Let’s say that someone, without asking your permission in advance, kidnapped you and brought you to a new country where your life would be noisy, confusing, and full of suffering. That seems like something you could sue for, right?
Now let’s say that the way they did this was by giving birth to you.
That’s (approximately) the logic of Raphael Samuel, a Mumbai business executive trying to sue his parents for creating him. He told the BBC that he’s been obsessed since he was a small child with the question of why his parents were entitled to create him without his consent. Because it’s not possible to ask children for consent before they are created, he argues, it’s wrong to have them at all.
Samuel’s suit looks unlikely to get anywhere in India’s courts. The BBC reports that he’s been unable to find a lawyer to take his case, and his parents, both lawyers, have responded in good humor: “She said that’s fine,” Samuel said of his call to his mother with the news he was suing her, “but don’t expect me to go easy on you. I will destroy you in court.”
Samuel’s suit is likely doomed, and the idea sounds absurd, but it’s linked to a serious strain of philosophical thought, which challenges the idea that it’s good to make new people. Samuel is a believer in a philosophy called antinatalism, which holds that it’s wrong to create new people. It has been popularized in the West by philosophers like David Benatar, who wrote a book in 2006 called Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence.
The antinatalist argument goes like this: Pain is bad, while the absence of any experiences can’t possibly be bad. That means that creating people moves them from a state that isn’t bad to a state that is. “Coming into existence, far from ever constituting a net benefit, always constitutes a net harm,” Benatar argues in Better Never to Have Been. “Each life contains a great deal of bad — much more than people usually think. The only way to guarantee that some future person will not suffer that harm is to ensure that the possible person never becomes an actual person.”
If widely adopted, this advice would cause us to go extinct — but antinatalists are, by and large, not persuaded that’s a bad thing. “There’s no point to humanity,” Samuel told the BBC. “So many people are suffering. If humanity is extinct, Earth and animals would be happier. They’ll certainly be better off. Also no human will then suffer. Human existence is totally pointless.”
Antinatalism is part of a broader class of ethical philosophies, many of which start with premises that most of us share and then reach some conclusions that most of us would vehemently disagree with.
Suffering-focused ethics is a broad term for ethical philosophies that, like Samuel’s antinatalism, are primarily or exclusively focused on the prevention of suffering. By contrast, classical utilitarianism is primarily or exclusively focused on the creation of happiness. If you care primarily about the creation of happiness, then it’s obvious that it’s okay to bring new people into the world if they’ll be happy. But if you care primarily about the prevention of suffering, it looks pretty dubious to bring new people into existence — they are guaranteed to suffer.
Not everyone with suffering-focused ethics thinks that it’s inherently bad for new people to be born. For one thing, some of them are optimistic that human effort can make the world a better place and end suffering for everyone, including animals — something which won’t happen if we let ourselves go extinct. Others may consider suffering a priority, but still care about other things, and be supportive of people existing to achieve those other things.
Does this have any takeaways for those who believe that human lives are good and worth living? Many of the concerns that Samuel’s mother cites as influences in his antinatalism — “his concern for the burden on Earth’s resources due to needless life, his sensitivity toward the pain experienced unwittingly by children while growing up” — are concerns that should resonate with non-antinatalists, too.
You don’t have to reach the conclusion that no one should ever be born to be concerned with whether children have good lives and whether parents are having them for the right reasons.
“Mum said she wished she had met me before I was born and that if she did, she definitely wouldn’t have had me,” Samuel told the BBC. “She told me that she was quite young when she had me and that she didn’t know she had another option. But that’s what I’m trying to say — everyone has the option.”
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