Antinatalism is a controversial topic in philosophy which states that humans should abstain from procreation. It is appealing because it resolves many ethical dilemmas with procreation, but disgusting because it promises to interrupt almost every aspect of our lives and societies. This point-counterpoint is dedicated to a debate of the merits of this position. Note that the debate around natalism does not refer to one’s voluntary choice to remain childless, but rather the philosophical merit of procreation.
Antinatalism is the correct ethical position regarding procreation because it accommodates the consent of all beings. Consent is one of the most important rights which conscious beings hold: we have a universal right to make our own, free decisions about our relationships, labor, associations, commitments and the overall path of our lives. It is plainly unethical for beings to deprive other beings of this consent in any situation.
Because of the above understanding, in no other context than childbirth would it be considered acceptable for the consent of anyone to be violated and taken away. Children are subjected to decades of life, including wild and unwanted amounts of suffering, because society considers the desires of parents more important than consent. But no desire, however fundamental or central to anyone, is really more important than consent. The creation of new life is inherently non-consensual, and therefore we should abstain from it if we can afford to. The reality is, we can afford to abstain from procreation, so we should do so out of respect for the rights of all beings to consent to as much of their experiences as possible.
Pronatalism is a morally sound position because it is the effect, not the cause, of the world’s material conditions. Across the globe, a variety of factors influence whether or not someone has children, including familial expectations, cultural values, lack of access to safe birth control methods and the economic necessity of more hands in the family unit — all of which are factors affected by existing structures like capitalism and patriarchy.
In agrarian economies, which encapsulate 60% of the global population according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, having children may be critical to the promise of development, whereas a lack of hands to help the community may spell its doom. People can consent to this socioeconomic reality about as much as they can consent to being born. However, it is the realizable potential of building out of this reality and into a new one that makes having children an ethical desire.
This is why procreation is also not inherently a violation of consent. The question of whether or not beings who do not yet exist can consent to decisions made today is unanswerable. Is the Big Bang that created the universe and all of its cursed, beautiful gifts a violation of our consent? Did the Great Molasses Flood of 1919 violate the consent of the 21 Bostonians who would have preferred not to be swept up by molasses? I don’t think there is a correct answer to any of these premises. As such, it’s my opinion that the correct question is whether or not beings can retroactively consent to their creation, which is something very much in our control.
You’re absolutely right to claim that “pronatalism” or the position of having children, is our default position because of human social conditions. It could be argued that even in absence of the systemic oppressions and violences you bring up, human culture has always endured material conditions which incentivise procreation.
But conditions of social oppression are very important because they drive us to do otherwise morally unacceptable things. For example, it is far worse for a rich person to steal from a poor person than for a poor person to steal from another poor person. While the poor person probably has a much better reason for stealing than the rich person, stealing from an innocent person is still wrong. While having children is central to development economics and political justice, and shame for procreating “too much” tends to be weaponized against the most oppressed people, these conditions don’t change the violation of consent that procreation represents. We should seek understandings of this violation that acknowledge systemic oppression and don’t blame the oppressed for their material circumstances.
Your examples of the creation of the universe and the Great Molasses Flood don’t represent meaningful violations of consent because they weren’t actions perpetrated by conscious, ethically-minded beings. On the other hand, humans today have the ability to consider the rights of unborn people, including their right to consent, in our choices. When it’s possible, which may only be in a world which has conquered social oppression, we should avoid these violations.
By the logic that procreation denies the consent of the nonexistent to remain nonexistent, wouldn’t practicing antinatalism at a societal level also violate the consent of future beings who would rather stick around to enjoy the world’s gifts? What about the rights of those who, after being born and experiencing the mixed bag that is existence, decide to dedicate their lives to improving things? The very existence of social movements intent on changing society proves that the latter group of people are an extant group. If it is immoral to procreate due to the violation of some definition of “consent,” then so too is it immoral to not procreate.
Pronatalism is moral because, by ensuring the continuation of humanity, only it enables the intergenerational project of upending systematic oppression, thus solving dilemmas such as resource extraction without reciprocation, industrial pollution, and social strife. We can solve these problems without discontinuing the human population, much of which is composed of indigenous communities who have practiced climate justice for generations, as well as activists all over the world fighting gendered, ethnic, class and disability-based oppressions.
Having children increases the probability that we will clean the poison out of the Earth, spread the wealth equitably and create harmony between peoples, animals and the environment.