Whoever is horrified at the idea of having to die, or simply puts the idea of dying out of their minds due to the uncanny feelings it inspires in them, ought not to beget other human beings, since it must be assumed that they will be equally averse to dying. In other words, whoever begets human beings even despite his being, for his own part, far from indifferent as regards his own existence’s end, contravenes the principle fundamental to all ethical systems: that of universalization.
The fact that Man is a being so evidently and constantly in need of ethical control and guidance, a characteristic that ensues directly from Man’s freedom, reveals him as a creature whom neither members of his own species, nor members of others, can reasonably be expected to live with. This is an insight which not even pronatal ethicists make any attempt to hide:
“When one speaks of freedom one usually means the replacing of fixed, inflexible modes of behaviour with individual reactions which are no longer determined by genetic programmes but are rather able to orient themselves by cultural norms. There can be no doubt but that the reduction of the sway of instinct has made it possible for human social life to develop in entirely new ways. (…) But this same reduction has made human beings capable of acting not just independently of genetic programmes but also contrary to the norms of their own moralities (…) Such a being as this, that no longer has to do anything but can do a great deal, is indeed in dire need of morality… (…) We need, for example, to be alarmed by the falling away of that inbuilt inhibition preventing the killing of another member of the same species which exists in many species of animal but no longer in Man (…) Man is that living entity which brings life’s tendency to consummation by developing the capacity to negate life.” (Vittorio Hösle, Moral und Politik)
This passage brings out very clearly how far any ethics is “playing with fire” that simply presents human beings as “beings in need of morality” without having first raised and decided the fundamental question whether it is morally reasonable to expect human beings – not to mention other animal species – to put up with each other. Those concerned with ethical questions, above all, should be aware that human beings, as animals in whom instinctive inhibitions have been considerably reduced, represent, where no ethical principles restrain them, a constant danger for members of their own species. Like animal-tamers, ethicists make it their business to look for universalizable maxims that might clarify ways of preventing that emergence of an inhuman monster which they know is possible at any time in any human being. It constitutes the fundamental root of the failure of all ethical enquiry – constitutes, so to speak, what is unethical in all (positively understood) ethics – that the question is never posed by the ethicist of what ethical principles can possibly be used to justify the bringing into being of these beings so sorely in need of ethics and morality who can still at any time, be it without or even with the corrective of ethical or moral principles, begin to commit immoral acts.
In the worst imaginable case the perpetuation of the human race means that people are subjected to torture by other people – something which, for the tortured persons, means the destruction of the ethical structure of the world: tormented by pain, they can no longer act ethically. Every human finds his limit when confronted by instruments of torture and in the application of such instruments there is collaboration by every ethical organization in the world. Because, once filled with physical pain, we find ourselves no longer capable of abiding by any set of ethical principles, be they Kantian, Utilitarian or Stoic; rather, we are thrown back completely on ourselves; when torture reaches its maximum, we are simply incapable of even perceiving the interests of other human beings. (For more details see Cabrera)
Any ethics which does not self-reflectively work through this whole set of problems inevitably becomes the accomplice of those actions counter to morality that necessarily ensue from the free, and thereby partially tendentially inhuman, nature of Man – a point which Paul Ricoeur makes very succinctly when he writes: “To affirm freedom is equivalent to taking the origin of evil upon oneself.” (Paul Ricoeur) Any ethics which, being a theory of morality, fails to question back critically behind the apparent moral self-evidence of continuing to bring new human beings into the world – and thereby of ethics’ true object – becomes, due to this deficiency in self-reflection, obsolete – a kind of “un-ethics”. Considering things from this point of view, Nietzsche is surely not entirely wrong when he advances the following thesis: “All the methods which have hitherto been applied with the intent of rendering Man more moral were, in fact, fundamentally immoral.”
The reproach of “wrongful life” is one that is made by parents against parents, or doctors, or indeed, on the metaphysical level, against anyone and everyone who contributes to the creation of new human beings. Thus, already the Adam of Milton’s Paradise Lost complains that he had never asked to be brought into the world but had rather been created without having been consulted beforehand. A similar complaint was somewhat later to be uttered by the artificial human being imagined by Mary Shelley as having been created by Dr Frankenstein.
But the suggestion that a child might sue his or her own parents for “damages”, and claim “compensation”, for having been begotten without his or her consent is one which one encounters, perhaps, for the first time explicitly in the novel “Rien n’est…” by the French writer Georges >Poulet. Nevertheless, where negligence or omission on the part of medical practitioners led to the existence of a human being who had reason, on account of some grave disability, to curse this existence, such a human being had, until recently at least, little alternative but simply to curse, in the style of the ancients, the fate that had befallen him in coming into the world. Here, then, one must note and bear clearly in mind a certain striking disproportionality: it appears that one is much more inclined to acknowledge the validity of the lawsuits brought by parents who have become such as a consequence of some medical blunder than to recognize the validity of charges brought by children who have begun to exist without having wanted to do so or even burdened by serious illnesses or disabilities. Thus, a decision passed down by the German Supreme Court in Charge of Civil Cases includes the judgment that “a child must, in principle, accept his or her life in the form in which Nature has produced it and cannot lay claim to a right to have been prevented from being born, or otherwise removed from existence, by others…” (BGHZ 86, 254, quoted from Picker, l. c.). The child would thereby also have no claim to compensation, since the recognition of such a claim would presuppose that the child’s non-existence would be a state or condition preferable to his or her existence, that is to say, that the child’s existence would constitute a “harm done” to said child (see Picker, >Amphiboly of the Concept(s) of Existence). We surely are confronted, then, with a significant moral-logical discrepancy if, on the one hand, parents are to be permitted to sue for compensation where medical malpractice has led to the arrival of a child that has forced an alteration in the lives they had planned for themselves while, on the other hand, it is also judged that a child who wishes to bring a lawsuit with regard to his or her own existence must be obliged rather to respect this existence as the highest and most sacrosanct of values.
It has, however, in the meantime become the case that such a child can – albeit with only a minimal prospect of success – bring a lawsuit against those medical practitioners who gave (from this point of view) “bad” advice or medical treatment to said child’s mother and, for example, cast their vote against the termination of the pregnancy. After a series of such àExistence Lawsuits had been brought, during the second half of the 20th century, without in any of these cases the suit proving successful, there occurred finally, in the year 2000 in France, a lawsuit brought by a seriously disabled person claiming compensation for his own existence in which the right to such compensation was acknowledged and the compensation awarded. But let us look a little farther back: In 1960 a US court tried the case of an individual who had been born with serious disabilities due to a traffic accident occurring while it was still in the womb. The claim to compensation submitted in this case argued that “[…] justice requires that the principle be recognized that a child has a legal right to begin life with a sound mind and body.” (quoted from Gragl)
In 1967 the Supreme Court of New Jersey rejected the lawsuits brought by three plaintiffs which demanded, albeit for three different sets of reasons, a right to compensation for the beginning of the existence of one and the same physically disabled human being. This person’s mother, Sandra Gleitmann, brought a civil suit for pain and suffering demanding compensation for the emotional stress which had been caused her due to the terrible state of the health of her child; the father, Irwin Gleitman, brought a civil suit demanding compensation for the costs incurred in caring for and seeing to the other needs of this same child; finally, the child in question himself, Jeffrey Gleitman, demanded compensation for his own existence – an existence which he himself had never asked for. As the Gleitman family succeeded in proving to the court, Sandra Gleitman had informed her gynaecologist, in the second month of her pregnancy, that she had just recently suffered from a case of the measles and asked him whether this was likely to have an effect on her child. The gynaecologist had assured her that the recent measles infection would not affect the child’s health. But the child Jeffrey, born in 1959, proved in fact to suffer from serious sight and hearing problems, as well as problems of limb articulation.
The court did not decide in favour of this lawsuit – in which the plaintiffs also cited the above-mentioned lawsuit brought by the individual born disabled as a consequence of a traffic accident during pregnancy – since, so the court reasoned, there had never existed any possibility of the child’s being brought to birth in a non-disabled condition. The suit, then, was rejected with the following justification: “The infant plaintiff is therefore required to say not that he should have been born without defects but that he should not have been born at all. In the language of tort law he says: but for the negligence of defendants, he would not have been born to suffer with an impaired body. In other words, he claims that the conduct of defendants prevented his mother from obtaining an abortion which would have terminated his existence, and that his very life is ‘wrongful’.” (Quoted from Gragl) In order to allow the family’s claims, continued the court in its judgment, it would have had to do something that was in fact onto-logically impossible: namely, weigh up the value of the individual in question’s actual existence with all his disabilities against his possible non-existence. Instead of this the court referred to the Conditio in/humana to which both the striving for life and the persistence in it belong (>Tyranny of Biology): “By asserting that he should not have been born, the infant plaintiff makes it logically impossible for a court to measure his alleged damages because of the impossibility of making the comparison required by compensatory remedies. […] It is basic to the human condition to seek life and hold on to it however heavily burdened.” (quoted from Gragl)
Let us look back now at the case from the year 2000, the judgment in which constituted, at least up until the year 2008, the only judgment according to a disabled person compensation for their own existence. In this case too, a previous German Measles infection of the mother’s had resulted, in her child (Nicolas Perruchet, b. 1983) suffering from disorders of the nervous system, deafness in both ears, and compromised visual abilities, so that the mother in question would surely have terminated the pregnancy if she had been informed beforehand of the extent of the damage that her previous infection was likely to do to her child. With regard to the child, Nicolas Perruchet, the court recognized that he had indeed suffered “a certain harm through having been born” (“préjudice d’être né”). French legislators, however, found themselves obliged, shortly after the announcement of this judgment – due to criticism of it both from the side of the public and from the side of various politicians – to revise the findings expressed in it, so that a new judgment was issued stating that “no one enjoys a legitimate claim to compensation for harm or damages merely on the grounds of their having been born.” (quoted from Paul Gragl, Wrongful Life – Gibt es ein Recht, nicht geboren zu warden? For the above, see the same author)
On what, then, can someone base himself who undertakes to make certain medical practitioners, or his own parents, responsible for the existence which he did not ask for and which he finds unbearable and to bring a lawsuit against these parties on these grounds? Whoever already exists cannot claim, obviously, that he/she is now in a worse position than he/she was in before the beginning of his/her existence. Normally, in order for a lawsuit of this sort to be successful, the plaintiff must indeed be able to demonstrate that a certain alternative action or course of events would have been more to his advantage, which would in this case mean: that it would have been better for him himself never to have existed. But since existence is a fundamental precondition for taking up any different position at all on the scale of “better” or “worse”, no lawsuit evoking any such thing as “being worse off” due to the beginning of an existence can ever hope to be successful in a court of law except where there succeeds in asserting itself an essentially irrational metaphysics whereby it would have been better for me, had I never begun to exist.
Nevertheless, it remains the case that a certain claim to compensation for the fact of his existence should, after all, be accorded to whomever is not in agreement with his own having-been-begotten. It may indeed be the case that I was not harmed by certain persons’ acting in such a way that I began to exist. It is correct, however, to say that there was imposed upon a person – a person who was eventually to become me – all those things of which it was already known that they were unacceptable: an “unacceptable gift” consisting in such things as the wearisome living-out of an entire existence, in sicknesses, in one’s own inevitable death as well as the necessity of witnessing >the Deaths of Near and Dear Ones.
The argument is often made that it is immoral to beget a human being whose life will (by reason of genetic predisposition or in view of the social situation in which he will find himself) in all likelihood be a miserable one. This conclusion may, as a basic matter of principle, be expanded to take the form: the decision to beget progeny should be rescinded in every case in which it cannot be absolutely excluded that these progeny will ever undergo suffering and in every case where it is not absolutely certain that they will be able to die in the “epic” manner of passing away having had their fill of life and with full serene assent to this death.
It is true, of course, that parents can in such cases have recourse to nativistic >Anonymity and retort to their children, should these latter begin to complain about their own existence: “When we decided to have a family we did not decide specifically to have you but rather to ‘have a child’ quite generally. You cannot, then, accuse us of having done something to you through our engaging in procreation.” But to this the child discontented with the fact of his own existence can object: “Even if it is indeed the case that you did not convey me from one state into some other state by bringing about the beginning of my existence, the fact remains that without your deed of procreation I would not exist: I, who must now drag myself through this life for many decades, suffer illnesses, and finally suffer death. It is correct, then, to say that you begot ‘someone’ and could not have envisaged me as this ‘someone’ as you did so. But it is also correct to say that you ought to have reckoned with the certainty that you would beget thereby a human being who would not take it kindly that you acted in such a way that both the beginning of his life and its end became inevitable. It is for this reason that I demand of you that you render me, for so long as I am alive, as content as possible with my own existence.
But to this, in their turn, the parents might retort: When we begot you we were – as so many tend to be – too young and inexperienced to be able to conceive such thoughts. The provision of compensation for existence is rather a task that the >State ought to take over and bear: namely, in the form of an unconditional securing of a good existence for everyone and the commitment to render content with their material lives all citizens who demand that they be so made content (>Existential Money) and also in the form of an uncomplicated assistance provided by the state to all those who, after careful consideration, choose the path of freely ending their own life as a way of reversing and removing the >”Diktat of Birth”.
The reproach of “wrongful birth” or “wrongful progeny” is one that is made by parents against doctors who have neglected to prevent the beginning of the existence of a child suffering from a detectable or predictable (genetic) defect, even though the medical-technical resources and/or the relevant better knowledge were in fact to hand that might have obviated such an eventuality. Often, the parents in question even make to these doctors the reproach that, had they wanted to, they could have helped them to bring to birth another child: a healthy one.
In response to such complaints from parents one court judgment passed in Germany – namely in the Higher Regional Court in Bamberg in 1978 – argued that the birth of a child never constituted, even in part, a “value negation” but rather in every case a “value realization”. A different judgment was passed in 1980 by the German Federal Supreme Court which recognized that there did indeed exist a right to compensation in cases where, as a result of a medical error, a child has ended up coming into the world – and this even in the case where the child in question is a healthy one (see Eduard Picker, Schadenshaftung für unerwünschte Nachkommenschaft) This judgement put into circulation a certain “buzzword” – “the child as compensable damage” – which drew attention to how “the value of human life”, hitherto posited as an absolute, has recently become subject to relativization and even to reconceptualization as a negative.
If a child begins to exist as a consequence of a pharmacological or medical error, and if a doctor or a chemist is compelled to pay, as it were, “maintenance payments” for the child thus erroneously brought into the world, there may occur to any child who gleans that his birth may have occurred contrary to his parents’ wishes and desires the thought à”Pardon me for having been born!”
Whoever acts in such a way that a human being begins to exist attaches a being that, ideally, should be autonomous, their whole life long to the chain of a “will to survive” the claims of which reside in strata of existence that lie far from all that is mental and, by this same token, far from all that is autonomous. There where fear of death retains us in life even when we have long since understood that it would be better to cease to exist we surely have reason to speak of a “biologically guaranteed amorality of survival”. Ilse Aichinger indignantly notes: “My mother was a doctor and I was very often witness to how people took eight days to die: ways of dying. At such times I thought to myself: this surely is out of all proportion at the end of an existence that one had not asked for in the first place. To speak of ‘suffering’ is inadequate in such cases! Dying is a bodily process. And the body, which reacts like an animal, resists it absolutely, powerfully and desperately.” (Ilse Aichinger)
It is often objected to antinatalism that its moral theory describes a morality which overstrains human moral capabilities and is, already for this reason alone, a questionable one. Instead of preaching antinatalism, it is argued, one does better to contribute to the actual improvement of the world. To this we retort: is “the improvement of the world” not a far more utopian undertaking than the mere resolution not, oneself, to procreate? And is it not fitting, if one is concerned about one’s progeny, to first bring the world into such a condition that they would feel comfortable in it?
To whomever expresses regret over the burdensome fate he is suffering, and most certainly to whomever reproaches his parents with having imposed this fate upon him, the retort is always ready to hand: “Be content that you have come into the world as a test-tube baby/as deaf and dumb/as someone sick with AIDS/as a future casualty of war/as an unemployed person/ as someone sick with cancer. Because the alternative would be your not having existed at all – and surely you would not have wanted that?” But anyone who makes such an argument is committing an onto-ethical fallacy. They are falling under the spell of one of the great myths of modernity, whereby we were, “pre-existentially”, some sort of àquasi-existent or >infinitesimal “self” which was “freed” from this most pitiable of all “conditions” only by the act of conception or the experience of birth.
If, in the case of such a myth as this, any greater degree of existence is morally preferable to a lesser degree, then “no existence at all” – which is surreptitiously enhanced to become a “quasi-existence” – must represent a great evil which needs to be remedied at any cost.
Human beings who act in such a way that a new human being begins to exist expose this latter to what has been described by many as the tyranny of biology:
Revolt Against the Tyranny of the Gene
Contrary to what is suggested by Richard Dawkins’s book title The Selfish Gene, Dawkins does not believe that human beings are merely executing agents of what is genetically programmed into us. On the contrary, Dawkins advpcates “rebelling against the tyranny of the selfish replicators… We, that is our brains, are separate and independent enough from our genes to rebel against them. As already noted, we do so in a small way every time we use contraception. There is no reason why we should not rebel in a large way, too.”
The transition from small-scale contraceptive rebellions to a “general strike” against the tyranny of the gene leads to nothing less than the ebbing-away of humanity.
In transhumanism dissatisfaction with the Conditio in/humana has come to express itself in the form of a belief in the technological perfectibility of the human being. Just like the (somewhat more conservative) belief in a species-wide optimizability of the human being by means of genetic engineering, transhumanism can be understood as the ultima ratio and the final rearguard action of a humanity staggering on unsustained by any viable anthropodicy and thus as a last escape strategy in the face of the growing inevitability of embracing a moral theory antinatalist in nature.
As Nemilow convincingly argues in his book “The Biological Tragedy of Woman”, that constellation which lies behind the tragedy of woman is especially tragic by reason of its being a biological one. As Nemilow states toward the end of his book, an overcoming of this biological tragedy of woman is possible only via the route of her remaining childless. In Nemilow’s day, the artificial uterus which plays a role, today, in the consideration of this problem, was not yet imaginable.
Interestingly, it seems hardly possible to speak of a “biological tragedy of man” analogous to that of woman. A man is prisoner of his biological “housing” only to a much lesser degree than is a woman. Instructive here is the following passage from Balzac’s Père Goriot: “How lucky we women are to have nothing to do with duels! But we have sufferings to deal with too. We bring children into the world and the sicknesses associated with motherhood are wearisome!” (Balzac, Père Goriot) Without intending to Balzac expresses here the idea that women bear, in great pain, those human beings who then inflict even greater pain on one another as they destroy each other.
A sin-based antinatalist argument – one to which we do not subscribe – might emphasize the moral taint of the background to our own existences: “We are all the descendants of a long line of murderers. Murder lurks in our bones.” (David Buss, Der Spiegel, 35/2005, p. 146) We do not subscribe to this argument because the moral dignity of a person is not passed down between generations. But we nevertheless insist that is indeed morally negligent, in the face of what history has proven to “a long line of murderers”, to beget progeny who might either fall victim to such murderers or become such themselves.
Every bringing of a human being into the world goes implicitly hand in hand with the passing of a sentence of a death: one more human being that has to die. What must be emphasized about this inevitable dying is that all parents must be aware from their own experience that almost nobody actively wants to die. They themselves, it must be supposed, want to go on living. Nevertheless, they accept the unintended consequence of their progenerative decision and beget this human being who will have no chance of escaping a having to die. They will perhaps already during the pregnancy have played out in their minds how they will answer those questions with regard to the abyss of death that will be posed to them by their surely already partially aware progeny – among these the question whether everyone must really die. “Why did you beget me if I must then afterward cease to live” – have the couple posed this question to themselves ad hominem and do they know how to answer it?
Following Arthur Feldmann, we might express this notion through the image of a “lifelong sentence of death”: “Already before being born I was given a life sentence and also a sentence of death. Only the exact date of the execution remained unspecified.” On this same terrain he dismantles all the talk of “the gift of life”: “One exposes a child to death in giving him ‘the gift of life’”. (Kurznachrichten aus der Mördergrube)
With regard to this sentence of death that goes hand in hand with every conceiving of a child Martin Walser feels justified in describing parenthood as “unforgivable”. In an interview with the magazine Psychologie Heute he candidly states that he himself has passed four such sentences of death:
“This is also the really base and wicked thing: that someone was once a child and then later has to die. What is unforgivable in parenthood, I find, is that every time one becomes a parent one passes a sentence of death on someone else. I have passed such sentences of death myself. PH: Four, in fact, no? Walser: Yes, and it is only gradually that one becomes aware of what one has done. This too belongs to the inalienable conditions of human existence.” („Meine Mängel sind mein Denkanlaß“. Der Schriftsteller Martin Walser über Kindheit, Psychoanalyse und sein Selbstverständnis als Deutscher, in: Psychologie heute. March 1993)
Imprisoned, apparently, within the fleshly housing of the Conditio in/humana, Walser leaves unconsidered the most fundamental principle of philosophical anthropology: that act of becoming a parent which founds another existence, and which is also necessarily the passing of a death sentence, is, in the case of human beings, not that mere inevitability that it is in the case of other animals but is rather left up to the choice and discretion of that constitutively cultural being that Man is. We are not condemned to procreate but rather – as Sartre famously recognized – “condemned to be free”. And thus also to be free to produce no progeny.
That the founding of another human being’s existence goes hand in hand with the passing of a death-sentence on this human being is something, Walser states, “of which one becomes only gradually aware”. And indeed it does seem to be the case that, even despite all the massive catastrophes that have befallen it, our human species remains so mentally dominated by one or another variant of pronatalism that almost no social >learning progress in the direction of antinatalism is yet to be registered. Until some radical new development occurs, then, the situation will remain that Walser and all other individuals will have to try to push forward alone and unassisted to a recognition of the moral value of antinatalism and that countless human beings will have to continue to be born only to die.
Every person who takes a decision not to procreate is a person who acts in such a way that fewer people will have to die. A similar thought has been enunciated by Huysmans, who speaks of what a meritorious action it is to preserve, through an act of abortion, an innocent being from having to live: “One must add,” thought Des Esseintes, “that for justice’s sake it is not the careless man, who rapidly vanishes from the scene, but mostly rather the woman, the victim of this carelessness, who must do penance for having preserved an innocent from having to live!” (Joris-Karl Huysmans, À Rebours)