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.

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