as she grew older, she worked out the implications of this principle in greater detail. In college, she thought she might want to work in development abroad somewhere, but then she realised that probably the most useful thing she could do was not to become a white aid worker telling people in other countries what to do, but, instead, to earn a salary in the US and give it to NGOs that could use it to pay for several local workers who knew what their countries needed better than she did. She reduced her expenses to the absolute minimum so she could give away 50% of what she earned. She felt that nearly every penny she spent on herself should have gone to someone else who needed it more. She gave to whichever charity seemed to her (after researching the matter) to relieve the most suffering for the least money.

Interestingly, Julia became an atheist at the age of eleven.  In other words, she must have been quite intelligent by human standards.  In spite of that, it apparently never occurred to her to question the objectivity of moral judgments.  I’ve always found it surprising that so many religious believers who become atheists don’t reason a bit further and grasp the fact that they no longer have a legitimate basis for making moral judgments.  They commonly consider themselves smarter than religious believers, and yet they cling to the illusion that the basis is still there, as solid as ever.  Religious believers can usually detect the charade immediately, and notice with a chuckle that the atheist has just sawed off the branch they thought they were sitting on.  Alas, the faithful are no less delusional than the infidels.  Again quoting Westermarck,

To the verdict of a perfect intellect, that is, an intellect which knows everything existing, all would submit; but we can form no idea of a moral consciousness which could lay claim to a similar authority.  If the believers in an all-good God, who has revealed his will to mankind, maintain that they in this revelation possess a perfect moral standard, and that, consequently, what is in accordance with such a standard must be objectively right, it may be asked what they mean by an “all-good” God.  And in their attempt to answer this question, they would inevitably have to assume the objectivity they wanted to prove.

In any event, Julia’s case is a perfect example of why it is useful to understand what morality actually is, and why it exists.  The truth was obvious enough to Darwin, and of course, to Westermarck and several other great thinkers who followed him.  Morality is the manifestation of evolved behavioral traits.  It exists because it enhanced the probability that the genetic material that gave rise to it would survive and replicate itself.  Julia, however, lives in a world radically different from the world in which the evolution of morality took place.  She is an extreme example of what can happen when environmental changes outpace the ability of natural selection to keep up.  She suffers from an assortment of morality inversions.  It’s as if she had decided to use her hands to cut her throat, or her legs to jump off a cliff.  In short, she is a pathological do-gooder.

Several examples are mentioned in the article.  In general, she believes that it is “good” to hand over money and other valuable resources that might have enhanced her own chances of genetic survival to genetically unrelated individuals, even though the chances that they will ever return the favor to her or her children are vanishingly small.  She very nearly decides it would be “immoral” to have children because, according to the article,

Children would be the most expensive nonessential thing she could possibly possess, so by having children of her own she would be in effect killing other people’s children.

However, she manages to dodge this bullet by reasoning that she and her husband will be able to indoctrinate their child with their own pathological “values.”  The decision to have a child becomes “good” as long as the parents are confident that they can control its environment sufficiently well to insure that it will grow up as emotionally crippled as they are.  Of course, such therapeutic generational brainwashing is unlikely to be a “good” long term strategy for survival.  MacFarquhar concludes her article with the question,

What would the world be like if everyone thought like a do-gooder? What if everyone believed that his family was no more important or valuable than anyone else’s? What if everyone decided that spontaneity or self-expression or certain kinds of beauty or certain kinds of freedom were less vital, or less urgent, than relieving other people’s pain?

Assuming the environment remains more or less the same, the answer is simple enough.  The Julias of the world would die out.  In the end, that’s really the only answer that matters.  Is Julia therefore “wrong,” or even “immoral” for clinging to her pathologically altruistic lifestyle?  Of course not, because the question implies the objective existence of things – Good and Evil – that are actually imaginary.  One cannot logically claim that either using your hands to cut your throat, or using your legs to jump off a cliff, is objectively immoral.  One must be content with the observation that such actions seem a bit counter-intuitive.