Interview with Chip Smith on Anti-Natalism, Cosmic Pessimism, & his Plans for the FutureGreg Johnson
I have been asked before whether I agree with the theses and ideas on offer in the books I put out. The stock answer is, not necessarily. I am, however, convinced that antinatalism (I tend to shear the hyphen) taps an acid truth—that every birth is tragic.
Earlier you asked about my political and intellectual disposition and, mindful of context, I tried to answer honestly. But if you want to play it down to the quick, I suppose my deeper worldview can be reduced to a toxic blend of scientific materialism and deep pessimism. In other words, I allow that reality can be apprehended through reason and experience, but I think the conclusions that follow tend only to affirm our worst suspicions—that, to borrow Thomas Ligotti’s perfect phrase, the universe is not just meaningless, but malignantly useless.
Some people might describe this as nihilism, but I am aware of the logomachian squalls that attend the term. To be a bit clearer, then, I don’t think that “nothing is true” in the sense that not even that grammatical utterance is true, but I do ascribe to a kind of nihilistic (or profoundly pessimistic, in the key of Schopenhauer not Ehrlich) default that counsels absolute skepticism where the polestar of meaning shifts into frame.
Put it this way: I think that Camus was right to reject political and philosophical appeals; I think he was wrong to make nice with the abyss that remains after such appeals have been filed and cert. denied. Mortality salience is key—“your death and mine,” as Jim Goad puts it. It’s just that I am no longer convinced that the inevitability of death endows a life—or “life itself”—with any special significance. The inarguable fact is that every one of us has been dropkicked into a life we didn’t ask for, that leads to death. And the world ends when you die. Not a metaphor. Zeros don’t multiply. The apple isn’t just rotten; it’s shot through with poison.
You say this kind of thing and people respond in predictable ways. I will be enjoined to throw myself off the nearest bridge. I will be advised to man up for the struggle. I will be told that I am a coward or that God is the answer. Don’t think for a second that I haven’t thought it through. There are plenty of shiny distractions to keep my interest for the time being. There are animals to be fed, deadlines to be met, and I want to see how Breaking Bad ends.
But deep pessimism is where aesthetics breaks down for me. In particular, it’s what impels me to reject appeals to transcendent “survival” that resound in racialist and environmentalist rhetoric. Pace every zombie movie ever made, I don’t think “survival”—in the literal, generational, tribal, or metaphorical sense—is anything to celebrate. It’s just a Darwinian tic.
I believe I first came to think about antinatalism when I was reading Murray Rothbard’s essay on “children’s rights” in The Ethics of Liberty. It’s an infamous bit of libertarian theory that sort of tests the limits of the non-aggression principle. The weird result is that Murray, ever the stickler for consistency, ends up defending some repugnant conclusions, such as that parents have no strict ethical obligation to care for, or even feed, their children. The reasoning follows after an ethical abhorrence of the initiation of force. While we might condemn the category of inaction that permits a helpless infant to die for lack of provision, Rothbard argues, strict libertarian ethics precludes the imposition of force—such as by dint of legal sanction or punishment—against non-intervening bystanders, including parents who do not actively aggress against their offspring but merely allow them to die.
Now I am aware that there are many ways out of this knot, including some that don’t violate Rothbard’s cherished non-aggression axiom. But I was trying to think it down on his terms, just for the sport of it, and when I considered carefully his emphasis on initial force, well, it occurred to me that maybe he wasn’t being so bravely consistent as he liked to imagine.
Wasn’t the hypothetical child’s life itself the result of a more germinal initiation of force—the procreative force that would inevitably result in a human death? Well, it certainly wasn’t something that he consented to, any more than so many subsequent floggings and taxes and zoning ordinances that he might endure and that Rothbard would surely condemn if said hypothetical child were lucky enough to be sheltered and fed through his helpless phase. I might emphasize that my armchair rejoinder was little more than a nostrum, nothing epiphanic. But it did stick with me. And then one day I was revisiting the whole business in conversation with a friend, who suggested in turn that I read this new book by a philosopher named David Benatar.
The book was called Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. Most people think the title alone is absurd, and when they first hear about the hedonic asymmetry that undergirds and informs Benatar’s antinatalist conclusion, they think it’s just plain silly. I think most people haven’t thought very hard about it and don’t want to. I think it’s also possible that most people accept the asymmetry at face value, but recoil when they sense were it leads. The asymmetry is simply a formalized way of expressing the relationship between pain and pleasure, and perforce, harm and benefit. It’s usually shown in a box divided into quadrants (like Pascal’s Wager), but it goes like this:
1) The presence of pain is bad; and
2) The presence of pleasure is good.
3) The absence of pain is good (even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone); but
4) The absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation
The conclusion that’s intuitive to some but repugnant to others is that no matter how much good stuff occurs in a given human life, the alternative of never being brought into existence is always better. Sure, never being brought to life means never enjoying a slice of pizza or such other arguably more refined pleasures that you might care to name. But it also means never experiencing an iota of pain. It means never experiencing the pain of a pricked finger or the pain associated with any number of possible infirmities and misfortunes, from broken bones and influenza to the more emotionally resonant anguish that comes with, for example, the loss of a loved one.
You might think that a super-duper perfect life is enough to offset the imbalance. It’s not. This is because the special category of absence that applies to those who are never brought into existence entails the absence of deprivation. The person who is never born may never know the pleasure of pizza-eating or the pain of a pinprick, but he is eternally spared the latter and he experiences absolutely no sense of deprivation in missing out on the former.
Now, one reflexive response that many people come up with when they first encounter the pleasure/pain asymmetry is some version of the counterclaim that “Pain is NOT bad!” People will say, “I had cancer, and I’m a better person for it!” or “My divorce was terribly painful, but later I met the love of my life, and I’m better for it!” or they might hang their rejection on the textbook case of the a child who naïvely touches an open flame thereby triggering a nerve-sensory response thereby inculcating the useful lesson that, as Phil Hartman’s Frankenstein character would put it, “FIRE BAD!”
The problem with this kneejerk response, of course, is that it confuses the instrumental value of (some) pain with the underlying quality of pain itself, which is always, by definition, bad. That’s why it’s pain. If you don’t accept that, you can just as easily tweak the formulation to apply only to “non-instrumental pain,” which invades every human life.
A more sophisticated objection rests on something called the “non-identity problem,” or simply “non-identity.” This refers to the notion that qualitative states (pain and pleasure) cannot be meaningfully applied to nonexistent or potential beings and that therefore the absence of pleasure or pain is only relevant when applied to already-existing beings.
It sounds impressive at first blush, but people who rest their counterargument on non-identity usually fail to consider how intuitive and commonplace non-identity premised reasoning is in our day-to-day experience. At the front, it’s worth noting that most practical and moral decisions are brokered in consideration of some potential—but presently non-existent—state of affairs. Otherwise no one would take out insurance policies, plan for retirement, save for college, etc., and the entire legal basis for negligence would be nonsensical.
The same intuitive orientation is just as common where the future welfare of potential humans goes. Think of the childless couple who chooses to buy a home near a “good school” because they are “planning a family.” Or think of the last baby shower you were dragged to. Or, if such examples seem a mite trivial, consider the case where a husband and wife both carry the gene for Tay Sachs and contemplate having a child. Does anyone really think that the “non-identity problem” obviates the moral dimension of a decision that entails a 25% chance that a child will be fated to live a short life characterized by excruciating pain? The truth is that the non-identity problem is taken seriously only when it is posited in countermand to philanthropic antinatalist reasoning. It’s more of a refuge than a serious philosophical problem.
Beyond the fact that I happen to be an antinatalist, there’s much that interests me about the subject. I find it fascinating that antinatalist conclusions can be derived from—or “are consistent with” to cite that bordering-on-meaningless refrain—so many different religious and philosophical vantages. I’m an atheist, but for Christians who believe in the reality of eternal damnation, the decision to create a human life comes with the risk that a child may fail to toe the scriptural line and thus be consigned to an eternity in Hell. For deontologists who place a premium on autonomy, procreation poses the problem that no person can consent to his own creation. Anti-abortion votaries who base their argument on the premise that the life begins at conception might consider that the biological continuum they so cherish also ends foreseeably in the harm of death, that the act of procreation is as much of a death sentence as a D&C procedure. For utilitarians, particularly those who skew toward a negative utilitarian calculus, the problems are obvious.
There is also the fact that antinatalism is spectacularly provocative. I’ve observed first-hand how people who come to the subject convinced that the idea is merely silly often become hostile if not downright vituperative as the discussion progresses. And such hostile reactions aren’t confined to popular forums; there’s a scholarly article by Sami Pihlström that argues, inter alia, that antinatalism falls under this weird category of “ethical unthinkabilities” that should be proactively refused entry into the open court of academe. In this regard, my interest in antinatalism overlaps with my interest in other taboo subjects that tend to provoke acrimony, such as Holocaust revisionism, human biodiversity, and a number of troublesome bioethical issues, such as the unorthodox exploration of suicide ethics that animates Sarah Perry’s work. Controversy, when it has a prickly, emotive quality, can be a gateway to insight.
Jim’s book (Confessions of an Antinatalist) is a great one, and it seems to have found a bit of a cult following. I can announce that a revised second edition is in the offing. The new edition will feature an expansion of the “Faux Q&A” section, along with a new afterword by Jim, an introduction by me, a new cover design by Kevin Slaughter, an interview with Jim, and maybe—probably—an annotated bibliography that will be useful to people who want to explore the subject further.
I was probably premature in my announcement of Sarah Perry’s forthcoming book, Every Cradle is a Grave: Rethinking the Ethics of Birth and Suicide, since she’s still plugging away at it. But I’ve had the opportunity to read several chapters, and I can assure her readers that their patience will be rewarded. For those who don’t know, Sarah hosts an excellent blog called “The View from Hell” under the pseudonym “Sister Y.” I’ve learned as much from her as I have from anyone online, including Steve Sailer.
In the same wheelhouse, 9BB has agreed to publish a book by Colin Feltham called Keeping Ourselves in the Dark. It’s a collection of loosely interwoven, pessimistically intoned essays that constellate around the crisis of meaning. Feltham has written a number of scholarly books, perhaps most significantly in present context, What’s Wrong with Us: The Anthropathology Thesis. I’m very excited to be in a position to publish his work.
So, do you have any children?
No. And I don’t work for the government.
Your discussion of anti-natalism is fascinating, but it gives me pause. The existence of a tightly-argued literature for basically doing away with the human race, combined with technologies like birth control, could be taken as a sign that high intelligence is an evolutionary dead end. The kind of people who voluntarily limit reproduction include intelligent people capable of foresight and planning, and socially and ecologically responsible people concerned with the common good of mankind and the planet. But that means that the selfish, irresponsible, and dumb will inherit the earth, which will just make every additional birth even more tragic.
Well, high intelligence may very well be an evolutionary dead-end. I’m certainly at a loss to come up with a good reason as to why a once-adaptive trait that you and I happen to value should enjoy special pleading before the blind algorithmic noise that is natural selection.
But even if the brawny-brained do figure out a way to defy gravity before the sun explodes, I think there are yet reasons to question whether the galloping ascent of mind is really worth cheering on. Futurist geeks will inform us that there are myriad tech revolutions afoot—all spearheaded by smarties, to be sure. And I would suggest that such of these that converge on the gilded promise of quantum computing and nanotechnology might advise a second reflective pause—one that comes by way of Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” and settles at what grim solace remains in the darkest explanations that have always surrounded Fermi’s Enigma.
Maybe I’m being cryptic. What I mean to consider is simply that the evolutionary trajectory of intelligence can, has, and may yet lead to very bad things. It may one day be possible, for example, to create sentient experience—let’s not be so bold as to call it “life”—not out of gametes but in the deep quick of quibit states, and if this much should come to pass, it isn’t so far a stretch to imagine that such intelligent simulations—okay, they’re alive—will be capable of suffering, or that such will be made to suffer, perhaps for sadistic kicks, perhaps in recursive loops of immeasurable intensity that near enough approximate the eternal torture-state that’s threatened in every fevered vision of Hell to render the distinction moot.
What I further mean to consider—again against the hope we assign to intellectual progress, caught up in the story as we are—is that if and when the problem of scarcity is tidily resolved under the reign of nano-bots, that maybe then we’ll be left with basement nukes on the cheap. Or perhaps it’ll be some other smarty-tech-hatched wizardry with which to hasten the final curtain. We haven’t heard from the ETs is all I’m saying, and there’s a reason.
Or perhaps no such things will happen, or perhaps they aren’t worth considering in any case. Could be we’ll just march forward a bit longer, getting slightly stupider or slightly smarter or somehow holding onto the present equilibrium, each of us meeting our own private ends—little apocalypses all—as we continue to behold the dumb show of a natural order that seduces us at turns with chimerical notions of progress and myth and meaning. A bit more of the same, let’s say.
Well. The sun will still explode.
I don’t mean to be impossible or captious. Because the problem you’re getting at—it’s actually one of the more gnarly consequentialist objections to philanthropic antinatalism that I’ve encountered since I first dipped my toes into these turbid waters. The relationship between happiness, dysgenics, and antinatalism is parsed a bit further in an online comment thread that I’ve kept on file. Feel free to click the link and put on your thinking cap, but the meat is nested in the exchange between Sister Y and Jason Malloy, where Malloy’s statistically informed speculation is that antinatalist memes may indeed fuel a kind of “idiocracy effect” leaving more people exposed to greater suffering in a social environment that would tend to be hostile toward the escape valve of suicide.
To amplify the crux of your question, then, it could well be that belief in the philanthropic case against reproduction practically entails unintended consequences that would perpetuate, rather than alleviate, the very harm it seeks to avoid. I think the matter is yet to be empirically resolved, and I’m actually quite serious when I point to the potential dark side of intelligence worship. Still, I’ll admit it’s a troublesome wrinkle.
What’s important to keep in mind is that the reality of an “idiocracy effect” does not refute the descriptive or axiological bases for the view that it is grossly indecent (or worse, if you’re a deontologist) to force new people into existence. For antinatalists who are also committed consequentialists the problem may carry more difficulty, but for those of us who have a constitutional aversion to treating people as means, the idea that we should bite the bullet and have children—or simply refrain from promoting antinatalist reasoning—in order that the aggregate measure of human suffering should diminish or remain stable is unpersuasive. It’s a bit like asking a conscientious objector to take up arms because there’s a calculable scenario under which one more war is likely to reduce the likelihood of future military engagements.
Of course, the problem could be addressed in other ways, which reminds me of Aschwin de Wolf’s provocative discussion of antinatalism in Cryonics, where he suggests that there’s an illiberal seed at the core of antinatalist ethics. I’ve gone on long enough, but if you’re interested in understanding why I think there might be something to Aschwin’s suspicion (though not in the sense he means), my relevant comment is preserved here.
The long and short is that there’s this other idea that we might think of as antinatalism’s mutant conjoined twin, like Belial in Basket Case. It’s something that, as far I know, has yet to be formally exposited, though it has penumbral resonance in the hard logic of negative utilitarianism, and it may, more arguably, be deciphered through a Straussian (i.e., paranoid) reading of David Benatar’s long-form argument. The idea has a name: promortalism. I don’t know what to do with it. Let’s just hope our future “Friendly AI” overlords don’t catch wind.
Your anti-natalist arguments appear to be based on essentially individualistic assumptions. What if individual suffering really did not matter that much, and the object of concern was the nation, the race, or the welfare of the universe itself? What if one did not regard each human life merely as an end in itself, but as a means to higher ends, such as the unfolding of high culture, grand politics, science, exploration, etc.? That sort of vision would give intelligent and responsible people reasons to reproduce, and also furnish an argument for reducing the reproduction of the selfish, dumb, and happy-go-lucky.
I’m not blind to the romance of human achievement. If I were, I wouldn’t bother publishing books, and my reading list would start and stop with instruction manuals. But the Greater Good always strikes me as being a cunt-hair shy of the Greater God, and I lack the imagination to believe in either.
Such abstract objects of concern that could be enthroned above the intractable reality of forced mortal suffering can be better understood, I think, as distractions—or as secular iterations of the transcendental temptation. In Confessions of an Antinatalist, Jim Crawford discusses some of the “escape strategies” that people deploy to avoid confronting the prospect that the universe might reduce to so much useless malignancy, and he makes the important point (I touch on this above) that stories of trans-generational “survival”—whether of races or nations, humanity or Christianity, or even knowledge—are really stories of vicarious (which is to say, fake) survival. If you’re in thrall to the romance of the long march, there’s little I can say to dash your enthusiasm. You should be aware, however, that the soldiers you conscript for the grand mission may not share your sense of adventure, and are sure to die in battle.
Jim cuts it to the marrow when he says, “Hope is my enemy.” And however it’s phrased, the hope of “tomorrow’s promise” (also Jim’s line) is subsumed under the broader teleological conceit that I reject on all grounds. It’s the granddaddy of delusions, this notion that there’s a purpose to any of it. It’s the monster “conspiracy” that lurks above Ligotti’s marionettes.
Your combination of scientific rationalism and pessimism brings to mind H. P. Lovecraft. Are you a reader of his work?
I made the usual rounds with Lovecraft’s fiction when I was young, but it never reached the point of obsession. I just loved the stories—the sense of dread, the adverbially layered, almost schizophrenically-tinged descriptions of nameless, timeless, inchoate horror. It always seemed that he was trying to capture that rushing apocalyptic frisson that wakes you from a nightmare just as some terrible apocalyptic truth is about to be revealed.
There’s a scene in David Lynch’s film, Mulholland Drive, that reminds me very much of this aspect of Lovecraft’s horror writing—the part that takes place at Winky’s Diner, where the guy anxiously recounts a recurring dream that’s been traumatizing him . . . as the details he describes quietly manifest and the day-lit environment assumes a sinister pall. I mention this only because the horror that Lovecraft was plying seems at once so fragile and so familiar; like it wants to vanish upon analysis.
Those other aspects of Lovecraft—his voluminous antitheist writings, the criticism, the rational-pessimist philosophical essays, the traditionalist conservatism—that all came to my attention much later, mostly by way of Houellebecq’s biographical portrait and Ligotti’s brilliant treatise, The Conspiracy against the Human Race. A few of Joshi’s essays, too. I have yet to delve as far as I really should.
It does strike me how this dire appraisal of the universe that resonates in the work of Schopenhauer, Zapffe, Lovecraft, and some few others, stands at such implacable remove from the delusional, smiley-faced brand of “new atheism” that’s championed these days by writers of sundry polemical bestsellers. This is something I explore—without, alas, explicit reference to Lovecraft’s importance—in my introduction to a collection of the nonfiction work of Edgar Saltus that’s being put out soon by Underworld Amusements. Saltus’s works on offer—The Philosophy of Disenchantment (about deep pessimism) and The Anatomy of Melancholy (about antitheism)—were written around the turn of the century, and it’s such a bracing shock to contemplate the gulf that separates his dismal viewpoint from such cheery cant that animates the present-day Dawkins cult. I suppose I would be tempting a joke if I were to call it depressing.
I see you are bringing out Hollister Kopp’s Gun Fag Manifesto with a Preface by Jim Goad. Tell us about that project
Yeah. This one’s a hoot. I’m doing it in collaboration with Kevin Slaughter of Underworld Amusements, so it’s actually a 9BB/UA release—hopefully the first in a series of “Resurrection” reprints of great zines. We have others in our sights.
Gun Fag Manifesto was one of my favorite things to come out of the halcyon days of zinedom, and, as with so many other DIY publications from that micro-era (the mid-’90s), it seems to have disappeared down the memory hole. The subtitle said it all: “Entertainment for the Armed Sociopath.” GFM was lovingly, obsessively, psychotically, and irresponsibly devoted to guns, gun culture, gun counterculture, gun rights, gun art, gun porn, and . . . ammo. The writing is obsessive and funny as hell, blending a hilariously over-the-top (but not ironic) pro-gun editorial stance with a powder keg of smart-witted gonzo reportage in the spirit of ANSWER Me! I’m really tickled that Jim Goad will be kicking off the festivities. His name belongs on this thing for reasons that go way back.
The book itself is just what you’d want: a facsimile reprint of all three issues with a perfect new introduction by Hollister and, of course, Goad’s preface. There’ll be some new artwork to jazz things up at the edges, and maybe a cool promotional gimmick, but that’s the gist. I’ve been wanting to do this one for such a long time, but Hollister was hard to track down. Once I found him, it didn’t take much to convince him. He’s one of the good ones.
What do you envision for the future of Nine-Banded Books? Where would you like to be in ten years?
I remember seeing an interview with John Waters where he described his cinematic achievement as “a footnote that fought its way into a paragraph.” The footnote seems like a cozy enough redoubt for what I do, but I’m content to operate further below the cultural radar—beneath even the footnotes and the asterisks appending the footnotes—as long as I can continue to publish some few books each year that I believe matter in whatever way. There’s no shortage of ideas; I enjoy following my instincts and being surprised by the next obsessive charge that comes. I think I’m a reasonably good editor (though I’m a crappy proofreader, which is why I rely on Ann Sterzinger’s laser eye), and I enjoy working closely with writers. In practical terms, I guess I’d like to fatten up the stock of non-9BB titles on offer, if only to better showcase more of the provocative and overlooked literature that catches my attention. There’s good stuff being put out by other niche publishers. The catalog will grow is all I know.
As far as more immediate future plans go, I can make at least a few relatively firm announcements about what’s on the front burner—some things that haven’t been mentioned above.
First, there’s this nasty little collection of short fiction by Paul Bingham called Down Where the Devil Don’t Go. I’ve been sitting on it for too long, but it’s very nearly ready for press now. I’d describe it as a kind of postmodern picaresque—or “houellebecqesque” if I may coin a silly term. Despicable characters leading despicable lives in a loosely interconnected sequence of misanthropically intoned, pulp-noir-descended stories revolving around themes of alienation, anomie, and cultural degeneration. The flavor is reactionary, and the satirical inflection is pitch-black.
Next in the queue might or might not be Jesus Never Existed: An Introduction to the Ultimate Heresy by Kenneth Humphreys. Ken is an articulate and reliable gadfly for the “mythicist” opposition to the regnant Jesus historiography, and this book presents the thesis in entertaining bite size chunks. It’s a primer, sort of like those “Very Short Introduction” monographs that Oxford has been churning out over the years.
Let’s see . . . I’ve already made note of Colin Feltham’s book and the future releases by Crowell and Bowden, so that leaves me to mention The Nine-Banded Sourcebook and Reader, which is this giant-ass compendium I’ve been working on in fits and starts for some time. I guess you might call it a “magalog” in that it features flagrantly self-promotional content cheek-to-cheek with a bunch of interviews and articles—some reprints, some new—that sort of coalesce around the 9BB brand, such as it is. If you remember the old Whole Earth catalogs or the Loompanics Unlimited annuals, well, that’s sort of the spirit I’m hoping to capture. The cover art is by Billy Spicer, and it’s a fucking knockout.
If it’s not too far afield, I’d like to close with a plug for two writers in the 9BB stable whose work has thus far gone unmentioned. These writers are Ann Sterzinger and Mikita Brottman.
Ann’s books may not mesh so obviously with the countercultural and metapolitical currents that provoke rubbernecking, but I dare anyone to read her novel NVSQVAM (nowhere) and not agree with me that she’s a criminally overlooked writer. I’ve since had the opportunity to read the first draft of a science fiction novel that she’s still perfecting, and it was so good it made my elbows itch (or maybe that was spilled salt on the bar? . . . regardless). I hope to hell she gets her shot with a top-drawer publisher before the last call. I think she will. She deserves it. She’s worked for it. I do worry sometimes that I’ve jinxed the odds by publishing her first.
And then there’s Mikita, whose subversive cultural studies have made such a lasting impression on me. Mikita Brottman is that rare bird who can turn out razor-sharp interdisciplinary scholarship in one stroke and pitch-perfect psychological fiction in the next. She gets in your head, and under your skin. Just read Thirteen Girls. You’ll see.
Thank you Chip, this is been an amazing, mind- and world-expanding interview for me and my readers. I look forward to your future writings and publications.
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