Zapffe, Peter Wessel (1899–1990)
The Norwegian antinatalist Zapffe found one important point of departure for his own thought in an aspect of the teachings of Jacob von Uexküll (1864–1944) on human beings and our relation to our environment: in non-human animals, taught von Uexküll, there exists a significant degree of harmony between organic endowment, environment, and way of life. For this reason, animals move, as it were, with the confidence of sleepwalkers through their respective environments, perceiving in these environments only structures that bear meanings peculiar to their respective species. Nature has accorded to them only those sense-organs which are absolutely indispensable for their specific forms of existence and has thus assigned to them firm and fixed worlds of perception and affection. In Man’s case, however, this restriction has been shattered. He has been dismissed from this harmonious world and now has an unquenchable need: the need for sense and meaning.
The Antinatalism of Meaninglessness in “The Last Messiah” (1933)
Speaking very generally, our species’ dying out by way of natal abstinence appears to Zapffe to be an imperative because it represents the only rational way of dealing with that self-awareness with which Nature provided us in order then immediately to dismiss us from its bosom as thenceforth eternal strangers to it. As a self-aware entity, the human being has a need for meaning which the essentially indifferent cosmos is unable to quench. Zapffe first formulated his thoughts on this issue in “The Last Messiah”, a short essay of 1933, written in a highly poetic language. Below, we present some passages from this work, culminating in an exhortation to allow humanity to ebb away: “One night, in time long past, Man awoke and saw himself as he is. He saw that he was naked amidst the cosmos, homeless in his own body. His thought, which dug and questioned back behind all that is, cast everything into dissolution and disintegration, confronting him always with new riddles and causing, over and over again, dismay and consternation to burgeon in his brain.” 
“What had happened? There had occurred a breach in the former unity of life and all that lives: a biological paradox, something monstrous, absurd, a catastrophic hypertrophy. Life had overshot its own goal and broken its own banks. It had equipped one of the species brought forth by it with a weapon – namely, “mind” in this term’s full self-reflective sense – that had proven all too powerful. Mind not only endowed this species with omnipotence over its external environment; it also represented a great danger for this species’ own wellbeing.” 
“He enters Nature like an uninvited guest; he stretches out his arms and pleads to be led back to that which brought him forth. But Nature no longer answers. In Man, it performed a miracle; but ever since it did so, it no longer knows or recognizes the miracle it performed.”  “Know yourselves, be unfruitful, and let the earth, when you are gone from it, lapse into stillness and silence.” 
Om det tragiske (On the Tragic) (1941)
In his voluminous magnum opus “On the Tragic” Zapffe portrays Man’s mode of existence (in accord here with Josef Körner) as structurally and thereby irremediably tragic. Man, however, has the capacity to rebel against that Nature and that life which enslaved him – a truth the antinatalistic consequences of which Zapffe develops only at very few points in his body of work. He does so, however, in the following passage, framed in the poetic language which he had favoured in “The Last Messiah” but which is quite untypical of the otherwise sober style of the magnum opus:
„You got me. But my son you will not get. You made a fateful error when you subjected even procreation to my will. And you did not do this out of love…, but rather to burden me with the heaviest of all responsibilities…: Am I to perpetuate this species or not? And from now on I will no longer ask what you want; rather you shall ask what I want. And I will no longer offer sacrifices to the God of life. I will punish you with the ability that you bequeathed to me in order to torment me; I will turn my clairvoyance against you, thus robbing you of your victims. And the abused millions will stand behind me like a plough… And evermore will two human beings create one more of their kind… Thus you will feel your powerlessness and come begging to me, to Man, on bloody knees.“ 
The problem constituted by the existence of a humanity dismissed from the enfolding bosom of Nature – and reflectively aware of this dismissal, so that we find ourselves thirsting after meaning in a cosmos that is essentially meaningless – can only be solved by the cessation of the production of all further human beings:
„I will have to desist from the creation of all new stakeholders in this failed project. Such a decision would, indeed, usher in a terminal epoch in the development of humankind; […] But this renunciation, this ‘no’ opposed to all continuation of the human project, represents in fact the utmost cultural possibility of mankind.“ 
If Man is by his very nature a cultural being, then it is imperative that Man’s end too be an end informed by that reflection and volition that are constitutive of culture.
Antinatalism of Suffering
At least in the first half of his life the impetus for Zapffe’s call for an “ebbing away of humanity” appears to consist essentially in the conflict between a meaningless cosmos and a being which demands, by its very nature, that things have meaning and sense. But in interviews from the later years of his life Zapffe begins to speak of the inescapability of certain experiences of suffering which no potential parent with any sense of responsibility would ever think of expecting any child they may beget to put up with. A transitional phase here is represented, perhaps, by an interview given to the newspaper Aftenposten in 1959. Here Zapffe says:
“Above all, we must give ethical relevance to the issue of procreation. Before one gives a coin to a beggar one looks at both faces of it, carefully considering what one is about to do. A child, by contrast, is thrown into the brutality of the cosmos without hesitation.” 
More precisely, Zapffe proposes, in this interview – in contrast to his statements in “On the Tragic”, where he had proposed that every couple should have just one child – a “two-child policy” as a way for humanity to “ebb away” without suffering:
“The sooner Man dares to put himself into a harmonious relationship with the biological conditions of his existence the better. And this means withdrawing voluntarily in protest against his conditions of life in this world; just like other species of animal, for whom warmth was a vital need, passed into extinction when the temperature dropped. The moral climate of the universe is effectively unbearable for us and the withdrawal from it can be carried out painlessly by way of the two-child norm. Instead, we ‘go forth and multiply’, presenting ourselves everywhere as if we were conquerors, since extreme hardship has taught us to suppress this formula in our hearts. This hardening of our sensibility is perhaps most indecently reflected in the thesis that the individual has the “duty” to endure nameless suffering and a horrible death inasmuch as this saves or favours the rest of the group to which the individual in question belongs.”
This passage combines a reminder of the “unbearable moral climate of the universe” with certain concrete thoughts regarding how the failed project of humanity might at last be wrapped up and also regarding that unacceptable imposition of death and of suffering in general which always necessarily goes hand in hand with the bringing of new human beings into existence, human beings who never expressed any desire to be begotten and born.
This aspect of the irresponsibility of all generative behaviour is particularly emphasized by Zapffe in an interview from 1984:
“To have children, to let a fate come into existence – perhaps a whole series of fates without any limitation in time – is a project so heavily burdened with inevitable evils and enormous risks (physically and psychologically) that potential parents endowed with a fully developed sense of responsibility will tend towards passivity or show themselves incapable of acting. Especially at a time when immense threats close off the horizon, silencing any potential ‘yes’ to life.” 
In a late interview from 1989/1990 Zapffe comes down unequivocally on the side of a rigorous “no” to life: “From the ‘no’ to life there directly follows a cessation of procreation. I do not want to participate in the creation of new life.” 
As indicated above, one does not perhaps go far wrong in reckoning Zapffe among those thinkers whose thought has undergone a certain transformation in the direction of antinatalism: one which begins with a certain advocacy of antinatalism in view of the intolerable meaninglessness of self-aware human existence and moves toward something like an antinatalism proper founded in the fact of this existence’s being so overwhelmingly full of suffering that no one can reasonably be expected to accept and bear it. Zapffe’s early “antinatalism of meaninglessness”, however, does not appear very convincing – and this for the following reasons: Zapffe, as we have seen, portrays Man as a being who has been, as it were, “dismissed from Nature” by reason of a certain “surplus of consciousness” – which latter, indeed, lies at the root of Man’s awareness of, and ability to reflect upon, himself – and who, therefore, finds himself in the midst of a meaningless cosmos and suffers terribly from this fact. In the first place the question arises of whether Zapffe does not, perhaps, overly romanticize the existence of human beings – at this point, as should be noted, only conscious, not yet genuinely self-conscious beings – “in the bosom of Nature”. Because it is true, after all, of the great majority of sentient animals that, after lifetimes filled with sicknesses, injuries, hunger and vicissitudes either as hunter or as prey, no easy or merciful death falls to their lot. And furthermore the course of events, in terms of the interface between Nature and history, within the transitional space between animal and Man is not as Zapffe suggests it to be: as far back as our knowledge of Man reaches, we see him “always already” accompanied by culture and by ritual actions from which we can conclude the existence of certain mythical world-images which prevented a sense of meaninglessness from ever arising. Zapffe conceives of Man as a biological “hiatus being” who is no longer, as the other animals were and remain, merely aware but rather becomes abruptly and immediately self-aware and proves unable to withstand the sudden onslaught of that meaninglessness which he nonetheless presupposes as a given. No such Man ever existed, however, in our species’ history or prehistory, since Man was “always already” an artist, at least as regards his anchoring of himself in the world by means of myth and religion. Zapffe fails to recognize this even though precisely such an “anchoring” forms one of his key themes: “anchoring” in the world as an unconscious precautionary measure aimed at precluding full exposure to the assault of meaninglessness – this is a topic which occupies him at great length throughout his major work “On the Tragic”.
It was only, in fact, after the implosion of that harmoniously ordered world-whole to which the Greeks gave the telling denomination “cosmos”, and after the subsequent collapse of that conception of the world as God’s Creation which had been this vision’s successor and inheritor, that Man found himself cheek by jowl with a universe bereft of meaning. No such confrontation as is described in Zapffe’s “The Last Messiah” – namely, that of a primitive Man, dismissed from the bosom of Nature and abruptly self-aware, with a tormenting, absolute nothingness – can ever really have occurred. This confrontation is rather something which was reserved for us, the “late humanity” of the present day.
In fact, however – and this much at least can be said in the defence of his early philosophical schema – Zapffe adduces, in “The Last Messiah”, no less than four distinct strategies or systems serving to keep at a distance the onslaught of a meaningless universe. These are: isolation, anchoring, distraction and sublimation. By “isolation” Zapffe understands the deliberate rejection of all those disturbing and destructive thoughts and feelings which may happen to come to an individual’s awareness. Regarding “anchoring” Zapffe notes:
“Every cultural unity is a large-scale system of anchoring, fully rounded-off in itself and constructed upon those supporting pillars that are the culture in question’s fundamental ideas.”
These trust-building “anchoring mechanisms” – parents, home, even the life of the streets – exert their effects from earliest childhood on. “Distraction” is considered by Zapffe to be an extremely widely prevalent mechanism of self-protection: attention to the universe’s meaninglessness remains constantly below a certain critical threshold, inasmuch as our attentiveness is constantly fed by new distracting impressions. “Sublimation”, finally, designates rather a transformation than a repression. It is very telling that the US antinatalist Thomas Ligotti – on whom Zapffe’s work “The Last Messiah” exerted a great influence – chose to call his own work on “the conspiracy against the human race” the sublimation of his personal “cosmophobia”. If one reads these Zapffe’s four systems or strategies as strategies of “de-anxietization”, the connection becomes clear between his work and the work of Hans Blumenberg, who also accorded to mythical world-descriptions and mythical forms of life the function of “de-anxietization”.
 „En natt i lengst forsvunne tider våknet mennesket og så seg selv. Han så at han var naken under kosmos, hjemløs i sitt eget legeme. Allting oppløste seg for hans prøvende tanke, under over under, redsel over redsel sprang ut i hans sinn.“
 „Hva var skjedd? Et brudd på selve livs-enheten, et biologisk paradoks, en uhyrlighet, en absurditet, en hypertrofi av katastrofal natur. Livet hadde skutt over målet og sprengt seg selv. En art var blitt væpnet for sterkt, – ånden gjorde den ikke bare allmektig utad, den var like farlig for sin egen velferd.“
 „Han kommer til naturen som en ubuden gjest; forgjeves rekker han sine armer ut og bønnfaller om å bli gjenforenet med det som har skapt ham: Naturen svarer ikke mer, den gjorde et under med mennesket, men siden kjente den ham ikke.“
 „Kjenn Eder selv, vær ufruktbare og la jorden bli stille etter Eder.“
 Ders.: Tragik und Tragödie. Ein vorläufiger Versuch über Wesen und Gestaltwandel des Tragischen, in: Preußische Jahrbücher Bd. 225 (1931).
 „Mig fik du, men min søn skal du ikke faa! En skjæbnesvanger feil begik du, dengang du agsaa la avlen ind under min vilje. Og ikke av kjærlighet gjorde du det, men for at jeg skulde møte dette værste av alle konkrete ansvar…: Skal jeg føre denne slegt videre eller skal jeg ikke? Og nu spør jeg ikke længer hvad du vil, men du skal spørge havd jeg vil, og jeg vil ikke mere ofre til livets gud. Jeg skal ramme dig med den evne som du frigav for at pine mig, jeg skal bruke min indsigt imot dig og berøve / dig dit bytte. Og de misbrukte millioner skal staa bak mig som en plog… Og altid skal to avle én… Da skal du kjende din avmagt og tigge mig, mennesket, paa dine blodige knær.“ (Om det tragiske, S. 239f)
 „Jeg maa undlate aa skape nye interessebærere. Beslutningen vil danne en avsluttende epoke i menneskeslegtens utvikling […] I denne forsagelse, dette nei til fortsættelsen, ligger menneskeformens ytterste kulturelle mulighed.“(Zapffe, Om det tragiske, Pax Forlag 1996, S. 402).
 „Fremfor alt må vi gjøre forplantningsspørsmålet etisk relevant. Man endevender en mynt under valgets kvide, før man gir den til tiggeren. Men et barn slænger man ut i den kosmiske råskap uten å blunke.“
 „Jo snarere menneskeslekten våger å harmonere med sine biologiske forutsætninger, des bedre. Og det er å trække sig frivillig tilbake, av ringeakt for sine vilkår i verden, likesom varmehungrende dyrearter døde ut da temperaturen sank. Det er altets moralske klima vi egentlig ikke kan tåle, og avviklingen kan ske smertefritt gjennem to-barns-normen. Isteden utbreder vi oss og seirer overalt, fordi vi av nøden har lært å lemlæste formelen i vore hjerter. Det urimeligste utslag av denne styrkende forgrovning har vi kanske i tesen om, at den enkelte har “plikt” til å bære navnløse lidelser og den værste død, dersom det redder eller gavner resten av den gruppe han tilhører.“ Der norwegische Text wurde uns von „Planet Zapffe“ (http://www.knunst.com/planetzapffe/) zur Verfügung gestellt.
 „…å avle barn, å starte en skjæbne, evt. en vifte av skjæbner uten begrænsning i tid – er et foretagande så ladet med både sikre onder og svimlende risker – fysisk, psykisk og sjælelig sett – att potensielle forældre med moden ansvarsbevissthet vil være disponert for passivitet eller handlingslammelse på dette punkt, især i en tid som vor, der overvældende truende aspekter fylder horizonten og lammer vort Ja til livet.“ (Zapffe im Interview mit Geir T.H. Eriksen, in: Gateavisa Nr. 102 (7/84), Seite 29–31, hier: S. 30).
 „Den givende handling som følger av et nei til livet, det er jo at man innstiller barneforplantningen. Jeg vil ikke være med på å skape nytt liv.“ (Zapffe interviewed by Av Bo Viuf, http://www.oslo.net/historie/MB/utg/9601/perspekt/1.html, consulted on 14.9.2014)
 Enhver kultur-enhet er et stort, avrundet forankringssystem, bygget over bærende grunnbjelker, de fundamentale kulturtanker. (Den siste messias)
According to antinatalistic moral theory there would be no obligation to act in such a way as to cause new human beings to exist even if the human beings in question were destined to be happy. Many may conclude from this that antinatalism is a moral theory unconcerned with the issue of happiness. But this is not the case. Even if it seems to us impossible to find a foundation for any supposed obligation to “make” happy human beings, there certainly does exist a moral obligation to make already-existing human beings content.
That a believer in God might – in the tradition of Job – make reproaches to Him for all the sufferings that human beings must undergo on earth is all the more unlikely the more such a believer would have to fear that, by such an action, he would be putting the salvation of his own soul at risk. But God functions, nonetheless, in the history of the constitution of antinatalism, on account of the responsibility for all aspects of existence that is ascribed to Him, as a sort of a “catchment basin” placed before the accusation eventually levelled against human parents, and as a sort of area of accumulation for complaints about existence. Where accusations directed against God arise, these accusations serve initially also to shield and cover over Parental Guilt and to forbid the emergence of reproaches directed against human parents. But with the àImplosion of God and the loosening-up of religious obsessions and idées fixes the historically-accumulated accusations against God fall back upon the heads of procreating human beings. Man, freed of religion, inherits the accumulated guilt of God, in the shadow of which he continues to procreate.
In the course of what we might call “the implosion of God” we observe, in the “ideal-typical” case, a falling-back upon the heads of human beings themselves of those >Accusations Against God, reproaching Him with having created Man, which have accumulated over millennia in the work of poets and thinkers. All of a sudden, the accuser becomes the accused.
Although it is often held to in full simultaneous knowledge of the actual biological facts of parenthood, that notion of our being “children of God” which accompanies the belief in God the Father as Creator conveys an understanding whereby human beings are always also born from God or begotten by Him in the measure that they declare their faith in and allegiance to Him. This understanding, which tends to exculpate parents, was and remains apt to mask the relations of guilt and responsibility that actually apply here.
In cultures where both world and Man are taken to have their origin in an omnipotent Creator and thereby in an overwhelmingly powerful will behind origin and being, it is – tendentially at least – very difficult for the “wish never to have been born” to come to clear expression. In the three monotheistic religions this “wish never to have been born” is tantamount to a “critique of God” that has a taboo placed on it because, as a general tendency, it is perceived as liable to be punished by the withdrawal of salvation. The “wishes never to have been born” encountered in the writings bearing the names of the prophets Job or Jeremiah had necessarily to be somewhat “defused” and reinterpreted as imprecations cast by Man not upon God but upon himself: “Man curses the day of his birth because it is only through this day that he acquires the possibility of sinning,” we read in an exegetical textbook by Balthasar Corderius from 1646 (quoted from Rölleke, S. 16) The taboo on God is a bulwark from which any impulse to curse God or His creation tends, as it were, to rebound, becoming reflected instead as a curse which Man casts upon himself.
Thus, regret at having been born remained, in cultural history, essentially a self-related regret and achieved only a passive form of expression. It is only in certain isolated cases that the hint of a reproach directed against the Creator Himself makes itself heard – in the form of the question as to why – given the uncertainty of salvation – this Creator decided to create His creatures at all, since this involved either a passing or an eternal experience of hellish suffering. In a certain Frankfurt passion play the cry is even directed at Christ Himself: “Woe to you that you were ever born!” (quoted from Rölleke, S. 23) Here we are only a short way from an accusation against God Himself, since it was not by two human beings that Jesus was begotten.
As the notion of a divine presence withdraws from our lives, indeed, the taboo on God likewise becomes less strict. The “wish never to have been born” is no longer reflected back into Man’s own abjection but begins to emerge and assert itself now as an imprecation on existence/Creation. Milton and Shakespeare count among the better-known voices articulating this idea. Equally interesting, however – though barely appreciated – is that “accusation against God” articulated under the auspices of Islam which we find, for example, in the poets Attar and Chayyam (1048–1131).
It is only for already-existing beings that acts or omissions can be better, indifferent or worse. In accordance with this fundamental-ethical principle of presupposed existence it cannot be possible to make identifying reference to anyone for whom it would be better, indifferent or worse to begin to exist or not to begin to exist. If I say: “For me, it would have been better/worse not to have begun to exist” I am attempting to “get around” certain logical and ontological circumstances which in fact can never possibly be gotten around. Simple as this insight may be, it proves very difficult to hold to it in the course of actual anti- or pronatalistic argument. Everywhere, there tends to occur a sliding into judgments of the type: with the beginning of our existence there occurred an improvement, or a deterioration, in “our” state. Poets and thinkers often express themselves in just this way, even though the beginning of our existence is really not an event which can be said to happen to us, nor to harm or help us. Inasmuch as it is logically excluded that something exists before it begins to exist the beginning of the existence of a living being can bring this being neither into a better state nor into a worse one.
No one can be identified for whom it would be better to begin to exist than to go on not existing.
No one can be identified for whom it would be better to go on not existing than to begin to exist.
It may be supposed that our inclination to give preference to being over non-being is to be traced back, in a measure that is impossible precisely to determine, to bionomic influences. In other words, it may be that, in our giving to being the connotation of “good” and to non-being the connotation of “bad”, there comes into effect a certain bio-axionomic primordial stratum of all morality which is the real constituent agent behind all our intuitions and moral evaluations. The intuitive privileging of being over non-being in the wake of this bio-axionomic primordial stratum of our thinking and feeling generates a kind of whirlpool-like sucking of everything toward existence which surely plays a role also in the form taken by pronatal stances and attitudes. All talk of people’s “not being” tends to call forth a spectrum of emotional judgments which ranges from “bad” to “threatening”. Very generally speaking, we may say that it is this spectrum that generates the “whirlpool-like sucking of everything toward existence” which causes human beings to call other human beings into life.
In debates about generation and procreation one often hears it said that “potential human beings have a right to actualization” or, in other words, by begetting progeny one “actualizes” a human being who already existed in potentia. Nicolai Hartmann uses, in his ontology, the phrase “half-existent entities” in order to criticize the notion, still widely held to in his day, that so-called “potentialities” were in some sense already real. He supports this phrase with the argument that that which is “only potential” is not real precisely for the reason that it is – at least at the moment and in some cases permanently – not possible for it to be real. There is, in other words, no half-existing “potential realm” above, beside, or behind the realm of the actual. This notion of “half-existent entities” goes to nourish the >Natal Myth insofar as “human beings in potentia” appear to be, in ontic terms, something more than just nothing.
This central concept in the onto-ethics of Nicolai Hartmann describes a neganthropic aspect of the mode of being of the real: we imagine that everything that is conceivable is possible; but in fact it is really only ever the actual that is possible, or that was possible before it was made actual. If we cherish a belief in a – so to speak àhalf-existent – plurality of numerous possibilities and potentialities which are all somehow “at our disposal”, this is because this belief helps to console us and to avert our attention from the true “hardness of the real”.
Parents beget children in order that these children will be able, as the phrase goes, to “make their fortune” in the world. But as the other phrase which speaks of “the rat-race of pleasure” suggests, this is much harder than it is often assumed to be. Even after some extraordinary improvement in their circumstances or after some amazing stroke of luck people tend to slip back, after some time, to some much lower level of happiness. Things are different when it is a matter of a great catastrophe in people’s lives: in such cases it tends to take a much longer time before people once again acquire their former contentment.
Whoever acts in such a way that another human being begins to exist is responsible for the fact that there now exists one more being who may possess, indeed, in the words of the US Declaration of Independence, “an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness” but who is constituted, in fact, in such a way that it will always be difficult for him to maintain himself for long on a very high level of happiness, whereas a single stroke of adversity will often leave him permanently discontented.
 See, for example: Baumeister et al., Bad is stronger than good, S. 326.
Quite aside from any experiences of happiness or suffering that new human beings brought into existence might undergo, the question also arises of the effect of salvation or calamity for other human beings that might proceed from this existence. Indeed, not a few people have justified their pronatal decision by pointing out the possibility that the child that they beget might become a bringer of salvation to mankind. Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach sketches such a scenario in her story “Das Schädliche”:
“Nordhausen mourned for her for a long time, then took to himself a beautiful, virtuous wife and lived happily ever after. What kind of a future would have awaited him had he married Lore? And their children – what calamities might they have brought down upon the world? Might they have brought down… Here too we find ourselves placed before a question. They might also have brought salvation. Countless examples from life and from history prove…but of course, what does ‘proof’ mean?” (Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach)
One aspect of Asiatic religiosity to which we cannot refuse our appreciation must surely be the following: that the faiths – and also the forms of philosophical reason and reflection – that have emerged from the matrix of this religiosity have been able to raise themselves very much further out of that apparent self-evidence of our “simply having imperatively to be” – an apparent self-evidence grounded in the bionomic realities of our status as component elements of physical Nature – than the Middle Eastern/Occidental counterparts to these Asiatic religions have ever succeeded in doing. But Occidental philosophy, as “the brain of religion”, can today, through antinatalism, link up with the legacy of these extra-Occidental forms of belief and reason.
Due to the “home advantage” enjoyed by existence one must proceed very carefully when attempting to find out whether someone is “happy to have been born”. Just the questions alone “Are you happy to be alive?” or “Would it perhaps have been better if you had never begun to live?” will tend to activate the drive to self-preservation, the involvement of which may bring it about that these questions are answered in a way that is merely defensive, without any real thought or reflection about the topic going into the reply. What is required, then, is a subtler nativistic hermeneutic which does not “assault” the questioned party with a symbolic threat to his existence in the form of an “all-or-nothing” interrogation. Such a subtler manner of proceeding would gingerly try to explore in what measure the questioned individual’s life really is important to him, by taking into account any risky behaviour this latter might engage in and his contentment from moment to moment.
 Sarah Perry was quite right to point this out; see Perry, Every Cradle is a Grave, p. 187.
With his “heuristic of fear” Hans Jonas speaks out in favour of the position that, as regards certain experiments and innovations in the fields of genetic and atomic technology, the possibility of things going wrong must be taken very seriously and the implementation of the new discoveries and inventions therefore often deliberately forgone. But why does Jonas not apply this “heuristic of fear” there where it is most eminently a question of Man himself: namely, in the question of human beings’ bringing forth of other human beings? In view of the fact that the human being who is thereby begotten might potentially be deeply unhappy or may suffer in his life some catastrophe the “heuristic of fear” would appear to require that further human procreations be forgone and that the >Experimentum mundi be broken off. Instead of recommending this, however, Jonas chooses to hold, with his “principle of responsibility” – within the larger context of which his “heuristic of fear” is developed – in a manner which runs precisely contrary to this “heuristic of fear” to the notion that Man must go on existing at any price, thus proving himself to be an irresponsible pronatalist after all.
The notion “nativistic hiatus” designates the divergence from one another, in very great measure, of sexuality and procreation since the advent of easily accessible and easily applicable reliable methods of contraception. Together with the general spirit of modernity, which tends to unanchor human existence from all its former moorings in metaphysics, this nativistic hiatus forms one of the pillars of practical antinatalism.
We are nowadays constantly exhorted to see to it that our personal and collective “ecological footprint” stays as small as possible. We hear an especially great deal of talk about our “carbon footprint”. But of a similar degree of importance is the moral imperative to limit our “himsa footprint”. The Sanskrit word himsa signifies “injury” or “violence”; ahimsa, on the other hand, is the principle of non-violence, non-injury. The person who lives frugally, consuming no meat or (so far as possible) no animal products at all, leaves behind him a relatively small “himsa footprint” – in marked contrast to the person who frequently takes journeys by plane or car, and quite especially in contrast to the meat-eater, who with every meat-product he consumes contributes to extending the chain of breeding, fattening-up, and brutally slaughtering living beings.
The heaviest “himsa footprint” of all, however, is left by the person who procreates. Parents bring a human being into the world who will, with absolute certainty, become a victim of one or another form of biological violence (i.e. sickness, accident or death) and will also, with a barely lesser degree of certainty, become a victim (or a perpetrator) of one or another form of social violence (chicanery, punishment, insult or humiliation). Whoever procreates condones, in one way or another, that course of history up to the present day which is so filled and over-filled with violence and lays a new foundation stone for this violent history’s perpetuation.
It is normal to condemn individuals who knowingly pass on to, and impose upon, their progeny some medical handicap from which they were already aware they themselves suffered. But there exists a precise equivalent to this irresponsibility on the historical-neganthropic plane. Each newborn citizen of the earth is irresistibly drawn into those neganthropic interrelations and chains of action and reaction which extend into every time and place making up the history of our species. He is seized by these neganthropic chains of interrelation and compelled to contribute to their perpetuation. An example: whoever undertakes to praise the excellent qualities of Dutch painting during the so-called Golden Age of Amsterdam, then the richest city in Europe, must be supposed to be blocking out of his mind the fact that the Netherlands were, at the time, the hegemonic power within the modern global economic system and that the organization which played the most decisive role in this hegemony, the Dutch East India Company, either slaughtered or deported to Batavia, in or around 1621, the entire population of the Banda Islands in order to replace them with Dutch colonists. (see Eric R. Wolf, Europe and the People Without History). Today, at our advanced stage of globalization, almost every consumer of any product tends to promote some form of mischief or misery somewhere in the world.
Psychological mechanism, ancillary to the drive to self-preservation, which generates that >Momentum of Positivity which is required if individuals are to push on with their own existence and bring others into existence through procreation: “However badly things are going for a human being, so long as there glimmers in him even one last spark of vital force he will cling to the hope of future happiness. If hope were not in the world it would be the turn of despair and we would have, even despite the fear of death and the natural drive to self-preservation, to record suicides without number.” (Eduard v. Hartmann: Philosophie des Unbewussten) We might add to this that, without this “ancillary instinct” of hope, not only would the number of suicides be far greater; the number of procreations would also be far fewer.
In accordance with a peculiar logical consistency belief in Hell leads to a theological antinatalism. Devout Christians or Muslims run, with every procreation, a Hell-related risk which is really greater than they can conscientiously accept, inasmuch as it is impossible for these devout parents to foresee with any certainty whether or not their child will end up in Hell.
Before yet more children are brought into the world it must first be ensured that they are welcome in this latter. And whether the world has attained the requisite degree of hospitableness for more children to begin to exist in it can, for example, be established by observing whether children are starving in this world, or being forced to work before reaching an age appropriate for it, or whether they are obliged to serve their parents as “prestige objects / subjects” or are otherwise directly instrumentalized.
The notion “priority of the world’s adjustment” refers to the imperative whereby it would not be considered to be incumbent upon newborn human beings to adjust and adapt themselves to the world; rather, the bearing of new children should, on this account, be suspended for some time until the world has been made – by those who have already been living in it for some time – has been made a world more worthy for human beings to live in, that is to say, has been, for its own part, adjusted and adapted to the needs of those who might potentially be born into it. Otto Reutter offered a humoristic formulation of this point:
“Don’t be born, little man!
Wait till there’s a world here that’s more to your liking.“
This “priority of the world’s adjustment” implies that existing human beings have, first of all, to reform the world from the bottom up, and reorganize it in such a way as to make it a welcoming place for new arrivals, before there can be even any thought of bringing forth new human beings to inhabit it. We encounter a moderate and modified form of antinatalist thinking similar to this one both in Tolstoy’s “Kreutzer Sonata” and in Dostoevsky’s (1821–1881) “Demons”:
“But one thing is necessary above all else: there should be no superfluous human beings born into the world. Rather, reorganize the world in such a way that no human being will be superfluous in it and then bring into it as many human beings as you please.”
We designate by the term “humanomania” the widely-held conviction that human beings must, imperatively, continue to exist indefinitely on into the farthest future and that any price in suffering is worth paying in order for them to do so. Humanomania is often sustained by the view that the presence of human beings in the universe is an absolutely indispensable value in itself (>Axiopathy) or the view that a golden age for humanity will one day be realized.
The question of the neganthropic threshold-value arises both on the individual and on the collective level.
The question of an individual-neganthropic threshold-value is one which arises in two distinct respects: namely, reflexively, in respect of one’s own self, and in respect of one’s children. Reflective, self-related neganthropic threshold-values are established when we ask ourselves: “in what sort of situation would I have to find myself in order for me to say, it would have been better if I had never been born”?
But in order to establish the second, child-related sort of individual-neganthropic threshold-value we would need rather to ask parents in spe: “Imagine that medical diagnostic techniques had progressed so far that it were possible, by means of genetic analysis of the embryo, to predict not just some serious illnesses but practically every form of malady and disease from which the person that this embryo becomes would suffer throughout the whole length of their life: how serious would the predicted illness have to be – or how many less serious illnesses would have to be predicted to ensue, one after the other, in the prospective person’s life – for you, as parent in spe, to decide rather to forgo allowing the embryo in question to become your child?”
Would the knowledge that certain childhood diseases – such as measles, chickenpox, scarlet fever, and whooping cough – would certainly occur be enough to cause this prospective parent to revise their pronatal decision? Or would there be needed for this the certainty, rather, of more serious illnesses, such as thyroid disorders, leukemia, skin cancer, diabetes, Crohn’s disease, high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis, gall stones, kidney stones, collapsed veins, coronary disease, rheumatic disorders, pulmonary fibrosis, rosacea, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease, or the many varieties of allergy? And if the inevitable arisal of one or more of the illnesses on this long list – which might easily be made still longer – really were enough to cause someone to revise a pronatal decision once taken, should it not then be the case that every single such pronatal decision would need by rights to be revised, since we can be absolutely certain that every human being, without exception, will have one day to experience the catastrophe of death (unless the human being in question happens to die a very sudden death or slips down gradually into a deeper and deeper state of unconsciousness)?
The Kantian Limes – The Question About a Collective-Negathropic Threshold-Value
Already for Kant, a man of the 18th Century, there remained little hope that the human species could be improved: “The experience of both ancient and modern times must leave every thinking person in doubt and embarrassment regarding the question of whether our species’ condition will ever improve.” (Kant, Schriften zur Anthropologie) Of such an affirmation it would seem reasonable to expect that it should issue, if at no earlier point in history then quite definitely after the terrible experiences of the 20th Century, in numerous professions of adherence to an historically-informed antinatalism. We see, however, that this is a long way from having been the case.
For this reason we ask: after what war or genocide, what famine, plague or natural catastrophe was it finally enough, or would it finally be enough? How many future human beings would someone wish to see rendered up to a terrible destiny before he or she began to view the non-violent termination of the history of our species as an ethical imperative? Which event in human history forms the caesura by which one might consider Michael Landmann refuted and revealed as a >damnatorial accomplice in the Conditio in/humana, when he claims – light years removed from Kant – that “the human race learns from the suffering which it has inflicted on itself. Error provokes, by a logic of thesis and antithesis, improvement.” (Landmann, Fundamental-Anthropologie)
Another Kantian limes concerns the theory of justice and conveys the notion that humanity deserves its own extinction if justice has become extinct among human beings: if society, for example, has reached such a point that the offer is made to a criminal condemned to death that he allow medical experiments to be conducted upon himself the results of which might serve the wellbeing of humanity in general: “Because when justice perishes the continued existence of human beings on earth is an existence without value.” (Kant, Metaphysik der Sitten, Metaphysische Anfangsgründe der Rechtslehre, 2. Teil, E. Vom Straf- und Begnadigungsrecht)
The Tyranny of a Majority Contented with a Minimal Quality of Life
For the important ethical thinker Dieter Birnbacher the future of humanity is not, in the first instance, something which self-evidently simply “has to be”. He writes: “Rather, we are necessarily running, by pushing on with the history of humanity, a certain risk. (…) Whether our persistence in this project is ethically justifiable or not cannot be proven or disproven except in light of the balance of costs and benefits, which can only ever be drawn up ‘after the fact’.” To all appearances, what Birnbacher writes here implies that, after the massive human catastrophes of our history, especially those of the 20th Century, we still enjoy a morally defensible choice regarding whether or not to take the risk of exposing human beings to such experiences also in the future (>Damnators). Birnbacher’s ‘only after the fact’ qualification serves here, in reality, to give a carte blanche to procreation: only once new human beings have come into existence, it implies, can it be judged whether the decision in favour of procreation was or was not a justifiable one. – But this is tantamount to the annulling of all >Parental Guilt. Birnbacher, however, cannot be reproached with blinding himself to the facts. In the final decade of the 20th century, he notes, more human beings will have starved to death than in any previous decade in history. This decade also saw mass murders on an almost inconceivable scale, with victims (as in Rwanda) running into the hundreds of thousands.” Clearly, Birnbacher foresees, for the 21st century, crimes and catastrophes on a comparably enormous scale. He is unable, however, to see any grounds in this for considering “that we should wish for the next, or the next-but-one, generation the blessing of never being born.”
Plainly there was not reached, for Birnbacher, even with the terrible events in Rwanda any neganthropic threshold-value such as to prompt him to take his distance from his own speech in favour of a persistence in the Experimentum mundi. What considerations, precisely, does he offer in this regard? The basis, for Birnbacher, of the above-mentioned ‘balance of costs and benefits’ is the ‘balance of happiness’ of a merely arithmetically calculated ‘greater number’ of individual human beings. For so long as “life, for this greater number of human beings, has not become something which they feel they cannot bear being asked to put up with” it is not, for example, future species-embracing catastrophes that represent the worst of all evils but rather: the ebbing-away of humanity. Birnbacher bases himself here on the subjectively-perceived quality of life of “the greater number”. But this amounts in the end to nothing more nor less than the justification, in the name of “the majority”, of the imposition of the grossest suffering and misery. It would be legitimately conceivable, under the auspices of such a philosophy, that a human majority whose numbers would run into the billions might lead a life full, in their own perception, of happiness while a human minority, whose numbers would run into barely fewer billions, would suffer unspeakable physical and mental misery.
As far as the life of the majority is concerned, progenerative decisions are, more precisely speaking, justified in Birnbacher’s eyes for so long as life, for this “greater number” of the human race, “has not become something which they feel they cannot bear being asked to put up with” – a statement which seems to imply that the life of those we bring into the world to live on after us may indeed permissibly be “something they have to put up with” – but not may not permissibly be “something they cannot bear being asked to put up with”. Birnbacher specifies this aspect of “something one can bear being asked to put up with” more precisely by giving a direct answer to the question of just when a life can be said to be meaningless: “Life is meaningless only in the case where the most important and fundamental of our aims and ends are constantly disappointed and we fail to adapt these goals to the realities of our existence to such an extent that a bare minimum of fulfilment becomes possible.” Birnbacher arrives at this assessment on the basis of his own preferred version of Utilitarianism, i.e. of an ethical system with a subjective-hedonistic axiology. Birnbacher is certainly right in taking up the cause of Utilitarianism here because, although the value-basis, or basis in evaluational premises, of this latter doctrine is indeed a narrow one, it is a value-basis which is not contested by any other system of ethics, for which reason it can lay a strong claim to universal validity. The value-basis of Utilitarianism consists in the value of “wish-fulfilment subjectively experienced as valuable” – for which Birnbacher uses the briefer form of expression “the value: quality of life”. In terms of Utilitarian ethics a positive value is assigned to experiences which are subjectively experienced as positive, while a negative value is assigned to experiences which are subjectively experienced as negative. The value of life thereby inheres in an extra-moral characteristic, namely “therein, that life is predominantly experienced, by those who are living it, as satisfying”. Thus far, however, the only question answered would be that of whether, or for how long, an already-existing life is to be persisted in; and a suicide comes into consideration only if someone is unable any longer to achieve a certain minimum of self-fulfilment.
Now, the question that specifically concerns us is whether one can, and how one does, move from the question of the continuability of an individual life to an answer to the question of whether it is legitimate to cause other lives to begin. On the basis of the value: “the quality of life”, remarks Birnbacher, the question “should human beings exist?” can only possibly be answered in the affirmative: it is better for more of that which is good to exist than for less of it to. “If the existence of a being with a (generally considered) positive quality of life represents a value, then it is ceteris paribus better if more instances of this being exist rather than fewer instances of it.” Firstly, this answer would imply that human beings are to be brought into existence in order that the maximum possible quantity of value enter into the world. But this sounds extremely implausible, since we would be dealing here with an increase in value that does, prima facie, no one any good – because nothing good is done for a person beginning to exist by this mere fact alone of their beginning to exist (as Birnbacher himself, indeed, citing Erich Kästner, explains). And secondly, were this logic to be followed out, there would be a danger of there coming into being what a hostile observer would be inclined to call “the tyranny of a certain minimum quality of life”: if, merely statistically considered, of some ten billion people some six billion are, in terms of their own subjective perception of their lives, “doing well”, while some four billion, judging by all established value-criteria, are “doing badly”, the advocacy, or the practice, of procreation would be, on the basis of this “majority vote”, morally meritorious even in the case where it could not in all conscience be held that this proportion of happiness to unhappiness were likely to alter at any point in the foreseeable future. In the last analysis Birnbacher justifies the continuation, indefinitely on into the future, of a certain status quo by reference to billions of human beings the pressure of whose suffering is not yet so great that they are driven to suicide.
But, being an informed and judicious philosopher, Birnbacher does not just reckon with the occurrence of further enormous human catastrophes; he is also aware of the mechanisms of the biological and social >Lottery (see Birnbacher, Analytische Einführung in die Ethik, p. 235). Despite this being the case, though, he makes no serious attempt to enter, ex ante, into an >Assessment of the Consequences of Begetting Progeny. Let us attempt, therefore, to better understand his position. In his 2007 book “Analytische Einführung in die Ethik” Birnbacher expounds in more detail his as it were “quantitative” conception of ethics: “More happiness must always be a better thing than less, regardless of whether this ‘more happiness’ comes about through an increase in the enjoyment experienced by already existing individuals or through the existence of more individuals who will also find enjoyment in their lives.” (p. 223) In order to make more plausible this “sum-of-utilities”-based imperative to procreate, which contains within itself an anthropodicy, Birnbacher has recourse to cases involving so-called “negative utilities”. He reminds us of the fact that, when there occurs a mass accident or a famine, it is, in the end, not at all a matter of indifference to us whether the number of victims amounts to ten, or a hundred, or a hundred thousand (c.f. ibid. p. 223f). But what Birnbacher leaves out of account here is the after all decisive circumstance that we have to do, in the case of these victims of accidents and famines, with already-existing human beings. There is indeed no question but that an accident which claims the lives of ten people is (all other things being equal) less bad than one which claims the lives of a hundred. But our reference point here consists in existing persons, the smallest possible number of whom should have to undergo suffering. Birnbacher, by contrast, pleads for the bringing into existence of additional, not-yet-existing human beings (“blank spaces”, ontically speaking) in order that the total “utility sum” of the world is accrued. We have to do here with a true >Salto natale. With his reference to the imperative to minimize suffering Birnbacher touches on the moral theory of negative utilitarianism, with which Karl Popper aligned himself, adducing the convincing consideration that we know far better what to do in order to decrease suffering than we know what to do in order to increase happiness. The value-basis of negative utilitarianism is, in fact, much narrower even than that of the happiness-based version which is advocated by most Utilitarians. Negative Utilitarianism’s stance, indeed, toward progenerative decisions must necessarily be a dissuasive one: after an act of begetting there begins to exist a >Living Being that must necessarily suffer – something which runs counter to the negative-Utilitarian imperative to minimize suffering in the world. “Sum-of-suffering” negative Utilitarianism has the advantage here over the “sum-of-happiness” Utilitarianism advocated by Birnbacher, since it restricts itself to existing sentient beings and does not comprise the implausible imperative to bring forth, so as to arrive at its moral-theoretical goal, additional such beings. The moral-theoretical intention of “sum-of-suffering” Utilitarianism is, at least as far as our own earth is concerned, fulfilled when the sum of suffering in the world has become equal to zero – that is to say, when no sentient being capable of suffering any longer exists (or no sentient being capable of suffering any longer suffers). For this reason Birnbacher calls our “sum-of-suffering” Utilitarianism “a radical variant of negative Utilitarianism which is hardly acceptable in view of the consequences that flow from it” (ibid. p. 236). The question is only: “hardly acceptable” for whom and for what reasons? Behind this judgment there doubtless stands the “intuition”, or personal aesthetic preference – never to be shaken by any future mass murder or natural catastrophe – that a world with human beings, or at least some sort of sentient being, in it is “better” than one without such beings.
 According to Birnbacher “we are entirely right to chuckle over Erich Kästner’s joke that ‘there really are people who still believe that they procreated in order to give pleasure to their children” (ibid. p. 368). And in his book “Analytische Einführung in die Ethik” (2. 2007, p. 224) Birnbacher even adduces Narveson’s finding whereby Utilitarian ethics is not a training in how to create happy people but rather a general answer to the question: “how should we act in order that human beings become happier thereby?”
Without knowing what they are doing, and partly even with the best intentions, human beings who persist in their pro-natal decisions make themselves complicit in laying the basis of future calamity. And even when they do know, at bottom, what they are doing they succeed in blocking this insight out – at least temporarily. We speak, therefore, of an objective complicity of all parents. Natal enlightenment consists, in the last analysis, in a subjectivization of this objective complicity.
With this our handbook on antinatalism we situate ourselves within the tradition of philosophical enlightenment. The handbook enlightens its readers by showing that the apparently “most normal thing in the world” – namely, that there are human beings and that these human beings are (re)produced – becomes, on closer examination, questionable. Because, in the last analysis, it is procreation which leads to ever more generations of human beings’ being placed before new problems as well as the ever-recurring old insoluble ones and the >Conditio in/humana’s being perpetuated.
It would, of course, be all too easy to assign the guilt for all this misery to the parents of this world. At least in advanced industrialized societies parents mostly take the position of only wanting the best for their children. And this “wanting the best”, of course, is taken to include conceiving them in the first place. – What is not taken into account here is the onto-ethical fallacy that is committed when someone assumes that they are doing something good for a not-yet-existing person by bringing it about that they begin to exist.
Anti-natalists concede that there are indeed some good arguments for procreation that need to be considered: for example, the consideration that a sudden stoppage of births occurring simultaneously all over the world could – in contrast to a slow ebbing away of fertility – significantly lower the quality of life for all existing human beings. But at the same time anti-natalists are of the view that unconfessed selfish motives often underlie the wish for children and that the arguments against procreation far outweigh, on balance, those for it. Anti-natalists do not adopt, thereby, a hostile attitude to parents, or to people who want to become parents, but rather attempt, through argument, to convince them that it is better to bring no more children into the world.
Our category of >Parental Guilt, then, does not concern, to an equal degree, all parents at all times but rather only applies in the full sense where parents – and most especially women – firstly enjoy a certain degree of self-determination regarding pregnancy and birth and secondly have been able to form some accurate idea of what is awaiting their children once they have given birth to them. A genuine parental guilt we ascribe only to fully reflective individuals living in the “Information Age” who make pro-natal decisions even in the face of doubts they may harbour, or who may even be familiar with the moral theory of antinatalism but opt nonetheless to engage in procreation. A good point of comparison here is ethical vegetarianism. Someone raised in a traditional society or in a generally carnivorous environment may never give a thought to the ethically unjustifiable consequences of meat-consumption. But once they have been made acquainted with the arguments for ethical vegetarianism, this same person will be acting, if they continue to consume meat, contrary to a better ethical insight which now lies fully within their reach. A similar line of reasoning applies in the case of procreation. People who have had an opportunity to consider the option of non-procreation, or who have somehow felt the necessity of doing so, or who have actually been made familiar with the moral theory of antinatalism, do indeed incur “parental guilt” in the case where, knowing better, they nonetheless persist in procreating.
The Israeli philosopher Saul >Smilansky is the author of several important essays on antinatalism. His intensive concern with the topic, however, appears not to have prevented him falling into the serious error of grotesquely underestimating the presence of anti-natalist insights and sentiments in the cultural legacy which has been passed down to us. Curses cast upon existence, such as we find in the Biblical Book of Job (>Biblical Antinatalism) are, Smilansky argues, only rare and exceptional cases within this legacy. Curses cast specifically upon one’s own existence in this way represent a partial or incipient form of antinatalism. Because we are obliged to assume that other people will at some point find themselves in situations similar to our own. And then the – in each case ethically imperative – universalization of the wish never to have been born implies a doubt regarding whether anyone at all should be engendered and brought into the world. Since Smilansky, however, feels himself justified in viewing the presence of such partial or incipient forms of antinatalism in our cultural tradition as so minor as to be negligible, he feels able to write that:
“It also seems significant that there is so little expression of the wish not to have been born, or at least this is so with most people who live under objectively tolerable conditions. If life were so bad, then – even if we bracket the possibility of suicide – we could expect much more expression of the Job-like wish not to have been born, in common sentiments, literature and the like. The idea is culturally available. Yet the sentiment is hardly to be found, except with those who are by temperament unusually melancholy, or are in depression, or, like Job, have some good reason for feeling so.” (Smilansky, Life is Good)
Our handbook provides the proof that Smilansky is in error here – and indeed not just Smilansky. Even Heinz Rölleke, to whom we owe one of the most comprehensive collections of >Wishes Never to Have Been Born (namely, his treatise O wär‘ ich nie geboren… (“Oh, That I Had Never Been Born”), enormously underestimates the presence of anti-natalist formulae in our culture when he writes, for example, that “moreover, there is to be found in the literature of the present day, so hostile to sentiment and emotionality, neither direct anathematizing nor direct praising of natality. It is obvious, rather, that this literature tends to accept human existence as something that is not, indeed, entirely penetrable in its meaning but that remains, nonetheless, unalterable.” (Rölleke)
Two things, however, need to be borne in mind regarding the numerous declamations of the “Oh, that I had never been born!” sort, as well as other “antinatalisms”, that we and other authors have gathered together out of the work of lyricists, dramatists and the writers of narrative literature and to which we have added our own commentaries. Firstly, it is to be remembered that we are dealing here, in the great majority of cases, with expressions of the self-understanding of fictional figures and not necessarily with any conviction actually held by the authors who created these latter. Secondly, it is also to be borne in mind that what comes to expression in these declamations is often no more than a momentary depression and that no conclusions can be drawn from such passing moods even about the Weltanschauung of the literary figure in question, let alone about that of his or her creator. And in light of these considerations the question does indeed seem justified of whether we tend to ascribe to great a significance to spontaneous >Wishes Never to Have Been Born and other traces of antinatalism. One might reply to this objection by pointing out that the sheer number of “antinatalisms” (in the sense of either indirect or explicit anti-natalistic forms or enunciations) to be found in our global literary tradition is such that the import of antinatalism in literature is hardly to be underestimated for this quantitative reason alone – however ephemeral any single anti-natalistic enunciation may appear within the context of a novel, a drama, or a poem. It must, furthermore, be taken into account that the anti-natalist topoi that one encounters again and again in the works of our literary tradition may well represent the slowly accumulated sediments of moods and of currents of feeling embracing the minds of many individuals. That is to say, these topoi may, in many cases, have already established themselves within the “psychic economy” of entire cultured classes within various civilizations before finally coming to be worked into literary form by individual members of these classes – a possibility that certainly speaks in favour of a certain extra-textual presence of antinatalism. A significant example here is Emile Zola’s novel Fécondité (Fertility).
By drawing together anti-natalist testimonies along with certain incipient forms of antinatalism emerging throughout the centuries and commenting upon these testimonies and incipient forms, we hope to demonstrate to our readers specific ways in which – according, at least, to our own reading of the matter – humanity has, through the enunciations of certain individuals, “seen reason”, as it were, and begun to distance and emancipate itself from the mere naturality of procreation. Antinatalism takes seriously the notion that Man has by now established himself as a constitutively cultural being who is in a position to call critically into question that heritage from his natural, animal past that is procreation and to distance himself, by deliberate omission of action, from this fatal heritage. In our view, the notion that the continued existence of humanity represents a self-evident moral imperative amounts to a systematic structure of self-delusion (i.e. to what the Critical Theorists of the Frankfurt School referred to as a Verblendungszusammenhang) which is underpinned and sustained in part by certain laws of our physical being as organisms and in part by certain culturally-nourished prejudices and fallacies. How strong a grip this systematic structure of self-delusion has on us is clear, for example, from the fact that radical social critics like Adorno did indeed provide a thorough analysis of the systematic and collective “blinding of oneself to the truth” that, as they argued, constituted life in contemporary capitalist society but were unable to develop their key insight that “the whole is the untrue” in the more radical sense that we have outlined over these last few pages: namely, that of calling philosophically into question that systematic structure of self-delusion that consists in procreation, and in the perpetuation of the human race, itself. The following collection of “antinatalisms” documents moments in the history of philosophy, literature and culture at which this systematic structure of self-delusion has indeed begun to crumble, or has even been seen through entirely.
There decidedly counts, in fact, among those claims regarding what is “ordained to be so by Nature” which the Critical Theorists viewed as persistences of the “mythological” on into the modern world and our own present day, the claim that Nature dictates that all human beings must die. Antinatalism reveals this supposed natural necessity of human mortality to be mere ideology. Because our condition as beings who will die is not a condition given in and by Nature but rather a condition brought about by Man himself. The Marxian insight inspiring the Critical Theorists, then, does not go far enough: “the point” is not to criticize society as it is presently constituted and thus to change it; it is rather to abolish human society’s very existence by the application of reason.
The author of a handbook on antinatalism must necessarily face the question: “why do you argue for and promote a practice of non-procreation instead of devoting yourselves to (what would seem at least) the more fruitful enterprise of bringing aid and succour to already existing human, beings? Why expend argumentational energy in the cause of preventing potential human beings from beginning actually to exist – since such merely potential human beings cannot, since they are only potential, actually be “helped” by such a course of action – when there exist millions upon millions of human beings to whom one might really offer aid and succour? Our answer to this (entirely justified) critical enquiry runs as follows: it is not just actions that can be morally meritorious but also the omission of certain actions. To give one – simplified – example: someone who omits to perform an action that would pollute the environment by cancelling a long-distance flight sees to it that the living conditions of other human beings are better than they would have been had he gone ahead and performed this action.
To show support and solidarity for suffering human beings is indeed a good action. But it is also morally meritorious to revise and rescind one’s wish to have children and to act in such a way as to avoid procreation, because in this way (at least) one less human being will begin to exist who will need such support and solidarity, inasmuch as he will have to undergo mental and physical pain and suffering, will inevitably at some point have to witness the sickness and death of close relatives, and will have eventually himself to die. Even if “no one” can actually be named for whom ”it might be better not to begin to exist”, it is nonetheless generally acknowledged to be bad to act in such a way that “someone” must die as a result. But it is exactly this that is done by the person who acts in such a way that, as a consequence of his or her action, someone begins to exist. Whoever creates a human being by procreation does indeed act in such a way that a human being must (eventually) die from his or her action – something which, except in cases of self-defence, tends to be unanimously condemned before the bar of our common moral sensibilities. In short: when we say “it is better to do x, or to omit to do y”, the action, or omission to act, concerned can be moral even in the case where it is not possible specifically to name a person for whom “it” is better. – We compare “states of the world” with one another and give the preference to a “state of the world” O, which comprises no suffering (and likewise no joyful) beings, over a “state of the world” M, which comprises both these latter, even if in the “state of the world” O there is no one who actually gains or profits from the fact that no one exists. This inasmuch as, in “state of the world” O, it is also the case that no one can suffer from this fact that no one exists, whereas in “state of the world” M there will indeed necessarily be “someone there” who suffers.
If one understands the concept “nihilism” – which may at first seem vague – to signify a noological nihilism, then the meaning of this concept is as follows: There is nothing – and most especially there are no objective values or goals – worth living for. Looked at in this way, nihilism contains an anti-natalist impulse. This is the case inasmuch as, within a nihilist perspective, children too are necessarily disqualified as something worth living for. Moreover, noological nihilism cannot help but pose the questions: “Why bring about the entry into existence of a human being of whose life one can know with certainty that it will not be worth living or will remain without meaning or sense? Why “condemn” him or her to such a nihilistic existence?”
In his 1799 open letter to Fichte, Jacobi reproached his philosophical colleague with an idealism that he described as nihilism; he was alluding thereby to the fact that, for Fichte, the “I” was the only reality. Whereas this ontological nihilism à la Fichte (and à la Berkeley) does no more than declare that nothing outside the “I” is real, a nihilism that we might call “onto-ethical” propounds the position that it is better that nothing should ever have existed at all – including, in this case, each respectively cognizing “I” itself – and that it is ethically incumbent upon us to aspire to such a state of nothing at all’s existing any longer. A paradigmatic statement of this onto-ethical nihilism is to be found in Georg Büchner’s “Danton’s Death“, where we read that “nothingness has killed itself. Creation is its wound. We are its drops of blood.”
If we now proceed to a further differentiation internal to this category of onto-ethical nihilism, we arrive at a stance of existence-repudiation for which Ken Coates has coined the denomination “rejectionism”. Existence-repudiators/rejectionists are all those literary figures with views prefiguring or approximating to antinatalism who, down the millennia, have exclaimed to the world in general: “Oh would that I had never been born!” And rejectionistic, or repudiating of existence, in this sense are quite particularly also certain religions such as Jainism, Hindu belief systems, or Buddhism, to whose lay adherents, nonetheless, procreation is permitted.
Onto-ethical nihilists and existence-repudiators can be said to take up a position approximating to antinatalism inasmuch as they negate and reject the existence of both world and humanity without thereby being anti-natalists. Thus, Eduard von Hartmann would be an example of an onto-ethical nihilist and rejectionist who nonetheless firmly and explicitly declares himself to be against antinatalism. That onto-ethical nihilism is by no means identical with antinatalism is very clear also from the recent substantial study “Nothing” authored by Ludger Lütkehaus, in which antinatalism plays as good as no role at all. Similarly, poetry and narrative literature abound with rejections of existence, without this necessarily implying that the figures in whose mouths these repudiations are placed – let alone the authors themselves who place them there – are anti-natalists.
Common, however, to onto-ethical nihilism and rejectionism is what Ulrich Horstmann, in his 1983 book Das Untier (“The Beast That is Not a Beast”), calls the “anthropofugal perspective”. By this he means “the perspective of Man’s speculative flight from Man himself…, the beast that is not a beast’s distancing of itself from its own being and from its own history” (Das Untier) The “anthropofugal” philosopher, according to Horstmann, is distinguished by the fact that – like a rocket which attains a velocity great enough to overcome Earth’s gravity and to reach outer space – he has achieved an intellectual “escape velocity” which enables him to break free of the gravity of “that ideological sphere of influence and force which holds ‘the beast that is not a beast’ with both feet on the ground of supposed facts and which prevents him from ever seeing past the horizon of these latter.” (ibid. p. 9) If we add this further distinguishing factor of an anthropofugal perspective – i.e. the attaining of a humanistic intellectual “escape velocity” – into the differentiating analysis of nihilism and related stances that we have already undertaken, we arrive at the following picture:
Onto-ethical nihilist (ontofugal): “It would be better if the world as a whole did not exist!”
Rejectionist (existence-repudiator): “Oh would that I had never been born!”
Anthropofugalist: “It would be better if human beings did not exist.”
Anti-natalist: “Every action which leads to a further human being’s beginning to exist is morally questionable and it is morally incumbent upon us to cease to procreate, so that mankind as a whole dies out.”
Horstmann recognizes and states, indeed, with reference specifically to those mythological tales of Great Floods and other rescissions of the act of Creation, that “the ‘beast that is not a beast’ has always, in one way or another, admitted to itself that it would be better for it never to have been.” (10) Nevertheless, Horstmann remains, with his anthropofugal perspective, some way short and outside of antinatalism proper. We can recognize this particularly clearly from the fact that his concrete perspective explicitly eschews any moral vision. Instead, Horstmann has recourse to the idea of putting an end to all suffering by an amorally executed apocalypse brought about by weapons of mass destruction. Such a non-moral vision of apocalypse had already been presented at the beginning of the century by Albert Ehrenstein in his poem Der Kriegsgott (“The God of War”)
[…] Cease crying out to a God who does not hear. / Let your thoughts probe no further than this: / Some little under-demon rules this earth, / […] / This, though, remains: / After bloody flux and plague, / There may rise howling up in me a desire, / To put an end to you completely!”
 See the distinction drawn between ontological (there exists nothing outside the “I”) and noological nihilism by W. Weischedel.
 See Ken Coates’s study “Rejectionist Philosophy from Buddhism to Benatar”.
 Ehrenstein’s poem clearly draws here on the legacy of >Gnosticism, for which the world we dwell in is ruled and governed not by a benevolent Creator but by a wicked Demiurge of a lower order than the Unknown God.
The 20th Century has seen several breakthroughs to a fully-developed anti-natalist position occurring independently of one another. If we divide these breakthroughs up in terms of language regions, we get the following picture:
Kurnig, Guido Kohlbecher, Martin Neuffer, Karim Akerma, Gunter Bleibohm.
Philippe Annaba and Théophile de Giraud.
Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world:
Julio Cabrera and Rafael Tages Melo.
Herrmann Vetter, David Benatar, Jim Crawford, Thomas Ligotti, Ken Coates, Sarah Perry and several others.
These anti-natalist breakthroughs were made possible by a large number of (cultural- and intellectual-)historical tendencies and occurrences which we will call “antinatalism-friendly conjunctures”. To name here just a few of these “antinatalism-friendly conjunctures”: the rise of a secular culture, in the emerging literature of which there were often developed critical discourses on God as bearing ultimate responsibility for the deficient existence of Man; the metaphysical thought of Schopenhauer and his follower and popularizer Eduard von Hartmann; nihilism; feminism.
That philosophy of non-procreation which has recently come to be called “antinatalism” consists in fact in moral-theoretical positions which only gradually emerged and detached themselves from the cultural tradition and from the moulding and (de)forming pressure of metaphysics (specifically of a Schopenhauerian metaphysics of the will) and found, most likely, a form of expression more or less fully adequate to their substance only around the turn of the 19th to the 20th Century in the writings of a thinker publishing under the nom de plume of >Kurnig. Underlying work on the present handbook on antinatalism has been a conviction that, besides the many clear declarations of an adherence to anti-natalist principles, fundamental callings into question of all procreation and explicit appeals to abstention from natality, it is possible to discover within the material that has been historically handed down to us a large number of testimonies, appeals and statements of position which are not, indeed, to be classified as genuinely anti-natalist positions but are nonetheless to be considered as, so to speak, “seeds of antinatalism” within our cultural tradition, and that these testimonies, appeals and statements need also to be taken into account in a work of the present kind. In addition, then, to what we will call “direct antinatalisms” in past and present-day thought, it is the intention of the present handbook to familiarize its readers also with these “seeds of antinatalism” that are to be found in the philosophical, epic, dramatic, and lyric literature produced throughout the history of human civilization. By pointing out the presence of (proto-)anti-natalist elements within the whole of our literary heritage we provide documentary evidence that the protest against existence in general has been going on, just under the surface of our shared human culture, since time immemorial and that antinatalism is not to be dismissed as a mere symptom of latter-day “decadence”. We might mention, for example, three classical sources of inspiration for anti-natalistic forms and for the critique of procreation both in the past and in the present day, namely: the antinatalism of the Ancient Greek tragic dramatists; the antinatalism of Ancient Asia; and a certain biblical antinatalism (in qualified form, the >Wish Never To Have Been Born of Job and, quite particularly, the exemplary family- and childlessness of Jesus in view of the imminent Last Judgment, a family- and childlessness which is again urged repeatedly in Paul’s Epistles to the Corinthians) as opposed to the biblical pro-natalism in the form of the Old Testament injunction to “be fruitful and multiply”. Thus, two of the ancient sources of antinatalism have a religious character, while of the third of them – the antinatalism of the Ancient Greeks – it can perhaps most correctly be said that it corresponds to that pessimistic sense of existence that was diagnosed by Jacob Burckhardt.
Varying a well-known dictum, we may say: history is the progress of Man’s awareness of his actual freedom from all the limits and guidelines that Nature appeared to have set for him – and antinatalism is the most trenchant and consistent conceptualization of this freedom. Even though antinatalism does not epitomise the learning process of mankind as a whole – with antinatalist insights having dawned only sporadically – it is nevertheless the case that the closing decades of the 20th Century saw a noticeable increase in the drawing of anti-natalist conclusions from the information provided by all hitherto-documented history.
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 >Conditio 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 (>Development of the Forces 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 >Poulet 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)
But even where the anti-natalist successfully repudiates these charges of hostility to children or of general hatred of humanity, it will inevitably still be pointed out to him or her that life does not consist of suffering alone and that every sentient existence has its moments of happiness or even whole stretches of time that are suffused with a sense of joy. But, in the life of any individual, the happiness felt in the past and that which one might expect to feel in the future can counterbalance and compensate for the suffering one is experiencing in the present moment only to a very qualified and limited extent. That is to say, past and future happiness can do this only for suffering of a certain degree of intensity and only during certain specific stages of a human life. Likewise, it is only to a limited extent that presently-experienced happiness can counterbalance and compensate for the suffering one has experienced in the past or may expect to experience in the future. Generally speaking, we may say, the competence of happiness to offer comfort and solace for suffering is a decidedly restricted one. This becomes especially clear if we quit the “Robinson Crusoe” viewpoint that we have briefly adopted above, which sees the equation of happiness and suffering as resolving (or failing to resolve) itself within the span of a single individual existence, and consider Man as a social being. Even someone who may have experienced their own life as a bed of roses will usually leave mourning and sorrowing people behind them if they – as it will seem to these latter – unexpectedly and without prior sign of illness pass away. And this quite aside from the incorrigible optimism leading such a person to an evaluation of their own life and its happiness which possibly stands sharply at odds with the conclusions that might be arrived at by an impartial external observer of this latter.
Furthermore, to pass over onto the plane of the social in a still more emphatic sense, the relative wellbeing of one single caste, class or stratum within a society surely does not compensate for the suffering of other social groups in said society; likewise, the comparatively happy and prosperous life led by many in advanced industrialized nations does not compensate for the suffering undergone in the vast regions of the world that are plagued by poverty, war and famine.
Finally, to consider the question from the intergenerational viewpoint, the good life enjoyed by citizens of today’s affluent societies does not compensate for the miserable existences of people in the much poorer societies of the past; and likewise, the vague prospect of a humanity which might in some future century finally find itself both materially and mentally liberated, freed even from the structural violence of the need to work to survive, does not compensate for the present hardships of those who, today and tomorrow, will continue to be put out into a world where they must eke out a bare existence by the bitter sweat of their brow.
“Anti-natalists are against any more children ever seeing the >Light of the World; consequently, anti-natalists are hostile to children.” So, or in similar terms, runs another formulaic accusation that is routinely brought against anti-natalists. It is a formula, however, which distorts and misrepresents antinatalism’s true concern. The argument put by antinatalism is not an argument against children but rather an argument in favour of already-existing human beings’ reconsidering and revising any decision that they may have taken to procreate. That is to say, antinatalism does not argue against real, existing children but rather argues for childlessness.
As a philosophy of non-procreation, antinatalism is not against children but rather concerned with and focussed on the suffering that children will inevitably have to undergo once they have begun to exist. The moral theory of antinatalism, indeed, derives a significant part of its motivating force from the sufferings undergone by children, making, as it does, the case that it will only be once the world has been made fit for children (and indeed for human beings in general) to live in that it will become potentially morally defensible to act in such a way that yet more children begin to exist. As long as the world falls short of that high standard of “fitness for human beings to live in” that we see established and portrayed in many of the >Utopias und Ideas of Paradise that have arisen again and again in the history of the human imagination, the right thing to do – so argues the moral theory of antinatalism – is to refrain from procreation (>Priority of Adaptation to the World). If it were possible, indeed, to bring to realization overnight a utopia of prosperity and wellbeing in which human beings would no longer have to suffer any of the ills that they presently suffer, then antinatalism would lose thereby a part, at least, of its moral impetus and its justification for existence as a moral stance. Far from being “hostile to children”, anti-natalists exhort us to consider just what an infringement upon the moral space of another human being it is when one acts in a way that results in such a human being’s beginning to exist. To express the matter in a way that necessarily involves a certain ontological paradox: anti-natalists defend the right of children not to exist.
Were human beings, starting from today, to cease procreating with one another, the human race would die out within the span of about a hundred years. And this dying-out of humanity as a result of such “natal abstinence” is indeed the long-term objective of antinatalism. There is more, however, to the moral theory of antinatalism than just this long-term objective. This moral theory begins in an engagement with individual people and in the attempt to convince them, through reasoned argument, that it is better to reconsider any intention that they may already have formed of begetting a child, or indeed to refrain from forming any pro-natal intention in the first place. From the anti-natalist viewpoint, anything which results in someone’s reflecting upon their decision in favour of procreation and natality, or in their not making such a decision, or in their reconsidering and revising such a decision once they have made it, is an ethical success. If we succeed in bringing about through our work the reconsideration and revision of even one single “pro-natal” decision, then this work will have been more than worthwhile. Because to do this is to bring it about – to mention here only a tiny fraction of all that we might potentially mention – that there will exist one less human being than there might have: one less human being, that is to say, who, had he or she in fact come into existence, would have had to suffer illnesses, torment and persecution, witness the decline or death of parents, relatives, friends and beloved house-pets and finally – as last survivor, perhaps, and in unaided solitude – become old, sick and frail themselves before death overcomes them too.
Since the present handbook adopts a stance in favour of a world without children and eventually even of a world without human beings, it is inevitable that some of its readers will be inclined to level against its anti-natalist author(s) the accusation of “hating children” or even of “hating human beings” in general.
Let us deal briefly first with the second, and the broader, of the two reproaches. It is not misanthropy (“hatred of human beings”) that prompts the anti-natalist to make the case that no more human beings should be brought into the world. What prompts the anti-natalist to argue thus is rather the wish that no more human beings should come into existence who, at least at certain moments or during certain phases of their lives, will surely be exposed to the hatred and the chicaneries of other members of their species and will thereby be driven into the most degrading and humiliating of situations. Looked at in this way, it is not misanthropy that is the motivating and driving force behind antinatalism but rather, on the contrary, philanthropy.
If we set aside that element of anthropocentricism which tends to cling, due to its etymology and history, to the notion “philanthropy” and re-conceive this latter in terms of all living beings capable of feeling pain or pleasure, the maxim of an antinatalism consistently universalized in this way runs: “help all already existing living beings to the limit of your power to do so, while at the same time making arguments to the effect that nothing ought to be done which will cause further living beings to begin to exist.
To the extent that, in modernity, those sociobionomic imperatives which once strictly determined the maintenance of the species are tending to become modifiable and as it were “fluid” under the effects of human reflection and communication, the history of the species tends to take on an experimental character and become an >Experimentum mundi. We distinguish between involuntary large-scale experiments with the species, such as the revolutions occurring in earlier and later modernity, and that one great large-scale experiment with the species in which, as the world becomes more and more unified into a single world-system, ever more nativistically >enlightened citizens of the world are playing an active part. All those experiments with and on human beings which are each of them, taken individually, strongly condemned are in fact only possible within the framework of that large-scale experiment with the species which rests upon the lottery with genes and individual destinies that is represented by the begetting of children by procreation; the narrowing of our gaze to focus upon such individual crimes, however, succeeds precisely in distracting us from the fact of this larger-scale “experiment on human beings”.