But Kant was writing in 1781, when atheism was dangerous enough to cost you your lecturing job. We now live in secular times (even if not everyone feels in step with them). And so I wanted a secular solution to the problem, leaving aside the matter of personal religious belief. Ultimately, I found it in one of the last places one might expect: in two quotes from Franz Kafka, a writer more often allergic to hope.
The first is from a fragment of conversation, as reported by Kafka’s friend and literary executor Max Brod, the man whom Kafka tasked with destroying all his work after his death, but who ended up publishing it instead.
“I remember a conversation with Kafka which began with present-day Europe and the decline of the human race.
“We are nihilistic thoughts, suicidal thoughts, that come into God’s head,” Kafka said. This reminded me at first of the Gnostic view of life: God as the evil demiurge, the world as his Fall.
“Oh no,” said Kafka, “our world is only a bad mood of God, a bad day of his.”
“Then there is hope outside this manifestation of the world that we know.”
He smiled. “Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope — but not for us.”
The second is from a diary entry dated March 1922, during the period when Kafka was working on perhaps his most characteristic masterpiece, “The Castle” — a despondently comic parable of precarity and the longing for salvation. Here, Kafka describes a certain profound sensation of hope:
“This pure feeling I have and my certainty of what has caused it: the sight of the children … the rousing music, the marching feet. A feeling of one in distress who sees help coming but does not rejoice at his rescue — nor is he rescued — but rejoices, rather, at the arrival of fresh young people imbued with confidence and ready to take up the right; ignorant, indeed, of what awaits them, but an ignorance that inspires not hopelessness but admiration and joy in the onlooker and brings tears to his eyes.”
Taken together, these two quotes allow us to trace the outlines of a theory: What if hope exists not for any individual human being now living — but rather for the members of future generations, who though powerless to redeem us, might nevertheless be able to overturn the injustices we have been subject to and carve out a better existence for themselves? In this view, hope is not for “us” but it is nevertheless related to us, by means of our connection to other, future human beings. “I” might not be able to hope for anything. But “we” certainly can meaningfully hope for a better world — through the actions we might take, through the world and across generations, together.
This, at any rate, is how I would answer the anti-natalist position. It makes no sense to think of children as tokens of their parents’ carbon consumption, inheriting a taste for steak and air travel. And it makes no sense to think that whole generations might simply be blindly condemned to a certain fate, before they have even been conceived. The reason for this is that human action is not determined in any hard sense: human beings exist transformatively in relation to their world. Another philosopher, Hannah Arendt, referred to this fact with the concept of “natality” — “the new beginning inherent in birth.”
The world might well be a terrible place, but by having a child, you are introducing something new into it. Of course, this is a sort of gamble with reality: You don’t yet know who your child might be. But if we dare to do it, to bring something new into the world, we might hit upon the right path — and then things really could, conceivably, get better.
To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that if you really don’t want kids, or if you can’t have them — for whatever reason, financial or biological — then you’re somehow less morally good than the people that do. I admit there’s a danger that this might all come across as mere “reproductive futurism,” the future endlessly deferred to some hypothetical child, who it is incumbent on couples (heterosexual couples, for the most part) to produce. Or else it might seem as if I’m preaching a sort of idle waiting, every generation sitting around hoping for “the kids” to come along and tell everyone what to do. But these failings are not inherent to the theory. They can be overcome.
In the wake of the pandemic, we must work to reverse the ways in which — both as a result of it, but also in the decades leading up to it — we have become increasingly isolated from one another, reduced to atomized cocoons of individuals and their families. And kids, if nothing else, can be a huge part of that resistance. Children, in truth, require many people, not just their parents, to help them flourish: Raising children need not mean (ought not to mean!) forming a private home to keep them safely contained in, away from the world. They must be raised to participate in it — through the care and guidance of grandparents, godparents, teachers, friends, community. And so actually having kids is far from the only way to help bring about the future we must hope can be made not only for or through future generations, but with them, too.