Sunday, October 16, 2011

Practicalities of antinatalism

Beyond the ontological status of antinatalism, there is an important flip side to consider in the question of the practical implications of antinatalism i.e. what can be done to bring about or to engineer antinatalist outcomes, and having established these, the question of whether those methods will succeed. Indeed, it's one thing to ruminate upon these matters and yet another entirely to act upon them.

We consider first the case of what will happen if no action is undertaken, if antinatalism is espoused no further leaving the human race to carry on unabated. In the short term, people will continue to execute the same genetic program their millions of predecessors did; procreation and life alike continuing indefinitely. However, as nothing lasts forever we seek potential disruptions to this trend.

As for dangers within, it seems implausible that humanity could thinkingly or unthinkingly destroy itself. While the same myopic and selfish human nature responsible for procreation is the same that often ironically works in favour of antinatalism through over consumption and the degradation and destruction of the environment, humanity as it stands is far too resilient to be completely defeated by this mindless virus-like behavior.

If humanity does survive into the foreseeable future, disruptions to the status quo will likely come either from genetic engineering or from technology. If neither ultimately culminates in the destruction of humanity then they may have certain favourable outcomes. With genetic engineering comes the potential for the creation of organisms resistant or immune to suffering thus largely mollifying the adverse impact of procreation. Similar things may come from the technological front through abilities to manipulate conscious states and indirectly via the elimination of resource scarcity. In this case there is a possibility that antinatalism will be rendered largely obsolete disregarding possible breakdowns in these mechanisms.

Beyond these short term affairs, the current laws of physics coupled with cosmological observations suggest that the universe is bound for heat death; a relatively homogeneous state in which no usable energy exists precluding further ordered physical interactions. Because life as we know it depends upon the existence of free energy, such a universe would be incapable of supporting our lifeforms.

This outcome is favourable to antinatalists and more broadly to negative utilitarians yet the possibility of other universes existing cannot be discounted. In particular, as we are currently unaware of the mechanism which gave rise to this universe, we cannot guarantee that no other universes could arise in future, possibly rendering futile the efforts of antinatalists.

There are other speculative ends acting on the local scale that may be worth mentioning here; the possible instability of matter, vacuum metastability, cosmological topological defects, a misguided technological singularity. These have less global impact but could at least for a short time quash life on Earth.

Next we consider the remaining case in which antinatalists, either through collusion or though a collection of individual efforts attempt to bring an end to procreation either directly or indirectly. Is such an outcome possible? The evidence would suggest that the best possible outcome of the spread of propaganda is highly unlikely. As a case in point, we draw our attention to a similar moral position; that of vegetarianism/veganism. The parallels to antinatalism lie in both its support through basic human moral intuition and though its relatively widespread rejection. A key difference however lies in the fact that even though the tenets of vegetarianism are widely rejected, they are also widely known which leads us to conclude that even with greater exposure, antinatalism would suffer the same fate as vegetarianism. It seems that it scarcely matters how well reasoned a position is, humans are generally limited by their inability to perform actions contrary to their own interests.

Given this, the remaining issue is whether humanity can forcefully be brought to an end through the efforts of a small group. If they were to succeed, it would probably be through omnicide; mass forced sterilisation being far too problematic. But as it stands now, I'm not aware of any way in which omnicide is practical. Such plans would probably involve great ingenuity beyond that of which I'm capable in this brief essay.

Even if it isn't possible to completely end humanity, work could still be performed to partially mitigate the current harms of procreation. In accordance with the idea that the harmfulness of procreation is related to harms that life faces, antinatalist efforts would be better focused on the developing world. Programs like this could be suited for poorer people whose fertility could be purchased more cheaply and whose countries have less stringent law enforcement that might impede such philanthropy. Another possibility is to disregard humans and focus on animals instead. I suspect there is room here for more devious schemes to be conjured up in future.

I suppose I should conclude on a lighter note. A simple observation yields the insight that seven billion people can live life in their perpetual hedonic daze yet all it can take is one sufficiently motivated and capable individual to spoil the party for everyone. A converse is also true; that seven billion humans can be eliminated and yet a single surviving couple can ruin things for future generations. But let's not become too pessimistic, shall we?


  1. For what it's worth, I reckon antinatalism will go down the lines of vegetarianism. Although you say that vegetarianism is a marginal preference, I believe that it is spreading slowly and could well be the norm one day. Of course, antinatlism is unlikely to ever attain such respectabilty, but given the limitations you outline above, it seems that the best that can be done is simply to keep spreading the word.

  2. humans are generally limited by their inability to perform actions contrary to their own interests.

    I liked this. A very nice way to put it.

    I think we should put most of our eggs in the free (as in speech) euthanasia basket. If society went in that direction, suicide and dissatisfaction with life would become much less taboo. Eventually they would become close to normal things. Nature would no longer be held as sacred as it is now. More people would be able to see things for how they are. I think antinatalism and more importantly efilism would have a good chance then. And if they still fail to be accepted, at least things will be a lot better for those humans who want to return the gift.

    I live in the Netherlands where euthanasia is better accepted than in most other places, though it's very strictly regulated: . Still, I'm fairly confident we can keep making progress here. The number of euthanasia cases has been rising more than steadily for the last five years.

  3. That reminds me of a passage from Heisman's monograph:

    “Just as it was considered unnatural or even insane that men be loosed from “natural” subordination to their king, or that women be unchained from “natural” subordination to their fathers and husbands, today it is considered unnatural that death be liberated from its “natural” subordination to the tyranny of life. From this point of view, one can recognize that the pro-choice stance on abortion and the right to die stance on euthanasia have already opened paths over conventional pro-life superstitions. These developments towards the liberation of biological death may lead to what may be the highest fulfillment of egalitarian progress: the equality of life and death. Further liberations of death should challenge one’s convictions in the same way that egalitarianisms of the past have challenged common assumptions and convictions: the equality of all men, the equality of the races, the equality of the sexes, the equality of sexual orientations, the equality of the biological and physical, and the equality of life and death.”

    Perhaps it's a mere matter of time.

  4. zralytylen: I downloaded Heisman's monograph (if we can call such a tome a monograph). Do you reckon it's worth reading in full?

  5. The exordium is worth reading. The main section expounds a sociobiological theory of liberal democracy among other things and has little relevence to antinatalism. The concluding remarks from page 1820 onwards are interesting, but not as useful as the introduction.

  6. Good solid post, Zral. You covered a lot of bases here.

    However, I don't quite agree that pain-ending technologies (transhumanist ones, undoubtedly) would render antinatalism obsolete. There's still the strict pointless of creating new people - even if there were no suffering. Think of it this way. At least IMO, the only way to end suffering is to get rid of all capacity to feel pain, feel desires, and our survival instincts. What are we left with then? Self-awareness alone. This would make us little more than DNAbased robots. They would It'd be as if we put a conscious intelligent robot on Mercury or Venus with no mission or purpose other than to just passively BE. It has no will to live, or no will of any sort at all for that matter. It would have no emotions, no capacity to feel pain of any sort. It'd just in "exist" in "that hunk of metal...exists".

    That is the only form of transhumanism (or sentient existence in general, for that matter) that I can consider morally defensible. Still, that's a different matter from its existence having a purpose. This is where Teleological Antinatalism comes in (which I discuss on my blog, in fact). Suffice to say that deliberately creating a non-suffering entity as described above is not so much immoral as it is pointless, as in "without practical value"

  7. Filrabat: I couldn't agree more with you. As someone who personally suffers a great deal from the pointlessness of existence, the idea of deliberately engendering pain-free, self-conscious pointless objects seems utterly futile and ridiculous. Even on a personal level, when I've attained a relatively neutral state of mind of the sort praised by Buddhism, thoughts of futility keep rushing in. If neutrality is the goal, why not take the final step and aim for non-existence?

    Zral: Thanks for the advice. I'll start reading Heisman's thoughts once the opportunity arises.

  8. The idea that ultimate meaning is good is nothing more than a bad meme as well as being somewhat anthropocentric. From my own perspective, the meaninglessness of life is completely irrelevent and doesn't bother me in the slightest. Consequently, I can no longer understand or sympathise with arguments from teleology; to me, a world without suffering is optimal regardless of its content.

    Also, since when did I become Zral? This better not catch on.

  9. Zralytylen: Apologies for the shortening; it just takes so long to write:-)

    For me, ultimate meaning would be the only justification for the suffering that characterises all existence. That there is none only adds to my own personal suffering.

  10. Haven´t come in this blog before. Very good. The article was dead on.


  11. Great post, Zral!;) j/k, Zralytylen. I've always been interested in the subject of what we can practically do "to engineer antinatalist outcomes" - I like this!

    Antinatalism is doing much better than vegetarianism in terms of practical outcomes, actually. I care disproportionately more about whether or not people breed than whether or not people become antinatalists, and I think the same is true for most of us. According to this, between 15 and 25% of women in the US and other leading industrialized nations are childless (and I don't think this number includes adoptive parents who never reproduced) and their numbers are increasing. But only 3% of American adults were vegetarian in 2009. And vegetarianism doesn't go far enough in terms of preventing the suffering of non-human animals. I think the ethical equivalent of antinatalism would be veganism and only 1% of American adults are vegan (2% if you count honey-eaters). Of course, this has to do with the amount of effort required to put one's ethical positions into practice. It's pretty hard (or, in my experience, either time-consuming or expensive) to give up animal products, whereas using birth control is the status quo for most of us in the West. I was very sympathetic to vegetarianism for years before I actually gave up meat, and some years will undoubtedly pass before I give up other animal products altogether. Whereas not breeding is an extremely easy (and much less stressful) thing to do (or rather, not do) than breeding. Sister Y is definitely on to something with her "How Babies Destroy Your Fuckability" campaign.

  12. Ha ha - I worry, actually, that it might be interpreted as "mean" and destroy our credibility. Not sure on that one.