Reversal of the Natal Debt: The Kantian Natal Theorem

Throughout long stretches of human history the wish for children must have been fed not by the question: “what can I, or should I, do for my children?” but rather by the question: “what can my children do for me?”

The reversal, in recent times, of this natal debt is reflected (even if it is not fully represented) in the following stance taken, anonymously, on this question in the 19th century:

“Question of a pessimist. – Do you not believe that all parents have good reason to try to gain, through lifelong tenderness, care, devotion, and self-sacrifice for their children, the forgiveness of these latter for having brought them into the world? More good reason, that is, than the children have to be thankful to their parents?” (In: (Anonymous) Vox humana. Auch ein Beichtbuch)

The reversal of former ways of thinking that set in in the 18th century is still today not concluded. But it attains new heights where children do indeed make of their own existence a reproach cast at their parents (>Accusation of Existence). The reversal of the nativistic way of thinking will be complete when the metaphor of parents “giving” life to their children will finally have given way, as part of everyone’s normal mental vocabulary, to that of parents’ “imposing” on these children, by causing them to come to be, an existence which often gives no reason for joy and which must inevitably end in death.


Kant’s Reversal of the Natal Debt

According to Kant (1724–1804) there ensues from procreation within matrimony: “a duty to preserve and care for its offspring; that is, children, as persons, have by their procreation an original innate (not acquired) right to the care of their parents until they are able to look after themselves, and they have this right directly by law (lege), that is, without any special act being required to establish this right. For the offspring is a person, and it is impossible to form a concept of the production of a being endowed with freedom through a physical operation.* So from a. practical point of view it is a quite correct and even necessary idea to regard the act of procreation as one by which we have brought a person into the world without his consent and on our own initiative, for which deed the parents incur an obligation to make the child content with his condition so far as they can. – They cannot destroy their child as if he were something they had made (since a being endowed with freedom cannot be a product of this kind[1]) or as if he were their property, nor can they even just abandon him to chance, since they have brought not merely a worldly being but a citizen of the world into a condition which cannot now be indifferent to them even just according to concepts of right.” (Kant, Metaphysic of Morals, The right of domestic society. Title II: Parental right. §28; in: THE CAMBRIDGE EDITION OF THE WORKS OF IMMANUEL KANT, General editors: Paul Guyer and Allen W. Woop, p. 429f))

Here too Kant proves to be a thinker who brings about a revolution vis-à-vis ways of thinking handed down from earlier times.[2] One might call this handed-down manner of thinking about the relationship between parents and children either Aristotelian or Confucian: in any case, in traditional societies children were expected to hold their parents in high esteem and to owe them gratitude for everything, quite especially for having brought, by them, into the world in the first place. Kant, however, instead of having children one-sidedly pay by instalments their gratitude for existence back to their parents, says: parents owe the children they have created a duty of care and education until the point in time when it is possible for them to lead an independent life. Blumenberg, therefore, sums up Kant’s natal theorem as follows: “Kant did not, indeed, replace the ancient ethics of the duties of children toward parents; he outdid it, however, with a duty of parents toward their children consisting in the obligation to reconcile these latter with their unasked-for and undesired existence in a world which was seldom favourable to them.”  (Die Sorge geht über den Fluss, p. 202f)

Let us look more closely at Kant’s natal theorem. It expresses the idea that through each act of procreation a person endowed with free will is brought into the world without his or her consent. That this statement is a problematical one we can clearly see just from the fact that we might just as well make the following claim: with every act of procreation a person is brought into the world who has not refused to be so brought. While, then, the pronatalist can insist on the fact that no one refused to be brought into the world, the antinatalist can fall back on the seemingly equally factually correct contention that no one is brought into the world with his or her consent (àStalemate). Both positions seem plausible – and both suffer from the following ontological fallacy: contrary to what is suggested by Kant’s form of expression (and that of numerous poets and thinkers) human beings are not “brought into the world” or into existence from some “other place”. Nobody was, before he or she existed (>Beginning of Existence). A procreation, indeed, is an indispensable precondition for the beginning of a new human existence; but a procreation is not something that “happens” to a human being. Rather, there arises, with every >Living Being, something ontically new: an entity which was not there before and which also did not have any “half-existence” (>Half-Existing Entities). Before the beginning of the existence of living being X it did not exist, so that we cannot say: ‘the beginning of X’s existence was something good, or bad, for X”. In order to be able to experience anything “good” or “bad” one must already exist.

Where we claim that life is imposed upon persons who never gave their consent to the beginning of their own life, a still broader claim is implicitly laid to a flawed onto-logic whereby there might even be human beings who never refused to be begotten but to whom a begetting and bringing into being was nonetheless denied. Where, then, someone reproaches those who begot him with having brought him into existence without his consent these begetters are always in a position to reply: you did not consent to the beginning of your existence but neither did you object to it! They might further retort: ‘we did indeed resolve to beget a human being, but not to beget YOU! (>Nativistic Arbitrariness, >Schiller’s Nativistic Robber). And here there comes to apply once again the reproach of the “diktat of birth”: parents beget children even though they are aware of many of the unpleasant things that necessarily await these latter; that these things will befall them is a structural feature of existence and quite independent of just who begins his or her existence in and through the birth of a child.

The question remains open: why should the parental obligation to take care of their children last only up until the point at which these children can take care of themselves? Assuming that the parents’ decision to act in such a way that their child began to exist was a free decision, does their status as perpetrators, their responsibility and their guilt not extend very much further, so as to cover care for their children even in all those sicknesses and accidents that may befall them after they have come of age? If one really holds to Kant’s basic notion then it must be incumbent upon the parents to reconcile their children to the Conditio in/humana not just until they come of age but right up until the hour of their death. And to the extent that this task of caring for their (grown) children proves to be too much for the parents, the pronatal state must make up what is lacking with an >Existence Allowance.

Even if “voluntary” and “involuntary” are not applicable categories in the case of the beginnings of existences of living beings, that moment of >Parental Guilt that Kant throws light on here remains a reality: parents know beforehand that their child will, in the course of his or her life, end up again and again in situations which will prompt in him or her the thought that it would have been much better if they had never begun to exist (Bernhard refers to this in one of the two passages quoted from his work below); and the awakening personality resists acceptance of that necessity of dying which the parents had condoned (see Sloterdijk below).



According to Kant parents cause beings endowed with freedom – persons – to enter the world without their having assented thereto. And since a person is not a manufactured object but rather an entity through which the order of the noumenal and of the transcendental moral law comes to play a role in the sphere of the phenomenal, parents have no moral right either “to destroy their child as if he were their property or to deliver him up to mere chance”. Nietzsche, however, undermines this Kantian pathos by posing the question of how it is possible to call an entity “free” if it does not owe its existence to any rational act but is plainly a product of mere chance:

“No one knows exactly what they are doing when they beget a child; even for the wisest among us it is a àLottery. And we are expected to believe that Man is ‘free’ even though he owes his existence to an act which is in no sense a rational one!” (Nietzsche, Weisheit für Übermorgen (1869–1889)

Whereas Kant tells us that parents have no moral right to deliver their children up to chance, the child is, for Nietzsche, itself from the very start a product of chance – the chance product of a genetic lottery, as one might put it today. Where Kant expresses the idea that “it is impossible to form the notion of the creation, through a physical operation, of a being endowed with reason” Nietzsche concurs with him but goes beyond him to say: precisely because none of us “owes” his or her existence to an act of reason, no freedom is to be found anywhere in our conditions of emergence. If, then, as Nietzsche claims, parents do not know what they are doing when they bring about the existence of the mere product of chance that is called a child, has there really been any “damage” done here for which the child might claim compensation from his or her parents?


Bernhard’s Consideration of Kant

The notion of a world “seldom kind to those born into it” which we encountered, above, evoked by Blumenberg we encounter once again, in radical form, in Thomas Bernhard’s 1963 novel Frost:

“He said: ‘Human beings who make a new human being take an enormous responsibility upon themselves. All unfulfillable. Hopeless. It is a great crime to make a human being about whom one already knows that he will be unhappy, will be unhappy at some point in time. The unhappiness that exists for the space of just one moment is unhappiness in its entirety. To create an alone-ness because one wishes no longer to be alone, this is criminal.’ He said: ‘The instinct of Nature is criminal and to appeal to it is just an excuse, just as everything that human beings touch is an excuse’.” (Bernhard, Frost)

In his Alte Meister from 1985 Thomas Bernhard draws the conclusions that must be drawn from Kant’s new way of thinking as regards the ancient “right” of parents to demand gratitude for their action of bringing forth new human beings: “’We go easy on our parents’, he said yesterday, ‘instead of accusing them, their whole lives long, of the crime of creating human beings;’ (…) They begot me without asking whether I wanted to be begotten…, they committed upon me the >Crime of Begetting…“ (Bernhard, Alte Meister)


Sommer’s Consideration of Kant

In his “Identität im Übergang”, published in 1988, Manfred Sommer gives a thorough appreciation and analysis of the Kantian Natal Theorem and expands and develops it so congenially that the reader expects, from one moment to the next, a declaration by Sommer of belief in antinatalism.  Thus, he offers the following formulation, very much in the spirit of the àDiktat of Birth: “the first and most important of life’s transitions – namely, that into life – is experienced as an unsurpassable act of violence. One does not pass willingly from non-being into being. One is compelled to do so.” (Identität im Übergang, Ff/M 1988, p. 19) But if birth is an “unsurpassable act of violence” is it not something which ought to be forbidden? Or does Sommer discover, following Kant, some form of >Parentodicy?

The parent-child relationship, Sommer claims, is a violent relationship because parents “become what they are by doing violence to another: namely, their child. The new citizen of the earth, although he or she is a person, is not consulted on whether he or she wishes to exist or not.” (Loc. cit., p. 21) Herein consists that “misdeed of the parents” which is never to be completely compensated for by any upbringing, however good.  Sommer discovers in Kant’s remarks an expression of “the powerlessness of the child and the initial experience of contingency: of not having been consulted as to whether he wishes to live or not and of having to accept his own existence as a matter of pure chance. It is this that the forms the basis of the initial discontent. It is the first of all existential ‘states of mind’, the ‘sense of life’ that stands at the beginning of all others.” (Loc. cit., p. 22) But what proof can one offer of such a supposed “initial discontent”? Each smile of a small child could, with equal justification, be interpreted as an expression of contentment with the world. Sommer finds, however, an empirical proof in Kant himself, namely in his Anthropology: “the cry that is uttered by a child when barely born” (Loc. cit. p. 22) This fact would be much less noteworthy if the newborns of other mammals, or even of other vertebrates, cried out in this way on being born. As Sommer succeeds in bringing out, for Kant this cry of the human neonate is “an expression of a sense of unease that does not result from physical pain but rather from a kind of embitteredness and outrage.” (ibid. >Crying)

As compensation for their misdeed and so as to “produce and secure a ‘forgetfulness of birth’” (Loc. cit. p. 64), argues Sommer very plausibly, it is incumbent on the parents not only to care for and raise the child until it is in a position to maintain itself but also to educate it in such a way that it becomes a “moral” being. “To be moral means to live as if, before one began to live, one had been asked whether one wanted to and had said ‘yes’. This retroactive agreement is at the same time a justifying assent: the deed of the parents is no longer a misdeed.” (ibid.) That instinct of Nature that Bernhard calls “criminal” is morally sublated; the child that is content with its existence exculpates the parents of their crime of procreation. If the child acts morally, it acts not in a way determined by Nature but rather autonomously; it is impossible for it to come any closer than this to self-creation. It declares thereby that it belongs to the realm of freedom, that it is more than just an entity that things happen to. As a being belonging to the realm of freedom the child is in a position to set causal chains in motion with itself as primary cause. And in the last analysis it may be assumed of this child that it would have brought itself into being, if the sole order under the sway of which it had stood had been the moral law alone. Thus runs our attempt to think through to its logical conclusion Sommer’s exculpation of parents.

What remains problematical about this significant contribution to Kant’s Natal Theorem is that Sommer fails to gain the necessary distance vis-à-vis Kant’s ontological assumptions. Sommer follows Kant in speaking of parents “drawing their child out of non-being into existence” (Loc. cit. p. 42) – whereby he infringes the >Principle of Presupposed Existence and commits a >Salto Esistenziale. Perhaps so as not to pull the foundation out from underneath his own discussion, Sommer refuses to even conceive of an absolute “never-having-been” but rather presumes a pre-existing “I” posed in a stance of waiting, upon which the misdeed is committed. Without such a “pre-I” no one would be there to whom harm might be done through that beginning of existence occasioned by the parents.


Sloterdijk’s Consideration of Kant (Retrospective Absolution of Parents)

Basing himself on Manfred Sommer’s investigations (Sloterdijk, Weltfremdheit, p. 274, Fn 1), Sloterdijk also gives some consideration to the Kantian Natal Theorem, which he expands, in the same spirit, by adding in the aspect of the certainty of death, thus reinforcing the antinatalist impulse of the Kantian presentation of the matter:

“If individuals wish to pass over from a mere ‘being there’ to a fully self-responsible existence, they must, as Kant urges, take their life into their own hands[3] and give to their existence a kind of constitution. They would thus have approved, in an act of retroactive consent, the arbitrary act committed by their parents in having allowed the conceiving of a child to be a potential consequence of their sexual intercourse with one another. In a lucid and tactful manner Kant indicates the basic contradiction of the human condition [>Conditio in/humana]: namely, that we must assume human beings to be self-responsible and free even though, as regards the most important question of their lives – that of whether they wanted to enter into existence at all – they had no voice of their own in the matter (…) The day of an individual’s attaining the maturity of self-responsibility, then, would be the day on which he would decide, with full insight into the costs and risks, the certainty of death included, to retroactively accord absolution to his parents [>Absolution of Parents] for the act of coitus which led to his life.” (Sloterdijk, Weltfremdheit, p. 275f)

The decisive thing about the passage quoted is that Sloterdijk – naming things by their proper names – takes up the certainty of death into the canon of neganthropica for which children must retrospectively accord absolution to their parents. Taking Kant as his starting point, he confronts all parents with the task of reconciling their children to the certainty of death. That such a brilliant metaphysical-pedagogical performance could regularly be successfully brought off seems extremely open to doubt. If >Rölleke’s Daughter can, in her statement that if mortality is the condition placed on birth then she would rather not be born, be taken to be representative for all mortal children awakening to their own personality, then one cannot help but be sceptical. And it is only on deathbeds that true absolution is accorded to parents (see Hedwig Dohm, Auf dem Sterbebett). Every “it was not worth it” that is murmured, or even silently thought, upon a deathbed is a sentence of guilt passed upon the dying individual’s parents, who might, if they had wished, have omitted to beget him. We must, then, taking our cue from Sloterdijk but going beyond him, reckon everywhere with a temporally “staggered” revision of that procuration that may possibly once have been accorded to the parents. Where we precisely extrapolate this thought the conclusion appears inevitable that every absolution of parents that was “accorded” in the name of attained self-responsibility was existentially-biographically premature and is thereby null and void. And not only this. The absolution of the parents from the guilt of their act of begetting by reference to the entry of their children into the age of affirmative self-responsibility is obtained by devious means. Obtained by devious means because it suggests a self-responsibility which must, in reality, remain forever unattainable. Regardless of what preventive measures we might take, we will never, at any point in our lives, be able to master our own biological constitution. We are always exposed to biological attacks. The only way granted to us of taking entirely into our own hands that life which is traceable back to the action or omission of our parents is to end it.

Sloterdijk’s philosophical merit consists in having expanded Kant’s considerations regarding natality into a notion of >Thanatality. He takes, however, no more effective a distance than does Sommer from Kant’s Salto Natale of declaring the entry into existence to be a “question within life”. It is not in fact the case that “someone” enters into existence who was previously somewhere else; it is rather the case that, in consequence of a progenerative decision, someone new comes to be. Each consciousness is an irreducible novum with regard to the arisal of which the “combinatorium notion” explains only very little[4]. The often-evoked recombination of genes is, ontically speaking, something quite different from the new consciousness as which each of us begins to exist. Our parents do not call “us” into existence out of some >Guf-Space; before we began to exist it was simply impossible to act with reference to anything identifiable as us at all. But by referencing, in a supposedly identificatory manner, a human being who in fact does not yet exist at all Kant, Blumenberg, Bernhard and Sloterdijk are able to portray the beginning of the existence of “this” human being as something irreconcilable with his essential freedom and to focus on some putative unconsulted person who, without his consent, shall have been “drawn over” into existence.


Thomä’s Consideration of Kant

In his 1992 book “Eltern. Kleine Philosophie einer riskanten Lebensform” Dieter Thomä notes: “Kant’s thought is, radically understood, a lesson in the philosophy of the absurd, i.e. in a philosophy which refuses to come to terms with that which is, a philosophy which leaps out beyond the limits of the liveable.” (Eltern, p. 133[5]) What does Thomä want to suggest with these apparently disparaging words? Parents can never possibly fulfill, in any radical sense, that which Kant states, without further justification, discontinues at the point of their children’s attaining maturity: namely, the obligation to reconcile these latter to existence. Inasmuch, then, as reconciliation with a finite and vulnerable existence can never be completely achieved there follows the – for Thomä absurd – conclusion that it is morally indefensible to beget children. But this conclusion is really neither absurd nor “beyond the limits of the liveable” but simply the result of a philosophizing without reservations which questions the implicit foundations of traditional institutions. If this means a systematic demanding-too-much of the addressees of moral theory, this does not affect moral theory itself. It is rather the case that, where life proves “unliveable” in the face of moral-theoretical demands that have been found to be valid, this represents yet a further argument for not begetting a new life in the first place.

Basing ourselves on Kant, then, we may propose the following formulation: the life-form Man is unliveable because a reconciliation with “imposed” existence is in principle impossible. In order to get himself out of this argumentational quandry Thomä too recurs to a >Salto natale. He says in >natalnaturalistic fashion, that the Kantian deduction to the effect that parents incur a burden of guilt with every begetting remains “foreign to life” and that, therefore, “life remains unaffected by the moral conclusion that Kant draws here” (Eltern, p. 133) To Thomä it does not seem plausible “to call parents to account for something with regard to which they had no freedom to act otherwise: if children are to be brought into the world in no other way then one cannot, I believe, derive a reproach from such a way of acting.” (P. 191)

For Thomä, evidently, moral theory needs to take its bearings from “life”. He presupposes the coming into being of children as something that simply cannot be reasonably called into question, neglecting the fact that procreation depends on generative decisions, so that parents – especially in our present era of contraceptives – have the freedom either to act in such a way that a new human being begins to exist or not to act in such a way. From the fact that “life” (i.e. parents and their generative decisions) shows no concern for moral theory Thomä draws the inverse conclusion that Kant’s theorem fails. But on this logic almost every ethics would be a failed ethics – because where have human beings ever let themselves be affected by ethics in their actions and omissions? It is not Kant’s theorem, it seems, that fails but rather Thomä’s attempt to reject the antinatalistic consequences of Kant’s line of reasoning by casting upon it the suspicion of absurdity.


[1] In contrast to Kant, Fichte and Hegel do not look upon freedom as something which needs to be considered, from the very start, as being susceptible of being infringed upon by procreation. Rather, for these thinkers, the freedom of the child is, initially, a “freedom still mired in Nature” (see Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right §174)

[2] In his “Metaphysics of Morals” Kant strongly suggested that there is an ontic difference between organisms without consciousness and conscious living beings (for details see Akerma 2006). In his “Critique of Judgment” he raised the question of why human beings should exist at all (see Akerma 2000).

[3] See the stance adopted by Kleist, who demanded of his sister a life-plan which would include the aspect of procreation. >Terror of Childbirth >Kleist‘s Law

[4] See on this topic N. Hartmann, Der Aufbau der realen Welt, p. 456f.

[5] Sommer’s interpretation of the Kantian natal theorem is not, indeed, one that Thomä concurs in; see Thomä, S. 223 Fn 12.

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