There has been an increasing amount of discussion of antinatalism of late, especially in certain quarters of the veganism and animal rights movements, with many claiming that it is a revolutionary idea that must be taken very seriously. Confusingly, the term antinatalism is also used to indicate the view that the human race should avoid reproducing in order to reduce the size of the human population, due to the negative impact that we have on anything with which we come into contact as a species. This is of course a perfectly reasonable position – we humans destroy everything we touch. However, more interestingly perhaps, the term antinatalism is also sometimes used to denote the view that steps ought to be taken to ensure that the reproduction of all sentient species is halted in order to put a stop to all of the suffering in the world. Whilst this position sounds terribly unsavoury, sounding, as it does, the death knell for all sentient life, it is at least a serious attempt to reconcile our technological and scientific potential with the ultimate ethical responsibility that that entails. This latter sense of the term antinatalism is our current focus.
There are various renditions of this position, but a typical version can be expressed as follows. Firstly, proponents of the position tend to argue for asymmetry. Then, they use asymmetry in combination with the assumption that life entails the possibility of suffering to argue for antinatalism. By asymmetry, what is typically meant is that, with respect to the instantiation of a living being, (a). the possibility of pleasure is positive or good, (b). the possibility of suffering is negative or bad, (c). the negation of the possibility of pleasure is neutral – neither negative nor positive, and (d). the negation of the possibility of suffering is positive or good. So, it is a simple statement about how value ought to be assigned to different modalities relating to the possibility of the existence of suffering and pleasure. As a corollary, antinatalists make the assumption that the possibility of suffering is an unavoidable aspect of being alive – at least as a sentient being – and apply asymmetry to argue that, consequentially, humanity as a whole ought to seek the nonexistence of sentient life (including itself) so as to negate the possibility of suffering in the world. This is not exactly a suicide pact type situation. Nor is it typically framed as specicide. Rather, proponents of the view seem to tend to argue for some form of en masse nullification of the reproductive capabilities of all sentient life forms via a programme of “humane” sterilization or similar.
The framework of asymmetry as a whole seems fairly solid and plausible, with perhaps the only area that might appear potentially doubtful being (c). On face value, it does not seem too objectionable, as goodness or badness as a function of the contingency in question depends on the combination of the different modalities, and it seems reasonably evident that the negation of the possibility of pleasure, versus its affirmation, has no bearing on how one should evaluate the contingency. But are we really seriously going to suggest that the possibility of experiencing nothing more than a minor itch or a one-off sneezing fit in a life otherwise characterised by great pleasure and an absence of suffering would still be enough to render life unworthy of instantiation and perpetuation? This would seem implausible. If pleasure were abundant and all possible suffering extremely limited in extent, or perhaps even completely absent, then how could the argument apply?
Perhaps it might be useful to incorporate some sense of quantity and to move away from the absolute, and instead talk about the quantity of suffering and pleasure involved instead. For instance, it might be useful to talk about maximum possible suffering – i.e. “peak suffering”. In any case, it makes sense to move from the discrete and absolute to the continuous and quantitative. After all, there are good reasons to believe that suffering is measurable – at least in principle, a measurement being a consistent system of assignment of numerical values to different states or configurations of something, that just so happens to constitute a useful model of the underlying magnitudes of interest, even if the thing ultimately being measured is not intrinsically quantitative. Given that our entire conscious, experiential reality is founded upon a neurophysiological substrate, there is good reason to believe not only that suffering and pleasure are quantifiable in principle, but also that they might be rendered quantifiable in practice one day. They may be multidimensional, but then so are many things that we measure. Conscious states are subjective, but they just supervene on physical neural states. We already have numerous neurological, ethological, behaviorological, psychological, and biochemical methods of measuring certain dimensions of suffering and sentient experience in general, as well as various means by which the capacity to suffer can be assessed. It is a complex but finite-dimensional problem.
Hence, a more refined version of asymmetry might consider whether maximum possible suffering is in itself diminishingly small. One could also contrast the minimum possible pleasure and the maximum possible suffering. Such a refined version could weight the factors appropriately and in proportion to their relative significance. The entire model could then be based on the two weighted factors, for instance, in terms of minimum possible pleasure subject to an inverse power law in terms of maximum possible suffering. In this case, suffering and pleasure are not being conflated into one hedonic dimension, they are just being reconciled. Although more complex, this would give a much more faithful appraisal of the pleasure-suffering balance, and, as a result, a clearer indicator of how contingencies could be evaluated in terms of consequences. This new quantity might be called “minimum possible wellbeing” and we could require that this worst-case value transcend some minimum threshold value of wellbeing as a new criterion of what is good or acceptable.
A common criticism of antinatalism itself is that all sentient creatures ought to be regarded as reproductively autonomous and that obstructing or nullifying the reproductive capacity of such a being is inherently immoral as it involves inflicting suffering unnecessarily. Whilst it is incontrovertible that inflicting suffering without necessity, ineluctability, or at least consent, is unjustifiable, in this case the criticism may not actually be that valid. In some cases, depending on the species and the approach, there may be no direct causation of suffering. Moreover, the instantiation of the possibility of suffering in one being cannot be justified by the amelioration of suffering in another, a position consistent with asymmetry. Thinking of wellbeing as quantifiable, reproduction might be allowable if the minimum possible wellbeing of begotten offspring were an eventually monotonically increasing sequence with maximum possible suffering also eventually diminishing to the point beyond which all of life is forevermore a positive experience free of suffering or at least free of all but suffering so slight as to be negligible.
Taking the latter idea further and imagining that suffering could in some way be made to diminish and overall wellbeing converge to a global maximum, we have a different situation. In fact, it is possible to accept the asymmetric position or a modified version of it, as above, while also rejecting the antinatalist corollary, because the corollary requires that the possibility of suffering be an inseparable part of life, an assumption that could just be rejected or modified.
Putting antinatalism into practice would not just be hard, it would require sci-fi-like technological advancement and innovation over a great many epochs. Furthermore, it would not just be impracticable, but dangerously so. To get an idea of the impracticability of it, there are nematode worms in possession of nociception – the capacity to experience pain – and which therefore suffer. Some of these live several kilometres deep within the lithosphere of the Earth. This is illustrative of the fact that one would have to go to very extreme lengths in order to humanely (or even inhumanely) sterilize all of the sentient life of the entire biosphere, which itself permeates not only the lithosphere, but also the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, and the pedosphere. In practice, this would also have to be executed in perfect synchronicity and without error to avoid creating ecological chaos, and would somehow have to be 100% guaranteed to be absolutely comprehensively realizable (something so far unheard of in all of science and engineering), in order to eliminate the risk of only partially carrying out the project and then going down with Spaceship Earth, leaving swathes of the biosphere “stranded”; after all, homo sapiens is one of the species on the kill list.
Also, what is the scope of this project? Just beings capable of experiencing suffering? In that case, there is an obvious problem. Life forms tend to evolve into others over time, and so even if sentience were to be eliminated, it would likely return. Perhaps we are supposed to sterilize Earth’s biosphere completely, including all of the much simpler forms of life from which more complex life might ultimately evolve, lest evolution play the same trick again. But even this does not guarantee that life will not arise again. If you destroy Animalia I then it is entirely possible that resurrected in its place a few epochs later will be Animalia II, with the capacity to suffer just as before, as the capacity to suffer is something that tends to arise as a combination of factors that evolve, conferring on their possessor an adaptational advantage.
By going down with the spaceship, we, as a species, also lose our stake in the future and in all parts of the universe further afield. Even if we were to somehow achieve the (beyond Herculean) feat of rendering Earth itself infertile so that it cannot bring forth life via another abiogenesis, we would still be forgetting something especially important: this is a very fertile universe. Astrobiologists currently estimate that life may be very common across the vast spatial and temporal dimensions of the universe in which we live. Even if, as suggested by Searle and others, life tends toward simplicity, on the scale of the entire universe there is ample room for the evolution of life, both simple and complex, with the capacity to suffer. So, what are we going to do about that? Destroy the entire physical universe? Or somehow transform the fundamental physical parameters of the universe itself so as to sterilize it and render it incapable of hosting further abiogeneses? And what of the possibility of universes beyond our own?
Either way, putting this into practice is where we would either slip into science fiction or futurology, depending on viewpoint. In any case, it would not be possible for us to act at this point in time, and so we would need to wait a great many epochs to see if we ever find ourselves in a position to implement something of this sort. Furthermore, such a project would have to be the focus of the entirety of mankind for an enormous time period, and would surely require all the resources we could muster, which seems rather ambitious given that at the moment we cannot even feed our own species with the resources we have. It would be the ultimate sacrifice of mankind’s future, but following this line of reasoning it might still be argued that it is the only right course of action.
But, in that case, why this type of science fiction and not another? Why not wait for or work toward some other kind of future, also many epochs away, in which we will have developed, instead of this Langian mass annihilation machine, a means to eliminate suffering from life, or at least reduce it to the point at which life is always far more worthwhile than non-life? As mentioned earlier, we can conceive of a world in which suffering is allowed to diminish, and maybe even vanish, and pleasure flourish, maximising overall wellbeing. In a world with no significant level of suffering and high levels of wellbeing, we do not need to look for ways to end it all. In other words, a Hedonistic Imperative style universe. It may even be more feasible to actively suppress the suffering of sentient life forms than to render the whole universe (or even multiverse) abiogenetically inert – or to actually go to the lengths of destroying the entire physical universe (or multiverse).
All such conclusions are predicated on scientific facts about the universe that we do not yet know, since we do not know which courses of action are even practically possible. However, if we eventually arrive at the absolute limit of our capabilities, and if we achieve sufficient technological advancement, we could apply the appropriate solution up to that limit. It is not even too difficult to imagine a hybrid solution existing in some possible limiting cases. Furthermore, both solutions are dependent on their ability to be put into practice with accuracy and rigour, although the antinatalist solution gambles with the entire wellbeing of every single being that exists and every single being that will ever come to exist. So, the perspective of the practicalities of risk reduction, viewing risk as a product of likelihood and the severity of a given possible negative outcome, gives another reason to view the antinatalist solution as the far less desirable option.
Life on this beautiful, verdant Earth is a wonderous thing, even if the spark of sentience is fleeting, and any innovation that could allow us to comfortably endure the rigours of our existence and thus spend more time in uninterrupted wonder, bliss, and contemplation of the universe’s majesty would undeniably be superior to any other. There are many who may contend that this is impossible due to the fact that suffering is an intrinsic part of life itself; however, the same could be said of abiogenesis and the universe. What is more, a major contention is that life entails death and that short of becoming immortal – which would likely be ecological unsustainable unless we also stop reproducing – we must also be subject to the suffering of death at some point. However, death, aside from being an obstruction to further living, leads to suffering only in certain specific ways. Namely, necrophobia, the pain and anxiety of dying, and (after the fact) bereavement (in the most general sense – for instance, grief or being absent from family life and so unable to care for offspring and so on), all of which are specific forms of suffering which could also be ameliorated or removed entirely from experience. Whatever the form of suffering, there are possible solutions in the form of new, emerging, and future technologies: genetic modification, environmental and ecological engineering, nanotechnology, pharmacology, and so on. We could and should allow our arsenal of weaponry in the war on suffering to continue to grow ever larger.
All of which gives some new alternatives to nonexistence for our distant descendants, living many epochs from now: a high wellbeing, nonconventional antinatalist, immortal existence, and a high wellbeing, natalist, mortal existence, both of which, by reference to the wellbeing-oriented approach, are preferable to conventional antinatalism. In the limiting case, suffering would have been entirely eliminated from life. Consistent with asymmetry, even if we only consider the limiting case of absolute possibility in which suffering becomes impossible and pleasure remains possible, it still does not follow that we should choose nonexistence over existence. We ought to favour an existence coupled with the possibility of pleasure in which suffering has been made impossible over total nonexistence. In the context of wellbeing, it seems reasonable that just being able to optimize wellbeing and massively diminish suffering to nought or at least to the point of insignificance would make this an outcome preferable to eternal oblivion.