Antinatalism, or, the Defining Moral Question of the 21st Century

Maybe life is bad, or is bad enough, or risky enough, or uncertain enough, or scary enough, or unknown enough to make procreation almost always wrong. Maybe the person who does not appreciate life, particularly her own, will be your child. Maybe making the most important and far reaching decision on behalf of another person is something we should not do, if we can help it…

Rivka Weinberg, ‘Is Procreation (Almost) Always Wrong?’ , in The Risk of a Lifetime: How, When, and Why Procreation May Be Permissible (Oxford: OUP, 2015), pp.120-152 (p.152).

Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth

The Book of Genesis 1:28.

This article has not proven easy to write. Not because of an unpractised hand, nor a lack of zeal, but, rather, because most people who read it will find the content challenging. Challenging in the sense that antinatalism – a variegated philosophical stance – is a subject which uproots and undercuts deeply ingrained cultural norms surrounding the ostensible nucleus of our existence: procreation. At a time when birthrates in England and Wales have hit their lowest since records began in 1938, when climate change marches on with catastrophic implications, and the (hopefully short-term) rise of the far-right continues to grow, antinatalism raises its head as one of the most important, perhaps inevitable, philosophical questions of the 21st century: do we want to exist in the first place?

Whilst antinatalism’s most prominent advocates and scholars can be accurately described as possessing a morbid or pessimistic mien which, understandably, upsets and drives away most audiences, I hope this article, in delineating several antinatalist stances and my own nuanced view, will move away from this. Nevertheless, I am acutely aware of both the sensitivities encompassing this subject and of offending those sensitivities which I am not. Consequently, I find that a brief apologia is in order. As William Godwin wrote, beautifully, in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (2015 [1793]):

…ideas are to the mind nearly what atoms are to the body. The whole mass is in a perpetual flux: nothing is stable and permanent; after the lapse of a given period not a single particle probably remains the same. Who knows not that in the course of a human life the character of the individual frequently undergoes two or three revolutions of its fundamental stamina? (41)

This framing of what follows should not be mistaken for a lack of conviction. I cite Godwin simply to state that what I now write I write in the transience of the present moment as one cognizant of my forthcoming ‘revolutions’. Despite first coming across antinatalism five years ago, reflecting upon it frequently since then, and now believing it is a philosophy I will never abandon, I’m nevertheless aware that change is not only possible but an inevitability. As the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante (2018) said, ‘what we were at the beginning is only a vague patch of colour contemplated from the edge of what we have become’, and what I write now is exactly that: the product of a moment, driven to broaden and deepen both my own understanding and that of others with no intent to offend.

Antinatalism: What is it?

Robert Smith, Source

To some extent, antinatalism is self-evident. The OED defines the prefix ‘anti-‘ as ‘opposite, against, in exchange, instead’ and ‘natal’ as ‘of or relating to a person’s birth‘. Antinatalism, then, can be summarised as a position that advocates or personally adopts an opposition to procreation. The less immediately obvious facet of antinatalism is its moral locus: an understanding of existence wholly grounded in the conviction that procreation is a harmful act or, at the very least, a potentially harmful act that renders procreation unconscionable. Procreation, from this perspective, is affixed an irrevocably negative moral value. To be born is a harmful event and entails immense suffering, which antinatalists find unconscionable enough to decide that procreation is morally wrong. From this relatively uniform starting position, however, divergences begin to emerge. For example, many antinatalists hold the attendant view that their own birth is a negative event, such as frontman of The Cure Robert Smith. Whilst not identifying explicitly as an antinatalist, it is difficult not to view Smith’s comments as either wholly sympathetic to antinatalism or, at least, existing in chirality:

I’ve never regretted not having children. My mindset in that regard has been constant. I objected to being born, and I refuse to impose life on someone else. Living, it’s awful for me. I can’t on one hand argue the futility of life and the pointlessness of existence and have a family. It doesn’t sit comfortably… I enjoy myself hugely… but you know, it’s despite myself, really. (Pattison 2011).

Something Smith’s (2011) self-reflexive account doesn’t touch upon is how antinatalism is predominately understood in opposition to the consequentialist, liberal philosophy of utilitarianism; that branch of philosophy created by Jeremy Bentham, and popularly espoused by his intellectual descendant John Stuart Mill, which was deeply concerned with social idealism. In short, utilitarianism insists that all possible actions a person undertakes must seek to maximise utility. What constitutes ‘utility’ has undergone various different definitions according to the philosopher discussing it. But antinatalism is often situated against a saliently Benthamite notion of utility, which is defined by the sum result of all possible pleasure that results from an action. That is to say, utilitarianism dictates that all our actions should be orientated towards ensuring the maximum amount of pleasure or happiness for the majority of the population. Contradistinctively, antinatalists are often driven by what one may call a negative utilitarianism: the conviction that ameliorating and minimising the possible or real suffering of others carries greater moral importance than maximising their relative pleasure or happiness. It is this tenet that most attracts me to antinatalism, and one may already see why negative utilitarianism readily lends itself to antinatalism.

At this juncture, however, two observations are particularly striking. Firstly, as the words ‘pleasure’, ‘happiness’, and ‘suffering’ suggest, this is a deeply experiential and subjectively orientated area of philosophy that, as Rivka Weinberg (2015) observes, elicits ‘no authoritative answer’ (129). Secondly, as aforementioned, to those unfamiliar with the term, antinatalism may sound like a deeply pessimistic, ‘dark view’ of existence that places undue precedence on pain over pleasure (Weinberg 2015: 120). Refusing to have children will already appear to most as an outlandish suggestion, let alone the added, seemingly acerbic assertion that to procreate is a cruel, unconscionable attack. However, as I will argue, whilst antinatalism has certainly been adopted by a decidedly morbid minority, it is not a view universally espoused by the chronically angst-ridden, nor one in which pain’s place as the principle motor of one’s actions is merely intellectualised melodrama. Pain is important – but antinatalism is more than that. But to address this we must ask why anybody is an antinatalist in the first place.

Why Antinatalism?

I began this article by mentioning that the birthrate in England and Wales has fallen to its lowest level since records began over 80 years ago. Whilst the causes of this are manifold, such as declining fertility rates, Professor Ann Berrington (2019) does briefly touch on a far more interesting cause: the lack of affordable housing. This is an unsurprising comment, although it deserves far greater attention. A recent paper by Donald Hirsch (2017) and the Child Poverty Action Group offer a grim examination of Britain’s dire and increasing impoverishment, which is actively affecting birthrates. But, of course, we have been here before over a century ago, when a complete dirth of social security in regards to pensions, housing, education, and healthcare was believed to be the major cause of declining birthrates (Chris Renwick, 2018: Ch.4). People simply didn’t want to have children and, as Sidney Webb wrote in his Decline of the Birth-Rate (1907), it was absolutely essential for the country to restore the confidence of the population in the security of the future, in order for them to procreate and produce the social reformers that it would require. The differing responses from across the contemporary political spectrum led to legislators and the literati to, eventually and gradually, produce the welfare state we in the UK know today. Constructed from what Alfred Marshall would aptly call ‘mixed [political] parentage’, the welfare state acts as a holistic form of social security that is nevertheless in constant redefinition and reiteration, satisfying nobody, completely, and yet delivering ‘a level of national unity on social policy that had never been tried before – or, indeed, since’ (Renwick 2017: 264). It is unsurprising that, thereafter, a baby-boom blossomed.

Writing today, I wholeheartedly believe that the current socioeconomic climate is playing a much larger role in people’s decision not to have children (much like it did over a century ago). Yet, despite Professor Philip Alston’s recent UN report on the sheer scale of Britain’s widespread and debilitating poverty, willingly enacted by the Westminster political class, I remain quietly and persistently optimistic. As the apocrophal Mark Twain quote goes, ‘History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes’, and this significant decline in birthrates will ultimately lead to the state having to respond in some way amenable to procreation – which will mean concessions from the neoliberal status quo. Yet, this societal reticence towards having children cannot be considered tantamount to a rejection of the principle of procreation – that is to say, it isn’t self-consciously antinatalist. But it is indicative of an inherent anxiety and capacity in people to perceive human suffering in the future, despite all evidence to the contrary – with antinatalism itself not necessarily being an unthinkable position. It is a position and question that fully merits our attention here today, and one which the world would undoubtedly benefit from if it were adopted by a larger minority. However, whilst these material realities are certainly a factor in my own antinatalism, as aforementioned, they are not the defining motivation for my interest in antinatalism. Rather, it is the discussions within academia, and its explorations of the more abstruse, existential reasoning behind why some people are antinatalists that I have found compelling.

One answer to why some people are antinatalists is the subjective conviction that life is bad. As Rivka Weinberg’s (2015) essay begins, ‘If my gut is right, having children, is probably almost always wrong because, if life is bad, then we are putting people into a bad situation by creating them’ (120). But as Weinberg continues, we can’t make the binary distinction of a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ life on experiential grounds universally applicable, and it is this experiential ground that dominates in the formation of an antinatalist perception of life, rather than ‘many other sorts of value… moral, aesthetic, scientific and so on’ (121-22). One may argue, though, that it is unclear how the moral and the experiential are cleanly separable fields, let alone which would then hold greater influence in a given person’s life.

Subsequently, Weinberg (2015) focuses on the suitable conditions of procreation from the predominantly experiential vantage point, before tackling another recurrent bugbear among antinatalists: gaining consent of the procreated. Weinberg (2015) identifies several conditions that must be satisfied for procreation to be permissible:

  1. WE HAVE A VERY STRONG INTEREST TO DO SO: Parents have to be motivated to have children with the desire to create happy, fulfilled people, rather than driven by ‘manipulative, cruel, or disrespectful’ motivations. (132)
  2. TO MITIGATE DAMAGES: Similar to 1., these new lives must be assisted in coming to terms with the predicament of existence, rendering them confident that life is not objectively ‘bad’ (132).

This evidently informs Weinberg’s (2015) argument that, if the above conditions are met, there is no consent violation when it comes to procreation. Consent violation is significant to antinatalists for fairly self-evident reasons, as Weinberg (2015) adumbrates:

Since procreation imposes the risks of life on a child… we must have actual consent to being procreated. Of course, they [parents/guardians] cannot get their childs actual consent to being procreated. And therein lies the problem. There is no solution” (138).

But Weinberg (2015) proffers a deceptively simple countervailing position: “children do not have autonomy or consent rights because they aren’t competent to exercise them… [they] are incompetent, they require our paternalistic care, and paternalists are allowed… to impose risks upon them for their own benefit, including for their ‘pure benefit'” (138). ‘Pure benefit’, here, is a coinage by Seana Shiffrin (1999) which refers to a benefit that is good but whose absence would not be considered a harm or a deprivation – something which, for Shiffrin, can only be imposed if actual consent is gained from the benefactor (124-126). We can consider birth and existence to be one of those ‘pure benefits’, as Weinberg does in her argumentation, as it isn’t necessary or required but can be good.

But this doesn’t clear up the consent question, nor can one definitively believe existence is good. A child cannot give consent to whether or not they want to be born, but the whole issue of consent is more complicated than that. For example, it is unclear in the prevailing, global socioeconomic system whether children are or are not autonomous beings capable of giving consent. It would prove interesting, for example, to investigate how much revenue children have generated in actively giving their consent to global businesses such as YouTube, and other app/tech companies, during this unprecedented era in which many of them in the Western world have a familiar relationship with tablets and other technological devices from a very early age. They are data factories, generating revenue for big business, and are treated as consenting individuals, as adults, who are willingly surrendering this information from a position of cognizance. If Weinberg is correct, however, and children can’t give consent, whether or not these companies can extract profit from them is another question (I would argue – they shouldn’t). Or are there different types of consent?

Hair-splitting tangents aside, and more pertinently, Weinberg’s (2015) argumentation does not convincingly deal with what I will call the delayed/eventual actualisation of finitude (D/EAF) and consent. By this, I refer to the moment or stage in which a child becomes conscious enough to discover their own mortality and position in the universe – their D/EAF. How does the issue of consent change when a child eventually realises that they exist, when they reach the delayed/eventual actualisation of their finitude and discover some, if not all, the attendant conditions and eventualities that this entails? As aforementioned, according to Weinberg (2015), a parent can produce a child on the grounds of necessitated paternalism and the child’s inability to provide actual consent. But what about when they become adults and could give retroactive consent? When a child reaches their D/EAF, they may reach the conclusion that existence is not a burden worth bearing. Was assuming their consent, thus, a violation? Or is it only a violation in the act of actualisation? How is one expected to maintain a clear conscience knowing all that a child-adult has endured is the result of parental actions?

Moreover, some of the warmer and fuzzier elements of the above arouse suspicion. Much like how Sidney Webb’s (1907) paper argues about the essential need for procreation to produce tomorrow’s socialists, Weinberg’s (2015) conditions for procreation are underpinned by the assumption that children are deliberately produced in order for adults ‘to engage in a mutually beneficial and respectful relationship with them’ (149). Both Webb and Weinberg presume that parents will have (and are driven towards) positive relationships with their children, that the children were deliberately created (‘planned’), and will be able to decidedly shape and inform their characters. This, I believe, is misguided. One of the central battles that will emerge within the filial/parental architecture, almost from day one, is between the child’s autonomy and their parent’s paternalism. Children typically, eventually, break away from the parental architecture in the development of their autonomy, and sometimes subsequently oppose that architecture – children are the product of this dialectic (autonomy v. paternalism), and the autonomy (or the illusion of autonomy) almost always succeeds in the end.

Whilst I am sure a parent can exert influence over a child’s formative years during those formative years, in which the grip of paternalism is typically (though not always) at its strongest, it is entirely possible (and is frequently the result) that a child will develop within that aforementioned dialectic (autonomy v. paternalism), through their environment and filial bonds, in a way that is not predictable, and that cannot be channelled with exactness into a desired form. This is evident when one examines the nature of siblings: siblings can prove to be very different people in their respective characters, motivations, affinities, disunities, and their perspectives on things, things as quotidian as whether or not to wear washing-up gloves all the way up to the bigger questions of purpose, finitude, procreation, meat-consumption, etc. All of these divergences can and do occur despite an identical environment for their formative development and despite a consistent parental presence, a testament to the unknowable autonomy of offspring even during the earlier stages of development. My point here being: we can’t know how a given life and individual will unfold, and we don’t know when, how, and to what extent, a parent or guardian will influence their child’s subjective perception of life, and in what respect(s), and whether that will be conducive to what one may describe as a ‘good’ (or utilitarian) life.

It is this unknowability and the infinite potentiality that I find most disarming, and what drives my own interest in a personal antinatalism. Perhaps Martin Amis gave the best illustration of this anxiety towards the expected-utility hypothesis in his novel Time’s Arrow (1991). Throughout this novel, the reader takes the narrative perspective of a Nazi doctor who is re-experiencing the course of his own life anti-chronologically, starting from his death in his garden in America and ending with his birth in Germany. Throughout the novel, during his sleep, the narrator has recurring nightmares about an anonymous infant, which is portrayed as this being of unparalleled power – representing all the potential actions that an infant-child-adult is yet to and could invoke. One imagines this is the self-reflexive manifestation of the narrators own post-Holocaust guilt. But this image, in general terms, has had a profound impact on my already-existent antinatalist sympathies. Without wishing to be melodramatic or hyperbolic, I believe a clear and indisputable point emerges from Time’s Arrow (1991): we cannot know what will come materially after conception, nor what a child’s subjective experiences will be like, with any great certainty. Procreation simply seems like too much, too much power and potential, and the possibility of pain endured or pain inflicted on others.

Furthermore, one is aware that parents, with the very best of intentions and with all the anticipated alacrity, will nevertheless be thwarted in trying to carve out a child that fits the model – apropos of their own ideological convictions (sub-conscious or otherwise) – about what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Moreover, whether or not the parent-child relationship will be the respectful, mutually beneficial enterprise Weinberg (2015) envisions is another, uncertain eventuality – all of which seems far too great a risk when considering how significant it is that we can create life and that this life is essential to maintaining private and collective life. In addition, Weinberg’s musings rest upon a false assumption that I believe is also widespread in society: that people give procreation due thought and consideration, and reflect on their own motivations. Yet in 1998, the year of my own birth, 31% of pregnancies in the United States were categorised as ‘unintended’ (Rachels 2014; Family Planner Perspective 1998). I was unable to find statistics for 1998 from the Office of National Statistics in the UK – I would have fallen into this category. But who knows if these statistics accurately reflect the true quantity of ‘unintended’ conceptions? I imagine there are far more than is documented.

I think my point (there is one, I swear!) is clear: we live in a society that has largely made procreation appear as inevitable and, consequently, it has become an under-discussed facet of our lives, in which due consideration isn’t countenanced. Moreover, we naively assume that we can then direct our creations to our desired will of the ‘good’ and that our will is ‘good’ – when we can’t know any of this with any certainty. As the above quote from Godwin ([1793] 2015) evinces, people undergo numerous ‘revolutions’ in their character during their lifetime, and it is this lack of ability to know – to know a child’s fate beyond finitude, to know how they will feel and experience existence, to know whether they will be guided in a morally correct way, to know whether that guidance is correct, to know whether it can and/or will in fact be headed – in the face of something as enormous as creating life, that further drives me towards antinatalism. Life is simply too much, there are too many variables, too many possibilities and consequences and outcomes. In what one may consider equally an optimistic and pessimistic conclusion, a child can change the world – but one cannot know how they’ll do so, nor whether or not they’ll conclude, during their being-in-the-world, that they wished never to have been born at all. Thus, the assertions of Webb (1907) and Weinberg (2015) simply appear too unrealistic to me; too utopian.

Moving away from the abstruse to the more actual, Stuart Rachels’s (2014) paper ‘The Immorality of Having Children’ expresses a wholeheartedly antinatalist position but through the examination of the cost of having a child. All of this is underpinned by the Famine Relief Argument (FRA) and a decidedly more material concern with resource allocation and finances than compared to the above. Prior to delineating the FRA, Rachels proffers three principle reasons why procreation is of enormous importance:

  1. ‘One’s procreative decisions have causal implications that ripple across one’s world’ (568). Even one child will have a marked environmental impact and an even bigger social impact. A study by Oregon State University (2009) found that the environmental impact of an extra child in the world is almost twenty times more important than a selection of other environmentally sensitive practices (for example, driving a high mileage car, recycling, or using energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs). Additionally, the average long-term carbon impact of a child born in America, along with all their descendants, is more than 160 times the impact of a child born in Bangaladesh. Interestingly, in another article by Rivka Weinberg (2017), discussing the climate emergency in relation to procreation, she states in a rather blasé fashion that we’ll likely sort it all out eventually and concludes: ‘If you want to have a baby, you’d better fix the world, baby. And, apparently, a lot faster than we thought’. The environmental argument is, perhaps, one of the most compelling if not the least easily refuted, and is evoked in a Malthusian, acerbic fervour by Doug Stanhope, here (though I don’t endorse or agree with it, fully):

2. ‘being a parent entails drastically changing one’s lifestyle for at least 18 years. Parenting consumes vast sums of time, money, and energy’ (568).

3. Unlike marriage, ‘parenthood has no morally viable escape hatch. You can divorce your spouse, but you can’t divorce your kids – you can only neglect them’ (268).

Consequently, Rachels (2014) outlines the basis of the FRA: ‘a child costs hundreds of thousands of dollars; that money would be far better spent on famine relief; therefore conceiving and raising children is immoral’ (567). A child will cost, on average, $227,000 (or, by my calculations, at the time of writing this essay: £205,878), which may be better used immunising, feeding, and clothing the already existent children in need across the world (Rachels 2014: 570-1). It is hard to refute this hard, statistical evidence – consanguineous vanity and genetic usury ought to cede to the greater moral good: reducing the suffering of the already existent. The environmental damage is enormous, and the resources we possess could be used in far more ameliorative way, toward negative utilitarianism.

But Rachels (2014) isn’t averse to more distasteful lines of argumentation, such as considering children as ‘luxuries’, as they are ‘expensive’ and are not ‘necessary for the parents health or survival’ (573). Regardless of Kant’s argument about humans being treated as an end-in-themselves, some families, in some cultures, in some countries, procreate in order to survive on farms or in peasant communities in which those extra hands are needed for work. And whilst this reproduces the infamous ‘poverty cycle’ coined by Seebohm Rowntree in his Poverty: A Study of Town Life (1901), this ought to be considered an attendant consequence of global capitalism, and not the failings of parents who are geographically outside of the ‘West’ but not the global rationality (that is, the combined and unequal development and interconnectedness of the world) of a neoliberal agenda that necessitates their subsistence (Dardot & Laval 2017). It is a grave moral injustice that people in ‘the developing world’, especially mothers, cannot exert control over whether they do or not have children due to economic circumstances. Rachels (2014) also states that procreation may be inadvisable due to ‘the possibility of less welcome outcomes. For example, there’s around a 1-in-88 chance that a child today will be autistic’ (579). As one of those ‘less welcome outcomes‘, I’m dismayed by such a framing of autism, particularly since such asseverations circumscribe what autism is by enforcing the prototypical image of autism as something unequivocally negative.

Beyond these tamer discussions is the most vocal and well recognised antinatalist philosopher: David Benatar. His description of experiential asymmetry in his monograph, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm Of Coming Into Existence (2008), is his greatest contribution to the debates surrounding antinatalism. As Joseph Packer (2011) summarises, superbly:

‘the decision to create a new life cannot be evaluated in terms of whether that life would meet some acceptable ratio of good (pleasure) to bad (pain). Instead, the potential life needs to be compared to never coming into existence, which Benatar claims is always preferable to a life with any pain. The reason nonexistence is preferable to existence is because of an asymmetry between how one should evaluate the pain and pleasure of potential persons’ (226).

For Benatar (2008), there is a fundamental difference in how one gauges and understands pain and pleasure, with people inherently biased towards vaunting the latter as their only surety, when we suffer much more than we are willing to acknowledge. This is coupled with an attendant assumption that any human flourishing is pathetic when compared to what can be imagined or envisioned in the grander, macrocosmic scheme of the universe. This unflinching bleakness eventually leads Benatar to conclude that the best humanity can hope for is its own extinction, or speciecide (194-196). This conclusion, and remarks regarding human flourishing, are utterly antithetical to my own position – I view antinatalism as simultaneously deeply solipsistic, private, and altruistic: it is a private, personal philosophy one cannot and should not enforce upon others, which also serves in the best interests of both oneself and the world around you. Though – reflecting in real-time – this description sounds resonant with some kind of Messianic narcissism, a certain looking-down-one’s-nose… Shouldn’t morality be a communal philosophy, not a private code?

A less extreme voice, Joseph Packer (2011), writes in direct response to this Benatarian antinatalism. With a similar thrust to Webb (1907) and a clear taxonomic affinity with Weinberg (2015), Packer (2011) attempts to provide a two-part test for permissible procreation:

  1. ‘ask if the creation of a child would increase the net utility in the world absent consideration of the child’s own happiness… In other words, would the parents be happier with the child and would the child not negatively impact the lives of others’ (230)
  2. ‘ask if the child would be likely to lead a life with more happiness than unhappiness’

Packer (2011) concludes that this test ‘ensures any procreation that occurs will always result in lives worth living, because every birth will be mutually advantageous to both the person born and people who already exist’ (233). But this, much like the convictions of Webb (1907) and Weinberg (2015), neglects the inherently labile property of human ‘revolutions’; of the great subjective revolutions they will endure; of the war between autonomy and paternalism and the often inevitable victory and subsequent negotiations of the former; and the negative experiential consequences D/EAF entails. The creation of life is a gargantuan euphony of possibilities marred by the cacophonic, chiral mirror of its miseries, with the quiet thrust of the latter, its possibility, proving too much of a risk – particularly when one considers that being a parent can be achieved by other means that ought not to be considered the alternative from the norm: adoption.

Interesting questions arise about how the adoption of a child can affect antinatalist philosophy – with work by Tina Rulli (2014), Joel Feinberg (1973); Oreskovic & Maskew (2008); Alain Badiou (2012); and Ijzendoorn, Van, & Juffer (2006) all having profound philosophical implications on this subject – implications I may try to broach at a later date.

Concluding remarks

In considering all the above, it is clear that antinatalism is a philosophy coloured by many differing shades of opinion, rooted in experiential, environmental, utilitarian, financial, and opportunity concerns, inter alia. Irrespective of these different angles of enquiry, all of these positions display a profound fixation on the moral question of future and potential suffering in relation to our position as creators and the created – something, regardless of our own respective conclusions, we should all give much greater consideration during our lives.

I don’t have a personal, definitive answer to whether it is better to have n/ever been born. Smith’s (2011) own reflection on his life and procreation, particularly his comment about ultimately enjoying life in spite of himself, is one I think about often. I am left with the same conclusion as Weinberg (2014): ‘There is no solution’ (135).

Existence makes no promises beyond indefinite finitude and, importantly, it does not require human players. Negative utilitarianism, that is, the belief that minimising potential suffering is of greater moral importance than securing maximum pleasure, is my guiding light. In the course of one’s life, it is paramount to do one’s utmost to ameliorate the suffering of those already here on Earth; to let altruism be the measure of our motions; and to refuse procreation – that creator of indefinite and unknowable suffering – so we can expend our energies on preserving the living present. My own existence is irreversible – I am here. I am here to stay. But how is one to know whether any future lives created will share that conviction? Procreation, to me, is a risk too great for an existence so labile. Moreover, despite my political optimism, the climate emergency marches on and there is no certainty that the world is going to become any better than the current state it is in. The far-right hold the reins. With that in mind, it seems irrefutable (it must be) that my efforts can be better expended helping those who are already here, already bearing the burden of existence, rather than creating indefinite future suffering.

Primum non nocere



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Weinberg, Rivka, ‘Is Procreation (Almost) Always Wrong?’, in The Risk of a Lifetime: How, When, and Why Procreation May Be Permissible (Oxford: OUP, 2015), pp.120-152.

—, ‘Is it unethical to have kids in the era of climate change? A philosophy professor explains’, Quartz, (July 2017): <> [Accessed 7 July 2019].