[W]hether or not you allow me to influence you with my dangerous ideas, I hope you will believe me when I tell you that I am very much on your side. You are, after all, an aware being having experiences. This is true whether or not you have had or will have children, and this is true whether you want to live or want to die. —Sarah Perry, Every Cradle Is a Grave
So I’m just getting around to reviewing what should be a massive game-changer in antinatalist writing: Sarah Perry’s Every Cradle Is a Grave (Nine-Banded Books). Hey, it’s been a rough year. I’ve finally got my redesigned blog going, so I have somewhere to post all the stuff that’s too offensive (or offensively depressing) for anyone else to publish. (If you think antinatalism is depressing, wait till you read my upcoming piece on the behavioral sink.)
The audiences for most of the publications where I write for cash tend to find antinatalist-focused pieces off-putting. And not without reason; a friend who probably doesn’t want to be called out calls us the “black nail polish brigade” and I don’t argue. Like anyone who’s dead certain that they’re right about an extreme opinion, we can be a humorless pain in the ass about it; but on the other hand it’s hard to blame us entirely, either: since most muggles reject extreme ideas so smugly out of hand, bitter crank-hood sometimes seems inevitable, since neither honey nor vinegar is much of a weapon against self-protective bullshit. A couple of the antinatalist groups I belong to on Facebook would be highly unlikely to ever convince someone who wasn’t already of that persuasion; they’re just where we go to moan about that great bitch-goddess life (and her Salacious Crumb-like handmaiden Humanity). And that’s a lot of “fun,” insofar as we’re capable of having any (haw haw), but unfortunately we rarely go beyond moaning to the choir anymore.
Which is why Perry’s book would be a game-changer, if only A. Antinatalists would actually listen to her message of moderation and non-assholism, and B. Outside audiences could be persuaded to look past the stigma of the black nail polish.
If you’d like me to back up a step, for those new to this idea, anti-natalism boils down to the conviction that it’s immoral to have children, because said children have no say in whether they get born or not, and you’re exposing them to the risks of being retarded or cancer-stricken, plus all the other bumps and bruises of life. The logical proof we usually roll out for you after complaining about the various ways you could die (because that’s the only way out of this bod, after all) and quoting Xenophon about how the gods punished man by inventing work, is what’s called Benatar’s asymmetry: People can be greatly hurt by being born. But if you don’t have a kid, the kid doesn’t exist to regret never enjoying the good things in life. Therefore nobody’s hurt if you don’t breed, but somebody is always hurt to some extent—and sometimes real real real bad, and that’s not always predictable—if you do.
It’s funny that reactions both from and to antinatalists themselves are so emotional, because it’s an idea whose acceptance very much depends on whether one is willing to embrace an extreme idea based on nothing but some rather inhuman-feeling logic; Spock as a goth. As ridiculous as it may make me, the logic of Benatar’s asymmetry has never been refuted in a way that convinces me, as much as I might like to be convinced it ain’t so. And it’s abysmally depressing, and the fact that people don’t want to think about it makes the darkness somehow harder to bear, so most of us who do accept the logic tend to get all self-righteous about people who don’t get it, because come on, you selfish DNA monsters, you are motherfucking frustrating as hell, and haven’t you noticed how crowded it is on the Internet, you selfish pricks?
Perry can’t find any logical flaws in it either—but instead of getting mad, she gets social. (I wonder if this has something to do with the fact that marijuana actually works the way it’s supposed to on her, the lucky so-and-so.) Instead of holding the hard line on no births are OK ever, her book explores the possible discussions of the ethics of birth, death, and suicide that antinatalism could open up—even for people who don’t swallow it.
To wit: I’m just going to quote a big old chunk from the intro, both to give you an idea of the delightful stoner fair-mindedness (note: after all that shit I went through with my horrible stoner narcissist ex, I absolutely cannot believe I just wrote that, but time wounds all heels, I suppose) that hems in the horrible logic of the book, and because there is way too much shit I need to get done this week to boil it down correctly, and it’s taken me way too damn long to get this book reviewed as it is. If you like the cut of this passage’s jib you might as well stop listening to me and go get the book:
[A]ny socially well-adjusted human being is likely from time to time to encounter a person whose contrary opinions are [not] easily dismissed. When we engage with such a person—who is so trusted, whose mental apparatus has been so verified to work well, and whose motives are so clearly earnest—we may come away less certain about the correctness of our own views. I like the term “epistemic peer” for a person so trusted, brain-wise and team-wise, that his opinion will be taken very seriously when it disagrees with our own.
I am more interested in establishing myself as an epistemic peer of the reader than in autistically presenting a logical argument for the correctness of my views. When you find yourself coming to an unusual conclusion and you can’t find a flaw in your own reasoning, the epistemically proper path, I think, is to show your brain and show your work. You display the way your mind (your laboratory apparatus) approaches the problem, and you present your argument (your laboratory protocol) in a clear way so that others may examine it.
As I would rather participate in social reasoning than table-pound in my corner, I will not only present the extreme forms of my arguments (many of which I think are correct); I will also attempt to present the continuum for each position, many points along which are uncontroversially reasonable. More important, I will show that such continua exist. I consider many people reasonable who do not go full cartoon villain and agree with me that all life is unfortunate and nobody should ever have babies. What makes such people seem reasonable to me is that they recognize the possibility that a given life could go very badly, and that the joys of life might not outweigh the suffering. At the very least, they recognize that the interests of an aware being are very hard to predict before that being is created.
In other words, yeah, no babies ever is pretty extreme, we’ll grant, even if the logic holds. But how about you take a few minutes and think about the ethical argument anyway? What if a dread disease runs in your family? Does your desire to have an heir outweigh the suffering your child will undergo if he’s likely to have a painful, short, or alienated life?
And if you can’t be convinced that a particular birth is wrong on the baby’s behalf, what about, say, the taxpayers? There are certain circumstances under which I think many audiences would agree that having children is bad: traditionally people on the right aren’t nuts about welfare babies and anchor babies. What are the ethics of having children as hostages, ie to gain entry to a country where you want to live, or to use the state to force others to pay for you and your offspring so you don’t have to work? People on the left might be more worried about the ethics of, say, coercing a woman into traditional motherhood; anyone who’s not a neocon or other flavor of hawk is leery about breeding soldiers for the state, and voluntary euthanasia is finding more traction just about everywhere. Perry’s book finds the cracks in the DNA monster’s facade; to put it less aggressively, she finds common ground with general audiences. You don’t have to buy any extreme arguments to explore your suspicion that it’s wrong to give in to the impulse of life at any price.