A recent legal complaint saw a child sue his parents for giving birth to him. Lols aside, it’s a serious philosophical question. Should you bring something into a world of suffering?
“I wish I’d never been born” is an oft-fired teenage complaint, aimed at one’s parents when they don’t allow you to do something moronic. However, due to a recent legal complaint in the US, a serious philosophical question is raised: what is our responsibility to the unborn?
The school of thought is called “anti-natalism”, where one believes that one’s parents do not have the moral standing to bring an unwitting child into the world. One of the foremost anti-natalists is David Benatar, who authored the book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. His central question swirls around one idea, if a couple has multiple hereditary genetic diseases and live in horrendous conditions, you could argue that they have a moral obligation not to procreate, therefore, giving birth to children who suffer is indeed wrong.
According to Benatar, we underestimate just how terrible life is. Speaking to The New Yorker, Benatar muses: “Is life worth continuing? (Yes) Is life worth starting? (No)…both life and death are, in crucial respects, awful. Together, they constitute an existential vise—the wretched grip that enforces our predicament.”
Anti-natalism is related to the nonidentity problem (one of the most fundamental issues in modern philosophy), which asks what our obligations are towards potential people.
The nonidentity quandary is not an easy one to solve, similarly for the same reason that anti-natalism cannot be placed in the nearest bin. If we believe that life has value and is worth passing on, that, in turn, leads to the “the repugnant conclusion,” which suggests we have a moral obligation to produce as many people as possible. Therefore if we believe in that value, and we want to maximize it, there’s no clear principle that shows when we should stop.
“For any possible population of at least 10 billion people, all with a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger imaginable population whose existence, if other things are equal, would be better even though its members have lives that are barely worth living,” writes philosopher Derek Parfit in his description of the repugnant conclusion, as quoted in the Stanford Encyclopedia.
But what do you think? Does suffering define us? Or do we need to endure pain to validate our existence?