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)

One thought on “The Perceived “Antinatalist Imposition” and Defensive Reactions Thereto

  1. Thanks again for a good dose of clarity, and a reminder of the importance of the way ideas are formulated. That simple word “begun” makes such a difference to the possibility of advancing a conversation, not least by dramatically defusing the frequent hostility provoked by threatening misconceptions. Thanks!

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