Good to Be Alive

Is anti-natalism to be taken seriously?

Posted Oct 11, 2019

G. K. Chesterton once wrote that a madman isn’t someone who’s lost his reason, he’s someone who’s lost everything except his reason. I was reminded of this pithy truth the other day when reading the works of noted anti-natalist philosopher David Benatar.

After his appearance on Sam Harris’ podcast, Benatar has become something of an internet celebrity. His argument, if such it can be called, is that human life always contains more suffering than pleasure and so, on balance, it would be better if we were all dead. He doesn’t think we should all kill ourselves (or one another) but that we should just stop having children and walk (grimly? happily?) into oblivion.

It’s as if Children of Men was a manifesto, rather than a dystopian nightmare, highlighting what would happen if human life became meaningless and welcoming it. Otherwise sane people are thrilled at the bracing intellectualism of this grand vision, and I keep being invited to engage with the brilliance of the arguments Benatar espouses.

Let me just say, right off the bat, that I think some of the people identifying as anti-natalists are suffering from depression. And I wonder that its entirely responsible of other people, who I strongly suspect are just playing at taking life to be meaningless, to give depressed people even less reason to seek the help they might need.

But let’s take the anti-natalists at their word, daft though I think that word might be, that the whole of life’s meaning can be reduced to pain and pleasure. I think these people have painted themselves into an intellectual corner, and the only thing holding them there is their pleasure at their own cleverness. But, let’s be charitable. Let’s meet this shallowest of consequentialist conceits on its own terms and see where it gets us: Let’s talk about the button.

At this time of year, I give lectures to the students about some of the dark history of behavioral science. The sorts of experiments that would make an ethics committee spontaneously combust just to read about. Like these experiments:

In the 1950s Old’s and Milner wired up the pleasure centers—roughly the nucleus accumbens—of the rat brain to a remote button which could suffuse that brain with pleasure. Rats wired up this way, with access to the button, will ignore sex and food to press it. They will continue pressing it until they fall unconscious, then, when they awake, they continue to bash their little noses on this pleasure button until they starve to death.

It wasn’t long before someone wondered what would happen if you tried this with humans. At first it was humans whose pain was beyond the reach of normal painkilling drugs, but it did not stop there.

Experiments with humans wired up this way were discontinued for a number of reasons, but one of them was that they tended to fall in love with whoever held the button. In a series of experiments (that the students suspect I’m making up for dramatic effect) Moan and Heath (I swear this is true) managed to turn a homosexual into a bisexual, by remotely stimulating his pleasure centers, while a prostitute had sex with him. The point is, that humans have brain sections that can be directly stimulated to bring them, by definition, the most direct access to pleasure, and cessation of pain, possible.

Now, the $64000 question. The technology exists: Would you get fitted with the button, if you could? Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we arrange for your bodily needs like cleaning, feeding through tubes, and all other requirements to be sorted for. This seems technologically pretty viable. Would you have the button fitted?

The class usually divides evenly at this point, into two camps. One camp will think its utterly obvious that they would get the button: What could be better than a life of perfect pleasure? The rest look at them with open-mouthed horror. What kind of life is it where you lie on a gurney having your brain stroked like a lab rat?

Whatever your particular answer to this question, it seems to me the anti-natalists can only give one answer consistent with their position, and it’s the first one. Given their reduction of the whole of human (and non-human for that matter) life to the crudest model of pain and pleasure, they have no grounds for talk of meaning, dignity, depth, value, honor, integrity, or such other fripperies. They—courageous free thinkers following the argument wherever it leads—have seen through life’s mysteries to its core.

Ok. I’ve handed them that core. Now what? Anti-natalists shouldn’t be wasting their time posting memes about how awful it is to have babies, they should be knocking on the doors of the lab demanding that neuroscientists get us all fitted with artifical brain stimulators. If life is about nothing but pain and pleasure, then anti-natalists should jump at this chance for increasing pleasure, and eliminating pain.

Well, the technology is there but I don’t see any of them jumping. So, is it all just a pose?

References

Benatar, D. (2008). Better never to have been: The harm of coming into existence. Oxford University Press.

Benatar, D. (1997). Why it is better never to come into existence. American Philosophical Quarterly, 34(3), 345-355.

Olds, J., & Milner, P. (1954). Positive reinforcement produced by electrical stimulation of septal area and other regions of rat brain. Journal of comparative and physiological psychology, 47(6), 419.

Moan, C. E., & Heath, R. G. (1972). Septal stimulation for the initiation of heterosexual behavior in a homosexual male. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 3(1), 23-30.

One of the benefits of studying ancient philosophy is that it makes you a lot less impressed by whatever modern version of daft thinking has caught everyones attention. Anti-natalism isnt new, of course. Sophocles put these words into the mouth of the chorus in Oedipus at Colonus:

"Not to be born is, beyond all estimation, best; but when a man has seen the light of day, this is next best by far, that with utmost speed he should go back from where he came." (Jebb translation, line 1225) Well, that was what the chorus thought when considering the life of a man who had killed his father, got children by his mother, and torn his own eyes out in despair. However, the play doesn't end there. Despite all the pain, the misery, the torture and suffering, Sophocles leaves us with a thought that you never hear mentioned by anti-natalists. Admidst all the talk of how awful everything is, how no-one asked for this, and how we'd all be better off dead, the ancient Greeks had this to say One word Frees us of all the weight and pain of life: That word is love.