This is an English translation of the first chapter of the book Porque te amo, Não Nascerás! Nascituri te Salutant (2009). I was given permission by Julio Cabrera in an email exchange with him to translate this chapter and upload it here. The original book in Portuguese can be accessed here or here (alternative link).
Have a good read.
In this book, which could be called, with Schopenhauerian irony, The World as Birth and Procreation, the authors make an invitation to a shared reflection about these delicate issues. Both sincerely hope that reading this curious material (half philosophical essay, half novel) will be of interest and benefit to its readers, and that it will serve to make it clear why they consider good and enlightened those people who say (or imagine to say) to their possible son or daughter: Because I love you, you will NOT be born!
Child number 12 (and third of co-authorship) of Julio Cabrera and number 1 (and probably the only one) of Thiago Lenharo di Santis, the book was born from the fortunate encounter of the two authors, when Cabrera was a professor and Thiago was an undergraduate student of philosophy in the UnB (University of Brasília), around the year 2006. They immediately discovered the remarkable coincidences around these lucid and unpopular thoughts, sharing a moral indignation towards the coldness and detachment with which thousands of humans are dumped daily on planet Earth only for the distraction of their parents or as a mere involuntary product of it.
List of sentences
She already has a job, a cell phone, a car, a house, and a husband. Only a child is missing!
I love my unborn children intensely! An earlier and deeper love of which parents are denied forever.
That graceful and worried little baby, a baby philosopher thinking before being born, that was you!
My little daughter playing with her kite, so carefree . . . She has no idea of everything that is waiting for her.
The experience of fatherhood and motherhood is extraordinary . . . for the parents.
This book can be seen in multiple ways, even as a proposal or a challenge for those who are willing to love their future children above all else, to love them beforehand with all generosity and protection possible, with a love so big that it is capable of putting the innocent in the privileged and safe place of non-being. A love that walks away from egoism and manipulation, and that finds, in the consideration and affection for others, all the compassion and respect that a human being can deserve; a moral kind of love.
It is known that in ancient Rome the gladiators greeted the emperor with the saying Morituri te salutant, “Those who will die (for your entertainment) salute you.” Thus, in the same way, Nascituri te salutant says: “Those who will be born (for your entertainment) salute you.” And, even better, “Those who will not be born thank you.”
To view comments, criticisms and observations about the book and its authors, access the website: http://www.porqueteamonaonasceras.com.br. [I have added a link from Wayback Machine on the highlighted text above, so that the readers can see what the website of the book looked like. It is in Portuguese.]
The authors dedicate this work to their beloved children.
May their non-birth be the most sublime proof of this love.
About birth and procreation: if “taking a life” is morally problematic, why would “giving a life” also not be?
(Julio Cabrera, under the pseudonym of Julio Cabrera).
Considerations about the decision to create a new being
(from their point of view)
(Thiago Lenharo di Santis, under the pseudonym of Thiago di Diabolis).
Letters of abstention (to be born, or not to be born, that is the question)
(The brief and abrupt correspondence between the young negative philosopher Thiago di Diabolis and the austere teacher Julius von Kabra, possible descendant of Julio Cabrera).
This book, about the moral problem of procreation and birth (unpopular and almost unaddressed subject throughout the history of philosophy), was born from the natural and unplanned confluence of two thinkers, a young man who is entering philosophy and an old thinker who is going out from it. This confluence does not mean agreement in each topic or resolution, but an intellectual and affective affinity on the subject, and a shared moral indignation towards the coldness and detachment with which thousands of humans are dumped daily on planet Earth only for our distraction or as an involuntary product of it.
The work intentionally adopts an intermediate tone between philosophical argumentation and literary narrative. The first two chapters are expository and present the basic texts on the problem; the third is a literary resource (an unexpected exchange of letters) capable of provoking a discussion about the authors’ subject of predilection. The styles of the book are therefore varied, from the exercise of aphorism (chapter 1), essay (chapter 2) and epistolary style (chapter 3).
The illustrations contribute to the book being seen, in a way, as a product of pop philosophy (or “popular philosophy” in William James’s words), in the sense of being accessible and interesting not only to broad and tolerant professional philosophers (we suppose optimistically that they exist), but also for any thoughtful people concerned about what goes on around.
In Brazilian terms, it could be seen, in an approximate way, as an attempt to write a “Pau Brazil” philosophical text: “In the case of Alice’s story books . . . illustrations are not decorative, but images intrinsically connected with the informative process of the text, thus providing a co-information at the visual level in solidarity with the verbal message of the text. The book of poems as conceived by Oswald . . . is part of this tradition” (Haroldo de Campos, Uma poética da radicalidade, In Andrade Oswald De, Pau Brasil. Editora Globo, São Paulo, 2003, 2ᵃ edição, p. 48/9).
Not only in its “concrete” or “physical” aspects would the present book be Oswaldian, but also in the option for aphorisms, short and abrupt texts, frequent cuts, blunt paragraphs, drawings, photos and notes constantly interrupting the traditional flow of reading. Our experience, however, does not pretend to be poetic, but philosophical, in the sense of an explicit will to think, to say how the world is or seems to be (The World as Birth and Procreation). But in this sense, the poetry of Oswald de Andrade is also philosophical.
Another philosophical-literary reference of Nascituri is Kierkegaard (particularly his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments), a writer who exhaustively used the infernal resource of perpetual and multiple remission to attempt to convey his singular philosophy of singularity, which would be certainly rejected by any attempt of traditional exposition. So it is with our subject.
Despite the preface that the reader will find below, the book is not yet in its second edition. It is only, as will be seen, a literary resource. But we hope that this fiction will soon come true. This, on the formal domain. On the domain of ideas, perhaps the authors aim for the exact opposite: that what is now reality (the irresponsible procreative explosion) becomes, in centuries to come, just an unlikely fiction.
Thiago Lenharo di Santis.
PREFACE OF THE SECOND EDITION
The following scattered papers (written in the time of electronic computers) were found in the house of the philosopher Julio Cabrera after his suicide (which happened at the beginning of the last century), along with his numerous unpublished works. These texts contain his writings on the forbidden subject of birth and procreation. Already in his Diário de um filósofo no Brasil (Diary of a Philosopher in Brazil), Cabrera had intentionally withheld these texts in the section where the main lines of his ethical-negative thought were outlined, considering them not understandable to ordinary prejudiced minds.
His executors found the name of my grandfather, Santiago di Diabolis (also commited suicide in 2042), written on the cover of one of Cabrera’s briefcases of unpublished works, and immediately contacted him. It was the dead philosopher’s wish for my grandfather to deal with the editing of these accursed papers. It seems that Santiago had been a student of some of Cabrera’s courses of ethics at the beginning of the 21st century, and it seems that they planned to write a book together. For some reason difficult to discover, after so much time passed, neither my grandfather nor my father answered Cabrera’s last request. Now I intend to do so after generations of indifference and postponement.
The main and most organized text of Cabrera (I dismissed many others) is called ABOUT BIRTH AND PROCREATION: IF “TAKING A LIFE” IS MORALLY PROBLEMATIC, WHY WOULD “GIVING A LIFE” ALSO NOT BE? This text basically presents the line followed in a course of Negative Ethics offered to students of the now disappeared University of Goiânia, in the distant years of 2006, at the beginning of the last century. This text, obsessively inspired by the primordial intuition about the lack of value of human life (the initial spark of all of Cabrera’s ethical-metaphysical thought), presents what he considered the three moral problems of procreation.
These texts immediately moved me a lot. As long as I can remember, I am entirely sympathetic to the idea of not being born, and I regard it as the most revolutionary idea of all practical philosophy. Nothing positive can be done to match this radical refusal.
I, personally, do not like that I was born, although my life is very pleasant both in affective and erotic terms, as well as in intellectual and economic, modest but sufficient. In fact, well before reading Cabrera’s texts, I had written my own reflections on the subject in a text called CONSIDERATIONS ABOUT THE DECISION TO CREATE A NEW BEING. The coincidence with some of the points raised by Cabrera is astonishing, as if, somehow, we had influenced each other throughout the ages, through the mediation (or omission) of my clumsy grandfather.
From this crude observation I decided to publish the two texts together, his and mine, to the extent of my economic possibilities (because I am very afraid that these publications will have to be self-financed due to their irritating and absurd nature to common philosophical sensitivity).
The first edition of the book was released a few months ago. Something very strange happened at this point. Immediately after the publication of the material, I began to receive letters from an enigmatic correspondent, fascinated and at the same time disgusted by our ideas; he scandalously suggested that he was a descendant of the author of Projeto de Ética Negativa (Project of Negative Ethics). The letters kept coming to my mailbox containing rich comments about my text. This forced me, almost compulsively (because of the obviously controversial nature of the unexpected correspondence), to respond to the messages with new reflections on birth and procreation and related subjects. The mysterious author of the missives never introduced himself, and as time went on, I began to doubt his very existence, as if he were a projection of my own tormented ego. He was married with two children and I had the opportunity to meet his wife very briefly.
One day, the letters stopped coming and our dialogue broke off without any explanation, just as abruptly as it had begun. Despite all this, Professor Julius von Kabra (so he signed) never sent his address or made any move to facilitate our meeting. Anyway, in the successive editions of the book, I decided to publish everything together: Cabrera’s classic text, my own text, professor Von Kabras’s letters and my replies. The reader will notice some gaps in the epistolary because several letters—mine and his—have been lost or destroyed by me in various states of anger. I forgot to say that Professor von Kabra also added some footnotes to Cabrera’s text, which I preserved in full, although some of them were pedantic and aggressive. As for the drawings, they were made (according to Professor Kabra’s own statement) by his daughter Érika.
I hope with all my heart that reading this curious material will be of benefit to everyone, but especially that it will convince the good and enlightened people of this world that the best they can do for their possible children is to keep them indefinitely as possible beings. May the mere promise of children serve to bear the suffering of being, without needing to create more suffering and more being. May the fact that my grandfather and my father did not refrain from procreation (and the fact that I abstained from killing myself until now) serve at least for this unsuccessful descendant to free someone, by means of negative literature, from the misfortune of being born.
Thiago di Diabolis, Septober of 2121.
Remark: When reading the texts of Cabrera, the reader of the 22st century may wonder about some datings. It is worth remembering that in the twentieth century, at the time Cabrera wrote his work, there were only 12 months (January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November and December). He did not know the modifications of calendar that occurred as a result of the surprising astronomical discoveries of the middle of the 21st century, which forced to add the new three months that we know today (maypril, junaugust and septober).
ABOUT BIRTH AND PROCREATION
(IF “TAKING A LIFE” IS MORALLY PROBLEMATIC, WHY WOULD “GIVING A LIFE” ALSO NOT BE?)
Julio Cabrera, 2006
Here it will be developed an idea of procreation already found in Seneca, the classic writer of negative ethics. Three lines of argument about a moral problematization of birth will be presented: the inconvenience of giving something of bad quality to someone who cannot refuse it; the possibility of a manipulation that could have been avoided; and the disrespect of the hypothetical autonomy of the unborn. But only the ethical path is blocked: there are many other justifications for procreating; and for killing.
About the immense and inescapable seriousness of the moral problem of procreation
“Well, well, come on . . . the moral problem of being born! What is that? You must be kidding! . . . How is it that being born can be judged morally?” And, notwithstanding, that is what it is about, my friends: judging life morally, even if this disturbs Nietzsche.
My thought (which had to fight its way through the end of the prejudiced twentieth century, at a time when subjects such as euthanasia and suicide were still taboo) aims to show, by means of arguments (it is not just an individual páthos or a literary frivolity) that the ultimate basis of our life (and our morality) cannot be moral, that it is at least amoral and often anti-moral; that living is not something that can be morally justified.
(It was difficult, in this noisy “anti-metaphysical” century, to speak again about an “ultimate basis,” but I believe that this unanimous rejection of any kind of “fundamentalism” is one of the most scandalous affirmative maneuvers of this mediocre and superficial century that I had the misfortune to live in.)
In fact, the indignation of the moral philosopher on this subject should already explode in the midst of the most banal everyday moments, because people often have conversations in front of us like the following:
— How many children are you planning to have?
— Ah, many, as many as we can, within our means. As many as God tells us to. A home full of children is always a great joy, and I owe it to my wife, who has gone through so many anxieties and sufferings.
— Blessed are you who can have all the children you want. I have problems with infertility, but we are trying to solve it; we also want to have many children, if possible.
— We did not want to have children so far, we did not think it was the right moment, because raising a child is expensive, but we did our calculations and now we believe we are in a good position to have them.
— It is good to ponder and see if children will not require a very large decrease in our standard of living, or mean a nuisance in our professions and projects rather than a benefit.
— I’d like to have a little couple, but two of the same sex is fine, too.
— Nowadays, by ultrasound, it is possible to know a lot about the baby before it is born. In many countries, you can even buy small movies showing your baby’s movements.
If the reader does not shudder at these types of phrase exchanges, finding them perfectly normal, they will not yet be a suitable reader for the present text. The levity, lightheartedness and even frivolity with which people speak of “having children,” how many they will have and how the children will be like, what will be done with them and what is expected of them, and even how they can be exhibited already before they are born, points to open and public manipulation that shows how these attitudes are accepted and celebrated by societies of the entire world. Nobody shudders, everyone not only thinks it is good, but also praises people who thus express themselves and act accordingly.
But, precisely, the following text is philosophical because it shudders when no one else does, analyzes and criticizes where no one analyzes or criticizes, as has always been the radical task of philosophy (even if it loses daily its radical nature in the so called “professional philosophy”).
Because the previous dialogue seems very similar to the following:
— How many cars are you planning to buy?
— Ah, many, as many as we can, within our means. As many as God allows us to. A house with many cars is always something very good, and I owe it to my wife, who had to use public transport for a long time, going through anxieties and sufferings.
— Blessed are you who can buy as many cars as you want. I have problems with my bank credit, but we are trying to solve it. We also want to have more than one car, if it’s possible.
And it continues:
— So far we did not want to have them, we did not think it was the best time, because keeping a car is expensive, but we did our calculations and now we believe we are in good condition to have one.
— It’s good to ponder and see if having more than one car is not going to cause a very large decrease in our standard of living, or mean a nuisance in our professions and projects rather than a benefit.
— I would like to have two cars, one of more quality (maybe imported) and another for day-to-day, but if they are two economy cars, it’s fine.
— Nowadays, on several internet websites it is possible to know a lot about a car even before it is released in the market. In many countries, you can watch small movies showing the characteristics of your car while it’s in motion.
The astonishing ease with which these two discourses can be put in parallel shows how far we have come in a strongly manipulative and objectifying attitude in the subject of procreation. But the worst is not this, but the fact that nobody finds the slightest problem in this, that manipulation has become totally banal to the point of indignation and shudder concerning it being seen as something abnormal and untenable.
In the first dialogue, we can even notice something along the lines of a “responsible” concern on the part of the prospective parents: it is good that they worry, that they do not have their children suddenly and thoughtlessly, that they calculate the best moment and the number of children that they want to have, so that they can provide the minimum living conditions for them. But at no moment they become aware of the total pragmatism with which these “responsible” calculations are made, as if the conversation were about the purchase of pieces of furniture; a curious utilitarian and functional responsibility where the distinction between things and human beings tends to be diluted.
This utilitarian and functional stance is clearly seen in the public policies of procreation. Governments are very concerned about the decline in their economically active population, and they are frightened by a growing population of old retirees and unproductive people. In addition to the empty speeches about “the wonders of life,” procreating people is part of an international business, part of the process of producing useful and efficient commodities, a type of production subject to calculations and predictions like any other.
Many countries, which care little about the “sacred” nature of human life in other sectors, are already encouraging people to have more babies. In France, there is an incentive for families to have a third child (in addition to the regular two), through a monthly reward of 960 euro from pregnancy to adolescence, so that the economic problem is not a hindrance.
Thus, in addition to the direct manipulation of the parents, there is an ongoing social, economic and political calculation, at a planetary level, aiming at ensuring that productivity does not fall below the limits tolerable to the market of lives. “Philosophical” discourses about the “sacredness” of life and its wonders arrive just for closing the mercantile and utilitarian circle of the production of human life on the planet, as if what is commercially lacking must also be shown to be “good” .
But it is not good! In the first of the three lines of argument about the morality of procreation that I develop in this text, I try to show how human life is dark and sinister, incredibly violent and deeply immoral. (Actually, it shows what is totally trivial and everyone knows, but it has become important to point out and formulate, given the extraordinary power of concealment.) Obviously, this aspect of my philosophy goes in the opposite direction to the planetary business of indiscriminate creation of life, in a clearly anti-economic thought. Curiously, the twentieth century loudly celebrated the fall of the metaphysical and theological references of thought, but it continues to speak of the “value of human life,” a concept that was clear in the light of that referential but has now become diffuse and incomprehensible.
The reproduction of these utilitarian speeches about children and cars points to a second line of argument about the morality of procreation: that of manipulation. Just as in the first line I argue in the sense that it is morally indefensible to impose something that has neither sensible nor moral quality, in this other line, I argue in the sense of being morally indefensible to treat others as a means to goals and purposes that are extrinsic, familial, or state related (here, of course, we find the heart of the second Kantian formulation of the categorical imperative).
My third line attempts to show that it is also morally indefensible to suppose that if the unborn could autonomously give their opinion about their own birth (in a retroactive argument, much used in contemporary bioethics, especially in the issue of abortion), they would certainly say yes, that they wish to be born, without any shadow of a doubt, and would always be against any obstacle placed at their birth if they saw that they would have a chance to live a “healthy and normal life.” I believe that this assumption is reckless and logically goes beyond what the available premises allow, because the retroactive experiment is constructed in a partial and biased way which does not allow a hypothetical “rational agent” to make a thoughtful decision.
To facilitate the reading of the following text, I present here a brief summary of the three lines: (1) To challenge the usual idea that when giving birth to someone, we are giving something “valuable”; (2) To point to the inevitable “manipulation” of the very act of procreation; (3) To put in question the idea that, if someone could be consulted, they would ask to be born. Each of the three sections of my work deals with one of these lines. In them we already see what we can understand here by “morality,” according to which it is not correct: (1) to give someone something that we consider to be not valuable; (2) manipulate them; (3) disrespect their autonomy. I believe these three things happen when we procreate. This philosophical result may lead many people to either extend their moral scruples beyond the usual, or to expose clearly and without hypocrisy how little scrupulous they are willing to be, or it could lead to a ad absurdum refutation of their own moral worldview.
My three lines of argument are philosophical and structural. This means that they should not be confused with other anti-procreative lines based on intra-worldly and empirical motivations. Some of the reasons given by these other trends are, for example, the following. One should give up having children because: (a) they introduce limitations to our lives, they take away our time, they hinder the full development of our vocations and interests; (B) they require a large amount of economic investment to be able to sustain them in a respectable way; (C) they create distances in the couple, they introduce affective disturbances (the man is neglected, etc.); (D) they represent a serious ecological problem; births happen without any kind of control over the planet’s effective possibilities.
In none of these lines does human suffering, the lack of value of life or the manipulation of others play any role; on the contrary, as we have seen, they are strongly utilitarian arguments where it seems that human life is good, so good that children could (if created at inopportune moments) harm it, bring problems to individuals or to the species. Life is good, children are not good. My line here is exactly the opposite: there is nothing wrong with children, but there is something profoundly wrong with human life, which leads to the moral convenience of sparing them of what we know to be unpleasant for them, even when this decision spoils our own pleasure and satisfaction.
Apparently, our affirmative societies and their moral theories are very concerned with the manipulation of human beings. But the concern with manipulation seems unilateral, because it is vehemently denounced, for example, in the case of suicide (Kant said that in suicide the person uses their own body as a means), less vehemently in the case of homicide (affirmative societies accept innumerable exceptions of manipulating the life of others, based on the ideologies of “self-defense” and “security”), and never mentions the obvious and evident manipulation of procreation. So it does not seem to be manipulation stricto sensuu that concerns affirmative societies: the body is disposed as a means both when one decides to end life as when it is decided to continue living, and one both disposes of the body of others as a means when one decides to end their life as well as (even more) when one decides to procreate them.
People proclaim that “the experience of parenthood is extraordinary” and recommend it to all (and denigrate those who have not gone through it). But we can wonder: “Extraordinary for whom?” It is certainly extraordinary for the parents. When they say that not only they will be happy and satisfied with the experience but also their children, they do not realize the immense asymmetry and mismatch between these two experiences, the experience of creating and of being created. The created child is compelled to accept the experience, to make it good and interesting (and even extraordinary); what other option would they have? This obligation is not present in the parents, where the “extraordinary” nature of the experience is part of an engaging and unilateral project. The situations of both parties are not comparable.
Thus, when some reply: “There is no sense in you wanting to show that life is bad; you cannot decide for your child; maybe they will like to live,” what does that mean? Of course, in a sense, they are compelled to like life! But this “liking” will always be a desperate acceptance. The created child is not in a position of really liking life. They could like it if they had really chosen to come into being. Faced with the fait accompli, they are forced to cling desperately to life. Either they “like it” or they will be destroyed (by a mental illness, or by the hostility of others).
The present text deals with these issues that are never addressed, until now kept unpublished for fear of retaliations and affirmative revenge, Christian or Nietzschian (deep down, very similar).
Precisely, I began by saying that my line of reasoning was anti-Nietzschean. I want to finish this introduction by clarifying why, if this is no longer evident¹. What is at issue here is the attempt of a moral-rational consideration of procreation, about the fact of, as they say, “giving life,” although such “giving” is still obscure. To stop seeing procreation as a vital explosion that justifies itself. Screams deafen us, but after recovering, we ask ourselves for their reason of being. This means that, as a methodological question, “life as a court of last resort” will not be accepted here. I am inviting you to a shared reflection about a possible moral justification of “having children.”
1: The two references to Kant and this anti-Nietzschean conclusion show to what extent Cabrera’s ethical thought has always moved within the reflective environment of these two philosophers. He imperatively needs the Kantian notion of morality to build his theoretical edifice. Without it, everything falls apart. To better understand these Kant/Nietzsche crossings, see Julio Cabrera, “Para uma defesa nietzscheana da ética de Kant (à procura do super-homem moral). Uma reflexão semântica” Cadernos Nietzsche, número 6, São Paulo, 1999. (Note from v. Kabra.)
It is frequently said that having children is something “natural.” But many things that are morally wrong (such as violence, for example) are “natural.” Throughout the history of ethics, we get tired of listening to moralists saying that we have to resist our “natural” impulses (gluttony, alcohol, drugs, sensitive excesses in general) to be virtuous. The impulse to reproduce can be placed on the same “natural” level as the feeding and aggressive impulses. Why should these be resisted in the name of moral virtue, and the former not? On the other hand, homosexual conduct has often been condemned for being “unnatural.” The moral discourse, according to the winds, seems to be on the side of nature or against it. After all, it seems that the notion of “nature” is used fallaciously and unilaterally.
In this text of mine, I will always be concerned with morality, not with what is or is not “natural.” According to the line of reasoning developed here, something “natural” can be morally reprehensible, and something “anti-natural,” morally defensible.
Nietzsche said: “There is only life. There is nothing external to life that can judge it.” But life has created an animal with a big brain and insatiable sexuality (an unfortunate combination!) capable of morally judging . . . life itself. Now it is too late to say, “There’s only life,” because in the midst of this whole life, there is also life capable of making judgments. It is not absurd to judge life through life sufficiently developed to do so. The human being appears in the mature age of life, the age at which it can commit suicide and find its own final judgment through one of its own productions, so life commits suicide through a particular way of life, precisely human life.
This is the decidedly unpopular part of my ethical-negative thought, one in which great caution is required. Therefore, the pages that follow should only murmur my thought, with the explicit intention of not being heard by thousands. Anyone who wants to learn it will have to force their ears. The subject is unpleasant, both to write and, still more, to read, so the frivolous or very sensitive reader can leave the book and take another book of mine (for example, O Cinema Pensa, which is much more inviting)². For those who want to continue, I wish you good luck and keen senses to hear whispers and read small letters. I would like to have a forecast of the repercussion of my ideas in the coming centuries (say, in the years 2100 or 2200), because of the twentieth century I cannot expect anything at all. But I am also glad to be close to my suicide and thus not having to face the anger or sympathies of my future readers. I would like this text to speak by itself, and for people to realize that it is not a literary joke or a supreme frivolity. Human life is a terrible thing and giving birth to someone is one of the acts that are most loaded with responsibilities and consequences that I can imagine.
2: This division of Cabrera’s work is very curious: on the one hand, his gloomy ethical-negative point of view, with his unpleasant metaphysics of life; on the other, his festive studies on logopathy, concept-images and philosophy of cinema, in his books O Cinema Pensa (Rocco, Rio de Janeiro, 2006) and De Hitchcock a Greenaway pela história da filosofia (Nankin, São Paulo, 2007). It seems to be the work of two different authors, which perhaps points unequivocally to the schizoid character of our philosopher’s work (and perhaps of the philosopher himself).
I. “IF ONE GOES TO SYRACUSE. . . .”
(first moral argument against procreation)
1. From the meaning of being to the value of being
Heidegger examines the meaning of being, making sure not to pronounce on its value. On the contrary, it is the value of being that interests me here especially. I even believe that, facing the wrath of Heidegger and his followers, one can know very little of the meaning of being without going through the question of its value, that we cannot see the ontology without valuing it.
Because the human being is a being who values, who in his stepping in the world opens value holes (in a Sartrian way of saying). It is this valuing being, “value-hole-maker,” who asks himself about the meaning of being. Can he say what is the meaning of being except through his compulsive and unavoidable hole making?
But in raising the problem of the meaning of being, Heidegger invites us to think of the “ontological difference,” the difference between being and beings, and to this invitation I respond gladly, because I also need this difference to make my reflection on the value of being. This difference is crucial to an existential ethics and specifically to the question of the value of human life (the only one I will deal with here: I will not say anything about the value of the life of giraffes).
Because everything that is usually said about the value of life is said, it seems to me, about intra-world beings, and not about its very being. The usual ideas concerning a “good life” refer to ontic elements of lives (to the beings); all the “valuable” of a human life is situated in the ontic dimension.
I will try to joyfully lead you to the idea that, ontologically speaking (in regard to being itself) life is not “good.” With that we also close the doors to your friend, the agnostic, who proclaims that human life is “neither good nor bad.”
2. Small modern enigma
For a long time it was thought that human life was good in its own being. But this idea became puzzling once the religious and metaphysical references that supported such a belief had fallen. We can always determine the value of a man in relation to something determined: as a teacher, as a dentist, as a soldier. But we have no idea what it means to see him as “valuable in himself,” by the fact that he is human.
Of course, human beings give great value to themselves in their own being, besides the fact of being teachers or soldiers, and even besides being good teachers or good soldiers. But murderers, liars and traitors also give value to themselves. It is easy to give a value to oneself. Does our “value in itself” come only from our own self-valuation? (And could this great value that we give to ourselves not be an effect of being deeply aware of a great and fundamental lack of value? Because why should we “give value” to something that already has value in itself?)
If when people say that life is valuable, they mean that we make it valuable through our “hole-making” valuations, well, then we agree. But it seems philosophically relevant to note that valuations can be strongly induced by a basic and fundamental lack of value, a lack from which we seek to distance ourselves through our valuations. So these valuations would be proving precisely the opposite of a “value of life” in itself, or in its own being, to the extent that life needs our efforts to become valuable.
What the propagandists of “life is good” should then say is: it is always possible to make life good, even if it is not good in itself. Human efforts should be included in the assessment. But my three lines tend to put a veil of suspicion on this possibility. I think that life is not good in itself, and that it does not become good either, at least without high prices being paid. Usually (as we will see below) we do not realize how much pain and immorality are necessary to carry out this struggle. In such struggle I must give (I am obliged to give) myself an enormous value to the detriment of others. The excessive value given to myself is a kind of compensation for the structural lack of value that was given to me at birth.
3. Desperate to live
It is also said that the value of life is proved by the intensity with which each of us seeks to preserve it. But the longing to cling to something does not prove that this something is valuable in itself. Rather than “love for life” as something “valuable,” existence seems more like an immense “thirst to live,” something whose value is doubtful (thirst is valuable?), and which may be anxiously sought by complete lack of other alternatives. Maybe even a “desperation to live,” something that makes one desperate, not something we can “love.” The “arguments” in favor of the “love for life,” based on the fact that people cling desperately to life, seem to be arguments of desperation, not arguments of love.
In fact, one does not “like” life itself, but oneself in life. One likes the challenge and fight against the recognized poor quality of life. It is the struggle and the possible dominance over this poor quality of life which, after all, is attractive and interesting, as a challenging game. It is not life that is beautiful, but we ourselves fighting against its ugliness.
One has to understand this paradox: since life severely lacks value, one tries to “live it intensely”; because life makes one desperate, one tries to live it desperately, due to wanting desperately to live. Being desperate to live does not mean that life has value: on the contrary, that which forces us to a desperate acceptance does not have much value.
One lives in desperation to live, and not in beauty, joy or love. Only something that cannot be freely loved needs to demand this compulsive and unconditional adherence. To live intensely is to desperately hide the lack of value of life.
4. The ontological difference in negative register
Philosophers have made a distinction between two types of “value” of life, a sensible value and a moral value. Something could have sensible value and have no moral value, or something could have no sensible value but deserve moral value. In the task of assessing the value of human life, we must therefore examine it on this double register. But at the same time, this examination must be pervaded by the ontological difference: does human life have a sensible or a moral value in its own being (in its emergence), or only in its intra-worldly features?
Differentiating being and beings, we accept the apparent absurdity of saying that human life has a sensible and moral value in the domain of beings without granting it this value in its own being, or vice versa. (See, later, the text “The genetic difference.”) (For an analytic philosophizing, for which being is reduced to an extensional amount of beings, none of this makes the slightest sense. It is already known that what differentiates and opposes analytic and non-analytic philosophies is the recognition or not of the ontological difference.)
Many people and many philosophers (like William James) have already said that life is good in its being despite particular misfortunes³. Why can we not reverse this and say that life may be bad in its being despite particular joys?
5. One only dies twice
In order to evaluate the being of life itself, is it not necessary to introduce the issue of its mortality? But pay attention: I distinguish between “death” and “mortality,” precisely as a way of making the ontological difference (the “thanatic difference”). I distinguish between punctual death (PD) and structural death (SD). The former is the death that will happen to everyone some day (or some night); the latter is the death that has already begun from our birth: the process of decaying, deteriorating, ending. (Because of that, more recently, I am calling “terminality” to what I am presenting here as “mortality.”) According to SD, life and death are therefore internally connected, or terminally connected, because PD would be the simple consummation of what was already given at birth. I call this internal link mortality, to distinguish it from mere death (PD).
3: It is possible that this is a reference to the book “The Will to Believe,” of William James, and especially to the article titled “Is Life worth living”? Included in this work. There are few allusions to this philosopher in Cabrera’s texts, which he considered the most existential of pragmatist philosophers. There are more affinities of negative philosophy with the sombre novels of Henry James, such as “The Turn of the Screw” and “The Aspern Papers,” than with the philosophy of his brother William.
Mortality is connected more to birth than to death. Many ancient writers already had the intuition of the “thanatic difference,” among them, perhaps the most clear and current is Seneca (in works such as Ad Marciam De consolatione, De Consolatione ad Polybium and Epistulae morales ad Lucilium).
The being of human life is “to-have-emerged-mortal,” in other words, decaying, deteriorating, dying. All human actions seem to move, on the ontic domain, in the opposite direction of this deterioration. “Hole-making” values seem to delay and endlessly postpone the mortal-emergence of being in its final consummation. The being of human life is to have arisen as a force contrary to the internal terminality of being: the human being decays, deteriorates and dies in the sense of doing all this in an oppositional, reactive, escaping manner, as if the being given to humans could not be lived in its positivity but always negatively, reactively, creatively. But the terminality of being will eventually occupy all the creative space, swallowing the “mortal-being” that decays, deteriorates and dies. In its place will appear the hole that constituted it from the very beginning and that only now became totally evident.
Here it is outlined a possible judgment of the value of human life in its being: a deteriorating life, against which we are compulsively forced to defend ourselves, in a game that we know we are going to eventually lose, can be seen as sensibly bad for a human being, even though the values produced intra-worldly are good, precisely in the sense that they are the postponement of something lived primarily as bad. Thus life is not seen as bad by containing these or those intra-worldly evils, but in its own mortal-emergence lived in escape and final defeat.
6. My little 65-year-old child
Thus, when you create a child you create a mortal. You put someone in mortality. In this way, it is debatable that something is “given” to them without something being “taken” from them at the same time. (Generally, parents imagine their parenthood in relation to small, graceful children. But a 83-year-old parent may have a 65-year-old child, at which point they may be able to clearly visualize the mortality of their child, present since the beginning.)
7. If dying is bad, then having been born is bad
The argument that human life is sensibly bad in its being cannot depend on any intra-worldly element reputed to be bad, because the intra-worldly goods themselves are pervaded by the mortality (terminality) of being (SD). Being born is bad, from the ontological perspective, because we have been placed in the process of mortality, regardless of what happens ontically inside of it. (Here is an unpopular thought that has always brought me many problems.)⁴
4: We will never know what he is referring to here. We only know the short letter from Editora Vozes rejecting the publication of Project of Negative Ethics, in the late 80’s of the twentieth century. Apart from this, one can see Cabrera’s powerful self-censorship when he dealt with these matters, as if he himself was aware of their untenable character, or at least the difficulty of defending such ideas against all existing values.
There is no important philosophical difference between being born (SD) and having to die (PD), because birth is ontologically terminal, even though it is ontically initial (and this is what is “celebrated” in births, a moment of utmost forgetfulness of mortal being). It is absurd to say that being born is good but having to die is bad, because being born is the same as having to die, since we cannot be born non-mortally. If dying is bad, having been “born-mortally” must be bad as well.
Human life is not bad due to its contingent intra-worldly bad contents (which alternate with the good ones), but due to its internal relation with the mortality of the mortal-emergence of being. Whatever we do in this environment will be sucked by the mortal origins of our being, all the life we can build will inevitably be mortality, postponed death (in which nothing prevents from occurring lights and exaltations).
8. Slow death
Mortality is not only death, but the rubbing, the friction, the attrition, the decay, the pain. Thus, human life is not sensibly bad only by PD, because we could disappear calmly and death be an exaltation, an aesthetic apotheosis, an angelic blur, a breath, a fresh breeze. But mortality is consumed constantly in pain, the consummation involves as much pain and friction as in birth. Dying, after all, is not so easy (refraining from procreation is easier).
Not only does pain keep us cornered, but its mere possibility always accompanies and frightens us. But when the pain has already manifested itself effectively, the agnostic (frustrated stoic philosopher) seems singularly cruel when he says, for example, that the unbearable suffering of the terminally ill “is neither good nor bad.”
That human life is sensibly bad in its own being seems trivially demonstrable (a triviality that becomes, paradoxically, important due to the mechanisms that persistently hide it). A world where we need to be stoic does not seem to be a good world. In the agnostic assertion that life “is neither good nor bad,” is it not conceded that it is bad? (Because if life were truly good, would there still be agnostics in the world?) (Agnosticism as a consolation.)
9. From the sensible to the moral domain: life is not beautiful
Beings constituted like humans cannot experience these radical facts positively, with joy, rejoicing or approval (perhaps only the eschatological characters of ZOO, by Peter Greenaway)⁵. They can only become accustomed or resigned, but in resigning, the lack of value is revealed (because what sense would it have to “resign oneself” to something good?).
But the sufferings of the mortality of being are not only sensible (to pain) but also moral, insofar as mortality devours our best intentions of taking other human beings (and animals) into account. The mortality of being closes the spaces of moral consideration, turns us into defensive, aggressive, elusive, distrustful and shrewd beings, not because we are “bad,” but simply for surviving (or “under living”). This is what I call “moral impediment” in my books. Concern for existence makes us insecure and petty, unwilling to listen, anxious and expansive, always cornered by the short time and the scarcity of opportunities (not only the anxiety but also the boredom of existence leads to impediment).
5: It seems this was one of Cabrera’s favorite film directors, devoting several studies to him in the book “De Hitchcock a Greenaway.” It seems that his favorite “Greenaway” were The Baby of Mâcon and The Pillow Book, which is not surprising.
There is, therefore, an internal link between sensible suffering and impediment, because the former closes the spaces of morality until, in supreme pain, we are no longer in a position to take others into account. Decidedly, we cannot be moral with all humans, in all circumstances, at all times and in all moments: even the statistics are against us, not only in the “great crimes of humanity,” but in our most familiar everyday moments. Trying to be just can be dangerous for our survival. A certain degree of insensitivity and disregard is demanded of us to simply remain alive.
The damages that some humans can cause to others surpass in cruelty and persistence those caused by nature, by diseases, etc. That is, moral badness can surpass sensible badness. (Recall Hume’s text in A Treatise of Human Nature, Book II, Part III, Section I, where he suggests that one condemned to death could hope to attain freedom more by breaking the iron or wood of the scaffold than by any remote hope of changing the stern will of the executioners.)
Thus when the preachers of the “good life” say that the consideration of the value of human life should not be limited to the given (our condition of continuous deterioration, of having been placed in a body that decays rapidly), but should also include the intra-worldly invention of values, the creative reactions, I respond: besides being anguished by the fact that we are compulsively forced to react against everything that, from birth, threatens us with the certainty of final defeat, it is totally impossible to create our values without harming (or even destroying) other valuation projects, those of other beings as “desperate to live” as we are.
10. Negative inviolability
An aspect of my ethical-negative thought that has never been well understood is that the sensible and moral lack of value of human life provides us with what I call a “negative inviolability”: no one has the right to harm, offend or eliminate human life, except one’s own life⁶. The usual affirmative prejudice stipulates that only something valuable can be inviolable. Being life not valuable in its being, how is it understood to be inviolable?
But life is really inviolable in its own being (even though it may be ontically violable in special circumstances), inasmuch as we are all equally affected by the mortal structure of being, so none of us has more value than another. It could be said that we all possess the exactly same value, that is: nothing! We are equal in zero, not in a great number, as affirmative thought believes. To constitute the notion of inviolability we only need the notion of equality, and we have it: a negative equality. We are equated by the structural lack of value of our being.
That is why, in negative ethics, we cannot kill (a coincidence with the Christian Decalogue that my Nietzschean friends do not forgive). The negative inviolability, in any case, is good for those who are already here, but it does not make sense to create someone to have it.
6: Cf. Cabrera Julio, Crítica de la moral afirmativa, Part IV, 2, p. 198.
11. Some days it rains, other times the sun shines
In general, when I spoke of an ontological-structural lack of value of human life in the marketplace (including the university market square), angry voices were raised claiming that life is not only pain but also pleasure. This is what we can call the “seesaw argument” (“There is everything in life, there are good things and there are bad things”).
But this is not right! There is no pleasure in the terminal structure of being. How could there be pleasure in decaying, in deteriorating, in ending, in experiencing one’s decrepitude, physical and mental decline? What is meant (and I have never denied it) is that humans create in the intra-world values and gratifications capable of counterbalancing the mortal structure of being, and it is in this context where arises (or rather, can arise if we are lucky enough) pleasure (and possibly at the expense of other people’s pain). Every human life is an attempt to balance the inevitable mortal structure of being and the uncertain intra-worldly pleasures and achievements.
12. A delicate balance
People (including philosophers, without exception) systematically confuse two levels of appreciation of the value of human life: the level in which the lack of value of the structure is grasped, and the level in which we see the possibly fortunate equilibrium (always unstable) between the lack of value of the ontological structure of life (its terminality initiated at birth) and the values (perhaps extraordinary, exciting, intoxicating, but also threatening to other people’s projects) created in the intra-world. It is possible, having a bit of luck, to “lead” a pleasant and fulfilling life, managing to balance the structural lack of value of being with that which we can obtain from the intra-world. But it is inevitable to pay the bill or to make others pay.
13. Always-mediated happiness
Thus, when someone says: “I am happy,” I interpret that they elliptically mean something like: “Through procedures, attitudes, strategies, occultations, redefinitions, forgetfulness, insensitivities, lack of scruples, cruelties and some pieces of humor, I was able to balance, in an ever unstable manner, the pressure of the mortal structure of my being with what the intra-world offers to me in terms of pleasure and fulfillment.”
“Happiness” does not have this “immediacy” that is usually attributed to it: it is a complex human construction.
14. Little to offer
In the light of the traditional idea of a “value of human life,” creating people is usually justified in terms of the child being able to enjoy “intra-worldly goods,” even when the existence of “intra-worldly evils” is acknowledged (the “seesaw argument”). This is immediately confused with an appreciation of the very being of life. Procreation is morally justified by the idea that it is morally good to give someone the possibility of enjoying something that is considered valuable. From this would follow, consequently, the moral problematization of abstention, since one would be depriving someone of something that we know to be good.
The problematic nature of these beliefs is muffled by the ontic bombardment to which we subject the being of life from our hard intra-worldly trench. The rational calculation of procreation is, to say the least, delicate. We have, in fact, little to offer to the one who is born (nascituri te salutant), the fragile equipment for them to try to construct values in a world that makes strong opposition to their efforts. Is it worth to bother someone in their pure nothingness to put them by force in such an arduous task?
15. Ontic optimist, ontologic pessimist
One could be intensely happy and fulfilled in the intra-world (having succeeded in balancing the mortal structure of being and the intra-worldly achievement of values) and at the same time consider a catastrophe to have been born (that is, to have received the mortal structure of being).
16. I give birth to them, and afterwards they will “manage on their own”
From a strict moral point of view, the procreator’s calculation about the balance between intra-worldly goods and evils and the structural fact of mortality seems hardly justifiable —concluding as a final result that it is better to procreate since presumably the offspring will be able to “manage on their own.”
Compare with the following calculation: “I admit that I sent X to a war in which they would certainly die. But I argued this way: up until reaching the center of danger, X will experience many pleasant things, they will know many people and things which will give them satisfaction. I could have not sent them to this place, and X would not, thus, be exposed to a sure death. But I sent them anyway, because it seemed to me that this situation was worth-living for them, even when pain and suffering awaited them at the end, and I knew it. X was always very smart and I knew they would manage on their own.”
This argument seems morally problematic. And there is still an aggravation in the case of procreation when compared to these other cases: in all of them, the person is already alive, and by the knowledge we have of them, we can presume that they will “manage on their own.” In procreation, what we are constituting is the very being of the person, what we are manufacturing is the very mechanism of “managing on their own.”
17. If one goes to Syracuse. . . .
In De Consolatione ad Marciam, Seneca had already used the metaphor of the “problematic travel” to refer to the moral issue of procreation, in the context of a consolatory speech addressed to a woman who had recently lost her child: “No one denies that it is sad: but it is the common lot of mortals. You were born to lose others, to be lost, to hope, to fear, to destroy your own peace and that of others, to fear and yet to long for death, and, worst of all, never to know what your real position is. (Seneca’s Consolations.) And after that: “If you were about to journey to Syracuse, and someone were to say:—’Learn beforehand all the discomforts, and all the pleasures of your coming voyage, and then set sail.'”
Afterwards Seneca describes the beauties of Syracuse, the island, the sea, the Charybdis whirlpool, the fountain of Arethusa, the port, etc. “But when you have observed all this, you must remember that the advantages of its winter climate are counterbalanced by a hot and pestilential summer: that here will be the tyrant Dionysius, the destroyer of freedom, of justice, and of law . . . He will burn some, flog others, and behead others for slight offences. . . .”
And Seneca will outline the alternative: ‘”You have now heard all that can attract you thither, all that can deter you from going: now, then, either set sail or remain at home!’ If, after this declaration, anybody were to say that he wished to go to Syracuse, he could blame no one but himself for what befell him there, because he would not stumble upon it unknowingly, but would have gone thither fully aware of what was before him.”
18. Better not to embark
Obviously, unlike the Syracuse traveler, in the case of birth the traveler himself does not have the possibility to decide whether to travel or not. That is why the vital (or mortal) problem here is not birth, but procreation. It is not a moral problem for the children, but for the parents (or for all humans as parents).
This is how Seneca sees it when he invites Marcia to apply this image to “the entrance into life,” imagining that someone is advised at the moment of birth, showing them first the beneficial things and then the harmful ones: “But in this same place there will be a thousand pestilences fatal to both body and mind, there will be wars and highway robberies, poisonings and shipwrecks, extremes of climate and excesses of body, untimely griefs for our dearest ones, and death for ourselves, of which we cannot tell whether it will be easy or by torture at the hands of the executioner. Now consider and weigh carefully in your own mind which you would choose. . . .” “Do you answer that you choose to live? ‘Of course. . . .'” “You say, ‘No one has asked my opinion.’ Our parents’ opinion was taken about us, when, knowing what the conditions of life are, they brought us into it.” (53).
Note that the calamities mentioned by Seneca are all structural in the sense in which I use the term here. All of them are perfectly known by the people who are procreating. The weeping of those who cruelly lose their children is, according to Seneca, unjustified, since, strictly speaking, they never had what they now believe they lost. Little reason to embark: better not go to Syracuse!
19. Everyone knows
I believe that the sensible and moral lack of value of human life is something that everyone in one way or another is aware of; including philosophers.
The strength of religions, the ever-pursued promise of other worlds, other lives, eternal life, life without pain; the enormous editorial success of self-help books, psychological offices full of patients, the use of drugs, the creation, through art, of fantastic worlds populated by heroes, wonderful lands and meanings . . . Does all this not show that humans, with their trembling skins, have always suffered the lack of value of life, despite or in contrast to the pleasures of the intra-world, which never seem sufficient to counterbalance the terrible anxiety of being (anxiety always confused with a purported “love for life”)?
Does this not show that the usual discourse on the “goodness” and “beauty” of life is a parallel construction to these primordial experiences of lack of value?
20. Dead and handicapped people
The dead and invalid also highlight the lack of value of human life. In the case of the former, in the speed and suitability with which we forget them, as if, despite everything, no dead were able to prevent “life from continuing” and them from being re-evaluated and easily replaced. Was he so valuable that he does not stop us from continuing, laughing, doing projects without him? If humans were really valuable, should they not be unforgettable and insurmountable? In the case of the handicapped, the lack of value manifests itself in the expectations of the “useful life” given to the invalids (blind, paralytics, etc.), trying to show them that, after all, living with a disability is not so different from living without it. The valuation of the disabled has the effect of being a devaluation of the “normal” life. Life is always hard and insufficient, one seems to say to the invalids; we are all disabled; you do not have much to regret. . . .
21. Life always as a means, never as an end
Moral philosophers often admit that it is not mere living that is valuable (the mere being there), but what one does with life. The life of someone who, by their economic or mental conditions, is obliged to merely survive, to keep living just to feed themselves, to persist and to remain alive, is seen as miserable.
Does this not show that the moral philosopher has always realized that there is no intrinsic positive value in the fact of being born, since all positive values come from the intra-world? And the fact that, abandoned to their mere “being,” humans are exposed to decay, decrepitude, decline and failure? Does this not show that mere being lacks value, that it is necessary to fill it with the values of the intra-world so that it acquires some positive value?
(Did Alcatraz’s torturers not know this very well when they simply left someone inside a small cell for weeks, with absolutely nothing to do, with no intra-worldly object to distract themselves, simply with their being? If the pure being were good, why would being alone with it constitute the greatest of imaginable tortures?)
22. They do not let them to fail
The immense majority of humanity (the “excluded” in Dussel’s philosophy⁷) is not in a social position to perceive the structural lack of value of being. Their ontically painful situation makes them believe, until death, that their evils are social, contingent and avoidable. Indeed, as Dussel sees it well on his own terms, they are victims of radical disregard by other humans, who by ontic vicissitudes have accumulated wealth and power and submit immense masses of other humans to their desires and wills.
For the excluded, the world still appears as something valuable, since from the deprivation of the most fundamental needs such as food, clothing, shelter, etc., these things appear in a horizon of desire that makes them marvelous, when, in reality, in a normal and fair situation, they would simply be the fundamental elements to continue living (simply living, let us not say “to live well”).
The excluded are thrown into an error of perception of the world, constituting the ontological element of their exclusion and exploitation. They are excluded from the view of the mortal (terminal) structure of being, preserved from it by being sunk into the intra-world that is for them totally demanding and absorbing: they are hungry and with no time for being.
It is as if the structural lack of value of being was set at level zero, while the excluded are forcibly inserted at the level below zero, at the degree of negative numbers from which zero is seen as positive and desirable. Reaching zero is the ultimate aspiration of the dispossessed, that is, of the majority of humanity. If human life is always an ontological failure, the excluded are those who are not even given the chance to fail.
7: Interesting Argentine philosopher, living in Mexico after a bombing attack in his home country, creator of the ethics of Latin American liberation. He maintained with Cabrera, more than a century ago, a polemic on the subject of suicide in the context of an ethical-political discussion. Cf. Cabrera Julio, “Dussel y el suicidio. Revista Dianoia, Mexico, Maio 2004.
23. Negative justice
Structural pessimism, the view of the basic lack of value of human life, is a class luxury, from which most of humanity is excluded. For most, ontic evils are more than enough. In fact, the excluded suffer the structural lack of value of life directly (for example, in the proliferation of illnesses, in submission to police violence and so on). The dominant have the conditions to place intra-worldly protections between them and the mortal structure of being, while the excluded are directly exposed to it (and indeed they are part of the protective shield of the dominant). Liberation must also include the misfortune to which every human being has a right: not to condemn the poor to all sorts of deprived joys. Not to deprive them of their negative patrimony.
24. This world is bad and there is no other world to escape to
In all of western philosophical literature, from at least Hesiod’s “Works and Days” to Schopenhauer, we can read with exultant pleasure a profuse and rich description of the lack of value of human life. But this occurred in the past when there was another world to escape to (still in layman, transcendental or dialectical versions of this world). When this other world fell, when God died, when all transcendences were challenged and the world became disenchanted, it disappeared, as if by magic, this nihilistic discourse, and the discourses praising the world (with Nietzsche leading the way) appeared: since no other world is available, we will have to learn to appreciate this world.
But all the nihilistic content of traditional and modern philosophy seems to me to be strictly true, independent from its religious or comforting packaging. What has been interpreted in terms of sin, fall, perdition and redemption, is finally a faithful description of the world in its immanent lack of value. Only something very bad could be narrated and presented as fall, error, atonement and guilt. Now we know that the world is bad, but there is no other world to escape to, neither no one who is guilty of its badness; that we did not “fall” into the world for some sin, but that we have always been “fallen” or, rather, the world “fell” upon us.
25. To say yes to life (like Nietzsche) is not to ascribe value to it
The affirmative acceptance of life “despite everything” does not prove its structural value, but only manifests a vital attitude (that of Nietzsche, the acceptance of life “with all its terrors”) that confirms the structural negative analysis (already in the expressions employed: “despite everything,” “terrors”).
The “saying yes” to the structure does not have, in itself, any element that proves the structural value of life. We can say yes to anything, including the most obnoxious and terrifying things, even to what has no value at all.
Here we talk about description, not about attitudes. And, on the other hand, when one is at the center of maximum pain, one cannot continue saying “yes” to life “despite everything,” because in this case, I myself become the “sorrow” of living: accepting the structure “despite everything” transforms itself into accepting it “in spite of myself,” something that I can no longer bear.
When Nietzsche saw himself in these circumstances, he chose madness.
26. Despite everything: everything is burdensome
If, as the affirmatives state, “life, despite everything, is good,” they acknowledge that “everything” must be bad, because something cannot be good in spite of something without that something not being bad. If not, it would be good because of (and not in spite of). If life is good despite everything, it means that life is bad because of everything.
27. Convenient ambiguity of the expression “without value”
Of the many times I have tried to show what I once called the “lack of value” of human life, I have heard this surprising reply: “But ‘lack of value’ does not imply ‘negative value’; if something is ‘absent of value’ then it is neither good nor bad.”
But of course I use the term “lack of value” in the sense of “negative value,” as when I say to a student: “Look, your work has no value” to mean that the work is very bad, not that I will not evaluate it.
To say that human life has zero value is not to say that we will not assign it any value, but that we assign it zero or some number below zero, which is a negative evaluation and not the refusal of an evaluation. Assigning nothing is not the same as not assigning.
The affirmative despair takes advantage from the thin distinction between “nothing is valued” and “valued as nothing,” between a De Re denial and a De Dicto denial. As if, in the face of the conviction of the problematic nature of the world, they still wager on a reassuring agnosticism: from the fact that the world has no value does not follow that it has a non-value. But it is obvious that to have no value means that it is worth nothing, and not that one suspends judgment.
28. Transition to the second argument
The lack of structural value of human life constitutes a clear motive for refraining from procreation. But in procreating, the parents not only sink their children into the lack of value without any scruple, but also use them as a strategy for concealing their own lack of value. Creating more and more beings is a way of suggesting the idea that, after all, there is some being to be lived. Something that seems to start (and start something radically new, in Hannah Arendt’s idea) strongly hides the constitutive terminality of being. So the children are, ab initio, doubly manipulated. And of manipulation we are going to speak right now.
II. CHILDREN: WAYS TO USE
(Second moral argument against procreation)
29. Your children? Whose children?
There is another very expressive line of argument to insist on the morally problematic nature of procreation. It is not based on the lack of value of life, but comes from the fundamental ethical articulation (FEA) as a demand of taking into consideration the interests of others besides my own. Herein it is followed the spirit and letter of the famous second formulation of the Kantian categorical imperative. To use others as a means to one’s goals and purposes may be, in the tradition of modern ethical thought, the very paradigm of disregard, even if one does not get to the extreme of crude manipulation.
The use of another as a means is very clear in many cases of procreation: children to overcome marriage crises, or as weapons of the crisis itself (children of divorced parents placed in situations of traumatic choices, blackmail and espionage), or to fill the void of lives that “lost their meaning,” to take care of parents in their old age, to continue a life project, to claim or prove something to others, to be heirs to a throne, to be the new owners of a large company, or simply to “do what I did not do.”
30. Objects of exhibition
By making a phenomenology of speeches and attitudes, one can see in any case (even in those not framed in the situations described above) behaviors of exhibition of newborns, displaying them with pride and ostentation, sometimes with some cruelty (for example, to women who cannot have children), frequently with celebrations and exaggerations. One cannot but shudder at the levity with which this objectification of the newborns is carried out, as if they were something acquired at a good price. We would not even need elements of “negative ethics” to shudder us: old categories of affirmative morality suffice.
31. Children’s charming imperfections
“During the first nine months there is no sound associated with a specific situation, although the euphoria of the parents attributes approximate or capricious meanings. Sometimes an accidental phoneme is accepted as a nickname of the little one, which is later commented on in parties and embarrasses the addressee, who is obliged to explain in occasions the origin of the nickname. It is observed in the principles of learning that although the child gradually ascends to the articulation of the word or to the formulation of the first sentences, the parents descend to the level of language of the child and speak with the little one sometimes imitating their phonemes and their tone of voice, prolonging certain imperfections of language which the guests find funny” (Thenon Jorge, La Imagen y el Lenguaje, Editorial La Pléyade, Buenos Aires, 1971, p. 81).
All the noise, the enthusiasm, the euphoria surrounding the birth of a child, the way in which they are functionally programmed, the efforts to choose their name, their clothes, their eating and sleeping times, and the ways in which is dedicated to them time and laborious concerns, throughout situations where the baby is displayed, exhibited, where their funny clumsiness and hesitations cause laughter and charm, all this provides an interesting phenomenology of attitudes whose high degree of manipulation is serenely hidden in the rituals of reception of the baby, without feeling the tremendous seriousness of having placed a being in the rough structure of life.
33. The Birth Between Hysterical Excess and Depression
Just as we may wonder what humans think they “lose” when someone dies (the problem of mourning), we can also ask what they think they gain when someone is born. It seems to me that these are the two points of the same delusion or two sections of the same non-being whose absence, paradoxically, human beings feel. It is very strange to observe the manifestations of contentment, the screams, the laughter, the jumps, the phone calls, the jokes, the exacerbated comments, the great body expenses, the long vigils, all that surrounds the birth of a baby. The first idea that comes is that of a strange “excess,” because we know that the world only has a reactive value that we have to create permanently, and that this work is hard and inglorious. There is no reason why we should feel happy at births.
Why does an event which should sadden us, or that we should do, at any rate, as a kind of a painful genetic obligation, is accompanied by all this deafening tumult? I believe it is a compensatory and defensive behavior, one of the most typical places of intra-worldly invention of values. The hysteria of birth should be situated between defense and conversion as a way of keeping away the representations associated with unpleasant affections and, at the same time, of dramatizing the psychic conflict in diversified, but always paroxysmal, bodily symptoms. We must suspect this noise so curiously “out of place,” so deeply inadequate.
On the other hand, children whose births are accidental and who are not wanted nor loved, not even in hysterical hypocrisy, who are born to be humiliated and used, despised or treated with indifference, are children of the defect, not of excess, but are also manipulated. There is manipulation in both hysterical excess and depressive defect: mothers who love too much, mothers who do not love, all manipulate, because people also manipulate with indifference, even with loving indifference. Warning for depressive mothers: the child has no duty, no compromise, given the one-sided nature of procreation. He did not sign anything, he does not owe anything to anyone, he does not know anything. The duties of the parents in relation to the children are absolute and asymmetrical: the absolute right to procreate, so accepted by humanity, corresponds to a total lack of duties from the other part.
34. Mystification of the Great Mother (A whispered thought)
In our affirmative societies, the non-mother is rejected and slandered, even in cautious and feigned attitudes. The Mother, on the contrary, is celebrated, both in the “sweet waiting” period and after the birth, surrounded by obsequious attentions.
The baby is visualized exclusively in its undeniable aesthetic dimension (that little, irresistible thing). What should, in any case, be a sober and measured act, becomes an exhibitionist and hysterical paraphernalia, where adults become infantile and the child is objectified.
(As long as we do not have critical mechanisms against this, our morality will remain incompletely formulated; through the structures of motherhood and procreation, other manipulative social attitudes are grasped, as if those structures provided the general matrix of our relations with others. Not without reason it is spoken about “maternalism” and “paternalism” to criticize other attitudes not directly connected to birth and procreation.)⁸.
35. Mystification of the Great Father
When we are very proud of a work (literary, musical, philosophical) that we have just finished or published, and express our immense pride to society, we are often punished for being haughty and arrogant. “Look!” They say, “He poses as a genius! He does not wait for others to praise him; as if he had done a great thing! It’s a shame!”
8: In this aphorism, we find again that same self-censorship to which I referred in another note; whispered thoughts (sometimes written in very small letters), pointing to Cabrera’s indecision, as if he wanted, at the same time, to be and not be read. As in Schopenhauer’s case, Cabrera’s relations with his own mother are decisive in understanding his bitter and biased text. In addition, an adequate psychological study may unravel the biographical roots of negative ethics.
However, when someone creates a child and manifests their immense pride as a parent, The whole of society understands, applauds and supports: “Look, a proud parent! Of course, who would not be proud with such a beautiful child!” Curious and annoying that we cannot be proud of something that has cost us an immense effort to accomplish and which is pure fruit of our most acute sensibility, and that others are allowed to explode of pride only by having successfully exercised their most elementary biological functions, functions that can be performed by anyone, even by those with no talent, or by the most despicable of humans!
36. All procreation is manipulative
The use we make of another in procreation is ontological and total, constitutive, in the sense that the very being of the person is being manufactured, and not some intra-worldly element. In the affirmative tradition, it will be said that this is unavoidable, since the unborn cannot be consulted. The authoritarianism and asymmetry are inescapable.
But are they? There is no obligation to procreate. If it is possible to abstain, procreation can be morally judged as the use of another as a means (and even of manipulation), which could always be avoided. If this element of use of another as a means is general, and does not point to avoidable intra-worldly characteristics, given the avoidable nature of procreation, we cannot see how (without reassuming some dogma or axiom about the “sacred value of life”) one could avoid the moral judgment of procreation in general on the basis of the Kantian imperative of non-manipulation.
(Kant himself was inconsistent in not realizing the extent to which his “moral fanaticism”—as Nietzsche had called it—endangers life radically.)
37. Continuing to procreate, but not for moral reasons
All this would not indicate the cessation of reproduction and the end of humanity, but the convenience of accepting that the creation of people happens, in fact, on non-moral grounds. (Possibly pragmatic ones: so that humanity does not become extinct, for example. But the non-extinction of humanity is not, per se, a moral motive; it can be at best the empirical condition of the development of morality. However, nothing prevents us from giving up this empirical motive for moral reasons: humanity could, in a thought experiment, opt for its own disappearance on the basis of moral motives.)
38. Lost paradise
Against the “Adam and Eve argument”: if the first human couple had made use of negative ethics, and had had moral scruples to procreate, then mankind would not have existed. Well, whatever! I’m talking about morality here, not survival. Morality could require not to continue living, and survival could be possible only on the basis of immorality (of manipulation and disregard).
So if Adam and Eve had refrained from procreation, they might have acted morally, even if it had resulted in the non-emergence of mankind (why not think of it as the Great Inaugural Moral Act of humanity, whose non-implementation has caused us to live all our miseries to this day?).
39. Create the world to save it afterwards?
In fact, people (even from different social classes) wish to have children and nurture manipulative expectations and cravings about the child that is going to be born. So the arguments that one is being born “for their own good,” so that they may enjoy intra-worldly goods, are not too convincing if we look at the curious paraphernalia surrounding the event of someone being born.
The lower classes seem less hypocritical than the higher classes in regard to the procreation of children, though no less cruel and manipulative. Just as it is absurd that God created a world to then “save it” (see my Excursus on Leibniz in the Critique of Affirmative Morality), it seems absurd to put someone in mortality and then do everything to hide it from them.
40. Reductio ad absurdum of morality
There are those who believe that if life itself is morally reprehensible in these two lines of thought (structural lack of value of life and manipulation), if, after all, living is immoral, this would be a kind of ad absurdum proof of the impossibility of the moral point of view on the world. I prefer to follow the lines of argument proposed here to their last consequences. Perhaps it is not morality that is absurd, but life itself. Why not say that morality is the ad absurdum proof of the impossibility of life? If life and morality are opposed, it is not obvious that we should opt for life. Instead of affirming my life, I can make my ethics negative.
41. Love is is not ethical
Love is a life impulse, not an ethical motive. If someone alleges that they procreate for love, they do not advance a step towards a moral justification of procreation. To say that one has decided something for love is to equally say that one has acted by virtue of an irresistible natural impulse. But here we speak of morality, and of a possible moral justification of procreation.
The family is an affective, vital and loving community, not a moral community. When one forms a family, one is closed within a small group capable of protecting them unconditionally: one does not have to be moral to be loved by their family.
(Do mothers of murderers not say, for example: “I do not care what he has done, he is my child and I will always be by his side”? Do corrupt officials not justify their robberies and misappropriations of public money by saying that all they did was “out of love for my wife and my children?”)
42. Love and hate
Procreation cannot be justified by love, just as heterocide* could not be justified by hatred. There can be as much manipulation in love as in hatred, and it is primarily manipulation that is morally unjustifiable, not hatred. It is better to leave love and hate out of morality (especially because, as Freud showed, they convert into each other very easily).
* Translator’s note: this is a word that Cabrera uses in his works to refer to homicide.
43. Children kill their parents, after being killed by them
Life, which has been created asymmetrically and by manipulation, will then attempt to stand in strict opposition to its own process of creation, and in this process, as Hegel saw in his lectures of 1803/4, although from another perspective, children become the death of their parents, because a human being does not allow themselves to be eternally manipulated and objectified. As soon as they have the use of reason and initiative, they will strive to obtain their own autonomy, against all the predictions and plans of their parents, in a project of unavoidable and violent claim.
It is structurally inevitable that children try to build their own autonomous self over the remains of what their parents planned for them. It will be with the remains of this dispossessed being that the child will necessarily make their own formation, generating a real mortal struggle for autonomy, deep down, for the autonomy which was primitively and originally damaged in the very act of procreation, strictly insofar as it could have been avoided.
44. Being born again
In this way, the child now departs for a journey without return, where the opposition to the being imposed on them appears as a fundamental component of their true constitution, of their second birth, as if they wanted to free themselves from the manipulation of which they were victims in the first place. But this is as impossible as the very morality of procreation: just as parents cannot morally justify their procreative act, children will remain infinitely dependent upon it, no matter how audacious their attitudes and gestures of emancipation and claim may be. Everything they do to oppose their creation will be done in strict correspondence to the dependency they believe they are overcoming.
45. Against the joyful acceptance of manipulation by the life-lover
It would be possible for a fanatic life-lover to see in all this only the perfectly “natural” oscillations of life. Life is cruel and according to the life-lover, we must accept it fully, with all its cruelty. But I’m not a life-lover, so I am horrified with manipulation, even when it is “natural,” or precisely because it is.
46. Amoral and immoral
The life-lovers say: life cannot be morally judged; it is neither moral nor immoral, but pre-moral or amoral. But this certainly does not apply to a human life. It would be absurd to accuse as immoral an animal or plant which expand innocently; but this innocence is forbidden to man. Procreation does not have the same rate of valuation in non-human animals and humans. Abstention from procreation is not within the reach of non-human animals, nor the significance of procreation or the degree of manipulation it entails. (It is more feasible for animals to commit suicide than to abstain.) If morality is defined as the requirement of non-manipulation, then life is based on fundamental immoralities, not on pre-moral practices. (Too early for the gods, too late for the animal.)
47. When one cannot do anything in life, one makes more life
“Having children,” as they say (and pay attention to this terrible use of “having”), contrary to what is usually thought, is the very proof of the structural lack of value of human life. Children are pure life, simply the continuation of life. Despite what parents have planned for them, children are not “for” something, they simply are. Parents forget that what they did was simply life, in the difficulty or impossibility of doing something with their own lives.
In a way, the greatest vital nihilism, the greatest conviction of the lack of value of life, is the act of having children. The valueless human life is structured to reproduce indefinitely, pushing the nothingness from parents to children. The children are the confirmation that there is nothing, there was nothing, there will be nothing . . . only children. The same nothingness now installed in another being; but no, not even another nothingness: the same nothingness in another person, a nothingness that one can now control, objectify, in which one can see their own nothingness from a safe place.
The false (in fact, impossible) continuity of parents in their children is the proof of the lack of value of human life, because if it were valuable there would be something to convey through the children, there would be something valuable in children, and not just children.
Having children is the very consummation of the lack of value of being, the possibility of moving what is not there, what has never been, in other directions.
48. Children’s infinite dependence
The manipulation of birth continues naturally and fluently in the manipulations of childhood through the “education process.” Objectification here is huge, both in authoritarian systems as well as in the most “liberal” and “critical” ones. There is something interesting in Lipman’s Philosophy for Children Program: it problematizes the statement that in the presence of a child, only coercion is adequate. This is contested by an ultra-rationalist thesis that the child, despite appearances, is rational, moral, can argue, and so on.
I can accept that the coercion of childhood can be mitigated in this way or another, but not the coercion of birth. Or: I can accept that all the coercion of childhood not connected with the infinite dependence of the coercion of birth be mitigated. We can answer all the child’s questions, except this one: “Why did you give birth to me?” We hope that the child will never ask this, and if they do, we send them to a good psychologist.
49. We cannot be moral towards children
The lack of morality towards young children is an inescapable consequence of the lack of moral justification of birth, the fruit of a fundamental ethical transgression. Any affirmative argument, any grant of autonomy to the child will be secondarily derived as a disguise of the great original manipulation.
I do not think that an affirmative solution to this problem is possible. Given the connection between childhood and birth, we could have this affirmative solution only if we could obtain proof of the value of life, in which case we would ethically and rationally justify the morality of birth and, therefore, our attitude toward young children. In that case, coercion would also be ethically justifiable. But this proof (as we know) is not available and therefore the affirmative exit is closed.
But not the negative exit, which is based on the idea of an infinite manipulative dependence, which starts from birth and expands to childhood . . . and even adulthood. It is our being that has been chosen in a coercive way, so it is too late to raise the issue of morality with young children. This morality can only be tragic, an intra-worldly management of the unjustifiable (an unacceptable result for affirmative ethics).
50. Sorry, boy.
Only within a negative ethics can we face the eyes of children. Respect for the child is based on the full recognition of the original moral transgression, largely hidden in affirmative “educational” mechanisms. We should keep the tragic moral responsibility of giving birth to them as a background of our ontic attitudes towards children, without disguise or concealment. It is the lack of value of life, the ineluctable coercion of birth, the sinking of the child into pain and impediment, that establishes a (negative) morality towards children. We owe the child an ontological excuse.
51. “Blunders” and morality
Rereading Freud (Psychopathology of Everyday Life), I am reminded of the notion of “blunder” and “turpitude,” of the disruption of the unconscious which he sometimes (section VIII) links with self-inflicted harm and suicide. But if this applies to suicide, the thanatic difference leads us to think of the strongly “blundering” nature of procreation as well, as if all births were ontologically accidental. If nobody wants to die, nobody really likes to be born. The accidental factor pervades all our actions; death is as accidental as birth. This should have an impact on the accusatory moralism of negative ethics: parents are more clumsy than malicious, and they may have mitigating factors when judged morally.
(Do not think that those who harm us are necessarily
shrewd and malicious; they can be simply stupid.)
52. The genetic difference⁹
When people (and especially women, and especially mothers) tell me: “You do not like children,” and I reply: “Of course I like them; I do not like parents,” they startle, giggle nervously, move in their chairs, put their little baby in their lap for the thousandth time, and say: “And how are you going to have children without parents? ”
I believe that in this response, women (and, in general, many people) ignore what I call the “genetic difference,” which tries to show the parent/child distinction as structurally connected with the being/beings distinction. My idea is that you can reject the pure appearance of children in the world (that is, their being), but once it is produced, you may like the product (that is, their beings) without any contradiction. The situation is as follows: you would prefer that X did not happen, but once it happens, you accept X. In the middle of your acceptance of X, you still insist: it would have been better if non-X. This is what I call “negative retro-preference.” It has the following scheme: “A does not want X; X has a good consequence Y; A likes or accepts Y, but continues to prefer non-X.” It seems that the antecedent of this idea is already in Seneca (Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, letter 9), where this classic of negative ethics shows that a mutilated person can adapt to their situation and even enjoy some advantages of this condition, but still wish to not have suffered the mutilation.
9: I know that this aphorism is absolutely fundamental in Cabrera’s thought, because it left my wife in a state of anger for four days. The spontaneous reaction of a mother can be worth more than 500 arguments of scholars (arguments that the texts of Cabrera do not deserve. In fact, they do not deserve even the wrath of my wife).
“Liking children” is an aesthetic judgment. You may like them even if you prefer that they had not been born. I see children already in their terminality, I love them immensely, and at the same time, I mourn their inexorable decline, their quick aging. In extremis I can say: precisely because I like them, because I like them immensely, I wish they had not been born so they were not here to be lost, to stop quickly from being these wonderful children that I like so much.
I like human beings in their condition of children, I do not like them as parents. There is no existential contradiction in this, although there seems to be some logical contradiction. (Curious that women, hardly logical in general, become strongly logical at this point, and feel displeased when I say, “I like children, but I do not like parents,” similarly as the formal logician would feel displeased before an inconsistent set of axioms.)
III. TALK TO THEM (Unborn people)
(Third moral argument against procreation)
53. Speaking frankly with whom is thinking about being born
The last line of answer to the moral problem of procreation is the following: we must not procreate, not because the world is bad (first line), nor to avoid manipulation (second), but with respect to the autonomy of the possible being. (This line is not completely independent of the previous two, as we shall see.)
To speak of the “autonomy” of a non-being only makes sense if it is reconstructed by means of what in bioethics has been called hypothetical “retroactive arguments,” used, for example, in the case of the abortion of anencephalic babies. (“If you were to live without a brain, and you could choose, would you still want to be born?”) Why could we not make retroactive arguments also in the case of non-beings (who not only do not have brains, but have no body or anything)?
(Incidentally, the moral problem of procreation is significantly different from the moral problem of abortion. When aborting, we already have an existing being at some point in its development process, and no longer a non-being. It is hard to say if we kill someone when we abort—this is the famous bioethical controversy—but we can certainly say that we do not kill anyone when we abstain from procreation. In its strictly manipulative aspect, abortion is closer to procreation than to abstention: once created, it is the parents who pragmatically decide if the child is going to live or not. Only metaphorically could abstention be seen as a kind of radical abortion. Only the resource to the retrospective argument seems clearly the same, because both the non-being and the fetus cannot speak for themselves—albeit for different reasons—and that is why they have to be “represented” by someone else.)
The usual retroactive arguments in Bioethics seem to me, in general, to be entirely grounded in the intra-world. My point is that they should also include ontological considerations in these conjectures, and say things such as: “If you could choose, would you accept to live a life in which you are subject to becoming ill, suffering, and dying at any time?” (Suppose that, in the conjecture, we could show to the non-being the film Johnny got his gun, by Dalton Trumbo.)
These ontological considerations should already apply in the case of the anencephalic baby. To be born without a brain is the mortality of being manifesting already very early, not needing years to be consummated. From the structural point of view, we could consider any possible being as a potential anencephalic baby, or as a potential terminal patient: there are no differences between them that are not purely intra-worldly.
A reconstructed autonomy like this, with all the relevant information (ontic and ontological), is something that we should respect. (A non-being needs information); and, based on this autonomy, to think that refraining from procreation is the best option from a strictly moral point of view.
I said that this line is not completely independent of the others and now I can say why: I refrain from giving birth to someone because they, in full autonomy, would choose not to be born in a valueless world (first line) where they will be manipulated and forced to manipulate (second line). But is all this correctly thought out?
54. Quality of a rational agent
Would a genuinely rational agent choose to be born? My argument against R. M. Hare can be reread in the Critique of Affirmative Morality (especially on pages 207 et ff), partially repeated in my article A Ética Analítica diante da questão do Nascimento, a Morte e o Valor da Vida Humana (Goiânia, 1997). There I suggest that in the experiment where the non-being is magically consulted about their possible birth, Hare is mistaken in assuming uncritically that “they” would undoubtedly choose to be born. (This is the usual affirmative trend.) Let us suppose that we are talking about a human being, that is, a rational creature capable of pondering reasons.
The information that is given to this possible being in Hare’s experiment is incomplete and biased. We should also tell them that if they are born, they will have no guarantee of being born without problems; that if they manage to be born without problems, they will almost surely suffer from many intra-worldly evils; that if they manage to avoid them (and this is possible in the intra-world, even if difficult), we cannot give them any guarantee about the length of their life nor about the kind of death they will have, and they will also have to suffer the death of those they come to love and their death will be suffered by those who love them (if they are lucky enough to love someone and to be loved by someone, which is also not guaranteed).
They must be told that if they manage to avoid a violent accidental death, they will decay in a few years (just as the people they love and care about), and that they have a high chance of becoming a terminally ill patient who could suffer terribly until the time of their demise. If it is still possible for the non-being, after having assimilated all this information, to choose to be born, could we not harbor well-founded doubts about their quality as a “rational agent”?
Hare’s assumption (shared by Thomas Nagel, Peter Singer and others) that “if they could choose, the possible being would undoubtedly choose to be born” is not so trustworthy. The choice should be highly affective and emotional, grounded in some kind of “fear of not being,” or “thirst for being,” and not in reason. But of course, here we reach the limits of Hare’s Gedankenexperiment, since the unborn is not a real being who might be “afraid of not being,” like us who are already here.
55. Being born without the brain or using the brain to not be born?
In fact, by not giving birth to anyone, I follow the same principle of avoidance of pain and moral impediment that I follow when I do not allow the anencephalic child to be born or to continue living: when I abstain, among other things, I radically free my possible child even from the possibility of being an anencephalic child.
In this case I am not deciding for anyone, I am not transgressing any real autonomy, as in procreation. Abstention is more likely to be morally justified in terms of a prior ontological-structural consideration of the available data.
(Of course, we are always talking about structural abstention, which takes into account the suffering of the unborn; we are not talking of intra-worldly abstentions, that could have from the same moral problems as procreations: not having children so they do not bother us in our professional life is as manipulative as having them to look after us in old age.)
56. Respect for the non-being of others
One may say, “You believe that life is good enough for you to live (because you do not commit suicide), but you do not consider it good enough for others to live (you do not have children).” I do not think life is good for those who are already alive. I only think that they have with the ontological lack of value a different relation compared with the non-living, the possible beings. Life is never good, but the living can keep it within the limits of tolerability. But it does not make any sense to give birth to someone for them to keep their life on the edge of tolerability. None of the things I say to myself to continue living are of any worth for someone who does not yet exist.
57. Immortality is of no use
It seems that, as Cioran saw it, the radically wrong is to have been born, or simply to be. Not even immortally would one avoid the problem of being.
It is mortality (terminality) the ultimate explanation of why humans regularly treat each other with disregard. And what would change if we were immortal? Perhaps we would not be cornered by the lack of time, and we would be less aggressive, because we would have the good humor of immortals and say: “If I do not do it today, I can do it tomorrow or later,” and “If you want to do it, then do it, and I do it tomorrow, or I will never do it.”
But one might think that most of the petty things of today would continue to function equally in a world of immortal beings, as they did on the Olympus. (Leaving aside that if we were all immortal, paradoxically, life would stagnate, because we would prevent the birth of new immortals, and there would be a single permanent generation.)
As George Bernard Shaw showed in his unrepresentable play “Back to Methuselah,” morality would be profoundly affected by a civilization of immortals, but moral impediment would only change its shape. The unfeasibility of being crosses the mortal/immortal distinction from side to side.
58. Too late!
None of my actions, not even those that can most radically move towards the protection of others, can fail to hurt some way or another. By living, I already bother others. (Levinas has intuitions in this sense, which I read long after having had them by myself.) I am already a being who must abstain. To be wholly moral, I should not be here to abstain or to commit suicide. (“Suicide is not worth it: it does not erase the fact of one having existed,” Max Frisch, “The Voyager.“) It could be said: “Procreation is not worth it: it does not erase the fact of one having to exist.” Others should have thought of my non-birth earlier. Now it is too late.
10: “Should I exist? By existing and persisting in being, do I take the lives of others? . . . Do I have the right to exist? By being in the world, do I take the place of others?” Emmanuel Levinas. Ethics and Infinity. It is not proven that Cabrera did not take these ideas from the great Lithuanian thinker (who, on the other hand, has a humanistic dimension totally absent in our Argentine-Brazilian philosopher).
59. No way out?
The terrible structure of the world threatens us with the possibility that abstention may also be aggressive and manipulative. Perhaps the situation has no way out, and both when we procreate and when we refrain from procreation, we are equally immoral. By not giving birth to someone, are we not already deciding for them? Would abstention not also be a manipulation and therefore we will be doomed to manipulate?
Life is inherently mortal, but should we not be against abstention for offending autonomy? Should each person not decide how they prefer to live the mortality of their being and, therefore, would it not be ethical to let them be born and let them decide for themselves? Giving birth to someone is part of a life project of the parents; but does not giving birth to someone not belong equally to the life project of those who abstain?
A strong conjecture might be: “If the unborn child could choose, they would certainly choose to be born, even though they know they will be placed in the mortal structure of being.” But is this strong conjecture correct? Given the high number of “withdrawals” (suicides, psychoses, neuroses) of humans who did not stand life and gave it back, it does not seem to have much basis the idea that, having the relevant information, everyone would choose to be born.
Affirmative thinkers (such as Peter Singer) argue that people would choose to live a healthy and “normal” life, and not live a life of “poor quality,” full of suffering and without possibilities of development. In the ontological-structural perspective adopted by negative ethics, this changes a little: it is not ruled out that, with the relevant information, someone chooses not to live even a healthy and “normal” life, of “good quality,” by the fact that this life is pervaded by the mortality of being, the rubbing, the friction, the decay, the pain.
The person who has chosen to be born (in our fantastic Gedankenexperiment) has always opted for the terminality of their being and also for the possibility that their life may turn at any moment into a life of “poor quality”: if the life of a current terminal patient is problematic, why would the life of a future terminal patient not be?
61. Do we have the right to not have children?
But the conjecture might be weakened this way: “If the unborn child could choose, they might perhaps choose to be born, even though they know that they will be placed in the mortal structure of being.” Negative ethics cannot be insensitive to this possibility: “negative inviolability” (see previous texts) prevents us from taking other people’s lives because they have the same lack of value as ours. What prevents us from applying the same reasoning to the case of abstention? That is to say: just as we have no right to take a life with the same lack of value as ours, do we have the right to prevent a life that has the same lack of value as ours? (abstention as a form of heterocide).
I am preventing someone from being born who could choose to come into the world despite knowing that they will be placed in the mortality of being. I am, therefore, deciding for them. Do I have this right? (This could lead not only to the convenience of procreation, but to the obligation to do so.)
Here is the image of the continuum presented by the conservative lines of Bioethics in the discussion on abortion: if it is forbidden to kill adults, it must be forbidden to kill children, because they will become adults; and if it is forbidden to kill children, it must be forbidden to kill fetuses, because the fetuses will become children . . . etc. At the end of the continuum, it may be said: if it is forbidden to prevent fetuses and embryos from developing, it should be forbidden to prevent possible beings from developing, since possible beings, if not prevented from being, will become embryos, fetuses, children, adults, etc.
62. A possible being does not lack anything
A first line to “tie” the cases of the prevention of life of adults, children and fetuses, on the one hand, and those that prevent the life of a possible being, on the other, would be to point to the fact that, in the case of procreation and birth, there is no one whose autonomy we are going to injure with the decision to not give them birth, since possible beings have no autonomy. But it can be said that neither fetuses nor embryos do, so the argument does not proceed.
It seems that the appropriate distinction is: being/non-being or, present being/possible being. Existing beings (embryos, fetuses, children) can lack autonomy, whereas in relation to possible beings we cannot say that they “lack” anything: autonomy does not apply to them like any other predicate only applicable to present beings. (An existing street may lack light signals, but a non-existent street cannot lack them or anything.) To lack something, one must be there.
Thus, it is more radical and convincing to say that in the case of the possible being, there is no autonomy to hurt, not only in the sense that they still have no autonomy while being able to have it in the future, but in the sense that they will never have it unless it becomes real at some point. If there is no autonomy to be offended in this radical sense, then it seems that in the moral consideration of procreation, arguments based on the mortal structure of being should prevail, that is, the reasoning presented in the first section about the delicate balance between the mortal structure of being and intra-worldly values, and the little we have to offer to those who are born.
In the case of the moral prohibition of heterocide the opposite happens: the consideration of autonomy must prevail over the mortal structure of being, because in this case we already have a developed being, with an autonomy to be respected, etc. Although the life of an existing being is not valuable, it is their autonomy that must be prioritized, because they must do with that lack of value, in each case, what they can or want to do. Conversely, even if the life of a possible being can become autonomous if they are born and transformed into a present being, it is the lack of value of life (present or possible) that must be prioritized, since there is no one who can decide on the lack of value.
63. Limits of the moral point of view
I think that the hypothetical reconstruction of the autonomy of others does not work to morally justify the abortion of healthy fetuses: this is heterocide and, therefore, morally unjustifiable. But this does not mean that I am “against abortion” within the current heated controversy on this issue. I may be in favor of abortion for intra-worldly, social, economic reasons, etc., even if I do not justify it morally. My idea is that we cannot guide our lives only by moral categories. Thus, from the fact that abortion or procreation is morally unjustifiable, it does not follow that we should position ourselves against the practice of abortion or against procreation.
I believe this is a persistent non-sequitur throughout the history of moral thought: that we are obliged to do what is moral, and forbidden to do what is immoral. On the contrary, it can sometimes be rationally and tragically convenient to position yourself in favor of something morally unjustifiable (like lying, stealing, killing . . . or procreating).
64. Create and destroy
I think that procreation cannot be sustained on moral grounds, but only in pragmatic ones. Nor do I believe that humanity should be guided exclusively, and not even primarily, by moral categories. I believe that human life can only develop by transgressing moral principles (just as it can reason only by transgressing logical principles), that morality is something that nature allowed, in a certain state of evolution, but that the natural being who formulates morality cannot execute it successfully. I believe that creating and destroying are two natural impulses that the human being cannot tame, and through which life is propelled.
That is why affirmative societies foster procreation and allow the aggression and death of others so loosely. Procreative manipulation and destructive manipulation are the pillars of our affirmative society, following in this the usual primacy of life over morality.
Negative ethics is the invitation to think about what human life would be like if the moral principles had primacy over the promotion of vitality.
Do not forget that when one says yes to life, one also says yes to destruction and depredation, without which life could not develop. Perhaps procreation is a form of destruction, and killing (as Jean Genet saw it), a form of construction.
65. Abstention and Suicide
If considered as a form of suicide (the suicide of the species), abstention could circumvent Schopenhauer’s argument that, when one commits suicide, they do not deny the very essence of the world but only its individual phenomenon.
66. A former wisdom
Philosophers have always spoken of life as a “preparation for death,” and of philosophy as a “learning to die.” But there is a former wisdom: learning to abstain; not putting anyone in the situation of having to learn to die.
[End of the first chapter]