Dealing With the State of Being Alone

Among the reasons motivating acts of procreation there surely counts the need to somehow deal with the state of being alone. So as not to remain alone in the world (be it radically alone as a single individual or “alone together” as a couple) one acts in such a way that a new human being begins to exist – while knowing, indeed, that this new human being will now be threatened, in his or her turn, by this same state of aloneness. It is this paradox, and this moral inconsistency, that is expressed by Thomas Bernhard, in his novel “Frost” through the following formula: “To beget, because one wants no longer to be alone, another aloneness; this is criminal.”

The Perceived “Antinatalist Imposition” and Defensive Reactions Thereto

Like every moral theory antinatalism is based on the principle of universalizability. That is to say: whoever argues for antinatalism is logically bound to argue not only that it would have been better if others had never begun to exist and had never procreated but that it would be better if he himself did not procreate and indeed would have been better if he himself had never lived. Such an argument, however, is interpreted by many as a threat to his own life and the lives of his descendants, relatives and friends. The antinatalist universalization, in other words demands that we  jump over our own existential shadow. This jumping over our own existential shadow, however, may appear less inherently unworkable if we hold strictly to the linguistic form in which the problem was initially posed and, instead of saying: (A) “For the antinatalist it would be better if X had never lived”, say: (B) “For the antinatalist it would be better if X had never begun to exist”. In (A) antinatalism appears to be setting as its aim the taking of someone’s life (an actual killing!);  in (B), by contrast, what the formulation expresses is just an existence’s happening not to begin, something by which no actual person can be said to be directly affected.

Nevertheless, since we have in fact all by definition already “seen the light of the world”, it can be extremely difficult to cognitively “jump over our own shadow” in this way. When the antinatalist says to the non-antinatalist: “Suffering can only be abolished through the abolition of human existence itself”, the non-antinatalist may understand this as amounting, in various ways, to an actual threat to him and his:

  1. “I, my potential offspring, my relations and all those I know should, this antinatalist says, exist no longer; clearly, he aims to take our lives and condemns the very idea of our survival.”

  2. “This antinatalist advocates for a state of affairs whereby we would never have seen the light of the world and would have stayed forever within the shadow of non-being.”

  3. “By advocating for my having never been, this antinatalist is making a case for my Having Stayed Dead – a frightful idea, since it would mean that I would have missed out on all that I have experienced.”

  4. “By describing my non-being as something good and to be wished for, this antinatalist is making a case for my death.”

Where this strange misunderstanding of the antinatalist claim as a hostile and aggressive imposition is taken to the extreme there may be projected onto the antinatalist an actual desire to kill people. This projection would take the following form: the antinatalist wishes that none of us had ever begun to exist, i.e. wishes for our non-being; but such non-being could, at this point, only be brought about by means of the actual killing of existing beings. In the last analysis the antinatalist must wish for the actual killing of all human beings now alive, which is why there is often off-handedly imputed to him a will to destroy all mankind, or an extreme misanthropy. One especially vigorous form of defence against this perceivedly hostile imposition consists in denouncing the antinatalist himself as the only one whose non-birth is really to be wished for and urging him to commit suicide if he wishes really to follow out to its logical conclusion the position that he defends. In this way there would be averted the supposed threat posed by the antinatalist to the very existence of the non-antinatalist.

Concurring with the antinatalist ethical argument presupposes that one is able, by means of a rewinding back before one’s start of existence, to take a distance from one’s own existence in just the same way as one is able to take a distance from the existence of one’s relatives or acquaintances. We encounter what is probably one of the most pronounced instances of this “taking of a distance from one’s own existence” in an interview given by the Austrian poet Ilse Aichinger to the journalist Julia Kospach, in which Aichinger states that she believes her “own existence to be entirely unnecessary”. (Aichinger, Es muss gar nichts bleiben)

Eichmann Horizon

The term “Eichmann horizon” designates two long-term perspectives which must be taken into account in every generative decision:

  1. a) Firstly, the perspective of a thesis not, indeed, explicitly advanced by Hannah Arendt[1], though associated with and suggested by her work and documented both by social-psychological experiments (such as Milgram’s) and recent real historical genocides, to the effect that each of us, under the right historical circumstances, is capable of becoming an Eichmann;

  2. b) Secondly, that of the fact that we provide, through procreation, for the great episodes of inhumanity that the future surely holds[2] – even if their concrete form cannot yet be even vaguely discerned on the historical horizon – both the future victims and the future perpetrators which, if (a) holds true, almost every human being is capable of becoming.

Against the background of this “Eichmann horizon” appeal can no longer be made to the notion of the collective innocence of those involved or complicit in natality. In the form of the “Eichmann horizon” we lay claim to an extension of responsibility in terms of which not only the commanders, planners and active agents in such great episodes of inhumanity would be guilty but, above and beyond this, also all those antinatalistically àenlightened persons who, in spite of their possessing the historical education to know better and the freedom to decide otherwise, continue to beget future victims and perpetrators: i.e. enlightened parents.

[1] Arendt 1964 in conversation with Joachim Fest: “What I meant to say was absolutely not: ‘Eichman is in all of us’, ‘each of us has an internal Eichmann’, or anything of this sort”. Siehe:http://www.hannaharendt.net/index.php/han/article/view/114/194, accessed on 13.1.2013.

[2] “No effective steps have been taken to prevent a repetition – potentially and in basic principle entirely possible – of an Auschwitz-like catastrophe.” (Zygmunt Bauman, Dialektik der Ordnung. Die Moderne und der Holocaust)

Egological Footprint

An answer to the question “Why, in times when total prevention of all natality has become a real material possibility, do human beings still bring other human beings into existence?”: “In order to be able to say that they have left a ‘footprint’ which will endure on this planet after their own demise!” Thus, we need to take into account, besides Man’s much-discussed “ecological footprint”, also his “egological footprint”. The ontology underlying this is, admittedly, a doubtful one since parents cannot, in fact, pass on their consciousness, their ego, to their progeny. Each one of us is, in his or her essence, that consciousness which is brought to realization by his or her brain. There can be no such thing, then, as self-procreation in the sense of a passing on to our progeny of our actual self. Contrary to what is insinuated by a well-loved superstition, nobody actually “lives on in their children”. What is passed on is merely the hereditary genetic material (nobody speaks of an “hereditary consciousness”), the so-called “genotype”, the inevitable inherent ills of which people prefer not to recall. For all that, though, it is indeed “a second edition of their own selves” (Dohm, Die Mütter, S. 169) that parents tend to want to experience through their children.

We recognize more and more an obligation to keep our “ecological footprint” as small as possible, so as not to impair more than is necessary the conditions of existence of the billions of human beings who share the earth with us. At the same time, however, little or no thought is given, in the relatively wealthy industrialized nations, to the fact that that “egological footprint” which we are encouraged, from every direction, to leave in as large a form as possible threatens to render obsolete all our ecologically-conscious action and forgoing of consumption. Because with each new citizen of this planet which we mortals set walking in our footsteps so as not to quickly vanish, without trace and unremembered, from the earth we also cause an incalculably long sequence of consuming generations to leave deep ecological footsteps in our stead.

Inverted biography

A further argument for antinatalism can be derived from the thought experiment of an inverted biography: When pronatalists are made aware of the decay and suffering of old age, they often reply that before physical and mental decay lies the time of childhood, youth and adulthood.

Even though most people seem to agree that the suffering of old age is unbearable, for most people old age is somehow always far away. Either old age has not come yet or old age is secluded behind thick walls. The defusing of the sufferings of old age on the grounds that they are far away is ethically unacceptable. For they do not become less horrible on the ground that one has to experience them only later in life.

What would happen if the sufferings of old age were to be sustained at the beginning of life? According to this thought experiment, children would then be born with disease symptoms corresponding to Parkinson’s disease, osteoarthritis, diabetes, osteoporosis or dementia, rheumatism, swallowing disorders, decubitus or high blood pressure. As the children grow older, the symptoms would gradually decrease. In such a world, the antinatalist moral theory would probably meet with more resonance than in our factual world. For the consequences of the suffering of most reproductions would be immediately visible and would thus be way more reproachable, whereas in our world they do only become apparent after decades – and often only when the causers of these sufferings (the parents) are no longer alive. Morally speaking though, the suffering at the end of life associated with typical diseases of old age is no less serious than the corresponding suffering at the beginning of life in the frame of this thought experiment. But old age is discriminated against – also ethically.