An Antinatalist confession in Eugène Ionesco’s novel THE HERMIT

With THE HERMIT (1973), Eugène Ionesco (1909–1994) has presented a fascinating book in which the handed-down Gnostic world feeling at one point shades off into modern antinatalism.

„I had been born bowed down with grief. The universe seemed to me a kind of enormous cage, or rather a big prison… There was a crowd of prisoners, and as far as I could tell most of them were unaware of their condition.“

Nietzsche (1844-1900) had famously questioned man’s ability to sympathize declaiming:
„Thus the value of life for ordinary, everyday man is based only on his taking himself to be more important than the world. The great lack of fantasy from which he suffers keeps him from being able to empathize with other beings, and he therefore participates in their vicissitudes and suffering as little as possible. On the other hand, whoever would be truly able to participate in it would have to despair about the value of life; if he were able to grasp and feel mankind’s overall consciousness in himself, he would collapse with a curse against existence–for mankind, as whole, has no goals and consequently, considering the whole affair, man cannot find his comfort and support in it, but rather his despair.“ (Nietzsche: Human, All Too Human)

The protagonist of the novel THE HERMIT is such a person who carries the world upon his shoulders:
“I had the feeling that I was bearing within me all the fear and anxiety of billions of human beings, the malaise of the entire human race.”

The protagonist is afflicted with a disease against which there is no cure: metaphysical anxiety:
“There have been billions of people born into this world, and each has been saddled with the universal anxiety. Each one, like Atlas, has had to support the full weight of the world as though he or she were all alone…”

Apart from metaphysical anxiety, however, Ionesco’s hero is knows the pain of birth and of dying behind and ahead of him:
“Born in horror and pain, I also live in horrible dread of the end, the exit. I’m caught in an incredible, inadmissible, infernal trap, between two frightful events.”

He also has gained insight into what one may call our bionomic base-stratum:
„We are acted upon; we do not act. I think I’m eating for myself. Actually, I’m eating out of my instinct for self-preservation. I think that I love and that I’m making love for myself, but I’m only obeying the laws which control me, I am simply acting to perpetuate the species.”

All these observations culminate in an antinatalist confession of the Protagonist:
„I ought to start a family. I should have children. Man is made to have children, and there is nothing cuter than little ones underfoot. And then / when they grow up and you grow old, they don’t abandon you to poverty; no, they reach out a helping hand when you need it the most. If there’s anything worse than living alone, it’s dying alone, with no one around to offer you a little milk of human kindness. I didn’t know what was in store for me.“
“The very idea of fathering Cain filled me with panic. What a stupid idea, I said to myself in my darker moments, wanting to start it all over again just when we’re almost at the end, when it’s so easy to have done with it.“

In spite of his clairvoyant insights into the condition inhumana Ionesco does not talk of parental guilt when it comes to answering the question of why there are so many people out there who feel ill at ease:
“I became aware of my malaise. It’s true, I said to myself, since the day I was born I’ve always been ill at ease, uncomfortable. Why?”
„And then all of a sudden, unexpectedly as it always is when it leaps upon me, suddenly the idea that I’m going to die. I shouldn’t be afraid of death, since I don’t know what death is, and besides, haven’t I said that I ought to give in and not fight it? To no avail. […] Each of the billions of people on the face of the earth is filled with such fear… / Why was that? What caused it?“

The answer to this question obviously resides in this observation: Because your parents acted in such a way that you began to exist.
Whereby, because of ever more antinatalist enlightenment, today’s parents load far more parental-guilt upon themselves than at the time of Ionesco.

Profession of Beliefs: Natal-Ethical Profession for Parents-To-Be

We want only what is good both for ourselves and for our child and it is a good thing to live and to participate in as many of life’s joys as possible; this, indeed, is why we conceived our child; it would be a bad thing not to live; nevertheless, we are aware, and are willing to live with the fact, that our child:

  1. will be born endowed with all those negative inclinations, capabilities, and needs that are so typical of our species, including those toward harming, killing (for example, in wars) or murdering, as well as inclinations to rapacity and envy;

  1. will be born and will become part of humanity, although the past has shown that anthropogenesis, as a way for the human species to form itself, has failed;

  1. will be delivered into the sway of a largely unmasterable bionomic, socionomic, and economic-political fate, as well as into that of natural events and occurrences, to which there necessarily belong every type of suffering as well as mortality in many forms which could befall him at any time;

3.1. will be compelled to engage, after years of having some useful skills drilled into him, in some forty years of almost daily drudgery in order to earn his living, with no certainty of being able to secure thereby a high standard of living;

3.2. will be exposed not only in periodically-recurring periods of economic crisis but indeed at any and every time to the possibility of no longer being able to earn by his labours enough to sustain the life that we are giving to him (i.e. the possibility of becoming “unemployed”);

3.3. will, even if he succeeds in maintaining for his own existence the quality of life that he wishes, necessarily thereby deprive other people of scarce resources necessary to their lives and will, by reason simply of his existence, his adaptedness to social reality, and his “going along” with the majority, contribute to degrading the quality of such indispensable resources as air and water;

3.4. will have no competent authority before whom he might claim his right to a good quality of life (assuming good health!) and to compensation for his sufferings;

  1. will possibly become the co-begetter of further generations of human beings suffering pain and inflicting pain on others in much the same way and degree;

  1. will have to experience, and psychologically and emotionally deal with, at some point in his life and perhaps while he is still a child (!) the deaths of his grandparents and his parents as well as those of numerous other relatives and friends, along with beloved pets;

  1. will, should he in fact not wish to accept this life that we have well-meaningly “gifted” him with, have no effective way of “giving this gift back” to us but will rather, at best, have the option only of “taking his own life” (taking it, as it were, from himself) with all the brutality and the possibly actually unforeseen and catastrophic outcome that this may involve;

  1. will, at least toward the end of his life – certainly for the duration of days or weeks but possibly during months or even years – have to suffer through torments that have been all too well and thoroughly documented.[1]

[1] The idea for this natal-ethical profession of beliefs comes from Guido Kohlbecher.

Annaba (alias Philippe Belotte, *1944) and his ANTIPROCREATIONISM

Already in 2008 the French journalist and author Annaba could look back on a forty-year career as an antinatalist thinker:

“For forty years now you’ve been laughing me to scorn / Over my antinatalist imprecations.“[1]

Like Kurnig before him, Annaba does not speak of “antinatalism” – which was to emerge as a philosophical notion only later by separating off from the “antinatalism” current in the theory of population – but rather uses the concept “antiprocreationism”.

The earliest of Annaba’s “imprecations upon procreation” that remain accessible to us are to be found in his “Cris, sans titre, sans musique, sans rien…” from the year 1973, from which we quote the following passages:

“Oh would that Humanity rebelled / Against the procreators!… / Instead, however / Humanity chooses to protect and cultivate / The crime of procreation!… / They speak of love / But it is the drive to procreate that speaks.“ (Annaba, CRIS, SANS TITRE, SANS MUSIQUE, SANS RIEN…9

In the following passage Annaba clearly states the shared complicity of all those who procreate in the perpetuation of suffering and misery:

“Only the person who procreates is responsible / for themselves / for society, / for Humanity and its crimes…“ 

[1] „Depuis quarante ans vous vous gaussez / De mes imprécations antiprocréationnistes.“ (Philippe Annaba, Proférations gnostiques)

Self-Aware Machines and Computers

Philanthropic antinatalists argue against bringing human beings into existence inasmuch as it is inevitable that these latter will suffer. If we knew with certainty that we would one day be able to call into existence computers possessed of consciousness and self-awareness, it would be morally incumbent upon us to refrain from doing so in the case where such machines would be expected to be capable also of experiencing suffering.

One voice which warned early on about the potential problem of machine consciousness was that of Samuel Butler. At the period when Butler published his ideas on “machine antinatalism” the steam engine was still the non plus ultra of human technical inventiveness. But Butler could already see a time approaching in which technical development would have progressed so far as to be able to bring forth self-aware machines. To make this thesis plausible for his contemporaries he pointed to the earth at that primeval period when it had been no more than a ball of boiling semi-liquid minerals whose crust was slowly beginning to cool and harden. Who would have imagined, looking at this red-hot, semi-liquid ball, that one day beings endowed with intelligence would walk about upon it? The fact, then – so argued Butler – that our machines currently have nothing resembling a self-awareness is no guarantee that this shall always remain the case. A mollusc has only the most basic rudiment of a “consciousness” and Nature required millions of years to develop human and animal consciousnesses in the full and specific sense of this term. How much more rapid, by comparison, has been the development of man-made machines which are, as it were, relatively speaking, a product of “the last five minutes” of the earth’s history. Is it not safer, then, asks Butler, in view of a future that may last many more millions of years, to nip the potential calamity of self-aware machinery in the bud and to take steps to prevent the emergence of any such thing as “machine consciousness”? Whereas, however, by Butler the potential calamity was seen to consist in self-aware machines gaining sway over those who designed and built them[1], our concern is a different one: namely, that it must be ensured that no electronic systems with mind-like properties are developed or allowed to arise until the possibility is absolutely excluded that such systems, like naturally living beings, might experience suffering.

[1] See Chapter 23 of Butler‘s Erewhon, Penguin Classics 1985, p. 198 ff .

Advanced Extra-Terrestrial Intelligences Who Will Have “Ebbed Away”

Our hope of receiving communications sent from outer space by extra-terrestrial intelligences must be a hope overshadowed by doubt just insofar as we conceive of these extra-terrestrial intelligences as truly advanced intelligences. This is so because any truly intellectually advanced beings that may have existed on distant planets will surely, from fear of falling back into some earlier, warlike phase of their existence still filled with pain and suffering, have long since ceased all procreation. Thus even if, due to the vast distances involved which ensure that signals sent out at the speed of light reach us only after the passing of millennia, we might still receive “messages” from such advanced intelligences, we can be almost sure that the beings who sent them have long since voluntarily “ebbed away”.   

[Excerpt from my book ANTINATALISMUS. Ein Handbuch, translated into English by Dr Alexander Reynolds]

The Absent

Had the world taken a somewhat different course, and had some billions of people made other decisions, or similar decisions at some points earlier or later than they actually made them, billions of additional human beings might have come to exist, or billions of human beings different in key respects from those who actually entered into existence. These are “the absent ones”, “whose” non-existence, strangely, is regretted by no one. “Strangely”, because it is clear that most people would be inclined to reject any hypothetical alternative world-course in which they themselves would never have begun to exist.

[Excerpt from my book ANTINATALISMUS. Ein Handbuch, translated into English by Dr Alexander Reynolds]

Enlightenment and Guilt

[Excerpt from my book ANTINATALISMUS. Ein Handbuch, translated into English by Dr Alexander Reynolds]

With this our handbook on antinatalism we situate ourselves within the tradition of philosophical enlightenment. The handbook enlightens its readers by showing that the apparently “most normal thing in the world” – namely, that there are human beings and that these human beings are (re)produced – becomes, on closer examination, questionable. Because, in the last analysis, it is procreation which leads to ever more generations of human beings’ being placed before new problems as well as the ever-recurring old insoluble ones and the Conditio in/humana’s being perpetuated.

It would, of course, be all too easy to assign the guilt for all this misery to the parents of this world. At least in advanced industrialized societies parents mostly take the position of only wanting the best for their children. And this “wanting the best”, of course, is taken to include conceiving them in the first place. – What is not taken into account here is the onto-ethical fallacy that is committed when someone assumes that they are doing something good for a not-yet-existing person by bringing it about that they begin to exist.

Anti-natalists concede that there are indeed some good arguments for procreation that need to be considered: for example, the consideration that a sudden stoppage of births occurring simultaneously all over the world could – in contrast to a slow ebbing away of fertility – significantly lower the quality of life for all existing human beings. But at the same time anti-natalists are of the view that unconfessed selfish motives often underlie the wish for children and that the arguments against procreation far outweigh, on balance, those for it. Anti-natalists do not adopt, thereby, a hostile attitude to parents, or to people who want to become parents, but rather attempt, through argument, to convince them that it is better to bring no more children into the world.

Our category of Parental Guilt, then, does not concern, to an equal degree, all parents at all times but rather only applies in the full sense where parents – and most especially women – firstly enjoy a certain degree of self-determination regarding pregnancy and birth and secondly have been able to form some accurate idea of what is awaiting their children once they have given birth to them. A genuine parental guilt we ascribe only to fully reflective individuals living in the “Information Age” who make pro-natal decisions even in the face of doubts they may harbour, or who may even be familiar with the moral theory of antinatalism but opt nonetheless to engage in procreation. A good point of comparison here is ethical vegetarianism. Someone raised in a traditional society or in a generally carnivorous environment may never give a thought to the ethically unjustifiable consequences of meat-consumption. But once they have been made acquainted with the arguments for ethical vegetarianism, this same person will be acting, if they continue to consume meat, contrary to a better ethical insight which now lies fully within their reach. A similar line of reasoning applies in the case of procreation. People who have had an opportunity to consider the option of non-procreation, or who have somehow felt the necessity of doing so, or who have actually been made familiar with the moral theory of antinatalism, do indeed incur “parental guilt” in the case where, knowing better, they nonetheless persist in procreating.


[Excerpt from my book ANTINATALISMUS. Ein Handbuch, translated into English by Dr Alexander Reynolds]

The concept “atroxology” derives from the Latin term “atrocitas”, meaning “the horrible”, “the repellent”, “the hard to bear”.

The concept was coined by Karl Georg Zinn. In his book “Cannons and Plague. On the Origins of Modernity in the 14th and 15th Centuries”  Zinn uses the term “atroxic” to designate the intensity of destructive events and activity especially around the beginning of modernity in the 14th Century in connection with the invention and the first utilization of firearms and later, worldwide, in the course of the 20th Century. Zinn calls for the development of an “atroxology” as “the doctrine of destructive human action”. His own writings can be read as “an introduction to the atroxology of the 14th Century”. Zinn justifies his neologism “atroxic” by pointing out that the German language (in which he wrote his book) contains no word adequate to the naming and conceptualizing of “the temporal concentration and the extreme atrociousness and inhumanity of the orgy of destruction” in question (Zinn).

In terms of the conceptual apparatus of antinatalism Zinn’s atroxology would be classed as a neganthropology. Antinatalists make the case for an atroxology/neganthropology being made a compulsory component of all teaching of history in public educational institutions. Schoolchildren must be informed and enlightened regarding all the horrendous costs and losses which have hitherto inseparably accompanied our stubborn prolongation – from individual to individual and from generation to generation – of the experiment “Man”.  Enlightened polities require citizens informed enough to make mature decisions – i.e. citizens who have been familiar since their schooldays with just what it means to prolong for even a minute longer the experiment “Man”.


[Excerpt from my book ANTINATALISMUS, translated into English by Dr Alexander Reynolds]

Defender of the view that human beings should continue to exist as far into the future as possible, quite regardless of how good or bad the conditions of this existence have been, are, or will become.

Blind Spot, Thanatalistic

[Excerpt from my ANTINATALISMUS, translated into English by Dr Alexander Reynolds]

Parents who deliberately bring about the birth of a child whose medical prognosis firmly states that it is bound not to live beyond seven weeks, or eight months, or nine years, are often condemned as lacking moral conscience. Parents, on the other hand, who act in such a way as to bring about the entry into existence of someone who, by biological certainty, will die only after seventy, eighty or ninety years are congratulated. But even the eighty-year-old human being is the child of specific parents. The illnesses he suffers and his death may even be more harrowing than the deaths of children who die at the age of a few weeks, months or years and of whom it is said that they had better never been born or conceived. Why, then, is no reproach ever made to the parents of these “children grown old”? Is it thought that the eighty-year-old “deserves” the sickness and death that he now suffers, because he has also experienced much that is good in life? Does it “serve him right” if he now “does penance” for this former happiness?

The fifty-four-year-old succumbing to a coronary; the ninety-year-old hit by a car because she is no longer nimble enough to get across the street in time – these are not nameless figures in middle or extreme old age but remain, rather, all their lives the children of specific parents. When a five- or a nine-year-old child dies the parents are mostly there to be seen; when an older or much older person dies, they are not. But in both cases the parents in question have condemned their children to death. This applies to the five-year-old who is certain, due to a genetic disposition, not to become much older but also, equally, to the ninety-year-old, in whose case it is the general biological make-up of the human species that ensures that he will not far surpass his present age.

That in the case of the death of older people the parents tend to become a àthanatalistic “blind spot” in this way follows, of course, essentially from the fact that these parents are mostly no longer alive. Their own demise – be it through accident, sickness or the simple biological limits of human life – has seemingly absolved them of all responsibility for the death of their children. Older people no longer have any parents who must witness the death of their own children. This leads us to mount a thought experiment. Let us imagine that medical progress one day secures for all human beings a lifespan of between 100 and 200 years, during the latter half of which they remain in a mental and physical state that we see in a still-robust seventy-year-old of the present day. Imagine also, however, that it would remain impossible to predict at what point in the additional century of life opened up to us by medical science a particular individual would die or enter into a condition of mental or bodily decrepitude. A consequence of this would be that countless aged parents would have to witness the sickness and death of their hardly less aged children. Millions of sprightly 170-year-olds would live lives relatively free of suffering, while their 140-year-old children would already be wasting away.

Whereas parents today can safely assume that they will most likely not have to be witnesses to the deaths of their children, this thought experiment opens up the prospect of a situation in which this would no longer be the case. Would this affect human beings’ generative behaviour? Let us draw an analogy. One argument for vegetarianism runs: most people would perhaps give up their consumption of meat if they were obliged themselves to kill the animals whose flesh they consume or even if they were forced just to watch the process of slaughtering performed by others in the slaughterhouses. Might a similar psychological mechanism be applicable in the case of procreation? Would human beings reconsider their progenerative decisions if they knew that there was a strong probability that they would live to witness the deaths of their own children?

In the world in which we actually live, however, the principle which applies is clearly rather that which we have called the principle of the “thanatalistic blind spot”. Borne up and supported in this by their own natural mortality, parents involuntarily render themselves oblivious to something that would perhaps, if there were any real likelihood that they would have to experience it, be so intolerable to them that they would not take the actions that bring it about: namely, the decrepitude and death of their own children.

Encompassing validity of antinatalism

Let us imagine that the world would be much better than it really is: people would not be afflicted by diseases, hunger and thirst. At the end of their lives they would pass away peacefully instead of dying horribly. Would this be a reason to reject the antinatalist moral theory? No. For the unpredictable but periodically recurring wars alone are reason enough not to act in such a way that new human beings begin to exist. Not to mention the conflicts on a social and individual level: the struggles for recognition and dignity, envy, resentment and harassment. Until anti-natalist moral theory loses its validity, one would have to conceive of man in a thought experiment in such a way that he is no longer is a human being.


Complicity and Antinatalism

We live in a complicit society. What does this mean? It means that the absolute majority of all consumers take neganthropic and neganimalic decisions that harm people and animals, even if there are good alternatives: We fly over a well-developed bus and train network instead of using bus and train. We drive the few hundred metres to the bakery by car instead of using our bicycles. Parents encourage their children to eat meat rather than explaining the ethical advantages of a vegetarian diet and setting an example. Parents celebrate when their children, who have just reached legal age, have passed the driving test. Instead of persuading them to protect the climate, they give their children money so that they can participate in the poisoning of the air we breathe as early as possible. We live in a complicit society because – in the information age – we are well informed about the consequences of our actions. If this is taken into account, it is clear that antinatalist moral theory has a pretty bad hand. Antinatist moral theory argues that life and death are unacceptable. The notion of the complicit society now points out that parents seem to have no problem leaving their children a destroyed and run-down world and encouraging their own offspring to destroy our environment. To the extent that this is the case, parents will also have no difficulty in exposing their children to the intolerability of existence by producing them. Which does not bode well for the ethical aspirations of antinatalism.


Antinatalism (continued)

[Excerpt from my ANTINATALISMUS, translated into English by Dr Alexander Reynolds]

Antinatalism, Cosmic

The cosmic antinatalist reckons with the possibility – a terrible one from his or her viewpoint – that sentient or even intelligent beings might have come into existence also on other planets. Such cosmic antinatalists dearly hope, of course, that this is not the case and that sentient or intelligent entities have not in fact arisen on any planet but our own. Each new discovery, therefore, of a planet on which there exist conditions similar to those on Earth causes a quiver of apprehension in these antinatalists, since any one of these new worlds might prove to be inhabited by beings capable of suffering.


Antinatalism, Misanthropic

Can there be such a thing as misanthropic antinatalism? We read in Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals: “The man who feels happy only when others are suffering is called a ‘hater of Man’ (or ‘misanthrope’); the man to whom it is a matter of indifference how badly or how well others are doing, provided only that he himself is content, is called an egomaniac (or ‘solipsist’)”. If the misanthrope feels happy only when others are suffering then the misanthrope cannot possibly wish that these others should cease to exist. With the ebbing away of humanity the ills that beset humanity would likewise be constantly on the ebb and misanthropes would find less and less occasion to be happy.


Antinatalism, Ecological

One essential reason why an end should be put to the bringing into existence of new human beings is that human beings the primary guilty parties are in such things as: the extinction of other species, the mass slaughter of animals, and the destruction of eco-systems. Many people are already aware that there are very few decisions that an individual can take which will so help to spare the world’s natural resources and make such an important contribution to the protection of the environment as will the decision not to procreate.[1] This was surely the basic meaning of the Dalai Lama’s remark: “I have said that I sometimes feel that the Earth would be better off without humanity”  (The Dalai Lama’s Appeal to the World)

Ecological antinatalism can be divided up into at least three sub-types: a suffering-oriented (pathocentric) type, a value-oriented type and a teleological type.

The position of suffering-oriented ecological antinatalism is that human beings should cease to procreate because other animals undergo unspeakable suffering at the hands of human beings.

That of value-oriented ecological antinatalism is that humanity needs to ebb away because the role of Man in the world is inevitably that of a destroyer of values, human beings tending to cause the extinction of animal species or the destruction of ecosystems.

Finally, that of teleological ecological antinatalism is that there are certain ends or purposes inherent in plants, animals, species and ecosystems which, as a result of human presence and intervention in the world, are failing to achieve development.

[1] „Some people now feel that remaining childless, or adopting, is the single most effective environmental decision they can ever make.“ (Leo Hickman, A life stripped bare)