Opinion | How Can I Justify Bringing New Life Into This Terrible World?
Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film “Children of Men” depicts a dystopia of childlessness. For the past 18 years, the human race has been completely infertile, with no new babies born anywhere in the world. As the species faces the possibility of extinction, society is in an advanced state of collapse. In the southern England where the film is set, normal life — franchise coffee shops, the empty grind of office work — carries on. But only by pushing to its margins a state of exceptional suffering, as Britain’s authoritarian government turns what used to be whole seaside towns into hellish refugee camps.
In his book “Capitalist Realism,” the philosopher Mark Fisher claimed that the question “Children of Men” poses is: “How long can a culture persist without the new?” In the movie, there is (barring one fragile exception, which drives the plot) no future for the human race. And this makes it impossible for the characters to fully experience either the present or the past. Without a better future to hope for, there is no ultimate point in any of the characters being alive. What hope they have left is “senseless.” With every step they take, the people in this dying, childless world stand on the threshold of despair.
Dr. Fisher was writing not long after the film had come out. But “Children of Men” has become much cited in our current apocalyptic moment. Its dystopia is one that resonates with how we live now. For with the pandemic has come not only an immense toll of death, sickness and immiseration but also, for many, a loss of joy and possibility — disenchanting our feeling for the future. If we are minimally functioning, we feel grateful for it; who knows if we might ever hope for something more. If you are under the age of 40 or so, this is almost certainly not even the worst global crisis you will face over the course of your life.
So is it any surprise that people don’t seem to want to have kids?
At the start of lockdown, some puckishly predicted that all those couples locked away together would set off a pandemic baby boom. In fact, across the developed world at least, the exact opposite has proved true: In the United States, an estimated 300,000 fewer babies are expected in 2021. And Europe has experienced the most severe slump in its birthrate since the end of the 1970s.
What is driving the Covid “baby bust”? Perhaps some of it can be explained by people simply getting sick of each other, feeling unable to maintain the mystery and romance in their relationship. More profoundly, the pandemic has compounded the material difficulties — low wages, high rents and insecure jobs — faced by the generation that came of age in the wake of the 2008 economic crash. Birthrates have been plummeting in the developed world for some time now. And it isn’t just about good access to contraception.
Increasingly, young people feel not only deeply uncertain and insecure about the state of their own lives, but also so drastically concerned about the state of the world that they almost feel it would be an act of cruelty to bring new life into it.
Modern birth control has made having children a choice in way that was never possible before, but the idea is not necessarily new. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Cathars, a heretic sect that flourished across southern France and northern Italy, preached that the material world was created by Satan and denounced reproduction as a sin. In the 19th century, the notoriously gloomy philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote that “Far from bearing the character of a gift, human existence has entirely the character of a contracted debt.” And in recent decades, the South African philosopher David Benatar has argued extensively in support of the doctrine of “anti-natalism” — the belief that birth is morally wrong.
According to Professor Benatar, reproduction is usually, if not always, a selfish act: “Most people, where they even make a decision to have a child, make that decision, I suspect, in order to serve their own procreative and related interests,” he writes in his 2006 book “Better to Have Never Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence.” At one point, he even likens baby-making to taking hostages, a strategy on behalf of “breeders” to increase their value in the eyes of society. (His case study: If two people need a kidney and only one of them is the single mother of a young child, who does society think should get the kidney?)
At this point, Professor Benatar’s argument meets one made by another contemporary thinker, the queer theorist Lee Edelman. His 2004 book “No Future” attacked what he called “reproductive futurism,” a sort of patriarchal, homophobic fallacy that posits “the child” as “the fantasmatic beneficiary of every political intervention.” Won’t somebody please think of the children?
But the “baby bust” may also reflect what seems to be a growing common sense among the highly educated and liberal minded, which holds that not having children is the morally right thing to do. Having a child, we are told, is among the heftiest additions you can make to your “carbon footprint” — especially if your child grows up to be the sort of pampered citizen of the developed world who will eat steak, fly on airplanes and mine bitcoin. (Having one fewer child, according to one study, prevents 58.6 tons of carbon emissions every year.)
And, of course, any children born now will not only contribute to climate change, they will also have to live through its effects. If “millennials” like me — the people most likely to be having children — have already suffered a major fall in living standards relative to our parents’ generation, then our kids may have things even worse.
This was a problem that I was confronted with — immediately, overwhelmingly — when in January 2019, on an ultrasound screen streamed directly from my partner Edie’s belly, I first saw the shapes that would grow up into my son, Iggy. Wriggling around, he was bony and translucent, never sitting still long enough for the technician to get the measurements she needed — an involuntary mischief, which nevertheless made me feel strangely proud. I loved this thing, and Edie and I had always wanted to be parents. But was my love for my unborn child really anything more than the selfish, perhaps patriarchal desire to see my genes carried on? Previously, such anti-natalist worries had seemed abstract, but now they had become concrete. Might I honestly be able to guarantee this gray little tadpole even the possibility of a good-enough life?
I am a professional philosopher, so I had no real way of articulating this anxiety other than to understand it as a philosophical problem. In the “Critique of Pure Reason,” Immanuel Kant tells us that “all the interests of my reason,” theoretical as well as practical, “combine” in just three questions: “What can I know?” “What ought I do?” and “What can I hope for?” In these three questions, Kant delineated the whole scope of philosophical thought. And, really, what I found myself asking was the third question: What can I hope for?
I know that the world is far from perfect — indeed, that it is imperfect in ways that make a philosophical position as extreme as anti-natalism seem like something close to simple common sense. But can I reasonably hope that the world might get better, in ways that justify bringing new life into it?
Kant, for his part, thought that we could only satisfactorily answer his third question through the belief in God. If we do everything we ought to, he wrote, we become worthy of happiness. Everyone, therefore, “has ground to hope for happiness in the measure in which he has rendered himself by his conduct worthy of it.”
But unfortunately, this is not quite how things work in the real world. For this reason, Kant says that “the alleged necessary connection of the hope of happiness with the necessary endeavor to render the self worthy of happiness” can only be established under “the ideal of the supreme good,” an ideal that he sees not only as manifested in some particular being, but also in the afterlife: a prospect which any all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful deity worth its salt would use as an incentive to reward the good and punish the wicked.
But Kant was writing in 1781, when atheism was dangerous enough to cost you your lecturing job. We now live in secular times (even if not everyone feels in step with them). And so I wanted a secular solution to the problem, leaving aside the matter of personal religious belief. Ultimately, I found it in one of the last places one might expect: in two quotes from Franz Kafka, a writer more often allergic to hope.
The first is from a fragment of conversation, as reported by Kafka’s friend and literary executor Max Brod, the man whom Kafka tasked with destroying all his work after his death, but who ended up publishing it instead.
“I remember a conversation with Kafka which began with present-day Europe and the decline of the human race.
“We are nihilistic thoughts, suicidal thoughts, that come into God’s head,” Kafka said. This reminded me at first of the Gnostic view of life: God as the evil demiurge, the world as his Fall.
“Oh no,” said Kafka, “our world is only a bad mood of God, a bad day of his.”
“Then there is hope outside this manifestation of the world that we know.”
He smiled. “Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope — but not for us.”
The second is from a diary entry dated March 1922, during the period when Kafka was working on perhaps his most characteristic masterpiece, “The Castle” — a despondently comic parable of precarity and the longing for salvation. Here, Kafka describes a certain profound sensation of hope:
“This pure feeling I have and my certainty of what has caused it: the sight of the children … the rousing music, the marching feet. A feeling of one in distress who sees help coming but does not rejoice at his rescue — nor is he rescued — but rejoices, rather, at the arrival of fresh young people imbued with confidence and ready to take up the right; ignorant, indeed, of what awaits them, but an ignorance that inspires not hopelessness but admiration and joy in the onlooker and brings tears to his eyes.”
Taken together, these two quotes allow us to trace the outlines of a theory: What if hope exists not for any individual human being now living — but rather for the members of future generations, who though powerless to redeem us, might nevertheless be able to overturn the injustices we have been subject to and carve out a better existence for themselves? In this view, hope is not for “us” but it is nevertheless related to us, by means of our connection to other, future human beings. “I” might not be able to hope for anything. But “we” certainly can meaningfully hope for a better world — through the actions we might take, through the world and across generations, together.
This, at any rate, is how I would answer the anti-natalist position. It makes no sense to think of children as tokens of their parents’ carbon consumption, inheriting a taste for steak and air travel. And it makes no sense to think that whole generations might simply be blindly condemned to a certain fate, before they have even been conceived. The reason for this is that human action is not determined in any hard sense: human beings exist transformatively in relation to their world. Another philosopher, Hannah Arendt, referred to this fact with the concept of “natality” — “the new beginning inherent in birth.”
The world might well be a terrible place, but by having a child, you are introducing something new into it. Of course, this is a sort of gamble with reality: You don’t yet know who your child might be. But if we dare to do it, to bring something new into the world, we might hit upon the right path — and then things really could, conceivably, get better.
To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that if you really don’t want kids, or if you can’t have them — for whatever reason, financial or biological — then you’re somehow less morally good than the people that do. I admit there’s a danger that this might all come across as mere “reproductive futurism,” the future endlessly deferred to some hypothetical child, who it is incumbent on couples (heterosexual couples, for the most part) to produce. Or else it might seem as if I’m preaching a sort of idle waiting, every generation sitting around hoping for “the kids” to come along and tell everyone what to do. But these failings are not inherent to the theory. They can be overcome.
In the wake of the pandemic, we must work to reverse the ways in which — both as a result of it, but also in the decades leading up to it — we have become increasingly isolated from one another, reduced to atomized cocoons of individuals and their families. And kids, if nothing else, can be a huge part of that resistance. Children, in truth, require many people, not just their parents, to help them flourish: Raising children need not mean (ought not to mean!) forming a private home to keep them safely contained in, away from the world. They must be raised to participate in it — through the care and guidance of grandparents, godparents, teachers, friends, community. And so actually having kids is far from the only way to help bring about the future we must hope can be made not only for or through future generations, but with them, too.
I am happy enough, at any rate, with the gamble Edie and I took. We have a wonderful boy: alert, inquisitive and strong. He’s a little shy perhaps, but he bursts with excitement for the little things that interest him in the world: buses, traffic lights, the doors of the houses we pass on the street. He is the central point of his own reality, but soon enough he is going to have to learn to live with new life, too. We are defying the baby bust: Our second child is due in September. I cannot wait to meet them. I cannot wait to help them — just as I am sure so many others, in love and hope, will help them — to become themselves.
Tom Whyman is a philosopher and the author of the forthcoming “Infinitely Full of Hope: Fatherhood and the Future in an Age of Crisis and Disaster,” from which this essay is adapted.
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