Zapffe in translation

In his vast magnum opus OM DET TRAGISKE Zapffe describes man’s being as structurally and indissolubly tragic. In spite of this, man is capable of revolting against what nature and life have forced upon him. Here, Zapffe expresses this in poetic language:

‘You got me. But my son you will not get. You were committing a fateful mistake when assigning even procreation to my will. And you did not do this out of love…, but rather to burden me with the heaviest of all responsibilities…: Am I to perpetuate this species or not? And from now on I will ask no longer what you want; rather you shall ask what I want. And I will no longer offer further sacrifices to the God of life. I will punish you with the ability you bequeathed to me in order to torment me; I will turn my clairvoyance against you and thus bereaving you of your victims. And the abused millions will stand behind me like a plough… And evermore will two people create one human being… Thus you will feel your powerlessness begging me on your bloody knees.’

The existential dilemma of a self-conscious being that has been released from nature – equipped with a deeply felt need for meaning – can only be solved by the abstention from procreation:

‘I will have to desist from the creation of new holders of interest. This decision would initialise a terminal epoch in the development of humankind; […] This renouncement, this refusal of a continuation represents the utmost cultural possibility of mankind.’

[Translator’s note: As you may have noticed English is not my first language, and I may improve my translation eventually. I read Zapffe’s book OM DET TRAGISKE in the Norwegian original when writing my ANTINATALISMUS. There are quite a few people in the antanatalist community suggesting an English translation of Zapffe’s large book. With the above translated excerpts I try to make accessible for English readers what are –according to my reading experience – the most explicit antinatalist passages in Zapffe’s book]

An antinatal improvement paradox

Imagine a world with an ever diminishing number of sentient beings. In most antinatal settings such a world would become increasingly better. This is the case if we leave out of account such settings under which the suffering of the remaining sentient beings increases geometrically along with the diminishing number of sentient beings (due to diminishing mutual aid when there are only few humans left, this under the improbable premise that a human will be the last sentient being).

At some point in time this world will be inhabited by only one being capable of negative sentience – the famous ‘last of the race’. Such a world we would label as extremely good compared to a world inhabited by billions of beings capable of negative sentience.

Let us have a closer look though at how we are to evaluate this world with the demise of the last sentient being. No negativity whatsoever will be experienced in this world after the last death has taken place. Has this world become the best of all possible worlds under antinatal auspices? At first glance we’re inclined to saying yes. At the same time, however, rather than the best of all possible worlds, this world would have become ethically neutral in an antinatal setting (and not only within the framework of antinatalist moral theory but according to any ethics impregnated by utilitarian thoughts). Even though such a fictitious world would be open to esthetical evaluation, the raison d’être for ethical evaluation would have vanished with the last being capable of negative sentience.

An apparent solution to the antinatalist-improvement paradox would be pointing out to other inhabited worlds: With the demise of the last sentient being on our planet the universe would with all probability have become better since we have good reason to assume that there are many other planets inhabited by sentient beings capable of negative experiences. However, reading the term “world” as “planet” does not help much further if we proceed to interpreting “world” as the sum of all sentient beings in the universe: With the demise of the last sentient being the universe wouldn’t have become ethically the best of all possible worlds but ethically neutral. Still we seem entitled to say that such an ethically neutral world is better than a world inhabited by beings capable of negative experiences.

What about a UNIVERSE A inhabited by beings capable solely of positive experiences? Is such a world better than an ethically neutral UNIVERSE B void of all sentience? From the point of view of an IMPOSSIBLE OBSERVER (since self-refuting) of UNIVERSE B it is not the case that UNIVERSE A is to be deemed better – since there can be no motivation to create positively sentient beings for their own sake.

‘Paternalistic’ antinatalism

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.