|Every Cradle Is a Grave: Rethinking the Ethics of Birth and Suicide||Sarah Perry|
|From the Publisher
(See link at bottom to read/download a review copy of Every Cradle Is a Grave)
|About the Author
|Review from: Odd Things Considered
|Every Cradle Is a Grave at Antinatalism - Free Forums
|Choose Your Illusion: A Review of Every Cradle Is a Grave (by Nick B. Steves)
|Book Review: ‘Every Cradle Is a Grave’ (by Ben Arzate)
|Sarah Perry: Every Cradle Is a Grave (by Ann Sterzinger)
|Contents, Preface and Excerpts from Every Cradle Is a Grave
|The Mathematics of Misery: What Human Behavior Teaches Us About the Value of Life
(An approximation to Chapter 10)
|Judge Nature (An approximation to Chapter 13)
|Better Never to Have Been
Reviews and responses to reviews
Millions of years ago, humans just happened.
- Accidents of environment and genetics contributed to the emergence of sentient beings like us.
- Today, however, people no longer “just happen”; they are created by the voluntary acts of other people.
This book examines several questions about the ethics of human existence.
- Is it a good thing, for humans, that humans “happened”?
- Is it ethical to keep making new humans, now that reproduction is under our control?
- And given that a person exists (through no fault or choice of his own), is it immoral or irrational for him to refuse to live out his natural lifespan?
- Sarah Perry answers these questions in the negative–not out of misanthropy, but out of empathy for human suffering and respect for human autonomy.
- Every Cradle Is a Grave undertakes a difficult task—to write on discomforting matters from a perspective that is socially unsanctioned. Strange as it may seem to some of us, there are scads of volumes that praise the abuses we endure in our lives. Such works have always been well thumbed, though they are only prayer-books for the purpose of worshiping misery. Sarah Perry is more honest and less perverse on the subject of suffering, treating pain as both a philosophical and a practical problem to which, it is admitted, there is no ultimate solution. Nonetheless, in her view there still remains intelligence and compassion as a means for confronting the insoluble. That is what makes this book as much a necessity as it is a rarity.
– Thomas Ligotti, author of The Conspiracy against the Human Race
- Meaning. Value. Birth. Death. Sanctity. These subjects and others are reexamined through the lens of suicide rights and procreation ethics in Sarah Perry’s Every Cradle Is a Grave. If you’re at all fond of asking the truly Big Questions, this is the read you’ve been waiting for. Why are we here, and why do we stay? Prepare to have your assumptions dissected and turned on their heads. It’s a bumpy ride, but then, so is this little journey we’re on as we spin aimlessly around a sun that’s destined to burn out, just as surely as each individual life will one day fall back down into the mud from which all life arises. Asking the hard questions is one thing, but hearing answers that might shake us to the core can be something else again.
– Jim Crawford, author of Confessions of an Antinatalist
- In this eminently rational, clear and serious book, Sarah Perry is courageous and strong enough to confront the forbidden truths of human life. Every Cradle Is a Grave should be mandatory reading for anyone who plans to have children.
– Mikita Brottman, author of The Great Grisby
May 24, 2015 Note:
Until we get around to formatting a proper eBook edition of Every Cradle Is a Grave, a marked “review copy” of the entire book will be available to download for free. Just click HERE.
If you like the book, please consider buying a physical copy.
Sarah Perry is a housewife who lives in San Antonio, Texas.
“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.” p. ix
“I think parents lose their moral right to commit suicide when they take on the responsibility for a child.” p. 27
“(My own mother remembers not being allowed to breastfeed in the Mormon church when I was a baby, over thirty years ago.)” p. 46
It is my view that the sense of meaningfulness is itself an illusion, a cognitive phenomenon that is very adaptive for individuals and groups. This illusion is maintained by communities in order to organize the behavior of individuals, in part by easing their suffering.” p. 62
“I inherited some household rituals (mostly relating to food preparation) from my older female relatives.
- It’s strange that they survive to the present day.
- They are not religious, or rather they are performed regardless of the religion of the woman, being passed in my case with no explanation or justification.
- These include throwing salt over your shoulder if you should spill it (I later learned this is frequently explained as “throwing salt in the devil’s eye,” but I did not receive this explanation from the relatives I received the ritual from).
- Another is rubbing the cut end of cucumbers against the cut cucumber to produce a foam. This is supposed to “suck the toxins out of a cucumber.”
- I still perform this ritual, even though it obviously makes no sense.
- I am not sure why, but rituals seem valuable for their own sake.” p. 65
“But it surprised me how easily this thought came to my mind—me, a proper woo-free atheist. I could see why the fairies have a dual nature, naughty and nice: they can act as a gap-filler for all sorts of violations in one’s theory of the world, such as apparent object permanence violations.” p. 65
“The sacredness of childbearing, as with other forms of sacredness, is often visible in its violation. Most obviously, the sacredness of children is applied to embryos and fetuses, informing opposition to abortion. This is not to say that abortion proponents like myself are immune from sacredness; the right to choose has become somewhat sacred, and the women’s body itself is a locus of sacredness vulnerable to violation by regulation.” p. 103
“This utility function is a model illustrating the phenomenon that many people (myself included) do not seem to derive much utility at all from incomes (broadly conceived) much greater than zero.” p. 173
“Also, cheap palliation is widely available, allowing many would-be suicides (such as myself) to postpone this costly decision.” p. 175
“Is it good for the animals themselves? Thomas Nagel considers the difficulty of this question in his essay “Birth, Death, and the Meaning of Life,” in his important book The View from Nowhere (from which my blog, which many of you are familiar with, took its title).”  p. 198
 Nagel, Thomas. 1986. The View from Nowhere. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
“A few years ago, I wanted to die all the time, every minute. I suffered intensely, and the main project of my life was to get through time. I researched suicide methods, made repeated attempts, but always failed, and was left with the conviction that suicide is extremely difficult. At some point, I changed my focus from trying to end my life to trying to make what years I am forced to endure less miserable. In the language of illness, I put myself in hospice and gave myself palliative care.
I tried many therapies, including a six-month attempt at alcoholism. Many of my experimental palliative care therapies (including this) failed, but a few (including distance running and marriage) were extremely successful at making me not suffer all the time. Marriage is a kind of heaven, and I suspect that I am now happier than most people in the world. Life remains an irritation, but for me it is not the constant grind of pain and humiliation that it must be for millions of people. In many ways, my pro-death orientation makes life more pleasant, since I utterly lack the fear of death and all the cringing urgency that fear engenders.” p. 206
Sarah Perry wrote this book from a place of philosophical intellectualism and factual integrity. She exhaustively researched the hows and whys of suicide and procreation and makes a very compelling case for making suicide accessible for people who do not want to live and for considering whether or not it is ethical to continue to create new humans whose lives may be more a burden to them than a gift. As she deftly picks apart the arguments against suicide and antinatalism, she bestows upon mankind a dignity and respect for self that anti-suicide and pro-birth crusaders deny us as we are asked to suffer and to mindlessly recreate ourselves because of tyrannies of tradition and religious mores.
I very much want to discuss this book in a bloodless manner because the subject matter is so fraught with emotional reaction, much of it knee-jerk, that makes the topic hard to discuss in an intelligent way. When you speak to people whose loved ones killed themselves, you hear them speak of the cowardice and selfishness of suicide. When you talk of people who did not have children, you all too often hear others dismiss ethical childlessness as selfish, or insist that if only one had a child, one would know, really know,what true love means. To approach a counter to such topics with emotion is pissing in the wind because the very basis for avoiding suicide and encouraging procreation is steeped in emotion.
But given my personal history and recent events in my life, I can only approach these topics – especially suicide – from a place of emotion and personal anecdote. I hope that as I write from my id I do this topic justice. This book really is a paradigm changer, and you don’t have to adopt an antinatalist world view for that to happen. It is a book that argues against some of the most deeply ingrained habits of human existence – to remain living at all costs and to spread one’s seed far and wide – and it makes the case that our reason and self-awareness are not entirely a great gift and that possession of them should permit us to control how we decide to die rather than be used as a manipulative tool to keep us living.
And there is no way to discuss the entirety of this book. Know that I will be unable to discuss large amounts of this book and that you need to read it yourself. All I can do is discuss what I experienced when reading this book and how it relates to my life.
Perry begins her treatise with an analysis of Bryan Caplan’s theory of “free disposal.” Caplan, an economist, through analyzing current trends in suicide, makes a facile case for how it is that the mass of people consider life a great gift. Caplan states that since it is so easy to end one’s life, that there are so many options available to the suicidal person, the fact that so few people avail themselves of suicide proves in itself that life is valuable to us all. For Caplan, because there are so many tall buildings one can leap from, and because one doesn’t have to worry about cleaning up the mess one leaves behind, that proves, economically, that even though the “cost” of suicide is cheap, people choose not to commit suicide not because it is hard to do but because we as human beings really value living at all costs.
Without the rancor that would accompany my own dismissal of such an argument, Perry neatly tears apart Caplan’s economic view of cheap suicide. The costs of suicide are steep, Perry explains. People are not free to do with themselves what they want. The very nature of the secrecy of planning suicide proves that one is not free to take one’s life because the secrecy is necessary to prevent people from stopping you from dying. You have to plan to die in secret because it is illegal for anyone to help you and if you fail you may find yourself locked up in a psych ward, your will thwarted and your future in the hands of people you do not know.
But Perry goes beyond just the basic economic analysis Caplan offers. Suicide is hardly a situation of “free disposal” because anyone who thinks about committing suicide knows full well the social burden suicide brings with it. Someone will have to find your body and it’s appalling to think of a family member or friend encountering such a thing unprepared. Suicide with drugs is risky and prone to failure but more effective methods are messy and one does not want to think of one’s mother or husband cleaning brain matter off the wall. Then we have to face the knowledge that our loved ones will feel utterly betrayed because we crept around behind their backs in order to die and they are left holding the bag, second guessing themselves, wondering if they could have saved us, wondering what they did wrong. Did they miss the signs? Could they have gotten us help? Or worse, they may be angry at us for being cowardly, for not fighting to stay alive at all costs. There is nothing free about suicide in this world. If it costs us nothing when our bodies hit the floor, the loneliness of planning a covert suicide and the reactions of those surviving us have a cost that many find too dear to pay.
Most interesting to me was Perry’s analysis to support the notion that most suicides are not caused by a person feeling out of options or that life is too hard. Temporary despair seldom fuels suicide. Most suicides are committed by people who feel like they lack connections to others, or are tired of being burdens or fear becoming a burden. Virginia Woolf did not drown herself because she could not endure another depressive episode. She drowned herself because she could not see putting her family through the effects of another depressive episode. It is in this moment when the self-awareness that is supposedly a gift to human-kind is most evident, a realization of one’s limitations and endurance and our impact on others. In order to work around that self-awareness, we’ve imbued suffering with meaning, a religiosity that guilts us into remaining alive and to creating more living beings, ensuring that no amount of personal or inflicted misery can ever be seen as a legitimate reason for dying because our suffering evidently ennobles us. It teaches us lessons. It gives us meaning that makes the suffering seem worth enduring.
I now know there are ways you can tell a person is getting ready to die. Gradually failing appetite. Distaste for being touched. Mood changes. Agitation. Much of what marks a person beginning to die can also be markers for depression except for one: seeing and speaking to dead loved ones.
My mother confused me for her mother on the phone a couple of times before she died in January of this year. My grandmother died in 1981. She was also convinced my grandfather was in her home, pacing the hallways, looking over her. He died in 1994, and he indeed haunted her.
My grandfather shot himself in the head, dying in a hospital when life support was removed. He shot himself because he was 78 years old and his health was beginning to fail him. I don’t know the details but he wasn’t fatally ill. He was just an old man who did not like being an old man because he had been so strong in his youth and middle-age. His family was long-lived and he was the baby of his family. His own mother, a vile Irish hag, lived with him and my grandmother when she was old. She more or less turned my aunt into a nervous wreck and wreaked havoc on my very sensitive grandmother. My mother claimed the evil old woman didn’t bother her much but Mom never copped to any mental or emotional weakness, at least not around me.
My grandmother suffered for decades before she died in her early 60s and my grandfather was her primary care-taker, even as he worked as a rancher. He loved her dearly and did not resent his role but it is undeniable that my grandmother’s severe illness changed their marriage. He was unable to save much money, he spent much of his life caring for his elderly mother and then his sick wife, and it all left a mark. My grandfather married a widow after my grandmother died and lived in her home because he had been a sharecropper (share-rancher is more accurate) and owned nothing but his truck. My mother thought my grandfather remarried because he didn’t want to be a burden for her or my aunt, but either would have loved to have had him come live with them. But he didn’t want any of that. He’d seen how that worked out for him, his wife, his children.
My grandfather had spoken of his older brother Tom, who in his 90s was a dementia patient in diapers. He could see years and years of failing health with indignity after indignity heaped upon him.
He didn’t want to be a burden on anyone. He hated not having financial independence. He didn’t want to sit by idly as his body failed and his mind left him. He didn’t want to wait around for the worst to happen. So he took care of it himself.
It shocked everyone. My grandfather was a deacon in his Baptist church. He had strong ties to his community and was in his way a pillar of the community. He was quite literally the last person anyone would think would kill himself. Well, he was until you looked at it logically.
In the last year of her life my mother was so bitter towards her father. She told me many times she planned to confront him in Heaven, to tell him off for what he did and demand an explanation. She said he could have lived 20 more years had he not killed himself. I asked her why, as a Christian, she could not forgive him. I asked her why she wanted him to stay on Earth in a body that was failing, in an emotional state that hurt him. She would look away when I asked her these questions, never answering.
I know the answers now. She couldn’t forgive him because he planned it and no one knew. She was angry because she could not prepare. She was angry because she could not say goodbye before he left. She felt abandoned by him, like he had made a craven choice to leave her behind without a single word of warning.
So she was haunted and spent the last year of her life in misery because she didn’t understand and felt angry. I wonder if at the end she began to understand why he did it. I know I do now.
And I wonder how different her last year would have been had my grandfather lived in a culture where impoverished, elderly men who were tired of life and rightfully afraid of what was to come could end their lives in the presence of those who loved them, preparing people for the end rather than planning covertly, going in quiet dignity rather than blowing their brains out in their backyards. She would have had more peace as her own body failed her. She would have been able to remember how wonderful a man her father had been. She could have planned to meet him again with an open heart rather than angry demands for answers. She would not have been haunted by him pacing the hallway, nervously awaiting her arrival.
One of the elements of Perry’s analysis that stuck with me the most is the notion that we human beings exchange suffering for meaning.
- “Rather than eschewing all suffering, individuals frequently accept some degree of suffering in pursuit of other rewards – either in the form of meaning or in the form of pleasure. The mountain climber or medical student affirmatively chooses to suffer for the purpose of future experiences, pleasurable or meaningful. Others, looking back on times of suffering, say they are glad to have had such experiences. When making decisions for ourselves, there is no moral problem with trading off suffering for pleasure or meaning; it appears to be a social fact that people do not minimize suffering in their own lives.”
She goes on to make note of the fact that even though acceptance of suffering is evidently a part of human decision calculus, we really don’t have the right to actively inflict suffering on others so that they can later interpret it as a meaningful experience. This is an element of thought important in creating new human beings – when we have children we are effectively asking these beings who had no say about coming into existence to participate in this exchange of misery for meaning, and Perry questions whether or not we have the right to do this.
This question also comes up for me when a person is no longer possessing higher consciousness. We imbue suffering with meaning because of our higher consciousness and self-awareness but how moral is it to ask a person stripped of any sort of sentience to continue to suffer when such a personal exchange is no longer possible? Well, we tell ourselves that life is sacred and we cannot deprive anyone of life, no matter how little they experience life or how quickly they know they will be facing the end of their natural life. Life has assumed the role of an ultimate good and because we cannot inflict suffering on others we cannot help them achieve a pleasant death, even if refusing that death is itself the infliction of suffering. Worse is the use of other people’s suffering for our own interpretation of meaning. We tell ourselves that terrible things happen for a reason and that if we learn a lesson, then it was all worth it in the end, and that’s a very callous way to process suffering that we don’t have to experience first-hand.
All of this has led us to a very sorry end. What do we do when we know suffering no longer has any experience-value for the person suffering? The answer is: not much.
For close to fifteen years my mother had suffered and the last year of her life was spent in complete misery as her conditions became terminal. I can’t even begin to describe what happened to her and the last six months she was alive were torture, the sort I know I simply could not have endured. She had many things going wrong with her body, all of them painful, all of them complex. But of all the things we thought would kill her, a brain hemorrhage was not on the list.
She was already in the hospital for a fall brought on by hepatic encephalopathy and suffered the hemorrhage in the middle of the night, and because the hepatic encephalopathy made her sleep heavily, the nurses didn’t notice anything was wrong until she had already lost all her higher brain function. It was not until late the following morning on January 2, 2015 that a scan showed she had suffered complete death of her cerebral cortex and her cerebellum. Had the doctors detected the bleed the moment it happened there would have been nothing they could have done – her blood was unable to clot so surgery was not an option. We just had to wait for her to die on her own as the swelling in her brain reached her brain stem.
The hospital, which had no facility for hospice care, didn’t bother to arrange hospice transfer immediately because they were so sure she would die quickly. They eventually put her in a room on the sixth floor and the vigil began. The doctors said my mother could feel no pain so no genuine palliative care was offered – they called what they did “comfort care” and very little of it seemed comforting. She was given anti-seizure meds, which we later learned didn’t prevent seizures but rather prevented the seizure from manifesting physically and upsetting us. She also was given an anti-inflammatory drug that would help slow the swelling in her brain.
We were waiting for the swelling to reach her brain stem so she could finally die. Why did they give her anti-inflammatory drugs via IV? That inexplicable action prevented her brain stem from herniating and she could potentially have stayed in a coma for years. However, my mother had refused a feeding tube before the hemorrhage, so even though her heart kept pumping and her lungs kept breathing unassisted, eventually death would come in the form of dehydration and starvation.
And that was okay, in a perverse way, because if her cerebral cortex and her cerebellum were completely dead, as we had been told, she wouldn’t need morphine. The hospital didn’t really take care of her much – they unhooked her from all monitors and didn’t bathe her until she had been in her coma for six days and my aunt and I told the nurses we could smell an infection in her skin. But she didn’t feel any of it.
But then a nurse told my mother’s husband that she could probably hear us, spoke of a pamphlet (that never materialized) that she promised would prove that hearing was the last sense a person suffering brain death lost and we should talk to her and hopefully she would respond. I came into the hospital room one day to see her husband asking her to squeeze his hand if she was okay with elements of her funeral planning. I know now that people who are dying who seem unresponsive often can hear everything around them, but my mother was not temporarily unresponsive while dying. She had suffered complete death of all higher brain function.
I said, “If she can hear us and can respond via grunts or hand movements, then she can probably feel being unclean, she can feel herself starving, she can feel thirst, and she can feel pain. If they are telling us to talk to her, then they need to give her plenty of morphine.” That didn’t happen but suddenly the posturing common to brain damage patients seemed like communication with a still sentient, self-aware human being. I know my aunt and my mother’s husband needed to think she could hear them and I spoke to her as well. Otherwise I was sitting in a dark, fetid room watching what was left of my mother refuse to die.
But I also needed to believe she lost all higher brain function and could sense nothing because otherwise I stood by and did nothing as my mother was starved to death, as she felt pain and fear.
When my mother’s carcass didn’t shuffle off this mortal coil fast enough, Baylor Irving finally decided to force her husband to either take her home to die, which was impossible since there would be no way to afford the nursing care, or to pick a hospice, any hospice, pick it now or else, and no, she might not survive the transfer but since she’s pretty much a corpse anyway who cares, right? Besides, my mother was taking up a valuable bed, one of the two pieces of shit masquerading as social workers told us. She was taking too long to die and they needed the bed and they said this at the foot of that bed while my mother was still in it.
Finally my mother did make it to hospice on January 9. She was taken care of by an excellent end-of-life staff. They noticed my mother was making facial expressions as though she was experiencing pain so they gave her morphine. She died not long after her second bag on the 10th. I know deep in my heart what happened – the morphine depressed her nervous system so that her body could die along with her brain. She had had no fluids outside of IV-bags of meds, she had received no food for nine days and the morphine helped end it.
But the hospice could not say this. They could not say, “This has gone on too long. She has been gone for over a week – the woman you loved is no longer in this body. This is killing all of you. This has to stop, so we are going to give her morphine until she dies.” That is illegal in Texas. So they had to tell my mother’s husband she was in pain, that it was possible she was in pain the whole time, in order to do what can only be called the most ethical thing. And no matter how much I know that my mother was gone, really gone from her world of pain and misery as of January 2, I am still afraid she suffered. That she was in pain. That the woo-slinging nurse was right and she could hear, that the excellent hospice wasn’t reacting to brain stem grimaces so that they could ease her out of life. That she felt, heard, smelled and experienced every goddamned minute of it.
Why is it death is so feared that even the most hardened atheist and humanist slips into magical thinking when faced with it. We tell ourselves a brain stem medically prevented from herniating is a sign of a sick old woman’s stubbornness and willingness to fight, to rage, rage against the dying of the light, as if that’s a good thing, to suffer and suffer because to die is far worse. Even Christians who believe in the celestial kingdom of eternal life after death mindlessly fight against the mechanism that sends them to their Lord. We see death as worse than suffering, and we give our suffering human attributes of spunk, of strength, of sanctity, because we are too chickenshit to face the reality that sometimes death is better than life.
And since we are too afraid to face death, how the hell can we speak openly and honestly about how suicide can so often be better than continuing to live. Sarah Perry was unspeakably brave to write this book.
I finished a pre-publication version of this book right before my mother began her final spiral in November and it changed how I processed my mother’s death. I had little patience for any of it because I could not justify the suffering my mother may have endured and that we, her family and friends, endured. In a sane world, when a terminally ill woman suffers complete higher brain death, we don’t ask what remains of her to starve to death. We let her go and we let her go quickly and we do what is needed to help her leave.
You don’t have to subscribe completely to the notion of antinatalism to realize that our modern beliefs that life is the ultimate good in every situation infantilizes us and forces us to engage in cruelty in the name of life, even if we know the life is untenable. I don’t know exactly where I stand on the subject of antinatalism but I can say this: There is no moral force in this world that can ever convince me that a suicide entered into sanely is somehow more immoral or irrational than what happened to my mother.
People have told me that I learned something from this, that I am stronger for having endured it. They can go fuck themselves because my mother’s death was not mine to learn from. The only thing I walked away from that experience knowing is that if I ever become that ill, I will not wait for the inevitable end. I will not ask anyone to grow from the experience of watching me die.
I am focusing so much on the suicide part of this book because aside from some maternal rumblings when I graduated from college, I never really wanted a baby. I couldn’t have had one even had I wanted one, so it all seemed very neatly put together – lack of desire coupled with physical inability. I thought about foster care a few times and even that seemed a bad idea. I suffer from cyclical but major depressive episodes and there was no way then and no way now to justify putting a child through it. Suicide and death are what I know. Babies and regeneration are not a part of my world.
Because I am a depressive, I seem to know all too well the burdens of being alive but I also know the burden that my own suicide attempt had on those who love me. Sarah Perry discusses this carefully in the book as she flays Bryan Caplan’s insistence that we have a “free disposal” society where suicide is concerned. Our ties to others often makes suicide difficult, if not impossible, even for those with a strong will to die.
- …people do not exist as individual units separate from human relationships and groups. A great deal of the cost of committing suicide faced by a person wanting to die is social and empathetic: it is resonant in the loneliness and grief that his death will cause, or at least hasten, among parents, children, siblings, a spouse, or friends. As social creatures, we begin forming bonds at least as soon as we are born; these bonds, while often no more voluntarily chosen than our own births, are powerful motivations.
- The suicide of a close associate is usually regarded as much more than the event of such a person moving across the country and losing touch, even though the deprivation is similar in either case.
- Some social costs are artifacts of the prohibition. The suicide must act in secret, sneaking and hiding to avoid detection and unwanted rescue. But who will discover his dead body? It will be especially traumatic for a relative or close friend to happen upon the dead body of a suicide.
But for me the most interesting prohibition for those seeking death that Perry discusses is the threat of intervention before death and its repercussions. If you survive a violent attempt at suicide, you will be left in a wrecked body with even less quality of life than you had before you attempted suicide. If they find you before the drugs stop your heart, they will bring you back to consciousness and you will likely find yourself in a mental hospital for a time determined by people who do not know you and for whom the reality of your life will never be clear because they have a single mission: to make your mind better so you won’t attempt such a thing again.
And then you have to face everyone who suffered because of your actions.
Caplan’s attempt to apply free market economics to suicide is actually one of the stupidest things I’ve ever read, now that I think hard about it. Only a man who has never heard the song could so effectively mangle the tune.
After reading this book, I went back and reread sections of my old blog wherein I discussed the before and after of my own suicide attempt. I went psychotic due to really inappropriately prescribed pharmacology and ended up in a mental ward on Halloween of 2008. It was bizarre reading those entries because even though I can barely remember much of that time, I also know that what I wrote in my blog were hardly the words of someone completely in the throes of psychosis. I asked Mr Oddbooks about it and he explained that there were long stretches in late September and October when I was completely lucid. Then a light would switch off and I would become incoherent and violent.
But as I read my account of the hospital, I was struck by how distant I was in my recounting of it. It was horrible. It was far worse than the suicide attempt on both of us, my husband and me. I was completely deprived of will and so was he. A doctor whose own diagnosis of me was completely off the mark was responsible for determining when I could leave and, once I knew that, I marched to her tune and did and said what I had to do to get out, including submitting to a pharmacological regimen far worse than the one that had landed me there in the first place. Initially the drugs seemed to help but eventually I developed something called toxic psychosis from being on Wellbutrin, Prozac, Klonopin, Valium, Xanax, Trazedone, Ambien and Provigil. I was on all of these at once, after having been prescribed the anti-psychotic that landed me in the hospital in the first place.
I’ve talked about my suicide attempt on this site before. But I seldom discuss the aftermath of the hospitalization. I was fucking insane. I attempted suicide at least two more times and both times Mr Oddbooks did what he had to do to both save me and keep me out of the hospital because the hospital had made it all so much worse. I am often scared to share this element of my recovery because I fear that someone who is suffering who may not have a genuine will to die may read this and think that not seeking help is in their best interests. But the fact remains that most forms of help available to me during that time invariably made everything so much worse. Nothing got better until I detoxed from all those drugs I was on. And I was too scared to go to rehab to get off those drugs (and insurance denied it anyway), given my experiences in the loony bin. From September 2008 through the end of September 2009 I lived in hell and my husband did, too.
But here’s what I want people who read this to understand: drug-induced psychosis is not a valid will to die. Now that I am drug and alcohol-free, my life is strange to me at times but I am very glad I am alive. But my happiness to still be here is not proof that suicide is a great moral harm. It just means that what happened to me is not universal. Once I was drug-free I never attempted suicide again and never again had a definite and clear urge to die. It would have been very regrettable had any of my attempts succeeded.
But that is the caprice of life, is it not? We regret a lot of things. And due to that potential for regret we’ve decided that we can dictate to a cancer patient in terrible pain, a brain tumor patient who does not want to bankrupt her family in exchange for a few months of life, a person with MDD who simply cannot face another episode, that the possibility of someone somewhere making a bad decision means they cannot make a decision. Your regret, my regret, your best friend’s brother’s regret are not everyone’s regrets. The potential for regret doesn’t prevent gun sales. It doesn’t prevent divorce. It doesn’t prevent the purchase of mid-life crisis Corvettes that get wrapped around utility poles. It is puritanical and disingenuous concern that causes our potential regrets to condemn this specific choice. Concern trolling, as it were.
That doesn’t mean that you don’t want to help a fifteen-year-old kid who is facing turmoil due to transgender status or terrible home life. Such a being is not in clear mind – that person needs intervention, as I did as I was not in my clear mind when I tried to die, even if the help was not particularly helpful.
What you should do is stop using the worst case scenario – a young person making a bad decision or a middle-aged woman in a psychotic haze making a mad decision – and using it to make public policy to prevent people whose lives are a misery to them and will never improve from exercising their will to die.
But it has to be said: though I recall very little of that year of my life, I do know that if I ever, for any reason, decide to take my life, I won’t attempt an overdose. I will use a far more more violent and effective method because the aftermath of suicide was far worse for me than the act itself. I know for a fact that Caplan is wrong. There are many, many costs to disposal.
Ultimately, at heart, I am not an antinatalist. Part of my reluctance to adopt such a philosophy is that I don’t know how self-aware and conscious many people are, how much their life is dictated by reason and how much is dictated by instinct. We are animals, albeit animals with a bit more strategic capacity. I think I am too pessimistic about the human condition to be an antinatalist because I just don’t think that the mass of humanity really think through their life choices. And I’m not patting myself on the back here – had we not suffered from infertility there is every chance Mr Oddbooks and I could have brought a child into the world based on whim, tradition, a misplaced desire to make someone else happy, a belief that a shiny new person could heal old scars. The will that guides me is not always what happens. Human beings are remarkably preprogrammed in many ways. At its heart, despite the innate pessimism in seeing mankind’s self-awareness and advanced consciousness as a curse, antinatalism is a philosophy that if made active requires optimism, hoping that human beings can put their higher consciousness to work in a manner that eliminates current and future suffering. I don’t think we all have such nobility of character. I’m just not that hopeful.
But Christ this book made me think. It’s extraordinarily well-written, well-researched and well-reasoned. It was elegant at times. And it helped me deal with the death of my mother in a way I had not expected. I didn’t have to dwell in platitudes. I didn’t have to deny what was happening to us all watching her slowly starve to death. I could say that what was happening was morally wrong, and I was surprised when a few others agreed with me. I am very grateful to Sarah Perry for that.
Posted on June 21, 2015 by anitadalton
Below is a series of posts made by an Administrator of the Antinatalism - Free Forums
I read the preface on Amazon. Already I love her writing style, although I do notice it has some academic terms I'm only vaguely familiar with. I'll get hip quick, though.
I love the fact that extremely dark topics I getting this sort of intellectual treatment - especially suicide. Personally, I have always held suicide in high esteem and it's been a thought I constantly return to. Not in a "I'm going to do it. Here's the plan. . ." sort of way (though there's been plenty of that), but sort of a quasi-spiritual way. As in, it calms me and soothes me knowing that I can leave at any time. I do love my mother and my friends, however, and I've been moderately successful with regulating my emotions, so I know that I will stay as long as it is tolerable. But, nonetheless, the way society often treats suicide is total dogshit. What I hate especially is calling it "cowardly." Having been close to it a few times, I know for a fact that when you're right there on the edge, the body and mind can send up thousands of panic responses and fears that prevent the act. It's a biological necessity, perhaps. And to overcome that takes a great deal of bravery. It is to fight and conquer the most fundamental drive we have - survival. To call it "cowardly" is a really chickenshit move and I can't really help hating people who do that.
Now, there are instances where someone might kill themselves and have obligations to children, for example, where I think - if possible - it's not justifiable to take yourself out if others are depending on you and you can find ANY better way. But, even then, I've seen such emotional hells that I can easily imagine how even those sort of considerations are out the door. Life is utter shit - total, complete shit. Not always, but it does almost always become that way and anyone who says leaving is cowardly can and should fuck off. Unless you feel someone's hell in the exact same way they feel it, you're in no position to judge it.
Of course, I don't advocate suicide and if a friend of mine was considering it, I would do whatever I could do try and be there for them and keep them from some of those awful, gut wrenching moments you feel when you're right there, ready to go. Except in cases of terminal illness, perhaps, or an irresolvable situation. And I guess the reason I think that is because I do feel like people who understand suffering deeply are simply more valuable and, if at all possible, I guess I just want them to see a few more better days before they go. Even then I'm not entirely sure of my position on it. Perhaps its irrational but. . . I can live with that attitude I guess. I never had anyone to talk me out of anything but I do wish I did. In fact, I would say that there was never a time so low that having someone cool to talk to wouldn't have improved it. Even if I was just venting. And, of course, the fallout to other people is something to definitely consider with suicide - especially if you follow a philosophy whose primarily concerned with reducing suffering.
Anyway, I've been asked to comment on this book as I read it so I plan to do so. If I get lazy or anything with it - which I doubt I'll do, because I've been interested in this book for a while - just cuss me out and I'll get back in line
It made me sick to watch how South Koreans must do it:
If you don't have time to watch the full video, rural South Koreans are using straight up pesticides - terrible way to go. This is a good documentary, though, if you have the time and interest.
Comment: What made me sick was the beginning of that video. Those poor people being emotionally manipulated. Fuck, if rational suicide was accepted they wouldn't have to go through that worthless shit! "...to show them that life is worth living till the end." GET FUCKED! Who the fuck are you to show them pictures of Audrey Hepburn and make them weep and suffer so you can cuddle them and make yourself feel good? Go kill yourself and set the fucking standard that way!
Admin: The depressed and suicidal - and especially the actual suicides - frighten the polyannas of this world. That darkness could be coming for them, next. It explains some of their awful behavior.
I'm starting with the Appendix because I found it very powerful when I read it:
Appendix: Living in the Epilogue, Social Policy as Palliative Care
Perry gives an awesome quote,
- “A self is a machine for making you concerned about your organism.” – Antonio Damasio
She then goes on describe how part of consciousness is story-telling — that is, we're constantly telling stories to ourselves about our lives, other lives, the world in general, its meaning, etc. and that this is an evolutionary process to keep the beast rolling.
But a story is an unreality. None of them are true. But, as she says, its "the most central of all the cognitive biases". There's sooooo much to be said of just that, but I'll refrain.
She then explains how she went through a long period of contemplating suicide and realized how difficult it is, so the next step was applying palliative (pain-relieving) care to herself — she didn't find alcoholism worked for well, in her case, but distance running & getting married worked. But what is interesting to me is that she basically described life for her now as a form of hospice — what they put people on when they're going to die, i.e. just a form of pain management until the end. This is what life becomes when the story is over, and I guess I personally see AN as the ending of the story, as does she (or so I gather). There's no more spiritual talk or talk of progress: humanity shouldn't be, nor should any sentient life. It's a losing game and it sucks. So, in the absence of suicide, the next question is how to apply palliative care to one's life — how to cope without stories with as little pain as possible.
From how I see it, stories work like placebos, which also means they don't work very well. All the fuckers who have these grand visions of life will see their house of cards fall to pieces, and then they'll be left with disillusionment on top of whatever suffering that comes and blackens their consciousness. Adding insult to injury, perhaps. In a roundabout way, I guess I think of coping-without-a-story as a more effective means of coping because there's no self-deception involved. She gives some historical analogies from literature which seem very apt — describing how humans need to risk and adventure of a story to enjoy things. The "meaning of life" is just a larger story about everything told in order to keep everything interesting, when in actuality there is no meaning at all and "nothing is inherently compelling", as Ligotti says.
She also gives some interesting insight into the societal prohibition against drug use, prostitution, etc. — there's a social cleavage of happiness vs. pleasure, as in "You can be happy without intense pleasures because there's so much meaning!" (not a quote form her book, btw). It shakes the story-tellers up to realize that perhaps other people aren't seeing any grand design in any of this and would rather escape in an intense a way as is available.
She points out that when someone is terminally ill, society is more inclined to indulge them — that is, if someone is going to die, we view the idea of giving them some mind-blowing drugs, a prostitute or "make a wish" as less disagreeable, because they're on their way out. But if you're "healthy", not so much. Then you've got to chin up and be responsible. Though she doesn't say it here, I wonder if society is basically just a network of stories — AND I suspect most people know their stories are ultimately false, which is why they're so hysterical and committed to them.
She ends it by pointing out that we're all living in the context of a terminal illness — an illness in which there are no stories at all which apply. This she calls "Hell" — I assume because the conscious mind absolutely hates dealing with this fact and is always trying to escape. Or at least it normally does. But I suppose the flipside to this is that a workable form of hospice can make life as tolerable as possible prior to the necessity of suicide or getting taken out some other way. It would be nice if suicide was made easier, though, but the story-tellers can't have that, now, can they?
Comment: You do tend to hear it, don't you? Life as "stories". A good friend of mine is very into the concept. The stories we tell ourselves are important, he believes. He's a good, well meaning bloke, but then again, who isn't?
But there are people very consciously wanting to control the stories we hear. A lot of them, of course, are in the media, the supreme story telling machine. Lend them our ears and they will tell us what we want to hear, what we don't want to hear but most of all what no one really wants to hear. None of them - not a one of them - question existence itself. Too philosophical, maybe, or maybe too teenage angsty. Never mind that some of the finest minds of the past have done just that. Never mind that some of the dumbest of us have done it. That's not a "story" anyone wants to tell. If there's one thing that unites people it's the belief that life is not worth it, even when people feel it in every cell of their body.
Admin: Damn good point. I hadn't considered the media aspect - collective stories, getting in our heads. Big Brother, eh?
Comment: If there's any issue I could be bothered to get activist about, it's this. Even if it's just legalised euthanasia, which I honestly believe will become a serious issue in a generation or so's time. I've despaired about any hope of changing society "for the good", since you can't polish feces, but in this particular issue, at least, there may be (dare I use the word?) hope for some kind of positive change.
That's probably just my own desires talking. But so be it. Rational suicide for all NOW!
Admin: Personally, after seeing what my father went through, I might look into activism in this regard eventually. One thing I think Kevorkian brought out is that the tortures people are forced to feel from not having easy and legal access to euthanasia is a horror show on the level with some of the worst mass tragedies of human history, in terms of human suffering, but society is quite blind to it.
Comment: Painless? Widely available? Perhaps you can furnish us with some examples?
Reply Comment: Each and every book on the subject, from Final Exit on to the more thorough tomes, will tell you this.
Admin: Thank you for not specifically mentioning the method, in accordance w/ the forum rules, "no discussion of suicide methods". Honestly, I wouldn't care about it, but I've heard other forums have gotten into legal trouble from being too open about such discussions.
Comment: I've read these books. Most of the methods are either widely available but painful and unreliable, or they're relatively painless and reliable but difficult to access. So it's pretty easy to fathom how Ms. Perry came to her conclusion.
Sarah begins with an argument from Bryan Kaplan who, in a blog post, seems to think that human life is good because there aren't many suicides, proportionately. Ergo he refutes antinatalism. So it seems everyone is putting the stamp of "tasty" on being alive, or else they'd off themselves — which, he thinks, is easy to do, both physically and emotionally.
Of course, hogs in a slaughter factory aren't killing themselves very often, which means they must truly love being alive — stuffed full of antibiotics, wallowing in their own shit, privy to the tortured screams of their kinsmen. According to Bryan Kaplan, unless you kill yourself immediately, you're giving thumbs up to existence. What an assgremblin, as Sarah points out. . .
She then eloquently explains various aspects of suicide and its illegality and difficulty in many countries. Many good points raised. For example, if you attempt suicide, in many states in the US you can be forcibly placed under a 72 hour hold for observation. Similar laws exist in other countries.
She then points out biological and societal/interpersonal issues which make suicide more difficult. We have a natural fear of death, for example, unless life experience drives out the fear, and our suicide often negatively impacts those close to us. Again, Kaplan's statements are dogshit.
Interestingly, she also points out that countries with a greater degree of happiness sometimes have a higher level of suicide. Though not always. Personally I think there are certain cultural biases in regards to suicide — it is far less a "sin" and some East Asian countries or secular Western countries, for instance, than it is the highly religious Middle East, Africa, India or the Roman Catholic South America. Doesn't mean the religious countries are any better off. If Kaplan was correct, Third World countries which experience less suicide seem to have better lives than develop Western or westernized nations will have much more suicide.
She then talks about the Land of Free Disposal — a hypothetical place where death is made easier. It's not a utopia but is better than anywhere we've got currently going. It points out that even if suicide were free, easy and without any sort of legal penalties (in case you don't succeed), there are still impediments to it. But she does point out that if suicide were easier, there'd be much more of it. Yes, there are some methods which make it easier even in countries that prohibit it, but they don't seem to be in common usage and, even then, there are so many obstacles barring our way, still.
It is an incredibly good chapter, though, in my opinion, and what is turning out to be a very good book. I haven't read Benatar yet, but already I can see that my little antinatal Trinity is going to be composed of Ligotti's TCATHR  Jim's COAAN  and Perry's ECIAG . I'm sure Benatar  will make it a Quaternity, but I like the number 3. Though I haven't read ECIAG completely, I see how necessary a book it is to AN — discussing some of the political and societal implications of suicide, euthanasia and AN which need to be discussed. Love it.
Comment: Her rebuttal of Kaplan and his absurd "Revealed preference" argument formed an extremely strong opener, in my opinion. Revealed preference only makes sense when there is free and equal access to all options, which of course, there is not when it comes to suicide.
"People say they like Pepsi more often, but Coke sells more. Therefore, people really prefer Coke! That's their revealed preference!" There are more questions one needs to ask before we can verify such a claim: Does Coke cost the same price as Pepsi? Are the two equally available in all regions? Are the Coca-Cola people threatening to ship you off the local mental hospital if you buy Pepsi? ;) These are the questions we must consider, and clearly Kaplan and many others did not think this argument through...
Admin: A lot of the arguments against AN seem embarassingly stupid, I'm finding. Don't know about Kaplan but I can't imagine he felt really confident about his explanation. Good point, too.
 The Conspiracy Against the Human Race – Thomas-Ligotti
 Confessions of an Antinatalist – Jim Crawford
 Every Cradle Is a Grave – Sarah Perry
 Better Never to Have Been – David Benatar [see TAB#XXX for links to reviews of BNTHB]
In the 2nd chapter, Perry points out the primacy of value or meaningfulness in terms of why people stay alive. She says that it isn't pleasure that keeps is attached to life, but our desire to possess meaning. It is similar to Zapffe's idea of using surrogates and strategies to cope with the horrible nature of reality. Some examples of these forms of meaning are:
- An ultimate value base - like a religion or philosophy
- Personal purpose - being valuable to a group or making some sort of impact on the world
- Self-worth and status
- Efficacy and control
- Social belonging
When people lack these, they tend to go downhill. However, I think we can safely say — and I believe Perry agrees — that these are all illusory. We are nothing more than machines made of meat playing out hardwired chemical programs which are ultimately to our detriment. Nonetheless, looking at meaning and its ubiquity in human consciousness does seem to help clarify the nature of our behavior. People are willing to die for meaning, much less undergo hardships in order to establish it.
Personally, I think the illusory notice of meaning is brought out by the fact that there is no agreed-upon meaning. People don't have to dispute about breathing air with the contents of air are, as it's obvious and unavoidable. Meaning not so much — people gather around different forms of meaning, though seeking meaning seems to be a constant. I'm not entirely sure person couldn't live just out of a desire for pleasure, but I don't think it's common.
In my own case, I think I like antinatalism and other forms of pessimistic philosophy because they give me a sense of meaning on some level. It's hard to articulate, but I do notice it. It seems like adhering to a correct philosophy somehow adds a depth to my life, even though it really doesn't. But, I don't necessarily think that pursuing meaning is a bad thing in itself, depending on if that meaning leads to harm reduction or not. Everything we do, as Perry also points out, is a form of palliative care that we administer to ourselves while we wait out our time in this collective hospice. We are all dying and not at the point of suicide yet, so something must be done title away the hours until death. Meaning is one of those things and, like most aspects of fundamental reality, it is hardwired into us to a certain extent.
Admin Quote: In my own case, I think I like antinatalism and other forms of pessimistic philosophy because they give me a sense of meaning on some level. It's hard to articulate, but I do notice it. It seems like adhering to a correct philosophy somehow adds a depth to my life, even though it really doesn't.
Comment: Great post, and I agree with this. It probably relates to my ego and feeling like I've got the truth and most people don't. Which annoys me when I think about it...I'm just as controlled by my ego as everyone else. The joys of human psychology.
This sounds like a great book though. I definitely need to check it out.
Admin: I haven't fully read it so far because I'm trying to write a summary of each chapter as I read it, and I have a lot of my plate in terms of reading material, but so far I absolutely adore the book. It's simply fantastic. If it keeps going like it is, I would say that The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Confessions of an Antinatalist and Every Cradle is a Grave would be the ideal syllabus of study. I only wouldn't include Benatar's book because I get the feeling it is a very dry and academic read, but it's probably still required reading — these three other ones, though, are fun to read and I always think that's necessary when it comes to recommending a book. I appreciate Benatar's arguments on AN obviously but his writing style isn't my favorite. But a lot of philosophers aren't the best writers. Try reading Hegel!
Third chapter - I apologize for typos:
The third chapter is entitled "the modern sacredness and moral foundations". It is basically about the quasi-religious nature of society and human beings in general — or the outright religious nature in a lot of cases. We tend a few things as sacred without having any rational reason why they should be. Society just agrees that certain things are holy and certain things are taboo. And this can change over time, of course. Sarah Perry cites the example of cigarettes and public breast-feeding — cigarettes used to be fine, now they're not. Public breast-feeding used to be taboo but is gaining wider acceptance.
It's interesting to me that a lot of the oldest religious texts are lists of sacred and taboo things, as if human beings have this irrational desire to set up a bunch of meaningless laws. This still plagues us, basically, and it's not the rational reasons behind things that we praise or condemn them in a lot of cases. She points out that this sacred/taboo tendency even controls our thoughts, as we are un-allowed to consider certain things. Antinatalism is a good example: it basically portrays the whole of civilization as ultimately misguided and awful. You'll see a lot of people fond of critiquing aspects of civilization, but it is rare to see people critiquing civilization as a whole. Even then, it is more rare to see people criticizing human life than it is to see them critiquing human civilization. For example — and this is my own example, not Sarah Perry's — John Zerzan is an anarcho primitivist who will level devastating criticisms against civilization, but when it comes to human beings as a biological animal he tends to view us in an idealized way (or so I gather. I may be misinterpreting him and if that's the case, I apologize in advance.). Refusing to condemn human existence as a whole puts everyone in a position of needing to apologize for this or that atrocity.
Sarah Perry quotes Johnathan Haidt:
- “the fundamental rule of political analysis from the point of psychology is, follow the sacredness, and around it is a ring of motivated ignorance.”
She points out that the sacred and holy requires taboos to exist and both function as a continuum.
And sacred objects or thoughts will gain strength from being attacked. She cites the example of a UFO cult which, after their guru made a bunch of failed predictions, remain strong even after what should have devastated and ended it.
True to form, many religious people are proud of the simplicity (stupidity) of their attitudes. "I just go by the Bible and that's good enough for me" is a common phrase in the United States from religious types. Attack them, and they will feel their faith strengthened.
As she explained in Chapter 2, value is an integral part of why we stay alive. And value is based on our view of something is sacred. People react with physiological panic and pain when their sacred views are attacked, because we rely on our values as a kind of intellectual nourishment keeping us away from the darkness surrounding us.
She explains a lot of the political implications of this at great length, but I'll gloss over that. She also points out how our approach to this sacred/taboo doesn't and when the grip of religions or old and entrenched cultures loosens, but simply takes new form. It may change at a more rapid pace but as a mental structure it remains in place. Things like work ethic or education ethic reemerge in place of them, as well as commitment to the sacred/taboo dualities in various political ideologies.
In terms of antinatalism, parenthood, having children and human existence in general are all given a sacred appraisal by society and, as such, criticism of them is often considered taboo.
Comment: Admin- Did you give up on the summary? No worries if you are too busy.
Admin: Yeah, I'm taking a hiatus on it. It's a great book, though. I hope my summaries encouraged people to buy it. My three favorite AN books are her's, Ligotti's and Jim Crawford's. Benatar I may read someday but he's rather dry, I take it.
Comment: I finished reading it last night. And coincidentally I started reading The King In Yellow next which began with the opening of Government Lethal Chambers across the US for those looking for painless death.
She illustrated how much of a pain in the ass, especially for those looking for a reliable, painless, non-messy method, suicide is. And her analyses on the reasons for suicide, mostly being the feelings of burdensomeness and lack of perceived social connection, illuminated a lot on my thoughts on it. I think she wrote only having diagnosed depression caused 5% more likelihood in suicide, which is counter to what the media and social discussion is on suicide. The world makes a little more sense to me after reading it.
She really cut through a lot of the bullshit that seems to enshroud discussions on suicide and so forth. I can't imagine anyone who's capable of following a logical argument not accepting at least its arguments against suicide prohibition.
I think it's more important she focused on suicide since that, in my mind, has a slight chance of achieving social or governmental acceptance. I guess it mostly has in Belgium, but it's still months of waiting and government interference to do so.
Admin: That's a good point. We're not going to see an antinatal social policy but we might see suicide become an easier thing, at least for the terminally ill.
I wish her book were more popular but people don't generally like to think about dark things unless it involves Batman.
It's amazing how much bullshit one book can cut through yet still feel very logical and clinical with its assessment of things, though. I guess Benatar's book is like that too, or so I hear, but I haven't yet read it.
It was very hard for me to read Sarah Perry’s Every Cradle is a Grave: Rethinking the Ethics of Birth and Suicide (Nine Banded Books, 2014). She is, first of all, one of the brightest minds within the nascent neoreaction. Her thought-provoking scientific research on sacredness, beauty, group belonging, and suffering is top notch. Moreover, her writing on such topics is always coupled with humility, wonder and a deep appreciation for the human condition—an approach that seems strikingly like the Christian Humanism of Chesterton or St. Terese of Lisieux. Her work has been positively inspiring, and, perhaps ironically (especially after you read the punch line) increased my Catholic faith.
Why so difficult then? Not because the book is not well written or difficult to digest. It is supremely well written, and the average college graduate will be able to read and understand it, and would probably benefit greatly by doing so. Every Cradle is a Grave is a tract in defense of the ethical rightness of suicide and a universal ethical obligation against childbirth. Perry admits point blank in Chapter Four:
- I believe that we should be very cautious about creating conscious beings, and I believe that the ideal number of conscious beings (and perhaps even living beings) in the universe is probably zero, for the good of those beings themselves.
Not only does this run perfectly counter to Christian and Catholic teaching, but goes against an aspect of my identity I hold most dear as a father of many children.
It will come, therefore, as no suprise to the eminently clever Sarah Perry that this review would by necessity be somewhat mixed.
Perry’s book is divided into three sections. Part I: “A Worldview of Worldviews” begins with Bryan Caplan’s rather glib calculus of the positive utility of existence: “Life is a good with free disposal.” Since so few people take advantage of this “free disposal”, existence is a good that most people “value”. Ripping this evaluation to shreds becomes the back drop for most of the book. Is life really so good? And how would we know?
Part I is, to me, the strongest part of the book. It’s not actually easy to commit suicide, as Perry herself, in true confessions later, found out first hand. So much for “free disposal”. Answering why takes us on an incredible journey of how humans think and feel about life. Suicide prohibition, at least for those judged to have a likely productive future, is practically universal in human cultures. Chapter Two focuses on how humans tend to find meaning in life. Faced with a potentially infinite regress of “why?”, most humans and human cultures eventually latch onto some satisfactory “Because “. Those that don’t go extinct at least. Meaning is seen principally as a social construct and is adaptively beneficial. That’s a pretty cool “trick”, no?
Chapter Three has a powerful analysis of sacredness and introduces Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations framework. Most humans don’t study ethics. But most humans have a strong grasp of right vs. wrong. Moral reasoning is a human universal, even when it doesn’t seem all that “reasonable”. Haidt identifies 6 axes by which humans “evaluate” moral issues: harm/care, fairness/cheating, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and (a late adder) liberty/oppression. I put “evaluate” in quoties because 99% (more or less) of moral thinking operates on a subrational level. Perry, crucially (and I’ll later argue incorrectly) privileges harm/care and fairness/cheating as the most “rational” axes upon which to judge the ethics of suicide and childbirth.
Perry’s commentary on sacredness is alone worth the $9.95 $11.05 at Amazon. Here is a taste from Chapter Three:
- Sacredness is necessary for the coordination of human action, for politics, for orderly human life. It is essentially a valuable illusion created cooperatively by the social unit, often over a long time at great cost, and then maintained and defended against mutations and competing sacredness structures.
- Sacredness secretly informs all of our judgments, even those that seem to be purely related to harm of fairness—indeed, even those that don’t seem to have a moral dimension. Old sacredness structures that coevolved with our ancestors over generations have crumbled in the face of rapid social and technological change. Will our new sources of sacredness provide the basis for a flourishing, stable society? Or will they too crumble—or spin off into forms of increasing complexity and fragility? It is possible that the swift mutation and spread of sacred ideologies may prove destabilizing and destructive. Like invasive species, newly coined values are untested within our rapidly changing ecosystem.
That is one hell of an “illusion”, ain’t it?
Chapter Four considers Robert Nozick’s “Experience Machine” thought experiment in great depth. Perry finds ample opportunity here to write more about how humans experience belonging. Aesthetics and religion, and the overlap between them, play a prominent role. She’s really at her best when writing about this sort of stuff. (Well, at her best so far as I’ve seen—I haven’t had her chanterelle risotto.) She concludes: “If human life were a video game, would anyone choose to play it?” People who believe that “You Are your brain” will probably find the question arising from the “Reverse Experience Machine” compelling. To essentialists like myself, the question will inevitably fall somewhat flat.
Part II: “The Ethics of Suicide and Suicide Prohibition” (chapters 5 though 8) gets down to brass tacks of applying ethical philosophy to the central question of the book. Chapter Five puts the questions of suicide and childbirth up against each of the axes. Chapter Six looks at what really causes suicide with failed social belonging identified as the most prominent factor. Chapter Seven engages Jennifer Hecht’s argument that we have a duty to not commit suicide so that others will not be induced to do so—the so-called “contagion” argument, which to me says nothing whatsoever about the actual ethics of suicide. Chapter Eight looks at another sort of contagion, the role of media coverage of suicide.
This second part of the book is data and research rich, and useful for anyone interested in the general topic of suicide, even apart from logical arguments about the ethics of it. Depending upon the reader’s prior ethical stance on the question, different chapters will have varying degrees of appeal. Someone like me, who takes absolutist stance against suicide, will probably only be interested in the strongest possible argument for it, and may find weak, largely question-begging arguments like “contagion” somewhat tedious. If suicide is good, then who cares about whether it’s contagious? If evil, then contagion is at best a secondary argument against it.
Part III: “The Ethics of Procreation” was the part of the book I was most in a hurry to get to because I was expecting a barrage of ethical arguments with which I would have to grapple. And I’m sorry to say that, perhaps because of my anticipation, this was the part I found most disappointing. Of course, it is all well-written and argued. Everything Sarah Perry writes is that. Chapter Nine introduces preferentist (people act rationally about what they want) and non-preferentist (they don’t so we have to infer it some other way) arguments about the value of life. She also outlines Benatar’s asymmetry argument—basically that an actual harm experienced is incommensurate morally with a joy never experienced—as well as several other less radical ethical formulae on the harm/care axis.
Chapter Ten introduces the “Mathematics of Misery” with graphs and everything. However, and I think tellingly, no real calculations are actually conducted. Chapters Eleven and Twelve examine preferentist and non-preferentist ways of looking at the value of human life. But again, no actual calculations are presented. I think sometimes people find the notion that “we could do math if we wanted to” quite appealing. I am extremely skeptical a plausible model could even be constructed for the “value” that any person puts on his life. Even if it could, it would probably be a stochastic differential equation involving at least many dozens of time-dependent and interdependent variables, and likely so sensitive to boundary conditions that it would turn chaotic with the proverbial flap of a Chinese butterfly’s wings. The sense of the sacred may be no more compelling an illusion as a sense of the math. At least sometimes.
Chapter Thirteen completes Every Cradle is a Grave with a heart-wrenching look at suffering in the animal world. Perry adds an appendix draped in dark irony: “Living in the Epiloque: Social Policy as Palliative Care”.
So what bothered me so much about Part III, the putative anti-natalist portion of the book? One trouble I found was that the anti-natalist argument could never quite extricate itself from the pro-suicide one. I kept thinking, “Wait, we’re done talking about suicide, that was Part II, right?” Now, obviously they are inextricably linked. Once you start talking about the value of life being negative for some with suicide, you won’t stop talking about it when you start arguing it’s negative for everyone. I guess the basic issue was that, coming in to the book, I was not familiar very with anti-natalist argumentation. It seemed… well… batshit insane. I was expecting a vast arsenal of argumentation leveled against me and my (breeder) kind. And then, after being so capably prepared by Perry for all the wonderful nuances of human moral sensibilities and sensitivities, I get through reading the Crux of the Argument and I go: “Wait! That’s it?” It seemed, as it were, a penumbra upon an emanation. This is universal ethical reasoning? “No,” I think to myself, “Some people just don’t see the value in life, like others don’t see the color red.”
So obviously I think it’s bunk, the anti-natalist argument especially. Human life, I am constrained to believe, is actuallysacred, playing a crucial role in a narrative of the entire cosmos. I’m well aware that Sarah Perry thinks all of that’s an illusion. Just like every other possible foundation for moral reasoning, including harm/care, is an illusion. Just like heart-felt concern over the suffering of baby birds is an illusion. One cannot be too careful when picking which illusion one will choose to believe is real. Every Cradle is a Grave is an outstanding and profoundly insightful tour of evolutionary psychology. It’s a tiny but powerful “red pill” wrapped up in a delicious blue candy coat. I think progressives should be especially wary of it for this very reason.
If God exists, then he commands all his creatures to “be fruitful and multiply” and ours is not to question it. If he doesn’t exist, then it is the will of nature, manifested in the design of every species on earth, that they procreate. A cold, meaningless universe cares as much for our reasoning and sensitivity to perceived suffering as it does to our notions of meaning. Gnon—Nature Or Nature’s God (or both)—wills procreation. End of story, right? What illusion can compete with that one?
Somebody on the ask.fm asked me what my gripe was with anti-natalism and they abjured me to avoid “No ‘it’s creepy/unnatural’ pls”. But I offerred “creepy” and “unnatural” is a perfectly good argument. It is, of course, not a complete one. But intuitions, finely selected as they’ve been over these last one million years, are bound to have a pretty good track record. A far better track record I think than purely “rational” argument. Is it “rational” to suppress our “natural” intuitions about things?
Philosophy is the love of wisdom. Wisdom about what? Reality. The reality is that bacteria and birds and bears and humans are fitted marvelously to propagate their species. It’s pretty “creepy” to ignore that.
I answered the ask question in two parts and so compiled it over on the twitlonger for reference. Aside from the (I think perfectly valid) “argument from creepy”, my primary thrust against anti-natalism went as follows:
- First, why is harm/care axis so privileged to carry entire weight of the question? What of fairness/cheating, loyalty (!!), authority (!!), sanctity (!!!!), liberty/oppression? If these are all ways most humans think/feel about ethics, then it is unreasonable to derive ethical answers (ostensibly universal moral obligations) along one axis only. Only autists would think that way. They might be brilliant, but still wrong. In this case not EVEN wrong.
- Perhaps one could argue that harm/care is the most “rational” axis upon which to base one’s ethical views. But if you believe that all axes of moral reasoning are illusions, then why privilege one illusion over another illusion? If the Universe really is a cold uncaring meaningless place, foisting evil illusions on us, then it certainly doesn’t give a fig about harm/care, to say nothing of the illusion of “rationality”. Why should you or I care?
- Second: harms & pleasures do not sum by this simple acctg method. Most harms whether consented to or not, add up to future pleasures, often in unimaginably complex ways that cannot easily be traced. Suffering is usually (I happen to believe always ultimately) redemptive. I can’t prove always. But I can prove “usually”.
- Also, no one experiences the sum total of all their harms plus pleasures at one instant of time-space. This calculus of weighing the sum of all perceived harms and pleasures and finding out whether “utility” is greater than “zero” is an activity in which only a tiny fraction of humans participate, or even think to participate. More importantly, for even the few who would attempt this sum, it would vary in individuals (at least in theory) from one moment to the next. The only authoritative measure of human utility is therefore purely subjective, and attempts to use proxies like “those people sure don’t *look like* they value their lives very much” are quite implausible for a number of reasons.
Most people find meaning in life and therefore that life is worth living and therefore that life is a gift. The only way to deny those illusions is to privilege another illusion over them. Why not choose illusions that cooperate with nature (and nature’s god) rather than stir up pointless animosity?
But what of the ethics of suicide? Some of the argument extends. Life is full of pain and joy, and the ratio of one to another varies constantly over time. Pains lead often to joys in complex and unpredictable ways. “No punishment at the time seems joyous.” If a failure to make loving social connection is the biggest contributor to suicide, is not helping people make better social connections at least as important as helping them to, or giving them moral cover to, commit suicide?
As well, it remains unclear to me what ethical boundaries Perry would have us put around suicide. She denies that most who commit suicide are mentally ill. Fine, but what of those that are? My own grandfather suffered from what today would be called severe clinical depression. He jumped off the St. John’s Bridge when my mother, the eldest of 5 children, was 18. Should not hehave been prevented from doing so? Who has sufficient agencyto choose suicide in Perry’s moral economy? Everyone? Only the most elite? Those with “everything” to lose? Or only those with “nothing” left? A terminally ill cancer patient is one thing; a 6-year-old with a full life ahead of her is quite another.
Even if the meaning and narrative sense of life are illusions, we still do not belong to ourselves. Many of those things that make “free disposal” impossible are directly derived from the fact that man is a social being. Suicide harms those around us. My mother and her family were harmed to an almost unbearable extent by her father’s suicide. We belong to each other. So society does have a say about whether suicide should be permitted and under what conditions.
I’m glad it’s hard to commit suicide. It’s about as hard as you’d expect it to be for a member of a species like man. I could wish it even a little bit harder.
Sarah Perry is a must read, even though I disagree with her on a “couple” of “issues”. “Rethinking the ethics of childbirth and suicide” is exactly what I was forced to do. That I happened to confirm, and in fact strengthen, rather than deny my prior position on the questions is no argument whatsoever for not picking up this book. Every Cradle is a Grave is a profound treatise on that most concrete “illusion” of all: the human soul.
This is a controversial book, for sure. However, it's one well worth reading. Perry's conclusions on the ethical implications of suicide and birth go completely against the grain. Even if you don't agree with them, this book will force you to rethink your views on life, meaning, and how the human mind works.
It’s taken for granted among most people that life is good and death is bad. Sarah Perry’s Every Cradle is a Grave attempts to turn that assumption on its head. Perry’s book argues that in many cases, life can be a net negative. From this, she draws that suicide can in fact be a rational response to life’s conditions and that the prohibition of it does more harm than good. She also argues that intentionally bringing new life into being can be unethical.
Sounds like a fun, uplifting read, huh?
Similar ideas have been proposed before by philosophers like Arthur Schopenhauer and David Benatar. As Perry says in the introduction, the purpose of this book is to introduce these ideas to a mass audience in an easy to digest way.
- “I will advocate several ethical positions that are counterintuitive, and that some people would describe as evil. These ethical positions include the view that life—not just human life, but all life capable of having experiences—is very bad. It is very immoral, I will argue, to have babies or to otherwise create aware beings. I will also argue that suicide is not wrong or a product of mental illness, but an ethically privileged, rational response to the badness of life.”
Every Cradle… makes its arguments mostly using case studies in psychology and economics. For example, towards the beginning she dissects an argument from the economist Bryan Caplan that life is a net good, or at least perceived as such by most. He argues that most people obviously enjoy being alive because suicide is easy to commit with little consequence. It’s an absurd argument, but Perry deconstructs very thoroughly, and it serves as a good jumping off point for talking about the harm of taboos and prohibitions of suicide.
Perry digs deep and tries to get to the root of the taboo against suicide by examining where taboos come from. She examines what “sacredness” means and how it arises as a part of social order, and a how a visceral hatred of violations of the sacred are instilled into people.
- Sacredness is most clearly revealed in its violations, especially in the modern world in which conflicting worldviews often collide. The violation of sacredness triggers the social mechanisms that protect the sacred object from attack.
The foundation for much of Perry’s ethical arguments is through a “harm/care” model. I found this to be a weakness in the book. Her attempts to establish it as a foundation I found lacking. She argues it’s the most intuitively rational model, but doesn’t give much beyond that. Though I will grant that attempting to argue for it as a moral foundation would require another book entirely.
From a “harm/care” perspective, it’s easy to see why one could come to the conclusion that intentionally giving birth is unethical. Essentially, if one gives birth, it’s guaranteed that the child will feel pain, both emotional and physical. Even if that pain is outweighed by the good, someone never being born guarantees they will never experience pain. Perry’s arguments are more in depth, obviously, but I believe that is a good summary.
I got this book with the impression it was going to focus more on the antinatalist aspect than the suicide one. Even the title seems to suggest that. It focused more on suicide, though many of the conclusions that Perry comes to regarding suicide make the ones regarding birth a short leap. Still, I found the section on the prospect that giving birth can be an unethical act to be rather short and not as well argued.
Even if one doesn’t buy the arguments Perry makes. The book is still worth reading for its perspectives on psychology. One of the most interesting parts of the book are the case studies, such as Perry’s analysis of the copycat suicides in the wake of Marilyn Monroe’s death. I also found the analysis of the correlations of mental illness to suicide to be a enlightening read. Perry shows that depression is not as big a predictor of suicide as is commonly believed, but bipolar and borderline disorders are much stronger ones.
- [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
- Antinatalists would actually listen to her message of moderation and non-assholism, and
- 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.
I’m an author, editor and translator living in Chicago, Illinois.
I originally began blogging in 2008 to promote my then-released slapstick murder mystery Girl Detectives.
Since then, I’ve written two more novels:
- NVSQVAM (Nowhere), a black comedy of male alienation published by Nine-Banded Books in 2011, and
- The Talkative Corpse, an epistolary novel of modern loserdom published by Hopeless Books in 2013.
In addition to my novels, I’ve worked as an editor and writer for numerous publications, including
- The Chicago Reader
- Taki’s Magazine, and
- Counter-Currents Publishing
- I also worked on the first-ever English translation of Octave Mirbeau’s novel Dans le ciel (In the Sky), published by Nine-Banded Books in 2015.
I’m active on:
Additionally, I run the publishing company Hopeless Books, which features titles by Andy Nowicki, Paul Bingham and more.
Preface ~ vii
INTRODUCTION — 11
PART I. A Worldview of Worldviews — 17
1. Free Disposal and the Burden of Life ~ 19
2. The Empirical Nature of the Meaning of Life ~ 31
3. Modern Sacredness and Moral Foundations ~ 45
4. Experience Machines and Their Ratification ~ 61
PART II. The Ethics of Suicide and Suicide Prohibition — 81
5. Moral Foundations Analysis of Suicide and Childbearing ~ 83
6. What Really Causes Suicide ~ 107
7. On Contagion ~ 127
8. The Censorship of Suicide ~ 145
PART III. The Ethics of Procreation — 153
9. Procreative Responsibility: A Road Map ~ 155
10. The Mathematics of Misery ~ 169
11. The Burden of Life ~ 183
12. Hurting People and Doing Good ~ 191
13. The World of Nature of Which We Are a Part ~ 195
APPENDIX — 203
Living in the Epilogue: No Stories in Heaven ~ 205
This is a book about ethics. People don’t often change their minds about ethics. When they do, it is generally for social reasons, not because they are exposed to reasoned argument. Reasoned arguments more often allow people to cement their existing opinions. Ethical beliefs are, in any case, extremely limited in their ability to influence actions.
I will advocate several ethical positions that are counter-intuitive, and that some people would describe as evil. These ethical positions include the view that life—not just human life, but all life capable of having experiences—is very bad. It is very immoral, I will argue, to have babies or to otherwise create aware beings. I will also argue that suicide is not wrong or a product of mental illness, but an ethically privileged, rational response to the badness of life.
You might imagine these to be positions held by a comic book villain bent on destroying all life in the universe for its own good. That’s fine with me. In fact, it’s a good place to start. Because in presenting what I hope is a reasoned and factually supported ethical argument advocating such extreme ideas, I do not expect to persuade. It is more likely that I will be mentally categorized by the reader as such a cartoon villain (assuming the reader is not one of those few to whom these cartoon villain ideas seem obviously right). And to the extent that the reader holds contrary, prolife, anti-suicide beliefs, I understand that exposure to my unorthodox views may only reinforce those beliefs.
Believe it or not, that seems pretty rational to me. To respond to crazy-sounding out-group beliefs with increased faith in the in-group beliefs validated by known and trusted authority—is a smart strategy. From the trenches of interpersonal communication, I don’t think “ad hominem” is even much of a fallacy. On the contrary, consciousness—and all knowledge—is social in nature; and most of our knowledge comes not from direct experience or through reasoning, but from trusted sources. Though some of our beliefs about the physical world come from direct experience, we mostly rely on the trusted testimony of teachers, scientists, and friends to understand such things that we have no direct experience of, or of which our direct experience is understood to be limited or mistaken. The Earth appears to be flat, and the sun, which looks like it is smaller than the Earth, appears to be moving around the earth. We know better only because we are reliably advised that our initial sensory impressions are incorrect. In a similar way, we get some of our ethical beliefs from direct intuitive perception, but we also rely on the ethical beliefs of those around us to shape our own beliefs and actions. We are much more likely to be vegetarians if our friends are vegetarians. We are much less likely to support gun control if our friends are gun enthusiasts.
Many readers will find it natural to think of the self as the ultimate arbiter of ethical questions, but this is based on a modern and distinctly Western conception of the self. And even self-heavy moderns will sometimes admit to confusion as to what is the right thing to do in a morally unclear situation. Who, then, is to be consulted and trusted on issues of moral relevance? And what should be the result if one disagrees with a trusted friend on a moral matter?
There are some people—crazy people, evil people, people who have taken large amounts of methamphetamines for days on end—whose disagreements with our opinions on ethical matters would not cause us to have any doubts as to the correctness of our own opinions (possibly the opposite, as noted above). But any socially well-adjusted human being is likely from time to time to encounter a person whose contrary opinions are less 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.
What I would like readers of this book to come away with is not the urge to bomb IVF clinics or dismantle suicide barriers on bridges. I would prefer that readers simply and sincerely consider the question of whether existence is a blessing or a burden, and I hope to encourage the understanding that for many people, it is a useless burden. I would like the reader to think of parenthood as a moral decision affecting a new human being, rather than an event that merely happens to oneself. I would like the reader to consider that it may be both more important and more possible to prevent harm than to do active good in the world. I would like readers to consider the mental states of aware beings as being a very important, if not terminal, locus of ethical value in the universe. Finally, I would like readers to dig further into the nature of their own values, especially the primitive values of survival and longevity. If these points are communicated, I will have done my duty to the late Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who suffered much in his life for the good of others and who, before his death, kindly gave me permission to use one of his paintings on the cover of my book.
The prevailing views on birth and suicide, I will argue, are very misguided. But they are misguided in characteristically human and evolutionarily adaptive ways. In order to reject them, we must approach what David Eubanks has called the Frontier of Occam—the highest intelligence achievable by a civilization before it figures out better ways to achieve its ends than by continuing to pursue the goals of its alien creator, evolution.
I suspect that I have made more converts to the cause of questioning life’s value simply by being an adorable housewife who makes a killer chanterelle risotto than by any particular argument I’ve constructed. Since I can’t make you risotto, I have tried to present my arguments in a calm and reasoned manner, with abiding respect for the humanity that we all share. Perhaps I will come across as the sort of cartoon villain you should accept as an epistemic peer. But whether 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.
Thank you for reading my book.
Part 1: A Worldview of Worldviews
The Empirical Nature of the Meaning of Life
[Roy Baumeister's] 1991 book Meanings of Life proposed four needs that must be filled with sources of meaning:
1. a need for an ultimate value base
2. a need for personal purpose
3. a need for self-worth or status
4. a need for efficacy or control
Both Baumeister's later work and the work of psychologist Thomas Joiner indicate that a fifth need is also critical for human well-being: the need for social belonging.
[Thwarted belonging] is painful and so destructive of meaning that Thomas Joiner found it to be a major predictor of suicide. It is the social group that maintains sources of meaning most effectively; people are rarely successful at supplying meaning for themselves without outside assistance.
Generally, when faced with the loss of a value, people act very conservatively; rather than seeking radically new kinds of value, they seek to elaborate on an existing value. In recent decades, faced with the loss of old sources of meaning such as religion, consensus morality, and neighborhood belonging, and lacking a value justification, the existing value of self-worth began to play a greater role in carrying meaning.
The self, rehabilitated, took on the role of value justification and became the seat of self-worth. The heavy modern self has a hard task: it must do for itself what human religion and community did in the past.
Meaning appears in proportion to the suffering that occasions it, and meaning can quickly smooth over uncomfortable inconsistencies revealed in one's worldview.
The Modern Sacredness and Moral Foundations
[Quoting Jonathan Haidt:] "The fundamental rule of political analysis from the point of psychology is, follow the sacredness, and around it is a ring of motivated ignorance."
When one has attached a sacred meaning to an aspect of his identity, the threat to this sacred meaning is perceived the same as a threat to his physical person.
Those who are susceptible to sacredness are valuable as sincere cooperation partners since they are unlikely to defect. Signaling that one is susceptible to sacredness is therefore valuable, and actually being susceptible to sacredness might be the best way to do this. Experiencing sacredness together—mutually acknowledging invisible but tacitly understood objects—enables human coordination at a high level of complexity.
In our time, the education ethic has replaced the work ethic. As a modern sacred value, education provides a fulfillment state both in the personal and the societal sense.
The profligate dumping of money into education can be understood as a case of runaway signaling;
Experience Machines and Their Ratification
The Gentle People are ambiguous; they do frightening deeds and benevolent deeds, forcing those in their thrall to commit murder but also to help out around the house. They represent a worldview that is violated in both good and bad directions, one with unexpected misery but also unexpected boons. A widespread subversion myth, however, may suggest a worldview that is mostly violated by bad experiences. The motion from ambiguous, inscrutable mythic beings to purely evil mythic beings is notable. Another possibility is that it accompanies a worldview that is much too nice and positive, and hence mostly needs gap filling when bad events occur. This may be a feature of the Experience Machine that it co-exists with: the more utopian the vision, the more purely evil the gap-filling creatures must be.
Experience Machines vary along the dimensions of being effective (producing desirable, meaningful experiences and preventing or at least domesticating negative experiences), honest (not hiding the fact that they are cultural artifacts designed to produce experiences), and voluntary (rather than forced upon adherents). These traits are not necessarily independent; I suspect the most effective Experience Machines that have evolved in human societies are probably some of the least honest and least voluntary, and I'd expect honesty and voluntariness to generally correlate negatively with effectiveness.
Part 2: The Ethics of Suicide and The Suicide Prohibition
Moral Foundations Analysis of Suicide and Childbearing
The expanding authority of medicine is worrying. There are no checks or balances built into our system to counteract the authority of doctors, and experiments with socialized medicine mean that government is more involved with health care than ever.
Not many people commit suicide, but many people act as if their lives are not very valuable to them. They risk actual death or social death by gambling their present circumstances on a small chance of future payoff, in a manner that is not actuarially sound.
[Life] is regarded as creating a debt owed by the child to the parents, which may be repaid with some form of filial piety. To see life as a gift is to accept that one is born owing a debt.
In agrarian societies, children have significant economic value; the cost of bearing, feeding, and caring for them is more than offset by the value of work they perform. In our society, however, children have negative economic value. How do parents in the modern world deal with the fact that children are, in economic terms, a "bad bargain"? One strategy is for parents to attribute more non-economic value to children when reminded of the economic loss they are taking, "exaggerating" their parental joy in response to the salience of the costliness of children.
There have been drastic, visible changes in the typical treatment of children since the Industrial Revolution changed their economic meaning. In Meanings of Life Roy Baumeister summarizes the changing economic and social value of women during the industrial revolution: "For centuries... women's work had held a secure place in the social environment. It was inferior in prestige to men's work, but it was no less vital. The family economy, even the family's survival, was clearly and multiply dependent on the woman's contribution. Work is a powerful source of purpose (goals) and efficacy in life, and so women's lives certainly did not lack for meaning in these respects. *The woman's work was vital to the family, and everyone knew it. Then a remarkable thing happened. The Industrial Revolution took over women's tasks one by one. First, the textile mills soon could produce cloth more cheaply and efficiently than more weaving. Then other tasks, ranging from candle-making to food processing, shifted out of the home and into the factory. The woman's contribution to the family dwindled from vital and central to minor. *To put it crudely, from an economic standpoint, women became obsolete."
Having children is now very costly, which suggests a new role for childbearing: as a costly signal of group commitment. Many religious groups (Catholics, Mormons, Orthodox Jews) strongly suggest or even mandate that followers have many children, and this prescription probably assists coordination between co-religionists.
What Really Causes Suicide
According to Joiner, there are three main factors that influence the decision to commit suicide: the feeling of being a burden on others, a failure of social belonging, and acquired competence in one's suicide method.
The single largest factor in predicting suicide, both at the individual and the national level, is the failure to belong in relationships with the opposite sex, family members, and society.
One explanation for the discrepancy is that high-IQ populations create complex societies in which it is easy to fall through the cracks and experience social death. Where mean intelligence is high, expectations are high. Those who can't handle such complexity face the risk of social exclusion. In populations with lower intelligence, life is simpler, fertility (a protective factor) is higher, and social bonds are not as fleeting or fragile.
The claim that "the number one cause of suicide is untreated depression," as asserted in popular sources such as suicide.org and even the Department of Health and Human Services' website, has no basis in fact. It would be much more accurate to say that maleness is the leading cause of suicide.
There are really two types of "cause" that we care about, two distinct aspects of the message presumably conveyed by a suicide to any imitators. First, there is the implied moral message that suicide is acceptable.
But the second aspect of the message conveyed by a suicide is purely informational.
A successful act of suicide provides cold, hard facts—especially regarding the specifics of the method used.
Suicide [seems to exhibit] a moral de-licensing effect, the opposite of the moral contagion of social learning theory; and if this is true, committing suicide yourself makes your friends less likely to commit suicide.
The Censorship of Suicide
The media guidelines proposed by suicide.org strictly fit my definition of "politically correct bullshit": they express majority opinion in a manner unconcerned with truth, and have the function of a moral taboo to protect an important cultural narrative from negation.
Part 3: The Ethics of Procreation
Procreative Responsibility: A Road Map
In 1932, Ruth Shonle Cavan published a paper detailing the responses of 7,852 children from diverse geographic, economic, and racial backgrounds. Each child was asked if he had experienced having the wish to never have been born. Around 30% of children indeed reporting having had this wish.
It appears that the wish to never have been born is a poor predictor of suicide later in life.
The Mathematics of Misery
There are some things that people will pay for even an imaginary chance at having. Youth, love, sex, wealth, and status are so deeply and painfully desired that people are willing to suspend their disbelief for the privilege of imagining that they might be obtainable. The need for social belonging trumps all other needs, and even trumps our own rationality. Being old, fat, poor, or impotent means being in social pain. Just as the desperate, terminally ill cancer patient often turns to expensive placebos for an imaginary chance at more life, desperate, terminally alive sad people turn to expensive placebos for a chance to imagine a decent life.
Hurting People and Doing Good
When we're acting toward someone whose values we do not know, we should not think in terms of maximizing his utility, but in terms of minimizing our harm to him.
Earlier generations of humans liked to torture animals for their own pleasure (and some people still do). We now judge this to be evil. But is standing by while animals torture each other in "natural" ways, when we have the power to stop it, any better than actively torturing animals? Responsible people spay or neuter their pets. Why not spay Nature Herself?
|The Mathematics of Misery: What Human Behavior Teaches Us About the Value of Life*|
* Sources of this article:
■ The Mathematics of Misery: What Human Behavior Teaches Us About the Value of Life
■ Blind to the Downside
The probability of your coming into existence was bogglingly small.
The ejaculation that led to your conception contained hundreds of millions of unique spermatozoa. You are the one in half a billion that made it to fertilization. And it was that particular ejaculation that resulted in conception – as opposed to the thousands of ejaculations your father experienced before and after your conception. Your parents met (literally or figuratively, if you’re the product of a sperm donor) and conceived you, instead of conceiving with other potential mates, or not conceiving at all. And this startling history applies to your parents as well – your grandparents – your great-grandparents – and on back to the Australopithecines and beyond – each one the winning sperm of hundreds of millions, the result of a particular ejaculation, a particular union, that could have not happened as easily as your nonexistent brothers and sisters failed to happen.
Are you lucky to be alive?
Most people seem to experience a mixture of terror and delight when contemplating their own unlikeliness in this way – terror at the prospect of never having come into existence, and delight in one’s specialness, one’s victory over the other potential beings. One might even feel pity for those who never got to exist.
The conventional wisdom is that we are all very lucky to be alive – that life is a benefit, a precious gift that has been given to us. This is an important belief. It is a belief that is necessary to justify creating a child – if the child is benefited by being born, then procreation, at least toward him, is morally innocent. Perhaps it is even morally required!
Of course, life isn’t so great for everyone. The world is so bad, in fact, that its badness is the most conclusive argument against the existence of a loving, all-powerful deity. But when antinatalists point out the serious harms that come to all living beings, such as hunger, loneliness, jealousy, pain, illness, fear, and death, we are often told that we are giving an incomplete picture of reality. Reproduction advocates, realizing that the moral innocence of reproduction rests on life having a positive value, advise us to look on the bright side. We are frequently invited to consider the good things about life, the sunsets and puppies and children’s smiles that allegedly blot out the bad and give life its high net positive value. And that’s the folks who are willing to engage the question at all: too often, the question of the value of life is not addressed because it is supposedly just so obvious that life is worth getting. (This is the position taken by Thomas Nagel and Bryan Caplan, among others.)
So is life a precious gift, or is it a costly burden? Are we impossibly lucky to be alive – or impossibly unlucky?
Let’s not argue the point. We can do better: we can measure.
Truncated Utility Functions and the Value of Life
“Utility” is an economic concept similar to happiness, but broader. It is the ultimate emotional evaluation of whether things are good or bad. The concept of utility does not rest on a purely hedonistic model of life; economics recognizes that utility may be gotten from a variety of transactions and experiences, springing from motives self-interested, altruistic, and everything in between.
Broadly speaking, utility is a function of “income” – again, very broadly defined. Income in this sense need not be monetary income in dollars, as from a job or investments, but may include items that are not even available directly on any market, such as affection from other humans and self-respect. I will address below the question of what real human utility functions are actually a function of. (I reserve the right to switch willy-nilly and with no warning between speaking of utility functions that are functions of monetary income and those that are functions of other things, depending upon context to clarify which I mean.)
As Gary Becker and Richard Posner note in the unpublished paper that is one of the primary subjects of this essay (“Suicide: An Economic Approach”), in studying how utility responds to changes in income, economists have primarily focused on middle-class individuals – people who own houses, earn money from investments, and buy fire, health, and automobile insurance. This has led to the conclusions of economics occasionally not being true observations of general human nature, as they often purport to be, but rather observations of middle-class human nature.
One of these suspect observations is that utility functions are concave. This is a typical representation of a concave utility function:
What this means is that a person gets a lot of utility from the first dollar he gets – even the first thousand or ten thousand dollars – but he doesn’t get nearly as much utility from the 40,000th dollar, and even less from the millionth dollar. (Modern American utility functions of income apparently top out at around $75,000 per year.) What this means is that, dollar for dollar, gains are less valuable to the average suburbanite than losses are painful. He would rather pay $1000 a year in car insurance (say) than take a one-in-ten chance at a $10,000 loss during that year in an accident. This phenomenon – that makes the insurance industry viable and makes utility functions concave – is called risk aversion.
Many people behave in ways that are not consistent with risk aversion. They make “bad” bets – bets where the expected payoff (probability of success times magnitude of win) is less than the cost of the bet. They take risks seemingly without regard for possible bad consequences. They appear focused on the present and immediate future, at the expense of the far future (they are “extreme future discounters”). Miserable people and poor people are particularly likely to fit these criteria.
Why are middle-class folks risk averse, but not miserable folks or poor folks?
Bryan Caplan and Scott Beaulier, in their paper “Behavioral Economics and Perverse Effects of the Welfare State,” present a possible solution: irrationality and akrasia. The bad choices made by poor people are a result of their inability to forecast the future effects of their actions, combined with laziness. Welfare and other social programs, rather than making the poor better off, paradoxically make them worse off (say Caplan and Beaulier) because their irrational, akratic minds cannot handle the extra choices. (Note: this is my characterization of Beaulier and Caplan's conclusion; they use euphemistic terms at all times.)
Gary Becker and Richard Posner have a different solution: miserable and poor people don’t “properly” consider the future, because their lives are so painful that they are effectively suicidal. Poor people look around and rationally weigh the costs and benefits of different courses of action, but choose to gamble on long shots precisely because their current situations are not worth living in. They would just as soon die as remain in their current situations, and so gamble what little they have on the hope of a meaningful life.
Don’t just think gangs and lotteries and crime and crack. Think about people pursuing acting or singing careers, or going to law school or business school, or marrying in haste, or even, perhaps, having children. Such people bet everything – including their futures – on winning a particular gamble, even if it’s not a fair gamble and the likelihood of payoff doesn’t make up for the losses necessarily incurred pursuing the gamble.
The utility function pictured above has a lot of space beneath it and above the x axis, even at the origin. This reflects a judgment that even at zero income, a person takes great value from being alive.
This may or may not fit the facts.
The actual points at which actual human utility functions intersect the x axis may be far to the right of the y axis, as with this utility function for a person who only begins to get positive utility at income Id. For all incomes below Id, the person experiences negative utility – that is, he suffers.
This utility function is a model for the phenomenon that many people (myself included) do not seem to derive much utility at all from incomes (broadly conceived) much greater than zero.
Many people are so miserable that they do not want to enter the future at all. Their whole future projected life is worthless to them. In technical terms, their utility over all future time intervals, appropriately discounted, is less than zero. Also, their current utility (present circumstance) is zero or negative (otherwise they'd stick around a bit longer to pick up extra utility).
Suicide is one option for such people. But there are two other options, according to Becker & Posner (terminology is mine):
- Take what you have and “bet” it on a chance at something that would make life worth living. If it fails, you can always kill yourself. (Gamble)
- Since there is an element of uncertainty to the future, take what you have and use it to make the present livable so you can postpone suicide. Something to make life worth living might be just around the corner. If not, you can always kill yourself. (Palliate & Wait)
The utility function above for inefficient utility producers (like myself), where the utility function dips below the x axis, means that the person modeled must fear losing income below this point, because having income below Id means he will suffer.
But a would-be suicide need not suffer. He has an ace up his sleeve: all suffering is the same as death to him, for he can use death to escape any suffering. His utility function is effectively truncated. It looks like this:
Instead of dipping below the x axis, his utility function continues along the x axis all the way to the y axis (and beyond, if you allow for negative income). Now there is a portion of the utility function that is convex – the signature of risk preference, the opposite of risk aversion described above.
Any income below the critical level Id is worth nothing to the effectively suicidal person. This means that it will not make sense for him to expend any effort in securing income below this level. Like a depressed person who has lost the sense of the value of things, he is not motivated to get up in the morning, to work hard, to be responsible, if all it means is income below Id. It's the same as death to him.
How can we tell who is effectively suicidal? Nonsuicidal people still often rationally accept gambles, even gambles with a risk of death. The main way to tell the difference between effectively suicidal people (with a truncated utility function, as above) and nonsuicidal people is that suicidal people are insensitive to the potential for great losses, and are only motivated by the possibility of a big win; effectively suicidal people accept actuarially unfair gambles which do not properly compensate them for risk of loss (including risk of death). Nonsuicidal people demand to be compensated for risks of loss, including risk of death.
To the extent that people display risk preference and extreme future discounting of losses but not large gains – to the extent that they are willing to accept unfair gambles with a high probability of loss (Gamble) or improve their short-term well-being at potentially great cost to their future selves (Palliate & Wait) – the hypothesis of effective suicidality must be considered. Only by considering and rejecting this hypothesis, based on data and/or reasons, could we meaningfully attribute these features to departures from the rational actor model, as Beaulier and Caplan do prematurely.
Beaulier and Caplan essentially argue against “welfare floors” because by cushioning the bad consequences of a gamble, they make antisocial gambles more attractive. But they ignore that there is a built-in welfare floor in any human society, welfare state or not: suicide.
It is inconsistent to maintain that, on the one hand, a welfare floor is undesirable because negative utilities are necessary as motivators for action, and on the other hand, that utility is rarely negative and hence procreation is morally innocent.
This model does not, however, predict mass suicides at any point, and the fact that suicide remains rare does not mean that many people do not have effectively suicidal, truncated utility functions. All this theory claims is that people act as if they don’t value their lives. Unsuccessful gambles may or may not be followed up with actual suicide; the costs of suicide are often greater than a pre-suicidal person realized when contemplating life paths, and are artificially elevated by the de facto suicide prohibition. Also, cheap palliation is widely available, allowing many would-be suicides (such as myself) to postpone this costly decision.
The most important policy implication of the “mathematics of misery” I have outlined here – of the fact that many people appear to attach zero value to their lives – is that procreation becomes much more of a suspect enterprise. If people’s behavior reveals that they do not highly value their lives, then it is not “obvious,” as Bryan Caplan would have us believe, that human beings are benefitted by being brought into existence. A life that produces zero utility in the immediate present, and zero or negative utility for the foreseeable future, is hardly the kind of precious gift that would justify procreation, yet from this model it is likely that a substantial portion of the population of the world lives just this kind of life.
Someone whose utility function is negative for all time intervals would have been better off not having been born. Many people are in this situation through no fault of their own. A second policy implication for recognizing this is a move toward greater compassion in providing “palliative care” to people whose present utility and expected future utility are negative and whose only incentive to remain alive is uncertainty. As a society, we are willing to allow “palliative care” for terminally ill persons, but our middle-class model of risk aversion and the value of life prevents us from recognizing the need for palliative care in “healthy” people as well.
Third, there are implications for harm reduction, regardless of one’s position about the value of life. Viewing utility functions (and hence human motivation) in this light, we can see that a suffering person chooses from available gambles and palliation methods. Outlawing a particular type of gamble or palliation method will likely divert demand to other types of gambles or palliation, and hence will not reduce overall levels of harm unless substitution happens to be toward less harmful activities. Recognition of this “demand for risk” should guide policy decisions regarding dangerous activities.
What Real Human Utility Functions Are Functions Of
The utility function does appear to be a function of income – within a country, wealthier people are less miserable. But it is also a function of one’s past incomes – receiving a higher income increases utility in the short run, but in the long run, it sets a new baseline for utility (this is the hedonic treadmill). Utility is also a function of the incomes of near others (that is, a function of within-group status), which is why more direct income-utility correlation is found within-country than between countries.
However, as I have written previously, more than anything, a human utility function is a function of social belonging. That's the ultimate point not only of income, but of intelligence, beauty, and many other material and non-material goods: they may be traded for social belonging. The ability to provide others with what they want is the opposite of burdensomeness, a pillar factor of suicide risk in Thomas Joiner’s model (the other pillars are social belonging as such, and competence in carrying out the act of suicide). We want income because we want to be able to get the attention of others. We want a safe social place, primarily – and, of course, we want a better social place than the one we currently occupy.
The primary good, for humans, is group belonging. There is only so far up or down you can go in a social group, only so much room for status manipulation – otherwise you have to find a whole new social group. Within a group or class, we’d like to go up, but we’d HATE to go down. Each person sees a huge drop-off in utility when considering the loss of his present group belonging, no matter whether his present group is high or low in status relative to greater society. This has very little to do with absolute material welfare.
This is why the guy choosing television and phones over food is making the right choice. Group belonging really is more important than short-term well-being. He is even displaying risk aversion, as is the poor black parent who gives her child a name that strongly signals group belonging at the expense of belonging in other groups or classes.
It’s extremely difficult to join a whole new social group. Everyone faces a utility drop-off, a chasm, at the prospect of losing social belonging – a process sometimes described as social death. People behave as if losing one’s social group and status is worse than death. This is strong evidence that social death really is worse than death.
Poor Baby or Rich Baby: Which Is Worse?
Data about crime, drug use, and other forms of risk preference and palliation seem to indicate that poor people are more likely than rich people to display the kind of truncated, effectively suicidal utility function I have been discussing. This could support the claim that it is more wrong for a poor person to have a child than for a rich person.
However, when we realize that social belonging trumps everything, we see that what really determines the value of life is the opportunity to be party of a social group. Middle class people have different relevant social groups from poor people, and the very wealthy have different social groups altogether. A child born into one of these groups must establish a place for himself; if few places are available, downward mobility (social death) is indicated. Therefore a person born into a very wealthy social group that has few opportunities for belonging may be in a worse position than a person born into poverty but with many opportunities for belonging.
As Becker & Posner note, the nature of the "Gamble" you can buy depends on your present income; higher present incomes buy better gambles, with a higher probability of success. Therefore, wealthier people may succeed in their suicide gambles more often than poor people, so their gambles are more socially invisible than those of the poor - but they are still making them.
However, the social belonging hypothesis that I have been advancing here (that social belonging is the primary determinant of utility) implies that the income at which life becomes worth living, Id, varies with one's existing social situation, hence with initial income. Wealthy effectively-suicidal people start out with more initial income - they have more to gamble with - but they have a higher mark to reach for their gambles to be successful. It is not clear which effect predominates.
Blind to the Downside
One theory of rational suicide (see The Mathematics of Misery and What Kind of Evidence for Effective Suicidality?" ) posits that a significant proportion of people - much greater than the proportion of people who actually commit suicide - act as if their lives are not valuable to them. They engage in "actuarially unfair" gambles in which the downside is not adequately compensated by the expected benefit.
One interpretation of those accepting actuarially unfair gambles with significant risks is that they ignore the downside because they secretly plan to commit suicide (limiting the harmful effects of the downside) if the gamble doesn't pay off. This would indicate that they assign low value to continuing to live, which contradicts the popular notion that everyone is very glad to be alive and wants to live as long as possible.
This model applies not only to serious gambles with significant downsides as well as significant, potentially permanent upsides (suicide gambles, like joining a street gang or going to law school), but also applies on a smaller scale to measures that temporarily reduce the pain experienced by the actor, though with potential future costs (palliation, like smoking cigarettes or playing World of Warcraft). Palliative remedies may have significant present and future costs, but at least they are generally effective at alleviating pain temporarily.
However, looking around at the transactions taking place in the world economy, one cannot help but notice the market share of bullshit. Huge numbers of consumers prove willing to spend money on products and services that measurably don't do what they promise to do. These products and services may or may not be particularly harmful, but they all have monetary cost, and they all have a very low likelihood of solving the problem they purport to solve. The market in expensive placebos is massive.
|Budweiser Chelada||weight loss potion|
|heroin||face de-wrinkling potion|
|World of Warcraft||breast augmentation potion|
|cigarettes||penis growth and erection potion|
|the McRib||multi-level marketing wealth potion|
|7th Heaven||psychic services|
|video poker||nice Russian women looking for
a good husband who need your
credit card number
Here are exemplary lists of both Palliation phenomena and Expensive Placebo phenomena, so that the reader will have a better idea of what I'm talking about:
In both cases, consumers seem blind to the downside. In the Palliation case, there is a significant downside, but it's made up for by the reliable temporary relief from pain. In the Expensive Placebo case, the downside is limited to the cost of the product or service, but the upside is measurably nil.
The line between Palliation and Expensive Placebo may be fuzzy; for instance, a lonely person may get real social pleasure from interacting with a psychic consultant (and effective scammers, like all salesmen, tend to be pleasant people). And alcohol advertisement often includes implicit promises of social belonging, which if interpreted literally would make it more of an Expensive Placebo Belonging Serum than a genuine palliation tool. But the distinguishing characteristic is that in the case of what I call Expensive Placebo, the benefit that is bargained for is wholly imaginary, whereas with Palliation, the essence of the promised benefit is, in fact, provided.
Since the value of Expensive Placebos arises from pure fiction, ordinary measures of quality are not available; if acknowledged and utilized, real measures of quality would destroy the entire market. From this, we can distinguish Expensive Placebos from Palliation in terms of the effect of price.
The price of an Expensive Placebo is a measure of social proof it carries - a more expensive placebo gets you better fantasies. A $2 penis enlargement pill probably doesn't work, but one that costs $2000 is a much more effective fantasy projection device. Price has to take on more epistemic weight in the evaluation of Expensive Placebos, because no other indicia of reliability are relevant. This is so because every indication of reliability, except price, would show the value to be zero. In order to maintain the fantasy, we must look at price instead of real quality indicators. To the degree that an intervention is Palliation, consumers would seek out the most palliation for the cost - these are ordinary goods where price is negatively correlated with demand. But to the degree that an intervention is an Expensive Placebo, price should behave much more weirdly, perhaps even correlating positively with demand, as with Veblen goods . It's not just that the consumer of an Expensive Placebo makes himself blind to the downside of the purchase. The downside becomes the upside. (I describe a similar phenomenon here , in which parents report getting more meaning and joy from child-rearing activities, and plan to spend more time with their children over a coming weekend, when they are reminded of the downside, but not the upside, of having kids.)
There are some things that people will pay for even an imaginary chance at having. Youth, love, sex, wealth, and status are so deeply and painfully desired that people are willing to suspend their disbelief for the privilege of imagining that they might get them. The need for social belonging trumps all other needs, and even trumps our own rationality. Being old, fat, poor, or impotent means being in social pain. Just as the desperate, terminally ill cancer patient often turns to expensive placebos for an imaginary chance at more life, desperate, terminally alive sad people turn to expensive placebos for a chance to imagine a decent life.
The extent of the suffering of wild animals is literally unimaginable.
We have a function in our minds for imagining suffering - remembering a dog bite, perhaps, or another nasty injury. And we have an abstract multiplication function in our minds as well. But this doesn't get us even close to understanding the amount of suffering that occurs in nature in a single minute.
What would it feel like to land on the surface of the sun? Answer: not like anything. You can't even approach the surface of the sun; even millions of miles out, shielded by a spacecraft, a human body would disintegrate. We are physically incapable of perceiving how bad the surface of the sun would feel.
Thus it is with the amount of suffering in the natural world (and, incidentally, its subset, the human world).
1. On The Ways In Which Nature Makes Andrea Yates Look Like June Cleaver
This photograph shows a Eurasian coot feeding its chick:
These coots may hatch up to nine chicks (so we learn from David Attenborough). But under normal circumstances, food is in short supply. The parent birds feed the baby birds on tiny shrimp for the first three days after hatching. Then, mama coot turns into Mommy Dearest. A baby bird begs for food, as usual - but, with no warning, the parents "punish" it, biting the chick hard on its tiny head. The parents do this to all the chicks in turn. Eventually, one chick is singled out for special torture, and abused until it stops begging for food and starves to death.
This process is repeated until only two or three chicks survive.
Pelicans hatch three chicks, but under normal circumstances, only one survives. Instead of the parent birds doling out death, it's the siblings - the two larger birds pluck at the smallest with their sharp beaks and knock it out of the nest. Then the conspirators turn on each other until only one chick is left.
Is that awful?
Is that tragic?
Is that … good?
Sir David himself acknowledges that this might be a bit cruel, by human standards. But, he assures us, it's all for the best - in especially good years, a pelican or coot can raise an extra chick or two. So torturing baby birds to death serves the purpose of increasing the genetic fitness of the parents by a little bit.
But does that really make it okay
2. The Incoherence of Species-Relative Morality
We are taught as children not to apply human standards of morality to animal behavior. We do not expect macaques to be egalitarian, nor male lions to refrain from killing cubs sired by other males. We should not, this theory goes, expect animals to raise the babies they produce to adulthood; we should not be dismayed if they, in fact, torture their young to death when it is advantageous for them to do so.
Most people of our era have a strong, visceral inclination against cruelty to animals, just as we do against cruelty to human children. We judge animal suffering to be bad. Watching the nature special, we hope the impala can evade the lion, but we hope the lion cubs get fed somehow. But watch what your mind does when considering these two contradictory hopes. Does it come to a coherent resolution of the problem? Or does it just shrug its shoulders and spackle the problem over with some bullshit about the circle of life? Life must go on … end of thought.
Is it okay that the impala gets eaten? That the cub dies? What about an old lion slowly dying in the hot sun? How about that little chick pictured above, getting abused and starved to death by its parents? Genesis 1:21 (KJV) says: "And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good." (Emphasis mine.) According the the Judeo-Christian God, torturing baby coots to death is not just okay, but good. "God" gave us that whopper to swallow; can you swallow it?
Human morality, some may argue, applies only to human actions - not to the actions of animals. I agree with this. For the most part, animals are not agents, but merely robots - machines executing programs created by natural selection. However, morality must certainly also apply to human inaction, and especially our inaction in preventing harm, suffering, and awfulness. What is the moral justification for the "hands off" dogma regarding nature? We often interfere with nature for the good of humans and human industry. Why not for the good of individual animals? Bloody Nature is a machine for pushing genes into the future. Does it really "know best"
3. Respect for Species?
Nature exists. We try to "conserve" ecosystems in their "natural" state (scare quotes because ecosystems evolve and change over time, in response to environmental pressures, including those from other species). But who is it good for
Is it good for the animals themselves? Thomas Nagel considers the difficulty of this question in his essay "Birth, Death, and the Meaning of Life," in his important book The View from Nowhere (from which my blog takes its title). While teaching at Princeton in the 70s, Professor Nagel noticed a sad little spider living in a urinal in the men's bathroom. The spider appeared to Professor Nagel to have a crappy life, constantly getting peed on; "he didn't seem to like it," notes Nagel. He continues:
- Gradually our encounters began to oppress me. Of course it might be his natural habitat, but because he was trapped by the smooth porcelain overhang, there was no way for him to get out even if he wanted to, and no way to tell whether he wanted to… . So one day toward the end of the term I took a paper towel from the wall dispenser and extended it to him. His legs grasped the end of the towel and I lifted him out and deposited him on the tile floor.
- He just sat there, not moving a muscle. I nudged him slightly with the towel, but nothing happened … . I left, but when I came back two hours later he hadn't moved.
- The next day I found him in the same place, his legs shriveled in that way characteristic of dead spiders. His corpse stayed there for a week, until they finally swept the floor.
Professor Nagel acted with empathy toward the spider - treating the spider how he imagined the spider would want to be treated. But did he do the spider any good? Would non-interference by Professor Nagel have done the spider any good? The spider might have lived longer, scrambling away from piss streams a hundred times a day, and may have eventually made more spiders. Would that be a good thing?
What do spiders want? Is there such a thing as a meaningful life for a spider? Does a spider's life do the spider any good
There is a popular idea, born, I think, from applying the principles of liberalism where they do not belong - the idea that non-interference indicates respect for a species or animal, as if it were a person. (Where interference is allowed, it is to remedy some previous human interference.) This is also (idiotically) applied to human cultural systems, not just biological systems; in this context, it is known as cultural relativism. And it is just as incoherent applied to animals as applied to folks slicing off the clitorises of babies.
Let us for a moment suppose that we will treat individual animals as persons whose pleasures, pains, and desires we can identify and respect. In that case, empirically speaking, non-interference is a shitty policy. We could do more to make animals suffer less by intervention than by complete non-intervention.
On the other hand, perhaps it is the species that is our "person" - we should try to respect a species, or, perhaps, a whole complex ecosystem. But since species and ecosystems are not percipient beings capable of pleasure and suffering, by assigning them respect, we beg the question of the purpose of doing so. Who are ecosystems good for? Or are they perhaps mystically intrinsically good, as Jehovah would have us believe?
4. Is Nature Our Bitch?
To some degree, nature au naturel is good for humans. We need trees and algae and fish in order to live. Genetic diversity, developed over millions of years, ensures the longevity of our biosphere.
We frequently violate our supposed policy of non-intervention with the natural world when doing so benefits humans, in some cases actively seeking the extinction of certain organisms (like smallpox). I don't think this is wrong at all, because (a) smallpox doesn't do anyone any good by existing, including itself; and (b) smallpox causes untold suffering. But why draw the line at smallpox? It is my contention that not just smallpox, but all creatures, do not do themselves any good by existing - from spider to coyote to human.
Not only do we breathe oxygen and eat food produced by biological systems; we also appreciate the beauty of complex systems. Can we justify the suffering of baby coots because we think their ecosystem is interesting? Earlier generations of humans liked to torture animals for their own pleasure (and some still do). We now judge this to be evil. But is standing by while animals torture each other in "natural" ways, when we have the power to stop it, any better than actively torturing animals? Responsible people spay or neuter their pets. Why not spay Nature herself?
We don't even have to harm or kill animals in order to stop Nature from doing her evil deeds. We could simply prevent their reproduction, or even merely cease our current "conservation efforts" that involve breeding animals. Breeding wild animals and releasing them into the wild is doing the ugly work of Genesis all over again - and cruelly claiming that it's "good."
5. Is Being Human-Like Better?
We are touched by human-like (or ideal-human-like) characteristics in animals - nurturing young, monogamy, neighborliness, cooperation. Humans, although we commit parental infanticide at a rate higher than any other great ape (as would be expected from our relative immaturity at birth), at least attempt to raise most of our young to adulthood. But is "human" really more "humane"?
Compare the pelicans and coots to the rosella parrot. These parents feed "fairly" - that is, all chicks are fed equally, although they hatch at different times, so some chicks are larger than others. Large, older baby parrots even share their food with their smaller siblings! Aw.
Sound good? Nice parrots. However, they are merely postponing the point at which the red teeth and claws come into the picture. These parrot parents produce more than two offspring. What do you think happens to most of them? They go off and found happy egalitarian parrot families of their own? Maybe for a little while. But a species can't expand indefinitely. Most of these new parrots will get eaten or starve to death. The lucky few will go on to put dozens of new parrots into the world, for natural selection to claw apart and eat alive. r is evil, but K is not so great either.
Antibiotics were not invented until World War II. Prior to that, any human parent faced the very real possibility of losing some or all of his children before they reached adulthood. Humans were visibly under the same selection pressures as the rest of the animals. However, for a couple of generations, we have managed to pretend that nearly all our offspring can survive to adulthood and bear children of their own. We must look to nature to remind ourselves that this is a temporary fantasy.
University of Cape Town
Better Never to Have Been
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication Date: 2006
This book argues for a number of related views:
- Coming into existence is always a serious harm.
- Procreation is always wrong.
- It is wrong not to abort foetuses at the earlier stages of gestation.
- It would be better if, as a result of there being no new people, humanity became extinct.
Although these conclusions are antagonistic to common and deeply held intuitions, the author argues that these intuitions are unreliable and thus cannot be used to refute the book’s grim-sounding conclusions.
Reviews and responses::
Book reviewers ordinarily review with impunity. Book reviews are not themselves peer reviewed. Nor is there usually an opening for authors to respond. The “web”, a very mixed blessing, affords the opportunity for book authors to rectify this. Accordingly, responses to reviews of Better Never to Have Been (along with the reviews themselves, where copyright restrictions permit) are included below.
Christopher Belshaw, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews
David Benatar’s response
* * *
Len Doyal, “Is human existence worth its consequent harm?”Journal of Medical Ethics, October 2007, 33: 573 - 576
David Benatar’s Response: “Grim news from the original position: A reply to Professor Doyal”, Journal of Medical Ethics, October 2007, 33: 577
Seth Baum, "Better to Exist - a reply to Benatar", Journal of Medical Ethics, December 2008, 34: 875-876
David Benatar, "Grim news for an unoriginal position: a reply to Seth Baum", Journal of Medical Ethics, May 2009, 35: 328-329
There is a stunning arrogance in “reviewing” a book one openly admits to not having read. Yet, this is just what the editors of the New Criterion did. Nor are they alone. There have been numerous “reviews” on the web by those who declare that they have not read the book. Most of these “reviewers” simply parrot what other non-readers of the book have surmised I have argued. These displays of opinionated ignorance do not warrant individualized responses. The general thrust of the response to the New Criterion is equally applicable to the others.
“Notes & Comments”, The New Criterion, January 2008, Vol. 26 Issue 5, pp. 1-2
David Benatar’s response and the editors’ reply, The New Criterion, April 2008, Vol. 26 Issue 8, p. 80
David Benatar’s respons (submitted but not published)
* * *
Philonous’s review, Amazon.com, 25 March 2008
* * *
Yujin Nagasawa's review, Mind, July 2008, 117:674-677
David Benatar's response
There are now too many reviews and articles about Better Never to Have Been for David Benatar to respond to them all. Responses to some of the following will be added when and if time permits.
* * *
Saul Smilansky, The Philosophy Quarterly, Vol. 58, No. 232, July 2008, pp. 569-571 *
* * *
Harry Brighouse, “Better Never to Have Been”, Crooked Timber, September 2008
* * *
Elke-Henner Kluge, “David Benatar: Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence”, Philosophy in Review, Vol. 28, No. 5 (October 2008), pp. 317-319
* * *
Chris Kaposy, “Coming Into Existence: The good, the bad and the indifferent”, Human Studies, Vol. 32, 2009, pp. 101-108 *
* * *
Sami Pihlström, “Ethical Unthinkabilities and Philosophical Seriousness”, Metaphilosophy, Vol. 40, No. 5, October 2009, pp. 656-670
David Benatar, “The Owl and the Ostrich: A Reply to Sami Pihlström on Ethical Unthinkabilities and Philosophical Seriousness”, Metaphilosophy, Vol. 42, No. 5, October 2011, pp. 605-616
* Responses to these can be found here:
David Benatar, "Still Better Never to Have Been: a reply to (more of) my critics", Journal of Ethics, Vol. 17, Issue 1-2, 2013, pp. 121-51
Elizabeth Harman, “Critical Study of David Benatar. Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence”, Nous, Vol. 43, No. 4, 2009, pp. 776-785 *
* * *
Ben Bradley, “Benatar and the Logic of Betterness”, Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy, March 2010, pp. 1-5 *
* * *
Peter Singer, “Should this be the last generation?”, Opinionator, New York Times Online, 6 June 2010
Peter Singer, “‘Last Generation?’: A Response”, Opinionator, New York Times Online, 16 June 2010
* * *
Jim Crawford, Confessions of an Antinatalist, Nine-Banded Books, 2010
* * *
David DeGrazia, “Is it wrong to impose the harms of human life? A reply to Benatar”, Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics, Vol. 331, 2010, pp. 317-331 *
* * *
Tim Bayne, “In Defence of Genethical Parity”, in David Archard & David Benatar (Eds.), Procreation and Parenthood, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 31-56 *
* * *
Campbell Brown, “Better Never to Have Been Believed: Benatar on the Harm of Existence”, Economics and Philosophy, Vol. 27, 2011, pp. 45-52 *
* * *
Joseph Packer, “Better Never to have Been?: The Unseen Implications”, Philosophia, Vol. 39, 2011, pp. 225-235 *
* Responses to these can be found here:
David Benatar, "Still Better Never to Have Been: a reply to (more of) my critics", Journal of Ethics, Vol. 17, Issue 1-2, 2013, pp. 121-51
Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Hippocampus Press, 2011
* * *
David Spurrett, “Hooray for babies”, South African Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 30, No. 2, 2011, pp. 197- 206
David Benatar’s response can be found in “Every Conceivable Harm: A Further Defence of Anti-Natalism”, South African Journal of Philosophy Vol. 31, No 1, 2012, pp. 128-164. (See below.)
* * *
Thaddeus Metz, “Are lives worth creating?”, Philosophical Papers, Vol. 40, No. 2, 2011, pp. 233-255
David Benatar’s response can be found in “Every Conceivable Harm: A Further Defence of Anti-Natalism”, South African Journal of Philosophy Vol. 31, No. 1, 2012, pp. 128-164. (See below.)
* * *
Julio Cabrera, “Quality of Human life and Non-existence. (Some criticisms of David Benatar’s formal and material positions)”, Revista Redbioética/UNeSCO, año 2, 1(3), 25-35, enero-junio 2011
* * *
Elizabeth Kolbert, "The Case Against Kids", The New Yorker, 9 April 2012
* * *
Ross Douthat, Philosophers versus Breeders, New York Times, 5 April 2012
A special issue of the South African Journal of Philosophy was devoted to contemporary Anti-Natalism and especially Better Never to Have Been. Below is a list of articles that appeared, as well as David Benatar’s response.
Thaddeus Metz, “Contemporary Anti-Natalism, Featuring Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been”, South African Journal of Philosophy Vol. 31, No. 1, 2012, pp. 1-9
David Boonin, “Better to Be”, South African Journal of Philosophy Vol. 31, No. 1, 2012, pp. 10-25
Rivka Weinberg, “Is Having Children Always Wrong?”, South African Journal of Philosophy Vol. 31, No. 1, 2012, pp. 26-37
Skott Brill, “Sick and Healthy: Benatar on the Logic of Value”, South African Journal of Philosophy Vol. 31, No 1, 2012, pp. 38-54
Rafe McGregor & Ema Sullivan-Bissett, “Better No Longer to Be”, South African Journal of Philosophy Vol. 31, No. 1, 2012, pp. 55-68
Saul Smilansky, “Life is Good”, South African Journal of Philosophy Vol. 31, No. 1, 2012, pp 69-78
Brooke Alan Trisel, “How Best to Prevent Future Persons From Suffering: A Reply to Benatar”, South African Journal of Philosophy Vol. 31, No. 1, 2012, pp. 79-93
Gerald Harrison, “Antinatalism, Asymmetry, and an Ethic of Prima Facie Duties”, South African Journal of Philosophy Vol. 31, No. 1, 2012, pp. 94-103
Asheel Singh, “Furthering the Case for Anti-natalism: Seana Shiffrin and the Limits of Permissible Harm, South African Journal of Philosophy Vol. 31, No. 1, 2012, pp. 104-116
Christopher Belshaw, “A New Argument for Anti-Natalism”, South African Journal of Philosophy Vol. 31, No. 1, 2012, pp. 117-127
David Benatar, “Every Conceivable Harm: A Further Defence of Anti-Natalism”, South African Journal of Philosophy Vol. 31, No. 1, 2012, pp. 128-164
* * *
Constantin Wissmann, "To Be or Not To Be", Dummy, Herbst 2012, Nr. 36, pp. 28-45. (In German).
* * *
Dagfinn Sjaastad Karlsen, "Is God our Benefactor: An Argument from Suffering", Journal of Philosophy of Life, Vol. 3, No. 3, September 2013, pp. 145-67
* * *
Ken Coates, Anti-Natalism: Rejectionist Philosophy from Buddhism to Benatar, First Edition Design Publishing, 2014
* * *
Jason Marsh, "Quality of Life Assessments, Cognitive Reliability, and Procreative Responsibility", Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 89, No. 2, September 2014, pp. 436-466
* * *
Sarah Perry, Every Cradle is a Grave: Rethinking the Ethics of Birth and Suicide, Charleston WV: Nine-Banded Books, 2014
Julio Cabrera, A Critique of Affirmative Morality: A reflection on birth, death and the value of life, Brasilia: Julio Cabrera Editions, 2014
* * *
Very Bad Wizards, Episode 54, 24 September 2014. [Two guys who haven’t read the book discuss it with great confidence.]
* * *
Colin Feltham, Keeping ourselves in the dark, Charleston WV: Nine-Banded Books, 2015
* * *
David Benatar, "We Are Creatures That Should Not Exist': The Theory of Anti-Natalism", The Critique, 15 July 20
* * *
Antonia Macaro and Julian Baggini, "Should we feel sorry for ourselves?", Financial Times, 7 August 2015
* * *
Why we should stop reproducing: An interview with David Benatar on Anti-Natalism
Anti-natalist songs by Norwegian Hip Hop musician, Mistro:
(Warning: Images in some videos are not for sensitive viewers.)
* * *
Possibly the funniest "review" of Better Never to Have Been
* * *
Interview (in Spanish and English) with David Benatar on La nueva Ilustración Evolucionista / The new Evolutionary Enlightenment
* * *
Interview with David Benatar at Reasonable Vegan
The Preface to this book begins with the statement,
- “This is a book about ethics.”
More aptly put, this is a book about the ethics of Darwinian evolution, and its derived consensus consciousness.
Regrettably absent in this book is any mention of the Anthropic Principle.
It is well known that our existence in this universe depends on numerous cosmological constants and parameters whose numerical values must fall within a very narrow range of values.
- If even a single variable were off, even slightly, we would not exist.
- The extreme improbability that so many variables would align so auspiciously in our favor merely by chance has led to a general consensus that we are either here by fortuitous luck against tremendous odds or by the purposeful design of an intelligent Agent.
- This is the Anthropic Principle: that the universe appears to have been fine-tuned for our existence. [LINK]
In “Habitable Planets: Working the Odds” the question of, how many terrestrial planets exist in the habitable zones of their stars, is examined.
In 2010, a study by Jianpo Guo (National Astronomical Observatories, Kunming, China) and colleagues estimated 45.5 billion terrestrial planets in the habitable zones of host stars in our galaxy.
- It’s interesting to weigh these numbers against the 2009 estimates of exomoon hunter David Kipping (University College, London).
- Kipping's estimate is 45.5 million habitable-zone exoplanets in the Milky Way – a figure exactly 1000 times less than Guo and team’s number.
Kipping’s figures are truly mind-blowing when he turns to the larger universe. A figure of roughly 100 million habitable environments per galaxy can now be turned around for an estimate of habitable worlds in the visible universe.
- The number works out to 1018, or 10 million trillion.
- Even allowing the vast play in the numbers between our low-ball and high-end estimates of habitable planets, the universe is likely to be filled with environments conducive to life. [LINK]
If extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) exists, it is quite likely to be much more advanced than our intelligence. Why is ETI likely to be more advanced? To answer this question, we need to estimate the maximum age of extraterrestrial intelligence. The reasoning starts from our knowledge of cosmic evolution. I refer here the review of Dick* who elaborates:
Recent results from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) place the age of the universe at 13.7 billion years, with one percent uncertainty, and confirm the first stars forming at about 200 million years after the Big Bang.
- Although these first stars were very massive – from 300 to 1,000 solar masses – and therefore short-lived, it is fair to assume that the oldest Sun-like stars formed within about one billion years, or about 12.5 billion years ago.
- By that time enough heavy element generation and interstellar seeding had taken place for the first rocky planets to form.
- Then, if Earth history is any guide, it may have taken another five billion years for intelligence to evolve.
- So, some six billion years after the Big Bang, one could have seen the emergence of the first intelligence.
- Accepting the WMAP age of the universe as 13.7 billion years, the first intelligence could have evolved seven and a half billion years ago.
- By the same reasoning, intelligence could have evolved in our galaxy four billion to five billion years ago, since the oldest stars in our galaxy formed about 10 billion to 11 billion years ago. [LINK]
You’ve read correctly, ETIs could maximally be 7.5 billion years our senior!
* Dick, S.J.: Cosmic evolution: history, culture, and human destiny. In: Dick, S.J., Lupisella, M.L. (eds.) Cosmos and Culture: Cultural Evolution in a Cosmic Context, pp. 25–59. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C., NASA SP-2009-4802 (2009). http://history.nasa.gov/SP-4802.pdf
A study reported on in the June 10, 2016 edition of the New York Times and regarding the possibility for advanced civilizations elsewhere the Milky Way galaxy, puts forth the claim:
- In other words, given what we now know about the number and orbital positions of the galaxy’s planets, the degree of pessimism required to doubt the existence, at some point in time, of an advanced extraterrestrial civilization borders on the irrational. [LINK]
The author of that NYTimes article, later walks-back that claim:
- One in 10 billion trillion is a pretty small number. My argument in The New York Times piece was that it's so small that the implication must be that exo-civilizations have probably happened before (possibly a lot).
I considered it a kind of "argument by exhaustion."
But some folks disagreed. One of the principle objections raised to my piece was that the fact that just because 10-22 is small does not constitute a proof that exo-civilizations have existed before us.
… What we found was that if nature, in its infinite wisdom, chooses a value below 1 in 10 billion trillion (10-22), then we're the only civilization ever.
But if nature chooses a number bigger than one in 10 billion trillion (10-22) then we (meaning life and intelligence and civilization) has happened before. [LINK]
The statistical near-certainty of advanced life elsewhere (greater than one in 10 billion trillion) begs the question as to why it is such a taboo subject to even consider what-if.
Certainly the possibility of advanced civilizations elsewhere in the universe is not considered in Every Cradle Is a Grave.
A dispassionate survey of definitions of the human mind reveals that although a small variety of its aspects are identified, the sum of all of the definitions leaves many more refined aspects in the shadows.
- This includes modern scientific definitions,
- And even occult and esoteric definitions as well.
None of the definitions of the mind are wrong per se,
- But the definitional process of identifying the larger nature of the mind is incomplete,
- And probably vastly so.
Definitions of mind on Earth are little more than socio-determined ones.
- They are based on societal concepts and not on impartial and full observations of mind itself, which transcends all such concepts.
- It can therefore be understood that ANY definitions of mind that are socially derived merely reflect some kind of socio-control agenda regarding how the mind should or should not be thought of, as contrasted to what mind actually is in all its magnificence and potential powers. [LINK]
 From: "The Case for Reality"
Yes, ironically, Hoffman's thesis is true in a sense, though not in the way they are selling it.
But I want to be sure you are seeing the turn of the screw.
I know that many readers will agree with that, but some will not like me accusing these guys of being CIA.
And finally, why do you always feel like you are being spun not by Masters of Deception, but by pathetic flunkies residing in sub-basement 4 at Langley?
This is why I don't believe in the occult as it is sold, and why I think Intel is just using it as a smokescreen:
I have already demonstrated that Hoffman is not arguing like a scientist would.
And that's the problem of the modern world: almost everyone has been hired, directly or indirectly, by the CIA or some front of a front of a front.
As Anita Dalton writes: [TopTabs·3]
Sarah Perry exhaustively researched the hows and whys of suicide and
procreation, and makes a very compelling case for:
- Making suicide accessible for people who do not want to live and,
- Considering whether or not it is ethical to continue to create new humans whose lives may be more a burden to them than a gift.
|As she deftly picks apart the arguments against suicide and antinatalism, she bestows upon mankind a dignity and respect for self that anti-suicide and pro-birth crusaders deny us as we are asked to suffer and to mindlessly recreate ourselves because of tyrannies of tradition and religious mores.|
To which I mostly agree with. Furthermore Sarah gives voice to the violence of the 'natural world' which often goes unnoticed in most discussions about the reality we live in.
 “The extent of the suffering of wild animals is literally unimaginable.” [p. 195]
We are taught as children not to apply human standards of morality to animal behavior. … We should not, this theory goes, expect animals to raise the babies they produce to adulthood; we should not be dismayed if they, in fact, torture their young to death when it is advantageous for them to do so.
Most people of our era have a strong, visceral inclination against cruelty to animals, just as we do against cruelty to human children. We judge animal suffering to be bad. Watching a nature documentary, we hope the impala can evade the lion, yet we also hope the lion cubs get fed somehow. But watch what your mind does when considering these two contradictory hopes. Does it come to a coherent resolution of the problem? Or does it just shrug its shoulders and spackle the problem over with some bullshit about the circle of life? Life must go on ... end of thought.
Is it okay that the impala gets eaten? That the cub dies? What about an old lion slowly dying in the hot sun? How about that little chick pictured above, getting abused and starved to death by its parents?
Genesis 1:21 (KJV) says:
According the Judeo-Christian God, torturing baby coots to death is not just okay, but good. “God” gave us that whopper to swallow; can you swallow it?
Human morality, some may argue, applies only to human actions — not to the actions of animals. I agree with this. For the most part, animals are not agents, but merely robots — machines executing programs created by natural selection. However, morality must certainly apply to human inaction, and especially our inaction in preventing harm, suffering, and awfulness. What is the moral justification for the “hands off ” dogma regarding nature? We often interfere with nature for the good of humans and human industry. Why not for the good of individual animals? Bloody Nature is a machine for pushing genes into the future. Does it really “know best”?
Nature exists. We try to “conserve” ecosystems in their “natural” state (scare quotes because ecosystems evolve and change over time in response to environmental pressures, including those from other species). But who is this good for? [pp.. 196-197]
…But since species and ecosystems are not percipient beings capable of pleasure and suffering, by assigning them respect, we open up the question of the purpose of doing so. Who are ecosystems good for? Or are they perhaps mystically intrinsically good, as Jehovah would have us believe? [p. 199]
Earlier generations of humans liked to torture animals for their own pleasure (and some people still do). We now judge this to be evil. But is standing by while animals torture each other in “natural” ways, when we have the power to stop it, any better than actively torturing animals? Responsible people spay or neuter their pets. Why not spay Nature Herself? [p. 200]
 See, e.g., Tomasik, Brian. 2009. The importance of wild animal suffering, at Foundation Research Institute.
“The extent of the suffering of wild animals is literally unimaginable” 
 “I recently experienced an object permanence violation, which is to say, my bright blue plastic dish scrubber completely disappeared from my kitchen. This was very strange, as I have a fairly organized kitchen and tend to know where all my kitchen implements are at any given time. But the bright blue dish scrubber was just gone—not in any hiding place big enough to hold it in my entire house. My sense of object permanence was seriously threatened. And in the context of my ritual performance, it actually occurred to me: those asshole fairies stole it!
Obviously, the Gentle People did not steal my dish scrubber, inscrutable as they are. What happened was that I failed to record my own behavior, and when thinking about other things, I placed or dropped the scrubber somewhere I would not think to look for it. But it surprised me how easily this thought came to my mind—me, a proper woo-free atheist. I could see why the fairies have a dual nature, naughty and nice: they can act as a gap-filler for all sorts of violations in one’s theory of the world, such as apparent object permanence violations. And every theory violation thus explained becomes evidence for the existence of the fairies, supporting the belief.” [page 46]
Sarah was raised a  and claims there is no ultimate 'meaning' to what is commonly called the Universe., but now calls herself, "a proper woo-free atheist"
“The unfortunate truth, suggested by science and vehemently denied by
religion, is that there is no greater story.” [p. 209]
“... suggested by science” – indicates belief in Science as being the ultimate answer. It's different from saying “proved by science”.
However, there is a big problem with what she's written, if there is “a greater story” – something which Science has never disproved.
Millions of years ago,
humans just happened.
Accidents of environment
and genetics contributed
to the emergence of
sentient beings like us.
(Publisher's lede in "Description")
Do I think Sarah Perry is a CIA disinfo agent? No! But she certainly has been duped by Intelligence's Project Chaos into believing the origin of the human race on Earth, as depicted in the quote on the right.
And rather than question why life on Earth is as it is, what remains is a book claiming there is no meaning, and better to get rid of life on Earth.
I believe that we should be very cautious about
creating conscious beings, and I believe that
the ideal number of conscious beings (and perhaps
even living beings) in the universe is probably zero,
for the good of those beings themselves.
– Every Cradle Is a Grave, p. 61
John Bennett was trained as an officer in the British Army, and after the end of World War 1, became a military intelligence specialist in the Near East and a gifted linguist.
- Following his intelligence career, he spent several years living and working in Turkey and Greece and later he became a leader in industrial research in Britain.
- Throughout his life he came in contact with a wide variety of spiritual teachers, though he acknowledged that
G.I. GURDJIEFFwas the greatest influence on his life and his greatest teacher.
- Eventually Bennett himself became a spiritual guide.
In the introduction to his four-volume book, The Dramatic Universe, Bennett referred to
- “crumbs from the ideas table of Gurdjieff that have nurtured my thinking”.
One of these crumbs was the teaching of the “Intelligent guidance of history”.
- This is the teaching that the evolution of this planet, even before the emergence of life in any form, has been guided by intelligent forces that have intervened at critical points enabling developmental steps to be made.
- Since the time when mankind appeared and acquired the ability to form abstract thoughts and to express complex meaning linguistically, man has had the possibility of communicating directly with higher intelligence.
- Bennett designated these intelligences by the term “demiurge” to indicate a level of being superior to man in consciousness and creativity, and with the ability to see and act on the scale of centuries and millennia rather than years or lifetimes.
Gurdjieff taught that many thousands of years ago, a group of advanced men and women saw in themselves the tendency to distort reality in their perceptions, and decided to work together to overcome this tendency in themselves and to communicate to others the ability to do so.
- This was the beginning of the secret teaching, but it was secret not in the sense of concealment, but in the sense of being incomprehensible and therefore effectively invisible to people limited by ordinary modes of perception.
- Those who succeeded in their self-transformation were and are able to perceive and communicate directly with the “demiurgic” intelligences.
At certain times in human history, great efforts have been made to make these teachings available and widespread, with the result that humanity has been temporarily able to overcome its own destructive tendencies, and to make progress.
Bennett believed that Gurdjieff had introduced such ideas into the modern world specifically because he saw a pressing need for an evolutionary step to be made in human behavior, and had set himself to initiate such a movement.
- The secret teaching must again be activated for the sake of the immediate future of the world.
From: Alien Intervention
Intervention theory began in 1968 with the publication of Erich Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods. Von Daniken focused on the wide array of megalithic structures around the world that so obviously are beyond modern capacities to match. Surely, he argued, only intervention by non-human, off-world entities could explain how such immense structures could be built to tolerances that today’s engineers can only marvel at. One favorite quote is that the Pyramids are “Rolex watches built on a scale of small mountains,” as are Baalbek in Lebanon, Tiahuanaco in Bolivia, and Sachsahuaman and Ollantaytambo in Peru, among dozens of monuments less cyclopean in size but no more likely to have been created by the minds and muscles of ordinary humans.
In 1976, a new champion of intervention appeared. Zecharia Sitchin published The Twelfth Planet, which supplied a different array of evidence to support Von Daniken’s assertion that Earth bristled with the remains of non-human activity in a not-too-distant past. Sitchin based his conclusions on the voluminous written records of Sumer, the “sudden civilization” that sprang up virtually overnight in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley of modern Iraq. Historians can’t begin to plausibly explain how Sumerians were transformed from Stone Age farmers to very sophisticated city dwellers in a matter of only a few hundred years around 5,000 years ago, but the Sumerians can and do explain it in clearly written terms.
Rather than fragile paper or parchment, Sumerians wrote in soft clay, then fired it into stone in the world's first kilns. At least 100,000 of those stone tablets have survived to present times, and they describe how superior beings from beyond Earth that they called "gods" lived among them as their lords and masters. Also, they say that in much earlier times these gods actually created humans “in their own image, after their own likeness” (words copied 2,000 years later into Genesis) in a “house of fashioning” (a genetic laboratory?) where they also created all of the known domesticated plants and animals “to give the gods their ease.”
The Sumerians always referred to their gods in a multiple sense and never with upper case emphasis. They wrote about those gods in matter-of-fact terms, describing them as flesh-and-blood beings with whom they could have sex and produce hybrid offspring. Modern humans have 46 chromosomes, whereas our supposed closest relatives, chimps and the other higher primates, have 48. Intervention theorists suggest that this difference is a direct result of these Sumerian "gods" (aliens) tinkering with our DNA and breeding with us, adding many elements of their own DNA to ours.
Intervention Theory has been refined by many new discoveries since Von Daniken and Sitchin first introduced it to the public, not least of which are these discoveries in the DNA of everything from humans to Hawaiian cotton.