Child as Buffer Before Death

Confessions of parental guilt are rare and are likely only to be expected in certain limit-situations. For example, in the case of the Dutch author van der Heijden, whose son was killed in a traffic accident. Whereas Schopenhauer still supposed that no one who was thinking clearly would ever decide to beget a child, van der Heijden confesses: “We took the decision to have a child. I conceived it wilfully and knowingly with her… And now Mirjam and I are left here, until our respective dying days, with a loss the size of life instead of a living son. It was all a lie, then, this sense of safety and protection that a family of our own had seemed to guarantee. It was a stinking lie to imagine that our child would be a kind of buffer before the lonely chill of our own deaths.” (van der Heijden, Tonio) Van der Heijden’s nativistic frankness deserves great praise; but he appears not to be fully recognizant of the fact that, in begetting a child as a “buffer before death” – one that unfortunately “died before his time” – he had in fact exposed this child himself to the “lonely chill” of the inevitability of dying.

Threat of Death, Symbolic

If someone is told that his or her own children did not necessarily have to come into existence (and thus would not necessarily have had, in future, to die) this person will, in most cases, construe this as a calling into question of these children’s right to go on living. And whoever questions the basis of these children’s existence by posing the question “Why do you have children?” will, unfortunately, be looked on as someone seeking to take these children’s lives. For this reason alone, even if for no other, whoever tries to persuade his fellow men of the truth of antinatalist moral theory should proceed very carefully.

Animal Antinatalism

In view of the sufferings – for the most part underappreciated, because literally unimaginable – not only of livestock animals but also of animals living in the wild we advocate also an animal antinatalism, whereby one should strive, so far as possible, to act in such a way that no further animals should begin to exist.

Theodicy as Cryptic Anthropodicy

By enunciating the insight that God is just a projection of human ideas the critique of religion undermines, at the same time, that notion, still resonant even in our present day, of all human beings as >“Children of God”. Human beings become more and more clearly visible as what they have, in fact, always really been: children of other human beings. With the driving of God out his place in the psychical economy of human beings those critical questions and accusations which had accumulated in all the attempts at theodicy undertaken in the course of many centuries come now to be directed no longer at God but rather at procreating human beings themselves. Since there was once a time when human beings permitted themselves to see themselves as God’s compliant agents (“Go forth and multiply!”) these same human beings must now be called to account for all that pain and misery supposedly facilitated and “allowed” by this God. Every accusatory cry of suffering once raised against God now falls back upon human beings as God’s >Accomplices, since without such accomplices’ own will to parenthood we ourselves would soon no longer exist, and consequently evil, suffering and death would no longer exist either. Two important differences, however, between theodicy and anthropodicy must be recognized:

1. God can compensate us for all our sufferings by means of the àParadisal Compensation; the human individuals alive at any given time, however, in their capacity as “Mini-Demiurges” (>Parents as Mini-Demiurges), have nothing comparable to offer to their progeny other than a postponement of the hoped-for “good life” into the generation of these children’s own children and thus of the “earthly Paradise” into some indeterminate future. After the collapse of those great promises for the future that flourished throughout much of modernity human beings now find themselves bereft of any plausible justification for their imposition of suffering and misery on billions of beings born without their consent.

2. As accomplices of God human beings can shift, in substance, their own responsibility off onto an almighty Creator who created us out of love and who commands us to put up with all our suffering as the price to be paid for eventual eternal salvation.[1] In light of these considerations we may paraphrase Epicurus as follows:

“Either human beings wish to eliminate evil by ceasing to procreate but are unable to do so; or they are able to do so but do not wish to do so; or they are not able to do so and also do not wish to do so; or they are both able to do so and also wish to do so. In the case where they wish to cease to procreate but find themselves unable to do so, this means that they are weak-willed, which is surely true of many people. In the case where they are able to do so but do not wish to do so, they knowingly condemn their progeny to suffering and death, something which also cannot be put past many human beings. In the case where they neither wish to cease procreating nor are able to do so, they are both >Damnators and unfree, something which cannot be true of human beings. But in the case where they both are able to cease procreating and wish to do so – which is really the only one of these possibilities that is really acceptable for morally acting beings – there will soon be no evil of any sort upon the earth.”[2]

[1] This entry is based, in part, on certain formulations of Guido Kohlbecher (September 2012).

[2] The model for this paraphrasing is to be found in: Epicurus

Thanatalistic Compensation Principle – Room for the Young

In the work of many writers, and specifically in that of Hans Jonas, we encounter – something that will surely surprise and shock many of those familiar with this author – a vulgarly Darwinistic and to all appearances extremely brutal “thanatalistic compensation principle”. “Now, just as it is clear,” writes Jonas, “that mortality tends to be balanced out by natality, natality acquires the latitude it needs through mortality. The dying of the old makes room for the young. […] Given that this is the situation, should we really attempt to extend the lives of the old still further by tinkering around with that biological clock of our mortality that has once been set by Nature – by attempting, as it were, to outwit Nature and thus to reduce still further the room for youth in our ageing society? I believe that the welfare of humanity bids us answer: ‘no!’” (Jonas, Philosophische Untersuchungen und metaphysische Vermutungen, S. 96)

This passage might indeed be described as “vulgarly Darwinistic” inasmuch as what counts here as the highest value is clearly not the wishes or the dignity of already-existing, ageing human beings but rather that principle, alien to all kindness and benevolence, of new generations pushing bionomically forward and demanding room for their existence, to which the older are summoned to cede and yield. It would surely have been more rational if Jonas had allowed space for asking why new generations should be pushing forward when there are already sufficient older people there whose wish it may be to grow still older.  

Jonas’s attempt to “balance out” mortality with natality comes to grief on the double Diktat of thanatalism: an involuntary having-to-die cannot be “balanced out” by any natality if for no other reason then certainly at least for the reason that it is not possible, except post festum, to acquire the consent to existence from any existing human being.

Thanatality Blindness

“Thanatality blindness” refers to the fact that parents, and all those who acclaim procreation, generally pay regard only to the beginning of a new human being’s life, not to that entirety of this life which must inevitably be sealed by death. When looking at a baby suckling at a mother’s breast the dominant thought tends to be: How wonderful that people acted in such a way that such a being came to be. But in the face of a person dying from a mortal illness or an extremely old person wasting away in a care home it is seldom, if ever, that we hear the thought expressed: What moral irresponsibility was shown by the people who begot you in order for you to die this way. To the enthusiasm associated with the beginning of life there corresponds only an awkward silence in the face of life’s usual end, whereas the most justified reaction would surely be: Who caused this horror through the act of causing you to be?


Thanatality designates the fact of our existence’s being to a greater degree an “existence forward towards death” than an “existence forward away from birth”. The pronatalist invitation to a celebration of natality, whereby we live, being each of us a respective new beginning, much rather forward from birth than forward towards death is an invitation which may, with some justification, be directed at new-borns or very small children (see, however àRölleke’s Daughter), but it cannot reasonably be directed at self-aware, adult persons certain of their own future. The following writers, all of them meditators on thanatality, question back behind the apparent self-evidence with which parents, even in the face of the certainty of their own children’s deaths, nonetheless act in such a way that these latter begin to exist.

Lichtenberg, Georg Christoph (1742–1799)

“Tell me why thousands are born with grave disabilities, struggle and groan through a few years of life and then die? Why the child full of hope, the joy of his parents, dies just when these parents are at an age where they begin to need his help? Why others are forced to leave this world when they have only just entered it and are born only in order to die?” (Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Über Physiognomik; wider die Physiognomen)

Leiris, Michel (1901–1990)

“As soon as I became an adult I felt no longer able to tolerate the notion of having a child: to bring a being into the world that, per definitionem, never asked to be brought into it and that is destined to die after it itself, perhaps, has seen to it that this chain of procreation is prolonged.”


Bernhard, Thomas (1931–1989)

“Who was it who had the idea of letting human beings go about in the world, or in what we call a world, in order then to bury them in a grave, in their grave?” (Thomas Bernhard, Frost)

Fels, Ludwig (*1946)

“Whoever brings children into the world/However oblivious to the future he may be as he does so/Is offering up victims to himself/ As a murderer deserving of ostracization. / Being born means, today/Having been ‘aborted into life’” (Ludwig Fels, Knüppelwiege. Ins Leben abtreiben. Ein langes Gedicht)

Thanatal Hiatus

Evocation of the “thanatal hiatus” (the long period of time elapsing between having-been-begotten and having-to-die) serves pronatalists as a way of repudiating antinatalists’ evocation of “thanatality” as a component part of the Conditio in/humana: For the great majority of people the unwelcome necessity of having-to-die lies in so far, or at least in so abstract, a distance that thanatality does not count among the factors that diminish or compromise the happiness of existence.  

Pronatalists generally provide the thanatal hiatus with the following factor of proportionality:  the longer the period of time a person has left to live, the more acceptable is their having-to-die. The corollary of this is: where younger people die, be it in a natural catastrophe, in war, or in traffic accidents, this is usually portrayed in news reports as something especially tragic (with very little distinction being made here between a death in great pain and a painless one).

In contrast to the claim that pronatalists make upon the thanatal hiatus we antinatalists advance the following formulation: ceteris paribus, the shortest possible interval of time between  the >Beginning of Life and the >End of Life is to be preferred; what counts, for us, as especially tragic is an agonizing death after a long life full of experiences of care and misery.

Thanatal Conflict of Conscience

Few people are able, or would wish, to look the necessity of their own death in the face. But these people beget children, nonetheless, or applaud when others beget them. – Subliminally aware, perhaps, that they are expressing verbal approval of something that they themselves could not bear, they must strive, henceforth, to come to terms with a thanatal conflict of conscience as an inhabitant of their psychical household.  

When questioned as to how they can condone the begetting of beings who are doomed to die, those with a firm foothold in existence reply that this having-to-die is something that lies in the distant future (>Thanatal Hiatus). But these same people will lament, at the next opportunity, the brevity of life.

Tantalus Feeling

Symbol for the situation of the human being whose religious faith has been shaken but who nevertheless stands in need of meaning and consolation and who is therefore obliged to wish for the impossible. A foundation for meaning and significance in the form of God seems close enough to grasp but evades his grasp, nonetheless, in all his lived existential limit-situations, leaving him in the lurch. The Tantalus Feeling is at its most intense in the case where the person longing for meaning and consolation not only imagines himself to have been left in the lurch but also believes that he perceives, behind the senseless torture of humanity, a God who takes malicious pleasure in it – after the model of Zeus who, in the mythical narrative, took delight in the torments of the punished Tantalus.

We may describe the “Tantalus Feeling” as an existential experience in, as it were, the antechamber of antinatalism, an experience preparatory to the àAccusation of God. Belief in a “good God” is gradually dismantled and what remains is a wicked àDamnator, whose immorality is communicated, in the end, to the parents.

Suicide Cynicism

One of the most frequently-encountered reactions to antinatalistic moral theory is “suicide cynicism”. We have to do with this latter in each case where there is retorted to a person protesting against existence something like: “So why don’t you just kill yourself, then?” We are justified in describing this attitude as cynicism because, in the first place, we are retained within our existences by powerful bio-psychical bonds that lie far beyond the power of our wills and, in the second place, no one ever began to exist by his own will or request. Schopenhauer has an apt reply to this “suicide cynicism”: “But who would choose to linger in life, life being what it is, if death were just a little less terrible than it is?”

Suicide Argument

According to the Global Suicide Report published by the WHO[1] around 800,000 people put, every year, an end to their own existence. From the fact that this figure is not much higher opponents of antinatalism conclude that the great majority of human beings are quite content with having been born. This conclusion, however, is open to challenge, since we must take into account the existence of a kind of biological àSound Barrier as a àBrake on Suicide. In order to bring about an end to their existence human beings must overcome their fear of death. That they fear their dying is far from being proof that they love their life. Whoever prefers the prolonging of an unwanted existence to putting an end to this existence by one’s own hand has very good grounds for this preference: namely, an instinctive shying away from death, the anticipation of terrible pain, the uncertainty as to whether the attempt at taking one’s own life will succeed, along with the wish not to cause pain to relatives and friends thereby.[2]

[1], accessed on 18.5.2015.

[2] Vgl. Sarah Perry, Every Cradle Is a Grave. Rethinking the Ethics of Birth and Suicide, p. 158.


Whoever poses the demanding question “Is it justified to act in such a way that further human beings begin to exist?” must be prepared for the possibility that the person he poses it to will not answer the question as posed but will prefer rather to respond to a quite different, and simpler, one and to say: “Everyone should have the right to live”.

The Bringing About of Death

“Never act in such a way that a human being will die as a result of your action!” What good, decent, ethically acting human being would not want to append his or her signature to such a statement? What kind of person would one have to be in order for one’s right to append one’s signature to it to be legitimately called into question? The answer: every father or mother can have their right so to append their signature legitimately called into question, since all fathers and mothers have indeed so acted that a human being will die as a consequence: this human being being their own child.