Natality Templates

Natality templates are the attempt to express the moral-logical superiority of a specific ethics in terms of simple schemata.

 

David Benatar

David Benatar attempts to establish, with antinatalistic intent, an asymmetry whereby it is a good thing, with regard to the suffering which thereby does not enter the world, if a couple begets no offspring. Intuitively, one might expect there to obtain here rather a symmetry, inasmuch as it could also be argued that a couple’s begetting no offspring means that a certain quantum of happiness does not enter the world, and is by this token a bad thing. Benatar, however, insists that the situation is rather to be characterized as asymmetrical, since the non-existence of happiness is, in itself, “not bad”:  

 

Scenario A:                            Scenario B:

(X exists)                                (X never exists)

1

Presence of pain

(Bad)

 

3

Absence of pain

(Good)

2

Presence of pleasure

(Good)

4

Absence of pleasure

(Not bad)

 

In the case where person X is begotten (scenario A), argues Benatar, it is bad if this person suffers and good if this person experiences happiness.  

In the case, however, where no person X is begotten (scenario B) the non-existence, indeed, of the suffering which they would surely have had to undergo had they been begotten is indeed a good thing, but the non-existence of the happiness which they would likewise surely have experienced had they been begotten is rightly to be characterized merely as “not bad”.  

This natality template of Benatar’s has been the object of much discussion (although it should be noted that Benatar does not discuss an earlier natality template of Vetter’s, which we discuss below), it appears to suffer from a fundamental flaw. Benatar distinguishes between scenarios A and B. In scenario A there exists a specific person, designated as X. Hardly anyone will wish to contest the fact that this “person X”’s suffering is axiologically a bad thing and their happiness a good thing. In scenario B, however, no person exists. Consequently, our judgments, relative to scenario B, regarding the existence or otherwise of suffering and happiness cannot be person-related or X-related but must rather have an impersonal character. Thus we can say, for example: àIt is a good thing that there are no beings capable of feeling pain living on the moon; the absence of suffering in this case is good. But, according to Benatar, the same does not apply to the absence or non-existence of happiness; the non-existence of this latter, he says, is merely “not bad”. One would surely expect, however, that where such an impersonal attitude is adopted a symmetry would obtain (Benatar allowing such a symmetry in the case of the person-related judgments): i.e. one would think that, if the non-person-related absence of suffering is to be characterized as simply “good”, then the non-person-related absence of happiness would have to be characterized as simply “bad”. Benatar contends, however, that this is not so: the non-person-related absence of happiness in scenario B he designates as merely “not bad”. He defends this position as follows: “… if the absence of pleasure in scenario B is ‚bad“ rather than ‚not bad’, then we should have to regret, for X’s sake, that X did not come into existence. But it is not regrettable.” (p. 38f) But here there must be raised against Benatar the objection that it is not for X’s sake that we regret the absence of happiness in question (since there exists no X “for whose sake” this might be regretted) any more than we might approve the absence of suffering for X’s sake (since in this context too there exists no X “for whose sake” anything can be done); rather, we simply say, without making reference hereby to any person, àIt is bad.

Clearly, Benatar fails to sufficiently weigh the necessary logical consequences of the fact that in Box 3 above he evaluates the absence of suffering as morally good, even though it cannot be said to be good for X that the suffering in question is not undergone (since, in the context posited in Box 3, no person “X” exists). In other words: if the absence of suffering in the scenario posited in Box 3 is to be considered “impersonally” good (since it is clear that in this scenario no “X” exists), why should the absence of happiness in the scenario posited in Box 4 not be considered “impersonally” bad (since it is equally clear that no person “X” exists in this latter scenario either)? It is difficult to make out what leads Benatar to the conclusion that the absence of happiness can only be described as “bad” where a person X is assumed to exist with regard to whom this absence of happiness is so. Difficult, specifically, because in Box 3 he describes an “absence” of just this sort – namely, of suffering – as “good” without any person’s being posited as existing with regard to whom this absence would be so.

It must, indeed, be taken into account that Benatar’s asymmetry argument is only the founding half of his antinatalist position and that, as he himself declares, this foundation would not be complete without the other half that comes to supplement it: namely, his “quality of life” argument, whereby every beginning of life, without exception, does harm to the person whose life thereby begins and every life, without exception, is so bad that it would be better for it never to have begun (see Benatar, Every conceivable harm, p. 146).

 

Herrmann Vetter

More convincingly than does Benatar’s natality template the natality template formulated by H. Vetter (of which Benatar makes no mention) demonstrates that non-procreation is morally superior to the begetting of progeny.

 

Column 1

child will be more or less happy

Column 2

child will be more or less unhappy

produce the child no duty fulfilled or violated duty violated
do not produce the child no duty fulfilled or violated duty fulfilled

 

The background to this template is the recognition that there may exist no moral imperative to beget another human being even in the case where it is certain that a more or less happy life – and, as we need also to add, a peaceful death – will fall to his or her lot. Whereas, by contrast, there certainly does exist a moral imperative forbidding the begetting of other human beings in the case where it is certain that more or less bad lives will be their fate.

If a child is begotten, it can turn out either to be more or less happy (Column 1) or more or less unhappy (Column 2). And it emerges from this second template that it is the case of begetting alone that can imply the contravening of a moral obligation.

The fact that parents can never know with any certainty what kind of life will fall to the lot of the child that they beget does not mean that the generation of new human beings becomes something morally unproblematical. On the contrary: so long as parents cannot, with certainty, exclude the possibility that their child will be more or less unhappy or will at some point have to undergo some suffering, the in-principle morally unobjectionable scenario: “child not begotten” must take precedence. Which is why Vetter demands “that in any individual encounter, and by any institutional activity in education, mass media, economic and legal policy, people should be discouraged from having children. If such tendencies are successful enough, the number of men on earth may begin to decrease, and if such development continues long enough, the human race will disappear.“ (Vetter 1972)

In his essay “Antinatalism, Asymmetry, and an Ethic of Prima Facie Duties” Gerald Harrison attempts – just like Vetter, but once again without any mention of him – to give a more detailed justification of his antinatalism, which he at the same time understands as a supplement to the position expounded by àBenatar. Harrison proceeds upon the thesis that moral obligations can only exist in cases where there also exist potential victims. Thus, we would be under a moral obligation not to bring about that suffering which necessarily goes hand in hand with every new life but we would be under no moral obligation to actively bring about the joys and pleasures which may also go hand in hand with such a life. This would be true inasmuch as, were we to contravene (by begetting new human beings) the obligation not to bring about suffering, there would be victims of this contravention. But even were we to suppose the existence of a “moral obligation” to actively bring about happiness by means of begetting human beings, there would be no victims in the case of the contravention of such a “moral obligation”: no one can rightly be said to “suffer” from having never been brought into existence, consequently there can be no question here of a “moral obligation”.

Harrison extends this argument by adding to it his own interpretation of the supposed “prima facie obligation” not to impinge upon another person without first getting his or her consent to do so. By begetting someone, Harrison argues, one very definitely “impinges” upon them to a very considerable degree. But with this element of his defence of his own antinatalism – an element which we reject – Harrison clearly contravenes the àPrinciple of Presupposed Existence.

Further natality templates can also be constructed. The following template, for example, emerges where we proceed upon the ethical imperative that nobody should act in such a way that someone will die as a consequence of his action, assuming that no such death would have ensued had the action been omitted: 

One more human being must die Obligation contravened
Child begotten Yes Yes
Child not begotten No No

 

The following natality template (inspired by T. Govier) proceeds on the one hand from the assumption of a couple who are resolved to beget a child and on the other hand from the assumption of a couple who are resolved not to do so. The template makes clear that, whereas unexpectedly poor future prospects for a child that a couple may have resolved to beget should lead to the rethinking of any progenerative decision that may already have been taken, unexpectedly good prospects for such a child need not necessarily lead to the rethinking of an antigenerative one.

 

Best external knowledge: Child will be extremely happy/healthy Best external knowledge: Child will be unhappy/unhealthy
Couple willing to beget children because the child will have a good life No obligation to go back on decision Obligation to go back on decision
Couple unwilling to beget children because the child will have a bad life No obligation to go back on decision No obligation to go back on decision

 

Whoever had been resolved not to beget a child (for example, because such a child would be poor or might be supposed to be the bearer of a hereditary illness) is not morally obliged to go back on this resolution should new information suggest that it is very probable that his progeny will enjoy, in fact, an extremely good life (because, say, he, as his parent, inherits a fortune or the hereditary disease turns out to be a false diagnosis). On the other hand, those resolved to have children may well indeed, on receipt of bad news about the likely quality of life of this latter, be morally obliged to revise their decision. Here too there is revealed the moral superiority of an antigenerative decision once taken, since this latter does not stand in need of correction even where circumstances change.

One thought on “Natality Templates

  1. Well, I don’t think these two asymmetries are about the same thing. Benatar’s Asymmetry is about states of the universe, not states of an individual as you have wrongly identified. it is mostly an ontological argument, with ethics tacked on at the end. The duty argument, on the other hand, is almost strictly an ethical argument.

    I recommend you read this entry of mine to understand where you went wrong re: Benatar’s argument:
    https://francoistremblay.wordpress.com/2016/06/29/darthbarracudas-attempt-at-debunking-the-asymmetry/

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