Self-Burdening

Whoever acts in such a way that progeny come to exist thereby imposes him- or herself on these progeny as a burden.  In the normal course of things ageing parents become a more or less onerous burden upon their children – and this remains indeed the normal course of things, regardless of how willing or unwilling these children prove to be to actually take this burden actively upon themselves.

Social-Historical Index of Culpability and the Progression of Guilt

Parental guilt is not an ahistorical constant. It varies depending on social position and historical circumstances. The easier the access to contraception and to information regarding the past, present and likely future of humanity, and the more self-determined the manner in which women are able to live their lives, the greater will be parental culpability for the neganthropic consequences of procreation

The degree of parental guilt must be assessed as especially high where the begetting of children is advocated despite a well-founded knowledge of a most likely problematical future for these latter. Thus, the French author Amin Maalouf states his belief that it is likely that already our children and grandchildren will feel the grave effects of climate change while pleading, nonetheless, for a persistence in “the adventure that is humanity”: “Despite my irritation and perturbation, I continue to be fascinated by the adventure that is humanity. I love it, I revere it, and I would not exchange it, for any price in the world, for life as an angel or as a beast.”[1]

The condition of possibility for a continuation of this “adventure that is humanity” is the engendering of new human beings – an activity to which Maalouf persists in exhorting even in the face of a catastrophe which he holds to be very likely imminent. Even if one were to offer him the form of existence of an angel which might preserve him from the coming climate catastrophe Maalouf (born in1949) would prefer existence as a suffering human being. And it is unequivocally clear from the lines cited above that he considers it reasonable to expect of all those born after him that they live in a world degraded by climatic catastrophe.

Contraceptive Culpability Index

The contraceptive culpability index is the product of the degree of women’s self-determination on the one hand and the accessibility of effective contraceptives on the other. Thus, for historical periods and regions of the world in which the contraceptive pill is freely available at no charge and women enjoy more or less equal rights with men, this contraceptive culpability index must clearly be set very high. Every birth, in such periods and regions, is a contraception that has been consciously forgone. Whoever, then, was born in any largely secularized industrial nation of the Western type may more justifiably raise against his parents the reproach: “why did you beget me?” than may, for example, someone whose parents – and most particularly whose mother – lived in a society or an era more thoroughly permeated by religious convictions. In industrial nations of the Western type the processes leading to the conception of a child are much less coercive and inevitable than they are in traditional cultures.

Abortion-Related Culpability Index

All that has been said above with reference to the contraceptive culpability index applies here as well: the more safely and less onerously (i.e. less painfully) both for the pregnant women and for the foetus an abortion can be carried out, the greater will be the moral weight of that reproach of any individual born into the world which has been articulated over and over again in the form of the “Mä phynai” and all its cultural successors. Here, however, the reproach takes on a form which has no such tradition behind it, namely: “why was I not, if circumstances were such that I had to be conceived, at least aborted before the conception could result in a birth?” For this particular reproach it will surely be difficult to find much evidence of literary-aesthetic articulation down the millennia of human culture, since the practice of preventing the birth of an already-conceived foetus was, for a very large part of human history, experienced as something far more perilous and threatening than the prevention of conception in the first place. In these remarks made on an online forum, however, we see just such a reproach directed, anonymously, to someone’s mother for having omitted to terminate her pregnancy: “Often, she left me alone for whole nights on end. If I came to her with a problem, she just yelled at me. Today, I suffer from anorexia and depression and wish that I had been aborted in the womb, so that I would not have to suffer as I do now.” As proof, however, of the invincible optimism of the human race we find another contributor to this discussion replying with the words: “Personally, I think you ought to be happy that your mother did not terminate her pregnancy. However many problems you have, life is the most beautiful thing. Keep your chin up, then. Most problems have a way of working themselves out and then life is usually even better than it was before the problem emerged.” (http://www.pro-leben.de/feed/forum_3/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=22&view=previous, accessed on 26.5.2014)


[1] „En dépit de mes irritations et de mes inquiétudes, je demeure fasciné par l’aventure humaine; je la chéris, je la vénère, et pour rien au monde je ne l’échangerais contre la vie des anges ou des bêtes.“ (Maalouf, o.c.)

Dissipation of Guilt

Even the prime ontologist of the human race’s “obligation to be”, Hans Jonas, concedes that the begetting of new human beings is something laden with guilt. He does not, indeed, seek to eliminate this guilt – something he would consider to be guilt’s suspension – but rather to disperse throughout the supra-individual medium of the species. To arrive at an exculpation of those who procreate Jonas conceives of the species as itself a community of procreation. But in doing so he neglects the fact that said community has also been, for many millennia, a growing community of communication and one which, in recent centuries, has developed in ever greater degree the capacity to take up argument-backed stances either for or against procreation.  Human beings can the more easily refuse bionomic claims – “biological radicals” – the farther a culture, and its members capacity to “reflect themselves out of Nature”, have progressed. Jonas, therefore, writes:

“An element of impersonal guilt inheres in any causation of being (the most radical of all the forms of causation of which a subject is capable) and permeates all personal responsibility vis-à-vis the object of this causation, which was not asked beforehand whether it wished to be caused. But this guilt is shared by all, because the deed of the procreators was a generic one, not one thought up by themselves alone (indeed they might not even have known they were committing it) and the potential accusation of children and grandchildren to the effect that this deed was morally irresponsible – the most comprehensive and, in practice, pointless of all accusations – is one implicitly directed toward every person presently living. As, indeed, is any gratitude that might be expressed by these children and grandchildren.” (Jonas, Das Prinzip Verantwortung)

It remains mysterious, however, why all presently-living human beings should be collectively guilty here, i.e. even those who take a position against the so-called “procreative drive” and do indeed refuse to procreate because it has become clear to them that no one can, in fact, live up to the responsibility involved in begetting a new human being. But perhaps Jonas only means: it is only those who have actually procreated that are collectively guilty. Then, however, the question arises of why, pointing to the “species nature” of the procreative act (“the deed of the procreators was a generic one”) he attempts to exculpate those who commit it without ever going into the issue that Man, being a cultural being, can always find ways and means of resisting “biological radicals”, or at least of sublimating them.

It is only at very few other points in Jonas’s work that one encounters a comparable degree of scepticism regarding procreation, i.e. a degree of scepticism that threatens to undermine Jonas’s own onto-ethics of a moral duty of humanity to exist. Instead of as the Summum bonum procreation now counts as objectively burdened with guilt. Burdened with guilt because it remains constantly questionable whether the responsibility that parents take upon themselves by procreating is a responsibility that can ever really be met. Both gratitude for existence and the imprecation cast upon existence can, Jonas frankly admits, be directed toward any one of us. Further clarification of Jonas’s puzzling text is provided by a footnote:

“The child cannot, indeed, actually ask his parents, reproachfully or otherwise: ‘why did you bring me into the world?’ because the parents in question cannot be said to have had any influence on the specific “thisness” of the “me” that is making this reproach to them; rather, he can only ask them: ‘why did you bring a child into the world?’ and the answer to this is the incurring of this guilt was itself an obligation – not, indeed, one vis-à-vis the not-yet-existing child (no such obligation exists) but rather vis-à-vis the morally binding cause of humanity as a whole. Of this we shall speak later.” (Das Prinzip Verantwortung) One seeks in vain, however, in Jonas’s book for this “later”.

Put very simply, there is opened up, with every birth, a credit and a debit column. It is incumbent upon the parents to fill up the credit column of their child’s life to such an extent that he is content with this life. Even Jonas concedes that this almost never occurs and that the >Saldo natale all too often is a negative one, signalling parents’ failure to meet their responsibility. But instead of simply admitting, at this point of maximum philosophical exposure, that human responsibility is here always and necessarily overstrained, so that his own pronatalism at this point ethically collapses, Jonas performs a veritable >Salto natale, extinguishing the guilt of the parents by adducing a barely argumentationally-supported “obligation” of these latter not to let humanity die out. Whatever meaning one may assign to the lines cited from Jonas above, the fact is hardly simply to be dismissed that he avows, at this point, that his “principle of responsibility” flips over here to become a principle of the irresponsibility of human procreation.

Burdening of Children With Guilt

No human being can close himself off entirely to the pain of others. Not even the most ingenious form of emotional self-insulation that the human psyche is capable of can fully succeed in doing this. There is imposed upon each of us, through a birth occurring without our consent and with a view to benefiting people not ourselves, an inevitable co-experiencing of others’ suffering.

In his 1946 book The Question of German Guilt Karl Jaspers derives from the involuntary (!) testimony of each German contemporary some far-reaching moral consequences. His fourth category of guilt, the metaphysical, makes “every one of us co-responsible (…) for all that is not right and not correct in the world, and quite especially for crimes which occur in our presence or with our knowledge. If I do not do whatever I can to prevent them, then I share in the guilt.”  (Jaspers, Die Schuldfrage / The Question of German Guilt) To the extent that Jaspers’s reasoning holds true we may say that all parents make their children co-responsible for all the wrong and evil that they witness. Through his category of “metaphysical guilt” Jaspers illuminates the Conditio in/humana, albeit without drawing any antinatalistic conclusions therefrom. Since he has never protested against the indefinite prolongation of the chain of new births he implicitly imposes on billions of human beings a burden even greater than just that of their own existence. This inasmuch as his principle of  àCo-Responsibility demands openness and engagement with regard to the burdens of existence borne by others, burdens which every individual human being who is “open to the world” to the degree that Jaspers demands is obliged to collaborate in bearing. As an existentialist of deep moral insight who proves nonetheless not to be open to antinatalism Jaspers becomes an objective accomplice in the reasons for that very guilt which he imposes on all those born into this world.

Dilatation of Pain

Many are eager to point out that the pains undergone by living beings serve to protect the organism. When it is asked what pain is good for it is replied that feelings of pain prompt us to actions, or omissions of action, which preserve the organism from being harmed. What can be observed everywhere is a “living it up” of pain. To fulfil the function of a “warning sign” just a few strong bursts of pain would suffice. Instead, however, we see living beings twisting and writhing in long-enduring agonies, as in the case of the injuries caused by being bitten, stabbed, struck, crushed or burned. It is striking how we observe vis-a-vis this great temporal extension, or “dilatation”, of pain – something entirely unnecessary from the point of view of the preservation of the being feeling it – typically very much shorter temporal extensions in the cases of very pleasurable feelings.   

Pain

Philanthropic efforts have hitherto attempted to diminish or entirely to remove the suffering of already existing human beings. Antinatalist moral theory, however, makes an appeal to each individual to refrain from bringing into existence any further human beings, who will inevitably live lives of pain and suffering. With its humanistically motivated intervention in favour of a cessation of all procreation antinatalistic moral theory encounters resistance not just in the form of a traditional notion of procreation’s being a “natural” thing. Another reason, besides this, why antinatalism has difficulty getting a hearing is that there has always run, parallel to that strand in human history which has consisted in the struggle to diminish suffering, another strand which has consisted in a resistance to all measures tending precisely to this end. One very telling example is the following: Carl Ludwig Schleich – the inventor of local anaesthesia – remarks, in his memoirs, with great bitterness that he had had to suffer scorn and mockery at one medical congress attended by 800 of his colleagues simply because he had made available “something which later came to be absolutely recognized as a great good deed done for all those who suffer”  (Schleich, Besonnte Vergangenheit). Schleich was not alone in being made acquainted with this basic trait of human cultural history: a negative attitude to any progress made in the direction of lessening human pain. Millions or even billions of people have fallen victim to an attitude of merely looking away from human pain, while turning off all human empathy, which has extended even into the medical profession itself. What is it that sustains this attitude? It may be that there lies at the root of it some false idea that pain does people good, an idea rooted in its turn in certain ancient cultural and religious ideas.

It does not bode well for a future recognition of the truth of antinatalist moral theory that there is imbedded even in the medical profession a certain readiness to allow people to suffer in ways that might be avoided (for example, the practice of withholding their medication from them). Because such unrecognized atavistic ideals as that of “the benefits endowed by pain” tend to make people less receptive to the demand not to bring further human beings into the world, knowing that these latter will necessarily have to suffer much pain.


The Badness at the Basis of All Good Deeds

Many parents, while recognizing the evil in the world, attempt nonetheless to justify their wish to procreate, or their actual deed of procreation, by telling themselves that their child, among all others, might become a doer of good things – or at least that they intend to educate him in such a way that this has the best chance of coming to pass.

One may say of such an undertaking that it wagers, in the first place, to such an extent on unknown factors (biological and social >Lottery) that it can hardly serve as a justifying reason for the begetting of a new human being. In the second place this attempt at legitimation fails to recognize the ground of badness which alone renders the doing of good things needful. That immeasurable demand for good deeds (without which it would not be possible for parents to imagine their child as some future doctor, crusading lawyer or brilliant researcher) exists precisely because the quantity and quality of evil in the world, anthropogenic or otherwise, is so immeasurable. Whoever wishes, through the begetting of a child, the best for both this child and the world thereby takes out, as it were, like all such begetters before him, a loan that can never be repaid and thus exposes his own child to the evils both of Nature and of society.