October 23, 2012
The Holocaust and Natalism
Holocaust studies in an interesting subject, one where we are faced with what has come to seem the paradigm case of irreducible evil. Even the capitalization of the word itself implies some special status. I am not personally someone who likes to perceive anything in terms of pure evil, evil being a metaphysical construct which interferes with finding pragmatic solutions, but the fact remains that it stands as something “larger than life”.
We might expect, reasoning from that, to find in the Holocaust persuasive reasons for abandoning the entire project of life. On the face of it, the fact of the Holocaust is something that should persuade anyone that life in this world is not worth perpetuating, if, that is, we take the rhetoric of irreducible evil which should be shunned at any cost to its logical conclusion. Unfortunately, a few difficulties arise.
The first of these is that the contemporary West is almost certain that such a thing will not happen again. This is the “growth metaphor” that people typically view civilization in terms of. Like a child with a new toy, humanity is proud to have “been there, done that”, so that we can say with a shrug of the shoulders and a twinkle in our eye, “such a thing will never happen again”. All the while, with admirably neurotic anxiety, we have to keep reminding ourselves how “that shit was really fucked up”, because we know it could happen again at any time.
Another way of saying this is that, in order to justify our continued existence (the existence, perhaps more specifically, of this particular civilizational configuration), we have had to assign the knowledge we have gained through the Holocaust as being of equal metaphysical significance to the Holocaust itself. This knowledge of toleration, diversity, opposition to eugenics, distrust of totalitarianism, etc. must imbue everything we do, existing as a penumbra of values embedded within lived history, and must preside unquestioned over our civic atmosphere.
So the Holocaust anxiety is what we have to live with as long as we exclude the path of nonviolent extinction, the only path that can prevent it forever. And how we get by is by saying we’ve got this knowledge that we didn’t have, as though millions of horrific deaths equates to some Proustian reminiscence.
Another reason that the Holocaust has not implied really avoiding it (through giving up on the human project) is the idea that we should not just lay down and die in the face of evil, that we must assert ourselves, and in doing so perpetuate values that are in opposition to this metaphysical evil of which the holocaust is the paradigm instance. This kind of approach, which would try to oppose evil and assert our vanity at the same time, for the sake of sheer bravado, has no place in a consequentalist system. This is the kind of virtue ethics that makes no sense to me but, regardless, makes sense to other people for one reason or another.
Both of these views are simply indefensible from a negative consequentalist point of view. But of course there are a plethora of other justifications which can be offered. None of these other ethical discourses make any sense to me at all and seem quite silly. It seems that if there is something bad, and we wish to avoid it, surely we would want to really avoid it, and that is only done through nonviolent extinction. But enough said about that. Other people have other ethical intuitions and I can respect those as being completely idiotic as long as they don’t force me to procreate, or make it difficult for me to avoid subsidizing reproduction which could end in a Holocaust.
The Case of Biotic Ethics
What is more problematic is the possibility that we could cause the Holocaust to recur without even having to face the consequences ourselves. This is where the spectre of so called “biotic ethics” enters the equation. Biotic ethics is the view that life itself has value, and it has been used to defend the idea of panspermia, the notion that is our calling to spread life throughout the universe. These views are represented by the Panspermia Society.
There is no question in these people’s minds that panspermia is a good thing. But we can imagine perfectly well what will happen if we seed life through the universe and it then happens to become intelligent.
The picture is horrifying. We cannot be certain that there will not be a Holocaust, and in fact, judging by history we can be fairly certain that there will be something like it, provided life evolves on a planet whose biosphere contains enough energy to allow industrial civilization to emerge.
And in that instance, how are we to pass on our knowledge (which we now hold up as being of equal metaphysical value as pure evil) to those who we have brought into existence? Are we to send our microbial payloads on their way to another star system along with indecipherable monoliths about tolerance and about how to be civilized– in case our own civilization should become extinct? How the hell are we supposed to be sure our interplanetary offspring will follow those instructions?
It is extremely important that humanity recognize that inflicting a Holocaust on another planet is unconscionable, especially when we would have to face none of the consequences. What if our leaders decide we don’t have the resources to follow up on the project? Sitting on our anti-gravity lawn chairs, sipping lemonade, we could look out in perfect ease while a child in another solar system a being sent to barbaric slaughter, looking up at the stars and asking, “where is God?”. And all because we were led on by the psuedo-philosophy of “biotic ethics”.
The Panspermia Society Responds to the Holocaust
Strangely, the Panspermia Society’s statement on ethics reads more like a pronouncement of David Koresh than a statement of philosophy. And whereas I had hoped to make some connection between the Holocaust and this worldview, nothing could have prepared me for what I found. I had thought, knowing nothing about them at all, that these people must just be, prima facie, Holocaust deniers. After all, who else would want to create life on a planet when there is no way we can be sure that we can educate it when it develops intelligence?
Instead, what I found, in a twist that would intrigue any psychoanalyst, is that panbiotic ethics rests on a cultish vision that is fairly obsessed with existentially justifying the Holocaust from the point of view of a totalitarian “I”. I couldn’t make up the following:
“Your brave hearts, your fearless self-deceit, your great promise, your lies, your blind loves, your hopes, your tender children; all will turn into soot.
Because I say cry out and you are idle; you chose to ignore the voice of Life within you.
Therefore if a threat arises to imperil all Life, stand up to face and eradicate that danger; do not remain silent:
As silence is an evil that will turn upon you and your children in vengeance.
Always rise up to confront and utterly destroy every threat to Life.”
Now, when one talks about tender children turning into soot, one is clearly alluding to the Holocaust, which, after all, was a case of genocide. So it certainly seems the Panspermia Society is aware of the Holocaust, and wishes to integrate the possibility of that eventuality somehow into its plans. Of course, there’s the element of silly bravado I’ve already mentioned. But this is not mere bravado. Let’s not overlook the element of justification inherent in this statement, the justification coming from this totalitarian “I”.
The first question is, who is this the totalitarian “I” which is speaking? To be charitable, maybe this is just the author’s way of conveying a visionary idea by appropriating a Biblical prophetic tone of voice. But it seems there are also more sinister possibilities. What we witness, when we imagine the possibility of panspermia without education, is the possibility of recreating our civilization’s history ad naseum. And that implies an increasing number of Holocausts happening throughout the universe. In order to justify such totalitarian imposition, one must appeal to totalitarianism. Thus this totalizing “I” is created, capable of justifying such an action.
Another question is, should we believe this totalitarian “I”? Now, for all I know, it may be that the children who died in concentration camps suffered because they had “ignored the voice of Life within [them]”. Perhaps these were simply bad, lazy children who had decided that, rather than playing outside like the other children, they would sit in front of the window in a catatonic daze. But the chances are, it seems to me, that they were innocent victims.
In fairness, the Panspermia Society does convey the message that this eventuality is to be avoided:
“Only always beware to imprint in your descendants the essential human attributes, as this is your unique power: compassion, aggression and intellect in proper balance.”
But it is not at all clear how this is to be assured, provided we do not seed life in a fully intelligent state to begin with, in which it can culturally transmit what is known already about the civilization we are trying to perpetuate. If that’s the case, why not clearly delimit panspermia to human space colonization?
Frankly I haven’t read the entire statement, because it’s mostly gibberish. But it is rife with radical natalism and equally unrelenting optimism which seeks to just gloss over darwinian constraints on ecosystems. Considering the fact that this dream of panspermia is an escapist fantasy in which “Life” can be capitalized like the Holocaust, with no possibility of the Holocaust recurring, it should be no surprise that the end is complete wish-fulfillment. Thus, the following is no surprise either:
“In the empires of Life the pain of need and the dread of extinction will not be remembered”
We can almost hear the plaintive call here and we can almost sympathize with it. But sympathy does not mean endorsement. For thousands of years philosophical optimists have been justifying everything through circular double-logic. Violence can be overcome through violence. The legacy of totalitarianism can be escaped through internalizing totalitarianism. Here then is a new absurdity: creating the possibility of Holocausts will allow us to overcome them, and causing them will allow us to forget them.
The Panspermia Society wants to seed life into space by 2050. Are we so assured of our continued survival as to believe that we can educate our progeny after it arrives at its destination and evolves? The time scales for planning such an action responsibly are inconceivable. When we have extracted and used all the fossilized sunlight we can to power our industrial civilization, it will be clear that we have begun what we cannot finish on other planets. The worst could and would happen. For the beings that evolve on such planets, there will be no books, nor histories, nor recollection, only a black vacuum of ignorance enforced upon them by our species irresponsibility.
Irresponsible panspermia, as supported by panbiotic ethics, needs to be called what it is: catastrospermia. It is the denial of the significance of the Holocaust and the denial of the possibility (perhaps inevitable) that genocide will recur in any situation where the causes exist. The Holocaust ought to permanently shatter our civilization’s vanity, not serve as a pretext for spreading it.
Panspermia: An Immanent Danger
One would hope or expect that preventing catastrospermia is the kind of cause that liberals everywhere would embrace with open arms. Nevertheless, this would be too optimistic, as they have their eye on more important issues.
Hence, the controlling laws have gone unenforced. Article IX of The United Nations Outer Space Treaty of 1967 clearly stipulates against the contamination of extraterrestrial bodies. Nevertheless, as recently as this year, the Russian mission Phobos-Grunt was slated to be launched with a payload of extremophiles onboard, as part of the Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment. The mission only failed, however, because of technical difficulties; the same sort of technical difficulties that could result in the release of these microbes onto the moon’s surface.
The opponents of such contaminating missions, which pose the danger of panspermia, include Barry E. DiGregorio, the director of the International Committee Against Mars Sample Return. He provides a number of reasons such plans are ill-conceived:
“The Russian Federal Space Agency’s Phobos Sample Return Mission (formerly known as Phobos-Grunt) will send not just microbial spores but live bacteria into the solar system for the first time. If this isn’t a direct violation of the Outer Space Treaty then what is?”
If we spread life to other celestial bodies, there is no possible way of telling what could happen after four billion years, nor if we will even be around at all. But we can be assured there will be conflict in any darwinian system we create. And one more thing will be certain: it will be hard to convey whatever lessons we think we’ve learned over the course of our vain existence.
February 4, 2012
“Parents are not interested in justice — they want QUIET!“
When a child protests about unfairness, it is often in the context of a disputed parental verdict. Parents who want to keep peace and quiet sometimes reply with the phrase “well, life isn’t fair”, with the emphasis on life. Whenever I have heard parents or other authority figures say this so smugly, I’ve always thought it was an immature defensive reaction constituting an assault on the integrity of the child’s critical thinking ability, training them to equate some unchangeable entity “life” with the decisions of the speaker. But the words reveal more than the smugness that accompanies power. When parents say “well, life isn’t fair” they unknowingly reveal an important fact about the natalist attitude to life and to children. Life isn’t fair, which means, prima facie, that perpetuating it is an injustice. In order to tolerate and extend the injustice of life, persons intent on reproduction must value life more than fairness. Are parents aware of this, and what do they mean when they say “well, life isn’t fair”? Do they really stand by this statement, which seems so self-accusing?
To begin, we might note that the definitions of fairness and unfairness, because they cut across so many semantic domains, incorporate both a moral and an amoral dimension. The word “good” can refer to a capacity that is devoid of moral content (being good at or for something), as well as being good toward something (the moral sense). Similarly, “fair” can apply to a business deal or an employment contract that is carried out by two parties that are at each other’s throat, with one getting the upper hand, even though from a higher standpoint (such as that of class exploitation) we can clearly see that the deal is unfair, because one party is in a privileged position of power. The amoral sense is what we refer to when we say “fair enough” or “he won it fair and square”. This narrow sense of “fair” refers to a victory that does not violate the rules of the game, while the wider sense refers to a standpoint that explicitly takes the rules of the game itself as being “fair”. Conversely, “unfairness” can refer to a person or persons who are acting unfairly in relation to what is socially approved, or it can mean that those rules are themselves unfair.
When parents tell their children that life isn’t fair, which of these meanings do they have in mind? Do they mean that some parties are bad parties, that some actions violate the social contract, or do they mean that life itself is unfair?
If the first is what they mean, why not just say that some people are bad people? Why say that life itself is unfair? Are they not actually referring to the rules of the game itself? In some contexts, parents might escape the wider implications of the statement by claiming that they are referring to a particular action as being socially unfair. But usually, when a statement like this is uttered, it is not really with an acceptance that the dialogical anchor, or the event in question, really was unfair. They believe that it (usually their decision) was fair. Most parents, if they feel that their child has been the object of some social injustice, typically attempt to mitigate it, rather than to inculcate acquiescence. These facts, in addition to their use of the term “life”, lends force to the interpretation that parents are referring not to their decision, but to life itself, which demands that, as parents, they make unfair decisions.
Probably, several of these meanings are packed into the statement:
- The speaker is noting that “life” is amoral, and in so being it is impossible for life to adhere to human concepts of fairness. This is the factual heart of the statement, which is indisputable. The unfairness is everywhere, such as in distinctions of ability and intelligence. If anything, we might say that in the view of nature, fairness is equal to force, and might makes right. This being the opposite of human ideas of justice, we reach the paradox expressed by Pascal: “it is just that the just be followed, it is necessary that the strong be followed”.
- At the same time they are passing judgment on the statement of the child, and are not-so-subtly blaming the child for asking too much from life. In doing this they reveal that life is the object of their true loyalty. If it were otherwise, they would ask life for absolute justice on behalf of the child, rather than deferring to life.
- It is a defensive response and an accusation toward the child, a counter-judgment. Paradoxically, it expresses the belief that asking for too much fairness is in fact unfair. In their position as arbiters of justice in an amoral universe, asking parents for too much fairness is in fact unfair to them.
- The parent (or authority figure) is defensively justifying their position through a shift in blame, toward an anthropomorphized other, “life”. It is an attempt, as in a real bureaucracy, to push the source of the unfairness up to the higher level. “I’m just following orders”, is the cry of the authority figure who appeals to life as unfair.
- They are presuming to act in an informative role, telling the child something they are unaware of, by appealing to a wider experience. It is this experience of life’s unfairness which is supposed to lend support to their statement. The implication of the appeal to experience is to teach resignation; parents themselves tolerated the unfairness of life, and therefore so should the children.
- It can also amount to a pure dismissal and an outright gesture of force, because it talks down to the child from a vantage point from which the child cannot change the verdict that has been decided. When the parent says “well, life is unfair”, they mean by life their own self-aggrandized view of their own power, which, to the child, is totalizing and inescapable. In the defensive mode of counter-judgment, they take pleasure in this fact. In doing so, they reassert their own power against the destabilizing effect of a direct questioning of a verdict.
- It forms a social function by placing the child in opposition to an entire system of power. It lends its force to all acts of authority as such, with the result that the child learns to accept the determinations of authority figures with finality and conform to them. In this sense, parents mean by “life” the bourgeois concept of social arrangement, under which the child themselves will be harmed by, but also benefit from, socially construed unfairness. In this use, it constitutes a direct on assault on the capacity for critical thinking toward social forms.
- If spoken in the presence of other adults, it construes an in-group and out-group with respect to the social power that is being exerted. Because of its smugness, the statement is an attempt to raise the status of the adult speaker within the adult group, by displaying a show of verbal force towards a weaker party.
It is this compact and effective constellation of meanings that explains the persistence of the phrase “well, life is unfair” as a performative act directed at children. It would be an interesting study to see how similar meanings are expressed in other cultures, and against what linguistic background.
All of these senses, perhaps because they are so confused in the minds of the parents who voice them, seem together to constitute a whole which is (or ought to be) persuasive. But in reality there is nothing about the statement that holds water. The shift in blame proves nothing and is in fact an act of irresponsibility, not maturity. The idea that life is amoral and unfair and cannot meet human standards of justice has nothing to do with the specifics of the judgment in question. Revealing their true loyalty to life is a confession of the selfish (or at most species-level) motives behind reproduction, motives which never place the interests of the child as of first importance. And the implication that they tolerated the unfairness confers no force to the idea that anyone else should.
But what is striking is the extent to which the second meaning, that life is the object of the parent’s true loyalty, goes unnoticed and unremarked upon, and coexists with so many other hypocritical protests of personal love we meet with everyday in parent-child discourse. By loyalty we mean that one stands by another against a third. Loyalty arises most patently in the context of an injustice done by that third, which is then to be decided against by the loyal party. In this statement, the parent has sidestepped the call of such loyalty by making life itself the third party, and then lending greater importance to the interests of life than the interests of the child. They are saying, in effect, “there is no justice in this universe where I have created you, I cannot provide it, and so no matter what I may say to the contrary, my loyalty does not lie with you, and cannot lie with you, but rather with the life I have brought you into”. How can their true loyalty be expressed otherwise, if by the statement they mean in any literal sense that life is essentially amoral? This overlooked meaning is the most significant of the meanings, for it gets to the reason parents have children in the first place. It is from a loyalty to life and a biologically imparted love of the species that children are brought into the world, not from individual love.
Before the reader protests that I leave parents with no option for handling children questioning their decisions, let me offer my suggestion for a performative act that is both more satisfying to the child’s critical thinking ability and less smug in its assertion of power. “Well, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” or some variant is one response that could be better in these cases. Although it does not directly incorporate an admission of unfairness, it does incorporate the idea that life, as such, is unconcerned with providing the lemonade of fairness that humans must squeeze themselves from the lemon of an indifferent universe. It does not convey an unwarranted sense of closure, but a sense of openness and process. Although it might be the subject of ridicule from the child to be asked to make a better situation out of being denied what he wants, it would place things in the right perspective, by teaching him that as long as he has been brought into the world unfairly he must act as part of a cooperative social form to mitigate the suffering inherent around us. He would learn social compromise and be made to view what he sees as injustice in terms of imagination rather than passive acquiescence.
This loyalty of parents to life, rather than the child, is eloquently expressed in the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, which mirrors the performative act “well, life is unfair”. Today we like to think that we are more enlightened and would never engage in child sacrifice. But “well, life is unfair” expresses the extent to which the natalist attitude and worldview must sacrifice the child’s interests on the altar of unchanging circumstances, personified as “life”, and the way in which it does so through a symbolic replay of human sacrifice. The words may be different, but the essence is much the same. The phrase “well, life is unfair” is much like a replay of the attempted sacrifice of Isaac in the following ways:
- A greater force than the parent, which cannot be completely personified, (“life”), is deemed as unfair from the human standpoint, and in the mode of this unfairness demands a sacrifice of the child’s interests. This is like the call of God to sacrifice Isaac. It is a sacrifice no parent wants to make, but which they are made to make by the overwhelming force of the quasi-entity.
- Abraham accedes to this call because of the overwhelming force of the interlocutor, which cannot be reasoned with or dissuaded. This amounts to the recognition of the content of the phrase “life is unfair”.
- In order to rationalize what he is doing, Abraham suspends his own reason and what he is forced to view as his “merely human” values. This is like saying that “the notion of fairness must serve life, not the other way around”. This leap of faith explains how the statement “well, life is unfair” can coexist with the natalist attitude.
- At the last moment Abraham regains Isaac, and his hand is stayed by God, when it turns out that it was all a test. In the same way, present-day parents hope that the “voice” that calls for the sacrifice of the child’s interests (in the phrase “well, life is unfair”) will also be the voice that calls to stay the sacrifice of the child’s interests. Parents hope that this statement will make their child better adjusted to the world. The sacrifice that the voice calls for is a paradox: it calls for the sacrifice of the child’s self-interest, and in the same gesture, it hopes to stay the sacrifice of the child itself through instilling in the child social-interest and the setting-aside of self-interest.
Perhaps this particular correlation between the present day performative act and the biblical story is not an accident, and the myth betrays something very basic about how parents have to relate to their children. In the story of Abraham’s sacrifice, we may be seeing what amounts to an inverted form of the coming of age ritual: it is the picture of a parent coming of age in parenthood. Parents often embark on parenthood with all idealism of youth. They will provide the child everything. A little later on, they discover the real nature of the bargain they have entered into on behalf of the child, and must then manifest their faith in life a second time, by sacrificing the child in one way or another to a greater whole. But what both the story and statement betray is that the loyalty of persons to their offspring is not what it appears. Loyalty does not lie with the individual, but with something more powerful than the individual, which the individual is then sacrificed to.
What has to be noted is that this is all well and good only for the already existing. It is hard to question the wisdom of deferring to life once a child already exists, since life is so much bigger than the child or the parent. But who is to say that a child must exist in the first place and then be subject to the unfairness of life? The child is a separate entity whom we cannot confer with prior to creating it. Perhaps the painful path of self-abnegation required by life is something no future child would wish to embark on. Why, when there is no responsibility to another, should a potential parent set aside their own human idea of justice, by taking the leap of faith in believing that “life” knows better than human reason? It is not as if unborn children float in the ether calling out to be born. The human sacrifice is inherent in the act of procreation itself, long before there is any responsibility to another party. And this is to say nothing of the sacrifice natalism means for the already existing orphans of the world.
“well, life is unfair” therefore reveals a contradiction between the amorality of the universe and the supposed individual love parents have for their children. There remain only two possible ways for the natalist attitude to get around this contradiction. The first is to deny the amorality of the universe, the second is to deny the reality of individual love. The first is the method of a religious upbringing, the second is the method of what we might call a socially interested upbringing. In the next post, we will look at the second of these, examining how the natalist attitude might frame the higher value of life and social interest, as opposed to the interests of the individual, such as in the social interest theory of Alfred Adler, and examine how such framing– though useful from the standpoint of the already existing– fails to account for the ultimate contradiction between social ideals and the reality of the universe we live in.
December 4, 2011
Here is an excellent interview piece on happiness from CBC Radio, discussing the elusiveness of defining happiness, its detachment from meaning and purpose in life, and the potentially motivating force for change that is inherent in being radically discontent. It reminded me of my favorite passage in Betrand Russell’s autobiography:
“One day, Gilbert Murray came to Newnham to read part of his translation of The Hippolytus, then unpublished. Alys and I went to hear him, and I was profoundly stirred by the beauty of the poetry. When we came home, we found Mrs. Whitehead undergoing an unusually severe bout of pain. She seemed cut off from everyone and everything by walls of agony, and the sense of the solitude of each human soul suddenly overwhelmed me. Ever since my marriage, my emotional life had been calm and superficial. I had forgotten all the deeper issues, and had been content with flippant cleverness. Suddenly the ground seemed to give way beneath me, and I found myself in quite another region. Within five minutes I went through some such reflections as the following: the loneliness of the human soul is unendurable; nothing can penetrate it except the highest intensity of the sort of love that religious teachers have preached; whatever does not spring from this motive is harmful, or at best useless; it follows that war is wrong, that a public school education is abominable, that the use of force is to be deprecated, and that in human relations one should penetrate to the core of loneliness in each person and speak to that. The Whitehead’s youngest boy, aged three, was in the room. I had previously taken no notice of him, nor he of me. He had to be prevented from troubling his mother in the middle of her paroxysms of pain. I took his hand and led him away. He came willingly, and felt at home with me. From that day to his dead in the War of 1918, we were close friends.”
November 25, 2011
For a long-time I doubted the validity of most mental illnesses, viewing them as primarily social constructs. This wasn’t as the result of any particularly constructivist reasoning, or from exposure to Foucault, but more out of instinct. It seemed that suppressing unwelcome views or perspectives would be more likely, given the essential lack of imagination that most people have, than that the variety of mental illnesses existed out there in the world. Nor did it help that I can convince myself that I have most, if not all, mental illnesses, just by reading the diagnostic criteria and finding examples of how I exhibit these behaviors.
However, some experience I had with a narcissist have refined my view, to the point that I now believe that some mental illnesses must have a degree of truth in them. Basically, without those illnesses as a category, and without reading about the category, one is doomed to confusion in dealing with such persons. And so the question becomes how to distinguish between a constructed and a biologically valid illness, which would be real outside of a particular set of social norms.
I think a mental illness is meaningfully described if (1) it distinguishes a constellation of idiosyncratic behaviors or symtoms that occur with such collocative frequency that they form a seemingly organic whole, and (2) if at the same time the person is impossible to understand in the absence of that description.
I think that a mental illness, if it is to be a mental illness, must particularly fulfill the second criteria, because the first is more prone to manipulation (even given that we look at organic things like biological cohorts to the illness). The second criteria means that the disease must be all-consuming or all-explaining in reference to the victim. Here the DSM criteria of “interference” of the illness with life is critical. In other words, I am looking for wide-scope coverage for a variety of behaviors. This wide-scope coverage is what reacts upon the constellation of symptoms to give it the appearance of something seemingly improbable.
You can’t predict people’s behavior like a physical system. I would suggest that the psychological equivalent of a theory’s predictive validity is this wide-scope coverage of behaviors, which is also its utility. If a person were just opposed to social norms, it might well be that a description generated from within those social norms would provide strong descriptive validity in certain areas of friction with the system, but not in others. What I am asking is that a person’s behavior (as an organically improbable whole) make very little sense at all outside of a mental pathology.
I have no certainty as to whether postpartum depression meets this description. One thing we can be certain of is that it is defined as a transient phenemena, which means that it is happening in an otherwise well person. This alone should make us call it into question if there is another possible explanation.
One hypothetical explanation which I will suggest (originally suggested here) is that in some cases postpartum depression might express a value judgement towards the baby’s life and the act of giving birth. This value judgement might be subject to various degrees of conscious recognition but it would be based upon real factors that would lead a rational decision maker to question giving life to the child.
In support of this idea, it is interesting to note that the incidence of post-partum depression (according to the A.D.A.M. Medical Encylopedia) correlates well with just such factors. All of the risk factors for post-partum depression would also make a rational decision maker question giving the “gift” of life to a person who can’t consent, and isn’t asking to be born. Some of these factors (along with my explanation of their relevance to this theory) are:
being under the age 20
People under the age of twenty are less likely to have the financial resources or experience to really give a child a relatively good life and instruction.
Alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and smoking
If a person is a substance abuser, this is also likely to harm the child’s development.
The woman did not plan the pregnancy, or had mixed feelings about the pregnancy
If the pregnancy wasn’t planned, this increases the likelihood that there are probably very real reasons it wasn’t planned. A woman’s doubts about pregnancy also would have a more complicated role in the ontology of post-partum depression: very rational and deep seated apprehensions about giving birth might only attain to a threshold significance after the mother has been divested of the child, and the child has been externalized and is visible and vested with its categorical status as a “person”. It is at that point that the child being committed to life strikes the woman as an ethical decision she has made for it. Even if the child has a life worth living, will it have a life that was worth starting?
Depression, bipolar disorder (for example, manic depression), or an anxiety disorder before pregnancy
A person with depression is more likely to pass on the risk of depression, thereby imposing life on someone who will regret being born. Even if this is not brought to consciousness (and our society usually will not protect future people from such risks, making the thought unlikely), nevertheless a depressive person may reason from their own experience and ask whether, in their experience, life would be worth starting all over again.
The woman had a stressful event during the pregnancy or delivery, including personal illness, death or illness of a loved one, a difficult or emergency delivery, premature delivery, or illness or birth defect in the baby
An emergency delivery, premature delivery, illness, or birth defect are all likely to be stressful on the baby, possibly causing developmental defects, and all increase the likelihood of future suffering.
Have a close family member who has had depression or anxiety
The situation here is the same as above. A history of depression in a family would cause any reasonable person to wonder what the justification is for bringing a new depressed person into existence, and this might cause feelings of guilt.
Have a poor relationship with your significant other or are single
This bodes ill for the child in many obvious ways.
Have financial problems (low income, inadequate housing)
Again this relates to the child’s future life and the prospects of getting a good job, etc.
Have little support from family, friends, or your significant other
It is difficult to raise a child without such support systems, hence the outlook for the child decreases even more when there is no support for the pregnancy.
It seems to me that all of these factors which influence the mother’s quality of life can be tied directly to the child’s well being. If they are present, a woman would naturally feel guilty. Otherwise, what kind of person would she be? All of these risk factors are in fact things that would make a woman question the wisdom of childbirth.
My question is this: could postpartum depression be a justifiable value judgement toward the pregnancy? Could it be that after the child has been born mothers begin to take account of the commitment they have not only made for themselves, but that they have made, in proxy, on behalf of the child, by conceiving it and bringing it into the world? PPD is the inverse of “survivor’s guilt”, under this conception. It is guilt about starting life. It is “birther’s guilt”.
A person talking with these new mothers, and who listened long enough, would not be in a position to validate such concerns under the present taboos in favor of evaluating reproduction positively. After all, you can’t turn back time. Therapists would be in the position of framing such issues in terms of the mother’s present responsibilities, and might well be right to do so. The woman brought the child to term, has given birth to it and now (in our legal system’s realm of black and white thinking) the child must be taken account of as a person with interests seperate from hers, though dependent on her. Why should the woman not just get over such ideas, and do the best for the child now that it is already born?
This sounds reasonable, but it probably doesn’t correspond to the mother’s felt reality. To the mother, the baby’s new independent reality is not so easy to distinguish, or is perhaps multidimensional. With the horror of modern hospital birth– the lack of intimacy, the clinicizing of the body, the blood, the screams, the agony– the independence, dependence, and causal dependence of the baby on the mother might cut across the mind in myriad ways. The child holds a liminal status with real and suddenly apparent value of life concerns but with an undiminished relation to maternal autonomy. Though it is assumed that time will heal these psychic scars, at bottom there may be, after such an undeniably traumatic introduction to the world, the haunting question of why: why bring a child into the world?
Those who work with PPD could probably bring out many anecdotes about women who are priveleged and fall into none of the classes above, and so have no reason to think their child’s life will be anything but charmed. But how exceptional are those cases? And what elements of truly valid pessimism are revealed in therapy with other women, who do fall into these classes, and who might feel a valid sense of birther’s guilt for having handicapped their children from the beginning?
Post-partum depression seems to incoporate elements of such birther’s guilt for having imposed life on an unconsenting being who was not asking to be born. And with PPD we are also looking at the number one complication of childbirth, which means, under this interpretation, that anti-natalist sentiment could be far more prevelant than anyone would at first believe. Could postpartum depression (at least in those cases) be a social-construct, similar to homosexuality as a mental illness, or any of the other fictional mental illnesses that have been invented in the past to justify the inflication of harm?
The infliction of harm on future people is not something our society has made a priority. Underprivelaged children of teenage mothers, like those I see a profile of in the data about postpartum depression, are exactly what our pro-natalist society requires for cannon fodder and cheap labor. Under such a system, would it be any surprise if women who felt a justifiable sense of remorse for functioning as breeding machines for unconsenting have-nots were branded as mentally ill and then medicated?
One of the more interesting effects of postpartum depression is that mothers are ideating about harming or killing the baby. It’s important to note that this is exactly what that baby’s future self would want, considering the chances that (if all of the above true) they are saddled with a miserable life from day one. As we know, once a child has passed outside of the vaginal canal he or she receives their legal package of humanhood, which makes infanticide wrong. Post-partum depression appears to be, at least in this hypothetically extreme case, the desire to right the wrong. If mothers were only allowed to listen to their maternal instincts, how many children would be strangled to death in the cradle?
It’s commonly said that life is a “gift” of some kind, and this misnomer, repeated over and over, is one of the reasons that suicide is considered wrong. Of course, if we mean that life is a “gift” given unselfishly, anyone who has ever fucked can see that there is no sense to the statement at all. But of course, reminding is needed. The fact is that an unselfish gift is held up to incredibly high standards of perfection in our society, standards which are never applied to reproduction. One main reason for this is that, in a world of such vast disparity of wealth, everyone is always looking for a rationalization not to give to the people below them. Reproduction, however, is basically selfish in a number of ways, both genetically and culturally, and so it is conveniently viewed as self-evidently justified.
For instance, just today I was thinking about sponsoring a child, when I came on this famous article from New Internationalist, criticizing child sponsorship on a number of grounds. There are a number of good points made (though they are inferred or anecdotal, and don’t seem to backed up by any scientific evidence). The difference between community aid and sponsorship is definitely something I will look into further. More than anything else, however, this article really exemplifies the extreme scrutiny people hold their giving to: a scrutiny that no one applies to starting a family. The reason, of course, is that everyone knows that fucking, gestating, then pushing out a new human, simply because your genes want to reproduce themselves, is in no way a philanthropic gift. Euphamising it as such is just a way of enforcing a taboo on suicide.
Just imagine a world where reproduction were a charitable gift. Can you imagine the scrutiny it would be held to? Reading the article on sponsorship, we can see that there’s no criticism in it that doesn’t apply to people having their own children.
Take the first criticism: “Helping one identifiable person ALSO Causes divisions and creates more inequality.” Does anyone dispute that almost every action a parent takes with their children is to create more inequality by giving their child more advantages than other children?
Or take another: “Paying for regular information about your own child ALSO Leaves less available for the project.” This “Paying for regular information about your own child” is exactly what parents do, at the expense of orphans around the world. Would this author be willing to complete their preference ranking?
impersonal aid > sponsorship > parenting
Philanthropic antinatalism is, as I see it, one of the few irrefutable philosophical arguments, and it dare not speak its name. Reproduction is never taken to task to defend itself. One still has to congratulate one’s friends on bringing new life into the world– life which is a harm to already existing orphans who need resources.
In such a situation, wouldn’t it be convenient if aid didn’t work? Wouldn’t it be great for our selfish genes if there were no way of helping? At the end the author makes the dubious claim that the best a potential donor might do is keep their money. How so? What a paradise for genecism! The chances are that such money from potential donors in developed countries will be spent on their own children, who don’t need it. How can this be overlooked?
November 4, 2011
“For most couples, every child you create to love means another child you pass over for love. We do not care about these others because they are not made from our genes – we might consider it a kind of prejudice based on genes: genecism (pronounced jin-NEH-sism). Ignore the neologism if you wish, but consider prospective parents who spend hours, months or years and ludicrous amounts of money on fertility treatments, yet ignore the plight of children all over the world who need basic housing, health and nutrition. Children without parents but needing parents. How about taking all that money you would use on fertility treatments and giving it to a child who does exist, or perhaps investing in an adoption agency to acquire a child who is already on this planet? (To many, this seems the classical utilitarian failure: it asks too much. This does not apply in this instance, since it is actually asking for something less demanding. You will still have a child, but not one that has come about through struggle, time, therapy and failure.) Every time I pass a parent knowing they have created a child, I see nothing but double-standards, prejudice, and immorality. On what basis are we ignoring the plight of those who need our help? Why do we continue to create people, when there are people who need our attention?”