an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 17, Summer 2020, ISSN 1552-5112
Anti-Pro-Natalism, Agnosticism and the Value of Life
The purpose of this paper is to consider agnosticism about the value of life and propose the anti-pro- natalism based on it. According to the agnosticism that I advocate, human beings cannot know, at least not yet, whether having come into existence is good or bad. This agnosticism is inspired by the philosophical position of Socrates as characterized by Plato.1 According to this view, we may have an obligation to future generations because their lives, which we create, may be bad, but this makes it impossible for us to maintain that pursuing phased extinction is good, because any life may be good. We can, therefore, sustain a well- ordered human society with an obligation to future generations even though we cannot know whether sustaining it is good or bad. Additionally, this agnosticism about the value of life never means ceasing to think. Socrates kept doing philosophy with the self-awareness that he did not know anything beautiful and good. In the end, he insisted that no one knows whether death is bad, and he accepted capital punishment. Furthermore, my agnosticism about the value of life never encourages procreation. In this sense, it is anti- pro-natalistic. And I shall show its many benefits. This anti-pro-natalism, based on my agnosticism, is a more realistic, more pragmatic, and more philosophical approach to this actual world and the human predicament than Benatar’s anti-natalism.
2. Benatar’s Anti-Natalism and Parfit’s Non-Identity Problem
Benatar’s anti-natalism has the consequence that we should not procreate, as it maintains that never existing is better than existing, that it is better not to have come into existence, and that coming into existence is always a harm. This stance is based on the discussion of the basic asymmetry of pleasure and pain2 and possibly the harm principle. Although his anti-natalism has been amply criticized, each of his premises has multiple defenders, and it is relatively easy to dismiss the criticism, as he does in actuality.3 However, there would surely be a rebuttal to Benatar’s rebuttal. In other words, Benatar’s argument can be factually criticized, whereupon Benatar’s supporters critique the criticism, and the controversy must never conclude. This fact suggests that the thesis that not existing is better than existing is not held to be absolutely true in humankind.
Next, consider Parfit’s non-identity problem, presented as a thought experiment by Parfit,4 although other such problems have been presented as well.5 The main points of these are as follows: Whatever choice the current generation makes, future generations coming into existence will inevitably be affected by that choice, and if another choice had been made, members of that future generation would have been different individuals. In other words, whatever choice is made by the current generation, the individuals of later generations will have been born as their particular selves because of that choice, and, if it is better to be born than not to be born, that means that they cannot criticize the choices made by the current generation. If to be born is better than not being born, it does not matter how the harm principle is applied, as they would not have been born without the choice. The choice made by the current generation must be a good choice for the people of the future generation, no matter how badly they suffer. This is an important point. Put simply, if it is better to have been, then it must be good to have any child, no matter what fate awaits that child. Consequently, people of the current generation are under no obligation to make it possible for future generations to live as comfortably as possible, and there is no reason to believe that suffering future generations have a right to blame the generation that created the conditions of their suffering. Some base an obligation to future generations on a specific intuition, but that intuition does not match everyone’s intuition.6
However, the idea that coming into existence is always a harm and that not existing is better than existing— which, as Benatar says,7 most people do not swallow—can solve Parfit’s non-identity problem. Because future generations will have been born although it is better never to have been, they can complain fiercely about having themselves been made. If the people of the current generation dare to continue producing offspring whether it is selfish or not, even though it is better that they not do so, they have an obligation to leave an environment in which their offspring can live as comfortably as possible, trying, as it were, to compensate for their sins, however they can never compensate for incompetence.8
As a matter of fact, even should Parfit’s non-identity problem not be taken so seriously, people may not have an obligation to future generations if they merely believe that existing is better than not existing. To be precise, neither rational nor logical grounds can be found regarding an obligation to future generations, apart from intuition or other assertive grounds. In order to provide a rational ground for that obligation, therefore, we may embrace the idea that not existing is better than existing. If that idea is embraced, however, it means that people should not have children in the first place and furthermore that human beings should pursue a phased extinction, as Benatar suggests.9 And in a phased extinction, as Benatar has also said, it would have to be permissible that the generation to die out would bear heavy burdens.10 Considering the total amount of harm caused by continuing to exist, it may be necessary, but it would be unacceptable for people of the generation that endures great suffering. That generation would want another next generation to undergo that suffering, and that generation would want another generation in the future to do so. Consequently, as long as a truly unselfish generation does not miraculously appear, a phased extinction of human beings seems to be impossible.11
Therefore, here is the de facto aporia. The aporia is that we cannot have an obligation to future generations when we agree that existing is better than not existing, and even if we solve that problem by conversely agreeing with the anti-natalists that not existing is better than existing, anti-natalism will be unacceptable in actuality, even if it is close to the truth.
My argument, I should say, is not a counterargument in regard to the idea that not existing is better than existing.12 However, I cannot say that is perfectly true, because I do not have the ability to do so. Also, it seems that no person with that perfect ability has appeared since the beginning of time. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, the argument that not existing is better than existing is controversial. What can be said about an argument’s being controversial is that it may be true and it may be false. Actually, the point to be aware of is that this position can avoid the aforementioned aporia. First, I shall explain briefly the position of Socrates as characterized by Plato, which gave inspiration to this position.
4. Socrates as Characterized by Plato in The Apology of Socrates
In The Apology of Socrates, Socrates as characterized by Plato talks about his own life at court.13 Once, Socrates received an oracle about himself, which a friend named Chaerephon had gotten at Delphi. The oracle was that there was no one wiser than Socrates. Because Socrates was conscious that he was neither minutely nor greatly wise, he went to those with a reputation for wisdom (politicians, poets, artisans) in order to prove the oracle wrong. However, they all turned out to “seem to be wise to many other people and especially to themselves, but actually not to be so.”14 Socrates said, “I am wiser than him, because probably neither of us knows anything beautiful and good, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, while I, as I do not know, do not think I know. I seem to be little bit wiser than he in this very small thing, that I do not think I know what I do not know.”15 Consequently, Socrates thought that that oracle meant that it is true that God alone has wisdom and human wisdom is insignificant.16, 17 This so-called “self-awareness of ignorance” of Socrates tells us that human beings can discuss what is good or bad, but no one among the people around Socrates had decisive wisdom about such things.18
Accordingly, inspired by Socrates, I suggest that we assume that, at least for the moment, we do not know whether not existing is better than existing. By doing so, we can avoid the aporia I mentioned earlier. When we do not know whether not existing is better than existing, we believe that coming into existence may be good or bad. Therefore, as it becomes impossible to make a definitive statement that coming into existence is good, in creating future generations and sustaining society we have an obligation to make it possible for future generations to live better. It also becomes possible to aim for a happy life in this world. Although, certainly from the viewpoint of God, a happy life is impossible and all lives involve serious harm (and while, moreover, these opinions are plausible in my personal intuition), we as human beings cannot truly affirm whether this is so. Thus, we are able to sustain an ordered human society with an obligation to future generations. Of course, one is free to believe that human society should not be sustained because coming into existence may be bad. Accordingly, whether to procreate or not depends on a person’s values. That is his/her choice and is neither to be prohibited, criticized, nor encouraged.19
The approach I propose implies neither ceasing to think nor the denial of inquiry. This is because we must make judgments at any moment under the condition that we cannot become any wiser and cannot know what is truly good and beautiful. Of course, one is free to judge by rolling the dice, but it is more reasonable to judge with thinking in light of one’s own intuition, based on the results of one’s quest and that of one’s predecessors. We do not make decisions knowing the complete correct answer. However, we must make a decision at any moment. At that time, for a person who is not wise, how far to think is up to himself/herself; he/she can think in order to convince himself/herself and make a decision.
Moreover, the agnosticism that I advocate does not assert that it is absolutely unknown to humans whether not existing is better than existing. I do not know so far, but it may be possible for someone (or some god?) whom I will find tomorrow to know and to teach me. What I would like to say is that asserting that it is absolutely impossible for humans to know also means believing that one knows something when one does not. We also do not know whether we cannot know. And because there is a foundation that we do not know, we can continue trying and continue seeking. And we can reflect that experience in our own actions.
In other words, the agnosticism that I advocate, perhaps beyond the meaning of the word “agnosticism,” is pregnant with two implications. One is that, in regard to the value of life, we do not know whether lives are good or bad. The other is that, in regard to human competence, we do not know whether we cannot know whether lives are good or bad. Because of the latter, it can be said that my approach is neither ceasing to think nor a denial of inquiry.
Here, someone may be saying, “I understood what the Kojima wants to say. Certainly, human beings cannot have perfect wisdom. However, we are all merely discussing it while making a provisional affirmation as a process of exploration, and with knowledge of that. So even if he once again says something similar to what was said before, it has no meaning.” It certainly may be so. In this paper, I cannot criticize substantive contents, neither those of Benatar nor those of his critics, at all. Some complain that it is meaningless to talk at all about the major premises of “philosophy” that everyone knows. However, if my agnosticism is a major premise that everyone knows, it is strongly grounded by that, and furthermore I believe that it is very advantageous to emphasize it.
One advantage, of course, is that it avoids the aporia I mentioned earlier. So once again, when we do not know whether not existing is better than existing, we also do not know whether existing is better than not existing. Therefore, as it becomes impossible to make a definitive statement that coming into existence is good, in creating future generations and sustaining society we have an obligation of trial and error, so that future generations may live better, and this will be consistent with the intuition of many people.
The second advantage is that it is “a major premise for everyone.” That sure truth or decisive wisdom about what is good and what is bad is not available to human beings is a major premise that Plato expressed in the person of Socrates and which has been accepted, at least by persons engaged in philosophy who are not mad. The next advantage is more practical. Emphasizing this agnosticism strongly asserts that it is unknown whether not existing is better than existing, which implies that it is unknown whether existing is better than not existing. But I rather think that it may be emphasized that being born is not always a good thing. In other words, mine is a position against the pro-natalism that encourages procreation, coming from the viewpoint that we cannot affirm that procreating is good.
Thus, I would like to call this position “anti- pro-natalism.” It is easy to imagine that this anti-pro-natalism realistically advances various humanitarian interests.20 There seem to be many practical advantages, because my position can avoid harms of pro-natalism, being anti-pro- natalism. However, the objection will no doubt be raised that anti-natalism can also bring about those practical advantages. Therefore, I would like to show in what way my anti-pro-natalism prevails against anti-natalism.
There are two points, roughly speaking, that prevail in regard to anti-natalism. One is that my anti-pro-natalism is more based on truth than anti-natalism. The sentence “It is unknowable whether lives are good or bad” has a wider range of meaning than the sentence “Lives are bad.” The former means that “Life is good or not good” and “Life is bad or not bad.” Both of those sentences—“Life is good or not good” and “Life is bad or not bad”—are perfect tautologies and can be said to be true.21 On the other hand, the sentence “Lives are bad,” the basis of anti-natalism, is the one that I strongly agree with, but it is more fragile than a tautology.
The other point is that anti-pro-natalism is probably easier to accept than anti-natalism. Anti-natalism is very susceptible to emotional denial. Comparatively speaking, anti-pro-natalism will be easy to accept because it makes procreating a personal freedom. In this sense, my anti-pro-natalism may be called “practical anti-natalism.”
However, some argue that the element of forgiving procreation is a decisive drawback of my position. In other words, from my position, the human predicament,22 which I call “hell on earth,” will continue for a long time.
Against the criticism that hell on earth will continue with the acceptance of procreation, it is logically possible to argue from the perspective of agnosticism that the evaluation that this world is hell and the judgment that humanity is caught in a predicament are also matters of which we cannot know whether they are true or not. However, I will not do so. There seems to be not much controversy as to whether this world is hell.23
If so, it would seem that a theory that maintains the existence of hell is still not good, but perhaps hell will endure a long time no matter what we do because the argument that it is better never to have been is hardly accepted in this world.24 Yet one proposal for the question of what to do in this hell or how to respond to the human predicament is my agnostic approach.
Benatar argues that it is good to dismiss optimism and take a strategy called “pragmatic pessimism” in the question of how to respond to the human predicament.25 My approach is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. It is merely an approach to accepting this hell neutrally. Specifically, it is an approach of doing harm and continuing the work of compensating for it. Even if some people do not procreate, children will continue to be born, because anti-natalism cannot be widely accepted. If so, what we should recommend is compensation. What we should do is to minimize the pain of children as much as possible and relieve the pain of the next generation and future generations. It is impossible to take responsibility perfectly and make a clean slate. Not causing harm from the beginning is good, but it also seems impossible. As a result, we should settle for second best, compensating to whatever extent possible and making this hell a little easier as regards the human predicament.
In Phaedo, Plato depicts Socrates having a last philosophical dialogue with his disciples and friends before being executed. Socrates talks about his youthful experience of philosophical inquiry.26 He had been passionate about the natural sciences when he was young, but he simply could not find the good that must embrace and hold together all things. So Socrates embarked on a “second voyage.”27 It was a second-best measure. As Socrates could not pursue the best measure, he pursued the second best. Inspired by this Socrates as characterized by Plato in Phaedo, I am arguing about the urgent issue of how to respond to the human predicament. The best measure—that people stop procreating and pursue phased extinction—is far from being a reality, as Benatar himself acknowledges. Consequently, it is better to embark on a second voyage that continues to give consideration to each next generation in this hell, which continues as a result of procreation (although it is not recommended).
I shall briefly summarize. First of all, I fundamentally agree with Benatar’s argument. However, his argument is so unacceptable to most people that it is very unlikely that human beings will stop procreating and pursue phased extinction. So, what to do? Given that we human beings are not achieving absolute knowledge, we cannot really tell whether it is absolutely correct that it is better never to have been. Therefore, I propose an agnostic approach that grants that it is unknowable whether lives are good or bad. As this approach is based on tautology, it is logically true, can also create an obligation to future generations, and does not encourage procreation. Indeed, it does not mean denying procreation, so the hell on earth or the human predicament will continue for a long time, but, realistically speaking, we have no choice but to take such a second-best measure. Also, Socrates as characterized by Plato inquired about what is “well” in order to “live well,” while conscious of his ignorance. If a person who does not know X is ordered to do X, the person must first explore the meaning of X in order to obey. The exploring of X does not imply directly doing X, but the person can say that he/she is obeying the order. As a consequence, Socrates continued exploring “well.” This exploring is the seeking of knowledge about “well,” which is pursuing knowledge, doing philosophy. For human beings to live well, we have to do philosophy. Of course, this is like a fairy tale or a word game in modern times. I believe that looking for a delicious restaurant and enjoying a delicious meal are different things, that not everyone begins doing philosophy, and that it does not seem possible to escape hell on earth by philosophizing.
However, without the presence of the actor, such an inquiry probably cannot be done. Based on this fact, it may be possible to argue that existing is better than not existing, but the argument will be subject to numerous counterarguments and much criticism. Moreover, it is possible to defend against those counterarguments from the thought of Socrates as characterized by Plato. However, that is only the Socrates whom Plato characterized as thinking so and living like that. The only life I can shoulder is my own life. Socrates says this on his last day: “I shall not be eager to make what I say seem true to those present, except as a by-work, but shall be very eager to make myself think it so, as much as possible.”28 Indeed, my agnosticism about the value of life also allows such a position. Once again, we do not know whether lives are good or bad, and my agnosticism means that we simply do not know at the moment and that we also do not know whether it is absolutely impossible for humans to know whether life is good or bad. As a result, it is possible to continue the inquiry until death. Although it seems that one cannot escape from hell on earth by doing the inquiry, a.k.a. philosophy, from the Socrates characterized by Plato we may infer that, for those who are going to live “well,” it is necessary to keep exploring what they can believe about “well” until the end. Whether such a necessity is a part of hell (that is, one of the human predicaments) or a salvation from hell probably varies from individual to individual.
an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 17, Summer 2020, ISSN 1552-5112
1 Plato, The Apology, 23D: “Neither of us knows anything beautiful and good.”
2 Benatar, David, Better Never to Have Been (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), Ch. 2.
3 e. g., Benatar, David, “Still Better Never to Have Been: A Reply to (More of) My Critics,” Journal of Ethics 17(1-2), pp. 121– 51.
4 Parfit, Derek, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), Ch. 16.
5 e. g., Schwartz, Thomas, “Obligations to Posterity,” in Obligations to Future Generations, eds. R. I. Sikora and Brian Barry (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978), pp. 3 -13; Kavka, Gregory, “The Paradox of Future Individuals,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 11 (1982), pp. 93–122.
6 Realistically speaking, it would be difficult for anyone to claim that our current society faithfully accepts intergenerational ethics and an obligation to future generations. That is to say, our current society, accepting the idea that existing is better than not existing, has created the next generation and does not faithfully accept an obligation to future generations. We have not succeeded in providing grounds for that obligation. No matter how badly we want to believe that we should have an obligation to future generations, it is very difficult to provide grounds for that obligation when existing is intrinsically better than not existing.
7 Benatar, Better Never to Have Been, passim (e. g., pp. 13, 58, 207–8, 225).
8 Strictly speaking, there may be the option that they do not dare to have the obligation for any reason, whether for selfish reasons or others. But in order to examine that option, we would have to consider the concept of “compensating” itself: its meaning, possibility, appraisal, and so on. We are not concerned with it here, because it is beyond the scope of this paper.
9 Benatar, Better Never to Have Been, Chs. 4–6.
10 Ibid., pp. 196–8.
11 In the first place, as Benatar suggests, a scenario in which the majority of human beings accept the idea that not existing is better than existing is extremely unlikely, and in actuality few people accept it now.
12 My intuition, at least, agrees 100% with this idea. Hence, far be it from me to step on the discussion about the consistency of the basic asymmetry of pleasure and pain or the discussion about whether existence and non-existence can be compared. I find that Benatar’s argument is ratiocinative and sufficiently persuasive.
13 Plato, The Apology, 20E–23C.
14 Ibid., 21C.
15 Ibid., 21D.
16 Ibid., 23A.
17 For the time being, I do not pursue the problem of God as a true intelligence and/or ask what this god is. I also leave alone for now the problem of whether or not human wisdom is insignificant.
18 Perhaps such a person has not appeared to date. If the person were to appear, we should obey the person. Yet there have been no leaders who have inspired the obedience of everyone on Earth. Regarding what is good or bad, as the quest has continued in various aspects up to now, it can be said that no such a person has appeared.
19 The objection will no doubt be raised that, as it is unknowable whether existing is good or bad, it is better to choose not existing in order to avoid the greater harm, and so human beings should pursue extinction. This objection may be apodictic. However, it is very hard to accept and perhaps will be unacceptable forever. To the end, I would like to propose a practical and feasible approach.
20 Procreating is not an act to be praised, and whether one must be thankful to the parents who gave one birth depends on the case. More directly speaking, children do not need to thank parents. Also, parents cannot say that they are doing good for children by procreating—perhaps they are doing wrong—so they have a moral obligation to do good things for children. Apart from whether procreation is good or bad, they have thrown children into this world without permission, so it is considered important to take responsibility for it. Still, people who wish to procreate may do so, because we do not know whether lives are good or bad. Furthermore, it is possible to make an effort, albeit a provisional one, so that life may be good, because we cannot affirm that such is absolutely impossible.
21 Likewise for Socrates, who said that he did not know anything beautiful and good; such a tautology seems an exception, and he knows about tautological assertions (e. g., Plato, The Apology, 29B).
22 Benatar, David, The Human Predicament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), passim.
23 People are roughly divided into those who believe that there is no meaning in life and those who believe that they have a meaning in life. The former, considering the fact that it has no meaning, would believe that this world is hell. The latter, in many cases, explore its meaning and thereby request salvation. In that case, they believe that they are in a difficult position in regard to being saved in this world. The argument that this world is hell is more easily accepted than the argument that it is better never to have been.
24 This fact also constitutes hell.
25 Benatar, The Human Predicament, pp. 207–13.
26 Plato, Phaedo, 95E–100A. This is a story with a slightly different flavor from that of the story in The Apology, so many commentators argue that Plato is talking about himself (e. g., Ross, W. D., Plato's Theory of Ideas [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951], p. 29).
27 Plato, Phaedo, 99C–D.
28 Ibid., 91A.