The Antivitist Trend in the West
Recent events have suggested that there is a trend afoot in the West: that life is overrated and that death is not so bad. Call it, for lack of a better term, antivitism (from Latin vita, life). People who are aware of their own commitment to this view call it, rather funnily, efilism, which is like lifeism spelled backward, but which makes me think of evilism—which is extremely apt. In any event, I am going with antivitism, mainly because I am talking about a rather broader trend revealed in ways beyond those who declare they support efilism.
I’m not saying there’s a “death cult.” But there is evidence of a rather odd trend that seems to celebrates death or at least that greatly undervalues life. By the end of this post I’ll have a fuller account of the attitude in hand. This attitude may be seen most often among certain young but world-weary activists. I don’t mean just the young and activist, but one less often sees this view among older people, with healthy children, and the politically apathetic.
“All right, what are you on about, Sanger?” you ask.
Well, I’ll tell you.
First let’s consider euthanasia. Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that euthanasia advocates are a “death cult.” Insofar as euthanasia is strictly an end-of-life “palliative care” decision and it is passive euthanasia (i.e., the doctor doesn’t actually flip the switch), this doesn’t seem to valorize death or devalue life. It is euthanasia for depression—especially active euthanasia, and even more especially for the young—that would essentially encourage the most fragile among us to give up, to stop living, and to entertain the strange fantasy that dying is OK. Death is preferable, such people say, pretending that they are being sensitive (because all their views are driven by a desire to be sensitive) because it is merciful. Never mind that we’re talking about killing; it’s sensitive killing, and if you aren’t on board, you just don’t understand. The suggestion is that life couldn’t improve, so killing yourself (even if you’re quite young) can be preferable—if that’s what you decide.
The appalling recent case of Noa Pothoven is illustrative. Noa, a 17-year-old victim of repeated sexual assault, killed herself slowly, by not eating or drinking, while her parents and doctors stood by idly. That this was allowed to happen might be written off as a weird Dutch excess. But while people around the world were wringing their hands over the horror, another surprisingly large or at least loud group of people, also quite international, complained bitterly that people were calling this “euthanasia,” as if this label particularly mattered. This semantic dispute went proxy for the real issue: should minors be allowed to kill themselves just because they’re depressed? The answer should be obvious, but for that strange coterie of “antivitists,” death was a sad, tragic, but very welcome blessing for Noa. Her parents and doctors did, the antivitists affirm, just what they should have done: stand by idly while she killed herself.
Only a failure to properly value life and its possibilities, and by comparison to positively value death, could lead one to such a position.
So now perhaps you have an idea of what I mean. Some might immediately want to add abortion to the list of antivitist positions. I’m not so sure. Perhaps it isn’t fair to call all abortion advocates “antivitists.” The pro-life (or anti-abortion) argument here is that a newly-gestating life in the womb is a human life, though not a sentient one, and all human life has a right to live, and snuffing that life out is murder. The killing of a fetus for the convenience of the mother strikes some with great horror.
My view on this, which I don’t hold to very strongly, is that abortion in the first few months is easier to dismiss because the fetus cannot even feel pain. However that might be, abortion after viability is very problematic for me, and for most people. After that point, you must twist yourself in logical knots if you wish the deny the obvious fact that there is a baby that with as much ease could be born into the world as killed (though at much greater expense afterward, if allowed to live). Such “late-term” or “third trimester” abortions show considerable contempt for that little life, particularly when the mother’s life is not at risk. Late-term abortions make up a very small percentage, just 1.3%, of all abortions in the U.S.; but if they should be considered murder, that would still be 35 murders per day in the U.S., of the most innocent and defenseless of all human beings.
However that might be, I certainly think favoring genuine infanticide can qualify you as an antivitist. Even in this case there are exceptions: there are certain cases of babies born brain dead, who will never be sentient or who, for medical reasons, can never know anything but intense physical pain. Killing them is more uncontroversially a mercy when—though it is horribly tragic—there is nothing worth calling a human life that could have been preserved. Peter Singer highlights these sorts of cases. But on my view, obviously, not all birth defects qualify, and certainly the convenience of the mother does not qualify.
But has anyone maintained that outright infanticide of healthy infants, just because the mother doesn’t want a baby, is acceptable? Well, it’s 2020, so I suspect you won’t be surprised when I tell you the answer is, “Yes, of course.” It’s not just campus dudebros who apparently think so. If you want to do a more serious search for answers to this question that don’t take the form of Republicans trash-talking Democrats for favoring late-term abortion, don’t call it “infanticide.” Call it “neonaticide”; the Chicago Tribune reported that “a conservative estimate puts the incidence of neonaticide in the U.S. at 150 to 300 annually.” It so happens that this crime was defended by two freshly-minted Ph.D. ethicists back in 2012; their term for it was the chillingly clinical-sounding “after-birth abortion.” Aren’t you glad that your mother didn’t decide to have an “after-birth abortion”? Anyway that newborns should be permitted to be killed if their mothers don’t want them.
Fortunately, the view never really caught on—unless you wanted to count the aforementioned people who support the killing of viable babies who were extracted from the uterus in order to be killed (i.e., they would survive if they weren’t killed). There would seem to be quite a few of such people, though such people disagree with the “infanticide” epithet.
Clearly, it seems to matter what you call the killing of babies.
Now, I am aware that I keep using a formulation that must sound uncharitable and paradoxical, if not absurd: that some positively prefer, celebrate, or valorize…death. Is that just rhetorical excess on my part? Maybe. But it certainly isn’t excess in the case of the very best example of antivitists: antinatalists. As the Collins Dictionary has it, antinatalism is “a philosophical position that opposes human procreation, holding it to be morally wrong.” They really do dislike life, or at least new life. They think that to be born is to be harmed. Look at how philosopher David Benatar’s book title has it: Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence.
As interesting as this might be, I’m not going to discuss it in great depth, partly because it isn’t really a massive movement and partly because I don’t feel like debunking easily-debunked philosophical nonsense. The point is that there really is a small minority of people—mostly young and sad people (on Reddit, 80% are under 26 and 59% depressed or suicidal)—who take the position that life is simply a bad thing, and that death would be better, or as Benatar puts it, it would be better never to have been born. These people must really dislike It’s a Wonderful Life (one of my very favorite movies). In it, the angel Clarence disabuses the hapless George of his belief that it would be better if he had never been born.
Along these lines, I would be remiss not to mention those who do not want to procreate; I refer to the childfree movement. Their Reddit group is much larger than the antinatalist one, though they are philosophically largely in alignment. In fairness, most of these people simply want society (especially their own parents) to stop bothering them with expectations to procreate. Of course they’re not necessarily antivitists, let alone part of a “death cult.”
But a sizeable number of people in the movement do believe it is positively wrong to procreate; and they take this seriously, going so far as to declare quite unashamedly that they hate children. This is the populist side of antinatalism. I imagine most people already know that this isn’t some wild-eyed scare-mongering; The New Yorker saw fit to give a platform to the view (quoting Benatar, again, among others). These more passionate childfree antinatalists have dismissive epithets for those who do choose to have children: “breeders.” These people value their own lives, presumably, if they aren’t among the many miserable antinatalists, but not so much the lives of children, i.e., of new people on the face of the earth. Obviously, people who are angered by the addition of new human beings need not valorize death; but it seems fair to say that they do not place a premium on life per se, beyond their own lives and perhaps those of people who are already here (as long as they aren’t children, I guess; one can only wonder at what age they stop being abhorrent).
So there are some views that strike me as being, prima facie, “antivitist” views.
Here’s a problem for my view. People who favor extreme abortion rights, euthanasia rights, antinatalism, and the childfree lifestyle tend to be on the left or libertarian—and the left and libertarians alike are generally opposed to capital punishment. So a challenge to me would go, “Hey Sanger, you said these people favor death. [Well, maybe in the case of some post-viability abortion advocates and antinatalists.] If they were some kind of ‘death cult,’ wouldn’t they be in favor of capital punishment? But they hate capital punishment! So there! These people care about quality of life, of course!”
I can’t disagree. This suggests, then, that there is something more subtle at work than that they simply “celebrate death or greatly undervalue life.” Clearly, we need to draw a distinction. It isn’t a desire for death per se, I think, that characterizes antivitism; it is one’s own death, or that of those one is responsible for, or would be responsible if one did not oppose creating new life. That seems more reasonable, if still rather deranged.
Also, let me concede something before I’m accused of a really gross error. Of course, you wouldn’t have to accept a general principle that human life is not terribly valuable in itself, or that death or never having been born is preferable to life, in order to accept most of the above views. I mean, logic may be chopped in various ways, and I don’t wish to imply that people are part of anything remotely resembling a “death cult” simply because they embrace one of the views described above. Of course that would be wrong.
So what am I saying?
In frank discussions of these topics, one does frequently comes across deeply pessimistic remarks: life is hell; the terminally depressed can’t change; death would be a blessing; it would be better never to have been; new lives are little more than bloodsucking parasites; people who create new life are mere contemptible “breeders.” All of these are, I maintain, undercurrents of ultra-sophisticated, world-weary nihilism that pop up in discussions of late-term abortion rights, euthanasia rights, antinatalism, and the childfree lifestyle. It seems that some wish to impose their own hatred of their own lives on the rest of the world, and that this manifests in support for the positions mentioned. That strikes me as coming from a profoundly misanthropic place, although that word strikes me as not quite right. After all these people don’t just dislike other people, they positively deny the value of their lives. That’s something much darker than old-fashioned, curmudgeonly misanthropy.
Another pessimistic modern sentiment, not discussed above—existentialism—falls under the same umbrella. Our lives are meaningless and absurd; there’s no escape from the nausea induced by our radical freedom in a postmodern world. This isn’t so much misanthropy, either, as more straightforward pessimism that is part and parcel of the rejection (as “false consciousness”) of any religion-based or naturalistic values that might give life meaning.
If there is an antivitist trend, whether rooted in nasty misanthropy or nihilistic pessimism, and if it continues to grow as it has in recent decades, then I suppose the next things to expect would be:
- Growing demands for euthanasia rights in more countries, younger ages, and for more trivial reasons.
- Stronger demands for late-term abortion, demands to decriminalize infanticide, not to punish mothers who kill their healthy infants, etc.
- Antinatalism becomes mainstream. People killing themselves in larger and larger groups, as the Jim Jones cult did at Jonestown.
Maybe I’m onto something. I’m not saying this post clinches the matter. But if I’m right, this would tend to explain why various kinds of morbid and deeply depressing entertainment have become so popular in recent decades.