Antinatalism vs. The Non-Identity Problem

The non-identity problem backfires against opponents of antinatalism

Non-Identity and the Consent Argument

One of the most commonly cited philosophical grounds for rejecting antinatalism is the so-called “non-identity problem”, which posits that procreation cannot be an unethical violation of consent due to the fact that a person does not exist in order to be imposed upon prior to the act of creation, and therefore no ethical trespass has been committed. If you were to read or listen to any rebuttal of antinatalism, the chances are that this is one of the first arguments that you will encounter. The normally excellent Philosophy Tube did a disappointingly cursory video about antinatalism and summarily concluded that the non-identity problem is fatal to antinatalism; as there was no person suspended in the abyss who had any desire not to come into existence, and to find that state of affairs preferable to being born.

This rebuttal misses the point that antinatalism is about preventing a harm, rather than bestowing a benefit. It also seems to be something of a straw-man argument. As an antinatalist, I am not concerned with preserving the non-existent in some blissful ethereal antechamber where they will enjoy their perpetual state of protection from suffering. My ethical concern does not relate to the void that precedes the existence of the person. It pertains to the person who will come into existence in the future. As Youtube philosopher inmendham analogised it best, procreation forces a person onto a tightrope strung out over the pits of hell, and one misstep or gust of wind can send you hurtling down to be impaled on the daggers below. If procreation is prevented, then this prevents an individual from coming into existence who may find that existence to be burdensome, and may resent the imposition. They won’t enjoy a benefit from that prevention; however prevention need not confer the experience of relief in order to be valuable. The value of the prevention is in the fact that we do not create suffering. As the person never comes into existence, the “benefit” of relief from suffering, is never needed.

The Principle of Maximin Reasoning

I believe that most people would agree that consent is often an important pre-requisite to permit you to make decisions on behalf of others. However, as opponents of antinatalism have correctly pointed out, there are numerous scenarios in which the ethically appropriate course of action may involve violating the consent of another. Such examples could include decisions being made on behalf of a dependent child, such as deciding to take them to the dentist, or having them vaccinated. As young children have insufficient life experience to know what is in their best interests all of the time, it is incumbent upon a responsible adult (usually a parent) to make decisions on their behalf which may not coincide with what the child wants at the time, but which are likely to be in the child’s long term interest. Thus, we have compelling ethical grounds to allow us to violate the child’s consent in the expectation of having served their long term interests to avoid suffering. As an antinatalist, I would not dispute that this is often the case, and would not aver that one can never act without the consent of a living person regarding decisions that can have profound ramifications on their future wellbeing.

However, this counterargument ignores a key distinction between examples such as the one above, and decisions taken on behalf of a person yet to exist. Namely, the person who already exists already has a present welfare state that must be protected, and because they exist in the present, they will have a future welfare state which is going to be determined by the decisions made today. Consequently, when you are making a decision on behalf of a young child, or an elderly adult, you must perform a cost-benefit analysis in order to determine whether the short term detriment (i.e. acting against the person’s will, or without their knowledge) is going to be more harmful or less harmful in the long term than abstaining from making that choice.

Because you can prevent your as yet in-existent child from coming into existence, and from having any future wellbeing state at all, you cannot appeal to the same line of reasoning that would enable you to make decisions on behalf of an already born child. That’s because, unlike in any of these scenarios in which the person has already been born, you have an option available to you that would avoid any risk of future harm to the child. Namely, you can abstain from bringing the child into existence in the first place. An entity which never comes into existence, can never be harmed, and it can never want for the pleasures that existence could afford them. In other words, you must invoke maximin reasoning here; which means that; rather than take into account the full spectrum of probability regarding the outcome of that child’s life, you may only consider the worst possible outcomes. If those worst possible outcomes result in serious harm, then you cannot ethically justify the act of procreation. Abstaining from procreation would result in a perfectly harmless outcome for the hypothetical person who would have come into existence (i.e. they will never exist, and will thus never form an identity or a set of interests that can be benefitted); thus in order to justify your imposition, you must restore symmetry by explaining how procreation will also be perfectly harmless. This must be true not only for the child you create, but for all of their descendants as well. And arguably also for any sentient beings whose welfare state they will affect.

Unlike the child who may get sick because they weren’t vaccinated, the child who was never born cannot be identified, and thus no meaningful comparison can be made which would allow one to assert that the child was worse off for never coming into existence. Therefore, the non-identity problem not only fails as a refutation of antinatalism; it actually backfires against the pro-natalist side of the argument and becomes, in my opinion, one of the most robust and devastating weapons in the antinatalist arsenal.

The Asymmetry Between Pleasure and Pain

The only way that natalists can salvage the non-identity problem would be to radically subvert civilisation’s normally agreed-upon rules of ethics and instead of consent being required; an explicit refusal of consent would be required in order to prevent the 3rd party from acting, as opposed to the normal situation in which the absence of verbalised consent would mean that consent has not been obtained. Otherwise, special pleading would be needed to justify why the rules of consent could be violated in this particular instance, despite the fact that a non-existent entity could not be at any danger of being harmed.

Baked into this exercise in ethical subversion is the assumption that life itself is a profitable endeavour, and that the existence of pleasure constitutes a just reason to introduce the risk of suffering. This would therefore constitute the grounds for special pleading being presented in defence of procreation.

Under the normal ethical rules of civilisation, there is first an obligation to do no harm; and no obligation at all to give someone pleasure. If you can give someone pleasure without foreseeably causing them serious harm, then it is optional to give someone pleasure without asking for their consent first. You could illustrate this with the example of an unsolicited birthday gift. The gift would be anticipated to satisfy existing desires or needs, and therefore enhance the quality of life of the recipient, in some way. When shopping for a gift for a friend, one would normally be expected to take pains to ensure that they are not going to be burdening their friend with the burden of maintenance that they may not be prepared to accept (hence a live animal such as a dog would not usually be considered an appropriate choice of gift, unless this had been discussed with the recipient previously, or unless you were already aware that the recipient wanted a dog, and what type of dog they wanted). A considerate gift giver would also take into account the needs and desires of their friends, and tailor their choice accordingly. The recipient must always retain the right to refuse the gift at the point of receipt, or to dispose of it.

In praise of life, you will undoubtedly have often heard it said that life is a precious gift that is bestowed upon us by our parents. But the problem with this claim, is that the “gift of life” seems to fall foul of each one of the criteria listed above.

And the problem is compounded by the fact that the opponents of antinatalism cannot even seem to keep their story straight. No sooner have they invoked the non-identity problem to wave away the ethical concerns of antinatalists, than they have started to impute needs and desires onto an as-yet inexistent individual (or even the universe itself) in order to justify the creation of that individual. The natalist is proposing to create a problem that needn’t exist in order to allow for the chance for the problem to be solved to a satisfactory degree. That is to say, they want desires to be satisfied, even though those desires can only be satisfied up to the extent that a yawning cavern of desire was opened up within that individual’s psychology to begin with, constantly demanding to be filled in; never satisfied for long. Whilst desire is not an intrinsically negative experience itself, it is always a liability. For as long as you have a desire, you run the risk of failing to satisfy that desire, which will result into falling into a state of deprivation. And as is observed from the psychological phenomenon of the hedonic treadmill effect, you can’t just satisfy a desire once, and then remain permanently satisfied with what you have gained. As soon as that one desire is satisfied, then another one arises to take its place.

In order to further illustrate the problem of desire; I would liken desire to the poles of a magnet. There is a negative pole of suffering, and a positive pole of pleasure. Only the negative pole exerts a magnetic pull on the individual, which reflects the fact that striving is usually required to secure pleasure; whereas if you exert no effort at all, then you will inexorably be drawn into an ever deepening pit of suffering. This needn’t even require a lapse on your part in actively attempting to maintain forward movement towards the pole of pleasure. It may be that a barrier outside of your control gets in your way and trips you up, and you hurtle backwards towards the pole of suffering until you are able to gain your footing once again and resume your forward motion. These barriers which may impede your progress may be so manifold that you could never possibly anticipate every one of them. Even if you consider the human body itself; your comfort and pleasure depends on maintaining a minimum standard of health, with every organ functioning as it should be, no significant damage to any muscles or bones, and so on. If you develop a significant injury or malady in even one of the vast number of constituent parts of your body, then the pain or discomfort from that is likely to be sufficient to vitiate any pleasure that you might have been experiencing, as you will become focused on relief from the suffering. This suffering must be ameliorated as a precondition before you can even start to attain pleasure.

As I hope to have illustrated; by following the line of reasoning opened up by the non-identity problem, we find profound weaknesses in the pro-natalist position, and in an honest debate, it would be difficult to assess that the natalist argument has gained any traction in the debate whatsoever. The only reason that it is still winning, is because people were already disposed towards favouring life to begin with, and in the example of suicide prevention for example, are willing to use state sanctioned coercion to silence opposition and ensure that life-affirming philosophy carries the day. Unfortunately, as is the case with suicide, this debate has not been a fair one, to date, and much like the Philosophy Tube video linked at the start of the post, opponents of antinatalism are quick to shuck off challenges to their worldview with superficial arguments, seeming to uphold the virtue of life, but which collapse upon further scrutiny.

Please feel free to add your comments below, or discuss on Reddit at r/DebateAntinatalism or r/BirthandDeathEthics for uncensored debate. As always, all perspectives are welcome. More posts exploring different rebuttals of antinatalism and efilism (and perhaps expanding upon some of the topics touched upon here) will follow in due course. Please also subscribe using the form below, and visit the homepage for an index of all the blog’s published content.

existentialgoof – 19th September 2021

5 comments

  1. Interesting post man, I’m not familiar with the debate, so I have a few questions I want to ask you, and see your opinion on them, since you are more into the discussion.

    1. Why not taking into account probability and only focus on the worst possible outcomes? There’s the possibility that I may get into a car crash, every single time that I drive off the road, however I believe that very few people actually do get into them in contrast to the people that drive safe to their destination. Now from the antinatalist perspective, (if I got this straight) Why even bother to make the choice? if you could just, work at home for example. Maybe because the destination is worth the risk, since I’m going against favorable odd’s (in the case of a flat road for example). Now while even with a good background you are still gambling against all sorts of risks both physical and emotional, you won’t get every bad outcome possible, leave alone, the worst of them all. So you can prepare yourself to face one terrible fate, like for example: physical disability, while it is awful to suffer such fate, people still have found a happy outcome in the end or joy in it. Now I’m not gonna talk for everyone here, you can still apply my own logic and put into probability how many people with an awful event have actually got a good outcome in the end. But then again, that’s even on the case that you are gonna get a terrible condition at all, and humans certainly do not live forever, so you are not gambling forever.

    2. I dont agree with your magnet analogy, I do believe that a lack of pleasure can create suffering, more specific boredom, or the pain of loss. But I also think that in order for that to be, you have to introduce pleasure first, it doesn’t happen on its own. Thats the reason why animals dont get bored as often as humans do, since they lack the reasoning and experience to desire something more than the pleasure they get from food, sleep or sex. Same thing goes with humans, you cant be dependant on a drug if you haven’t taken it first. Now I also dont believe that pleasure is only desirable on the face of pain. You need food in order to overcome hungriness, but even if someone’s not hungry, he still gets the desire to eat a pizza, now even if said person doesn’t get to eat pizza tonight, for whatever reason, he won’t fail into crippling depression, or even slight annoyance. I believe this is relative for each individual, my point being that pleasure is not merely an answer to suffering, it can be, which is fine, but desire’s create themselves alone, if they ever get experienced, and the need to renovate said pleasure, if it fails to do so, won’t necessarily create pain.

    3. The risk of losing a desire or pleasure, or not meeting a goal, is not that high to begin with. This again is subjective for the individual, probably the most subjective point I’m going to make, but so is the general human experience. If a person’s sources of happiness are not hard to meet, then the risk of losing them won’t be high in the first place, thus it can maintain itself for a long period of time. As this is relative to a person’s interests, personality and past, I cannot talk for everyone, but me for example, my only conditions for happiness are limited to taking a walk and seeing the beautiful enviroment where I live, sharing time with my wife, and enjoying my usual pleasures like food, entertaiment and water, etc. I have bigger desires, yes, but wether they get realized or not, really won’t change my state of being, since I’m honestly happy with what I got, and dont need much else. All of this still runs the risk of loss, which can create great pain, but is on the account of minimal probability, so I dont get fear of any bad outcome. Despite all of this, if I suffer the fate of losing permanently any of these, I have the hope of eventually overcoming said outcomes, since I believe that people get stronger with pain, as I have done the past. So yeah, there would be great suffering, but worth taking as I’ll get through it, and get better. This again is entirely subjective, even then, I cant be 100% sure that each negative scenario will be solved as I plan to, but with probability on my side, I have not much to fear, and lots to enjoy.

    However I do believe, that a palinless death can come handy to an individual thats suffering a great deal of pain, and cant get out of it, despite his efforts, thats why I support the right to die, and humanity should create more method’s for accomplishing that goal, since while its more likely to get a good outcome, it’s not a certainty.

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    1. An apology if any part of my comment suffers from bad grammar or poor redaction, english is not my main languague

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    2. 1. The reason for making any decision whilst you’re alive is that the benefits seem to outweigh the risks and the drawbacks for not deciding. As long as you are alive, you can be disappointed with your choice, and may suffer. But that isn’t the case for the unborn. Since non-existence is perfectly harmless, then you have to guarantee existence will be perfectly harmless, as the only ethical grounds for imposing risk of harm would be if you were saving them from a harm that would probably be greater.

      2. Humans have a more complex psychology, and I think that’s why we have more complex desires and needs than other animals. As well as the basic needs, we have higher level needs for entertainment, we have more complicated relationships and so on. I think that the extent to which you’re going to suffer deprivation of a pleasure is going to be proportional to the extent to which you coveted the desideratum in the first place. So if it was just the case that you wanted a takeaway pizza, but all the shops were closed so you had to do without, then that isn’t going to lead to a crippling depression, because the desire for pizza was a passing whim. I don’t think that you can really say that you have to introduce pleasure first, because the need for pleasure is inextricable from the liability that you’ll suffer if you don’t receive enough of it. And of course, the same goes for things like live, relationships and so on. And I believe that the degree to which you can suffer deprivation of these things is actually more intense than the amount of pleasure you’re actually going to get from them; at least in most cases.

      3. If you’ve managed to keep your needs minimal, then that’s probably the best way to live. It seems like you have a high hedonic set-point, which is always beneficial. But that doesn’t represent the situation of everyone, and many people are unable to obtain in life even the relatively modest requirements that you have for a good life. Even if you’re happy with the odds for yourself, that doesn’t really mean that you can ethically impose life on someone else, as their psychology may not be calibrated to be satisfied as easily as you are, and you may not be able to protect them from the ravages of harm that you can barely imagine. It’s true that suffering makes one more resilient, but then that still doesn’t mean that the suffering itself is good, but merely necessary in order to be able to withstand suffering. And also, if your kids are never born, they won’t need to become resilient for anything.

      Your grammar and everything for the most part are fine.

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  2. An excellent post. Loved the ending!
    > The only reason that it is still winning, is because people were already disposed towards favouring life to begin with, and in the example of suicide prevention for example, are willing to use state sanctioned coercion to silence opposition and ensure that life-affirming philosophy carries the day.

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