Antinatalism can take at least four forms: ecological, philanthropic, teleological (purpose-based, or in this case a lack thereof), and misanthropic (humanity-loathing). The latter is also divisible into at least three forms: "hard, non-genteel", "hard genteel", and "soft, genteel”. In both theory and practice, these types are not mutually exclusive, and even overlap each other to some degree. Nevertheless, sharp differences between the four do exist, even below the surface. Therefore, with the possible exception of the teleological form, none of these bases for antinatalism are necessarily either inclusive or exclusive of any others.
Public Awareness of Antinatalism
The best-known form of antinatalism is the ecological one, owing to the well-established meme of environmentalism in the public mass-consciousness; though teleological reasons come close, usually in the context of mysticism, religion, and fervid introspection. Before the ecological brand’s rise to media prominence, antinatalism, such as the public conceived of it, was likely dismissed as a product of "angst-ridden teenagers" and "midlife crisis sufferers"; even when addressed from the publicly acceptable standpoints listed above.
Additionally, popular opinion likely saw antinatalism as misanthropic (“Every sane person loves humanity enough to want to see it continue into the future, right?”). While this charge does have some truth to it, this ignores the fact that misanthropy can take forms other than the stereotype of half-crazy loners burning with hatred and ill will against humans and humanity. As explained later, misanthropy can come in other flavors.
The philanthropic form, though the least known, nevertheless has the longest pedigree and the greatest variety of aspects.
Descriptions of Different Antinatalisms
One can reach belief in antinatalism through any number of starting points but the inevitable arrival point is the same: The question "If 'that' is true, then is there any good reason for anyone to be born?". From here, it's only a short leap to start asking whether the human race needs to continue at all. The following is a list of several forms of antinatalism, based on their starting points and subsequent paths to their final belief in this viewpoint.
Ecological Antinatalism: This form, promoted by Les U. Knight via his Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT), states that humanity should die out via non-procreation because our species is simply too dangerous to the Earth’s biosphere. Much of it derives from the “Deep Ecology” movement¸ which ultimately assumes that humans have no more intrinsic value than any other living species. Knight, and very likely most other VHEMTers, believes it is not enough to simply reduce the birth rate until the population reaches ecologically sustainable levels. He asserts we need to stop breeding entirely; believing that if we leave so much as one self-sustaining breeding population, we will again overpopulate the planet, thereby reviving all the previous ecological difficulties of our age.
Still, ecological antinatalism does not have to be sourced in "Gaian" (read, "mystical") beliefs. In fact, many people refusing to have children on environmental grounds base their beliefs on science, not quasi-mysticism. They simply see current scientific research supporting the notion that humans are causing species extinction, global warming, etc., and draw from those conclusions the idea that our global population has (or soon will) overshot the planet's carrying capacity for humans; even if our species as a whole does adopts much more environmentally friendly practices in transportation, land use, manufacturing, and so forth. However, the typical "scientific environmentalist" usually lacks an intrinsic objection to human existence per se. Hence, rather than being true antinatalists they are better described as "ecological child-free". This places them outside the scope of this blog.
Philanthropic Antinatalism: Put simply, if crudely, it asserts that because “Life’s a bitch, then you die”, it’s immoral to expose new people to that ‘bitch’. Thus, this form’s core concept is the prevention of suffering, even if only the suffering from death or the knowledge thereof - and usually going well beyond that, into the day-to-day sufferings intrinsic in the very nature of living existence. It's main modern proponent is David Benatar. In earlier times, it proponents included Peter Wessel Zappfe, Emil Cioran and most famously Arthur Schoepenhauer. Many forms of antinatalism are actually different aspects of the philanthropic form. The various bases for philanthropic antinatalism are as follows, starting with the core basis: Suffering Prevention.
Suffering Prevention: If Colonial American revolutionary Patrick Henry asked “Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?”, then the philanthropic antinatalist might ask “Is life so special, so great, and so important that we can rightfully force upon others without their consent life and all its unavoidable hardships and miseries, even if they will be highly likely to experience some pleasures?”.
Therefore, many philanthropic antinatalists see procreation as disrespectful toward the potential life created, namely that the created life could well end up living a dissatisfactory life of some kind. The person could suffer from an accident, natural disaster, or a deliberate evil. Alternately, he or she may simply disagree too strongly with the nature of human existence (i.e., "rules" of the "game of life") or even human nature itself to want to create a new life. This is especially true when the new life had no say about coming into this kind of world (i.e., forced into this mode of existence). All this causes the philanthropic antinatalist to see bringing another person into this world as morally problematic.
Suffering prevention itself has several different possible aspects but the major ones are discussed below.
Death Prevention: Death is inevitable for all, yet few people want to die. Furthermore, many deaths are highly unpleasant. Because of this, some philanthropic antinatalists consider it unfair to bring someone into this world who presumably does not want to die, yet must confront the fact that they will die eventually. Even assuming an afterlife of some sort, there's still the possibility of perhaps eternal unpleasantness for that person, depending on the religion. (more about this shortly).
The Inevitable Extinction of All Life in the Universe: A subset of Death Prevention, it broadens the focus from individual death to species extinction, a thought hardly more pleasant for most people than individual demise. In fact, the same issues surrounding individual death apply here as well, only broadened to include all humanity. This isn’t a physics or astronomy essay, so I won’t go into detail here. For now, it’s enough to say that life's existence will eventually become impossible anywhere in this universe, even in theory. From this fact many antinatalists conclude that procreation is an ultimately pointless act, notwithstanding any emotional drives we humans have to continue the species.
Impossibility to Predict One's Future: It is bad enough for any one individual to suffer from the inevitable shortcomings of living existence, including both death itself and the dying process (usually very painful and often long). Still worse is the impossibility of predicting how any one life will turn out; never mind that most people think that life's benefits are greater than its inevitable sufferings. Still worse is if the person cannot find life enjoyable due to very strong disagreements with the "rules of the game" or even to human nature itself.
Granted, the great majority of people like being alive and (or perhaps because) they have a reasonably satisfactory life. Even so, there's no way to accurately predict how any one individual's life will turn out before they are born (ignoring any confirmations in the prospective parents of heritable genetic conditions of the non-trivial sort). This is besides the fact that life is often tough anyway. In this case, philanthropic antinatalists are likely to ask, “If you, the adult, know that life is inevitably tough, then why do you foist such an existence on someone in the first place?". Given all this, one can claim that having a child is gambling with the child's well-being at best and exploitation of the child for the parent's own purposes at worst (for any myriad of reasons people decide to start a family).
Theological Beliefs: This is a special case of the inability to predict how any one life will turn out. Many people believe in an afterlife of some sort, and just as surely as they believe in the presence of this world besides. Therefore, regardless of what one actually believes about supernatural matters, this form of antinatalism deserves serious treatment.
Depending on the religion’s doctrine, some people will end up suffering a terrifying and torturous afterlife as a result of choices made in their earthly life. The most famous of these afterlives is Hell, part of orthodox Christian and Islamic doctrines but other faiths also include concepts of an unpleasant afterlife for the wicked, though they may be radically different from the Christian and Islamic Hell. From this, one might well ask “Why have children when there’s a good chance they¸ or certainly many - if not most - of , my far descendants will end up in eternal torment?” In this case, a believer may well conclude that the only way to guarantee the spiritual safety of their own children is to not give birth to them in the first place, never mind how well any of their subsequent descendants may have served The Creator. The forward-thinking believer also sees him or herself saving not only their own children, but even their most distant descendants from such a hideous end-point.
Deliberate Procreation Violates the Preconceived's Freedom of Choice: The not-yet-conceived person has no opportunity - even in theory - to express his or her consent (or lack thereof) before having the speaking, thinking, and analytical skills to decide if he or she wants to live in this kind of world. Precisely because of this, procreation cannot help but be a coercive act against the conceived. Tying back into the fact that it’s impossible to predict how good or bad a life might turn out for any one person, one might sensibly ask if the benefits of life for any one person are actually worth the pain and consequences that are inescapable part of existence. For believers in the possibility of a torturous afterlife, this issue should weigh orders of magnitude more heavily.
Procreation is the Inevitable Killing of the Conceived Person in the Long Run: This view combines non-consent with "Everybody Dies". It draws from three notions: (a) everybody will eventually die, (b)very few people truly want to die, and (c) people cannot choose whether or not to come into this world. From these three facts, one can extract the idea that procreation is (in a moral sense) equivalent to murder, or at least negligent homicide; for every birth must end in death eventually. The view is held by Chip Smith of hooverhog.typepad.com, and is in fact his main basis for antinatalism.
Teleological Antinatalism: Also known as purpose-based antinatalism, it states that humans' existence serves no purpose at all, except to and for themselves; for not only will all our descendants will die off at some point, but all our accomplishments will be erased as well. Therefore it really doesn't matter if humans (or any extraterrestrials that happen to run across us or our remains) ever existed in the first place. On its face, this logic ignores the issue of intrinsic pain and suffering and instead focuses on the alleged purposelessness of human existence itself. However, when human purposelessness does cause emotional suffering in some way, it's actually a subset of philanthropic antinatalism. On the other hand, a sense of purposelessness may not always cause one to suffer. In this case, using the argument from finite existence is more appropriate for a conventional childfree lifestyle than for actual antinatalism.
The teleological antinatalist objects to the claim that humans exist to serve others, society, etc.” on the grounds that it's circular, self-referential: humans exists to serve other humans. If no humans exist, then what purpose does an individual human serve? They further back up this claim drawing from current scientific knowledge, particularly the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In a nutshell, the law states that all things devolve from order to disorder and that the amount of usable energy in the universe is constantly declining. Eventually there will not be enough usable energy to support life, rendering human extinction inevitable. Indeed, many teleological antinatalists came to believe in antinatalism precisely by shifting the whole issue of human purpose and human existence future-ward. If humans cease to exist in the future, then humanity would serve no real purpose because, for all the effort put into sustaining and reproducing, humans would still have a finite time span like every other now-extinct species. From here, it's just a short backward leap to say "What purpose do present humans serve (or even past humans served) if we our species will eventually go extinct?" In fact, teleological antinatalists could easily do so conjuring up an alternate reality in which 200 years ago an asteroid impact wiped out all humans. Just as dinosaurs have no purpose today because they don't exist in the here and now, so it is with humans even if our eventual demise is in the future.
That we’re much more advanced and capable of feeling and accomplishing things than dinosaurs is irrelevant. The teleological antinatalist would say our feelings are just additional “software” encoded into us by evolutionary natural selection (or given to us by God, if you prefer), which helped our ancestors survive. Ditto for our capacity for accomplishments. In essence, we are merely self-replicating robots made of non-metallic, non-plastic materials and nothing more: programmed to breathe, drink, eat, purge waste products, and reproduce. Humans (and other higher animals) may entertain themselves with diversions to “recharge their batteries”, but that’s still just one more thing we do between birth and death.
In the end, the winding down of the universe will erase even the smallest evidence and memory of our accomplishments and even our very existence (at least as far as non-theists are concerned). From all this, the teleological antinatalist extracts the notion that our continued existence is ultimately meaningless except to ourselves.
Many religions offer a way out of this difficulty by saying that we’re made to serve Our Creator (whoever that creator may be). Nevertheless, this view is fraught with major difficulties of its own, especially for believers who desire to have children. For example, Christianity and Islam assert that our purpose is to serve God and that those who don't serve His will will go to Hell. Unfortunately, there is no way anyone can make a person give his or her life to God; the person has to choose of his or her own free will. That definitely includes the parent's ability to choose for their children. It follows that parent's cannot control whether their children will be saved from eternal torment. Thus, the religious person could well choose philanthropic antinatalism based on the very non-trivial probability of the child spending his or her afterlife in infinitely non-trivial suffering. Also, along similar lines, such a believer will, by default, conclude that there is no purpose in creating a human destined for Hell, regardless of how many purposes that person might have in this life and regardless of how well they did so.
The Stereotype: Hard Non-Genteel Misanthropes
Most commonly, misanthropes are portrayed in popular opinion, the news media, and entertainment industry as brooding, anger-filled people who are mad at humanity for one reason or another; sometimes to the point of enjoying the idea of killing as many people as possible (think the Columbine High School killers and, arguably, Ted Kaczynski [a.k.a. "The Unabomber"]). If they aren’t prone to murdering or otherwise severely hurting others, then they are simply so disgusted with humanity in general (though likely not all individual humans) they consciously and deliberately adopt a hermit lifestyle; deliberately isolating themselves from the rest of humanity - at least to the extent that they can possibly and reasonable to do so. If given magical powers to eliminate humanity, it’s not unlikely that they would make it undergo a very painful and anguished “final days” as punishment for being such a savage and barbaric acting species. Certainly they wouldn't hesitate to give all humans an instant painless death.
While there are, no doubt, a few misanthropes who hate humanity so much that they’d gleefully exterminate it if they could (and - perhaps - painfully besides), most misanthropes have a moral / ethical code that they try to abide by, and a rather strong one at that (ironically, this may be exactly what caused them to become misanthropic in the first place, but that’s another subject). This brings us to the "Hard, Genteel Misanthropes"
Hard, Genteel Misanthropes
As stated above, these misanthropes, unlike their non-genteel counterparts, do have a strong moral and ethical code they insist on living by, particularly one that doesn't allow their intense dislike of humanity to overcome their sense of compassion toward other humans, though they may still dislike most humans in general. Therefore, they do choose to be fair-minded, good-hearted, and in general “do the right thing” toward people in general, although they likely won’t go out of their way to help others - especially if those others got into predicaments of their own making (particularly if due to even pettily immoral/unethical choices).
However, the ultimate defining traits of the hard genteel misanthrope vis-a-vis their non-genteel counterparts are (a) refusing to cause people needless pain, due to their strong conscience and sense of sympathy and compassion for the few people they do like, rather than out of fear of a general retaliation, and (b) if given a choice to "wave the wand" to destroy humanity, they would insist on a guaranteed instant and painless death for all humans. Usually going along with these traits is that they usually give any one person they meet the benefit of the doubt. As a result, they may actually be quite fond of some people. Nevertheless, such misanthropes are still either highly distrustful of or outright disgusted with humanity as a whole. Put more simply, they basically reject the world and passively allow it to suffer the consequences of its own wrongs; perhaps silently laughing at humanity in a mocking tone for being so shallow and stupid.
Soft, Genteel Misanthropes
Their misanthropy is so subtle that it’s questionable whether it actually qualifies as misanthropy at all. Regardless of whether it does or not, these types still have a strong distaste of humanity or human nature, even if their sentiments don't cross the line into actual hate or rage. They tend to have a strong sense of compassion for their fellow human being - even to the point of caring about the future well-being of humanity, especially if they do everything they can to help alleviate suffering in this world (though they’re likely doubtful that society will change its ways, except perhaps superficially or – at best – only in the short run). Such people take the approach, “Humans will continue to be forced into existence for the foreseeable future. Some number of them will suffer, some of those significantly. It's wrong to let people suffer if you can do at least a little to help them. Therefore, I will do what I can to make the strongest positive influence on others' lives as I can - never mind that I can’t stand human nature”.
Still, they do disagree too strongly with too much of human behavior, and perhaps human nature itself, to be truly happy with society; even if they do find joy in other things beside other people (though not necessarily excluding other people, particularly if they happen to find a proverbial “kindred spirit”). Therefore, because such people are strongly agitated by human nature and humanity in general, they quite arguably qualify as a misanthrope, albeit of the very non-stereotypical sort.
Beyond the differences listed, another defining trait of a “soft, genteel” misanthrope is that – unlike the “hard, genteel ones” – they would not “wave the wand” to exterminate humanity, even if it’s clear that refusing to do so will result in more people forced into the anguish and injustice of this life. This is due to the high value they place on freedom of choice. Each person has the right to make their own choice as to continue living or not. In fact, to "wave the wand" is unmistakably murder, even if it is a guaranteed instant and painless death for all. They also find the notion of "waving the wand" distasteful because they agree that at least some people do deserve to live.
Of all the types listed, the "soft, genteel" misanthrope is the most likely to agree with the statement
"Discontinuation of humanity is desirable because it's wrong to force people to experience the nasty - sometimes brutish and just plain evil - side of human nature. Even if they themselves are liable to act in such ways themselves, they still don't deserve experience the pains and anguishes of this world".
Therefore, the soft, genteel misanthrope may see his or her antinatalism as trying to save humanity from itself - a kind of "idealistic misanthropy", if you will. In the meantime, they simply accept human nature the way it is, even as they try to repair whatever damage humans have done. Consequently, they choose to live their lives as ethically and compassionately as they know how. Not surprisingly, the soft genteel misanthropic attitude toward having children is, "Thanks, but no thanks. My branch of the DNA tree is getting off this bus at the next stop, namely my deathbed".
Overlaps and Distinctions Among the Four Types
The different brands of antinatalism are by no means mutually exclusive. There's little to nothing to prevent embracing more than one form, or even subscribing to one form alone. The possible exception is with teleological antinatalism, for reasons given later. Here, I discuss how each type overlaps with the others without actually demanding that holders of one basis affirm or deny another basis.
Ecological Antinatalism (as promoted by Knight)
Philanthropic: The last humans alive will suffer greatly due to our present environmental mismanagement before actual extinction occurs. Therefore, having children will needlessly subject future generations to that great suffering.
Teleological: Non-human lifeforms serve more of a purpose than humanity does, particularly when modern human activities drastically damage the ecosystem. Therefore, if presently living or future humans do serve a purpose, it is only to repair the ecological damage we've done, all while reducing our birth rate to as close to zero as possible. After the damage is repaired to a reasonable degree, we should then gracefully leave the scene.
Misanthropic: Homo sapiens is so selfish and short-sighted that the species as a whole is unwilling to take the hard but necessary steps to reduce its impact on the environment, or even adopt already-existing orphans in need of a loving home instead of bringing more children into this world (a suggestion by Knight to those who still desire to raise children), let alone actually agree to self-extinction. It's appalling how humans treat the environment and all its myriad species (especially those species that can feel pain and suffering to a practically identical degree that humans can). This selfishness proves that humans deserve to go extinct on ecological grounds.
Ecological: Discussed above.
Teleological: Ethics involves human happiness. Humans cannot be happy without serving a purpose for existing. Because humans serve no ultimate eternal purpose and probably not even a present one, it's cruel to subject new people to such a finite and purposeless existence. This is particularly true if the human strong survival instinct urges us to live for as long as possible, even if humanity or even individual humans don't serve any ultimate purpose.
Misanthropic: Human nature in general is so disgusting that we don't deserve to exist; both in the sense of "If 'that' is the way humans treat each other, then human's don't deserve to exist" and in the sense of "No child deserves to be brought into a world filled with such callous and hateful people". This is especially true if the misanthropes recognize in themselves the very shortcomings they hate, and hate the fact that they have and can't really rid themselves of the bad side of their human nature. This is likely to be fairly common among antinatalists who are believers in Abrahamic or other faiths that say people by nature are morally hopeless, but also likely to be fairly frequent among non-theist antinatalists with a highly developed sense of justice, morality, and ethics as well.
Ecological: Discussed Above
Philanthropic: Discussed Above
Misanthropic: Human selfishness serves no purpose beyond the self-interests of the inflictors. Even that self-interest is just as likely to be achieved using non-selfish means that cause little to no significant suffering for others (like deciding that it's not so important to have this thing or that thing, especially if you have to compromise your ethics and morality to an unreasonable degree). Besides, even the benefits that the inflictor enjoys will become irrelevant one day, as they will die anyway. Thus, the selfishness and benefits of living serve no ultimate purpose. The same essential logic applies to humanity on a much larger time scale. Because humans will die out one day anyway, the species has no ultimate purpose - particularly given how they are so selfish, petty, exploitative, judgmental and sometimes even cruel, bigoted, and violent.
All overlaps with this one discussed above.
Still, as mentioned earlier, each brand of antinatalism has bases distinct enough to justify their own categories.
Philanthropic practically obligates the belief that the cumulative day-to-day sufferings of people over their years render their lives not worth living. Ecological antinatalism does not require this belief, only the belief that Homo sapiens is too threatening to the ecosystem to deserve to exist.
Teleological states at minimum that humanity or humans serve no ultimate purpose, even if we were a perfectly ecologically friendly species. Ecological antinatalism says nothing about what humanity's purpose is, with the possible exception of restoring the biosphere to full health before we finally phase ourselves out of this world.
Misanthropic states that humans are so selfish, wicked, and generally unlovable that they don't deserve to exist. It says nothing about the degree humans are culpable for the present environmental degradation. Undoubtedly most misanthropic and ecological antinatalist believe that human selfishness is the root of ecosystem damage. Still, ecological antinatalism says nothing about how "selfish, wicked, and generally unlovable" humans are to each other.
Ecological antinatalism only requires the belief that human activity is intrinsically so damaging to the ecosystem that we must sacrifice our existence via non-procreation in order to save the biosphere as a whole. It does not obligate us to believe that human suffering is so great that humans are better off never being born at all, as philanthropic antinatalism does.
Teleological antinatalism states only that human existence, on both the individual and species level, serves no ultimate purpose. Philanthropic antinatalism does not necessarily say anything about what humanity's or any one human's ultimate purpose is.
Misanthropic antinatalism, as discussed above, only requires agreement that humanity deserves extinction on the grounds that human nature is too disagreeable, to say the least, to deserve continuing to existing. Philanthropic antinatalism doesn't actually require any belief about humanity's moral standing, much less the central misanthropic claim about human nature. It only requires the beliefs that (a) life's sufferings are so great that humans are better off not coming into existence in the first place, and therefore (b) procreation is an ethically indefensible activity, especially in light of our inability to either give or receive permission to be born into this world.
Ecological Antinatalism, as stated earlier, only requires that humans should phase themselves out via non-procreation to save the ecosystem. It says nothing about whether humans serve a purpose in this world, with the probable exception of repairing the damage we've done cotemporaneously with phasing ourselves out via nonprocreation. Likewise, teleological antinatalism does not require agreeing that the biosphere is more important than the human race, except perhaps to the utilitarian extent that humans need the biosphere's resources to live and especially prosper.
Philanthropic Antinatalism only requires that the sufferings of this world render unfair any birthing of another person into this world. It does not require that humans serve no purpose whatsoever. Teleological antinatalism does not require any belief about how tough life is. However, teleological antinatalism does appear to require the belief that a purposeless existence is an undesirable state of being, on an emotional level if on no other one. Some people may deny this is any form of suffering, but this seems hard to admit. If a sense of purposelessness could not cause someone to suffer, then it's hard to see how humans could be so concerned about their purpose in this world in the first place. In fact, it's the very suffering itself (through a feeling of ennui, despair, etc.) that makes the teleological argument relevant. Therefore, it seems teleological arguments are ultimately just one aspect of philanthropic antinatalism. Therefore, I think teleological antinatalism does depend on the philanthropic arguments for its very relevance, if not actual truth.
To be sure, teleological reasons alone are sufficient to refuse to have children. If one does not see any purpose in having children, they may well decide that parenthood is, from the individual standpoint, one activity they can healthily forgo. This would free up much time, money, and personal energy to pursue more enjoyable activities. However, anyone using an alleged purposelessness of human existence as a reason not to have children without any reference to the pain caused by that sense of purposelessness is likely not going to object strongly to human continuity itself. Therefore, the teleological argument by itself is not so much an antinatalist argument as it is a reason for choosing a conventional childfree lifestyle.
Misanthropic antinatalism only requires belief in human extinction based on the aforementioned strong distaste of humanity and/or human beings due to their behavior toward each other. It doesn't necessarily say anything about our purpose in this world (or in this case, lack thereof).
Misanthropic Antinatalism (especially the "soft, genteel" subform)
Ecological Antinatalism requires humans go extinct for the environment's sake, not humanity's. Misanthropic antinatalism says nothing of ultimate relevance about human damage to the ecosystem. They may say our mismanagement of the environment is one of the reasons we deserve to go extinct, but they would still think that even an ecologically friendly humanity would still be composed of humans treating each other too shabbily to deserve existence.
Philanthropic antinatalism only concerns itself with suffering in general as an intrinsic characteristic of existence. It says nothing about how unethical, unkind, evil, selfish, etc. humans are to each other, much less that humans are so evil they don't deserve to exist. The philanthropic antinatalist may believe humanity's (and humans') moral deficiencies are part of what makes the world a tough place, but that's a different issue altogether.
Teleological antinatalism deals only with the alleged purposelessness of humans' and humanity's existence, totally aside from the grievances about humanity toward each other and other living things. Misanthropic antinatalism says nothing about the purpose of humanity, only that human nature itself has too many moral and ethical flaws to deserve continued existence.