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Debating Procreation is a refreshing read that puts procreation under the moral microscope. It presents David Benatar's controversial anti-natalist view that having children is always wrong and David Wasserman's pro-natalist contention that reproduction is morally permissible if certain conditions pertain. The volume is divided into two parts, each consisting of five chapters. The first part, authored by Benatar, advocates several stand-alone anti-natalist arguments and corresponding challenges. The second part, by Wasserman, offers a critique of anti-natalism and promotes the moderate pro-natalist stance that reproduction is sometimes, but not always, justifiable.
The early pages of the book present a clear synopsis of anti-natalism and delineate the scope of Benatar's case. Any philosopher who attempts to convince people that procreation is always morally reprehensible has their work cut out. Benatar acknowledges this from the outset and recognises the 'sad truth' (15) that humans will not voluntarily stop procreating as a species, although individual minds may be changed as a result of compelling arguments against having children. Benatar details three anti-natalist arguments: the axiological asymmetry argument, the quality of life argument, and the misanthropic argument (the first two having been discussed by Benatar in his 2006 book, Better Never to Have Been, and the latter being a new addition to his case for anti-natalism).
In chapter two, Benatar puts forward a comprehensive account of the asymmetry argument against procreation. Readers familiar with Benatar's previous publications will recognise this claim that coming into existence is always a harm. The argument rests on the supposition that harms and benefits are axiologically asymmetrical and infers from this premise that, whereas the absence of harm is good even if no real entity exists to enjoy said good, the absence of benefit is not bad unless there is a real entity who is deprived of said benefit. After weighing up supporting evidence for and objections to the asymmetry argument, Benatar concludes that it is obviously true and that the burden of proof for the permissibility of procreation lies with those who disagree with axiological asymmetry.
Chapter three focuses on Benatar's quality of life argument, which states that the harms of coming into existence are substantial – more so than is usually supposed by our species. Benatar stresses that humans suffer from psychological conditions that make them biased toward optimism and easily adaptable to harms. As a result of looking at their lives through rose-tinted glasses and adjusting extremely quickly to the sufferings that befall them, Benatar claims that people believe their lives to be much better than they are in actuality. The second part of the chapter is dedicated to a torrent of examples intended to highlight the poor quality of human life. Many of us, Benatar asserts, are too cold, too hot, hungry, thirsty, ill, dissatisfied with our jobs, traffic, and lack of money. Moreover, a considerable number of us are devastated by natural disasters and moral evils; life is a struggle that only ends when we die. This is without doubt the most harrowing chapter of the book. Benatar includes a plethora of disturbing examples detailing the gratuitous sufferings that many individuals have endured, which certainly presents a convincing case for his claim that 'existence is a terrible business' (72) for many individuals.
Chapter four's misanthropic argument is a new addition to Benatar's cumulative case for anti-natalism. Contrary to 'philanthropic' anti-natalist arguments, which claim that bringing a human being into existence is wrong because it inflicts harm on that being, misanthropic arguments maintain that bringing a human being into existence is wrong because of the potential harm that being might bring to others. Interestingly, Benatar encourages us to consider not only the potential harms future progenies may befall, but also the harms they might generate, and he argues that we have a moral duty to avoid bringing into existence beings who will potentially cause harm to others. Giving an explicit overview of the dark side of humanity, he references cases such as the Stanford prison experiment, historically-common witch trials, and animal cruelty to support his claim that humans are a brutish and devastating species.
In the concluding chapter of part one, Benatar contemplates objections to his position. He considers divine command theory – that humans have a duty to be fruitful and multiply, as stated by certain religious texts; parental interests – that, for some, parenthood is an important condition for a good life that should not be denied; and group interests – that particular cultures or nations (or humanity as a whole) have a collective investment in procreation. Ultimately, Benatar concludes that none of these reasons are forceful enough to overcome the presumptive wrong of having children.
Benatar's shrewd and intelligible exposition makes for a compelling read. Unfortunately, although briefly considering several counterarguments to anti-natalism, Benatar does not offer responses to some of the strong objections Wasserman later poses to his stance, something that would be useful in order to yield a balanced debate. By addressing Wasserman's concerns, Benatar would allow more opportunity to strengthen his position and attempt to debunk a wider range of challenges to anti-natalism. It would also have been interesting to hear Benatar's views on the practical implications of adopting an anti-natalist position as a society. Should humans be punished for procreation if they knowingly cause harm by creating new humans? Do we have a duty to sterilise humans to ensure they do not procreate? Readers who are already familiar with Benatar's arguments from previous works might desire more of a focus on the ramifications of adopting anti-natalism (however unlikely that may be).
Chapter six marks the start of Wasserman's contribution to the book. He begins by giving a thorough and useful summary of anti-natalism and outlining the scope of part two of the book: a critique of anti-natalism and his own pro-natalist account that sets the parameters for the justifiability of having children. Wasserman seeks to establish a middle-ground position in the debate, arguing that procreation is permissible in some cases but should never be mandatory.
The next chapter is dedicated to arguing against three principal types of anti-natalism: comparative, consent, and risk-based. Wasserman offers concise yet comprehensive explanations of each, and lays out quite a few serious challenges in response. Intriguingly, Wasserman's critique of Benatar's anti-natalism is not the traditional objection posed that his asymmetry argument is incoherent, but instead identifies what he believes to be a flawed inference from the premise that existence causes harm to the conclusion that procreation is wrong. Wasserman wisely notes that there is no authoritative vantage point from which we can view the truths of benefits and harm. This identifies that the heart of the argument, to put it simply, is whether or not life is really all that bad; something that, overall, might come down to individual interpretation of the world.
Next, Wasserman turns to a persuasive argument for pro-natalism, claiming that in some, but not all cases bringing a child into existence can be morally permissible. According to Wasserman, prospective parents can be morally justified in bringing a child into existence if they i) intend to give the goods of life to the child and ii) intend to form an intimate relationship with the child in order to bestow those goods upon them. For Wasserman, these child-focused conditions are necessary to warrant bringing a child into existence.
In the final two chapters, Wasserman considers two approaches to setting moral limitations on procreation: impersonal and person-affecting. Rejecting the impersonal hypothesis that prospective parents have a moral duty to produce a child to whom they could bestow the most goods, Wasserman concludes that the most successful way to understand constraints to procreation must involve the role-based duties of prospective parents.
Overall, Wasserman's contribution, like Benatar's, is reader-friendly and insightful. He provides us with a detailed account of existing literature, and conveys the nuances of different approaches to the ethics of procreation with clarity. I would, however, have liked to hear more about the practical implications of accepting his position. Would it be morally acceptable, or even practically possible, to impose regulations that test prospective parents in order to ensure their morally justifiable intentions? As with part one of the book, a satisfactorily thorough discussion of applying the theories was lacking.
Benatar and Wasserman are the progenitors of an honest, clear, and downright fascinating investigation into the ethics of procreation, and this volume is an essential read for moral philosophers and prospective parents who are interested in the ethics of having children. Both philosophers' arguments are persuasive and well-defined, and their language is easily-accessible - one certainly does not need to be a specialist to understand and engage with their ideas. Although thought-provoking and extremely well-written, for me this book fosters two major questions. Firstly, how would Benatar respond to the objections posed by Wasserman in the second part of the volume, and secondly, what would the practical implications of accepting anti-natalism or moderate pro-natalism be for society at large?
© 2017 Asha Lancaster-Thomas
Asha Lancaster-Thomas is a PhD student at the University of Birmingham.