According to the most fundamental proposition of philosophical anthropology Man is essentially and by nature a cultural being. The proof that this is so, however, has yet to be provided. For the present, human beings still remain merely “natural beings” (instead of raising themselves to the level of “cultural beings”) inasmuch as, in large part, we are merely “naturally” here. This in the sense that we still go on, as we have for millennia, perpetuating our kind “quasi-naturally”, much as Nature has commanded all animals to do since the beginning of time, instead of choosing to procreate only when and if it is ethically legitimate to do so – just as if we still all hung on the umbilical cord of a blind, Nature-driven species-necessity.
If human beings really took seriously the principles of “human dignity” which they ascribe to themselves – such as “autonomy” and “freedom from extreme suffering” – they would surely not perpetuate the human species-experiment, which involves so many people slipping sooner or later into a vegetating existence completely bereft of all dignity (here we need only think of the inmates of our >Geronto-camps), but would rather act in such a way that, within around a hundred years, this merely natural perpetuation of the species would be, by a concerted uprising against the impositions of Nature, eliminated.
Through such a “cultural revolution” Man would free himself from certain apparent iron necessities involved in his very nature. As such a “cultural revolutionary” he would become the physician of his own negative condition, cutting the umbilical cord of the apparently naturally given and unalterable structure of the species. Only the last members of the human species, people who had freed themselves in this way from the constraints of Nature, would truly do honour to the name “cultural beings”.
The Failure of the Project of Culture
Although, as we have said, he drew from this observation no truly antinatalist conclusions, Auschwitz, for Adorno, represented “irrefutable proof of the failure of the project of human culture as a whole.” (Negative Dialektik) And in our own view too Auschwitz must count as the final, morally definitive, turning-point event establishing the profound ethical questionability of the bringing forth of further human beings. The proof that “the project: culture” had failed, however, can be seen to have been established at a far earlier point in history than the mid-20th century. We see this proof, for example, in the millions of human beings that “cultivated” Europeans murdered or otherwise caused to perish, in their hunt for gold and silver in Central and South America, already centuries before this date.
The “Critical Theory” developed by the so-called “Frankfurt School” is a subtle form of the rejection of existence per se. Marx’s own critical theory had presented itself, in its day, as a “critique of political economy”. It had expressed a belief that it was possible to prove, by reference to unalterable laws of development, that our presently existing society was “pregnant” with another and better one and would, inevitably, at some point “give birth” to this latter. Despite all increases in productive power, however, this society “entirely other” to our present one was born not as a paradise of true humanity but rather as this latter’s “deformed twin”: namely, as the Stalinist state capitalism, or “barracks socialism”, of societies such as the Soviet Union on the one hand and as the “national socialism” of Hitler’s Germany on the other. In the rest of the world the capitalist system achieved consolidation on a global scale. The Frankfurt School’s “Critical Theory”, therefore, as successor form to Marx’s 19th-century “critique of political economy”, could speak henceforth only of the hope of the survival of autonomous individuality even in a society in which “the whole had become the false”. The “entirely other” became, in this 20th-century heir to classical Marxism, something that could, for the present, only be conceived of theoretically, not practically implemented. Indeed, in the most refined and reflective products of Frankfurt School theory, the sole remaining path to the experience of this “entirely other” lay through the aesthetic realm and the rarified air of avant-garde art.
But why, one must ask oneself, did Critical Theory lapse, with the Frankfurt School, into such a fatalistic attitude? Why did its practitioners content themselves with the role of passive observers while more and more human beings were delivered up to barbarism? Why did they not make it their concern to cut the umbilical cord of the supposedly natural continuance of the species? The answer is: Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse proved, in the end, incapable of performing the intellectual act of recognizing this supposedly natural continuance as a systematic structure of (self-)delusion and of proceeding to contribute to its severing by pushing forward to the adoption of an antinatalist position qua the sole true overcoming of the “false whole” that is human society.
When we speak of “objective criminality” we mean by this that the begetting of new human beings should always be recognized as the condition sine qua non of those crimes and offences which many children, once they have become older (i.e. many younger and older adults) commit. Which means also that these children – that is to say, all human beings, since all were once someone’s children – can legitimately cite the fact of their existence’s having been àBrought About by Someone Else as an exculpation for any behaviour contraventive of social norms that they may have been guilty of:
Since I did not wish, Myself to exist, This existence now brings, Much sorrow to others!
The common legal principle, then, that “parents are liable under law for the actions of their children” has a “criminatalistic” dimension that goes far deeper than its merely juridical one. Criminals, deviants, “good-for-nothings”, hustlers and con-men can all metaphysically excuse their own misdeeds with the argument that their very existence is due only to a wish on the part of their parents and that they found themselves, already burdened with certain essential character traits, cast into an existence which it is no easy thing to reject and escape (>Cynicism of Suicide). The moral “vanishing point” of this line of existential exculpation is the argument, opposed by the delinquent to anyone who might undertake to judge or condemn him for his crimes or moral failings, that, however much of a sinner or evildoer he may have proven to be, the extenuating circumstance must always be taken into account that he is entirely without responsibility for the fact that he is and thus for at least certain essential aspects of how he is (>Heteronomy of Existence). – Walter Hueck has given exemplary expression to this idea: “No human being is responsible for his own personality. He did not choose his own character; one cannot legitimately reproach him with his poor health or the paucity of his intellect. He did not ‘want himself; he was brought into existence without being asked about it and one must therefore take him as he is.” (Hueck Wohin steuern wir?)
An argument developed by Kondylis clearly shows why the antinatalist, as a radical critic of the meaning normally ascribed to human existence, has to reckon with the most violent resistance from his fellow men:
“Whoever calls into question ‘the meaning of life’ necessarily challenges the human drive to self-preservation and counts thereby, among his fellow human beings, as a ‘criminal of the spirit’ who undermines the foundations of social existence quite as much as ordinary ‘criminals of the deed’ tend to render useless, through their contravention of practical social norms, society itself as an institution devoted to this human self-preservation. The claim to power, by entrenching itself behind the belief in ‘the meaning of life’, provides itself with the greatest possible appearance of ‘objectivity’, the most perfect disguise conceivable.” (Panajotis Kondylis, Macht und Entscheidung)
Should it really be the case that claims to power lie dug in behind all professed belief in ‘the meaning of life’, the antinatalist must renounce all hope of agreement or approval from the side of such entrenched power-structures. The antinatalist, indeed, does not call into question the possibility that one can lead a ‘meaningful’ life; he casts doubt, however, directly upon the moral dignity of procreation and thereby “threatens”, at least symbolically, the continued existence of human society.
We encounter the antinatalistic form of this “guilt of children” wherever someone – inverting the real state of affairs – burdens the beginning of their existence with guilt. “Inverting the real state of affairs”, we say, because guilt always presupposes freedom, whereas no one was ever free to choose the beginning of his own existence (contrary to the view of Sartre, who made the incomprehensible attempt to draw even this beginning of one’s existence into his characteristic vision of the individual’s “free choice of his own being”).
A classic topos of “child’s guilt” is the tragic constellation in which the birth of a child occurs together with the death of his or her mother. This constellation is familiar to us, for example, from Dickens’s Oliver Twist.
It was by his six-year-old son that the author Wilhelm Schmid was enlightened as to the fact that it was not a matter of fun that he had brought someone into existence but that he had rather, by so doing, brought it about that one more human being had to die:
“I have a six-year-old son who has shocked me by suddenly announcing: I wish I had never been born. I am appalled to hear this because he is a decidedly lively and happy little man. I believe that he is also very pleased with the family of which he is part. And this little fellow says to me: ‘I wish I had never been born. I wish I were still flying with the butterflies.’ (Because we told him the story that, before he was born, he was flying around with the butterflies). But it was only when I had spoken more to him about it that it emerged just why he felt this way: he does not want to die. And he has now grasped, for the first time, that to be born means, automatically and necessarily, also to die.”
To Schmid’s consolation, and in support of his son, let it be said that it is perfectly possible for someone to be entirely content with his own life and yet be able to hold, without contradiction, that >it would be better never to have begun to exist.
The five-year-old daughter of the renowned scholar of narrative topoi, Heinz Rölleke, once uttered, according to Rölleke himself, the following words: “Well, then I would rather not have come into the world at all.” (Rölleke, p. 9) His daughter, Rölleke goes on, “uttered these words without spite or anger and quite definitely without the slightest trace of despair” on learning from him that all human beings must, at some point, die. Here once again the claim is borne out that children are often the best philosophers since, unlike grown-ups, they are able to think, and to draw their conclusions, in a way that is undisguised and unobstructed by the inessential. If one orients oneself by Rölleke’s own investigations into the topos “Mä phynai”, then his daughter was thinking in a “classical Greek” manner: the only way to avoid one’s own death – and having to witness the deaths of those near and dear to one – is never to have come into the world at all. Ironically, Rölleke does not take entirely seriously this profound seriousness of the child, which allows not just his daughter but many other children besides to think in a way that spans epochs. If he had done so, then he would perhaps have brought to light the hidden reproach to which he does not need to feel himself exposed for as long as he dismisses his daughter’s utterance as a mere curiosity instead of supposing it to contain an important psycho-genetic constant: namely, why did you cause me to come into this world, since this means that I must know in advance of my own death and be witness to your death and that of many other human beings besides? In short, Rölleke fails to acknowledge the reality of that >Experience of the Death of Near and Dear Ones which is generally an experience imposed on all children.
Very much in the spirit of Schmid’s son and Rölleke’s daughter are the words of an anonymous 14-year-old who succeeds in seeing through the nativistic >Instrumentalization of children and rendering of them a means to nativistic ends:
“You put me into this world without asking me. You gave me a name, declared me a member of the Christian confession, and provided me with a family home, all without my assent or agreement […] You ask me if I see any sense in the life we lead here on this earth? I would like to ask you in my turn whether you saw any sense in your putting me here? Did you envisage that I would be just another link in the chain of society, earning money only in order to spend it? Am I nothing but an ‘exhibit’ for you?” (In: Krömler [Ed.], Horizonte des Lebens, p. 26 and 27)
In view of the stint that must be performed, Hedwig Dohm’s grandson also prefers non-existence to existence – although he eschews all experimentation with the thought of “never having been born”. “My little seven-year-old grandson finds that death is a finer thing than life. On being asked ‘Why?’ he replies: ‘When you’re alive, you have to do so much work.’” (Hedwig Dohm, Die Mütter)
 A grown-up who speaks like Rölleke‘s daughter is the character Berliner in Grabbe’s “Napoleon oder die hundert Tage”: “O if my mother had only held me back within her and never borne me; then I would not need to die.” (Grabbe, Napoleon oder die hundert Tage, S. 407)
On many building sites one finds a notice that is intended to dissuade people from venturing onto the dangerous terrain. It says: “Parents are liable for the actions of their children.” Being the greatest of all known building sites, our earth ought to be fitted out with sky-high warning signs on which all could clearly read: “Children are liable for the actions of their parents.” Because the action of parents is the decisive factor as regards the beginning of the existence of children who then remain bound to and burdened by this existence, and who pay for it, in the end, the penalty of death.
The inevitability of childhood illnesses is so deeply anchored in the consciousness of our species that no one, surely, takes a progenerative decision without having heard of whooping cough, mumps, measles, scarlet fever, rose rash, and chickenpox, not to mention the many digestive disorders, cholics, colds and inevitable teething problems (which are not, indeed, a sickness but painful for all that). The corollary of this is that persons engaging in procreation do so in full awareness of the inevitability of an indeterminable number of childhood illnesses which must be somehow steadfastly put up with, an ordeal which they impose, in all good conscience, on their children.
Many parents would subscribe to the proposition: “the worst thing that could possibly happen to me would be if my child were to die!” Now, every child of every parent is bound, at some point, to die. It is simply that, at said point, the parents in question are, as a rule, already long since dead themselves (>Primortality).
Likewise, many children would say: “One of worst things that could possibly happen to me would be if my parents were to die!” But the great majority of children are condemned by their parents to experience precisely this “worst of things”. The same parents who tremble at the thought of having to experience the premature death of one of their children impose on these same children – clearly without the batting of an ethical eyelid – a comparably grievous suffering insofar as children are almost bound to have to live through the deaths of those who begot them.
The sufferings of children are often waved aside, without any recognizable sign of àempathy, by the remark that “children are always crying or weeping about something or other”. One forgets, when one says this, that to the child the state of suffering in which he finds himself seems co-extensive with the universe as a whole, that he sees no safe port of pacification in which this suffering will ever be extinguished.
It is a widespread view that children are morally “indebted” to their parents. Especially in traditional epochs and societies this notion is interpreted very literally, underpinning a system very like one of “bonded labour” with numerous onerous duties incumbent on the children and correspondent enforceable rights on the part of the parents. As Hedwig Dohm (1831–1919) explains: “The mother feels sure of her right of possession. She saw in her daughter someone indebted to her for life. She is the creditor, her daughter the debtor.” (Dohm, Die Mütter)
A similar relation of indebtedness is assumed by one of literature’s best-known àPerpetrators of Existence: Balzac’s Père Goriot, who, even on his deathbed, raises himself effortfully upright and cries: “Bring me my daughters! They owe me their lives! They are mine!”
The objection is often made to antinatalists that they overlook what a wonderful time we experience already at the very start of our lives, in our childhood – so wonderful, indeed, that grown-ups find solace in recalling it throughout all the rest of their lives. Scientific research into childhood, however, has yielded quite another picture of this stage in all our lives. Thus, we read in the foreword of a book which sheds light on millennia of childhood experience: “The research results presented here are, unfortunately, deeply depressing. They testify to the long, sad history of the mistreatment of children which began in primeval times and is still today not at an end.” (Willam L. Langer, foreword to: Lloyd deMause, The History of Childhood) It has only been since as recent an era as the 18th century that there has begun to arise – in the Western world, at least – such a thing as a humane attitude to children.
On the Drawbacks of Being a Child
“He told Dimple that childhood was a kind of affliction, certainly physical and possibly mental. Children were at a hopeless disadvantage; they were unsuited for the world. They were short and ungainly and stupid, half-people… They needed constant attention and they couldn’t communicate their needs. All they could do was wait for it to pass, years of waiting until the blight was gone.“ (Jeet Thayil, Narcopolis)
Children remain the children of their parents even if, from the point of view of their development, children stay children only for a very brief part of their existence. For by far the greater part of this existence children are grown-up men and women. But whoever decides to have children will necessarily initially experience these children in their not-yet-adult form. This “childhood-blindness” tends to block our vision of that existence as men and women in states of maturity or senility that our own children may one day lead: existences that may give rise, for example, to such a scenario as the following: a still-robust 80-year-old mother who pushes about in a wheelchair her already decrepit 60-year-old son.
The author Thomas Bernhard speaks very decidedly, then, in the spirit of antinatalism when he evokes this problematic in the following terms: “Because people are wrong to believe that they are ‘bringing children into the world’. To say so is such a cheap misrepresentation of the real facts. What they bear, when they give birth, are grown-ups, not children. They bear, in reality, a disgusting, sweaty pub landlord with a pendulous belly or a mass murderer. People say that they’re ‘having a baby’ but in fact what they’re ‘having’ is an eighty-year-old man whose bodily fluids are leaking in every direction, who stinks and is blind and limps and can barely move from gout; it’s him, not ‘ a baby’, that they are bringing into the world. But this gouty old man is precisely what they do not see, so that Nature can continue to have its way and all this mess can go on and on.” (Andre Müller, Interview with Thomas Bernhard 1979, see: http://www.a-e-m-gmbh.com/andremuller/thomas%20bernhard%201979.html, viewed on 26 June 2015)
The question of whether human beings should exist, or why we should exist at all, is the “blind spot” in all critiques of the capitalist mode of production – a mode of production which tends to render human beings superfluous. On the other hand, it would perhaps only be in a society which had brought to realization the Marxian principle of fully-developed communism, whereby each would give according to his ability and receive according to his needs, that human beings would finally enjoy the leisure to address themselves to the question of whether human beings should be at all.
The pronatally “compensating ego” has hitherto experienced three substantial defeats: 1. The falling away of ->Heavenly Compensation Mechanisms, i.e. of the notion of a trans-mundane restitution for past and present sufferings and a trans-mundane reward for as-yet-unrewarded good deeds. 2. Its becoming clear to this “compensating ego” , since the evident failure of communist revolutions on both the Russian and the Chinese models, that no “better future for all” will ever be realized. 3. The growing realization that even the last support remaining to this “compensating ego” – the relatively modest expectation that at least “our children and grandchildren will likely have better lives than ours” – represents, in view of unforeseeable climatic developments and a more and more desperate struggle for natural resources, a blindness in the face of reality.
Whoever, despite his own insight into the Conditio in-/humana represented by each and every individual human fate, adopts a stance that tolerates and supports the continuation of all the various human social experiments, including that great experiment which is the perpetuation of the human species, thereby makes himself an accomplice in suffering and misery.
Let us introduce what we have just called the fact of objective complicity with neganthropy by citing another morally relevant form of complicity: namely, the objective complicity of the purchaser of meat products with the suffering of non-human animals. The person buying meat may, under certain circumstances, wish only the best for themselves and those whom they buy it for and may even – under circumstances which are, admittedly, in the contemporary world much rarer – be unaware that they are participating in initiating, with this buying of meat, a whole new chain of suffering (->Concatenation). Put very simply, each piece of meat purchased sends a signal to the market that the gap left by the meat just consumed must immediately be filled by more meat. Where these “gaps” become numerous they necessarily imply, assuming the predominance of the profit motive, the continued slaughter of animals and the slaughtered beasts leave behind, in their turn, a “gap” which must be filled by the raising and fattening-up of successors. This is bound up with unspeakable suffering for the animals and with further degradation of the environment – and the objective accomplice of it all is the diner at the table next to ours who prefers his meat “a little bloody”. In an entirely analogous way, whoever produces progeny is – even if he wishes only the best for these latter – an objective accomplice not only in the sufferings of these his children and his children’s children but also in the future fate of humanity itself, inasmuch as he implicitly suggested, in and through the course of his procreative activity, the Conditio in/humana to be something acceptable (both for himself and for all human beings yet to be).