Antinatalism and the Minimization of Suffering
by Socrethics First version 2005 Last version 2018
Table of Contents
2.1 The Asymmetry between Suffering and Happiness
3.2 Comparison with Ancient Indian Philosophy
4.2 Comparison with Classical Utilitarianism
5.2 Population Ethics
Classical utilitarianism has the deficiency, that it favors expansion at the cost of the quality of life, see Repugnant Conclusion. Unconditional expansionism is a characteristic of the utility function of biology (the maximal proliferation of genes). It not only leads to lives with minimal welfare, but also to lives with negative welfare. The ethical goal to minimize suffering – which does not favor this expansion – conflicts with biological forces.
Type of problem
- Does the minimization of suffering necessarily lead to antinatalism?
- Does antinatalism minimize suffering?
The minimization of the average level of suffering does not necessarily lead to antinatalism . Under favorable circumstances the level of suffering can durably be reduced by a larger population.
Antinatalism does not necessarily reduce the average level of suffering. Under unfavorable circumstances the level of suffering can durably be higher in a smaller population.
The probability of (un-)favorable circumstances is investigated in The Cultural Evolution of Suffering.
Classical utilitarianism has the deficiency, that it favors expansion at the cost of the quality of life, see Repugnant Conclusion. Unconditional expansionism is a characteristic of the utility function of biology (the maximal proliferation of genes). It not only leads to lives with minimal welfare, but also to lives with negative welfare. The ethical goal to minimize suffering – which does not favor this expansion – conflicts with biological forces. The following comic illustrates this conflict:
Type of problem
1) Does the minimization of suffering necessarily lead to antinatalism?
2) Does antinatalism minimize suffering?
The ethical goal to minimize suffering is guided by compassion (chapter 2.2) and risk-aversion (chapter 2.3). As compared to social contract theory it seems to be built on emotions. But these emotions have a cognitive aspect. Compassion and risk-aversion
▪ reflect the asymmetry between suffering and happiness (chapter 2.1)
▪ are a rational answer to the fact that a significant part of our self exists in others (chapter 2.2)
From the perspective of Rawls’ Original Position compassion and risk-aversion are the same.
1. Life is subordinated to the law of thermodynamics and destined to decay. Suffering is unavoidable because of accidents, defeats, illnesses and aging. Happiness is avoidable; it can be terminated at any point in time.
2. States in which the organism is well-functioning are lower entropy than dysfunctional states. There is evolutionary pressure to assign pain to dysfunction [Shulman]
1. There are genetic defects which cause immense suffering (e.g. Sickle-cell disease). No corresponding phenomenon is known which causes immense happiness.
2. There are more cases of chronic pain than cases of long-lasting pleasure.
3. Due to evolutionary pressure, creatures are capable of experiencing more intense pain than pleasure. The pleasure of orgasm is less than the pain of deadly injury, since death is a much larger loss of reproductive success than a single sex act is a gain [Shulman].
Recent results from the neurosciences demonstrate that pleasure and pain are not two symmetrical poles of a single scale of experience but in fact two different types of experiences altogether, with dramatically different contributions to well-being. These differences between pleasure and pain and the general finding that “the bad is stronger than the good” have important implications for our treatment of nonhuman animals. In particular, whereas animal experimentation that causes suffering might be justified if it leads to the prevention of more suffering, it can never by justified merely by leading to increased levels of happiness [Shriver].
1. It is easy to make someone unhappy but much less easy to make that person happy again. It is easier to produce suffering than to produce happiness.
Bad is stronger than good, as a general principle across a broad range of psychological phenomena (see Bad Is Stronger Than Good).
2. A repetition of painful experiences leads to higher sensitivity, a repetition of pleasant experiences leads to lower sensitivity.
3. Given an initial level of happiness it is more likely to return to this level after a happy event (like marriage), than after an unhappy event (like divorce) [Diener].
4. There is a kind of suffering which causes irreversible damage to the psyche. There is no kind of happiness which causes irreversible stability to the psyche.
5. Technological as well as natural risks are probably underestimated; see The Cultural Evolution of Suffering. The repression of the extreme cases of suffering and the repression of death are necessary conditions for leading a decent life.
For more examples see Negativity Bias, Wikipedia.
The following asymmetry in the acceptance of suffering and happiness seems to improve the survival value of the community:
▪ It is more difficult to take part in other people’s suffering than to take part in other people’s joy.
▪ A person who masters his/her grief gets more recognition than a person who remains controlled in the hour of triumph.
▪ Compassion and tears are considered to be a sign of weakness (unless the emotions express admiration for heroic people). Conversely happiness is
interpreted as a sign of strength so that people don’t hesitate to show it.
[Smith, chapter 1, section 3].
2. The “law” of diminishing marginal utility and the logarithmic effect of absolute income on happiness (see Easterlin Paradox) may have their reason in the psychological asymmetry between suffering and happiness
4. In prospect theory, loss aversion refers to people's tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. Some studies suggest that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains (loss aversion, Wikipedia).
5. A loss creates a greater feeling of pain compared to the joy created by an equivalent gain, see Behavioral Finance.
Physical embodiment, impermanence and transience prevent any permanent satisfaction of preferences. The phenomenology of suffering is not a simple mirrorimage of happiness, mainly because it involves a much higher urgency of change. In most forms of happiness this centrally relevant subjective quality which I have termed the “urgency of change” is absent, because they do not include any strong preference for being even more happy. In fact, a lot of what we describe as “happiness” may turn out to be a relief from the urgency of change. The subjective sense of urgency, in combination with the phenomenal quality of losing control and coherence of the phenomenal self, is what makes conscious suffering a very distinct class of states, not just the negative version of happiness. This subjective quality of urgency is also reflected in our widespread moral intuition that, in an ethical sense, it is much more urgent to help a suffering person than to make a happy person even happier [Metzinger, 254-255].
The best known description of an asymmetry between happiness and suffering is the First Noble Truth of Buddhism.
▪ In Western philosophy the Buddhist view was taken up by Schopenhauer.
▪ In contemporary ethics happiness is not devaluated as radically as in Buddhism, but the existence of an asymmetry is hardly contended.
Following some examples:
1) The ethical goal:
The positive utilitarian imperative to "maximize happiness" is insatiable, while the negative utilitarian command to "minimize misery" is satiable: no matter how much happiness we have, the positive principle tells us that more would always be better. But the negative principle ceases to generate any obligations once a determinate but demanding goal has been reached: if misery could be eliminated, no further obligation would be implied by the negative principle [Wolf].
2) Risk ethics considers chances as well, but the emphasis is on the risks. There is no symmetrical “ethics of chances”.
3) Ethical priorities
The normative claim that an increase of welfare is more deserving at low levels of welfare than at high levels can be found in numerous publications [Broome 2004, 224] [Lumer, 6] [Holtug, 13] [Mayerfeld] [Chauvier].
Following some citations:
▪ We should realize that from the moral point of view suffering and happiness must not be treated as symmetrical; that is to say, the promotion of happiness is in any case much less urgent than the rendering of help to those who suffer, and the attempt to prevent suffering [Popper, 235, note 6(2) ].
▪ I believe that there is, from the ethical point of view, no symmetry between suffering and happiness (…). In my opinion human suffering makes a direct moral appeal, namely, the appeal for help, while there is no similar call to increase the happiness of a man who is doing well anyway [Popper, 284].
▪ It is more important to relieve suffering than to increase (already happy people’s) happiness. We can retain this important intuition (…) by giving more weight to negative welfare than to positive welfare by, for example, incorporating some version of the Priority View in our axiology [Arrhenius, 138].
▪ Even classical utilitarians admit that in most cases the reduction of suffering should have a higher priority than the promotion of happiness [Fricke, 14]
It is easier to find a consensus on the kinds of suffering to be combated, than on the kinds of happiness to be promoted.
The existence bias
There is also an asymmetry in favor of happiness, the so-called existence bias:
Except from cases like physical suffering and/or mental depression the existence bias generates a permanent feeling of satisfaction to exist. The capability to forget negative events, to limit compassion and to look optimistic into the future improves a persons’ biological fitness. The majorities’ perception of suffering and risk is accordingly distorted. The axiologies used for statistics about life satisfaction often do not even contain negative numbers. Examples: Hospital axiology, Satisfaction with Life Index, World Happiness Report etc.
As a consequence there is a competition between positive and negative perceptions of the world, see The Cultural Evolution of Suffering.
Empathy is a psychological concept that describes the ability of one person (the so called observer) to feel in another person (the target). Most contemporary empathy researchers agree that two different aspects of empathy have to be distinguished: the cognitive and the affective aspect [Davis]:
1. One speaks of cognitive empathy, if the outcome of an empathic process is that the observer knows what the target feels.
2. One speaks of affective empathy, if the observer feels something while perceiving the target
Empathy might be created by mirror neurons in the human brain [Goldstein, 321], i.e. by a function which enables imitation learning and dissolves the barrier between the self and others (i.e. enhances the perception of the self). It has been speculated that empathy may be an essential part of the cause of moral and social behavior in humans and animals (see e.g. the research of Tania Singer).
- if the law-maker is conscious, that his role of observer (of suffering) can turn into the role of the target.
- if the law-maker thinks rational
Cognitive empathy gets support from recent discoveries in biology. There is a close genetic relation between all humans.
On average, in DNA sequence, each human is 99.9% similar to any other human (Human Genetic Variation).
Life stories can be very different although genes perfectly match (see Twin Study). The characteristic of an individual is also formed by the environment and by chance (and not only by genes), but the phenotype and the socially caused differences belie the wide commonalities. There are good reasons to claim that the 0.1% genomic difference and the life story form individuality, but why should the other 99.9% not be an important part of our “self”? Most people consider 99.95% (children) and 99.925% (grandchildren) of their genome to be an essential part of their self. Why not 99.9%? The higher the degree of suffering, the more we are all alike, i.e. the peculiarities of an individual’s gene combination and life story become unimportant.
A person can also apply cognitive empathy to him-/herself. It is a cognitive achievement to look into the future and think about one’s destiny. It is possible to consider the person one will be in the future like a different person. In this case the look into the future is similar to an empathic process. As far as the observer knows what the target (in this case the person, that observer will be in the future) feels, it is an example of cognitive empathy.
1) If the person is conscious that his/her “role of observer” will turn into the “role of the target” and
2) if the person thinks rational
then the Golden Rule can be applied within the same person.
Not only the person we will be in the future, but also the person we were in the past may appear to us like a different person.
Personalities change. You are not the person you were as a child, or even last year [Young, 29]. Four to eight weeks of psychotherapy and even a single session of consuming magic mushrooms can have a big effect on personality. As a scientific concept, the idea of a “true self” is not tenable [Young, 31].
If an elder person looks at his/her own past self, then
- the difference in time (different life phases, change of physical appearance and character traits) is experienced like
- a difference in space (other persons with different physical appearance and character traits).
The position of the ego becomes relative.
This may lead to the insight that we could be a different person, or any other person and – as a consequence – that the suffering of others is as real and as important as one’s own suffering.
Usually in the morning we wake up and remember our names, our occupation and our plans. We do not question our identity [Hampe 2014, 396].
▪ But sometimes we wake up in a foreign place and temporarily lose orientation. If this place (e.g. a hotel with a certain piece of furniture or painting) resembles a place where we have been in the past, then it can make us believe – for a moment – that we are in a different stage of our life.
▪ A similar phenomenon is known from dreams. In dreams it is not uncommon to have the consciousness of a younger, or older, or even unfamiliar person.
▪ Others suffer from a nightly stroke, lose a part of their memory and wake up as a permanently changed person. Whereas these people usually feel that they have lost something, others don’t:
People with retrograde amnesia, for example, can lose memories from before the accident or illness that caused it, while retaining the ability to lay down new memories. They do not feel as if their self has been wiped out [Young, 32].
▪ Again others can reconstruct with memory flashes, how they developed step by step the feeling of a self – a kind of awakening from the void.
We have no control over these different kinds of awakening.
The “self” is a transient and contingent phenomenon [Hampe 2014, 403] which – metaphorically spoken – can change, emerge or end every night.
The Other Self
If you awake in the morning
and clearly recall the past
then you are still the same
and your self is secured by its history.
But if you wake up with new eyes
and slowly begin to see
then you are no more the same
and your other self died with its memories.
Compassion is affective empathy in response to other people’s suffering. The more cognitive empathy is accompanied by affective empathy, the more it controls behavior.
- The closer the relation to the suffering individual, the more affective empathy becomes dominant. The root of compassion is the biological utility function and the corresponding family relations. But the feeling of closeness can also emerge independent of the family. The more intense the suffering of an individual, the less he/she is a competitor, rival or opponent. It is easier to stay emotionally distant; if the victim is self-responsible for his/her suffering, but only up to a certain point. In extreme cases of suffering the judgment prevails, that nobody deserves such a fate. The saying “I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy” catches the essence of this phenomenon.
- If the feeling of closeness is lacking, then affective empathy often causes a spontaneous refutation, urging the observer to turn away. We don’t want “something like that” to exist. It disturbs, strikes as unpleasant or frightens.
It is known, that personal experiences of suffering enhance the capability to feel compassion. It is not required though, that these experiences must be exactly the same or have the same intensity as the ones of a victim. Personal experiences of suffering also change the attitude towards one’s own risks. A person who acts against his/her own interests is either not informed or irrational. In the latter case an empathic moral law could be used to protect the person from him/herself. But most people refuse a corresponding restriction of autonomy.
Example: A person sometimes changes his/her character within lifetime in such a way, that he/she seems to be a different person. The “person of age 15” does not much care about the “person of age 50” and smokes e.g. fully conscious of the risk of lung cancer. This lack of compassion within the same person is similar to the one across different persons.
Would the world become a better place, if we could feel the suffering of others more? That depends on the way empathy is applied. In everyday life empathy is biased and encourages unjust decisions [Bloom]. If empathy is combined with impartiality, however, then the corresponding decisions do not favor a particular group of people (see Negative Utilitarianism and Justice).
The Open Philanthropy Project proposes radical empathy, i.e. an extension of empathy to all sentient beings. In the past we often discarded major sources of suffering because of our lack of knowledge. Empathy with all sentient beings leads to complex discussions how to weigh and balance human and non-human interests and how to extend the notion of justice to animals [VanDeVeer 1994] [Garner 2013].
Definition of Risk
In order to define risk, one has to define situations like loss, catastrophe or undesirable outcome. Risk can be expressed in terms of financial loss, suffering, risk of dying etc. This definition makes clear, that risk can only be valuated relative to a goal. If not mentioned otherwise in this paper, the term risk relates to suffering.
Definition of Risk-aversion
1) Risk-aversion is
- the preference for a more certain, but lower, expected payoff (e.g. a bank account with a low but guaranteed interest rate).
- opposite to a higher, but less certain expected payoff (e.g. stocks)
For an example see Interactive Tutorial on Risk-Aversion.
The opposite of risk-aversion is risk-tolerance.
3) A person is risk-seeking if it is attracted to risk, i.e. he/she prefers an investment with a lower expected return but greater risk, to a no-risk investment with a higher expected return. Example: A bungee-jumper pays for risk.
Expected utility theory
The concept of risk-aversion was first introduced in the context of expected utility theory.
The expected utility theory generally accepts the assumption that individuals are risk averse, meaning that the individual would refuse a fair gamble (a fair gamble has an expected value of zero), and also implying that their utility functions are concave and show diminishing marginal utility. The risk attitude is directly related to the curvature of the utility function:
- risk neutral individuals have linear utility functions
- risk seeking individuals have convex utility functions
- risk averse have concave utility functions.
The degree of risk aversion can be measured by the curvature of the utility function (Expected utility hypothesis, Wikipedia)
Prioritarianism models the asymmetry between suffering and happiness (chapter 2.1).
An increase of welfare is more deserving at low levels of welfare than at high levels [Broome 2004, 224] [Lumer, 6].
The cognitive aspect of risk-aversion
According to which criteria can we say that we learn something in life? To what extent is the perception of risk in the second half of life "more true" or "more realistic" than in the first half? Is this perception not just a mirror of the personal situation, as in the first half of life? There is undoubtedly a strong part of the evaluation which reflects the current situation. But the evaluations in the second half of life additionally have a comparative and cumulative character. Earlier evaluations can be corrected:
- The young people’s phantasy of an unlimited expansion of capacities is gradually corrected. Advice concerning the transience of power and love has no effect on adolescents, but only the experience of personal failure.
- There are not only transcendent experiences of happiness, but also transcendent experiences of suffering. In traumatic experiences the affected person is offset in a world of nightmares, which cannot be intellectually understood and assessed. The feeling of invulnerability which is inherent to the youthful (and still undefeated) observer is abruptly rebutted in the trauma. The "being out-of-oneself" of pain often induces a strategy of avoidance and a lower-risk way of living. A traumatic experience can change the character of a person even in early youth. But the usual course of things is an increase of traumatic experiences towards the end of life, whereby the world of nightmares slowly becomes real. Risk-aversion grows with negative experiences and – in the course of life – the proportion of negative surprises (accidents, illnesses, loss of close persons etc.) increases relative to the positive ones. As a consequence older people are more prudent than young ones, independent of the initial attitude and the individual sensitivity.
- The feeling that life lasts almost indefinitely, that death is far away, is gradually corrected by physical decay. In old age a kind of reversal situation arises as compared to the adolescence. The body, which was a source of joy, becomes a source of suffering. For young people the body procures a feeling of freedom, for old people it becomes a prison. The mind, which is locked in the body, looks for an escape.
One experiences happiness as a gift
and later realizes that it was a credit.
Antinatalism originates in ancient Indian philosophy. From the Buddhist point of view the creation of egos is simply a misconception. The suffering which is produced by the transience of the ego (aging, illness, death) can only be alleviated by weakening the attachment to the ego. So why create an ego in the first place? Once the ego is created, its perception is distorted by the will to survive. To ask the actual generation if it evaluates life positively is like asking an addict about his/her preference for drugs. Why should we create a state which forces us to interpret suffering in an endurable way? Buddhist and Hindu monks pursue the moral ideal of childlessness. Hindu monks believe that nothing detracts the human soul more from the path of liberation than the birth of a child, a claim that makes sense in the light of (genetic) reincarnation. The ancient Indian doctrine that incarnation is undesirable was taken up by Arthur Schopenhauer, who is considered to be one of the spiritual fathers of antinatalism.
Antinatalism is the philosophical position that asserts a negative value judgement towards birth. It has been advanced by figures such as Arthur Schopenhauer, Brother Theodore and David Benatar. Schopenhauer, in his essay On the Suffering of the World clearly advocates childlessness.
For Schopenhauer’s direct quote click here.
Similarly, Benatar argues from the hedonistic premise that the infliction of harm is generally morally wrong and therefore to be avoided, and the intuition that the birth of a new person always entails nontrivial harm to that person, that there exists a moral imperative not to procreate (Antinatalism, Wikipedia).
Antinatalism can be embedded in two different utilitarian theories:
1. Prior Existence Utilitarianism or Asymmetry [Arrhenius, 137]: In this case it is assumed that – given the current state of affairs – total welfare is positive.
2. Negative utilitarianism: Philosophical mentors of antinatalism like Philipp Mainländer, Emil Cioran and Peter Wessel Zappfe suggest that – given the current state of affairs – the sign of total welfare is negative.
Prior existence utilitarianism / Asymmetry
In prior existence utilitarianism the actual population is benefited by the Asymmetry principle (not to be mixed up with the asymmetry between suffering and happiness as described in chapter 2.1):
1) The well-being of possible people doesn’t count as a reason for bringing them into existence. However, their probable misery counts as a reason for not bringing them into existence [Arrhenius, 115].
2) Adding a life with positive welfare neither makes a population better nor worse, other things being equal. Adding a life with negative welfare makes a population worse, other things being equal [Arrhenius, 137].
In other words:
▪ The absence of pain is good
▪ The absence of pleasure is bad only if somebody is deprived of that pleasure
As a consequence:
▪ We are responsible for the probable misery of future people, but
▪ we have no moral duty to procreate because unborn people do not suffer from missed opportunities.
(Better if it had never been, David Benatar,)
Let’s assume that the actual population size can only be maintained, if the consumption of resources (energy, raw materials, food, water etc.) is drastically reduced. In such a case prior existence utilitarianism promotes maintaining the actual level of welfare at the cost of the population size. Theoretically the creation of new lives can be stopped, if it serves the actual generation.
Negative utilitarianism maintains that the (symmetric) hedonistic scale of classical utilitarianism is distorted. With a realistic perception of suffering and risk total welfare turns negative; see The Denial of the World from an Impartial View. This corresponds to the world view of Schopenhauer and ancient Indian predecessors of antinatalism; see for example Negative Utilitarianism and Buddhist Intuition. The perception is distorted, in particular, when it comes to procreation. Following some examples:
The degree of risk-aversion, the weighting of the risks and the decision-making in procreation are an individual matter and cannot be delegated to an ethical committee. But it is evident that the perception of risks and chances is systematically distorted because the decision to have children is usually taken at an emotional peak of one’s life. From a biological point of view it makes sense to couple procreation with a spontaneous conviction to do the right thing and (at the same time) with a loss of reason and realism:
Deciding for parenthood entails subscribing to the human condition. This means, in particular, that every new life is also sentenced to death. In a state of infatuation it is almost impossible to apprehend what it means to get old and ill, and having to die (see empathy gap).
Parents imagine their children to become happy. The risk of extreme suffering is often completely neglected or repressed. It is true that the future is unpredictable but it is only the course of life which is unknown and not the immanent risks. The risks are known by statistical data throughout human history. The probability may be small, but the risk remains and can only be eliminated by renouncing to procreation.
Parents are usually not fully aware of the risk, which they create for themselves. If the children suffer, then most parents suffer as well. If the children stray from the right path (e.g. by becoming drug-addicted) then they may not only destroy their own life but also the life of their parents.
Parents also repress the risk to create possible offenders. The aggressive potential of human nature not only threatens fellow humans but also other species and the ecological equilibrium. A small aspect of this aggressive potential is demonstrated by the killing of animals for food (for an example see Blood of the Beasts). Moral dilemmas like the torture of the mad bomber and animal testing are unavoidable.
We will never experience
an acceptable world, for,
in an acceptable world,
humans do not exist.
Why are distorted perceptions not corrected by evolution? Certain distorted perceptions – in particular those in the context of procreation – have an obvious survival value and improve the Darwinian fitness; see [Benatar, chapter 3].
For an introduction into antinatalist thinking see
▪ Better Never to Have Been by David Benatar
▪ How to Live As an Antinatalist, Wikipedia
▪ Antinatalismus by Karim Akerma
Example of an antinatalist movement: Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT), About the Movement
3.2 Comparison with Ancient Indian Philosophy
In daily life major risks are repressed because the imagination of a constant horrible threat (like accidents, earth quakes, strokes etc.) paralysis all activity. Opinion surveys about happiness [Frey] rely on this repression. But the seemingly scientific regularity of daily life is an illusion; the power of contingency is omnipresent [Hampe 2006]. Experiences with contingency might have contributed to the concept of the Hindu Maya, the imagination that we live in an illusory world and that our perception is distorted. The unconscious part of the psyche ignores all risks which are not accessible by the senses.
At the beginning of chapter 2 we mentioned that – seen from Rawls’ Original Position – compassion and risk-aversion are the same. Intentionally or not, this thought experiment has an affinity to the Hindu concept of reincarnation. With respect to the term “veil of ignorance” (an allusion to the Sanscrit “avarana” or “veil of Maya ”) it is allowed to speculate that Rawls was inspired by ancient Indian philosophy. Hindus imagine that a soul which descends into the body comes under the influence of cosmic delusion called Maya. Individual delusion or ignorance creates ego-consciousness. Rawls’ individual behind the veil of ignorance corresponds to a Hindu soul, waiting for incarnation.
Hinduism and Buddhism developed reincarnation ethics based on the knowledge around the 6th century BC. Recent discoveries in biology have shown that a contemporary interpretation of reincarnation could bring the concept back to life. Ever since the close genetic relation between all sentient beings is known, compassion and risk-aversion seem to be more rational and reincarnation less counter-intuitive. If the idea of individual souls waiting for reincarnation is replaced by the idea of the gene-pool, then nothing is left which couldn’t be reconciled with a scientific world view. Obviously Rawls’ concept can be interpreted as a reincarnation metaphor if the term reincarnation addresses genes and not individual souls. The same 99.9% of the human genome are incarnated over and over, see Secular Buddhism and Justice.
Under the conditions of reincarnation we would attempt to preserve our multigenerational experience in order to make an undistorted estimation of risks and chances. We can consider the reincarnations like a continuous stream of experiences similar to the different stages in the life of an individual. Because of the asymmetry between suffering and happiness (chapter 2.1) we would – if it were possible to preserve experience – become increasingly risk-averse. In particular, at some point in our stream of experience, we would know traumatic suffering not only intellectually but also emotionally. Traumatic suffering leaves irreversible traces in the memory, similar to irreversible physical injuries. After many reincarnations (which can be seen as a learning process), we would come to the conclusion – in accordance with Hinduism and Buddhism – that the best decision is to quit the wheel of reincarnation.
In real life, however, the transfer of experience between the reincarnations is prevented by death. The destruction of memories is a destruction of experience and a destruction of risk-aversion. Most cultures do not have a long-term memory with regard to suffering. The suffering created by past wars, epidemics, natural catastrophes etc. is forgotten as quickly as the fate of extremely suffering individuals. Optimism awakes again with each new generation. Retreat-oriented ways of living and the ethical ideal of childlessness are accordingly associated with irrationality or depression.
According to surveys on subjective life satisfaction the majority of people are satisfied with their lives. From a classical utilitarian perspective the denial of the world therefore seems to be irrational. For an investigation of this argument, see The Denial of the World from an Impartial View.
Others claim that – without the perspective of future happiness – humanity would fall in a deep depression and that “we” are therefore forced to think positively [Scheffler]. For an answer to this argument see [Hampe 2015].
The will to survive
A major argument against antinatalism is the biological will to survive. Parents imagine that the life of their children and grandchildren is somehow a continuation of their own life. Dynasties resemble pocket-size utopias. The individuals are comforted by the idea that their characteristics will survive within the dynasty. But is that true?
Your child, even your grandchild may bear a passing resemblance to you, perhaps in a talent for music, in the color of her hair. But as each generation passes the contribution of your genes is halved. It does not take long to reach negligible proportions [Dawkins].
The idea to preserve an individual’s characteristics by building a dynasty proves to be irrational. If we consider the ego as a project in which we have to invest, then we must conclude that this project has no future. Presently it seems that even the characteristics of humanity as a whole will become meaningless. Artificial intelligence and robots may soon surpass and replace humans [Rees, 86].
Rawls’ intergenerational justice
Let us assume that the non-existence of humanity is morally preferable. Why should the actual generation get the task to annihilate the immense will to survive built up by all previous generations? Why should the actual generation be responsible for the decision of the next generation to have children? The task to eliminate all future risks cannot be burdened to a single generation. Even if we adopt the moral demand for risk-reduction, the task of the actual generation is to reduce risk and not to completely eliminate risk.
Example: Consider the family like a pocket size population. In this case a population policy for reducing risk could be the following:
a) If the possible parents do not severely suffer from childlessness, then they should abstain from procreation, because the next generation might suffer more from childlessness than the possible parents of the actual generation.
b) It is defensible to have a child, if at least one of the parents suffers severely from childlessness.
c) It is defensible to have two children, if both parents suffer severely from not having an additional child.
Prior existence utilitarianism
Prior existence utilitarianism (Asymmetry) emphasizes that the situation of an existing suffering person doesn’t get better by adding happy people to the population. Disregarding the happiness of possible people, however, creates a problem in the comparison of populations:
Is it counter-intuitive to claim that, other things being equal, we make a population better by creating an extra person with very high welfare? Consider the following two populations: “A” consists of a number of people with very low positive welfare and “B” is a population of the same size as “A” but made up of people with very high welfare. If we have a choice of either adding the A-people or the B-people then the Asymmetry Principle claims that “A” and “B” are equally good or incomparable [Arrhenius, 137]
I think that one of the motivating ideas underlying Asymmetry has to do with the weight of suffering: It is more important to relieve suffering than to increase (already happy people’s) happiness. We can retain this important intuition underlying Asymmetry (perhaps the main intuition underlying it) by giving more weight to negative welfare than to positive welfare by, for example, incorporating some version of the Priority View in our axiology. This move yields that in general, we have a stronger moral reason to refrain from creating people with negative welfare, or to increase the welfare of existing suffering people, than to create people with positive welfare, but it avoids the disagreeable implications of the Asymmetry Principle. [Arrhenius, 138]
Ancient models of reincarnation do not account for the possibility that there is a technological solution to the problem of suffering or at least a significant improvement as compared to the status quo. According to antinatalism it is always morally right to stay childless, no matter what the consequences are for the actual and future population. This claim is contested by negative utilitarian population ethics (chapter 5). We start with prioritarianism, because it is better known than negative utilitarianism:
According to utilitarian theory there is a level of welfare, at which the value of a life is neutral [Broome 2004, 142]. Above this level a life is worth living, below it is not worth living. A neutral life has the value zero on the hedonistic scale [Broome 2004, 257].
In the context of this paper the term positive welfare is a synonym for life satisfaction, well-being and happiness. The term negative welfare stands for uncompensated suffering [Fricke, 18] and is a synonym for lives not worth living.
Prioritarianism or the Priority View is a view within ethics and political philosophy that holds that the goodness of an outcome is a function of overall well-being across all individuals with extra weight given to worse-off individuals. Prioritarianism thus resembles utilitarianism. Indeed, like utilitarianism, prioritarianism is a form of aggregative consequentialism; however, it differs from utilitarianism in that it does not rank outcomes solely on the basis of overall well-being (Prioritarianism, Wikipedia)
Prioritarianism preserves the efficiency of utilitarianism and a particular concern for those badly off. It doesn’t exclusively concentrate on total welfare but also accounts for an unjust distribution [Lumer].
The core idea of the Priority View is that gains in welfare matter more, the worse off people are, and losses in welfare matter less, the better off people are [Arrhenius, 110].
Prioritarianism is not vulnerable to the so-called Leveling Down Objection. According to this objection it cannot in any respect, be better to increase equality when this means lowering the welfare of some and increasing the welfare of none (Prioritarianism, Nils Holtug).
Prioritarianism has two aspects
1. In a history of social welfare happy people get less moral weight than suffering people. The devaluation of happiness is a measure for sympathy [Lumer, 2] respectively compassion (chapter 2.2).
2. In decisions under uncertainty, happy outcomes are morally devaluated relative to unhappy outcomes. The devaluation is a measure for risk-aversion. The decision about the goodness of outcomes conforms to expected utility theory (chapter 2.3).
For a representative in the Original Position the devaluation is the same in both cases.
- The measure for compassion in histories corresponds to
- the measure for risk-aversion in decisions under uncertainty.
The devaluation of happiness (respectively the priority of the avoidance of suffering) represents a consensus on compassion and risk-aversion.
1. In the area of distributive justice (distribution of economic welfare) prioritarianism cannot yield negative totals. In this context prioritarianism represents an asymmetrical (compassionate, risk-averse) kind of welfare maximization.
2. In the context of general welfare, however, it is possible to
- decrease the moral value of the happy majority and to
- increase the moral value of the suffering minority
in such a way, that total welfare turns negative.
If total welfare turns negative then the maximization of happiness turns into a minimization of suffering. This is the topic of our paper.
The rationality of a negative total is investigated in The Denial of the World from an Impartial View.
In the context of general welfare (life satisfaction, well-being, happiness) prioritarianism is challenged by classical utilitarianism. Instead of applying a weighting function, the revaluation of welfare can be realized within the metric of the hedonistic scale. The problem consists in finding a universally valid metric for assigning numbers to each degree of happiness and suffering. This problem, however, concerns classical utilitarianism as well as prioritarianism. John Broome maintains that an appropriate metric makes the priority view obsolete. Why should we measure the degree of suffering and then apply a weighting function? Why not define the degree in such a way, that it expresses the moral value (weight) we want to give it?
If the priority view should turn out to be untenable, that would not be the failure of a substantive view that the good of worse-off people deserves priority. It would simply be because we have no metric for a person’s good that is independent of the priority we assign it [Broome 1991, 222].
For the suffering people it doesn’t make a difference which technique is used. The reason for using a prioritarian weighting function is a practical one. Existing measurements of life satisfaction are based on classical utilitarian metrics (symmetric scales, point scales).
The following picture shows a simplified population, with a happy majority and a suffering minority:
§ Classical utilitarianism: The suffering of the minority is compensated by the happiness of the majority, so that total welfare is positive.
§ Prioritarianism: The application of a weighting function turns total welfare negative.
Prioritarianism with negative totals is closely related to negative utilitarianism (see chapter 4).
Classical utilitarianism Prioritarianism with
Negative utilitarianism (NU) is an umbrella term for ethics which models the asymmetry between suffering and happiness [Fricke, 14].
NU includes concepts that
1. assign a relative priority to the avoidance of suffering: modern negative utilitarianism
2. assign an absolute priority to the avoidance of suffering: negative total utilitarianism
3. consider non-existence to be the best state of affairs: negative preference utilitarianism
For the reasons given in Negative Utilitarianism and Justice, we focus on the modern negative utilitarianism.
The modern negative utilitarianism is functionally equivalent to prioritarianism:
§ In prioritarianism total welfare can turn negative because of a weighting function.
§ In the modern negative utilitarianism the total can turn negative because of the metric of the hedonistic scale.
The following analysis therefore also applies to prioritarianism.
In this chapter we compare populations with negative total welfare.
The rationality of a negative total is investigated in The Denial of the World from an Impartial View.
Expansion under uncertainty
In the figure below
- the population size is represented by column width
- the average level of negative welfare is represented by column height.
The actual population is expanded in a situation of uncertainty:
a) Optimistic scenario: Long-term sustainability can be reached despite of the current population growth. The growing population with its increasing competition and specialization leads to a technological boost in the health care sector and eventually to a lower average level of suffering. If cultural evolution is seen as a project which reduces the average level of suffering – where otherwise it would persist – and if the success of this project requires a larger number of contributors, then it makes sense to expand the population (middle of above picture). Transhumanism and other utopias even claim that suffering will be besieged one day. The suffering which is necessary to reach this goal is accordingly seen as a sacrifice. Insofar secular utopias function like religious promises.
b) Pessimistic scenario: The growing population leads to a shortage of resources, migration, social conflicts and wars (right hand side of above picture).
Most biologists and sociologists see overpopulation as a serious threat to the quality of human life (Human Overpopulation, Wikipedia)
Each new person makes demands on the earth’s resources, leaving less for the rest of us. So on the average, each new person diminishes the lifetime wellbeing of the rest of us [Broome 2005, 400].
In above example social welfare = (population size) x (average level of welfare) of the optimistic scenario is more negative than the one of the actual population. The actual population therefore would have to be preferred despite its higher average level of suffering. This result is counter-intuitive to most people and is called Negative Repugnant Conclusion [Broome 2004, 213]. A radical solution to this problem consists in disregarding the population size and focusing on the average level of welfare [Chao].
Negative average utilitarianism has a theoretical deficiency as well, because
▪ a tiny population with a certain level of suffering (e.g. -6 points on a -10 point scale) is morally worse than
▪ a huge population with a minimally lesser (average) level of suffering (e.g. -5.9 points)
In such a case the quantitative aspect of suffering doesn’t get an appropriate weight.
There are additional theoretical deficiencies [Arrhenius, 54-57], but despite of that average utilitarianism is the most popular axiology among welfare economists [Arrhenius, 53]. The theoretical problems are not relevant in practice (so far).
Contraction under uncertainty
An empty population is (by definition) preferable to a population with negative welfare. We will, however, exclude the following scenarios:
1. An eradication of humanity by global voluntary childlessness (as propagated by VHEM)
2. A conscious violent self-destruction of humanity (see Negative Utilitarianism and Justice).
Under these premises there is only a choice between more or less suffering populations.
The figure below shows different populations with negative total welfare
- population size represented by column width
- average level of negative welfare represented by column height.
The actual population is contracted in a situation of uncertainty:
a) Optimistic scenario: The shrinking population leads to an abundance of resources, less migration, less social conflicts and, as a consequence, to an increase in the average level of welfare (middle of above picture).
b) Pessimistic scenario: The shrinking population leads to a quality problem in the health care sector and eventually to a lower average level of welfare (right hand side of above picture). Possibly high-tech cultures require very large populations.
In above example social welfare = (population size) x (average level of welfare) of the actual population is more negative than the one of the pessimistic scenario. The pessimistic scenario therefore would have to be preferred despite its higher average level of suffering. Again this Negative Repugnant Conclusion can be avoided by switching to negative average utilitarianism.
The minimization of the average level of suffering does not necessarily lead to antinatalism. Under favorable circumstances the level of suffering can durably be reduced by a larger population.
Antinatalism does not necessarily reduce the average level of suffering. Under unfavorable circumstances the level of suffering can durably be higher in a smaller population.
The probability of (un-)favorable circumstances is investigated in The Cultural Evolution of Suffering.
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