Academic journal article South African Journal of Philosophy

Antinatalism, Asymmetry, and an Ethic of Prima Facie Duties1

Academic journal article South African Journal of Philosophy

Antinatalism, Asymmetry, and an Ethic of Prima Facie Duties1

Article excerpt

Abstract

Benatar's central argument for antinatalism develops an asymmetry between the pain and pleasure in a potential life. I am going to present an alternative route to the antinatalist conclusion. I argue that duties require victims and that as a result there is no duty to create the pleasures contained within a prospective life but a duty not to create any of its sufferings. My argument can supplement Benatar's, but it also enjoys some advantages: it achieves a better fit with our intu- itions; it does not require us to acknowledge that life is a harm, or that a world devoid of life is a good thing; and it is easy to see why it does not have any pro-mortalist implications.

Benatar (2006) believes that virtually all procreative acts are morally wrong. So do I. However, I arrive at this conclusion via a different route. I argue that duties require victims. As such, we have a duty not to create the suffering contained in any prospective life but we do not have a duty to create the pleasures contained in any prospective life.

My argument is capable of complementing Benatar's, but it does not entail it and enjoys some advantages over it. For instance, Benatar's central case depends on showing that coming into existence is always a harm: a difficult pill to swallow. But my argument shows procreation to be wrong even if being brought into existence confers a considerable benefit to the individual brought into existence.

Benatar wants to respect our intuition that we do nothing wrong in omitting to procreate. However, most of us have the intuition that omitting to procreate is not wrong even if most lives are a benefit to those subject to them (for after all, most people do think that lives are a benefit to those subject to them). Benatar, by arguing that we substantially harm anyone we bring into existence, provides us with a new reason to think that one does nothing wrong in not procreating. But he does not provide an account of how there could be nothing wrong in not procreating even if the life one would create would be of great benefit to the exister. My view does. Finally, my view makes it very clear why suicide is neither obligatory nor supererogatory.2

I.

Benatar argues that there is an important asymmetry between pleasures and pains: a state of affairs in which no pain is being suffered is good, however a state of affairs in which no pleasure is being experienced is not bad unless there is someone for whom the absence of pleasure is a deprivation.

The main support that Benatar gives for this asymmetry is that it explains our intuitions about a range of other cases, the most important being the common-sense moral view that "while there is a duty to avoid bringing suffering people into existence, there is no duty to bring happy people into being" (2006, p. 32; see also McMahan 2002, p. 300). Creating a suffering person would create some pain, and that is bad. But there is no positive duty to create a predominantly pleasurable life, because even though the pleasure it contains would be good if it existed, absent pleasure is not bad unless there is someone for whom it is a deprivation. So if one does not create a life, even a life that one knows for sure will contain more pleasure than pain, one does nothing wrong.

In fact, it is positively wrong to create even a pleasurable life. Even a pleasurable life will contain some suffering. The suffering, if created, would be bad. The absence of the suffering would, however, be good. This is the kernel of Benatar's main case against procreation: non-existence avoids creating any suffering, and so that is good. Non-existence also avoids creating any pleasure, but that is not bad (because absent pleasure is not bad unless it is bad for someone). Thus, non-existence is preferable to existence.

Many find Benatar's asymmetry thesis difficult to accept. "Yes", they will say, "it may well be that absent pleasure is not bad unless there is someone for whom it is a deprivation. …

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