Is Anti-Natalism Objectionably Paternalistic?
There is something about envisioning a future without children that is intuitively objectionable to many. This sentiment is portrayed in the film Children of Men, which depicts a child-less world as bleak and devoid of hope. Despite this intuitive pull, the position known as anti-natalism enjoys a certain degree of popularity in both philosophical and public discourse. The basic premise behind the anti-natalist movement is that life is sufficiently bad in some way, such that we have a general moral duty not to bring new human life into the world. There are various reasons anti-natalists appeal to as grounds for this conclusion, including the impacts of climate change on future generations, the inevitably of life bringing about suffering, as well as just a general pessimism about the moral trajectory of humanity.
I propose here a possible objection to anti-natalism, namely, that it is objectionably paternalistic. The moral concept of paternalism consists in the notion of interference in the freedom of another for the sake of promoting their perceived good. Commonplace examples of public paternalism include seatbelt laws and anti-drug legislation. There are, of course, also familial examples such as imposing bedtimes on children or forcing them to eat a healthy diet.
It is generally accepted that we should exercise at least a certain amount of moral and political caution when endorsing strongly paternalistic policies. There is some degree of good in human autonomy and honoring peoples’ preferences, even when we believe those preferences to be ill-advised. Caution seems particularly advisable when the freedom being infringed upon by the paternalist policy carries great weight. For instance, China’s infamous one-child-policy tends to strike people as more ethically objectionable than a policy limiting certain kinds of hard drug use. The reason for this is (at least partially) because the right to have children seems much more central to human expression and vital to the preservation of one’s autonomy than does the right to use severely dangerous drugs.
The way that the topic of paternalism interfaces with debates over anti-natalism is two-fold. For one, anti-natalism deals with the procreative choices of individuals. Some strong versions of anti-natalism seek to impose a vision of what’s best on prospective parents, whose opinions might sharply diverge from that of the anti-natalist. Secondly, anti-natalist stances are paternalistic in that they seek to decide what’s best for future people (i.e. their non-existence). Of course, some degree of paternalism is involved in both the choice to have as well as not to have children, as it is parents who must determine on behalf of their children if the life they aim to create is worth living. So in contrast with pro-natalist positions, what makes anti-natalism potentially objectionably paternalistic?
When surveying the preferences of most people — including many of those who face tremendous suffering — the verdict seems most do not wish for non-existence. Given that most (though certainly not all) people would choose their existence over non-existence if confronted with the choice, what degree of weight should this fact carry for anti-natalists? Given that peoples’ expressed preferences seem to tilt clearly in one direction, paired with the significance of the issue at hand (i.e., existence over non-existence), it seems we might have reason to be morally cautious of anti-natalist sentiments.
One way of objecting to this conclusion is to point out that moral concerns about paternalism typically apply to people that are already living. It is less common to think about paternalism as it relates to future or potentially future people. After all, we don’t actually have access to the preferences of future people. Thus, we are merely extrapolating their preferences from those who are already living. A limitation of this approach is that we could be discounting certain factors that might make this prediction inaccurate. For instance, perhaps the condition of the world gets so bad as to cause the majority of future people to opt for non-existence.
This is certainly not a possibility that we can rule out. However, we have reason to be dubious of this outcome. If anything, there are many signs that human suffering is (on a whole) measurably less than what it once was. People are being lifted out of severe poverty at increasing rates, many preventable diseases have been nearly eradicated, and the rights of certain marginalized populations are now legally enshrined. Absent an argument that we can predict with a very high level of confidence that future peoples’ lives will be dramatically worse than peoples’ lives now, it is reasonable to assume future people will continue to prefer existence over non-existence.
If we grant this empirical point, the paternalist concern starts to emerge. Anti-natalism runs the risk of being objectionably paternalistic insofar as it contradicts the strongly held desires of future people. Making the judgment of which lives are worth living places one in the morally precarious position of having to potentially undermine the preferences of those whose lives actually hang in the balance. Thus, while there is unavoidable moral risk involved in procreative decisions, it is particularly incumbent on anti-natalists to consider the weight that the expressed preferences of living people should carry when it comes to procreative choice.