Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Consent and Sterilization in Antinatalism

The issue of consent regarding sterilization has been appearing here and there on a few antinatalist blogs lately and it’s made me ponder. As far as I’m aware, most antinatalists have been against forced sterilization until recently, but CM made a point over on estnihil’s blog that really got people thinking:

“As far as sterilizing humans and the issue of consent: there are plenty of things we regard as acceptable to do to people without their consent, but if you believe that it’s okay to use force to prevent people from murdering others, then the same reasoning should apply to using force to prevent births (because births entails deaths, plus a whole lot of other shit, so in most cases it’s actually worse than murdering someone from a consequentialist perspective.)”


I’ve been reflecting a lot on this and I really can’t see any flaws in it. The basis of antinatalism is a form of negative utilitarianism: life entails far more suffering than pleasure; the non-existent are not deprived by non-existence; existence entails unnecessary suffering for every being alive; life has no purpose other than its own survival and blind perpetuation and so on. Therefore there should be no more births. We all know the drill by now.

Yet the big sticking point is consent. We struggle with the classic liberal idea of bodily self-ownership and the thought of forced sterilization is intuitively repugnant on initial consideration. However, as Inmendham often says, just because I own my fist doesn’t give me the right to furl it up and send it flying into your face. Or another useful analogy is that of drink-driving (another Inmendham favourite): we have laws rendering that practice illegal and we inflict severe punishment on those found guilty, even if someone is apprehended drink-driving without having harmed anyone. I find it difficult to see why the same principles shouldn’t apply to birthers. From the antinatalist perspective, life is the ultimate harm, the phenomenon that generates all suffering, so from that viewpoint why shouldn’t people be deprived of the right to procreate?

Here’s another analogy: imagine you hear the news that police have tracked down a group of terrorists armed with backpacks of explosives who intend to detonate themselves on the public transport system. The police warn the terrorists that their plot has been discovered and that unless they surrender armed force will be used against them. The terrorists refuse and the police use their guns. All of the terrorists are killed, but none of the explosives are detonated and no innocent person is harmed.

What is the general moral reaction? Sadness that people are driven to terrorism, repugnance that they believe they have the right to murder others in the name of their beliefs, regret at the violence and loss of life ensuing from the police action, but ultimately relief and a recognition that the police had no other choice but to act in the way they did in the name of preventing large-scale suffering.

Obviously I’m using this analogy to compare procreators to terrorists. They inflict harm on others on account of their beliefs/ selfish desires. Nothing good ultimately comes of their activities, merely more suffering all round. Why shouldn’t they be stopped by whatever means necessary? I’m struggling to find an answer to this one.

To quote another commenter: “So, to put it bluntly, the reason one would not go through with the law in this scenario would be an appeasement to a minority of prenatal terrorists?:-)” If we put the smiley aside and substitute “majority” for “minority” we’re left with a very serious moral debate for antinatalism. A few people on different blogs have admitted that they’d press the “automatic sterilization” button if they had the hypothetical option, so I feel this is a debate worth having. The conclusions drawn from it may initially be profoundly counter-intuitive and even repugnant, but so is antinatalism itself for many upon first contact yet ultimately they come round to supporting it.

To conclude, the scenario of enforced sterilization troubles me, but I can’t see how it can be argued against given the premises of antinatalism.

All comments and observations welcome.


  1. Thanks for the hat tip, Karl! I think some of our deontologically inclined friends will find serious issues with this position, but ultimately it would all just boil down to the fundamental differences between utilitarianism and deontology. Lots of people also believe that intentions is what matters and since most breeders do not intend to harm, whereas terrorists do, forced sterilization is a whole different cup of tea than anti-terrorist activities.

    I don't believe intentions ultimately matter, but even if they did, that would not make for a very strong objection. I find this whole idea of innocent breeding kind of silly. First of all, it's patronizing to assume people don't know what they are doing (your friend who thinks it would be totally worth it to have a daughter even if she got raped and brutally murdered at 4 y.o. comes to mind). At the very least, people know that their children will die! Presumably, they also want their children to be attached to them, which would ensure the children's bereavement when their parents die. On top of that, every single prospective breeder I have ever talked to has already thought through all the things they will force their children to do and all the ways in which they will deprive their children of the things they want. All in the name of discipline, "good parenting" and preparation for the realities of life, of course. Their tyranny would be doing the children a favor, you see. So it's not like they don't realize the realities of life are pretty gloomy.

    Second of all, we don't generally excuse terrorists if harming others is not their primary motivation. In fact, I can't really think of any cases where it is their primary motivation! They want to effect political change, get into heaven with 72 raisins, or what have you. That doesn't generally change people's feelings about terrorists (of course it may have more to do with the fact that terrorist positions are usually minority positions).

  2. "The basis of antinatalism is a form of negative utilitarianism"

    No it's not.

    That being said...

    "I think some of our deontologically inclined friends will find serious issues with this position"

    Actually, I don't. If starting new human lives generates harm, then it is, for all intents and purposes, a crime. And if it is a crime, then obviously it should be prevented. All of this follows logically. The real-life issue, of course, is how to implement this. Gary's voucher idea seems like a good idea.

  3. I don't think forced sterilization is comparable to, say, the measures we take to prevent/punish drunk driving. It would be more comparable to banning all cars and alcohol, because people with access to those things might maybe someday wind up driving drunk. Or to build on Inmendham's analogy about making a fist and punching someone, it doesn't follow that we ought to cut off people's hands at birth so that they'll never punch anyone.

    In summary.

  4. Todd,

    I'm actually quite OK with banning cars and alcohol. :)

    Suppose we choose the "punishment" option. Even in case of drunken driving, the guy who died or ended up with his feet amputated after being hit by a drunken driver has lost life or limb permanantly -- punishing the drunken driver doesn't benefit him (except, perhaps, psychologically) greatly.

    HOWEVER, punishing people for giving birth, would FURTHER make children's lives worse. Orphans, and children with parents in prison would be expected to have worse lives than kids whose parents are alive and taken to be law-abiding citizens.

    I'm reminded of Sister Y's analogy where two 30-year-old miners (one of them being father of two, the other being single/childless) are stuck in the mine with just enough oxygen for one. Who should get the oxygen?

  5. I agree, and that's why I don't think punishment is the answer. But I also don't think coercive prevention by forcibly mutilating people who haven't yet "done the deed" is the right answer either. Why should my body and my sex drive suffer, just because other people use their bodies and sex drives to do bad things?

    A random thought that just occurred to me: it is almost universally taken for granted that the default guardians of a child ought to be (one or both of) its biological parents. But what's so special about biology? When a child needs a tooth pulled or cavity filled, the parents don't (usually) try to do it themselves; they take the child to a professional who has special expertise and resources to do the job right. What if we had a system where illegally-created children were, by default, raised by caring, professional third-party childcare experts, without any special rights or privileges awarded to the biological parents, who would concurrently be held accountable for the crime of willful people-making? I'm not saying such a system is at all plausible or even desirable, just idly musing. But such a utopian situation would at least theoretically avoid the main issue with the "punishment option"- the child's welfare as collateral damage.

  6. Yeah -- actually we should sterilize all non-antinatalists :P

  7. Todd - I completely agree that we don't have an account of why biology is so special - I think this is more immediately relevant to the situation where a woman becomes pregnant without her partner's consent and refuses to abort, but is still legally entitled to child support from the child's other genetic parent.

    More relevant to topic at hand: Incentives Will Fail: Why Procreation is Like Prostitution and Drugs

  8. (Functionally separating breeding from raising children gets around the problem I identify at the end of that piece.)

  9. But I'm guessing that surprisingly few fertile people would bother supporting children not biologically theirs.

    Really, when someone brings a child into being, they bring a possibly unsolvable problem. If the child needs the moon, it is entitled to the moon, but who can procure the moon for the child?

  10. It's like the law on rescue. You don't have to try to rescue someone, but once you do, you have to do a reasonably good job - because you've deprived them of the opportunity to be rescued by someone more competent.

    You don't have to have a child, but if you do, you owe it the moon and more. If you opt to raise a child, you're depriving it of the chance to be raised by someone more competent; but an adequately competent parent may simply not be available.

  11. Technically, Y, if you don't bring about a given potential life, then it cannot be born to anyone else. It's gone forever. But I get what you're saying.

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  13. Francois, I think Y is contemplating about what can be done after the child is already born. Of course already born = harm already done. How much is the question.

    Y, in not-so-well-to-do nations, orphans may not even get their nutritional needs met! And yet, there can be worse things than dying young of malnutrition (which could happen even to children raised by kind, can-put-food-on-the-table people).

    There is really no limit to how bad life could get.

  14. Oh, I see what you mean. Yes, that makes sense.

  15. One can wrap oneself mentally up in knots ruminating on the ethics of sterilization,as the above sagacious contributions have illustrated.At the moment,a famine is affecting 11.5 million in East Africa. Is it not ethically justifiable, in return for aid, that those people (who are incapable of practicing birth control/looking after their children) are prevented by sterilization methods from having more children, they will be incapable of rearing in a near uninhabitable region?

  16. Very true, lifehater. Aiding people in that scenario the way the west does now is akin to spraying petrol on a raging fire. Unfortunately the taboo on obligations being a reciprocal feature of aid is yet another taboo topic in the west, along with overpopulation, crumbling social values and all the rest of it. Such a jolly planet. How glad I am to have been plucked from the void to partake in this funhouse! Prior to my birth I really didn't know what I was missing:-)

  17. We in rich countries are only "capable of practicing birth control/looking after [our] children" because we exploit poor, powerless people (not to mention animals). We're no more entitled to breed than they are.

  18. Undeniably true, Sister Y. I think the reason lifehater brought up Africa is because we have in that particular case a very clearly delineated scenario in which the consequences of procreation are unambiguously visible. One would like to think that consequently a debate concerning procreative rights would emerge in more mainstream media, but that would be wishful thinking, of course.

  19. Thanks for clarifying my position for Sister Y,Karl.In my ethical universe no-one should be "entitled" to breed:)