What Antinatalism Is, and What It Isn't - A Guide
There appears to be much confusion, debate, and general uncertainty as to exactly what antinatalism is, and what it is not. This is especially the case amongst those who aren’t particularly familiar with the concept, though there are also some who apply the antinatalist label to themselves while not appearing to actually align with the tenets of the philosophy. With that in mind I have set forth to define antinatalism in the clearest terms possible, addressing each common distinction one by one in this article. Whether you are already familiar with antinatalism or are just now learning about it, this article should prove useful in guiding your dialogue on the subject.
Please note that this brief article is not meant to be an encyclopedic writing on the subject of antinatalism, and is intended only to address the specific point stated in the title.
What Antinatalism Is
Antinatalism is a philosophical position which holds that purposefully giving birth to human life is unethical due to the potential for suffering created through those who are brought into existence, and/or that purposefully giving birth while knowing that the course and outcome of someone’s life is largely a gamble is unethical. Some take a more cosmic view and apply this precept to all sentient life, or expand it past human life while still limiting it to sapient life. Regardless, the primary tenet of antinatalism is that life is not worth starting, that to create new intelligent life is to create the potential for unnecessary harm and suffering and as such the more ethical choice is to desist from reproduction. There are alternative or complimentary arguments for this, such as the possibility of creating evil, the issue of consent, etc., but harm reduction through the total negation of suffering is the foundation of antinatalism.
What Antinatalism Isn’t
Not explicitly pro-extinction
Antinatalism is not explicitly pro-extinction. Human extinction being the logical conclusion of antinatalist theory being put into widespread practice is accepted as a matter of course, but antinatalism does not advocate for human extinction per se. This is because antinatalism is concerned with the ethics of creating new life, not with whatever value there may or may not be in human extinction.
Many have erroneously compared antinatalism with eugenics, eugenics being the concept of selectively breeding humans so as to create progressively “better” human beings. The comparison between or conflation of antinatalism and eugenics is wholly erroneous, as antinatalism is intended to be a compassionate philosophy, wherein human reproduction is ceased entirely for the sake of bringing an end to suffering. Eugenics on the other hand can take multiple forms, but regardless of the specifics it has no relation to antinatalism, as the concept is not about ending suffering for ethical reasons but to produce biologically superior human beings via selective breeding which is encouraged through either negative or positive reinforcement. The end result of eugenic practices is not human extinction, but rather a supposedly ideal humanity. Eugenics does not generally have empathy, compassion, or ethical concerns as a driving force and seeks to continue human reproduction, albeit in a controlled manner.
Occasionally individuals opposed to antinatalism will state that it is genocide. This is flatly false, unless one accepts what is – in my opinion – an extremely overbroad definition of genocide which would encompass willing human extinction, in which case the comparison is made moot as those who conflate antinatalism with genocide are generally trying to paint the philosophy as something sinister, carried out with ill intent, against others will. Antinatalism as a philosophy does not incorporate the use of force to achieve its goals – it is, first and foremost, an ethical stance without any action oriented component. Antinatalists are not barred from general advocacy activities such as advertising, book writing, holding signs on the street corner, etc. but an element of antinatalism that goes unspoken far too often is that of choice. Antinatalism posits that you have the choice to create new human life or not, and that you should choose to desist from said act of your own free will given the ethical quandaries involved in reproduction.
Not “for personal use only”
Some have confused antinatalism with the "childfree" identification, wherein the primary motivating factors for choosing not to raise children are personal concerns such as the quality of one’s own life experience rather than any sort of ethical objection to the creation of new human life. Those who do not wish to raise children but also do not hold ethics based objections to the creation of new human life are not antinatalists and it would be inappropriate for such individuals to identify with the philosophy. If you do not have any ethical concerns with the creation of new human life and have only chosen not to have children for personal reasons (wealth, time, heritable disease, simply not interested, etc.) then you are more appropriately identified as childfree, not as an antinatalist.
There are some who attach to themselves the label of antinatalist while only holding that humanity should desist from procreation for the benefit of nature or the earth. This is not an ethical stance regarding the creation of new life in itself or a statement on the value of existence. Indeed, this view that humans should stop reproducing solely for the sake of nature is more akin to environmental fetishism, wherein the value of an equally ephemeral nature is raised above that of humanity. I am here to affirm that antinatalism is not an accessory for those who simply think the planet is better off without humanity – a person is not an antinatalist if their only reason for advocating that humanity desist from reproduction is their perception that “nature” is “better off” without human beings. Regardless of whether or not such a thing is true, this fetishization of the environment has nothing to do with antinatalism.
I am aware that this will likely be the most controversial point here amongst those who are antinatalists themselves, or at least those who identify with the label. However, I will not be swayed from this position. Antinatalism – taken to mean the philosophical position that the willful creation of intelligent life cannot be ethically justified – has never had anything at all to do with radical environmentalism. From the medieval Arab philosopher and poet Al-Ma'arri to the contemporary academic philosopher David Benatar, the general practice of objecting to willful human procreation based upon ethical concerns regarding human suffering has never encompassed this form of environmentalism. It may be touched upon here and there in philosophical writings as part of a broader discussion of antinatalist theory and adjacent schools of thought, but if we hold to the commonly accepted definition of philosophical antinatalism then it is clear that such a belief does not belong under the antinatalist label. A more accurate term for such a belief might simply be pro-extinctionism, á la VHEMT – the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, the ideology of which is primarily based on environmental concerns.
I hope this article proves to be illuminating and that it will serve to enhance the quality of discourse around antinatalism and adjacent subjects. Please do share this article whenever the subject of what antinatalism is comes up in discussion and clarification is needed.
Additionally, feel free to leave a comment, send me an email, or reach out to me on Twitter @SocialActuality if you have any thoughts or questions. And if you find yourself generally aligned with me and my work, I’d greatly appreciate a follow. Thank you for reading.
Updated 5/5/2022 for grammar and clarity.