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Why It Is Better Never to Come into Existence
Author(s): David Benatar
Source: American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Jul., 1997), pp. 345-355
Published by: University of Illinois Press on behalf of the North American Philosophical
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American Philosophical Quarterly
Volume 34, Number 3, July 1997
David Benatar
A here is a common assumption in the
literature about future possible people that,
all things being equal, one does no wrong
by bringing into existence people whose
lives will be good on balance. This as?
sumption rests on another, namely that
being brought into existence (with decent
life prospects) is a benefit (even though
not being born is not a harm). All this is
assumed without argument. I wish to ar?
gue that the underlying assumption is
erroneous. Being brought into existence is
not a benefit but always a harm. Many
people will find this deeply unsettling
claim to be counter-intuitive and will wish
to dismiss it. For this reason, I propose
not only to defend the claim, but also to
suggest why people might be resistant to it.
As a matter of empirical fact, bad things
happen to all of us. No life is without hard?
ship. It is easy to think of the millions who
live a life of poverty or of those who live
much of their lives with some disability.
Some of us are lucky enough to be spared
these fates, but most of us who do none?
theless suffer ill-health at some stage
during our lives. Often the suffering is ex?
cruciating, even if it is only in our final
days. Some are condemned by nature to
years of frailty. We all face death.1 We
infrequently contemplate the harms that
await any new-born child: pain, disappoint?
ment, anxiety, grief and death. For any
given child we cannot predict what form
these harms will take or how severe they
will be, but we can be sure that at least
some of them will occur. (Only the prema?
turely deceased are spared some but not
the last.) None of this befalls the non?
existent. Only existers suffer harm.
Of course I have not told the whole story.
Not only bad things but also good things
happen only to those who exist. Pleasures,
joys, and satisfaction can be had only by
existers. Thus, the cheerful will say, we
must weigh up the pleasures of life against
the evils. As long as the former outweigh
the latter, the life is worth living. Coming
into being with such a life is, on this view,
a benefit.
However, this conclusion does not fol?
low. This is because there is a crucial
difference between harms and benefits
which makes the advantages of existence
over non-existence2 hollow but the disad?
vantages real. Consider pains and pleasures
as exemplars of harms and benefits. It is
uncontroversial to say that:
1) the presence of pain is bad
and that
2) the presence of pleasure is good.
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However, such a symmetrical evaluation
does not apply to the absence of pain and
pleasure, for:
3) the absence of pain is good, even if that
good is not enjoyed by anyone,
4) the absence of pleasure is not bad unless
there is somebody for whom this ab?
sence is a deprivation.
My view about the asymmetry between
3) and 4) is widely shared. A number of
reasons can be advanced to support this.
First, this view is the best explanation for
the commonly held view that while there
is a duty to avoid bringing suffering people
into existence, there is no duty to bring
happy people into being. In other words,
the reason why we think that there is a duty
not to bring suffering people into existence
is that the presence of this suffering would
be bad (for the sufferers) and the absence
of the suffering is good (even though there
is nobody to enjoy the absence of suffer?
ing). In contrast to this, we think that there
is no duty to bring happy people into ex?
istence because, while their pleasure would
be good, its absence would not be bad
(given that there would be nobody who
would be deprived of it).
It might be objected that there is an al?
ternative explanation for the view about our
procreational duties, one that does not ap?
peal to my claim about the asymmetry
between 3) and 4). It might be suggested
that the reason why we have a duty to avoid
bringing suffering people into being, but
not a duty to bring happy people into ex?
istence, is that we have negative duties to
avoid harm, but no corresponding positive
duties to bring about happiness. Judgments
about our procreational duties are thus like
judgments about all other duties. Now for
those who deny that we have any positive
duties, this would indeed be an alternative
explanation to the one I have provided.
However, even of those who do think
that we have positive duties only a few
also think that amongst these is a duty
to bring happy people into existence. For
this reason, my explanation is preferable
to the alternative.
A second support for my claim about the
asymmetry between 3) and 4) is that,
whereas it seems strange to give as a rea?
son for having a child that the child one
has will thereby be benefited, sometimes
we do avoid bringing a child into exist?
ence because of the potential child’s
interests. If having children were done for
the purpose of thereby benefiting those
children, then there would be greater moral
reason for at least many people to have
more children. In contrast to this, our con?
cern for the welfare of potential children
who would suffer is taken to be a sound
basis for deciding not to have the child. If
absent pleasures were bad irrespective of
whether they were bad for anybody, then
having children for their own sakes would
not seem odd. And if it were not the case
that absent pains are good even where they
are not good for anybody, then we could
not say that it would be good to avoid
bringing suffering children into existence.
Finally, support for my claim can be
drawn from a related asymmetry, this time
in our retrospective judgments. Bringing
people into existence as well as failing to
bring people into existence can be regret?
ted. However, only bringing people into
existence can be regretted for the sake of
the person whose existence was contingent
on our decision. One might grieve about
not having had children, but not because
the children which one could have had have
been deprived of existence. Remorse about
not having children is remorse for ourselves,
sorrow about having missed child-bearing
and child-rearing experiences. However, we
do regret having brought into existence a
child with an unhappy life, and we regret
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it for the child’s sake, even if also for our
own sakes. The reason why we do not la?
ment our failure to bring somebody into
existence is because absent pleasures are
not bad.
I realize that the judgments that underlie
this asymmetry are not universally shared.
For example, positive utilitarians ? who
are interested not only in minimizing pain
but also in maximizing pleasure
? would
tend to lament the absence of additional
possible pleasure even if there were no?
body deprived of that pleasure. On their
view there is a duty to bring people into
existence if that would increase utility.
Usually this would be manifest as a duty
to bring happy people into existence. How?
ever, under certain circumstances the duty
could be to bring a suffering person into
being if that would lead to a net increase
of happiness, by benefiting others. This
is not to say that all positive utilitarians
must reject the view about the asymmetry
of 3) and 4). Positive utilitarians who are
sympathetic to the asymmetry could draw
a distinction between (i) promoting the
happiness of people (that exist, or will ex?
ist independently of one’s choices) and
(ii) increasing happiness by making
people. They could then, consistent with
positive utiliarianism, judge only (i) to be
a requirement of morality. This is the pref?
erable version of positive utilitarianism. If
one took (ii) also to be a requirement of
morality, then one would be regarding per?
sons merely as means to the production
of happiness.
If my arguments so far are sound, then
the view about the asymmetry between
pain and pleasure is widespread and the
dissenters few. My argument will proceed
by showing how, given this common view,
it follows that it is better never to come
into existence.
To show this, it is necessary to compare
two scenarios, one (A) in which X exists
and one (B) in which X never exists. This,
along with the views already mentioned,
can be represented diagramatically:
Scenario A
(X exists)
Scenario B
(X never exists)
Presence of Pain
(Bad) <t?
‘ Presence
of Pleasure
Absence of Pain
of Pleasure
(Not Bad)
It is uncontroversially the case that 1) is
bad and 2) is good. However, in accordance
with the intuitions mentioned above, 3) is
good even though there is nobody to en?
joy the good, but 4) is not bad because
there is nobody who is deprived of the
absent pleasures.
Drawing on my earlier defense of the
asymmetry, we should note that alternative
ways of evaluating 3) and 4), according to
which a symmetry between pain and plea?
sure is preserved, must fail, at least if
common important judgments are to be
preserved. The first option is:
l)Bad 3) Good
2) Good 4) Bad
Here, to preserve symmetry, the absence
of pleasure (4) has been termed “bad.” This
judgment is too strong because if the ab?
sence of pleasure in scenario B is “bad”
rather than “not bad” then we should have
to regret that X did not come into existence.
But we do not think that it is regrettable.
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The second way to effect a symmetrical
evaluation of pleasure and pain is:
2) Good
3) Not Bad
4) Not Good
To preserve symmetry in this case, the
absence of pain (3) has been termed “not
bad” rather than “good,” and the absence
of pleasure (4) has been termed “not good”
rather than “not bad.” On one interpreta?
tion, “not bad” is equivalent to “good” and
“not good” is equivalent to “bad.” But this
is not the interpretation which is operative
in this matrix, for if it were, it would not
differ from, and would have the same short?
comings as, the previous matrix. “Not bad”
means “not bad, but not good either.” This
is too weak. Avoiding bringing a suffering
child into existence is more than merely
“not bad.” It is good. Judging the absence
of pleasure to be “not good” is also too
weak in that it does not say enough. Of
course the absence of pleasure is not what
we would call good. However, the impor?
tant question, when the absence of pleasure
involves no deprivation for anybody, is
whether it is also “not bad” or whether it
is “bad.” The answer is that it is “not good,
but not bad either” rather than “not good,
but bad.” Because “not bad” is a more com?
plete evaluation than “not good,” that is the
one I prefer. However, even those who wish
to stick with “not good” will not thereby
succeed in restoring a symmetry. If pain is
bad and pleasure is good, but the absence of
pain is good and the absence of pleasure not
good, then there is no symmetry between
pleasure and pain.
Having rejected alternative evalua?
tions, I return to my original diagram. To
determine the relative advantages and
disadvantages of coming into existence and
never coming to be, we need to compare
1) with 3), and 2) with 4). In the first com?
parison we see that non-existence is
preferable to existence. The advantage is a
real one. In the second comparison, how?
ever, the pleasures of the existent, although
good, are not a real advantage over non
existence, because the absence of pleasures
is not bad. For the good to be a real advan?
tage over non-existence, it would have to
be the case that its absence were bad. To
illustrate this, consider an analogy which,
because it involves the comparison of two
existent people is unlike the comparison
between existence and non-existence in this
way, but which nonetheless may be instruc?
tive. S is prone to regular bouts of illness.
Fortunately for him, he is also so consti?
tuted that he recovers quickly. H lacks the
capacity for quick recovery, but he never
gets sick. It is bad for S that he gets sick
and it is good for him that he recovers
quickly. It is good that H never gets sick,
but it is not bad that he lacks the capacity
to heal speedily. The capacity for quick
recovery, although a good for S, is not a
real advantage over H. This is because the
absence of that capacity is not bad for H
(and H is not worse off than he would have
been had he had the recuperative powers
of S). S is not better off than H in any way,
even though S is better off than he himself
would have been had he lacked the capac?
ity for rapid recovery.
We can ascertain the relative advantages
and disadvantages of existence and non
existence in another way, still in my
original matrix, but by comparing (2) with
(3) and (4) with (1). There are benefits both
to existing and non-existing. It is good that
existers enjoy their pleasures. It is also
good that pains are avoided through non
existence. However, that is only part of the
picture. Because there is nothing bad about
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never coming into existence, but there is
something bad about coming into exist?
ence, all things considered non-existence
is preferable.
One of the realizations which emerges
from some of the reflections so far is that
the cost-benefit analysis of the cheerful ?
whereby one weighs up (1) the pleasures
of life against (2) the evils ? is unconvinc?
ing as a comparison between the desirability
of existence and never existing. The analy?
sis of the cheerful is mistaken because it
involves making the wrong comparison. If
we want to determine whether non-existence
is preferable to existence, or vice versa,
then we must compare the left- and the
right-hand sides of the diagram, which rep?
resent the alternative scenarios in which X
exists and in which X does not exist. Com?
paring the upper and the lower quadrants
on the left, tells us something quite differ?
ent; namely, how good or bad a life X’s is.
Understanding this difference makes it
clear that, although existence holds no ad?
vantages over non-existence, some lives
have advantages over others. Not all cases
of coming into existence are equally dis?
advantageous. The more the positive
features of a life outweigh the negative
ones, the better the life, and so the less
disadvantageous existence is. But so
long as there are some negative aspects,
the life is not preferable to never having
come into existence.
Following from this, there is a difference
between saying that it is better not to come
into existence and saying how great a harm
it is to come into existence. So far I have
argued only for the first claim. The mag?
nitude of the harm of existence varies from
person to person, but I want to suggest now
that the harm is very substantial for every?
body. However, it must be stressed that the
view that it is better never to come into
existence is logically distinct from my view
about how great a harm existence is. One
can endorse the first view and yet deny that
the harm is great. Similarly, if one thinks
that the harm of existence is not great, one
cannot infer from that that existence is pref?
erable to non-existence.
We tend to forget how great the harms
are that we all suffer. There is a strong ten?
dency to consider how well our lives go
relative to others. If we live longer and with
less ill-health and greater comfort than oth?
ers, we count ourselves lucky. And so we
should. At the same time, however, we
should not lose sight of how serious the
harms we all suffer are. That people do tend
to lose sight of this is one important psy?
chological reason why many feel resistance
to my conclusion that coming into exist?
ence is not a benefit. Many people have
very little difficulty seeing why relatively
poor quality lives may not be a benefit.
They would have far less difficulty ex?
tending this judgment to all lives, if they
really saw how great the harms are that
all people suffer.
Take death for example, because it is
something that we all face. We consider a
death at forty as tragic, but tend to be pretty
casual about a death at ninety. Clearly, the
latter person’s life is far preferable to the
former’s (all other things being equal), but
that does not detract from the intrinsic harm
of a death at ninety. Imagine how different
our evaluation would be of a death at ninety
if people commonly lived to one hundred
and twenty years. By contrast, there was a
time when people rarely lived until their
fifties. I take it that at that time living un?
til forty was not regarded as such a
tragedy.3 It becomes clear how flexible our
common evaluations are about which
deaths are serious harms. My view is that
all deaths are serious harms, ceteris pari
bus. How great the harm is relative to
others or to the current norm (which itself
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is determined by the life-span of others)
can vary, but there is a serious intrinsic
tragedy in any death. That we are born des?
tined to die is a serious harm.
Not all share this view of death. One
opposing perspective would see death as
equivalent to pre-conception non-existence.
Those who have this outlook will deny that
death is a harm. They may even seek to
suggest that my view suffers contradiction
in that I think non-existence preferable to
existence, but then see the cessation of ex?
istence as a harm. If coming into existence
is a harm, how can going out of existence
also be a harm? The answer is this.
Whereas pre-conception non-existence or
the non-existence of possible people who
never become actual is not something
which happens to anybody, death (the ces?
sation of existence) is something that
happens to somebody. It happens to the
person who dies. Whereas Epicurus is cor?
rect that where death is, I am not and where
I am, death is not, it does not follow that I
have no reason to regard my death as a
harm. It is, after all, the termination of me
and that prospect is something that I can
regret intensely.
One important objection to the compari?
son I have made between X’s coming into
existence and X’s not coming into exist?
ence is that it is not possible to compare
existence and non-existence. It is said that
non-existence is not any state in which
somebody can be and so it is not possible
for it to be better or worse than existence.
Others have already responded to this ob?
jection. For example, Joel Feinberg has
noted4 that comparing the existence of X
with the non-existence of X is not to com?
pare two possible conditions or states of
X. Rather it is to compare the existence
of X with an alternative state of affairs
(scenario B, in my schema) in which X does
not exist. Such a comparison is possible.
Note that when I say that non-existence
is “better than,” “preferable to” or “has an
advantage over” existence, I am not com?
mitted to saying that it is better, preferable,
or advantageous for the non-existent. The
non-existent are not, and so things cannot
literally be better for them or to their ad?
vantage. When I say that non-existence is
preferable, that judgment is made in terms
of the interests of the person who would
or has otherwise come to exist. The claim
is that for any person (whether possible or
actual), the alternative scenario of never
existing is better.5 It is because the evalua?
tion is always made in terms of the person
that would (or does) exist (that is, the per?
son in scenario A) that my view is not what
has been called “impersonalist,”6 even
though the comparison is with a state of
affairs (scenario B) and not with the state
of a person.7
That existence is a harm may be a hard
conclusion to swallow. Most people do not
regret their very existence. Many are happy
to have come into being because they en?
joy their lives. But these appraisals are
mistaken for precisely the reasons I have
outlined. The fact that one enjoys one’s life
does not make one’s existence better than
non-existence, because if one had not come
into existence there would have been no?
body to have missed the joy of leading that
life and so the absence of joy would not be
bad. Notice by contrast, that it makes sense
to regret having come into existence be?
cause one does not enjoy one’s life. In this
case, if one had not come into existence
then no being would have suffered the life
one leads. That is good, even though there
would be nobody who would have enjoyed
that good.
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Now it may be objected that one cannot
possibly be mistaken about whether one’s
existence is preferable to non-existence. It
might be said that just as one cannot be
mistaken about whether one is in pain, one
cannot be mistaken about whether one is
glad to have been born. Thus if “I am glad
to have been born,” a proposition to which
many people would assent, is equivalent
to “It is better that I came into existence,”
then one cannot be mistaken about whether
existence is better than non-existence. The
problem with this line of reasoning is that
these two propositions are not equivalent.
Even if one cannot be mistaken about
whether one currently is glad to have been
born, it does not follow that one cannot be
mistaken about whether it is better that one
came into existence. We can imagine some?
body being glad, at one stage in his life,
that he came to be, and then (or earlier),
perhaps in the midst of extreme agony, re?
gret his having come into existence. Now
it cannot be the case that (all things con?
sidered) it is both better to have come into
existence and better never to have come
into existence. But that is exactly what we
would have to say in such a case, if it were
true that being glad or unhappy about hav?
ing come into existence were equivalent to
its actually being better or worse that one
came into being. This is true even in those
cases in which people do not change their
minds about whether they are happy to be
have been born.
If what I have said is correct, then there
can be no duty to bring people into exist?
ence. Does it also show that it is actually
wrong to have children, or is procreation
neither obligatory nor prohibited? Is it the
case that our duty not to bring people into
existence applies not only to those who
suffer relative to others, but to all possible
people? An affirmative answer would be
sharply antagonistic to some of the most
deeply seated and powerful human drives,
the reproductive ones. In evaluating
whether it is wrong to have children we
must be acutely aware and suspicious of
these features of our constitution, for they
possess immense powers to bias us in their
favour. At the same time, to embrace the
view that procreation is wrong after fail?
ing to consider the moral significance of
these drives would be rash.
Children cannot be brought into exist?
ence for their own sakes. People have
children for other reasons, most of which
serve their own interests. Parents satisfy
biological desires to procreate. They find
fulfillment in nurturing and raising chil?
dren. Children are often an insurance
policy for old age. Progeny provide par?
ents with some form of immortality,
through the genetic material, values, and
ideas that parents pass on to their children
and which survive in their children and
grandchildren after the parents themselves
are dead. These are all good reasons for
people to want to have children, but none
of them show why having children is not
wrong. Serving one’s own interests is not
always bad. It is often good, but where
doing so inflicts significant harm on oth?
ers, it is not usually justified.
One way, then, to defend the having of
children, even if one accepts my view that
existence is a harm, is to deny that that
harm is great. One could then argue that
the harm is outweighed by the benefits to
the parents. However, there is some rea?
son to think that even if one takes the extra
step and agrees that existence is a great
harm, it still might not be immoral to have
children. I hasten to add that, for reasons I
shall make clear, I am not convinced of
this. I offer the possible defense of having
children not because I think that this activity
must be acceptable
perhaps existence is
so bad that it is wrong to have children ?
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but because something as valued as pro?
creation must not be condemned lightly.
It is morally significant that most people
whose lives go relatively well do not see
their lives as a harm. They do not regret
having come into existence. My arguments
suggest that these views may be less than
rational, but that does not rob them of all
their moral significance. Because most
people who live comfortable lives are
happy to have come into existence, pro?
spective parents of such people are justified
in assuming that, if they have children,
their children too will feel this way. Given
that it is not possible to obtain consent from
people prior to their existence to bring them
into existence, this presumption might play
a key role in a justification for having chil?
dren. Where we can presume that those
whom we bring into existence will not
mind that we do, we are entitled, the argu?
ment might go, to give expression to our
procreational interests. Where these inter?
ests can be met by having either a child
with a relatively good life or a relatively
bad life, it would be wrong if the parents
brought the latter into existence, even
where that child would also not regret its
existence. This is because, if the prospec?
tive parents are to satisfy their procreational
interests, they must do so with as little cost
as possible. The less bad the life they bring
into being, the less the cost. Some costs
(such as where the offspring would lead
a sub-minimally decent life) are so great
that they would always override the par?
ents’ interests.
Those cases in which the offspring turn
out to regret their existence are exceedingly
tragic, but where parents cannot reasonably
foresee this, we cannot say, the argument
would suggest, that they do wrong to fol?
low their important interests in having
children. Imagine, how different things
would be if the majority or even a sizeable
minority of people regretted coming into
existence. Under such circumstances this
possible justification for having children
certainly would be doomed.
The argument for why it might not be
immoral to have children is somewhat
worrying. For example, its paternalistic
form has been widely criticized in other
contexts, because of its inability to rule out
those harmful interferences in people’s
lives (such as indoctrination) that effect a
subsequent endorsement of the interfer?
ences. I am not so sure that this objection
has force in the context of having children.
This is because the harmful action of bring?
ing people into existence is distinct from
the factors that cause the subsequent ap?
proval of that action by the offspring. In
this way it appears different from the harm
of indoctrination.
However, other similar concerns remain.
Coming to endorse the views one is indoc?
trinated to hold is one form of adaptive
preference, where a paternalistic interfer?
ence comes to be endorsed. However, there
are other kinds of adaptive preference of
which we are also suspicious. Desired
goods which prove unattainable can cease
to be desired (“sour grapes”). The reverse
is also true. It is not uncommon for people
to find themselves in unfortunate circum?
stances (being forced to feed on lemons)
and adapt their preferences to suit their
predicament (“sweet lemons”).8 If coming
into existence is as great a harm as I have
suggested, and if that is a heavy psycho?
logical burden to bear, then it is quite
possible that we could be engaged in a mass
self-deception about how wonderful things
are for us. Some may find this suggestion
implausible. They should consider a few
matters. First, there is the phenomenon of
how people’s quality-of-life evaluations
differ and change. Amongst people with?
out any serious disease or disability it is
often thought that such conditions are suf?
ficiently serious harms to make never
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coming to exist preferable to existence with
such harms. Sometimes the claim is even
stronger, that ceasing to exist is preferable
to continued existence with such diseases
or disabilities. Very often, however, people
who have or acquire these same appalling
conditions adapt to them and prefer exist?
ence with these conditions to never existing
(or ceasing to exist). This might suggest,
as some disabilities rights advocates have
argued, that the threshold in judgments
about what constitutes a minimally decent
quality-of-life is set too high. However, the
phenomenon is equally compatible with the
claim that the ordinary threshold is set too
low (so that at least some of us should pass
it). The latter is exactly the judgment which
we can imagine would be made by an ex?
tra-terrestrial with a charmed life, devoid
of any suffering or hardship. It would look
with pity on our species and see the disap?
pointment, anguish, grief, pain, and
suffering that marks every human life and
judge our existence, as we (relatively
healthy and able-bodied humans) judge the
existence of bedridden quadriplegics, to be
worse than the alternative of non-existence.
Our judgments of what constitutes accept?
able limits of suffering are deeply rooted
in the state of our well-being. How can we
be so confident that we are not guilty of
But why should such self-deception be
so pervasive? One explanation is the strong
evolutionary reasons why we might be dis?
posed to view our lives as a benefit. Such
a view facilitates survival, of the individual
and the species.
These issues merit more substantial treat?
ment than I am able to offer here. I am
unsure, therefore, whether the suggested
argument for the permissibility of (some?
times) having children is sound. However,
the worry that adaptive preferences may be
operative does provide one response to an
objection some critics raise, that the fact
that most people do not regret having come
into existence provides compelling reason
to think that their lives are a benefit to them
and therefore that my conclusion to the
contrary must be false. What the adaptive
preference concern shows is that the mere
belief that one has been benefited is not
sufficient to show that one has been ben?
efited or that one’s appraisal is rational. We
would not take a slave’s endorsement of
his slavery as conclusive evidence that sla?
very is in his interests. In the face of an
argument why he was not benefited by his
enslavement, we would view with suspicion
his enthusiasm for his own enslavement. We
should do the same about people’s enthu?
siasm for their having come into existence.
Even if having children is not immoral
(given the presumption we might be en?
titled to make), my argument suggests, at
the very least, that it is not morally desir?
able. Although our potential offspring may
not regret coming into existence, they cer?
tainly would not regret not coming into
existence. Since it is actually not in their
interests to come into being, the morally
desirable course of action is to ensure that
they do not.
One implication of my view is that it
would be preferable for our species to die
out. It would be better if there were no more
people. Many people, but not I, find such
a prospect inherently intolerable.
Imagine that everybody entered a non
procreation pact or even without an
agreement acted on the non-procreation
ideal. No more children would come into
the world and the human population would
age and then become extinct. There is no
chance of this occurring. If our species
comes to an end, it will not be because we
have freely chosen to bring this about
(though it may result from other freely
chosen actions). Nevertheless the possibil?
ity is one which must be considered
because it is a theoretical implication of
This content downloaded from on Fri, 24 Jan 2014 08:31:50 AM
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my view. I agree that there would be some
aspects of the demise of humans which
would be tragic. The last generation to die
out would live in a world in which the
structures of society had broken down.
There would be no younger working gen?
eration growing the crops, preserving
order, running hospitals and homes for the
aged, and burying the dead. The situation
is a bleak one indeed. It is hard to know
whether the suffering of the final people
would be any greater than that of so many
people in each generation. I doubt that it
would, but let us imagine the opposite for
the moment.
I have suggested (with some trepidation)
that having children might not always be
immoral. Assume first that this view is
correct. What if, despite the permissibility
of having children, people acted on the
ideal, forwent having children and suffered
tremendously as a result? How could that
be acceptable as a moral ideal?
The first thing to note is that it would be
an outcome which a generation willingly
(albeit fearfully) would accept upon itself
in the name of the moral ideal. It would be
a supererogatory or heroic decision for
College of Charleston
people to make (especially when they knew
that all others were making it too). They
would be accepting additional suffering
upon themselves to spare possible future
people the harm of existence. That would
be something to be admired even though
the consequences for the heroes would be
extremely unpleasant. If we do not object
to heroic sacrifice in other contexts, why
should we object to it when it would pre?
vent any further suffering?
But what if the assumption that having
children is permissible is mistaken? Even
then we should see that if there is some?
thing tragic about the demise of humanity,
it is not the demise itself but the suffering
that heralds it. I believe that people who
think that the demise itself would be un?
fortunate would be hard-pressed to provide
an explanation of this in terms of the in?
terests of those who could have come into
being. Who would there be to suffer the
end of homo sapiens? One possible sug?
gestion is that it would affect the people
who knew it was going to happen. How?
ever, that would simply be another feature
of the suffering that foreshadowed the end
of human life.9
Received October 21, 1996
1. Only extremely rarely, if ever, is death a good, although it is often the lesser of two evils
where continued life is unbearable.
2. The term “non-existence” is multiply ambiguous. It is applicable to those who never exist
and to those who do not currently exist. The latter can be divided further into those who do not
yet exist and those who are no longer existing. In the current context I am using “non-existence” to
denote those who never exist. Joel Feinberg has argued that the not yet existent and the no
longer existent can be harmed. I embrace that view. What I have to say here applies only to the
never existent.
3. Today, in poorer parts of the world, life expectancy matches that of the developed countries
in former centuries. Notice that we view the shortness of the lives of people in these poorer
countries (and sometimes also of people in earlier times) as tragic, but precisely because we are
comparing their life spans with the life spans to which we are accustomed.
This content downloaded from on Fri, 24 Jan 2014 08:31:50 AM
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4. Joel Feinberg, “Wrongful Life and the Counterfactual Element in Harming” in Freedom and
Fulfillment, p. 19.
5. Some support for such comparisons can be drawn from considering the difference between X’s
living a miserable life and X’s non-existence. Many people find even this comparison troubling,
but others will have sympathy for the idea that non-existence is preferable for X who would
otherwise exist. For them, this kind of comparison might be the thin edge of the wedge, leading
to the other comparative scenarios I am suggesting.
6. See Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, chapter 17.
7. I defend this claim more fully elsewhere.
8. Often, although not always, this will start out as a way to save face, but even then it eventually
can be internalized.
9. I am grateful to APQ reviewers for copious and insightful comments which have helped me to
make significant improvements to this paper.
This content downloaded from on Fri, 24 Jan 2014 08:31:50 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

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