On Antinatalism and Depression
Antinatalism is the view that procreation is morally wrong. Its most well-known current defender is David Benatar, a professor of philosophy at the University of Capetown, who explicated this moral position on procreation in his 2006 book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence. However, antinatalism long predates Benatar’s work. Antinatalism has roots in Buddhism and ancient Greek thought, and a kind of proto-antinatalism was later defended in the pessimistic writings of Arthur Schopenhauer (he assigned a negative value to birth but did not denounce procreation). Other philosophers since Schopenhauer went on to argue that we should desist from procreating, including Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe and Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, as well as contemporary proponents alongside Benatar, such as Seana Shiffrin and Julio Cabrera.
Within the field of procreation ethics, antinatalism has garnered serious debate and deliberation. Many people, though, balk at the idea that bringing new people into the world is morally wrong, which is unsurprising, given the contentious nature of the position. How could procreation, something so biologically-based and normal, be unethical? It would be far too ambitious to address each of the objections to antinatalism in turn, as each rebuttal deserves an essay in itself; so instead, I wish to examine — what I believe is — a particularly poor argument against antinatalism. This is the objection that we should reject antinatalism because only those who are clinically depressed can buy into it.
Hopefully, it’s obvious that the mental health of the proponent of antinatalism does not affect the truth of their argument. What I would like to explore, however, is the possibility that this sort of ad hominem attack, if founded, might actually inadvertently strengthen the case for antinatalism, if we’re going to bring psychology into the equation. In this essay, I will aim to refute this counterargument — as well as support antinatalism — with the concept of ‘depressive realism’, which states that depression can help you see the world more clearly. I will then tie in depressive realism with the kind of philosophical pessimism espoused by Benatar and Schopenhauer that is used to bolster antinatalism.
Antinatalism and Depressive Realism
The main thrust of the aforementioned ad hominem attack is that we should not take antinatalism seriously because its proponents may have a mood disorder that is warping their view of reality. Curiously, though, having some degree of depression could help an individual to better see how things really are, which is surely one of the main — if not the primary — aims of philosophy. This isn’t to say we should make ourselves depressed in order to gain clarity, only that in cases of depression, certain human biases may be suspended, allowing a sense of realism that was previously thwarted by such biases.
Depressive realism is a hypothesis developed by the psychologists Lauren Alloy and Lyn Yvonne Abramson in 1988; it essentially states that depression may afford an individual with a more accurate view of the world than the non-depressed. Or in the words of comedian Drew Michael: “Depression is a medical condition where you see things for what they are.” On this account of depression, it would seem that ameliorating the condition would cloud a person’s view rather than realign with the nature of reality — although, as we shall see, this may only hold true for some individuals some of the time. In terms of the evidence for and against depressive realism, some studies have indeed found that depressed participants were more accurate in their perceptions and judgements than their non-depressed counterparts.
The first piece of favourable evidence comes from Alloy and Abramson, who formulated the depressive realism hypothesis. In a seminal study in 1979, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, participants saw a light bulb on a computer screen and were asked to push a button to turn the light bulb on. In reality, though, they had no control over whether or not the light bulb lit up. After the experiment, the researchers asked the participants (divided into the non-depressed and depressed) whether they thought they had any control over the light bulb. Alloy and Abramson found that non-depressed participants were more likely to think they controlled a light bulb when it turned on compared to their depressed counterparts. The conclusion, then, was that depressed people may have a more realistic perspective on how much control they have in certain situations.
Subsequent research shows a mixture of evidence for and against depressive realism. For instance, a meta-analysis highlights that it is hard to show how the results of studies that support depressive realism apply to the real world, due to the way the studies have been designed. Meanwhile, other studies have shown that depressed participants were less accurate in their predictions about the future than their non-depressed peers. It is difficult to see if the preponderance of research bolsters or weakens the depressive realism hypothesis; nonetheless, there is still evidence in favour of depressive realism in some instances.
The psychiatrist Neel Burton, in writing for Psychology Today, underscores that the scientific literature finds depressive realism only really holds true for those with mild-to-moderate depression and that in these cases of depression, patients can more accurately judge the outcome of contingent events (those which may or may not occur), as well as have a more realistic perception of their capacities and limitations. This contrasts with instances of more severe depression, in which cognitive distortions are pronounced and render appraisals about oneself, others, and the world as inaccurate. One can also see the world as worse than it actually is. In those cases of mild-to-moderate depression, Burton writes:
“This so-called ‘depressive realism’ may enable a person with depression to shed the Pollyanna optimism and rose-tinted spectacles that shield us from reality, to see life more accurately, and to judge it accordingly.
If so, the concept of depression may — at least in some cases — be turned onto its head and positively redefined as something like ‘the healthy suspicion that modern life has no meaning and that modern society is absurd and alienating.’”
Pollyanna optimism, also known as the optimism bias or positivity bias, is inspired by Eleanor H. Porter’s 1913 novel Pollyanna. In the story, the title character Pollyanna Whittier has a philosophy of life based on what she calls ‘The Glad Game’, which involves finding something to be glad about in every situation. The attitude of Pollyanna in the novel has since come to stand for the unconscious bias we have towards the positive. Now, I am certainly not against adopting the attitude of trying to see the silver lining in any situation, but such an attitude, we can say, is distinct from Pollyanna optimism, which can obfuscate one’s vision of the world. For example, Pollyanna optimism involves the tendency to remember pleasant events more accurately than unpleasant events, as well as to paint neutral events as more positive than they actually were.
Benatar, in line with the depressive realism hypothesis, claims that some cases of depression may help to remove a person’s rose-tinted glasses — the optimism bias hardwired in all of us — that makes life seem better than it actually is. Cognitive biases are complex. It is hard to know when either a positivity or negativity bias is at play in our judgements. However, as Benatar points out in an essay for Aeon, “empirical evidence of various cognitive biases, most importantly an optimism bias, suggests that overestimation [of the good] is the more common error.”
There is, of course, an evolutionary value in taking an unduly optimistic view of things, as this can spur on hope and sustain our motivation, which would grant us a greater survival advantage — and make us more likely to procreate — than perhaps a more pessimistic (and realistic) perception of things. A depressed antinatalist, then, may be less happy than a non-depressed pronatalist who sees no moral issue in having kids, but the depressive realism the antinatalist enjoys may actually give them better ground to support their position than the pronatalist who has no depression or who has never had depression.
Now the pronatalist may claim that any mildly depressed antinatalist is more depressed than they think they are, and so their moral arguments about procreation shouldn’t be trusted. But it would be unlikely that out of all the antinatalists who have clinical depression, all of them should have it in its severe form. Regardless, the crucial point is that it’s possible depression will sometimes bolster philosophical pessimism and, in turn, the antinatalist outlook, rather than invalidate antinatalism in the way that protonatalists imagine.
Depressive Realism and Philosophical Pessimism
Philosophical pessimism is the general outlook that aims to face up to the unpleasant realities of the world and eschew irrational hopes that may lead to disappointment. Philosophical pessimists may also argue for differences in the balance of good and bad things in the world, with the latter outweighing the former. Such a line of thinking is often used to defend antinatalism. Here we should draw a distinction between philosophical pessimism and what we may call dispositional pessimism (the psychological tendency of someone to fixate on the negative), although both the philosophical and emotional sides of pessimism may, of course, accompany each other. There is a subtle but crucial difference, nevertheless, between always seeing the bad in life (so the opposite of Pollyanna’s Glad Game) and seeing existence as a net negative, which philosophical pessimists believe to be an accurate perception of the world and the human condition.
In some cases of depression, there can be a pessimism bias or dispositional pessimism, in which you overestimate the likelihood of a negative outcome, as well as amplify negative experiences and emotions. But this may be different from other cases of depression, in which philosophical pessimism is an outcome — and in such cases, the depression may provide stronger support for the premises of antinatalism. To see how this holds up, we need to take a look at the relationship between philosophical pessimism and antinatalism.
Undoubtedly, many antinatalists who profess their moral position appeal to the lifelong, manifold, and deeply unpleasant sufferings that a new person will have to endure after being brought into existence. In Better Never to Have Been, Benatar argues that there are a number of ‘empirical asymmetries’ that support the antinatalist position. Such asymmetries refer to those based on evidence and experience and would include the asymmetry that pain tends to be more unpleasant than pleasure is pleasant. He demonstrates this through the thought experiment of asking us to imagine an offer of accepting a short duration of the very worst torture in order to experience a longer duration of the best pleasures imaginable. Most people, he claims, would intuitively turn down the offer. Pain is more negatively intense than pleasure is positively intense, in both kind and degree. The French philosopher Marquis de Sade underscores this asymmetry between pain and pleasure in Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795): “there is no doubt that we are much more keenly affected by pain than by pleasure”. Schopenhauer also encapsulates this asymmetry when he says:
“Pleasure is never as pleasant as we expected it to be and pain is always more painful. The pain in the world always outweighs the pleasure. If you don’t believe it, compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is eating the other.”
Benatar refers to many other sorts of empirical asymmetries to underpin philosophical pessimism, such as the fact that chronic pain is the norm, whereas chronic pleasure is unheard of. We cannot (yet) experience chronic orgasms or gustatory pleasure, but it is very common to experience things like chronic back pain and slow, painful recoveries from injuries. Benatar goes on to add, in Schopenhauerian fashion:
“When it comes to the satisfaction of desires, things are also stacked against us. Many desires are never satisfied. And even when they are satisfied, it is often after a long period of dissatisfaction. Nor does satisfaction last, for the satisfaction of a desire leads to a new desire — which itself needs to be satisfied some time in the future. When one can fulfil one’s more basic desires, such as hunger, on a regular basis, higher-level desires arise. There is a treadmill and an escalator of desire.
In other words, life is a state of continual striving. We have to expend effort to ward off unpleasantness — for example, to prevent pain, assuage thirst, and minimise frustration. In the absence of our strivings, the unpleasantness comes all too easily, for that is the default.”
These kinds of empirical asymmetries illustrate an important aspect of philosophical pessimism, which states that lives contain more bad than good: more pain than pleasure, more suffering than joy, more dissatisfaction than satisfaction, more loss than gain, more ignorance than knowledge, and so on. For this reason, philosophical pessimists like Schopenhauer and Benatar believe existence is a net harm and thus any new sentient being (either human or non-human) that is brought into the world will, overall, be harmed. Furthermore, with depressive realism in mind, we can posit that depression may afford some individuals with the insight to see these empirical asymmetries clearly — or more clearly — than someone without depression.
But we do not need to suppose that depressive realism is solely about recognising the bad outweighing the good in life. This outlook can generally involve an understanding that the quality and degree of bad things are worse than we previously thought. Even if the good in life outweighs the bad (which it very well might), antinatalism can still follow from the new recognition of just how unpleasant the unpleasant things in life are, and how regularly they occur.
Another way in which depression may bolster — rather than weaken — the case for antinatalism is in its potential to foster compassionate insight. By this, I don’t just mean that chronic depression may motivate you to abstain from procreation due to a perceived risk of producing another person who might have to live with a mental health condition (although this might be a concern for some antinatalists). Rather, if depression helps to engender or strengthen philosophical pessimism, this may lead to a more general compassionate outlook. Recognising the asymmetry between the nature of pain and pleasure, or the asymmetry between the amount of good and bad things in life, can create greater concern for the human predicament and a more passionate drive to alleviate the suffering common to humanity. This attitude can also arise even if the empirical asymmetries turn out to be false — depressive realism may simply provide a more realistic perception of the world, including the extent of suffering in it.
For many people with depression, increased compassion is one of the silver linings of the condition. Moreover, based on the empirical asymmetries previously outlined, a person may be more motivated to reduce suffering in the world than seek to increase pleasure. This kind of negative utilitarianism includes many real-life applications for its proponents, including, for some, refraining from procreation.
Schopenhauer argued that the true basis of morality is compassion. As he writes in On the Basis of Morality (1840), compassion is:
“the immediate participation, independent of all ulterior considerations, primarily in the suffering of another, and thus in the prevention or elimination of it…. Only insofar as an action has sprung from compassion does it have moral value; and every action resulting from any other motives has none.”
If we can feel compassion for potential beings we are thinking of bringing into existence (based on the compassion we already feel for existing beings), and we want to prevent further unnecessary suffering, then antinatalism would appear to be a natural extension of compassion. I think it’s also worth mentioning here that antinatalism does not preclude having children per se, only bringing new sentient life into existence. For this reason, adoption still persists as an option for those who find the antinatalist arguments convincing and who are adamant about giving up the potential meaning to be found in parenthood. This is a point that Benatar is keen to underline. Making this sort of decision as an antinatalist will be a further way of reducing human suffering in the world, considering the countless number of children desperate for homes.
There are many reasons we should be wary about dismissing antinatalism based on presumptions about someone’s mental health. The possibility that depression could support the philosophical position is one such reason, which I hope this discussion has helped to elucidate. At the same time, the arguments for and against antinatalism should be dealt with in their own right. Appeals to mental health aren’t necessary to either defend or refute the position. Furthermore, assessing the arguments for antinatalism, in and of themselves, will better guide decisions about bringing new people into the world, which, as the antinatalists rightly argue, is a serious choice. It’s serious, not because it will affect the lives of the parents, but because it involves bringing a new being into the world, a sentient being who will likely live out more than 80 years of existence on the planet — and in the society — we are leaving them with.