Why Children of Men is one of the top philosophical sci fi movies to watch.
“As the sounds of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in.
Very odd, what happens in a world without children’s voices.”
You board the train to work each morning. Travel past chain-link fences incarcerating the latest batch of refugees. You hurry through the streets, patrolled by an army that shoots errant civilians on sight.
The memory of your dead son smears the world with a gray, soggy film. And not just your son. No children have been born in almost two decades. Infertile, humanity is on the brink of collapse. While scientists scramble to find a cure, most nations have devolved into anarchist dystopias.
You live out your days avoiding bombings, uprisings, and abductions. How long before you succumb, and take the Quietus pill on your desk? How long before you and the rest of humanity decide to put an end to this futureless world? Why continue? You don’t see the point.
Until … she arrives. A woman from your past. A woman carrying a package that could change everything.
Aficionados of post-apocalyptic science fiction will bask in the intoxicating concoction of desolation and hope in Children of Men (2006). Which explains why the movie appears on many lists of the top philosophical sci fi movies to watch. Emotive and thought-provoking, the film forces us to ask uncomfortable questions.
The film shouts throughout: a world without children is a world without meaning: “I can’t really remember when I last had any hope, and I certainly can’t remember when anyone else did either. Because really, since women stopped being able to have babies, what’s left to hope for?” says Theo, the protagonist played by a grungy Clive Owen.
As I watched the carnage of Theo’s world unfold, a question niggled at the back of my mind. If we accept the premise of the film, that life is meaningless, hopeless, and valueless without children, why do we seem to think that life has value with children?
Why do we think that giving birth to children is good?
Remember, ultimately, doe-eyed little angels grow into adults. But if adulthood itself is a hopeless existence, why do we think that producing more future adults will make it any better?
You may be shaking your head right about now. “But they’re so cute!” you say. “When your toddler says ‘dada’ for the first time, or learns how to walk, or giggles, then you’ll understand. Then you’ll see the infinite preciousness of your little angel.”
But I’m not so sure – it’s not clear why all value in life derives from the cuteness of children. I am perfectly capable of saying ‘dada’ too, and a whole lot more besides, and yet, nobody is leaping for joy when I do. I can walk a fair bit better than a newborn too, and yet, we don’t seem to think that life is imbued with infinite meaning just because I can walk to the shops.
Cuteness, in other words, is just that. It’s cute. Not earth-shattering. Not brilliant or profound or novel. It doesn’t make life meaningful.
“Wait,” you say. “Alright.” You agree that cuteness isn’t the feature of childhood that we’re looking for. No, what really makes having children valuable, is that it involves selflessness, or sacrifice. When parents stay up all through the night, every night, rocking little Johnny to sleep, then they understand. They feel the glow of purpose and joy they simply couldn’t have felt without children. Why? Because little Johnny needs their care. Without it, Little Johnny wouldn’t survive.
I’m not convinced by this argument either. Let’s return to the universe in Children of Men. A world without children. A world without hope or meaning. In that world, people are able to give to others who need help. Throughout the film, we see refugees begging to be allowed entry. Begging for food or money. Begging for your care. Without it, they won’t survive. And yet, giving to refugees won’t suddenly make the world a valuable place. It will still have that gray, soggy film over everything one does.
So, I ask again, if cuteness and sacrifice don’t give adult life meaning and value, then why do we think that having children is a good thing to do, especially if we accept that not having children renders life meaningless?
At this point, you may be scratching your head, which is just where a philosopher wants you. This is an excellent time for me to ask the question I really want to ask:
Should we have children at all?
“Dammit,” you say. That’s one question too many. Of course we should have children. Without them, humanity would die out. Without children, there would be no future.
One of the most striking elements of Children of Men is the landscape. The film takes place in England, switching between rubbled cityscapes ruined by civil war, and a luscious, so-green-you-can-smell-it countryside. As you watch Theo move between these settings, you can’t help but wonder just how good an idea it is for humanity to continue at all.
In the film, wherever man is absent, nature flourishes. Wherever man is present, carnage ensues.
Now, you might think that man is far more important, or valuable, than nature. But why do we think this? Why think that the continuation of man is a good thing? In other words:
Why should humanity survive?
Some philosophers, those who support a position called Anti-natalism, think that humanity should not survive. They hold that human life, on balance, is bad. Put differently, on balance, life involves more suffering than joy.
Consider that the majority of humanity lives under extremely trying conditions:
As of 2005, almost half the world lives on less than $2.50 per day, while 80% of the world lives on less than $10 per day. And 1.4 billion people live in extreme poverty – on less than $1.25 per day. (2015 estimates suggest that extreme poverty levels have reduced. But a life of poverty, as opposed to extreme poverty, is still no fun).
We can debate whether wealth brings happiness – see our rich history of fables that warn against greed. But what does seem clear is that living below the breadline, or just above it, is severely stressful. Whatever romantic notions we might have of living a simple life are misguided. Living in poverty is a daily battle to survive.
But, you say, life isn’t that bad for those who do have enough money to live reasonably comfortably. For those people, at least, life is a good thing, and so, they should have children. Anti-natalists have arguments for why even those with financial means should not have children. But before considering those, it’s worth pointing out that this position (that poor people shouldn’t have children, while the rich should), is morally dubious. It’s a step away from eugenics – a policy that Hitler and other supremacists held centrally to their philosophies.
Even if you’re comfortable with eugenics, there are other reasons why you shouldn’t have children (even if you’re wealthy). For one, if you think that life without money is awful, but life with money is valuable, then surely the right thing to do is to adopt a child that would otherwise live a life without money, rather than bring a fresh child into the world, who may or may not live a happy life?
Second, life ain’t no cakewalk. “Life is suffering,” says Siddhartha Gautama. You can have all the money you like, but your existence will inevitably be filled with pains, some irritating, others unbearable. The joys of daily life include the persistent itches, thirst, hunger, muscle pain, joint ache, colds, flus, diarrhea, constipation, regrets, disappointments, insatiable desires, and the fact that chocolate makes you fat. As one grows older, these irritations increase in severity and frequency.
In addition to persistent minor irritations, life is inevitably filled with far greater horrors. During your lifetime, it’s likely death will take your parents, possibly a loved one, and perhaps your child. It’s uncomfortably likely that your spouse will cheat on you (some studies suggest more likely than not). And even if you’re lucky enough to avoid these calamities, you will inevitably die.
Think about that for a moment. If you’re lucky enough to live a long life, your death will be likely be slow and painful. You’ll have plenty of time to appreciate the gradual decline of a body you’ve spent decades exercising, nourishing, sexing, and loving. Cancer and senility will progressively eat away at your organs, until your time finally arrives. Then, deeply alone in your own head, you’ll be forced to endure the sensation of no longer being able to breathe. And the thought that you won’t have the chance to see the sun rise tomorrow.
“Life isn’t all bad!” you shriek. Wonderful things happen too. You’re forgetting the miracle of love, the deliciousness of a restaurant dinner, and the beauty of the sunset. You’re ignoring the awe of scientific discovery. The thrill of skydiving.
The question we need to ask ourselves is this: why do we think that the joys of life outweigh its suffering?
We tend to downplay the severity of suffering by comparing our suffering to others who suffer more severely.
If a man dies at thirty, we think it’s a tragedy. But if a man dies at ninety, we don’t. Why? Because the man who dies at ninety hasn’t suffered as bad a harm as the man who dies at thirty. But we ignore the fact that dying, no matter when it is, is a massive harm. It’s absolutely (in the true sense of the word) awful.
Downplaying the severity of suffering in this way is similar to arguing that if I chop off one of your hands, it’s not that bad. Why? Because I could have chopped off both of your hands. The flaw in this logic is obvious: even if x isn’t as bad as y, x may nevertheless be awful.
Suppose you’re unconvinced. You insist that the good in life at least equals the bad – for those of us lucky to have money, that is. Then, still, you should not have children. Why? Because if you bring a new child into this world he will live at best a neutral or slightly happy life. But the child you could have adopted, and instead suffers a lifetime of poverty, will likely live a very unhappy life without your help. The amount of unhappiness you can ameliorate by adopting is far greater than the amount of happiness you can create by birthing a child.
Have I convinced you? Do you agree that we shouldn’t have children? Comment below with your thoughts.
About the Author
Human. Male. From an obscure planet in the Milky Way Galaxy. Sci-fi novelist with a PhD in philosophy. Likes chocolates, Labradors, and zombies (not necessarily in that order). Werbeloff spends his days constructing thought experiments, while trying to muster enough guilt to go to the gym.
He’s the author of the sci-fi thriller trilogy, Defragmenting Daniel, two novels, Hedon and The Solace Pill, and the short story anthology, Obsidian Worlds. His books will make your brain hurt. And you’ll come back for more.
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