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Seana Shiffrin, Gerald Harrison, Julia Tanner and Asheel Singh argue that procreation is morally problematic because of the impossibility of obtaining consent from the human who will be brought into existence.

Shiffrin lists four factors that in her opinion make the justification for having hypothetical consent to procreation a problem:

great harm is not at stake if the action is not taken;

if the action is taken, the harms suffered by the created person can be very severe;

a person cannot escape the imposed condition without very high cost (suicide is often a physically, emotionally, and morally excruciating option);

the hypothetical consent procedure is not based on the values of the person who will bear the imposed condition.

These are the arguments for antinatalism from consent, so are there any conterargumants for them?

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  • The movie "Arrival" gives a very good answer.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 21, 2022 at 1:29
  • Before even entertaining counter arguments, I'd like to get a better understanding of the arguments. Why does consent matter? How is it relevant in this situation? Is this a special type of consent, coming from a non-existent being? What is the biological and moral significance of reproduction, consent aside?
    – superiggy
    Commented Mar 21, 2022 at 3:14

1 Answer 1

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Literature on this kind of thing is extremely hard to find. Nevertheless, my intuition here is that this argument gets into the territory of comparing existence and non-existence in a way that the other arguments for anti-natalism don't. The other arguments for anti-natalism (the asymmetry of pleasure/suffering and no pleasure/suffering, or a more simple utilitarian argument about the observed suffering present in most human lives) generally ignore the potential person in question in a specific way unique to this sort of consequentialist calculation. What they do instead is posit that the suffering or pleasure in question as desirable or undesirable regardless of the existence or desires of the potential person in question - that is, the suffering or pleasure of the potential person is what is moral or immoral, and that potential pleasure or suffering is only dependent on the potential person, not the actual person.

However, the consent argument gets into some incredibly finicky territory when it comes to the potential person in question. Consent ethics generally wants the agent to find consent on the part of the recipient of whatever they're going to do. However, what happens when the person in question doesn't exist? The arguments you shared seem to think that, because you can't determine consent, you can't act. There's more to things though, because to even talk about consent you need to have a consent-er in mind, and no such person exists in this scenario. That's not to say that the consent antinatalist argument is wrong, but this is where I see the main assumptions that it makes (whether consent is applicable to the abstract idea of a non-person). It seems to me that comparing the ethics surrounding existing persons and the ethics surrounding currently non-existent but potentially existent persons is never going to work, because the two things can't even be spoken coherently about in the same way!

Just some thoughts; I hope this helps. Googling "antinatalism" or "arguments against antinatalism" might work, and you can add "consent" to those searches to further refine them.

EDIT: Sources https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/parenthood/ This is a good and thorough article, although it doesn't address the consent argument it gives good background for the topic.

https://www.reddit.com/r/askphilosophy/comments/4u7ats/common_arguments_againt_antinatalism/?st=iv182zrc&sh=9d015b5c Here's a decent conversation on r/Askphilosophy, which is generally a reputable and quality source for casual questions like these, though unofficial and informal. One comment provides a similar response to mine:

Consent-based version. I find this version stronger because it doesn't rely on empirical premises at all. It basically argues that if there is any suffering at all in life (which obviously there is), then it is immoral to inflict this suffering on a person without there consent. Since all unborn children cannot give consent, all procreation is a violation of consent and hence immoral.

This version of anti-natalism is, in my opinion, more difficult to rebut, partly because consent based ethics are currently quite 'in vogue' in academic moral philosophy (at least in my corner of the woods). I don't have a response worked out, but my intuition is that the strongest one is to interrogate the basis of consent in a way that calls into question whether or not consent is really applicable to highly abstract non-persons (like unconvinced children, which have only a kind of potential existence). If it isn't (as I suspect), then the consent based argument falls apart. I do think this part of the debate is complex, though. Most people probably don't think we should evaluate obligations to unconceived children in the same way as we should to actual persons, but most people probably do nonetheless think we have some obligations to unconceived children (e.g. to only conceive them if we can provide a basic level of material security). It's hard to mark out clear territory within these two intuitions, and so hard to determine what we ought to think of consent-based anti-natalism.

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    Thanks for the answer, even I thought this. If there is no person there is no need for consent. Commented Mar 15, 2022 at 9:34
  • Hi Saml, welcome to Phil.SE :) In answering, we try to provide some source material to back up the answer. Intuition answers are not the best kind of answers, but even if you go there, please try to provide some sources to back up your claims. Check out the how to answer post. Commented Mar 20, 2022 at 8:39
  • @YechiamWeiss Hello, thanks for the feedback. Would you suggest various articles on the internet on the broad topic, such as the Stanford website? As I said, sources on this exact topic were difficult for me to find, although I could provide broader searches. Also, the OP raised quite a niche question for this field of study which I think indicates some degree of familiarity, so hopefully they have access/know how to access those sources as well. Once again thanks for the feedback and please let me know the best way to improve with sources.
    – SamIAm123
    Commented Mar 20, 2022 at 12:12
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    Hi Saml, yes a site like the SEP is a great source. Unfortunately I do not have time currently to research this on my own; but the point is writing an answer isn't a simple task :) You need to research a bit (even if you know the topic, you need to provide references). You can see for example an answer I just wrote. Commented Mar 20, 2022 at 12:19
  • Thank you! I will do some digging.
    – SamIAm123
    Commented Mar 20, 2022 at 13:32

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