The notion “inversion of gratitude” evokes a change of mentality which is currently still only in its very earliest stages but in the course of which a hitherto general and normal gratitude toward one’s parents for having “allowed one to come into the enjoyment of existence” may change into an attitude of accusation vis-à-vis these parents for having forced one into this same existence that one had hitherto been pressured to construe as a “gift”.
We should be grateful, so we are told, for every day of our lives which remains unblighted by some terrible catastrophe or serious illness. We are told the story of someone’s brother who nodded off for just a split second while he was driving and who is now a paraplegic who also has the deaths of two people who were in the car with him on his conscience; or of someone’s neighbour who invested all his savings in putting down a deposit to buy his own apartment but had no sooner done so than he fell ill with cancer and can now no longer even reach the fourth-storey apartment he sacrificed so much for because the lift in the apartment building is broken and the costs of its repair exceed the budget of the community association that administers it. Such configurations of circumstances are legion.
It is constantly demanded of us that we be grateful that we have hitherto been spared such personal disasters. But the general operativity in our consciousnesses of a àGenerative “Blind Spot” prevents our achieving insight into the fact that new human beings do not begin to exist as a result of a spontaneous and inevitable natural process but rather as a consequence of human decisions and acts and are thus deliberately rendered up to those disasters the provisional and uncertain absence of which from their lives they are supposed to be obliged to feel gratitude for. And a marked lack of empathy allows human beings to expose other human beings to all imaginable strokes of ill fortune in this way instead of taking steps to refrain from bringing these vulnerable human beings into existence.
It is possible to imagine a world in which we would be born in a state of decrepitude and then, as we grew older and progressed toward the time of our death, became ever healthier. It is to be supposed that, were our lives to take such a course, our attachment to existence in the world would become stronger and stronger the older we got. In our actual world, however, the opposite is the case, as is well known and as is described by Justinus Kerner in the following poem:
“In the end God sends us suffering, / In order that the world, / When we must take our leave of it, / Does not hold us back so strongly.“
These lines bespeak the sheer cynicism that inheres in the bringing about, and in the praising, of our existence in a world like this one, in which the organisms that dwell in it become afflicted with sicknesses which serve to make it a little easier for us to let go of the will to go on living that is innate in us.
“Had I never come to be, I would have suffered from a deprivation of existence!” According to this mythologeme and pronatalistic theorem, which has exerted considerable effect in the modern age, a decision not to procreate leads necessarily to a “possible” human being, conceived of as a “self existing before the self’s conception” or as a “proto-self”, being denied their share in the joys of existence. One of the people responding to our àQuestionnaire gave the answer that, if he had never begun to exist, he would never have had the enjoyment of reading Baudelaire.
The concept of the deprivation of existence represents an expression of àGratitude to Parents, since parents are envisaged to be those who put an end to this condition as suffered by their children by allowing them, through an act of procreation, to come into the world.
The notion of deprivation of existence also comes into effect in cases where we say, for example, that someone was robbed or cheated of their life, or of some years of their life. It is true, indeed, that, if someone creeps up on me and shoots a bullet through my head, I cease thenceforth, forever, to exist. But it remains, nonetheless, untrue to say that I have been robbed or cheated of my life, or of that part of my life which I may still have had to live. Because any “I” who could possibly have been robbed or cheated of something in fact ceased, in the moment of that pistol-shot, to exist. The person shooting me, then, did not take my life but simply took me out of a world which continued to existence without me. It is right to say that I, a living being, was removed from the world but not that “my” life was taken from me. A symmetrical situation obtains as regards existence’s beginning. When I began to exist, life was not “given to me”; I simply came to be added, as another living being, to a world which had already previously existed without me.
Use is made of this “argument from deprivation” by anyone who expresses or subscribes to the view that he, or someone else, would have been deprived of something, or would have had something withheld from them, if they had never begun to exist. One philosopher who propounds this “deprivation” thesis is R. N. Smart in his essay “Negative Utilitarianism”, where he writes: “… conscious existence is so remarkable in itself that it is wrong to deprive the unborn of the right to ‚drink in daylight’ (to use a colourful South Sea Pidgin expression). But the metaphysics of this feeling are odd.“ (cited from Akerma 2000, 227) The metaphysics laid claim to here by Smart, however, is not just “odd” but completely untenable, if it does indeed imply an existence preceding existence.
The core proposition of philosophical anthropology is the theorem that Man is, as it were, a cultural being by nature. The meaning conveyed by this paradoxical dictum is that however far back we trace the history of Man we at no point encounter human beings without some sort of culture and cannot, indeed, even conceive of the former without the latter. Palaeo-anthropology has discovered, wherever it has discovered any traces at all of our human ancestors, also traces of culture and cultural practices.
But if it is indeed the case that to think “Man” is at the same time necessarily to think “culture”, then it follows that Man must be conceived of as a cultural being throughout the entire duration, backward and forward, of his existence – that is to say, as a cultural being not just from the very start but also to the very end. And as such a “cultural being to the very end” it would be incumbent on Man not just passively to wait until Nature – in the form of material catastrophes, and finally and definitively of the expanding sun itself – puts an end to his existence as a species but rather to cultivate this end himself. Antinatalism is the theory of the cultivation of the end of humanity. If one refuses to pair with the theorem of Man as a cultural being by nature the statement that Man is also a cultural being to the very end, then one has thereby halved the cultivatedness of Man and made of him, after all, once again a half-natural being, that is, a natural being to the very end.
What we have said about this core proposition of philosophical anthropology applies all the more there where the natural and the cultural aspects of Man are most closely intermeshed with one another and where the facts of nature penetrate most deeply into our culture: namely, in the sphere of procreation. As the ambit of what is cultural in Man increases and our species takes a greater and greater distance from all that is natural both around us and in us, the begetting and birth of new human beings becomes less and less a casual and accidental matter and more and more a matter of conscious decision.
Gehlens thesis that Man is a being “one of whose most important characteristics is that he must take up some stance with regard to his own self” (Der Mensch) has a dimension to it which was most likely not perceptible to Gehlen himself: no “stance taken up with regard to ourselves” – as a species – can be comprehensive unless we adopt the anthropofugal perspective or, in other words, unless we succeed in gaining a distance from our own selves sufficient for us to be able to raise the question of whether human beings should exist at all, thus “ethicizing” the blind process of Nature.
The antinatalism that we argue for is an historically informed one. Which is to say that we take seriously all of documented history up to the present day as our best informant regarding the àConditio in/humana. What has been passed down to us of human history hitherto does not, for us, provide any reasonable grounds for hoping that “humanity”, or even just the overwhelming majority of human beings, can look forward to a future governed and guided by the basic principles of justice, let alone to some future “golden age”. Since it is impossible to look into the future, let us confine ourselves to the past and the present and extrapolate from these latter: At the end of the 19th Century it was recognized that production and distribution techniques and technologies informed and guided by the natural sciences had developed to such a point that it was thenceforth, in principle, possible for the whole of humanity to lead a life of peace and happiness. The feasibility of all that had once seemed merely utopian was proclaimed and the inauguration of this age of realized utopias took the form of the establishment of ostensibly socialist – but in fact state capitalist – societies which took their own populations hostage in the name of the total happiness of some indeterminately located future, thus perverting that dream of a pacified and reconciled human existence that had seemed on the point of becoming a reality.
Not least among the reasons why the bold promises of the 19th Century and of earlier utopias have proven to be unrealizable is that that massively increased rate and scale of technological progress – upon which the idea of a pacified and satisfied age of Man was made to rest – is in fact causing all those sources of raw materials, without which these promises cannot be put into practice, to run out and dry up. Indeed, the waste products of this ever more rapid and massive technological progress are well on the way to undermining the very natural foundations of all plant, animal and human organisms on earth. To say nothing of the fact that the much-celebrated (and indeed factually incontestable) progress in humanity’s powers and forces of production tends necessarily always to pave the way to the further development and sophistication of weapons and instruments of destruction – in those cases, indeed, in which the inventions and innovations that improve production and human welfare are not themselves side-products of the development of technologies of destruction.
The fundamental question of what valid reason there can be for perpetuating the human race was posed in the last century by a writer much renowned in his day but nowadays largely forgotten: Maurice Maeterlinck (1862–1949), winner of the 1911 Nobel Prize for Literature. He did so with reference to the work of another writer whose name has since sunk even further into obscurity than Maeterlinck’s own. In 1934 Maeterlinck wrote: “WHY, we may ask with Georges àPoulet in his unknown masterpiece Nothing Is…, why should there be prolonged the existence of a species whose development only increases its capacity for suffering?” (Maeterlinck, “Before the Great Silence” (1934))
A little later in the century the author Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902–1991) offered an especially concise and trenchant formulation of this same historically informed antinatalism in his story “The Letter Writer”: “The thought of raising children seemed absurd to him. Why prolong the human tragedy?” (The Letter Writer,)
An imaginary institution in which all those poets and thinkers who have defended the notion that some kind of anthropodicy legitimating human procreation can be formulated would work in shifts, publicly justifying, to those who come and lodge a complaint about the existence that has been forced upon them by their parents, the sorrows and sufferings imposed upon the former by the latter.
With the phrase “Dante transformation” we allude to the insight expressed by Schopenhauer to the effect that the Hell described by Dante in the first book of his “Divine Comedy” is nothing more nor less than the life that we live here on earth. To undergo the “Dante Transformation” is to recognize that all children who are begotten are “begotten into Hell”, because Hell is nothing belonging to the “afterlife” but rather human life itself. Concomitantly with this “Dante Transformation”, then, there arises a need for an anthropodicy: if our life in this world is Hell parents are under a moral obligation to justify what they do when they bring children into it through procreation.
Authors such as Octave àMirbeau or Franz Kafka – whose “In the Penal Colony” may have been modelled on Mirbeau’s “The Garden of Tortures” – located Hell in corners of human life as it is actually lived, whereas Thomas àBernhard, holding more strictly to the original Schopenhauerian insight, considers this life as a whole to be Hell.
We designate as “damnators” those bearers of science and culture who, although having proven themselves capable of humanistic reflection and having enjoyed the benefit of exposure to neganthropic ideas, continue nevertheless to urge, with a good conscience, that further human beings be rendered up into the grip of an uncertain destiny and an all too certain death. For so long as God was looked upon as a kind of “dictator of the world” (->Children of God) and before it became the general judgment that it is rather human beings that damn other human beings to human existence, it was indeed God, instead of the human ->Perpetrators of Existence, who was accused of being the “damnator” here. It is such an accusation that the Late Romantic poet Platen articulates, for example, in the lines in which he envisages human beings as “God’s convicts”:
„[…] O seek to sleep away each night / The pain and sorrow of each day; / For who can punish God, / For having damned and condemned us to be human beings!“ (Platen, Werke, Vol 1: Lyrik p. 69)
A “damnator” of the very first rank is Rousseau who, on the one hand, meticulously lists all the sufferings that await each child brought into the world but, on the other, gives all responsibility for these sufferings to “Nature”:
“Fix your eyes on Nature, follow the path traced by her. She keeps children at work, she hardens them by all kinds of difficulties, she soon teaches them the meaning of pain and grief. They cut their teeth and are feverish. Sharp colics bring on convulsions. They are choked by fits of coughing and tormented by worms. Evil humours corrupt the blood, germs of various kinds ferment in it, causing dangerous eruptions. Sickness and danger play the chief part in infancy. One half of the children who are born die before their eighth year (…) This is Nature’s law. Why contradict it?” (Rousseau, Emile)
We also number among the “damnators” the renowned philosopher Derek Parfit who, in his compendious work “On What Matters“ from 2011 engages in some reflections on whether, and how, the continuation of human history can be justified in view of the course that this history has taken in the past. Even if the past, argues Parfit, must be judged, in its totality, to have been “bad” – by which he basically means a predominance, on balance, of human suffering over human happiness – one does not have the right to draw conclusions from this past about the likely quality of the future. Because the balance of suffering and happiness could shift quite significantly in this latter and the future thus prove to be much “better”, in general, than the past. Parfit goes so far as to imagine humanity in the shape of a single person and to ascribe to this personified “mankind” various phases of life. In terms of this allegory human history up to the present day would be an unhappy childhood which might, as often occurs in the life of real individuals, find more than adequate compensation in a later life that would prove, on balance, a happy and fulfilled one:
“Even if the past has been in itself bad, the future may be in itself good, and this goodness might outweigh the badness of the past. Human history would then be, on the whole, worth it. We could also truly claim that the past was worth it, not in itself, but as a necessary part of a greater good. On this view, the past would be like an unhappy childhood in some life that is on the whole worth living.“ (Parfit, On What Matters, Vol. 2, p. 612) But in this passage Parfit commits a category error which it is hard to believe a thinker of his brilliance was even capable of. He compares an in fact subjectless entity which has been constructed by conceptually aggregating many individuals (“mankind”) with the biography of an actual individual subject who might alone, in any real and valid sense, look back and judge that the sufferings undergone in earlier phases of his existence have become acceptable in light of all the happiness which later fell to his lot. We are fundamentally in disagreement with Parfit here, believing as we do that it is quite generally and universally wrong to act in such a way that a human being begins to exist who must necessarily undergo suffering.
The “damnatory” trait in Parfit’s thought becomes especially clearly visible where, failing entirely to take into account the suicide threshold he allows himself the following reflection: “Even if our children’s lives would be worse than nothing, they might decide to bear such burdens, as many people have earlier done, for the sake of helping to give humanity a good future. We could justifiably have children, letting them decide whether to act in this noble way, rather than making this decision on their behalf, by never having children.“ (Parfit, p. 615) Parfit’s attitude, clearly, is that moral attitude which was developed to terrible extremes in such cases as those of Stalin or Mao: he is prepared to approve as morally valid actions which will result in a miserable existence for certain human beings just as long as this misery can be justified by reference to a “glorious future” expected to be enjoyed by quite other human beings than these.
Bionomic propositions are formulations which thematize our pre-conscious determination to go on living, which tends to persist quite regardless of our will or freedom of choice. They shed a stark light on why, when we ask such questions as “Are you glad that you were born?”, we must always expect to receive pronatalistically distorted answers. From such bionomic propositions we can also clearly see why it is cynical to suggest to a refuser of existence: “Well, you should just kill yourself, then!” (->Suicide Cynicism):
“Our body itself is so made that it makes us work for it, even if we are unwilling.“ (Works Vol.. 37, p. 329)
“No one is alive because he wants to be. But once someone is alive, he has no choice but to want it.” (Naturrecht und menschliche Würde, p. 15) So as to avoid possible misunderstandings, let us reformulate this in the following way: “no one wanted to begin to live; but once one’s life has indeed begun, one finds oneself pushed and pressured to live on by both bodily organism and psyche – regardless of whether one wants to live on or not.”
Bloch’s bionomic proposition sheds a stark light on why, when we ask such questions as “Are you glad that you were born?”, we must always expect to receive pronatalistically distorted answers.
The bionomic proposition is contested by, for example, the considerations advanced by Hans Saners, for whom a real possibility of freedom is to be found in a supposed “ability to initiate” endowed upon us at and by our birth (see Saner, Geburt und Phantasie, p. 31). Saner, however, fails to take account here of what Bloch calls the freedom-negating claims of the organism.
“Axiarchism” designates the notion, propounded by the Canadian philosopher John Leslie, that the universe exists because it is good that it exists, and that it is governed by good abstract values or ideals. On this account of things, the universe would exist by ethical necessity. But insofar as this can be said to be the case, there manifests itself also the bad side, the à”Unethics” of this so-called ethical necessity: millennia of devouring and being devoured, merely so that, with the beginning of human history, rational beings could start to hunt, make war on, and destroy one another?
One would have at least as much reason to propound, then, instead of a doctrine of axiarchism, one of kakonarchism, whereby the universe exists because it is bad that it exists, and whereby the abstract values that govern it are all bad values, or “anti-values”: misfortune, disaster, distress, harm, perdition, ruin, evil, detriment (these are all meanings of the ancient Greek term to kakón). In his essay “The Theory That the World Exists Because It Should” Leslie acknowledges this reservation at least so far as to say that he can fully comprehend the view of those who hold that the universe exists not because its existence is ethically required to exist but rather “because it is an ethical disaster.”
 Leslie, The Theory That the World Exists Because It Should, in: American Philosophical Quarterly, Volume 7, Number 4, October 1970, p. 286–298, here: p. 292.