There was NOBODY there of whom it could be said that she/he was forced into existence – and thus harmed – when future parents procreated and a new human began to exist.
Once the new human exists, though, we are entitled to say that the human being in question didn’t have the liberty (and couldn’t have had the liberty) to refuse the beginning of its existence. Persons can accept their existence when it would be too late to reject it. They can only reject their existence when it’s too late. This is where antinatalism comes into play as a kind of paternalistic moral theory. Among other things antinatalism takes very serious the chance – and enlightens about the fact – that a new person might reject her very existence.
Let’s have a closer look at this: There was NOBODY there to either accept or refuse her own beginning. There wasn’t even SOMEBODY out there on whose behalf we could have been in favour of or against his beginnings. Still, once a new sentient being has begun to exist, its negative feelings or emotions will override its positive impressions (unless it dies shortly after having begun to exist, without having had bad negative sensations att all). Therefore one should never act in such a way that a new sentient being begins to exist.
Alongside Holbach’s observation we often find the claim that man is being harmed by his coming into existence (by his being born as we say in everyday-language). In everyday-antinatalist language this makes perfect sense. Things seem to look different, however, if we leave aside common language delving into the ontology of the expression COMING INTO EXISTENCE. Consider that an entity cannot be affected by its coming into existence, that is to say: by its very beginning. It needs to be there in order to be affected. If an elementary particle begins to exist it is not affected by its beginning; once it exists it can be affected. In a similar manner there was no (pre-existing) ME that was done harm to when I began to exist. The harm followed only later when I (the sentient foetus) had the first negative sensations.
For the above mentioned reasons I prefer saying: If people procreate or breed they act in such a way that one more sentient being will have negative sensations. There might have been some sentient beings though that never had negative experiences. Think for example of a foetus that recently had gained proto-consciosness. It perhaps experienced a trance-like feeling of warmth or a reddish colour or a sugary taste. Then the foetus died in the fraction of a second. At no point was there any harm being done to that foetus.
Let’s think of a second foetus whose first sensation was heat or a garish light or a bitter taste. Was this foetus harmed by its own coming into existence? No. Its very existence (and in this case: sentience) was a precondition for any harm to be there.
There seems to be a tacit agreement among antinatalists that someone is harmed when coming into existence. A closer look at the ontology of ‘coming into existence, however, seems to reveal that this might not hold. Since none of us was there before he had begun to exist, our having begun to exist cannot have made us worse off. We cannot compare (1) a state of the world which did not yet include us and (2) a state of the world which includes us and then say a harm was done to us in that very instance we had begun to exist.
The harm will follow only later unless we assume that already the very first dawning of sentience in a foetus in the womb is of a negative kind. But even then we shouldn’t say the human being was harmed coming into existence but rather: a new human being began to exist experiencing pain from the outset.
‘Coming into existence’ is a somewhat misleading expression for: ‘a new sentient being has begun to exist”. ‘Coming into existence’ does not alter the ontic status of a living being for good (as pronatalists claim) or worse (as antinatalists claim). Rather, ‘coming into existence’ changes the status of the world: from now on there exists one more being capable of suffering.
Rather than saying A SENTIENT BEING HAS BEEN FORCED INTO EXISTENCE we should say THE WORLD HAS BEEN ALTERED IN SUCH A WAY THAT ONE MORE SENTIENT BEING EXISTS.
The corresponding antinatalist imperative will read as follows: Do not act in such a way that a new sentient being begins (unless there are morally overriding other reasons).
While it is understandable that Voltaire didn’t experience an antinatalist breakthrough, the same doesn’t go for Heidegger (1889-1976) in his Time and Being. Heidegger famously speaks of our thrownness. Thrownness in itself is a gnostic term with many points of contact to antinatalism (cf. Hans Jonas: Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God). A less known feature of Heideggers analysis of being is his talking of the “Burden of being” [Lastcharakter des Daseins]: Man experiences that he exists and that he has to exist. Strangely enough Heidegger doesn’t argue that each and every human being exists at the instigation of her parents. Heidegger himself seems to suffer from Elternvergessenheit [if you like: parent-forgottenness]. Not fate but parents are responsible for the burden of being.
Humanist par excellence and often considered a king of enlightenment Voltaire (1694-1778) also features elements of a proto-antinatalism. One case in point is his Treatise on Tolerance where, in chapter 23, we find him saying (as opposed to d’Holbach (1723-1789, Voltaire still believed in God):
‘No longer then do I address myself to men, but to you, God of all beings, of all worlds, and of all ages; if it may be permitted weak creatures lost in immensity and imperceptible to the rest of the universe, to dare to ask something of you, you who have given everything, and whose decrees are immutable as they are eternal. Deign to look with pity on the errors attached to our nature; let not these errors prove ruinous to us. You have not given us hearts to hate ourselves with, and hands to kill one another. Grant then that we may mutually aid each other to support the burden of a painful and transitory life.‘
In Voltaire, humanism doesn’t celebrate the joy of existence but rather the need to support one another in order to cope with the burden of existence. As a child of his times Voltaire didn’t see that the “burden of a painful and trasitory life” is forced upon people by unenlightened parents.
Voltaire only belongs to antinatalism’s wider forecourt since he wasn’t outspoken on not passing on the burden of existence.
We can speak of a humanistic attitude where people see themselves as self-creating beings. This means that people are neither products of a God nor are they simply the results of biological evolution.
Against this background, humanism holds: there is neither a religious nor a natural commission for procreation. Rather, in view of the past history, the present and the future to be expected, people must decide whether they want to have descendants or not, whether the “burden of existence” (Voltaire) is justifiable or not.
As opposed to believers, humanists assume that there are no compensating otherworldly, paradisiacal institutions (and no hellish penal colonies). Antinatalism is humanism, at least inasmuch as it takes very seriously the lack of otherworldly or rebirth-based compensation. Antinatalism is deeply humanistic because it takes seriously the burden of existence (the school and workload to be carried out by each individual, shame, betrayal, experiences of the death of the near and the dear ones, the own catastrophe of dying and much more). Pronatalists will oppose this, saying that every person has to have her own experiences and that there is always HOPE for a better future. Humanist antinatalism cannot accept this, since it rejects experimenting on people. And it has the character of experimenting, and human lottery, to bring forth new humans in the sign of “hope” that they may be spared a hard school and working life, serious illnesses, experiencing the death of the near ones and, eventually their own catastrophe of dying.
Some critics doubt the antinatalists‘ humanist vision. Many of those critics envision mankind’s future under the sign of hope. To have given up hope, in the eyes of the critics, is a moral blemish. Saying this, however, the critics are disregarding that – under the sign of hope –they are prepared to experimenting on human beings. They are prepared to experimenting on human beings inasmuch as they are in favour of propagation with uncertain outcomes. Experimenting on human beings would not deserve to be called humanist.
Why is it so difficult for people to even discuss antinatalism? Aristotle and many others, well into the 19th century, didn’t accept the idea of a vacuum (the so called Horror vacui in Latin). Nature, according to those thinkers, abhors a vacuum. Probably many of those thinkers themselves, together with a wider public, abhorred the idea of a vacuum.
In a similar manner people seem to be haunted by some horror of non-existence. If antinatalism would reign, they assume, they would never have begun to exist. And, as a matter of fact, they think this would have been bad for THEM.