Introduction to Antinatalism

Out Of Compassion For The Unborn

Antinatalism is an ethical position that concludes that procreation is always morally wrong.

Antinatalists refrain from procreating to spare their descendants from all the suffering that is an inherent part of existence. Many are furthermore concerned with preventing the damage inflicted by humans on wildlife, nature and other beings. In either case the goal is to prevent suffering.

Antinatalism does not condone any harm to already existing beings: While new life is never worth starting this does not deny the conclusion that already existing lives can be worth continuing. Antinatalists can lead happy lives but refuse to procreate due to the suffering their children could experience themselves or cause others.

The Only Certain Way To Protect Your Child Is To Not Create It

Antinatalism is not about hating children. Many antinatalists may have wanted to become parents but realized that there is no way to justify the risks involved. Even a child of the most well-intentioned and affluent parents can end up leading a horrible life or become a murderer.

You are not helping your child by creating it: No one has an interest in being born. No one is sad if they were not. Procreation is done entirely for the selfish reasons of the parents in their quest to give their life meaning, spread their DNA or have someone to take care of them in old age.

Because of that antinatalism is in favor of adoption, the only ethical way to become a parent. By adopting you can help improve the situation of an already existing being instead of creating a new being with the capability to suffer.

Confronting Our Biases About Life

Many people are outraged when they first learn about antinatalism. The conviction that life is a gift and every birth a blessing gets deeply ingrained into us by our parents, the media and society at large. Having children is seen as a right of the parents, with little concern for the resulting person.

Antinatalism questions all of that: Is life really a gift? Is being born really in the interest of the child? The following arguments for antinatalism give answers to those questions most people do not want to hear, but we owe it to our children to consider them carefully.

Arguments Against Procreation

  • Procreation has a chance to create unhappy people that would be harmed by being born (because they would then exist and suffer).
  • Procreation has a chance to create happy people that would not be harmed by not being born (because they would not ever exist).
  • Therefore one should not procreate, since doing so could gravely harm someone while refraining can not harm anyone.

A gamble is defined as "a risky action undertaken with the hope of success". Procreation fits that definition since it has a chance to result in both positive and negative outcomes.

Prospective parents have children with the assumption that there is a good chance they will create a happy person that brings them joy and purpose. Yet every birth comes with a significant risk to create an unhappy person; someone who drew the short straw and suffers greatly from life or someone who decides for themselves that they would have preferred not to be born.

Antinatalists argue that positive outcomes in the form of happy lives, even if they are much more likely, do not justify taking the risk of those negative outcomes to occur because the pleasure of happy people does not justify causing the suffering of unhappy people.

This is especially true since potential happy people lose nothing if the prospective parents refrain from procreation, as no one will exist in that case. The unhappy people on the other hand have to pay the price: They will exist and suffer as a result of the decision of their parents to have them.

There is a moral duty to not cause suffering while there is no moral duty to cause pleasure. Thus refraining from procreation is the only moral choice because it does not come with any risk to cause harm to an unwitting third party.

The above gambling argument against procreation is sometimes also called russian roulette argument or risk-based argument for antinatalism. Similar lines of argumentation have been featured in several publications and papers.

David Benatar has briefly talked about such an argument in his influential 2006 book "Better Never to Have Been". Erik Magnusson has expanded upon and attempted to strengthen his argumentation in his paper "On Risk-Based Arguments for Anti-natalism", published in 2022 in The Journal of Value Inquiry.

Matti Häyry has noted in his 2004 paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics that "since potential parents cannot guarantee that the lives of their children will be better than non-existence, they can also be rightfully accused of gambling on other people’s lives, whatever the outcome".

The gambling argument is closely related to the consent argument for antinatalism, which posits that since future children can't consent to being brought into existence we should not burden them with the risks that come along with doing so. Seana Shiffrin is among the first to argue that in her 1999 paper "Wrongful Life, Procreative Responsibility, and the Significance of Harm" and this more recent article by Sam Woolfe gives a good overview over the topic.

Committing suicide is never simple. Humans have powerful survival instincts that try to stop us from doing so even through great suffering. Furthermore suicide is a taboo topic in most societies, making getting help almost impossible and access to safe methods very hard. Every attempt also carries the risk of failure, possibly leaving one in an even worse position than before.

There are furthermore many circumstances during which people could not take their own life at all even if they wanted to, such as during childhood, while being incarcarated, paralyzed or in other ways incapacitated.

But even if access to a safe suicide method were available to all that would still not be a valid justification to create a new person. Imposing a potentially negative state on someone does not become acceptable because an exit from that state is possible. It is not permissible to abduct people and put them into my theme park even if I allow them to leave if they do not like it there.

It is certainly possible to turn that sentence around but the result is not a logical argument. The important "because they would not ever exist" clause of the original argument gets ignored entirely. Harming something that will never exist is impossible.

If one were to believe that hypothetical happy people are being harmed by never being born the implications would be absurd because there is always an infinite amount of such hypothetical beings remaining. Every minute spent not procreating would be depriving some hypothetical child of their happiness. Every parent with n children would be acting immoral for depriving their hypothetical n+1'th child of their happiness.

This argument does not claim any harm to hypothethical beings but to the actual beings that will exist as a direct result of the act of procreating.

The fact that the future victim does not yet exist while the action is taken does not absolve the parents of the questions of morality. Planting a bomb that explodes in a hundred years and kills only people that do not currently exist would still be considered unethical after all.

This is also consistent with how we consider future beings in other contexts, such as when discussing preserving nature or preventing global warming for the sake of future generations. Discussing hypothetical events in the future is after all a great strength of the human mind and there is no reason to switch this ability off selectively when discussing the morality of procreation.

  • Every person is subject to many harms during their life such as death, loss and sickness. Not creating those harms would be good.
  • All positives in life such as happiness, good food and love are based on fulfilling needs, which get created by birth. Not creating those needs would not be bad.
  • Therefore one should not procreate, since it causes the created person guaranteed harm just for a chance to obtain pleasure from fulfilling imposed needs.

This argument posits that even the happy people from argument I are always strictly worse off by having been born. Had they not been they would not have to suffer at all while also not having the need for any of life's pleasures.

Every life contains a considerable amount of suffering, ranging from mild inconveniences such as being too hot, cold or tired over situational problems such as stress, anxiety and loneliness to serious harms such as diseases, loss of loved ones, fear of death and eventually dying itself.

The pleasures of life are commonly used to rationalize this suffering as worth it. Most people acknowledge the hardships in life but accept them as a necessary evil to experience love, food and entertainment without realizing that, had they not been born, they would never have needed or missed out on these supposed positives.

Pleasure fails as justification to create a new life that will also have to experience harm because all pleasure is based on fulfilling its underlying need. Food is good because we get hungry, love is good because we get lonely, entertainment is good because we get bored and so on. Procreation does not cause those benefits, it just causes a need for them.

All pleasure is furthermore based on fixing a deprivation: If we fail to constantly satisfy our needs we suffer (from hunger, loneliness, boredom, etc). If we succeed we get rewarded by feeling joy.

This makes coming into existence a bad deal for every sentient being: They have to endure a long list of guaranteed harms up to death and at the same time keep taking care of an ever-growing number of needs that can never all be fulfilled. In other words this means procreation is never to the benefit of the future child.

This argument is based on Antifrustrationism, a term coined by Christoph Fehige in his 1998 paper "A Pareto Principle for Possible People" in which he concludes that "we have obligations to make preferrers satisfied, but no obligations to make satisfied preferrers". In other words, while fulfilling a frustrated preference of existing people is a good thing, creating a new preferrer with lots of frustrated preferences by procreating to then fulfill them is at best a neutral thing. And in reality it is always a negative thing because you can never fulfill all of these created preferences.

David Benatar makes a similar argument in his book "Better Never to Have Been", based instead on an asymmetry between pain and pleasure which he thinks can explain many common intuitions about procreation. Gerald Harrison has expanded on and tried to strengthen said argument in the 2012 paper "Antinatalism, Asymmetry, and an Ethic of Prima Facie Duties", focusing instead on the ethical duties to prevent harm or cause pleasure.

In their 2021 paper "Here’s not Looking at You, Kid: A new Defence of Anti-natalism" Blake Hereth & Anthony Ferrucci likewise conclude that procreation is immoral, because it always involves causing non-trivial harms which infringe on a person’s right to physical security.

Even if most people think that none of them would actually have been worse off if they had not been born. Why is that important? It highlights how the thought to be glad one was born is based on a faulty comparison.

Most who hold that view certainly do so because of their earthly posessions and joys (such as love and other pleasure) they fear they would lose, without realizing that had they not been born they would not have any need for those things in the first place. They are not actually comparing their life to nonexistence (not being born) but to a worse state of existence instead. They are not glad they were born, they are glad they were not born in worse circumstances.

People can certainly be happy to be in good health or have a loving partner, but only in comparison to a state where they would be deprived of their need for such and not compared to not having a need for health or love in the first place (as would be the case if they were not born).

Who would it be bad for? Who is deprived of pleasure by not procreating? If a child never comes into existence it will never have a need for pleasure or be sad about not existing.

Antinatalists agree that creating pleasure is a good thing, but only for already existing beings. Those often have to make calculated decisions between maximizing pleasure and minimizing suffering. Nonexistent beings on the other hand have no need for pleasure and so we can focus on keeping their suffering minimized (at zero).

This objection is usually brought up by mentioning the harms that we knowingly accept in our lives (such as unpleasant doctor visits or strenous exercise) or are acceptable to inflict on others (such as broken ribs from adminstering first aid).

What it misses is that we only accept these harms because they protect us from or prevent even worse suffering. The harms are not good, they are just less bad than the alternative. If there were a way to stay healthy without doctor visits or stay fit without exercise people would gladly choose those options instead of the supposedly good harm.

In other words, while harms are always intrinsically bad by definition (because otherwise they would not be harmful) some harms can at the same time be instrumentally useful or good.

The main reason for existing beings to become stronger is to overcome more or worse suffering in the future. It seems futile to create beings that have to suffer in order to become stronger in order to be able to endure more suffering.

It is not suffering that gives purpose, it is humans that attach meaning to their suffering as a coping mechanism. Since suffering would feel worse if it had no meaning humans try to rationalize it as a means to become stronger, to reach enlightenment or as a test by their god.

Antinatalists are not trying to prevent the harms of nonexistent beings. They are trying to prevent the harms of those beings that would come into existence as a direct result of procreation.

  • Every person has no choice but to harm other existing beings during their lifetime (consume animal products, squash insects, possibly hurt other humans).
  • Those existing beings have an interest in not being harmed.
  • Therefore one should not procreate in a reality where the created person will have to harm others.

While arguments I and II conclude procreation is immoral because it causes harm to the created person this argument concludes the same because the created person will undoubtedly have to cause harm to other beings as a result of its existence.

The cruel reality of our existence is that harming others is a fundamental part of its design. Nature pits sentient creatures against each other to compete over sparse resources or devour each other alive for food. Procreating will force your child to take part in this vicious process both as a victim and as a perpetrator.

As the species at the top of the food chain humanity is the source of exceptional harm. The fast expansion of our society, industrial processes, animal agriculture as well as our contributions to global warming all have had devastating effects on nature and wildlife.

While individuals can make choices to reduce the harm they cause there is no escaping it. Even someone raised strictly vegan will have no choice but to hurt others: From killing insects by merely walking around or driving, to all the animals hurt in industrial processes of products we depend on or those displaced by the expansion of our civilization.

This argument can thus be seen as the logical conclusion of the vegan argument: If you oppose consuming animal products to prevent animals from being harmed you should also oppose (or at least refrain from) creating new humans, who will have no choice but to harm animals during their lifetime.

In literature and scientific papers arguments that are concerned with the harm humans (and by extension procreated people) cause to the environment or others are called misanthrophic arguments for antinatalism.

David Benatar has written about them in his 2015 paper "The Misanthropic Argument for Anti-natalism". In 2021 a paper published by Blake Hereth & Anthony Ferrucci in the South African Journal of Philosophy tries to strengthen and elaborate on the argument made by Benatar.

That is like saying we need to pour more gasoline into a fire to extinguish it. Since people are the cause of those issues there is no reason to believe new people could solve them better than already existing people instead of continuing to make them worse.

Another problem is that this stance is using children as an ends towards a means. A non-existent child has no interest in fixing nature, the destruction of which is not its problem until the parents make it so. Antinatalists would argue that existing people should fix these issues themselves before tying up their time and resources by adding more people to the mess humanity has created.

Like with all things related to procreation this is a gamble, since there is no guarantee your child will behave like you taught it or like you want it to. And it is not even a gamble with good odds: Due to the resources we consume by merely existing all of us start out with a substantial negative effect on the environment and only a very small percentage of people is able to turn that around into a positive influence during their life.

Furthermore if the goal is to have a positive influence on nature then other actions such as adopting already existing children, volunteering or teaching would have a much greater effect.

Frequently Asked Questions

Antinatalism is not an organized position and as such has no common goals. For most antinatalists it is first of all a personal philosophy they practice themselves.

That said in a hypothetical scenario where all humans would be convinced by antinatalism it could indeed lead to the extinction of the human species (unless existing humans find a way to become immortal, which antinatalism would not be opposed to). In other words extinction is not a goal but can be a consequence of antinatalism. The good news is that in such a scenario no one would be sad about humanity going extinct, since future generations can't suffer from not coming into existence. They won't even notice they were never born.

Why should they? It is not their fault they were born after all. Antinatalism only opposes creating new lives, not continuing existing lives. If they are lucky enough to enjoy their life (as a happy person from argument I) they can continue on like everyone else but refuse to create new people, since it is impossible to guarantee they will also enjoy life.

And even for antinatalists that suffer greatly from life (as unhappy people from argument I) committing suicide would not be "simple" at all: Their survivial instinct will do everything it can to stop them. Society will do everything to stop them by outlawing assistance and preventing access to easy methods. Even if those hurdles are overcome a failed attempt carries the huge risk to leave them even worse off than before, e.g. paralyzed or locked up.

This question is often raised in bad faith by people who fail to understand that creating a new life is different than ending an existing one or who, while being quick to flippantly tell antinatalists to kill themselves, are actually not in favor of an individuals right to end their life at all.

To the contrary: Antinatalists do not want anyone having to endure dying. The realization that "every cradle is a grave" and every child one creates will eventually have to face death can be a mayor drive in people becoming antinatalist. The only way to save someone from certain death is to not create them in the first place.

Antinatalism is about reducing suffering. Because killing already existing beings causes suffering it goes against the core of what this philosophy stands for.

Since animals are sentient and can experience suffering all of the arguments above apply to them in exactly the same way as they apply to humans. However animals are obviously even less likely than humans to understand antinatalist arguments and thus will never voluntarily refrain from procreating. There is no consensus among antinatalists on whether that means we should intervene to prevent animals from breeding, for example through forced sterilization.

These are common ad-hominems flung at antinatalists. The author of this page, who is happy and married, disproves both of them. But even if all antinatalists were depressed that would say nothing about the validity of the arguments presented above.

It is often brought up that antinatalism is pointless since evolution will quickly weed out it's proponents in favor of groups of people who do procreate. This however completely ignores the fact that ideas are not only passed on from parents to their children. Every antinatalist arrived at those conclusions despite having natalist parents after all. Books, websites and discussion forums have increased the exposure of antinatalism by a lot.

The present is the first time in history where not having children is even an option at all for many people, since they are not required as free labor or to secure a pension anymore. With concerns about climate change increasing simultaneously it is hard to imagine that antinatalism will not become much more popular in the coming decades.

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