A Deeper Kind of Darkness
It’s been said that the eyes are the window to the soul. But the softest things in your body degrade the most quickly. Your hair, however, will linger on long after you die. In fact, it’s the part of you that’s the most dead. It’s the part that won’t notice the stilling of your heart or the chilling of your blood. And yet, it’s the part that most people take the most care of. The part they hope the world appreciates. Because in their heart, they know that nobody will ever understand what their life meant, so they might as well burnish the lie.
You don’t like knowing do you? It’s fine. I don’t really like saying it. I find my views just as disturbing as anyone else. Which is why I’m reluctant to share them. And while these thoughts can be overwhelming at times, writing about them helps. Controversy, even when it has a prickly, emotive quality, can at least be a gateway to insight. And what I have to say needs to be said whether or not anyone accepts it.
There are two things in this life that are certain. That are beyond doubt: Everyone will suffer. And everyone will die. Moreover, our lives are much worse than we care to admit, and no life is ever worth starting. Happiness isn’t even real. According to the Schopenhauerian view, suffering is all that exists independently. Pessimism, regrettably, is pretty much all Schopenhauer is remembered for these days, the old inebriate. But, in all fairness, had I thrown an old spinster down a flight of stairs I suppose I’d only be remembered as a pessimist too.
Yet, knowing this, and understanding full well that any particular life embodies the potential for experiencing extreme pain and unhappiness, unceasing in some cases, is procreation really worth the risk?
Jim Crawford doesn’t believe so. In, Confessions of an Antinatalist, for example, he reflects on what it means to exist in the belly of a ravening serpent-life whose only prey is itself, and whose teeth are very sharp indeed. I know I’m not going to do justice to his book by trying to simplify the premise, but essentially it boils down to this: If we acknowledge that suffering is a part of the natural world, that there is no supernatural afterlife to strive for, and that as humans we suffer as much as the rest of nature, then when we make the decision to create life, we do so knowing that we have doomed our children to a life of suffering, and ultimately death. Hence, if we are moral, then we have a moral duty to refuse to add more suffering to the human race, by adding to that race.
In addition, it’s important to realize that there’s no such thing as chronic pleasure, but there is such a thing as chronic pain. It’s also more powerful: would you trade five minutes of the worst pain imaginable for five minutes of the greatest pleasure?
People however, will argue until they are blue in the face, that talk of pain and pleasure misses the point: even if life isn’t good, it’s meaningful, they love to say. But in fact, human life is cosmically meaningless: we exist in an indifferent universe, perhaps even a “multiverse,” and are subject to blind and purposeless natural forces. In the absence of cosmic meaning, only “terrestrial” meaning remains—and, there’s something circular about arguing that the purpose of humanity’s existence is that individual humans should help one another. I don’t believe that suffering gives meaning. I think that people try to find meaning in suffering because suffering would otherwise be gratuitous and unbearable. Which it is.
Unfortunately, I feel that there is an aspect of antinatalism which has been customarily neglected in most of the literature that I’ve read, and I’ve read quite a bit, and which also seems to permeate, and to larger extent may even underpin, most articulations of antinatalist thought. It’s also an issue that most of its adherents seem far to eager to embrace. And that issue is classism.
Take Matt Forney’s review of Crawford’s book, as an example: “Just a few days before I picked up Confessions of an Antinatalist, I had to watch yet another nauseating specimen of the lower classes stinking up my visage. In this case, it was a teenaged white single mom wearing pajama bottoms and smelling of day-old BO, dragging along a screaming little brat who kept trying to swipe candy off the cash register shelves. “I want the Reesies Peesies!” the little turd whined. “Wait until we go to Wegmans,” the slut responded. “BUT I WANT THE REESIES PEESIES!” the turd demanded. “OMG,” the slut sighed, taking the Reeses’ Pieces and ringing them up with her EBT card. And that’s not a literary flourish: she actually said oh em gee, because using complete words is apparently too much work for the underclass these days.” I can’t stress this enough: Fuck this guy. This is fascism in action. And it’s easy to guess which class of people he wants to stop from breeding.
A further problem, and perhaps one of the most problematic aspects about the work of Crawford and other antinatalists, is that they have very little patience for the argument that life is better than they think it is. If people think that life is much better than Crawford makes it out to be, the standard rejoinder is that these people suffer from a form of false consciousness (pessimists frequently use words like “truly” and “really”). In some cases this attitude borders on intolerance. For many people growing up was a period of great happiness and discovery. The antinatalists agitated dismissal of such accounts introduces an element of illiberalism in what is otherwise a humanistic endeavor. It is in this sense that antinatalism turns into a bitter ideology.
Antinatalists are also quick to point out that their pessimism should not be dismissed as an expression of weakness and depression. But then the antinatalists commit a similar error by too easily viewing optimism as a defense mechanism or a form of bias. But is it completely unreasonable to look for the neurophysiologic and genetic basis of pessimism and optimism? The uncompromising naturalism in the work of antinatalists supports such an inquiry.
Therefore, I want to offer a word of advice to those who engage in debates with antinatalists. Most antinatalists waste little time reminding their readers how controversial their ideas are. They think that they have uncovered the greatest taboo of all time. As an empirical matter, this is doubtful. Antinatalist ideas can be freely discussed in modern Western countries, something that cannot be said about a number of other controversial ideas.
Nevertheless, and even with all its blind spots, antinatalism, is a philosophy I happen to agree with. As I’ve found that any attempt to renounce it’s premise is a bit like trying to fornicate with a skeleton. I am not however blind to the romance of human achievement. If I were, I wouldn’t bother writing, and my reading list would start and stop with instruction manuals. I am simply someone who believes that human society is a waste, that religion reveals a person’s weaknesses, that we are inherently flawed, and that things would be better if we didn’t exist. Nothing has any meaning and we are all just slowly decaying carbon based life forms, grinding out an existence as specks of dust within an infinite universe which has no ultimate purpose.“The world’s an orphans home”, as Marianne Moore once said. And this feels more true to me than almost anything else I know.