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.

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