Skip to main content

Buddhism and Anti-Natalism

David Benatar is the head of philosophy at Cape Town University and the author of Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence.  In his book, David argues that bringing new life into the world is an immoral act.  In order to make this argument he uses an axiological asymmetrical argument, which states:

If a being exists, suffering is bad and pleasure is good.  However, if a being does not exist, missing out on pleasure isn't bad, however missing out on suffering is good. 

In other words, life is suffering. Suffering is bad.  Therefore, it's better to not be born, so that we never experience suffering.  It's important to note, that Benatar does not include any caveats to this argument.  

In fact, in this interview with Sam Harris, he suggests that there is no way to make a life good enough that it is better than not existing.

Naturally, this view point has received pushback in the philosophy community.  For my part, I'd like to tackle Benatar's understanding of suffering and how it relates to human life.

At its core, anti-natalism is a pessimistic philosophy.  That is to say, it takes a negative view of existence and leaves no room for optimism or hope.  Life is suffering.  Suffering is bad.  Therefore, we should not create life.  Similarly, Buddhism is also a pessimistic philosophy.  It also states, "Life is suffering," as part of the first noble truth.  However, it differs from anti-natalism in how it copes with that suffering.

This occurs for two reasons.  First, Buddha and Benatar disagree on the source of human suffering.  According to an anti-natalist worldview, we suffer when we grow old, get sick, and die.  However, we also suffer in smaller ways like trying to cut the grass and having the mower breakdown, or being forced to wash dishes when we'd rather be watching TV.

In Benatar's estimation, the endless list of unpleasant tasks that we must complete each day amounts to unimaginable suffering that shouldn't be inflicted on anyone.

However, Buddhism teaches that it's not the the thing itself that causes suffering.  Rather, humans cause suffering to themselves by how they react to the thing.  Washing dishes is only unpleasant if we spend the whole time wishing that we could watch TV.  Aging is only a source of suffering if we're obsessed with youth.  

Thus, we don't suffer because we're born.  Rather, we suffer because we have untrained minds that separate the world into "likes and dislikes".  Yes, we could solve the problem by not giving birth to future generations, but Buddhism teaches the more life-affirming approach of training individuals so that they won't create suffering for themselves.

As each successive generation does this, the number of well-trained minds in the world grows until everyone is making decisions based on wisdom and compassion and we live in a world with little to no suffering; a pureland.

Second, Buddha and Benatar disagree on the nature of suffering itself.  The philosophy of anti-natalism states that suffering is intrinsically bad and pleasure is intrinsically good.  However, there are issues with this line of thought; the main one being that it places us on a hedonic treadmill where our lives center around chasing pleasant experiences and hiding from unpleasant ones.

And Benatar is correct in his belief that anyone who endures this cycle is in for a life of endless pain.  However, Buddha taught that the way to end suffering isn't to move towards pleasure.  In fact, he listed pleasure as one of the Eight Worldly Winds that keep us from realizing enlightenment.

Instead, we must learn to accept suffering as a natural part of life.  If we do this, it no longer falls into the duality of good or bad.  It becomes neutral, and our focus shifts from avoiding it to working with it skillfully.  

One way to think about this is to consider chicken manure.  If we think of manure as bad, then it will awaken unpleasant thoughts within us, and we may have ill-will towards chickens every time they poop.  In contrast, if we think of chicken manure as good, then we may allow it to pile up in unhealthy ways; spreading disease to the humans and chickens that come in contact with it.

However, if we work with chicken poop skillfully, we can use it to make compost. And then we can use that compost to fertilize soil and grow food.  When we expand our understanding of manure to suffering as a whole, we see the stark contrast between the Buddha and Benatar.  

Bentar's philosophy of anti-natalism would argue that chicken manure is bad, thus we should avoid it at all costs.  And if that means not allowing more chickens to be born... so be it.  This goes double for human beings.

Buddha, on the other hand, holds that both suffering and chicken manure are neutral.  It is through the function of our minds and our actions that we make them good or bad.  Thus, if our life is full of suffering, the answer isn't to wish we were never born.  Instead, we must learn how to use our suffering so that something good can grow from it.

In this way, Buddhism teaches that birth is a gift, and so is suffering.  But if we take this gift for granted, it will destroy us.  Instead, we must study it, learn from it, and use it to create happiness for ourselves and others.

Namu Amida Butsu

 If you enjoyed this essay, you'll love my book!

Buddhism and Anti-Natalism


  1. I would like to contest this...somewhat as I am considering antinatalism.

    Suffering is in some sense an aillusion. But it is inherent to being conscious, as the state of being conscious is to be trapped in the illusion-world of samsara and dukkha. The only way to achieve enlightenment is to stop being conscious.

    It's not clear cut though, trying to deliberately end Samsara even in some minor way by decreasing populations may be against Buddhism. I think Buddhism teaches that you cannot combat samsara.

    1. Interesting thought, but I'm afraid that by decreasing human populations, you only give fewer beings the opportunity to be born in a human body, which is the ONLY kind of life from which you have any hope of attaining Nirvana and moving away from the suffering. And until you do that, you are not avoiding suffering by not being born, because you are being born and die constantly, through innumerable lives.

  2. This is quite a naive post. Suffering isn't necessarily something one can be "trained" out of. I don't think the mind is that powerful.
    I doubt you could train a 4 year old dying of leukaemia as viewing their situation as "neutral" and that it's just their mind causing the suffering.
    Not being born in the first place would have preferable for them.

    1. Well, a 4 year old has had too little time to train in anything. A 4 year old is also unlikely to train to be the world top athlete or genius physicist. Training takes time, some of us don't have that time, that is true; but MOST of us, even if we have time, we do not make use of that time.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Magic Mushrooms and the Buddha Dharma

You meet all kinds of people on the road.  Some of them are clearly running from something; a past trauma or an action they regret. Others are clearly looking for something; a tribe of like-minded people or a safe place to call home. This results in a strange mix of people ending up in strange places and sharing their lives for any where from a few weeks to a few months.   You part ways knowing that you'll never see each other again despite your endless promises to keep in touch.  But you always remember the people you meet on the road, and your life is usually better for having met them. Case in point, I met a guy named "Fred" when I was farming in Indiana who'd lived an insanely cool life.  He did corporate America for a while, and decided it wasn't for him.  So, he high-tailed it to Vietnam and taught English for several years before deciding that he wanted to become a shaman.  After that, he made his way to Brazil where he wandered fo

3 Universal Truths that Buddha Taught

Philosophers have wrestled with the concept of universal truth for centuries. But no one has been able to figure out exactly what it is, or even if it truly exists. In fact, the existentialist philosopher, Nietzsche famously threw up his hands and stated, " God is dead ," while contemplating the question. Of course, he wasn't claiming that a literal super natural deity had died. Rather, he was expressing the fact that human conceptual thought around things like happiness, goodness, truth, etc. is inherently flawed. As a result, universal truth as represented by God cannot exist. In Nietzsche's view, the best we can hope for is to live as individuals, constantly striving against one another to impose our will to power upon the world. The Buddhist view, however, is different. While Buddha would agree that humanity's conceptual view of the world is limited, he observed three experiences that all living beings share. These are often referre

The Buddhist Teaching of Oneness

The teaching of Oneness in Mahayana Buddhism is one of the most important, and oft-misunderstood portions of the Dharma.   If we understand it, then practices like compassion and loving-kindness naturally become part of our lives.  However, if we misunderstand it, feelings of fatalism are the result. One of my favorite explanations of this teaching can be found in the Vimalakirti Sutra.  In it, a wealthy Layman name Vimalakirti falls ill, and it soon becomes apparent that he's going to die.  In his wisdom, Buddha sent Manjushri to Vimalkirti's home to see if anything could be done.   When he arrived Manjushri asked Vimalakirti, "Why are you sick?"  And the dying man responded by saying: This illness of mine is born of ignorance and feelings of attachment. Because all living beings are sick, therefore I am sick. If all living beings are relieved of sickness, then my sickness will be mended. Why? Because the bodhisattva for the sake of living beings e