So, where’s the nearest womb?
Now the festive spirit is draining my mind and body it’s as good a time as any to return to interrogating the ethics of childbirth. Dr Gerald Harrison and Dr Julia Tanner have a piece inside the journal Think that extols the values of antinatalism. This helps justify my view that the philosophy is on the rise – and, indeed, relevant – but it’s not too convincing a paper. It makes several arguments for thinking it is “both wrong and unjustified” to procreate…
It’s bad for animals.
Humans, the authors write, are “the most destructive creatures on the planet“: “caus[ing] vast numbers of animal deaths“, destroying habitats and altering the climate. Under Harrison and Tanner’s logic, however, this destructiveness is a veritable boon! As we shall go on to see, they believe that childbirth unjustly forces life upon another and is more likely to be to their misfortune than advantage. If we’re to accept this, and acknowledge that all other species will go on to blindly procreate for millenia, our extirpative habits are to be welcomed and maintained.
If we don’t accept this but accept the notion that we (a) aren’t exceptional and (b) have a duty to consider other species it remains unconvincing. First, it’s just not practical: if you cared enough about wildlife that you’d deny yourself a child to preserve it you’d ensure that future generations were the spawn of people who don’t share your opinions. To maintain your anti-speciesist environmentalism it could be more sensible to breed and replicate your views. Besides, even if it was a good pragmatic policy, we’d need a metric to suggest our lives are less valuable than those of other species. Even the most impartial of utilitarians needs a calculus. (That could be the least erotic sentence ever set to paper/screen.)
It’s bad for the species.
Harrison and Tanner grapple with the view that humanity has “value in itself” but dismiss it as we’re causing the extinction of different species. Losing one, then, would preserve a good few others. This assumes that if species have value they must have the same value. The varying sophistication of each species’ consciousness makes this seem doubtful. Indeed, the authors seem to have unwittingly released a scarlet fish: lots of people who impute value to the human species feel that it’s exceptional. I’ve yet to grapple with these folk – and, thus, have been idly assuming that we’re not – but the views of Scruton, Smith and others shouldn’t be ignored. (Well – except on music, perhaps.)
It’s bad for the child.
The authors admit that most people would say they’d rather have lived than not but argue that we’re “heavily biased towards the positive“. As I’ve written before, I’m not sure that it really matters: if we feel happy what’s the beef? Paranoiacs are biased towards being fearful. That doesn’t mean they don’t really feel scared.
Once again the most compelling argument seems to be that (a) you impose life on an unconscious other and (b) what with the visceral pain and emotional despair that haunts so many lives the risk is that they’re bound, likely or liable to experience rather more suffering than pleasure. Many nonbelievers – like, say, Grayling or Baggini – hold there’s no objective purpose to being and that “the meaning of your life is the meaning you give it“. If a salesman was reeling off the merits of a product you’d probably ask him what it’s function was. If he said “its function is the function you give it” but its range of capacities stretched to, say, holding a burger or crushing CDs I’d guess that you’d be unimpressed. Similarly, if the meaning of life is the meaning you give it but most or even some people can make little but an existence scarred by torment, despair or deprivationone must ask if there’s a purpose to continuing life.