segunda-feira, 9 de maio de 2011


Between two deaths: from born death to dead death. 

My initial methodological conviction in the field of ethics is that what we think about the moral attitudes concerning the others and ourselves, in terms of duties or happiness or the usually called “good life” must be based on a solid, realistic and crude study of the human situation in the world, without disguises or consolations. For we should see whether the human being from whom we demand a morality, this human who has the obligation to try to be happy or ethical with the others, is really in a position to do so, to perform the moral task.

This should not be presupposed without criticism. European philosophy, in general, especially after the defeat of Existentialism (one of the most resounding successes of the professional academy), prefers not to face the most troublesome issues related to our situation as humans, as if they were already resolved or as if it were not worthwhile to deal with them.

During my Argentinean thinking period (1965-1979), I never wrote a single line on these issues, dealing exclusively with logical and semantic problems. As a convinced analytic philosopher that I was then, it seemed to me that all these questions of life and death only deserved a literary treatment (which sometimes I tried in many short stories such as "The Information Post" and "New Gulliver's travels"). It was only in Brazil that I began to take these issues seriously and consider them as objects of careful philosophical analysis.

Throughout the eighties, I was writing what would later be the Projeto de Ética Negativa (Project of Negative Ethics), which was published in 1989 at São Paulo. I kept thinking about the relations between ethics and the human situation during the following years, improving my arguments and at times, coming to results that scared me, and even disgusted me. But I had decided to think beyond what a human thinker could withstand, ignoring my own limits and trying to develop the thoughts by their intrinsic value, in spite of psychological impacts on me and other people. (Many friends and colleagues said to me that I was mad in challenging the value of human life, which they saw as obvious).  

In consequence of a very productive stay in Spain at the beginning of the nineties, in contact with Fernando Savater and Javier Muguerza, I published in 1996 Crítica de la Moral Afirmativa (Critique of affirmative morality). This book contains the argumentative development of the ideas exposed in aphoristic style in the Project of 1989, and was accompanied by some controversies with contemporary European philosophers (Habermas, Tugendhat, Hare). At that time I had more expectations than now of engaging in dialogue with European philosophers. In the second edition of this book, of 2014, I added a discussion with David Benatar, who had not yet published his famous book of 2006 at the time of the first edition of my book.

There was always an initial methodological problem, at least in the Latin-American context, in the exposition of these ideas at that time, due to their very unpopular character; ideas about lack of value of human life, abstention from procreation and suicide as ethical possibility, . The problem was this: if I formulated my thoughts seriously, I was considered morbid and crazy, but if I exposed them humouristically - as I did in many passages of the Project - the readers thought that not even I took them seriously. The exposition had to run away from both the morbid and the humorous - and dark humor would not be a way out; something like a serious but witty and literarily vivid exposition of the natal and mortal issues.

Telling the truth is just one of the things you can do with it. The truth may be hidden, disguised, trimmed, postponed, and also misrepresented; and among all these other things, truth can also be said and exposed. Philosophy has been traditionally defined as the searching for truth, assuming implicitly that it also carries an obligation to express it in words. But these two things should not be identified. After discovering some truth, the philosopher should wait a bit, in order to ponder the sensitivity of his/her audience and see what he/she may or may not do with the discovered truth. This was, therefore, the starting problem in the exposition of my ideas, especially in the nineties, when the antinatalist movement did not exist.

Getting into matter. The traditional questions of ethics have been: "How can we live ethically?" ,“How should we live?” (in deontological ethics) and “how can we ethically be happy?” (in utilitarian, hedonistic and eudaemonistic ethics). The usual ethical theories were ethics of how, never ethics of what. Their questions were not radical, because they assumed that to be moral and to continue living should be naturally two compatible enterprises, the only problem being how to live ethically, but never asking if we can live (and give life to others) and be ethical at the same time.

There is therefore a very basic value attributed to life and living, without ever asking if living could be a movement basically contrary to morality or not, if living - simply living, not living this or that way - does not carry a fundamental transgression of the minimal ethical demands. As a result of a rigorous and previous (and "merciless", I would say) analysis of the human situation and the value of life, one could come to the conclusion that it is not possible for humans to live life virtuously or happily.

I called “affirmative” all the ethical theories that assume life without discussion as being a basic and obvious value, something that can be perfectly lived in spite of difficulties and harships, lived ethically, even if it is difficult or arduous to find the right way to a moral life. By contrast, I call “negative” the ethics that initially opens the possibility of a structural or internal mismatch between life and morality. A negative ethics is, at a first step, one that challenges the positive value of human life as being  obvious, and demands some demonstration of the point. In a second step, a negative ethics is one that demonstrates the lack of positive value of human life and takes the consequences of it concerning procreation and suicide among other issues (like abortion and heterocide).

What is meant by "ethics" in this initial context of reflection cannot be anything too complicated or strongly committed to particular ethical theories, but rather quite a basic concept that could be accepted by them all. I propose to speak of a “Fundamental Ethical Articulation” (FEA from now on) to refer to the following concept: In decisions and actions, we must take also into account the moral and sensitive interests of others and not only our own, trying not to give systematic primacy to the latter just because they are our interests.

We cannot imagine any ethical theory, whatever its trend and assumptions, which does not accept some version, stronger or weaker, of FEA. This is the basic idea that should be compared with structural information about the human situation in the world, in order to study its possible compatibility or incompatibility. The fundamental question is therefore: “Can a being situated in the human situation be ethical in the minimal sense of FEA?”

The question of the value of a human life traditionally stands at least on two levels: sensible value and moral value. Sensible value is connected to pleasure and suffering; moral value refers to dignity and worth. Negative ethics tries to show that the human situation tends to block both types of value; in the human situation neither suffering nor unworthiness can be totally avoided, whatever the specific content of particular lives. All joy is internal to structural suffering, and all internal dignity occurs within a fundamental indignity.

Why does any human life, independent of its specific contents, lack sensible and moral value? (The thesis stating this is called "moral impediment" in negative ethics). One way to access the answer to this question is, of course, death; but death is only the first and more immediate route of access towards something more abstract and structural than death, if death is understood as a punctual fact of our lives, as something that will happen to us at some precise day and time. This more abstract and structural death is what we can call mortality.

It is crucial therefore to distinguish between “punctual death” (PD) and “structural death” (SD) or “mortality”. (I call this "the thanatic difference"). I understand PD as the dated event of our factual disappearance. I refer, for example, Jean-Paul Sartre's PD as having happened exactly on April 23 1980. PD opens the state of  “being dead” of someone, his ceasing. However, PD is not an event that arises suddenly, but the result of a process, long or short, that begins with birth. I call SD or “mortality” to the process of  “dying”, in the sense of daily, constant and irreversible wearing, decaying and vacating.

Unlike other datable events, death has one structural dimension, which is mortality. Death is empirically datable, but at the same time, it is internally connected to the structure of being itself, to its very emerging, to the becoming of an intrinsically mortal mode of being. Death is not just something that happens, but something that belongs to the very making of being in its structure, not something that could happen or not within a human life. SD has to do with the constitutive mortality of being (and that's why negative ethics is from the very beginning connected to a negative ontology).

Therefore, what systematically provokes the lack of sensible and moral worth of a human life is not strictly death - this dated fact - but mortality, a structure that is gained not at the moment of punctual death, but at birth; mortality is not identical to death, but to birth. To be born is to receive mortality, of which ponctual death is only the predicted (even when hidden) consumation.

Now the crucial question is: can an internally mortal life, mortal from birth and not eventually, be considered sensibly and morally valuable, allowing well-being and dignity? Can one be happy or worth of happiness within the constitutive mortality of SD? My question when introducing death in the reflection is if mortality would not steal the moral and sensible value of human life independently of its contents, i.e., independently of how each of us can live mortality, the mortality of our own being given at birth by our progenitors.

Many people doubt that death can be considered an evil, but this is said taking just PD into account. Indeed, a death that were only an external and eventual event to life would not be an evil. But a death that structurally belongs to our being from birth can be considered as an evil, internal to being, not eventual. Many say that if death is considered bad, it is because "life" is good. But this ignores the "thanatic difference"; for a life that is structurally loaded with its own elimination and disappearance can not be good. And if mortality is bad, then the life that carries it internally must be bad as well.

Life is bad in the double register of the sensible - for generating suffering - and moral - for generating disregard for others. "Moral impediment" is precisely the phenomenon that an intrinsically mortal being is not in a position to be considered with others, in the sense demanded by the FEA; because he/she is forced to make his/her way in a difficult, short and aggressive life, where others are always in a second place, not for "selfishness" or "evil nature" of humans, but for sheer survival. 

So, it is absurd to say: “Life is good, it is a pity we have to die” without seeing that if dying is a pity then the life carrying death internally must be bad as well.  When one says: “Death is bad because it deprives us of the good things of life”, a privative sense is given to death, as if life were something entirely positive, without seeing that life carries the negative within it. These usual statements have clearly only an empirical sense: “PD is bad because it deprives us of worldly goods". Here, punctual death is the only one considered, as literal interruption of good things such as perception, movement, performing tasks, desire, etc.

But to avoid an unjustifiable affirmative asymmetry, in the same way one could say that “Death is good because it frees us from the evils of life” if we continue to understand death only as PD, and if we think of worldly evils as deception, treachery, aggression, disease, wars, etc., from which death frees us. Since the empirical world is an alternation of goods and evils, PD may be called “good” or “bad” as we consider as depriving of the former or freeing from the latter. 

But the lack of value of life cannot be shown in this purely empirical way, because one cannot escape  then from total symmetry. A better way is to consider the value of human life structurally, also considering SD, the mortality of being, and not just PD. If we use this other dimension of death, it could not have any sense to say that “life is good, but dying is bad”, nor the opposite, that “life is bad, and therefore death is good”, given that, structurally seen, death is inside living, inseparable from it; living is internally mortal, mortality has emerged along with the being itself, it is the very being of being. Ultimately, life is identical to SD. 

Being born is being placed on the mortality of being, so that if death (in the sense of SD) is considered bad, then having emerged should also be bad. Regretting having to die should be structurally identical to regretting being born, because it is not in our power being born in a non-mortal way.  

Negative ethics is one that fully assumes the structural mortality of being and its sensitive and moral impact on human life. Having been born, the first moral imperative is not to procreate, in the sense of not placing anyone in the structural mortality of being; secondly, to be disposed to die at any time, but - remembering that our concern is primarily ethical - dying an ethical death that benefits and does not harm others as much as possible; in this disposition for death fits as much the literal suicide as dangerous political militancy and heroic actions (what I call indirect suicides).

Negative ethics tries to be the development of a life under the dominion of SD, the born death. The “Little Survival Guide”, in Part III of the "Critique of Affirmative Morality" defines a sort of a minimum morality of someone always prepared to die, and who, while alive, develops activities with full knowledge that nothing prevents him/her from ending life abruptly at any time (tonight if necessary). The negative person lives, therefore, with no affirmative expectations, trying to develop activities that do no harm to others, at least no more damage than that damage that our death would cause them; and, of course, not killing anyone and not procreating.

The problem of the morality of procreation had been a classical topic of negative ethics along the years, at least since 1989, but my negative ethics is inserted in a more general philosophical reflection including ontological considerations. These ideas found their better expression in the book of 1996, where a great number of theses about the value of life, birth, procreation and ethics are discussed. 

In the first part of this book, called “On the road for a morality of non-being”, I present some basic ideas about ontology concerning the relations between being and not-being, and the place of values in ontology. These ideas are developed around a critical interpretation of Heidegger’s valueless or “apatic” ontology, which was exclusively concerned with the sense of being, without exploring the question of its value. I intend here a sort of negative appropriation of ontological difference, establishing the domain of being itself as the more appropriate to put the question of the value of a human life, and not merely the domain of beings within the world. (Not to be pessimistic just because the immediate things of life did not work today, but for structural reasons).

In the second part of the book, “Birth and Suicide: the arguments of a radical, non-skeptic moralist” (41-127), I sustain, against Camus and others, that the problem of the value of life is not reducible to the problem of suicide, but it includes primarily procreation, which Camus never put in focus. Possible people are in question: “A solution to the problem of continuing is not by force a solution to the problem of starting” (Critique, page 41). It is clear from the beginning, in contrast with David Benatar’s position, that the problem of birth and procreation is viewed in my book not in purely empirical and Utilitarian terms, but within the scope of a structural consideration based on ontology: the issue of the value of human life and its consequences for the morality of procreation does not emerge from a mere balance of benefits and harms, as if life were considered as an item in a supermarket, but ultimately from a critical consideration of the a supposed ontological primacy of being over non-being.

Ontology, in my vision, in contrast to Heidegger’s existentialist and anti-naturalist approaches, is overtly naturalized: being is visualized in the light of the information about nature provided by well established sciences, and the place occupied by humans within it, as beings strongly affected by the attacks of nature in all their forms; this is part of a relevant and crude description of human situation beyond the traditional metaphysical and religious accounts of nature. Here I present my main concepts of “structural pain” and “moral impediment” and study their application to the problems of procreation and suicide. The suffering relevant to evaluate procreation and suicide is not the eventual pain that can always be balanced with pleasures (in a "seesaw" vision), but the structural pain given in birth, the pain of declining, suffering and dying independently from the specific contents of particular human lives, however pleasant or full of achievements.

These pains are not only natural, but also social: because human beings are put in a situation of scarce time and space to conduce their lives, they are constantly compelled to hurt the other’s projects with their own and to apart the others from attaining their own objectives. (Sartre’s phenomenological descriptions of human conflicts can be of benefit at this point). This I called “moral disqualification” and more recently "moral impediment": instead of saying that all human beings are "immoral", within a naturalized ontology it is more correct to say that they are all "morally disqualified". “The pain of being is connected to the limitations and narrowness of its own instauration…” (page 50). The narrow space full of pain occupied by human beings produces a morally disqualifying effect, independently from the calculi of goods and harms presented by utilitarian thinkers. 

In the chapter specifically devoted to the question of procreation, the main reason for not to make people coming into being is not that, in the balance, "pain prevails over pleasure" (something that cannot be asserted in absolute terms given the usual uncertainty of the results in the Utilitarian calculus and the seesaw vision), but that coming into being means to put someone in the terminal structure of being, to give him or her a being which is in process of termination from the very beginning, independently of the contents of life, a process monotonously characterized by friction, decadence and conflict.

A person who is in advanced age or seriously ill or unfairly accused in any moment of life, will actualize this very same terminal structure of being, independently of pleasures or achievements. Procreation is morally problematic in the strict measure that we know perfectly well, before birth, that all these natural and social sufferings will inevitably happen to our sons or daughters, even when we do not know if they will like to study English or live in Brazil or eat chocolates or play chess.

To come into being is to be ontologically impoverished, sensibly affected and ethically blocked: to be alive is a fight against everything and everybody, trying all the time to escape from suffering, failure and injustice. This strongly suggests that the true reason for making someone to come into being is never for the person’s own sake, but always for the interest of his/her progenitors, in a clear attitude of manipulation; radical manipulation indeed because, in contrast with usual manipulation of people already alive, manipulation in procreation affects the very being of the person, and not only some of his/her predicates. “Although the ontological manipulation of the offspring is absolutely inevitable, it is perfectly evitable not to bring him or her into being, and this is precisely which indicates the way for a morality of abstention…” (page 61).

In 2002, I offered a course on these issues at the Universidad Veracruzana in Xalapa (Veracruz), Mexico. An issue of the PHILÓSOPHOS journal from Brasília/Goiânia was edited with an article by Professor Paulo Margutti, discussing my ideas in my article “Sense of life and value of life: a crucial difference” (“Sentido e valor da vida: uma diferença crucial”)” A reply of mine, entitled “The great sense of what lacks of value” (“O imenso sentido do que não tem nenhum valor”), was published in the same journal (Volume 11, Number 2, 2006). Other recent publications in the area of negative ethics are: 

“Dussel and suicide” (“Dussel y el suicidio”). DIANOIA Journal, Volume XLIX, Number 52, May 2004. (It contains a reply of Enrique Dussel: “About some criticism to the ethics of liberation. Reply to Julio Cabrera” (“Sobre algunas críticas a la ética de la liberación. Respuesta a Julio Cabrera”).

“The ethical-metaphysical issue: value and non-value of human life in the domain of the ontological difference” (“A questão ético-metafísica: valor e desvalor da vida humana no âmbito da diferença ontológica”). (In the book: GARRAFA Volnei and others. Conceptual basis for Bioethics. Latin american view (Bases conceituais da Bioética. Enfoque Latino-americano. Gaia / Unesco Publisher, São Paulo, 2006).

“What is really negative ethics? Clarifications and new thoughts” (“O que é realmente ética negativa. Clarificações e novos pensamentos”). (In the book: POLIEDRO. Phases of philosophy. (Faces da Filosofia). Publit Publisher, Rio de Janeiro, 2006). 

“Ethics and the human condition: notes for a natural foundation of morals (containing a critique of the foundation of morals of Ernst Tugendhat)” (“Ética e condição humana: notas para uma fundamentação natural da moral (contendo uma crítica da fundamentação da moral de Ernst Tugendhat” (In the book: NAVES Adriano. Ethics. Questions of foundations. Ética. Questões de fundamentação. UnB Publisher, Brasília, 2007).

“Suicide. Philosophical aspects”, “Suicide. Empirical approaches” “Death, mortality and suicide” (“Suicidio. Aspectos filosóficos”, “Suicidio. Abordajes empíricos”, “Muerte, mortalidad y suicidio”) (Entries of the Latino American Dictionary of Bioethics (Diccionario Latino-americano de Bioética).Universidad Nacional de Colombia/UNESCO, Bogotá, 2008).

Negative Ethics: Problems and Discussions (Ética Negativa: problemas e discussões). Book published by the UFG, Goiânia, 2008, with texts of my own and five Master students from the University of Brasília, and another text from a Mexican student, which presents multiple objections to my ethical-ontological thinking.

Because I love you, you will NOT born. Nascituri te salutant. (Porque te amo, NÃO nascerás. Nascituri te salutant”). Book published by LGE, Brasília, 2009, in collaboration with Thiago Lenharo di Santis.

"Impossibilites of moral: philosophy of existence, naturalism and negative ethics". Filosofia Unisinos, 13, october 2012.

I had also organized an introductory course on the matter:


Introduction: Ethics, human condition and “mortal questions” (birth and death, mine and of others). The fundamental ethical articulation (FEA). Morality in an existential bias.

Unit 1. Ontological elements for a Negative Ethics. Appropriation of the ontological difference (being and beings) by negative thinking and its relevance for the issue of the value of human life. The Heidegger's idea of being-toward-death, and internal linkage between death and birth. The thanatic difference.

Unit 2. The mortal question. Value of human life, traditional views on the issue. Sensible and moral value of human life. The value of human life in an ontological perspective: restoration of the life/death symmetry. Mortality of being: suffering and moral impediment. The Schopenhauer's contribution to capture the structural nature of suffering. Human condition: the delicate balance between the mortal structure of being and the worldly creation of values.

Unit 3. The moral question. Affirmative and negative ethics. Human condition and morality. Ethical living and ethics of living. Basis for a negative morality based on the ontological view of the value of human life: equality and negative inviolability of human beings as the basis for a new morality. Negative ethics in the general panorama of contemporary ethics.

Unit 4. Death and killing from an ethically-negative point of view. (4.1) Killing others (Heterocide): “legitimate defense” war, “death penalty”. (4.2) Kill yourself (suicide): the rejection of suicide by philosophers. Widespread bioethical arguments: assisted suicide and euthanasia. The negative approach to abortion.

Unit 5. Birth and procreation from an ethically-negative point of view. If - after the fall of the religious reference – killing others would raise ethical issues, why giving birth wouldn’t? Procreation from the ethical point of view: the ontological-structural argument and the arguments of manipulation and objectification of the other. Refrain from procreating: ethical basis.

Conclusions. How a negative life can be plenary and more responsible than a fully affirmative life. Dangers of the affirmativism. Experience and survival: new paths. 



Here I present the development of my criticism to Benatar's book, and a summary of my positions in Ethics. To read them, see the texts:

7 comentários:

Karl disse...

Excellent site and excellent philosophy!

Anônimo disse...

it has weak points, like all antinatalistic arguments have

"being is always an impoverishing and a limitation if compared with the wide domain of non-being; so, coming to being is always an ontological restriction, and not a gift."

like in Benatar's asymmetry, non-being is a metaphysical state, one can only speculate about.

"human beings are put in a situation of scarce time and space to conduce their lives, they are constantly compelled to hurt the other’s projects with their own and to apart the bodies of the others to attain the own objectives....This I call “moral disqualification”"

that should make perfect sense, but, morals are man-made fabrications nature doesn't give a damn about.
and we are first and foremost nature's slaves. being morally disqualified doesn't necessarily have to be interpreted as...
a "bad" state. instead, one could also blame moral codes for being too unrealistic for actual usage.

nonetheless, it's an excellent depiction of life's shortcomings, and our views match for the most part

thanks for writing it.

kabra7 disse...

Thanks you very much, Karl; I am trying to improve my site including new philosophical texts until the end of the year.

Curator disse...

Will there be any translations of your books into English?
If yes, when?

Curator disse...

BTW, I was refering more specifically to your books/papers on Anti-natalism and Negative Ethics. Thanks.

darthbarracuda disse...

I hope to see more of your work translated into English.

Ryan T disse...

Mr. Cabrera, I love your work and am very happy to see your Critique available in English. I have one question:

In the Critique, you describe "moral disqualification" as something that can happen under circumstances of extreme physical suffering, such as torture or wasting disease. In these states, no one is expected to behave ethically. However, later in the book (and in your Summary), you describe moral disqualification as something different. You say it is a consequence of being forced to occupy the same space as other beings, interfering in their autonomy, and so on. According to the first definition, moral disqualification is always a possibility. According to the second definition, moral disqualification is a reality that already exists. Why did you change your description of this concept?

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