The Descent is one of the most terrifying and incredibly sad movies I’ve ever seen. Part of what makes it such a wrenching film is the theme of losing a child. I’ve always been sensitive to this subject matter – the dead baby in Trainspotting ruined me for weeks – and it’s only gotten worse since I became a father myself back in the heady days of 2009.
I you somehow haven’t seen The Descent yet, please watch it right now before reading on. While spoilers usually don’t matter, this movie really is best watched knowing as little as possible beforehand.
So, The Descent opens with main protagonist Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) losing both her husband and her daughter in a horrible car crash. Later in the movie, Sarah – still clearly haunted by her daughter’s death – is forced to slaughter a family of cave-dwelling gollum-zombies starting with the child, whose head she kicks into mush. The fiendchild’s mother arrives soon after, sniffing around for her offspring and then whimpering over its corpse – Sarah watches on, and we can only imagine what a headfuck that would be.
Watching all this child-related pain, I couldn’t help wondering: is having kids an ethically justifiable decision at all?
To Breed or Not to Breed?
There are actually a number of arguments against having children, ranging from the emotional to the hyper-utilitarian.
Spare Yourself the Pain
Having kids is a painful affair. Of course, there’s the pain and dangers of childbirth. Something like 800 women die every day giving birth, and it’s estimated that as many as 40% of births result in life-changing injuries of one kind or another.
Many people argue that the joys of parenthood make it all worth it, but that’s highly subjective. In fact, studies have pretty consistently found parents to be less happy than non-parents – mostly because they have much less time for fun! First of all, it is the end of youth in many important ways. Friendships are often lost along the way, nights out become a distant memory or an occasional treat, routine tasks become never ending, and the sleep deprivation parents experience, especially in the early years, can be genuinely debilitating.
But the true existential pain of being a parent is subtler. It comes from the intensity of the love involved. I’m not going to argue that the love of parent for child is the deepest form of love or anything silly like that, but it’s definitely way down the deep end of the pool. Love makes you vulnerable, and in my personal experience my love for my daughter is kind of terrifying. I can imagine anyone else in my life dying and know, deep in my bones, that I would survive it. With her, I just see black. The empathy factor with your children is also very high, so if things are going badly for them you will be suffering too. There’s also Lego underfoot.
Rust, Benatar, and Anti-Natalism
Everyone’s favourite gun-toting nihilist Rustin Cohle, from True Detective, had pretty strong opinions on whether people should have kids.
In one of his many soliloquies, Rust opines:
“I think the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing. Walk hand in hand into extinction one last midnight. Brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal” – Rust Cohle, fun at parties
Turns out, though, that Cohle borrowed his ideas from University of Cape Town professor David Benatar, whose book ‘Better Never To Have Been’ argues for the intentional extinction of the human race. Benatar is not a nihilist though. In fact, his philosophy is an extreme example of belief in a value system, specifically utilitarianism.
Benatar argues that, from a pre-birth standpoint, the potential pleasures of life a person will miss by not being born don’t count as a loss – because no one exists yet to lose them – and so are not a harm. On the other hand, the inevitable suffering of life can be avoided by not being born, and that counts as a good.
Here’s an ice cream analogy: say there is an ice cream cone that tastes delicious, but has a 50% chance of causing you to die slowly and painfully. If you never knew about the ice cream, and no one gave it to you, you would not have been done any harm by missing out on the pleasure of eating it. If, however, someone forced you to eat it they would clearly be doing wrong by you. The right thing to do would be to never tell you about the ice cream at all.
By this logic, says Benatar, “a life of utter bliss adulterated only by the pain of a single pin-prick—is worse than no life at all” because the pleasure wouldn’t have been missed, and the pain was avoidable. Benatar thus concludes that human extinction will provide the greatest good for the greatest number.
Caught Between Human Extinction and a Hard Place
I reject Benatar’s conclusion, as much as I respect its merciless intellectual honesty. Benatar’s thinking is incredibly anti-life and I tend to believe the core of ethics should be about protecting lives and allowing them to flourish. Benatar chooses a value – avoidance of suffering – and makes it an abstract absolute. Just as with religious, political, or economic dogmas, this inevitably leads to the devaluing of actual human lives.
In fact, if we accept Benatar’s fetishising of non-suffering, the ideal solution would be a painless, instant end to all life everywhere in the universe. Since most life forms are too unintelligent to grasp the desirability of their extinction, as Benatar would see it, such a mass murder would avoid potentially infinite future suffering and would cause no additional suffering.
Benatar himself rejects drawing this conclusion from his arguments because it would violate the rights of those who may not wish to die. But surely the immense good of avoiding all future suffering – and, in fact, ending present suffering – outweighs the objections of a few rational agents, if we accept that avoiding suffering outweighs the value of humanity as a whole.
What’s important in Benatar, I think, is the recognition that by bringing a new life into the world you are creating a being who will suffer, mourn, age, become sick, and die. I think the core ethical question we need to ask before having a child is this:
“Am I willing to share in this new person’s suffering, mourning, ageing, sickness, and perhaps even death, and support them?”
If you are genuinely ready for that huge moral responsibility, then you can move on to thinking about overpopulation, your finances, housing, and other important factors in the decision to have a child. But, if there’s a flicker of doubt in your heart about that core question, don’t have the kid.