Antinatalism – Gandhi’s Gait

Gandhi (1869–1948) is acknowledged as the spiritual and practical father of modern India, the only democracy yet to establish itself in a country whose population exceeds a billion. Many of today’s middle-class Indian citizens, however, with their smart-phones and their private automobiles, think back on him with mixed feelings. Because the resistance that he called for was not just a resistance to Britain’s colonial domination; the lean man with the spinning wheel also called for a resistance to the usurpation of human spiritual concerns by Western technology. Thus, he not only spoke out, in 1940, against methods of artificial insemination – which, as he believed at the time, could not possibly bring forth anything but idiots or monsters – but also, more generally, against an age he saw approaching “when men and women will walk, if they at all do, only for pleasure but go to their work on wheels or fly to it.” (Gandhi, Collected Works, vol. 78, p. 341f[1]) And in fact, already from the 1940s on, a fertility clinic had been in operation in London[2] the methods and results of which he could hardly have approved of since it seemed to Gandhi that procreation – assuming it should occur at all – should do so only within the framework of marriage.

How would Gandhi be looked on today in India – and in the world as a whole – if people were really aware of what his ideals were on the question of ethics and population?  Contrary to what might easily be supposed these ideals of Gandhi’s were not such as to point in the direction of a “one-child policy” of the sort recently practiced in China. Nor did they amount to the principle: “As many people as the land can sustain”. The father of modern India did not imagine any upper population limit stretching into the millions. The number of human beings inhabiting the earth which Gandhi ideally envisaged was that “Nirvana figure” the notion of which was clearly first conceived in India and which found its way to Europe by way of the intellectual and commercial channels of the Arab world. This number was: zero. Gandhi’s ideal as regards population was not a small number of human beings but rather: no human beings at all; a “no-child policy”. Both in India and everywhere else in the world.

That Gandhi, the icon of peace, should have cherished in his heart the ideal of a world without human beings sounds like a declaration of war against common sense, if not against humanity itself. In fact, however, Gandhi expressed his views on this ideal of a world without human beings in so many of his writings over a period of so many years and provided such a plausible justification for this ideal, deploying that logic of the rejection of suffering which has formed the core of the Indian philosophical tradition from the start, that it would be child’s play to provide evidence that he did in fact hold to this position and the question needs much rather to be raised of why Gandhi is not universally perceived as an indeed a proponent of a “no-child” politics and ethics. 

Ironically, Gandhi was not just the demiurge of an independent nation but also the father of four children. To his second-eldest son, Manilal (1892–1956) he addressed, on the 17th of March 1922 a piece of writing contending that it would be better had he, Manilal, never been begotten and that it would have been no loss (since to whom could it have been a loss?) if neither son nor father nor any one of the countless human beings somehow linked with them had ever existed. Since it is a father who is writing here to his son, Gandhi symbolically revokes, as it were, ex post facto with the following words the begetting of his son:  “…I do not at all believe that procreation is a duty or that the world will come to grief without it. Suppose for a moment that all procreation stops, it will only mean that all destruction will cease.” (Vol. 26, p. 369) Furthermore, Gandhi contends, not one child in a million is really a “wanted child”; rather, almost all are – as he goes on to note, doubtless very much in a self-critical spirit – incidental products of a mode of behaviour arising directly from Nature and one by which Man is not really distinguished from any other animal: “Probably one in a million may be resorting to intercourse for purposes of procreation. I have not come across any such person so far.” (Vol. 85, p. 418)

Gandhi’s version of the pacifist slogan so often cited in post-war Europe “Imagine there were a war and nobody went” runs as follows: “Imagine the world were full of war and destruction and no more human beings were ever born into it!” Applied specifically to the period of British colonial rule in India this amounts to what Gandhi wrote on 25th of April 1921in a letter to his friend, the Christian missionary and social reformer Charles Freer Andrews (1871–1940): “If I could find a way of stopping procreation in a civil and voluntary manner and whilst India remains in the present miserable state, I would do so today. But I know that it is impossible.” (Vol. 23, p. 89) It would only be possible if society consisted entirely of perfect Brahmachari – i.e. of people who were devoted to following Brahma’s path of renunciation. For a perfect Brahmachari, Gandhi explained after having received many letters asking him about his stance on celibacy, nothing is impossible. But such a perfect Brahmachari, he went on, is an ideal almost impossible to attain and nearly as difficult to realize as would be the actual drawing of an infinite Euclidian straight line. (see: vol. 21, p. 356) When he was flooded with letters enquiring further about the meaning of  Brahmachari Gandhi had (on the 29th of April 1926 in the weekly newspaper Young India) also this to say about the meaning of the word: the true Brahmachari knows no desire for procreation: “The whole world will be to him one vast family, he will centre all his ambition in relieving the misery of mankind and the desire for procreation will be to him as gall and wormwood.” (Vol. 35., p. 17f [Young India, 29.4.1926])

Gandhi also saw a special immorality in begetting children in India so long as British colonial rule there endured. He said, for example, in 1920: “We only multiply slaves and weaklings if we continue the process of procreation whilst we feel and remain helpless, diseased and famine-stricken. Not till India has become a free nation, able to withstand avoidable starvation, well able to feed herself in times of famine, possessing the knowledge to deal with malaria, cholera, influenza and other epidemics, have we the right to bring forth progeny. I must not conceal from the reader the sorrow I feel when I hear of births in this land.” (Vol. 21, p. 357)

But as we will now further explain, Gandhi does not just propose, in his role as a politician, that British rule in India might be combatted by means of a “procreation strike” that would deprive this rule of those it ruled over; in his role as an ethicist he also thinks much more profoundly, in a manner directed to human being in its entirety. The British came and will go away again; unfulfilled needs, sicknesses and the inevitability of dying remain, however, as fundamental and inevitable dimensions of existence. War and violence can really only be overcome in the measure that we cease to cause new human beings to enter into an existence which is already ruinous and structurally marked by violence. This is the case inasmuch as every human being that is begotten is thereby condemned by his or her parents to decay and perish. With his reflections so permeated by anticipative empathy and genuine moral responsibility Gandhi deliberately forgoes a widely disseminated pronatal argument which runs: ‘If I (I myself) bring a child into the world, then the chance exists that the world may become just a little better through his or her action’. Gandhi’s “principle of responsibility”, on the other hand, runs: ‘Before we can even think about bringing children into the world those presently alive will have to have prepared this world for the arrival of these children’. But it was not just colonial India of the 1920s, in Gandhi’s view, that was many decades removed from being so “prepared”. The freedom-fighter Gandhi, inspired by a vision of eternal peace, knows that it is not just India that suffers from a colonial defect but rather human existence itself that is shot through with the structural shortcomings that we have indicated – shortcomings that can be abolished only in and through the abolishing of the very existence of human beings on the earth. This structural shortcoming is the co-extensiveness of procreation, existence and violence. Gandhi’s basic principle, therefore, runs:

“If destruction is violence, then the creation of a thing is violence too. This is why procreation involves violence. The bringing into being of something that is doomed to perish does in fact contain violence.” (Vol. 37, p. 337f)

As a consistent proponent of the principle of non-violence (Ahimsa) Gandhi cannot condone the bringing forth of new human beings who are all doomed to die – be this (in the India of the colonial period) of hunger or be it (elsewhere in the world or at other times in history) of sicknesses or accidents or through the colonization of their lifeworld.

Gandhi is perhaps the only “icon of peace” who is entirely rightly seen as such: peace cannot be said to prevail as soon as no warlike confrontations are any longer occurring; but only then, when human beings are no longer causing other human beings to enter into an existence already formed and shaped by violence. Whoever thinks of begetting another human being is playing with the thought of condemning a human being to perish – an act of violence which we must, with Gandhi, condemn.

It is not progeny of one’s own that constitutes, for Gandhi, the goal of human life but rather that principle of Moksha that is characteristic both of Buddhism and of Hinduism: the putting of an end to those sequences of procreations, births, deaths and more births that form an endless chain. In a discussion with the social reformer G. Ramachandran (1904–1995) in October 1924 Gandhi replied to the question of whether the abolition of humanity by non-procreation that he preached was not also a form of violence and did not amount, indeed, to the destruction of humanity itself by saying: “Then you fear there will be an end of creation? No. The extreme logical result would be, not extinction of the human species, but the transference of it to a higher plane.” (Vol. 29, p. 267f) – The earth, in any case, would be empty of human beings.

[1] Cited from: The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (Electronic Book), New Delhi, Publications Division Government of India, 1999, 98 Volumes

[2] Cf.

Birth-Houses – Death-Houses

We have “birth-houses” in the form of maternity units; but there is barely an example in our societies of “death-houses”. A tolerable death, however, is surely the very least that a civilized society owes to its citizens, all of whom became such, after all, through no deliberate choice of their own. It is Witold Gombrowicz (1904–1969) who argues particularly eloquently for “death-houses” as compensation for our existential heteronomy and portrays, furthermore, how far we still are from this point:

“Why is the death of human beings still today so like the death of an animal? Why do our death-agonies remain so solitary and so primitive? Why have you not succeeded in civilizing death?

To think that this terrible thing, the final death-agony, is still so rife among us as in the very first days of Creation. In the course of millennia we have succeeded in changing nothing here, have left this savage taboo quite intact. We have television and use electric eiderdowns, but we still die as the men and women of savage eras did. Very occasionally, a doctor will secretly and ashamedly shorten the sufferings of a dying human being with an increased dose of morphine. A desperate intervention, always too little in the face of the terrible omnipresence of death and dying: I call for “death-houses” in which the most modern means for bringing about an easy death would stand at the disposition of everyone. “Death-houses” in which one might bring about one’s death unproblematically without having to throw oneself in front of a train or hang oneself from a doorknob. “Death-houses” in which exhausted, broken, used-up human beings might confide themselves to the care of specialists who can ensure for them a death without shame or excessive suffering.” (Gombrowicz, Tagebuch 1953-1969)

In this following passage Gombrowicz speaks of being “condemned to life” but does not name the “condemners” (the parents) by name, even though he does insist that the inevitable fate of all (children) who are caused to begin to exist is a fate that is clearly known to everyone:

“Each one of us is slowly and gradually destroyed until the day when his or her countenance is no longer to be recognized at all – and you know this, you know of this inevitable fate, yet lift no finger to spare this suffering to yourselves and to your own. What are you afraid of? That all too many people will simply bolt if you open the gates too wide? Allow those who wish to die to do so. Force no one to carry on living just because dying would be too uncomfortable – to do so is base and cruel […] This life to which I am condemned can trample me and violate me with the cruelty of a savage beast; but I possess a great and sovereign recourse against this: I can take my own life. If I do not wish to, I do not need to go on living. I did not invite myself into this world but I have the choice, at least, of leaving it… and this is the foundation of my freedom. And indeed also of my dignity (because to live with dignity means to live of one’s own free will).” (Ibid.)

Peace, Eternal

In the case where humankind fails to achieve insight and to set in motion the process of its own ebbing away, eternal peace on earth will only be achieved once the lighter elements of the sun have fused together and it has become, instead of the yellow giver of all life, the red ball that burns this life into annihilation.

Apology Paradox

The so-called “Apology Paradox” addresses the following state of affairs: if someone asks pardon for the terrible misdeeds of their forefathers – and if this asking for pardon is really sincerely meant – then this person is also accepting and embracing their own non-existence. The reason for this is that, in certain regions of the world, major neganthropic events such as slavery or the genocide of the Jews have been so crucially determinative of the course of history that their not having taken place would have meant that the person asking pardon for them would most likely never have begun to exist at all.

In her essay “The Apology Paradox” Janna Thompson acknowledges the paradox inherent in this fact that a sincerely-meant apology for the misdeeds of one’s forefathers must imply a sort of renunciation of his or her own existence on the part of the person making the apology. Speaking more concretely: if a person born in Germany after the historical genocide perpetrated upon the Jews apologizes for the crimes committed by his or her recent ancestors, then this person must necessarily also wish that the course of historical events leading up to this genocide should have been quite different than it actually was. Had this been the case, however, then the parents of the person offering the apology for the actions of his or her forefathers would either never have met or have met, at least, at some quite other point in time, so that the person in question would never have been begotten. Since, however, almost every individual is happy to have begun to exist we are confronted here, says Thompson, with a paradox: on the one hand one indicates, by offering this apology, that one would have preferred that history take a different course; on the other hand, one suddenly recognizes that one’s own existence is placed symbolically in peril thereby.

For antinatalist moral theory, however, this connected group of ideas addressed by Thompson displays no real paradoxical aspect: even someone who states of themselves that they are quite content to be in existence can at the same time express, without falling into paradox, the view that they would nonetheless have preferred that world history had taken a course such that they would never have begun to exist at all. The appearance of paradox arises only if one assumes that someone would have been in some way harmed by this existence never begun, or that something would have been withheld from someone thereby.

Pardon Me for Having Been Born!

In particularly marked cases of the Parent Taboo there can occur a complete sublimation of Parental Guilt which takes the form of an inverted reflection of this latter: instead of reproaching his parents, be it even in an oblique or cryptic manner, with having begotten him, the child asks pardon – vis-à-vis these parents, society in general, or the world – for his own existence. One piece of evidence that testifies particularly forcefully to the existence of this configuration and for the overwhelming force of the “parent taboo” is the title of Elisabeth Edward’s autobiographical work: “Pardon Me For Having Been Born! Memoirs of an Augsburg Woman”, the narrating subject of which feels guilty by reason of her very existence and concludes her narration with the words: “I hope that I too can be forgiven and I say: ‘Pardon me for having been born!’” (Edwards)

Happy to Have Been Born

If one were to take a survey on the subject the great majority of human beings would most likely answer that they are happy to have been born – or, in the words of D. H. Lawrence: “He dashed his glass to the ground and declared, by God, he was glad he had been born, by God, it was a miracle to be alive.“ (Lawrence, Women in Love) Now, firstly, this question “are you happy that you were born?” is an extremely crude all-or-nothing question and, secondly, we must, when such a “big question” as this one is posed, consider the possibility of cognitive distortions. In this case particularly the phenomenon of substitution (cf. Daniel Kahneman) needs to be taken into account; which is to say that it may be that a simpler rather than the true, larger question is really being answered here. Such a simpler question – which, instead of the larger question that is seemingly posed, is in fact being unconsciously and involuntarily responded to here – might, for example, be: “Are you happy that you can, at this moment, go on living?”

In order, then, to arrive at some genuinely nuanced and differentiated conclusion regarding the question of whether human beings are happy that their parents acted in such a way that they began to exist we must make use of a subtler way of proceeding. If it were really the case that human beings were happy to have been born then it would be to be expected that their lives, and the continuation of these lives, would be something extremely valuable to them and that they would never engage in any sort of behaviour which might in any way be detrimental to the quality of these lives and to their continuation. But as the antinatalist Sarah Perry explains in her book “Every Cradle is a Grave”, this is not the case. What we observe, on a very large scale, is rather types of behaviour which take great risks with future quality (and duration) of life in order to make the present more bearable. One form of this behaviour has been given the apt appellation “desperate partying“. Consumption of Narcotics and other dangerous leisure-time activities or types of sport strongly indicate that it is not suicide alone that constitutes a sign that life is not generally or consistently very highly valued by human beings and that it must rather be made bearable by certain types of behaviour detrimental, in the longer term, to life (cf. Perry).

Balzac provides a masterful description of such “desperate partying”: “These primates work day and night, slaving away, never pausing for a moment…Then, however, they show utter disregard for the future and, avid for pleasure, throw away in the tavern, great lords for a day, all the money they have sweated to earn…” (Balzac, “The Girl With the Golden Eyes”) Balzac speaks of the “unhappy ‘happy people’” (ibid.) whom we need always to bear in mind when evaluating answers given to the “big questions”, among which there counts the question of whether someone is happy to have been born.

What ephemeral factors the answer to such a question can depend on is clearly shown by a study in which two groups of subjects were asked to answer two questions – firstly in the sequence AB and then in the sequence BA:

A How happy do you currently feel?

B How many dates have you had in the past month?


B How many dates have you had in the past month?

A How happy do you currently feel?

When the questions were posed in the sequence AB, no greater degree of happiness, surprisingly, was reported by those who declared that they had had many dates; the correlation was, in fact, practically zero. When, however, the same questions were posed to another group in the sequence BA, a significant correlation was to be noted: those who had had many dates stated themselves to be happier. Clearly, what was at issue here was a certain emotional resonance: among the persons questioned, those who had had many dates were reminded of happy phases of their lives, which in turn influenced their answer to the second question (see Kahneman).


Gambling With One’s Life

Far from looking upon one’s own life as the highest and most unassailable of values, the famous mountaineer Reinhold Messner recommends a certain “gambling” with one’s own life as an appropriate reaction to the fact that one’s existence began heteronomously: “A human being is simply thrown into life, or he suddenly finds himself ‘there’ with a certain stretch of time at his disposal in which he can ‘gamble’ with his own life, that’s the way I see it (…) And one can really only gamble with one’s life if one recognizes that one has limits, that sooner or later one is going to die. As soon as one realizes this, it becomes unimportant when exactly this happens…“ (Reinhold Messner, Mein Paradies, die Berge, in: Paradiese, Saphir Verlags GmbH, Munich 1978) By the same logic it would, then, already have become unimportant that, at a certain point, one began to exist and it can no longer be looked on as imperative that one act in such a way that some new human being begins to exist – the right existential attitude for whom would now, in any case, consist in likewise “gambling” with a life that would become for him, once he had gained insight into Thanatality, something unimportant.

Heteronomous Arisal and Autonomous Self-Abolition

Despite the oft-cited notion that we are all “architects of our own good fortune” we still really do not know how many people can legitimately be so described: very much in our lives, certainly, is predetermined by the lottery of our genes and our destiny. It remains quite beyond dispute, however, that no one is the architect of his or her own entry into being. That we came into existence did not lie in our own hands; we were never in a position either to aspire to this state of existence or to refuse it. The only possibility we have of acting, in questions of being and non-being, as autonomous entities is in the question of non-being. Durs Grünbein thus offers the following formulation with regard to people committing suicide: “Fearing the possibility of terrible suffering, they decide to put an end to things themselves. Mortally wounded by the involuntary act of birth, they aspire, through a brutal clutching at this end, to win back their sovereignty as subjects.” (Das erste Jahr, Ff/M 2003, p. 50f) But why does Grünbein emphasis here the “brutality” of the suicide’s “clutching” at his end? Is it not much more brutal to simply suffer, far from all autonomy, the catastrophe of dying, or to damn people who have become incapable of such an action to simply waiting out the end which will overtake them as it does all creatures?  

It was Wolfgang Pfleiderer who found the right words in this connection: “Dying is an art. Most people simply let themselves be struck dead.“ (Wolfgang Pfleiderer, Bienen und Wespen, p. 41. Found: GK) The true art of living, in fact, may consist in autonomously and axionomically taking back into one’s own hands that dying which was involuntarily mandated by one’s parents to Nature, instead of waiting for this unknowingly commissioned “contract killer” to bionomically execute the parental sentence of death. To such a line of reasoning it is often retorted that “suicide is the coward’s way out” – to which Pfleiderer replies by pointing out that, whereas the majority of human beings are doubtless cowardly, suicide remains a relatively infrequent phenomenon: “Suicide is cowardice – but if this were the case it would surely occur much more often!” (ibid.., p. 18) In fact, the person who extracts himself, by suicide, from a creaturely situation which offers no other way out resists thereby the nigh-ubiquitous masochism of our world and proves himself to be, qua deserter from his servitude to this world, the true sovereign of the earth.

(Un)freedom of Procreation

To every individual’s constitutionally-guaranteed freedom to procreate there corresponds, in neganthropic terms, the impossibility of any individual’s adopting, beforehand, any position with regard to the beginning of his or her own existence – that is to say, an aspect of unfreedom.   

Let us consider Article 2 of the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany, paragraphs (1) and (2):

“(1) Every person shall have the right to free development of his personality insofar as he does not violate the rights of others or offend against the constitutional order or the moral law.

(2) Every person shall have the right to life and physical integrity. Freedom of the person shall be inviolable. These rights may be interfered with only pursuant to a law.”

From paragraph (1)’s guaranteeing of the right to the free development of personality one may derive a right to freedom of procreation. At the same time, according to paragraph (2), each citizen has the right to physical integrity. This, however, would require the existence of a duty to give birth to a healthy child: a duty which is almost never spoken about. But this in turn means: nobody has the right to be born healthy. – The disadvantage of having to accept being born unhealthy counts as an acceptable price to pay for avoiding the infringement of the freedom of procreation.


From an antinatalist perspective the progress achieved by humankind corresponds to the degree to which humankind succeeds in abolishing itself qua Nature-bound nexus of procreation and suffering. Decisive as regards the undermining of this Nature-bound nexus of procreation are the factors: basic material sustenance and methods of contraception. In the  20th century the development of technical-agricultural forces of production and that of mankind’s powers of destruction stayed more or less in equilibrium with one another. It was thus at the same time the most progressive and – by reason of certain aspects of this very progress – the most regressive century in mankind’s history. From the antinatalist perspective, however, the 20th century is decidedly to be classed as the most progressive century, since without the invention of modern methods of contraception it is to be supposed that many billions more human beings would have begun to exist.

Flaubert, Gustave (1821–1880)

In French literature of the 19th century Flaubert forms an antinatalistic antithesis to the marked pronatalism propounded, for example, by ->Zola: “The thought of bringing someone else into the world fills me with horror. I would curse my own self if I were ever to become a father. A son of my own! Oh, no, no no! Let my flesh and blood perish along with me and let me not pass the tedium and ignominy of this life on to anyone else.” (Flaubert, quoted in Tintenfass. Magazin für Literatur und Kunst, Nr. 4, Diogenes, Zürich 1981 p. 265)


Beginning of Existence Without Consent

Already in the autobiographical novel he composed in his youth, “Memoirs of a Madman”, Flaubert insists, in antinatalist spirit and in a manner that prefigures the work of Georges àPoulet, on the non-consensual character of the beginning of our existence: “But first of all: why were you born? Did you want to be? Were you asked if you wanted to be? It was simply blind fate that brought you into the world… Great as you may be today, you were at one time something as filthy as spittle and as ill-smelling as urine[1]; then you went through various metamorphoses, much as a worm does, and finally came out into this world, near-lifeless, shrieking, crying, with eyes still tight closed, as if you felt hatred for this sun, which you have nonetheless exhorted, so many times, to rise.” (Flaubert)


The Last Human Beings and the End of Humanity

Flaubert’s anthropofugal imagination not only prompts him to paint a portrait of the end of humanity and to wish this end to come all the quicker because of the cruelty hitherto displayed by Man; in one passage he even wishes for something that most people, if they encounter antinatalist ideas, perceive as an especially horrific and repugnant possible consequence of these latter: namely, to live on earth as the very last of the human race: “Infinite space will surely have one day to become weary of this speck of dust which makes so much noise and disturbs the majesty of the void. (…) A few last human beings will still wander back and forth across the dried-out earth and call out to one another now and then. But when they approach one another they will wince back in horror, terrified by each other’s appearance. And they will die alone.”[2] (Flaubert) “When the world no longer exists, oh yes, it is then that I would want to live, without Nature, without human beings; how glorious that emptiness will be!” (Flaubert)


Ecological Anthropofugality

Flaubert is no proponent, indeed, of an ecologically-based àAntinatalism of the sort that we encounter among supporters of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement; nevertheless, he gives expression to a certain ecologically anthropofugal vision: “The trees will grow and bear their leaves without any human hand being there to rip them down and break them. The rivers will flow on through gaily-coloured meadows; Nature will be free without human beings to subjugate it; and this species will die out, for it was an accursed one from its infancy onward.” (Flaubert)


[1] This vaguely recalls the phrase ascribed to Saint Augustine: Inter faeces et urinam nascimur.

[2] The wanderings of human beings in a world of this sort has been powerfully described by Cormac McCarthy in his novel “The Road”.

Blindness to Parental Guilt

It is in Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness” that we encounter one of the most striking cases of blindness to parental guilt. Because, although it is a central thesis of Sartre’s that we are all of us “condemned to freedom”, he remains entirely blind to the fact that it is our parents that condemn us to what goes under this latter name. Indeed, instead of speaking of parental guilt, Sartre goes so far as to say that Man, being condemned to be free, “bears the weight of the entire world on his shoulders; he is, as his very way of being, responsible both for the world and for himself.” (Being and Nothingness) And that “it is specific to human reality that it is without excuse” (ibid.) Implied here is a vision whereby the person “landing up” in a war would have to accept this as his own fault inasmuch as it would always be open to him to kill himself and thus remove himself from all that might befall him. But we consider this to be àSuicide Cynicism and ask: how could Sartre ignore the fact that we human beings are not causes of our own selves – that we are not primordial products of our own freedom but rather the beginning of the life of every human being is subject to the action or omission of his or her own parents?

Confessions of Parental Guilt

Confessions of guilt on the part of parents who retrospectively rue having caused the beginning of their children’s existence will tend to be rare, since parents believe they have the right to claim lack of knowledge concerning the future development of their children.


Thomas Mann’s (1875–1955) Three Confessions of Parental Guilt

Mann’s First Confession

On 13.11.1918 Mann notes in his diary:

“When I came back, the child’s ear was just being bound. He was rolling about and crying so badly it tore my heart in two […] When one brings children into the world one creates a suffering that is outside oneself: an objective suffering that one does not oneself feel but only watches others feel and that one feels guilty about.” (Mann, Tagebücher 1918-1921, S. 76 f. ; found by GK)

We have to do here with a confession of parental guilt of which the majority of parents, perhaps, would not be capable. It is, after all, considered as part of the “musical accompaniment” to every normal existence that children cry, be it from physical pain or psychological discomfort, just as they tend, indeed, quite generally to make a lot of noise (since their parts tend to buy them loud toys). But this piece of popular wisdom “Children just cry, that’s all” in fact reveals a shattering hermeticism of necessity which aspires to deny to the crying of children the moral seriousness which is due to it. This denial involves overlooking the fact that children – in contradistinction to grown-ups – tend to become completely absorbed in their own situation of distress and to be entirely dominated by their own pain.

Mann’s Second Confession

A further confession of parental guilt on Thomas Mann’s part is to be found in the volume edited by Erika Mann “In Memory of Klaus Mann”. In the foreword which he contributes to this book Thomas Mann writes:

“My heart is without bitterness over the fact that, in the end, he was unable to think of us. It would really be going too far to speak of ingratitude for a gift as ambiguous and laden with guilt as is the so-called ‘gift of life’” (Mann, My Son Klaus, S. 11. Found by GK)

This formulation is revolutionary from the point of view of the ethics of natality. It contests the belief that children owe their parents gratitude inasmuch as these latter are the cause of their being. Mann, on the contrary presents us here with an àInversion of the Guilt of Natality: The child is not under an obligation to his parents because he has received from them “the gift of life”; rather the parents are under an obligation to the child because what they have given him, in giving him life, has been a “gift” of profound ambiguity.


Peter Weiß (1916–1982)

“It is intolerable that I was the one who bestowed on you this world, that I was the one who bestowed on you this disfigured life.” (Die Besiegten)

Parental Guilt

Parental guilt[1] designates an incontournable guilt which all initiators of human existence necessarily bring upon themselves. The incontournability of parental guilt corresponds to the fact that all children, without exception, are condemned to undergo those sufferings which go hand in hand with birth, life and death. The degree of specific individuals’ parental guilt, however, is measured by how far they have been able to benefit from antinatalistic àEducation and Enlightenment and on the extent of practically accessible ->Parental Freedom, that is to say, the freedom of choice as regards deciding for or against procreation. There attaches to parental guilt a certain social-historical index: the greater the availability, on the one hand, of methods of contraception and the more widely disseminated, on the other hand, information about the Conditio in-/humana – or, in other words, the knowledge of the human species about itself –, the more significant will be parental guilt. The poor woman in Niger or Bangla Desh today, or the female factory worker in Germany in 1900, will bear less parental guilt than the men of their respective eras, or than prosperous Westerners of the time around the turn of the millennium, who all had the opportunity to fully inform themselves about the past, the present and the likely future of humanity and of each newborn human being from the cradle right up to the Geronto-Camps or deathbed in a hospital.

Parents living in the “Information Age” know not only about the vulnerability of their children, whose begetting or coming into the world they would have been able to prevent relatively easily, but also about the probable manner of their necessary physical decline and death. They accept this by adducing similar considerations, perhaps, to those which are adduced by the meat-eater to ease his acceptance of the notion that animals must die in order for him to eat as he wishes: “But they had a good life for as long as it lasted!” and “It’s really not so bad after all!” The physician Sherwin B. Nuland opposes this view. Not least among the targets of the argument of his book “How We Die: An End With Dignity?” are those medical peers of his who attempt to beautify the actually generally torturous process of our dying with spurious claims about this latter:

“I am baffled by such assertions. I have too often personally experienced how people die in the most agonizing way and how their near and dear ones suffer from their inability to help them for me to believe that these clinical observations of mine are misinterpretations of reality. I can bear personal witness to the fact that the last weeks and days of most of my patients’ lives were marked by pains like the pains of Hell. […] It is a certain shame which ensures that the thought is repressed of how miserable our end actually is.” (Nuland, How We Die) What kind of shame, exactly? Clearly, the sight of real dying human beings gives rise to shame because one realizes thereby that one is complicit in the propagation of that lie so necessary to bearing and sustaining life that our existence is really a garden of roses and that the agonies of our demise are not at all an imposition inasmuch as they are more than made up for by the pleasures we will have enjoyed beforehand.

To the extent that prospective parents are informed of these facts – and who can possibly remain uninformed about the hellish conditions of the dying and the hellish sufferings they undergo? – this must mean that, by procreating, they must accept and even condone the most terrible agonies for their own children. There shows forth, through the argument that the children in question, before their death, will have had a fine life, a one-sided prejudice in favour of the present or the immediate future, with the less immediate future being arbitrarily “faded out”. But the fact that something – in this case “pains like the pains of Hell” – is undergone at one particular point in time or another does not alter the quality of what is undergone. That great pains are suffered only at the very end of life does not make these pains any less cruel. Moreover, we encounter here an instance of the widespread tendency to place low value on the old: prospective parents justify the inevitable suffering and death of those children of theirs who will one day become old by telling themselves that it is “only” very old people who will suffer in this way.

[1] We first encounter the concept “parent-guilt” in Dieter Thomä’s book “Parents”, p. 222, Anm. 9.