Many of us believe that everyone has a moral right not to be born, a strange sort of right that one only holds in its breach, as David Benatar puts it. But what consequences should this moral view have on our actions?
Obviously, someone who believes an action is wrong should avoid taking that action himself. But what is one to do about others who take actions that one believes to be wrong?
David Benatar addresses the political side of this question in Better Never to Have Been. Benatar concludes, and I agree, that although procreation is always a harm, a political prohibition on birth would be a greater moral horror. A political prohibition on birth would mean, with our current technology, forced abortion and forced sterilization. No matter how great the harm of birth - even though it entails death - forced abortion is worse, especially considering the widespread fear and suffering that the policy would cause to currently-living people.
So the political answer is, I think, do nothing, except perhaps to increase funding for voluntary birth control, abortion, and education. But what of the personal realm? Should we still knit booties when our friends have babies? Or should we flip off people with "Baby On Board" stickers in their windows?
Cory Doctorow is one of my heroes. His work, more than anyone's except perhaps Michael Gondry's, often leaves me with at least a temporary sense that there are worthwhile, interesting projects for sentient beings other than pursuing nonexistence.
As I have previously mentioned, I find Doctorow's story I, Rowboat, the story of Robbie the sentient rowboat, extremely affecting. Doctorow displays a deep grasp of the ethical problems involved in creating new sentient beings. (In a subplot, a coral reef is brought to sentience by a chaotic-evil being, described as a "capricious upload god," wakes up very angry, and apparently spends the rest of eternity chasing the "upload god" in an attempt to destroy it. The main plot centers on Robbie the rowboat's poignant, lonely experience of sentience.)
Given Doctorow's apparently nuanced understanding of the problems of coming into existence, some experienced a bit of cognitive dissonance when Cory had a baby. Some reacted with uncharitable crankiness, such as BoingBoing commenter Kyle Armbruster (re-emvowelled by me):
It's like, just when you thought Cory Doctorow couldn't possibly be more of a self-aggrandizing, pedantic know-it-all prick, he has a kid.
If there's any justice in the universe, his daughter will legally change her name to get rid of the 40 extra ones her parents tacked on and become the CFO of Sony BMG.
(Kyle got "put on time out" from BoingBoing for three days for that, and that kind of vitriol probably indicates the usually-well-behaved user needs a bit of a break.)
I believe it is a serious moral harm to have children, but I think it is a great harm to be a total self-righteous cunt toward people who decide to have children. The morally correct action, in my view, is to openly espouse antinatalism, but at the same time to welcome babies into the world and knit them booties. Benatar himself leads the way with this, by dedicating his book to his parents and his brothers. We have all been harmed by being brought into existence, but once we exist, let us enjoy each other's company.
Just as there should be no forced abortion or forced sterilization in the political realm, even though more babies will thereby be created, there should be no additional suffering heaped onto parents and children because of this wrong. We should continue to develop and spread our ideas with the hope that people will make ethical choices, but, as I have said, we should keep knitting booties.
Even a generation ago, children who had the misfortune to be born "out of wedlock" were treated horribly by the adults in their communities. My own grandmother suffered greatly from this, born into a highly religious community when my great-grandmother was not married. The horrible treatment was related, at least in part, to the moral belief that procreation is only appropriate between married people. But however strongly held, however correct even, this belief may be, it is not a license to treat babies and children badly. The mistreatment of babies and children is a moral horror. Likewise, it's pointless, mean, and immoral to flip off the people with the "Baby On Board" stickers.
Taking a page from abortion centrists, let our movement's slogan be this: Make procreation safe, legal, and rare. And keep knitting booties.
On a related note, I want to trace the implications of a thought I briefly entertained in dealing with my own cognitive dissonance upon the birth of Cory Doctorow's child: when a man fathers a child through natural means, how can we be sure that procreation was the man's decision? (Again, I do not at all mean to imply that Cory's daughter was unplanned or unwanted! By all reports, she was most wanted, and is a charming baby destined to be brilliant, creative, and highly capable.)
In most first-world countries, contraception is widely available. Effective contraception may be utilized by either partner, even without the cooperation of the other. However, in practice, men often rely on women for contraception. Also, contraception failures are frequent.
Again, in most first-world countries, abortion is the prerogative of women. A woman who becomes pregnant may choose to give birth, or to abort. But a man's freedom not to procreate ends with ejaculation. A woman can procreate with or without a man's consent to the procreation. A man can only procreate with a woman's continuing consent.
Given the alternatives - forced abortion, forced birth - this is the best system. A forced abortion is worse than a man being obliged to procreate against his will. A forced birth is worse than a man being prevented from procreating against his will.
While abortion as a female prerogative is better than the alternatives, it is not without problems. The general requirement, again in first-world countries, that parents monetarily support their children until they reach majority creates a major (and undeserved) hardship for men who conceived accidentally and do not desire to have a child. And this is not to mention the emotional consequences. Is an act of sexual intercourse enough to morally justify saddling someone with an unwanted child? If not for women, then why for men?
I think people ignore the injustice inherent in our system of allocating procreative responsibility, because its obvious flaws are not amenable to a political solution. It is another limit on human happiness.
One of the implications of the de facto female monopoly on reproductive decisions, in first-world countries, is to render antinatalism primarily a female issue.
However, an example of undeniable, active male participation in reproduction (other than through artificial means) is related by Mary Beth Bonacci, professional chastity lecturer and realtor. Her 2001 article in the Arlington Catholic Herald told the story of a married Catholic couple who considered, but ultimately rejected, divorce:
But there’s more. Back in the fast-track days, Greg had a vasectomy. After their conversion, they felt called to reverse that procedure — a very expensive proposition. But, through yet another miracle, they found a doctor inspired by their story, who was willing to do the reversal — essentially for free. He did so, and on Feb. 9, 2001, Katharine Marie Alexander was welcomed into the world.
God is truly good.
Most men are not as lucky as Greg was in controlling their procreation. It is a moral issue that deserves consideration.