/ Philosophy

A Life Worth Living

A note before I continue: what follows is not an argument against abortion, which is a complicated topic. It is merely an argument against one specific idea that often comes up in the context of abortion.

I have sometimes come across the sentiment that it is better that a child not be born than that they experience a life of misery and hardship. Usually I have encountered this line of thinking in support of a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy. But I have also encountered it in other places. For instance, it is sometimes expressed by people who have decided not to have children because they are concerned about climate change or some other catastrophe. I think it’s actually pretty easy to show that this line of reasoning is flawed.

Perhaps you will agree with me.

The first flaw in this line of reasoning is that the person doing the evaluation is looking at a quality of life which is significantly worse than the standards which they hold for themselves and then deciding that it is unacceptable to let children experience such a degraded quality of life. But that is the wrong comparison to make. Unborn children do not have a choice between a sub-optimal quality of life and what you and I deem to be an acceptable quality of life. Instead, their options are between a sub-optimal quality of life and no life at all.

So, to determine whether it’s good for them to be brought into a difficult and challenging life, we need to determine whether people who have difficult and challenging lives think that their lives are worth living. This might seem like an impossible thing to determine, but it’s actually quite simple, because remaining alive is optional. Almost every single person has the ability to take their own life if they decide that it is not worth living.

When you look at life that way—as optional—it is kind of amazing that, despite the tragedy and hardship which pervades many people’s lives, very few people commit suicide. The annual suicide rate is about 13 people out of every 100,000, which, according to my back of the envelope calculations, works out to a lifetime suicide rate of about 1% at most. Of course, that number is tragically high, but I think the fact that 99 out of 100 people choose life, despite all its difficulties, speaks to how fundamentally worthwhile being alive is.

Now, I could probably rest my case there. After all, it’s hard to argue that a difficult life isn’t worth living when basically everybody who has a difficult life demonstrates that it is worth living by opting to continue living it. But we can take this analysis even further.

As difficult as life can be, most people—even people who are born into circumstances which we all agree are terrible—have lives that are immensely better than those experienced by certain groups of people in the past. I think you will agree that being an American slave or a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp is about as bad as life can get. Prisoners in concentration camps were stripped of their possessions, starved, forced to perform grueling labor, and had to go through each day with the knowledge that their eventual fate was probably death. American slaves didn’t have it much better. They were beaten, raped, and tortured; families were routinely torn apart; and they lived every day with the knowledge that they and their children would probably die as slaves.

Life doesn’t get much worse than that.

And yet, while it is hard to determine what the suicide rate was among these groups, it is safe to say that many of these people decided that their lives were worth living. After all, most the roughly 40 million black Americans alive today are descended from people who chose to persevere through the living nightmare of slavery. And, if you look at pictures of the Nazi concentration camps being liberated, every single emaciated prisoner that you see looking at the camera is someone who chose to persist through the hell that had been their daily life up until that moment.

I think it is useful to keep these extreme examples in mind when deciding just how worthwhile being alive is. Because if a slave or a prisoner in a concentration camp opts to continue being alive, then, in almost every situation people in the developed world face today, the scales are tipped so far in favor of life being worth living. As tragic as it is to grow up without a father, or in an abusive home, it is so much better than the worst that life can be. And life at its worst is still worth living.

So, if you think a child not being born is a better alternative than that child growing up in unfortunate circumstances, or if you think it would be better to spare your children the possibility of living in a dangerous and uncertain future, hopefully these arguments will make you reconsider. And, anyway, who are we to decide if another person’s life is worth living? If you consider that question seriously, I think you will have no choice but to agree that we should defer to others when it comes to measuring the worth of their lives. After all, they can always opt out if they find it lacking.

But I bet they’ll choose life.