Born without consent (Holbach)

In his System of Nature  we find Baron Paul d’Holbach (1723-1789) claiming in proto-antinatalist  fashion (he didn’t defend antinatalism) that

“[man] is born without his own consent.”

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.


Natalist stalemate

When some antinatalists argue from the idea that
There was NOBODY who wanted to come into existence.

Pronatalists may claim with the same right that
There was NOBODY who did not want to come into existence.

While antinatalists speak of existence as being imposed on non-existers, pronatalists conceive of a deprivation of existence with respect to non-existers.

Both arguments seem to be wrong for ontological (semantic) reasons.



Harmed by coming into existence?

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.


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).

Heidegger’s antinatalist omission and parent-forgottenness

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.

Voltaire’s proto-antinatalism

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.