Monday, December 8, 2014

An Answer to Anti-Natalism in the Talmud

As I understand it, anti-natalism is the position that no more humans should be born, because suffering outweighs happiness. If you think suffering is bad and that suffering outweighs happiness, then it follows that to create a new life is profoundly immoral. What's more, the act of creation is necessarily done without consent for the created. I'm putting this post on this blog because the only anti-natalists I've met in person have been people I met through the atheist movement.

For several obvious reasons anti-natalism is not a philosophy that's about to sweep the world. But it's interesting nonetheless as a vehicle of inquiry. Anti-natalists, it's possible that many or all of the questions/objections I'm about to record have already been addressed, but bear with me (and as always, your comments are appreciated).

My first counterargument is that in at least one case, myself, the happiness has outweighed the suffering, and had I been able to give my parents consent, I absolutely would have. I really, really like being alive; in fact being alive is one of my favorite things to do. And how I imagine an anti-natalist responding is: of course you say that, because you're the product of evolution, as such trapped by the cognitive distortions that make minds make genes spread. (See depressive realism.) Yes, that is almost certainly true. But the subjective equals the objective in affective states with only slightly less certainty than consciousness itself. In other words: if I think I exist, I do. Similarly, if I think I'm happy, I probably am. Whether my certainty that this state will continue is accurate, or whether it's appropriate to the situation that obtains in the external universe, is a separate question much more open to debate.

I was prompted to post this here after finding this passage in an article about John Updike and his biography; specifically about his religious concerns. It looks like the Talmud got to this question a while ago:
The Talmud (Eruvin 13b) similarly recounts how for three years the sages debated whether humanity would have been better off had the world not been created. The Sanhedrin (the Jewish Supreme Court of antiquity) "ruled" that humanity would have been better off had the universe not been created, but now that we do exist, we should at least "examine our behavior" (i.e., now that we’re here, we might as well try to make the best of things). Updike’s Bech seems to reach a similar conclusion, absent the moralistic caveat: "the void should have been left unvexed, should have been spared this trouble of matter, of life, and worst, of consciousness." The entire universe, Bech believes, is merely a "blot on nothingness."
If all anti-natalism did was complain that we exist, that would be pretty pointless, but it does bear on ongoing decisions (i.e., don't reproduce). I find it interesting that the Talmud agrees broudly with anti-natalism! But the key is always what knowing the truth should make you do. Beliefs are arrangements of neurons, the purpose of which is to make muscles contract.

On a littriture note: I increasingly assume that Bech is Updike's fictional stand-in for Philip Roth. I've also begun to wonder if Updike was a well-organized pro-social psychopath (cool interests in general, predisposed to narcissism, difficulty making lasting romantic attachments and impulse control issues in the same arena, concerns with feelings of emptiness).

4 comments:

David said...

Hi,

I love that section of the Talmud ('gemara'), but it needs to be properly understood in context of the broader philosophy of which it is a part.
1) An important consideration is that 'we' exist in this world in order to earn our reward in the next world. In that sense the suffering is worthwhile. The rabbis say not, however, perhaps because they are considering the mundane world.

2) So, taken at the mundane level, the world as it existed at the time was judged by the rabbis better to not to have been created. This is different than antinatalism. The rabbis do not argue that new people should not be brought into the world but that the world [at least as it existed then, but perhaps in an absolute sense] is a place of consistently greater suffering than joy. The rabbis do not not apply this on an individual level while antinatalists make a blanket statement that all births are net bad. To the rabbis a person born to the life of a wealthy, healthy prince would be thrilled to have the world created, while a disabled pauper quite the opposite should they perceive their world in a negative way (much more likely than the prince doing so). The math of the rabbis is aggregate. This is why the antinatalist argument is a false position. It attempts to apply statistics to an individual, a failing the rabbis avoid.

David said...

Hi,

I love that section of the Talmud ('gemara'), but it needs to be properly understood in context of the broader philosophy of which it is a part.
1) An important consideration is that 'we' exist in this world in order to earn our reward in the next world. In that sense the suffering is worthwhile. The rabbis say not, however, perhaps because they are considering the mundane world.

2) So, taken at the mundane level, the world as it existed at the time was judged by the rabbis better to not to have been created. This is different than antinatalism. The rabbis do not argue that new people should not be brought into the world but that the world [at least as it existed then, but perhaps in an absolute sense] is a place of consistently greater suffering than joy. The rabbis do not not apply this on an individual level while antinatalists make a blanket statement that all births are net bad. To the rabbis a person born to the life of a wealthy, healthy prince would be thrilled to have the world created, while a disabled pauper quite the opposite should they perceive their world in a negative way (much more likely than the prince doing so). The math of the rabbis is aggregate. This is why the antinatalist argument is a false position. It attempts to apply statistics to an individual, a failing the rabbis avoid.

Francois Tremblay said...

Happiness cannot "outweigh" suffering. What does that even mean? They are entirely different kinds of things.

Michael Caton said...

So there's no possibility of a spectrum, with something approaching our conception of happiness at one end, and suffering at the other? And it is possible to be both extremely happy, and suffering in the extreme simultaneously? I would turn your assertion around and say that what you're implying is so counterintuitive as to appear meaningless and at least require a supporting argument.