The question sounds like a direct contradiction on its own, since a being that does not exist does not have the capacity to suffer. However, most cultures have evolved, for obvious reasons, towards accepting that not giving birth harms the being in question. Or to be more precise, any belief that results in fewer births is penalized over the long term.

What bothers me about this is that there is an infinite or near-infinite variation of such hypothetical beings. For instance, if insemination were to occur just a few seconds later for any given couple, different sperm cells would result in a significantly different child. Even if the genes were the same, the environment and thus the person's future would be profoundly altered by the butterfly effect. In other words, if not being born deprives hypothetical beings of something, then we become guilty of this deprivation every second of every passing day assuming we currently have the capacity to reproduce. Every step we take harms different unborn beings.

Is there an argument that resolves this problem, or an issue with the premise and/or logic here?

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    As you say, If it does not exist it cannot suffer. Commented Oct 14, 2023 at 18:09
  • How do you figure that most cultures accept that not giving birth harms the being in question? What they accept is that it harms their survival as a group, regardless of which specific beings get born into it. They do not need to believe in any harm to hypothetical beings to accept that.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 14, 2023 at 20:07
  • I assume you are referring to abortion. But the first problem is that most of the people who oppose it do not claim that failing to bring a non-existent entity into existence is harmful: rather, they believe that some real or perceived existent entity (an embryo, a fetus, a brain, a heart, a soul, a gamete). The second problem is that many, probably most cultures have historically practiced and accepted some form of abortion. Even a more extreme practice, infanticide, has been considered justified in many cultures throughout history, and not because people believe children to not exist.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Oct 15, 2023 at 2:31
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    "any belief that results in fewer births is penalized over the long term." This is contradicted by facts. History shows that people who can have access to contraception overwhelmingly choose to use it, that the more people are educated the more they use it, and that all the dominant nations of the world practice a firm of planned parenthood. Having as many children as one can is third world behaviour. Also, something that does not exist is, by definition, not a being. A being has to be.
    – armand
    Commented Oct 15, 2023 at 10:18
  • @Conifold What I mean is that there is a diffuse but strong acceptance that life is a gift, even if that concept can get very vague and abstract, and an equally strong rejection of anti-natalism and associated concepts, even by many people who chose not to have children for various reasons. In other words a natural progression from the collective needing births to the idea that it's good for hypothetical individuals.
    – Qwokker
    Commented Oct 16, 2023 at 14:30

2 Answers 2


According to On Denoting (Bertrand Russell, 1905), words and phrases which denote things which don't exist must be understood as denoting phrases which point to nothing, not references to a particular kind of X which has not-existing as one of its characteristics.

For nonexistent (un-instantiated) X, the statement "The X has character Y" is false for all Y if one reads "The X has character Y" as "There exists an entity which instantiates X which has character Y". Likewise the statement "The X has not character Y" is false for all Y if one reads it as "There exists an entity which instantiates X which has not character Y." Similarly for "The X has character not-Y."

X is a priori not instantiated, so each statement is false by contradiction.

For the same reason, if you construct a sentence in the negative and then take the (in my opinion linguistically awkward) interpretation that "The X does not have character Y" means "There not-exists an entity which instantiates X which has character Y" then the statement is true for all Y.

See Mind, Volume XIV, Issue 4, 1905, Pages 479–493, chosen to provide a durable link, or take a minute in your search engine of choice if you want the (public domain) text for free.

  • This answer was very helpful and confirms my initial intuition. I do have a follow-up question: given that people generally think of unborn children as a yet unknown being that is highly likely to have certain recognizable characteristics (i.e. being human etc.), how do we philosophically deal with this notion of future probability? In other words, we have phrases that denote nothing as you explained, but at the same time we have a situation where we can with reasonable accuracy predict beings that have a range of recognizable characteristics. So is there something in that nothing?
    – Qwokker
    Commented Oct 16, 2023 at 14:35
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    This might be a good second question if you're looking for references; I don't have one for you that addresses future potentialities. My personal take is that one could handle it the same way - find out what e.g. their future children in e.g. "Since all of Alice's and Bob's grandparents have brown eyes, their future children will have brown eyes" denotes, substitute that, then evaluate that statement, rather than treating the potentiality as a real object. Here we'd find that the apparently absolute statement above is actually a conditional: [...]
    – g s
    Commented Oct 16, 2023 at 16:06
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    their future children as people usually intend it to mean denotes "those entities which, if they will exist, would instantiate the class Children of Alice and Bob".
    – g s
    Commented Oct 16, 2023 at 16:10
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    We can then evaluate the truth value of the conditional as a probability (without knowing anything about whether Alice and Bob are going to have any children together) in the usual way - refer to a countable sample of categorizable previous observations of the outcomes of similar initial conditions (great-grandchildren of 8 brown-eyed great-grandparents) count the whole set, count the brown-eyed ones, and divide.
    – g s
    Commented Oct 16, 2023 at 16:16

If you believe that failing to beget a human being is act act of harm, then yes you are causing harm if you do not exercise your powers of reproduction to the maximum extent. However, the assumption that you are causing harm is one that many people would deny for the reason you mention in your first sentence. Also, there are other types of harm that would be caused if humans did reproduce at the maximum possible rate, so that might persuade you that the lesser harm is caused by not having so many babies.

  • +1, good use of utilitarian logic here.
    – Hokon
    Commented Oct 15, 2023 at 2:15

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